By Prof Adebayo Williams
The life and times of Henry Fajemirokun, 1926-1958
Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us – Eccl 44.1
Protocols. Let me begin by observing that the Fajemirokuns of Ifewara, Oke-Igbo, Ile-Oluji and now Lagos are a fascinating lot. Among them they boast of legendary farmers, great entrepreneurs, magnates, notable professors, bishops, clergy, eminent lawyers, Supreme Court jurists, a NAFDAC amazon, doctors, engineers, bank owners, game-changing health service providers, musicians and many in different walks of life.
After four generations of settling and dispersing, they are now spread all over the country, particularly in the old western region.
Of this remarkable brood, none has been more remarkable and fascinating than Henry Oloyede Fajemirokun. Former colonial soldier, outstanding trade unionist, fiery anti-colonial orator rousing the somnolent masses, business mogul and statesman, Henry loomed large in life packing into his fifty one years on earth what will take many men several incarnations to achieve. Colourful and flamboyant, his life reads like a colourful and flamboyant work of fiction.
It is just as well that this pioneering biography of a gifted and extraordinary Nigerian is coming out at this time which coincides with the diamond jubilee anniversary of the nation heralded by a sombre mood of failed expectations and disappointed hopes.
At sixty, Nigeria remains a giant toddler trundling about the floor unable to walk or even crawl; an antediluvian monstrosity. This writer said so twenty five years ago and the situation remains very much the same. It is a sad tribute to aborted nationhood.
Had this biography been delayed any longer, a great injustice would have been done to the memory of a great man. In order to cultivate a cult of heroism and to recuperate the lost essence of the nation, Nigerians need to know more about exceptional individuals like Henry Fajemirokun who clawed their way to the top by dint of hard work, patience and perseverance.
Genius indeed is five per-cent inspiration and ninety- five per-cent perspiration.
Henry Fajemirokun belonged to the body of distinguished men and women thrown up by the anti-colonial ferment and the decolonising project in Nigeria. These were people who had seen through the ruse of imperialism and the myth of an inferior Black race and were ready to push their way forward in the heady momentum, and as far as their luck and talents could take them.
Looking back one can say that Nigeria had never witnessed such an explosion of talents in different fields of human endeavours and from various segments of the new nation. It was as if this probing and heaving mass of Black avengers was bent on having a place to stand so that they could move the world.
They were not going to be fazed by anything or anybody. Many had seen white soldiers shake with fright as canons exploded or perish like helpless chickens in water-logged trenches. The world noticed that the Black person was on his way.
In the old western region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his lieutenants took their fractured and war-weary Yoruba people from a semi-feudal agrarian community to the portals of western modernity.
In five brisk years of relentless transformation that shook the old Yoruba race to its foundation western region became a theatre of radical innovations in governance and economic development. As many observers have noted, if Nigeria had carried this momentum forward post-independence, only God knows where the country would have been today.
As a young man hungry for fame and self-actualization, Henry Fajemirokun made his way through the debris and post-empire commotion of the old Yoruba world with considerable sure-footedness and aplomb.
Henry Oloyede Fajemirokun was born on July 14, 1926 at Odololo Quarters, Ile-Oluji. His parents were Daniel Famakinwa Fajemirokun and Madam Felecia Adebunmi Fajemirokun. History has it that the founding progenitor of the Fajemirokun clan was Balagbe Fajemirokun,a famed warrior and generalissimo, who was forced to leave Ado Ekiti after a bitter succession struggle for the vacant Ewi stool.
Balagbe first settled at Ifewara but the series of Yoruba intra-ethnic wars of the nineteenth century took him to other parts of Yoruba land, particularly around the Ife perimeter.
After the wars, the founding father settled in Oke-Igbo where he established the largest farm in the community. He was also known to have acquired several wives and fathered many children. But duty beckoned in Ifewara where he was named to the high chieftaincy title of Orunto which is like the traditional prime minister and second in command to the Oba.
However the great warrior, now hobbled by old age, could only serve for two years before death came calling in 1904. His death led to a great dispersal of his family. One of Balagbe’s wives, Princess Ademola whose father was Ooni Degun Ologbenla, fled to her maternal homestead of Ile-Oluji with her three children rather than accept the marriage proposal of one of his sons, Akingbola.
