The temptation is high in this first article of the year, to dwell on the subject of morbidity. There have been too many deaths around us.
Late last year, we received the shocking news about the transition of two great men: Chief Harry Akande, the global businessman who put his enormous wealth in the service of his people, and Professor Femi Odekunle, the theoretician of power who came to national prominence as the political adviser to Lt General Oladipo Diya when the latter was the Chief of General Staff during the regime of General Sani Abacha. As the year was closing too, many top journalists: Pastor Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, Alozie Ego-Jimanze, Professor Ekundayo Alao among others, also answered the final call. In truth last year was tough.
After he was released from prison by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, I had met Odekunle in the company of my friend, Dele Omotunde, the deputy Editor-in-Chief of TELL magazine. He was arrested around 1: 00 a.m. on December 20, 1997, roused from sleep rudely and when he opened his door, he was welcomed with what Nigerians called “dirty slaps!” He was accused of being an accessory to the fact of treason! Those who knew Odekunle know that if indeed, he was intent on toppling Abacha, he would not have bothered to conspire with anyone.
Odekunle would have walked up to him and land Abacha a heavy blow on this googled face! After all, both of them were working in Aso Rock then. Odekunle was too much of a typical Ijesha man to waste his time in needless conspiracies!
Akande too took on the risks that only a few rich men could dare. He wanted to be President of Nigeria. He was one of the backers of the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, and when politics began in 1998, he pitched his tent with the All Peoples Party, APP. He was one of the strong backers of the APP and Alliance for Democracy, AD, alliance that produced the Chief Olu Falae-Alhaji Umaru Shinkafi presidential ticket in 1998. He supported the campaign to the hilt. He provided the Falae campaign with a private jet and provided other logistics. When Falae lost, the new government of the Peoples Democratic Party did not look kindly at Akande’s political exploits and his business interests became targets of hostile government interventions.
Last year, Akande became one of our backers at Gaskia magazine and he was one of our first subscribers. In 2001, he was the chairman of the public presentation of my book, House of War. He was planning to write his biography at last. We were to meet early in the new year to discuss the modalities. He knew a lot. He did a lot for the restoration of democracy in our country. His sudden passage is a big loss to our society and to posterity. Now we cannot even hear his full story.
Then death opened in 2021 with a big bang. On Sunday, January 3, news came of the sudden passage of Professor Oyewusi Ibidapo-Obe, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos and the first VC of the Federal University, Ndufe-Alike, Ebonyi State. Ibidapo-Obe, who had a first-class degree from UNILAG and became the second alumnus of UNILAG to become our VC. Ibidapo-Obe belonged to UNILAG just like Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi belonged to UNILAG.
He was born in Ilesha in 1949, but he later became a native of UNILAG. We loved him.
It is such a time overhung with the bad news that one should compel the mind to also consider some positive aspect of life. There are reasons to celebrate and give thanks to God despite the inclement period of angst. After all, it is also in this January that our big egbon, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, is marking his 79th birthday anniversary. Akinyemi, son of the famous principal of Ilesha Grammar School, the Reverend J.A Akinyemi was born on June 4, 1942. At 43, he became Nigerian Minister of External Affairs in 1985 and held the job for only two years before he was replaced by Major-General Ike Nwachukwu. His predecessor in that office was the equally durable Professor Agboola Ibrahim Gambari who served during the military dictatorship of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. Gambari is still in the power loop now as the Chief of Staff to Buhari, the born-again democrat.
Akinyemi’s rise had been meteoric. He bagged his doctorate degree at 27. At 33, he became the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. He became a full professor at 41. Though he served for only two years as a minister, it was as if he was in office for two decades considering his impact on Nigerian foreign policies. He developed the idea of Concert of Medium Powers which was to make Nigeria become a global player among developing nations. He also gave our country the Technical Aid Corps, TAC, through which Nigeria was sending its young educated citizens to assist fellow African and Caribbean countries. He advocated that Nigeria should also join the nuclear race through which we too can be in possession of what he called the Black Bomb. Many years after he left power, he continues to wield enormous influence on Nigerian foreign policy. As an intellectual activist in the foreign policy field, he is regarded as our own Henry Kissinger.
But I am more fascinated by his role as a political activist and politician. In 1992, he was one of those leaders from the South-West who struggled for the presidential ticket of the Social Democratic Party, SDP. Among those who struggled with him were the likes of Otunba Olabiyi Durojaiye and Chief M.K.O Abiola, my boss at the Concord Group of Newspapers. Abiola won the ticket and eventually won the presidential election but his victory was voided by General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s self-proclaimed president. The struggle to validate Abiola’s victory was to change our lives and bring out the fighter in Akinyemi.
He joined the opposition National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, under the leadership of Papa Alfred Rewane, Commodore Ndubuisi Kano and Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, and others and became a member of its sanctum. The heat was much in the early days and the leaders were moving their meetings from one safe house to another. In one of the meetings held on Victoria Island, it was agreed that NADECO needed an external wing. Akinyemi was given the mandate to go into exile and become the external face of NADECO. He was the only one among our leaders who went into exile with a clear mandate. He fled the country with virtually only the cloth on his back.
Akinyemi’s old friend, the late Dr Alex Ajanaku, founder of Ajanaku Hospitals and first chairman of the board of TELL, use to say that Akinyemi was only a theorist and not a politician. He said his friend was too much in the pursuit of the common good and wanted nothing special for himself. After his return from exile, Akinyemi did not seek for anything or sought any office. One would have expected that the Afenifere leadership would have persuaded him to go into the Senate or become the chairman of the Governing Council of any of the universities in the states governed by the Alliance for Democracy, AD. None of those came his way. Then there were companies and banks in which these governments have substantial influence where Akinyemi could have served with his usual distinction. Nothing was offered to him.
Yet Akinyemi and his friend, General Alani Akinrinade, and others like them continue to offer value to Afenifere and Nigeria. Note that Akinyemi resides in the Opebi loop where four top chieftains of NADECO were domiciled. These are Akinrinade, Akinyemi, Durojaiye, and the redoubtable Dr Amos Akingba. All of them went into exile except Durojaiye who was sent to the cell of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, DMI, in Apapa. Both Akinrinade and Akingba had their private residences set on fire by agents of the Abacha junta. Of all these men, only Durojaiye ended up in the Senate.
Akinyemi was the chairman of the Visitation Panel to AD states in 2001 and he presented a detailed report to our leader, Senator Abraham Adesanya. The Akinyemi panel was to find out the compliance levels of the governments to the AD Manifestoes and the Afenifere Credo. He also served as the deputy chairman of the Goodluck Jonathan Constitutional Conference. The current President of the Republic has vowed not to look at the report of that conference.
Akinyemi is a wise man. Wisdom is valued in societies that value progress and prosperity. We have seen now that our land, ravaged by violence and inequalities, requires the services of the wise among us. The year 2020 ended with a shocking overhung of fear and violence. Let us start 2021 on a positive note by honouring the Wise One and learning from him. Congratulations sir! Greater days ahead for you by God’s grace.
– Babarinsa, a respected journalist, writes for The Guardian Newspapers