Oladayo Popoola at 80: A General as Exemplar 

Tunde Olusunle

 If not for the military coup of December 31, 1983 which torpedoed Nigeria’s Second Republic and threw him into the public glare, he would have remained the anonymous military professional he had always been.

About 20 years before that putsch which terminated the administration of President Shehu Usman Shagari and threw up Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State, he had enlisted in the Nigerian Army. He desired to pursue a career in a vocation he had long salivated about.

Beginning from 1964 when he was in the fourth form in Aiyedaade Grammar School, Ikire in the old Western Region, he had begun this quest. That year and the following, he wrote entrance examinations for the Nigerian Defence Academy, (NDA), Kaduna but was not offered admission.

Fate finally beckoned to him in 1967 when the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War impelled the military authorities to recruit more officers. His possession of a West African School Certificate, (WASC) enabled his integration into the army via short service commission in 1967.

Thereafter, he was posted to the “Federal Guards, Lagos” most probably the contemporary equivalent of the “Brigade of Guards” which was responsible for the security of the seat of federal administration. He found himself in the thick of battle in 1968 in Asaba, in the former Midwestern State, surviving a bullet graze to his head.

Between 1971 and 1975, he was an instructor at the Nigerian Military Training College, (NMTC), Zaria jetting off to India within the period to attend the Battalion Support Weapons Course, in 1974. He equally had on-the-job training at the Royal Army Records Office, Stanmore, England in 1976. He trained at the Army Command and Staff College, (ACSC) between 1977 and 1978, which prepared him for elevation to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. From Port Harcourt to Yola and thenceforth to India and Kaduna, the itinerant imperative of his job took him regularly around.

Whereas his regimental calling kept him away from the public sphere, things changed in January 1984 when the Buhari government posted Oladayo Popoola then still a Lieutenant Colonel to his home state of Oyo as Military Governor. The Oyo State of that time is today’s Oyo and Osun.

Buhari was unceremoniously unseated on August 27, 1985 barely 20 months in office and replaced by Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida his Chief of Army Staff, (COAS). Babangida believed that military officers overseeing the states as chief executives would be more objective in the discharge of their duties if they served outside of their home environments.

Reaffirming his confidence in Popoola, Babangida redeployed him to Ogun State in 1985 and remained in office until 1986 when he returned to regular military duties.

Popoola promptly overcame the initial shock of his transmutation from strictly military to a quasi-political official regimen. He needed to de-politicise the civil service; manage a bloated bureaucracy with as many as 44 Permanent Secretaries at the apex of statecraft and reorganise an education sector substantially bastardised in the name of politics. The “free education” programme enunciated by the Unity Party of Nigeria, (UPN) and operationalised in the South West where the party was dominant, ensured state governments picked the bills for primary and secondary school pupils.

The Oyo State Executive Council under Popoola, however, was compelled to reintroduce fees at the secondary school level, to forestall the breakdown of education at that level. He equally deftly navigated the time bomb of the rotation of the chairmanship of the Oyo State Council of Chiefs, unwittingly planted by his immediate predecessor, Dr Omololu Olunloyo.

His 20-month “apprenticeship” in Oyo State facilitated his seamless integration into the Ogun State system when he succeeded Donaldson Oladipo Diya September 4, 1985. Popoola met a disinterested populace and disenchanted civil service, allegedly terrorised by his predecessor in consonance with the “no-nonsense” mantra of the Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon government.

Popoola introduced a rare populist programme, the “Village Square Meeting” which took governance to the people. Commissioners and senior civil servants were encouraged to visit the people of Ogun State in their communities and villages, by the Popoola milieu. They discerned the sentimentts of the people and relayed same to the military governor for necessary action. He wrote personalised letters to privileged indigenes of Ogun State who stayed away to avoid collisions with the Diya government.

Upon attaining the rank of Colonel in 1986, Oladayo Popoola was posted to the Army Headquarters as Director of Personnel Services in the Adjutant-General’s Office. He attended the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos in 1990 and returned to the position of Director, Manpower Planning, Army Headquarters in 1991. Side by side with his military duties, Popoola registered for a part-time, five-year course in Law at the University of Lagos. He was excused to attend the one-year programme preceding the formal call-to-bar of attorneys, at the Nigerian Law School, Lagos in 1991, the same year he was promoted Brigadier-General. Back at the Army Headquarters his favourite grounds, he became Director of Personnel Services in 1993 and soon after, Director of Legal Services.

