Who Says You Can’t?

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Being text of a lecture delivered by Mr. Faith T. Abiodun at the 16th Annual Founder’s Day Public Lecture of The Vale College, Ibadan on Wednesday 2nd June 2010.

COURTESIES

I am most delighted and humbled to stand before you this day on this wonderful occasion of the celebration of the successful attainment of 16 fruitful years dedicated to the service of mankind and building life-long learners. The Vale College has come a really long way after all these years and I am extremely delighted to be a part of the success story of this great school.

Permit me to express my heart-felt indebtedness to the Director of The Vale College, Mrs Olufunso Adegbola for the great honour she has accorded my family and me over the last one year and for giving me a platform as great as this to speak for the youths of this generation. I must say that this gesture is unprecedented and personally, I feel very humbled to be performing this holy ritual that has been performed by 15 great citizens of the world before me. Once again, I am very grateful for this privilege.

Today marks a continuance of this series of intellectual discourses in honour of the late Babatunde Ige; so far, we’ve had 15 great lectures. Five years ago, Mr. Kunle Ajibade spoke about ‘What exactly is good governance’; four years ago, Hon. Wale Okediran spoke about ‘Youths and the burden of leadership’; three years ago, Miss Chioma Nwafor spoke of ‘TIED Youths’. Two years ago, Pastor Olaniran Fafowora enlightened us on ‘The concept of God and Man’ and last year, Chief Bisi Akande spoke on ‘The role of students and their parents in building a greater Nigeria’. This year, we’re taking it a notch further, with a discourse that reaches out to the very being of every single person in this place; young and old, man and woman, boy and girl: WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T?

INTRODUCTION

Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of the Nigerian movie industry for two primary reasons: firstly, I do not believe that the products of the Nigerian movie industry are very rich in intellectual content (I speak in generalization); secondly, I am aware of the invaluable contributions of the Nigerian movie industry to the bastardization of the English language (I don’t believe that Nigerian movies are good tools for learning the English language, especially movies with subtitles). But I had an uncharacteristic experience on the 25th of February this year.

The day preceding the 25th of February, Wednesday the 24th, was one of those days that we all wish we can wipe off the calendar. I had a ‘bad day’; a day in which almost everything went wrong; I was denied an application on which I had staked a whole lot and I had my credibility and abilities called to question by some people who thought they knew me. In essence, I had a low moment going into the 25th, such that I practically rocked myself to sleep. When I awoke on the morning of the 25th, I just wasn’t excited about anything, so I decided to see a movie. I turned on my laptop and turned to the ‘movies’ folder and scanned for a title that caught my attention. I got one and it was titled ‘White Waters’.

Now, that doesn’t sound like a Nigerian movie, because they usually come with titles like ‘Guilty Pleasures 2’ or‘Episodes of Love 3’ or ‘Abuja Senator 1’‘White Waters’ sounded quite distinguished, so I assumed it was a product of Hollywood until I clicked ‘play’. By the time I found out it was Nigerian, I just decided to give it a try until I got bored. But it was not to be. The movie was a production of the Amstel Malta Box Office and featured Joke Silva, Rita Dominic and OC Ukeje among others.

The movie profiled the life of a young boy, who from the age of about 7 had been written off by his entire family. Having repeated a few classes in primary school, his parents concluded that the best solution to the ‘family embarrassment’ was to send him to live with his grandmother in the village. So, away he goes to the village where the grandmother tearfully receives him. He ran her errands for her, but not just figuratively. He literally ran all the way to the market, the clinic, and everywhere his grandmother had to get to. The young boy could not stop himself from running. And so after many years, Grandma had grown old and was suffering a condition that needed frequent medical attention, so the young man often ran to the clinic to get the doctor or her drugs.

On his date with destiny, Grandma was suffering one of her fits, so she sent the young man to the clinic. With his lightning-pace, he dashed past a couple of athletes who were in the countryside for a camp exercise. They noticed his talent and traced him home to discuss his possible involvement with the state athletics team at the upcoming National Sports Festival. He agreed to join up and then the real story began. He had it very rough with the existing local champion who wasn’t just going to stand by and watch a ‘village boy’ dethrone him. He was framed in a scandal, he had his resilience tested on many occasions and he was pushed to the brink of giving up on more occasions than one, but he withstood them all. He became the pivot of the team and made it to the finals of the 100m dash at the National Sports Festival. At the first attempt, he made a false start and put all hearts on the line, but he maintained his composure through the second attempt and blazed away magnificently to the admiration of all. At that time, his grandmother was too old to travel to watch him live, but alongside other villagers, she sat in front of her television set and saw her boy who had been condemned by all, least of all his parents, rise to national fame and glory.

