By Adeolu Akande
Alhaji Abdul Azeez Arisekola Alao would have been 73 years old today. All roads would have led to his palatial residence at Oluwo Nla for the big event. But he died almost three years ago. In the words of that Yoruba wordsmith, Alhaji Odolaye Aremu, Arisekola was “Idameji Ibadan ti won pe lenikan” (Arisekola was “half of Ibadan mistaken for a single person”).
My consciousness of the man Arisekola dated back to the mid-70s when he was a regular feature in the long playing records of the reigning musicians of that era – Chief Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade, Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister and Alhaji Odulaye Aremu, to mention a few. The trio of Alhaji Arisekola Alao, Chief Akanni Aluko and Chief Adeseun Ogundoyin dominated the social scene like the roaring lions dominated the jungle.
That was before he ceded the social circle for the Islamic world. Aare Arisekola became the Are Musulumi of Yorubaland in 1979 and devoted the vigour and energy with which he dominated the social scene as the celebrated Oyinbo oni Datsun to the service of Islam.
Only few men in these parts had “romanticised” wealth like the way Arisekola did. The very few men in this tribe included Chief M.K.O Abiola and much earlier, Candido Joa DaRocha of Ilesa whose name became a synonym for wealth.
I met him for the first time about 1992. My celebrated editor at the Sunday Tribune, Mr Folu Olamiti took two of his reporters, Wale Adebanwi, now Rhodes Professor of Race Studies at Oxford University, United Kingdom and myself on a visit to the Aare. He had reportedly requested to meet these two reporters whose stories had become permanent features on the pages of Sunday Tribune. It was at his house on Rotimi Williams Street in Bodija, Ibadan. It looked uncompleted from the outside, but the interior was classic luxury. “O ni temi”, he enthusiastically thumped our palms in turn to welcome us to his presence. Nothing prepared me for the man I saw. He was in a white t-shirt and white shorts. Very small in stature and very much younger than the man one could imagine under the big turban and very expansive and heavily embroidered babariga that was his trademark clothes.
He was a very chatty man. He moved from one topic to another, emotionally expressing strong views on each one. I cannot recall the subject of discussion that evening but I still recall his bright face and excitement as he engaged our editor on a heated debate on the issues, as we, bewildered by his presence, watched in amazement as he served us drinks himself. In later encounters, I marvelled at the congruence of the Christian and Islamic faith in the residence of the Aare Musulumi. He was an Islamic leader that was actively involved in the determination of the leadership of many Christian groups and associations. He didn’t need to go in search of such role. They brought the role to his house. So was it with Islamic groups, students unions across the South west, the traditional institutions, musicians, artists, artisans etc.
There are every few men in this clime who are generous like Arisekola. No wonder his house was the melting point of Ibadan. If there is a prominent person in Ibadan you have not seen for a considerable length of time, a casual trip to Arisekola’s house will bring him out. His house was a magnet of sorts.
His legendary generosity has spewed many tales of his exploits. Governor Abiola Ajimobi is never tired of recalling his first encounter with the man on his return from the United States of America. According to him, he had attended a party where one man who was a guest dominated the entire scene by spraying musicians and every other guest at the party with crispy Naira notes. Just coming from a clime where such display of wealth was uncommon, he asked what was the man’s business and they told him he is “Oyinbo oni Datsun”(The Datsun merchant).That was one leg of the story. As Ajimobi frequently recalls, Arisekola spent so much money that night at the party that they could not account for all the girls they took to the party at the point of leaving.
But that was before he became the Aare Musulumi of Yorubaland. Arisekola was to say in one of our encounters that it was the Aare Musulumi title that saved him from the way to perdition. “We were reckless with money”, he said on one other occasion as he relived with nostalgia, his youthful exploits with another comrade of his in the social circle in the 70s.”We would spend all the money we took to the party, remove our wristwatches and use them as collateral to get some extra money from Sunny Ade and spray him with the money all over again. We only retrieved our wristwatches after visiting the bank on Monday to collect more money, again for Sunny Ade.
Arisekola was not a politician if defined by membership of a political party. He didn’t need one because he belonged to all political parties. In the second republic where he strongly identified with the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), Arisekola was a major financier of the personal lifestyles and political aspirations of many leaders of the rival Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). Until his death, he sponsored the aspirations of politicians of different and competing tendencies and persuasions. He financed all parties in all elections. You only know his preference by identifying who received the highest financial support from him. In one instance, Arisekola, in support of a gubernatorial candidate, set up his own campaign team and handed over to them N30million each day of the 40 days preceding the election.
But there is no arguing the fact that his greatest ally in politics and in the affairs of Ibadan was the strongman of Ibadan politics, Alhaji Lamidi Ariyibi Adedibu. Between the two men are stories that will stroll easily into the Guinness Book of Records. One of the most celebrated was a visit by Arisekola to the Molete residence of Adedibu. Adedibu was in the middle of his sallah prayer when Arisekola walked in. Adedibu suspended his Sallah to attend to him. When asked why he did so, he responded that his prayer point was for God to give him money. Arisekola’s coming was the greatest evidence that the prayer had been answered because Arisekola never walks alone – without tonnes of money. “If Arisekola should leave, God will punish me that He had answered my prayer but I refused to accept it!”
There is another about Arisekola’s zoological garden. When he contemplated the construction of a zoological garden in his expansive compound in Oluwo Nla, his last abode, Adedibu volunteered to get the animals from Senegal. When after several entreaties it appeared no animal was forthcoming and Arisekola was getting agitated that no refund was going to be made, Adedibu walked into Arisekola’s house and announced;”Aare, ati na owo awon kiniun re o, boo ba ju awa na sinu zoo k’awon omo Ibadan o ma wa wowa (Aare, we have spent the money you gave us to buy lions from Senegal. You may wish to throw us into the cages so that the people of Ibadan can come to watch us as they would have come to watch the lions). Both men had a very hearty laughter. Their friendship continued.
Arisekola’s greatest passion was for Islam and Ibadan. I have not met any Ibadan man who has as much pride in his Ibadan ancestry as Arisekola. His world revolved around Ibadan and everything that symbolised the great city. He celebrated Amala and never shied away from telling anyone who cared to listen that he never ate rice but could eat Amala, the staple food of Ibadan, three times a day.
Amala would have been on display today as he marked his 73rd birthday. The venue would have authoritatively discussed the Olubadan Chieftaincy dispute and the 2019 elections. But as the Yoruba say, ina dile lehin asun isu je (The fire place is left in silence as the roaster of yam is away from home).
Like every mortal, he had his weaknesses but he was a man that Ibadan will not forget in a hurry. In the words of Odolaye Aremu, Arisekola was the big umbrella that provided shade for the people of Ibadan (and beyond). He left Ibadan a greater city than he met it and the glory and greatness of the city is, in part, testimony to the contributions of great men like Arisekola that the city had been blessed with.
May God forgive his sins.
*Akande, is a Professor of Political Science
and Public Administration at the Gabriel Igbinedion University, Okada, Edo State.