Chief Ayo Adebanjo : Tribute to a Member of the Dwindling Mohicans


This title of Michael Mann movie (released in 1992) and an earlier novel of the same name (released in 1826) is most apposite for our celebrant. As the title suggests, Chief Ayo Adebanjo is a member of the fast dwindling tribe of heroes. One of the very few last men standing. Yes, of a fast-depleting breed of nationalists and ideologues, committed and principled politicians who refuse to compromise or bend in tune with the latest fad – or the dictates of personal, parochial, ethnic or self-interest.

His likes are, indeed, very hard to find in today’s Nigeria – a country of never ending oddities. Little wonder the encomiums which have been poured (and continue to be showered) on him on the occasion of his 96th birthday a few days ago – on the 10th of April, to be precise. That makes him a nonagenarian. Accordingly, this is as good an occasion as any to take stock and reflect on a life less ordinary: the remarkable times of a man of the world, who both defined and was defined by it. Here is a man who stood up to be counted. Here is a man of rare courage – a man of principle. A man for all seasons.

Given all of these, does the man, Chief Ayo Adebanjo really need any introduction? What can be said about him that has not already been said – or, has he not said of himself in his biography “Tell It As It Is”?. What? Little, if anything, to be honest. Accordingly, I will only dwell briefly on Chief’s glittering past and illustrious antecedents. Chief Ayo Adebanjo made his earthly debut on the 10th of April, 1928, in Ijebu-Igbo, in the South-West of Nigeria. His early life showed the promise of what was to come when he slapped a British colonial officer reportedly for lacking in manners, retorting audaciously: “Is that how you say ‘good morning’ in your country?”. That singular act of courage (some might call it foolhardiness) and his refusal to apologize cost Chief his job in the colonial civil service; and this has defined him ever since.

Chief Adebanjo started life as a journalist with a regional newspaper before the lure of politics (his first love) beckoned. It was not difficult for him to pitch his camp with the foremost progressive politician of our time, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, under whose tutelage, Chief Adebanjo thrived and blossomed, becoming an effective grass-roots mobilizer. His political career was only interrupted by his legal studies in the UK, which he successfully completed, after which he was called to the English Bar in 1961. Back home in Nigeria, he continued his sojourn with Chief Awolowo – this time in the latter’s law firm.

Their relationship continued into the tumultuous politics of the First Republic, which saw both men face criminal trial for treason leading to the incarceration of Chief Awolowo. With such an ominous fate befalling his leader, Chief Adebanjo needed no prompting to seek refuge in Ghana. This was unfortunately short-lived, as the new military government in that country promptly rounded him and his co-exiles up and bundled them back to Nigeria. Fortunately for Chief Adebanjo, and other political prisoners in Nigeria, they benefitted from the magnanimity of the government of Gen. Yakubu Gowon which after seizing power in July, 1966, freed them

The onset of the 2nd Republic in 1978 saw Chief Adebanjo becoming part of the Constituent Assembly which ushered in democracy under a new Constitution in 1979. Once again, Chief Adebanjo found a natural platform under Chief Obafemi Awolowo and, together, they made a clean sweep of the seats they contested for in the South-West – including Lagos. Chief Adebanjo was an integral part of that success – something he repeated 20 years later, in 1999, under another progressive platform – this time without Chief Awolowo, who had transitioned to the Great Beyond in 1987.

In the intervening period, Chief Adebanjo has remained consistent in championing the cause of good governance, social justice, political restructuring and devolution of powers along the lines of the autonomy which the sub-national entities (the regions) had enjoyed in the First Republic. Even though his Yoruba ethnic base was Chief Adebanjo’s original platform, it would be uncharitable to say that he is an ethnic jingoist or tribalist. Far from it. Chief’s record has shown that he’s a detribalised Nigerian who does not hesitate to speak truth to power – no matter whose ox is gored – sometimes at great personal risk and cost.

This was amply demonstrated during the struggle to validate the results of the presidential elections held on June 12, 1993, which were annulled by the military government at the time – and more recently, the last presidential elections in 2023. The latter saw Chief Adebanjo (and the Pan-Yoruba pressure group which he leads, Afenifere) take the courageous position to back the Igbo candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, against one of their own, incumbent President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Many a commentator has since opined that this singular act might be counted among Chief Adebanjo’s greatest legacies. I agree.

