By CHIEF AJIBOLA OGUNSHOLA
ON a hot, sweaty May 1958 afternoon, two adults and one adolescent stood in front of a room on the balcony at Tedder Hall in UniversityCollege, Ibadan. Posted on the door was the bold notice in capital letters: “OPERATION LONDON, 33 DAYS”. Silence and bewilderment; then solemnity.
“Olorun a wa pelu e o” (May the Lord God keep and protect him) intoned Mrs. Ajoke Aboderin, wife of Chief Moyo Aboderin who had requested “Uncle Bayo”- an adult factotum at her Oke-Bola, Ibadan residence – and myself to accompany her on a visit to “Lekan”, then a final year student. He was reported to be recovering from a serious leg fracture which he had sustained during a football match at the university.
So, was he going to be operated upon in London and away from the country for all of 33 days? Hoping to receive more information on this “disaster” from another student who was passing by, we told him our mission. The student then knocked hard on the door and, to our great stupefaction and evident joy, it was opened from within and out came Lekan himself, leg in plaster, smiling and obviously as delighted to receive us as we were to find him there.
He then explained that his injury, though serious, did not necessitate overseas intervention, that the notice on his door was his own daily countdown reminder to the other students of the number of days remaining to the commencement of the final degree examinations of the college, “the operation”. The examinations of the college were conducted in those days by University of London. On the day of our visit, it was 33 and on the next, it would be 32, and so on. So, you see – to borrow Dr. Are’s own favourite jargon – his remarkable sense of humour is indeed of early origin.
Although I had known “Brother Lekan” since my late primary school days during his visits to Oke Bola, it is that incident that has remained stamped in my memory among my earliest recollections of him. Of his mother, I have earlier consciousness. Mama Nihinlola, born into the Aboderin family, was a regular visitor to my mother, who lived at Oranyan, which was not far from Opomulero House where she then lived with “Brother Lekan’s” maternal siblings and her husband. She must have been about 15 years younger than my mother. His mother and mine were both obviously proud and fond of him and of his achievements, through GovernmentCollege, Ibadan, and subsequently at the university. My mother was always happy to introduce her in Yoruba to other visitors as “The mother of Lekan, university student, her first child born by her to K.O.S. Are”, and those fond references continued when he returned from abroad after completing postgraduate studies. One day she blushed, then smiled her radiant smile as my mother announced to all present that “Are” and Nihinlola had been in intimate and deep courtship from her days in primary school.
After completing my Higher School Certificate course in December 1963, I was considering whether to attend university in Nigeria or travel abroad as I had also gained admission to University of London. Brother Lekan firmly advised that I should not go abroad until after my bachelor’s degree. He had obtained his Ph. D. in the U.S in 1962 and what he saw there had obviously led him into that belief about the stress implications of studying abroad at an early age. His advice was an important factor in my decision to drop London for Ibadan and it proved to be the right decision.
I found Mama Nihinlola a simple, very likeable and uncomplicated woman. She smiled readily, as if to exhibit her proud dentition. She was attractive and, at her age when I came to know her, a little plump, which was in any case a requirement to be considered attractive in those times, but she would clearly have still been so even if she had been of lighter build. Brother Lekan probably inherited most of his visible physical attributes, including his height and infectious smile from his mother, while the achievements of Alhaji K.O.S. Are in business and politics suggest that he may have passed on to his eldest son the genes of his hugely driven personality. But his son would probably prefer to trace this inheritance not only to his father, but to his father’s own grandfather, Latoosa, the 12th Are Onakakanfo (Generalissimo) of ancient Oyo Empire, from whom the Are dynasty and Oke-Are in Ibadan derive their names.
After he returned from the USA with Sister Bisi, whom he had married before they travelled, and their daughter, Funke, I was a regular visitor to his residence at Ibadan until I completed my university education and went abroad for professional studies. Because my visits to their residence were often in the afternoon, the meals that I ate in their household were usually local food, but local food of oyinbo (expatriate) quality. As there were only very few phones in those days, all visits were without prior notification. They both treated me like their own junior brother, and sometimes better. I, too, also saw him as a brother, a rising star within the Aboderin and Are families and a notable old boy of GovernmentCollege, Ibadan.
