The name of Barrister Ayo Opadokun rings a bell in political circles, especially whenever the struggle for the validation of the annulled June 12, 1993 presidential election is mentioned. He was one of the arrowheads of the struggle to get the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida to reverse its decision on the annulled election largely believed to have been won by the late Chief MKO Abiola. He worked as the secretary of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and suffered intimidation, arrests and detention.
In this interview, Opadokun, sensationally revealed the pains he had gone through as an activist, his childhood days and experiences that shaped his personality and strength of character, among others.
Could you tell us about your place of birth and growing up?
I was born into the family of the late Chief James Oyinlola Opadokun, who was the Ojomu of Offa for 25 years. He died and was buried in 2000. My mother was Mrs. Sarah Opadokun, who also died in 1987. She died on the same date with the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. While I was at Ikenne, as the master of ceremonies (MC) of Awolowo's burial, my mother died in Offa. It was not until later in the evening that I got to know of my mother's death. You know there was no mobile phone then. In fact, it was my uncle, Onogoruwa, his wife and some others who came to break the news to me.
I attended the Teachers' College, Minna, and to the University of Lagos, where I had two degrees in Mass Communication and Law. I worked first as a journalist. I read Mass Communication before reading Law. And I have been in politics as an activist since then.
When did you start activism?
I got baptised into activism from the college. It happened during a little crisis that rocked my college then. The American principal went on leave and the Nigerian teachers in the college did not want him to return to the post. I think there was arrangement with the education board of the Baptist Convention then. They seconded the late John Lawale to replace him. When the American principal came back, there was a problem in the school. The entire students, who came from the then Kwara and Kogi states nominated me as their spokesman, despite the fact that I was just in year three in the college. Meanwhile, I was already functioning as music director, in replacement of our foreign music instructor, who left before the end of my year two.
So, as the spokesman, I became prominent in the college and from that point activism started.
Before I even got to the university I was already neck-deep into activism. As early as form one in the college I was always buying my own newspapers to familiarise myself with what was happening. I was already informed and taking active role in discussing state of the polity with intellectuals. But another thing is that looking at my traditional background, my father as the Ojomu of Offa was in charge of the defence of the land. The traditional title and role was like that of a war commander in any other clan. His position was far above the Balogun (captain at war) in the hierarchy of the Offa kingdom, and that is why till today Ojomu household with the biggest land allocated has collected taxes more than 50 percent of the entire town. So that is my background.
This suggests that your father was influential…
Ah…yes; he was the Ojomu of Offa land. There was the Olofa. He was the Ojomu, the war commander. His status was like the Generalissimo. His position was even far above the Balogun, the warlord of the land. He was really wealthy.
How many wives did he marry?
He was a polygamist, but it took him quite long before he took another wife. I think my mother had stopped child bearing for about 10 years before my father took another wife. And that was really very rare during his time.
What were the pranks you played as young boy?
Of course, I played many pranks. I was a troublesome child. All the pranks that boys play, I had my own share of them. In Offa, it was a tradition that young boys would go out in the evening to touch young ladies. I had my share too. Also, when I was in the North. I played, as a young Hausa man would with ladies. Of course, you know that you must not be found doing it openly, but we had a way of doing it in the closet.
What particular experiences shaped your personality?
I was prepared for this kind of lifestyle through the training I got from my parents. My mother was the president of the women society of Offa Baptist Church. My father, also, was equally active in the church; there was no position he didn't hold in the church, except that of the church's treasurer. He was one of the earliest converts. He became a devout Christian, holding all kinds of position, as choir master, church representatives and evangelist. He has represented the church in many local government areas. He brought us up in a Christian way. At that time, as early as 5a.m he would wake us up for the early morning prayer. Discipline was our watchword. When I eventually went to college, the discipline I met there was already instilled in me and prepared me for leadership. But then I had a choice: To do it the way others did it; my choice, therefore, was to serve God and humanity. And toeing such line, you would have to make sacrifices. And that is why I do not belong to any society, except the one in the church.
