*The gentle giant of Action Group
Once again dark clouds are gathering over the Nigerian polity. There is a growing feeling of disillusionment and disenchantment among the most articulate sections of the polity. When there is recession, there can be no recess or rest for the writer. This morning, this column, in solidarity with the distressed, terminates its leave to pay tribute to a great Nigerian patriot, a timeless hero of his Yoruba people and a political prodigy of mass mobilisation in Nigeria’s post-colonial politics.
Obafemi Awolowo was a moral, political and economic genius. But blessed is the gifted leader who is able to attract a visionary followership to advance the cause. This was Awo’s singular luck, in and out of circulation, and in and out of jail. Michael Adekunle Ajasin, the gentle giant of old Ondo Province, was an avatar among these avatars; a classic instance of visionary followership, unwavering devotion to a noble cause and apostolic discipleship.
The Mohicans: The very last of the Mohicans are still with us, the Adebanjos, the Fasorantis, the Jakandes, the Fasanmis, the Okes and the Akintoyes. But their ranks are thinning fast. Looking back, there was something magical and absolutely mesmerising about the life and times of late Pa Ajasin. His formal political career blossomed from the turn of the fifties with the Action Group party reportedly launched in his modest sitting room in Owo. It endured a thirteen year hiatus as the nation came under the hammer of military dictatorship only for the army to return four years after to send the political class packing.
In and out of formal politics, the late avatar continued to function as leader of his people ultimately emerging as the undisputed leader of the Yoruba upon the demise of his beloved leader, Obafemi Awolowo, thus putting a lie to the military pretension of decreeing partisan politics out of existence. You can as well ban oxygen from the atmosphere.
In a celebrated swipe at this brand of military messianism, Chief Awolowo was once asked by the famous columnist, Gbolabo Ogunsanwo, whether he would return to politics upon its formal unbanning by the military government. “Gbolabo, you can only return to a position you have left”, the Ikenne sage retorted with gnomic contempt.
There was an elective affinity between the two grand old men of Yoruba politics forged in political adversity and sustained collaboration. Both shared the caustic wit and remarkable verbal felicity of the Yoruba people. But while Awo was supremely self-confident, proactively disdainful, with a hint of abrasive candour and fully earned self-belief, Ajasin was reticent, retreating, quietly uncompromising and unobtrusively implacable. The bottom line is that both men took no hostages.
A wonderful follower: Despite his quiet exterior and head-masterly demeanour, Ajasin would always be found in the thick of the battle like a happy warrior. He was a man without cant or wishy-washy equivocations. There was something about him which hinted of extraordinary stamina for long distance feuding and a capacity to be embroiled in political hostilities at several levels, local, sub-local, regional and national all at the same time. The gentle giant was a heavyweight political pugilist.
Despite the fact that he was fractionally older than his leader, there was no suggestion of rancour, tension or unhealthy political disagreement between them. Once Ajasin accepted Awo as political leader, there was no looking back. Spartan and abstemious in life style, honourable and noble in personal outlook, Ajasin never wavered in his political and ideological commitment. Despite the fact that the blueprint for the Action Group free education scheme bore his heavy imprimatur, the old man could never be seen claiming credit or basking in intellectual self-adulation.
20 years on monumental historcial reverse: It all seems like yesterday but it was exactly 20 years ago when the old man took his final bow from the turbulent world of Nigerian politics. For the Yoruba people, it was a moment of angst and deep political anxiety. With the June 12 mandate seemingly unrealisable, with the presumed winner, MKO Abiola, deeply embedded in Abacha’s Gulag, with the supporters scattered to the winds and with General Abacha on rampage, seemingly unstoppable in his quest to transmute into civilian despotism, a deep cloud of gloomy despondency had settled on Yoruba land.
In a small dingy church in faraway and autumnal East London, the remaining band of NADECO faithful gathered for a memorial service for the departed statesman. It was perhaps the lowest ebb of the struggle. Yours sincerely had penned an emotional and moving obituary of the great man to be delivered in church but was too disconsolate to read it. Hon Wale Oshun gave it a brilliant shot.
The preceding few months had been particularly distressing. Hobbled by illness and age-related infirmities, Chief Ajasin had been subjected to serial harassment and psychological trauma by a military miscreant who seemed to have been posted to the state with the express order to put finishing touches to the old man. Not content with mere psych-ops, the brute finally invaded the house to lecture the great man on the virtues of patriotism and civic responsibility. He had forgotten that when you are sent on a slave mission you must execute same with the honour and nobility of a free born.
