In Praise of Tenacity and Party Spirit
(Review of Telling It as It Is: The Autobiography of Ayo Adebanjo. Delivered at the Book Presentation on April 3, 2018, Lagos)
By Wale Adebanwi
Mr. Chairman, distinguished guests: Picture in your mind a man you have invited into the ring to help you fight a formidable adversary, an adversary with a fearsome supporting cast of heavyweight boxers on his side. You grow tired of the fight as you seem to have no chance of winning, so you jump out of the ring. And then you return hours later only to find that the man you asked to help you is still in the ring, fighting on, even though more people have abandoned you to join the other side. He has been bruised, yet he is punching back while raising his voice to announce that the battle is not over until his side is victorious. Your manager throws in the towel, but our man picks up the towel and flings it out of the ring while announcing to the referee that the battle continues….
Perhaps this scenario will help you in appreciating the life of the man whose autobiography is being presented today, Chief Ayo Adebanjo: lawyer, politician, political pugilist, party organiser, and a moral beacon. Chief Adebanjo’s preternatural embrace of political conflict and battles and his unflagging boldness in the face of tyranny have made him one of the most formidable and consistent political fighters this country has ever known.
A quick anecdote: a colleague of mine who visited Chief Adebanjo when he and Chief Abraham Adesanya were detained in 1996 by the General Sani Abacha regime at Alagbon on the spurious suspicion of complicity in the assassination of Mrs. Kudirat Abiola returned to tell us of how uncomfortable he was when he was allowed to see Chief Adebanjo in detention. I will quote him verbatim in Yoruba because his words still ring loud in my mind: “Oni wahala ma ni Baba Adebanjo o! Se ni baba yen maa tu n bu Sani Abacha l’oju awon olopa ni Alagbon! [“Chief Adebanjo is a rebellious old man! He was abusing Sani Abacha in the presence of police officers at Alagbon!”] Even in the face of the repurposed perfidy that has become dominant in our political culture, as many seek any platform to power, the fearless old man remains unyielding in his commitment to the building of a better society. He has successfully reworked all the suffering, the imprisonment and detentions, the disappointments and betrayals, into a rugged conviction about the justness of his cause.
Hear him in a recent Punch interview:
“I am 90. What is the big deal in a 90-year-old man dying? But I’m shouting to the top because I want to go on record that you were warned and that is the fight that Chief Awolowo had been fighting before he left. I want to be satisfied that when I meet him, I can report to him that I didn’t yield an inch. That is why I’m talking. Am I going to become president? Do I want to be governor? Have I asked any one of them to give my children jobs? Have I asked for any subsidy from them?”
Do not ask Chief Ayo Adebanjo to join a battle for which you might call a truce at some point. He does not operate on the concept of limited struggle. As this book shows, Chief Adebanjo keeps fighting even when the originally injured has given up the battle. He refuses to surrender. As you will find when you read this book, even at 90, the author still delivers bruising upper cuts to allies and adversaries alike.
Let me quickly say that this is not your conventional book review. As I warned Baba Adebanjo a few weeks ago, I am here not only to review the book. Telling It as It Is: The Autobiography of Ayo Adebanjo, which is being presented today is only a departure point for me to reflect on Baba Ayo Adebanjo’s public, political life and what I consider to be the core mission of his life: the good of the people.
There are many ways in which this book captures this life mission. I suggest that the two most important vectors of this mission, as exemplified in the life of the author, are tenacity and party spirit. The first has defined the organisational basis of his political life, while the other is the foundation on which his public engagement was built and has been sustained. Both have worked together to define an essential political life irrevocably committed to what the author’s late leader, Obafemi Awolowo, described as “the good of the people” – the proposed title of Book Three of the Adventures in Power series, which death denied us the benefit of reading.
Since adolescence, Chief Adebanjo’s life, as this book shows, has exemplified what Max Weber, in the famous lecture, “Politics as a Vocation,” describes as “the steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes.”
