Two separate but remarkably related events have inspired the piece this week. Last Thursday saw the first anniversary of the re-introduction of uniformed voluntary organizations in Lagos schools. Over 3,000 members of these bodies have so far been inaugurated; they include the Red Cross Society, Boys Scouts, Boys Brigade, Girls Guide and Sheriff Guards. Lagos state re-introduced them “to explore the inherent virtues of discipline, obedience, leadership training, sense of organisation and planning for enduring and progressive society”. Governor Fashola said membership of these organizations was better than that of secret societies “which undermine the fabric of society”; and he was very right. The second event was the death two weeks ago in Ilorin of one of my great uncles, Alhaji Sa’adu Laofe, the District Head of Ballah, an uncle of the Emir of Ilorin.
He died on September 13th, two days before the first anniversary of my mother’s death. He was one of the inspirations of my life as a young boy. Alhaji Laofe was a life-long member of the Nigerian scouting movement, and together with the late Reverend Ayo Bello, late Mister Asuelimen, and late Malam Omosidi Sarumi, was a pillar of scouting in Ilorin in the 1960s and 1970s. I joined the movement at 8, and it was in his house that I read Baden-Powell’s SCOUTING FOR BOYS, at nine. He taught scouting lessons as well as opening instructive pages in Ilorin’s history for me. And looking back now, voluntary organizations were an important part of socialization in those years: Christian children actively participated in the Boys Brigade movement, centered around the Saint Barnabas primary school, just as we (Muslim and Christian) were scouts. I was in the 6th Ilorin Troop and I learnt to tie different knots, attended camp fire events and was taught to do a good turn each day. I still remember the Scouts’ pledge and laws till today.
Ilorin in the sixties and seventies was a close-knit community, making a transition from provincial headquarters to a state capital. Scouting held tremendous fascination for young people and it had its colourful sides and characters; none more so, than a smallish, pock-marked-faced man we all called “FOLLY CONGO”! He was said to have attended an African Scouting Jamboree in the Congo (just as Dapo Olorunyomi attended the World Scouting Jamboree in the seventies in Japan). Folly Congo had the most unique uniform festooned with badges which seemed to underline his scouting eminence, and he made every effort to look the part, whenever there was a scouting event. Woe betides a scout whose beret was improperly placed or was caught infringing scouting etiquettes that only Folly Congo seemed to know! Frankly he was some form of local terror but his ceremonial scouting uniform was the only one of its kind in Ilorin. I didn’t understand why more respected people like the late Alhaji Laofe kept Folly Congo at an arms length, until much later. The colourful character was also a football linesman, in whose tiny hands the flag seemed to look bigger than usual. One day at a football match, I told one of my cousins to look out for his tiny fingers and the oversize flag, not knowing that he overheard me. He knocked me on the head and chased me around the police ground “stadium”, abandoning an on-going football match for a few moments!
If scouting was alive, so were other bodies like Red Cross and the Girls Guide. The ECWA Christian youth center on Ahmadu Bello Way was open to children from every background and we were there each week. They had the first basketball and volleyball courts; they showed movies every month; and we learnt to play scrabble, draft and chess but more importantly socialized with children from different persuasions, so learning lessons in mutual appreciation and respect. We have kept some life-long friendships from those encounters. These events intertwined with the weekly visits to the Ilorin Provincial Library, located by the Emir’s palace. I recall the fascination of borrowing ladybird books from very early and the library card was a source of genuine pride and satisfaction. We played football or watched members of the Ilorin town team train most evenings at the United School: Moshood Jaji; goalkeeper ‘Magnet’ Agodirin, Christian Ulonta; Sidiku, Isyaku, Ajala, amongst others. They played a 2-2 draw with the famous Mighty Jets of Jos at the opening of the Police Ground “Stadium” in 1970! There was the legendary coach, Usman Adenuja, former coach, Northern Nigeria Academicals before turning the Kwara state Academicals that had such players as Baba Eleran, Busari Ishola, Rashid “Bayee” Gbadamosi, Ahmed “Atinga” Yahaya, into the backbone of Nigeria’s academicals for most of the 1970s!
Significantly, in those years, schools had sports grounds and from the primary school level, there were sports competitions which allowed the discovery of remarkable talents for Nigeria. I remember Hameed Adio, Awalu Aliyu, Bruce Ijirigho, Felix Imadiyi, Dele Udoh and Modupe Osikoya. They combined an active sporting life with successful academic pursuits. Today they are all contributing to the development of Nigeria. There was no urban center which did not have open spaces where young people expressed talent. Today, these spaces have been alienated, often parceled out to build houses or shopping centers. Young people can no longer positively express energy, and therefore do so negatively: cults, drugs, rapes and sundry crimes; just as the voluntary organizations have lost their sheen, where they are still standing at all. The experience in Lagos state needs to be replicated all over our country. Young people must be positively and productively engaged and the spirit of community re-energized within the young people of Nigeria. At the moment we have over 44million unemployed young people in today’s Nigeria, while 5million more join them annually. It is a frightening proposition for our future. People like the late Alhaji Sa’adu Laofe enriched our lives; today’s younger generation has a right to such enrichments.