By Reuben Abati
My good friend, Akin Osuntokun is 60. He was actually 60 on November 24, but it is this week that friends and family are rolling out the drums to celebrate one of the finest persons that I know. On November 24, we had gathered at his residence, at the invitation of Ronke, his wife, and the Osuntokun family but that was just a family event.
This week, Akintola Osuntokun gets the public celebration that he truly deserves. Sometimes I forget how and when he and I met and I must have given varying accounts over the years. But the main recollection imprinted in my brain is that I got to know him when I was a graduate student at the University of Ibadan. I was Secretary-General of Obafemi Awolowo Hall. Ronke Ajibade, now Mrs. Osuntokun, was a graduate student. She lived in Awo Hall. Akin used to come around to “disturb” her. As Secretary-General of the Hall, I was something of a village gossip. I knew a lot more about every little affair.
I had completed my Ph.D. thesis, but my teachers would not let me go. They wanted me to teach and give back to the Department, having completed my studies with the University’s Scholarship. I eventually got drawn into students’ politics. I already knew Akin Osuntokun by reputation before I met him. He was one of those young men in those days who wrote prolifically on the pages of Nigerian newspapers. In the 80s and early 90s, young men of our generation were more interested in ideas. We were brought up by good teachers. In ABU, Ife, UNILAG, UNN, and the University of Ibadan, we had a set of academics who promoted nothing else but ideas and who became role models for younger persons. The big debate then was about Marxism and Capitalism, and some of the leading polemicists included Wole Soyinka, Biodun Jeyifo, Ropo Sekoni, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Dipo Fashina, Edwin and Bene Madunagu, Eskor Toyo, Tunde Fatunde, Chidi Amuta, Bala Usman, Bade Onimode, Femi Osofisan, Bode Sowande, Segun Osoba, Festus Iyayi. Many of us wanted to be like them. We wore jeans and batik. We mouthed revolutionary slogans. We looked down on anybody that looked like a coxcomb as a potential idiot.
We could quote major texts in epistemology and 20th Century ideas. The newspapers provided a watering hole for our teachers and the students who learnt at their feet. Akin and I belonged to this generation of students learning to be like the masters. We too wrote essays and whenever we met, we engaged each other. We were not very popular with all the girls. Very few girls wanted to date anyone sounding like a textbook or parroting the thoughts of poor people as gospel truth. But Akin won Ronke’s attention. When I eventually left university teaching and relocated to Lagos, it turned out that Ronke’s family, the Ajibades lived within the Oke Ira axis and I was also not far away. I used to follow Akin on his many trips to the neighbourhood. I don’t know how they do it these days, but in our time, you couldn’t just go to a man’s house to visit his daughter. You would ask a friend to accompany you, make it look like you were just a harmless, innocent, classmate just passing by. I hear these days, some suitors are invited by prospective mothers-in-law, served food and they share drinks with the would-be father-in-law and given a VIP reception. Many of such boys come in and out until the family loses count. No responsible family would allow that kind of behaviour from suitors or male friends of their daughters in our time. The Ajibades and the Osuntokuns are both from Oke-Imesi, in the present Ekit State, so that also meant a long history and the need to respect spaces. I was happy to tag along to occasionally support my friend.
I ended up proposing the toast at their wedding many years later at the University of Lagos where the event was held. I remember that wedding because it fell on a day I was to write an examination paper at the Faculty of Law, Lagos State University (LASU). I missed the exam. Now this week, many years later, I have chosen to miss another commitment, to deliver the special public lecture in honour of Akin Osuntokun holding at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIIA) as he celebrates his 60th birthday.
But there is nothing that is ever too much to do for Akin Osuntokun. He would do more if the shoes were on the other side. He is generous, kind-hearted and dependable. He is one of those friends you have, you just simply can’t do without. He is ever so considerate, extremely adept at managing relationships and networks. I don’t know how he does it. You would think the cell phone was invented for him. He likes to organize, mobilize and pursue results. And he thinks and writes. For more than 30 years, he has written extensively on issues of national interest. I met him through his many writings, and we later had the opportunity of working together on the Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspapers. Before The Guardian, he had written for Vanguard and other newspapers and had chalked up a reputation as a very analytical mind with a capacity to deliver thoughtful, well-researched essays on key national issues. Mr. Alex Ibru, our publisher took an instant liking to him. Nigeria was going through a tumultuous moment: the dust over the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election had not yet settled, there was crisis in the Niger Delta, the military establishment was dangerously overstretching its luck, locally and internationally, with its abuse of human rights and processes. In addition to his work as an editorial writer and columnist, Akin Osuntokun was given the additional responsibility of doing a regular summary and analysis of key political issues for Mr. Alex Ibru: publisher of The Guardian, the man who gave people like me and many others the opportunity to grow. Mr. Ibru had one talent: he could spot talent from a thousand miles away. And he would pick you up and groom you and challenge you to excel. Akin has always had a passion for politics. He believes that it is politics and the art of leadership that can save society. His best moments are when he discusses politics or you allow him to organize or midwife a political process.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that there is a genetic side to this. Osuntokun used to talk about a certain progenitor, his grandfather or great grandfather who led his family from Ajase Ipo in the present Kwara State, to Okemesi where the family settled. The said Osuntokun pater familia fought in the Ekiti Parapo, Jalumi and Kiriji wars and was one of the chief lieutenants of Isola Fabunmi of Oke Imesi. Professor A. I. Akinjogbin has given an excellent and authoritative account of War in Yorubaland in the 19th Century, in a book of the same title but Akin Osuntokun’s progenitor’s role in that phase of Yoruba history is something that gives him feelings of pride and authenticity. He sees himself as a reincarnation, a man with a biological mandate to pursue public causes in the people’s interest. His father was also a major influence. By the time Akin Osuntokun was born in 1961, intra-ethnic wars in Yorubaland had ended, at least for a while- Ife-Modakeke was still many years in the distance, but his father, Oduola Osuntokun and his siblings had given the family name a contemporary edge. Oduola Osuntokun was one of the first stars in the then Western Region to graduate from the famous Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone. He was also a superstar educationist, an outstanding school Principal. He ended up in politics and became a Minister in the Western Region under the Obafemi Awolowo Government. He was a Chieftain of the Action Group.
But when the fight between the Premier of the Western Region, Obafemi Awolowo and his Deputy, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola (SLA) occurred, the late Oduola Osuntokun pitched his tent with the latter. This has since turned out to be a big event in the history of the Osuntokun family. It was in the midst of that politics that Akin was born. His father named him after SLA. Akin is in full: Akintola Osuntokun. His father named his son after Akintola just in case anyone was in doubt about where he stood. Akin Osuntokun has had cause to publish a book on Oduola Osuntokun’s side of the politics of the era titled Oduola Osuntokun: My View of the Coin, written by the man himself. But it would not be appropriate for us to take sides. The other weight on Akintola Osuntokun’s shoulder is that he comes from a family of major figures in Nigerian history. One of his father’s brothers is on record as being one of the most brilliant Nigerian scientists ever produced. Professor Benjamin Oluwakayode Osuntokun, MD, Ph.D, DSc. (1935 -1995) was one of the best and the brightest of his time. He was a researcher on tropical neurology, atxic neuropathy to be specific, the man who was known for Osuntokun’s sign, and a Gold Medallist in Medicine.
But he was not the only man of prodigious talent in the family. Akin Osuntokun used to tell me that his father used to challenge his brothers to do more and excel. Another uncle has been no less distinguished. The historian: Professor Akinjide Osuntokun, Emeritus Professor, former University Vice-Chancellor, former Ambassador of Nigeria to Germany, author of many seminal books including Nigeria in the First World War, Chief S. Ladoke Akintola: his Life and Times, Power Broker: A Biography of Sir Kashim Ibrahim, History of the Peoples of Lagos State and others. Akin Osuntokun practically follows in the footsteps of his fathers, and of all the members of the younger generation of Osuntokuns that I know, he has been the most dedicated in that regard, combining every strand of every family heritage into an impressive persona: the warrior, the intellectual, the political man of action.
