On Tuesday, famous Awoist, politician, journalist, lawyer and rights advocate, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, OFR, KJW, will be 78. Aplomb team of SEGUN KASALI, BOLA BADMUS, SYLVESTER OKORUWA and LANRE ADEWOLE sat with him to discuss his illustrious journey so far.
How did you come about your nickname, Ebino Topsy sir?
It was at Igbobi College in 1964/1965. It came from my friends. Some of them are still alive while many of them have died. They said let’s be calling Ebenezer Babatope Ebino from Ebenezer and Topsy from Babatope; hence, I became Ebino Topsy. So, by the time I got to University of Lagos and became a student politician, the name was very popular with me all over the campus. So, that was how I became Ebino Topsy. Igbobi College had a bias for Methodism. So, my father was a Methodist priest. That is why I will die a Methodist. Also, when I joined the Pirates Confraternity at the University of Lagos, I became the book sailor of the Pirates. They gave me a nickname, Pinco Babarossa .
Do you still remember some of these your friends?
Many have died but I remember one who was not a member at that time. He only socialised with us. His name is Gbolabo Ogunsanwo. He died some weeks ago. And some other colleagues of mine who have answered the supreme call. It is God who is the maker of heaven and earth and who knows how long a man would spend in life. That is why this Ijesa PDP thing is amusing. Well, the Ijesha PDP members have affirmed their continued support for my leadership. I thank them and God has blessed their decision. I also met Bode George in the university and, as a matter of fact, Bode has been a very nice person. I tell you something. When we were in the university, there was a group known as Announcers Shall Fly, which was All United Nations Association. One day, they were going to have an election and I did not like the fact that they had to promote the interest of Bode George as the chairman of the group. So, I organised a group to oppose Bode George. When I said that, the female members of that association just stood up and said “Ebino! You are a fool. You are an idiot. Are you the one to tell us who to vote for?” I had to pick race (Laughs). I ran because I knew I was going to be dusted, flattened and humiliated by those women if I waited. But, what is so remarkable is that when we left the university and Bode had the opportunity to assist me stabilize myself as a PDP member, he did not ignore me because I had opposed him in the university. He gave me the platform. He fought for my being made a member of the Board of Trustees. And up till today since 1967, we have remained as friends.
Were you culture-shocked, leaving Ifaki, a village then, for a city like Lagos?
Not at all. My father was the head of Methodist Circuit in Ekiti. He was transferred to a Methodist Church in Ebute Metta area of Lagos State. So, when my father was transferred out of Ekiti and brought to Lagos to superintend over the affairs of the church in Lagos, I came to join him in Lagos after I obtained my secondary school certificate in Ekiti. So, I became further embedded in the principles of Methodism.
So, city life wasn’t strange to you?
At all. Yes, I came from the village (Ifaki), but don’t forget that I came (originated) from Ilesa which is a city whether you like it or not with the practicalities of a city. I just found myself (in Lagos). From there, I went to work at Lagos City Council and later became a student at All Schools Certificate Class at Igbobi College. My father was an itinerant clergyman. So, I was born when he was being transferred here and there-from Ifaki to other places and he then moved to Lagos. I like how my life had been, because I have been able to combine city life with a village life. So, I went to Igbobi College in Lagos.
You were tough at Igbobi College.
Don’t forget that Igbobi College was school of laws, principles and guidelines. So, I won’t say tough but I would say that I did not compromise my dreams. It taught me to be resolute on my views. My political life increased at Igbobi College. I was the chairman of the Socialist Club at Igbobi College and when I moved to University of Lagos, I still continued as the Chairman of the Socialist Club. That gave a meaningful meaning to my life.
What was fashion statement of your time?
We had jeans in vogue at that time and I was wearing jeans. We had one shoe called Chubby-Checker shoe. That was the shoe in vogue at that time. It is a big shoe, almost up to your ankle.
You must have used this shoe to paint UNILAG red.
(Laughs). I thank God that when I was in UNILAG, I was loved by the students. I was the Welfare Secretary of the Students’ Union and on the day of our graduation, come and see what happened at the University of Lagos. The students were shouting my name. It was wonderful. But, I did not allow that to get into my brain because I was preoccupied with the thought that wherever you are, make sure you know that you are the son of a clergyman who will always wish that the poor people of Nigeria are respected for what they are and they get what they want.
