AFE BABALOLA And The Art Of The Impossible By Dare Babarinsa

Dare Babarinsa
Dare Babarinsa
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Nobody knows the birthday of Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, one of Nigeria’s most prosperous farmers and a formidable lion of African jurisprudence. Baba Afe does not know his own birthday. Unlike President Olusegun Obasanjo, his mother did not even tell him what festival or historical circumstances of his birthday. Obasanjo’s mother told him he was born on Ifo market day. Ifo is now a sprawling town near Otta in Ogun State. But Babalola’s case was different. He only knew he was born close to the yuletide season. Therefore, his birthday is officially October 30, 1929.


That is the day he picked because as a man of the world in the modern age, he must have an official birthday. But in truth, Baba Afe does not know his date of birth or the year of his birth. He is anything between 94 and 100. He is built to last like those Ekiti hills!
Babalola is best known now as the founder of the pace-setting Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, Abuad. But there is a peculiar problem with Baba Afe.



Everyone, who knows him, including his wife, the formidable Yeye-Aare Modupe Babalola, is aware that Babalola does not believe anything is impossible. He set his goals. He pursues them. He does not believe that any goal is unattainable even when his handlers, friends and subordinates explain to him that the obstacles ahead are truly formidable. His rugged approach to issues explains the phenomenal expansion of his university which within a few years had moved to the frontline of private universities in Nigeria. He is a wise old man, but also has the capacity for great ambition. He regards himself as unstoppable. That is the problem.

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His university was still young when he suddenly decided that it must have a medical school. It was a great ambition. The National University Commission, NUC, stated that the university, to be accredited for medicine, must also have a teaching hospital. Babalola’s handlers advised caution. May be in a few years’ time, they said, the university would have a medical school.


The big obstacle was the issue of a medical school. You cannot have a College of Medicine and train doctors without a teaching hospital. So Abuad built a Medical School. To solve the problem, Babalola approached the Federal Medical Centre, Ido-Ekiti, for partnership. Abuad would have the College of Medical Sciences.


The Federal Medical Centre, Ido-Ekiti, would be the teaching hospital. It was a great marriage and everyone was happy.
Babalola does not know how to do anything in half-measure. He first gave Ido a grant of N200 million to support the partnership. The partnership was solid until the workers in Ido, who were Federal Government employees, went on strike and Abuad medical students became stranded. By this time, Abuad had already expended almost half-a-billion naira to the partnership. No one could ascertain when the strike would end.

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Babalola was in pain. His students, whom he calls his children, were in disarray. The future of the medical program, suddenly appeared bleak. Babalola took a grim decision. Never again would his children be held hostage. Abuad must have its own teaching hospital.


This Christmas, many people returning home for the yuletide, would visit Abuad Teaching Hospital, a towering edifice with world-class facilities. It has become one of the best tourist sites in Ekiti. Despite the not too good roads that lead to Ekiti in almost all directions, parents still send their children to Ado-Ekiti.


Abuad too has become one of the leading universities in Africa in just a few years. It has inspired several others to walk where angels fear to tread and re-assert Ekiti’s old claim to be the intellectual power-house of Yorubaland.


Earlier in the year, another private university, Hillside University of Science and Technology, was opened in Okemesi-Ekiti; the brainchild of Laoye Jaiyeola and his associates. Jaiyeola, a banker and economist, was Chief Executive of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group.

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Babalola did not build a university because he is rich. He had acquired a religious passion for knowledge in incremental doses. After his primary education at Emmanuel Primary School, Ado-Ekiti, he never had the benefit of any further formal education. He was hired as a pupil teaching, trekking to the neighbouring Ikere, to start his career. He would be in class before 7 a.m. and after the day’s labour, would trek back home. He acquired the skill for self-study, moved on to Ibadan, studied at home and passed all his papers. He got his first degree at home and then travelled to England to read Law. He returned to Ibadan, the city of his destiny, after a few years serving in Olu Ayoola’s chambers, established his own independent law practice under the name, Emmanuel Chambers. He built his practice by a prodigious appetite for hard work and a feline skill to tear down his opponent with pugilistic efficiency.


It was his reputation that led him to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian military Head of State, who came back to power in 1999 when our country returned to democratic rule. They bounded quickly.

“Until I met Obasanjo,” Babalola once said. “I have never met anyone more hardworking than myself!”

Both of them are workaholic who never believe in half-measures. Obasanjo was the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and his victory was being challenged by Chief Olu Falae (now our father, Kabiyesi, the Olu of Ilu-Abo, Akure), the iconic economist who was the candidate of the Alliance for Democracy and All Peoples Party, APP, alliance. Babalola won the legal battle and in 2001 President Obasanjo made him the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Unilag. It was to be a learning tour-of-duty for Babalola, who for two consecutive years, emerged as the best Pro-Chancellor in the country largely because of the innovations and managerial firmness he introduced in Unilag. But then, this is Nigeria.


One day in 2008, he heard on national television that he, along with all other members of his Council, had been fired by Obasanjo’s successor, President Umar Musa Yar’Adua. There were no thank-you handshakes, no letter of commendation, no explanation. For him, it was a sobering experience.

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Babalola, though always interested in politics, has steered away from holding political appointments. In 1983 when I first met him, he was the Chairman of the Federal Polytechnic, Akure. He was a leading chieftain of the President Shehu Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria, NPN, in a state dominated by the Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN. When Ondo State erupted in riot in August 1983, Ado-Ekiti people rallied to protect the home of Afe Babalola.


The people were pleased that he had used his influence to move the Federal Polytechnic to Ado-Ekiti when the Federal Government announced the establishment of the Federal University of Technology, Akure, FUTA. To effect the move, he single-handedly financed the construction of many of the early buildings of the polytechnic. Since then, he has remained planted in the heart of the people. So many things have happened since then until he found himself in Unilag.
It was the Unilag experience that convinced him that he must do something about the Nigerian tertiary education system.



One day I went to see him in Ado-Ekiti on a prior appointment shortly after he left Unilag. I got to his house only to be told that he had gone to the farm. One of his aides volunteered to take me there. I met Babalola in the middle of the bush after we detoured from the tarred Ado-Ijan Road.


He was seated on a wooden stool along with his friend, Professor Olatunji Orubuloye, former Vice-Chancellor of the Ekiti State University, Ado-Ekiti. It was an incongruous environment to find a billionaire. After pleasantries, he announced simply: “Dare, I want to build a university here!”



That place use to be his father’s farm where the old man laboured until he died. Now the son has become another old man in his seventies who had an impossible dream. He saw in my eyes that perhaps I did not share his faith. “In six months’, you will not believe what would be in this place!”
He kept his promise and changed our world.

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In 2009 Abuad opened for business. Long may you live Aare Babalola. Merry Christmas and may you celebrate many more years of fruitful service to the fatherland.
-the end-

The Guardian


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