Multiple cheers for Chief Bisi Akande at 85

Millions of Nigerians at home and abroad know him today as an elder statesman. However, such a label is both too general and too restrictive to describe the person and contributions of Chief Abdulkareem Adebisi Bamidele Akande, who celebrated his 85th birthday yesterday, January 16, 2024. He is often reverently referred to as Baba Akande, not so much in recognition of his age as in recognition of his leadership role in the fight for democracy, good governance, national development, equity, social justice, and true federalism.

While this recognition led many communities to confer on Chief Bisi Akande various chieftaincy titles, including Asiwaju, Balogun, Basorun, Agba Akin, and Jagunmolu Oodua, various political leaders across the nation recognise his many qualities with superlative accolades. President Bola Ahmed Tinubu summarised these qualities: “He has always been a progressive; always noble and disciplined in thoughts and actions, as well as given to rational and enlightened ideals. He is a cherished friend and confidant, ever so generous with his wise counsel”.

The accolades came together yesterday at the University of Ibadan International Conference Centre, when Chief Bisi Akande’s group of friends, led by his childhood friend, Emeritus Professor Olu Aina, launched the Bisi Akande Foundation on the occasion of Chief Bisi Akande’s 85th birthday. The encomiums by various participants, from President Tinubu and Vice President Kashim Shettima to Governor Seyi Makinde, the host, and various State Governors only go to show that no single label could capture Chief Bisi Akande’s congeniality, his approachability, his invaluable counsel, and his immense contributions to education, corporate business, community development, politics, governance, statecraft, democratic growth, and national development.

However, most Nigerians only came to know Chief Bisi Akande in the late afternoon. They marvel at the breath of his knowledge, his sagacity, and his congenial disposition, because they don’t know enough of his background. The truth is that Chief Bisi Akande is a self-made man, who, in the course of his own development, combined multiple tasks, professional orientations, and worldviews. While growing up, he freely  moved in and out of mosques and churches just as he admired his grandfather’s warring amulets, while also sympathising with his poor parents. Having lost both parents rather early, he drew strength from his traditional warrior background; multiple religious practices; complex life experiences, spanning different professions; multiple worldviews; and unparalleled self-discipline.

Here is a man, who wanted to be a Mechanic but ended up as a classroom teacher for eight years between 1955 and 1963. He started building his own house in Ila with his first salary arrears at about age 20; shunned a funeral party for his mother in order to save money for his brother’s education; and, at the same time, saved enough money to enroll in correspondence tuition. After training professionally as a teacher in a Teacher Training College, he combined his teaching duties with professional training simultaneously to become a Chartered Secretary and an Accountant through correspondence courses from three different correspondence institutions in England.

At age 23, he became an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries (ACIS) and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Cost and Management Accountants (FCMA). He would later join British Petroleum for the next 16 years, where he rose to managerial level, the last being Manager, System and Computer Services. The position opened him up to professional workshops and inservice training in Europe and the United States. The BP experience would prepare him for his respect for the management of funds, data preservation, and his current dexterity with modern technologies of communication.

Just as he engaged in training in another profession while working as a teacher, his services with BP were interwoven with involvement in community development activities in Ila-Orangun, his hometown, until he was drafted into local politics as a Councillor and later as an elected member of the 1977 Constituent Assembly that wrote the 1979 Nigerian constitution. The experience brought him in contact with Who is Who in Nigerian politics at the time and prepared the way for his contact with Chief Obafemi Awolowo, whose political party he joined and whose model of progressive politics and governance he would adopt.

By the time Chief Bisi Akande entered the upper echelons of partisan politics, his progressive teeth had been cut and refined, featuring a focus on projects and programmes that benefit the majority. He would serve progressive political parties as Secretary to Government, Deputy Governor, and Governor. Like Chief Awolowo, he believes that universal education and healthcare are possible, and he successfully put the ideology to test as Governor of Osun state.

Once he quit elective politics in 2003, he was drafted again to the chair a political party. He would chair four progressive parties in a row, namely, the Alliance for Democracy, the Action Congress, the Action Congress of Nigeria, and the All Progressives Congress as foundation Chairman.

What is easily discernible from the above summary is the progressive growth of Chief Bisi Akande’s activities from local to state to national and even international levels. As his activities expanded, so did his mind, his heart, his outlook, and the richness of his capacity to arbitrate disputes and offer invaluable advice. At the end of the day, Chief Bisi Akande became an encyclopedia of knowledge, who is able to discuss any aspect of national life as if each was his specialty.

It is against the above backgrounds that Chief Bisi Akande’s contributions to the political process should be understood. His uncharacteristic boldness came from his warrior background; his firmness and didacticism from his teaching background; his prudence from his accounting and corporate experiences; and his foresight from his expansive store of knowledge.

Those who know Chief Bisi Akande know that he only says what he means and means what he says. He tells it as it is, as in his autobiography, My Participation, which led Professor Wole Soyinka to tell the author to expect war, because the book burns many known politicians today with “the fire of truth’s passion that leaps at the reader from between the covers.” Similarly, Chief Bisi Akande does only what he believes in, regardless of market noise. For example, as Governor of Osun State, he had fewer than a dozen Commissioners; laid off redundant and unproductive workers; and built schools, hospitals, roads, and a monumental government secretariat being used till today, all without borrowing a penny.

Unknown to many, Chief Bisi Akande is an avid reader and consumer of information from a variety of sources, including social media. He processes information with intellectual alacrity and writes his views in books, monographs, and speeches with uncommon clarity on topics, such as, education, devolution of powers, restructuring, obstacles to peace in Nigeria, and governance.

I have known Chief Bisi Akande for over 70 years. One distinctive feature that has become his signature is his effusive smile, evident in photographs in which he appeared over the years. The smile is symbolic of the transparency of his inner core. With Chief Bisi Akande, what you see is what you get. He is as forthright as he is frank; as sympathetic as he is forgiving; and as true to himself as he is to others.

May his years be long for us to continue to draw from his wealth of knowledge.