By Kunle Ajibade
William Faulkner, the winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote in one of his novels, Requiem for a Nun, that “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” If there is any concrete proof of Faulkner’s observation, at this gathering, it is Segun Gbadegesin’s All the Way: Serving with Conscience. For in this autobiography the past comes alive calmly and wisely. In a blend of moral seriousness, sound logic and passionate prose, Gbadegesin renders an account of his life that has been full of grace. Knowing that his destiny is tied together with the destinies of his hometown, Okeho, Yorubaland, Nigeria and the world, he tells his story in the light of some significant local, national and world historical events. We encounter in this book a man who takes responsibilities seriously. We encounter a man with a strong sense of honour who has made a lot of sacrifice for the growth and development of every community he has ever found himself serving. We encounter a happy family man Chief Bisi Akande, who wrote the foreword to the book, testifies to this. We encounter a man who has been blessed these past 70 years with exceptional good fortune.
Drawing extensively on oral and written records, he tells us that Okeho came into being when eleven neighbouring villages came together to ward off the fiendish slave raiders, the invading army of Dahomey and the Fulani aggressors. The villages, out of necessity, chose to run a confederal system of government. Each village retained its own leader who settled civil and criminal cases and saw to its own economic well-being. The only major thing they had in common was security. The communities were living peacefully and making relative progress until the colonial overlords, for their own convenience, insisted that they preferred only one leader for all the federating villages. The villagers rejected the unpopular Onjo of Okeho whom they imposed on them in 1916. The leaders then mobilised the citizens to revolt against the high taxation, forced labour and the court system. They killed the king, a colonial officer, a court clerk and several others who were sympathetic to the colonial enslavers. They even burnt down the colonial court. The British promptly retaliated. Its Army, led by Captain Ross, killed many of the rioters. The leaders were tried and summarily condemned to death by hanging. Gbadegesin narrates the story of this struggle for self-determination by his ancestors with sympathy for his people. He paints the picture of Okeho in a way that makes that rustic patch of semi-savannah land with rolling hills looks inviting. He celebrates the general culture of hard work, loyalty to friends, resilience and vitality of Oke-ogun people of his childhood days. In spite of many decades of exposure to other cultures all over the world, Gbadegesin is still essentially an up country man. On account of his natural fondness for Okeho, he dedicates this book in part to it. It should be heartwarming to Okeho people that when he retires from Howard University in June 2016 he will be returning to the place to concentrate on the Segun and Adetoun Gbadegesin Foundation which will give scholarships to indigent students and render healthcare services to the poor.
Gbadegesin traces his great grandfather’s roots to Oyo and those of his maternal great, great grandfather to Ibadan. His father, Joseph Olanrewaju, was one of the respected people in Okeho. He was not a chief—- he was only a borokini. He was a popular native tailor who also had a retail shop in town. Although Olanrewaju descended from a family of adherents of traditional religion, he converted to Christianity and he was a strong foundation member of the First Baptist Church, Isia, Okeho. He married four wives and the family was blessed with 12 children. But Segun Gbadegesin, who was the only child of his parents for eight years before his father was prevailed upon by his relations to have more wives, is the only child of his mother, Alice Moriyeba. Because he grew up in a polygenous family, he was able to write with ease on the ethics of polygeny later in life as a Professor of Philosophy. He was surrounded by parental love as a child. He remembers with nostalgia how his maternal grandmother Oshunfunke insisted that he should stay with her. As an infant he accompanied his grandmother to the market long before he started attending Sunday school at four. It was as a young boy that he learnt traditional weaving from his great uncle Baba Esuola. It was as a young boy that he sold in Okeho and adjoining villages embroidered caps made by his tailor father. After school, he also sold school materials, household needs including flashlights, batteries, lanterns etc., etc. at his father’s retail shop.
He was eight years old when he had his major intimate experience of the efficacy of the Ayajo incantations in controlling evil forces. One day as he was weeding in his primary school, he was stung by a scorpion. His teacher, having applied first aid treatment, asked Gbadegesin to go home for further treatment. Yet his home was about one mile from his school. The boy, in terrible pain, was crying. He thought he was going to die. But his father’s maternal home was few yards from his school. That was where the wise young boy went. Baba Egbeji, his maternal uncle, a popular herbalist in Okeho, took his arm and uttered on it Ayajo incantations which are reproduced in this book. The scorpion poison vanished. The pain was gone. This Yoruba magical realism has never left Gbadegesin’s consciousness. He has explored its complexity in another book of his, African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities which he finished writing at Colgate University, Hamilton. Before the scorpion episode, there was a cockroach episode which can be explained in more rational terms. The young Gbadegesin was fast asleep one night on a mat on the floor of his grandmother’s bedroom and a cockroach crawled into his ear. He woke up feeling excruciating pain. The grandmother and his father could not help him. So the father took him on his bicycle to Baba Bammeke, the dispensary supervisor in town, who pumped a solution into his ear and, with a draining instrument, pull out the cockroach. The dignity and competence with which the diligent old man did his work impressed the young Gbadegesin. He promised himself that he too would always strive to be efficient in his duty.
Very early in his life he learnt from his father to be focused on any duty at hand. He often wanted to make his father happy by making excellent grades which he did in all the schools he attended. He was mercilessly beaten and tongue- lashed by his father only two times as a boy. The first time was when he skipped church to follow a popular masquerade called Ogbogbon. The second time was when he left his father’s retail shop to go on an errand for a family relation. He never saw adherents of Islam, Christianity and traditional religion clash. Indeed, each time he tried to persuade his maternal grandmother who was an Orisha worshipper to accept Christ, the old woman would tell him: Orun lo mo eni ti ola. But his father was certain that the only way to make heaven was through Christianity. He made sure that his son was a conscientious member of the church choir. He grew up knowing that his father was always ready to volunteer for community service. He was a very hard working man. This virtue he implanted in the young man. We are told that his household was always full of people, mostly extended family members. His father, who taught himself to read and write, sent off the young Olu, as he was called at this time, to the First Baptist School, Isia, Okeho, a year short of the minimum elementary school age. He used his connection to get the boy registered just in the same way that he got him admitted to Baptist Secondary Modern School, Koso, Iseyin.
His father was a staunch member of the Action Group led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He preferred the party to the NCNC—National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons—- led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe even though many people in Okeho at the time were for the NCNC. The egalitarian programmes of the AG appealed to him. Highly principled, he pitched his tent with Awolowo during the Awolowo/ Akintola clash in the South-west. The young Gbadegesin too was the Secretary at a time of the youth wing of the Action Group in his constituency in Okeho. He would later participate fully in the activities of Oyo Divisional Improvement Association, Okeho Literary Progressive Society, Okeho Progressive Stars, Okeho Strategic Development and Economic Foundation and lately the Board of Trustees of the Obafemi Awolowo Institute of Governance and Public Policy in Lagos. His father wanted him to either become a teacher or a preacher because he thought that the two professions were what the world needed at that time to grow in peace.
Although Gbadegesin pays glowing tribute to his great teachers like Mr. & Mrs. Adegbile, Messrs I.B. Akano, I.O. Okesiji, J.E. Abokede, Samuel Alaba, O.A. Adeliyi, Father Goriola, Professors Sam Aluko, J. Olubi Sodipo and Andrew Levine for being his mentors in his primary and secondary schools and his university days, none of these teachers could match the huge influence that his father had on him. This is why I have been using him as a centre of gravity of this narrative. He was there for him at all the formative stages of and every great moment in his life: Primary school in Okeho, Modern School in Iseyin, Teacher Training Colleges in Iseyin, Oyo and Ifako, Agege, Lagos. He was there for him when he briefly worked as a pupil teacher, when he worked as a civil servant in Ibadan, when he got married to Adetoun, the graceful woman from Eruwa and when he started having his own children. When he got full scholarship to study at the University of Ife, where he made a First Class with the best result in the Faculty of Social Sciences and got the Pro-Chancellor’s Prize for the Best Performance in the Final Bachelor of Arts Philosophy Examination, his father, mother and his wife were the happiest people on earth. Gbadegesin’s father, who followed him to the airport when he was going for his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, was happy that he and his wife finished their degree programmes on time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The father was also happy for him when he returned to the University of Ife and was soon made Head of Department of Philosophy and later Vice- Dean of the Faculty of Arts.
The bond between father and son was so deep that when the old man died in 1989 Gbadegesin was so devastated. He has always believed that one good way to honour his father is to also bond with his five children and raise them in a home full of love. Part of the good fortune of Gbadegesin is that all his children have fond memories of his lanky father and caring mother. And the children are doing very well. Muyiwa has a PhD in Neuroscience from Georgetown University and he has been a Commissioner for Health in Oyo State. Ademola who has two masters —- one in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University in California and an MBA from Harvard University, is into mining business. Abolade, a Computer Science graduate of Harvard University, works as a software Engineer at Microsoft. The first girl, Ikeolu’s first degree was in History from Harvard and second degree in Law also from Harvard. She is a practicing lawyer. The youngest, Olubukola, had her undergraduate degree from Cornell University before proceeding to Emory University for her PhD. She is Assistant Professor in Saint Louis University, USA. The spouses of four of them who are married are highly credentialed, and they are all raising wonderful families. Indeed, the greatest joy of Professor Segun Gbadegesin and Adetoun is helping to nurture their grandchildren.
