AT almost 90, Chief Ayo Adebanjo remains an inimitable political titan, quintessential lawyer and conscience of the nation at all times. From a humble beginning in his hometown, Ijebu Ogbu Oke in Ogun State, he has become an enigma and colossus because of his dogged pursuit of a just society. But in this interaction with KUNLE ODEREMI, LANRE ADEWOLE and BOLA BADMUS, the avowed democrat goes down memory lane on his childhood, upbringing, the soft side of his personality, lifestyle as he walked towards adulthood, among other issues. Excerpts:
One thing people have not stopped talking about is how you get looking this way, even at almost 90 ; nice look, sharp intellect, radiance and sharp memory. People wonder, will Baba ever look his age?
It is the grace of God. Anything I do without the grace of God is nothing. I will say I eat good food, sleep well and do exercise; all these without the grace of God is nothing. I try to live well according to standards, but I believe that on top of it all that it is the grace of God that has kept me going. I myself I feel surprised some times from the way I move up and down to different meetings daily and the following day, my wife will ask, are you not tired? The following day, I will still have to attend to issues and I will not come back home tired and all that. You can’t say all that is within your power. And don’t forget that I might have done more than what I did the previous day. Many people don’t do half of the problems I put myself; they will go to one function, come back and they are tired. I just feel it takes the grace of God to live up to 90.
You said it is grace plus standard that have kept you looking radiant and active. We want to know those standards so that we can be like you.
Well, no one can say this is the ideal standard type of life and living. If you go to your doctor, he would tell you that you must eat and that, eat vegetables, take vitamins, drink plenty of water. They are standard things people are asked to do in order to live well. That is what the medical people say. I remember I was at Dr Majekodunmi’s hospital, that is, St. Nicholas’ Hospital on Lagos Island recently to see my doctor. I saw somebody being driven out on the wheel; I would not mention his name. He is a prominent person, and when I inquired what was wrong with him, they said he had stroke. I was surprised. This is a person that lives well and he has the capability to do whatever the doctor instructs him to do. The question of eating well is not his problem. And relatively, I can’t compare myself with him, in terms of getting the best medical experts; it is easier for him. He can afford to travel to any part of the world, including the United States of America and London, to seek medical treatment.
I visit London occasionally since I returned after my studies in the United Kingdom. Since the devaluation of our currency, the last time I visited London is more than six years ago. Yet, I don’t know how many times I have travelled to my hometown. In fact, if I am not in my hometown, I am in my house in Lagos.
Let’s talk about your childhood, how you grew up, where and those critical challenges you had to contend with.
I started my education at Okelamuren Primary school in 1934 and from there, I came to Lagos and attended CMS High School headed by late Chief Osinbogun at Elegbaata in Lagos. Many may not know the place because it has been transformed by the government. From there, I went to Holy Trinity School. I was admitted to the school in 1937, and I was there till 1941. I went to Cathedral School in 1942 and graduated one year after.
In those days, some elders claimed to have gone through a lot of difficulties. They said they had to trek; they did not have even a pair of shoes to wear to school.
Such situation did not apply to me. I was the only child of my mother. I hail from a polygamous family. My parents weren’t poor; they belonged to the middle class. My mother, in particular, could be described as a prosperous trader by that standard; so, I would not say our being from a polygamous family was a barrier. My mother was responsible for the payment of my school fees. She did that gladly until I got to Standard Six in Cathedral School. When I was to seek admission to a grammar school, I had to use my pocket money to buy the admission form for entrance examination to grammar school because I could not tell my mother that I wanted to go to such school. But, when I passed the examination, I had to convince her that that school was very good. She had a shop in Idumota. The landlord of the building was called Mr Green (a Nigerian); he was the Chief Clerk at the Government Press. He had a son who attended grammar school but was expelled from there and had to go to Ilesa Grammar School to further his education. After I passed the examination to the grammar school, my classmates visited our house to openly congratulate me. So, my mother became curious. She inquired reasons for the congratulations. And I told her that the school where they expelled the son of her landlord was where I had been offered admission. She asked if I meant what I said, and I emphatically said yes, but I added that we would have to pay a lot of money and then she told me: ‘you would go to the school.’ That was how I gained admission to the grammar school. At that time, each student was paying one pound and 10 shillings as tuition per quarter. So, that is why I often tell people that all I paid for my secondary school education was just £36 pounds, which was about N72; that amount is not up to the pocket money of a child today. Even as low as that tuition fee, my mother often embarked on Esusu at three pence, which cumulative was seven pounds and six pence a month. It was the money from the contribution that I took to school to pay for my school fees. So, my classmates often mocked me, saying ‘that the son of cigarette seller, you have come with this little, little money from your mother’s contribution.’ At class three, I felt I was already a grownup and I would demand that my mother changed the money to currency before I took it to school and she did.
