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Chief Olusola Ebiseni, a lawyer, politician and a former commissioner in Ondo State was born on October 1, 1960, the day Nigeria gained independence from Britain. In this interview with PETER DADA, he speaks about sundry issues as Nigeria celebrates another anniversary
At what point did you realise you share same birthday with Nigeria?
Interestingly, I was even going to ask how you came knowing my birthday too. Like everyone, no one is born with the knowledge of his birthday. In our family in those memorable days at our fishing community in the riverside of Ado-Odo, Ogun State where I was born, such things were not of much significance except for one of my uncles, Eniola, of blessed memory who recorded the births of those of us who were born before he travelled overseas in the 1960s which records became our references after his return from the United Kingdom.
How has that made you feel about the country Nigeria?
Well, maybe that is the reason now in adulthood, I am so concerned about the unity of Nigeria.
You wanted to say passionate about Nigeria?
Yes, isn’t the fact that we’re such a potentially great nation worth being fanatical about? I have been privileged to travel round this country, knowing the greatness of its landscape and the beauty of its ethnic diversity that I believe we are greater together. Who wants the trouble of a visa to visit Kaduna or Calabar? Most of the ethnic nationalities, including the larger ones also have problems of internal diversities. As a member of the 2014 National Conference during one of the debates for regionalism, I remember a leader who said going back to his former regional capital was tantamount to a return to Egypt. Incidentally, he belonged to one of the South Eastern states. Most Nigerians don’t wish its disintegration but that the terms of our union before military distortions be revisited or reviewed to give every federating unit a sense of belonging and that is the whole essence of restructuring. I think one of our leaders, Chief Olu Falae captured it better when he said he agreed with the President that the unity of Nigeria was a settled matter but that the terms of the settlement anchored on true federalism were agreed to in conferences by our founding leaders and embodied in the 1960 and 1963 constitutions; and that the military imposed constitutions since then, we have a radical departure from the agreed terms which is the source of the unending agitations.
Have you always been very proud that you and Nigeria are birth mates?
Why not, but often saddened by her perpetually toddling circumstances which I pray is not my portion.
Anytime independence anniversary approaches, how do you feel?
Mixed feelings because while I rejoice with my country, I also know that my privacy will be invaded by well wishers looking forward to celebrating with me and I have no choice. Ordinarily, marking birthday is not one of the things that thrill me. The truth is while I appreciate politics and all attendant hullabaloos, I am not the celebration type. I enjoy the little privacy I have, reading and researching in every aspect about humanity. If I am not a lawyer and politician, I would probably have been in the academics.
Apart from Nigeria, do you know any other birthday mate and how do you relate with them?
Yes, one or two. But do men like us bother about birthdays not to even talk about birthday mates? Fi awon oro kekeke sile jo, eyi to nse Nigeria ju birthday lo ( please let us leave small matters, Nigeria’s problem is more than birthday).
Why did you study law?
Unlike many kids, my choice of course of study was personal and deliberate but not quite straightforward. My love has always been law but JAMB matters took me to the social sciences at the University of Nigeria Nsukka which I later jettisoned for Law at Ife. But I must say that my tutelage among some of the best hands in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Nsukka in the early 1980s remains an enduring background that shapens my thoughts and writings. Law has been for me, a most inestimable weapon of social change, political engagement and livelihood.
As a student in Ife, you were an activist, some may take it that the realisation of your birth circumstance may have fired up activism in you, is that correct?
Not at all. More than anything else, I think the explosive intellectual arena, particularly at Ife, unbottled my innate political magma and only a few people who harbour political tendencies will pass through the crucible of aluta fire in Ife and remain the same.
Did you have the privilege of having educated parents?
The question is relative. If you are talking in the sense of being lettered in the western or English sense, no. But if you see education from the social point of view of imparting knowledge or inculcating history and values, I think I am privileged having parents who are great historians and community mobilisers and being from a royal lineage is an added advantage. That’s why people who know me attest to the fact that outside law and politics, with all sense of humility, history is my very strong point which I never learnt from school but from my grandparents. My father was a community leader who managed our community then at Ado-Odo, comprising diverse ethnic groups of Ilaje who are Yoruba, Ijaws of Apoi and Arogbo, Urhobo and Egun of Benin Republic origin. This becomes most useful to me later in life in managing the affairs of the polyglot Ilaje-Ese Odo Local Government as elected chairman.