He used to look very lithe. He has managed over the years to maintain a good frame. I attribute that to his obsession with physical exercise. He likes to jog in the morning; for many years he maintained a strict schedule. But no one should be fooled by his appearance. Osuntokun sees himself as a warrior. He was once Basorun of OkeMesi. He is now the Balogun of Okemesi, the war commander of Oke Mesi, the title once held by the legendary and inimitable Fabunmi. On his birthday, on November 24, Osuntokun danced, most of the time to the Balogun beat: the traditional, drum sequence that calls out the Balogun of Okemesi, to remind him that it was time to go to war. As the beats rolled out of the spherical-shaped drums in responsorial, antiphonal rhythm, supplied by a team that looked like they came all the way from the village to serenade their Balogun, Osuntokun the son stepped out. His uncle, Professor Akinjide Osuntokun also stepped forward. I laughed. No level of education can displace genetics, or stop these people my Egba progenitors refer to as Ara Oke from being who they are. A family of warriors. But the nature of the war has since changed.
Akin Osuntokun, the celebrant, fights his wars today, in the public arena, using his pen and mouth to express ideas and to pursue political causes. He introduced me to politics. I used to think politics was a special calling for people looking for a quick way to be relevant. But sometime in the 90s, Osuntokun came up with the idea that we, the young people of Nigeria, must not leave leadership and politics to the older generation who had failed everyone. He set up what became known as the Progressive Action Movement (PAM), a platform for young people who wanted to take over Nigeria and make a difference. Akin used to argue that nobody would ever come to your house to invite you to join politics. You must show interest. I did. We met regularly and we formed a strong network that attracted support and attention. Opeyemi Agbaje, Toyin and Debola Fagbayi (we held many meetings in their house in Apapa, and they provided good refreshments), Segun Awolowo, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (as he then was), Dotun Oni, Ado Sanusi, Femi Fani-Kayode. Osuntokun used to live then in Wemabod Estate, off Adeniyi Jones in Ikeja. We met in his compound. Ado Sanusi lived next door, and sometimes we held events in Ado’s house. Their wives were always ever so accommodating. We grew into a big family of young Nigerians who wanted to change the country.
Some of us ended up in government. Quite a number became big men and women in politics. Akin Osuntokun has been active since then in the public arena and has acquired significant experience as a party man, strategist, political mobilizer, and more importantly as a public intellectual. He has served as Chairman of Oodua Printing Corporation, and Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN). He was a Political Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo. A loyal party man and a die-hard PDP politician, Osuntokun was the Director of the PDP 2007 Presidential Campaign, the campaign that brought President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to power. He has remained one of the most consistent voices of reason in the public arena. He is a member of the Editorial Board of ThisDay newspaper and a regular columnist with the same newspaper.
I am very proud of him and what he has been able to achieve since those early days when we all had no ideas about tomorrow. Osuntokun can argue though. When he is upset, you don’t want to be around him. The other day, at a meeting of the Ooni Caucus, which he coordinates, even the Ooni had to struggle to get him to calm down. But he is an all-round jolly good fellow. And he has learnt, over the years, not to give Ronke any undue stress. I will not speak further on that, please… Okunrin Meta!
Remarkably, he is a good citizen. The vastness of his contribution to politics and leadership is guided by a commitment to a narrative of optimism and possibilities. He is a stout promoter of the firm belief that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. He is above all a gentleman and one of the finest ambassadors of Okemesi and the Yoruba race. Where are these Okemesi drummers? Beat the drums and let the Balogun dance… A man whom you can’t eulogize without speaking about a part of your own life is not a friend but a brother… Enjoy your birthday, Balogun. Congratulations.