There is little doubt in the minds of Nigerians about the fact that the projectiles which perforated and decimated the body of the late General Murtala Muhammed were procured from an armoury of the Nigerian army and that the motive force which propelled them on their deadly flight was supplied by dissident soldiers of the Nigerian army. Most of whom, were apprehended, hauled before a tribunal, tried, adjudged guilty, and sentenced to a projectile induced death. There is, however, in the minds of Nigerians much doubt regarding the provenance of the projectiles and perpetrators responsible for extinguishing the life of the former federal Attorney General, Chief Bola Ige. And it appears that this doubt will continue to persist in its existence in the minds of Nigerians for time to come. But in any event, this article is not about the manner of his dying, but about his having lived amongst us as a consummate political operator.
Before he came to be more widely known on a national basis, Chief Bola Ige had exercised executive governance over the old Oyo State between 1979 and 1983. At a time when the federated units of the nation were 19 in number and much easier to keep track with, before their further division into 36 States; a division which made it practically impossible to assess in performance terms, the progress or otherwise, of the multiplicity of political functionaries with executive and legislative charge over them.
It was during this period that he first came to my attention as a combative politician possessed of first class communication skills complemented by a fine mind. These attributes were often on display and particularly so during televised and radio debates with other political candidates, all of whom sought to promote their respective candidacies and policies in a bid to win votes.
In one such debate, Chief Ige cited the example of Unity Party of Nigeria’s (UPN) pledge to introduce free education as a good reason to vote for him, referencing as he did so, the successes of that policy during the Action Group’s (AG) leadership of the former Western Region before, and during the 1st Republic. This claim was dismissed as spurious by his main opponent representing the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) who asserted that the products of the AGs free education policy were largely armed robbers and miscreants. Chief Ige with quick witted acuity challenged his opponent to name members of his extended family who were armed robbers or miscreants, since they too were beneficiaries of the AGs free education initiative. At this riposte, his opponent stormed out of the debate in indignation.
One close encounter with Chief Ige, which I recall, occurred in the early 1980s when he accompanied the then president, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, to the University of Ife in his capacity as Visitor to attend its convocation ceremonies. As the presidential procession approached Oduduwa Hall, a group of Oyo State students gathered to protest Chief Ige’s refusal to pay bursaries to them. His refusal, he claimed was predicated on the premise that Oyo State had two first class universities in Ibadan, and Ife, both of which, had and had always had, a good representation of Oyo State students. Such that the State could boast of having a good proportion of well educated people, and thus no subsidies were necessary. The students were not persuaded by his logic and so sang out in protest:
‘All we are saying is give us our bursaries.’
On hearing their protest he simply smiled and continued to chaperon the president to different convocation events. The next day they gathered again to mount protest, but before they could break into song, Chief Ige smiled and asked:
‘Great Ife, what are we saying today?’
At this riposte, they burst out laughing; needless to say they never did get paid those bursaries!
As it happens, Chief Ige was to play host again to President Shagari during his official visit to Oyo State. Anyone familiar with the Oyo State politics of that period will recall that a fierce rivalry existed between UPN and NPN, which on occasion manifested in episodes of violent thuggery. UPN had the late Chief Busari Adelakun in its camp and he was the undisputed generalissimo of political goons in Ibadan; in addition to being an African scientist renowned for his knowledge and proficiency in practical aspects of quantum physics. He was expert at remote control technology and was famed for being able to induce spontaneous urination in his victims. NPN had the late Chief Lamidi Adedibu in its camp, but he was no match for Chief Adelakun. He had yet to become formidable. It was against this background, that Chief Ige addressed the people of the State appealing for calm during the president’s visit.
Thankfully, the visit passed largely without incident. Chief Ige once again addressed the people to thank them for their cooperation and hospitality towards the visiting president, but in his speech he referenced one incident which he said almost marred the visit; and I recall it as follows:
‘On our way to Oyo town, a bus ferrying a band of NPN thugs tried to waylay us on the road by interrupting our smooth passage and disrupting the procession of our convoy into Oyo town, but as it happened their vehicle careered off the road and into a gutter; their blood is upon the heads of those who sent them’.
