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Twenty years after the murder of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Chief Bola Ige, his killers are still at large. Deputy Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU writes on the life and times of the colourful politician, his ideas and travails, his unfulfilled hope for the country, and the agony of the bereaved family over the unresolved murder.
Twenty years after, his killers are still at large. Every December unleashes the memory of the murder at Bodija Estate, Ibadan. The scars have not faded. The pains linger in the minds of relations and associates. The puzzle remains unresolved. Who killed Chief James Ajibola Ige, the most colourful Yoruba politician in post-Awolowo era?
On December 23, 2001, the news reverberated throughout the country that Ige was no more. The tragedy provoked an uproar. The Southwest geo-political zones was enveloped in grief. His colleagues in the divided Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba socio-political group, bowed their heads in sorrow.
Ige was the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice at the time he was killed. Some controversies around his death have not been resolved. The security personnel attached to him were not with him when his killers invaded his residence. It was said that they left their security post in search of dinner.
The police later made some arrests. His widow, Atinuke, a retired judge, was following the case in court when she fainted, following the recasting of evidence by suspects. She never recovered from the shock. She later passed on without securing conviction for the killers.
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Ige’s demise created a big vacuum in the political circle. After his exit, his base, the Southwest was up for grab by political rivals. His architect-son, Muyiwa, former Commissioner for Physical Planning in Osun State, confirmed that the eminent politician was planning to resign as minister to strengthen his party, Alliance for Democracy (AD), ahead of 2003 general elections.
Unlike 1999, the poll became a walk over for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the five states of Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, and Ekiti as Governors Lam Adesina, Olusegun Osoba, Adebayo Adefarati, Adebisi Akande and Adeniyi Adebayo were swept out of office. Only Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos State survived the onslaught.
Ige’s death also worsened the crisis in Afenifere, where he was deputy leader, although he had ceased to be a uniting factor in the organisation and AD, which the group midwifed, before he was silenced.
The inability of government to unravel his assassination aptly underscores the illusion of justice and shallow commitment to security.
Reflecting on the tragedy of unresolved murder, Akande, who served as deputy governor under him in Second Republic Oyo State, alleged in his autobiography, ‘My Participations,’ that the Federal Government was not committed to the cause of justice. “What concerned the president more was not to arrest the assassins of his friend, but to prevent social unrest and calm the nerves of the populace,” he lamented.
Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka, who berated the Federal Government for lack of commitment, challenged government to publish the reports of its investigation into the murder. In his letter to Ige’s first daughter, Mrs. Funso Adegbola, the literary icon urged President Muhammadu Buhari to fulfil his pledge to open an inquiry into the spate of political murders in the country so that there can be explanation for brutal murder, exposition on perpetrators, and conspirators, and restoration of justice.
Ige, lawyer, prolific writer, eloquent social critic and astute politician, was a committed Awoist. He was a dependable ally of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In the First Republic, he was the National Publicity Secretary of the defunct Action Group (AG).
In the late sixties, he was a commissioner in the military government of Col. Adeyinka Adebayo in the Western State. In the Second Republic, he was governor of the old Oyo State on the platform of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). In post-Third Republic, he emerged as the deputy leader of Afenifere. He died as an elder statesman and top member of the Obasanjo administration.
Full of magnetism, charm, charisma and carriage, Ige was also a controversial politician. He had a caustic tongue. He was simply electrifying on the podium. On some occasions, he also ran into crisis. When he was assailed by the vicissitudes of life, he bore his ordeals with philosophical calmness. His regrets were many.
In the First Republic, he laboured in vain with Awo to get federal power. His leader ended up as the Leader of Opposition and later, as a political prisoner. Thirteen years after the fall of the indigenous leadership, Ige became governor. But, he lost re-election in controversial circumstances. Besides, he was jailed by the military. His loss of a promising son, Olugbenga, was tragic.
In the camp of Awoists, Ige and his colleagues-Lateef Jakande (Baba Kekere) and Bisi Onabanjo (Ayekooto)-were subjects of envy. The media flaunted their credentials as natural successors to the political stool of Awo. However, the late Chief Adekunle Ajasin, and not the three, succeeded Awo as Yoruba leader, confirming that circumstance always throw up a leader at a given time.
On some occasions, Ige’s political career was threatened by malicious colleagues. He survived the bitterness in Awo’s days. But, it was a different ball game afterwards.