Telling It as It Is, a compelling and frank narrative of life and politics spanning nine decades, seamlessly combines the personal and the political in a very readable, thoughtful, provocative and yet, witty style. This combination is flagged even by the dedication to mother, wife and political leader. The book is divided into 18 chapters, with each dedicated to personal or political life – or a combination or interlacing of both. The Foreword is written by one of the author’s political associates, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, who succinctly describes the book as “a reminder of where we started as Awoists, how we have been shaped and a true assessment of where we are heading” (p. 12). The Foreword was originally the task of Chief Adebanjo’s lifelong friend, Sir Olaniwun Ajayi. Sir Olaniwun’s passing in 2016 shifted the task to their younger fellow-traveller, Chief Adebayo. Let me quickly note in parenthesis, that what I wrote in my tribute to Sir Olaniwun when he died was as true of him as it is true of his friend, Chief Adebanjo. Like his late friend, Chief Adebanjo has an “unquenchable trust in the possibilities of public good, the creation of a good society and an evangelical sense of rectitude.” These qualities are evident in the narratives in this book.
There is a certain joy that politics brings to the author which triumphs over all the disappointments and disabilities of the political system; there is a certain peace that his moral vision invests him with that is undisturbed by the perennial crises and political violence that he has lived through and that surround him. To be able to account for this paradox, we need to read the first three chapters of this book which locate the personal and the political and then unite them in a certain embrace of the world that explains his irrepressible, stern but cheerful nature and the vigour of his ideological convictions.
“This narrative,” writes the author, “is about growing up in a world of struggles, determination, perseverance, persistence and insistence. It is about a life of travails and triumphs; an admixture of failures and successes – a narrative about life told in its raw and undiluted form” (p. 14). Indeed, this book is “undiluted” and I will add, unpretentious.
Born to parents who didn’t have the benefit of western education, Joel Adebanjo Adedairo, a goldsmith and Christian, and Salamatu Odubanke, a trader born to a renowned Muslim family in Ijebu-Ode, the young Samuel Ayodele Adebanjo grew up as the only child of his mother in a polygamous home. Despite their relative poverty and lack of education, his parents were perceptive enough to realise that opportunities for a better life in the 1930s were plentiful in Lagos and thus they moved there when he was six. The cosmopolitan environment in which the young man grew up in Isale Eko (Lagos Island), which was dominated by nationalists, freedom-fighters, newspapers men, and professionals including men like Herbert Macaulay, H.O. Davies, Eric Moore, Adeyemo Alakija, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Mbonu Ojike, helped to form a shrewd, sociable, modish and ambitious young man – nick-named “Sportless Banjus.” His education in the first and most prestigious secondary school of the era, C.M.S. Grammar School, prepared him for a life imbued with public spirit. His principal, Canon Kale, described him in his testimonial as “a strong character” (p. 41).
“Lagos was the land of opportunities and choices” (p. 28), recalls the author. Indeed, we can argue that moving from Ògbo to Lagos not only expanded the young Adebanjo’s horizon, it also challenged his imagination. Thus, moving to Lagos became the foundation of his embrace of an egalitarian order that would eventually ensure better life for the greatest number. It was in this city that the following sequential and consequential experiences happened to the author: (i) motherly love and sacrifice united with personal ambition and resolve to catapult the young, relatively deprived, man beyond the strictures of striving and survival; (ii) he joined the operative theatre of grassroots politics in Western Nigeria which leveraged his relationship with Obafemi Awolowo; (iii) he departed for the United Kingdom to study law; and, (iv) he re-started his life-long engagement with progressive politics and its limitless possibilities after he returned to Nigeria. In the early part of the book, we read about a boy hawking petty items on the streets of Lagos, who later had a stint in the civil service, terminated by treating a white man in colonial Lagos as his equal, and a stint in journalism as a reporter for Daily Service. He later became the organising secretary of the Action Group in 1954, a party which he describes as “Nigeria’s most organised and highly disciplined political party (even till today)” (p. 56). In these chapters, the reader is taken through a personal and political odyssey, one that teaches important lessons on the nature of political ascription in Yoruba progressive politics – with its ingrained, but now challenged, aversion for suddenness: sudden wealth, sudden leadership, sudden power, etc.
