Remembering Jonathan Odebiyi, great democrat and leader – Owolabi
WERE he alive today, Chief Jonathan Akinremi Odebiyi, nationalist, politician, educationist and leader of men would have clocked 94 years. He was born in Ipaja in what is now Lagos State to Daniel Ajibode Odebiyi (Olowo Igbo) and Abigail Solabomi Odebiyi (nee Orebiyi) both natives of Iboro in what would later become Yewa North, Ogun State on the 11th of March 1923. Between 1928 and 1936 he was a pupil at Saint Andrew’s Primary School, Ipaja and from 1937 to 1941, a student of the prestigious CMS Grammar School, Lagos. In January 1942, he was appointed a pupil- teacher at his alma mater and in July of the same year he got employed as a third class clerk in the Judicial Department of Lagos and was later seconded to the Rent Assessment Tribunal as Clerk and Interpreter to the Board.
As a young man with a burning desire for education, he resigned his appointment with the Judicial Board in July 1944 to pursue a Bachelor of Arts Degree Course of the University of Durham, at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone. While there, Jonathan Odebiyi shone like a star. He was elected President of the Students’ Representatives Council for two consecutive years which was a rare feat (the usual practice being a year term for each President). It was while at the College that he met the late Emmanuel Alayande, later priest and politician; Adekunle Ajasin, politician and educationist; Venerable Adelaja, M.G. Ejaife, Eldred Durosimi-Jones, the writer; and Samuel Ighodalo (scion of the famous Ighodalo family).
Odebiyi completed his studies in 1947, returned to Nigeria and took up a teaching job as a graduate teacher at the famous and prestigious Abeokuta Grammar School, under Reverend J.O. Ransome-Kuti (father of Fela Kuti, the world-known Afro musician; Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, former Health Minister and Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, etc.) as the school principal. Some of his students then were Chief Ayo Adebanjo,politician and Afenifere chieftain; renowned highlfe musicians, Victor Olaiya and the late Bala Miller; as well as accomplished medical practitioner and scholar, Professor Ade Elebute.
Odebiyi also taught briefly at CMS Girls School, Lagos and later at St. Anne’s School, Ibadan where he had as some of his students the likes of the Miller twins, Justice Atinuke Ige, and Professor Oyinade Olurin . In 1951, Odebiyi became the founding Principal of Egbado College now Yewa College, Ilaro in what is now Ogun State. And in September 1951, on a Postgraduate Scholarship, he enrolled at the Institute of Education, University of London, for a Postgraduate Degree in Education.
It was at Fourah Bay College that his political prowess was first noticed and his friendship with Adekunle Ajasin, later Principal, Imade College, Owo who would later become first civilian governor of Ondo State and Emmanuel Alayande, later Principal, Ibadan Grammar School, brought out the politician in him. Jonathan Odebiyi was part of the inaugural meeting of the Action Group in April 1951 in Owo, the home town of Ajasin where these young Nigerians with a host of others elected Chief Obafemi Awolowo as their leader and laid the foundation for unprecedented party politics as well as educational, economic and social development in Western Nigeria. In July of the same year, Odebiyi was elected to the Western House of Assembly. Prior to this, he was at various times Chairman, Egbado Ketu District Council Ayetoro, and Chairman, Egbado Divisional Council, Ilaro.
At the age of 33 years in 1957, he was appointed Minister of Education, Western Region and a year later became the Minister of Finance. In 1959 he added to this responsibility the role of the Leader of the Western House of Assembly. He combined his position as leader of the Parliament and Minister effectively, until a state of emergency was declared in the Western Region in 1962, following the crisis between Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the Action Group and his protege, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the Premier of the region. During the state of emergency, Odebiyi was restricted to Osogbo, now in Osun State, Burutu in today’s Delta State; and later Lagos. He was released in November 1962. Between 1963 and 1966, he was Leader of Opposition in the Western House. An unwavering disciple of Chief Awolowo, while in the opposition, he steadfastly stood behind Awolowo, who was then imprisoned in Calabar.
As the Senate Leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) from 1979 to 983, and the de-facto Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly, he was a thorn in the flesh of the government of the ruling National Party of Nigeria. With his principled, steadfast, well-prepared and beautifully articulated position on national issues, delivered in impeccable English, his stern and faultless logic had always given meaning and direction to the politics of the Second Republic. Chief J.A.O. Odebiyi contested for various elective posts six times and won in 1951, 1956, 1960, 1965, 1979, and 1983; arguably (if not the only Nigerain) one of the very few Nigerian politicians to have achieved this feat; thus becoming one of Nigeria’s longest-serving legislators of all time.
He was on the Board of CSS Bookshops Limited between 1963 and 1983, and it was during his tenure as Board Chairman that the famous and imposing Bookshop House, Marina, Lagos was built. During the military rule, he went back to his much-beloved teaching profession and founded Eyinni High School in Ibadan. He ran the school successfully until the military take-over of private schools in 1975/76. He also did well in business as founder and chairman, Tejumade Odebiyi Property and Investment Company (TOPIC) Limited. It is on record that Chief Odebiyi did not allow his eminence as a key player in national politics to blindfold him into neglecting his people or his faith. He was from 1953-2000, a member of synod of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Iboro; St Andrew’s Church, Ipaja, Lagos and St Paul’s Church, KajolaIboro, Ogun State. As member of the Diocesan Board, Lagos, and also later Egba-Egbado, he worked tirelessly with others for the establishment of Yewa Diocese (Anglican Communion), with its Cathedral and Headquarters at Christ Church, Ilaro.
Senator Odebiyi facilitated the provision of electricity, pipe-borne water, roads and schools in several towns and villages in Yewa/Awori. Not the least was the establishment in 1962 of the prestigious and one-of-a-kind, Comprehensive High School, Ayetoro, Ogun State. No doubt, it was in recognition of the innumerable contributions of this most illustrious son of Yewa/Awori to the development of Yewa/Awori, Western Region and Nigeria that he was conferred with several chieftaincy titles.
May the soul of this great democrat, a patriot, a nationalist, one of Nigeria’s founding fathers, a teacher, a philanthropist and father to our leader, Chief Tolu Odebiyi continue to march on in eternal service to the Almighty.
Owolabi writes in from Iboro
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