It was in Ile-Oluji that Princess Ademola brought up her three children, namely Daniel Famakinwa Fajemirokun, Oladipo Olaegbe (later Dr Olarerin) and Wuraola Fajemirokun (later Mrs Olasanmiju). It can be seen from this brief genealogy that the Fajemirokuns of the Daniel Famakinwa branch are directly related to three great Yoruba royal stools: Ewi of Ado-Ekiti, Ooni of Ife and Jegun of Ile-Oluji.
This constant movement and endless shuttling so typical and reflective of a society in a state of revolutionary flux was a standard fare of the Yoruba people in the nineteenth century, particularly after the collapse of the old Oyo Empire. It was to lead to cross-over personalities, fascinating cultural hybrids, alien indigenes and a fluidity of identity which dissolved all sub-ethnic stereotypes.
When Henry Fajemirokun eventually answered the call of his maker, it was to lead to a battle royale over his final resting place with Oke-Igbo and Ifewara tussling with Ile-Oluji. Ile-Oluji eventually won the bet after a powerful intervention based on logic and cold reality by his oldest child, Chief Oladele Fajemirokun.
It was in Ile-Oluji that Daniel Famakinwa blossomed as a farmer and pioneer carpenter. It was in this town that his son, Henry Oloyede, was enrolled at St Peter’s Primary School in 1932 at the age of six. After spending five years in this school, the young Henry was transferred to St Luke’s Primary School in Oke-Igbo in order not to lose sight of his distinguished ancestry.
It was after leaving primary school at Oke-Igbo that Henry Oloyede began to demonstrate the fierce independence of spirit, fearlessness and love of adventure that were to be the hallmark of his personality in his later years. He had journeyed to Lagos all on his own and got himself enrolled as a student of the highly competitive CMS Grammar School, Nigeria’s first secondary school in 1941.
This was no mean achievement, considering the stiff competition. Henry’s determination and congenital inability to take no for an answer had begun to manifest. But the financial burden of staying in Lagos added to the sheer logistics of a person from a humble rural background trying to get himself educated in the city proved a bridge too far even for a man of Henry’s daring and assertive self-confidence.
The young man was forced to eat the humble pie by seeking a transfer to the equally prestigious Ondo Boys High School. With his homestead of Ile-Oluji only a stone’s throw away, all his parents had to worry about was how to pay his school fees and some money for unforeseen expenses since feeding was virtually guaranteed.
It was here that fate played a nasty and cruel joke on the young lad in the guise of an incident which would have been as traumatic as it was character-defining for a youngster filled with immense hope and expectations of a great future.
In his bid to escape the poverty trap and bring some relief to his hard-pressed parents, the young man had written a plaintive personal letter to the then Anglican Bishop of Lagos, Rt Reverend L.G Vining, painting a picture of squalor and excruciating poverty.
He had averred in the letter that his father was already dead and that his mother could barely afford three square meals a day not to talk of funding a secondary school education. He beseeched the man of God to grant him the same facility of scholarship normally extended to indigent students.
This daring gambit backfired spectacularly and was to bring to a shuddering halt Henry Fajemirokun’s quest for formal secondary school education. Unknown to him, the bishop had forwarded the letter to Rev J.F Akinrele, the principal of Ondo Boys High School asking him to conduct a background check on the chap before he could reach a decision on the request.
It was an irate and affronted principal who summoned the boy before all the students at the Assembly Hall having discovered that his father was not only hale and hearty but was thriving as a master-carpenter in Ile-Oluji.
Not only that, his mother was fully engaged as a petty trader. In keeping with the motto of the school which placed premium on righteousness and its exalting power, Akinrele was determined to make an example of the rustic culprit in order to stamp out such repulsive behaviour in his school. (page 35)
With theatrical flourish, the man of God poured invectives and vituperations on the young lad, calling him a liar and an importunate beggar. By his conduct and misdemeanour, the lad had shown himself to be unworthy of the school’s uniform. Without wasting any further time, the principal proceeded to slam a week’s suspension with ignominy on the young Henry vowing to send a report of his findings to the bishop in Lagos.
