Ayo Olukotun: Lowering of a War Horse

Professor Ayo Olukotun

By Tony Iyare
Even as I struggle amidst deep pains, sorrow and tribulations to scribble an Elergy for departed activist, public intellectual, erudite scholar, accomplished journalist and professor of Political Science, Ayodele Samuel Olukotun, I’m nudged into some hallucination whether this brilliant and highly resourceful scholar, who was a regular face at many high profile conferences is really gone. Don’t blame me. Some persons evoke a larger than life image that I’ve found it difficult coming to the reality of their death. So it was with acclaimed activist and former President, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Prof Festus Ikhuoria Iyayi whose tribute I only summoned the will to do five years after his passing in 2018. Olukotun was another. Though I circulated the information asking friends and associates to send tributes to a particular e-mail address, it was an uphill task finding the will to discuss him in past tense.
Olukotun’s self effacing mien belies his intimidating profile and invaluable contributions to intellection and media development in Nigeria but his deep concerns and thoughts on rebuilding our tottering nation negated his joining hordes of Nigerian intellectuals who had taken a walk abroad owing to increasing decrepit working environment in our varsities. From teaching at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, he also taught at his alma mater, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, University of Lagos (UNILAG), Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo, Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU) and Leads University, Ibadan. I’m wondering how LASU managed with its star studded team when Olukotun was in the Department of Political Science with two of the world’s most published scholars, Abubakar Momoh and Said Adejumobi, Dele Seteolu and others. He was the pioneer Oba (Dr) Sikiru Kayode Adetona Professorial Chair of Governance at OOU. He was also Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Leads City University. Apart from writing a weekly column at The Punch for 12 years, Olukotun was at different times chair of Editorial Board at the Daily Times and Compass Newspapers. He was also a member of the Editorial Board at the Nigerian Tribune, Anchor, Westerner and Daily Independent newpapers.
Winner of the Diamond Award for Media Excellence (DAME) on Informed Commentary in 2013, Olukotun was a recipient of several international grants from organizations such as The Ford Foundation, Carnegie Endowment and Friedrich Ebert Foundation. He published over 60 articles and authored the “Repressive State and Resurgent Media in Nigeria” (Upsalla, Nordic African Institute, 2004), “Political Communication in Africa” (co-edited with Sharon Omotoso, Berlin Springer, 2016) and his recent edited book, “Watchdogs or Captured Media? A Study of the Role of the Media in Nigeria’s Emergent Democracy 1999-2016”. He has also co-edited, along with Professor Femi Sonaike, a book on the media mogul, Babatunde Jose, titled “Jose: The Ideas Man”. He edited Foreign Policy of the Babangida Government: Muritala Muhammed Times Lecture Series, among others.
Since our path crossed over 40 years ago when he gave a moving talk at a tribute session for victims of the June 7, 1981 killing of four students of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) by the Police, he had remained a mentor, brother, friend, senior colleague and discourse partner. We later met in the Daily Times in early 1991 where he had joined the Editorial Board with acclaimed Literary Scholar, Dr Chidi Amuta as chairman. I was also then recruited for Timesweek, a new brand that replaced the defunct Times International magazine as an assistant editor. While I moved to Newswatch, The Post Express, National Interest and did work for The New York Times, the Paris based African Report and Choices, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) quarterly magazine, he kept a regular tab.
When he became chair of the Editorial Board of the fledgling Compass Newspaper in 2008, he reached out for me to join the amiable team of egg heads. Professor of English and later Vice Chancellor, Tai Solarin University of Education, Ijegun, Ijebu Ode, Prof Segun Awonusi, International Relations Professor, Kayode Soremekun and Abigail Ogwezi, now professor of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos were members. Others include a Medical Doctor and Politician, Dr Kunle Olajide, a senior media colleague, Lade Bonuola, pioneer Editor of The Guardian, Dr Ngozi Anyaegbunam, a Business and Economy Analyst, Chris Eyinnaya and I. My joining the team coincided with the departure of Abayomi Ogundeji, a former Editor of the now rested Comet on Sunday to This Day newspaper.
With Olukotun presiding, the Editorial Board was not only a compendium of ideas, but was intellectually stimulating. He was never tired of chewing on engaging discourses which we shared from time to time. He was virtually on my neck to undertake a PhD programme. “I’ve seen your work and presentations and that of your close friend, Lanre Arogundade and can tell that both of you have trod around many interesting areas of research. You should  just work on an area and deliver your PhD,” he always admonished. He related with candour. I recall him asking me to assist to work on a lecture for a high profile gathering because his itinerary was choked. When he finished delivering it, he was full of thanks that I came to his rescue at a critical period but said, “Tony, that’s your work, I cannot honestly cite it as mine”. He also turned down my plea for him to do a foreword for a forthcoming book that I had to change its scope. “I appreciate the depth of your work and cannot afford to vitiate that. I have so much on my hands to deliver now and do not wish to do a wishy washy job,” he quipped.