Indeed, if there is one word which defines Chief Adebanjo, it is courage – raw courage; daring bravado. The kind that looks fear in the eye and does not blink. Courage in the face of adversity. Courage to speak his mind without mincing words: to tell it as it is (pun intended!). Little wonder, then, that Chief Adebanjo was and is always at home in the trenches. I recall one incident in 1998. General Abacha who had torpedoed the short-lived interim government of Ernest Shonekan, had released his goons to arrest and detain us at an anti-military campaign rally held in the Ajao, Surulere residence of Chief Supo Shonibare, a distinguished patriot and one of the leaders of the June 12 struggle. I led my Universal Defenders of Democracy (UDD). Present at the protest rally were Chief Gani Fawehinmi, our fearless leader in the struggle; Walter Carrington, the then American Ambassador to Nigeria; his wife, Arese (a Delta, Nigerian lady); Chief Ayo Adebanjo, the intrepid gadfly; Chief Ayo Opadokun, General Secretary of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO); and other patriots and Nationalists who participated. I still have the picture taken of the brutal invasion of our peaceful rally made by fully armed military and Police personnel who insisted that the rally must break up. We refused and beat their tight security network by dispersing and secretly escaping. Unknown to them, we had used sign language to agree to meet at Chief Ayo Adebanjo’s then residence at Aguda, Surulere, Lagos. By the time they got wind of our plans and arrived at the new venue, we had concluded our successful rally. Those were the locust days that tried men’s souls.

Chief Adebanjo is at his best when he engages in one hot-button issue or the other – either discussing it enthusiastically or otherwise articulating it in his usual characteristic pugnacious way. No. Chief Adebanjo does not shy away from controversy. In fact, you could say that controversy is his second name. Many who have dared to lock horns with him have lived to regret it.

Only on 18th March, 2024, at the Patriots’ Colloquium organized in honour of late Prof Ben Nwabueze, Chief Adebanjo, in ringing baritone voice only perhaps matched by another living legend, Chief E.K. Clark, called for a new autochthonous people’s Constitution. He had maintained this position over the years. He is a consistent man – always as constant as the Northern Star. Perhaps, Emperor Julius Caesar had Chief Adebanjo in mind when he said, in “Julius Caesar”, by William Shakespare (Act III Scene i): “But I am constant as the northern star, Of whose true-fixed and resting quality There is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, But there’s but one in all doth hold his place. So in the world.
‘Tis furnished well with men, And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive, Yet in the number I do know but one That unassailable holds on his rank, Unshaked of motion. And that I am he Let me a little show it even in this That I was constant Cimber should be banished, And constant do remain to keep him So”.

Thus, he continues to be engaged even at an age when he is just 4 years shy of a century. His energy and stamina are truly amazing, something men young enough to be his grand-sons can only marvel at – which they can never dream of matching. What is his secret? Perhaps his genes (his father lived to be 105). But, part of it must surely be his Spartan, disciplined lifestyle, marked by a daily exercise regime which he has faithfully observed for as long as he cares to remember.

To say that Chief Ayo Adebanjo is one of Nigeria’s few surviving nationalists is to merely state the obvious. He has transcended his origins and regional roots to become, today, a National icon, a colossus of progressive, populist and people-oriented politics. He is a pan- Nigerian politician in the mould of the late Herbert Macaulay and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. Indeed, he follows rigidly, the footsteps of his mentor and leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was described by the irrepressible Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu as “the greatest president Nigeria ever had”. While both Awo, Ojukwu and other contemporaries of Chief Adebanjo have since transitioned to the great beyond, Adebanjo remains strong and stoically struggles on with all his faculties intact. He is truly one of the very last of the Mohicans – the last men standing. Here’s wishing and praying that he outlives his father and continues well beyond his 100 year anniversary in good health, fine cheer, and peace that passeth all understanding. All for the benefit of Nigeria and Nigerians. We desire to continue to drink from and draw from his inexhaustible wealth of experience, wisdom and sagacity and to keep being inspired by his life of courage and achievements. Many happy returns Chief! God bless you, papa.

Previous Post
Next Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *