Ayo Adebanjo: The face of Yoruba
If Chief Ayo Adebanjo was waiting for a day of redefining of who he is and an endorsement as leader and the war general of the Yoruba people, last Tuesday it was. It was the day of intrinsic reward and extrinsic acknowledgement. The true leader of the Yoruba goes beyond symbolism. He must be a proven embodiment of principles; it is he whose adherence to truth is pasted on his forehead. He must be unswerved by the temptation or sway of temporary gains or the lucre of office. He must be able to step out without consideration for self. There should be no gaps between utterances and actions which must be taken with absolute disregard for personal consequences as long as these are driven by a quest for truth, justice and fairness. For Ayo Adebanjo, the Yoruba leader must be able to distinguish between the Jew and the Gentile. Then the question arises: where do you stand? Are you a Jew or a Gentile? You cannot be both. With him there is no question of where he stands at all times.
On Tuesday, it was a sea of heads. The church was filled to overflowing and so were the reception grounds. A normally dandy fellow even if modest, his influence on the crescendo capping a week-long preparation for the D-Day was unmistakable. The St. Phillips Anglican Church was sparkling with new paint. The whole village, Isanya Ogbo-Ijebu, saw the 90th birthday of their worthy son and leader as their own. They wore a special dress of green fabric interspersed with lines of subdued brown. For the people of his birth place, it was celebration all the way, dancing and rejoicing outside the huge and expansive reception tent. The signpost to the village was artistically done and it read AA@90. The neat appearance of the village testified to his intolerance of ugliness. It was a different kind of fresh air characteristic of unspoilt countryside. Adebanjo’s own compound on which is seated his modest bungalow is not a jungle of concrete. Put in charge was Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, an animated fellow who makes friends easily with his warm-heartedness and who equally cares about standards. For Yemi there are no half-measures. Whether at Harbour Port at Victoria Island or Ogbo-Ijebu his signature for taste and standards was boldly written.
Present to grace the occasion were Adebanjo’s comrades in the unrelenting drive for a new, united and vibrant restructured Nigeria for meaningful, self-evident, measurable and sustainable development and growth. His colleagues in the handshake across the Niger and across Benue to Benue-Plateau were well represented. Step forward and be counted amidst clappings, Chief Edwin Clarke, Chief John Nwodo, the national President of Ohanaeze, and the leader of the Middle Belt Forum, Dr. Bala Takaya who succeeded Prof. Jerry Gana. Former Commonwealth Secretary, Chief Emeka Anyoku, was in attendance. Commodore Dan Suleiman, who was in the trenches with Adebanjo in the NADECO days as head at the United Kingdom front, was there.
The political leaders who numbered among the dignitaries were the Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, Governor of Ogun State; Rauf Aregbesola, Governor of Osun State and Senator Abiola Ajimobi of Oyo State. Former Governors Olusegun Osoba, Niyi Adebayo and Gbenga Daniel were at the event. There as well were General Alani Akinrinade, Dr. Amos Akingba, Sam Amuka, the Vanguard publisher about whose writings in the days of yore he speaks with nostalgia; Professor Pat Utomi, Jimi Agbaje, Nike Akande, a former Minister and until recently President Lagos Chambers of Commerce; Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu; chairman of Insight Communications , Biodun Shobanjo; Adelaja, the chief executive officer of Rosabel, Lawyer Yemi Adefulu, Lawyer Ayanlaja, Dare Babarinsa, Gbenga Adefaye, Lawyer Dipo Jimilehin; public affairs commentator Olu Ademulegun and finance management wizard Mobolurin. Predictably, it was a full house of Afenifere, the Yoruba socio-cultural group, but more well known as a cultural cum political vehicle to watch over the interest of the Yoruba people. Leading Afenifere was its leader, Reuben Fasoranti; there were Chief Olu Falae, Prof. Banji Akintoye, Chief Femi Okunrounmu; Chief Akinfenwa, Yinka Odumakin and a host of other members of the association. The family of Chief Adebanjo’s twin brother, Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, now of blessed memory, was prominently represented by Professor Kanyin Ajayi and Dr. Ajayi, his brother. It was an exceedingly colourful occasion with Bisi Olatilo as the anchor man.
