TAI SOLARIN was a Nigerian icon, a man who dedicated almost his entire life to activism and rebellion. No contemporary history of Africa's most populous nation could be complete without mentioning his name. His most notable contribution was in the field of education, but it was as an indomitable moral crusader and social critic that he will be remembered.
Solarin's date of birth was not known. But he assumed that he was born in Ikenne, in western Nigeria, in 1922. He was educated at Wesley College, Ibadan, from 1932 to 1936; and after serving in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, he stayed in Britain, studying between 1946 and 1949 at Manchester University, and later at London University.
While in Britain, he had been influenced by the post-war left-wing campaigners, and was a regular visitor to Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park where he listened to radical speakers. After returning to Nigeria, Solarin had himself become an iconoclast. He first came to national prominence when he shocked and astounded the nation by his declaration in the Daily Times of Lagos that there is no God. 'God,' he wrote, 'is a soporific phantom tossed by people who have nothing to do to tantalise the waking hours of other millions of people who, too, have nothing to do.'
As Principal of Molusi College, Ijebu-Igbo, in western Nigeria, in 1954, Solarin angered the school's Board of Governors when he ordered that it was no longer compulsory for students to attend church services. He ordered copies of the Songs of Praise used by the students to be confiscated. If the students could not compose their own songs, then there would be no more singing in school. The students thus created the Melodious Molusian, an unorthodox hymn book.
Though Solarin's unorthodox style endeared him to the students, who discarded Christian songs that called on God to save them, instead of working hard, the Board was horrified and forced Solarin to resign in January 1955. Undaunted, he established his own school, the Mayflower School, Ikenne, a year later. The early days of the new school were tough, and he and his English wife Sheila, whom he married while he was a student in Manchester, slept inside mud huts wondering if parents would be brave enough to bring their children to Mayflower, which had by then gained notoriety. It had been blacklisted by the Christian Council of Nigeria and the Camerouns.
Much to their surprise, 1,115 application forms came from prospective candidates from all over Nigeria. Out of these, 70 were admitted as pioneer students. Now that he had established his own school, Solarin tried, without hindrance, to put into practice all the basic principles he had tried to introduce at Molusi College. Part of this was Merry Mayflower, the unique hymn book fashioned after the Melodious Molusian. The hymn book is still in use today, and Mayflower itself has become one of Nigeria's best secondary schools.
Solarin had an immense capacity to shock and to inspire, especially when, in the mid-1970s, he decided to do something about the dead bodies which were often abandoned for days on Nigerian roads. He warned the Nigerian police that if they refused to collect the bodies he would do so himself.
He carried out the threat one day when he collected a body that had been lying for days on a main street in Ibadan. Solarin brought a coffin, poured disinfectant on the body, put it inside the coffin and drove it to the Government Secretariat in Ibadan, and left it at the front door of the office of the Minister of Health. He then left to leak the story to the local newspaper.
Solarin was the conscience of the nation, speaking out against sit-tight military rulers and corruption in high places and was a thorn in the flesh of General Yakubu Gowon, when he was Nigeria's military ruler from 1966 to 1975. Solarin launched a virulent attack on the general for embarking on a lavish state wedding in the middle of the Biafran civil war. Angered by the criticism, the authorities arrested Solarin and locked him up for 48 hours.
The battle between Solarin and Gowon came to a head in 1974, when the general reneged on his promise to return Nigeria to democracy in 1976. Gowon had given as an excuse the fact that 'a large number of well-meaning and responsible Nigerians . . . have called attention to the lack of wisdom and the dangers inherent in adhering to the target date previously announced.'
When Solarin heard this on the radio, he issued his 'The Beginning of the End' statement, challenging Gowon to name such eminent anonymous Nigerians and declared that it was foolhardy for Gowon to remain in power.
He stood by the Ibadan-Lagos expressway to distribute this statement himself. For this, Gowon imprisoned Solarin again, for 32 days. Solarin was on more than one occasion declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
While he detested Gowon, Solarin had contempt for Shehu Shagari, who came to power in 1979, and whom he regarded as the worst leader ever to rule Nigeria. Every Sunday, Solarin went to the Campus Square in Lagos, which he renamed Freedom Square, to inveigh against Shagari. And every Sunday, the police would arrest, detain, and release him. It was a running battle which never ended, even when General Buhari finally overthrew Shagari in 1983. Solarin's demand that Buhari should hand over to some tested Nigerian civilians landed him in prison for 18 months.
He was a man who was a rarity in Nigeria. He shunned opulence and ostentation. He wore khaki shorts and shirts all the time, regardless of what social function it was.
He once said he wanted no one to misrepresent exactly who he was. So he suggested an epitaph for his tombstone, it reads: 'Here lies the remains of Tai Solarin, who lived and died for humanity.'