• Thursday, May 23, 2024
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BusinessDay

Death of a colossus and legend

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Continued from last week.

He then proceeded to deliver his verdict and answer to his own question.

“Because you have conceded leadership to your second eleven while the first eleven remains on the sidelines.”

Following the revenge coup of July 29, 1966, Nigeria was without a government for three days. The break-up of the country loomed large on the horizon. It was both the American Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Elbert G. Mathews and the U.K. High Commissioner to Nigeria, Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce who first raised the alarm and initiated an aggressive damage control with top civil servants as the arrow head. They warned the Northern military officers that the Northern region would be entirely land-locked (with no access to the sea).

In the midst of the chaos, the most senior officer in the Army, Brigadier Olufemi Ogundipe a Yoruba man made a feeble attempt to take over as Head of State only to be rebuffed by a subordinate of northern origin who bluntly refused to take orders from anybody other than a northern officer.

READ ALSO: Abuse of trust by public servants

It was the British who chaperoned Brigadier Ogundipe to a ship berthed in Apapa and arranged a safe passage to Britain where he was subsequently appointed as the Nigerian high Commissioner to Britain (the Court of St. James) as compensation for his humiliation.

Separately, the soldiers were on a collision course with the civil servants. While 32-year-old Head of State General Yakubu “Jack” Gowon was somewhat in awe of the top civil servants and regarded them with utmost respect, this did not appear to go down well with Brigadier-General Murtala Mohammed who was the strongman of the military government. He was firmly of the view that the soldiers should call the shots without any meddling from civil servants particularly the “Super Permanent Secretaries” – Chief Allison Ayida; Chief Phillip Asiodu; Alhaji Ahmed Joda; Mr. Ime Ebongetc. Perhaps, it was predictable that when Murtala Muhammed became Head of State on July 30, 1975 it did not take him and his deputy Major-General Olusegun Obasanjo long to embark on the purge of the civil service culminating in the sacking of all “Super Permanent Secretaries”. The only one left standing was Chief Allison Ayida! On 26th February, 1984, seventeen Federal Permanent Secretaries were sacked by the Military government in one fell swoop.

It was brutal and capricious. The hurricane was on a mission of destruction and inevitably destroyed many lives (both the guilty and the innocent) – from judges (right up to the Supreme Court), to doctors, engineers, chartered accountants, architects as well as cooks, stewards and drivers. Even military officers were not spared. After the turmoil and dislocation, the public service was never the same again.

Perhaps we should rewind the tape back to a meeting of the Supreme Military Council chaired by General Gowon who inadvertently referred to his SGF (Secretary to the Government of the Federation) as “my secretary” only to be promptly corrected by the then SGF. Alhaji Abdulazziz Attah who insisted on clarifying matters:

“I am NOT your Secretary, I am Secretary to the Government of the Federation.”

Anyway, when Chief Ayida retired from the civil service (during the regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo) in 1977 he had plenty of time to spend at the Metropolitan Club which was only a short distance from his house at Idowu Martins Street Victoria Island; the Lagos Tennis Club; King’s College Old Boys ‘Association and other pursuits in business – Chairman, CFAO; Chairman, Credit Lyonnais Bank; Chairman, Nidogas Company Limited etc. Virtually every afternoon/evening he would play tennis at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club with the likes of Alhaji Raheem Adejumo; Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas; Chief Philip Asiodu, Senator (Dr.) Olusola Saraki; Mr. Ime Ebong etc.

He was a self-confessed loner but he was endowed with great intellect and consummate cerebral curiosity. I remain appreciative of his endearing and unfailing friendly disposition to me and our extensive discussion of politics, economics and history. It is common knowledge that he was very soft-spoken. He spoke in whispers. He was especially supportive of the Gold Medal Lectures which I initiated while I was Chairman of Eko Hotels Limited.

He was even kind enough to remind me that the Economic Summit (now known as the Nigerian Economic Summit Group) was my idea!

The gist of it was that while I was on a visit to the U.S. to attend a meeting with American partners of KPMG, one of their very senior partners was a participant at the retreat for senior government officials, politicians and professionals which was hosted at Camp David by President Bill Clinton. It was a great success and I was eager to persuade the Nigerian government to follow suit by convening a similar meeting to be hosted by the then Nigerian President /Head of State. Anyway, I brought it up at a reception hosted by the British High Commissioner to Nigeria with several eminent Nigerians in the audience. Our host warmly embraced the idea and encouraged those in the audience (Chief Ayida was right there) to support it.

When the idea eventually took off, I was entirely side-lined and remain so. However, what does it matter regarding who gets the credit?

I cannot but recall that when the Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipul visited the Metropolitan Club as my guest, he was seated at the same table as Chief Ayida along with several Oxford and Cambridge graduates. After the lunch, I escorted my guest to his car. However, before I could bid him farewell, he was thoroughly perplexed (and he remonstrated):

“I have never seen so many Oxford and Cambridge graduates under one roof, outside England. How come your country is in such a mess?”

He then proceeded to deliver his verdict and answer to his own question.

“Because you have conceded leadership to your second eleven while the first eleven remains on the sidelines.”

Something else for which I remain eternally grateful is that on one occasion at the Metropolitan Club, I shared a discussion with Chief Ayida. He protested vehemently that he and his colleagues in the civil service had done all in their power and intellect to steer Nigeria in the right direction by being pro-active and patriotic. A case in point was when there was clamour for General Yakubu Gowon to hand over to a civilian regime. Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the front runner. However, it was the top civil servants (the “Super Permanent Secretaries”) who took the initiative, when there was some semblance of resistance to the choice of Chief Awolowo, to discreetly initiate a “Plan B”. It was not by happenstance that their choice fell on an old boy of King’s College – Alhaji Femi Okunnu SAN! He was the Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing. Their “Plan C” zeroed in on Chief Anthony Enahoro the Commissioner for Information, who was a KCOB too!

No tribute to Chief Allison Ayida would be complete without giving due credit to his beloved wife, Mrs. Remi Ayida who preceded him to the grave. She was entirely devoted to her husband in addition to being a formidable “prayer warrior”.  Undoubtedly, both Chief & Mrs. Allison Ayida nurtured and groomed many men and women who have achieved greatness in their own right and remain loyal to the couple who inspired them (and whom they still regard as their role models).

May their souls rest in peace.

 

Bashorun J.K. Randle