In 1999, he was rejected at the AD presidential primary by the Awoists. They said Ige, tagged as a Yoruba irredentist, lacked a national outlook, unlike Chief Olu Falae, the former Secretary to the Federal Military Government and Minister of Finance. Supporters of Ige complained that the time-tested criteria of age, ideological learning, hierarchy and service to the fold were ignored by the wisemen who converged on D’Rovans Hotel, Ibadan, to pick the flag bearer. Ige described his defeat, the news to him which was broken by Dr Hammed Kusamotu, as the second fall of man. That singular even marked the gradual of parting of ways between Ige and his old friends in the Awo camp.
Was his participation in the Federal Government a mistake? Many compatriots disagreed with him for joining forces with Obasanjo. But, others felt that he followed the footsteps of Awo, who served as the Federal Commissioner for Finance in the Gowon administration. The controversy was not resolved in Afenifere before he passed on.
Why was he killed? This may remain in the realm of conjecture for long. Muyiwa maintained that his father eminent was set to retrace his steps from the Obasanjo government before he was murdered.
Ige had no premonition about the looming disaster. Perhaps, he ignored the signs. He had informed his monarch, Owa Omiran Adediran of Esa-Oke, that many guests would come to the town during the Yuletide. Ironically, the guests came for the funeral of the Cicero.
Before his murder, he had been molested at the palace of the Ooni of Ife, the late Oba Okunade Sijuwade, where hoodlums seized his cap and hung it on a nearby tree. Other guests at the installation of the late Mrs. Stella Obasanjo as a chief were taken aback. Many believe that the assault was the forerunner to the murder at Ibadan.
Ige’s murder provoked rage, emotional outburst and lamentation. Eminent Nigerians described the killing as too callous. At his lying-in-state, Prof. Soyinka decried the hypocrisy of his foes crying more than the bereaved. He said: “Ige’s killers are here with us.” The endless wailing could not resuscitate the deceased from deep sleep. It was the end of an era.
Ige was a bridge builder. He had friends across the six geo-political zones. He believed in mentoring young Nigerians from all walks of life. Fork-tongued and skilled in the war of words, Ige’s mouth was sharper than the razor’s edge. He was also humorous. He was loyal to Awo. That undiluted loyalty earned him the nicknamed, “Arole Awolowo,” a likely successor to the late sage.
In Law, his profession, and politics, which he described as vocation, Ige distinguished himself, to the delight of the indomitable Awo. He was never afraid to make up his mind and pursue his worthy causes and principles to a logical conclusion.
Yet, he was an ardent critic of Awo and the AG before he joined the fold. He had criticized the AG for lack of an articulated foreign policy. Awo opened a file where he kept the thought-provoking articles written by Ige, especially his documented attacks against his party. When Awo’s lawyer-friend, Chief Morohundiya, under whom Ige later took off as a pupil lawyer, took the rebellious young lawyer to the AG leader, Ige told Awo that he stood by the position he had taken. Indeed, Awo admired that candour, for only a few could call a spade a spade. Recognising his potentials, he resolved to groom him, encourage him and moderate his views.
Consequently, Awo made Ige a member of the AG Committee for Review of Foreign Policy, along with the late Prof. Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, Akin Mabogunje, Tunde Oloko, Olumbe Bashir and Prof Samuel Aluko. He was also an active member of the AG Youth Association, led by the late Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, and later, Ayo Fasanmi, the socialist chemist with a long beard. At 32, he emerged as the AG national publicity secretary at the rancorous Jos Convention of the party.
Having discovered his talents, bravery and boldness, Ige was given the assignment to defend the oppressed United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) chieftains, who were in alliance with AG, when the leaders of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) hounded them into detention.
When the House of Representatives primary the old Lagos Mainland Constituency between Sikiru Shitta-Bey, Secretary of the AG Youth Association, and Adewale Thompson, son of the licensed surveyor at Odaliki Street, Ebute-Meta, was deadlock, Ige was the young AG leader sent to organise a fresh shadow poll. He reported to Awo that although both Shitta-Bey and Thompson were popular, it appeared to him that the pendulum of victory tilted more to the direction of the son of Shitta-Bey, “Seriki Musulumi” of Lagos. Awo ratified Ige’s report. Both Ige and Thompson hailed from Ijesaland in Osun State. Fourteen years later, Governor Ige appointed Thompson as Attorney-General and Justice Commissioner in Oyo State.
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Ige stirred many controversies in the First Republic. He was a critic of the Balewa government. His platforms were public lectures, radio and television programmes.
On the eve of the Commonwealth of Nations’ Heads of Government meeting in Lagos in the sixties, Prime Minister Abubakar Tarawa Balewa had to stop a live television programme in which Ige was a discussant. After dissecting the agenda of the meeting, Ige described the Commonwealth as ‘an organisation where the wealth was not common.’ The programme was stopped immediately.
