Saturday, May 20, 2017 8:52 am
By Akin Onigbinde
By 4 September 1942, when Simeon Olasoebikan Adebo, Okonlomo of Itoko, Okonlomo of Egbaland and the companion of the most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) entered the top echelon of the Nigerian bureaucracy, it was still the preserve of Europeans from Oxford and Cambridge. The three exceptions to this ‘rule; were Messrs McEwen, J.B.A Abadoo and N.A.B Thomas. Even then, only N.A.B. Thomas was a Nigerian, McEwen was from Sierra Leone and Abadoo was from the Gold Coast (Ghana). Yet none of the Africans really belonged to the colonial administrative service, the recruiting agency for the administrative class in the colonies of the British Empire.
The opportunity for the advancement by Africans in the colonial service was slim. It was clearly an unsuitable situation for Africans desiring a career in the public service of their motherland. So inequitable was the colonial arrangement that the editorial writer of the Daily Times, 18 September 1942 had the following to say “one of the chief sources of complaint on the part of African civil servants generally is the absence of adequate opportunity for them to prove their mettle and thereby show that they are able to hold with credit positions of responsibility and trust in the service.”
It was the need to correct the inequitable structure of the Nigeria public service that heralded the entry of Simeon Adebo into the colonial bureaucracy. And the way he went about it and the success he eventually made of his career was to become the benchmark with which to evaluate those who came after him.
From 1942 when he joined the Nigerian Secretariat to 1972 when he left the United Nations, where he served as Nigeria’s permanent representative for more than ten years, Adebo’s footprints were etched on the marble of time.
Given the success he made of his career in the public service, it seems that the confidence reposed in his appointment was not misplaced. Daily Times was confident that ‘for Mr Adebo with whose brilliant scholastic career most people in Lagos are familiar, there can be little doubt in anybody’s mind that he will prove himself in every way worthy of the opportunity that has been placed at his disposal.’ Posterity can now state that the native boy from Itoko township of Abeokuta, now capital of Ogun State, a constituent part of what is geo-politically referred to as South Western Nigeria, did prove himself worthy of an afforded rare opportunity.
An insight into what was to become a glorious career in the public service was revealed in a submission made to the chief secretary through the assistant secretary to whom the newly recruited secretariat assistant reported. So incisive was Adebo’s position on the railway crisis that his submission received a commendation from the chief secretary himself.
Adebo’s success story has since been written, only waiting to be revealed to an appreciative world. Born on 4 October 1913, in Abeokuta to parents who possessed ‘enough to provide reasonable sustenance – for themselves and their children’, he entered St Peter’s School in 1922, where he gained accelerated
Promotions, spending four and a half years in 1929 for the prestigious King’s College Lagos, having won a government scholarship through a rigorous and highly competitive public examination.
Leaving Kings College in 1932, he was offered a place at the Niger House, United Africa Company (UAC) As a young impressionable school certificate holder, he was in a dilemma on how to proceed in life, should he seek out a career as a businessman in the Shoes of Mr R M Williams, the general manager of UAC who had made so much impression on the boy from Itoko with his opulent office and big cigar or aspire to join the teaching profession and rise to be a principal at King’s College despite the Spartan furnishing of his office? But fate had a lot in stock for the future secretary and Head of service of the Government of Western Nigerian. He decided in favour of UAC, yet he did not become a businessman, buying and selling for private gains. But the knowledge acquired through his apprenticeship in the Accounts Department of Shell Agency was to serve Nigeria and the Western Region in his subsequent sojourn in public service.
A highly trained bureaucrat, Adebo drank deep from the fountain of both local and overseas programmes that colonial authorities of his generation provided. And these various in-service training complemented to a large extent, his own sound educational background.
As part of his training he was at the famous London School of Economics (LSE) one of the constituent colleges of London University. Thus he had the rare privilege of passing under the intellectual shadow of Harold Laski, a professor of Economics and indeed a notable ideologist of the Labour Party in Britain. His meeting with Laski was significant for one fact, he had the opportunity of clearing some of the misconceptions he held as a labour leader from the theoretician himself. While in Railways Adebo was a unionist, indeed the General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian railways Civil Servants for many years. And when the Nigerian Union of Railwaymen (NUR) emerged from inter-union negotiation amongst numerous industrial and labour unions that were in the Railways, Simeon Adebo was elected as the first Secretary General.
The legendary Michael Imoudu also known as Labour Leader No 1 was the president. So engrossed was he in his labour activism that the renowned educationist and founder of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), Rev Ransome Kuti sent him a letter of commendation. “I am glad that Railways has kept you all busy, with you in the forefront. It pays the African to have to fight intellectual battles. Most of us are too satisfied with what we are and soon go to sleep with our brains and in the course of time with our muscles too. I shall watch the contest with the keenest of interests.”
