/Headmaster, Higher Ground – A Tribute

Headmaster, Higher Ground – A Tribute

Dr Leke Oshunniyi
Dr Leke Oshunniyi
The American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s yielded an inadvertent dividend!

Americans of African descent were being given a voice after centuries of often brutal oppression. Assisted by hard won reverse discrimination policies such as Affirmative Action and emboldened by the post-war liberalism that birthed the “Hippy movement”, Afro-Americans expressed themselves in the performing arts, revolutionising the music and movie industries. Simultaneously, across the Atlantic in Africa, young citizens of the newly independent countries sought role models who did not share either the conservatism of their older compatriots or the skin coloration of their erstwhile colonial masters. They found their heroes and heroines in “Black American” artistes and actors – Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Bill Cosby, Richard Roundtree, Diana Ross, Sammy Davis Junior and a host of other stars too numerous to mention, who sang the song of freedom in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In their search for the “golden fleece” thousands of Nigerian youth were drawn away from the usual destinations in the UK to the infinitely more promising USA.

Prince Olagoke Omisore, scion of a well-known aristocratic Ile-Ife family was one of those who embarked on the journey of a lifetime in the late 1960s. He sought and gained admission at the Manhattan Campus of the School of Architecture and Design of the renowned New York Institute of Technology. Speaking of his experience in America, he recollected “I went to the USA to learn, but it was not only school learning I sought; I wanted to imbibe all I could of this interesting, diverse, exciting and rich country. I wanted to know what made the people think the way they did, what made their institutions strong and what made the USA the greatest country on Earth. I was not disappointed.”

An amazingly quick witted and resourceful natural leader, Nicholas, as he was re-christened, became the leader of his contemporaries who lived in Manhattan at the time. “I made friends with everyone!” he declared “Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, American Jews, Puerto-Ricans, Afro Americans, German-Americans, just name the group. They were so different, yet so similar in their search for a better life and the American Dream. I went everywhere, visited friends as far away as California and more than twenty states in-between. Smoke filled jazz clubs, music concerts, boxing tournaments, innumerable varieties of restaurants, parades, marches, political rallies etc. I was like a sponge soaking up all the experiences and drinking deeply from the cup of American thought, history, experience and wisdom.”

In all this, his studies were not neglected and he successfully completed the educational curriculum that earned him his qualifications. He always marvelled at the sheer competence and depth of knowledge of his lecturers. “You didn’t have to be an academic to be a professor in the States” he recollected, more than three decades after his graduation. “If you were an excellent carpenter, you could be given the Chair and Professorship of Carpentry in a University.” His memories of his stay in the USA were to endure a lifetime, and proved to be an unerring compass in navigating the oft-treacherous waters of business and commerce in later life.

Nicholas returned to Nigeria towards the end of the 2nd Republic in Nigeria, to fulfil obligations to his family and nation.

“I never planned to be rich, all I wanted was a good job, perhaps a Peugeot 504 car and decent accommodation”, but Providence had other plans. In his first week of working for a popular advertising agency, he had irreconcilable differences with his line manager, and, in his characteristic no-nonsense manner, resigned on the spot. On the eve of moving into his newly rented apartment in Ikeja, he decided to put into practise, the practical aspects of his profession, designing his own set of furniture. No sooner were the fittings completed, than an acquaintance offered to buy all at several times the cost. Thus was a thriving furniture industry born. Those familiar with Allen Avenue in the 1980s will no doubt remember his furniture outlet named “Higher Ground (HG)”, paraphrasing his first name, Olagoke. Mr. G loved to play host to his exceedingly widespread circle of friends and HG became an oasis of calm, beauty and pleasure in the dark and ugly days of military dictatorship. A trip to Ikeja was never complete until you had stopped by this latter-day salon of intelligent and upwardly mobile young and middle-aged men. The bonhomie, camaraderie and humorous conversation were simply electrifying. The Headmaster’s Salon was arguably the first male grooming outfit in the area, later accommodating members of the feminine gender. An instant success, it became the place to “see and be seen”

It was not all fun and games! He was one of a contingent of like-minded friends who established “The Forum” a platform for the politically minded in the run-up to the Third Republic which proved to be an incubator for many at the heights of the political arena today.

Mr. G did not suffer fools and was a man who did not mince words in circumstances that warranted appropriate retort. His speech in Yoruba was spiced with choice proverbs, drawn from a seemingly inexhaustible quiver. “Araba gbera nle, odo’n gbe arere” he might say in response to unpleasant news, meaning what goes around comes around. Not surprisingly, he reserved the sharp edge of his tongue, his most acerbic and caustic witticisms for those who misbehaved in public office. He mercilessly lampooned and criticised this category of people, whom he believed, had made Nigeria a living hell and a graveyard of dreams.

This writer was perhaps the first to encourage Mr. G to put pen to paper and articulate his thoughts on the polity. On the 8th of September 2010, he launched his first salvo as an Email to 22 friends titled “A Nation at a Crossroads” to well-deserved acclaim. His online audience grew to the point where it was necessary to reconfigure it as a blog, “The Whispering Canon.”

As his thoughts on the peculiar politics of Nigeria evolved, he became convinced that a return to the Nigerian Constitution in force till January 1966 was the only way forward for the country. He took up the clarion call of “Restructuring” and in his methodical and painstaking manner, he began to put together an assembly of men and women of Yoruba extraction. Ranging in age from 50 to 80 years, these eighty plus men and women were drawn from various professions and walks of life. The only pre-requisite for membership of this constellation was that members should be intellectual juggernauts. These leaders of thought would form the nucleus of the think tank now known as Voice of Reason (VOR).
Victor Hugo was right when he declared “No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”. The speed with which VOR was adopted and embraced astounded even its founder/convener. Indeed, Mr. G himself often marvelled at the strength of the conviction and purity of thought of members on the issue of re-structuring. Evidently, many had reached identical conclusions to the Nigerian political conundrum, long before they were co-opted into VOR.

With the benefit of hindsight, one now wonders if Arole (the Caretaker) as he came to be known in VOR, had a presentiment of his Transition from the terrestrial plane. “Keep all the VOR documentation” he would admonish, “records are important.” The VOR came into being in August 2016, exactly 2 years before the onset of the terminal illness that was to promote him to the place in the heaven reserved for revolutionaries and patriots.

The Voice of Reason is nothing less than Arole’s magnum opus, his gift to the present and the future, a legacy for compatriots living and yet unborn. A legacy entrusted into the capable hands of an army of cerebral colossi, the like of whom has not been seen for 70 years. Arole has bequeathed the VOR, an idea whose time has come.

Esto perpetua!

Leke Oshunniyi
October 2018