The Okhai Mike Akhigbe That I Know: A Special Tribute To My Friend And Former Boss By Dr. Wumi Akintide

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asukwo1cI had wanted to pay this tribute a day or two after the death of  Admiral Okhai Mike Ahkigbe. I  couldn’t do it because I was grieving. I was aware from reading early comments on his death that my views of him as a friend may be dismissed as bias by some of his critics who argued ”Unto whom much is given much is expected.” Easier said than done, I said to myself as I had more time to reflect on the Admiral who became Governor in 1986 before he turned 40. The lucky guy has held one position or the other in the Nigerian Government until his retirement in May 1999. Many in our country had waited a  life time for that kind of  accomplishment. Okhai Mike Akhigbe got all of them without lifting a finger or dropping a sweat. He was always at the right place at the right time. He was a very lucky and hardworking Nigerian.
As I reflect on his epoch-making life, I cannot help but recall one of the ageless compositions of  Nigeria’s “Haruna Ishola Baba Gani Agba” the greatest Apala music maestro who he reminded us that “Gbogbo wa la da agbada Iku” in his famous song composed in remembrance of Alhaji Benson, the senior brother of T.O.S. Benson, Nigeria’s first Information Minister under Tafawa Balewa. “Death,according to Haruna is one debt we all must pay regardless of how long we live”. If there is one conclusion to draw from Okhai Mike Akhigbe’s sudden death, it was to say that Haruna Ishola got it exactly right. We all have to bid this sinful world a farewell someday whether we like or not. If we all take that admonition to heart, many of us are going to live our lives differently remembering the Shakespearean precept that the human life is like a stage. We all come in, play our part and quit the stage for others to do their own.

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I hold that truth to be self-evident that my friend the Admiral is in a better place today because he has fought a good fight. That is why his nuclear family and those of us who consider ourselves his friends must take heart and really celebrate his life rather than mourning him. We are all going to die one day but nobody knows when and how. Some are been bed-ridden with illness for months and years and they still manage to hang on to life by some mystery that only God can explain. By the same token some of  us could be walking the street today, looking hail and hearty, but have our own candle in the wind extinguished tomorrow without a chance to say good bye to our friends and loved ones like happened to Princess Diana and like has just happened to our beloved Admiral.

The last time I spoke to him over the phone, the man sounded like he could live another 20 years. I could not tell he he  was battling a terminal illness and little did I realize that the call was going to be the last I would ever have with him. I woke up on October 28 to hear the Admiral has gone to the land of no return. We could cry from now till Eternity, all those expressions of sorrow are not going to bring him back. What is left for us to hold on to are cherished memories of him and what he did to make this world a better place for his family, his friends and colleagues in the Navy and the Nigerian nation as a whole. As a great lover of education I know he did his best to educate his children and himself. One of them went to Yale and the others went to other Ivy league institutions around the world. He himself graduated as a lawyer after serving as Governor and after his term as Head of the Nigerian Navy and the number 2 man in the Nigerian Government.

I know the Admiral frequently visited New York to have his medical check-up done like most of his peers in Government. He was aware like the rest of our leaders that Nigerian hospitals from Lagos to Port Harcourt and from Calabar to Gwagwalada  are nothing to write home about. Most of those hospitals including the University Teaching ones are glorified clinics because of total neglect and lack of funding by our political leader. Many of those leaders would rather have their wives go abroad to deliver their babies or have some routine medical procedures done abroad because they have all forgotten that giving good health to the great majority of their people ought to be one of their greatest obligations to themselves and the people they are in Government to serve. If there are good and dependable hospitals in Nigeria, those leaders including the Admiral won’t need to be rushing abroad for every little medical problem.

As a matter of fact many of them would have appreciated like Barack Obama that giving medical help to no less than 46 million Americans is one legacy the first black President would be remembered for 50 to 100 years from now if he eventually finds a way to beat the nihilist cynicism of the Republicans who clearly recognize Obama’s success on that front as their worst nightmare . Few of the Nigerian leaders ever think like Obama. The only exception was Obafemi Awolowo who as far back as 1955 had launched a similar program to the Affordable Health Care Act that several generation of American Presidents before Obama have tried but failed to accomplish. Awolowo’s record in the old West would have been sufficient to catapult him to becoming President  in more rational and progressive countries but not so in Nigeria. I am mentioning Awolowo because the Admiral used to talk of Awolowo in superlatives every time he and I have had occasions to talk about the man and his legacies in Nigeria.

I remember sharing a joke with the Admiral one time on the famous Mayo Clinic in Cleveland Ohio. I was asking him why most of our leaders always rush there or to Saudi Arabia or Germany for medical treatment  when all of them have wasted their opportunity to use Nigeria’s  oil wealth to build similar facilities in Nigeria. I told him how Saudi Arabia has put their own oil wealth to productive use by building solid infrastructures like super highways, stable electric power, first class medical facilities and hospitals that boast of the best specialists drawn from all over the world including Nigerians. I told him and he knew that Saudi Arabia did not have  a fraction of Nigerian doctors and professionals in the Sciences,  Medicine and Engineering to mention a few. The majority of the Saudi Sheiks and ruling elites are not half as educated as our leaders but they love their country enough to invest their money in a way to benefit their own people.

You go to Dubai today, you wonder if you are in one of the urban centers of America. Our leaders steal our money to go open coded accounts in Switzerland and buy properties in Dubai and South Africa but they all cannot afford to build good and well-equipped  hospitals and roads at home. The Gani Fawehinmi Medical Center in Ondo town was rightly designed by Governor Mimiko to serve that purpose and millions if not billions of Naira had been reportedly spent to build and equip the place. But if you think that was going to stop our leaders from going abroad to seek treatment you deceive yourself. If you try to reconcile the amount spent on the project with the buildings and the equipments on the ground, you see a yawning gap between the amount spent and what has been achieved. Many in Nigeria still give kudos to Mimiko for initiating the project. If a good number of our leaders would do the same, the country would be making greater progress.  Those are the kinds of issues I often raise with the Admiral in his life time because I know he wanted to be remembered for something.

The Admiral  always agreed with me it was a good point I have raised but he often said he would not give me an answer until I tell him why I too have opted to check out of Nigeria with all my knowledge and experience  when I could stay home to also make the difference I keep talking about. I told him if I had all the opportunities he has had as a leader in our country, I would definitely have followed the Awolowo example of creating an enabling environment to render my leaving home unnecessary. I  was able to engage him in that kind of debate all the time because I knew the Admiral loved a good debate and would not shy away from admitting he was wrong if he thought you have proved your point. He admitted I was right with my observation,  but he also argued my hypothesis and assumptions were not as fool-proof as they sounded. He believed it was simplistic and inaccurate to put all the blame on our leaders. Leadership alone, according to him, was only one side of the coin. The  flip side is the dereliction of the followership as well. We are all guilty he used to conclude. If the followers stand their ground and refuse to let the leaders have their way, the leaders would think twice before riding rough-shod over their feelings.

I am recalling this little episode to let any of you reading this to have some insight to a side of the Admiral that many Nigerians looking at him from a distance would nevercknow. The man was down to earth, honest and candid. He would tell you his mind without mincing words and he wants you to relate to him the same way regardless of your age and status. President Jonathan who came to office with a promise to transform Nigeria has now had cause to tell Nigerians that Nigeria is not as corrupt as alleged by the News Media.

Corruption, to his convoluted mind, is nothing more than an act of self-preservation by some of our people. It would go away when the level of poverty in our society is fully addressed by the political class with everyone of us playing his part. I drew the Admiral’s attention to President Jonathan’s views and I wondered why his party, the P.D.P. could think of giving a second term to a President with that kind of mindset. The Admiral replied the President might have been quoted out of context. He agreed that corruption has eaten deep into the very fabric of our nature, and that he as one of the Party leaders would not support the line of argument canvassed by the President if it was true he had said that.