As I said, my parents were of the middle class. I was one of the best well-dressed not only in my class but in my school at that period and that was why I was nicknamed Spotless Banjos, because my white uniform and canvass shoes were ever spotless. We used a type of canvass shoe then called Ranackan shoes, it was white tennis with a blue tape around. Some people would nugget it and cover the blue. I usually took to nugget mine. It was so impressive that one of my class teachers, late Mr. Aderounmu would give me his tennis to go and nugget for him.
With this, you must have been very popular among ladies at that time.
No, you are just trying to be modest (laughs). We were popular among the girls, like you said, I remember that they called us demon chasers for going after girls in school (laughs again). And because of the type of familiarity I had with the opposite sex, my colleagues would come for counselling before making the move. It was after I would have performed the necessary assessment that such colleague would go after the girl. What I found out later with some of us who were friendly with ladies at that time and called demon chasers was that we were the only ones who kept one wife each. I remember one of my classmates, I can’t remember his name now, an introvert, who used to call us demon chasers. He became a doctor and everywhere he was posted to serve; he had a wife. And do you know what is responsible? While we were combining academics with such pranks, he was busy with only his studies. We had time for intellectual discussions within and outside the school with ladies. But for those ones that called us demon chasers, they misused such exploits when they left school. They became Omo aijobe ri because they had not explored the other fun-filled side of school life.
So, you had your fill in school.
Yes, I had my fill in school; there is no doubt about that.
So, what was your social life the like then?
My social life was interesting.
You see before I finished in school, I attended highly discipline school, particularly under Late Kale as the principal, who was a Canon of the church on Broad Street. You see the standard in the school is that the school doesn’t tolerate a rough way of dressing otherwise, they send you back home. The school doesn’t tolerate indecent dressing because I could remember that the Principal often send back home students that weren’t properly dressed. When I got to Class 3, I started changing my dress thrice weekly. Because I was serious at my studies, my mother didn’t want to spare anything that I required from her to the extent that we had long-sleeved shirts. I had to wear to school one of these days. By the time I brought it out in the morning, I found out that there was only one cuff link that was available, so I asked my mother to take a pin and the other one for me. In the course of doing it, because she was cooking at that time, the soup just poured on it and we became sad with what happened. ‘Oh, you have stained my dress!’, I screamed. I complained bitterly because I was so disturbed by what happened.
You know, before I came back from school, my mother had bought four pairs of cuff links for me. I was just very surprised and very appreciative of my mother. I was encouraged because when I gained admission into grammar school, she warned ‘that the moment you fail, you stop going to school o.’ I was always in unit position, that one encouraged her to do more for me. But people believe that she was doing that for me because I was the only child she had because my mother gave birth to me at a very advanced age. And because I was the only child, people believed I shouldn’t be scolded. In fact, there is a slang among my age group then and I remember I always go to spend my holiday with an uncle and when anybody wants to trouble me, they would warn such person, saying ‘don’t touch him o, akobi omo Obabeko ni o,’ Obabeko is an advance age group. So, somebody who is the first born of that age group should not be touched, that’s the meaning. That and other patronising statements, all those didn’t spoil me at all, they didn’t disturb me at all; I faced my studies. That was the only encouragement my mother gave me.
Can you believe I attended Quranic School because my mother was a Muslim? So, the little I learnt at the Arabic school was later helpful in places like Ilorin when I functioned as the Organising Secretary of the Action Group (AG). And many were amazed that the representative of Chief Obafemi Awolowo could say some verses of the Holy Quran. It also became a factor that endeared them to me and I became very persuasive in whatever I say. They admired me.
We are sure you still have fond memories of the fashion that was in vogue during your youthful days, especially mode of dressing, hairstyles and kind of shoes that reigned then?
