Senator Ayo Fasanmi, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), is the national leader of Afenifere, a top socio-political group in the South-West. He served as national president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria in 1977 before he was elected into the Senate in 1979. The 94-year-old politician spoke about his childhood, early days in politics and his experiences, as well as other issues of interest.
You are 94 years old; how do you feel?
I couldn’t have believed that I would reach 94 years in my life because I had some health challenges when I was a very young man. As a matter of fact, when I was contesting for election into the House of Representatives in 1964, I had some health challenges and I was directed to see a doctor. When the doctor examined me, he shouted and said, ‘My boy, what have you been doing with yourself?’ I told him I was running around because I wanted to contest an election. The man shook his head and said, ‘No, if you keep running around like this, you have only four months to live.’ That was 64 years ago. God has been very kind to me to be alive till today. I contested that election and won. I clocked 94 on September 27 this year. That’s just very recently.
How was your childhood?
I was born in Lagos, where I started schooling at St Paul School, Ebutte Meta in 1931. When I got to Standard One in 1935 or 1936, because of poverty I could not continue. As a young man of about 11 years, I started working as a labourer, moulding bricks in Yaba.
My parents were poor. My mother was born in Ijero Ekiti while my father was born in Iye Ekiti. I grew up under them in extreme poverty. My father’s uncle, Pa Williams Fasanmi, whom I saw as a Good Samaritan, came to see my father and saw me carrying bricks on my head since I didn’t go to school because my parents couldn’t afford the school fees. The man took me from Lagos to Ibadan on March 31, 1937 and I started schooling afresh.
I remember that one of my classmates, both in Lagos and when I moved to Ibadan, was the late Chief Kola Balogun. The man was transferred to Offa and I followed him and continued my schooling at St Mark School. I was in Offa in 1937, 1938 and 1939. My uncle was transferred to Kafanchan and I had to follow him. I went to school in Kafachan, but before the end of the year, for one reason or another, I had to return to Offa to continue my schooling. At that time, Standard 6 was the limit in primary school and I finished in 1941.
There was an advertisement in the newspapers that the examination into Government College, Ibadan was going to take place towards the end of 1941. I was very lucky, I did very well and I won government scholarship. I entered the college in 1942.
Because of the bitter experience I had as a result of poverty, when I entered the college I started developing ideas. I had promised myself that any time I had the opportunity, I would fight poverty. I wouldn’t want anybody to have the type of expedience I had as a small boy. It was around the time when Nnamdi Azikwe founded the West African Pilot. It was like a Bible to me. In Government College, Ibadan I was staying in the dormitory, but I had to manage my way out of the college to get a copy of the newspaper and read.
I read a lot from newspapers and developed political ideas. Before I left the college in 1947, I became very much interested in politics as a young man; and given the background of poverty I had, I made up my mind that if I had any opportunity I would defend the interest of the common man. When I finished from the college, I wanted to be a lawyer, but there was no Faculty of Law at the University of Ibadan then.
Again, I saw in an advertisement in the newspaper about School of Pharmacy, Yaba and I took entrance examination and passed. I finished from that school and became a pharmacist.
How would you describe your working experience?
When I left the school of pharmacy, I worked at the General Hospital, Lagos. In 1951, I was posted to Jericho Hospital, Ibadan. I was also posted to General Hospital, Osogbo. There was only one general hospital in the whole of Osogbo division and Ogbomoso and I was in charge of the pharmacy section.
In 1955, I resigned and decided to establish my own pharmacy at Fagbesa Street in Osogbo. I named it Bamidupe Chemist. In 1956, I got some money and went to the United Kingdom to read Law. But due to an unfortunate event in the family, my father was involved in an accident and I had to return home after spending a year. That was how my ambition to become a lawyer crashed and I went back to my pharmacy, which someone was managing for me when I was away.
How did you join politics?
As a student, I was a member of the Nnamdi Azikiwe Movement. Later, we founded the Nigeria Youth Congress. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo came into the show with the Action Congress, I was endeared to his role. There was an occasion I addressed a crowd at a May Day event and declared that I was an independent member of the Action Group. When Chief Awolowo heard my statement on radio, he sent a letter to me, stating that he wanted to meet me. That was how I met Awolowo one-on-one and he asked how someone could be an independent member of the Action Group. I said if the party did what was right I would support it, but if it did what was wrong, I would oppose it since I was not a card-carrying member. He said I would be a full member of the party. That was how I joined Action Congress. When crisis started in the party between Awolowo and Chief Akintola, Awolowo appointed me as a member of the National Reconciliation Committee. I had my political training with Chief Awolowo.