A regular feature and highlight of his governorship was his meetings with the Press and public to give account of his stewardship and answer questions. In one such meeting, a young secondary school girl, put to him a question in a manner and tone which was at odds with entrenched Yoruba customs pertaining to respect for elders. For her insolence, he rebuked her in Yoruba, a fair translation of which I render below:
‘That which is obvious to me, but to which you are oblivious, is that you are woefully deficient in parental upbringing, and because of this glaring deficiency, I shall not dignify your question with an answer’.
He was not one to hold back. Anyone familiar with Ibadan of the 1980s will recall that it had serious problems with the generation and management of refuse. It was common to see refuse strewn indiscriminately in various places and spaces. This reflected poorly on Chief Ige’s administration, and he gave vent to his frustrations, and as I recall it, in the following terms:
‘As many of you know I have spent most of my life in Ibadan as: a secondary school student; a university undergraduate; a lawyer; and as a politician; Ibadan has always been a home and a base to me. I have strong connections with this city, but in spite of my best efforts to sanitise it and keep it in sanitary condition, my efforts are continually frustrated, it grieves me to say, but say it I must; Ibadan people are very dirty!’
The then Olubadan of Ibadan on hearing this rebuke was livid and ordered Chief Ige to pack out of Ibadan within seven days. When this was relayed to Chief Ige he shrugged his shoulders and declared that:
‘He was not in the habit of taking orders from second class chieftains’.
When he sought a renewal of his electoral mandate in 1983, it was clear to him that his NPN opponents were resolved to unseat him by fair or foul means. They had tired of his ways, particularly, certain prominent sons of Ibadan who had unwisely delayed a visit to his office to express their sympathy on the occurrence of the Ogunpa flood. Chief Ige was not impressed at their tardiness and lambasted them to the full extent of his tongue, informing them that non-indigenes of Ibadan had come from as far afield as Sokoto to offer support and sympathy ahead of them. He was thus in no doubt as to the kind of opposition he faced. So when reports began to emerge that irregularities and malpractices were rife in the conduct of the e
lections, he took to the airwaves imploring his supporters in Yoruba to be vigilant, a translation of which is rendered below:
‘When NPN’s agents approach you to offer inducements such as money, take it from them, for that which they offer you is rightfully yours, but when you go to the polls, vote as you always have, in accordance with your conscience, continue to vote for progress and good governance, your conscience cannot be bought.
But should they decide to steal your votes to change your electoral intentions, I say to you to unsheathe your machetes and acquaint them with their sharp edges, I do not say to you to kill them, but teach them lessons that they will long remember’.
As it happens, NPN with the through actions which did not bear scrutiny was successful in wresting executive control of Oyo State from UPN. Electoral results which bore no correlation to levels of support in known UPN strongholds were announced late at night or early in the morning. He sought judicial redress, but was unsuccessful in his quest. In the end, he accepted the outcome of the process and, in a valedictory speech to the people he declared that:
‘Governments shall come, and governments shall go, but the people shall remain always’.
Indeed, within three months there was another change of government as the 2nd Republic was consigned to history by restive soldiers. Their grip on political power – bar a brief hiatus in 1993 – was to hold firm until 1999. In the period preceding the military’s eventual disengagement from power, Chief Ige captured the popular imagination of the people, by describing the five political parties assembled by General Abacha as part of his charade to metamorphose from confirmed autocrat to pretend democrat, as:
‘The five fingers of a leprous hand.’
It was a pithy, potent, and poetic indictment of the insincere nature of General Abacha’s political transition process. Few, could have thought, or said, it better!
He was an eternal optimist and despite the onset of advancing years, he declared on turning 70, that:
‘The best is yet to come’.
One glaring omission, which requires rectification, and pertains to Chief Ige, is that there is not to be found on media such as, YouTube, any recordings of his numerous speeches or interviews. Perhaps his son, Muyiwa, and his daughter, Mrs. Funso Adegbola, will commission research into the archives of the successor organizations to the Television Service of Oyo State (TSOS) and the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) to retrieve any such recordings and upload them onto YouTube, as a fitting tribute and memorial to him, and as a resource for present politicians to form an idea of some of the standards to which they should aspire.
Chief James Ajibola Ige, redoubtable Cicero of Esa Oke; may your soul continue to rest in peace.