“Do you know Grandpa has been in jail before?” The look on my children’s faces when I casually dropped this statement is better seen than described. “My Grandpa?” (No, mine, I said in my head,) “Yes, your Grandpa,” I beamed at them. They were clearly disturbed, they could not comprehend why I would say that with so much pride.
Pride is exactly what I always feel when I think about my dad, especially the role he and his colleagues played in the emergence of the democracy which Nigerians now enjoy. I did his generation great injustice in my write-up on the ‘End Sars’ movement. They were not complacent during their time, far from it! Although the democracy we have now is not perfect, they fought – some gave their lives for it – and for some like my dad, their lives have never remained the same since then…
C.O AKA Commanding Officer
My dad, Cornelius Olatunji Adebayo (popularly called C.O) is a very private person – quite ironic for someone who has always been in the public eye – but, that is who he is. I normally would have let his birthday pass with just our private greetings as usual, however, I made up my mind last year to always let people know what they mean to me. This is for you, Dad, as you celebrate your 81st, with love from your daughter, Odunola.
This time last year, I was relaxing with dad in his lounge outside his Abuja home and received with him his younger colleague, Senator Dayo Adeyeye. I was happy to see uncle Dayo, who I last saw when dad was still the Chairman of the Afenifere Political group which uncle Dayo was a member of.
He had barely settled in when he started reminiscing about the UPN primaries of 1983. Dad was competing against an older and more experienced politician who was also very close to Pa Awolowo – Chief Olawoyin. Uncle Dayo recalled how he, a journalist at the time, with his other colleagues had followed the story with much interest and how after 3 attempts at primaries, dad eventually got the UPN candidature. He went on to win the election, making him one of the youngest governors in Nigeria’s history at the age of 42.
His tenure was very brief, his term was cut short by a military coup which led to the rule of General Buhari. Dad was only governor for 3 months, however, his achievements in 3 months are legendary in Kwara State and many still talk about his time as governor. His government achieved so much in the shortest time which convinced Kwarans that a lot more would have been done had he completed the four year tenure.
A POLITICIAN BY CHOICE?
A couple of months before that meeting, I had spent some time with dad to work on his memoir. His stories are so rich and intriguing that a few hours of the five days spent with him was inadequate to capture everything. I did get enough to start with, however, I’ve been so intimidated by his repute that nothing I’ve put down seems good enough (more so because of his background in English). Dad will always see something to correct, that’s why I don’t send you my blogs, Dad 😊! Any literature dad receives – even something as simple as a resume(cv) – will most likely be edited. He can’t help himself, I guess he’s still very much an English lecturer at heart.
Unknown to many, my dad started out as an Academic. He lectured at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He left OAU after he was scouted to head the English department of the Kwara State Polytechnique. It was during his time at the Kwara State Polytechnique that he was called to be a commissioner under the Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo administration. Dad was an academic and had no interest in anything else, he, therefore, turned down the offer. Col. Taiwo managed to convince him and with the encouragement of some of his respected senior colleagues from his academic community, that was was the beginning of a realignment of his career path or should I say destiny.
Dad served excellently as commissioner – under 2 governments and in 3 different ministries – from 1975 to 1978. He was prevailed upon by the leaders of the United Party of Nigeria (UPN) to represent his constituent at the 1st National Assembly in 1979. C.O was unwilling to tow that part, as he was after all, 1st an academic. He had also secured a scholarship for his PhD in Canada and was preparing to leave when the prompt for senate came. Again, his respected senior colleagues encouraged him to go on. He had under their mentorship when he was at OAU been privileged to meet Pa Awolowo, little did he know that he will eventually work closely with Papa Awo.
His brilliant representation at the senate made some of the party leaders encourage him to run for Governor. ‘I had no interest nor did I have the means to launch the campaign,’ he told me, but the leaders assured him of their full support, and indeed, they took charge of everything.
Running for Dear Life
Now, about that prison story right!
After his short stint as Governor of Kwara State, C.O went on to other things. He however never hid his contempt for military rule. He was a couple of times offered a position as minister and even called on to head the interim government by the General Babangida government, all turned down. His activism became more serious under General Abacha’s rule and he joined like-minded people to seek for restructuring of the country. He, later on, became one of the founding fathers of the dreaded NADECO. NADECO was formed on 15 May 1994 by a broad coalition of Nigerian democrats, who called on the military government of Sani Abacha to step down in favour of the winner of the 12 June 1993 election, M. K. O. Abiola
Again, the government tried to turn him to their side by offering him different positions, all declined. NADECO became an enemy of the state and on 19th May 1995, Dad was arrested in Lagos and some of his colleagues were charged with treason. He was subsequently taken to Calabar Prison where he spent 3 months. After his release, he was in the hospital for an illness that almost claimed his life, thankfully he recovered and in no time was back to full activism.