He had dazed Western Regional Premier Ladoke Akintola, himself a wordsmith, with verbal missiles, after regaining political control at the end of the six-month emergency rule. When Akintola boasted that the ring of power had been fixed on his finger and nobody could remove it, Ige went on air, saying that, if the ring could not be removed, the finger could be cut off.
It was in the days of hot regional politics. Members of the AG Youth Association were in for trouble. In Iree, a rustic town in the old Osun Division, Sunday Afolabi had slapped the Premier and vanished into thin air. But, Akin Omoboriowo, was intercepted at Aramoko-Ekiti during campaigns on the order of the deputy premier, ‘Fani-Power,’ and later detained at Owo prison.
Ige shared in the tribulation of Awo and other AG leaders. He was detained along with prominent AG leaders. He was detained in Kwale, old Midwest Region during the six month emergency period.
Ige was fluent in Hausa, having lived in Kaduna during his childhood. An effective campaigner, he had a heart of steel. Relying on his fluency in Hausa, he took a risk of leading a campaign train in Kano. Like Aminu Kano, he descended on Northern Premier Ahmadu Bello, prince and Sardauna of Sokoto, who he described as an epitome of aristocratic and feudalist oppression, urging the ‘talakawas’ to free themselves from captivity. He narrowly escaped death when the NPC tough boys pounced on his campaign train.
When Awolowo was released from prison and appointed as Federal Commissioner for Finance and Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council in Gowon administration, he had recommended Ige for a ministerial position. He could not make the list due to the quota system.
However, the military governor of Western State, Adeyinka Adebayo, appointed Ige as Commissioner for Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Ige was dropped as commissioner for being a rebel criticising other agencies of government. Out of government, he returned to his legal practice. In 1975, he became a member of Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) set up by Muritala/Obasanjo Administration to fashion out a new constitution, preparatory to the return of power to civilians in 1979. The committee was chaired by the late Chief Rotimi Williams(SAN). Awo declined to serve in the committee.
As a member of the “Committee of Friends”, Ige became a founding leader of the UPN, led by Awo. In 1979, he vied for governor of Oyo State, defeating his rival and former Vice Principal, Venerable Emmanuel Alayande, to the discomfort of Awo, who had favoured the old teacher and cleric for the slot. Asked to step down for the old man by Awo, who promised to make him a minister after winning the presidential election, Ige was said to have retorted: “I cannot leave certainty for uncertainty”. Awo then asked: “Does it mean that my ambition is not certain?” Ige promptly apologised. After his victory at the poll, he mounted pressure on Alayande to serve as his Special Adviser on Education.
“Ige blackmailed me to serve. My children did not come to my house for four years for serving under my former student in protest,” Alayande recalled.
The 1979 governorship election was a tough contest between Ige and Chief Richard Akinjide, First Republic Minister of Education and candidate of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). It was in post-Adegoke Adelabu era and the UPN, an offshoot of AG, wanted to assert dominance in Oyo State.
During a live television debate at Ibadan, the state capital, there was a hot argument between the two lawyers. The old “NCNCer” was said to have, in Ige’s view, politically disparaged Awo’s Free Education Policy. Akinjide had alleged that the programme bred miscreants. Ige’s reply was harsh. He asked: “ How many of your relatives who benefitted from the programme are armed robbers, charlatans and social miscreants.” Tempers rose. Some scolded Ige for extreme polemics. Others laughed it off.
Curiously, relations Ige and his deputy, the late Chief Sunday Afolabi, was later strained, although they worked assiduously for the implementation of the UPN cardinal programmes of free education, free medical services, full employment and rural integration. Ahead of 1983 polls, Afolabi indicated interest in the governorship slot. During the friction, the deputy governor claimed that the governor had stopped his allowances. Their mutual friend, former Military Head of State, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, offered to mediate in the crisis. It became Ige’s undoing. His rivals in the UPN came up with charges of disloyalty against him at the Yola Conference of the UPN. In that delicate moment, he narrowly escaped expulsion from the Awo’s political family.
In his book, ‘Household of War,’ a veteran journalist, Dare Babaribsa, said historians aptly captured the anxious moment as the “night of long knives.” Ige’s saving grace was Awo, who employed wisdom in handling the sensitive matter.
Afolabi later defected to the NPN to team up with Chiefs Adisa Akinloye, Akinjide, Busari Adelakun, Lamidi Adedibu and Dr. Victor Olunloyo to sack Ige from power. After the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) announced the results, rioys broke out. House of notable politicians in the state were burnt.