There should be no doubt that the young Henry would have found this disgrace so traumatic and the indignity so deflating for a proud young man that he concluded it was not worth his while coming back to the school at the end of his suspension. He decided there and then to join the colonial Army, handing his portmanteau to his best friend and asking him not to reveal his whereabouts to anybody, including his parents.
As the author of this book rightly surmised, the young Henry, by limiting his choice to the military rather than all the numerous and less life-threatening alternatives, could have been obeying the warrior genes flowing in him. The family’s cognomen of odidemade apa bi eleta which dates back to the founding generalissimo attests to this natural instinct for the jugular.
This warrior mantra was to stand Henry Fajemirokun in good stead in all the battles he was later to fight to emerge as one of the greatest industrialists ever thrown up by the country. Just as the Japanese were to adapt and domesticate the Samurai code for the rapid modernization and industrialisation of their beloved nation, Henry Fajemirokun was to emerge from the ashes of defeat and despondency to become a Nigerian equivalent of the Samurai-mogul.
One juicy piece of information that is not in this book is the fact that after he vanished without trace, the future tycoon was given up for dead by his parents. Fortuitously, it was an older brother who had also enrolled in the colonial Army after him who was to discover that the fellow was not only alive but in fine fettle in India on her majesty’s service.
Years later upon demobilization and decommissioning from the colonial Army, it was a proud and erect Henry Fajemirokun in uniform and with the unmistakable military gait that was to last him a lifetime who browbeat his way to the office of a rather nonplussed Bishop Vining in Lagos. Henry told the clergyman about how their last encounter had led him to join the colonial army.
Bishop Vining was so impressed and bowled over by the young man’s steely resolve and fierce independence of spirit that he must have decided to make amends for past infractions. It was on the strength of his recommendation that Henry was able to secure a job as an Accounts clerk in the Posts and Telegraphs Department in January 1947.
After this lucky break, there was really no stopping the Henry juggernaut. Aware of his educational deficiency, he was to secure what he missed at Ondo Boys through private tutorship under the tutelage of a visionary Okeigbo indigene, Chief Olowu. Combining hard work with hard swotting, Henry in 1948 passed the Cambridge School Certificate Examination in flying colours.
Henry Fajemirokun thereafter plunged into union activities as a labour activist. His abiding concern for the plight of the poor and workers’ welfare came to the fore. This identification with the poor and struggling mass of humanity was to become a recurring decimal in his life. With his commanding presence, effortless mastery of the spoken English language and fiery oratory, the world began to notice the grandson of the great warrior of Ifewara.
Later in life and having become a leading business magnate in his own right, his first son was to wistfully remark that no siblings or scions could match Henry Oloyede’s flair in this department of human endeavour. By 1956, Henry Fajemirokun had been elected as the Vice President of the Nigerian Civil Service Union.
A year later, he was to crown this with his ascendancy into office as the President General of the Nigeria Civil Service Union. Not unexpectedly, his frenetic activism and fierce integrity came to the attention of the federal authorities as well as Chief Awolowo and the leading intellectual luminaries of the old Western region. In 1957, he was appointed a board member of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria and in 1959, Chief Awolowo appointed him to serve as a member of the Salaries Review Commission.
Chief Henry Fajemirokun was to leverage his antecedents as a labour leader when he made the heady transition to a business magnate of plutocratic wealth. His abiding concern for the poor and downtrodden never left him. He was a genuine man of the people and lover of humanity.
Despite his flamboyant life style, he had nothing but contempt for the affluent that chose to ignore the plight of their community. Typically, he was leading a Nigerian business delegation to Ivory Coast when he fell on the night of February 15, 1978.
Reading through this biography, one is overpowered by sadness and a sense of loss about what could have been. Had he lived longer, Chief Henry fajemirokun could easily have transformed into Nigeria’s first authentic socialist billionaire, a development which could have shaped the template and complexion of politics in post-military Nigeria.
He had the pedigree, the conviction, the elemental force of personality and character and above all the generosity of spirit to influence the course of events in his beloved country. We are all the poorer for his tragic early exit. The moving posthumous tributes from no less a personage like Obafemi Awolowo and the rousing encomium by his friend Professor Samuel Adebimpe Aluko attest to this fact.
But he has played his part and left at the allotted hour. Future generations will look back and say that a man was truly here.
May his great soul rest.
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