The Life and Times of Chief Ayoola Akanwo of the Famous Jolliters Pharmacy
The transition of Chief Ayoola Alabi Akanwo, of Jolliters Pharmacists fame, is a reminder that the circle of honest, devout believers and patriotic Nigerians is gradually exiting the land and country they loved so much. Though some have departed at a reasonably expected elderly age, this generally should call for celebration for a fulfilled life. Sadly, some have left us at a very troubling point in Nigeria’s history; and those still alive and in their dotage hope to see a better Nigeria before the end of their journeys. Nevertheless, and despite all the challenges we face daily as a country, the living must bury their dead and bear witness to their lives for moral guidance. We must leave the rest to God and hope that our fellow Nigerian citizens still on this side of glory will continue the legacy of the departed and emulate the good works they left behind.
Chief Akanwo’s departure is particularly sad for many of us and his community at large who have borne witness to his exemplary life. The vacuum he has left among us will be challenging to fill. Why is the sudden and painful transition of Chief Akanwo a national loss for Nigerian Christians, particularly Baptists, the guild of pharmacists, and humanity at large? What lessons can we, the living, learn from his time on earth?
Chief Ayoola Alabi Akanwo was born on October 16, 1934, in Lagos to Chief Oni Akanwo and Madam Bamidele Akanwo of Aawe in Oyo State. His father was educated and worked as railway personnel who traveled around the country and raised his children along the way. Before his death, Baba Omitowoju, as he was fondly called, became the Baba Ijo of the Methodist Church, Ekotedo, Ibadan. Mama Bamidele Akanwo was a skilled trader.
Chief Ayoola Akanwo did his primary school education first at St. Paul’s Breadfruit, Lagos, and later at Ijero Baptist School, Ebute Metta, Lagos. He was baptised at the First Baptist Church, Lagos and attended the Baptist Academy, Broad Street, Lagos, 1950-1955, for his secondary school education. After that, he was admitted to the School of Pharmacy, Yaba, Lagos (1956-1959), with several of his childhood friends, including Chief Adebayo Makinde, the Sagua of Oyo. Upon completing his training at the School of Pharmacy, Chief Akanwo obtained a Diploma as a Chemist and Druggist, as was the custom then, and became a registered Pharmacist on July 3, 1959. After graduation, he worked as a Pharmacist in several government hospitals in the old Western Region (1959 to 1965), in Badagry, Ijebu Ode, Ilaro, and at the Psychiatric Hospital, Aro, Abeokuta. In 1964, he was appointed Senior Pharmacist by the General Hospital, Ikeja, where he worked until he retired from public service.
In 1962, Chief Akanwo married his sweetheart, Mrs. Comfort Akanwo (née Adedigba), of Ogbomoso. In 1964, at the prompting of his childhood friend, Chief Adebayo Makinde, Chief Akanwo joined a group of friends and associates to build a new Pharmaceutical company, Jolliters Chemists, with branches in Ile-Ife, Ibadan, Abeokuta, and in Lagos where the company’s headquarters was based. Chief Akanwo established Jolliters Pharmacy branch in Ile-Ife in 1970. The friendship and bonds among these friends and associates were unparalleled. Jolliters Pharmacy would later become one of the most important indigenous pharmacy companies in Nigeria, until it was dissolved about four years ago when Chief Akanwo and Chief Makinde formed a new corporation, SATA. The new name was derived by combining the two letters of their chieftaincy titles, Sagua-Bobataiyese. The Jolliters associates desired to create a pharmaceutical company that would transcend generations into perpetuity. This certainly made Jolliters Chemists an excellent case study for Nigerian business studies, social sciences, history, and pharmacy. Such analysis may help in recounting the national history of pharmacy in Nigeria: why some business partnerships succeed and others fail.
However, what is most intriguing about Jolliters Chemists and the role Chief Akanwo played is its unique embodiment of the communitarian principle and the family (Ebi) ethos that I noticed among them as their company expanded across Southwestern Nigeria. Jolliters Chemists was modeled as an extended family and friendship-based business that maintained the cardinal principles of Yoruba culture—love, self-help, and communitarianism.
Even though its founders belonged to different faith traditions, they acknowledged, respected, and celebrated each other’s faiths harmoniously. Whenever one celebrated a religious festival, others joined in celebrating with them, acknowledging Yoruba pluralism, peaceful coexistence and a nobility of spirit that is gradually fading away from the society today. The shared discipline and unity among them was strong. They never allowed ‘outsiders’ to have undue influence on their company’s operations; neither did they allow envy, jealousy, or sub-ethnic origins to interfere or to disrupt their unity, since they came from different sub-groups of the South West.
