By Kayode Fayemi
It is often said that the most difficult phase in the life of a Nigerian politician is when he or she has to retire from public office. Such are the outsized privileges and perks of high office that the transition from VIP status to ordinary citizen is jarring and traumatic for many. Many strive to desperately retain these privileges by floating from one government position to another. They become essentially professional hustlers prostituting themselves to various political barons in order to secure office. In some cases, an exit from public office seems almost to coincide with a diminution of the erstwhile public servant’s faculties as though holding a government position was all that kept him from terminal decline.
In an ideal situation, politics is a field for people who are already personally and professionally accomplished and are thus not inclined to derive their sense of purpose, worth and self-esteem from transient positions. As a result, such individuals can leave office as gracefully and as unobtrusively as they entered it. In reality, such unaffected personalities, while they actually do exist in our space, are rarities and outliers. One such rarity is Otunba Richard Adeniyi Adebayo, my Egbon, leader and predecessor in office and a man that I have been privileged to know as a friend, ally, mentor and confidante, and whose 60th birthday today necessitates this tribute from me.
Otunba Adebayo was elected the first governor of Ekiti State in 1999 and was the third youngest governor elected that year. A lawyer by training, he had over fifteen years’ post-call experience before he sought and won office. It is a testament to his character that he left office with an unsullied record of achievements. His pristine legacy in cash strapped Ekiti remains indelible – including the imposing Ekiti House in Abuja and the well built road that leads to my country home in Isan-Ekiti, two of the projects carried out with funds raised from the very first Ekiti State Bond. His enduring legacy of a peaceful and tranquil state has made him such a moral force with an undeniable weight of authority in the affairs of Ekiti State politics, and indeed progressive politics at the national level.
When he left Government House, Ado-Ekiti, in 2003 he was only 45 – still young enough to have been afflicted by the existential challenge that drives people into post-office despair and desperation for political relevance. Instead, he did what does not come naturally to many of us in the political class – he moved on. His trajectory after office has since revealed a man of many parts. He is as comfortable in the precincts of politics as he is in the boardrooms of big business. The term “detribalized Nigerian” is such a cliché in Nigeria but it may be justly applied to Otunba Adebayo who has friends and associates from across the length and breadth of the country. He is as ecumenical in his personal dealings as he is in his professional, business and political adventures.
Like some others in his position, after his exit from office, Otunba Adebayo could have sought to play the role of a “spoiler” in local politics, he could have used his contacts to secure a niche as a baron dispensing patronage to underlings and wielding influence as a “godfather” over his successors in office. Having served as governor of Ekiti myself, I can testify that Otunba Adebayo did nothing of the sort. Even though a prime beneficiary of his generosity of spirit, at no time was he overbearing with his presence nor boastful about his central role in my emergence as party candidate and eventually Governor. He was instead a source of unflagging support and guidance and was always on hand to offer wise counsel when it was required. He never tried to undermine me or treat me in any way other than as a fellow progressive and brother governor. Given the well documented dramas of ego-driven bickering between governors and their successors in some states, Otunba Adebayo’s disposition was one that I appreciate greatly and it reflects his enormous reserves of self-awareness, security and self-possession.
Our relationship is an interesting one too. Although I knew of him long before we met, it was my job as a consultant involved in a team designing the UK Country Programme for Nigeria in 1999 that first brought us in contact. Part of the task of the team was the selection of focal states for the UK development programme in Nigeria. I made a strong case for Ekiti to be the focal state in the South West and it was chosen. Ekiti benefited tremendously from UK government support during his tenure and our relationship blossomed from there. Indeed, towards the end of his tenure, he had hinted in passing on one of my visits to Governors Lodge in Ado Ekiti that he would want me to join his cabinet after the election.
When things went the way they did in 2003, I strongly made a case that he had a lot to still offer our state and we must start preparation early for his return. Unknown to me, he had other plans for the State. That plan began to unfold when he asked me to run for Governor of our state with his backing in 2004. This was at a time that I had only fully relocated to Nigeria barely two years. I was not even a member of the Alliance for Democracy, although my sympathy for the party was not hidden, not to mention my personal relationship with many of the leaders. I balked at the idea of getting into the murky waters of Nigerian politics but he was unrelenting. He even enlisted the support of some of our leaders, particularly Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and Chief Bisi Akande. When I prudently gave an excuse that my wife would not want me to do this, he asked for her number and called her in Ghana and eventually convinced Bisi. And from that moment, I stood on the shoulders of a giant and he stood by me through thick and thin. When weighed against the background that he didn’t even know me that closely and there were many of his close political associates desirous of becoming Governor, his selflessness went beyond the call of duty.
I was especially humbled when he unexpectedly graced my father’s 80th birthday and spent quality time with him and the rest of the guests. I was touched not only by the fact that as a sitting governor he had deemed it important to make time to honour an elder but also to honour our friendship in that way. It made quite an impression on me and set Otunba Adebayo apart as one who truly espouses the Omoluabi ethos – that blend of good breeding, nobility, decency and compassion that we hold in high esteem in these parts. For me, these little acts were very much the measure of the man.
On June 21, 2014, when we lost to the PDP in Ekiti, Otunba Adebayo was one of the people at my side into the early hours of the following morning. With tempers frayed by what many saw as a blatant electoral heist perpetrated by the then ruling party, he was one of the calmest people in the room. Long before then, I had made it clear that I did not wish to see Ekiti plunged into turmoil because of a disputed election. I was convinced then as I remain convinced now, that political leaders have a moral responsibility to ensure that their contest for power is not conducted in ways that threaten public peace and safety or potentially result in a negative impact on the people. I was aware that deepening democracy requires politicians to be willing to rise above self-aggrandizing political considerations and guarantee peaceful transitions of power.
It was with these thoughts in mind, and the unanimous concurrence of the good company I had that historic night that I decided to concede – regardless of our misgivings at the violation of the will of the people. Otunba Adebayo was unreservedly supportive of this – a stance that reflects his principled belief in politics without bitterness. He had been there and done exactly that in 2003.
I’m sure I’m not the only beneficiary of his generous spirit who has a story to tell. But I owe it a duty to bear witness to the great attributes of this quintessential gentleman – mentor, teacher, leader, friend to many, high and low and an amazing husband and father – Otunba Richard Adeniyi Adebayo, Commander of the Order of the Niger, as he celebrates this landmark Diamond Anniversary
I feel especially honoured by the friendship and the kinship of this remarkable son of Ekiti – Oni Uyi, Oni Eye, and I wish him many more years of fruitful service to humanity in this realm. Happy Birthday sir.
ï Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Minister of Mines and Steel Development
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