Six Chapters — chapters 9 to 14 — deal with the very interesting and engaging intricacies of politics and the author’s role in the trajectory of Yoruba and national politics, including why he is a committed Awoist, the “Night of the Long Knives”, “The Betrayal of AD”, “Awolowo, Obasanjo and the Yoruba Nation,” and “Afenifere, NADECO and the June 12 Struggle.” As expected, Chief Adebanjo takes no prisoners in this book. In the six chapters I referred to earlier, he reserves his sharpest criticisms for his fellow Yoruba, one an inveterate adversary of the leader, in particular, and progressive leadership, in general, President Olusegun Obasanjo, and the other his long-term friend, political associate and fellow-traveller in the Awolowo movement, Chief Ajibola Ige. But there is nothing he says here that he had not stated in Ige’s presence when he was alive or to Obasanjo’s hearing through the public media.
In this book, the author again raises the question of Chief Ige’s decision to join the Obasanjo administration which might be ranked as one of the gravest, and as it turned out, most fatal, political errors ever committed by a leading progressive politician in Nigeria’s history. The author describes Chief Ige as “brilliant, one of the greatest Awoists…” However, how a man of such superb and enviable endowments could join the cabinet of one of the most perverse and pernicious figures in our political history is a question that the author attempts to grapple with in this book. Says the author: “We were opposed to Ige joining Obasanjo’s cabinet. But he accepted the appointment to spite us; oblivious of the fact that Obasanjo was not inviting him in good faith …. Bola Ige didn’t need Obasanjo; it was Obasanjo who needed him….” (p. 162, 164).
As for Obasanjo, the author reserves the severest contempt. Obasanjo’s tenure as president, he declares, “was a calamity”, adding that “For all the negative things people have said about Obasanjo, which he could not refute, if it were to be in any decent society, people like him would not feature in public life again….” (p. 187-188). There is more when you read the book.
One other important feature of these six chapters referenced earlier is the emphasis on certain traditions of moral life and ethical politics which have either been abandoned by most progressive politicians or are now in serious contention between the old and the new order. I will mention a few. One is the central role of political parties in democratic governance. As the author shows in this book, it was Obafemi Awolowo and the leaders of the Action Group who established the tradition of the political party as an organic body, not only immersed in an ideological mission, but an organisation with a mission connected to and built on a programmatic agenda beyond slogans, an organisation invested with supremacy vis-à-vis the ambitions and interests of its parts. Thus, party supremacy was taken for granted in an Awolowo-led or Awolowo-inspired political party. Two is the more problematic question of why and how such a party should be constituted and led by moral agents and/or ethical individuals who recognise that, no matter their personal proclivities and limitations, an ethical bond among the members, in which each one related to the other on the basis of a moral imagination, constitutes the most sustainable way to ensure party solidity and eventual electoral victory.
Now, as the political lives of the author and his contemporaries have shown, the question of ethical politics and moral imagination, is difficult to reconcile with, or sustained within, a mass political party, particularly in a country in which all sorts of affinities and personal political ambitions are deployed as obstacles to shared moral imagination. If this question and its relationship to party supremacy were responsible for the AG crisis in the First Republic, they also threatened to lead to the implosion of the UPN in the Second Republic and since then, they have become crippling in our recent experience with so-called progressive political parties.
The author provides much in this book for students of politics, sociology and moral philosophy to grapple with. He raises ideological as well as practical political questions. Indeed, this book presents us with an opportunity to reappraise or reflect on the trajectory of progressive politics in Nigeria in relation to the fate and misfortunes of Nigeria. How, for instance, from the departure point of party supremacy, moral life and ethical politics, can we account for party crises: Jos in 1962, Yola in 1982 and D’Rovans in 1999? If the political outcome of a certain proper — or let’s say moral — course of action will lead to the destruction of a beneficial political formation, should we embark on that course of action still? What are the elements in the Awolowo political movement that provoke the constant emergence of one or two hitherto well-regarded, talented, and highly-resourceful figures whose personal ambitions either destroy the party’s cohesion, thus leading to the party’s loss of political power, or leading to the termination of a democratic republic?