Jolliters Chemists represents a classic case of what Nigerian businesses and enterprises can become if proper discipline, true friendship, and strong moral principles are maintained. Right business practices are fundamental to success because, as we know, failure to adhere to such practices have caused the downfall of many private and family companies and enterprises in Nigeria. I recall one such friendly gathering in Ile-Ife when Chief opened Jolliters’ new office on Ibadan Road, and all the founding members gathered for the ceremony. Even though Chief Akanwo was an evangelical Christian in charge of the Ile-Ife office, one of their members brought a Muslim cleric to offer a special prayer for protection and success, Chief Akanwo consented. I also recall the young sales clerk at the new shop stepping out to drop her money into a prayer bowl in front of the Muslim cleric, giving her prayer as a worker in the establishment that someday they would be blessed to own their businesses. Chief Akanwo’s business ethic captivated me. Until his last day in Ile-Ife before traveling abroad, he was regularly in his pharmacy shop. His fervent prayer life never interrupted his professional life.
Chief Akanwo was a devout Christian, a role model, and a moral witness. As a Baptist, his religious practice was unprecedented; he was ever mindful of the higher calling of the Christian faith. Having personally experienced the prayer life espoused in Chief and Mama’s home, I can write endlessly about Chief Akanwo’s love for God, his neighbors, and humanity in general. Unlike several Nigerian Christians—even clergymen and women—who profess publicly to love God, but fail to extend similar love to their neighbors, Chief Akanwo lived out and expressed his Christianity in honour of God as an acknowledgment of God’s presence in his life. Chief’s moral sensibilities and commitment to good deeds, charity towards his neighbors, including his relations and outsiders alike, many deeds he did anonymously, were almost as sacred as a covenant between Chief Akanwo and his God. It is no wonder, then, that since his death on May 27, 2020, numerous testimonies came pouring in —even from strangers who had just a single encounter with him—about his generosity, his kindness to the poor, the widowed, and the underprivileged.
Chief Akanwo was well-versed in Scripture and Christian worship, a tribute to his Baptist background. Through my encounters with him, I appreciated the depth of Nigerian Baptist Congregational understanding and interpretation of Scripture. For many years, during my field research in Ile-Ife, I intermittently stayed with the family of Chief and Mrs. Akanwo. No one in the household ever missed the early morning prayers, which began at around 6 AM with praise and worship. Baba would always be there before everyone else, rendering close to two or three songs before we all gathered for prayer. One of his favorite lyrics that I particularly remember and loved was “Three Hallelujahs is Not Enough for the praise of God,” which would have us all shouting anywhere from ten to fifteen “Hallelujahs” at a time! He invited us all to read the Bible together, to recite a memory verse, and to offer prayers. It was here, I suppose, that I began to think about the notion of what I would later call “rereading scripture” in my scholarship. The term conveys how scripture—whether of the Bible or the Quran—provides new meaning and lessons each time the same passages are reread.
Chief Akanwo’s Christianity did not prevent him from participating in Ile-Ife’s city life and social circles. He was a member of the Lion’s Club, the Gideon’s and Bible Societies, which often took him to visit institutions and places around the greater Ile-Ife area, distributing bibles and evangelizing. Not only was he a committed member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Eleyele, Ile-Ife, but also he chaired many of the strong church associations, notably Ibukun Oluwa, Morning Star, and Itesiwaju. He was a choir member and Lydia Society patron, serving as a member of the Royal Ambassador and an acting church leader during the resident priest’s interregnum; he was chosen because of his in-depth knowledge of the Bible. Chief Akanwo was also a benevolent philanthropist and benefactor of the Church. One of the church’s senior members described his transition, thus: ‘a big fish has disappeared from the Church’s ocean of existence.’
Chief Akanwo’s interest in Education made the Akanwo’s home a place where his relatives, friends, and even strangers sent their children to live and attend high school and the University. They were confident their children would undergo strict moral and Christian upbringing, sound tutoring, and spiritual support under Chief and Mrs. Akanwo’s roof. The number of children who lived in his household is too numerous to count; we could argue that almost a hundred children passed through Chief and Mrs. Akanwo’s care. Many of these children and teenagers have since become essential members of society today. Here are just a few:
Dr. Olabisi Adigun of Bowen University, Dr. Diran Amosu, an Anesthesiologist in Atlanta, USA; Chief Akanwo’s niece, Dr. Mrs. Olufunso Amosun, the wife of Senator Ibikunle Amosun, past Governor of Ogun State, Abeokuta, Mr. Tunde Owolabi, a Banker and Group Executive in the First Bank, Lagos; Mrs. Adekunmi Adegunle, RN, of New York, Ms. Kudi Badmus, a Chief Financial officer in Lagos, Adebayo Jones, a London based world renowned Fashion designer, Dr Yinka Oduwole, a Pastor in UK, Yanju Makinde, a pharmacist in USA, Dr Femi Akinboboye, a physician in UK, and many others. It is gratifying to learn that the young men and women who lived in Chief and Mrs. Akanwo’s home in Ile Ife recently built a befitting library for the Ebenezer Secondary School in Ile Ife, in memory and honor of the deceased.