All the Way: Serving with Conscience is essentially an inspiring stocktaking of Gbadegesin’s sense of duty not only to his family members —- both nuclear and extended—- but also to the public at home and abroad. He says in the book that his social conscience is perpetually in bondage of taking on responsibilities to serve humanity. In addition to his primary responsibilities as an academic and a university administrator in Nigeria and America, he has been a pro-democracy and cultural nationalism activist and a good Baptist Christian—he helped to grow Alaafia Baptist Church in Washington. If the idea to write this book occurred to him in Campanile Hotel in Paris on June 28 2005 because of the frustration arising from a flight delay, you can imagine how frustrated he must have been as a patriot on June 28 1993 when he landed in Lagos on a visit to Nigeria from Washington and discovered that there was palpable tension everywhere as a result of the annulment by General Ibrahim Babangida of June 12 presidential election, which M.K.O Abiola had won. Soldiers drafted to the streets in the Southwest of Nigeria were killing the protesters. Political leaders, particularly of Yoruba nationality, were being hounded. It was clear to Gbadegesin’s conscience that the struggle had finally caught up with him. For this man who had no taste for rebellion, it was a grand transformative moment. And he rose courageously to its challenges. He had just been in the Washington area for about a year, having just been employed by Howard University as a tenured Professor and Head of Department of Philosophy. He soon joined other concerned Yoruba Nigerians like Professors Ropo Sekoni, Bolaji Aluko and others whose list he provides in this book to found Egbe Isokan Yoruba in Washington DC.
In the preamble to their mission statement, the founders solemnly declared: “We the Yoruba in the United States of America, desiring to trust and enjoy the fellowship of one another, desiring to promote the interests and welfare of one another, committed to excellence in performance, and convinced that we can build a stronger economic, political, and social communities in Yorubaland, in Nigeria, and around the world, do pledge to be dedicated to promote the unity, progress, strength and internal tranquility of the Yoruba and Nigeria, and thus hereby resolve to constitute into Egbe Isokan Yoruba.’’ All the efforts made to live up to those great expectations are painstakingly recorded in this book. They had a committee system that took responsibility for all the activities of the associations: committees for membership drives, education, cultural matters, political leadership, investment and finance. The executive committee basically coordinated the activities of all the committees. Gbadegesin, who was elected the first President in 1994, chose to be President for only one term despite the pressure mounted on him to do two terms. He was also elected President of Egbe Omo Yoruba USA and Canada when that association was later formed.
Egbe Isokan Yoruba rapidly became so strong— a good model to similar organisations—- because of the intellectual contributions of its leaders and the financial backing of people like Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Chief Bode Akindele and General Alani Akinrinade. The list of its achievements is impressive and Gbadegesin, who serves in this book as the institutional memory of this group and other groups like Egbe Omo Yoruba, World Congress of Free Nigerians etc., etc. gives details of issues which concentrated their minds. They established Moremi Foundation, Yoruba Academy, Yoruba Economic Institute, Yoruba Institute of Culture and Democracy, Yoruba International Network and Yoruba Radio. Gbadegesin and other dedicated members like the late Dr. Nurudeen Olowopopo and Olaseni Ajao collaborated with NADECO, NALICON and several other organisations abroad and at home on a number of projects. Papa Anthony Enahoro, Gbadegesin, Professor Ropo Sekoni, Dapo Olorunyomi, E.C. Ejiogu and others worked on the bright idea of Parliament-in-Exile which, for reasons given here, never took off. For 48 times, he read pungent and well-argued opinions on the underground Radio Kudirat not as Segun Gbadegesin but as Alarape Ayegboyin. Since the internet was not prevalent then, where was he getting the information with which he blasted Abacha and spoke authoritatively on issues of national importance? All the Nigerian papers and magazines were sent to him by Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu who, as you all know, always pays rapt attention to media contents the he pays close attention to his bank details! In meeting after meeting, convention after convention, these warriors in the Diaspora were unrepentant federalists, advocates of devolution of power, resource control and they were respecters of the yearnings of other nationalities in Nigeria. They had the full backing of their spouses in their struggle against political, economic and cultural strangulations. Their names were included on the wanted list of General Sani Abacha, that mad dog among other mad dogs of our history. It was because he was on the Abacha wanted list that the author could not come home to attend the funeral of his loving mother who had helped him and his wife raise their children. In those tragic days, Gbadegesin constantly reminded his group that it was what they did for the community that would ultimately count. Of course, it was not smooth sailing all the way. There were nasty factionalisation and name calling. But Gbadegesin handled those problems with wisdom, tact and rare generosity of spirit.
Finally, it was Woodrow Wilson, a former US president, who once said: “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” That, for me, sums up the higher purpose of this compelling book.
• Mr Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS and PM NEWS, read this review at the public presentation of All the Way: Serving with Conscience on 21 December, 2015 at the Institute of International Affairs, Kofo Abayomi, Lagos.