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‘Doctor, na because na you o’ – The Life and Times of Henry Edmund Olufemi Adefope

The doctor was on his daily rounds. He was a very busy man. He was a man with a kindly face and a gentle demeanour, but he had a steely inner resolve. He had lived this peripatetic life as Medical Officer in the employ of the government of Western Region of Nigeria for almost 10 years.

His tour of duty had taken him from Lagos to Epe, where he opened the General Hospital, to Agbowa, and thence to more exotic places in the Midwest and Niger Delta – places such as Forcados, Burutu, Kwale, Abraka, and now to Warri. His frequent postings had done havoc to the stability of his family.

How much he was known and liked became obvious one day as he went about his rounds. Coming upon a stretch of road, he observed a log of wood lying across the road. He stopped the car and, without hurry, moved the log away from the road and proceeded on his journey. After completing his assignment, he returned down the same road, to find the log back in place, blocking the road. Again, the doctor got down from his car and calmly moved the log out of the way. He got back in his car and began to drive away. Then a voice came from the bushes nearby –

‘Doctor, na because na you o –‘

There were armed robbers waiting to pounce, and they were letting him know that he was only being let off because they knew him as their doctor.

It was a delicate moment in his life, and in the life of Nigeria. He concealed the identities of the corpses from those around, to avoid panic and reprisals

Dr Henry Adefope was born in Kaduna to a family from Odogbolu in 1926. His father was an administrative officer in the colonial service. His mother desperately wanted a male child after being blessed with three girls.

Thus began the life of ‘a warrior who did not look like a warrior,’ a man whose life story would reflect the travails and possibilities of Nigeria.

He would, for instance, be charged with the task of evacuating the bodies of civilians and soldiers killed in the first Nigerian military coup of January 15, 1966, and depositing them in the Military Hospital, Yaba. It was a delicate moment in his life, and in the life of Nigeria. He concealed the identities of the corpses from those around, to avoid panic and reprisals.

Only a few months later, Henry Adefope again found himself leading a party of soldiers to Ibadan to recover the bodies of the Head of State and his host, who had been killed in the second putsch. It was another ‘national’ assignment that required intrepidity, discretion, and the grace of God.

On Thursday, March 17, at the Metropolitan Club, Victoria Island, a distinguished audience gathered for the presentation of the General’s biography, and to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his passing. Titled ‘Major-General (Dr) Henry Edmund Olufemi Adefope; A Legacy of Honour,’ the biography is written by two professors versed in International Affairs – Jide Osuntokun and David Aworawo.

It is a well written work, which charts the extraordinary journey of Henry Adefope, medical doctor, soldier, diplomat, sports administrator extraordinaire, unifier of the Nigerian labour movement, father of seven high-achieving children and husband of a petite, courageous wife.

Commissioned into the Army as a Major in 1963, after a decade as a Medical Officer with the Western Region, he was almost immediately drawn into the vortex of titanic events. The First Coup. The Second Coup. The Civil War.

As chairman of National Sports Council (later ‘Commission’), he superintended over the construction of the iconic National Stadium, Surulere.

With his friend and cricket-playing partner Professor Mabayoje he midwifed the birth of the West African Postgraduate Medical College and was instrumental in the eventual creation of the Nigerian Postgraduate Medical College.

In 1974, doctors nationwide walked out on strike, complaining they had been short-changed by the Udoji Awards. A miffed Gowon administration threatened them with sack and ordered them to pack out of government quarters within 24 hours. The doctors called the government’s bluff. A tense confrontation ensued.

At which point General Gowon called on Adefope to save the day.

The story of the memorable day is the stuff of legend. The doctors were gathered in a hall at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. As Adefope entered, there was a loud explosion in the hall. The soldier stood stock still. After the dust had settled, he moved forward to address the angry doctors.

‘I am Henry Adefope…’.

They talked. The doctors were mollified. The strike was called off.

After that feat, it seemed logical that government should appoint him Commissioner for Labour. In that office, he helped to systematise and solidify the Nigeria Labour Congress.

Read also: Major-General (Dr.) Henry Edmund Olufemi Adefope – A legacy of honour (1)

In 1978, he was appointed Minister of External Affairs, succeeding Joe Garba. Soon after, the Nigerian government nationalised the assets of British Petroleum, sending a decisive message to Margaret Thatcher who was playing whiffle-waffle with Black Liberation and the independence of Rhodesia. There are reports of his meeting with an incandescent Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington at a Commonwealth Summit in Lusaka where he calmly held his ground in the face of the other man’s rage.

The drama provided one of those rare moments when Nigerians were proud to be Nigerians, based on the actions and pronouncements of their government, on a par with Muritala Mohammed’s 1975 ‘Africa Has Come of Age’ speech to the OAU.

The Lancaster House Conference would come soon after, leading to independence for Zimbabwe.

Adefope retired from the Army in 1979, aged 53.

He became a member of the International Olympic Committee, succeeding Adetokunbo Ademola.

His last years were devoted to Church activities. He was instrumental to the founding of the Anglican Church of the Ascension Opebi, becoming its first Vicar’s Warden.

Adefope died on Sunday, March 11, 2012.

He had lived several lifetimes, compressed into one, through some of the watershed moments of Nigeria’s history.

May his soul continue to rest in peace.

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