We had some hair styles at that time and they included cumber (comb-back); draw-back, and others. In the draw-back, they flattened the middle, while the right and left side of the hair remained.
Which was your favourite and why?
Mine was the cumber (comb-back). You flattened the side and created a parting. It was one of the fashionable hair styles at that time. Having that haircut made me look very handsome. With the cumber, you flattened the right side and then had a parting. My parting was always straight; it was widely recognised with me. It formed a part of my identity. That was what I wore to school, except I put on the school cap.
Why did you do that?
It was the most fashionable then. I believed when I used that style, I looked handsome and delectable.
You spoke glowingly about your parents, what were those values inculcated in you that shaped you in later life?
My mother was a great disciplinarian. Notwithstanding I was the only issue, she didn’t spare me at all.
But she would have indulged you in some ways…
No, at all. First, on food, she would ask you to go to the pot and take the portion you want. But the primary rule is that you must finish the portion you have decided to take. You would have committed an offence if you did not finish it. If you like, you might empty the pot, but there must be no remnant. That meant if you did not finish it, she would give the ‘blala.’ That was important. Secondly, you know I told you they used to call me Omo Iya onisiga because my mother dealt in provisions. When I was in primary school, I was also doing street-trading for her at Ebute-Ero, where I made good sales for her and she commended me for making good sales. I went round and I made sales for her and in the process, I was doing some little pilfering, and used the money hire and ride bicycle. From the street trading, I kept some money aside because after some time, she discovered that she needed some change, and I would tell her I had some change to give her. She wouldn’t ask where I got the money because she knew it was hers. Sometimes she was going to market, she would ask, ‘Ayo, have you got some money to lend me?’ I would respond by saying I had money to lend her, she knew it was her money o! But, what she used to say was that she hadn’t seen me just buying things with the money to the extent that when I keep such stolen money, and I want to buy something and asked her, ‘can you give money to add to the one in my hand, my mother would ask where did you get the money? I’ll respond: ‘You have borrowed money from me, but you didn’t ask me that time.’ What I discovered later was that if she had seen me just being a spend-thrift, she would have cautioned me, ‘no, don’t do that.’ But when I was younger, I used such money to ride bicycle when we went on holiday in Ijebu. So, there was strict discipline; your parents won’t spoil you but they won’t deny you of what you deserve. That was my mother’s style.
While you were young, did you have anyone you aimed to emulate or looked up to as role model?
I had been buying West African Pilot since my days in primary school. I had been buying it since 1941, I would commit articles written by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, in his column Inside Stuff, into memory. My copy would be read by my class teacher because they supplied his copy in school, whereas I would have bought mine before I got to school; I got my supply very early in the morning and bring it to school. During the school hours, my teacher would ask for my copy of the publication to read. That was in 1941. Aside Zik’s article, there was another written by Williams, one of the early followers of Zik. He is a lawyer, he had a column, Between Ourselves. Considering Azikiwe’s contribution, he deserved utmost credit. They defied the political imagination of all of this country at that time.
You were looking forward to emulating him?
I was a Zikist from school, but when Awolowo brought the philosophy of Federalism, that was my parting with Zik. That is why I am surprised today that people find it easy to go from one party to another, it is the principle that kept me. The principle of Zik was: the white man must leave, yes; they are cheating us. He emphasised this whenever he was delivering lectures. During those lectures, when he used new vocabulary, we would all shout his name, Zik! Those are days (laughs).
Beyond the pranks of helping your mother to keep her money, what were other things you did, I mean as a youngster of your time?
You see, the society was better disciplined than now; even under the colonial era. There were rascals at that time, but they were very rare; those who were bad could be singled out. Also, members of community reported any child to his parent whenever he committed an act that negated societal norm, so they were very restricted.
One of the forms of relaxation for students is by attending social function. How was experience in that regard, did you attend night parties and clubs?
We went to parties while in secondary school. Also, during days at the Cathedral School, the weddings were normally held on Thursdays and not Saturdays as we have now. We (students) would attend those parties because both ‘band-sets’ and young girls were going to be there. We will storm the party and dance to Konga dance. Again, during bazaars in the churches, we attended, especially around Tinubu Area on Lagos Island. We knew churches where there were young beautiful girls, so we knew when the bazaars would come up. We would attend because girls were fond of grammarians, that is, boys from the grammar school. When you talk of boys then among the other popular schools, it was those from the grammar school that were more recognised; it was the dreamed school.
