Professor Bolaji Akinyemi pays tribute to Archbishop Abiodun Adetiloye, former Primate of the Nigerian Anglican Communion
This tribute to the late Primate of the Nigerian Anglican Communion, Papa Archbishop Abiodun Adetiloye is coming rather late by all conventional wisdom. But for a spiritual leader who touched so many lives and was active during some of the most critical periods in the life of this nation, no tribute can be regarded as too late.
This tribute does not cover the totality of my relationship with the Primate who I first met in 1970 in Ibadan. This tribute is just to allow people a peep into some episodes of public interest.
Foreign Ministers by their assignment spend more time in foreign hotel rooms than in their own bedroom. I was no exception. The few days in a month that I spent in Nigeria were usually devoted to clearing the files on my desk. To achieve this, I usually set aside a day that was visitors-free every week. My front office foreign service officer (who is now an Ambassador) kept strictly to that rule. You can then imagine my consternation when the intercom buzzed and she said I had a visitor. I flew into a rage without even allowing her to finish to ask whether she knew what the rule was. She said she was aware of the rule but she thought there was something about the visitor that intrigued her. She said he announced himself as Abiodun. Nothing prepared me for what I saw when I glanced at the CCTV monitor that linked my office with the receptionist at the entrance to the Ministry. It was, you guessed it. I screamed “O my God, it is the Archbishop.” I yelled that he should be brought up right away using the lift reserved for the Minister and the Permanent Secretary. In the meantime, I flew out of my office using the private door. The look of consternation on the faces of my usually reserved officers who were used to proceeding at a royal dignified pace as they saw their Minister running down the corridor with his sleeves rolled up and shirt open at the neck is better imagined. They must have thought that the South Africans had invaded my office. The only other time that I can remember such excitement bordering on an uproar was when Fela in the company of Beko came to visit me at the Ministry. On leaving, Fela gave me a present which I took to be a Cuban cigar. Mark you, I had never seeing a Cuban cigar that big before. When I asked Fela as to how he knew I smoked Cuban cigars at that time, it was Beko who roared with laughter. Anyway...back to the Archbishop’s visit.
Having seated His Grace on a settee, I asked him why he was dressed that way (he wore only a simple brown French suit without the cross worn by Bishops), and why he did not send for me since the Ministry was only three or four houses from theCathedral. To the first question as to why he was not wearing the cross or the Bishop’s purple surplice, he replied that he did not want to draw any attention to himself and as to why he did not send for me, he replied “you cannot move without security and it was by far easier for me to come without fuss.” I replied that I could also just walk down to the Cathedral without anyone with me. To which Papa replied that if anything happened to me how would he explain that he was responsible. To which I replied that nothing could or would happen to me on my way to see an Archbishop. He simply laughed and the issue was rested as he was already seated in my office anyway.
Papa said that two things had brought him to see me. The first question was: “Hon. Minister, could you honestly assure me that our membership of the OIC was not motivated by religion?” To buy time, I took issue with his calling me “Hon. Minister.” “Papa, you have always known me as Bolaji. So please call me Bolaji. Don’t forget you are my ArchBishop”. I thought hard about the question the ArchBishop posed especially with the way he emphasized the word “honestly”. My mind flew to that epic confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate when backed into the corner, Pilate was forced to confront his own conscience and asked “And what is the truth?”. I have often felt that what has always been portrayed as the trial of Jesus before Pilate was in actual fact the trial of Pilate before Christ. And that was precisely my answer to the Archbishop to the effect that his question reminded me of that biblical scene. Papa looked at me for a very long time and asked “if Papa (my father) were alive and asked me the same question, would I have given him the same answer?” I replied that my dad would have asked me as a father and not as a Shepherd of the Nigerian Anglican communion. I then added “besides, I did not give your Grace an answer.” We dropped the issue.
The other issue the Archbishop came to discuss was the status of St. Saviuor’s Church. As usual, the Archbishop threw an elliptical question. “Do you know the status of your church? (I had been attending St. Saviour’s Church since 1975). Now in 1987, I was being asked if I knew the status of the Church. I knew there was something to that question but since I did not know where the Archbishop was headed, I merely shrugged my shoulder.
“Do you know that your church is a colonial church?”, the Archbishop asked. I smelt a rat. Why did he keep referring to St. Saviour’s Church as “your church”? After all, he was the Archbishop. When a husband says to his wife “your son”, that usually spells trouble. My reply was “Yes sir. I know that it was set up for the British Colonial Governor-General and his colonial officers.” He smiled. “Yes. But it is still under the Archbishop of Canterbury.” I sat bolt upright. I knew the vicar, The Revd Canon J. H. Payne, was British but that fact did not even register on me since he was the chaplain when I was a student at Igbobi College in the fiftees. Still playing for time, I said “Your Grace, does it matter”. His reply really floored me. “You have a reputation as a nationalist and you are asking me whether it matters.”