Among this esteemed class of benefactors, I give an honorable mention to His Royal Highness, Oba Moses Olaleye, the Agbokejoye IV, the Oba of Ilogbo Eremi, Badagry, Lagos State, whom Chief and Mrs. Akanwo took under their wing as a ward when he was only a teenager and an undergraduate at the University of Lagos. Kabiyesi, in deep appreciation of their benevolence and guidance, bestowed upon Chief Akanwo the Chieftaincy Title of Bobatayese, in recognition of Chief’s contributions to his upbringing.
Chief Akanwo’s love for his relations and in-laws was deep and genuine. This past academic year, I was on my sabbatical leave. By the time I returned to Boston in March, Chief Akanwo had already arrived in California for his medical checkup. He had asked of me from my wife, his niece, many times, and when he finally heard that I had returned home, even on his sickbed, he began to hum to my wife the famous song, “Ajala Travelled All Over The World.” Such fondness could only come from a person who nurtured deep and unprecedented love for others and towards one who is simply a nephew-in-law. From that incident, I drew another lesson of life on the love and relationship between young couples and their in-laws. Whenever these relationships reach a stage where the couple begins to see the in-laws as birth parents, rather than as in-laws, the association has transcended a significant threshold to deep love and familial harmony. As traditional Yoruba communities in their wisdom uphold, marriage is indeed a union of two extended families, rather than the individualist Western world’s notion that limits marriage relationships to one person and their partner.
Chief Akanwo belonged to many Christian associations, including the Egbe Ifelodun Christian Society in the greater Oyo Metropolis, an association of Christians of all denominations established in Oyo 65 years ago, predating the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) as a unifying body of Christian fraternity. I mention CAN to demonstrate that the need for Christian unity through lay-led associations began from such humble sources in Southwestern Nigeria. Egbe Ifelodun Christian Society’s founding members intended to create an organization of Christian friends to participate in charity and mission work and thereby discouraged their members from belonging to what they considered to be unchristian associations.
In summing up who this great man was, Chief Akanwo’s son-in-law, the Rev. Tade Agbesanwa —in a Church farewell service at Custom Baptist Church, London, two weeks ago—rightly remarked that one central theme in Chief Akanwo’s life was his faithfulness. Faithfulness to his wife, children, relations, neighbors, home town, adopted town, Ile-Ife, his company, the church of God, and to his country. As he preached, my mind returned to my childhood upbringing and how one of my teachers in the secondary school, the late Chief Mrs. Victoria Oni, made us memorize a verse for a school assembly that keeps ringing in my ears to this day: ‘A little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness in a little thing is a great thing.’ How I wish our leaders would adopt this dictum for our national life as Chief Akanwo did.
Chief Akanwo is survived by his wife, Deaconess Comfort Akanwo, their two children, Mrs. Abosede Agbesanwa, an educationist in London, Olusoji Akanwo, a Pharmacist in the United States, and their spouses, the Rev. Tade Agbesanwa and Mrs. Bisi Akanwo, a lawyer, and his grandchildren. Baba is also survived by his siblings, Mrs. Mojoyinola Fagbenro, my mother-in-law, Mrs. Olusola Odesanya, the mother of the wife of the former governor of Ogun State, Senator Ibikunle Amosu, Mrs. Titilayo Kesinro, and five younger brothers: Mr. Agboola Akanwo, Mr. Bolaji Akanwo, Mr. Sunday Akanwo, and Mr. Lekan Akanwo, and numerous nephews and nieces, including my wife, Mrs. Modupe Olupona. Tributes and messages of condolences from the church, the civil society businesses, and the communities where Chief Akawo had worked keep pouring into his Akanwo’s country home in Ile-Ife. His Royal Highness, the Elejigbo of Ejigbo, Oba Oyeyode Oyesosin II, whose daughter Funmi also lived with the Akanwo family when she was a student in Ile-Ife, remembered him as an exemplary Christian, prayerful, kind, humble and highly principled.
Chief Akanwo has fought the good fight and has faithfully finished the race of life, and now rest from his earthly labour. We believe that his service to God and humanity has not been in vain. He has undoubtedly inherited the covetous crown of glory.
Baba will be buried on Friday, October 16, in his home town Aawe in Oyo state.
May his place of rest be vested in peace and power.
Professor Jacob K. Olupona, FNAL, NNOM