Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo III, the Alake of Egbaland, sits on one of the foremost and powerful royal stools in Yorubaland. But even before ascending the throne of the unique Egba people, who hold the distinction of having produced two of Nigeria’s former heads of state and leading lights in diverse sectors, the former Army Colonel enjoyed a powerful network of influence across the nation’s ruling elite, especially, the military, where he had served as Principal Staff Officer to Major General Tunde Idiagbon, President Muhammadu Buhari’s deputy, during his first coming as military head of state.
He is also a close associate of President Buhari himself, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the hero of the June 12 struggle, Chief MKO Abiola, former Governor of Ogun State, Otunba Gbenga Daniel and the Olowu of Owu, Oba Dosunmu, all of whom with him are old boys of the famous Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta.
Despite his reach and influence, however, Oba Gbadebo has carved a niche for himself as a “Gentle Giant”, save on few occasions that warranted speaking up in defence of his people’s interests.
The self-effacing and unassuming monarch, who turned 74 on Thursday, however, shocks you when he reveals the soft side of his apparent steely personality in this birthday anniversary interview with a team of The Sun Board of Editors: BOLAJI TUNJI, ABDULFATAH OLADEINDE, FEMI BABFEMI and our Ogun State Correspondent, LAIDE RAHEEM. The day he wept like a baby…What could have made him cry? Find out .
You have been on the throne for 12 years and you just celebrated your 74th birthday, what can you describe as the major highlights of your life?
Well, I will not be 12 years on the throne, formally, until the 19th of November, but the journey so far has been a remarkable one and one has to thank God immensely for journey mercies, for His support and for good health. And of course, for the number of people who showed interest in one’s success. And that cuts across all Egba sons and daughters, and even those who are not from Egba. So, so far, it has been wonderful.
And for the highlights, there have been major highlights all along. The day I was commissioned into the Nigerian Army was a major highlight. That was 16th of December, 1969. And every promotion in the army, the weight on the shoulders goes up and so the privileges, of course, the hard work must go with it.
And then, a major highlight was on the 19th of November, 2005, when I was coronated as the 10th Alake of Egbaland. And because I know so much about the Ake throne, since I grew up very close to the palace, I knew everything about Oba Ademola who reigned from 1920 to 1962. And I knew that it was predicted that during the time of the 10th Alake, so many development would happen. So when it happened that I became the 10th Alake, I told people that I should be a goal-getter. That is why I was in a hurry to see good development happen in Egbaland.
That is why I told the former governor that he should do something about our roads in Egbaland. I should have left him alone. Look at the roads now, people are even begging the government to come and demolish their houses to pave way for infrastructural development. We thank God for the present administration for what it is doing on infrastructure, education, health and above all, what it is doing in terms of attracting industries to Ogun State.
It can be seen that you are close to former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Is it because you are also a retired Colonel in the Nigerian Army, or because of the support he gave you when you were about to ascend the throne?
I have been close to Baba Obasanjo right from the time he was in Ibadan before the civil war, till I became the Alake. He is an interesting man to be with and you will learn from his exposure, wisdom and experience, and of course, his native intelligence.
You were a Principal Staff Officer to late Idiagbon when he was the deputy to Buhari. Recently, OBJ said he was not disappointed with Buhari’s performance in office, how would you describe the capacity of Buhari and your own assessment of his administration now?
I worked with General Buhari’s government, that is 33 years ago and he was very good in squash. And we all know that you don’t play squash to be fit, but you must be fit to play squash. Buhari was very fit physically and mentally, and we are all not as fit as we were 33 years ago. So I thank God that he is back now. He recently went to Kaduna to commission a feedmill, that shows he is coming back to his feet gradually. I believe that he has a lot to do for this country. Our major problem in Nigeria is corruption. If you send somebody on errand with money, he would take out from it, even though he knows when he is caught, he will be put to shame. This is very bad, our psyche has to change.
You are a prominent monarch, not only in Ogun State, but in the South West and we know there were moves by you and the Ooni, to foster unity among Yoruba Obas, especially given the fact that there had been hierarchy cum ranking tussle among the royal fathers. What stage are you now?
