I’m most delighted to contribute this tribute to a leader who has affected me positively in my own growth trajectory, General Alani Akinrinade, as he clocks 80. His Spartan reputation loomed large even before the privilege of meeting him. He was the intrepid barnstormer in the 3rd Marine Commando that played a pivotal role in Nigeria’s eventual victory in the civil war. He was also the General Officer Commanding the First Division, who told Colonel Bukar Sukar Dimka that it was in his best interest to change his mind about the 1976 coup before he marched down south with his troops to overrun him and his band of coup plotters. Soldiers talked about him in hushed tones but with bated breath and barely concealed admiration. Contemporaries regard him as the quintessential exemplary soldier. It was no surprise that he went on to attain the highest levels in his chosen career – first as Chief of Army Staff and subsequently as Chief of Defence Staff under President Shehu Shagari even before he turned 50.
General Akinrinade was a soldiers’ soldier. Brave, bold, intrepid and professional in his chosen trade. He is also self-effacing to a fault. He would rather operate in the shadows than call attention to himself. Yet, he is a patriot to the core, one who is never afraid of speaking truth to power and challenging any status quo that is not delivering development to the downtrodden.
Although I met him first as a research student writing a doctoral thesis on defence planning in Nigeria, my relationship with him has grown from one of a detached academic observer to a mentee and an adopted son. I have had the privilege of working closely with him in the quest of making Nigeria a truly federal republic at home and abroad and have seen him agonise over missed opportunities in our country over the years. What becomes clear very early to anyone who knows General Akinrinade is his abhorrence of oppression. Whether he is defending the Ogoni in the Niger Delta or protecting the rights of the small and medium scale enterprises as industry and agriculture minister, he is never tired of being the voice of the voiceless and the defender of the defenceless. For that, he suffered greatly. Not only did he become persona non grata in the country he fought to keep united, assassins were sent after him for his audacity to speak truth to power. His Opebi house was fire-bombed and his Yakoyo residence ransacked. His family suffered greatly in the hands of those not even fit to tie his shoelace.
There are many who now bestride the Nigerian political space like the colossus with scant acknowledgment of Akinrinade’s role in making this democratic process possible. I should know. I was involved in that process and could speak authoritatively about the role General Akinrinade played. In fact, written about it in my book, Out of the Shadows. I know that I’m a beneficiary of his generosity of spirit and of his extensive knowledge of Nigeria’s complexities. Yet, there are many who are also beneficiaries of the General’s goodwill without the decency of openly confirming this.
One of his most unique qualities is the fact that he is an unapologetic Nigerian nationalist as he is a proud Yoruba patriot. His position on the distortions that have bedraggled the Nigerian state is well-known. His critique of the creeping unitarism brought about partly by military incursion into politics is also well-documented. And he has proffered solutions by arguing largely for competitive and cooperative federalism – particularly the type that strengthens minority segments of the country.
Today at 80, I’m almost certain that he is not happy about the state of affairs in our beloved country. But with his incurable optimism and his unflagging determination, General Akinrinade has defied stereotypes and become one of the most dashing 80-year-olds in this clime. And that is why we cannot let go of him in these difficult times. The leadership that is needed in troubled times like this requires the experience, courage and non-partisan direction of his type. Although he has always avoided being put in a position in which leadership is thrust upon him, it is clear as the elders say, Ti Ina o ba tan laso, eje ki tan Lekan na. Our country needs guardian angels right now and they don’t come any better than General Akinrinade.
General, Sir! The job is not done. Your children and mentees in the saddle still need you. They need your wise counsel, they need your network, they need your clarity of vision, they need your sincerity of purpose. We need your consensual, purpose-driven leadership.
Happy Birthday, Sir…Igba Odun, Odun kan ooo
- Dr. Fayemi, CON, is Governor, Ekiti State