Diplomacy of Funeral Ceremonies: The Historiography  of Tributes to Ambassador Omotayo Ogunsulire

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

“Funeral Diplomacy à la Nduka Obaigbena: The Challenge of a Citizen Diplomacy-Driven New Nigeria” was the title of this column on 11 September, 2022. In the column, we noted that, in the eyes of the US Legal.com, ‘funeral diplomacy refers to the conference held by world leaders when they assemble together to pay their homage to a deceased international figure’ We also traced its genesis to the Feast of the Dead, which the Algonkians of the Upper Great Lakes of Canada in the 17th Century celebrated.

Without whiff of doubt, every given stratum of society has its own mania of burying its people. States as units of analysis in international relations also have their specific mania of honouring the dead and burying them. In other words, the diplomacy of funeral ceremonies varies according to traditions and individuals. The style of Nduka Obaigbena was grandiose in design, international in scope, and cultural in participation.

Funeral diplomacy is of particular interest as an instrument of analysis in the determination of behavior of political actors in international relations, especially in terms of testimonies often given as primary sources. When different people perceive a dead person the same way, one truth can be easily identified about the deceased. In this regard, the testimonies cannot but go beyond sentimental evaluation. It is particularly from this perspective that the funeral ceremonies of Ambassador Omotayo Ogunsulire, the Bobajiro of Ondo Kingdom, are quite interesting in terms of foreign policy implications and lessons for the future growth and development of Nigeria.

In understanding the personality of Ambassador Ogunsulire, the sermon delivered by the Lord Bishop of the Diocese of Ondo, Anglican Communion, Rt. Reverend Dr. Stephen Adeniran Oni, (PhD), on Friday, 11th January, 2024 at The Cathedral Church of Saint Stephen, Oke Aluko, Ondo City, cannot be enough. He underscored the uselessness of vanity upon vanity, the meaninglessness of not being available to assist in Ondo Community development and not quickly accepting Jesus Christ as a permanent source of hope for the better. He extolled the roles of Ambassador Ogunsulire to the delight of the congregation and called on everyone to accept the Lord, Jesus Christ. And true enough, I enjoyed the sermon. Most interesting were the several issues raised for further academic reflections.

Historiography of the Tributes

 The tributes were of three categories: those contributed by the family, especially children, uncles, nieces, grandchildren, which are all very-thought provoking; those from ambassadorial colleagues and government, and those of distant observers and well-wishers. The renditions of Club ’75, currently presided over by Dr. Seyi Roberts were inspiring and encouraging. It was revealed in the church that the Anthem of the Club was composed by Ambassador Ogunsulire. The tributes of the Ondo Boys High School (OBHS), the alma mater of Ambassador Ogunsulire recalled the solidity of education received by Ambassador Ogunsulire during his time. The old and young alumnae and alums of OBHS, led by Mr. Majeed Akinkuolie, and assisted by the executive members of the youths under the headship of the Senior Boy of the school, gave befitting tributes.

However, a quick glimpse at the published tributes in the Order of Funeral Service, clearly shows that the deceased was more than extraordinary. In the eyes of Kolade Ogunsulire, Ambassador Ogunsulire’s son, two words repeatedly used to describe his father were ‘integrity and humility.’  Yinka Ogunsulire, a daughter of the deceased, said her father was ‘a truly remarkable man,’ who ‘loved Eja Agbabu, hotbread rolls, croissants, kippers, Marmite and Horlicks,’ and who also had ‘an incredible memory.’ Ronke Ogunsulire recalled how her father would call and sing Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” in the family. The distant observation by Daryn is noteworthy: ‘in fact, you were kind and attentive to people of all walks of life, never talked about your achievements and were always willing to eagerly listen to what other people had to say. There is so much we can all learn from your way of being.’

