By Obi Nwakanma
Last week the “Orbit” paid tribute to a great Nigerian intellectual giant, Ben Obumselu who died on March 5. I wish that death would give us a respite, so that we can move on to other things, like the issues around the health and return to Abuja last week of the president, or the political implication of this administration’s inability to push through the confirmation of its anti-corruption czar through the National Assembly, or even the general parlous state of the national currency, the Naira, in the hands and pockets of Nigerians.
Such things. But it does seem, alas, that death’s reaping continues, and the “Orbit” must return to an inexorable task, to joggle and stir, as well as preserve national memory, and to paying deserved tribute to two formidable Nigerians this week too, who last week, passed on into immortality. General Robert Adeyinka Adebayo, and General Sam Osaigbovo Ogbemudia were formidable men.
Two soldier-statesmen who played important roles in the evolution of the modern Nigerian state. There is a certain divine irony to it that these men would pass within days of each other. And I do presume that it is within days – bearing in mind that in Nigeria sometimes, without the coroner’s service, and mediated sometimes by other considerations, the exact dates of death are invented, and announcements of death are long rituals, the more important the person, the more complicated and overstretched. It is almost as though we love to add a few more days to the dead to elongate their dying or lend left-handed significance.
But nothing adds further to the significance of the lives of Robert Adeyinka Adebayo and Sam Ogbemudia other than the lives they have led, and the values that they now typify in the minds of those who have been inspired by their public service. Robert Adeyinka Adebayo was born on March 9 1928, and he died on March 8, 2017, one day short of his 89th birthday in Iyin Ekiti, in the West of Nigeria.
After attending the Christ School, Ado-Ekiti of which he was alumnus in the same generation as the other notable Ekiti man, he from Ode-Ekiti, the Economist, Sam Aluko, Adebayo joined the subaltern ranks of the West African Frontier Force in the Signals in 1948.
He went on to officer training at the Officer Cadet Training School at Teshie, Ghana, from 1950 to 1952, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the West African Frontier Force in 1953 on completing the War office Commonwealth Officers Course in Eaton Hall. He was thus, in that very regard, one of the earliest Nigerians to be commissioned into the Officers Corp of the colonial military service, and it was in a momentous time.
It was in the era of decolonization, and Great Britain was recruiting and training Africans in that transitional moment hurrying on down to the inevitable end of empire. As a young officer, Adebayo grew in good pace, and quite clearly enjoyed regimental life in the snug ambience of British-style soldiering with its proud and practical anti-intellectualism. As an officer, General Adebayo was known for his pragmatism and bonhomie. He was not the sort of man to shake the trees, nor would he let the fruits fall without gathering.
As it would become evident in the role he came to play at a critical moment in Nigerian history, behind Adebayo’s bonhomie was a shrewd political mind. He was one of the highest-ranking officers in the Nigerian Army at the onset of the political crisis of 1966.
The then Colonel Robert Adebayo had been Chief of Military Intelligence (G2) by 1961, and General Staff Officer for the United Nation’s Peace Force under General Ironsi’s command in the Congo, and in 1964, he had been appointed the first Nigerian Chief of Staff of the Army, a position from which he left to the Imperial Defence College, London, in the middle of 1965, succeeded by Colonel Kur Muhammed, who was killed months later in the January 15 1966 coup.
Legends had it that Adebayo arrived by quick flight from London in the unfolding of events that January, lobbying for the Governorship of the West. Ironsi it is said, ordered him back to London, and appointed Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, the other Ekiti man, as Military Governor of the West. Providence, and a dastardly counter-coup on July 29 was however to re-shape events that 1966. Fajuyi was killed with Ironsi in Ibadan.
These deaths left a gaping hole and a succession battle. Having failed to secure command of the Army and the military government, Brigadier Ogundipe, who was next in command to Ironsi fled from the post when the stark reality confronted him. It is said a northern soldier – a private – refused to obey his instruction in the heat of the moment. Ogundipe left either out of fear or in disgust, and surfaced later in London, where he was appointed Nigeria’s High Commissioner.
The next in the succession was Colonel Adebayo. And this was the kernel of Ojukwu’s argument in that period rejecting Gowon, and leading towards war: if the Nigerian military were to maintain discipline the hierarchy of succession must be maintained, and there were higher ranking officers like Yinka Adebayo who should assume command before Gowon.
But pragmatic as ever, Colonel Adebayo ceded seniority and accepted the Governorship of the Western Regional government on August 4 1966. He understood Ojukwu’s argument. But he also understood the game of survival. Adebayo understood the fragility of his position: he had surveyed the landscape and saw that the Yoruba were absent in the Army, as he noted in one of his interviews, and he had to contend with his vulnerabilities in the face of the emerging reality.
In the moments leading to the Nigerian Civil war, Colonel Adebayo was seen as very pro-Igbo, and was a loud voice against the use of force in settling the conflict. But when the occasion demanded it, he played his part in the preservation of the Nigerian nation.
He navigated political landmines cautiously: he contended with a very powerful Awolowo, settled the Agbekoya uprising, and perhaps his greatest accomplishment was that he was the architect of modern Yoruba national unity. It was Adebayo that brought together and reconciled two powerful opposing forces of Yoruba modern politics – the Awolowo faction and the old NCNC faction led by Adeniran Ogunsanya and mediated a reconciliation under the leadership of Chief Awolowo.
A much lesser man would have been more intrusive and more sanguine. But Robert Adeyinka Adebayo had not only the qualities of guile and humility, he was a peaceable man, who loved his Yoruba people, and sought to reposition them fruitfully in the contentions of modern Nigeria. And so did Sam Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, who could be summed in one word: dynamic – for the Edo. And yes indeed, he was a dynamo of modern Nigerian life and politics.
As at 1967, Sam Ogbemudia was an Igbo from Igbo-Akiri (now generally called Igbanke) and born of an Edo mother. But he is today known as an Edo man, and mirrors the very nature in which identities shift and change for better or worse. What never changed for Ogbemudia were his commitments.