Perhaps one way to begin to answer these questions is by recognising that one of the biggest challenges of the Awo political movement is the transformation of ethics to politics, or the marriage of ethics and politics – or to put it in the words of a political philosopher, the insistence that political questions must be preceded and guided by and regularly interrogated through fundamental ethical questions. Awolowo transformed his own personal moral vision into ethical politics. This was embraced and leveraged by the likes of Chief Adebanjo. As the radical American political theorist, Judith Butler, has argued, most people “believe that any reference to ethics is a displacement and/or neutralisation of the political.” While we may recall that Awolowo’s approach to public, political life was challenged even internally when he was leading the political parties (AG and UPN), it is important to note that the concerted and even malicious attempts in the progressive movement to end the struggle to reconcile ethics and politics in the post-Awo era has led that movement to an impasse. This is why many progressive politicians today see the realisation of their political ambitions only through the lens of those who have spent the better part of their lives fighting against democracy, good governance and federalism.
No political generation is perfect. For instance, the Awolowo generation totally missed the vital role of national institutions of organised violence in their overall investment in brain power – particularly regarding socio-economic planning and political organisation. When the military’s crucial role in our national history eventually became evident, they could not fully respond to the suborning of national glory by those they had disregarded and failed to engage. We are living today with the crushing consequences of that strategic error, as Nigeria was medievalised by military rule. Thus, we can imagine Fela Anikulapo-Kuti laughing at us as we collectively suffer under “Army Arrangement”, alerting us to what we have experienced since 1999: soldier-go-soldier-come.
I will also like to point to two challenges that the political tradition whose torch-bearers include the author have had to respond to, not always adequately, as evident in the narratives in this book. One is Awolowo’s pivotal assumption that once you show the people the light, they will necessarily follow the light. This assumption is oblivious of the dark side of human nature that responds to criteria of value with no necessary or automatic connection to human progress or universal good. This is particularly crucial in a context in which there is no strong positive and universalised political culture.
Two: while Awolowo left the question of how to get (or to use a Nigerian lingo, ‘capture’) and retain power in a deeply undemocratic, even semi-feudal state such as Nigeria underdeveloped, he overdeveloped the conceptual bases of the egalitarian uses of power. This de-prioritisation of the messy and not always ethical process of getting power, particularly in the post-military era, has produced fatal consequences not only for the progressive formation in Nigeria, but for the polity at large. It led to the current cul-de-sac in which putative progressives assumed that their only route to power was the logic of power they had always repudiated and struggled against. The less that is said about that, for now, the better. Chief Adebanjo canvasses strongly against a short-term view of political struggle in this book, but recognises the limitations of egalitarian party politics in a deeply undemocratic and semi-feudal state which assures the least talented the greatest opportunities for ascending to the presidency.
But let me quickly add that I do not mean to trivialise the genuine efforts of those who did not want fundamental political investments of the past to impede profound transformations in the present. But I am pointing a pattern of tactical planning that lacks strategic thinking, one which has ensured that the lowest common denominator always triumphs over the highest common factor in Nigerian politics.
I have dwelled so much on the political, let me dwell briefly on the personal before I conclude.
We often overlook the sufferings of those who are related to prominent political leaders, particularly political leaders who bear the burden of fighting for social transformation. In Telling It As It Is, the author humanises his public, political life by describing in detail the sufferings of those who made his public sacrifices sustainable. From his father who was not only detained for nine months in the early 1960s during the treason trial, but also suffered severe blows delivered with police baton at Alagbon, yet remained dignified through the trial; his mother, who laboured so hard to ensure a good life for him but had to wait while he was in exile and jail and died without enjoying the fruits of her labour; to his children who could not see their father for a few years while in exile and jail, and his wife, whom the author describes in Chapter 16 – a chapter devoted to her – as “My adorable Soulmate, Christie”, a woman who is a study in perseverance, patience, sacrifice and grace.