He was Chief of Administration in 1994; Chief of Logistics from 1997 to 1998 and then General Officer Commanding, (GOC) 82 Division of the Nigerian Army headquartered in Enugu. Concurrently, he was appointed member of the Provisional Ruling Council, (PRC), the highest policy and administrative body of the military government. That was the moniker crafted and preferred by Sani Abacha the army General who swept aside the “Interim National Government,” (ING) situated by his former principal, Babangida, at the beginning of his reign in November 1993.

Popoola was promoted Major-General in 1996. As Chief of Administration, (Army), he fully supported the initiative of a post-service housing scheme for the Army under the Abacha government. Popoola had justified his proposal against the backdrop of the imperative for decent accommodation for officers and men who wholly and selflessly invest in safeguarding and defending the country. Sources close to the former military Head of State recall that Abacha bought into the proposal chiefly because of the flawless integrity of the initiator, Oladayo Popoola. The Nigerian Army Housing Scheme has since been replicated by other services, military and paramilitary.

Indeed, the self-funding scheme has since become a pacesetter for the nation’s then nascent affordable housing industry.

In March 1999, he chaired the Presidential Committee on Development Options for the Niger Delta. The Committee recommended increased funding for infrastructural development in that oil-bearing catchment of the country, and the setting up of a “Niger Delta Consultative Council,” (NDCC).

He retired voluntarily from military service after logging 32 eventful years in service, in 1999. Many of his colleagues have been recycled in the nation’s political scheme especially with the advent of democratic rulership in the past 25 years. Popoola, however, has functioned from the quiet corner of a private entrepreneur and community leader, within the context of Ogbomoso his birthplace and Oyo State at large.

For over six years, he has been the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Precious Cornerstone University, (PCU), which is located in Ibadan, as part of the reinvestment of his experiences into the national development project.

Oladayo Popoola was born on February 26, 1944 in Isale Ora,Ogbomoso. He grew up at Nguru in present day Yobe State,  Abeokuta and Ibadan owing to the itinerant character of his father’s vocations as tailor and trader. He attended Baptist Day School, Ijaiye, Abeokuta for his elementary education, and African Church Secondary Modern School, Apata, Ibadan as well as Aiyedaade Grammar School, Ikire for his secondary education.

A thanksgiving service was held in Ibadan on Monday February 26, 2024 to commemorate the event of his 80th birthday. Governor Seyi Makinde lauded Popoola’s uncommon altruism. He alluded to manner in which Popoola competently steered a crack team of elder statesmen, including Professor Daud Sangodoyin to amicably resolve the contestation between Oyo and Osun states for the ownership of the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, (LAUTECH).

The institution was a subject of fiery controversy between Oyo and Osun states having being actualized before the excision of contemporary Osun State in 1991, from the ribs of the erstwhile monolithic Oyo State, with campuses in the original owner states.

National President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, (PFN), Bishop Wale Oke extolled Popoola’s humility, fear of God and fiscal frugality. Pastor Dotun Ajayi of the Vine Branch Church who delivered the sermon at the event congratulated Popoola for making it to the pedestals of octogenarians “in a country where life expectancy is 47 years for males and 52 for females. Ogun State which Popoola also served as military governor was represented by Noimot Salako-Oyedele, Deputy Governor of the state.

A Gala Night dinner was also held for General Popoola by senior serving and retired officers of the Nigerian Army Second Division domiciled in Ibadan. The tribute of the Chief of Army Staff, (COAS), Lieutenant-General Taoreed Abiodun Lagbaja to the celebrant was presented by the General Officer Commanding, (GOC) 2 Division, Major-General Bamidele Alabi.

According to Lagbaja, Popoola’s “commitment to excellence and mentorship has been truly inspiring. Your legacies continue to live on and on in the hearts of those you have guided in our noble profession. Your impact in different segments of the society and the country at large has remained indelible in the sands of time.”

As a young Major, Popoola wedded his heartthrob Adebisi Adeoye on December 27, 1975. The union has been graciously blessed with children and grandchildren who are holding their own.

For his unalloyed service to country in the course of his exemplary career, he has since been decorated with the respected honour of “Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic, (OFR).” In April 2022, Popoola was conferred with an honorary doctorate, honoris causa by LAUTECH in acknowledgement of his contributions to national growth, among several other recognitions and acclamations.

Olusunle, PhD, poet, journalist, scholar and author is a Fellow of the Association of Nigerian Authors (FANA).

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