At 30 years of age, you became a local government chairman, how did you do it?
It was incubated at Ife. I belonged to a group among the students’ leaders who felt our activities should transcend the campus. The Babangida transition programme was greatly doubted especially by leaders of the civil society. I had my youth service in Lagos and thereafter went into legal practice there in partnership with my friend, Yinka Orokoto, enjoying the support of late Baba Omojola who gave part of his office at Jebba Street, Ebute Metta for our law office and by the side of late Alao Aka Basorun chambers which was the hub of social and legal activism. That was where I was privileged to meet such legal icons like Professor Akin Oyebode. Of course, Femi Falana and others like Tony Akika, now a Resident Electoral Commissioner, were still then with Aka. We already had, back at home in Ilaje, a very vibrant social political youth organisation, the Ilaje Patriotic Front, which was formed at Ife by me, John Mafo and Sola Oke, (now SAN). Like I said, the Babangida transition programme was bereft of integrity particularly among members of the civil society communities and so the argument whether to participate was very tough. Remember, the expression that Babangida had a hidden agenda was developed by Aka Basorun then as president of the Nigeria Bar Association who, in an unprecedented way, made the NBA the most credible voice against the military administration. So only very few of us that I can remember opted to give the transition programme a trial. Galvanised by the Ilaje Patriotic Front, whose members were largely below 34 years and mostly undergraduates except a few of us who were less than three years post NYSC, I left for Ilaje and successfully contested and won the local government chairmanship election in December 1990. I remember that Ope Bamidele who took over my office in Lagos, contested the House of Representatives seat for Oshodi/Isolo Federal Constituency in 1992. Dr. Fredrick Fasheun, one of my mentors and later founder of the Oodua Peoples Congress, also sought to be president of Nigeria. There are others who I may not readily remember.
In what way would you say student activism affected your administration of the local government?
Whao! In several positive ways. Notwithstanding the pessimism of our colleagues about the transition programme, I immensely enjoyed their cooperation especially in publicising our activities both as government and our politics. Chris Fajemifo, now of blessed memory and our president at Ife, was there for me at the state radio and television, Abraham Ogbodo, now editor in chief took The Guardian with me to every nook and cranny of our local government; ditto for Rotimi Adebayo of the Daily Times. Some of the media gurus of today actually cut their teeth in the campus journalism. Sam Omatseye was editor in chief of the Torch Magazine where I once served as publisher as we called it; Femi Ojudu was editor of Petals all back at Ife, surprisingly for a university that has no department of mass communication. My background also gave me a lot of problems with the powers that be as I didn’t stop attending to what we called aluta invitations. In one of such, at the then Ondo State University, Ado Ekiti, I was invited along with Femi Falana and some leaders at a symposium in 1991. Days later, on my visit to my former office in Lagos, I was arrested by security agents who had taken over Aka Basorun’s chambers for the usual anti government activities and also our office looking for Ope Bamidele as President of the NANS which was planning a showdown as the Babangida administration was to host the OAU (then Organisation of Africa Unity) Heads of State. At Shangisha where I was detained for five days and released after three days of hunger strike, I was accused of joining Falana and others in inciting students at Ado Ekiti against government and for sponsoring NANS which of course was not true. In another event, I had complained in an interview with Times Week that Ondo State was then not recognised as an oil producing state as a result of our oil being wrongly credited to neighbouring Bendel State because of the influence of their sons in government. A security report indicted me that I was probably referring to General Aikhomu, the then Chief of General Staff. The intervention of our state administrator, retired Commodore Abiodun Olukoya, who treated me as a son and still does, saved my government from being dissolved.
The Ilaje /Ese Odo Local Government then was a peculiar one in term of multiplicity of language, how did you manage to preside in such a circumstance?
