As a student, he went through the tutelage of late Pa Emmanuel Alayande and also retired as Assistant Superintendent of Agriculture in the Oyo State ministry. But Pa Michael Taiwo Akinkunmi would be remembered as a national icon who designed Nigerian flag in 1959 when he was barely 23. Though, an unsung Nigerian hero, FUNKE OLAODE caught up with Pa Akinkunmi at his Ibadan Oyo State home and unveils the man whose name has become synonymous with the national symbol
Growing up in a polygamous setting
I was born in May 1936 in Ibadan, Oyo State in the then Western Region to the family of the late Pa Akinkunmi. When I was born, my father was working in a foreign firm, PZ in the North while my mother was a petty trader. He was a polygamist with three wives and 10 children. Among my father’s 10 children, my mother had three. So it was interesting growing up in a polygamous setting. Ironically, we didn’t experience acrimony associated with polygamy because my father, as the head of the family was in charge. What really helped was that the children didn’t grow up together because by the time I was getting older, some had finished secondary school and moved to Lagos to seek for greener pasture. So, with an educated father, going to school wasn’t a problem. My father retired from his work while I was still a toddler but still played his role well as a father in ensuring that our school fees were paid on time. Apart from his pension, which he collected at his retirement, he was a very wise man who invested heavily in property. With that, he was able to sustain his family.
I began my early education in the North. After my father’s retirement, he came down to the West and I was re-enrolled at Baptist Day School, IdI-Ikan in Ibadan. Coming to Ibadan was a great relief because of the harsh condition in the North. As kids, we coped well. I finished from Baptist Day School in 1949.
Memorable childhood events
We were still in the North when the war broke out but still experienced a bit of it. Every child that was born in my era would have recollection of the second world war of 1939 to 1945. I was about three years when the war broke out. So, I wasn’t conscious of that era. By the time it ended in 1945, I was about nine years and I had a vivid recollection of how soldiers were being drafted to the war or kept vigil in many parts of the town. When it was tensed, we would ask to stay at a particular location. We experienced that till the war ended.
I didn’t play pranks as a kid
I couldn’t afford to display any youthful exuberance because my father was a disciplinarian. He was so disciplined that he didn’t indulge us or spare the rod. And if you wanted to proof stubborn, he always had his cane at his disposal and one gets slashed. In a way, this put us in check not to play pranks. Nevertheless, we usually engaged in one or two. For instance, whenever we were asked to fetch water; we would go to flowing streams at the end of the town pretending that we were looking for clean water. In the process, we would use the opportunity to swim. Coming home would be a problem because our red eyes would give us away. As kids, we had a way of escaping my parent’s wrath.
I finished from Baptist Day School Idi-kan in 1949 and proceeded to Ibadan Grammar School (IGS) in 1950. IGS was a mini Nigeria because people came from all over the country. I met the likes of Chief Sokan, Mr. Williams, Goodie Ibru, and the late Chief Dr. Omonigbeyin and so on. It was a highly competitive school and I was privileged to be among the ‘privileged’. I was lucky that my father was well established because he was able to take care of my school fees. As said earlier, he had properties and he appointed caretakers to look and monitor them. The money accrued at the end of the day was able to take care for our needs as students. It was interesting to be tutored and groomed under our principal then, the late Papa Alayande who took over from Bishop Akinyele, the founder of the school. Pa Alayande was a good and committed teacher. He was a disciplinarian who always wanted the best for his students. And when you look at the caliber of people who went through IGS all of them turned out well. Again, some of our teachers were expatriates. With Pa Alayande coupled with their (expatriates) efforts, we enjoyed the best of education of that era.
Beginning a career
I left IGS in 1955 to chart a career path for myself. I took appointment as an agriculturist at the Western Region Secretariat in Ibadan as a civil servant. Although, I wanted to go further but there was no money to pursue such luxury of higher learning. After working for a few years, there was this yearning for higher education which I pursued. I had the privilege to travel abroad and attended Norwood Technical College in London where I studied electrical engineering. You would wonder what an agriculturist was doing in engineering…well, they both fall under science. My certificate actually gave me the intuition to go into engineering as a science student. So, I was excited when I finally secured admission to go to England which was another terrain. Coming from Ibadan, an ancient city, I was blown away with the level of infrastructural development and at the same time I exercised caution. It was a cold environment but I was able to cope because I was in good health and we saw the opportunity of a sound education, which foundation had been laid back home at IGS. We had good teachers. As a matter of fact, a couple of them were expatriates. So, schooling in London was like an extension of my secondary school. You know at IGS, we had adapted to them teaching us through the nose. So we didn’t find it difficult to comprehend what we were being taught and didn’t find it strange when academic commenced in a foreign land.