While many tributes noted that the deceased was really a quintessential and an impeccable ambassador, one of his grandchildren, Iyimofe, looked at life after death in the same mania as the wife of Ambassador Ogunsulire, Soba. In the words of Mrs. Soba Ogunsulire, ‘adieu, my beloved husband, until we meet again. Meet again, we surely will, for I am holding you to your promise to seek me out in the afterlife. I know how tenacious you can be.’ This tribute is very profound in implications.

Belief in meeting again is also belief in life after death. The writings of Lobsang Drapper abound in this case. Second, Mrs. Ogunsulire also strongly believes in the tenacity of her husband and particularly as a person who kept his words. Thirdly and more significantly, she sent a message through her tribute to the deceased not to forget his promise to seek her out in the life beyond. In other words, if there will be another opportunity for remarriage in the kingdom of God, the Ambassador should look for her old Soba. Marriage on earth and marriage in heaven, Why not?

Iyimofe made her tribute more of an anger and strong belief that the demise of her grandfather will not separate her from the deceased. As she put it, ‘it hurts me you’ve left, and I really wish that you could have been here when I finally make it big in life. But I know you’ll watch from heaven.’ Again, this tribute is very thought-provoking. Iyimofe knows for sure that better days are still coming, to borrow the words of Jimmy Cliff, that sooner or later she would make it big in life, meaning she would be very successful in life, She wants the deceased to be alive by then to witness. In her thinking, she believes that nothing would prevent her grandfather from still observing from heaven. But who says that Iyimofe is wrong?

At both the diplomatic and governmental levels, the tributes can be more scholarly in analysis. The first tribute was that of General. Dr. Yakubu Gowon, GCFR, alias, ‘Go On With One Nigeria,’ former Head of state and Commander-in-Chief, Federal Republic of Nigeria. The tribute was titled, ‘The Late Ambassador Omotayo Ogunsulire: The 11th Apostle Bows Out.’ Three issues were noteworthy in the tribute: the goodness in the diplomatic career of the deceased, the status of Ambassador Ogunsulire as a diplomatic disciple; and General Gowon’s prayers to the people of Nigeria.

As regards the goodness of Ambassador Ogunsulire’s diplomatic career, General Gowon first said Nigeria was blessed as a nation with the Nigerian citizenship of the deceased. General Gowon put it this way: ‘there is no way one would recall the sterling career of the recently deceased Ambassador Omotayo Ogunsulire and not admit that Nigeria is truly a blessed nation with some of the most brilliant and proudly patriotic citizens anyone can find in any part of the world.’ This is another way of saying that Ambassador Ogunsulire was one of the most brilliant and proudly patriotic citizens of Nigeria.

Perhaps more touchingly, General Gowon also had it that he had acquaintance with Ambassador Ogunsulire before he became Head of State and that the deceased was ‘among the twelve outstanding and deeply conscientious career diplomats recruited into our nation’s Foreign Service before independence. They demonstrated exceptional brilliance that justified their being nicknamed the 12 Apostles within the country’s international relations circles.

Eventually when General Gowon became the Head of State in 1966 and he got more opportunities to know better the deceased, ‘the 30-month Civil War made me appreciate him more as he demonstrated exceptional patriotism and loyalty to the cause of the Federal Government. He gave very good reports and his brilliance in projecting Nigeria in Francophone Africa helped my administration to weather the storm,’ General Gowon admitted. This was a firsthand attestation that can be relied on in foreign policy inquiries.

On the issue of status of Ambassador Ogunsulire as a disciple, General Gowon gave two impressions that may require further inquiry. From the title of his tribute, ‘the late Ambassador Omotayo Ogunsulire: The ‘11th Apostle Bows Out,’ General Gowon said in paragraph 6 of the tribute, that ‘on November 20, 2033, Ambassador Ogunsulire, at age 93, became the 11th “Apostle” to pass on to eternal glory, leaving just one standing, Chief Phillips Asiodu…’

