The Journey of Ebino Topsy, By Dare Babarinsa
Chief Ebenezer Babatope, alias Ebino Topsy, who turned 80, on January 26, is lucky to reach the ripe age considering the risks and bashings he has suffered in his more than 50 years of persistent public service. Babatope, son of a Methodist priest, author, lawyer, teacher, relentless pamphleteers, socialist ideologue, Awoist of the deepest hue and old prisoner of war, has seen a lot in Nigeria and Nigerian politics. He has retired now to Ilesa, his native place in Osun State where he is regarded as a natural repository of political knowledge and experience. He remains sagacious and quick-witted and like his mentor, Obafemi Awolowo, he does not suffer fools gladly.
Babatope was a student of the University of Lagos in the late 1960s and he was finding it difficult to pay his tuition. He and my uncle, Olajire Olanlokun, were friends and their vicissitude was similar. The university authorities would not allow them into the examination hall unless their fees are paid. Babatope suggested that they, reached out to Chief Awolowo, who was then Federal Commissioner (Minister) of Finance.
He and the late Olanlokun, who later rose to become the Librarian of the University of Lagos, went to see Awolowo in his office. He received their petition and promised that something would be done. That afternoon, the Federal Government issued a statement that students should no longer be driven out of Nigerian universities because of fees. Bursaries and loan regime were quickly instituted and education became easier for indigent students. Babatope had scored his first national victory.
After his graduation, he joined the service of the University of Lagos (UNILAG). It was in UNILAG that he became a member of the national socialist movement where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Edwin Madunagu, Professor Segun Osoba of the University of Ife, (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Dr. Bala Usman of the Ahmadu Bello University, Aire Iyare of Benin and many others.
It was a heady time that soon snowballed into crisis when the Federal Government decided that the pattern of old have to change. The government could no longer fund the luxury lifestyle of Nigerian university students. Cost of feeding was increased from 50 kobo per day to N1:50; a 200 per cent increase. The students blamed the military government and his Federal Commissioner for Education, Colonel Ahmadu Alli, an old student of the University of Ibadan, for the increment.
When the smoke cleared, many students were dead including Akintunde Ojo of UNILAG. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi, led the students’ procession for Ojo’s burial. Among UNILAG officials who joined Ade-Ajayi was Babatope. The military government did not like that and when it decided to act, Ade-Ajayi, Babatope and many other top UNILAG officials were among those sacked. It was this turn of event that made Babatope to become closer to Papa Awolowo.
When Awolowo unveiled his Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), in 1978, Babatope was appointed the Director of Organisation of the party while famous journalist and old Zikist, Chief M.C.K Ajuluchukwu, became the Director of Publicity. Intrigues and zero-sum-game of politics was to test and task Babatope’s skill as an administrator and politician. He, along with Odia Ofeimun, the cerebral personal secretary to Awolowo, became victims of party intrigues and they were made to leave their posts in 1983. Babatope decided to go and read law in the United Kingdom and Awo promised to support his aspiration.
He was planning to go abroad for his studies when the military struck in December 1983 and Major-General Muhammadu Buhari seized power. He was clapped in detention by the new junta. When his father died of a broken heart, the military would not release him to go and attend his father’s burial. He was never charged before any of the tribunals and he spent the entire duration of the Buhari regime in detention. His wife, the formidable Biola Babatope, a former member of the House of Representatives, was pregnant and the stress of that period led to a troubled delivery, which affected the child till today. The trauma of the draconian Buhari era was to affect Babatope for a long time. Babatope was later freed from Buhari’s detention in 1985.
When Awolowo died in 1987, he joined other Awoists to give the sage a grand farewell. Awolowo was a lodestar for Babatope and his passage created crisis for his political journey. He collaborated with other leaders to re-create the Awoist Movements after the titan was gone. Eventually, the group led by the governors, became dominant. These governors were Chief Adekunle Ajasin of old Ondo State, Chief Olabisi Onabanjo of Ogun and Bola Ige of old Oyo. Alhaji Lateef Jakande fell out with his colleagues early, but he remained dominant in Lagos until he was demystified after his involvement with the General Sani Abacha dictatorship.
The new Awoist Movement eventually took on the name Afenifere, the name suggested by the group meeting in Ibadan under the leadership of Chief Ige. This group included Babatope, Omo Ikiroda, Dr. Yemi Farounmbi and Professor Tunde Adeniran. Afenifere was one of the nicknames of the old Action Group, which was also known as Egbe Imole and Egbe Olope. When the group consolidated under the leadership of Papa Ajasin, it adopted the name, which the Awoist Movement bears till today. However, Afenifere, a pan-Yoruba cultural and political movement, is decidedly different from the old AG, which was a national political party.
In 1993, the Awoist Movement found itself at war when the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the victory of Chief Moshood Abiola at the June 12, presidential election. The struggle to validate Abiola’s victory was to define Afenifere and consolidate its position in contemporary Nigerian history. Babangida lost his job and there was a hiatus filled by the Interim National Government headed by the boardroom titan, Chief Ernest Shonekan, who was eventually toppled in November 1994 by General Sani Abacha. Then trouble stepped onto the centre stage.
I was in my office at the TELL headquarters on Acme Road, Ikeja, one late November afternoon, in 1994, when Chief Babatope was ushered in.
“Abiola has collapsed!” he blurted out. He said that morning, Chief Abiola had agreed to collaborate with the new regime of General Sani Abacha. He said many of Abiola’s top supporters, including Alhaji Baba Gana Kingibe, the Vice-President presumptive and Jakande would be joining the Abacha government. He said at the meeting of the Awoist Movement that morning in the home of our respected leader, Chief Alfred Rewane, the group also agreed to toe the line of Abiola.
Therefore, some other people would be joining the government including himself, Mr. Alex Ibru, Mrs. Mobolaji Osomo and Chief Olu Onagoruwa. Babatope felt it was wrong for Abiola to have agreed to collaborate with Abacha whose mission, at that time, was cloudy. He however said he was joining because his leaders have given him the go-ahead at the meeting in Rewane’s house.
Many months later, Babatope was still Abacha’s Minister of Transport when we organised the Yoruba Summit held at the Premier Hotel, Ibadan in 1995. Babatope and his colleagues in the Abacha cabinet were conspicuously absent. Papa Ajasin, who presided, said the Yoruba were withdrawing their support from the Abacha regime because the regime had become dictatorial and had no plan to return the country to democratic rule. He directed that all those who joined the government on the ticket of the Awoist vanguard should resign. Babatope and the others refused.
I am sure now that Babatope would reflect on the events since our 1995 Summit and conclude that was a turning point in his political journey. Despite the controversies and the intrigues, Uncle Ebino would be regarded as one of the builders of modern Nigeria. He has paid his dues. Congratulations!