What were the most attractive things to girls then?
It was the big grammar and how intellectual one was; not money or your dressing. The only money one would need was to take the girl to the cinema. It was very rare. Where would you even get such money? In fact, the one you would have could only take to the cinema. When you talked of the boys, you must be talking about those from the grammar school.
So, you took time to study the dictionary in order to impress your choice of girls then?
That was when we had to go all over the places: wedding party, bazaar, marriage engagements, and other social functions. At that time, we also bought scarves and sometimes placed them on top of our shirts to show off and distinguish us from the rest and when we are on our way to school, we used to create a special identity as students of the grammar school.
Lagos was far from being what it is 30 or 40 years ago. It has witnessed a dramatic change in infrastructure. So, what were the challenges that you encountered in Lagos as a youngster?
My parent lived at Olowogbowo on the Lagos Island; there were very few then and I there was this game called ‘ogo.’ We played ‘ogo’ on the street, because there were very few cars, though our parents would caution us not to play it on the streets because of the danger.
How did you commute in Lagos then, especially from the Lagos Island to Mainland?
We walked; walking was the most common means of transportation. But later in Lagos, we had the Zappas Transport System; that was what Lagos City Council municipalised to become Lagos City Transport. You know when go along Marina, Simpson Street to Suraa towards the end of Adeniji Adele, you can still see the remnants of the buses there. One will see the buses then.
When we were going to school at that time, those who were coming from Ebute-Metta because it was with the school bus, they paid half fee, that one and half pence. For those who are coming from Ebute Metta whether to drop at Tinubu Square, would pay one and half pence. And now because they needed change to give to students, we would inform the conductor that we will give him change if he carried us. We gave him half pence in pieces and he gave us solid money to carry us to Tinubu. The reason for all these was that they didn’t have a system where they could go to bank to secure the needed change. We used the advantage of having the needed change to gain free ride.
Did you at any point in time have cause to leave the Island for Mainland?
We only left Lagos Island for Mainland during Easter; not many people lived on the Mainland. They considered anyone living on Mainland as outsiders (ara isoda). Anybody living after Idumota was called ‘ara isoda.’ I would even give you an instance, when I was building my house in Aguda in Surulere, there was an officer who was expected to inspect the building and I told him the location of the building in Surulere. He was then an officer in Alausa secretariat, Ikeja now. He didn’t know where Aguda was in Surulere. I had to take him to the location and this was between 1969 and 70; I came back from Ghana in 1968. That showed how remote the place was then, an officer in Alausa, who was a graduate and was working with the state’s Ministry of Works did not know where Aguda was to show you how remote the place was. But today, the place is congested. However, during Easter, especially on Easter Monday, all the festivals were on the Mainland. So people on the Lagos Island would go to Mainland to celebrate.
Some elders of your generation enjoyed government scholarships to pursue their academic programmes, how come you did not benefit from such privileges?
The government scholarship wasn’t popular during my secondary school days. It was the Action Group that started it in 1952. At that time when they started with 200 slots, because it was part of their manifesto during campaign, the total number of Federal Government scholarship was between 30 and 40 all over the federation. Beside free primary education, the party started scholarship for tertiary education. That was what produced Professors Oloko, Onitiri, Aluko, Mabogunje and some of the super Permanent Secretaries like Allison Ayida form Mid-West.
You have spoken glowingly about your mother; what about your father?
You know that in those days, polygamous men didn’t have utmost regard for education. My dad put us in school up to Standard Two, or so and say let your mother go and do the rest. While my mother paid for school fees, my father was in a supervisory position. And the discipline in school then was that you have a report card to show your parents for the week activity. It must be signed before returning it on Monday. The reason was they must append their signatures on it to show that they looked at it. On some occasions when I forgot to show my dad, I forged my dad’s signature and the following week when I showed him, he detected that the signature of the previous week wasn’t his and he would express shock asking how this came about (laughs).
What did you tell him?
I just laughed.
What was your favourite music that time?
