Legend of All Time by Peju Akande and Toni Kan, Shonny Books, Lagos: 2014, 210pp
Reviewer: Michael Jimoh
He was a millionaire in his thirties. He built the first modern estate in Nigeria. He held managerial and executive positions in opulent companies such as UAC and Amalgamated Press, publishers of top of the range newspapers of the day. Banks in England readily extended loan facilities to him when it was unfashionable to do so for businesses in British colonies. A savvy technocrat, he was a founding member of a political party, was tried and jailed, and almost lost his estate.
Samuel Olatunbosun Shonibare survived it all. But he did not survive a recurring high blood pressure, which led to renal failure that eventually killed him. By the time he died in 1964, at 44, he was one of the wealthiest Nigerians of his time, wooed and courted by politicians and businessmen, hated and despised by other politicians and party members.
Otunba Subonmi Balogun, founder of First City Monument Bank and fellow Ijebu, regard him as a mentor and a man whose business template guided his own entrepreneurial spirit and disposition. Oba Sikiru Adetona, Awujale of Ijebu, insists he wouldn’t have been king without Shonibare’s effort. From bringing news of his selection by the Afobajes (king makers) to him in London, his arrival in Nigeria and eventual coronation, Shonibare played a prominent role. Awujale promptly rewarded him by making him the first Asiwaju of Ijebu land.
Though Shonibare didn’t go as far as university as was common with some of his compatriots at the time, he had an uncommon business sense, sniffing out profitable ventures others ignored or didn’t think of. He excelled in almost everything he touched, changed the lives of those he met, transformed cities and formed successful alliances in business and politics.
Shonibare also had foresight, presciently planning and redrawing Lagos metropolis of the late fifties, thus giving the city its first modern look. Helming a team of National Investment Properties Company, Shonibare helped build Western House, LAPAL House and Investment House. This was in the sixties when Lagos was the seat of government of Nigeria with Tafawa Balewa as Prime minister. The tallest building then was only six stories. Government structures around were shorter. And then, these edifices sprung from nowhere reaching out to the sky. It was Shonibare’s brain child.
Action Group which Shonibare was a founding member was in opposition to the Northern Peoples’ Congress led by Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto. The new buildings owned by NIPC, a company owned by AG, were subtle hints of superiority on the ground and from the sky as well.
“NIPC had in effect insinuated itself into the seat of power by not just taking over space on the ground, it had also set itself as a towering and hulking presence that kept an eye over all it surveyed.” Not only that, the authors contend, the buildings “signaled the dawn of a modern central business district and they had done it without a template to follow. It was novel. They had become the builders of modern Nigeria.”
Shonibare Estate on Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way was also the first of its kind in the country. Bought for 5, 000 pounds from the Onigbongbo family in the fifties, Shonibare turned an otherwise wasteland into the most modern estate in Lagos, fitted with household gadgets and appliances far advanced for its time and age. With his uncanny managerial gift, Shonibare also built the Action Group into one of the best organized political parties in Africa.
His love and generosity for people was not modest by any means. There are a dozen accounts by those he helped in this book. There are so many of them you wonder if all he lived for was helping people. He did. He also lived for work, described as a workaholic by those who knew him intimately.
Indeed, the opening chapter of the book finds him at work, at UAC, where he was senior clerk. So diligent was he that he was promoted manager shortly, not yet 30, the first at that time and ever since.
Devoted as he was to work, Shonibare was also the ultimate family man, marrying Alice Olaperi Olukoya, daughter of his boss, Chief Olukoya, the first Nigerian manager at UAC. Shonibare and Alice had eight children between them, with four born outside wedlock. Relations and friends were well taken care of, including those who worked for him. Indigent students he met outside the country benefited from him as well, sometimes paying their school fees upfront, aiding those who showed promise or were ambitious. Shonibare’s generosity and magnanimity are the qualities corroborated by those interviewed by the authors. Deprived himself in youth, he was intolerant of suffering in others after he became rich.
The first ever biography of such an influential figure should be more than the 210 pages allotted to him. But the retelling of his brief existence by the pair of Peju Akande and Toni Kan is as racy and enthralling as the short but enthralling life of the subject.