His experience as a trade unionist was to serve him in many ways in the course of his stewardship as a senior civil servant who had to adjudicate on labour matters. Thus in the discharge of his of his responsibility, Adebo was not only interested in what a General Order said and its proper interpretation, he was more interested in whether its provisions and its application was conducive to the just and fair treatment of those to whom it was supposed to apply. Thus his intellectual temperament was inclined towards a pragmatic interpretation and application of the General Orders.
In 1952, the colonial administration, due to public demand, decided to appoint a commission to review the pace at which Nigerians were getting appointed to positions previously held by expatriates and to recommend what steps should be taken to speed it up. Adebo was found responsible enough to be appointed alongside Sir Sydney Phillipson, a former Financial Secretary and at the time of the commission’s assignment, a commissioner for Special duties. Though normal political acrimony and inter regional suspicions shot down the Phillpson-Adebo report on Nigerianization, its merit had not gone unnoticed by a discerning public.
As part of his overseas training sessions, Adebo was attached for the local programmes to the Horshman rural District Council, Stafford County Council, Wolvershempton and Borough Council which invariably covered the three most important levels of local government administration. So enriching was the practical knowledge that he nursed the ambition of changing from the central government to local government where he hoped to make ‘effective contribution to his nation’s progress.’
Although he did not move to the local government he did carry his expertise to the region when he departed Lagos for Ibadan on request from the Western region government in 1955. At Ibadan, Adebo was part of the success story of the Action Group Government’s Universal Primary Education (UPE). Being the Head of Finance, Adebo distinguished himself creditably well. One way through which he did was the idea for a new Law on income tax which account of local revenue for the region.
In recognition of his diligency, Her Majesty, The Queen Elizabeth of England conferred on him the companionship of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George.
Conveying the intention to Adebo, Sir John Rankine the Governor of the Western Region said, “Her Majesty The Queen has been graciously pleased to approve of your appointment, normally reserved for those who have served Her Majesty and their country with loyalty and distinction in one of the services. You have worked your way to a position at the head of the public service of the Region by merit, through ability and hard work and that in itself is something of which you and the Region can be justly proud.”
But for Adebo, a prophet had earlier been honoured at home. In 1954 the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Ademola had conferred the title of Okanlomo of Egbaland on him. And this was inspite of his protest to the contrary.
In 1962, Adebo left Ibadan, not for the expected deserved retirement, but to extend the frontliers of his acknowledge courage and integrity in the discharge of services to the international community. He was appointed as Nigeria’s permanent representative in New York as well as commissioner general for economic affairs in Washington. In his capacity in the later office his duties were to represent Nigeria in its relations with the international monetary and banking institutions in Washington and the departments of the United States government involved in aid to Nigeria. Thus the foundation of Nigeria’s relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, both products of the Bretton Woods Conference at which the Allied powers made plans that they hoped would keep the post war world in monetary and financial stability was laid by this astute civil servant from Nigeria.
To underscore the high regard in which Simeron Adebo was held at the international community it is important to recall that while still in service at Ibadan, he was offered the post of Director of Public Administration at the New York headquarters of the United Nations. In 1966 Adebo was considered good enough to preside over the affairs of the Security council of the United Nations.
Among the honours he received in the service of the United Nations are the LL.D honoris causa of the Western Michigan University, in the United States, He was also honored with the Doctor of Law by the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Between 1965 and 1969 he obtained honourary degrees from American and Nigerian Universities, among them were Fordham University, Pittsburg University, University of Ife, Nigeria, University of Ibadan and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
In 1972 Adebo finally disengaged from the United Nations but not from the services of Nigeria as he continued to be called upon to put his accumulated experience at the disposal of the Nigerian State. Aside from numerous lectures he was called upon to deliver at conferences, his first official assignment during his ‘unique retirement’ was the chairmanship of the National Universities Commission (NUC) offered to him by Gen Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s military Head of State in 1973. This was to be followed by his chairmanship of the Board of New Nigerian Newspaper, Kaduna by the Murtala-Obasanjo administration. In 1977 he was nominated to the Constituent Assembly which reviewed the draft commission earlier fashioned by a 49-man committee.
Yet Chief Simeon Olaosebikan Adebo was not a still necked Bureaucrat. He was a family man who also had time for sports and the church. While at King’s College he was a member of the Cricket team, a game he played long after leaving the elite school. Perhaps the best that can be said of this unforgettable servant is that he was guided throughout his life and career by one of the verses sang at the Farewell Service for the class of 1932 at King’s. “Let us pay by giving as we forge ahead, service to our living, honour to our dead”. He died in 1994.
In the service of the nation, Chief Simeon Olaosebikan Adebo was one star who glowed in our national sky in the past millennium. And the best that can be done to his glorious memory is to rekindle the spirit of public service from which he never veered. Not even after retirement.
• Originally entitled “The Unforgettable Civil Servant,” Professor Akin Onigbinde contributed this article to People in TheNEWS, 1900-2000, a special publication of this medium in year 2000