After his long engagement in enriching and enchanting encounters with history, Prince Edward Olajide Akinbiyi (1933-2021) has himself slipped into the annals, passing on at the age of 87. He died in Lagos on Tuesday, February 9, 2021, leaving behind a mixed multitude of mourners and merrymakers. It has been a rare hybrid of emotions at the loss of one man.
The point is that all deaths, even if timely at a grand old age, bring up criers. Akinbiyi didn’t depart a young man; but there are those grieving that they would have loved to relish more of his old age tenderness, compassion and charity. They claim they got to meet the prince of Ibadan only lately. And then suddenly, he’s cut off from them. Surely, they have reasons to be sorrowful.
There’s a large crowd of this group in the prince’s primary constituency, journalism. A WhatsApp conclave with the mission to revive the ideals of the iconic WNTV, Africa’s first TV station, has continued to wail on account of the death of Akinbiyi, a revered member of the platform. He was part of the pioneering staff of the newsroom of WNTV when it all started in 1959. They say they will henceforth be bereft of the prudence of his intervention each time they derailed. And we go offline often in the group. We routinely depart from the mission and vision that should drive the struggle to reclaim the Obafemi Awolowo dream aborted by a military junta under Olusegun Obasanjo in the 70s.
Yemi Farounbi, Nigeria’s ex-ambassador to the Philippines and one-time general manager of WNTV-WNBS, leads us in the group. He is our chief mourner. He can no longer count on the weighty counsel of Akinbiyi. For, in the past, when the former envoy failed to tame the tempests of members’ wild tempers, he would look in the direction of the sedate Pa Akinbiyi. The prince of Ibadan never turned him down. What many of us didn’t know was that most times Farounbi kept the hotline between him and Baba busy, all in the service of the group.
Mama Olufemi Akinbiyi, Pa Akinbiyi’s spouse of 55 years, is in the company of mourners. In her 80s also, she will miss Baba. They were love birds to the end. Each time you called to say hello to Akinbiyi, and you rounded off by requesting him to extend your compliments to his wife, Akinbiyi would say, ‘’She’s right beside me. Will you want to speak to her?’’ And Mama’s voice would be next on the line. They were inseparable. Now, there’s a divide doleful, painful and baneful. You can’t blame Mama if she weeps, consolably or inconsolably.
The community of activists urging that Nigeria should be structured in order to return the country to a genuine federal arrangement that powered its progress before the military struck in 1966 would also miss Akinbiyi. He was a recognized member of Afenifere and National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, two of the implacable anti-military bodies that have been responsible for Nigeria not sliding into anarchy and extinction. He was also a founding father of Alliance for Democracy, AD, the party scene as the successor to Awo’s UPN that made waves in the Second Republic.
Akinbiyi’s early links to the camps of the great Obafemi Awolowo and Lateef Jakande, Awo’s acolyte, placed the Ibadan prince in the ideological cauldron that served to brew a disciple who on his own continued to shape himself, first from what was passed to him by the masters, and later from what he gained by diligent study of the Nigerian political environment. The progressive camp in the society will feel the absence of Baba Akinbiyi because his professional exploits were interpreted, correctly in my view, as the outgrowth of his intercourse with politics. His position, as I gathered in many discussions with him, was that journalism, or any other profession, should be an avenue to serve society. So, when there was a political crisis in the Western Region that displaced his hero, Awo, Akinbiyi left WNTV. The emerging atmosphere threatened the concept of marrying ideology and profession. There must be a union of the twain to allow for perfect professional service to the people. So in 1964, he dashed to Lagos, where he applied his experience at the premier TV station to work in the Nigerian Television Service at Victoria Island. That, again, was history for Akinbiyi. He would go on to be at the centre of the formation of Nigerian Television Authority Network News.
That didn’t last. Akinbiyi wasn’t getting ideological fulfilment in his work at NTA, owned by a conservative government at the centre. Jakande, his old friend, had become the governor of Lagos State in the Second Republic in Lagos. Seeking to break the propaganda monopoly of the central government as well as use the media to publicise the great socioeconomic strides in Lagos, Jakande brought in Akinbiyi to establish the leveler Lagos Television, LTV 8. It was a leveler because other states followed suit and opened their own stations, ushering in a level ground for TV broadcast. The federal government was no longer on the high horse we all looked up to in the industry.
How did Jakande and Akinbiyi develop such an intimate bond? Once, Akinbiyi had left Lagos to interview Jakande in Ibadan. The latter was working on a script he couldn’t abandon to attend to Akinbiyi, who was kept waiting for five hours. The interview finally commenced at 1am! Akinbiyi impressed Jakande, himself a journalist of no trifling note, who knew how to weigh a reporter through his capacity to endure or manage seeming rejection by the ‘prey’.
In his lifetime Akinbiyi followed tradition, standing on journalism to look into his environment. He didn’t suffer any prismatic disorder to blur his vision. A nationalist until he died, Akinbiyi never supported the strident calls that Nigeria should break up. He coined the term ‘emirate north’ to describe the cabal responsible for the problems of Nigeria. He argued this group would be neutralized only if Nigeria is restructured to let the regions operate with a severely enervated centre.
I did say at the opening of this tribute that there are those who would celebrate the passage of Jide Akinbiyi, even when we mourn.They are those, like me, who have sat at his feet and received an exceptional experience of history. He would speak of journalistic trips. He would tell you of meetings he had with great personalities: Awo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jakande, Kwame Nkrumah, Anthony Enahoro etc. He would tell you that his country began sinking when the weight of the military was added to the ship of state.
Sadly, Baba Akinbiyi didn’t complete a book he began writing in old age to document the story of Nigeria and the roles of some of these nationalists along with his interpretations of their actions and how they could help repair the gravely battered polity now on a cusp overlooking an abyss.
The country will miss Prince Edward Olajide Akinbiyi!
Ojewale is a writer in Ota, Ogun State.