By Dare Babarinsa
Chief Bola Ige would have celebrated his 90th birthday last Sunday September 13, were he to be on this side of eternity. Instead, he is with the ancestors, those eternal beings that fascinated him to no end. Ige was our leader and we loved him for he loved us with passionate commitment. He was a passionate man who loved deeply and without guile. He was sensitive and kind. He was a warrior who fought for peace and justice in Nigeria and the world. He died on his feet.
Few months to the closing of his illustrious career, he was thinking of returning to the international arena where he was a major player as a young man.
He wanted a spot with the International Criminal Court. I met him in December 2001 at the Ikoyi official residence of his late wife, Justice Atinuke Mobonike Ige, who was then a judge of the Appeal Court in Lagos. He showed me the draft of a letter of resignation he wanted to submit to President Olusegun Obasanjo in whose government he had served as the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation for almost 24 months. He had earlier served as the Minister of Power and Steel.
At that last meeting, Ige was in a melancholy mood. When the celebrated poet, Odia Ofeimu, joined us that evening, Ige remained moody. He was fixated on leaving the government and moving on to something else. Ofeimu and I studied the letter and offered suggestions. I left the two of them to discuss other matters and headed home. Ige’s sober mood had affected mine.
About a week earlier, Ige was assaulted at the Ile-Ife palace ground of Oba Okunade Sijuwade, the Ooni of Ife. Otunba Iyiola Omisore, the impeached Deputy-Governor of Osun State, had led a group of thugs to the palace where the Ooni was presiding over an elaborate ceremony where Mrs Stella Obasanjo, then the Nigerian First Lady, was being conferred with a chieftaincy title. In 1980, when Ige was the Governor of old Oyo State, he was the one who approved the appointment of Prince Okunade Sijuwade, as the 50th Ooni in succession to the illustrious Oba Adesoji Aderemi, first Governor of the defunct Western Region. Despite the turbulence of the Second Republic, Ige had always felt at home in Ife where he also held an honourary chieftaincy title. But now, things were different and Omisore was leading the rebel flank.
Though Ige knew there was trouble in Osun between Governor Bisi Akande and Omisore, his ambitious deputy, he thought he was above the fray. He had sought to make peace severally but failed. He did not know that Omisore now counted him as one of his foes. It was a testy day. Chief Ige had travelled to Ife without any security escort as befitted his ministerial office. Instead, he came alone with his driver and one Daramola, his SSS security details.
I had been invited to the ceremony by Baba Sijuwade and witnessed the whole horrific scene. While the ceremony was going on, the Omisore boys were singing abusive songs against the former governor. They ignored all entreaties from the Ooni Sijuwade and continued to heckle and embarrass Ige. At the end of the ceremony, as guests trooped into the inner palace for the reception, the thugs surrounded Ige, seized his cap and humiliated him. He was only rescued from them by the security details that came with Chief Olabode George, a former military Governor of old Ondo State who was now a chieftain of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP.
About a week after we met in Lagos, Ige attended his last public gathering at Aiyepe, Ogun State, for the funeral ceremonies of Otunba Solanke Onasanya, the master baker, one of the veteran of the old Action Group. Onasanya was our host for many meetings of Afenifere at his Ore Close in Surulere. Ige was not himself at that gathering considering the news coming from his home state of Osun where one of the principal supporters of Omisore in Ile-Ife had been assassinated. In the night of December 23, 2001, the assassins came for Ige in the sanctuary of his home in Ibadan. Even now, the smoke of the assassins’ guns still hung on our country like a menacing miasma. The assassins are still with us for they believed they have escaped earthly justice. No one however can escape the Judgement Throne of eternity.
As Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Chief Ige was concern about the issue of public justice. He did a lot of things and I would like to mention only three. One, he embarked on the programme for the reform of the Laws of the Federation, believing that many of the old laws with roots in our colonial experience needed to be re-written and some discarded. Two, he was interested in the reform of the 1999 Constitution and when President Olusegun Obasanjo opened a window for it, he seized the opportunity.
The Committee for the Review of the Constitution, on which Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Afenifere chieftain, served for many months, toured the country and collected many memoranda. When the committee was starved of fund, Ige got an international agency where Dr Julius Ihonbere, a Nigerian internationalist, was serving, to give grants. The third was the issue of the offshore oil of the coastal oil producing states. Ige ensured that they got justice from the Federation account.
But Ige’s greatest contribution to Nigeria was in the area of leadership. He believed in mentoring of the next generation. Just as he was mentored by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he believed he had a duty to mentor oncoming generations. In 1995, when we formalized the meeting of Idile Oodua, it was Ige who took us to Chief Adekunle Ajasin, the leader of Afenifere and first elected Governor of old Ondo State. Three members of Idile, Prince Ademola Oyinlola, Prince Adedokun Abolarin (now our father, the Oragun of Oke-Ila) and this writer, were the three delegates meeting with Ige regularly in Ibadan. It was Ige’s idea that we formed the Alpha Group where he served as our chairman and I was the secretary.
Ige’s idea of leadership recruitment was fundamentally different from that of most members of the Afenifere leadership and this put him at odds with some of them. I am not going to dwell on the presidential nomination contest which pitched him against the famous economist and public servant, Chief Olu Falae, which eventually ended in the D’Rovan, Ibadan, debacle. Let us examine the emergence of the governors of Oyo and Osun in 1999. These two states constituted the old Oyo State over which Ige ruled from 1979 to 1983.
Ige believed that those who would carry Afenifere flags in the 1999 general elections should be carefully picked and should not be left to the vagaries of party primaries that could be dominated or manipulated by money. While elaborate primaries were organized in the remaining Yoruba states of Lagos, Ogun, Ondo and Ekiti, the situation in Oyo and Osun were decidedly different.
In Oyo, Ige had favoured the emergence of Chief Koleosho, who however declined to run preferring to support the emergence of another candidate. Then Ige shifted his focus to Chief Rashidi Ladoja, a businessman and later Alhaji Lamidi Adesina, a retired school teacher who was a member of the House of Representatives during the Second Republic. In Osun, his choice was Chief Bisi Akande who had served as the Deputy-Governor of old Oyo State under Bola Ige. He earlier served as the Secretary to the State Government, SSG. Both choices were to prove fortuitous and the landmarks and legacies are there for everyone to see.
I don’t know whether there is any structure on ground now in Yorubaland and Nigeria on the recruitment of leaders and on the mentoring of the next generation. Suddenly we found there are so many people occupying leadership positions and yet there are very few leaders. Ige was a leader. He did his best and gave his all for this country. That is why his memory would remain evergreen down the centuries long after his assassins would have embraced their miserable deaths.
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