As the movie came to a crescendo, I lifted my face from the laptop screen and realised that for the first time in my entire life, I was in tears, watching a movie, a Nigerian movie. And I could instantly identify with the young man in the movie. He was me. I was him. His was the story of the average Nigerian youth; looked down upon, abandoned, good for nothing. His ideas were not good enough, his efforts were not hard enough, his pursuits were not persistent enough. He was never to be given even a chance at success. He was a project not worth believing in, not worth investing in, not worth even a gamble. At best, he was the heir of a promise that will be fulfilled tomorrow; whenever that is. He was a leader of tomorrow, so as long as the date reads ‘today’, there was nothing for the Nigerian youth. And that is true. I could see traces of it in me. No matter how much I tried, I was told that I was not old enough, not experienced enough, not mature enough, not tall enough, just never enough!

And as I shed precious tears that day, a new light dawned in me. I looked at the young man in the movie and said “Who says you can’t?” “Where are they now?” “Are they watching you? You put them to shame; you disappointed them; they said you were not good enough; they abandoned you; they tried all they could to demoralise you, but you outshone them”. And I said to myself that day “Who says I can’t?” “Whatever I decide to do; there’s no one standing in my way. I have a right to be successful in my pursuit of happiness and achievement and by all means, I will.” That day, my new slogan was conceived: “Who Says You Can’t?”

WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T?

And so, here I stand today, speaking about this four-word phrase that drives me. And I know that it can drive you too; whether you are a parent, a student, a teacher, or a guest at this occasion. In your heart of hearts, in your deepest being, you have ambitions; things you really want to achieve in your lifetime. “Who Says You Can’t?”

Mrs. Funso Adegbola is the Director of The Vale College today, and here we are, celebrating 16 years of the Lord’s favour. But she has said it before, that she almost did not establish this college. Perhaps the sad passage of Mr. Babatunde Ige was the impetus needed; perhaps it was needful for him to move on, so that The Vale College could come on; perhaps she would have toyed with the idea till this day, had he not passed away, and maybe The Vale College will have remained a mere fantasy. Whatever the circumstances, Mrs. Adegbola, if no one could stop you from fulfilling the call of God upon you to establish this institution of blessing, raising role models for the society, then who can stop these fabulous ones from going all the way to attain their potentials? Students of The Vale College, I say to you, “Whatever your ambitions, Who Says You Can’t?”

Today, I have come to talk about my role models and the enormous roles they have played in getting me to this substantive pedestal in life, as well as the roles they play in my life daily as I trudge on in my pilgrimage. My role models, by all standards are heroes, international figures, men of distinction, they are the cloud of witnesses who cheer me on everyday, saying “Go on, Go on, Go on! You have no reason to fail, because we didn’t!” Their stories are the same as mine, I can see myself in them and I can see them in me. They speak to me everyday about the challenges they faced and how they surmounted them. Today, I speak about my heroes and how they collectively say to me every moment: “Who says you can’t?”

MOHANDAS KARAMCHAND ‘MAHATMA’ GANDHI

Mohandas Gandhi was born in India in 1869 and studied Law at the University College, London. After securing admission to the British Bar in 1891, he tried unsuccessfully to establish a law practice in Bombay until an Indian firm with interests in Durban, South Africa retained him as legal adviser in 1893. Upon arrival in South Africa, he discovered that Indian immigrants were denied civil liberties and political rights and he instantly threw himself into the struggle for Indian rights.

He remained in South Africa for 20 years, suffering imprisonment many times, and during that period, he began to teach a policy of passive resistance to and non-cooperation with the South African authorities, drawing inspiration from Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau and Jesus Christ. He later adopted the term ‘Satyagraha’, meaning ‘Truth and Firmness’. In 1914, his years of sacrifice paid off when the South African authorities made concessions to his demands; and with his mission completed, he returned home to India.

Back home in India, his coutrymen were under the colonisation of the British and Gandhi immediately swung into action, leading an organized campaign of non-cooperation. Indians in public office resigned, government agencies, like courts of law were boycotted, children were withdrawn from school and streets were blocked by squatting Indians who refused to rise, even when beaten by Police. Gandhi again led the way for India’s economic independence, by ordering a complete boycott of British goods, and advocating Indian cottage industries, especially the use of the spinning wheel for which he became popular. Today, the Indian economy is witnessing a tremendous boom, thanks to Gandhi’s advocacy.