What position do you hold in the church now?
I have been organist and chorister in churches, in Minna, Ofa and in Lagos. Since 1981, I have been a member for the First Baptist Church in Lagos. I am the chairman of the music committee and the development committee of the church in Lagos.
What would you say you learnt from your parents?
My mother was a genuine Christian. She added honesty, humility and dedication to whatever she did. I took that from her. My father was a stickler for the truth. If you were in agreement with him over anything, he would never change the course; if there was a reason for any of you to change the course, you would have to re-examine the agreement you had, and in the light of the facts available over the issue, if there is a genuine reason to change, he would compromise, but if there is none, then you would have to stick to your former agreement. I can give you an.
Sometimes, around 1976, in the first Baptist Church, Offa, the elite of the church, discussed the growth of the church. They reached an agreement that the then pastor was no more suitable for the church. They reasoned that the church had outgrown him. They reached the decision and agreed to put the matter before the leadership of the church and they came up with the idea that the pastor should take a part-time course that would enable him live up to the church's standard. He was to consider this option for the church to retain him or be relieved of his job, if he was not ready to accept the proposal. And that time they all agreed on this, except an elderly man who opposed the idea. But later the pastor in question succeeded in getting some of the elite to his side and they later danced to his tune and began to insinuate that some people were against him because they did not want him to enjoy the fruit of his labour in the church. This polarised the church. It got to a point that I was ordered to quit my duty as the church organist. Many of those elders, who were party to the decision, later gave up and shifted grounds to the pastor's side. The only man who remained was my father. He insisted that when they took the decision, there was no change in the circumstances that led to the decision arrived at initially. And he questioned the rationale behind the sudden change. He maintained his position and insisted that he would stick to the decision until the other compromising party convinced him otherwise.
At the end of it all, the parties involved were summoned to the headquarters in Ibadan and the late Rev Emmanuel Dahunsi was the general secretary of the church then. I was asked to be the spokesman and I articulated the decision of the church. Eventually, the pastor in question was posted to another parish. And the general secretary then directed that Prof. J.A Ilori, who was then the head of the department of religious studies in a college of education, should proceed to be acting pastor of First Baptist Church, Offa. And he was there for three years before a new pastor took over fully. By that time, the church had grown in leaps and bounds. So, that was the kind of father I had.
Why did you study Law?
Before I even decided to take that decision there were certain things critical to me in life: I was dedicated to the pursuit of making life better for the ordinary man. And I found that in my career as a journalist I would have to be a social critic ultimately. I knew that being a social critic I could not be in the employment of government. I have to be independent, otherwise I would be stifled. So, I then thought seriously about this. In journalism, I am free. I found out that it was possible for me to venture into public relations even if I practise journalism. However I reckoned that as a journalist if I get involved in public relations also I may have problem. I reasoned that as a journalist if I owna public relations outfit and seek a job with big company that requires approval from government, such approval may not come. If the government is told that Ayo Opadokun's company is involved I may not get it, therefore, I decided to be independent. As a matter of fact, I resolved to resume my legal training, whether or not there was going to be anything politically. I resolved to resume the training in 1983. I had even started the training in the University of Lagos, when General Mohummadu Buhari's coup took place and there was loss of salary, but by God's grace I was able to survive.
As a lawyer, what cases have you taken up that gave you great challenges?
There was this medical doctor at LUTH, who was sacked unduly and the matter had to be settled in court. I was then in the chambers of Ayodele Onagoruwa and co. I played leading role in that case and we won I know he would never forget it. I also remember I was party to the Habeas Corpus case we filed for the late Tai Solarin. The judge, Justice Coker, had ordered his release at the Abeokuta prison and he was released, but the military government rearrested him. We filed a contempt of court case against them and we won that too.
