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50th Anniversary Celebration In Honour of The Late Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh

Jan 15, 2016 - Ladies and Gentlemen, I do not know why I was asked to join the array of eminent speakers; indeed much more eminently qualified than I to speak about the late Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh, given their respective personal relationships with him and members of the family. Nevertheless, I count it a singular honour and I thank you most sincerely for it.

A lot has already been said about our first Federal Minister of Finance; the man who was popularly called "Omimi-Ejoh, Ejoh bilele". So I do not think there is anything that I can usefully add. But I will tell a short story to buttress the import that I have attached to this occasion.

Over the Christmas and New Year holiday, I had the pleasure of spending time with some of the younger and teenage members of my immediate and extended family. As is sometimes the case, our discussion turned to Nigeria; but this time, rather than discussing contemporary issues, we found ourselves talking about recent Nigerian history; more specifically, our political history from that very first coup, fifty years ago today.

For me, our discussion was both edifying and depressing. Edifying, because we were having that particular discussion at all, instead of discussing Olamide, David O, Wiz Kid and Tiwa Savage. But depressing, because they really had no clue as to events that happened as recently as 50 years ago, in the only country they call their own. Not surprisingly therefore, some of them were not very clear about how Nigeria came to be or even where our name came from.

This was worrying to me because some of them are studying A-level history in various schools abroad. They can reel off dates and facts about the French Revolution, the American Civil War and World War II. They know what "Let Them Eat Cake" means. The Battle of Gettysburg means something to them but the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade doesn't. They know that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, and that Winston Churchill was the British Prime Minister during World War II. They know that "TBS", is "that place on Lagos Island behind 'Uncle Tunde's' house when he was the Governor; where we go to watch shows and The Experience". But they didn't know that it was named after our first Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; and they certainly did not know that Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh was the first Finance Minister of Nigeria. Needless to say, our discussion quickly turned into a mini-lecture and thankfully they are all now better informed.

As I said earlier, I told this story merely to buttress my message to you all today and not to disparage our younger ones; of whom my nieces and nephews are just a representative fraction. As a matter of fact, many of our contemporaries and even seniors are similarly ill-informed about their own country, Nigeria.

Without a doubt, information abounds about the First Republic and the events that led to the coup d'état. Much of it can be found on the internet, mostly from doubtful sources. Indeed there are probably as many accounts of that period as there are people willing to recount them; and as many theories about what was, is and would have been; as there are theorists willing to expound them. But to the best of my knowledge, there is little or no official documentation available to ordinary Nigerians, in Nigeria, of the events surrounding that Saturday in January 1966; or of the principal and peripheral actors in the drama that led to end of the First Republic.

One of such principal actors was the late Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, who was one of the unfortunate ones that lost their lives that day. Why was he singled out amongst his colleagues in the Federal Cabinet to "go" along with the Prime Minister? Was it just because of his alleged closeness to his principal, or was it because his flamboyant dress sense created the impression that he personified all that was allegedly wrong with the political class? Or was he a victim of circumstances; as has often been touted by his admirers? Who knows for sure? Where are the records?

One thing remains clear to me. For as long as we consciously or subconsciously refuse to properly and accurately document our history, we are bound to repeat our past mistakes, now and in the future, to our collective detriment. As I have said in the past, and permit me to quote:-

"… We are constantly reminded that without the knowledge of the past we cannot confront the future. If we do not have even the most basic knowledge of our past; if we do not understand where we are coming from, we cannot appreciate where we are and we certainly will not recognise where we are going. Our past defines our present so that we can build our future…"

I made these comments at the commissioning of the Lagos State Records and Archives Bureau in March 2012. At that occasion I posited that we had to set about the task of collating and preserving information from our past with diligence and creativity, and that all available opportunities to retrieve information must be fully exploited.

I still believe this.

What a noble idea it would therefore be, if one of the outcomes of this 50th Anniversary celebration is the establishment of a Foundation in Chief Okotie-Eboh's name, dedicated to the accurate collation and preservation of Nigeria's political history, including the First Republic in which he served.

There is an urgent need to collate and document our history; not just for posterity but for our own self-development. This is an important part of our legacy. There is much work to be done and I daresay there are numerous Nigerians all over the country who have photographs, documents and other audio-visual memorabilia to help jump start this project.

The average citizen in many parts of the world knows their history. And with that knowledge comes a heightened sense of patriotism and civic pride. Telling the story of our past to the present and next generation will unify us and strengthen our bonds as citizens of this great country. Telling our children our story will add to their collective confidence and sense of self-worth and it is our duty to do it.

This is the take-away I leave you all with, as I congratulate Dr. Mrs. Dere Awosika and all her siblings on the celebration of this milestone. I also seize this opportunity to congratulate Dr. Awosika on her birthday today, sad though the memories of your 13th birthday may be.

No matter how unhappy anyone might feel that their father, brother, friend or mentor, has not in death, received the kind of recognition they think is due; that we are gathered here today to mark 50 years of his passing; that his name still means something to some people, half a century after his demise, is proof enough that he made a mark. And that is something that nobody can take away. I thank you for your time and the privilege of your attention.

Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN
Hon. Minister for Power, Works & Housing