• Encounters with a man who likes TELLING IT AS IT IS
• And the question nobody wanted to ask him
By Jide Ajani
Ayo Adebanjo could be described as a strange man. Eight years ago, in December, 2010, when he was 82, the most constant thing in this man’s life was that he, on a daily basis, engaged in an hour of road walk. In fact, that first week of December, 2010, when Sunday Vanguard went after him in his Ijebu-Ogbo area of Ogun State, he was away on road walk. In his Lekki area of Lagos where he resides, Adebanjo once took this writer on a road walk – we had agreed to meet at his residence as early as 6:45am. We set out that day at about 7:15 am. Dressed in a sport gear, we walked from his residence, off Admiralty Way, to the entrance gate of Lekki Phase One. We could have continued but the old man, sensing that I was becoming uncomfortable (but not tired), jokingly said: “Ajani, are you tired?”
“No sir?” I replied.
“O je sooto (You better tell the truth). Eyin omo isiyin (You children of nowadays)”.
“I’m okay sir. I’m just wondering how you do this regularly sir.”
“I do this every day. Even when I travel abroad, I must do it. Except maybe if I’m indisposed and that has not been too frequent. I must do this every day”.
As we walked at a slow pace, Adebanjo told stories of his relationship with Pa Obafemi Awolowo, June 12, National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), the Obasanjo years, Alliance for Democracy, AD; and some other political issues. After about 80 minutes, we were back at his residence. While I headed for the main building, papa said he was going to the back of the building to do some exercises, so I followed him again. And for another 15minutes, he did some aerobics after which we then went inside.
“That is the way I do it every morning; and I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember”, he told me. This was sometime in June, 2012.
Always looking like a sixty-something year old, one thing you concede to Pa Adebanjo is his unflinching belief in and avowed commitment to the ideals of Awolowo. He is seen largely as an old horse of the Awolowo political leaning and an Afenifere leader. My first meeting with papa in 1991 was at his then Surulere residence. This was long before the June 12, 1993 presidential election. His views then and after the election and annulment remain the same. Brutally frank, and could be very jovial, Adebanjo once asked me if I liked eating chin-chin (a confectionary). I said yes. He then told me how his wife makes chin-chin for him regularly and how he has come to enjoy eating chin-chin for the over 60 years of his marriage. So, whenever I visit him, I always request from some to take away.
For Adebanjo, who is 90 this week, papa’s views of and on politics and life are captured in this script in a manner that his just published autobiography may not have. A man you have known since 1991 (27 years and still counting), Adebanjo tells it as it is and has never flinched when it comes to his political belief.
During an interview session with him, this question was meant to be asked and I found a way to ask it, though respectfully. In fact, before the interview began, I’d requested of him that I would ask him an embarrassing question, one which I’d discussed with my boss, Gbenga Adefaye, who was then the Editor of Vanguard. The Editor had quipped: “Ask him o, let him attack the question, some people say he’s a thug”, to which I responded, “How do I ask him such a question?”
“That is your problem. You are the one going to do the interview. Just ask him”.
So, before the interview (for the umpteenth time), after that road walk in 2012, I told papa “I have a very serious question coming that I would want to ask” to which he said, “Ajani, ask me any question you want”. During the interview, this ensued:
Sir, some people say you were more of an enforcer for Papa Awolowo?
What do you mean?
That you were capable of making trouble because of Papa Awolowo?
If you believe in somebody’s ideals; you see the person standing firm on that principle; and you decide to go all the way with him, how does that make you an enforcer?
Don’t mind people. They always want to just say something. Some even say you were a thug?
I’m not a thug. I’m a lawyer! Is that the question you wanted to ask since and you’ve been dancing round?
Okay o, I’m not a thug
Last week, Pa Adebanjo said he was too busy to grant any interview but still had the time to engage Sunday Vanguard in a chat over why he would not release a free copy of his new book, ‘TELLING IT IS AS IT IS’.
Firstly, how do we get a copy of his book?
Ajani, you just have to buy this book.
Papa, I’m your son and I expect you to give me a copy duly signed ‘TO MY DEAR SON’”, by you sir.
Ajani, I agree with what you have said but do you know how many sons I have in Vanguard? I have sons in ThisDay; I have sons in Tribune. Should I continue?
I understand you sir.
No, you don’t. If I give you a copy of the book free, my conscience would have to carry the burden. So why not give my other ‘sons’ and that would be setting a bad precedent. That, I do not want to do.
Okay Papa, now I understand. How much sir?
The soft copy is N5, 000 while the hard copy is N7, 000.
Do I give it to Dapo Akinrefon who is here or would you come to Ijebu-Ogbo to collect it, or wait till I return to Lagos?
We want the copy sir so we can publish some excerpts to illustrate the piece I’m writing.
No! Ajani you cannot do that. You cannot publish part of the book. Not now. Not yet. Part of the deal with the publisher is that you cannot reproduce parts of the book without a special arrangement with the publishers. In any case, you know almost everything.
Yes sir I but I still want the book.
