My sole ambition was to be CBN gov so that I could sign my name on the naira – Oba Sonariwo

Oba Michael Adeniyi Sonariwo, the Akarigbo of Remo, became an orphan at the age of six. But through hard work and an element ofluck, he rose to become a prominent civil servant and was eventually enthroned as the ruler of the entire Remo land. He tells ADEMOLA ONI and ADEOLA BALOGUN the story of his life

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Ita Eleye in Lagos in 1936. From Ita Eleye, we moved to Isalegangan. It was when we were at Isalegangan that my father built his house in Isale-Eko, where we moved to in 1941. I started school at St. John School, Aroloya, Lagos in 1941 and I remained there till 1949. I went further to Methodist Boys High School in 1950 till December 1955. While I was in school, I was very active in sports, especially pole vault, where I left a record. I was also a scout person and I became a troop leader and I took people to camp where I had to take care of people. Then, we used to camp at Kuramo water, which is at the back of Eko Hotel today. In those days, the place was swampy and we used to wallow through the swamp from the Onikan area.

By the time you were growing up in Lagos, did you always see yourself as a Lagos boy or were you aware of your ancestral home in Remo then?

Well, it was normal to feel being a Lagosian then. Let me tell you a story. In my first year in MBHS, out of 31, there were 13 Ijebu boys. We called them Ijebu boys because they came straight from Ijebu to that school. There were about three of us who were born in Lagos even though we were Ijebu too but we were not very conscious of that. Those boys organised themselves into a team and said they wanted a match between them, Ijebu boys against the rest of the class. The three of us played against them. So after beating them, one of them came to me and said, ‘You’re a foolish man o, don’t you know that you are an Ijebu man as revealed by your name?‘ So, when I got home, I thought about it, then I called one of my friends who was just like me and we said the man was saying the truth. So when we got back to school, we changed side and called ourselves Ijebu boys and challenged the rest of the class. Since then, we started identifying ourselves as Ijebu boys.

Did you leave for England immediately after secondary school?

No, I worked for a year at the Chief Secretary office in Lagos in those days. The chief secretary then was just like the secretary to the Federal Government today. We were the filing clerks. Everything was in order in those days. Any file could be traced easily because there was proper documentation and there was discipline. We were trained about a week and we started working and learning at the same time. Then, everybody started saying they wanted to go to England, but I didn’t think of it. One thing that I did which was different from the rest is that I had more savings. For one year, we were paid £12.10 a month and I saved everything. Then I hadfree accommodation, free food, so I was saving my money. One day, my colleagues were discussing, saying that if they were able to save £70, they would go to England; then I already had over £100 in savings and I was just looking at them. Later, I called my best friend among them and asked him why they wanted to go to England and suffer with only £70. He said, once one got to England, there would be jobs and in no time, one would be okay. Later, we discussed the details and by that time, I already had about £120 in savings and he was shocked when I disclosed the amount to him. When everybody was talking about their choice of study, I told them I would read law. We went to the library to look for the colleges to go and we wrote to them and they offered us admission, but we had to do A-levels for one year. The school fee then was just £11; I paid and I still had a lot of money with me. From January 1956 up to July 1957, I already had over £250 and it was then that I announced at home that I wanted to go to England.

So, how did your parents take it?

The family told me that it would be very difficult because then, we had no father. He died in 1942, so we were left to face the world, minus the house he left behind. Our mother had died earlier and we became orphans in 1942 when my father died. So I became a self-made man very early in life. We had an aunty who acted as our guardian after the death of our father. As orphans, when they collected the rent, we were given £1.5 monthly. This was all I lived on throughout and I saved my salary throughout the one year that I worked. When I announced I was going to England, they told me that the rent could not support me but I told them that I was only informing them, not that I wanted anything from them. From my mother’s side, they contributed about £250 and gave me and by the time I was leaving for England, I had about £500 with me. When I got to England, after paying my rent and school fees, I still had a lot of money left. I had the intention to read law, but I had to do the A-levels first. Luckily, as I was rounding off my A-levels, the FG made an announcement that it was desperately looking forchartered accountants and was ready to sponsor students studying overseas ready to study the course. Then there were a few in the country. All what you needed then was evidence ofadmission and you were qualified for the scholarship. I was lucky I was able to secure anadmission, thereby abandoning law, which I set out to study in the first place, for accountancy. I must say that some elements of luck worked for me to be able to pass my professional exams once because I will not say I was more serious than those who couldn’t pass the exams at once.