The first meaning is made clear with the point that only one of the 12 Apostles is still living, thus implying that, Ambassador Ogunsulire is the eleventh disciple to die or that ten people had died before him. However, this assumption is challenged by the title of the tribute which says that 11th Apostle bows out. This sub-title gives the impression of position in the discipleship. Interrogatively put, was Ambassador Ogunsulire in the order of precedence the eleventh in number? In the forthcoming memoirs of the deceased, Ambassador Ogunsulire discussed extensively the making and membership of the Apostles but did not indicate his own position. Probably the sagacious Super Permanent Secretary, Chief Phillips Asiodu, can still make further pronouncement on this matter before he too bows out at a later date more convenient for Nigeria.

Finally, on Gowon’s prayers, he asked ‘God to grant eternal rest to the soul of Ambassador Omotayo Ogunsulire. May his good works remain evergreen.’ Very good prayer. However The goodness of Ambassador Ogunsulire’s good works remaining evergreen is both largely dependent on the Federal Government, the descendants of the deceased, and on the 44th Osemawe of Ondo Kingdom, Oba Adesimbo Victor Aderenle Ademefun Kiladejo, the Jilo III. The Federal Government can find a way of immortalizing all the 12 Apostles, living or dead. The children can do the same, by particularly ensuring the completion of the memoirs of their father. The role of the Osemawe cannot also be different, especially that the deceased was also one of his traditional chiefs. The establishment of an Ogunsulire Centre for Cultural Diplomacy in Ondo cannot be out of place.

Historiography and Diplomacy 

General Gowon ended his tribute with a request that his sympathy be accepted, that is, ‘please accept our condolences.’ The request did not go with the use of ‘please accept the assurances of…’ This means that there is nothing diplomatic about his condolences. When the assurances of high regards or other sentiments are expressed in notes verbales, the extent of sincerity of purpose cannot be guaranteed because inter-communications between and among diplomatic missions follow a standard format. Thus, the expression of acceptance of condolences by General Gowon is devoid of any insinuations in this case of funeral ceremonies.

The same is true of the tribute of General Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military Head of State and President of Nigeria. In the opening paragraph of his Letter of Condolence to Mrs. Soba Ogunsulire, General Obasanjo, who simply refused to use any title, either traditional, official or officious, but simply ‘Olusegun Obasanjo,’ said ‘please accept the expression of my sincerest condolences on the passing to Eternal Glory of your beloved husband, Ambassador Tayo Ogunsulire.’ In this regard, can it be rightly argued that Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has different levels of condolences, such as ordinary level of sincere condolences or higher or highest level of most sincere condolences?

Without any jot of doubt, the mere fact that the former President said that recently, he ‘had an idea to harness the invaluable experiences and wisdom of our elderly retired Career Ambassadors, with the aim of domiciling same in the archives of the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, Abeokuta,’’ cannot but be most regretful with the demise of Ambassador Ogunsulire. A continued major source of information is lost. Chief Obasanjo, an academic statesman and politician, not only sees the deceased as ‘a gentleman per excellence,’ but also admitted that Nigeria lost a ‘gentleman. As he put it, ‘Ambassador Ogunsulire and a few other erudite elderly Ambassadors in their 80s and 90s were gracious enough to grant video-interviews in this regard. The video revealed his (Ogunsulire) academic prowess, cerebral depth, and enviable retentive memory, as well as the vastness of his diplomatic experience. His unfortunate demise equally signifies the departure of (one) of the last of the career officers among the Twelve Disciples.’ 

The diplomacy of the tribute is perhaps most interesting. General Obasanjo made it clear that ‘regardless of age, the final departure of a beloved is like a dagger through the heart, but please find solace in the treasure-trove of fond memories that you and the children had of his life as a husband, father, and grandfather.’ He concluded with ‘may the Good Lord grant you, the entire family, and all the beloved ones he left behind, the fortitude and resilience to bear the grief. And may his gentle soul find solace in the bosom of the Almighty.’ In essence, for Chief Obasanjo, the deceased was ‘a gentleman per excellence, and a quintessential Diplomat.’ But who really is a gentleman before considering a gentleman per excellence?