(Laughing) I know you will write about all our encounters. I know you will write about the road walk too (continues laughing). Okay I will sign the book and give it to Dapo. But you must promise me you will pay when I return to Lagos.
I will pay sir.
Ajani, you must pay o.
Yes sir I will; and I will also write about this exchange too; about how you insisted that I should buy a copy of the book.
Yes (laughing)! I know you will write it.
Funny as this exchange is, Pa Adebanjo is a man who likes TELLING IT AS IT IS – that’s the title of his autobiography. Though just about a book, Adebanjo is a man who sticks to his gun. Not one given to the familiar shenanigans of today’s politicians, there are many instances in Pa Adebanjo’s life that gives credence to this fact – as would be seen in his views on many issues below:
On why he remains an avowed Awoist
No, it is not like that. People are missing the point. The mistake people are making is that they are confusing issues. The rigidity that pays off is a rigidity that is worth dying for. What is rigidity in Awolowo’s philosophy? What is rigidity in having free education? Are we having free education today in the West? Even in Lagos, do we have it? Those who see these people mid- way can be carried away but we who know what is happening can never be fooled. It is not enough. Why should we reduce ourselves to a situation when we accept less as more and we say, ‘at least, we thank God’. That much is less than the standard expected of an Awolowo man. I am strict on principle and ideology: Is it on true federalism? Is it on our socio-economic programme? People know Awolowo for what he represented. Free education and federalism are synonymous with Awolowo. I would rather go to my grave with my name intact and referred to as rigid Awolowo man than join bad company. You must stand for something. Look at the people they are collaborating with, just to side-line the elders. Go and ask them why they disagreed with us. Was it based on principles or on policies? Some people just got blinded by ambition and we are watching where it will all lead.
On June 12
The message June 12 presidential election sent out is that Nigerians were ready to bury their differences as a people and support whatever they considered good and which they felt would make their country move forward. But the election was annulled; and that is where I have a problem. I have told people that my problem with the annulment has nothing to do with (the winner) MKO Abiola as an individual. My problem with that annulment also has nothing to do with the fact that Abiola is a Yoruba man. Even if the annulment had been against a Chukwuemeka or a Dan Fulani or an Essien Udom or Isokrari James, I would still have opposed it the way I have always opposed it. Look, 14 million Nigerians voted. Why should one man, just one man, decide that he would annul that election? What right does one man have to say that he is annulling an election? In a country where people voted, just one man annulled the election, why? You know the statement from Aso Rock Presidential Villa annulling that election was not signed? No! That statement was not signed. That is the irony. In fact when I asked Duro Onabule, he said it is not possible. He said Babangida’s first house was built for him by MKO Abiola and the Babangida he knows cannot annul an MKO election. We were supporting Abiola during the crisis. I remember during my detention days when people asked me what was my connection with him, I said Abiola is not my cup of tea. I told them that I am here because 14million Nigerians voted for this man and that is the democracy Chief Awolowo taught me.
How Alliance for Democracy, AD, state governors lost the 2003 elections to Obasanjo
At that time, our flag-bearers misconceived the idea of working with Olusegun Obasanjo as President. This was because they didn’t like to take directives from us and they believed they wanted to take their own destiny in their hands; they claimed we were tormenting them because we put them in office. They, therefore, sought an alliance with Obasanjo; that they would vote for him for the presidency in return for their staying in office and leave South-West for them. There was an agreement between the governors and Obasanjo, to which we, the elders, were not privy. I will never agree to have anything to do with Obasanjo politically, because I don’t see any virtue in him, nothing credible in him, particularly as far as the interests of the Yoruba people are concerned. Obasanjo is not a Yoruba man, he doesn’t want what the Yoruba people want and I’ve always said so.
What Yoruba people want?
We want autonomy. We want to be part of Nigeria as an independent entity, self-sustained but not subservient to any part in a true federation.
On Obasanjo’s National Conference
Obasanjo knew what he wanted all along? He drew AD leaders out and swindled them knowing that restructuring had become a bait.
Obasanjo claimed that he wanted to bring all the parties together to produce a peoples’ constitution and our argument then was that if we did not take part, we would not push our case and they would label us critics. I took part as one of the five party leaders nominated. Our membership of that committee was able to open the eyes of our colleagues from the other parties that Afenifere was not talking about secession but about true federation. What Obasanjo said was that if we believed so much in SNC, we should go and persuade the other people of the other zones to buy into it so that when he eventually convenes it, he would not be accused of doing the bidding of Afenifere. If a man who had fought against something now shifts and even advises on how to mobilise support for the cause, is that not progress. It gave us an opportunity to explain to the other people that the Sovereign National Conference we were asking for was an alternative to bloodshed and that we must agree to live together based on terms and conditions agreeable to all. We just wanted true federalism. If you recollect, Obasanjo’s first presidential media chat, I was there and we thrashed out the issue of SNC because Obasanjo’s fake argument was that there cannot be two sovereignties but we made him understand that whatever that conference recommended should not be reviewed by any other committee; that was our position.