Ajayi: Statesman, Lawyer and Mentor



Many tributes have been given in honor of Baba Olaniwun Ajayi—a statesman, church and community leader, author and public intellectual—whose transition to the world beyond has robbed the Yoruba people in particular, and the Nigerian nation in general of an irreplaceable talent. Today, I write similarly but with heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and well wishers across the country as we reflect on the departure of a true nationalist even as I recall my deep friendship with him.

As an author and public intellectual who cared deeply about Nigeria and the Yoruba people, Baba wrote with passion and insights. His works on various subjects were enlightening and compelling—whether it was his reflections on the history and culture of his home town, Isara; or on the state of the country, the continent and the world at large. As a regional, national and global citizen, he wrote admirably about his people and he felt close kinship with their aspirations and concerns. Now that he is gone, Baba’s deep knowledge of the world which reflected in his insightful writings will be part of our national memory.

I respected and admired Baba immensely! He was a modest man who truly believed in the ability of the youth—particularly the learned women and men of my generation—to shape and remake our nation anew. That then explains why many of our cohorts looked up to him for his wisdom in engaging us in serious and difficult deliberations. As a result, he sought our perspectives and respected our opinions—even in instances when they ran counter to his own. Baba believed in the ability of the young to contribute meaningfully to nation-building and that the nation would do well with the benefit from the wisdom of her learned youth. And he was never dismissive of other opinions as most of our leaders do.

Baba Olaniwun was always welcoming; he encouraged my peers to visit him in Isara to talk about matters of Yoruba and national interests. More than any other person I know in his generation, he commanded tremendous respect and love among my peers and colleagues. Indeed, he embodied the spirit of inspiration and hope for the flourishing contributions of our youth to the new Nigeria we are all still hoping for. That is why Baba will be judged as a leader who contributed richly to the lives of many people.

Although Baba belonged to many associations and groups, he was very effective in civic and political engagement at home and in Southwestern Nigeria. Even when many may think that men and women of his generation lost the battle to influence the new generation of our leaders, his life testified to the fact that the elders saw what many of us could not see. As the Yoruba would say, ‘oro agba bi o se l’owuro; to ba pe, a se l’ojo ale.’ May the wise counsel of the elders never seize in our land! More importantly, Baba’s exemplary commitment and loyalty to his friends and cohorts were unparalleled.

As I recall my association with him and the many years of conversations we had together, I remember a few pivotal moments that will remain with me forever. First, Baba was one of the very few elder statesmen who sought out educated young talents for the purpose of engaging them in conversations about the state of the Yoruba people and the Nigerian nation. Such spirit of selfless service, very rare among our people, was based on the confidence he had in himself as well as his versatility and deep knowledge of the world around him. As an educated man with genuine love for his country, Baba was constantly thinking about the present and the future of Nigeria.

The first meeting I had with him at the instance of Professor Wale Adebanwi of the University of California, Davis, USA, was unforgettable. Before the meeting in Isara, he had read my dossier, I guess from the internet, and as soon as I arrived at his home, Baba started a conversation about my academic and professional life. That first meeting led to many more interactions.

There was a time Baba called me from London and wanted me to contact a number of Yoruba scholars whom he could invite to come home to dialogue with the elders about the state of the Yoruba society and Nigeria. My first response was to ask him why the Yoruba elders would always want to carry the burden of Nigeria state. There was a total silence at the other end of the line and I thought I had lost him. “Baba, are you there?” I asked to which he responded, “Mo n gbo e, professor”. I spent the next few minutes unpacking the deeply troubling but factual statement I made.

The conversation took place around the time Colonel Benjamin Adekunle’s death was reported. Having spent substantial time writing and talking about nation building, civil religion and citizenship, I was uncomfortable at the manner of Adekunle’s post-military life and the treatment the Nigerian nation gave one of their war heroes. My thesis was that people like him who served Nigeria meritoriously deserved to be honored. Baba spent the next few minutes giving me a history lesson of how Yoruba leaders have always been faithful to the Nigerian cause and why we must continue to do so. Since he knew he was talking to a scholar of religion, he drew handsomely from Biblical references to make his point. While I avoided engaging him in a theological debate, it was also evident I had found a conversational partner. “I hear you Baba, you are right”, I concluded!

Second, Baba was one of the few who had the credibility and honesty to speak boldly to kings, governors and state leaders with empathy but firmness. I noticed this on many occasions but particularly during my book launch in Lagos which the late Ooni of Ife Olubuse Sijuade asked him to chair. A gathering of Yoruba and Nigerian dignitaries were invited by our late Father, Oba Okunade Sijuade to the event and the success was majorly due to Baba’s central role. A schedule conflict that would have derailed the entire event was carefully resolved by him.

What was interesting was that Baba kept the details of what happened from me. He and others that Kabiyesi had designated to organize the function, including Chief Odeyemi of Ile Ife, worked tirelessly to make it a success. He used tact and deep wisdom to resolve the problem. “Enia l’aso me” the Yoruba would say. I told a friend after the event that if there is indeed reincarnation after life, I will come back to this world as a Nigerian and a Yoruba man!

Baba’s speech at the book launch that day set the tone for the occasion as he pointed out the need for the Yoruba to think more seriously about regional integration and cultural and political dialogue with each other and the rest of the nation. It is a pity that he died without seeing the outcome of one of his projects, the restructuring of the nation. But then, “ola o tan, ola ku sehin!”

My third significant encounter with Baba was when he called during one of my visits to Nigeria to say that he had a big assignment for me and that I should stop by Isara on my way to Lagos to discuss it. Baba’s assignment, as it turned out, was simply that he wanted me to find out where he could do a doctorate degree. He wanted to cap his long and purposeful career with the title of a doctor as we do in Nigeria! My quick and gut response was that Baba did not need a doctorate degree and I told him so: “You are more than ten doctorate degrees combined!”

I was very sincere in my remark because there are very few men and women of Baba’s generation and beyond who can beat his publication records. Some of his books in my library here, including such titles as “Let Me Forget”; “The House of Oduduwa Must Not Fall”; “Isara: Afotamodi, My Jerusalem”; “Nigeria: Africa’s Failed State” testify to his uncommon intellect. Though not a conventional scholar, he mastered and excelled in the discipline of scholarship. If Baba had lived in a place like America he would have been asked to hold regular college seminars for young undergraduates in a university or liberal arts college around his vicinity.

As I think of him today, I also remind myself of how a large number of our career diplomats, educationists and successful professionals in several fields of human endeavor (who were well trained at home and abroad) retire and are then left to lonely lives with untapped talents; yet ours is a country calling for talents to train the next generation of our youths.

As we therefore lay Baba to rest, let me recall a few words from the great Preacher in the book of Ecclesiasticus: “Let us now Praise famous Men and Women and our Parents that begat us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men and women renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions: Humbled men and women furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations. All these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There be of them that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. But these were merciful men and women, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. Their seed shall remain forever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. The people will tell of their wisdom and the congregation will show forth their praise.”

The memory and legacy of the Sir Olaniwun Ajayi is assured of a lasting place of honor in Nigeria. His labors have not been in vain and today we remember with love, admiration and affection the life and works of a wise and eloquent statesman. May the good Lord comfort the family he left behind.

· Olupona is a Professor of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University and can be reached on olupona@fas.harvard.edu

NOTE: Olusegun Adeniyi will be back next week with The Verdict