Alhaji ‘Tayo Sowunmi, the Babanla Adeen of Egbaland, is a retired teacher, former students’ leader and trade unionist. A devout Muslim, the septuagenarian who has traversed the globe shares his experience with OLUFEMI OYEWESO
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Abeokuta on 16 February 1942. That is where I grew up. I had my primary education at St. Michael’s Catholic School, Itoko, Abeokuta.
How did you know that 1942 was your year of birth?
My late father, Chief Sobowale Sowunmi, was literate, not highly educated but he could read and write and so, all the dates of birth of his children were carefully noted down. He was the Oluwo Ifa of Egbaland. So, it wasn’t in doubt at all.
As the Oluwo Ifa of Egbaland, definitely your late father was high in the echelon of traditional religion?
How was growing up under that condition like considering your religion today as a devout Muslim with your late father’s firm decisions?
Let me say emphatically that in those days, there was proper intermingling of people of different religious backgrounds. For example, my father was the Oluwo Ifa of Egbaland, but his own mother (I.e., my grandmother) was a devout Muslim and my own mother was also a devout Muslim; an Alhaja, married to a traditional worshipper, the Oluwo Ifa of Egbaland. So that time, there wasn’t any dichotomy too much in the religious set up.
Right from the beginning, I followed my mother to Islam without any hindrance from my father and that is why today, I am an Alhaji and of course, a Muslim Chief in Egbaland. Thus, my growing up was very smooth. To the chagrin of my late father, I didn’t have any interest in the Ifa practice. He would have wanted me to be an Ifa priest like him….
(Cuts in) That would have probably prevented you from schooling?
No. He was seriously interested in seeing me acquiring education.
When did you start schooling?
I started when I was five years old; very-very rare at that time. It wasn’t a functional education, but I was following my uncles to schools, carrying their portmanteaus and so on. That was in 1947.
But properly, I stated schooling in 1948 at St. George’s Catholic School, Ijemo, Abeokuta now Ogun state from where we were transferred to St. Michael’s Catholic School, Itoko in 1950.
After that, I attended Catholic Boys Secondary Modern School from 1956 to 1958: St. Mark’s Teachers Training College, Iperu Remo between 1960 and 1961. Muslim Teachers Training College, Surulere, Lagos between 1965 to 1966 for my Grade II Teacher’s Course. University of Lagos, College of Education for my National Certificate in Education (NCE) between 1969 to 1972. Then University of Lagos, Faculty of Education between 1973 to 1976 for my B.A (Edu.). I also started my Master’s course in Education.
Were you working before you enrolled for your Masters degree?
Oh of course yes. I was the secretary of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT).
When did you start working?
I started working in 1959 as a Pupil Teacher before I went to Teachers College in 1960. Since then, teaching has always being my profession always.
By the analysis of your records now sir, you appeared to have done a complete metamorphosis of teaching. Why did you chose to be a teacher at the expense of becoming an Ifa priest, Islamic scholar or a rich farmer?
I will say that it’s an innermost thing in me to teach people, even when I had not started school. I’m the eldest son of the family; whenever my father was chanting the Ifa pedigrees, I memorised some of them. And sometimes, gathered my younger ones to teach them. At a very tender age, I started doing that.
So, it isn’t wrong to say you are a born-teacher?
No, it isn’t wrong. When I started schooling in 1947; the school was full of bigger boys and girls with good age, unlike now when you have children of one and a half years of age. I was so brilliant that my teachers at that time would call upon me to teach the bigger boys what he had taught us and sometimes too, to discipline them. Teachers would give me the cane and ask me to give them two or three lashes.
So from there, I felt so, I could become a disciplinarian: that’s alright because teachers are disciplinarian. Teachers were the most respected at that time. If your own teacher had to pass by your own house, you have to hide somewhere because even outside the school, you were being monitored by your teacher. And the community recognised them not like now when they are totally at the bottom of the societal ladder. So from the beginning, I developed interest in teaching. I don’t know how it started but teaching people got into me when I was very young.
When did you get married and where did you meet your wife?
I got married early in life at the age of 21 years in 1963. We lived in the same area in Ijemo here in Abeokuta. She was the sister of my very close friend at that time. As children, we were always going about from one house to the other, playing in each other’s compound.
Of course, I met her when I was at the age of 15 or 16 but there wasn’t anything like marriage proposal. But as time went on, I developed so much interest in her and her brother, who was my friend was against it. I had to fight for her because I loved her so much.
What really endeared her to you?
She came from a Muslim home and as usual, she was pretty and brilliant too. She was also in school but much more my junior. She had everything I was looking for in a woman.
How many children did the union produce?
We were blessed with six children but she is dead now.
How was life when you were in service?
Turbulent? Despite that teachers were respected then?
I started teaching in 1957 at Haliman Islam Ahmadiyya Pry School, Elegbaata, Lagos. But I didn’t know what was in me because I found it difficult to hold on to a job for too long. While I started working at Ahmadiyyah Muslims Elegbaata Pry school in 1967, I was still looking for other jobs and I wrote a lot of applications. So, in 1968, I was given an appointment with the National Bank and was to resume on the 4th November. It was the same date I was offered an employment at the G.B Olivant but it was popularly called G.B.O then as a Manager-in-training for the provisions department.
I was to resume on the same day as the National Bank demanded. So, I summoned my friends to advise me and they all recommended that I should honour the bank’s offer. But I was suspicious that it was going to be a regimented lifestyle, so I decided on my own to go to the G.B.O as Manager-in-training. There, I was given the provisions department. But as a young man, the thing that was pushing me was still there. I was there for only nine months. I left the job to go back to the university for my NCE to the chagrin of a lot of people like my manager at that time in G.B.O, Mr. Lawson.
When did you start activism?
It was when I was pursuing my NCE that the activism in me blossomed. There were so many anomalies in the administration of tertiary institutions at that time. We thought it was an anomaly like the school administrators holding back the endowment given by governments for students’ enjoyment and development. So, we thought we were not consuming as much as the government was giving us in terms of food and stipends because as at that time the government was giving meal subsidies; we were eating with meal tickets which was N0:20k for breakfast, N0:25k for both lunch and dinner. And that was enough: you would eat as much as you wanted. Yet, we thought we should be eating more than that because frankly speaking, the universities administrators too at that time were also lining their own pockets from what government was releasing for the students’ upkeep.
So, at that point in time of my higher education stage, I was picked out by fellow students to lead the education students at that time as the secretary of the Education Students Association (ESA) of the University of Lagos branch at that time. So, as the secretary, I was at the forefront of the fight for the students’ welfare. I did that throughout my course; it was the rule then that when you completed your NCE, you have to go and work for two years before you can be qualified if you wanted to use only two years for your degree programme. Upon completion of my NCE course in 1972, I went back to work at the African Church Grammar School, Ifako-Ijaiye, Lagos.
But I couldn’t work for two years because life was too dull for me outside. I ran back after my first year and I had to spend three years instead of two years for my degree. In my second year, I put in to contest for the presidency of the Students’ Union Government (SUG) of the University of Lagos and that was in 1974/75 which I won to become the President of the Students’ Union of UNILAG. That automatically qualified me to be in the National Executive of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) then which is now National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). It was when the Okeowo crisis came that government abrogated NUNS and students had to form NANS.
What about your university days?
As at that time, we had only six universities in Nigeria: University of Lagos, University of Ibadan, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Ahmadu Bello University, University of Ife and then, the University of Benin was then a College of Technology but now a full-fledged university.
But I was the one that coordinated all these six universities. Each time we perceived any injustice in the Nigerian system, the students would be the first set of people to start an uprising. All the presidents of the other universities would converge at the University of Lagos in my office to plan the way forward. As the SUG president, I was entitled to a whole room in the hostel and all of us would sleep in my room. We had a lot of things; we had a long standing war against the then Head of States, General Yakubu Gowon. I can’t go into that because it will take us about two days to complete that story.
What were some of the confrontations your tenure as UNILAG SUG President had with government headed by Gen. Gowon then?
In 1974/75, Gen. Gowon had spent about eight to nine years in office, he was supposed to hand over to civilians at that time. But suddenly, he announced that the year of handover was not feasible again and so, he would not go. Late Dr. Tai Solarin of blessed memory wrote a lot about that decision and I’m sure you have read so much about him on that. But late Tai Solarin was not as enraged as students because we were expecting that come the following year, there would be a civilian regime in Nigeria.
When he announced that he was not going to hand over, I started the agitation and it was a long battle that culminated in my arrest and prosecution. The late Chief Gani Fawehinmi also an activist, was the students’ lawyer. I was always writing against the government; even while in detention, I would write and smuggle my thoughts to the press.
Where and when were you detained?
That is the secret I have not reveal to anybody till date. I was in court one day, heavily guarded by armed policemen at Igbosere, Lagos: that day, my freedom was going to be curtailed for a long time and I sensed that. I was so heavily guarded by armed policemen like I said and there was nothing I could do. So, I sought the permission of the judge to use the toilet facility and they allowed me and the armed policemen escorted me to the door of the toilet.
I got there, peeped through the window and said to myself that “haba, this is freedom now and how could I get out of this place?” These plumbing pipes were there and I said “if I would die, then let me die outside there!” So, I jumped through the window by the pipes and got down. I joined the next taxi and went into oblivion.
So, they were still waiting for me in the courtroom and I heard that they later opened the toilet door after about 10 to 15 minutes. But to their dismay, I was long gone. That then created confusion in the court but I had gone underground.
Where were you arrested?
At the University of Lagos.
What about when you started working?
Now, before I left the university, there had been a running battle between the teachers and the Teaching Service Commission about teachers’ salaries, emoluments and others. The day I joined them, the first meeting of the union I attended as the secretary.
Where were you working before you joined the NUT?
I came straight away from the University of Lagos. I was just employed directly from the university as I was finishing. That year, a lot of ministries were coming to the university to interview people. I got so many jobs, but I decided I was settling for the trade unionism and I was given that opportunity. I spent seven and a half years as secretary of the NUT.
In 1983 when the military took over government and one Kanu became the Military Administrator of Lagos state, I led a lot of delegation to him. Each time we had a meeting, it always ended in “lock him up” and my wife and children became so worried that anytime I went to work, they would not sleep until I return anytime in the night. There was a period I was being guarded by policemen in my house at Gbagada.
Hence, I led a very turbulent work life. That was what led me into national politics.
When did you retire?
I retired with Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT) in 1983 but effective in 1984. I had to leave service to contest election into the Ogun state House of Assembly and the requirement was that I had to resign my appointment which I did and contested on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) that I knew would not win election in Ogun state. It was because I found it difficult to work under any government.
How would you compare life during your days to what is obtainable now?
We had it very rosy during our days as students. We were enjoying a lot of things which we never knew we were enjoying. But compared to what is obtainable these days, I think we were living in paradise. Government gave a lot of things to students. For example, when you woke up from the bed at the university, all you needed to do was to just go and take your shower and there were university personnel that would come and dress your bed for you.
Every Thursday, you had a laundry bag to be filled with six clothes which you would want to wash. Dropped them by the door of your room and the launderers would go with and return them the following week. You would be entitled to toiletries; just approach the appropriate quarters for your entitlements and sign. We were not paying anything. We were eating with only N0: 20k and N0:25k at most and on Sunday, four students would be served with a whole chicken. There were also good and free transportation system. These days when I enter any university, with nostalgia, I remember what obtained during our own time. Students are suffering nowadays. I only pray that we don’t have a lot of agitation from them in spite of what they’re going through now.
But why is happening the way it is happening now?
It is because these politicians have degenerated into the abyss of greed. When the military went away and these politicians took over, they have completely blackened the horizon for the country.