The Admiral is never afraid to tell the truth. He has the mind of a lawyer, and I clearly saw that long before he went back to Law School after reaching the pinnacle of his career in the Navy. He tells it like it is. That was why I was a bit surprised he never, at any point, mentioned to me that he was battling the disease that finally took his life. He probably did not do that because he did not want my blood pressure to rise because he knew how much I loved and respected him because he was a good man.  Like every human being he has a few weak points I might briefly touch upon before I end this tribute but those weak points don’t rise to the level of taking away some of his deserved accolades as one of Nigeria’s best leaders who knew what was wrong with our country, and was determined to fix it. He was not as despondent about Nigeria like I was. He still felt there was time to fix the problem but what he did not realize at that point was how much time he had to remain a player in that effort.

Six months before his death, you would have thought the Admiral was an embodiment of good health. He looked much younger than his calendar age would suggest. I told him that he has added a few extra pounds from the way he was when he was Ondo State Governor or when he later served as Chief of Staff and the number 2 man to Abdulsalam Abubakar. I did not see his weight gains a major problem though, but I did talk to him about it. He claimed to have had more time to rest and less time for regular exercise like he was used to, before his retirement from the military. He also explained his lucrative Law Practice and his desire to stay out of the limelight for quite some time as part of the reason for his weight gain. He never failed to acknowledge, however  that God has been very good to him. He was a good Christian and a pragmatist who never leaves till tomorrow what he could do today. He has been everything he wanted to be in Nigeria minus Head of State.

He and I frequently talked about our time together in Ondo State when he was Governor. The rest of this tribute would be devoted to  exploring that in some detail. I was his pioneer Director for Rural Development. He was instrumental to my getting the job. Unknown to many in Ondo State, I met him for the first time in my life after he asked his then Permanent Secretary for Chieftaincy Affairs, late Mr. Faba from Ado Ekiti to go tell me he would like to see me in his Office. That was 1986 a few months after his posting to Ondo State. He did not tell Mr. Faba why he wanted to see me. I initially thought he  was probably going to have me arrested or detained for something I might have said on Ondo State Television as a moderator or a regular participant on on a current affairs weekly program called “Controversy”. I  waited for 2 days before I went to see him. I was expecting him to send the police to come after me, if his plan was to have me detained. Since he didn’t do that, I felt it was safe for me to go and I went there accompanied by my driver. He probably spoke  to Architect Olu Agbesua another good friend of his while waiting to hear from me. Olu Agbesua was  my junior at Oyemekun Grammar School. I would never know the details of what Mr. Agbesua had told him. All I knew was that he sent Mr. Faba to go get me after he had spoken to Mr. Agbesua. Olu must have put in a word or two for me as a very patriotic Akure man.

I got the greatest surprise of my life when the Governor came out of his Executive Council meeting to personally tell me he would quickly round up his meeting to come meet with me. A lot of things was going thru my mind for the roughly 15 minutes I waited for him to come out.  He sat me down and the first question he asked me was why he took me so long to come. I told him I thought he was probably going to have me arrested for something I might have said. I was therefore in no hurry to see him until I was mentally prepared for any reprisal I might have to face in his office. “If that was your fear, why did you finally decide to come,” was his next question.  I told him I chose to come out of respect for his office, and because he himself had not put a specific time frame to his invitation. I therefore felt at liberty to come when I wanted. He smiled and he told me what I have just said was precisely the reason he wanted me to come work with him. I did not quite understand what he meant by that but I was all ears as he spoke.