The Abacha dogs wouldn’t let Nadeco chieftains be and they were declared enemies of the state. It was clear their lives were in danger, (some of them were assassinated and there were attempts on the lives of others) news got to the group that dad was next on the queue, a quick decision had to be made – stay and get killed or run for dear life. Dad chose life, and like some other members of his group, he had to flee the country. His book ‘Running for Dear’ Life gives a vivid account of his ordeal during his exile,
For a while, we did not hear from him. I never thought about how it would have been for him until I read his exile memoir. Reading the book was very emotional for me! Reading how difficult it was for him – not knowing what the next day would bring, not knowing how his family was faring, not knowing if he would be found and taken out! It took me back to those years and how difficult it was for the family. If not for God, God was all he had and held on to, same as us, his family, we had been brought up to know God and rely on him, a way we have not strayed from.
A triumphant return
Five difficult years went by and then, one day, a man dies! That one death was significant to the whole nation. It meant different things to different groups, brought different emotions to different people. I remember the day like it was yesterday, It was during my ‘A’ levels program. I was in the hostel when we started hearing noises outside. I ran to the window and saw people jubilating, the whole campus was agog, people were rejoicing. Then I heard the news, the head of state – General Sanni Abacha was dead. I burst into tears, I was also overjoyed. People did not understand my reaction, they didn’t know what the news meant to me, even I wasn’t sure at the time. I just knew that despite the chaos, I had to get home.
I managed to get a ride home, if I thought the school campus was chaotic, I was not prepared for what I experienced on my way home. The streets of Ilorin was filled with ecstatic people. It was scary, as the crowd was getting out of hand in some places. Thankfully I got home in one piece to meet my emotional mum. After years of exploitation and continuous monitoring and harassment by the Nigerian State Security Service (SSS) – my eldest sister, uncle and dad’s aide were picked up for questioning with the latter detained for months – it was all over, and dad could probably come back home!
Indeed he came back. On November 3, 1998, my younger sister (Toyosi) and I accompanied my mum to Lagos to welcome him home. We were joined at the private wing of the Lagos International airport by the Afenifere leaders led by Late Pa Abraham Adesanya, NADECO leaders and the AD governors. Outside the airport, a larger group consisting of family, led by dad’s late elder brother Chief Agboola Adebayo, leaders of Kwara and Kogi communities and representatives of the Nigerian press were waiting for him, It was surreal.
If we thought his Lagos welcome was special, our arrival in Ilorin was even more spectacular! We travelled into Ilorin and were met by a large group of his associates outside the Ilorin Airport. After an emotional greeting session, a brass band in an open van led the long convoy on a slow drive into Ilorin. Shouts of ‘up CO’ rented the air and people came out of their houses and businesses to wave with some singing and dancing to the music. A larger crowd was waiting at the house, it was an emotional day, one I will never forget.
Shortly after returning home, dad had to travel back to Canada to officially close the Nadeco Abroad (Canada) office. On his final return, he refused to join any political party and once again, calls to serve started coming. He turned down calls to run for governor of Kwara State and an offer to be the chairman of the Alliance for Democracy (AD). He later agreed to serve under the Obasanjo administration which he did for 4 years. After his service, he was still active in his other political groups when we had a medical crisis in the family. We all watched helplessly as C.O left everything, (all his years of active service) to care for his wife who had done the same for him all through their marriage. He did this until she passed away on the 9th of September 2014.
Despite his stern look and serious stance most of the time, C.O is as witty as they come, his sense of humour has no match. I believe Toyosi and I enjoyed him more than others as we were the babies of the house. Even after my younger brother came along (with his ijogbon) we were still his babies often referred to as ‘awon kekere meji yen’ (the two little ones). I had the privilege of spending more time with him when he returned from exile as the ‘home based’, as my siblings called me when they were all out of the country. I am therefore a certified daddy’s girl through and through.
Dad has taught us to always choose the right and just way. Through his life, my siblings and I have come to understand that money is good but it is not everything. We were taught to love God, each other and humanity. We were taught that no position, accolade or opportunity to get wealth is worth your soul. We’ve been taught to be content and to find joy no matter the circumstance.
Thank you dad for the lessons, for the joy we had in our childhood, for the times you’ll dress as Eleyinmi (The Village Headmaster) just to crack us up, for bringing us up in the way of the Lord.
To the most principled person I know, an astute politician, excellent orator, seasoned academic, acclaimed elder statesman and a distinguished gentleman in every way, Happy 81st birthday C.O Adebayo of Kwara. You still remain the most influential Kwaran I know – Academic, Commissioner, Senator, Governor, Minister, Activist and now an Elder Statesman. You’ve worn so many hats, but the dad hat still remains my favourite.
If only I could be half the communicator that you are, I’ll be a very happy bunny, however, I won’t rest on my oars, I will keep pressing on till I am.
Happy Birthday, Dad.