By Yinka Fabowale
King Michael Odunayo Ajayi is the Elerinmo of Erinmo- Ijesa, Osun State. Until two years ago when he was drafted by his people to ascend the throne of his forbearers, he was an industrialist based in Ghana. In this interview, the first class monarch reflects on his journey to the throne, stressing that presiding over the kingdom located in the hinterland of Ijesaland has been at a huge cost and sacrifice. He would, however, not give the stool up for anything, as he sees it as a call to serve and help his people develop the town. Excerpts:
Before becoming the Elerinmo, who was Prince Odunayo Ajayi?
Well, I was brought up in line with the principles of God because my mother was a strong Anglican from Ogbara-Oke. My grandfather was one of the founders of Christ Apostolic Church, Iyan-Erinmo. My forefather, that is the Arotawaya I, was the king when the first church came to Erinmo i.e the Anglican Communion. I attended Nigerian Command School, because my mother used to be a senior teaching staff with the military. Subsequently, I obtained my first degree at the age of 20 from University of Ilorin. I secured employment while I was in the university and before I commenced service, I worked with UAC Plc in several operating divisions i.e GB Olivant, MDS, Sapele Packaging and others. In the course of all that, I obtained an MBA in Marketing Management and ended up with a distinction and from there I joined Nigeria- German Chemicals as head of consumer healthcare. I managed its international operations. It took me to Ghana, where I set up a West African distribution network, called AH Trade Link with the German partners. From there, I was recruited by an American conglomerate and indeed it was the largest pharmaceutical factory in West Africa with the production capacity of over two billion tablets annually on 140 hectares of land. I served first as marketing director and eventually I became the first African Vice-President in charge of Sales and Marketing. From there, I left to set up a company on my own and was engaged in consulting for other companies, holding special trade fairs and conferences for business people within West Africa. I organized the first Ghana-Nigeria Business Summit and others , which were chaired by several former presidents including President John Kufor of Ghana as well former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, Chief Ernest Sonekan and others. Together with other people, I organized Forum of Nigerian Professionals in Ghana as the founding president. I was also part of those who organized Ghana-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce of which I became the first director-general. I used to publish a magazine then in Ghana, which was free, essentially to promote Nigerian interests in Ghana and to improve its image. I am married with children. My father is no more and my mum is the Yeye Oba and I found myself here.
Arowotawaya, what does that title mean?
It’s the most interesting title of an oba in the whole of Yorubaland. The first Arowotawaya was king at a time when there was a lot of prosperity and he was very wealthy and then during his tenure between 1900 and 1922, the first underground cable was passed through Erinmo all the way to the East. And that was why the town was so excited and nicknamed him Arowotawaya bi Oyinbo and of course, there were white settlers who lived in Erinmo.
Could you tell us about your early life as a prince?
Well, I come from a very religious and strictly disciplined family. I was at Wesley Guild Hospital in Ilesa though, I never lived there. I spent my early years in Ilorin where I attended Bishop Smith Primary School. My father, the late Asiwaju Ajayi was the first and only Asiwaju of Erinmo. He graduated from the University of Lagos. So essentially, education was a major part of growing up and being the son of a teacher and the first son meant that I was disciplined beyond the regular person. After school, I had to go for lessons and do my home work. I was expected to be at the top of everything. There was no room for me to come second in my class or performing woefully or dropping out of school. Everything was extremely strict. I just had to fall in line because my mum was very strict. So, when I was not in my school uniform, I found myself properly dressed. I wasn’t able to wear tattered jeans or dress too casually like every other person, even when I was a teenager. My father always wanted to see me in tie or properly tucked in. I used to think I missed out on a lot of things, but I thank God that I didn’t .
So, the consciousness of your royal pedigree never dictated your attitude?
To be honest with you, I didn’t expect to be king, I didn’t plan to be king. Again, that guided the way I behaved, what I could do and couldn’t do. I felt like as a prince, I shouldn’t be seen doing certain things. I have always been extremely cautious with that, even though I wasn’t interest in becoming king. But, my father always drummed it in, that even if everybody was doing something , I couldn’t as a prince and that a higher level of morality is expected from me. It’s something that comes with a lot of respect, but respect is also earned.
You said you never planned to become king. How did you become interested?
Okay, I would say I am a circumstantial king that God anointed. It is the will of God. I am king, because God wants me to be king. There are four ruling houses in Erinmo and the Arotawaya lineage is one of them and of course, it was our turn. There was an issue of an attempt to rewrite history, so when the late Elerinmo died, they had to go to court to resolve it. Unfortunately, my father, whom the town had wanted to be king even before the late Elerinmo, died two months before the judgment came and the town insisted that they had to bring his first son from Ghana to be king. To me it sounded like a joke. When I came to bury my dad in February, 2014, I was almost kidnapped at the church for immediate installation as king. I appealed to kingmakers to just give me time and I was obliged. I realized that over 90 per cent of the town wanted me to be king. In fact, the government sent representation and we were going to various towns asking what to do. These were people I was not even familiar with, but I would say my father had played a lot of roles in this town. Apart from being the first university graduate, he was a student in the town and he taught in the school here. He supported 80 per cent of indigenes of this town who had done very well in terms of providing them employment and sponsoring their education. Some of them are abroad and some of them are well to do right now. So, people remembered all that he had done and he always had this affinity with Erinmo. He always wanted us to remember Erinmo in all we do.
What’s your experience as a king who stayed abroad mostly as a prince?
Well, it has been easy I would say, because if the people want you, they make everything easy. I realized that even when I was being installed, a lot of things had to do with traditional rites and my people were a bit concerned about whether I would be able to participate. They were bothered, but I made up my mind that we had to do it. I would say that God has made it easy for me. First, before I was born, a vision had been related to my mum about me becoming king, but my mum did not just believe it. Before I was named, the same vision was repeated. In the course of my life, the same vision was repeated even to my hearing when I was 14 years old, coming on and on. But I just thought, well, it is one of those things. Second, my people had been supportive, very supportive. I have had no issue with them, if I walk down the street today, you will see how the people will come out of their houses saying kabiyesi o. They have made things very comfortable for me too. I have been to several countries, I have been to four continents, I have traveled a lot and I have realized that all that was for me to garner enough exposure and experience and use to the benefit of my people.