Odumakin: Soldier of democracy who found love in detention

Soldiers are formed not within the confines of quotidian comforts, but in the middle of struggles against tribulations in pursuit of a higher cause. This perhaps explains why the All Progressives Congress leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, said on Saturday that the story of Nigeria’s current democratic dispensation would not be complete without “emblazoning Yinka Odumakin’s name in gold” as he was a “doughty fighter for freedom and the rule of law.”

On Saturday, Odumakin breathed his last at the Intensive Care Unit of the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital due to complications caused by COVID-19. Odumakin’s life was synonymous with activism from his days as a student at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, up till when he gave up the ghost.

Odumakin began his activism in 1986 as a member of the Alliance for Progressive Students. Due to his love for fighting against injustice, the then undergraduate of Political Science was elected the Public Relations Officer of the Students’ Union Government in 1987 and held the position till 1988.

A young lawyer at the time, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), who was a disciple of the firebrand President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Alao Aka-Bashorun, had been given the task of offering free legal services to students hounded by the repressive Gen. Ibrahim Babangida military regime. This was how Falana and Odumakin crossed paths.

Odumakin soon got into trouble with the Babangida junta, which was on a mission to purge universities of unionism and activism. The plan of the Babangida regime was to weaken the capacity of the Nigerian people to resist the imposition of the Structural Adjustment Programme.

During the 1988 convocation ceremony of the university, where the late Vice Admiral Patrick Koshoni, stood proxy for the visitor and self-styled military President, Babangida, the students staged a peaceful protest against the colonisation of the country by imperialists.

“For leading the protest, Yinka and seven of his colleagues were expelled from the university. My principal, the late Alao Aka-Bashorun, dispatched me to Ife to challenge the expulsion of the student activists at the Oyo State High Court. The trial judge quashed the expulsion and ordered the reinstatement of Yinka and his colleagues,” Falana recalled.

From then on, Odumakin became a prominent voice in the affairs of Nigeria, leading protests, granting interviews and writing articles on pertinent issues at critical points in Nigeria’s history. His boldness and forthrightness often landed him in trouble with the authorities.

When the Babangida junta annulled the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by the late Chief Moshood Abiola, Odumakin became a thorn in the flesh of the regime and this led to several arrests. He, along with many others like Senator Shehu Sani, Tinubu, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), Beko Ransome-Kuti, Falana, Chief Frank Kokori, Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) and many more were locked up at different times on the orders of the late maximum ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha.

It was during one of such detentions at the infamous Alagbon facility that Odumakin saw the silver lining in the cloud that had engulfed his life. He met a fiery female activist, Josephine (Joe) Obiajulu, who had similarly been arrested on the orders of the Abacha junta. They soon fell in love and got married in November 1997.

Odumakin described how he met his wife in an interview with The PUNCH thus, “I had read the name (Joe) in the newspapers before then, but I thought the person was a man. Two persons and I were picked alongside Chief Gani Fawehinmi at a rally in Lagos and taken to the same facility.

“When we saw her there, Chief (Fawehinmi) stopped and greeted her and asked if I knew her. I said no. He then introduced us and I told him that I thought she was a man. That was our first contact and we thereafter became comrades and later friends. The rest, as they say, is history.”

But marriage did not slow down Odumakin’s activism. The couple became the Bonnie and Clyde of activism and they continued to pursue the struggle for democracy.

In 1999, with Nigeria’s democracy restored, Odumakin joined partisan politics as a member of the Alliance for Democracy, which was mainly influential in the South-West. The struggle for democracy had been won but other challenges had cropped up. The 1999 Constitution, which was hurriedly put together, made no room for fiscal federalism, reduced the powers of the states and gave powers to the Federal Government that were deemed excessive, a vestige of the military’s command and control structure. The debate for restructuring was born with Afenifere calling for better South-West integration, state police and fiscal federalism. Odumakin would later be appointed as the spokesman for the Yoruba group.

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“I was surprised when Yinka informed me that he had decided to pursue the struggle for the emancipation of the Nigerian people along ethnic lines. Thereafter, he pitched his tent with Afenifere, a Yoruba socio-cultural group. Even though Yinka was the youngest member of the group, he was made the spokesman. In that capacity, he effectively publicised the activities of the body and defended its position on national issues,” Falana recalled.

Afenifere’s feud with Tinubu meant that Odumakin, who was the spokesman for the group, would be the face of the feud.

In late 2009, a powerful cabal had hijacked the Presidency due to the then President Umaru Yar’Adua’s illness, which made him spend months abroad for treatment. Odumakin became the secretary of the Save Nigeria Group led by his mentor and the security overseer, Citadel Global Community Church (formerly the Latter Rain Assembly), Tunde Bakare, which campaigned for the inauguration of Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan as the acting President. With Jonathan installed as President in 2010, Odumakin did not cosy up to the new President, but took a different path.

In 2011, Odumakin agreed to be the spokesman for the Congress for Progressive Change when Bakare was picked as the running mate of the presidential candidate, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.). Buhari, however, lost the election to Jonathan. Odumakin would later become a fierce critic of Buhari.

In 2014, Odumakin and his wife were the only couple appointed as delegates to the National Conference convened by then President Goodluck Jonathan. The confab was, however, snubbed by the leadership of the All Progressives Congress.

Following Jonathan’s promise to implement the report of the conference, Afenifere endorsed him for re-election on January 27, 2015. Odumakin subsequently took an active part in pushing for Jonathan’s re-election and launched a book titled: ‘Watch the Watcher’, which included scathing attacks against former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had at the time launched his own book, ‘My Watch’. Obasanjo’s was strategically released before the 2015 election and included unpleasant details about then President Jonathan.

Following Jonathan’s defeat at the poll, however, Afenifere took on the role of opposition when Buhari said the resolutions of the confab would be confined to the “archives.” From then on till his death, Odumakin arguably became the biggest advocate for restructuring and teamed up with other southern and Middle Belt groups to push the agenda. Although he fraternised with secessionist elements like Sunday Igboho, Odumakin remained resolute in the call for restructuring and made it clear that he was not for secession but against northern hegemony, a position he held on to till his death.

Odumakin’s sudden demise expectedly attracted condolence messages from across the country.

President Buhari, in a statement, recalled the role Odumakin played during his presidential bid in 2011. He described the deceased as dutiful and a person of conviction, expressing sorrow at his demise, when he had a lot more to contribute to society and the nation at large.

Former President Jonathan described Odumakin’s death as the exit of a “great voice for equity.”

The new Afenifere leader, 93-year-old Chief Ayo Adebanjo, described Odumakin’s death as “too heavy to bear.”

Tinubu, who was at loggerheads with Odumakin for over a decade, said he never doubted the sincerity of the late activist despite their political differences and recalled the role he played in installing the current democratic government.

The northern socio-cultural group, the Arewa Consultative Forum, which had also had public spats with Odumakin, said in a statement, “While he was alive, Yinka held on to his views very strongly. We often disagreed with him on many issues. Our disagreements were, however, on principle and not personal.”

Just before his death, he consistently condemned the activities of criminal herdsmen, who have been accused of farmland destruction, rape, killings and abductions in the South-West.

With Odumakin’s demise, Afenifere will now have to find a firebrand spokesman to continue its agenda of restructuring, fiscal federalism and decentralised policing, among others.

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