After series of arrests, Gandhi organized a new campaign of civil disobedience, calling upon Indians to refuse to pay tax, especially the tax on salt. He organized a march to the Arabian sea where thousands of Indians made salt by evaporating sea water! It must have been an arduous task, but the resilience of their leader spurred them on to watch sea water dry and then sublime to salt granules. That is the power of purposeful leadership, and he wasn’t even the president or prime minister!

Gandhi also employed the tactic of fasting to improve the conditions of his people; while in Jail in September 1932, he undertook a ‘fast unto death’ to improve the situation of Hindus, and later when riots engulfed Calcutta, Gandhi fasted until disturbances ceased. Sadly, he was assassinated on his way to his evening prayer meeting on January 30, 1948. The United Nations declared a period of mourning, as his teachings came to inspire future non-violent movements in USA under Martin Luther King Jr and in South Africa under Nelson Mandela. In 2007, the United Nations declared October 2nd, Gandhi’s birthday as the International Day of Non-Violence.

So, what lessons can we all learn from the life of Mohandas Gandhi?

  • Wherever you find yourself, identify a need and try to meet it. Gandhi was only 24 when he got to South Africa and he didn’t have to do anything about Indian rights in South Africa, but being an agent of change, he stood up for his countrymen in a foreign land and became the messiah for his people. So, what are you doing for posterity?
  • To repay evil done with violence is to act stupid. Gandhi had worthy role models in Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau and Jesus Christ and he adopted their policies of non-violent protest. Fashie-Fizzie says: “Get violent, get stupid”; Jude Abaga (MI) says “Silence is the best answer, not violence”. Gandhi succeeded with his message of non-violence.
  • Don’t be interested in the welfare of fellow human beings, only through word of mouth, show action! Gandhi campaigned for Indian rights, but he also acted to empower his people. Nigeria is filled with civil rights activists who have never given a Naira to alleviate the sufferings of people around them. Gandhi taught us both to campaign for our rights and to act as humanists to help each other.
  • Persistence yields profit. After 21 long years of struggle in South Africa, Gandhi emancipated his people from being members of an inferior race to being equal citizens in a foreign land. His persistent fasts also served to end violence in India and Pakistan. Whatever you have to do to make an impact, do it! Who says you can’t?
  • Great leaders are not afraid to lead, especially in difficult times. Gandhi campaigned for Indian independence, both at home and abroad; socially and economically; thus becoming the symbol of a free India. He led the way in the transformation of India such that the people sought to deify him by naming him ‘Mahatma’.
  • Great leaders are happy to give all that they have for the sake of the causes they believe in. Gandhi gave for peace, worked for peace, prayed for peace, fasted for peace, lived for peace and died for peace. Posterity honours him, even though he never won the Nobel Peace Prize, his children, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Aung Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and the rest of us receive it on his behalf.

For Gandhi to have lived and died for the peace and freedom of his people, and for ensuring that his name will never be wiped away from the surface of the earth, “Who says you can’t?”

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on the 15th January 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, and as a child, he was affected by the segregation policies that governed southern USA. In his days, African-Americans attended segregated schools, rode on segregated buses, ate in segregated restaurants, lived in segregated neighbourhoods and worshipped in segregated churches. There were no rights for the black man in southern USA, but during a summer experience in Connecticut, north of USA, he was shocked at how peacefully the races mixed. Negroes and whites went to the same church and ate anywhere they wished, and that deepened his hatred for racial segregation.

After earning a Bachelors Degree at 19, and a PhD at 26, King became acquainted with Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence at Crozer Theological Seminary where he was elected president of the student body. On the 1st of December 1955, when he was 26 years old, Mrs. Rosa Parks, an African-American seamstress violated the segregation laws of Alabama when she refused to vacate her bus seat for a white man, because she was extremely tired. The driver promptly had her arrested for the offence, and black leaders in Montgomery, Alabama rose in protest and chose the 26-year old King as the leader of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association.

The young King led Black Americans in an organized boycott of the bus system in Alabama which lasted for 385 days (more than one year) and at the end of it, the authorities gave up and announced the de-segregation of the bus system on the 20th of December 1956. Martin Luther King, thus came into reckoning as a prominent civil rights leader in the USA at the age of 26, while serving as a pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

From that moment, King championed the cause of the downtrodden and campaigned massively for the rights of black Americans for jobs, for freedom to vote, for equality and for access to health care. In 1963, after repeated arrests and intimidation, King and fellow black civil rights leaders decided to organize a March on Washington to campaign for their rights. On the 28th of August 1963, over 250, 000 Americans, black and white converged, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, from all over the country and listened to him deliver his famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech.

