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Awujale Adetona at 86: Governance Lessons for a Nation Adrift By Ayo Olukotun

Another thing an Oba needs (to survive and succeed) is a stubborn and unwavering refusal to compromise the truth or the integrity of the Obaship institution, whatever the occasion” – Oba (Dr) Sikiru Adetona cited in ‘Awujale: The Autobiography of Alaiyeluwa, Oba S.K. Adetona, Ogbagba II.

For three consecutive years, Alaiyeluwa, Oba S.K. Adetona, the Awujale of Ijebuland had celebrated his birthday which falls on May 10, listening to a Public Lecture, delivered statutorily by this columnist, in his capacity as the pioneer occupant of a Chair of Governance, endowed in 2016, by the monarch. Warehoused in the Department of Political Science, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, the endowment, managed by a Board of Trustees of remarkable forte is, perhaps, the largest of any such undertaking in Nigeria and beyond. This year, however, what was planned as a double celebration of 60 years of Obaship and 86th birthday, had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beyond ceremonies and edifying rites, a nation of slow learners that is also extraordinarily challenged in the areas of leadership and governance ought to be gainfully occupied teasing out important takeaways from our heroes past and subsisting, who have seminally impacted upon lives, traditions and definition of what to take seriously or invest in. This is more so because an overwhelming majority of our leaders flaunt pomp, elevated circumstance and optics, rather than the kind of purpose, gravitas and achievements that will continue to resonate and inspire long after they are gone. In the vast gallery of history, there will be little said about the majority of our leaders beyond the facts of being adept at winning elections, occupying office with a photo library and parade of world leaders that they had dinner with while the experience lasted.

There is a thin crust of leaders, however who spend precious time holding and moulding lives, erecting monuments of lasting fame, guided by the passion to transform their communities and their oysters in abiding ways. Awujale Adetona, one of our most revered monarchs, with a reputation that straddles several continents belongs, in my opinion, to this latter extraction. Take, for example, his educational forays. Like most of our leaders, Adetona had long lamented educational decay and its pernicious consequences. He had written, “our educational system requires very special attention. The root of all our developmental problems, our stifled national growth and shortcomings in our national behavior can be largely traced to the weakening of our educational system”, but unlike most others, he did not merely stop at lamentation, rather, at every opportunity, he poured his soul into redemptive activities capable of changing the tide. The professorial endowment befitted by a grand edifice on Ago-Iwoye campus is a telling illustration of the value placed by him on higher education.

More recently, he has been involved in a series of planning activities targeted at the establishment of an Institute for Governance with the stated objective of making it the best available in these parts and beyond. In this and other connections, observing him at work is like watching a movie in which the director gives himself no rest until he has pored over every detail, organized the necessary connections, rallied his followership and clientele, ensuring that everyone played his/her part in the cast. It is these qualities of relentless executive energy, vigorous implementation steps, as well as monitoring that distinguishes him from others who did not cross the pathway from lamentation to remedial action. This brings us to the question of character and moral compass. In the opening quote sourced from his autobiography, he had admonished a dogged refusal to compromise the truth and integrity of the Obaship institution. Conscious, however, that adherence to principles do not grow easily in the crucible of poverty and necessity, the monarch insisted that traditional rulers and others who wish to make a mark should have their own independent financial means so as not to be captive of, or dependent on political forces capable of subverting the best moral ideals. Obviously, Adetona took his own advice, becoming in the process, one of the best financially resourced traditional rulers in the country and beyond. So, what plays out here is the excellent combination of nature and nurture that has enabled him, over time, to speak truth to power, holding his head high where several of his contemporaries have been caught out in shabby compromises. To be cited in this regard is his noble, almost heroic role, during the June 12 debacle, the Abacha dictatorship and its corrupting spin-offs, as well as during the Goodluck Jonathan administration, when he politely rebuffed insinuations that he should enlist in the campaign for the return of Jonathan to power.

The lesson here for all those who wish to matter in the rapidly shifting kaleidoscope of national events is the need, indeed urgency, of developing a corps of leaders who cannot be turned aside or bought over by alluring financial inducements. All too often, our political space resembles a circus show dominated by men of straw and jesters who do not take themselves, much less the people they lead, seriously. Granted, the political arena is not a Republic of Virtue and does not need to be a copycat of Thomas More’s Utopia to be effective. Nonetheless, a certain threshold of morality and observance of standards is necessary to rescue Nigeria from the current political doldrums. This is perhaps the crux of the Adetona legacy in the areas of values and character. Being human, he is not without weaknesses; this writer insists, however, that a renascent Nigeria has a lot to learn from him.

Innovatively, he has turned Regberegbe, the age group associations for which the Ijebus are famous into a power house of deliberative democracy and development. Several of his construction projects including the renovation and extension of the palace were the handiwork of these age groups which voluntarily mobilized, taxing themselves to donate to the projects.  One often marvels concerning the extent to which social capital has been unleashed to the point of becoming a notable developmental factor and an engine of growth. Of course, the homogeneity of the Ijebu displayed spectacularly in the cultural fiesta of Ojude-oba has something to do with it. Future historians will give credit, no doubt, to the monarch for the outstanding cultural and political-economic uses to which he has put these associations. Equally worthy of mention, in a related vein, is the uniquely beneficial programme of poverty alleviation, driven by the monarch’s passion for relieving human suffering, intellectual inputs from eminent scholars such as Professors Akin Mabogunje and the late Adebayo Adedeji, as well as, again, the pressing into service of communal values at the grassroots. Consequently, the programme has become international and a model currently being studied at home and abroad, with a view to copying its successes. It has created jobs, empowered artisans, as well as constructed far flung agricultural enterprises in pineapple, maize, poultry, piggery and fish farming among others.

Considering that traditional rulers and other leaders of this calibre are few and far between, our country, as a nation adrift, obviously has a lot to learn in the governance architecture of a monarch who has succeeded in rebranding the chieftaincy institution, providing in the process, an umbrella of excellence around which his people and others far beyond can identify with and affectionately dote upon.

Here is wishing the monarch, happy birthday and many more eventful years of purpose-driven leadership.
– Prof. Ayo Olukotun is the Oba (Dr.) Sikiru Adetona Chair of Governance, Department of Political Science, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye.

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