Sir Olaniwun Ajayi: Goodnight to a moral beacon

As we surrender his remains to mother earth this week, the life and times of Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, lawyer, statesman, politician, author, intellectual, prodemocracy activist and Knight of John Wesley, will continue to be celebrated by many whose lives he personally touched and the millions whose lots were directly or indirectly dictated, or could have been dictated, by the progressive politics to which he devoted his entire adult life. As a moral beacon and a man of great self-possession, Sir Olaniwun was a rare combination of unbending resolve and inexhaustible patience. Both attributes were fired by a commitment to egalitarian politics that even the serial setbacks that a polity sworn to political errancy such as Nigeria could not destroy. Though it had become “Africa’s failed asset,” as the title of one of his books concluded, Sir Olaniwun had no doubt that Nigeria could still be saved.

It was a testament to that unquenchable trust in the possibilities of public good, the creation of a good society and an evangelical sense of rectitude that a few hours before his passing, the old man was still at work building alliances to save Nigeria. To conclude that it was as if he knew that time was running out for him – and for Nigeria – would be wrong, because, indeed, he knew so. “Asiko nlo,” (“we are running out of time”), he said repeatedly, insisting on “the fierce urgency of now” in the last decade of his life. When he and his fellow leaders of Afenifere, Chief Ayo Adebanjo and Chief Reuben Fasoranti, met with Governor Bola Tinubu only a few weeks before his death, it was the same urgency that drove them to insist on meeting the “Lion of Bourdillon” in his home rather than continue their tireless wait for Godot. It was yet another mark of the admirable commitment of the disappearing members of the old guard to which he belonged that they kept their eyes on the mission not minding the frustrations and slights they have had to endure. They were convinced that some factions of the progressive camp in Yorubaland were helping to polish the brass of a sinking ship. They had experienced this before and were worried that history was repeating itself as a farce.

A man of sartorial elegance and measured speech, Sir Olaniwun was one of the most deliberate and considerate Nigerians that ever lived. He was a disciplined man who lived a reflective yet practical life; he was methodical in his private life as he was thoughtful in his public life. His combination of piety and secularist ethos was distinctive. There was no honour that he valued in his life more than his knighthood (of John Wesley) in the Methodist Church – a church to which he devoted a substantial part of his time, efforts and resources. This is why even though we all call him “Baba Olaniwun Ajayi,” we never forget to formally refer to him as “Sir Olaniwun.” His life was a reflection of the Calvinist tradition in many ways. His denominational affiliation, the Methodist Church, emerged from Arminianism, whose approach to religious doctrine of salvation (as championed by John Wesley, the founder of Methodist Christianity) differed from that of Protestant Calvinist tradition. Yet, the Calvinist reformation shared similar history, theology and doctrines with the Wesleyan tradition and this reflected luminously in the life and politics of the methodical politician: The separation of the Church and State should not occlude their alliance in the production of generalizable good life. His late leader, Obafemi Awolowo, constructed his egalitarian politics around a specific understanding of the separation of Church and State, one immersed in the liberationist beliefs of Protestantism (articulated as part of the gains of the Enlightenment). The failure of the campaign for the full embrace of the liberating potentials of the Enlightenment and the developmentalist implications of its core values has led Nigeria to roll from one absurdist ruler through a homicidal lout to another tragi-comedic incompetent.

I first had a close encounter with Sir Olaniwun when I wrote a scathing piece in the newspapers in which I criticized the Afenifere/Alliance for Democracy leaders for allowing President Olusegun Obasanjo to deceive and defeat them in the 2003 elections. I was then teaching political science at the University of Ibadan. He sent a message that I should contact him. I did and was invited to his Isara home. Thus began a relationship that has been so enriching intellectually and culturally. As someone who was interested in studying the Awolowo political movement, this relationship helped in deepening my insight in what resulted in my book, The Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and Corporate Agency (2014). Sir Olaniwun’s capacity for reading widely, even in old age would put many young people to shame.

One of the unmistakable attributes of his class of Awoists is their modesty. Sir Olaniwun combined excess of accomplishments and monumental endowments with manifest unpretentiousness. Even as a living archive of the progressive movement in Nigeria, it was easy to relate to the old man because you knew clearly where he stood and where you stood with him. He was not one to mince words, even though he was a patient listener and sympathetic hearer. But his tolerance never conflicted with his persistence. His inflexible commitment to public good and his unrepentant valorization of the egalitarian core of the Awoist ethos was not subject to compromise. In the best tradition of his late leader, Sir Olaniwun was a patriarch whose abundant wisdom never stood in the way of his attentiveness to the perception of youth. He possessed a rare capacity for attentive courtesy. I never had any hesitation to disagree with him. He would listen with a kind gaze and then respond with an excess of insight and prudence that would sway you even if your assuredness about the changing dynamics that his generation is yet to fully embrace discourages you from agreeing with his prognosis. One thing was sure though, you were always inspired, even if humbled, by an incontrovertible fact: Your generation will never equal the sacrifices of his generation, if not in the quality of their sacrifices, most certainly in the time span. Baba Ajayi’s generation breathed the struggle for a better Nigeria. From the days of Action Group through the years of the Unity Party of Nigeria to the barricades of the NADECO years and the democratic resurgence of the Alliance for Democracy and the post-AD eras, the Knight of John Wesley was always at his post contributing his task to the struggle to make Nigeria more livable.