I will be remiss if I do not point out that this book will make you laugh. The youthfulness and liveliness of the author despite advancing age shine forth in the book. I will give only one example. While he was in exile in Ghana, he received a message from his wife. Perhaps alone with the children in Nigeria, she remembered the enterprising, handsome young man-about-town that she married! In one of her letters she wrote, “Ayo, you can do what you like with women, but don’t produce a child!” (p. 206). The sheer candour of the author is quite impressive. As the book title indicates, he tells it as it is.
As it is with every book, there are some challenges in the book. One is that it is too apparent that the words in the books were mostly first spoken and recorded before they were typed. While this would make the book an excellent audio book, efforts could have been made by those who edited it to lessen the stridently spoken quality of the written word. Another challenge is that the book is not entirely chronological, though it is generally organised chronologically. The chapters could either have been organised thematically in parts or organised entirely chronologically. Finally, there were a few passages that were repeated in a few chapters. More careful editing could have resolved this.
However, these challenges do not detract from the essential qualities of this highly-readable historical document. We must thank the author for giving us the benefit of such a wonderful, though in part, tragic, story of his personal odyssey which also constitutes part of Nigeria’s political history.
As one of the most-nimble of minds in Nigeria, Odia Ofeimun, is given to saying “Nigeria is eminently saveable”. This can be described as the credo of the political life of an agba oselu, such as Chief Adebanjo. As this book shows, when we call someone like Chief Adebanjo an “oselu”, we mean it in the original sense of that now much-abused Yoruba idea and ideal. ‘Oselu’, which has become the Yoruba translation of ‘politician’ is etymologically one that describes the building of a polity (‘ilu’) which is also the original Yoruba word for ‘the people’. The politician therefore in the Awolowo tradition represented by Chief Adebanjo is a builder of a polity. The polity as popular will therefore implies the essential possibility of public good as well as the inherent agency, or call it capacity, of a people acting within a polity to build a good society, one in which there will be ‘freedom for all and life more abundant.’
Mr. Chairman, Obafemi Awolowo visited Nigeria about two weeks ago (March 22, precisely). But because he visited as an American billionaire, they let him into Aso Rock Villa and invited him to address the National Economic Council. This is what Bill Gates told our leaders: ‘The most important choice you can make is to maximize your greatest resource, the Nigerian people. Nigeria will thrive when every Nigerian is able to thrive.
If you invest in their health, education, and opportunities— “human capital” …—then they will lay the foundation for sustained prosperity.’ The core of what Bill Gates told the National Economic Council, that is, the foundational and fundamental role of human capital in society, was conceptualised by Awolowo before Gates was born; he then elaborated and operationalised it in 1955, the year Bill Gates was born. Under Awolowo, the Western Regional Government invested 40.7% of recurrent expenditure and 34.2% of capital expenditure on education. Stated Awolowo, ‘Man (meaning man and woman) is the unit, the prime mover and the sole purpose of development.’ He added that the ‘well-being of the people [is] the sole purpose and raison d’etre of government and [that] the glory of any government is the well-being of the people.”
As you will expect, anything about human development leads to a controversy in Nigeria – as evident in the reaction to Gates’ address. It is important to say that I cite Awolowo’s ‘return’ in Bill Gates as someone who is a proud beneficiary of the vision of both men. But in case my drift is not clear enough and if there are still some people asking: “what do these old people want?” this book has an answer for you: A Nigeria, which, even if it is not a nation, even if it was born a mere geographical expression, is remade into an egalitarian instrument of human possibilities. This is why Chief Adebanjo continues to raise his voice even at 90. This is why his leader’s gentle voice can still be heard even today, beckoning Nigeria to take her rightful place in the comity of nations.
Happy Birthday, Baba! On behalf of my generation, I thank you for weathering the worst of political storms with your head unbowed, your spirit unbroken, and your will unbent. Thank you for your unremitting commitment to good causes, your ceaseless sacrifices, and your moral vision. Igba odun, odun kan!
I thank you for your patience.