How were you able to survive after becoming an orphan at the age of six?

I had my own fair share of hardship, but I had to face the world and became a man of my own early in life. I told you of our aunty who became our guardian after the death of our father. The aunty was living with us and was taking care of us after our mother died with her two daughters. Our eldest sister too was at the stage of getting married when we lost our father; she had to delay that to look after us until we were a bit steady. Eventually by the time I got to Standard 5, she got married and by then, I was already on my own. The family decided that we should be distributed among relatives to look after us, but I refused to be given to anybody and I was left alone in the house. I was catering for myself and by the time I got to secondary school, I was like a bachelor. Before our father died, we were not free to go out after coming back from school. But when he died, we suddenly became very free and were mixing well with friends around.

When you were in England, didn’t you experience cultural shock?

No, there wasn’t anything like that. At the MBHS, we had five European teachers and we wereso used to their way of life. And by the time I got to England, I did not find it difficult to adapt to British life. During the one-and-a-half years that we were working at the secretary’s office, we were at Ikoyi from morning till night and whenever we finished, we had expatriates and we used to go to and play with them in their houses then. The only difference was that, here, we sleep on the bed, but over there, we sleep in the bed. For a few days I after arrived in England, I didn’t know I had to sleep in the bed; I was sleeping on the bed and the cold nearly finished me until a tenant told me I had to sleep inside the bed. Let me tell you a joke, the first day at the cafeteria, I was served cornflakes. But instead of putting it in tea or milk, I was chewing it dry like that. I didn’t think I had to soak it in tea or milk. With one or two things I discovered later, there was not much difference over there.

As a charming young man then, didn‘t you get attracted to the white ladies?

Though I lost my parents early, my grandfathers and grandmothers were alive and they took turns to come over to Lagos to see how we were faring. When I said I was going to England, the father of my mother started lecturing me as if he had been abroad, whereas, he was just a farmer in Remo here. He was the one that told me that I should be careful not to ever forget my ancestral roots. He said don’t get there and ask somebody to polish shoes for you. He said there are certain things I must do by myself. Funny enough, when I got to England and saw a shoe shiner, I started wondering how my grandfather knew about it even as a farmer back in the village. Till today, I don’t believe somebody has to polish shoes for me; I still do it for myself. In England, I was not attracted to things like that.

Did you get married immediately you returned to Nigeria?

I got married over there. We used to have students parties and I had a Nigerian girlfriend but one day, the mother came to England and told me that I should not be annoyed, that her family said her daughter should not marry an Ijebu man. That is how I packed up the relationship. We knew each other in Isale-Eko and because of me, her mother had to send her to London and we were students and we were together in England for about three years before her mother came to stop everything. Luckily, I met an elderly West Indies woman who invited me to her house where I met her daughter who later became my wife. The old woman died three weeks ago, she was buried last Sunday, that is my mother-in-law. My wife is her only daughter and because of that, we had to be very close to her in Jamaica. My wife had six children for me and she now lives in England, but I have other two oloris (queens) here.

You became an orphan very early in life living in Lagos; so when did you begin to realise that you are of royal blood?

