By Ademola Adegbamigbe
His grip was firm. His smile was infectious. General Alani Akinriande, 80, came out of a lower part of his sprawling compound the way a player would from the underground section of Liberty Stadium. He did not emerge climbing a concrete staircase from a sports facility but his farm. The visitors prostrated themselves flat to greet a man who had just marked his four-score years on earth. Looking sixtyish, the retired general wore a pair of blue jeans trousers and short sleeved shirt. His bright complexion and the well chiseled nose that adores many almanacs, books, newspapers and magazines were unmistakable. “I have been expecting you. How was your trip?” He asked, gripping, vice-like, the hands of the visitors one after the other.
That he said he had been expecting his guests shows that Akinrinade is a stickler for time. His 12 noon is exactly that. That day, he was ready to accommodate any shortcoming because of the unpredictable nature of Lagos-Ibadan, Ibadan-Ife-Ilesha highways. In fact, the journalists (Mr Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor, Ayodele Efunla, photo journalist and I) had to explain that, apart from the traffic lock-jaw at Ogere old toll gate, in Ogun State, the craters on the Ibadan Ife road, worsened by the different diversions which made everyone in the car to dance rumba and shaku shaku rolled into one, made the journey somewhat hellish. At last, the visitors made their way to Yakoyo in Ife North Local Government of Osun State where the retired General has his country home.
In front of the brown gate was Staff Sergeant Tony, a slightly stocky man in pair of baggy shorts and green vest on top of which a necklace blended with his fair complexion. “You must be the people Oga has been expecting. Reverse your car, the gate is at your back,” he said, welcoming us, his smile as broad as a dolphine’s. Then the brown gate creaked open on its greased hinges. A dark complexioned man with Oshogbo or Ede facial marks who walks with the gait of an individual of great forbearance and loyalty came out. Donning a chocolate brown buba and sokoto, he held the gate, greeting us with “e kabo sir” (welcome).
The journalists heaved a sigh of relief like a train that just arrived its platform after a long, tortuous journey as the car, driven by Mr Kamoru Oyero, screeched to a halt inside the big compound. Tony led the way, and turned 90 degrees to the left through a narrow part paved with interlocks that had turned almost green because of the dense foliage. The journalists marched like foreign dignitaries being honoured by a brigade of guards. The guards of honour, however, were tall trees, both tropical and coniferous, climbers, palms and shrubs lining the way, left and right. The breeze under this green envelope was soothing to the brain, a great therapy for nerves that had been knocked silly by traffic jams and bumpy roads. Birds chirped overhead, oblivious of the intruders into their Garden of Eden. Peeping involuntarily through the ticket, the media men observed an open grass area, still covered by tall trees, under which stands a green barbeque stove. The flora beauty of the compound is a form of nostalgic recreation of the General’s childhood when they enjoyed the tropical flora and fiona of Yakoyo. He told us later: “The atmosphere where I grew up was serene; there were forests. Once we left the forests, we would go to the cocoa farms, and things like that. We saw things like silk worm. I never knew (until I was about 35 years old) that it was the hair of the silk worm which was used to weave the most expensive dresses that our parents wore. All of that have disappeared.”
The visitors burst into an open concrete area. There is a swimming pool by the left side. There are four thatched, mushroom-like relaxation canopies under which chairs are arranged in circular forms. In twos, threes, fours and fives, guests waited discussing. Ahead is a slightly raised platform on which six peacocks sauntered about, displaying their plumage. They pick grains from their pans intermittently. There is a net that separates this raised area from the lawn tennis court below. Far to the left of the tennis court is the animal husbandry section from where General Akinrinade emerged.
He led the guests into his one -storey building’s antechamber. He excused himself to go into his inner sanctums to clean up and change his cloth. The visitors settled down to wait inside the room painted white with patches of frescoes on the wall. At the far end near the visitor’s restroom is the bar area where assorted drinks are on display. To the left and right of the flat- screen television set on the wall are wood carvings of two women. One of the two, half clad, carries a basket, holding a rod with other hand; the second woman wears beads, a display of Yoruba cultural heritage. On the wall are wedding photographs of the General’s son. A big photograph of General Akinrinade’s well wishers during a book launch (Chiefs Michael Ade Ojo, Bisi Akande, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu and others) is on the floor, resting against the wall.
“We cannot do the interview here,” the General reappeared, dressed in danshiki with yellow vertical lines, pushed out prominently by the contrasting black background. “I don’t want any interruption during this interview”. Again, he led the way into an inner deluxe sitting room with brown-leather settees. He suddenly turned right and clambered upstairs via a slightly spiraling staircase, beckoning his visitors to come along. The General, at his age, did not show any sign of arthritis or doddering. No fatigue in any way. Is he not a soldier? We followed him and emerged at the largest of the sitting rooms we had seen. This elevated area allowed the guests a panoramic view of the town with buildings and sprinkles of palms and other trees stretching far into the horizon.
General Akinrinade settled down on a single brown -leather upholstery chair. As he spoke, one of the visitors quietly showed concern that he might fall as he tilted the chair back, his two legs, like a Buddhist grand master levitating, floated on space. The legs’ blood veins were visible because of the General’s fair complexion. Then, as he trenchantly stressed his point, he would bring the chair forward to its normal position, the journalist would heave a sigh of relief. Later, as the old man rocked back and forth, the reporter came to realize that it is actually a rocking chair, modernized with leather and cushions, beyond those made of bare but polished planks found in the mansions of old plantation owners of North Carolina.
