When submitting its report to the Lagos State governor, Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu this week, the Chairman of the six-man panel set up by the state government to investigate the causes of last year’s Ikoyi high rise building collapse, Mr Toyin Ayinde, made a profound statement. According to the President of the National Institute of Town Planners, “We need to note, however, building collapse is rooted in the collapse of values, morals and ethics, which we need to work on as a nation. We cannot sow the wind and not expect to reap the whirlwind. Therefore, ethics and due diligence need to be restored”. This wisdom incidentally is at the very core of politician and elder statesman, Chief Bisi Akande’s new book, ‘My Participations’, which has been generating considerable ripples ever since its release to the public late last year. Some are of the impression that Chief Akande was unduly and haughtily self-righteous in the portrayal of his personal integrity and moral uprightness. Others, obviously angered at the author’s unrestrained frankness in expressing his views about them, responded emotionally attempting to discredit both book and author mostly without reading the memoirs. Nothing I have read so far, however, succeeds in credibly and convincingly disproving the author’s claims of his personal incorruptibility in the book.
Character matters, indeed supremely so, is the theme of the book. Which reminds me of a story I once read that, while the Great Wall of China proved militarily invincible and impenetrable by enemies, the empire’s defenses were successfully breached when some of those guarding its massive gates succumbed to bribes by her adversaries. Righteousness exalts a nation, the scriptures admonish, and sin is a reproach to a people. In many reviews of the book, several instances have been cited right from the author’s childhood through school as well as his professional and political careers when he demonstrated and justified his reputation for impeccable integrity. There is no need to repeat those episodes in this piece.
Yet, it seems that some of those who have written on the book launch without reading the book, have the mistaken impression that Chief Akande was either impoverished or a man of meager material substance before his foray into politics. Nothing could be more erroneous. Yes, even today, Papa Akande cannot be described as stupendously wealthy. But he was already an accomplished, successful and reasonably comfortable professional before his advent into politics and public service. For instance, Chief Akande relates that after his first tour of service as a teacher in Omu-Aran Muslim School and later at Oro Muslim School in 1959, “my nine-month salaries were paid in arrears which was almost £105 (One hundred and five pounds). The money was too much for me to handle and I headed home to Ila to seek the advice and assistance of my uncle, Alhaji Sumonu Adesina. I knew nothing about banks and savings. I dared not keep such a large amount of money with me or with anybody…My uncle and I finally agreed that the best thing for me to do was to build a house. I was 20 years old and now as a salary earner, my uncle believed I had come of age”.
This was how that early in life Chief Akande started the construction of “a five-bedroom bungalow with a front corridor for family relaxation, and additional three rooms at the back to serve as general kitchen, an uncovered bathroom and a pit toilet”. The building was on a plot of land allotted to him by his maternal grandmother on the ruins of his late maternal great grandfather’s home nearest to her husband’s home. The author writes that the house was roofed during the Christmas period of 1960. Of course, Chief Akande writes with infectious fondness of his “fourteen productive and interesting years with British Petroleum” where due to dint of his industry, competence and integrity he rose to the upper rungs of the company’s management with attractive remuneration and perks. When he left BP to serve in politics in 1979, it was on a leave of absence with the opportunity to return to his career at the company at the expiration of his tenure of political service. This availability to him of an alternative address outside politics no doubt greatly influenced Chief Akande’s readiness to quit public office on principle if necessary. A columnist wrote that the author refrained from mentioning that it was the General Muhammadu Buhari administration that unjustly jailed both he and Chief Bola Ige along with other politicians after the collapse of the Second Republic in December 1983. This is untrue. Chief Akande referred to this copiously in chapter 14 of the book (page 191).
As the author writes, “I had gained nothing materially from holding public office for four years. As SSG and Deputy Governor, my take home pay was much lower than what I was earning as an executive of BP. In the two offices I held, I had no authority to approve government expenditure. I never took bribe and I never gave bribe to anyone. I felt I would soon be vindicated. I was owing BP, my former employers, for loans on my only landed property. I had only N2,400 of my own in all my bank accounts in the whole world. But as time went on, I found that it was not as simple as I was thinking”.