Chief Adebanjo has come a long way, pressing, pushing and advocating the interest of the people of South-West. His autobiography titled Say It As It Is captures Adebanjo in his unveiled essence. His political education began in Awolowo School of Principles. The products are known as Awoists. In that school, unremitting application to a just cause is a credo and loyalty without extenuation is the byword. Constant reading, education and re-education is the culture. You must be informed. You must read. So was it that after Adebanjo became the Organising Secretary of Action Group. It did not take him long to realise that the path he had chosen to be in the image of his hero and mentor was strewn with thorns and broken bottles. To successfully walk the path you must be independent and the soles of the shoes impregnably fortified. You could not be fighting the same establishment from which you would turn round to look for financial succour either as an employee or for an appointive political office. You must be free to give expression to the courage of your convictions. You must be prepared to go to jail and return to don your wig and gown as long as it was not for fraud or other crimes for which anyone would be ashamed. But for your political beliefs and activism, your bathroom kits must be ever ready, and Kirikiri was expected to take note. And, indeed, these defined Adebanjo’s journey to reckoning and celebration among the Yorubas. He was a few times a tenant in one jail house or the other. These are the credentials an Awoist must be ready to brandish.
The need for independence and unhindered political pursuits for the wellbeing of his people made him to quickly tear off, and drove him to the United Kingdom to read law. The last time he was locked up was during Abacha Administration. Guess, over what? It was over the death of Kudirat Abiola for whose husband’s mandate he and his leaders were unrelenting. Again guess who were locked up with him: the indefatigable leader of Afenifere and NADECO, Abraham Adesanya. Solanke Onasanya was asked to be reporting to the police. He was spared of the jail house because of his age. The mistake the Administration made was to leave Bola Ige to roam free and wide. He was not locked up with them. He had had his fair share of prison experience during Buhari’s first coming. Abacha did not reckon with the fact that Bola Ige was the spokesman of the Yoruba and their cause, with almost matchless gift of the gap. Like everyone else from Awolowo political clan, he was bold; he was articulate, he was unsparing with his tongue. Promptly, Bola Ige went to court to free his colleagues from Abacha’s notorious gulag. In 1962, Adebanjo was among Awolowo’s associates wanted to face treasonable felony charge. He and Sam Ikoku fled to Ghana to take refuge under Kwame Nkrumah who shared the same political philosophy with Awolowo. In his absence his father was arrested in his place!
Adebanjo is a repository of the history of the political development of our country. He would overwhelm you with what meetings were held and on what date. Who were those present and who said what! He would then recap almost word for word what Chief Awolowo said on the occasion. Not surprising, he at a time took residence in Chief Awolowo’s house at Ikenne where he sat at the sage’s feet to learn wisdom and take in sufficient political education and what to hold on to principles means, bearing in mind that the battle might continue after Awolowo would have left them. He wanted to be at the beck and call of Awolowo. He was a member of the board of directors of the Nigerian Tribune. Therefore what we have and see in him today is a product of that long tutelage and respectable closeness to his mentor and leader; loyalty, bluntness, unwavering adherence to principles and decency. He is confident but could be combative as he does not suffer fools gladly. For his arguments, he comes prepared and he delivers his punches with all the strength he can muster. Indeed, he is never non-plussed and quick-witted when it comes to how Nigerians should stay together. There must be an educated debate and negotiation. He would not tolerate dictatorship. Which is why Jonathan’s document from the 2014 National Conference is one that holds the key for enduring value for the progress and happiness of all within the Nigerian frontiers.