It was an encounter that enabled us to know how he came about his discipline, hatred of injustice, ability to act independently, humility, bravery, curiosity, stubbornness, and a non-fanatical attitude to religion. Above all, we witnessed his community leadership (he received some traditional rulers after the interview) and spirit of hospitality (after the tasty meals he provided, he wanted us to spend the night in his home, but we still had time to cover the distance between Yakoyo back to Lagos that Thursday, 31 October).
On how he developed his bravery, he told TheNEWS: “Between Yakoyo and Moro there was a big tree, which everybody venerated. If your father or mother was from Moro, and it was time to invoke your appellation, they would call you Omo Ewuru as if that tree was the one that gave you protection. The ground around that tree was a shrine. Usually, at that shrine, people made rituals, and the ritualists left coins. It could be frightening to pass by. But it was my grandmother who told me never to be afraid of those ritualists; that they were human beings like me—not spirits. She told me that if I met them before they got to the shrine, I should follow them a short distance before I turned back. That way, she emboldened me and I felt immune. I was six years old then. Each time they left, I would go back to the shrine and pick the coins.”
He was a curious individual and a hater of injustice, habits he picked up early in life. In his words: “My parents thought I was going to be very impossible. They caught me several times going to a Quranic school very close to the marketplace. Seeing people writing from right to left got me curious and I just wanted to understand what they were writing. So, I used to go to that school to see what they were doing. But I didn’t like the attitude of the teacher then because he used to beat us too much for nothing. If somebody made a mistake while reciting, instead of beating the person who made the mistake, he would beat all of us and I couldn’t understand why. Even as a child, I thought that it was not fair. That was why I stopped going to that school.”
On his discipline, he revealed that he was inspired at that time by his uncle, Josiah Akinrinade, his father’s immediate younger brother (Soji Akinrinade’s father. Soji Akinrinade is the Executive Editor of Newswatch Plus). The General told us: “He was the only one in our house who went to school that time, and he became a clerk for the produce buyer’s association in our area. He was very strict, but easier and kinder than his elder brother. He brought us up, encouraged us and made sure that we worked really hard. General Akinrinade’s mild attitude to religion started early when he stayed with his uncle. “The only thing I didn’t like about him was that, at five o’clock in the morning, he would wake us up to sing and pray at home, then he would take us to the church. He converted from CMS church to Christ Apostolic Church (CAC) and it was his duty to ensure that all his family members—immediate and extended— toed the line. But, after some time, I think he gave up on me because, as soon as we got there, I would go straight to the back of the church and sleep under the bench and, on many occasions, they forgot me there. When they got home, they would discover that I was missing, so they would come back to retrieve me from where I was sleeping. I think after some time, he decided to let me be. I didn’t really think we needed to pray that much. I still believe that we pray too much instead of working so hard in this country.”
When he got to Offa Grammar School, he noticed that, his Principal, Mr Josiah Osayin, would always drop off his family at St. Mark’s Church where they attended service, and then he would go to the Railway Club to play tennis. At the end of the church service— he knew exactly when the church service finished— he would come back to pick up his family. He was always time conscious. “This man” as Akinrinade narrated, “didn’t go to church, but he was most considerate and kind, but very strict. He was one of the most respected persons in Offa, after the Oba. Until he died, we used to go on a yearly pilgrimage to Ijebu-Jesa to visit with him. For him, as Yoruba would say, iwa le sin. It is important for people not to compromise their principles.” By the time Akinrinade was GOC, he had to retire a friend of his for being absent at a crucial time. He revealed: “He was commanding a unit of his own, he was reporting to Army Headquarters, but I was in charge of his area, and things happened and he disappeared, I couldn’t find him and then he showed up two days later and told me he went to the hills for prayers. Pray for what? I just dismissed him. He was my friend, but that was the Army that we knew.”
He narrated also how he escaped death several times in the war front. One of such instances: “I was sitting on a sofa with one lady, there was music and I just told the woman, Let’s go and dance, but she wouldn’t answer me. At first, I thought, These civilians are so petrified. Unknown to me, a bullet came into the sitting room, hit her in the head and she died.”
Akinrinade who, after retirement, engaged in large-scale farming and was chairman of Niger Feeds and Agriculture Operations and held ministerial appointments in the ministries of Agriculture, Water Resources and Rural Development, Industries and Transport is not tired. In fact he became a member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), a pro-democracy group, during the Sani Abacha regime. It was an happy encounter; an engagement that made us feel as if we should continue. Indeed, the General insisted we should spend the night in Yakoyo, but we were bent on making it back to Lagos that day.
Nevertheless, we got more than what we wanted as he spoke on his childhood, early education, days in the 3rd Marrine Commando, Civil War, how he escaped death by the whiskers, Emeka Ojukwu, Olusegun Obasanjo, “June 12” struggles, life in exile, appraisal of the Muhammadu Buhari government and other national issues.
Read the full interview that we, for three hours, had with him here