I write celebrating the life of a Nigerian Yoruba Chief, Michael Sunday Babatunde Adigun, Balogun Bobajiro of Ibadanland and Commander of the Order of the Niger whom the Tamil people are indebted to. I heard only last week of his demise on August 29, 2014.
I went to Nigeria in Oct. 1977, just turned 25 after my London M.Sc. The best offer I had in England was at GE at £250 a month but my classmate Felix Fidelis Udeagwu forced my attention on Nigeria. Felix was an Igbo who had fought and been injured in the Biafra secession but felt good that Nigerian General Yakubu Gowon was generous in victory. He accommodated Igbo aspirations by dividing the federated Western, Eastern and Northern States for the predominant Yorubas, Igbos and Hausas (out of 200+ tribes) into 12 states (now 37), increasing autonomy.
Although Biafra was starved into defeat by food embargo, Gowon embarked on 3Rs (rehabilitation, reconstruction, and reconciliation) on a policy of no victor, no vanquished. But he was deposed in a 1975 coup and was seen in British student canteen queues when I was there. But his dream for 3Rs in Nigeria lived on. Nigeria was doing what I wanted in Sri Lanka. We had much in common then as now. I could not resist Felix’s enticements when two brothers(one with AACS) were denied even physical science and had to be supported in England.
In Ibadan, I met Chief Adigun (b. October 19, 1932) at Church. A handsome man, he would switch from dark blue suits and Latin phrases at work to his flowing Yoruba gowns at home. He was brought up in the Anglican Church and its schools. We felt immediate camaraderie. He had four very intelligent children, son Abi and daughters Yemisi, Gbenro and Bunmi. As Yemisi told me then, “We love our father because he has no women except mother”. Mrs. Adigun kept up her Yoruba independence by running her boutique despite her husband’s standing.
After his BA External from London, Chief joined the civil service and was Permanent Secretary for Local Government and Information in 1977. Abi was in his OLs at Government College Ibadan. The best school in the state, corruption made it face difficulties despite the oil wealth. Chief asked me to tutor him which I did gratis. When Abi moved to the ALs I lacked the training for physics and chemistry, so he asked me to find good teachers for his school. I got my own maths teacher Sivasubramaniam, a chemistry teacher Sri also from St. John’s and a London MSc physicist Shan from Hardy. Their work ethic earned them a very high reputation.
Others in Jaffna who had heard of my appointments, began writing to me but I could do little as my mandate was confined to Government College. In the meantime I taught the Chief’s equally brilliant daughters Yemisi and Gbenro while little Bunmi would ask permission to touch my hair because it felt so different (like a White boy recently touched Obama’s).
In 1978 Chief was promoted to State Head of Service (above Permanent Secretaries) and Secretary to the Military Government. He ordered the Schools Board Chairman who was visiting many countries on recruitment drives to use me as I had proved my ability to supply excellent teachers without cost. From then to 1980 when I left for my doctoral studies I obtained 600 appointment letters. Then-new University of Jaffna was churning out graduates who could not find work because Sri Lanka seemed a dead-end to many talented Tamils at the time and many came to me. Nearly all these teachers are now in the West. Some stayed on because their children went unhindered into good Nigerian universities bypassing Lankan standardization. Focusing on teacher appointments, Chief also helped in some medical and engineering jobs including one as chief engineer.
Sivasubramaniam of the first threesome was the last to leave Nigeria around 2000 as his sons did engineering and medicine in Nigeria. His son Kiruba came to me for his PhD and got his two brothers to the US and then his parents. The ever grateful Mrs. Lakshmi Sivasubramaniam told my wife from her recent deathbed: “For dowry for your three daughters ask my sons. I have told them.” I will not ask but felt truly touched.
Through the Chief’s facilitation the Tamil community flourished in Oyo State. Our teachers were everywhere. There were also engineers at the Water Board and three successful companies – Samuel Sons (which came court-appointed to manage the construction firm of a chief who died intestate with 105 wives and 105 bungalows in a walled compound), and companies by engineers Panchalingam and Tharmaratnam who had come to work for the state and then formed their own companies.
Friends gave me names of their relatives for appointment. A Tamil Association grew and with it a community. But public service without charge had its downside and costs in time and several trips to the Schools Board. Some could not understand that one can give out jobs without charge. It really hurt when a close friend asked my teachers what my fees were. When several tens of teachers arrived one day and I organized a convoy of cars from volunteers to pick them up at Lagos, a couple of Jaffna teachers first wanted to know how much it would cost them. A gentleman of preretirement age had provided a picture on his application without his glasses but when he arrived he looked 80 because of his barrel glasses. The Schools Board Chairman who did not like my involvement claimed I was untruthful about his age and wanted to send him back. Chief fixed it. One teacher could not stand the loneliness of life at his remote school and took his life. A married woman who came alone got pregnant by a Ghanaian teacher. My favorite chemistry teacher who had become St. John’s Principal was annoyed that I had denuded the school of some of his best teachers. I pray that by the time he was murdered he would have understood that I could not from abroad tell teachers asking me for a job that their duty is to serve St. John’s. Some Sinhalese friends were upset but I accommodated every qualified request for an appointment. Those were troubled times for the two communities. One learns to carry on in public life despite these things, or one can do nothing.
Chief Adigun after retirement became a Federal Minister of National Planning in 1984 when Muhammadu Buhari came to power through a military coup-d’état. He was made Commander of the Order of the Niger, a Nigerian knighthood. It is ironic that Buhari is the President-Elect today and the Chief surely would have come back to public life if death had not intervened.
I had lost touch with the Adiguns who visited me in the US when I married in 1984. Our second daughter who is Regional Proposal Development and Grant Coordinator for Save the Children for the Middle East and Eurasia is to go to Nigeria in May and I had asked her to meet the Chief however difficult it may be. She then used her Nigerian contacts and gave me the sad news. The lesson to me: however busy with work, do not neglect friends. This is a regret I will carry to my grave. But his memory I will always cherish with gratitude for his unstinted support.