You earlier talked about the tradition of touching girls, as a young man. Could you tell us about your love life? How, for instance, did you meet your wife?
You see, it is like this: birds of the same feather would flock together. I met her in the church, and we were together in the choir.
Was it through the usual God's will or…
We became close because I was the choirmaster and I was the organist; so that drew so many people to me. Among many ladies that were close to me I chose her. But really, I married late because as an activist I was just on my own. I didn't take such things serious. It was the late Chief Awolowo who made me marry when I eventually did. He asked a question, which was pointed at me and that led me to go home and make my choice.
What was the question Chief Awolowo asked?
It will appear in my memoir.
What has been the binding force in your marital life?
I think we understand each other. There were occasional disagreements, which were settled without a third party. I won't claim to be an ideal husband because part of my decision was to serve humanity and doing that necessarily means that I may not be available all the time for my family. That was part of the sacrifice I had to make. But then I am grateful to God that He has helped me to pay my part, as a father and husband, in the minimum way He had given me the grace to do. Paul wrote in the Gospel: He who did not provide for his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an infidel. So, I tried to do the best I can to bear the responsibility of my family.
You were close to the late Chief Awolowo. What did you learn him?
There can be no two Awolowos in a generation. There is no replica of Awolowo. He was too much. He came far ahead of his generation. What he stood for and what he thought, given the scenario, were not available. He was too forthright, dedicated, disciplined and hardworking in all facets. He had no time for frivolities. The pursuit of making the society better than he met it was his preoccupation, from cradle to the grave. And that is what we are trying to copy from him; whether or not we can do that is better left for history and other people to record. I do not want to pretend: it is difficult to match Awolowo in his sagacity, in his dedication to the pursuit of the ideal for the society.
What regrets do you have in life?
To be honest, I now believe that it was a wrong decision to keep my family in Offa, my hometown, while I was neck-deep in political activism in Lagos. I had erroneously thought that since I had given myself to public service, as an activist, my family was safe away from me. I feared that the manner by which security people were trying to unleash terror on me maybe extended to my family; so I kept them with my parents. That perhaps, was a mistake, an error of judgment.
Have you ever been close to death?
I have been faced with death on many occasions. One was the day we were to celebrate Abiola's birthday, when he was still in exile. The late Sani Abacha and his IG overran the entire Ikeja area with many policemen. I walked for almost a kilometer, because the traffic was too heavy. Vehicles brought from other parts of the country for that event were detained in the gridlock. We had to walk to Abiola's compound. Close to his residence, in Ikeja, there were so many Nigerians already waiting to enter his compound, but security agents would not allow anybody to enter into that area. The Abacha government foresaw the occasion as a threat.
When I got to the area, Nigerians from all over the country who saw me started shouting my name. I was the General Secretary of NADECO then. I asked the then IG; I think he was from Borno then, why his men were barring Nigerians from entering Abiola's compound. He said they had received an order from above to do so. I asked him what that meant. Unknown to me, the BBC, CNN and other foreign media were there covering the event live. I was querying him on why they were disturbing us from celebrating a Nigerian hero, whose birthday fell on that day. When the activism in me rose, I told him that the instruction he had received from above was illegal and unconstitutional and added that we won't allow him and his boss to turn Nigeria into a police state. Then, I ordered the crowd to enter Abiola's place by whatever means. I warned the IG that if any one of them was shot his policemen's families would no more be safe in the barracks. The man, perhaps, in order to scare people, ordered his men to shoot into the air, but I was resolute. We all moved in; that solved the matter.
I was told that they looked for me later on, but they could not get me. About two or three days after, I spotted some elements in police vehicle, trailing me. For two or three weeks, they were running around me, but God protected me. I spent some four or so months in prison under Abacha and after my release the SSS had several surveillance on me for months thereafter, but for me I had banished fear in my life because my Bible tells me that God has not given us the spirit of fear but of sound mind.