Honestly, I did not even think about it at all. When my father died in 1942, he was buried in Lagos and I must say that he was hardly known here because he went to Lagos very early. But one good thing he did was that when it was time for him to get married, he came home here to pick a wife. Eventually, our father’s immediate younger brother here at home knew about the lineage and was fighting for our rights. When the stool became vacant in 1952, he tried to fight for his son to become the Akarigbo because it was then our turn. But the politics of the day then favoured Awolesi, who had just left the Federal Inland Revenue Service and he became the Akarigbo even though it wasn’t their turn. Without knowing it, God was just preparing the way for me because if he had not become king, somebody from our family would have filled the stool and there would be no opportunity for me. When Awolesi became king, it was put in writing that our turn should be respected at the appropriate time.

So, you didn’t fight to become king, so to say?

Well, all the parts our uncle played in 1952 were there and were presented by the family. The family submitted my name for the stool.

You said Awolesi was from the Inland Revenue just like you…

It was just a coincidence. Awolesi worked in the Inland Revenue till he retired. When I came back from England, I worked in the Inland Revenue also. Awolesi left in 1952, while I was still in secondary school, so our paths never crossed.

Did you have a dream that one day you would become a king?

I didn’t have such a dream. I didn’t see anything extraordinary in becoming an oba. As a kid, I knew Oba Falolu of Lagos; then he was so old. When he passed away, we were all rooting for Adeniji Adele and we opposed Oba Oyekan. We were kids on the streets and we used to stone his car whenever he was passing along the road. So, if I was looking forward to becoming one, of course, I would not do all those things. The only ambition I had when I came back from England was to work in the Central Bank and one day become the governor so that I would sign my name on the naira notes. But when I came back as a government scholar, I was posted to the Inland Revenue and I remained there and remained loyal throughout.

What has been your experience since you became king 20 years ago?

When I became king, the population we had then was just one third of what it is today. There were problems like security, politics, conflict but we were able to manage until we achieved peace. Some people had to leave Sagamu because of security but today, they are all back. Then, the people complained of lack of Federal Government presence and we were able to bring the permanent NYSC orientation camp though there were misgivings that the youth corps members would mess up their daughters. But today, it is there and it is part of our achievements. Because of the security challenge, we started the idea of vigilance groups, which flushed hoodlums and miscreants out of our land. The crisis between the indigenes and the Hausa settlers over Oro festival was caused by those who wanted to cause trouble so that Obasanjo could be removed from becoming the president. The Hausa in Sabo had been there ever before I was born and had been part and parcel of the community. But God and wisdom prevailed and we managed the crisis well.

What role does the Council of Obas play?

It is purely an advisory role. We advise the government, like the crisis between the governor and the legislature. We waded into it, hearing from both sides but unfortunately, the crisis is still there but we will not relent in our efforts until peace is attained.

It is alleged that traditional rulers have become so close to the government of the day, that they have turned government mouthpiece. As the chairman of Ogun Council of Obas, does that happen here?

If I say this, I am speaking for the majority of obas in Ogun State. A majority of obas in this state are professionals, lawyers, retired permanent secretaries. How do you expect such people to be the mouthpiece of government of the day? What would a governor offer them that they will descend so low and work against their people? It is not fair to see obas here in that light. I make more than N10m on one of my property in Victoria Island alone, what do I stand to gain from running errand for the government, can they give me N10m? Look at Awujale, what will a governor give him? Before the present governor, Osoba was there. Osoba was in Form One when I was in Form Six and when I became Kabiyesi, Osoba and I became friends as old boys. I supported him because of being old boys, but when he got there and refused to perform, we parted ways. Governors come, governors go. I can count at least nine governors since I became the oba here, most of them were military. Here, I don’t get involved in politics because I have always said it that we should leave politics for politicians.

What role should the obas play?

We should be involved; we should not be left out entirely in governance. It may be monitoring job and that is something. If only to monitor the chairman or the governor, after presenting a budget, we will know how they are working and remind them when they are going out of promise they made.

Does it still happen here when the oba could just pick a woman he likes as wife as of old?

Do you think it is possible in this time? I have been on the throne 20 years; I have not seen someone that has been able to do that. In those days, they could do it and get away with it but it is no longer possible. No oba is above the law and it is no respecter of anybody.



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