He profusely thanked me for honoring his invitation and he explained to me how he had been a great fan of my weekly program on Ondo State television.  He would not go and play squash any time it was announced I was coming on the program. He asked if I could serve in his cabinet because he knew I was not going to tell him what I thought he wanted to hear but what he needed to hear. He described Ondo State as a haven for sycophants and he added he did not need any of those praise singers and idle gossipers to accomplish his mission. He had seen me talk on television and he valued my insight and experience and above all my courage. He informed me the Federal Government and Commodore Koiyan, the Chairman of DIFFRI  (Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructures) have asked him to nominate somebody from Ondo State to serve as the Ondo State Director of DIFFRI and he could think of no one better qualified than myself  to take the job. He had wanted to send my name to Dodan Barracks, but he needed my permission to do that. He would want me to attend the Executive Council meetings just like all of his Commissioners because he wanted the position to be of cabinet rank and he needed me as a personal adviser to him.

I felt a bit flattered but pleased to meet one Nigerian leader at last who was going to appoint somebody he had never met before. It was a first in my own experience. Usually if you want a job from most of our leaders in Nigeria, there was always a “quid pro quo” kind of arrangement beause of the level of nepotism and corruption in our country.

I explained to him I was on the verge of leaving the country for the United States having failed to get the job his immediate predecessor Governor Bandele Otiko had promised me. I was to be appointed the Managing Director of Ile Oluji Cocoa Processing Factory. I took an early retirement from the Federal Service in the expectation I was coming to take the new job. Since the expectation did not pan out before Governor Otiko and the Buhari Administration that appointed him were kicked out by Babangida and his new team, I was going back to the US where I already had a job waiting for me. He asked me not to go. He wanted me to be the pioneer Director of DIFFRI in Ondo State and he was ready meet any of my conditions I later learnt the Ondo State Establishment had wanted him to appoint one of its Permanent Secretaries to the lucrative Federal job but Akhigbe had refused to take their advice. He was a very principled and fearless leader who knew what he wanted and how best to get it.

Akhigbe would look you straight in the face and tell you his mind like a good soldier. I have seen many a leader in my career in the Federal Service but I have never met one like Mike Akhigbe who craved for subordinates  who refused to be “yes” men. If he thinks your point is far superior to his, he was ready and willing to defer to you on any issue. He and I operated on the same wave length for the close to one year I served under him before his posting to Lagos. He was willing to take me to Lagos if I had wanted to go with him but I let him know I would rather stay in my home state. He was a good Governor to work with and to work for. He never tried to macro-manage me. I cannot say the same thing of his predecessor who swallowed hook, line and sinker everything he was told by his Secretary to Government who was a very sound public servant but a control freak who on several occasions had misled the Governor by feeding him wrong information which is often whitewashed  as the truth. It took time before Governor Opaleye found out the truth. But the moment he did, he fired the S.M.G. but the Governor had hurt so many innocent people along the way. I could talk about it today because I was a victim of that Gestapo operation as I would elaborate in the other segment of this write-up.

Many people in Ondo State thought Akhigbe and myself  were  good friends and confidant before his posting to Akure. As a matter of fact, some of the permanent secretaries in the state including the Secretary to Government  actually informed his successor in Ondo State, Colonel Ekundayo Opaleye that I was Akhigbe’s right hand man and that the sooner he let me go from DIFFRI, the better it would be for his administration. They specifically told him I was a front for Akhigbe and that I would never give him (Opaleye) my total loyalty. The Colonel believed all of that crap before he even had a chance to meet me.  It was only a question of time before he and I knocked heads because I wasn’t ready to kiss anybody’s ass in carrying out my duties and responsibilities. I did my pupillage with great permanent secretaries in the Federal like late Abdul Azeez Attah, late Yusuf Gobir, fire brand Ahmed Joda, Francesca Yetunde Emanuel and Oluyemi Falae who taught me to be bold and strong if I was doing the right thing.  Colonel Opaleye who eventually became a General  before retirement is still alive and well. He can dispute or confirm all of what I am saying here.