He continued to work hard and was admitted in October 1964 to a hospital on account of extreme fatigue and it was there that he found out that he had been awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. He became the youngest person in history to win the prize. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see the fruit of his labour as he was murdered on the 4th of April 1968 at the age of 39.

At his funeral on the 9th of April 1968, over 70, 000 people were reported to have stood in the streets because they could not cramp into the church. His death request was that at his funeral, there should be no mention of his awards and honours, but that it be said that he tried to ‘feed the hungry, clothe the naked and love and serve humanity’. It was reported that at the time of his death, though he was just 39 years old, he had the heart of a 60 year old man. In 1986, he became the only person in history to have his birthday declared a national holiday in the USA; not even George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln was accorded that honour, but that is the beauty of a life well-lived.

So, what lessons can we all learn from the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

  • Like Gandhi, he chose to stand up and fight those policies that affected the people. When he understood the impact of racial segregation on the minds of black people; always seeing themselves as inferior to the whites, he fought against it by all means.
  • He refused to be disturbed by distractions. His house was bombed with dynamites, his family was threatened, he was arrested many times, he was stoned with rocks, but he was undeterred.
  • He was not afraid to lead in spite of his very young age. He took on the burden of Black America at the age of 26 and bore it for 13 years, when even fellow/older civil rights leaders criticized his tactics. He refused to excuse his youthfulness and inexperience and compensated for it with dedication and passion.
  • He perfected the art of oratory, as the power to change. He knew that without arms, his message will have been difficult to pass across, so he opted for oratory and he inspired a new generation of public speakers for change, culminating in the emergence of Barack Obama and many others.
  • Sadly, in spite of his numerous successes and achievements, in spite of his campaign for civil rights and liberties, in spite of his reputation as a man of God and leader of the people, his moral life was often called to question. I was personally devastated when I found out in the course of my research that he had significant challenges with controlling his sexual life. As far back as 1951, when he was 22 years old, he made no secret about drinking beer, smoking and playing pool, and it was repeatedly confirmed, by even his closest associates that he had numerous extramarital affairs, involving prostitutes and some even involving physical abuse. The FBI kept surveillance on him, tapping his phone lines and hotel rooms and they gathered more than enough evidence of his private life. It was so disturbing that President Lyndon Johnson called him a ‘hypocritical preacher’.

The reason I have decided to highlight this part of King’s life, that is often not mentioned is to draw attention to the fact that nobody, not even our ‘immaculate’ role models and often preachers are free of shortcomings. King’s Achilles heel was his sexual life and if he failed to rise to the pinnacle of morality, to accompany his civil rights advocacy, if he was as adulterous as he is said to have been, if he has failed to be a role model of youthful chastity, then that is sufficient motivation for the rest of us to succeed where he has failed. And I thought that if the Lord Jesus Christ could forgive my sins and absolve me of any blame for my shortcomings, then why can’t I forgive the Rev Martin Luther King Jr for betraying my trust in him as a worthy role model? So, I say to all young people in the audience today, aspire to succeed where these great men have failed and aspire to outshine them where they have succeeded. “Who says you can’t?”

AGNES GONXHA BOJAXHIU (‘MOTHER TERESA’)

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born on the 26th of August 1910 in India and lived a very quiet and unambitious life until the age of 12, when she decided, surprisingly to be a catholic nun. The decision was a surprise because up till that time, she had never seen a nun in her life. At the age of 18, she left home for Macedonia where she joined the Sisters of Loreto and from that time, she never saw her family again.

On the 24th of May 1931, she adopted the name Teresa when taking her vows as a nun and she was subsequently drafted to teach Geography at a high school where she served for 10 years. It was while serving at St. Mary’s High School on the 10th of September 1946 that she received a ‘call within a call’ to serve the ‘poorest of the poor’. She left the convent two years later in 1948 and her first action was to establish a school in a slum area called Motjhil (this reminds me of Mrs Adegbola’s decision to leave Bola Ige & Co to start The Vale College: a divine call).

On the 7th of October 1950, the Missionaries of Charity was approved and from then, Sister Teresa hit the ground running with numerous projects. In 1952, she opened Nirmal Hriday (Home of the Pure Heart), the first Home for the Dying in India; in 1953, she opened Nirmal Shishu Bhavan (Home of the Immaculate), the first Home for the Abandoned and Handicapped Children. In 1957, she started working with lepers of Calcutta and in 1965, she opened Shanti Nagar (Place of Peace) for Lepers.