But history must vindicate the just, if not directly and expressly but in the most dramatic and profound of manner. Long after mercenaries have met their disgraceful end and the bell of infamy has been silenced, the trumpet of true heroism will continue to resonate. This much was evident this last Tuesday at the commencement of a two-day seminar to mark the 20th anniversary of the call to higher glory of Chief Ajasin.
Teacher and iconic mentor: As speaker after speaker and product after product competed to eulogise and extoll the exemplary virtues of this great man, it was clear that he was in a class of his own even among his colleagues and contemporaries. Apart from politics, this was a lifetime devoted to teaching and imparting knowledge to many generations as well as serving as their iconic mentor.
Of the very last batch of students he taught before finally retiring in 1975, one had become a professor of Medicine and the Vice Chancellor of one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. His Chief Typist in 1978 when he was serving as local government chairman had risen through the ranks to become a crack professor of Education in a leading university.
Professor Banji Akintoye: Perhaps the icing on the cake was the guest lecture delivered by Professor Banji Akintoye, a luminary of Historical Studies and senator of the Second Republic of Nigeria. In a virtuoso performance which belies his age, Akintoye hailed Ajasin as a leader of exemplary qualities and a quintessential man of the people who strove with others to lift his Yoruba people from semi-feudal rurality to modernity in a single generation.
Despite the setbacks and deliberate destabilisation, the gains of that accelerated modernisation continues to haunt modern Nigeria and to frame the topography of its brutal politics. What remains is to rue and lament the decline of visionary followership in Nigerian politics and its dreadful impact on quality representation, leadership recruitment process and the progress of the nation. In the First Republic, there were committed Awoists, militant Zikists and implacable Gamjites. But not anymore. In the current delirium of treachery and perfidy, any leader who sleeps with eyes closed has signed a pact with political suicide.
Quality followership in flight: Perhaps this decline in quality followership can also be linked to the decline of quality leadership. The trail leads back to the Second Republic. Despite the fact that the Unity Party of Nigeria was a romantic reincarnation of the fabled Action Group, the fabric had begun to fray at the edges. The UPN witnessed more leadership tussles and upheavals than the Action Group. There were even ominous hints that a rogue faction was making overtures to the north in a bid to jettison the politically implacable and ideologically adamant Awo.
Chief Ajasin himself was at the centre of the political storm, with his suzerainty challenged by his deputy, Akin Omoboriowo, a charismatic and hitherto implacable Awoist. In a celebrated intervention, a group of Ekiti notables led by Ade Adegbite, a brilliant maverick and professor of Chemistry at Unilag, advanced the thesis that in politics there were no permanent friends but permanent interests. In other words, politics is all about who gets what and at what time and hence could no longer be reduced to the antics of a gerontocratic conclave dishing out absurd preferment or the whims of an eccentric leader distributing premature patronage.
Awo’s Hegelian theory of political marriage: After the rout of his party by the NPN rigging armada and shortly before the military coup which terminated the Second Republic, Chief Awolowo, at a party convention held in Abeokuta, propounded the theory of a future synthesis in which the best of the conservatives and the progressives would come together in a new political union.
It was a brilliant prognosis but at best a simple Hegelian reading of a far more complex and complicated dynamics. The fact is that even at that point in time, the military incursion into politics has opened up the class project and the militarisation and monetisation of Nigerian politics in a way that would force a tectonic shift of values. Emergency contractors, military millionaires and sundry carpetbaggers began muscling out the ancient political class with the soldiers completing the rank-shifting in a relentless pincer movement.
It would not have mattered if this heist had led to the emergence of a truly nationalist political class. But it was the triumph of a rogue social mobility and political homogenising in aberration and would lead directly to the June 12 debacle, the Abacha phenomenon, the military constitution of 1999, the Obasanjo Settlement and the current mortal and moral handicap of the Fourth Republic.
But every social phenomenon has its time and sell-by date. If the admiration and adulation of Chief Adekunle Ajasin in the hall last Monday were to be believed, and if the current national unease and clamour for restructuring and return to regionalism were to be factored into the equation, it should be clear to those who care to read the rustling leaves that the good people of Nigeria are yearning for a return of ideologically committed leadership, quality politics and visionary followership.
Chief Ajasin will be quietly chuckling in his grave. May the soul of the great man rest in perfect peace.