They were so many. We had Agidigbo, Sakara, and others. They were meaningful genres of music. Up till today, I cherish Haruna Ishola and Ojindo music. We enjoyed the lyrics. Their brands of music teach morals and those were the things that shaped us and helped our development. For instance, take Chief Ebenezer Obey and Ayinde Bakare, whenever you listen to their music, you hear them teach against immorality and preach philosophy of life. Most of the music we hear today, they don’t teach morals. Aside music, the schools also teach the students morals. I would say I attended a Christian school all throughout, primary and secondary, where moral teaching was of the essence.
For instance, at the grammar school, at the end of each year, when the final class students were going to pass out, about two months to that time, during morning devotion, Bishop Kale would invite prominent Nigerians who had made it in life to come and address the school and that has reflected in the lives of those that graduated from the school. So, it is from that school that they taught you moral standard; it is unlike now.
Which other profession would you have preferred?
From school, I had decided to be a lawyer. And the reason was that during our early lives, the moment one got to Class Four in grammar school, we were broken into Science and Art classes. And because I had decided to be a lawyer, I chose the Art class and Latin was part of subjects I did.
What informed your choice of the legal profession?
So many factors. I told you, at that time I was a regular reader of the Pilot newspaper. And when I left school, I took to journalism. During my stint in journalism, whenever I was assigned to cover anywhere, I went to courts, especially in the court, where late Chief Rotimi Williams and J.I.C Taylor were in opposite groups. And the late Fani-Kayode and Bode Thomas, the way they always dressed would make anyone to admire them. When you saw lawyers at the court in their full regalia, one admired them and would be encouraged to join the legal profession.
How did you meet your wife?
We met in England. Then, I was a divorcee. I had a child from my previous marriage. And this was before leaving for London. I was in ITC when I first got married and had a child. But for domestic reasons, the marriage didn’t succeed. We never divorced officially. So, I had issues when I was about to re-marry. It was when I was about a week to my wedding that I was informed that I needed a document to prevent any lapses. I quickly sent to a friend, late Folarin, in Lagos to Abeokuta. Incidentally, my former wife had gone to court and had obtained approval. She had got married. So, before our wedding, we met at Chief Ajayi’s house. I was at a function when I was called to meet her.
First, what was your impression about her?
I spotted her immediately I arrived at Chief Ajayi’s home and I liked her. She met my specification.
Did Chief Awolowo discourage you from going to London to become Okorodudu’s Personal Assistant?
Yes, but when it was time for me to leave for London, he garnered support for me from the party leaders. And before leaving Nigeria, I had decided to study Law. The party was great and people thought I joined it because of scholarship. But, the party leaders wouldn’t allow such favour. We had a standard that must be adhered to concerning scholarship. Except one scored ‘A’ in his matriculation, one isn’t eligible. Many from Ijebu, Abeokuta, Benin and Ekiti, they often scored ‘As.’ Of all the divisions, Oyo didn’t qualify. To assist them boost their standard of education, Awolowo quantified the amount and offered scholarship to secondary school students. That showed how balanced it was. So when I think about those days, I am not a happy man. When one talks about equity, give it to Chief Awolowo. In fact, I am yet to see someone in his status these days.
I remember my encounter with a permanent secretary, who didn’t attend to our complaints, after much plea, I was compelled to write a stinker to him. When it came to the notice of Chief Awolowo, he called and asked that I should apologise to the permanent secretary and directed him to attend to our demands. But today, a minister sacks corrupt official and the president will ask that he resumes to office. He could have asked for evidence. The standard was very high then.
You said that you followed Zik before joining Chief Awolowo’s movement, can you share your encounter with him?
He assigned one of the activities of Action Group to me which I did. You know when the federalism movement started, he only found out that I was the man that had been organising his rallies and other activities; that was why he chose me as the organizing secretary. When the party won election, the need to appoint an organising secretary for the party arose. And I was picked among others that applied for the post. Though I wasn’t interviewed like others because late Chief Akinsanya told them that if they informed me that the party wanted to employ me, I may refuse. So, he demanded that an interview should be conducted between him, Chief Awolowo and others. They asked that I should work with Chief Awolowo because he will not have time to supervise his constituency. That was why I was posted to Remo. One day while I was still there, I went to Ogbomoso and our members in Remo demanded to see me. And every leader of the party was amazed with the way I had become popular among them.
Why didn’t you marry a Briton since you had an opportunity to do so?