She lived a profoundly simple and unassuming life; she was not a celebrity, she lived her life to ‘love and care for those persons nobody was prepared to look after’ and she was duly rewarded for it. In 1979, she received the Nobel Peace Prize ‘for the glory of God and in the name of the poor’; in 1985, she received the highest civilian honour in the USA, the Medal of Freedom and in 1996, she was awarded Honorary American Citizenship. In 1999, she was voted the ‘Most Admired Person’ of the 20th century in a poll in the USA. It was as a result of failing health, numerous heart attacks and battles with pneumonia and malaria that Mother Teresa died on the 5th of September 1997.

So, what lessons can we all learn from the life of this great citizen of the world?

  • Her recognition of the great importance of education as the key to the liberation of the poor and her commitment to it was strong. As a nun, she taught in a school and when she started her charity, her first act was to open a school. We should all contribute as much as we can to the education of the new generation, especially those who cannot afford it. They are also human.
  • Her commitment to care for the poorest of the poor is strange to this generation. She went after those people that nobody cared about in the least. We should emulate this attitude through hospital visits, prison outreaches, giving to the needy wherever they are found and spreading the good news of Christ, the greatest gift of all.
  • She was unfazed by criticisms; she was criticised for limiting herself to keeping people alive, rather than tackling poverty itself. I see that as an outrightly faulty criticism because she wasn’t the Prime Minister of India! She didn’t owe anybody anything and even those who criticised her have no record of their own roles in tackling poverty. She was also accused of receiving money from autocratic and corrupt persons in the society but her response was sublime “no matter who says what, you should accept it with a smile and do your own work”.
  • She craved no personal popularity; it was said that she was always eager to discuss any topic with anyone, except the topic of herself.

Mother Teresa lived a simple and dedicated life, devoted to her calling and her faith. Even in death, she still speaks to us today; if she could abandon all earthly pleasures while here on earth, to cater for people whom she knew not from Adam; if she could reach out to millions from the most obscure region of the world, if she could discover her purpose and fulfil it to the letter; then ‘Who Says You Can’t?

NELSON ROLIHLAHLA DALIBUNGA ‘MADIBA’ MANDELA

Nelson Mandela was born on the 18th of July 1918 and he became the first member of his family to attend a school. As a child, he grew up in a racially segregated South Africa, where South Africans were subjugated in their own land under the apartheid system. Drawing inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King before him, Mandela immediately threw himself into the struggle for black emancipation in South Africa.

In 1944, he joined the African National Congress and his activities led to numerous arrests and imprisonments. It was while in prison that Nelson Mandela studied and gained a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London. He went on to establish the first black practice in Johannesburg with his friend Oliver Tambo and their chambers, Mandela & Tambo specialised in providing free or low-cost legal counsel to black people who lacked and needed representation. From 1956-1961, he was on trial for treason. In 1962, he was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment with hard labour and in 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside 7 others.

During one of his trial defences in Rivonia, Mandela said “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people; I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

In February 1985, Mandela was offered freedom in exchange for renouncing his struggle but he replied saying “What freedom am I being offered while the organization of my people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate!” On the 11th of February 1990, his 27 years of sacrifice in the Robben Island and Pollsmor prisons paid off as he breathed the cool air of freedom and raised his fist in the afrika salute. In 1993, Nelson Mandela and Fredrik Willem de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize ‘for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa’.

On the 27th of April 1994, the African National Congress won 62% of votes and on the 10th of May, at the age of 75, Mandela became the oldest and the first black president of South Africa. Surprisingly, after only one term, Mandela stepped down from office and handed over to Thabo Mbeki. Mandela has been the most celebrated African in recent times, and probably in history, so much that July 18th, his birthday, was declared Mandela Day by the United Nations ‘in recognition of his efforts towards world peace’.

So, what lessons can we all learn from this great ambassador of the black race?

  • His determination is uncommon. While serving time in prison, Mandela studied and earned a degree in Law and started his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom. It is unfortunate that Nigerian prisons which are supposed to be correction facilities, are death holes, but Mandela stands out. He was not the only prisoner of his time. He was determined and different.
  • His early involvement in a movement for change is inspirational. He joined the ANC as a young man at 26 and was engaged in resistance immediately. Many young people are yet to stand up for something. Mandela was different.
  • His refusal to compromise personal freedom for the cause he believed in, just like Gandhi and King before him, is legendary. He was ready to sacrifice all he had for the sake of his people and he was ready to give even his life for South African freedom.
  • His unexpected lack of greed for political power is strange. It is unheard of for a man to be imprisoned for 27 years and then serve just 4 years in office in a continent where people who have suffered much less for their people take the presidency as their birthrights and then transform them to family businesses. Such sacrifice is legendary.