There is an amazing honesty and transparency in Chief Akande’s rendering of his ,life saga that is uncommon with most autobiographies. When he decided on principle to resign from Chief Bola Ige’s government before the governor turned down his voluntary exit, the author writes, “I was anxious to escape a job that paid me less than one third of my emoluments at BP, but was putting me in terrible limelight that would make me spend beyond my means…Honestly, I was already living in penury on a salary of a little over one thousand Naira per month. I had just borrowed N15,000 (Fifteen thousand Naira) from Chief Biola Morakinyo to augment my wife’s merchandise as a distributor and trader. I saw a quick reunion with my family in Lagos as something to look forward to…I was overwhelmed with excitement and anxious to leave before any public announcement of my resignation”.
On his late wife’s immense contributions to his economic and personal fortunes, Chief Akande again writes with astonishing candor, “There was one important change I noticed after our marriage. My monthly salary with the oil company was good, but I was always broke because I roamed about, drinking with friends and spending beyond my means. Therefore, I was in abject poverty. It appeared to me, however, that marriage made me so responsible that friends who used to use my apartment for their romantic escapades stopped and began to treat our home with respect. Soon, I began to have savings and investments. Throughout my stay in BP, she kept my home intact and happy despite my numerous trips across Nigeria and my overseas training programmes”.
Quite apart from his indisputable integrity and honesty which are demonstrated throughout the book, the author makes it clear that he deliberately patterned his politics after the great sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. This is no doubt reflected in his uncompromising social welfarism and strong federalist inclinations. However, it is also obvious that Papa Akande also took after Awo’s perceived “brutal frankness” in expressing his views as well as seeming political rigidity when some flexibility would do no harm. Are these attributes best suited to the subtleties and complexities of politics in an ethno-regional and religious variegated polity like Nigeria? I strongly doubt it. It appears to me that Chief Akande took after both the strengths and weaknesses of Awo’s politics.
Reading through some of Chief Akande’s political encounters in this book reminds me of aspects of Professor Mvendaga Jibo’s reminiscences on Awo in his contribution to the book, ‘Awo: On the Trail of a Titan – (Essays in Celebration of the Obafemi Awolowo Centennial)’. The former Political Editor of the defunct Daily Times and Professor of Political Science recalls, for instance, that in 1977 he had been among members of the Constituent Assembly from the Middle Belt who met with Chief Awolowo at his Park Lane, Apapa, home in Lagos. After exchange of pleasantries and views, Awo had sought their support in his bid to be elected President of Nigeria in 1979. As Professor Jibo wrote, “Our leaders said we would, however, support him only on condition that he would appoint Middle Belt persons as ministers into the key ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs if he was elected the president with our support. To our utter amazement, Awo flatly refused to make any such commitments. The meeting ended on that note and we returned to our FESTAC accommodation, Off Badagry Road”.
Again, Jibo recollects that on a second meeting with selected politicians from the Middle Belt, Awo had again sought their support in realizing his presidential ambition. Many of them expressed belief in his competence and the readiness to sell his candidacy to the electorate in their localities. However, they requested for some funding from him for their political activities since many of them had limited financial means. According to Jibo, “Once the issue of funding was raised, Awo’s countenance changed! He seemed irritated. He interpreted this as pressure on him ‘to play money politics’, which he was not prepared to do!…His blunt indication that he was not predisposed to fund his supporters’ politics cost him dearly”.
During his campaign for the presidency in the South East in 1979, Awo told his Igbo listeners that if elected he would ban the importation of second hand clothing because it demeaned the dignity of Nigerians and also that he would also stop the importation of stock fish as it was of negligible nutritional value. While this may have been true and well meaning, it further detracted from Awo’s support in the South East. Could Papa Akande’s many political battles as recorded in this book have been more subtly and diplomatically handled? The debate will surely continue.