Well, if you take out egoism, all the problems among Yoruba Obas would have been resolved. And only God can claim superiority over anybody, otherwise, we are all equal before Him. So I believe we are not what the press makes us, we are not at war with one another.
What is your relationship with the Awujale of Ijebuland at present?
It is very cordial. We spoke for over 30 minutes the day after they said he had passed on, which was a wicked rumour…
(Cuts in) But he has not accepted you are number four in ranking?
We are not talking about number now.
How did the military prepare you for the leadership role vis-à-vis your position as a royal father?
I don’t see any profession that can prepare you for leadership position than the army. The army has packages of leadership modules, and I have benefitted from these. If you want to lead, you should be ready to serve others and that is what I am doing here.
Kabiyesi, you attended Baptist Boys’ High School, was that where you met former President Obasanjo? Did you also meet people like Justice Bola Ajibola in school?
You see, I would have met Baba Obasanjo in school had he not passed GCE in Form Five. But I met his classmates who got to Form Six. I was in Form One when his mates were in Form Six. But I did not meet Justice Ajibola at all. Ditto Dr. Onaolapo Soleye and the Olowu, they had passed out from the school.
Egbaland has produced two Nigerian leaders, do you still look forward to such feat again in your lifetime?
I believe that what has happened in Egbaland is ordained by God. The white men came here first, we were the first to embrace western education. So the more my people have opportunity to govern this country, the better for me and Egbaland.
Do you have any memory of late MKO Abiola and how would you describe him?
Of course, I have his memory. He was a great man who went through BBHS. If he had not been a Muslim, he would have been a school prefect. This is because in BBHS only Christians were made prefects, maybe because the school was Christian religion- oriented. Every morning you would have sermons, every Tuesday you would have prayer meetings. We did not have any hall, but there was a chapel where we did everything. And MKO Abiola learnt a lot from that school. He was a very brilliant person who would sit down for a few minutes to put down a solid and sound speech that would be discussed for a long time by the people.
Are you sad that he never made it to the presidency?
Yes. I wept on the day he died. I wept because I thought that if he would die, why didn’t he die few months into his incarceration? Why did he die four years after, when we all thought he would be free and come back home to us.
Are you comfortable that nothing has been done by the Federal Government to honour late MKO Abiola?
I believe when the time comes for him to be honoured, they will honour him.
At a time during the government of Otunba Gbenga Daniel, you had a kind of face- off with the government. What is your relationship with the former governor now?
The relationship is now cordial. We even sat together at a function recently at the Abeokuta Sports Club…
(Cuts in) Was there any reference to what transpired then?
Naturally there would be reference, because if you hurt me it won’t be easy to forget. Like an adage in Yoruba, the person who defecates may forget, but the person who packed the rubbish will not forget.
Did he then apologise to you?
He was my junior in school, so naturally, what happened would never have happened, but the people who surrounded him, deified him. They probably told him that if Alake could be talking about bad roads in Abeokuta, then he is one of your enemies, you must fight him.
As a royal father, what is your view on the recent divorce issue between the Ooni and his Olori?
Well, you see, an Oba is allowed to have as many wives as possible. When you have many wives, eventually, there could be a disagreement with anyone of them. I don’t see anything unusual in what happened between the Ooni and his wife. It might be that one of them wanted to move on. And any Oba can acquire as many wives as possible. My own grandmother was the 15th wife of my grandfather. So if my grandfather had stopped with one wife, he would not have given birth to my father, and my father would not have given birth to me.
Are you going to marry more wives too?
I am not into that, that was their own preference at that time.
Kabiyesi, 2019 is around the corner, where do you intend to see the Yoruba race? Are we still going to support Buhari if he decides to run, or you prefer we have our own candidate?
That is an unfair question to me. General Buhari was my boss, I liked him a lot and I still like him. When I visited him at the Aso Villa, we were laughing like old friends. So don’t ask me about Yoruba in 2019, personally, I still prefer Buhari should complete his term.
In Ibadan recently, the Oyo State governor installed 21 monarchs. Historically, the Egbas camped in Ibadan when migrating from the old Oyo, what is your take on that?
There was nothing like Ibadan when we camped there. What you know as Ibadan today was once a Gbagura land. That is why you have places such as Moniya, Oje, Ojoo in Ibadan. Even Fiditi and Awe close to Oyo are Gbagura towns. Awe is Owe in Gbagura in Abeokuta here. So, for us to have moved from a location where they were fighting war for over a hundred years, to a safer place, was God’s intervention. And we agreed with the British in 1893 to stop the slave trade and human sacrifice. That was the basis of our friendship with them. So having many crowns in Ibadan is their choice, especially, if they think traditional administration is far away from the grassroots. Who am I to say what they have done is wrong?
We learnt that you went to the RCCG Camp, are you now a Christian?
I have always been a Christian. And I did not go to the Camp to worship, but to see the GO. Yes, I was born a Muslim, but at the age of 13, I became a Christian…
(Cuts in) Why?
I went to a Catholic school, I served at mass. All my sisters and brothers went to the Catholic school too. Our father’s brethren, about 12 of them were baptised in one day at the Ake church. So when their father died in 1920, they resorted to the religion of their mother. They all became Christians, since they had been baptised. So my father and I being Muslim was accidental, since he had already been baptised. So he did not stop me from becoming a Christian, just like he did not stop any of my siblings. That is why in our house, we celebrate both the Islamic and Christian festivals.
Back in your days in BBHS, what kinds of pranks did you play? What memory do you have?
BBHS is not a school for the rascals, it was rather a school where we had education plus. The plus is good upbringing, good manners and respect for the seniors. You cannot meet any senior in the school, without saying ‘Good morning senior’. We never called them by their names without adding ‘senior’ even if it is just a year between you. So it is not a school where people could play pranks. The teachers would lampoon and cane you. When I went to Ibadan Grammar School, I saw the difference. The school had thrice the number of students we had in BBHS. Ibadan Grammar School had far more graduate teachers. Physics, mathematics and chemistry were no problem to them. In fact, they had well equipped laboratories. So BBHS was a small school until it was moved to Saje. We were 33 per class and the teachers knew everybody by name, and most of the teachers were old boys too. So I could not have played any serious pranks there without being detected. And more importantly, BBHS de-emphasised wealth, the emphasis was on your ability to do well. Half of the boys went to school barefeet and we were not allowed to wear ultra white shirt, but poplin white by the PZ. We were all made to understand that we were equal.
Looking at then and now, what is your assessment of the quality of our school leavers and graduates we are churning out?
Education itself is supposed to be a changing of attitude, acquisition of skills, doing things that will take a man to the top. In BBHS, humility is the first lesson. That is to prepare you for the life ahead. But what we have now is short sighted. Young people are talking of deals to make it in life. Our young people now think only about short term project, not about many years ahead where through hard work, gradual promotion, you will get to the top. They believe you have to jump and breach values in order to make it. That is the difference in education then and now. We don’t need to be in a hurry, that is what Nigerians are noted for. We don’t want to crawl before we walk. We just want to get up one day and be in flashy cars, without giving any care how we got them. There is a song where the singer was saying Dangote and Otedola have no two heads, and he too wants to ride in Range Rover, Bentley and what have you. I believe that kind of song does not portray the values we are talking about. Our young ones need to work hard and be very honest. And they should not take what does not belong to them.
How did you intend to celebrate your 74th birthday?
During the week of my birthday, I met the physically challenged people and their president told me that they needed a place to acquire skills. I encouraged them and I felt that was such a thing we could come into. I also sent people to motherless babies homes to donate essential items. But on the birthday morning, as a Roman Catholic, I would hold a mass, beginning with the rosary at 7.10a m. Then at 10. a m, there would be Islamic prayers. Then at 12p.m, there would be a Protestant Service and by 2p.m, there will be a luncheon. And I am only 74, if I make noise now, what will I do when I am 75, which is the major milestone.