Probably, it was for these reasons and more, that Professor Wole Soyinka succinctly refered to Nelson Mandela as the ‘avatar’ of our world. I think, in all ramifications, he is correct. Nelson Mandela has shown the way for us all. If he could achieve all that he did, in spite of the loss of his father at the young age of 9, in spite of the long years of suffering and loneliness in prison, in spite of the palpable intimidation and subjugation in the land, then “Who Says You Can’t?”

JAMES AJIBOLA IGE (‘CICERO OF ESA-OKE’)

I would not dare to attempt a biography of the Cicero of Esa-Oke, the much revered ‘Uncle Bola’, because those who knew his comings and goings are right here with us today. But for the purpose of the younger generation, James Ajibola Ige was born on the 30th of September 1930 and grew up in Zaria, Kaduna State. He studied Classics at the University College Ibadan and then Law at the University College, London and was called to the Inner Temple in 1961; the same year he started Bola Ige & Co.

He gained a reputation for his brilliant oratory (so we all know how the name Cicero came about) and for his ability to communicate fluently in the major Nigerian languages. He was also well known for his advocacy on civil rights and democracy and for his time in governance, serving as Commissioner for Agriculture in the Western Region between 1967 and 1970 and Governor of Oyo State from 1979-1983. As a result of military exuberance, he was imprisoned from 1983-1986 and again from 2nd May – 16th June 1998. His undying interest in the entrenchment of lasting democracy in Nigeria saw him play active roles in the formation of Nigeria’s three main political parties in 1999 before serving as Minister of Power and Steel and eventually Attorney-General and Minister for Justice.

As a public servant, his tenure as Governor of Oyo State could only be likened to the regime of Chief Obafemi Awolowo as Premier of the Western Region; attracting great development for the state and empowering the people. As Minister of Power and Steel, he researched and came up with “a Power Creed” which, unfortunately was buried under the rubbles of politics and as Minister for Justice, he served till he dropped and has since been denied the justice he laboured for. As a man, he had deep concern for the less privileged, and took unexpected interest in brilliant young people; traits which he has passed on to his children. In his tribute, Ike Anya stated that “Uncle Bola…understood quite clearly, unlike many of his generation, how difficult it was for young people in Nigeria to make progress” and he did what he could to help them.

As a family man, his children rise and call him blessed. His daughter talks so often about his fondness of her and her siblings and how he encouraged them to be exactly the people they wanted to be. He expressed sincere commitment to their progress and allowed them to explore beyond themselves. His daughter, wrote in her book that “He taught me to reason independently and made me feel confident with my choice”. He encouraged an attitude of openness between his children and gave each of them the freedom to choose and to choose right. After reading the book He gave me wings, I just wanted so desperately to have a daughter and to be a responsible father to her. The continued existence of The Vale College today is testimony of his responsible parenting and he has proven to be a father whose children are proud of. I only pray that the same will be the case for all of us in the audience today.

So, what lessons can we learn from the life of the great Cicero of Esa-Oke?

  • His brilliant Oratory, drawing comparisons with Cicero. In a country like Nigeria, where mother-tongue interference has the day, Bola Ige perfected the art of elocution and became an orator-per-excellence. Only God knows how many public speaking competitions are held in his honour yearly.
  • His uncommon love for the youth is unrivalled in Nigeria. It is rare for a Nigerian, least of all a politician, to take undying interest in the lives of strangers; young people and love them without end. That was the quintessential Bola Ige. God rest his soul.
  • His ability to escape untainted in the murky waters of Nigerian politics. He is one of the very few politicians who served as Commissioner, Governor, Minister, Presidential Aspirant and Federal Prisoner without any allegations of financial scandals to his name. That is strange.
  • He was a highly detribalised Nigerian. He prefered no tribe above the other; learning all three major Nigerian languages and loving indigenes of all tribes equally.
  • His ability to maintain a successful home-front deserves special commendation. Many Nigerian fathers, not even politicians or people with similar portfolios to his, find the time to get involved in the lives of their children. But being so visible in the public light, yet, so involved in the lives of his children is something that requires the expertise of a Bola Ige.

If Uncle Bola Ige could achieve all of these; being a very public person, yet a very private person; loving all Nigerians, irrespective of tribe or creed; maintaining a pure stand even in the thick face of corruption, and leaving a legacy that will never be erased in this world or in the world to come, then “Who Says You Can’t?”

BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA

The story of Barack Obama is one which I assume most of us are familiar with, being the most contemporary of my role models and probably, the most popular man in the world. He was born on the 4th of August 1961 in Hawaii. His Kenyan father and American mother separated when he was just 2 years old and were officially divorced when he was 3. His father remarried and returned to Kenya while his mother also remarried and left for Indonesia with her new husband when Barack was 6. After living 4 years in Indonesia, his mother sent him back to her own parents in the USA in 1971. That same year was the only time he ever saw his father again before he was killed in an auto-mobile accident in 1982.

As a young man, he also had encounters with racism, but of a different brand from the ones that affected Gandhi, King and Mandela. There were seeming rights for the black man in America when Obama grew up, but the mental slavery was seriously demeaning. He wrote that as a student in Hawaii, “I went to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking the way I had always looked and wondered if something was wrong with me”. By identifying with racist impressions of who he was expected to be, Obama used alcohol, marijuana and cocaine; these acts, he later referred to as his ‘greatest moral failure’.

He studied Political Science at Columbia University before moving to Chicago to work as a community organizer from 1985 to 1988 and then gained admission to Harvard Law School, on loan, in 1988. After his first year, he was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review and by the end of his second year, he became the first African-American in the over 200-year old history of the school to be elected President of the Harvard Law Review (so for those who think Barack Obama is just a flash in the pan, or a newcomer to breaking barriers, sorry to disappoint you; he’s been doing it for over 22 years).

After graduating Magna cum Laude in 1991, he returned to community organizing in Chicago and served as a Senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 up till 2004. In 1996, he was elected to the Illinois state senate and was re-elected three times; he lost woefully when he ran for US congress in 2000 and then won over 70% of the votes four years later when he ran for the US senate. On the 10th of February 2007, barely two years after he was sworn in as a senator, Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president of the United States of America and that was when most of us started to know him. All 7 co-contestants for the democratic nominee dropped out till he was left in the ring with Senator Hillary Clinton and the battle went to the wire until he was announced as the substantive nominee on the 3rd of June 2008, and the rest is history. Obama won the election with the highest number of votes in American history and gave resounding hope to millions, if not billions of people across the globe. In December 2008, he was named Times magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ and on the 9th of October 2009, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize ‘for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples’.

This great achiever has, in his story, many salient lessons that we can very easily miss out in our fascination of his person.

  • Barack Obama, just like Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela had to cope with the loss of his father at the age of 2. A single mother on her own could only do so much; the rest was up to the young man to make meaning out of his life and that is exactly what he did. When you are faced with challenging situations, do you seek for a solution or do you seek for an escape?
  • He gave sacrificially to the downtrodden in Chicago when he had earned the right to earn six-figure incomes yearly after a degree from Harvard Law School. Working with pensioners, retirees and old people is not the kind of job that an average Harvard graduate covets but Obama was different. He lived and still lives for the people.
  • His passion for education is surprising. After leaving school, he started teaching Constitutional Law at University of Chicago Law School and continued there even as a state senator for 12 long years. This passion for education is something he shares with Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.
  • His bold and daring demeanour is inspiring to millions of young people. His rise from nobody to state senator, to US senator, to President, to Nobel Laureate is extremely phenomenal and has inspired belief in many young people. Having the confidence to take on tough opponents in their own strong areas, as he did with Alice Palmer, Hillary Clinton and John McCain in his political campaigns in Illinois, and for the US presidency, shows a strong belief in himself and in people.

Overall, the story of Barack Obama is one that should be told in every home. His rise from grass to grace has given so many people cause to believe that there is nothing they cannot achieve, if they commit themselves to it. Even the picture of a beautiful partnership that is often painted in the Obama family has inspired many people to look beyond themselves to build great families. Omololu Elegbe wrote, in the book ‘Through My Eyes‘, of an argument between a young lady and her boyfriend. The lady asked why all men could not be as responsible as Barack Obama and the guy responded that Obama was as successful as he was, because he had a very supportive wife, so the question was why could all women not be as supportive as Michelle Obama? His girlfriend then responded that Michelle Obama was supportive because Barack Obama was responsible in the first place and the debate went on and on, until both of them decided that they were not playing the roles of Barack and Michelle in each others lives, and so they split up.

Quite a funny and tragic story, but the lesson is very simple. Heroes introduce us to ourselves; through them, we see those parts of us that we did not see before. In the light of their achievements, we begin to realise that the human spirit is indomitable and there is absolutely no one stopping us from achieving those things we want to achieve.

