SIR Olaniwun Ajayi, elder statesman, author, frontline lawyer and one of the most outstanding lieutenants of the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, joined his ancestors in Lagos on Friday, November 4. He was aged 91. Naturally for a statesman of his stature who had lived virtually all of his adult life in pursuit of a better nation, a federalist Nigeria where each component unit would harness and develop its God-given abilities, tributes poured in from across the country, detailing several aspects of his persona. President Muhammadu Buhari, in a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina, paid tribute to Ajayi’s inspirational and dedicated work to entrench and strengthen democracy in Nigeria through his passionate engagements in Afenifere, the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), and the Patriots. He noted: “The late revered Yoruba leader effectively combined his sharp commentary on the state of affairs in Nigeria with uncommon patriotism while working tenaciously to further unity, development, and prosperity in the nation.”
In the same vein, Lagos State governor, Akinwumi Ambode, lauded Ajayi’s consistent advocacy for the dreams of Nigeria’s founding fathers, while his Ogun State counterpart, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, described the late Ajayi as one of the icons of Ogun State and one of the architects of modern Nigeria. The tributes have continued, but many of his co-travellers in the struggle who overcame the tyranny of military rule and continued to prod the conscience of leaders as democracy finally returned in 1999, are understandably still in shock, battling to come to terms with the fact that the great Olaniwun is no more. And many of the younger generations will treasure fond memories of the Afenifere titan. For not only was he outspoken during the terrible years of military dictatorship, he continued to offer suggestions for better governance right into his last hours on mortal plane, expressing fears about the nation’s downward course.
Olaniwun Ajayi certainly ranks as one of the most outstanding disciples of Awolowo and one of the most committed advocates for federalism. Noted for his strident calls for a return to the regional system of governance, Ajayi was a revered participant at the 2014 National Conference where, with patriots and kindred spirits, he strove to forge a positive direction for the nation. Those who never encountered him in flesh and blood can still embrace his genius in the literature he left behind, including This House of Oduduwa Must not Fall (2005), Lady Adunola Ajayi in Retrospect (2008), Nigeria: Africa’s Failed Asset (2009), Lest We Forget: A Memoir (2011); Isara: Afotamodi, My Jerusalem (2011); and Nigeria: Political Power Imbalance (2015), where the political is personal, and the personal is political.
Ajayi was firm, forthright, profoundly intellectual, and gifted with the gift of the garb, qualities which he demonstrated with uncanny astuteness even as a nonagenarian. He it was who, looking back over the decades, delivered Afenifere’s oration at HID Awolowo’s obsequies, detailing the many struggles to give present and future generations Awolowo’s Life More Abundant. Ajayi, for the better part of six decades, never shied away from engaging the Nigerian question in public forums, books and newspaper interviews. His voice was loud and clear, his language sublime, and his narrative devoid of guile. A former Commissioner for Education and later Health in the defunct Western Region, Ajayi qualified as a Chartered Secretary in 1959 and later enrolled for a degree in Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, following which he was called to the English Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1962. In November of the same year, he founded the Olaniwun Ajayi & Co, later Olaniwun Ajayi LP, one of the leading law firms in the country.
One remarkable feature of Olaniwun’s life, his passion for Yoruba unity, cannot escape mention. As pointed out by Chief Bola Tinubu, national leader of the All Progressives Congress, the late Olaniwun Ajayi as a true Awoist taught many of the younger generations of politicians the doctrines of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. As Tinubu revealed: “Chief Olaniwun Ajayi was part of the entire leadership of Afenifere who honoured me with a visit recently in Lagos, where they renewed their call for unity and understanding among the Yoruba race and the entrenchment of progressive ideology in the country.”
And the passion for politics never robbed him of his duties as a family man. As pointed out by Dr Ola Ajayi, one of his four children, “As a Methodist, he made us imbibe the culture of praying and being close to God. He disciplined us not to tell lies. He taught us to be kind to our neighbours and people around us. Generally, I learnt from him to be God-fearing, loving, to speak the truth, stand for what one believes in and show integrity in whatever one does.’’
May his soul rest in sweet repose.