While brainstorming, one may be asked to write a paper on freedom of press, medical services and so on, and whatever the person came up with we would all debate on it. We were writing policy papers. So, I was a political apprentice under Chief Awolowo. Eventually, I became the national president of the National Youth Association of the Action Group.
During the treasonable felony trial of Chief Awolowo, I was in court as his witness and gave evidence for him. He was jailed 10 years. I moved into the House of Representatives in 1964, and in 1966, the coup of January 15 came, accidentally. I was in detention when that coup occurred. I had been in detention at Agodi for three months before the coup. I was detained in 1965. I was going to Ghana to discuss certain issues with leaders of Nkrumah’s party. After taking off, the plane descended, and when we got down, policemen surrounded us and took me to Ibadan, where I was detained.
In 1979, I contested election into the Senate. That was in the Second Republic. I was in the Senate till 1983. I contested for a second term and won. We were in the Senate for six months before the coup organised by Muhammadu Buhari in 1983.
In 1999, when we had the Third Republic, the Alliance for Democracy was founded in this house. Few of us started it before others like Bisi Akande joined us. We were about 15. My house at Alekuwodo in Osogbo was used as the secretariat of the party. That was my journey in politics. Before the independence, I was a counsellor in Ijero and Ero local governments.
How was your experience in the Senate?
The Senate was good. Joseph Wayas was the president of the Senate. The Senate leader was Olusola Saraki, the father of Senator Bukola Saraki. The late Oloye was my good friend in the Senate despite that we were not from the same party. It was between 1979 and 1983. In fact, when Senator Sola Saraki came to Nigeria, he worked with my friend, Dr Tunji Otegbeye at Ireti Hospital. As a matter of fact, the immediate past Senate president was born at Ireti Hospital, Yaba in Lagos.
In the Senate then we worked as a team. And the pay was minimal. The system was not monetised.
What was the issue between you and the late General Sani Abacha?
I served as a member of the National Constitutional Conference Commission under Abacha in 1994. We were 19 in the commission and we were to prepare a new constitution for Nigeria. The 19 of us were treated like ministers. We had official cars, security details and we were resident in Apo Village, Abuja.
When I had a disagreement with Abacha, he wanted to arrest me, and if possible, assassinate me.
The former governor of Niger State, Aliyu Babangida was a senior special assistant to the commission attached to me. One day, he brought an envelope containing money to me and I asked, “What is this for?’’ He said it was from the Presidency and just turned back without waiting to explain anything to me. The second day, we were to discuss a critical matter that was to be included in the constitution. That was when I realised that Abacha wanted to use the money to bribe us to support the amendment. He probably must have sent the bribe to other members of the commission. During a meeting with him, Abacha was asking us one by one – “Do you support this amendment?’’ I was the 13th person, and when it was my turn, as he asked the question, I said, “Mr President, I got an envelope yesterday and I now realise the purpose.’’ He became very angry, and that was the end of the meeting. So, I left Abuja without telling anyone. I went to Baba Ajasin and informed him. Anthony Udofia was the military governor in Osun. I went to him and told him that I had decided to resign from the commission. He said he would not accept my resignation until he heard from Abacha.
Your wife died five years ago, how has it been without her?
We got married in 1953. Felicia Adejoke Fasanmi was a good wife. She attended Queens College, Lagos and travelled to UK to read Nursing. The marriage was blessed with children who are doing well. In Yoruba land, you don’t count someone’s children. They are all making it. My firstborn is a pharmacist. She was a lecturer in the University of Ife. She has been in the US for over 20 years. She came for the 5th remembrance of their mother. One of my children is a chief registrar of the High Court in Ekiti State. Others are also doing well.
Do you have more than one wife?
Please skip that question.
What’s your favourite food?
I used to like pounded yam, but now, because of health and old age challenges, I take fruits and water.
Do you do physical exercise?
I have some health challenges, but I thank God. I have some problem with my sight, and for the past two years I have partial stroke. But I try to do some exercise. I walk around in the compound. l also try to attend public functions with my personal assistant, Tope, who has been with me for the past 12 years. He is a wonderful person.