Olukotun was in the mold of former Zambian President, Levy Manawasa whose mother died in a public bus  and he explained that his mother was like any private citizen who was not elected and could not enjoy state privileges. Riding from Ibadan to Lagos, Olukotun’s son, Tope was once victim of a kidnapping gang that diverted their trip to Delta State. I made some frantic calls after receiving Olukotun’s distressing calls that his son was dropped off somewhere in Igbusa. I wasn’t surprised because he wasn’t that kind of father that would pamper his children with the ride of a limousine. He dined with kings but opted to live his life and kept his integrity.
When I moved to Benin City in October 2009 to work as Special Adviser, Media and Publicity to Edo State Governor, Mr Adams Oshiomhole, our relationship was further cemented with the courting of Dr Godswill Ogbogodor, his mate at Ife who was then serving as Special Adviser on Policy and Programmes to the Governor. Ogbogodor who had previously served as Commissioner in five ministries in the old Bendel State was in the habit of sharing thoughts on Olukotun in Yoruba. “Se oti gbo lati ore wa,” he would usually say.
As I shared news of his passing on January 4th which I stumbled on on Daily Times Alumni platform to friends, colleagues and associates and some media platforms, I was moved to tears with the sudden gloom that flowed from the renditions to his death. I also received immediate calls from  former President, Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Gbenga Adefaye and Prof Segun Awonusi who wanted to confirm that Olukotun was really gone. “Haaaaa…..didn’t he just celebrate his birthday?  This is shattering. Na wah ooooo!  Tears have rolled down my eyes……” exclaimed Arogundade, who’s executive director, International Press Centre (IPC). Amuta who was Olukotun’s contemporary at Ife also went down memory lane: “This is a grave loss. Ayo was indeed a fine scholar and fertile mind. I recall our Ife days. He was active in Students Union politics in our student days. He used to come from ABU to stay with me and Adebayo Williams in our modest abodes. May his soul rest in peace.”
As for the last moments of his death, I turned to his close pal and professor of International Relations, Kayode Soremekun. “Just hearing this too. He had been ill-hospitalized in Babcock. A lot of rallying round by his friends and associates. Then the inevitable happened. Only God lives for ever!” was how Soremekun, also immediate past vice chancellor, Federal University Oye Ekiti solemnly puts it. On knowing the cause of his death, Amuta was in shock: “Oh no! May his soul find peaceful rest.”
Known simply as Ayo Olukotun, not many would ever contemplate he would kiss the dust about now when our environment is politically heated and citizens are ensconced in the process of weaning a new leadership to rescue our dear country from a near rudderless path. For a man who lived and stewed in discourses, I could imagine his pains as he grappled with life on his sick bed as sunset beckons at Babcock University Teaching Hospital, Ilishan where he was rushed to when stroke took a better part of him on the eve of Christmas on December 21st, 2022.
Like Amuta and many others who are fully bred Great Ife alumni, Olukotun did all his degrees in Ife Varsity where he was an acclaimed student leader and activist. He was Assistant Secretary General climbing up to become Secretary General and President of the Students’ Union in the 73/74 and 74/75 academic sessions respectively. He was the stormy petrel of the latter days of the military regime of Gen Yakubu Gowon and was at the head of the students protests dubbed “We Shall Trek” that  saw the end of the Gowon era particularly after the regime made mincemeat of its pledge to hand over to civilians in 1976. The Gowon regime was on edge as students of the University of Ife led by Olukotun made bold their resolve to match to Lagos.
Perhaps Olukotun’s close friends and associates led by his Ife classmate, Toyin Falola, professor of History at University of Texas, Austin who had generously pooled huge resources within a short time to save his life, had looked forward to loudly celebrating his Platinum Jubilee on May 27 this year with pomp and peasantry. But the Almighty God had other plans by calling our dear brother home. Only He can explain why good men like Olukotun make their exit in their prime while evil men linger. Thank You Father for providing us the wonderful opportunity to interact with Olukotun while he sojourned here. As we lower this war horse, let’s remember that he worked hard to live his life for a better Nigeria. Adieu our famed intellectual giant until the resurrection morning when we shall meet to part no more.
*Iyare is a Senior International Journalist and Communication and Development Expert