Yinka Odumakin, the quintessential spokesman for Afenifere, is no more. He was pronounced dead last Saturday April 3. The ripple effect of his untimely passing is still reverberating through the internal structure of the Nigerian political theatre in which he operated so energetically for so long. His death has both medical and political ramifications. First, it was another death in which COVID-19 played a major part. Anyone walking through the ever-busy, ever-flowing Nigerian street markets and shopping malls would be forgiven for thinking the disease does not exist. Or, that it has simply vanished from this shore, as if by miracle. COVID-19 remains as deadly as it ever was, and as omnipresent as it ever was. So, let Odumakin’s passing serve as a useful reminder to Nigerians that people can and are dying of the disease in this country, every blessed day.
We know of Odumakin’s unfortunate contraction of COVID-19 because of his high profile. Many other not-so-famous individuals are also dying of the same disease, even if it is considered taboo by many families to admit. The few citizens still diligently complying with social distancing and wearing of face mask usually stand out in the crowd like a sore thumb in this country. It is important not to allow oneself to absorb the sense of false security from the disease. In that respect at least, Odumakin’s death is another teachable moment for everyone. Second, is political. Afenifere is often referred to as the “Pan Yoruba socio-cultural” group. This is a misnomer.
Afenifere is a Non-Governmental Organisation in the classic sense of the term. It is an NGO that aims to change the political landscape of Nigeria. The only marked difference is that it is a non-partisan political body. It is not to be confused for “Afenifere Renewal Group”, a splinter organisation formed in 2008 to redirect and re-channel its lofty aim in a new direction. More on that a little later. Afenifere was officially established in 1998, in the wake of the annulment of the results of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by the late media mogul, popularly known as MKO Abiola. And, in the run-up to the 1999 general election, to give an ‘authentic voice’ to the Yoruba national aspiration. Contrary to the common belief, Afenifere had in fact, existed in some rudimentary form even prior to Nigeria’s independence. It functioned sporadically alongside the pre-independence’s Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s “Egbe Omo Oduduwa” (Oduduwa organisation or Oduduwa group) So, the idea of a coming together of the Yoruba on a common platform is not a recent phenomenon. It has been around for a very long time. Odumakin’s indefatigability gave succour to its cause perhaps more than anyone else. He gave clear articulation to its mission in no ambiguous terms; the formation, the carving out of an autonomous Yoruba nation within a loose Nigerian federation. He propagated this with gusto and conviction. He could hold his own in a counterargument and often gave as good as he got across the debating table. He was uniquely well-informed about Nigeria’s political, economic and geographical trajectory so much that he exuded envy, jealous and respect of his adversaries, of which there were many.
Odumakin’s formidable intellect was as palpable as his nerve-wracking doggedness. He often roughed people up the wrong way, but he was also a gentleman among charlatans, and a man among boys in the field of political street-fighting. This is what endeared him to his friends and foes. The universal encomiums and eulogies showered on him upon his demise were only matched by the vilification he suffered during his lifetime. He organised and participated in several consciousness raising seminars and workshops in and around the South-West region. He was an unapologetic Yoruba nationalist, locking horns with other people of different political inclinations at several points in the continuing public discourse over “restructuring”. Odumakin was a man of whom conviction and principled could be truly ascribed. Several political groupings euphemistically called “socio-cultural” organisations on the other side of the fence, particularly in the North, fighting to maintain the status quo, had called him out for his desire to “break up” Nigeria many times. The Arewa Consultative Forum, for instance, issued a condolence message expressing “sadness” at the news of his death. “While he was alive, Yinka held on to his views very strongly, we often disagreed with him on many issues, but our disagreements were on principle and not personal”. “Odumakin’s commitment to better Nigeria (was) unparalleled”, says the Middle-Belt Forum. The President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Goodluck Jonathan, and a host of state governors have also issued high-minded condolences. Even Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, with whom Odumakin had a bitter falling out expressed “shock” at his demise. “The story of Nigeria’s democracy would be incomplete without Odumakin”, the statement from Tinubu read. Sure, much of the expression of sympathy is genuinely meant, but a chunk of it will be crocodile tears, anyhow. The question before us here is why do we wait until a person’s demise before acknowledging them?
Many people will remember Obafemi Awolowo, whom many South-Eastern political leaders despised and vilified as the nemesis of the Igbo. He was thought to have played a pivotal role in crushing the breakaway Biafra from surviving. Upon his death, none other than the breakaway leader himself, the ultimate Igbo nationalist, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, issued a statement saying: “Awolowo was the best President Nigeria never had”. Is it a question of hindsight or cynicism? Why is acknowledgement of a formidable (political) opponent only permissible upon their death? How is it possible to badmouth somebody to their face when alive, and turn round to speak of their genius the moment they are six feet down under, or even the minute they breathed their last? Although this is very common in this country, it is by no means unique to Nigeria. In ancient Rome, Galileo Galilei, the topmost astronomer of his day, was denounced, and tortured for proclaiming the earth was in fact round, and not flat as the religious leaders of the time had maintained. He is now hailed worldwide as the “father of modern physics”, and “father of the scientific method”. Thomas Malthus, the English economist, was vilified for proposing that a balance between population growth and food supply can be established through preventative and positive checks. The theory was later embraced and its positive benefits still being espoused throughout the world. Martin Luther King, in the USA was vilified by the white establishment for preaching equality for all American citizens. The same establishment later lionised him, and even commemorates his birthday with a public holiday. There are many more, but you know what I am saying.
Human beings have a natural urge to resist fundamental change, especially if the mover of such a change is alive and active. This is for the simple reason that an idea or a proposal with profound ramifications for society, by necessity, ought to be subjected to the rigour of public scrutiny. It is also that such an idea or proposal would be susceptible to differing interpretations. However, those interpretations suddenly narrow and morphed into a consensus upon the person’s death. So, what was Odumakin’s big idea that is now being celebrated? It was that Nigeria needed to be rearranged to accommodate an autonomous Yoruba entity in whole, in order to enhance the larger welfare of other constituent nationalities within the federation. It was not even his or Afenifere’s original idea, but Odumakin made it a lifelong mission. Would the obstructionists, and the nay sayers singing Odumakin’s praise and worth now sheathe their swords, and coalesce around his mission? I doubt it, but then again, that is human beings for you.