I had one or two white ladies. I never played all the pranks I did at home in London because while leaving the country, I was determined to excel. And the reason was that there was no money. So, I couldn’t afford to fail. The idea of getting married to a foreigner wasn’t entertained because the nationalism we had then was very strict. And since the federalism ideology started, I didn’t believe in getting married to any foreigner, especially a non-Yoruba person. Since that time, we have cherished ethnic loyalty. I must tell you that cross-ethnic marriage started after Nigeria’s Independence.
Despite your proximity to Western region, why didn’t you aspire for an elective position?
I knew that you would ask such question. And many wonder till today that with my closeness to Chief Awolowo, I have never aspired for any elective position. My association with him influenced me a lot. On my return from London as a lawyer that could contest for election, I was only particular on working with Chief Awolowo as president of Nigeria.
There is some pride which I think that many don’t know. For anyone to say I can afford this or that, when you relate with Chief Awolowo, you will like to be with him for 24 hours. Except Pa Adekunle Ajasin that I bow for, none of them: Alhaji Lateef Jakande; Olabisi Onabanjo, were my seniors. When I was an officer in the party, Jakande was an editor of the paper. He will report what I said. When I was posted to Remo, Onabanjo was the editor of Radio Nigeria. He often called me my friend because we were both in Fancy Boys’ Club. The captain of the club was Tunde Amuwo. I have this pride that, will I now become commissioner to anyone of them if I am not a governor?
Was there any suggestion from friends to contest for election?
When we wanted to contest the 1979 election, Chief Awolowo told myself and late Chief Bisi Onabanjo, to decide who would be governor. I told him I wanted to serve him if he became the President of Nigeria.
Did you take that decision because you wanted to become a minister?
I just wanted anything that would always get me closer to Chief Awolowo.
Is it why some of your contemporaries often say you are arrogant?
No, they were only jealous of me. This is the fact that they have never confessed. They envied my closeness with Chief Awolowo. I just wanted to work with him either as his Personal Assistant or a Minister when he would become the president of the country. I wanted to learn how he had been able to do his things perfectly. If I didn’t learn from him, who else did I learn from? I haven’t learnt anything from them. I have a good practice.
We are in a digital age, to what extent do you conform to that reality, especially when your children come around?
I engage in social media a lot. In fact, I send messages to friends and others through whatsapp.
What were those things that turn you off each time you browse online?
You know these days, there are a lot of things that are posted online, including whatsapp. When people forward to me, I do same. As far as Information Communication Technology is concerned, I am not very advanced, but not an illiterate.
For almost 50 years, you have remained a fire-spitting nationalist. Does this have anything to do with the white man that caused your dismissal from service?
No, that was before. It was something burning in me that made me react to the white man.
Did your exit from the civil service ignite everything?
No, you see when we were fighting for Independence for Nigeria, we believed that they (white men) were inferior. And my reaction to the white men was to show them that I was not among those they could talk down on. I wanted to teach that particular white man some sense. My mind was made on it. Our complaints were not only that they had overstayed on our land, but that they also looked down on us and we believed that we could do better than them. That was the essence of independence.
Did you take that mindset to London?
Yes, because that was the motivating force behind the call for independence. And that there was nothing they were doing that our people could not do.
Didn’t you think that would have made you a racist?
That is not racism. The meaning of racism is discriminating bases on skin complexion. But in this contest, we are talking about colonization, some people dominating others because they believe that they were superior. We kicked against it. Let me give you an instance, when Chief Awolowo wanted to start the 200 yearly scholarships, the colonial masters queried his action, saying, where will he get the money? That was our mentality but by the time they advertised for applicants, there were more applicants than what was expected. And throughout the years of the scholarship scheme, one of the awardees failed their examination, and that showed the standard adopted by interviewers.
The political field is always filled with landmines. Would you recall one narrow escape you experienced as an active politician in the past?
When I was the AG’s organising secretary, NCNC members in Iseyin deployed some thugs to the campaign ground. We also had our own supporters. However, despite frequent clashes, we didn’t kill ourselves the way it happens today in Nigeria. Then, the situation could sometimes get rowdy. But, it was only in Iseyin that violence occurred because the NCNC supporters tried to attack us; however, our supporters were up to the task.
How long do you stay on the tread mill?
I don’t do that. Rather, I take a walk around.