Opinion: Osuntokun And The Quest For A New Brigade – By Dare Babarinsa
Professor Akinjide Osuntokun is the youngest of the Osuntokun brothers from the same mother. Today, he is the lone survivor, the patriarch of the Osuntokun clan who, for almost a century, has been part of our history. Osuntokun chooses to be an historian, but he is also a part of our living history for he was an eyewitness and participant in some of the more turbulent aspects of our contemporary history.
Now at 80, he would reflect and would be full of gratitude to benevolent fortune that, despite the toss and twist of life, has made him victorious and in relatively good health. He is now an old man witnessing the struggles and progress of his children, grandchildren and the newer generations of the Osuntokun clan.
Professor Osuntokun is a man of omnivorous interests. We grew up to know him even before he became my in-law, being the uncle of my late wife, Adekemi. I first met him in 1984 when he came to Okemesi with his young children and Aunty Biodun, his wife. He was then a young professor at the University of Maiduguri, where Professor Jubril Aminu, an old student of the University of Ibadan Medical School, was the vice chancellor. Osuntokun, who read history at Ibadan for his first degree, has adopted Ibadan, the old Yoruba war camp, as his second home. We struck it off immediately and since then, he has become the favourite among the Osuntokun boys who dominated our childhood years.
The Osuntokuns are noted for spirited public service. It was not surprising then when he was appointed in 1991 as the Nigeria’s first ambassador to the United Federal Republic of Germany. His tour of duty was to end dramatically when General Sani Abacha became Nigerian military ruler after he toppled the regime of Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan, the Head of the Interim National Government (ING). While he was in Germany, events were happening rapidly at home. Opponents of military rule formed the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) to tackle the Abacha regime. At the home front, one of Osuntokun’s nephews, Akin, had become a member of the Editorial Board of the prestigious The Guardian newspaper, where he maintained a weekly column churning out regularly bristling criticism of the military regime.
It was not the best of time neither for Nigeria nor for Professor Osuntokun. While in Germany, he and Aunty Biodun had to play the generous host to series of roving ambassadors who travelled to Germany to campaign and launder the image of Abacha. One of those who came was the Ikemba, Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who had come to believe that Abacha meant well for Nigeria. Osuntokun did not believe so and over dinner for his guests from Nigeria, he did not hide his feelings. Soon Abacha was fed with security reports of this ambassador who was sympathetic to the activities of NADECO. Abacha plotted his revenge. He was not to wait long.
While he was in Bonn, Osuntokun’s elder brother, Professor Kayode Osuntokun, the famous neurologist, former Chief Medical Director of the University College Hospital, Ibadan, winner of the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA), and the first winner of the Charles Drew Award for Medicine in the United States, became ill. Kayode Osuntokun was a towering figure on the world stage in the field of medicine, lionised by the World Health Organisation, honoured on all the continents and cherished as a living ancestor among Nigerian doctors. He was, however, branded as an enemy because of the perceived activities of his younger brother, the ambassador. When Kayode Osuntokun died, the Federal Government sent a less powerful delegation to his burial in Okemesi. The Minister of Health dutifully stayed away. Shortly after Jide Osuntokun returned to base, he was sacked from his post and when he showed up in Lagos, he was arrested and detained in the cell of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), Apapa, and kept in the care of the notorious Colonel Frank Omenka.
It was a difficult period for Nigeria. Involvements in public affairs were not new to Professor Jide Osuntokun. His grandfather, Dada, was a loyal lieutenant to Ishola Fabunmi, famous deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Ekitiparapo forces during the 16-year Kiriji War. After the armistice of 1888, the soldiers returned home. In Okemesi, where Fabunmi retired to, there was a sudden public revolt against him and his boys. Fabunmi was accused of plotting to topple the government of Oba Aponlese, his uncle, who was then the Owa Ooye of Okemesi. Fabunmi was expelled from the community and he took up position with his boys at Motagogoro, not far from Efon Alaaye. He was later invited to Imesi-Ile, the old homestead of Okemesi, where he became the Owa Ooye.
One of Fabunmi’s most loyal lieutenants and his right-hand man during the war was Dada, who was accused of helping the generalissimo’s escape. As a result, Dada was forced to pay dearly for his loyalty to his friend, Fabunmi. One of Dada’s many children was Osuntokun, who later married Ootola as his first wife. They settled in Ilawe Ekiti and they begot children who were to become famous. The first born was Oduola, one of the first persons to become a university graduate in Ekiti land and who later served a regional minister for 10 years. The second born was Abiodun, who, by the time he died in 1964, was a captain in the Nigerian Army. The third was the famous neurologist, Kayode. The fifth were a set of twins, Taiye, who was to become the Accountant-General for Local Government in Ekiti State. His twin, Kehinde, was my mother-in-law, whose husband, Prince Anthony Bamigbade, was a grandson of the aforesaid Oba Aponlese. The last born, Abidakun, is our subject, Professor Akinjide Osuntokun. He is the last man standing as all his brothers and sister have all gone to God’s headquarters.
It is pertinent to note that despite his public experience and private travails, Professor Osuntokun remains a great investor in the future of Nigeria. He has always been upbeat about public service like his ancestors. Since the end of the Abacha regime, he has remained an enthusiastic participant in public affairs. He contributed to fashioning the foreign policy of the Obasanjo regime and has helped subsequent governments in advisory capacity. He had served as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Ado-Ekiti and, for many years, served as a professor of History at the Redeemer’s University, Osun State.
For our country to make progress, many Nigerians must be ready to follow the example of Professor Osuntokun, leave our comfort zone and be ready to endure hardship to transform our society. There are not many top Nigerians who would be willing to endure the kind of sacrifice that Osuntokun made to bring democracy back to Nigeria.
Note that the DMI is not exactly a holiday resort. Now our country is at a crossroad where we are presented with two political parties that are as different as six and half a dozen and we are told to make a choice in 2023. It would require people of wisdom and courage to create a true alternative vision of the future beyond and different from the dour vision of these two parties.
– Babarinsa is a respected columnist with The Guardian