Thursday, October 5, 2017 1:57 pm
It is exactly 20 years that Chief Adekunle Ajasin, first civilian governpor of Ondo State died. To mark this, a two-day conference was organised at the University of Ibadan on 3 and 4 October 2017.
By Ademola Adegbamigbe
His story is like the outcome of the test given to some blind men of Hindustan who had never come across an elephant before. They learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body. The one who felt the side said he touched a wall; the other stood by the ear claimed the beast was like a fan while the one who was by the tusk insisted the animal was a pipe. Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, the late governor of Ondo State, was ‘many men’ to different people. He was like an elephant that was touched by these blind people with each describing the portion he touched as the exact shape of the beast. Call Ajasin a nationalist, politician or educationist, each title describes the man.
Essentially, however, Ajasin was an educationist – a vocation that dictated the depth and nature of his commitments to his other vocations. In other words, his concern for banishing ignorance from people fired his desire and zeal to be part of the anti colonial struggles. It was also what made him to participate in party politics and by extension seek elective position. He actually used the latter as an opportunity to judiciously allocate enough resources in education.
Born on 28 November 1908, Ajasin’s early education was at St. Paul’s Primary School, Owo from 1914 to 1921; from there he went to St Andrew’s College Oyo for his secondary school education. Ajasin was a teacher at St Andrew’s CMS School Warri between 1928 and 1930 and he later became headmaster of St Luke’s CMS School, Sapele. For his tertiary education, he attended Fourah Bay Colege, Sierra Leone where be obtained his first degree and Durham University, United Kingdom for his Masters. He capped all these with a certificate of education from the University of London.
Ajasin returned to Nigeria in 1946 and became the principal of Imade College Owo, Ondo State. He held that post for 15 years, after which he founded Owo High School. He was the principal of the high school till 1975.
His political activism started in Europe when he co-founded the Nigerian Union of Students of Great Britain and Ireland. An opportunity to put his educational philosophy into practice came in 1947 when he and the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, premier of Western Region, met. Before then, however, both of them were aware of each other through articles that they had written on the administration of local governments and courts in Western Nigeria.
Pa Solanke Onasanya, an elder statesman of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) talked about how Ajasin’s educational ideas influenced the formation of the Action Group (AG). Egbe Omo Oduduwa ( a Yoruba socio cultural organization) was formed earlir in London and Ajasin was one of its members. “He was in England when Awolowo was there too. But they had met themselves before then. The Egbe Omo Oduduwa was used as a base for the formation of the AG”. As the chairman of the education committee of the new party, Ajasin wrote the blueprint for the party’s free education programme.
The party was launched in Owo in 1954 and Ajasin was its first vice chairman. In concert with Professors Sam Onabamiro and Sam Aluko, Ajasin worked tirelessly for a successful launch of the free education programme in the Western region.
For Chief Ajasin, politics and education were intertwined. His first experience in elective office was in 1964 when he became chairman of the Owo District Council. Between 1954 and 1956, he was a member of the House of Representatives where he advocated the running of primiary and secondary education by the regions. It was the foundation for what was to come up later when Universal Primary Education (UPE) was introduced, a programme which the Western Region successfully maintained to the admiration of the entire country.
Navy Captain Anthony Onyearugbulem, the then military administrator of the Ondo State, embarrassed the old man at home, accusing him of hosting terrorists. Ajasin stood his ground. “We have an association. This place is my house and people come to meet me here because I am the leader of the group, there is no law yet in this country saying that we should not hold any private meeting in one’s house.”
Chief Ayo Fasanmi, an AD politician said he remembered how Ajasin in 1965 contributed to parliamentary debates on the appropriation bill, “Any time the man spoke, what touched him most was education. He did mention in one of the debates in the House, that there were three inter regional schools or colleges in the country, one in the north, one in the east and one in the mid west. And he was wondering why there was non in the entire Western Region. Chief Okotie Eboh, in response to the question Chief Ajasin raised gave a positive reply and I’m sure the Western Region at that time benefitted immensely from Chief Ajasin’s wealth of experience from his contribution to debates in the floor of the House of Representatives.”
Ajasin’s blueprint for education was carried into the Second Republic as the free education programme of the Unity Party of Nigeria UPN. Thus, when he became the civilian governor of Ondo State in 1979, he gave education the highest priority. When he presented his budget in 1980, he allocated a whopping sum (at that time of N7.4 million) to free text books and stationary materials for primary schools. He increased the number of secondary schools from 250 to 473 and he expanded the existing 10 teacher training colleges.
When he was the governor of Ondo State, Ajasin took over the payment of 50 per cent of the primary school teachers’ salaries despite the fact that it was the responsibility of the local government. He also expanded the special schools for the disabled in Akure, Ikare and Owo and established the Ondo State University, Ado Ekiti in 1982.
Ajasin devoted N92.4million of his budget in 1982 to education and he allocated N3.4 million to subsidized feeding in all the teacher training colleges. No fewer than 15,243 students of Ondo State origin in higher institutions benefitted from the government’s bursary, a gesture which gulped N7.018 million. Over 2,246 Ondo state students who were studying overseas also benefitted from the awards for which N11.7 million was set aside. With these, Ajasin was able to prove that free education – his brainchild which was adopted by the AG and UPN – was indeed practicable.
As a teacher, Ajasin touched many lives. In the words of Dr Godfrey Otubu, Baba Aladura of the Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim, when Ajasin was his teacher, he introduced different teachers for different subjects in primary schools.
Ajasin carried his disciplined nature, one of the vitues of a good teacher, into politics. Fansanmi explained that as the governor of the old Ondo State he ‘refused to touch the security vote which many of his colleagues in other states were spending extravagantly. He was honesty per excellence.”
Since Ajasin combined his educational philosophy with politics, he was also subject to the vagaries of political life. When the military took over power in 1983, Ajasin was detained for 20 months. All efforts to nail him with corruption proved abortive as the tribunal drew blanks on Ajasin. The military nevertheless kept him in the clink. It was when General Ibrahim Babangida became the military president in August 1985 that Ajasin regained his freedom.
When Babangida annulled the June 12 1993 presidential electionnn won by the late Chief M.K.O Abiola, Ajasin championed the formation of the People’s Consultative Forum (PCF) also known as Afenifere. He was also the leader of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) an umbrella organization of pro democracy organizations in Nigeria and he was the convener of the 1995 All Politicians Summit which asked the military to leave.
The Egbe Omo Oduduwa was used as a base for the formation of the AG”. As the chairman of the education committee of the new party, Ajasin wrote the blueprint for the party’s free education programme. The party was launched in Owo in 1954 and Ajasin was its first vice chairman. In concert with Professors Sam Onabamiro and Sam Aluko, Ajasin worked tirelessly for a successful launch of the free education programme in the Western region.
It was for this reason that Navy Captain Anthony Onyearugbulem, the then military administrator of the Ondo State, embarrassed the old man at home, accusing him of hosting terrorists. Ajasin stood his ground. “We have an association. This place is my house and people come to meet me here because I am the leader of the group, there is no law yet in this country saying that we should not hold any private meeting in one’s house.”
Ajasin was so shaken by this encounter between him and the governor that it is widely believed that it precipitated the serious decline in his health. He was rushed to the Obafemi Awolowo University Teaching Hospital where he died on Friday 4 October 1997.
• Originally entitled “Mr Education,” Ademola Adegbamigbe contributed this article to People in TheNEWS, 1900-2000, a special publication of this medium in year 2000