Following the 1983 coup, Ige was detained, tried and sentenced to imprisonment by the military tribunal. There was drama as Ige and Olunloyo met in detention. The duo were to enter the blackmaria. Olunloyo teased Ige, saying: “You must enter first, senior brother. Afterall, you spent four years in power. I only spent three months.” Ige hissed and ignored. Ige was released by former President Ibrahim Babangida, who dethroned Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State.
But, in private life, Ige also courted controversy. At a public lecture, he had referred the Olubadan of Ibadan and the Soun of Ogbomoso as Baales upgraded into first class obaship by former Military Governor David Jemibewon. There was uproar in Ibadanland. His Ibadan title, the “Aare Alasa” was withdrawn by the Olubadan-In-Council and conferred on the Ewi exponent, Olarewaju Adepoju.
Ige refused to participate in the Babangida transition programme, in obedience to Awo’s advise to the progressives to dine with the devil with a long spoon. In 1986, Awo had shunned the Political Bureau set up by IBB and chaired by Dr. Cookery. He doubted the sincerity of the military President, warning that the nation had embarked on a fruitless search. Awo said: “When we imagine that the new political order has arrived, we will be terribly disappointed.” The prophecy came true with the annulment of the presidential election of 1993 won by Chief Moshood Abiola, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate.
Ige continued with the “siddon look” style during the Abacha regime when he dismissed the five political parties of the era as the five fingers of a leprous hand. When he later teamed up with pro-democracy fighters and “June 12” agitators coordinated by the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), he was on the collision course with the military. When Abdulsalami regime came up with its transition programme, he traversed the two parties, PDP, which had majority of his colleagues in “G 34” as members, and All Nigeria Peoples Party (APP). Although he wrote the constitutions of the two parties, he could not cohabitate with the hawks of Abacha era. Although the closing date for party registration had elapsed, the Federal Government, based on the advice of the Chief of General Staff, Admiral Mike Akhigbe, registered AD, to forestall the exclusion of credible Southwest leaders from the transition programme.
But, Ige’s party, AD, could not fly beyond the regional level. The party was seized by crisis from the onset. At D’Rovans, Awoists rejected Ige in preference for Falae as presidential flag bearer.
Ige never forgave his colleagues. He fought back. Against Afenifere’s wish, he joined the Obasanjo government. He was mocked by Afolabi, Minister of Internal Affairs, who described his former boss as a visitor, who was invited to eat, only to hold the hand of his host. Ige replied that he had not come to eat, but to serve his fatherland.
In the Power and Steel ministry, Ige was like a stranger. But, it was a different ball game at the Ministry of Justice, where he motivated the celebrated suit on resource control and laid the template for the anti-graft war.
Before his death, Muyiwa, a former Commissioner for Physical Planning in Osun State, said he was contemplating a disengagement from the Federal Executive Council. He was said to have written to Obasanjo, intimating him of his desire to bid farewell to the cabinet. He said he would focus his attention on strengthening the zone, ahead of the 2003 election.
“I have a pivotal role to play in my party, AD, while you are engineering your party, PDP. I need to strengthen my own, so that in 2003, there will be a credible, strong and clean national government in which the major parties will be represented,” he stated in the letter, which he had wanted to give to the former President. Ige prayed that “noting will happen adversely, which will frustrate the fond hope.” The hope paled into day dreaming; an unanswered prayer. Ige died without fulfilling the mission. Ige supported Ahmed Abdukadir to become AD national chairman. After 2003 elections, he was appointed Special Adviser on Manufacturing by Obasanjo. AD became an appendage of PDP.
If he had not died before Afenifere leader, Pa Abraham Adesanya, would he, as deputy leader, succeeded the Second Republic senator? How would he had steered the affair of the group?
What would have been his position on “60:40” formula for the distribution of elective and appointive positions in Lagos AD government in 2003 between Tinubu and Ganiyu Dawodu camps, as recommended by the Olaniwu Ajayi Reconciliation Panel?
Ige was an advocate of restructuring and the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) to discuss the basis for mutual co-existence.
What would have been Ige’s position on the Boko Haram insurgency, banditry, herder/farmer’s clash, Niger Delta militancy, the doctrine of necessity, agitation for the Republic of Biafra, cries of marginalization in some zones, the push for regionalism, calls for balkanisation by other separatist groups?
What would have been his opinion on the anti-corruption war, the evolution of a mega party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), in 2014/2015, constitution amendment, Value Added Tax (VAT), zoning or rotational presidency?
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