Come April 10, the ebony black, handsome, youthful and energetic Chief Samuel Ayodele Adebanjo, one of the grandees of Nigerian politics turns 90. It is no exaggeration to say that he could be taken for 20 years younger than his age, maybe more. Nature has been so kind to this king of the boys who takes delight in being very friendly with young people the age of his grandchildren. While many of his age mates are on their wheel chairs or are bedridden, the spritely Chief Adebanjo is still to be seen on the Ikoyi Bridge regularly jogging and walking in the mornings! It is a rare privilege.
Yet, this vigorous man, one of the oldies of Nigerian politics who has seen so much of its happenings for over 70 years, is, undoubtedly, a moving encyclopedia. For him, politics is his first, second and third love. As a young man, he identified Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who probably, still under 40, as his mentor and enrolled very early in the Awolowo School of Politics. He is still in that school today, maybe as a professor emeritus. Chief Adebanjo was with Awo in the formative years of the Action Group, the most formidable political machine that this country has ever seen. He is a grassroots political organiser who in the 50s served as the Organising Secretary of the Action Group in Remo Division, Chief Awolowo’s home base, where he cut his political teeth. As the Organising Secretary, he was Chief Awo’s ear and nose, and obviously, a most trusted ally.
At a stage, in the 50s, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, following the example of the sage, enlisted for law studies in the UK. That was with a view to sharpening his tools for the political career to which he had committed his life. It was at this time that he met and married his most amiable wife, Chief (Mrs.) Christie Adebanjo, from the notable Lawson family of Lagos and Togo. To this day, at nearly 87 years, she remains a paragon of beauty, a head turner! The duo make quite a pair in good taste, an enduring family life and have been blessed with a beautiful family and accomplished children.
When my class of activists joined the Awo political school during the days of the Committee of Friends, which was the precursor of the Unity Party of Nigeria, in the late 70s, he was one of our leaders. It was an awesome political grouping, well-oiled and well-disciplined. It prided itself in knowledge and dogged research of public issues and problems. Its lively and intellectual policy formulation sessions in its unending search for public good were a delight in social engineering. Along with Chief Olabisi Onabanjo, Chief Bola Ige, Chief Michael Ajasin, Alhaji L. K. Jakande, Mr. Olaniwun Ajayi, Chief Abraham Adesanya, Prof. Ambrose Ali, MCK Ajuluchukwu, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, Philip Umeadi, Ganiyu Dawodu, to name just a few, Chief Adebanjo was, unarguably, in the first eleven in the list of the very close associates of Awolowo. Among Chief Awolowo’s close knit circle, you will be right to call Chief Ayo Adebanjo and LKJ as the last men standing. He was with him in peace and in war, never flinching and never relenting in his loyalty and commitment. He was an Awo acolyte to the core, never ashamed to be called an extremist. He loved Awo with every atom of his being. He was the man Friday, available for sensitive missions 24 hours a day. He was the only close ally I knew of who had a room of his own in the Awo home in Ikenne. They were like father and son.
We, the new recruits of the Committee of Friends days, were not with the team when it had its baptism of fire during the treasonable felony trial and the events which lead to it. We therefore do not know the real facts or if, indeed, the charges were concocted as the defence had vigorously alleged. Those old war lords kept certain things they would not reveal at gunpoint to their chests. But one man who will know the truth is Papa Adebanjo. When Chief Awo was charged to court for treasonable felony along with many of his supporters, Chief Adebanjo was in Ghana with the “fugitive offender”, Chief Anthony Enahoro, under the protection of the Osagyefo, the foremost African pan-Africanist, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. So Chief Adebanjo, while his colleagues were languishing in Broad Street prison, the cat with many lives, was lucky to have slipped into exile in Ghana. As far as I am aware, he has never revealed which route he took through the present day Benin Republic to get out of Nigeria! But his luck was only for a while and was at a huge cost to his young family and fledgling legal practice. He was to live in exile from 1963-1966 until the coup d’etat which toppled the Osagyefo after which he lost his political cover and friend.
Upon his return to Nigeria in 1966, he was clamped into detention by the new military government in Nigeria at the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison and later at the Kaduna Prison till 1967. Many years later, when the Buhari coup d’etat of 1983 toppled the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari in 1983, I had the honour of sharing a cell with him and the late Dr. Tai Solarin at the Abeokuta Prison on the order of the then Col. Oladipo Diya who was the Governor of Ogun State and the successor of Chief Olabisi Onabanjo, Chief Adebanjo’s friend and fellow political traveller. Happily for him, his detention this time, unlike mine, was for a short spell.
Chief Adebanjo, it can be said, has been a war lord, a controversial figure, fighting all his life for what he believed in. He is a most predictable person and a conviction politician. If you want his wahala, all you needed to do was to criticise Chief Awo and thunder would fall! His faith in Awo, from the beginning to the end, was implicit. He is a general of many wars and he has his scars all over his body to show for it. Even if you don’t like the chief you cannot but respect his doggedness, commitment, bravery and his never-say-die spirit. He is well-kitted with his arsenal day and night. To his eternal glory, he was part of Chief Abraham Adesanya’s war cabinet which stood for the actualisation of the MKO Abiola mandate which Ibrahim Babangida, recklessly annulled. It’s an infamy from which the general will never recover and for which history will be very hard on him.