…My dad loved a rascally but brilliant child
•Says working with Dangote was inspired by politics
•‘Many Nigerians wish there has been a third, fourth and fifth term of Obasanjo’
•Opens up on Yoruba group put together by Ooni
By Kennedy Mbele
Balogun Akin Osuntokun, notable columnist, activist, politician and Yoruba leader, will be 60 on December 16. The former Political Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo, in this interview, reflects on his life over the past six decades. Excerpts:
Let us first congratulate you as you turn 60. What does it mean to be 60?
The occasion calls for big celebrations. What programs have been lined up?
Thanks very much. I wouldn’t so much say it calls for big celebrations. What it certainly calls for is big thanksgiving to God who has seen me through the vagaries and sundry challenges and anxieties of life especially life in the tragic drama of contemporary Nigeria. The main programme is a commemorative birthday lecture scheduled for 11am on December 16th at the NIIA.
Let’s talk about the beginning, growing up and the rest. How was it growing up?
I had quite a unique childhood on account of being the son of one of the major political actors in pre independence Nigeria and the first republic. My dad, the late Chief Oduola Osuntokun, was a Minister in the Western Region from 1955 to 1966 straddling the premiership of Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola. He took sides with the latter in the factional crisis that broke out in 1962 and was thereby at the receiving end of the violent uprising of 1965/66 in the Western Region. My personal experience of the crisis was the burning down of our residence by political thugs and gangsters in January 1966.
And then being named Akintola meant that I was a singular inheritor of the demonisation of that name in the Yoruba world of the late 60s and early 70s. All the political associates of the late premier, Ladoke Akintola, were persecuted and demonised as ‘Demo’ (coined from Nigerian National Democratic Party, NNDP). I was randomly picked upon and was the butt of cruel jokes by both adults and children in a kind of perpetual drama that featured Awolowo as the hero and Akintola the villain. At the age of six I took my matters into my puny hands and declared to my parents and all around me that I had effected a change of name from Akintola to Akinjide. It was a unilateral declaration of independence that didn’t work and so my special status endured but as I matured into my teenage years I actually began to enjoy it because it made me feel special. So this is the main story of my childhood.
Your dad as you just acknowledged was one of the big politicians of the First Republic. Tell us about him. He must have had a big influence on your life?
Well this question has been partly answered in my response to the previous question. My dad was easily the most prominent Ekiti politician of the First Republic. He was also the better known Ekiti educator in the 1950-60 decade. He was the second university graduate from Ekiti and trained the best of the educated elite of that generation in Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti amongst whom were his own junior brother, the late Professor Kayode Osuntokun, the late Chiefs Fola Alade, Akin Ogunleye, Dele Falegan and Chief Deji Fasuan who is still alive. From the perspective of a student of Nigerian politics, his best legacy was public service integrity.
He was only one of two who were adjudged by the Kayode Esho panel (set up in 1966 by military governor Adekunle Fajuyi) as above board and of exemplary conduct in the discharge of his public assignment as Minister. Well, I believe to a large extent that sons of successful fathers tend to view them as role model. He was quite famous and admired and I wanted to be like him
How was it coming from a privileged family like Osuntokun’s? The name sure opened doors for you as you grew up?
You are correct but more than that it challenged me to also strive and add value to the pedigree. There is the problematic political pedigree that fostered in me a critical intellectual attitude quite early in life. I had to have a comprehensive knowledge and account of the Western regional crisis (which snowballed into a Nigerian wide crisis) because I was by proxy an innocent and unwitting participant. I had to be detached and required to question all received wisdom. I had to respond to the one sided narrative that took no cognisance of the grey areas in the colours that were painted. The story was not that of black versus white or saints versus sinners. They were mostly good men who were cast into uncharted waters in which some got drowned and others emerged by dint of the benevolence of providence.
Give us an insight into the events that shaped your life whether at school or thereafter.
I would attribute the allusion to my childhood experience as the primary causation. That was when the seed was sown. I of course experienced the wild adventurous college days lifestyle (sowing the wild oats is the cliché) in which our lives were literally spared by God’s merciful intervention. We drank hard, partied hard and generally led a life of reckless abandon. It was routine to leave Lagos at well past midnight to go rock disco parties in Ife. And on one of those occasions a friend who was driving suddenly pulled over and stopped the car.