Well, I probably inherited the strategy of managing the affairs of a polyglot society from my father who I told you, was head of community made up of several groups; a background which assisted me a lot. Besides, we were open and fair to all in our activities. Appointments and projects were fairly distributed; I further researched into the history of various groups and was extremely careful that government appreciated and respected the traditional and cultural sensibilities of the various groups, especially not to be part of the usual very sensitive supremacy contests among the traditional institutions. We also reverenced the religious institutions across board. I improved on my knowledge of the language of other groups, surprised them at public gatherings with their favourite songs which I deliberately learnt from one of my secretaries and my colleagues in government. Part of the measures of our success in this regard is that the traditional rulers of the three groups of Ilaje, Ijaws of both Apoi and Arogbo gave me traditional titles all translated to meaning the reformer.
Would you say you consciously chose politics or you became one by circumstance?
I think it flows from our discussion so far, that it is the combination of both.
When you were growing up, did you ever dream of becoming a politician?
As a matter of fact, our goals were set for us early in life by my father who saw everything from Awolowo’s point of view. I remember when I was to start secondary school in 1973, after the then Modern School system had been abolished in the Western State and we had to go straight into secondary school at the newly established Alamuwa Grammar School, Ado Odo. Only the intervention of the principal convinced my father that direct admission into secondary school was not a negation of Awolowo’s cherished education policy. The greatness of this man (Awolowo) so revered by my father had been my challenge from childhood, to be great in life and affect my environment and larger society.
In your own estimation, would you say Nigeria is still crawling even at 57?
Sadly so, considering our known great potential and the mileage we covered particularly in the regions within a short while before military intervention and distortions. Our consolation however consists in still being together and one prays that government knows this and be careful and be democratically responsive the way it handles the growing agitations.
As a member of the 2014 National Conference, you claimed that oil was first discovered in Ondo State and not Oloibiri and recently released a statement on the aboriginal status of Lagos. Can you say something about these controversial accounts?
You have fallen into the same error by your conclusions. There is nothing controversial about the fact that oil was first discovered at Araromi Ilaje in the present Ondo State in 1908 by the German owned Nigerian Bitumen Corporation which pioneer activities were truncated by the two world wars. The reality of the discovery was confirmed by the enactment of the Nigerian Oil Minerals Act 1914 to regulate the budding oil industry with British monopoly. It was at the end of the wars and early 1950s that Shell, operating from its base at Owerri, successfully drilled and exported oil at Oloibiri in 1956. We have nothing against Oloibiri as the place oil was first shipped as a commercial product but the earlier discovery at Araromi encouraged further exploration. In any event, the British couldn’t have enacted a law in 1914 to regulate Oloibiri of 1956. The positions of the Awori and Ilaje as the aboriginal tribes of Lagos was what I expound, correcting some erroneous accounts that Lagos or its monarchy was founded by Benin. Even in Benin’s own account, Oba Orogbua, on its military expedition to Lagos in the 15th century, had an encounter with the Ilaje Mahin kingdom (in Ondo State) which they claimed to have destroyed but they also agreed that Mahin was an advanced society where Orogbua claimed to have tasted delicious rock salt for the first time. The truth is that only a rag tag army of Orogbua made it to Lagos and in fear, couldn’t return to Benin through the same route. His son and successor, Ehengbuda ventured and he and the army were sunk at Eluju Ibila by the Ilaje army that took over the water route up to Langbasa. Benin claimed he got drowned. The enduring monarchy in Lagos is that established by Oba Akinsemoyin, a clear Ilaje name. Asogbon, Oniru etc are great families of Lagos with distinctive or mixed Ilaje blood, a Yoruba tribe indigenous to several part of Lagos rivalled only by the Awori.
You have served in many capacities in Ondo State including being commissioner and contested the governorship ticket last year. Are you still interested in becoming the governor of the state?
If you agree I am a politician, I then say that question begs the answer.
Which party do you belong now?
I am a bonafide member of the Peoples Democratic Party.
What’s your take on the ongoing restructuring debate?
I am hundred percent for it. A true federal structure where the states as federating units will have powers devolved to them and are independent of the centre in the management of their own affairs and resources largely, including having their own police. A fair and functional local government system, not one where some states inexplicably have 44 while another eight. I will soon write a comprehensive position on restructuring and local government autonomy.
What do you look forward to in your forthcoming birthday?
Nothing unusual. Normally my family members and friends will be with me.
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