What is that indelible experience for you sir?
My association with Baba Obafemi Awolowo. I can never ever forget that. And as I have told you, Baba was the person that God used to take me out of obscurity of life to national prominence.
For instance, if Baba had not embraced me by announcing me as the Director of Organisation of the Unity Party of Nigeria, I would have lived an obscure life. People would not have remembered me. Baba gave me all the platform to operate. And I thank God that Baba never had any opportunity to doubt my loyalty and sincerity till he died. I also remember that I had passion for law but I went to study History, Philosophy and English. But, the desire to be a lawyer was still there. When I now crossed over and joined the UPN and I brought the idea before Baba Awolowo that it was my desire to be a lawyer, he gave me all the platform. So, when I applied for study leave, he gave everything to me and supported me. In fact, the UPN gave me money to read Law at the University of Buckingham, United Kingdom. So, I read Law and I am a lawyer today.
How did you meet him?
The first day I met Chief Awolowo, it was through a young man who was Papa’s nephew, Bimbola Awofeso, of blessed memory. He was working under me in the Nigerian Tribune. I was employed as the Lagos Editor of the paper by Alhaji Lateef Jakande in 1969. Abimbola was working with me as a reporter. It was he who was living with Papa in Surulere. It was he, who arranged how I met Papa. It was a great day for me. When he first introduced me, I didn’t want to let go of Papa’s hand. I wanted to hold on to it and that was how we met and that was how God ensured that He used him to raise me from nowhere to national prominence. I cannot forget him.
Did he also influence your journalism career?
Yes. I remember that Alhaji Lateef Jakande was the Managing Director, African Newspapers of Nigeria Limited. He was the one who employed me into Nigerian Tribune and I would tell you a story behind that. When Baba was marking his 60th anniversary, the Socialist club that I was the chairman organised a birthday lecture to mark his birthday and we wrote to Alhaji Jakande to come and give a lecture. He came and gave the lecture. So, when he was going, he then asked for my address on the campus, but I did not know what they wanted. He then invited me after we finished our examinations and said, Ebenezer come and join us in Tribune. That was how I became a member of the Nigerian Tribune. Inside his office in Lagos, he decided to organize lectures for me and my colleagues in journalism – on how to be a Political Correspondent, Labour Correspondent and whatever. Later on, when I got to the office one day, the then Lagos Editor, Nigerian Tribune, the late Bunmi Iyeru was transferred to Ibadan to go and be the Editor Nigerian Tribune, Ibadan. Then, he made me City Editor, Nigerian Tribune. That was how I became involved in journalism, trained by Alhaji Jakande and for which I thank God that he trained me. I became a very good and powerful feature writer .
Why the changing focus of your now-rested column?
Because at that time I wrote ‘Focus’, international politics was at its apex and I remembered that Georges Pompidou of France was in power that time. So, I wrote ‘Focus’ to draw attention to the life of Georges Pompidou.
When I changed to Periscope, I was writing about problems of the society and how to solve them. And later when I changed to Political Panorama, I changed to discussing political issues. They were popular columns and I wrote Political Panorama for a long time before I had this problem of Glaucoma which knocked my eyes off. I thank God.
Did any of your writings get you into trouble?
I was detained by Yakubu Gowon’s regime. I was questioned but that was not important. There was one day, policemen swooped on our office in Lagos and took me away but we were later released.
What challenges do you think are facing journalism today?
What I know is that journalists know how to fight for their own freedom. My advice to any ruler is not to be quick to arrest any journalist because you are wasting your time. This is because the journalist will not change unless the freaky ones amongst them. But, those who know about principles would stay to write and criticize you. There is nothing you can do about that. So, don’t waste your time by arresting journalists. Just ensure that you do not joke with the rights of the people. When you joke with their rights, journalists are going to hold you, pound and pounce on you.
What are you saying to Nigerians at a moment like this?
I want them to pray for me that I do not derail from the principles for which my parents were known. My father and mother died as Christians and I would like to die as a Christian. And I would like to be known as someone who tolerated religion of other people. And I would like them to know that I am not a perfect human being.
You look fresh at 78, what is the secret sir?
Have peace with yourself. Don’t in anyway be over-ambitious for life. God Almighty that has created you, knows what he wants you to be and for goodness sake, abide by those principles and ensure that you are practically connected to the Christian principles.
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