By this scenario, are you saying that military regime is better than the civilian rule?
The military were also greedy but they were afraid of students. Maybe that was why we were able to have it as good as that. Democracy is the best form of government anywhere in the world. The worst democratic government is better than the best of military administration because you’re free to talk. I think what is responsible is because our politicians are getting greedier and greedier by the day.
You had your dreams during the Nigerian independence. Where were you during this period? What were your hopes and have they been met?
In 1960, I was in my final year at Teachers’ Training College at Iperu. We were happy that Nigerians were going to take their destiny in their own hands, but we were also not happy that the British were going to leave us because we had a lot of things under them. Education was very properly managed. Even at that point in time, there were good leaders in Nigeria like Ahmadu Bello, Awolowo, Azikwe and Aminu Kano. Most of them were going freshly into the management of Nigerian politics at that time. They were people of integrity.
In 1955 when these things started, I was one of the first set of free education graduates: in 1954, I was in Standard IV. I was to leave school in 1956 to Standard VI, but because of free education, most of us in Standard V at that time had to go and take the First School Leaving Certificate and we came out. Most of us directly went to teach with our First Leaving School Certificate. That is to tell you how qualitative education was at that time.
So, in 1960, I was at Iperu and that was the year we were given “Nigeria, we hail thee, our own dear native land ….” as our first national anthem.
During your younger days, were you into drinking alcohol?
Of course, yes, like the normal boys. I did go out with my friends on outings and take some before I got my internal organs damaged and God intervened. But I have not taken alcohol now for the past 30 years.
How about your favourite music? Did you go to clubs and parties?
Yes. In our days, it was I.K Dairo, Victor Olaiya, Roy Chicago. The highlife music in our time was the likes of Ebenezer Obey Fabiyi, King Sunny Ade before it later metamorphosed into juju. But now, I will chose juju anytime as my favourite now. But sometimes, I get tempted with these boys like Pasuma, Saheed Osupa with the way they tapped into our thinking senses. That probably is because our own music is in the distant past, so we have to be contented with what we have now. But there is nothing for me like juju music.
What were your challenges in life and do you have any regrets?
One particular incident that I still remember till date in 1953 when I was in Standard III. Our teacher was so harsh that I nearly gave up on education. I had to call my father and told him that I was going to learn carpentry.
What exactly happened?
It was beating; I mean excessive beatings at that time. This particular day in 1953; well, it was to our own advantage too but there were some of these teachers who were extremely wicked. There this one called Mr. Adebiyi and we re-christened him as “General Manager”. He would come to school with about 12 different canes on his shoulder.
So, there was this day I slept off at night, I didn’t do my assignment and I had to go to the school. So, I went to school. When he called for his assignment, myself along with three other boys were guilty. The he asked us all to kneel down while he started writing something on the black board. I knew that at the end of his writing on the black board, he would start beating us. So, I waited till he got to number 10. So, at the end of his full stop, I jumped out through the window. I ran till I entered and hid under the Olumo rock. Throughout that day, I didn’t go back to school.
What happened later?
Unfortunately for me, I slept off on the rock. Another teacher brought some children to the rock and I was already asleep with my uniform on. The man just took my bag, he tapped me and I woke up. I immediately recognised that teacher. I wanted to jump down from the rock but he held me and took me down the rock but I escaped from him again. I couldn’t go back home because my father would kill me, so I ran to a village called Agedo, very close to Ojeere where we have the polytechnic and stayed till midnight. Around what time 12: 30 in the midnight, I started coming home. By then, my father was so much afraid and he went to look for me at my mother’s place in Ibadan. He was told that I was not there and he returned home.
As at the time he was entering, I was also entering home. Then he asked about my whereabouts: I narrated everything to him and my decision to run away. I told him I would no longer go to school that I wanted to learn carpentry. He said he had wanted to beat me before, but would no longer beat me but he would return me to that school. The following day, he took me back to that school and handed me to the headmaster, Mr. Akintide. So, I was allowed to continue.