Some people nominated you to be the leader of Afenifere, did you accept?
Yes, of course. They came to me here in my house and said that because of my antecedents, they wanted me to be the new leader of Afenifere. I was happy that despite my health challenges, people still consider me to be a leader. God is wonderful and I thank him for his mercies. I am the leader of Afenifere now, where you have people like Senator Biyi Durojaye from Ogun State; Prince Tajudeen Olusi from Lagos State; Elder Alade from Ekiti State; S.M. Akindele from Oyo; Professor Bayo Ademodi from Ondo State; Chief Sooko Adewoyin from Osun State and many others.
Is there any formal process you need to undergo before you would be officially confirmed as the national leader of Afenifere?
The leadership of Afenifere is under my firm control.
How would you compare the politics of that time to what obtains nowadays?
That time, it was politics of service and dedication.
Are you still playing politics?
If I am the leader of Afenifere, why won’t I play politics? I am a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
What is your advice for today’s politicians?
When you want to serve you must be committed to the people, and you must serve with dedication and commitment. If you are committed to serve the people selflessly you will not be in politics to make money.
In the 16 years of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) there was serious corruption in Nigeria. President Buhari is now fighting the corruption, following the footsteps of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. But corruption is now fighting back. Awolowo introduced a new dimension to politics. Look at his achievements in the Western Region – the best stadium, first television station, Cocoa House, free education, minimum wage. The system was not monetised and we were not corrupt. Current politicians should shun corruption. As a politician, in my days I did not amass wealth; and God has been very kind to me.
What is your thought on the state of the nation?
Corruption is very rampant, but Buhari is fighting against it. The insecurity in the country is worrisome. Love for money among the youths is of great concern. Imagine people going to graveyards to dig up graves to behead corpses for ritual to become rich.
Government must improve the quality of lives of citizens, keep Nigeria free from corruption and get everyone involved in the security of the nation. There must be free or affordable education for all children. Sending a child to school now is very costly. Awolowo made education free. I understand that the young man in Ekiti State, Dr Kayode Fayemi, is trying to make education free. According to the late Chief Awolowo, it is not life that matters most but the courage you put into it.
How about your investments?
I don’t have any investment; my children are looking after me. For what I have done in the past, I am supposed to become a billionaire by now, but the grace of God is enough for me. It is through the grace of God that I have come, I have seen and I have conquered. The only investment I have now is my God, who is looking after me. In spite of all the challenges, God is still on my side.
Do you have any regret?
One of my regrets is that I didn’t keep my pharmacy, particularly when I have a daughter that read Pharmacy and graduated with first class from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. I was the national president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria in 1977, yet I gave up my pharmacy; I should have maintained it.
How many houses do you have?
I built one house in Osogbo in 1956. I also have one house in my hometown. This house I am living in was built by my late wife. May her soul rest in peace.
You are from Ekiti State, but you stay permanently in Osogbo, why?
I was transferred to Osogbo as a pharmacist in 1951. The people are very friendly, that’s why I decided to remain here. I enjoy Osogbo very well.
Did you build your house before you became a senator?
I built my house in 1956 and I went to the Senate in 1979.
Who keeps you company?
My personal assistant has been with me for 12 years. He is like my heartbeat. He is committed and devoted. He has followed the process of my political life and developed himself in politics. He is like a life-wire to me. I still consult him when politics is involved. I love reading newspapers, but because of my sight he reads for me.
How is your spiritual life?
When I started life, I was not the type that would go to church, but when I was in detention at Agodi in Ibadan, Primate Adetiloye spoke to me and I started going. I am the baba ijo of my church in Ekiti, and here in Cathedral Church I am the mayegun at Balogun Agoro. I am also the president of the Touch Bearers in the church.
I have to thank Bishop Fagbomi and Bishop James Popoola for the tremendous services they rendered to improve my spiritual life. What I am looking for now is the Kingdom of God. Always ask for forgiveness because to err is human and to forgive is divine. I thank God for the grace he has given me to live up to 94 years.
The Bible says that if we say we have no sin, we are just deceiving ourselves. No matter how long you live, you will eventually answer questions before God. I am asking for forgiveness. I pray that whatever I had done in the past that was not in conformity with the will of God, he should forgive me. I see myself as a sinner in search of redemption.