Someone wrote that ‘Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk; and Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run and Obama ran and now we can fly”. That is exactly what heroes do to us; they help us to understand that we are not different from them and we can also fulfil our dreams and become role models for others. Martin Luther King must have admired Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks’ courage and decided to do something of his own; Nelson Mandela must have admired Martin Luther King’s passion and drawn inspiration from it; just like Barack Obama looked to the heroes before him and repeatedly made reference to the sacrifice of his forebearers. In like manner, I look to all these great patriots and ask myself “Who says I can’t?” I am very much humbled to admit that even today, there are people who tell me that they admire me and that my few achievements give them encouragement to go out and do things of their own. Those words encourage me to keep working hard, to justify their trust in me and to inspire others, even on a larger scale.

And so that brings me to you. From the lives of my role models, I have drawn and I still draw inspiration every day of my life. These great men and women, including those I have not mentioned are heroes and some of them are not even celebrated. This is the message I give to you today; look within yourself, identify your dreams and ask yourself “Who Says I Can’t?” Andy Andrews wrote that “A person without a dream will never have a dream come true”. The Vale College was a dream and it is a dream come true. Believe in your dreams and as Sharon McPherson said in 2008, “I believe that the human spirit is indomitable; that when you decide what you want to do, there are forces in nature that come into alignment and support you in achieving what you want to achieve”. Even the Apostle Paul wrote that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”; so “Who says you can’t?”

I say to everybody here today, especially the younger ones, whatever you do, follow through on your dreams. They are not just stupid, childish ideas or thoughts, they are yours and no one can take them away from you. I know that you have many reasons why those things cannot come to pass; probably because its genetic (your parents are your role models and therefore their failures become your failures, but often, their successes do not even become your successes). I say to you today, leave your parents in your own shadow and by all means, be who you want to be!

And if like any of my role models, you have had some terrible experiences in life, its not strange. There is always a major turning point in everybody’s life. The point where one goes through the valley of the blackness of darkness; ‘the kind of suffering that introduces a man to himself’. For some, its a rejection, a great loss, or demotion, for others, its the loss of a parent, a job, a close friend; whatever it is, you’ll arrive at a major junction where you’ll find yourself all alone. Look at the cloud of witnesses and draw inspiration, find strength and by all means, move on. Look at the names Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Mandela, Bola Ige, Obama and you. Tell yourself “I Know I Can” and witness the most amazing transformation in yourself.

Don’t ever say a negative word to yourself, and don’t stay around people who use negative words. Never say the words “I Can’t”, but replace them with “I know I Can” or “Yes We Can”, and most powerfully, “Who Says I Can’t?” Andy Andrews said: “If you worry about what people say about you, you will have more confidence in their opinion than you have in your own”. Hold nobody responsible for the position in which you find yourself. Let the buck stop with you. Failures have perfected the art of saying ‘its not my fault’, but until you start to take responsibility for where you are, you are highly unlikely to make significant progress in life.

The time has come for those who know that the pursuit of greatness is not built on a path for the faint-hearted, or for those who prefer leisure over work, or for those who seek only the pleasures of riches and fame; it is for the risk-takers, the doers, those who toil all night while men sleep, it is a life of sacrifice and our journey must not be one of short-cuts or settling for less. Barack Obama said ‘There is absolutely nothing that we cannot achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage’.

The only reason I’m working so hard now and doing all the things I’m doing is that I don’t want to be 40 or 50 or 60 and spend my whole adult life regretting what I could have done as a young person at 18 or 21 or 25; so I have chosen to start early and build up a reputation that I would always be proud of. And as I said to Ayotunde Adegbola some weeks ago, she can go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature because her use of the English Language is alien to this generation. Who says she can’t and to every other person who aspires for something great “Who says you can’t?”

Probably, you’ve identified a talent for drama, or singing or writing; or like Chidi Nwachukwu, ‘the big papa’, you’ve identified a talent for comedy; or maybe, you like to cook or to do interior designs or to organize events; maybe you’ve discovered a talent for drawing or painting or sculpting, or maybe yours is preaching, speaking or one form of business or the other. The only reason you will not be successful is if you think you can’t. Henry Ford said “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”. But I stand here today to say “Who Says You Can’t?”

I conclude with the words of Marianne Williamson quoted in the movies Coach Carter and Akeelah and the Bee:

“…Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Thank you, God Bless You, may the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows and may the Peace of God rest upon you and on The Vale College.

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