Toni and Peju are graduates of English and Literature from the University of Jos. Both have worked in the same media establishment in Lagos. They now manage their public relations company, Radi8, in Anthony Village. They also co-authored a bio, Avant-Garde: The Cool Jimmy Jatt Story, about the life of Oluwaforijimi Amu aka Jimmy Jatt and his influence on disc jockeying in Nigeria.
Legend of All Time is their most ambitious collabo. Part of the reason is the subject himself, a man who, in every respect, was truly larger than life. The photographs in the book testify to his ample physique, his velvety skin, and confident aura. Fifty years on, Otunba Subonmi Balogun remembers the day Shonibare’s body was laid-in-state at his estate in Maryland, Ikeja: “There he was in his usual woolen apparel, oozing opulence, gentle bearing and mien so much so that one could almost say to his body “excuse sir, please rise and talk to us.”
Death shut him up for good, unmentioned for 50 years after his demise. Some of his contemporaries have had a dozen or more books written about them by a corresponding number of scholars, biographers and historians, keeping them fresh in the memories of their countrymen and women. SOS has not been so lucky. History had passed him by for 50 years, until now. So, Legend aims to unravel to readers the mystery behind the man Shonibare.
The authors declare their mission from the start: “This is a book that set to right a wrong, to ask and answer the question: why is Shonibare so poorly served by political historians?”
It is a successful attempt. He was two when his father died, was primus inter pares in almost every aspect of his short but eventful existence. Sired by a Muslim father, Sanusi, and a Muslim mother, Adikatu, Shonibare was named Suleiman. He only became a Christian when he was about to marry Alice, wherein he changed his name to Samuel.
It took the authors six years to write Legend, from when the idea was bruited to when it was published. They conducted several interviews with people who knew SOS, from those who worked with him like Bajomo, his personal assistant, to those who lived with him like Dewole Olukoya, his wife’s younger brother.
Apart from the main man himself, other people come alive in Legend. First among them is Alice who refused to remarry after her husband died. She it was who inherited whatever was left of the Shonibare estates, properties and companies. There were also debts, which she paid and then began the tasking process of rebuilding the dying companies and raising the fatherless children all by herself.
To say that Alice transformed what Shonny Investment Properties Company is today is an understatement. Credit is duly given to her for her fortitude in bringing up her children and her business acumen in stabilizing the companies and even adding more to the already existing ones.
Legend is broken into sizable chapters capturing different moments of the subject’s life, thus there is a chapter on his days at UAC and his humble provenance in an Ijebu village. Another chapter is devoted to his kindness and generosity while his foray into business and politics, his marriage to Alice and his relationship with his mentor, Roy Thompson, are likewise categorised down to the last one of his death and burial.
Shonibare’s death was particularly painful to Awolowo, founder of AG and his close associate. Such was Awo’s grief, so it was said but not in this book, it was the only time he ever cried, a politician whose public display of emotion is as rare as his inscrutable visage is legendary. There was a long convoy of cars from Lagos to Ijebu and over 100, 000 mourners during his burial. The whole of Ijebu land mourned when news of Shonibare’s demise came, throwing the entire town into weeks of despair as if a messiah had vanished just like that.
Beyond Shonibare’s immense wealth, his intimidating aura, his generosity, vision and business acumen, what else is revealed of the composite picture drawn by Peju and Toni? Alas, there is none. They relied mostly on accounts of people who knew him, forgetting the famous advice to biographers by the prince of that profession, Plutarch.
“In the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice,” Plutarch (pronounced Plutack) cautioned. “A slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles when thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities.”
This is the major shortcoming of this otherwise admirable bio, thus giving the reader an incomplete portrait of a truly great man. Also, a biography like this deserves to be indexed making it easier for readers to go straight to any page for any information, especially names mentioned in it.
Even so, this first publication is a great start. Others may follow in due course. On the strength of Legend, a bio on another Shonibare is possible. Whose? Alice Olaperi Shonibare. That way, both books can share shelf spaces in homes just as the marble busts of the partners for life now share a burial place in their tomb in Ijebu Ode.