Were Chief Obafemi Awolowo still with us, he would now be 110 years old now. All over the world, there are very few people of that age on this side of the Great Divide.
But Awolowo’s thoughts and deeds are still with us. His works, as the Leader of Government Business and later Premier of the defunct Western Region determined the trajectory of the West development and political evolution. His thoughts, enshrined in his immortal books, formed the basis of the Nigerian Federation up till 1967. Our deviation from the prescriptions of Awolowo on what our federation should be may be the cause of our current national distemper.
Dan Agbese, one of leading aristocrats of the Nigerian press, once described Awolowo as “the best President Nigeria never had.” When Awo died in 1987, the late Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, leader of the defunct Republic of Biafra, echoed Agbese’s pithy quotation. One continues to ponder if Awolowo had gotten the reign of power at the centre what would have been the developmental landscape of Nigeria.
Awo was both myth and man. In late 1982, I had covered a fund-raising luncheon for the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, at the Mainland Hotel, Lagos. The anchor person was the legendary former editor of the Sunday Times, Gbolabo Ogunsanwo. Awo was on the high-table with his wife, the great Mama H.I.D. It was a memorable occasion attended by all the red-cap chiefs of the UPN. Ogunsanwo said there were different stories about Awolowo, like for instance his appearing on the moon during the turbulent 1960s when he was at Calabar Prison where he was serving term for treasonable felony. Ogunsanwo wanted the old man to comment on those stories. Awo just chuckled!
Those who knew Awolowo took the myths seriously. They believe it was part of the man. Chief Bola Ige, first elected Governor of old Oyo State and later Attorney-General of the Federation once told us a story about Awolowo driver. He said the man loved to speed, sometimes going as high as 160 kilometres per hour!
“Was Awolowo not afraid that he might have an accident?”
Chief Ige was quick to respond: “How can Awolowo’s car have an accident?”
In the aftermath of the June 12, 1993 presidential election which was won by Chief Moshood Abiola, the publisher of the Concord Group of Newspapers, I and some of my colleagues love to keep the company of Chief Alfred Rewane, who once served as Awo’s private secretary. Rewane was a wealthy businessman who threw his weight into the struggle against military rule, especially during the regime of General Sani Abacha. We believe that he was assassinated on October 6, 1995 by suspected agents of the Abacha dictatorship for his role as the backbone of the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO. We love Papa Rewane.
Rewane loved to welcome young people to his palatial home at the Ikeja G.R.A, but five of us especially loved his company. Adebayo Adenekan, an engineer, Niyi Afuye, who recently won his seat into the Ekiti State House of Assembly, Ademola Oyinlola, a director of TELL magazine and Dokun Abolarin, a lawyer (now our royal father, the Orangun of Oke-Ila, Osun State) were the other four. Whenever Papa Rewane mentioned Awo’s name (he prefers to call him ‘my leader’), he would lift his cap.
He once told us a story about the 1958 London Constitutional Conference where Nigerian leaders agreed to the 1960 terminal date for British colonial rule. Then one of the ministers presented Awo with a medical bill. He had seen a doctor in London who treated him for a venereal disease.
“The Western Region government cannot pay for that,” Awo told the minister. “You should take responsibility for the consequences of your escapade!”
Papa Rewane laughed heartily about this, recalling the London episode.
The 1983 general elections was the last of Awolowo’s spectacular bid for power. I was posted to Akure, capital of Ondo State, as the Chief Correspondent of the Concord to replace my colleague, Modupe Osewole, who was proceeding on study leave. It was at the height of the campaign for the general elections and the two main parties, Awo’s Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, and the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, which was in opposition in Ondo State, but in power at the centre. By the time I entered Akure in 1983, the NPN was packing some muscle with the decamping of notable UPN chieftains including Chief Akin Omoboriowo, the former deputy-governor to Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, Chief Olaiya Fagbamigbe, a member of the House of Representatives and Mr Agunbiade, majority leader in the state House of Assembly.
It was at this period that I came in contact with Aare Afe Babalola, then a chieftain of the NPN whom President Shagari made the chairman of the Governing Council of the Federal Polytechnic, Akure. Hitherto, there was no university in Ondo State until Chief Ajasin established the Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU, Ado-Ekiti (now known as the Ekiti State University). To promote the party, Shagari then promised to establish another university in Ondo State and there was a tussle where it would be sited. One day in June 1993, we journalists joined many chieftains of the NPN in Ado-Ekiti to the proposed site where the Ado people wanted the university to be built. The President, we were told, was coming to turn the shod. To confirm his coming, many cars, including those famous Shagari Benz, drove into Ado to receive the President. Shagari did not come, but the rain came and we scattered.
The deluge came however on August 16, 1983. Early that morning, an official of the Federal Electoral Commission, FEDECO, went on Radio Nigeria, Akure, to announce that Omoboriowo of the NPN had won the governorship election. The state exploded into violence during which several top NPN leaders were killed. Many houses belonging to NPN leaders or suspected sympathisers, were burnt and destroyed. In Ado-Ekiti however, the citizens, many of them UPN leaders, matched to the country home of Afe Babalola to protect the place. They testified that he was “a good NPN man.”
Before the election, President Shagari announced the establishment of a new university to be sited in the state capital and promised that the Federal Polytechnic, Akure, would be relocated to Ado-Ekiti. The new university was to take over the premises of the polytechnic in Akure. Nothing happened thereafter from the side of the government. However, Aare Babalola led the people of Ado to provide land for the polytechnic. He then proceeded to erect new buildings according to the master-plan he had developed for the institutions.
On December 31, 1983, Shagari was toppled and Major-General Muhammadu Buhari came to power. The new regime decided to cancel most of the new institutions recently announced by Shagari. However when a Federal team visited Ado, they realised the permanent site of the polytechnic was already built up. All the initial buildings were provided personally by Afe Babalola. The polytechnic stayed till today.
Last year, we celebrated Aare Afe Babalola’s 90th birthday anniversary. The old man, handsome and debonair in his suit and fedora hat, had a majestic presence. It was at the premises of his Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, Abuad, the institution Babalola started only ten years ago. Only a philosopher-king could think of starting a new career at 80 and still stays in full command at almost 91.
Afe Babalola is a lawyer, a philosopher, an author, a teacher, a newspaper columnist, a farmer and a philanthropist, but like Awolowo, it is his contributions to education that would define his place in history and confirm his apotheosis. Both Awolowo and Babalola use different pedestals for the mission of educating the people. Their impacts are similar but different.
Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosumu, the administrator of the Awolowo Foundation, while announcing the conferment of the Awolowo Prize for Leadership on Babalola, stated: “He has impacted lives of many through mentorship, scholarship and various philanthropic initiatives. He is a foremost advocate of human capital development especially through education.”
Just as we continue to marvel at the life and times of Awolowo, future generations, would also wonder what drives Aare Afe Babalola. Why should a man be imbued with so much capacity and motivation in old age, setting new goals and never be weary of achieving them? May be that is the stuff of a man who is thoroughly extraordinary. They don’t come around often.