IT came like a thunderbolt on November 4, 2016: that extremely rare Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, had breathed his last. Deep and cerebral, the quintessential politician towered above his contemporaries in political sagacity, intellectualism, erudition and bravery. His knack for uncommon details, historical facts, figures and data in chronological order referenced his personality as a mobile encyclopedia.
Methodical, sartorial and above all, pious, Sir Olaniwun discussed politics with passion and authority devoid of arrogance. His knowledge about history, dates and figures flows in a flawless chronological sequence to the chagrin of the most perceptive. His dept his reliance on his brain for details without a pause to consult any document even at 91, was captivating and incredible.
Iconic Sir Olaniwun believed there was politics in every facet of life, including the family, since politics is about service to mankind. “My politics therefore may have started in the early 1950’s when I was elected as the secretary of Isara Secondary Education Committee,” he said. The committee was set up to prepare a blueprint for the establishment of a secondary school in the community. Incidentally, his adventure into politics at that stage coincided with the intense struggle for Nigeria’s independence from Britain, with Awo, Zik, Anthony Enahoro, Aminu Kano, among other nationalists, constituting the springboard and arrow head. It was the era of the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), National Council of Nigeria and Cameroun (NCNC) and the Action Group (AG), founded and led Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1951.
From that embryonic stage, he began to foresee the possibility of going into party politics. He eventually joined the fray because of what he described as his admiration of the ideology, and philosophy and achievements of the leaders. His words: “It was the cardinal position of the action group that Nigeria should emerge a strong entity, thus it was imperative for each region to build itself, so that from the strength of the many parts, there would be greater strength in the emergence of one entity, Nigeria. For this singular reason, and some other considerations, I developed interest in party politics and formally joined the Action Congress in 1952.” But, he elected to operate at profile because he was still a teacher. He acted as a grass-root canvasser for the party. Sir Olaniwun expatiated on his foray into politics in subsequent years. While some people deny the stark reality of their political nature and claim to be apolitical and having little or no interest in politics. I do not. It seems to me that blood of politics, if there’s any such thing, flows freely in my veins, making me a good example of a political animal that we are ,” Sir Olaniwun wrote in Lest We Forget.
His encounter with Awo
As a youth, he demonstrated curiousity about the exploits of great men and women throughout the world. He read the autobiographies of such world leaders and statesmen like Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, among others. When he had an opportunity to have a closer intimacy with Awo, Sir Olaniwun benefitted immensely in his quest for scholarship. This is how he recalled his first encounter with Awo, “I had gone to see my friend and Papa Awo was sitting by his balcony at his home in Ibadan reading a book. My friend took me to him and introduced me. Papa Awo simply looked up and said hello. After that meeting, I would often visit my friend just to get a glimpse of the late sage. I would pay my respect and he would respond cheerfully. This continued a while till his interest in me became fully developed. With time Papa Awo developed more interest in me to the extent that when I was preparing to go overseas, I went to bid him goodbye in the company of my friend, Ayo Adebanjo and Papa Awo presented me with a princely gift.”
As the relationship bolstered, Awo gave him three books to quench his rapacious thirst and appetite for scholarship when he summoned the courage to confront the sage with a question on what was making him tick as a leader, politician, and great man. After that interaction and mentoring, Sir Olaniwun affirmed that the list of his takeaways from Awo covered such grounds as philosophy, ethics, religion, cardinal virtues and party discipline and loyalty. In comparison with what obtain in the past, Sir Olaniwun said: “I look with disgust today, where political neophytes fight their leaders for positions that are transient in nature. In many cases today (2011), politicians are engaged in all forms of political intrigues against their party. If a politician wants to run for a particular, say governor or Senate, and he/she is not nominated by his party at the primaries, he simply leaves his party for another party in order to become governor.”