He said he had just woken up – which was quite logical against the background of what we had subjected our bodies in the hours preceding the return journey. We thought we were immortal even as we were losing peers to car accidents and one way journeys into the oblivion of drug addiction. Now the positive side of it was that it toughened us up for whatever challenges life would subsequently throw at us in adult life. And peculiar as it may seem, in view of the sketch I had just painted, I picked the habit of fasting and praying quite early in life, in secondary school. And I owe this intervention to my then college brother, Demola Aladekomo, the proprietor of the Chams Consortium.
So, while I was losing my head in one direction, I was simultaneously retrieving it in another. Then my dad equally loved nothing more than a rascally but brilliant child and he had a way with words. When I was sitting for my ‘A level’ examination he wrote me and said, “Read as if you are going to live forever. But when you reach what, in geographical parlance, is called the saturation point and in economics parlance, the diminishing returns, take a break to pamper yourself”.
I remember you worked with Alhaji Dangote. To way extent would you say he influenced your life?
I was recruited by the Dangote Group to foster public goodwill and secure political legitimacy for the group as it transited from commodity trading to massive industrialisation drive in 1999. This was against the backdrop of the negative perception and propaganda demonizing the proprietor, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, as an associate and beneficiary of a string of nepotic military rulers (climaxing with the regime of General Sani Abacha) with whom he shared the same ethno regional origins. In this assignment, I was, of course, drawing from the goodwill and political capital I had accumulated in my prior journalistic and political pedigree.
My penultimate engagement was in the capacity of membership of the editorial board of The Guardian Newspapers where I also doubled as the lead columnist of the weekly Sunday edition. We were at the vanguard of taking the battle to the Abacha military dictatorship and due credit must be accorded the publisher, Alex Ibru, and the Managing Director and my mentor, Mr Lade Bonuola, who empowered us and gave us the wings to fly. Back to Dangote, there was the case of a close friend of President Olusegun Obasanjo who said he was bearing Yoruba emissary requesting the President to void the concession given to Dangote at the Apapa port by the Abacha regime. That was the end of their friendship. Obasanjo was livid. He said that rather than asking him to take away from Dangote, why don’t you request for what you can be given? I was with them (the Dangote Group) for a brief period but before I left we had become family. Bello (Aliko Dangote’s junior brother) was my friend originally before I joined the group. I take special joy in the supersonic growth the group had since recorded
Not many people in your shoes, working with Dangote, and comfortable in your own right, would have considered going into politics like you did. Why did you think politics was the next thing to do?
My working with the group was itself inspired by politics – the politics of managing the immediate environment at a time of heightened and fraught political sensitivity. Politics was what recommended me for the job in the first place and the President of the group, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, gave me all the time and space to handle the job the way I deemed fit.
Working with the group also burnished my Nigerian nationalist credentials. While working there, I was simultaneously the Chairman of the Oodua Printing Corporation and Caxton (WA) Press. I also tripled as a columnist and editorial board member of the Comet (now The Nation newspaper). I was born with political activism and politics in my blood. I wouldn’t feel fulfilled if I was precluded from politics as a vocation (apologies to Max Weber) I consider prior occupations as stepping stones on the journey to this destination
You occupied two very important offices under the Obasanjo administration: MD of NAN and Political Adviser to the President. Tell us how you bagged those appointments.
I was tapped by President Obasanjo to herald his campaign for re-election as Director of Media and Publicity in 2002. He had become familiar with my writings and I think he liked what I wrote. As a foremost Nigerian nationalist, he also liked my close association with Dangote and took keen interest in a generational shift pressure group I formed in association with other friends and colleagues. I actually became his confidant long before I went to take up the campaign job.
Given the crisis of confidence he was having with prominent political leaders in and outside his government, he wanted someone who had no prior political entanglements in Abuja and could instinctively rely upon. In graduate political science class I had always envisioned being given the opportunity to put the theory of Nigerian politics to the practice. And the pedestal of leading the campaign for an incumbent President was picture perfect realisation of such aspirations. After the campaign which was quite thrilling I was a shoe in for the positions you mentioned which were, more or less, the official face of my service as a political confidant.