Coming back to Nigeria from England
There was opportunity to stay back in England after my studies, but there was this spirit of patriotism in people like us to come back home. After my training at Norwood Technical College, London, I returned to Nigeria in 1963 and went back to the agricultural department at the secretariat in Ibadan to continue where I stopped. I coped very well as a returnee because there was this urge to contribute one’s quota to the development of the state and Nigeria at large. I worked as a civil servant till 1994 and retired as Assistant Superintendent of Agric.
Designing Nigeria’s Flag
I was in England when I got involved in what stands me out today as ‘Mr. Flag Man’. I was in the Library when I saw an advertisement in Daily Times (Nigerian Newspaper) in the late 50s. I saw this advertisement looking for somebody to design National Flag which would be used for independence celebration in Nigeria in October 1960. I took part in the competition and sent it to Nigeria. My entry was dropped at the then legislative chambers, the Tafawa Balewa now Race Course. Fortunately, my design was picked among 2000 participants from all over. Few weeks later, a letter was sent to me in England that my design won. I felt elated and on top of the world that I had done something significant for my country. When you are talking about inspiration, I can tell you that God is the greatest inspirator. But designing an acceptable design that is still being used 53 years on was borne out of my experience as a Nigerian. One couldn’t have expected a science student to be able to come up with such design that has become a national symbol. I was a science student who was involved in technical drawing of equipment. Also, my observation back home, going to school and later going to work and my day-to-day activities actually helped me. The people I lived with during my school days coupled with my experience as an artist helped me to be able to fabricate that design.
I won 100 pounds for designing Nigeria’s flag
I sent in my entry to Nigeria and moved on with my studies in England. I was surprised, elated and excited when my name was announced as the winner. I was about 23 years old and it was such a great honour for me. Actually, I didn’t know I would win. I won a prize of a hundred pounds. The presentation was carried out at the Nigerian embassy in London. And it has been in use since then. But here I am at 77, I have not been recognized or given national honour beyond a 100 pounds received 53 years ago in London. The only time I was remembered was in 2010 when Nigeria celebrated her Golden Jubilee. I was among the 50 nominees that President Goodluck Jonathan presented with a Gold Medal and a certificate. There was a time a group of students honoured me and added MON in front of my name in the posters. I was embarrassed and I came out that I have not been giving a MON or national recognition. I am happy that in my life time I am still being celebrated by people who felt I have contributed to my country. Recently, August 23rd to be precise, the Nigeria-Britain Association celebrated me in Lagos in appreciation of my involvement with regards to the designing of the Nigerian flag years ago. In attendance were Mrs. Francesca Emanuel CON, Chief Keith Richards, MD of Promasidor Nigeria Limited, Mr. Mike Purves, director United Kingdom Trade and Investment amongst others. Mr. Ed Keazor, a blogger and historian gave a presentation of my life. I was humbled that someone somewhere still cares. Nevertheless, the best moment of my life was still that exciting moment when my name was announced as the winner of Nigeria’s flag. It was a feat for me.
I came back to Nigeria in 1963 and in 1964 I went back to the secretariat and settled down as a civil servant. I was about 27 years when I came back, matured, had a regular income and there was this urge to start my own family. There was a young damsel who caught my fancy. Her name was Kudirat. She was a trader, selling kitchen utensils and materials. As a returnee I tried one or two educated ladies but I didn’t succeed. But one thing I realised in life is that in all facets of life (even beyond marriage) knowing what suits you. I courted her and we got married. The marriage is blessed with children. Some have graduated while some are still schooling.
Fulfilling life’s aspiration
Can any man fulfill life’s aspirations? My answer is no because we all aspire for greater things. I went to school, got a job, and have my family to interact with. In my case, I think to some degree, I can say well done. I thank God for playing a vital role in my life, passing through Nigeria and making an impact. Whether national recognition or not, I am sure when the names of Nigeria’s heroes are being mentioned, my name will be conspicuously present.