The Isara-born politician and lawyer appeared to have been an apostle of the principle of a philosopher, who declared that, “A man who has not found that which he is willing to die for, has not found that which he is willing to live for.” He suffered different forms of indignation and deprivation in the cause of his political struggle, but he saw those challenges as part of the price he had to pay like a servant of the people seeking solely to make the society a better place. According to him, the gain for these hazards, including imprisonment, death, trial and tribulations is the honour of sacrifice and privilege of making a difference and touching lives, unlike now, where the gain is direct access to the treasury and the perverted hazard of maiming, kidnapping, murder and treachery, which seem the order of the day. A few instances of the harrowing experiences he went through will suffice. One of the most touching of his travails was the circumstances that surrounded the travails of AG political leaders in political crisis precipitated in the Western Region in the First Republic by the centre. Another incident was when he and many others were de-humanised and hounded into prison by the establishment at the dawn of the 1979 general election in the country. His words: “About 2 or 3 hours later, we were harassed into a means of transportation. this time, a vehicle that met the occasion, also known as Black Maria-an 8-Ton Bedford lorry-came to get us. We were all hoarded in like a herd of cattle about to be transported to a slaughter house. We were packed like sardines into a truck with no seats. We had to make do with the steel floor in between drums of petrol with all the dangers associated therewith. The long road from that prison at about 6 am to once another, was a journey of silence. Our abductors neither spoke to us nor were we allowed speaking to one another. With guns and horsewhips, like in the days of slave trade, ready to be used, we kept our peace not knowing our new destination.” When the vehicle stop at about 3 am to re-fuel, he was met with koboko from for asking to ease himself.
When the Second Republic was aborted, the military threw him behind bars for phantom charges levelled against him and political soul mates in the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). Again he was arrested and detained, this time, along with 57 other Afenifere and NADECO leaders on June 1, 1995 for leading the prolonged struggle for June 12 de-annulment. But undeterred or cowed by the Gestapo of the military establishment, Sir Olaniwun and other eminent persons floated the Alliance for Democracy (AD), which triumphed in all elections but the presidential poll in the South-West 1999.
He symbolised leadership by example through vision and principle. Those virtues informed his decision to join other elder statesmen and senior citizens to found the Council of Understanding and Unity, which complemented NADECO, to fight against further military grip on the political arena. It is also pertinent to state that he was part of the 32 senior citizens that formed The Patriots, under the late chairmanship of Chief FRA Williams (SAN) to seek constitutional reform in the country.
At the public presentation of one of his books in 2005, Sir Olaniwun was unequivocal about the poor quality of political leadership, coupled with gross impunity and injustice in the country. Thus, he declared: “In the last three decades in particular, we have witnessed in this country the ascendancy of those who ought not to have anything to do with public governance. It, is a matter of deep regret that not only did such people emerge in Nigeria, such incompetent, misguided, and even in a couple of cases, evil personages, often refuse to vacate power even when all evidence of their incapacity to push Nigeria towards greatness becomes so stark. Why this particularly rankles is that, it is contrary to the dictates of our own culture as a people. I am talking about culture, both in the sense of tradition and also in the sense of political socialisation.”
Sir Olaniwun never minced words on what he considered as the predicament of the Nigerian federation over the years. He warned that vicious circle and circuitous circus show portended danger for the country. According to him, the way out is for the country is to decentralise power so that the people can govern themselves. He warned: “Only the deaf and the blind would disagree that Nigeria, in the way it is presently constituted, has failed. At best, it is only a lame vision of what Nigeria is equipped and destined to be, that would pronounce that Nigeria is doing well now or getting better. Indeed, the state of affairs now is so sordid that we must reject that sorry statement that Nigeria must move forward.… Only the blind will continue to move forward when the abyss lies ahead. We must return to the path of sanity, the path of federalism, the path of national debate and consensus. It is precisely because of the devastating consequences of moving forward when danger lies ahead that has informed our strident calls in more than two decades for a ‘turning back’ rather than a moving forward.”
In an interview he granted the Nigerian Tribune in 2015, he said this about the Yoruba race: “The lack of federalism in Nigeria has caused the Yoruba people a lot. What has not gone wrong in Nigeria’ Is it in agriculture, road, education, health’ All of them. Name it.
“We are no longer what we used to be. The caliphate by various adroit practices and cleverness, political plotting and scheming, destroyed our middle class completely. There is no middle class today in Yoruba land. It is the rich and the poor. The poor are greater in number than the rich and the richness at the top is not percolating down. Should we blame the military or the caliphate.
