By Dr. Godknows Boladei Igali
In William Shakespeare’s classic Julius Caesar, the chief protagonist, a Roman statesman and general boasted deafeningly to his wife Calpurnia and by extension to Cassius and Pompey, the other power brokers with whom he formed a triumvirate that “Of all the wonders that I have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing death, a necessary end, will come when it will come”. So do society view the rather dreary phenomenon called death. But whenever it occurs, either for the youngest or oldest, all express a great “aww”, instinctively.
The news of the death of one of Nigeria’s most outstanding social critics, civil rights activists and non-conformist, Yinka Odumakin on the night of Friday, 2nd April, 2021, was received by great portions of the society with a deep “oh no!”.
Born 1966, he was just 55 when his time of passing came. This was announced by his equally truculent wife, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, in an emotion laden statement. Though without tooling bells, no bellowing gunshots and no half-mast flying flags, Nigerians mourned and still mourn him across board. Why, for his upstandness against oppression, against injustice and for his lack of airs about political correctness. They also grieve the exit of his extraordinary contribution towards our efforts in actualizing more firmly the Nigerian project. He was a man of strong and courageous views about how he thought Nigeria should be and what needed to be done to attain that.
Yinka was in unexpected ways, a spectacular character and his nonconformist credentials spoke loudly. He was outspoken and repugnant to injustice and lack of equity and fair-play. He fought for an egalitarian country where no Nigerian had a feeling of exclusion on account of birth, creed or status.
During nearly 30 years, Yinka was perhaps one of the most familiar faces on television, talking his voice hoax, on his interpretation of the idyllic Nigeria. He was also a “must read” newspaper columnist, who dug deeper than the deep. More than most other ordinary citizens, he was also a familiar face on the streets of Lagos in most protest actions. So also, conference rooms across Nigeria where the serious minds heckled ideas and traded wits with each other, Yinka’s presence was the icing that made the difference. At other times, he was a regular guest even in the United States and United Kingdom, wherever Nigeria was the topic.
Although he became Spokesman of Afenifere, the leading sociocultural platform of the Yoruba ethnic nationality, he canvassed national unity and oneness. Hence, he was at the vanguard of handshakes of various forms across the country and interestingly, combatted those who preached divisions or dismemberment of Nigeria. He preached and fought for a united country of equal opportunities for all.
For all these, at a relatively young age, he was on the front row, perhaps ‘centre forward’ in the fight against military rule. He exemplified the pain and anguish of most fellow countrymen over the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election. He then became one of the lead foot soldiers for the fight for what was termed a need for “Sovereign National Conference” to determine the nature of political harmony in Nigeria. Like Yinka, the campaigners for that approach to nation building, in a rather idealistic manner, intended that the “people” and “ethnic nationalities” should determine the constitutional order for the country, in contradistinction to an elitist dominated constitutional process.
With the return to democracy in 1999, he created a role for himself in fighting political imposition, corruption and ethnicity, which became new monsters. Towards the twilight of his life, Yinka emerged a determined champion of the idea of “Restructuring”. The main exponents of this emergent coinage, hold the view that the solution to the country’s myriad of problems would be in returning, as much as possible, to the original federalist structure. This it is argued, was what the founding fathers of Nigeria cautiously negotiated and agreed upon as a covenant to staying together during the constitutional conferences following the Macpherson/Lyttleton Constitutions of 1951/1954 respectively. Yinka therefore associated himself with various groups which still lead this campaign. His voice was particularly loud at the 2014 National Conference during which this idea got out of the nestling cocoon. Going forward, he soon carved out a niche for himself as the fiery Spokesman for Afenifere of the Yoruba nation and Secretary of the Southern and Middle Belt Forum.
Quite at home with geroncratic preponderance, he soon became the pivot of the meetings of the nonagenerians and octogenarians who had toiled for Nigeria of the likes of Chief Edwin Clark, Pa Ayo Adebanjo, Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, Prof Ango Abdullahi, and others as Chief Olu Falae, Chief Audi Ogbe, Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife, Obong Victor Attah, Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, Chief John Nwodo, Chief Cornelius Adebayo, Gen David Jemibewon, etc. So in the hard nose discussions, outside government, on how to make Nigeria work better, between such leading groups as Arewa Consultative Forum, Northern Elders Forum, Middle Belt Forum, Ohaneze Ndigbo, Afenifere, Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), and similar sociocultural groups, comprising, elder statesmen, technocrats, academics, Yinka soon found himself as the Coordinator and Secretary.
Many continue to wonder from where came his radical tilt. Those who know him to his roots trace it to his family in the ancient town of Moro in Ile Ife area of Osun State. A bloodline of heraldry and outspokenness, revolution was in his bones as it is still in his 104 years old father, who is still alive. Indeed, while he read for a degree in English at the Obafemi Awolowo University till his graduation in 1989, his energy as a Student Activist was preeminent. Yinka’s latter involvement with the “Father General” of radical movement in Nigeria, Chief Gani Fawehinmi unleashed his potentials and so he soon found himself in the vortex of the NADECO Struggle against the annulment of the June 12 1993 election.
The greatest influence on Yinka was however his equally leftist leaning wife, Dr. Josephine Obiageli, whom he met in the notorious Alagbon Criminal Investigation Department cell in Lagos. Both of them had been thrown into the gallows by some of then military regimes, especially that of General Sani Abacha who ruled Nigeria from 1993-1998. Unlike Yinka who briefly detoured into politics, having joined the Alliance for Democracy (AD) Party, National Conscience Party (NCP) and Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) Political Party, his wife remained focused on civil activism and paid the price by being arrested and detained nearly 20 times because of her views on various issues. Acknowledging him as an “encyclopedia of positive activism” she confessed never knowing Yinka as just a husband, but as “Comrade” till death.
In Christendom, funeral obsequies are often dominated by singing. This is to the extent that there is even a dedicated “Service of Songs” An indispensable 19th century song entitled “Ever Remembered” enjoins that all men would soon fade but shall be remembered. Yes, the task of building a new Nigeria for the peaceful and happy coexistence of our children is inchoate. But along the way, at every twist and turn, we will remember and ever harvest the seeds which Yinka has planted. Through his Spokesman, Femi Adesina, Nigerian President, Muhammad Buhari whom Yinka served as Media Director in 2011 abortive Presidential bid remembered him as “dutiful and full of strong convictions”. The building of nations is a continuous process where the collective thoughts and efforts of all, often divergent are harnessed for the common good. Hopefully, our efforts at building a secured and peaceful Nigeria for all, will always remember Yinka in the chronicles, indeed pantheon of our heroes past.
Comrade Odumakin was laid in his final resting place in his ancestral home, Moro on Friday, 23rd April, 2021.
Dr. Igali, is a former ambassador and Federal Permanent Secretary.