His Secretary to Government’s first grouse with me was my refusal to seek his advice on how to disburse the first 2.8 million subvention that I received from the Federal to start constructing all of the rural roads in the 18 Local Governments of Ondo State. I knew what to do, and I wasn’t going to kiss anybody’s ass to do my job. The only person I reported to in the State was the Governor and nobody else. The Secretary to Government didn’t like that, and he did everything in his power to knock my head with that of the Governor thru subterfuge. Okhai Mike Akhigbe belonged to a different kettle of fish from Colonel Opaleye who was a big shot in the Celestial Church at the time and all Permanent Secretaries and Directors who wanted to curry his favor had to go with him to the Celestial Church to demonstrate their loyalty. They also have to be accredited members of “May Club” which the then Secretary to Government was using as an alternative platform to micro-manage the Governor and every big decision he had to make.

I was never a member of May Club and I saw no need to abandon my Anglican Church for the Celestial Church because I wanted to impress the Governor. It was only a question of time before I got fired by the Governor on a trumped-up charge that  I have misappropriated the 2.8 million Naira I had received as the first subvention to DIFFRI from the Federal Government. The Secretary to Government  advised the Governor to immediately set up a panel of Inquiry chair-manned by Ajike Adegoke, a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Works to probe my administration and to submit their report within 2 weeks. The whole idea  was to get me out of DIFFRI so the S.M.G. could have a free hand to micro-manage the only Department in Ondo State that was very well funded by the Federal Government. Colonel Opaleye in fairness to him did not understand that his S.M.G. was using him to acquire more powers for himself.

The Adegoke panel completely exonerated me because I had not spent a penny from the 2.8 million. I had put 1.8 out of that amount to a fixed deposit at the National Bank, Akure, at 60 per cent interest and one million to Owena Bank. So by the time the probe was concluded the amount at the Bank had added additional funds to the 1.8million. Prince Aladesanmi who was District Manager at the time was one of the individuals to testify on my behalf. The Owena bank Manager also did the same thing to confirm that not a single penny had been stolen or misappropriated as alleged by the SMG and rubber-stamped by the Governor. The probe came out empty-handed and the Governor was thoroughly embarrassed.The Governor and his S.M.G. were going to sweep the probe under the carpet and to look for other excuses to take me out. I did not let them get away with their plan because I needed to save my own name and reputation in Akure. I called a press conference to clear my name without clearance from the Governor. That was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. That was how I got fired from DIFFRI but I left the job with my reputation intact. I left the country to return to America the same week.

I knew Okhai Mike Akhigbe made the same mistake when he was misled to force Prince Adewole Adesida a man of honor to retire as Permanent Secretary because the same SMG had set a trap for Prince Adesida unknown to Governor Akhigbe who expected the Permanent Secretary to be waiting for him at a location in one of the Local Government where the Governor had gone to inspect a road project without giving any notice. The Governor got there before the Permanent Secretary showed up. Governor Akhigbe was so pissed that he forced Prince Adewole a complete gentleman, a Kings College alumnus and a Harvard University graduate to retire from the Service before his time was up.

I am happy today that I had a chance to explain to Akhigbe several  years later in New York how he was used to retire a good and respectable Permanent Secretary who was a “sui generis” among his peers in Ondo State Civil Service. Akhigbe explained to me he did not know he was being used. He was shocked as I explained to him his mistake to have forced the Prince to go on retirement for an infraction he really did not deliberately commit. If he had been informed the Governor was coming to the site he would surely have been there to receive him. It was a set-up, but  Akhigbe had swallowed the bait just like his successor Colonel Opaleye had done when he had me fired and when he nearly fired Omolorun Modupe one of the best Permanent Secretaries in his Government who later became his Head of Service and Secretary to Government after Olaiya Oni.