His unswerving adherence to principles almost brought him on a collision course with his colleagues on who should be the governorship candidate for Lagos State in 1998 in readiness for 1999. Because Afenifere was just coming out of the war with Abacha, and frayed nerves fairly massaged and soothed by Abdusalami Abubakar, they did not know enough about their followers nor did they have a clear idea of who among them were loyal and tested enough to be trusted with the all important office of the Governor of Lagos State. They first mulled the possibility of Ganiyu Dawodu occupying the position. Dawodu declined the offer to fly the AD flag, suggesting that Afenifere should go for a young man full of energy and who was well educated. Lagos then became a test case. Following unsavory developments at some point, Sir Olaniwun Ajayi never missed to thrust needle in the wrist of Dawodu. Dawodu, the Afenifere and AD leader in Lagos rooted for Funsho Williams and the report the leadership received from him was that Funsho Williams won the governorship primaries. Chief Adebanjo argued forcefully that Funsho Williams was not part of the struggle, and not much was known about his antecedents. But Bola Tinubu they knew. At the time Funsho Williams was just coming out of the civil service.
Adebanjo said Tinubu had thrown his all into the struggle, by way of finance and activism, at home and after fleeing into exile. While in exile, he was granting interviews to further the cause. His home in London became a refuge for some fleeing activists and journalists some of whom he gave pocket money. The powerful argument resonated well with his colleagues more so that it bordered on loyalty, commitment and antecedents, factors on which Afenifere put a great deal of premium. And Adebanjo carried the day. For the group, the party is supreme. A candidate goes into office to implement party programmes sold to the electorate. The candidate must, therefore, be one that is persuaded on party programme and must be known. He must have antecedents and must be loyal and be prepared to submit to party discipline.
There was also respect for hierarchy in their group. With the imminent departure from earthly life of Chief Adekunle Ajasin, leadership was transferred to Abraham Adesanya who himself had been a long runner by the side of Awolowo. Senator Adesanya was not just also blunt, but versed in the traditional ethical imperatives and thought flow patterns of his people, elucidating his pronouncements with proverbs. After Adesanya, the leadership went to Chief Reuben Fasoranti. Because age has caught up with Fasoranti, Adebanjo became the face of Afenifere, speaking and travelling, travelling and speaking. He is ready to take anybody on, eyeball to eyeball. His friends cut across all age groups. He is at home in the company of the youth with jokes and his sunshine smiles and lit up youthful face, as he is in the gathering of octogenarians. Of course, one can’t play his kind of role without criticisms. His critics accuse him of rigidity, and that he is unable to distinguish between flexibility to reach the objective goal and a craving for opportunism. Their illustration, for example, is that if you are driving to Ibadan from Lagos and a huge tree falls across the road and you do not have an axe to cut it and free the road, the sensible thing would be to turn and take Abeokuta or Ijebu- Ode and you get to Ibadan the same destination. Adebanjo is not averse to flexibility as long as the goal is not negotiable. But his experience is that those who had sought such flexibility without keeping the goal sacrosanct in front of them because of lack of strength of character had wandered irreversibly into the wilderness. When he speaks like that your mind races to the days of AD which was soon to be engrossed in crisis, and Adesanya was preoccupied settling them.
Adebanjo loves Nigeria but would not surrender his Yorùbáness. Even then it should not be at the expense of others and others in pursuit of their interests should not be at the expense of their other fellow nationalities. He believes absolutely that the Nigeria of our dreams can never arise if Nigeria is not restructured. His argument is that the lighter a burden the easier it is to carry. The Federal Government is overloaded. If the zones and states share in the burden the lighter it would become and the faster the movement of the country on the path of development and modernity. Chief Awolowo had said that a unitary form of government in a country of diverse peoples and nationalities with their cultures breeds envy and unending hostilities among the component parts. Restructuring of Nigeria, for Adebanjo is a task to which he is totally committed. His pains and lament today at the age of 90 is absence of sufficient number of youths with the right political education, who are armed with history and who are endued with the strength of character to resist opportunism. His hope has been such youths would emerge to whom his generation would gladly hand over the baton, in the quest and battle for equality of peoples, and justice for all.
Those who gathered on Tuesday to pay homage and celebrate Adebanjo could not but go away with a deep impression that it is good to be good. It is eternally rewarding to be selfless. Adebanjo is no doubt appreciated and loved by his people for his doggedness and selflessness in the pursuit of their happiness and fulfillment. There were drinks and the comestibles were inexhaustible. It was his glorious day.
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