“If you conduct a research, you will blame the caliphate. When Babangida got there, the first thing he did was to make sure that he destroyed the middle class of the Western Region. All industries were more or less closed down. The soldiers did us a lot of evil. Before they came, Yoruba people never begged. Today, go anywhere, you will find Yoruba people begging. They don’t have to carry calabash. If things ran properly, that would never happen. The caliphate has always been in politics and power. Because of that, they are able to direct affairs during military or civilian governments.”
A man, who cherished his root without compromising his Nigerian-ness, Sir Olaniwun used all legitimate means as a political figure to promote the concept of Omoluabi, which encompasses honour, dignity, piety, industry, capacity to humaneness and brotherliness. No surprise he once affirmed: “They (Yoruba) wish to relate to others in Nigeria’s many ethnic nationalities as free-born citizens. They wish to parade the world with Yoruba and Nigerian identities that are unsoiled by the mismanagement of resources and bad governance that has turned many of our citizens into advertised criminals around the world. They want to declare on the streets of London and New York that, ‘I am a Nigeria, and I am proud.”
In his preview of the book, Nigeria: Political Power Imbalance: the bane and chain down of Nigeria’s progress and development, written by Sir Olaniwun, Professor Itse Sagay (SAN), extolled the virtues of the author because he presented “a more detailed account, containing incredible new facts dredged from British archives” on the Nigerian project dating back to the colonial era to the independence. In the words of the renowned constitutional lawyer, “This work reveals many fascinating secrets which show that Nigeria is in this sad state of anomy, tragedy and backwardness, not by the accident of fate, but by a a deliberate British Government/colonial administration’s conspiracy against the people of this country.”
Another distinguished scholar, Professor Jacob K. Olupona, of Harvard University, United States, poignantly presents the scholarly work of Sir Olanimun as a political figure, noting that the same book “captures the complexity and richness of Nigerian history from the perspective of an active player…” He adds that the author “reflects and captures the thought and intellect of the committed nationalists of his generation-many of whom were disciples of the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. According to Olupona, “Sir Olanimwun is perhaps the best spokesman for the class of devoted and dedicated leaders, and that explains why he is fearless and frank in his writing, as the book clearly demonstrates.”
Olupona only underscored the vision of Sir Olaniwun in writing the book about the “evolution of the Nigerian nation as a work in progress.” This is based on the fact that the enigmatic politician exhibited his inseparability from truth and courage in the entire work of art. According to Sir Olaniwun, the solution to Nigeria’s political malaise is “not to go back what we failed to do but to recognise and concretise the six geopolitical zones and give Nigerians true fiscal federalism….” To strengthen this point of argument, he wrote: “The bane and chain-down to the progress and de3velopment of Nigeria are political power imbalance. Unless and until this is righted by way of proper federalism, Nigeria will not know peace, nor progress, nor stability….”
This is how a distinguished and world renowned scholar, Professor O.O. Akinkugbe, profoundly captures the scholarship and political sagacity of Sir Olaniwun: “In his many writings, Sir Olanimun’s reminiscences are lucid, erudite, instructive and replete with wisdom and Nigerians have a lot to learn from his profound insight which in local tongue we refer to as LAAKAYE.
“Integrity, sense of hunour and of occasion, loyalty, public-spiritedness have all become rare commodity in today’s Nigeria and the likes of Sir Olaniwun have sadly become an endangered species. His palpable concern for the future of a beleaguered nation, and for the lot of the common man places him above petty ethnic and egocentric sentiments.”
On the whole, the life and times of Sir Olaniwun is akin to a book which should be read, the contents assimilated and digested, so that it can become part of an individual’s body chemistry, as he was a dogged political fighter, famous for tact, finesse and erudition. He deployed those virtues to fight any cause he believed in and espoused, even in the face of threats from the establishment to his freedom and life. It is no surprise that he left behind what could form part of his epitaph: “All my life, I have stood for being right with my fellow men. I sat on the bench of justice, and drank only from the fountain of truth.… I believe Nigeria should and can be great. But there are still many rivers to cross. Those who my colleagues and I nurtured and assisted to power have said we are in the departure lounge-as if they will not get there.”