Admiral Akhigbe was not your typical Nigerian leader. If Akhigbe tells you “yes” he stands by it come rain or shine. Some have said he was a corrupt Governor in Lagos State, I would be the last person to accept that. He was as clean as a whistle for the close to one year he and I worked together in Ondo State. If he delegated any duty to you, he backed it up with authority. If he misled you by mistake he did not throw you under the bus, just to save his own neck. That trust and confidence he had in me had become the foundation pillar of my personal friendship with him from 1986 till he died on October 28, 2013 at the Sloans Kettering Cancer Center in New York. His death was a major blow to Nigeria  and a personal blow to me as I pay this tribute.

The tribute from current Edo State Governor, Comrade Oshiomhole had put more emphasis on the Admiral’s role as a good friend of the working class in Nigeria based on how much he was able to help the National Labor Congress (NLC) first as the Head of the Nigerian Navy and later on as Chief of Staff and No. 2 in the military regime of Abdulsalam Abubakar. I strongly believe that he had something to do with the decision of General Abdulsalam Abubakar to not stay in office beyond the one year they initially promised Nigerians before handing over to another civilian Government. Some have accused him of probably having a hand in the death of M.K.O. Abiola who was poisoned. I would be the last person to believe that. The Akhigbe that I know would never participate in that kind of subterfuge. Never.

He was a patriotic Nigerian who wanted Nigeria to remain one strong and united country regardless of her diversity which he viewed as a big strength. Comrade Oshiomhole has correctly extolled his virtues as a distinguished Edo son from Fugar village in Afemai Division. He correctly described him  as a good ambassador of Edo State in all the high-visibility positions he has served in Nigeria. He was a member of the famous Course No. 3 of the Nigerian Defense Academy where he was a course mate to  David Mark, the current Senate President

Okhai Mike Ahkigbe had a distinguished career in the Nigerian Navy. Some believed he earned a very rapid promotion in the Navy in large part because of his closeness to Admiral Aikhomu who comes from the same area with him and who quickly saw in him some of the qualities all of us have admired in him. He followed the footsteps  of Admiral Aikhomu because he too became the number 2 just like Aikhomu was number 2 to  General Ibrahim Babangida after Babangida dumped Brigadier Ebitu Ukiwe. It can even  be argued that Okhai Mike Akhigbe had as distinguished a career in the Military as his Godfather because he also served as Governor in Ondo and Lagos State before becoming the Head of the Navy and before his elevation to number 2 in the Nigerian Government.

His posting from Ondo to Lagos was like going from a desert to an oasis because Ondo State was as poor as a church rat during his tenure at the state. He definitely provided a dynamic leadership at the state but dynamism with no money to implement most of his ideas did not bring out the best in him but he actively participated in getting Ondo state recognized as an oil producing state. The move had started with Pa Adekunle Ajasin’s regime. Pa Adekunle Ajasin did not succeed because the Shagari-led N.P.N. Government was not prepared to help Ondo State to get that recognition. The Buhari/Idiagbon Government which claimed it was out to fight Corruption in Nigeria was far more interested in victimizing the Ajasin Government and putting most of his top leaders like Pa Ajasin himself and Chief R.F. Fasoranti and Joshua Oladimeji Tuki in detention on trumped-up charges.

One would have expected the Federal Government under Buhari to pay all the subventions owned to Ondo State after Buhari took over from Shagari. Buhari did not do that. Ondo state continued to be starved of funds under Governor Otiko and the same attitude continued for much of Akhigbe’s tenure in Ondo State. That was why Akhigbe was not able to do much in Ondo State. I can attest to that as one of his closest aides in the State..

My heart goes out to his wife and children as they mourn and celebrate at the same time the life and legacies of their great husband and father. May the good Lord grant him eternal peace till we meet to part no more.

Dr. Wumi Akintide

Babatunde Akinsola
Babatunde Akinsolahttps://naija247news.com
Babatunde Akinsola is aNaija247news' Southwest editor. He's based in Lagos and writes on the Yoruba Nation political issues, news and investigative reports

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