So, I said “well sir, you are the Archbishop. If you don’t like it, change it.” He said he did not have the power because “your church was set up by an Order-in-Council. It can only be changed by a constitutional amendment”. So I said “well sir, write to the Archbishop of Canterbury to take a memo to the Privy Council to release the church to you.” He thought about that for a moment and replied that there was an easier way.
In reply to my question as to what that was, His Grace got up and said “Get your President (referring to IBB) to issue a decree changing the constitutional status of the church and transferring ownership of it to the Anglican Communion of Nigeria.” His Grace headed for the door and I escorted him all the way downstairs to the front of the Ministry.
When I came back, I sat down holding my head. The thoughts that raised through my mind were “why me?”. I already had enough problems with the British who probably regarded me as being worse than a communist because of our differences over South Africa. Now, I was being asked to take over what they regarded as British property. That was one of the few times I allowed myself the foolish thought of wishing we had a Minister for Religious Affairs. Presumably, if we did, that Minister would have to be a non-believer. Come to think of it, Uncle Tai Solarin or Bros Kongi (Professor Wole Soyinka) would have been a perfect candidate.
I allowed myself a moment of comic relief as I imagined the look on IBB’s face when I took the proposal to him. When I took the case to IBB, he almost fell off his chair laughing: “What, me a Moslem, deciding who owns a church? What would you come up with next?” he exclaimed. I told him that actually it was not that strange. I told him that in Jerusalem, the keys to the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, were in the custody of a Palestinian Muslim family because two Christian sects who lay claim to the Church did not trust each other.
That was the extent of my involvement in the saga as I was reshuffled out of the cabinet very soon after and it was left to my successor, Major-General Ike Nwachukwu to resolve the issue. With hindsight, the special status of the Church, now renamed Our Saviour’s Church should have been maintained by making it a Proto-Cathedral with a Suffragan Bishop as its vicar.
My next major interaction with the Archbishopcentred around one of if not the most critical issue during the NADECO period.Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola, the winner of the June 12 election, announced that he was going to declare himself the President. This announcement caught everyone including NADECO by surprise. People even today still believe that NADECO was part of the decision for the unilateral declaration of his assumption of the Presidency. Well, it is not true. NADECO had no prior knowledge of the announcement. A regular meeting of the Executive Committee of NADECO had been scheduled for the Victoria Island home of Air Commodore Dan Suleiman. The Chairman, Chief Anthony Enahoro, was on his way from Benin to preside over the meeting. But we started the meeting while awaiting his rival. We soon abandoned the agenda for the meeting as news filtered in that BasorunAbiola had declared his intention to claim his Presidency. It became obvious that we had all been caught by surprise by the announcement. Chief Enahoro soon joined us and it was evident that he too was in the dark. It was not that we were opposed to the move in principle. What worried us was whether BasorunAbiola had thought it all through. If one was going to take such a step under a military dictatorship, there was no doubt that that brutal dictatorship would hit back. In which case, there had to be fallback positions. For example, had any approachbeen made to any friendly embassy towards seeking political asylum, and had that asylum been guaranteed? In the alternative, had a foolproof escape route into exile been established? All these unanswered questions we found troubling. We thought the best option open to us in NADECO was to seek a postponement of the declaration rather than an abandonment of the plan. Trust that old political fox, Chief Anthony Enahoro, to find his way to a plan which would buy us time. He pointed out that the date which Abiola had picked to declare his assumption of his presidency fell on Sunday. “Now” he continued “if we could persuade Archbishop Adetiloye to write a letter to the effect that the millions of Christians who voted for Abiola would be offended by his choice of Sunday, Abiola would be forced to shelve the idea, even if only temporarily.”
A perfect move.But why Archbishop Adetiloye? Why not other high-ranking priests in other denominations? It is not for nothing that by then, Archbishop Adetiloye had carved out a name for himself as an articulate and vocal fighter against injustice. Having decided on Archbishop Adetiloye, how were we going to approach him? I was picked to approach him. I called His Grace on the phone and sought an appointment to see him. The Archbishop told me not to waste my time coming to meet him but I should just talk on the phone. “Papa”, I said “I am convinced that these phones are bugged”. Till today, I would never forget what he said: “what is the worst that could happen to me. Arrest me?” I explained what the situation was and the help we needed from him. He asked when we needed the letter and I said if possible, within the hour. Within the hour, we had collected the letter and we were on our way to M.K.O. Abiola’s house in Ikeja.
What happened after that is beyond the remit of this tribute. One thing is certain, the late Papa Archbishop deserved his title of NADECO BISHOP. It is one thing to speak out when there is no danger of retaliation. But to speak out when there was certainty of the danger of brutal retaliation, that took courage. That was the way of the CROSS. FARE THEE WELL, HIS GRACE ARCHBISHOP ABIODUN ADETILOYE.
Professor Akinyemi, CFR, FNIIA, was Nigeria’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs.