Tribute: Celebrating Bola Ige at 90


Bola Ige

By Wale Okediran


Ibadan. Sunday, December 23 2001. Its evening and I am attending to patients in my hospital, Cornerstone Medical Centre located in the high density area of Sango when the telephone rang. It was my senior colleague, Dr Tony Marinho; ‘’Wale, Uncle Bola Ige has been involved in an accident. He has been moved to the Catholic Hospital, Oluyoro’’.  Without waiting for me to ask for more details about the ‘accident’, Dr Marinho dropped the phone. Wondering what kind of accident could have caused Uncle Bola to be rushed to a hospital without my knowledge, I quickly rounded up my consultations and drove to Oluyoro.

As Chief Bola Ige’s Personal Physician, I had handled all his medical issues for the past few years and I would have been notified by his family if he needed any medical attention. I became more worried when I remembered that I had been with Uncle Bola most of that Sunday and had just taken his leave about two hours earlier. I had gone to Uncle Bola’s house around noon to convey him for a condolence visit to the family of Chief Wale Ogunyemi who had recently passed away. I recalled that rather than allowed being driven in his official vehicle as the Minister Of Justice, Uncle Bola decided to sit with me in my car while his official vehicle and the security men followed us. Even when I informed him that my car’s AC was not functioning, Uncle Bola still stayed in my car as I drove him to Chief Wale Ogunyemi’s house. As I drove, Uncle Bola asked after my family and encouraged me to give my children the best education available at home and abroad. He also advised me to continue to be involved in politics since he believed that the only way for the country to improve the quality of its Leadership is for the middle class and the elite to be involved in Politics.

I was therefore jolted beyond human comprehension when later that evening, I met Uncle Bola still dressed in the light grey buba and sokoto which he wore earlier in the day now lying still and quiet in a hospital’s morgue.

Nineteen years after that unfortunate incident and a day when he would have marked his 90th birthday, I still have fond memories of a father and mentor, whose oratorical elegance earned him the appellate; ‘Cicero of Esa Oke’

It was Chief Bola Ige who acutely clarified the difference between a true ‘Oselu’ as against an ‘Ojelu’. While a true ‘Oselu’ is more concerned with how to build a state, the ‘Ojelu’ is more interested in lining his/her pocket at the expense of the people he is to serve. Uncle Bola was in tandem with the position ofthe late French Prime Minister Georges Pompidou (1911-1974) who differentiated between a statesman and a politician. According to Pompidou: “A statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of the nation while a politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service”

As it has been well documented, Politics to all intents and purposes is supposed to be a noble profession where service to mankind is the aim. As Aristotle aptly puts it,” the good of man must be the objective of the science of politics” It is however unfortunate that all over the world Nigeria inclusive, politics and politicians are hardly associated with nobility of purpose and public spiritedness.

Another disturbing reality is the role of our youths in the current political activity. It is on record that the age of leadership the world over is coming down.  Apart from Barrack Obama, Tony Blair the former British Prime Minister as well as leaders of the Labour and conservative Parties in the UK came into power in their early 40s.  Even, the Soviet Union which used to be ruled by very elderly people has taken a cue from Britain.  The current Russian leader, Vladimir Putin also came into power in his 40’s just as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, Finland’s Sanna Marin, Kim Jong-U of North Korea as well as Emmanuel Macron of France. However, in our political clime today, the youths have been pushed to the background in the leadership spectrum.

If a Bola Ige could have been relevant at the age of 29 and could share the same discussion table with Martin Luther King Jnr, it is sad that some of our young ones are today risking their lives trying to cross the hot desert in search of ‘better lives’ abroad. The pertinent question to ask is ‘what did we get right in the 50s, 60s, 70, etc that we are missing now? How should the young Nigerians chart the path of leadership?

Faced with the worst and best experiences from the environment, our youth today can be said to be in a perpetual period of awakeness, anxiety and sometimes, confusion.  The good thing however is that they have more opportunities for a better formal education than their parents and as the proverbial leaders of tomorrow, it is our duty to expose them to quality leadership training.

Unlike the era of Uncle Bola, the leadership burden on our youths is enormous.  Apart from the fact that our youths are being daily assaulted by so many negative information about leadership issues in the country, they themselves have the extra burden of coming to terms with their own leadership responsibilities as they pass through that very inescapable but critical transition from adolescences to adults.  Due to improvement in information technology, our youth face a barrage of reports most of which are unpleasant from the internet, the television, newspapers and magazines.

The first burden therefore, is for our youth to assist, monitor, criticize and challenge the leadership of this country especially the political leadership.  The second burden is how our youth themselves can gradually move into the leadership realm so that at the appropriate time, they can take up the mantle of leadership.

The first role which I have called a support role is very important.  Apart from giving our youths a good grounding in their political activities later in life, it is especially useful for those who are still under the voting age of 18 years. The support role is also very important since it is not everybody that can go into politics.  In fact it is believed that one can be contribute greatly to the progress of one’s country even without being in politics.

In supporting the political leadership of a country, our youths need to engage our elected leaders so that they can do the right things.  Democracy, as we know is a type of government that involves everyone in decision making on how the country is ruled and what is done for the people.  Since everybody cannot be a ruler, elections are usually organized to choose those who will represent the people.  The duty of the elected is to tell the Federal or State Government what the community wants.  Whether it is good road, schools, electricity and the rest, it is important for our youths to engage our elected representatives in the best way possible.

Political analysts have confirmed that as long as the evils of poverty, greed, illiteracy and a pervading aversion for the rule of law continue to rule our land, the leadership question will continue to be a recurring issue in our polity. In addition, these experts have traced the collapse of social values, kleptocracy, corruption, unstable, weak and vulnerable political structures and institutions as well as brigandage in Nigeria to the intrusion of the military class into our political terrain. Military rule has also been incriminated as being responsible to the concentration of political power and resources in the central authority thereby undermining the leadership process in the units.What this means is that the central authority has become so powerful that some unscrupulous politicians have now turned the art of politics into a cash and carry business. This in turn has led to the emergence of strong political leaders who though may not be successful candidates for elections now sponsor people for political office and in return, collect financial returns from them.

In his own submission, the great writer, Albert Camus observed that “Politics and the fate of mankind are formed by men without ideals and without greatness. Those who have greatness within them do not go in for politics”I could recollect that it was my encounter with the literature of Camus that made politics initially unattractive to me. And so when the late Chief Bola Ige tried to convince me to go into partisan politics, I continued to quote the famous writer as an alibi.

Ige’s persistent response was that politics will continue to be ‘dirty’ for as long people with good intentions continue to stay away from it. Now, after about thirty years in partisan politics, I have now come to realize more than ever before, Chief Ige’s assertion of the need for people with good intentions to go into politics to ensure good governance for the nation. The impact of these “few good men” may take long in being manifested as is currently the situation in Nigeria, however with a critical mass of altruistically minded politicians in the fold, it is my fervent belief that the nobility of politics can still be achievable.

Let no one be in doubt however, that this current leadership malaise exist only in the area of governance. It actually cuts across all facets of our being. As we have corruption in Politics so we have in both the Public and Private sectors including Commerce, Banking and Academics. As if this is not bad enough, the society seems to have come to accept this anomaly as appropriate with a gradual slide into mediocrity and nepotism which has now colored the kind of people’s expectations from their leaders. State stewardship in Nigeria has not been very successful with the result that the country has experienced unmitigated disasters in the utilization and allocations of public resources by its rulers and Public Servants save for some transient periods in our history.

The acts of corruption, cronyism, bad governance and mismanagement that have been the Achilles Heels of growth and development are still with us in Nigeria. Except for a neglible few who are driven by purely altruistic goals, like the late Uncle Bola, most people are unfortunately attracted to public office because of the control of state resources either in the form of unaccountable access to the central treasury, budgets and funding or control over publicly owned enterprises and their largess.

The country no doubt is in dire need for a new generation of effective leaders.  Leaders from all facets of lives – political, religious, academic – a vast company of thinkers, opinion makers and pace setters who will direct our developmentin the twenty – first century.

Like the consummate Leader and Progressive minded Politician he was, Uncle Bola cared passionately about mentoring the young. Not for him the self- glorification and avarice which unfortunately are the pastimes of some of our leaders. In this respect, Bola Ige was a perfect example of Georges Pompidous’ definition of a Statesman as ‘a politician who places himself at the service of the nation’ as opposed to politicians who place the nation at their services. Ige was the Statesman extraordinary who was more concerned in developing new and young Leaders without expecting anything in return as compared to Godfathers whose sole ambition is what to get from their mentees.

In addition to his noble Leadership qualities, Chief Bola Ige’s social activism led him on several occasions not to shy away from intervening in difficult and important situations. This noble act by Uncle Bola was very much against the belief of those who shy away from correcting societal ills because they wrongly believe that it wasn’t their concern. Martin Niemollar (1892-1984) an American scholar warned against such warped thinking in his now famous quotation: “When they came for the Jews, I was not a Jew therefore I was not concerned. And when they came for the Catholics, I was not a catholic so I was not concerned. Then they came for the Protestants, I was not a protestant and so, I was not concerned. When they finally came for me, there was nobody left to be concerned”

Perhaps, one of the attributes that determined Uncle Bola’s character was the history of his birth. Born to a Railway worker father in Northern Nigeria, Uncle Bola’s formative years were spent in Kaduna. He was 14 years of age before he could learn to speak Yoruba.  Perhaps, it was this well balanced view of Nigeria that dictated Uncle Bola’s deep commitment to the Nigerian project as well as his altruistic nature.In retrospect, one can say that the Railway System apart from strengthening Nigeria’s economy was also a unifying factor for the country as a whole. This fact becomes very obvious when one considers the fact that many of Uncle Bola’s age mates who were direct descendants of Railway workers who grew up in different parts of the country were better Nigerians than those who did not step out of their native areas. In addition, a functional Railway System will reduce the vehicular burden on our roads and make them safer and more motorable. This is why it behooves Nigeria to expedite action on the rehabilitation of its Railway System in order to bring back this glorious era in the nation’s history.

As we commemorate Uncle Bola’s post-humous 90th birthday anniversary, it is important to encourage our people especially our youths not to ignore politics since our indifference more than anything else, may mark the final death of democracy. As the famous American historian Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977) once observed: “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment.”

-Dr. Wale Okediran is the President, Association of Nigerian Authors