By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, thanks for this special honour and privilege of inviting me to speak to you in Perth, Australia. This journey would not have been possible without the insistence and tenacity of one wonderful gentleman, Dr Dele Babalola. After leaving University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) decades ago, we re-established contact via Twitter. He first contacted me in July 2015 but I apparently disappeared from his radar, shortly afterwards. We subsequently re-established contact on September 28, 2015. Dr Babalola had done the smart thing after all attempts to reach me had failed. He sent me a direct message on Twitter:
“I have tried to reach you via your Yahoo mail, called Ovation office in Lagos, tried you on Linkedin, everywhere! You would remember in July I asked if you would like to honour us with your presence at the event for the memorial for Tai. We want to give it a lot of publicity and would love your journalistic angle and special touch of panache to our icon. I am sure you would respect Baba Tai!… We would like to honour and appreciate you for your unparalleled work in celebrating Africans. You would complement the Tai event perfectly and I pray you will make it top priority…”
I was deeply humbled by his generous words. Who wouldn’t? Dr Babalola, a medical doctor, is indeed a public relations guru who only found himself in a different profession and career. He said he had already emailed me an official invitation.
He wrote further in his Twitter message:
“I am the Vice President of Ex-Mays Global Charity (Old Students of Mayflower School in the diaspora) for Asia and Oceania/Pacific Regions, also the Editor-in-Chief of Ex-Mays Global Magazine. Please note this is not a local school event/function but a national function recognising Tai, an illustrious son of Nigeria, Africa and the world. We want you to please be part of this celebration…”
I was sufficiently moved by his messages and my response would have been a resounding Yes, but I was unable to attend due to reasons beyond my control. I was booked to undergo cataract operations in London and the dates could not be shifted as my sight was rapidly failing me. I would have cancelled any other appointment, but I needed urgent surgery according to different tests in Lagos, Accra and London. This personal predicament was explained to Dr Babalola, who understood my dilemma.
Dr Tai Solarin was one of my childhood heroes. I met him sometime in 1976, for the first time, at the popular CSS Bookshops, Atiba Square, Ile-Ife, where I worked as a shop assistant, errand boy and cleaner all rolled into one. Dr Solarin was already a familiar face, through reports of his activities, in the newspapers. I therefore recognised him the moment he walked in to purchase some books. There were no camera phones then, I’m sure I would have pleaded for some selfies, had that been the case. I was instantly star-struck and was deeply touched by his simplicity and humility.
I doubt if I ever missed his column in the Sunday Tribune. I devoured everything he wrote. Who could ever forget his evergreen classic, MAY YOUR ROAD BE ROUGH? I also remember an article he wrote about Chief Moshood Abiola who treated him to a supersonic flight on Concorde during their trip to New York. Dr Tai Solarin’s writings introduced me to atheism. I often wondered how a man who claimed not to believe in God could turn out to be such a humanist who was more humane than most of those who shouted “God” from the rooftops…
As I grew up and became a writer and journalist myself, I had several encounters with Dr Solarin. His love for Nigeria was total just as his commitment to humanity was absolute. His passion was powerfully rooted in education and through that he could bequeath an enduring legacy to mankind. The establishment of Mayflower School, Ikenne, bears eloquent and everlasting testimony to the vision and mission of this man who today has given birth to so many world class scholars, geniuses and entrepreneurs, some of whom are present in this audience. I salute you all.
I thought Dr Babalola had moved on from our mutual disappointment of not making that occasion. However, he soon returned to my case on December 12, 2015, in another Twitter message: “Dear Chief Momodu. Are you happy to be the Chief Launcher of my Tai Solarin book in Mayflower, Ikenne, for the 60th Anniversary, Saturday January 30, 2016? I would be most honoured if you can attend please…” This man again, I soliloquised. It was not a convenient date and I felt so embarrassed to turn him down a second time. Little did I realise I would be severely punished eventually.
Dr Babalola bided his time before throwing the next sucker punch which landed thunderously on November 17, 2016, nearly one year after the last attempt: This time he was giving me more than ample notice. “We are planning to honour Tai Solarin in October 2017 in Perth Australia under the auspices of the Nigerians in the diaspora there. We have penned you as the keynote speaker. Are you happy to come – so we can send you formal invitation?”
This was like the last straw that broke my camel’s back. Although, I requested for time to ponder and said I would give a proper response in January 2017, I knew my goose was cooked and that I was faced with no choice but to accept, after studying my itinerary. Dr Babalola wasted no time in reaching out to me by January 22, 2017. I didn’t get to read his message until he sent another one on April 8, 2017: “My Brother, bawo ni? Kindly respond to my messages please. Even if it is a NO. We are all making a case for posterity. May God continue to bless and prosper you…” Wow, this was it! There was no escape for me this time. Thus, I granted a tentative approval.
