Heart of Arts

A Harbinger: Honouring Ayo Olukotun

Toyin Falola


I want to enter the new year by celebrating a living legend who will continue to influence us in the years ahead. In my forthcoming long book, Nigeria and the Politics of Everybody, I devoted two long chapters to the writings of Professor Ayo Olukotun, covering his weekly pieces. He is the voice of our nation. The nation’s progress, especially in recent times, needs a griot that will not just tell the story of the past but also analyze the present and warn of the future. Olukotun is our preeminent griot.

The nation has strayed from the paths charted by the heroes of the past whom we so much adore these days, and it needs a guard to warn and direct it back. My friend, Ayo Olukotun, has offered himself as the Olutona of the nation, blazing the trumpets of warning against the swift gravitation towards doomsday. Ti idi ba baje, to nidi lo ma da, which means an infected or damaged buttock is the owner’s problem. This is the philosophy of many of us about the state of the nation, and Olukotun has proven himself to be the vanguard of this worldview toward the concerns given to the nation. There cannot be such a massive evacuation of all Nigerians to a new nation. So, it will be detrimental when Nigeria is allowed to be destroyed.

I have known Ayo since 1973. He was a distinguished unionist and leader at the University of Ife, prefacing the rise of such cerebral figures as Funmi Olanishakin, Vice-Principal, King’s College, London, and Aketi, now the governor of Ondo State. A star figure, he was in the company of Tale Omole and Kayode Soremekun, who, in later years, became Vice-Chancellors. He was famous before his first degree and subsequently became an intellectual wanderer and path-finder, keeping faith in his callings.

Far more consistently than many others, Ayo has always upheld the philosophy of the nation first in his actions and passion. He did that even in the face of political intolerance and military rule. He was not afraid to fight for a good nation that we could all leave for those behind us. For someone like Olukotun and me, the truth is that our days are numbered, and we have seen the zenith and lows of life and have to experience the various transformations of the country. What is left to fight for? It is not fame and not influence; we have gathered that at a considerable satisfactory level. But our fights and daily languishing about the nation’s state are directed towards the young ones who have not yet found their voices. We point our fingers straight at the faces of the nation’s enemies because we believe Nigeria must be fair enough for those coming after us. We fight for the future so that those coming behind us may no longer fight that battle, and Olukotun is a well-decorated hero of that fight.

The old African society always created rooms for sages and elders who would be the foresight of the communities and become a high concentration of wisdom ready for anyone to draw from its well. At the 65th birthday celebration of Olukotun, I told him he had become an àgbà, positioning himself in that delicate position of societal wisdom. Aside from the noisy alarm of age that brings us back from those lofty wishes to the reality of things, àgbà comes as a period of courage, which is why someone like Olukotun will not think twice before speaking the truth to power.

Honestly, from our experience in the 1970s as undergraduates, one would know that even if he had not clocked the age that would physically portray him in such age, he was mentally an àgbàlagbà, as his manner of approach to issues was beyond average expectation. However, while I have established him as an àgbà, he has shown himself to be a harbinger of many things for Nigerian society, giving warnings in different styles and creating the needed consciousness for development.

Olukotun’s activism as President of the Students’ Union during our undergraduate days demonstrated his role as both an àgbà and a harbinger of Nigerian society. One could easily see how he had put himself in a position to be the voice of the voiceless in the real sense and confront oppressions head-on without fear or compromise. He points the populace to where conscience should be and becomes a vanguard of human rights and societal development. Afterwards, as an astute teacher and researcher, his scholarship has been of unimaginable contribution towards expanding this consciousness.

To be particular, his works on the freedom of the press and how society relates to the media are immaculate and significant. For instance, in Authoritarian State, Crisis of Democratization and the Underground Media in Nigeria, Olukotun reviewed the relationship between the military government and the press. The message of this article was not just to outline the sequence and modes of interaction between the military government during Abacha’s regime and the media. Still, as a precursor, it was to reiterate some of these facts to the young democracy Nigeria had as of 2002. It was to awaken the nation to the new reality of democracy and help the government and media understand the new normal. Here, he told the story of how the media had to hide from the unknown that ravaged the military system. He further created an expanded report on the media and military government relationship in “Repressive State and Resurgent Media Under Nigeria’s Military Dictatorship, 1988–98.”

