Guest Columnist: LAGUN AKINLOYE
Carol Onyemaechi Ebenuwa was born on the 29th of July 1959, in the bustling Nigerian metropolis of Lagos, a year before her country’s independence from Great Britain. Her father, Gibson, was a trader and her mother, Bridget, a market woman. Both were of Ika-Igbo ethnicity from Igbodo and Idumuesah, Delta State, who, like many other industrious Igbos, sojourned to the then-capital of Africa’s most populous nation in search of the opportunities the soon to be independent nation promised.
They settled in the Fadeyi area of the city and had five children. Carol was the third and the apple of her mother’s eyes and she picked up the nickname Oyinbo, the colloquial Nigerian term for a white person, because of her fair skin.
Boisterous, fun-loving and with a thirst for knowledge, she received her primary education at Saint Paul Anglican School, eventually proceeding to Methodist High School, Agbowa. Gibson, like many fathers of the era, saw little benefit in high school education for his daughter.
But Carol defied him and, with Bridget’s blessing, enrolled in the reputable City College.
A competent and able student, the young Carol excelled in English and Maths. She was popular:
her vivaciousness and intelligence drew admiration from both male and female classmates. She secured satisfactory O-levels but there her formal education would end. In those days university was still the sole preserve of the country’s elite, a group to which she did not yet belong, but would soon join.
1970s Lagos was famous for the mesmerising spirit of its nightlife and Carol revelled in it. She claimed victory in beauty pageants and danced her way to acclaim in Lagos Island’s famed nightspots.
Whilst in search of what the future held, a close friend turned her attention to an advert placed by Nigeria Airways, then the darling of African airlines, in a local daily. The national carrier boasted multiple local, regional and international routes and was in search of air hostesses. Carol applied and after a short interview, she soon began plying the domestic routes at the tender age of 18.
Here began a journey that would take her across the world. She often regaled stories of the honour and prestige she felt working in the sky for the national carrier of Africa’s giant but also laughed at the debauched antics of cabin crew and pilots alike as she declined their invitation to join in with the smoking, drinking and merrymaking during overnight stops in cities such as Accra, Abidjan and Freetown.
It was on one of the many regular flights from Lagos to Kano, the historical and political nerve centre of northern Nigeria, that she first met the man she would marry: Chief Adisa Meredith Augustus (AMA) Akinloye. He was chairman of Africa’s largest political party, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and one of the country’s most prominent politicians.
Born into an aristocratic Yoruba family from Ibadan, the largest city in Western Nigeria, Akinloye was among the first Africans to graduate from the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) in the 1940’s. After training as a lawyer, he founded the first- ever political party in Ibadan, the Ibadan Peoples Party (IPP), in 1951 before rising to national prominence.
Akinloye was at the height of his political powers when his path crossed with a young Carol, having led the NPN to victory in the 1979 elections as its maverick chairman, the organiser of party structure and strategy. Known for his oratory, sharp dressing and political finesse, he became besotted on first sight with the striking air hostess with impeccable English and a kind, yet firm demeanour.
Pleasant words were exchanged between the pair but that was as far as it went. Unbeknown to her, she made a lasting impression. On landing, the politician hurriedly called the director of Nigerian Airways enquiring about the details of the air hostess he found impossible to forget. Within days a three-car convoy was seen wandering around the unglamorous neighbourhood of Fadeyi. When Akinloye found her, Carol remembered the popular man from the Kano flight, reluctantly took his card and made him promise not to show up unannounced again. When asked who the man was by her mother, she replied “my school principal”.
A relentless and romantic courting process began in 1980 as he plied her with affection and introduced her to the world of Nigeria’s political, economic and social elite. She seamlessly transitioned into the new lifestyle using her wit, charm and beauty to disarm even the harshest of critics at glamorous parties and state functions. When, by the end of the year, he had asked for her hand in marriage, she was filled with uncertainty owing to the considerable age gap. Carol was just 21 years old whilst Akinloye was in his early 60’s. But a bond had already been formed.
Two rejected proposals followed but Akinloye found imaginative use for the political structure he had helped build by requesting the chieftains of the local NPN chapter in Agbor seek out Gibson and beg him to convince his daughter of Akinloye’s suitability as a husband. The mission was a success. Gibson accepted the union and a hefty bride price was hurriedly agreed. After a whirlwind 14 month of courting, the marriage was finalised.
The union between Chief AMA Akinloye, a Yoruba, and Carol Ebenuwa, an Igbo, took place at the Cathedral of St Peters, Ibadan in the spring of 1982 and was major national news. The occasion was filled with pomp and pageantry and was attended by politicians from all over Nigeria and further afield. The Governor of Imo State, Evans Ewerem, who would later become godfather to one of the newlyweds’ sons, was in attendance alongside the Dr Olusola Saraki, the founder of the Saraki political dynasty, and Adamu Ciroma, who went on to become the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Their marriage received the blessings of traditional institutions on both sides of the ethnic divide.
