Ajasin and our duty to remember
Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, first elected governor of old Ondo State, was the moving spirit of the Free Education Programme of the defunct Western Region when Chief Obafemi Awolowo ruled the roost. Last week, many leaders and Ajasin’s old comrades gathered at the University of Ibadan to mark the 20th anniversary of this titan’s departure from Mother Earth. Though he later played several roles, Ajasin’s place in history is secured by his pivotal role as the original thinker of the Free Education Programme of the defunct Action Group.
As it was in those days, the nascent Action Group party had demanded for policy papers from its top members and Ajasin had opted to write on free education. This was accepted with skepticism for the country was still under colonial rule and no one has ever heard of such a policy. Ajasin was a teacher of considerable experience and he was already the principal of Imade College, Owo, his home town. Awolowo accepted the papers and successfully sold it to the party fathers. But trouble lay ahead.
In January 1955, Chief Awolowo proclaimed free education to all children of six years and above in the entire Western Region (now eight states) and the programme was welcomed with confusion in many areas. The opposition National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroun (later to become National Council of Nigerian Citizens), NCNC, campaigned against it. One of its leaders in Ibadan told his supporters “Awolowo is seizing your children now; he would soon be seizing your wives!”
There were violent protests in several cities across the West where the people were opposed to the idea of free education. During the 1956 Federal Elections, the people voted against the AG, replacing most of its members with NCNC stalwarts. Bitter about the rebuff, Awolowo offered to resign and go back to his flourishing legal practice. One morning, a group of traditional rulers led by Oba Adesoji Aderemi, then the Ooni of Ife, met with Awolowo in Ikenne to prevail on him not to abandon public service. “It is your duty,” he told him. “That is why you were sent to liberate the people.”
In 1980, I was one of the young people invited by the Ondo State Government to welcome Chief Awolowo to Akure while celebrating 25 years of free education. Papa Ajasin was now governor, elected on the platform of Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN. Chief Awolowo said we the beneficiaries of free education ought to be eternally grateful to Chief Ajasin. As the Leader of Government Business and Minister of Local Government then, Chief Awolowo said he gave the paper on Free Education to top civil servants, mostly British, to advise the government on the matter. In the end, the civil servants said the policy was good but required a lot of planning. They were willing to help and support. They recommended that the programme should take off by 1970. Awolowo rejected their recommendation and changed our world.
I interacted more with Chief Ajasin when I became the President, National Union of Ondo State Students in 1980. I was formally introduced to him by my old teacher, Dr. Nathaniel Falaye Aina, who was then the Commissioner for Education. Aina was later to succeed Chief Akin Omoboriowo as the Deputy Governor. We successfully negotiated, along with members of my executive, including Nick Tunde Eniola, an increment in the bursary payment for Ondo State students from N200 to N500 (Five Hundred Naira) per session.
Ajasin made more substantial impact on the people of Ondo State than the mere requests of students. My bosses at the Concord Group of Newspapers sent me to Akure as the Chief Correspondent of Ondo State in 1983. From that vantage point, I was able to observe the great man at close quarters. He was a tough and parsimonious patriarch, working hard to bring development to his people. He established the Obafemi Awolowo University, (now known as the Ekiti State University), Ado-Ekiti, and created governmental ethos of competence, diligence and integrity. Throughout his four years in office, he was living in a two-bedroom duplex, working from a modest office and spent less than N2 million as security vote.
The people loved him. When the storm came in 1983 following the declaration of Omoboriowo as the winner of the 1983 governorship election, Ondo State people backed Ajasin and dismantled the bandwagon of the ruling National Party of Nigeria, NPN. Few days after he was sworn-in for the second term in Akure, the UPN held its congress in Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State. Chief Awolowo, addressing his people, asked Nigerians to prepare for a major change in the country. Present were all the UPN governors, including Ajasin, Chief Olabisi Onabanjo, the host, Alhaji Lateef Jakande of Lagos and Chief Cornelius Adebayo of Kwara State. Former Governors Ambrose Alli of Bendel State (now Edo and Delta) and Bola Ige of Oyo State (now Oyo and Osun) were also present.
Some few days before the end of 1983, Chief Awolowo asked Nigerians to fast for three days. Twenty-four hours after the end of the fast, General Muhammadu Buhari struck and the Second Republic became history. It was on the 31st of December 1983 and people were in a celebratory mood.
“Happy New Year! Happy New Government!” People were greeting each other in Akure and other Nigerian cities. There was the rumour that the new military regime was going to hand over power to Chief Awolowo whom many Akure residents actually believed won the 1983 presidential election. But Buhari had come with a different agenda. By the time the new governor, Commodore Michael Bamidele Otiko, came to town, Ajasin, like other top politicians, reported to the new authorities and was taken into detention.
Ajasin shared the same cell with Chief Bola Ige at the Ikoyi Prison. Though both were governors, Ige deferred to the elderly man who was there at the beginning of the old AG. Ige served him and was fetching water for him every morning in prison. Both of them, like the other UPN governors were to remain in prison until Buhari was toppled in 1985 by his Chief of Army Staff, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida.
Ajasin was born in 1908, seven years before Lord Lugard proclaimed the amalgamation of Nigeria and 22 years after the 16-year Ekitiparapo War. Ajasin and members of his generation inherited the debris of that war whose impacts and implications are still with us till today. They carried out their duty to the fatherland with diligence, dedication, loyalty and integrity.
The gathering in Ibadan last week was an attempt to pay back the great service that the Ajasin generation rendered to Nigeria. We have a duty to remember the service of this selfless generation. One of the members of Ajasin cabinet was Chief Adebayo Adefarati who was to emerge the third elected governor of Ondo State in 1999. Adefarati built a university in his hometown of Akungba but named it Adekunle Ajasin University in honour of his old boss who gave the rest of us access to free education. Many other monuments and landmarks have been named to honour this great man.
Yet, in his old age, Ajasin continued to serve until death in 1997. He was the chairman of Afenifere and co-chairman of the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO. His country home in Owo was the epicenter of opposition politics against the draconian regime of General Sani Abacha. It was his sacrifice and that of other heroes that has given us the current democratic dispensation.
It is also heartwarming that even while he was alive, Chief Ajasin realised that he was highly appreciated. One day after he returned from detention, Chief Ajasin visited Lagos. His car, a Peugeot 504, broke down on the Third Mainland Bridge because of a flat tyre. While his driver was trying to fix it, Ajasin stood by his side while a Mercedes Benz 230E car pulled up. The occupant came out and prostrated for Ajasin.
It was Chief Michael Ade-Ojo, one of his old students at Imade College. It was an emotional encounter, the principal and his old student; especially for Ade-Ojo. Few days later, Ajasin was back in Owo. He was on his veranda when a Mercedes Benz 230 pulled into the compound. It was Ade-Ojo’s driver. His boss had instructed him to present the Mercedes-Benz car as a gift to the old principal. Ajasin was speechless.
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