I once asked him what was responsible for the unending trust in political and social rectitude that was the hallmark of the Awoist progressive politics. I noted that even in the twilights of his life and in the light of clear evidence that incompetence and lack of vision (matched by obduracy) were the persistent qualifications for the headship of the Nigerian state, Obafemi Awolowo still believed that the national political elite would see reason and embrace his Enlightenment project. Sir Olaniwun chuckled characteristically. He waited for a moment, then asked gently: “Do you think it is possible for Nigeria to continue this way indefinitely? Can the country survive along this part?” Even when I argued that the most backward sections of the polity most in need of radical socio-economic redemption are also the parts most conducive to regressive politics and predation; that such regressive politics marked by the story of the boy who sold his patrimony and then pleaded that he should be assisted because he had no inheritance has since been federalized, the old man remained unpersuaded that Nigeria was not savable. I was forced to revert to my default position of trust in social and political rectitude.

After all when Awolowo started his unsurpassed political project of “freedom for all, life more abundant”, the margin of error was huge and the possibility of success was almost non-existent. Yet more than six decades after, a combination of nation-wreckers without and heritage-hawkers within have failed to totally eviscerate that yearning for egalitarian rule that was holistically elaborated and cohesively mobilized by the visionary politician.

Sir Olaniwun lived and fought for a just, equitable, free and egalitarian Nigeria. He and his peers in the long siege laid to the wall of Nigeria’s Bastille believed strongly that power could be truly democratized and decentralized in a way that could turn Nigeria into a truly transformational federation where “though tribe and tongue may differ” we all stand in brotherhood (and sisterhood – as that old national anthem forgot to add). Sir Olaniwun desperately wanted this to be true in his life time.

As he departs, what can we learn from the life of this most accomplished of men? Plenty, no doubt. As members of my generation are often reminded by Sir Olaniwun’s more contentious and fervent friend and political ally of many decades, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, we must continue to have an unalloyed trust in the possibilities of political rectitude. Another lesson is a commitment to party spirit that is exceptional. The commitment of Sir Olaniwun’s generation to the Westminster model of party supremacy is difficult to replicate in this age. Worthy of emulation too is Sir Olaniwun’s personal commitment to the Awolowo family, particularly after the exit of the patriarch. I know this because I was a witness to his fidelity.

Sir Olaniwun also taught us that it is never too late to accomplish – or at least try to accomplish –anything in life. At over 80, he began a project of becoming an author. He ended up with five books within a decade. He also wanted to study for a doctoral degree. He approached the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. When he was told that the process was too rigid to allow an octogenarian without a graduate degree to enroll for a Ph.D, he approached Professor Jacob Olupona of Harvard University in the US and Dr. Raufu Mustapha of Oxford University in the U.K. Both scholars were struck by the thirst of such an old man for knowledge generation. He didn’t succeed in gaining admission to either, so he turned his attention to private research and writing books. Finally, his life teaches us that personal rectitude will never go out of fashion among any serious people….

Born on April 8, 1925 in Isara-Remo to two earnestly religious peasants, Benjamin Awoyemi and Marian Efundolamu Ajayi, the young Ajayi struggled through early life. After attending the Wesley College in Ibadan, he made his way to England to study law, attending the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was called to the English Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1962. He returned to Nigeria to work for the UAC and later started his law practice. The law firm, since renamed Olaniwun Ajayi LP, is now one of the best law firms in the continent. Undoubtedly one of the best decisions he made in his life was marrying Lady Adunola, an exemplary woman of great fortitude, generosity of spirit, patience and persistent kindness. Together they built a home that was truly a haven in many ways. The lives of their four children constitute not only a testament to their exemplary love, but also the verification of their personal discipline and discipleship. When she departed in 2007, the old man was a study in grief combined with grace and gratitude.

Sir Olaniwun’s life remains a veritable confirmation of John Calvin’s trust in the infinite grace of the Almighty. Said Calvin: “However many blessings we expect from God, His infinite liberality will always exceed all our wishes and our thoughts.” The blessings he received, as Sir Olaniwun constantly testified throughout his adult life, exceeded all his wishes and thoughts.

Sir Olaniwun Ajayi made our world better. Good night to a good old man.

  • Adebanwi is a professor at the University of California, Davis.