Her horizons opened like never before. Trips to Rome, Paris and Tokyo followed as Akinloye combined honeymooning with his new wife with meeting political leaders on official business. In later years, Carol often fondly recalled visiting the Colosseum, Eiffel Tower and Senso-ji temple.
Back in Nigeria, the country was gearing up for the 1983 elections and Carol, for her first child. Akinkunmi was born in September 1983 at the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in London and was delivered by Sir George Pinker KVCO, the surgeon and gynaecologist of the British Royal family, who also delivered Princes William and Harry. This delight followed NPN victory in the previous month’s elections as incumbent president Alhaji Shehu Shagari once again defeated Obafemi Awolowo and the UPN in contentious and litigated polls.
But the re-elected government only lasted a further four months. On new year’s eve 1983 General Muhammadu Buhari led a military coup that toppled Shagari and snuffed out the flame of Nigerian democracy for a decade and a half. As a major player in the government, Akinloye was a wanted man. But, with the help of his close confidante, Arisekola Alao, he managed to evade capture on the morning of the coup and was smuggled over the border to Cotonou. From there travelled to the United Kingdom and was granted political asylum by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Akinloye and Thatcher would soon become neighbours and acquaintances, with the Akinloye’s setting up home near the prime minister’s private London residence.
Carol, who had only recently returned to Nigeria with her infant son, was unable to join him on this risky cross border dash. Instead, she was hidden by friends in Benin City. It would be more than three months until she too could make the same perilous journey through Cotonou to join her husband in London.
Despite the dislocation and uncertainty, she quickly settled into her new surroundings. She set about building the trappings of family life in the hope that it would provide comfort for her exiled husband and stability for her soon to be growing family.
Their second son, Akinlagun, was born in September 1986 at the Wellington Hospital, delivered also by Sir George Pinker KVCO. The naming ceremony and the party that followed was filled with politicians and well-wishers both in exile and those who travelled over from Nigeria including Chief T.O.S Benson, Umaru Dikko and Alhaji Galadima.
Happiness was exchanged for sorrow when in June 1988 she received the tragic news of the death of her father Gibson in a Lagos car accident. Wracked with grief, Carol announced that she was returning to Nigeria to bury him. Her husband, aware of the precarious situation in the country and his status as a wanted man, warned against the trip and begged her not to go. She went regardless.
He had been right to worry. The moment she disembarked from the plane at Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos she was detained on orders of the then military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida.
IBB, as he was known, kept her captive as a bargaining chip hoping to force her husband back to Nigeria to face trumped-up charges of corruption. But Akinloye, knowing the steely nature and strong resolve of his wife, refused to trade.
After four months of waiting, Babangida realised he would not lure his prey back to Nigeria. He summoned Carol from detention to meet him in Dodan Barracks, the then-seat of government. She took the opportunity to remonstrate with the General for making her miss her father’s funeral and demanded to be allowed to return to London to care for her two sons. Babangida relented and granted her release.
Not to be perturbed by the travails and strife of the recent years, she threw herself into full-time motherhood and was blessed with twin daughters in March 1992. Taiwo Omolola and Kehinde Oyindasola brought renewed happiness, laughter and love into the family’s lives.
By 1993, Babangida had himself been replaced by another General, Sani Abacha. Throughout Nigeria agitation for the return of democracy grew and in April 1995, Akinloye was finally allowed to return after 10 years in exile.
Carol had grown to love London and, with her children settled in British schools, she decided against uprooting them. So while the father returned from exile, the rest of the family remained in London making it a permanent home.
Carol, the ever doting mother, focused on raising her children in London and ensured they wanted for nothing, while her husband returned to the political fray. Back in Nigeria, he became an elder statesman and a founding member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Chief Akinloye passed on 18th September 2007 at the age of 91 and Carol brought the children back to Nigeria in February 2008 to say their goodbyes to their father and to wish adieu herself to the man who stole her heart.
In the years following her husband’s death, Carol tried her hand at business, establishing an investment and trading company based in London and Abuja, as her children grew older and less dependent. She still held a strong reverence for and connection to Nigeria and supported various family members in their educational and business endeavours.
Her Christian faith grew more devout. Her new journey with God re-energised and comforted her and she became a vigorous member of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries.
Carol’s life was truly one of devotion to her family and her God in which she did not wilt nor waver.
On Wednesday, 27th May, 2020, sudden heart failure ended that life at King’s College Hospital, London and at 60 years of age, brought to a close the story of a special woman.
From humble beginnings to a life of excitement, daring and loving, she will fondly be remembered as the brightest light in all our lives, the star that shone wherever she went and the beautiful lioness that feared nothing. Carol was a woman of valour; strength and dignity were her garb. And also, her gift and her legacy.
She is survived by her children and brother:
Akinkunmi Akinloye BSc
Akinlagun Akinloye BSc MSc
Taiwo Omolola Akinloye LLB MA LPC
Kehinde Oyindasola Akinloye BA
Victor Ebenuwa Bsc.
May her sweet soul Rest In Peace