He needs no introduction. He was the afternoon star that scared the elderly – Irawo oran ti’ ba agba leru!
He was the morning dew that drenched both friends and foes. Gbadamosi Adegoke Adelabu died at his prime. He died when his sun was at its zenith. It was a death like no other. It was not the death of an individual. It was not the loss of a family. Adegoke Adelabu’s death was a national tragedy. Ibadan stood still. Lagos was stunned. Nigeria went into a state of shock.
He was an almost mythical figure. He was flamboyant, dashing, sharp, witty, smart and suave. He came before his time. The profundity of his thoughts, the depth of his reasoning, and his mastery of politics was first class.
Adegoke Adelabu was born in 1915 at Oke-Oluokun, Ibadan. His father, Sanusi Ashiyanbi Adelabu, belonged to the extended family of the Oluokun Chieftaincy Ruling House who are direct maternal descendants of the Alaafin Ruling House in Oyo. Pa Sanusi Adelabu was a weaver and a textile merchant. He was one of the first people to put up a 2-storey house in the whole of Ibadan!
Adelabu’s mother, Awujola Ajoke, hailed from the Igbaro/Oparinde/Olokunesin families of Isalejebu and are kinsmen of Abasi Okunola Aleshinloye, the first Olubadan of Ibadan.
He attended the St. David’s CMS Elementary School, Kudeti between 1925 and 1929. In 1930, he moved on to the CMS Central School, Mapo where he completed his primary education. He was admitted to the Government College, Ibadan in 1931 and left the school that produced the likes of Professors Wole Soyinka and Ladipo Akinkugbe with flying colours in 1935.
It was at Government College that the seed of his nationalism as an African was planted. One of the teachers at GCI was a white man whose “easy assumption that England was the hub of the Universe…exasperated and infuriated me. It ignited the glowing ember into a burning flame.”
He later attended Higher College, Yaba for one year in 1936.
Adelabu had a brilliant scholastic career, earning accelerated promotions on three occasions. Adelabu was anything but modest. He knew he was brilliant and he flaunted it. “Despite this (my accelerated promotion), I never took second position throughout my school days. Instead, I was always several laps ahead of my runner-up and, not infrequently, saved tutors from tight holes.” What an ego!
Mind you, he was a self-admitted showoff. According to him: “Anybody reading me and exclaiming in justifiable wrath, ‘this fellow is an impossible egotist’ will be paying me just the kind of compliment I delight in!”
When his General Manager at UAC, E. H. L. Richardson blurted out in a moment of utter exasperation: “Look here, Adelabu, you are a confounded intellectual snob!” Adelabu’s day was made! He was just 22 at the time!
On leaving school, he worked for about four years with the United African Company Limited. He held managerial appointments in various departments of the company’s extensive undertakings – Produce, General Goods, Singlet Factory and the Welfare Section.
He later left UAC to join the Civil Service in 1938. He worked as an Inspector in the Cooperative Department. In the course of his public service duty, Adelabu toured the Western province and even did a short spell of six-month European relief duty in the British Cameroons.
He resigned from public service after seven years and became a private entrepreneur. He was engaged in produce buying, transport proprietary, cocoa farming, textile merchandising, real estate holding, journalism and political activism.
In 1946, the young politician paid a half-guinea into the NCNC London Delegation Fund. That humble milestone marked the beginning of an auspicious political life.
In 1951, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, the legendary Zik of Africa, led NCNC Delegates to Ibadan. Zik needed a formidable interpreter for his Queen’s English. Who else? Adegoke Adelabu confidently stepped onto the podium and with effortless ease, translated the memorable speech into Yoruba, to a standing ovation. Zik nodded with approval!
In 12 months, he steadily climbed from being Assistant General Secretary, Ibadan Branch to General Secretary, Ibadan Grand Alliance; and then General Secretary, Western Working Committee.
