I came into office in October 1979 with a set of my own rich native dresses and left office in December 1983 with same set of dresses; no addition and no subtraction. I had two personal cars at the time I assumed office but left without any. One had ended its serviceable lifespan with its use for the shadow elections in 1982, while the other was borrowed by a political association with whom it ended up its lifespan.”
That was the testimony of Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin at the end of his tenure as the elected governor of Ondo State. This is a claim you can hardly find any elected official at any level making in 2019 Nigeria.
When the military struck in 1983 and the junta headed by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari put most politicians of that era on trial before military tribunals, Ajasin was charged twice but got discharged and acquitted on both occasions. The junta kept him in jail nonetheless as a septuagenarian.
As he was being driven from Akure to Lagos by soldiers who arrested him after the 1983 coup, Ajasin was livid with rage that he was being subjected to such humiliation and that the army would have to apologise to him some day.
When President Buhari revisited that era in Dubai last week, Ajasin would have been expecting a posthumous apology in his grave. The president had told his audience: “I have once ruled this country… what I did was to arrest, from president, vice president … I put them in jail and I told them they are all guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.
“…We put about six tribunals based on six geopolitical zones (there were no zones in 1983!) and those who were ministers and governors were asked to justify what they had in the banks and physical on the ground, relative to their legitimate earnings. There were only two Nigerians then, to my knowledge, who were found to be honourable, both of them are dead now: Biliyaminu Usman, a junior minister from Jigawa State and Adamu Ciroma, a minister of finance and governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.”
It would not be fair to the memory of Ajasin to allow the selective knowledge of Mr President to stick as the two different military tribunals that tried Ajasin in Lagos and Ibadan found him spotless and not only discharged him, but he was also acquitted.
The first allegation was before the military tribunal in Lagos where Ajasin, Chief Bola Ige and Chief Olabisi Onabanjo were accused of asking and receiving N2.8 million kick-back allegedly paid to their party for election.
Chief Ajasin stated before the tribunal, among other things: “I have never been connected with anything that will tarnish my name, reputation and character. I am a self-disciplined man. I live above board in both my private and public life. I believe in living by example. There has been no breath of scandal in my private and public life. I don’t drink or smoke and I am a strict monogamist with four children…”(Pg 430, Ajasin: Memoirs and Memories).
At the end of the trial, Chief Ajasin was discharged and acquitted by the military tribunal.
The second trial was in Ibadan. (There wouldn’t have been another tribunal in Ibadan if they were indeed based on the geopolitical zones that were non-existent then). The charge in Ibadan was about Chief Ajasin, Mrs Bolaji Osomo and Chief Akin Majasan, who were accused of conspiring to obtain N600,000 from a state-owned company which was paid to their party. The trio proved successfully before the tribunal that the money was a loan that was repaid with interest. They were discharged and acquitted.
No other charges were brought against Chief Ajasin but he was kept in jail. In his words:
“The last judgment was delivered on 24th July, 1985. Following it, and in the absence of any other matter over which I had been interrogated or on which I could await interrogation, I thought the twilight was over. But I was proved wrong. For, instead of being released from detention, I was returned to the prison yard.”
He was kept in detention until 30th August, 1985 when the General Ibrahim Babangida military junta, which overthrew the Buhari junta, four days earlier had released 87 politicians which included Chief Ajasin, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, Chief C.C Onoh, Alhaji Lateef Jakande, Chief R. F. Fasoranti, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, Dr Clement Isong, among others.
Chief Ajasin got some kind words from Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Ukpo, who was later appointed information minister at a news conference on behalf of the new Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), after the inaugural meeting to announce the release. He described Chief Ajasin as “an old, honest and righteous man” who was tried twice and acquitted twice but for reasons best known to the authorities at the time was still detained. He added: “this is contrary to our tradition and even if he was found guilty, as an old man, he should have been pardoned.”
Chief Ajasin put his fingers on where his ordeal came from. In his words: “Based on our performance and conduct in office, I had no reason to look forward to sleepless nights when the military announced its takeover of the government of the country. However, I was not unaware of the penchant of the military to justify its action whenever it took government by discrediting politicians. In this regard, it is not unusual for the military to make, as its first set of victims, those politicians generally believed to have performed well. For once, this category of politicians was thoroughly discredited, it would become clear to the public that the rest of the political class must have been worse and the military intervention was perfectly justified. As it turned out, the operators of the more progressive state governments who had provided exemplary leadership became the first targets of attack and victimisation in the hands of the Muhammadu Buhari regime. In the absence of this rationalisation which represents my own interpretation of the post-coup development at the time, it would be very difficult to explain why people like me should have been counted as one of the villains of the Second Republic.” (Page 240 of Ajasin: Memoirs and Memories)
Ajasin would always be remembered for his work on the Action Group blueprint for education which was carried into the Second Republic as the free education programme of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). And, when he became the civilian governor of Ondo State in 1979, he gave education the greatest priority. When he presented his budget in 1980, he allocated a whopping sum (at that time, N7.4 million) to free textbooks and stationery materials for primary schools. He increased the number of secondary schools from 250 to 473 and he expanded the existing 10 teacher training colleges.
He equally set aside N3.5 million for operating expenses in schools, N2 million for science education and N40.77 million for the Central School Board. He cancelled all tuition fees in schools and distributed free textbooks, workbooks and stationary materials to students. Ajasin’s administration established the Teachers’ Housing Loan scheme which initially gulped N5 million. He was concerned about technical education as he improved the conditions of the four existing technical schools in the state. It was his concern for technical education that made him establish the state polytechnic in Owo.
Ajasin also took over the payment of 50 per cent of the primary school teachers’ salaries despite the fact that it was the responsibility of the local government. He also expanded the special schools for the disabled in Akure, Ikare and Owo and established the Ondo State University, Ado Ekiti in 1982.
Ajasin devoted N92.4 million of his budget in 1982 to education and he allocated N3.4 million to subsidised feeding in all the teacher training colleges. No fewer than 15,243 students of Ondo State origin in higher institutions benefitted from the government’s bursary, a gesture which gulped N7.018 million. Over 2,246 Ondo State students studying overseas at the time also benefitted from the awards for which N11.7 million set aside for the purpose. Ajasin proved that free education – his brainchild which was adopted by the AG and UPN – was indeed practicable.
Sleep well sir, the honourable and incorruptible politician whose public life record remains a big challenge to all politicians in our land today.