Before I could say a final Yes or No, Dr Babalola landed another devastating punch on June 15, 2017: “You will be glad you come… The occasion promises to be a great event. Joshua, the new World Heavyweight Boxing Champion is an ex-Mayflower student! Please Google Dr Kunle Odunsi, a US-based gynaecologist, and Dr Oluyinka Olutoye, a Texas-based paediatric surgeon and you will begin to understand what we are showcasing…” Dr Babalola was probably a boxer himself unknowingly. He landed punches on me relentlessly: “…Before your busy calendar fills up, please commit to our event. The Yoruba Society of Western Australia has penned you down as a Great Omoluabi, and a very great cultural ambassador of the Black Race…”
I was intrigued by the stature and home-grown nature of two of the personalities he had mentioned. Anthony Joshua is a supreme Nigerian athlete that we must all be proud of. He always enthuses about his Nigerian roots and by God’s grace his boxing career is set to hit the stratosphere. The other gentleman, Dr Olutoye, a fetal surgeon and co-director of the Texas Children’s Fetal Centre is currently making waves in medical circles and is the rave of the moment having successfully jointly operated on a baby, Lynlee Hope, who was taken out of her mother’s womb to remove a tumour and was re-planted into the womb and eventually born again after 36 weeks of pregnancy. I eventually said Yes, to be in the company of these and many more illustrious Nigerian alumni of Mayflower School, Ikenne. Unfortunately, the exigencies of his profession mean that Anthony Joshua is not with us tonight as he prepares for his Heavyweight Title Defence in England against Carlos Takam. We wish him the very best and pray for a resounding victory for him.
I knew I would encounter many hurdles as I planned my journey. True to form, more events popped up, including one of in London on Sunday. I’ve had to make a breath-taking journey to be with you this evening moving from London to Accra to Lagos to Johannesburg and then to Perth in the space of 4 days. From this event, I am heading straight to the airport. I will be flying for the next 30 hours through several countries and time zones just to catch my next appointment in London on Sunday. I’m happy to do this to honour one of the greatest Nigerians of the 20th century, Dr Tai Solarin.
The theme of this event has been aptly put as EDUCATION FOR NATIONAL TRANSFORMATION. Nothing could be more topical at this stage of our national development when our education system has greatly regressed. The blame does not lie on this government but on their predecessors who have woefully failed to plan.
My life is an eloquent example of the power of education to transform nobody to somebody. My father was slightly educated and was a civil servant. However, my mum was a stark illiterate who could neither speak nor write one word of English. I lost my father when I was barely 13 and it was left to my mother to look after me. My trajectory is best left to the imagination. The lesson I have learnt is that education is the greatest and ultimate leveller in the world. Without attending one school or the other, most of us are not likely to have met. Many of us would probably have ended up amongst the dregs of society or the wretched of the earth. We must thank God and our parents for the gift of life and education.
The downfall of Nigeria is definitely directly traceable to the collapse of education in our nation. In my view, some of our leaders deliberately killed our institutions from secondary to tertiary level in order to weaken, possess and enslave the minds of our people. In a bid to continue to enshrine and enthrone their mediocracy, they had to ensure that fertile minds are not allowed to germinate and snuff out their existence.
The deadliest thing that can deaden the brains is to inflict and afflict a people with a combination of poverty and ignorance. This is the sad story of Nigeria. The quality of leadership has deteriorated at the speed of light. A country that once paraded many cerebral leaders has fallen on hard times and you can now count such leaders on the fingers of your hands. Nigeria is being led astray and aground by those who have no value or appreciation for intellectual thoughts and principles. It is a crying shame!
Rather than continue to bemoan this monumental tragedy, my suggestion is to find an enduring solution. The only way to go, in my view, is to change our lackaidasical attitude to politics. For far too long, we’ve left politics to those who have neither managed people nor resources. Many of our leaders lacked any principle or ideology we can point at to determine if they are fit for their important positions or not. Many of our leaders are totally outdated and may never understand the current trends in the world. We’ve experimented with all sorts but it has because very obvious that we urgently require young, brilliant, stylish, visionary and cosmopolitan leaders to take over from where our parents and grandparents have taken us.
We can never change society without changing the terrible quality of our leaders. It is unlikely that anyone can give what he does not possess. I plead with you all to leave your comfort zones to participate substantially in politics to determine how our leaders are selected and finally elected. By this, I’m not saying you must necessarily contest. But you must join political parties, you must make personal contributions in cash and in kind. We must educate our families, friends and associates on the virtue of electing good and competent leaders. We would have no one to blame but ourselves when we reap the repercussions of arrogant indifference and carelessness.
In the good old days, most of us finished our first degrees at home before migrating abroad in search of more education. The situation now is we are all killing ourselves trying to pay school fees on our infants who are in schools abroad, including much poorer African countries. Nothing I can see suggests our current leaders know how to start and sustain a revolution in the education sector of our nation. It is business as usual. What we need urgently is not just about improving the squalid environment in which the youths are forced to study but to re-order our priorities. Education must prepare our children for the horrendous challenges awaiting them outside the school environment. The days are gone when students could go to school just to obtain certificates. Certificates must be relevant to societal needs. Many of our graduates remain unemployed just because they are unemployable to start with. They lack the pre-requisite qualifications that can fetch them the great jobs they fervently dream of. The school curriculum and the courses of study should be such that make them relevant and prepare them for the job markets. Everyone cannot be a lawyer or doctor. There are so many skilled workers that we currently import from neighbouring countries. Our institutions must, therefore, establish many technical and vocational faculties and departments. Only intelligent leaders can see the necessity for this.
I would love to develop this further but time and space won’t permit me. I have my next flight to catch out of Australia in a few hours. I hope I have provoked some thoughts in you. I leave you with the following adage: “IF YOU THINK EDUCATION IS EXPENSIVE, TRY IGNORANCE…”
This speech was made by DELE MOMODU in Perth, Australia on October 27, 2017