Although he goes to bed at 9 p.m and usually wakes up, naturally, about 6 a.m, he seems capable of finding the time to be anywhere he has and wants to be. Through social events within his and my own extended family, his closeness to his cousins Chief Olu Aboderin and Chief Moyo Aboderin, his high visibility in Government College, Ibadan Old Boys’ affairs even before he became its president – a position he held for many years with exceptional commitment and high distinction – and also my own impromptu calls on his family from time to time, we maintained a continuous and happy relationship.
Then, in 1984, his cousin, close friend and founding chairman of Punch newspaper company, Chief Olu Aboderin, who was also my own maternal brother, died. Thereafter I became one of the new directors of the company, on whose board Dr. Lekan Are had been while Chief Olu was alive and of which he was also a shareholder. Chief Moyo became the chairman. I would like to record that he gave full support to the new chairman.
During the time I was chairman for over 24 years, I not only enjoyed his cooperation, but often found him especially useful in resolving difficult situations. Above all, his contributions to discussions at meetings were consistently of high quality, informed by his wide experience in public service management, his membership of some private sector boards, and an analytical disposition.
And I think there may also be a lesson for others to learn here. Give or take a few months, Dr. Are is of the same age as Punch chairman Olu; fifteen years younger than Punch chairman Moyo; ten and half years older than Punch chairman Ajibola; while Wale Aboderin, the present Punch chairman belongs to the same age group as Funke, Dr. Are’s eldest child: in matters of corporate business and money, what is of essence is the goal while hierarchy by age must take an inferior position.
His example made it easier for me, as chairman emeritus, to decide to remain on the board of the company. Dr. Are is well regarded for his integrity, his straightforwardness. I have always known him to be assiduous and thrifty and he started investing early, which have greatly contributed to being the wealthy man that he is today. One can, of course, disagree with him for his well known impatience with those who seem unable to grasp quickly enough the essence of what he is saying and for the bluntness with which he says what is on his mind, which are sometimes harsh and almost truculent. This can be very unsettling to his subordinates even as they are accepted or tolerated by his colleagues and seniors.
Yet, he values loyalty and never forgets past favours. He literally revered his late paternal uncle, Alhaji Amusa Olaniyi Lawal Are, who retired as a principal manager from United Bank for Africa, for the helpful role he played at a critical juncture in his early life as a schoolboy; he retained special affection for his maternal uncle, Late Pa Emmanuel Layi Aboderin, who showed him more than avuncular love in his childhood days.
And on two occasions, he argued in favour of providing a soft landing for two former top executives of Punch whom the board was considering for punishment – his reason being their past meritorious contributions during difficult times. I congratulate Brother Lekan for attaining the age of eighty; an age at which nobody can still pretend not to be old.
I convey my felicitations and, as his aburo, claim the right to express my gratitude to Sister Bisi, a nutrition and education expert in her own right and former school principal, not only for the love and care she gave our egbon, but also for, in our lingo, bearing him a daughter and two sons Funke (Mrs Igun), Ayokunnu and Damola all of whom any parent would be justly proud.
While he was in his mid – forties, he suffered from a kidney complication and, ill in London, he realized he would need to undergo an operation from which he thought he might not return. So, as is the custom among brothers and cousins of that generation, he in one of his low moments told Olu (Aboderin), who was beside him at the time, “Olu, bi mo ba ku, ba mi toju awon omo mi o” ( Olu, if I do not survive this, I know you will see to the welfare of my children).
Olu, while still in good health, recounted this incident to me one evening about two years before his own death on February 28, 1984 at the age of 49. Observing now his steady gait as he moves around, and contemplating his essential vitality, let no one be then surprised if, in ten years’ time, Chief Lekan Are is still around, on his own two feet, recounting the story of his 90 years.
And, who knows, with Sister Bisi coming behind, standing beside and continuing to keep him in check as occasion demands, this proud and valiant descendant of a quondam generalissimo of a historic empire may, even beyond his own expectations, victoriously fight his way into the very exclusive order of Nigerian centenarians.
•Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, is chairman emeritus of Punch