Ambassador Ogunsulire variously referred to as ‘Omo Baba Julius, Uncle Tayo, Gentleman, and Humble Man,’ had one lesson of marital protocol he always taught people. It was Professor Ejilayo Fasehun, a nephew to the deceased, who told the story in his own tribute. As Professor Ejilayo put it, ‘…during one of his (Ambassador Ogunsulire) visits to Ondo, he called on us at Olaniyan. He already told us it was a flying visit as we are getting ready to go to the church. He (Ambassador) observed I was fidgeting because I thought my wife was taking forever to get ready. He (Ambassador) sat and asked me (Ejilayo) to take a seat and then told me an axiom: ‘relax, you are not ready until your wife is ready.’ Then after my wife was finally ready, I (Professor) went to the driver seat. Uncle Tayo stood by the passenger’s side and asked me to stand with him on the passenger’s side. He then opened the car for my Agbeke (Professor’s wife), let her seat, and then shut the door. And then he told me, ‘a gentleman should open the car door for his wife and allow her to seat before starting the car.’

Mrs. Agbeke Fasehun corroborated her husband’s point and agreed on how to be a gentleman. She explained it more simply: ‘Baba Ambassador told my husband “you are not ready until your wife is ready.” He then led me to the front of the car, opened the car and made sure I sat comfortably on the seat with my seat belt on, then he closed the door and told my husband now, she is ready, be a gentleman.’ 

The two tributes-in-one not only gives one definition of a gentleman and a gentleman per excellence, but also a teaching in western protocolar studies. Even though the protocol is very un-African, the biblical teaching of a man loving his wife and the wife respecting her husband is very consistent with love and kindness showing to one’s wife. But to what extent do African diplomats, and particularly the plenipotentiary ambassadors open car doors for their spouses? Many of them have chauffeurs and orderlies to open and shut their car doors. But should or shouldn’t there be another way of respecting one another in the context of official inter-state relations in Africa? Whatever is the case, Ambassador Ogunsulire was a man of official and officious protocol, well grounded in cultural diplomacy. He was an advocate of respect in all facets of life.

For the general purpose of clearly understanding the issue of 12 disciples that laid the foundation of Nigeria’s Foreign Service, it is quite important to note that there were two sets of 12 Disciples. The original or pioneer 12 diplomatic disciples were those that joined the Foreign Service in 1957: Leslie Harriman, Adedokun Haastrup, John Ukaegbu, Omotayo Ogunsulire, Muhammad Aminu Sanusi, etc. The second set of 12 Foreign Service Officers joined in 1958 and they included Adegboyega Ladipo, Ignatius Olisemeka, Olu Sanu, etc.

What is noteworthy here is that the 14th Emir of Kano, His Highness, Khalifa Muhammad Sanusi, CON, noted that his father and Ambassador Ogunsulire received training at Oxford before being attached to the British High Commisions and Embassies before independence. In the eyes of the Emir, ‘Ambassador Ogunsulire was the undisputed Africa expert. He spent the bulk of his career in African countries and was Director Africa Affairs at a time when he crafted a foreign policy in which Africa was the centre-piece.’ 

Different perceptions of Ambassador Ogunsulire but one common agreement: he is indeed extraordinary. The only surviving disciple of the first generation of diplomatic disciples, Chief Phillip Asiodu, told us about Ambassador Ogunsulire’s private life: he was ‘always a very amiable and fine gentleman. He was very devoted to friends. He was always an excellent company full of wit and good humour… Adieu great Nigerian, very distinguished diplomat and technocrat and dear friend, Ambassador Omotayo Ogunsulire…’ I hereby join Chief Asiodu in saying adieu and also availing myself of this opportunity to ask the Super Perm Sec to give Nigeria’s diplomatic scholars the benefit of his memoirs. 

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