As an expert on the media and how it affects society, one will see him opening up the understanding of society’s access to information and the duty of the government to ensure there is no obstruction. He has established himself as the intellectual backbone of the media and created new perspectives evident in today’s media development.

Olukotun’s eagle eyes are positioned high, watching all that goes on in the Nigerian political and social spaces. He would always take time to let the nation activate a pensive mode to re-examine issues they could never have attached much importance to. On September 2, 2022, he raised a reality check on the recurring issue of corruption that is unrepentantly crippling the progress of the nation. Olukotun asked if we could pause to realize what we have learned from the yearly gift from Abacha, whom I once described as “our father in heaven”. So far, Abacha’s returned loot has summed up to about $3.65 million, and my friend wonders how this has had almost no impact in resolving the nation’s current predicament. He used that medium to ask why the nation has learned nothing from the disappearance of the funds and why returned looted funds are getting looted all over again. He pointed out the sources of these problems, stated the further damage they could cause if they persisted, and left them bare for the government to take action. That is the work of an àgbà; that is the message of a harbinger.

Olukotun’s Friday series with Punch Nigeria is his way of creating a record of sanity and wisdom that needs to be consulted for the nation to develop past its present stage. He has repeatedly screamed warnings into the ears of the Nigerian leaders and citizens through his pen to rouse the nation from its slumber. In “Insecurity: A Nation Sleepwalking in Utter Peril,” he revealed the result of the nation not listening to his warnings. As a harbinger, he has directed the attention of the nation to pending doom. He was surprised why we still allow insecurity to foster without any reasonable readiness to bring it to an end.

My friend believes that politics and politicians are the centres of national development and, as such, the only viable solution to the impending problems of the nation. However, examining the nation’s political development, even in a democratic era that is supposedly a sane society, the government is still far from totally shedding what he describes as “jackboot politics,” as evidenced by the government’s reaction to criticism and civil reactions to policy. Olukotun made reference to the alleged brutalization of EndSARS protesters and others in his 2022 Independence Day interview titled “Nigeria’s Independence Day is a Time to Reflect on Political Gains and Challenges – and a Way Forward.” As a harbinger, he once again told the truth to power, stating what the nation tends to fall into if changes are not made and offering a possible way forward to guide the nation as an àgbà. When asked if he knows whether or not there is a future for Nigeria, Olukotun said, “It depends on how the public officeholders behave.” He expressed his disappointment with how Nigeria has fallen short of expectations compared to its projected development against the Asian Tigers and its resources over China as of 1960. I believe Olukotun has once again warned us that if care is not taken, doomsday may be coming: a harbinger has spoken.

He may sit on his towers of wisdom, but he is certainly as hopeful as others about the country’s development. Hence, he has charged the nation to make 2023 a year of change and restoration of sanity to the political system. He believes the next election is a chance for the nation to improve. He has strongly recommended that if there will be development, the next government must ensure that it “returns power to the sub-national governments” and hope that the election will lead to “arresting our trust crunch” so that the citizens can finally have reasons to stop the increasing distrust caused by successive governments.

Olukotun, we can only tell society the truth we owe it. You have spoken to power without compromise and maintain the intellectual integrity that makes your statements objective, showing your passion for this nation. You are a harbinger and have told the tales of what may be. You have become the griot who tells stories of the past to knock the nation to the consciousness of how history may either repeat itself favourably or with pangs of regret. I know we will still reiterate our messages like an Alatenumo, but let us hope that while it may get to the point where we lose the ability to say no more, there will be thousands of voices that take it up where we left it. And if reality can illuminate our hope for the nation, let us hope we live to see the changes we have languished for.

Ayo, I look forward to reading your weekly essays as we move to 2023.


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