Both positions, especially the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, gave me the opportunity to tour Nigeria extensively. There was the opportunity for international travel as board member of Pan African News Agency, PANA, and the executive council of the World Congress of News Agencies. NAN equally had international offices in London, New York, Johannesburg and Abidjan. As Political Adviser, my job description was to manage the political outreach of the President especially the general elections of 2006/2007 and transition to another civilian President
You were the Political Adviser at the time Obasanjo was said to be scheming for third term. What was the story really?
I doubt if anyone fully knows the story of the ‘third term’. Speaking for myself, there was no time the President informed me he was seeking third term in office. However the irony of contemporary Nigeria is that arising from the dangerous and comprehensive failure of the recent past many Nigerians wish there has been a third, fourth and fifth term of Obasanjo
Unlike some of your colleagues, you decided to stay on in PDP after the party lost power in 2015. Why?
The short answer is to put into practice what we preach. If Nigeria must develop politically, leaders must have primary occupations and professions to which political incumbency is secondary. Making a lifestyle of moving from one party to another in order to earn a living is the definition of a charlatan and lack of dignity. There is the extenuating fundamental point that Nigerian politics is still at pre-ideological differentiation level. Our socioeconomic challenges are basic and non-ideological. First is the very notion of Nigerian nationhood itself. We don’t even have a nation yet let alone governance style and policy differences. What is ideological about the official subversion of the very idea of Nigeria itself? What is ideological about crushing poverty, primitive corruption, terrorism, genocide and banditry? Is defection not consistent with the fact that the difference between APC and PDP is analogous to the difference between six and half a dozen? Your question nonetheless borders on the inability of the political elite to survive outside of power and the tragedy is that you see this perversion being celebrated in a self-demeaning ascription that ‘politics is the industry of the North’.
You are the chair of the group put in place by the Ooni to look into some issues in Yoruba land. But it is like the group is bogged down by some issues, some of them political. What is the update?
The premise of the formation of the Yoruba caucus is that the throne of the Ooni can better serve the cause of the Yoruba people. This is without prejudice to the exertions of extant Yoruba groups striving for the attainment of the same objective. It is also designed to reengage and reincorporate significant members of the Yoruba elite who look up to the Ooni for leadership.
The high profile of the group was always going to generate controversy given its inherent strength which candy, by omission or commission, significantly impact the political or economic fortunes of non members. There is also the victimisation of the perennial intra Yoruba monarch supremacist struggles no matter what you do to reassure to the contrary. It is what it is. It will be unrealistic for me to tell you that all this is a surprise we did not anticipate. When you are trying to build others are focused on how to destroy is unfortunately an abiding aphorism of life especially in these climes. As Nigeria continues to unravel regardless of our wishes and efforts to the contrary, individual Nigerians are challenged to see how best to anticipate and insulate their homestead against the doomsday scenario. Bi iwaju ko ba se lo, ehin a se pada si (if you no longer know where you are going, you should know where you are coming from).
What role do you hope to play in 2023?
To keep vigil day and night and ceaselessly pray that Nigeria does not fall apart.
What has life taught you?
To prioritise God and my conscience in all that I do and say.
Who are your mentors? Do you have a godfather?
I live under a unique benevolent dispensation in which God always meets me at the point of need. I have numerous benefactors, mentors and role models.
The pride of place goes to my late father and mother, Chief Oduola Ibijuwon Osuntokun and Chief Mrs Hannah Folorunsho Osuntokun. Others include my uncle Professor Jide Osuntokun, President Olusegun Obasanjo, late Mr Tunji Oseni, late Alhaji Babatunde Jose, President Ibrahim Babangida, my childhood friend, Mr Walter Akpani, Mr Lade Bonuola, Uncle Sam Amuka, Mr Fola Adeola, Professor Wole Soyinka, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Abubakar Dangiwa Umar, Uncle Julius Adelusi Adeluyi, Mohammed Jibrin, Professor Wale Adebanwi, Dr Wale Babalakin, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Uncle Fola Familusi, Ooni of Ife, Pastor Tunde Bakare, Uncle Fola Familusi, Mr Demola Osinubi and those that I cannot readily recall but are no less appreciated and tremendously valued