When Nigeria turns 60 on October 1 and her officialdom rolls out celebratory drums, Akinbiyi won’t be in the troupe; he will be miming a dirge. At 87 on August 29, this Nigerian nationalist will be mourning for Nigeria. He will be ruing the death of a promise, the dearth of principles and the darkness over the polity.
“A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” – Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English lexicographer, essayist and literary critic.
Senior Citizen Edward Jide Akinbiyi is reaching out to the long stretch of his eventful past and turning over more than half of the libraries he has visited worldwide to tell a story. The retired TV journalist, administrator and Afenifere chieftain is plodding along on a book to relate the narrative of the project called Nigeria. It’s a land he believes in, despite a host of crises threatening to pull down the house. We need history, he tells his younger friends, to enable us know why we fell, so we can stop our cyclical trips into the abyss.
When Nigeria turns 60 on October 1 and her officialdom rolls out celebratory drums, Akinbiyi won’t be in the troupe; he will be miming a dirge. At 87 on August 29, this Nigerian nationalist will be mourning for Nigeria. He will be ruing the death of a promise, the dearth of principles and the darkness over the polity. 27 in 1960 when Nigeria freed itself from colonial servitude, Akinbiyi was in the throng that charted a trajectory of hope and glory for the world’s most populous black country.
It wasn’t an unreasonable expectation, given what he beheld in the regions that formed Nigeria even before Independence. A robust federal structure was in place that denuded the centre of overarching powers. The arrangement was liberal, with the autonomy it gave the outposts of administration. No ‘big brother’ glance from the central government. Akinbiyi believes these are undeniable features of a functioning federation.
He says their absence begets the reign of anarchy, that their absence is responsible for what he describes as Nigeria’s ‘’de-structured polity’’ which must be ‘’restructured’’.
Young Akinbiyi noticed how the system engendered jet-bursts of all-round development at the grassroots, the regions. His case study was the Western Region. He watched at close quarters the history Premier Obafemi Awolowo was making in the area. Free education had been introduced, the first in the country and in Africa. Sports had also attracted international attention to Nigeria, following the provision of an Olympic-standard stadium in Ibadan, capital of the region. Again this was the first of its kind in the country.
Finally, the much eulogised Western Nigeria Television Service (WNTV) that lit up Ibadan in 1959. It was the first in Africa. At a time most of the advanced countries of Europe, Asia and the Americas didn’t have this index of civilisation and progress, the regional government of an African country still under colonial watch had beaten them all to the punch, storming the scene with an ‘Eighth Wonder’ landmark.
Akinbiyi was part of this historic feat located in his hometown, then the largest urban settlement in West Africa. He was drafted from the Ministry of Information to be among the key pioneer staff of WNTV, First in Africa. This affinity with the station remains Akinbiyi’s evergreen contribution to the pomp of the past that WNTV represented.
Pa Akinbiyi is linked to two more achievements in the annals of Nigeria’s electronic media. Three years after WNTV, the federal authorities under Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa established Nigerian Television Service (NTS), Victoria Island, Lagos. It was carved out of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), the radio station located at Ikoyi, Lagos. Again, Akinbiyi moved there to pass on some of the tricks that have earned him solid ground in history.
A greater accomplishment was to follow during the heady days of the Second Republic in the early 1980s. Lateef Jakande (LKJ) was the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) governor of Lagos State. Awolowo was the leader of the party, which had ‘lost’ at the presidential ballot. But the UPN was firmly in charge in Lagos State and in all the successor states that followed the dissolution of the sprawling Western Nigeria into five states, famously called LOOBO states by fiery critic and educationist, Tai Solarin. Like Awolowo his mentor, Jakande had dazzled Nigeria with a lot of ‘firsts’ that not only fetched him acclaim, but also won political capital such that he was touted as the next presidential candidate for UPN after the great Awo.
Now, LKJ moved to scale another height, the creation of a state TV. It would be the first state-owned station following the takeover of the regional WNTV in 1976 by the military junta of Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo’s action destroyed the traditional concept and dynamics of the TV as a mass-based tool for enlightenment and development whose ownership therefore must be liberalised, rather than be monopolised. Monopoly chokes, chills and chars. That’s what left the TV industry trammeled until LKJ with Akinbiyi and his team acted.
LKJ reached out to Akinbiyi for the tall order of breaking the federal yoke on TV. That led to the advent of Lagos Television, LTV8. Akinbiyi, a prince of Ibadan, offered the mammoth experience of the WNTV era to outwit the federal might, which repeatedly also threw a wrench in the works to prevent the station from birthing and existing. One of the weird clogs was the jamming of the LTV channel. But the new baby wouldn’t die. It defied the odds, surviving nostalgically in the WNTV renaissance spirit. Rapidly, other states set up their own stations. The ignoble and tedious federal hold on Nigeria’s airwaves was sent packing, never to show up again. LTV8 has remained the forerunner of the crowd of private TV stations in the land today.
Akinbiyi is linking these sublime personal and national successes to the ambience of his day. He says he will argue in his book that the glory of Nigeria evaporated when the military putsch abolished the federal arrangement in 1966, the same way the sun set for TV when, the soldiers, in the manner of the Barbarians’ deadly onslaught on the Roman civilisation in the 5th Century, pillaged WNTV with a takeover decree that led to its death.
But he doesn’t belong to the unbundle-the-union camp. He doesn’t accept the ‘decease’ caused by the military rulers and sustained by their political collaborators is irreversible. Akinbiyi sees Nigeria as a modern-day Lazarus. It can be recalled from its death-slumber.
The giant may be in the throes of extinction, an anguished Akinbiyi says. But it’s not over for her. So what’s to be done? He suggests restructuring of the nation to take the country and its people back to its golden era of the early years after Independence. Each region had its governing machinery that moderated its boundless resources and human endowment. The process unleashed the equally limitless growth and development Akinbiyi is proud to be part of. His words: ‘’It was the true federal structure we operated that let our potential. It was the magic wand. But the system has been de-structured. And that has caused the destruction of the country. What the military bequeathed us has trapped the geniuses in us. I don’t subscribe to the breakup of Nigeria as some extremists are saying. What we must do is to restructure this de-structured country. Otherwise, the extremists would have their way by default…I think that in real terms, Nigeria is just existing for the various categories of looters under its so-called presidential system. It is not existing for its suffering masses. It seems we are simply waiting for Armageddon…These are the grounds my book will address, God willing, before I pass on.’’
English poet and scholar of the 17th Century, John Milton, wrote his sublime work, Paradise Lost, in old age, in blindness and in emotional distress. But according to Samuel Johnson, Milton’s “vigour of intellect was such, that he was not disabled to discharge” his duty. He said that Milton was ‘’weak of body, and dim of sight; but his will was forward, and what was wanting of health was supplied by zeal.’’
Pa Akinbiyi can also feed on his abiding passion for the unity of Nigeria and on Heaven to help him deliver on his promise to chase the book out of the closet to the market.
Happy Birthday, Baba Jide Akinbiyi!
Banji Ojewale writes from Ota, Ogun State.