With the emergence of Action Group on the political landscape, Adelabu was confronted with a dilemma. He had to decide whether to stay with Zik in NCNC or move with his Ibadan People’s Party to the new party led by its charismatic leader, Obafemi Awolowo.
It was an agonizing time for the young politician. He had many sleepless nights. In his words: “I was torn between two loyalties. The Ibadan People’s Party is dear to my heart. It is the child of my creation. But Nigeria is dearer to my heart. She is my mother. If my child dies and I live long enough I may bear another. If my mother dies, I shall go through life a wandering orphan. My mind was made up.”
On a wet Saturday evening, without warning his family, Adelabu left Ibadan for Lagos. The Lone Star from Ibadan was ready to stand alone! He was in his early 30s.
In Lagos, the mercurial young man made two campaign speeches at Campos and Isalegangan. With his colourful mastery of both Yoruba and English, he captured the imagination of the masses as the ‘Strong Man of Ibadan and the Authentic Voice of the West’.
What followed the 1951 elections had been documented in many other places. New expression was
added to the political vocabulary; ‘Cross Carpeting’. But the principled Adelabu stood firm. He was resolute. He would sail or sink with the Zik of Africa.
Adelabu was a Nigerian to the core. He abhorred tribalism and detested appeal to religious and tribal sentiments. “”My Yoruba birth is an accident. I shall always love the Igbos, the Ibibios, the Hausas, the Ijaws, the Kanuris, the Jukuns, the Nupes, the Bakweris, the Edos… as much as I love the Yorubas, the Eguns, the Ibarapas, the Aworis and all other kinsmen nearer home. I shall never be a party to laying claims to special privileges, exploiting circumstantial advantages or enjoying preferential treatment on the part of my tribe. That will be unfair, unjust, immoral and in the end suicidal and prejudicial.”
Notwithstanding his devotion to his Islamic faith, Adelabu was not a religious bigot. “Any sentimental appeal to my Oduduwan ancestry or subtle attempt to exploit my religious susceptibilities is doomed to failure. Christians, heathens and atheists will always have my political confidence, respect and support.”
Penkelemesi was a committed democrat. When Action Group emerged and his party men cross-carpeted, Adelabu was not concerned about the loss of his political base or grassroots supports. To him, democracy without a thriving opposition was a mere farce. He therefore considered the emergence of the Act
ion Group as “a happy augury for the democratic way of life in post-freedom Nigeria. I have seen so much of human nature in practical life that I would not confer the interminable control of the State Apparatus on any one man or group however brilliant or well-meaning.”
One thing I found intriguing about the personality of Adegoke Adelabu is his ability to forensically analyse issues from sociological, political and historical perspectives. Behind the façade of his flamboyance, Adegoke Adelabu was a thinker and a philosopher.
To Adelabu, an individual is a product of his society and his time. An Igbo baby adopted at birth by a
couple from Kano would grow up as a Muslim Hausa man. This baby if adopted by a couple from Ile-Ife would probably grow up as either as a Yoruba Muslim or Christian. He therefore regarded appeal to tribe, religion, colour of skin as not being convincing enough.
He illustrated this dynamism with the following vivid imagery: “Politically, as a West African in 1952, I am a radical socialist and a fanatical nationalist. This means that in other circumstances, I could have been other things. If I were an Englishman, I would be a Conservative. If French, a De Gaullist. If Russian, a Communist. If Indian, on the left wing of the Congress. If German, a Nazi. If an American, an incurable capit
alist, and if South African, a racial bigot.” What a deep man! And he was just 37!
Oh! By the way, I found the book. Its title is AFRICA IN EBULLITION – a Handbook of Freedom for Nigerian Nationalists. Contrary to what my old friend told me, ebullition was not another word formed by the redoubtable Adelabu.
It was first used in 16th century. It is derived from the Latin word ‘ebullire’, meaning to boil. What Penkelemesi did was to adopt the word and used it to describe the momentum of Nigerian nationalism which was boiling like a cauldron in 1950s.
You know PENKELEMESI! And now you know EBULLITION!