Abraham Odekunle Aiki, the Asiwaju Ihinrere (frontline missionary), was popularly called Baba Ilero (father of Ilero).
Abraham Odekunle was born in Ilora near Oyo in 1882 in what was called Western Region (now Oyo State) of Nigeria. His father, Odeyale Aiki, was the head of the hunters in the town. His mother, Olayemi, was a princess from the Akoka ruling house in Ilora. He started working with his father on the farm at the age of eight. On many occasions, he helped his mother process oil from palm fruits they cultivated.
During his teenage years he also went hunting with his father, brothers, and other hunters in the forest. During that period, he participated in a hunter dance popularly known as Ijala which was performed particularly during the Ogun festival and whenever a prominent hunter died. He served as night guard in various locations in several locations in and around the town. The heavy sounds of guns during various ceremonies at that time helped him to be courageous, bold and fearless in his later life.
As a young person, Abraham Odekunle wondered what he was going to do with his life and why there were no opportunities in Ilora like in other big towns. He also pondered how to change the traditional way of life. He was tired of staying in Ilora with his polygamous father who had several wives and many children. Therefore he decided he would rather go to a big town like Ibadan, Abeokuta or even Lagos, the most beautiful of all the towns in Nigeria. In 1914, he made up his mind to go to Lagos even though he had no relations there. However, he had great faith that God would open the way for him. He wrote in his journal, “I didn’t have any close relation in Lagos but I trusted God that I would receive assistance from Ilora indigenes living in Lagos. I myself was prepared to do any type of job that would keep me alive and make me eventually acceptable to people.”
His Adventure in Lagos
Odekunle stayed in Lagos for almost five years. Even though the First World War raged in the rest of the world it did not prevent people from going about their daily work and churches were full of worshippers on Sundays. His first job in Lagos was to work as a houseboy for Mr. George William, a native of Abeokuta and one of the senior customs officers. William employed him on a salary of five shillings per month. Odekunle worked for Williams for almost two years and learned many things from him, including personal hygiene, how to dress properly, how to listen to people’s complaints, and how to counsel people with various problems.
Before the end of his second year in Lagos, Odekunle met Pa John Olasinde Olawoore, one of the prominent citizens of Ilora, who asked him to move to his house where he found him a job better than that of a houseboy: a position with the Public Works Department (PWD) which paid a salary of eighteen shillings a month. His main job was road construction. There, Odekunle met different people from many tribes in Nigeria–including the Yoruba tribe–and other nationals. This helped him to interact with people irrespective of their tribes and to be open to more education. During that time he started learning how to read and write. Between 1916 and 1917 he became proficient in the vernacular and could read his Bible fluently. He soon passed tests on the level of Premal two–equivalent to Infant two if he had gone to normal school.
At this point, his colleagues persuaded him to go to church on Sunday. He was anxious to attend both morning and evening services at the First Baptist Church Lagos where he met different missionaries and African church workers and was exposed to different organizations in the church like the youths, the boy scouts, and choral groups among others. Rev. J. R. Williams was pastor of the First Baptist Church at the time. Odekunle was very active in the church between 1916 and 1918. He left Olawoore’s house when the latter traveled to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and moved in with another Ilora citizen named Pa Daniel Kolade. He also met many other Ilora indigenes. Apart from his regular salary of eighteen shillings per month, he also worked overtime under the PWD.
While Odekunle was working with PWD, two ideas continued to dominate his thinking. The first was a great desire to read more and, if possible, to pass his standard six like some of his friends. His second idea was to return to Ilora and discuss his education with his close relations.
Each time he went to the church he was impressed by the ministry of Rev. William, his pastor. At that time, only ordained deacons and pastors were allowed in the pulpit. He gave his life to Jesus Christ in First Baptist Church, Lagos but he did not receive baptism before leaving there.
The adverse effect of the First World War hastened Odekunle’s return to Ilora. As a result of the war, an influenza epidemic broke out all over the West African Coast, including Lagos. Many people died of the epidemic but Odekunle returned home safely when he was about twenty years old. His parents were delighted to see him.
His Formal Education and Training
After his return, he was convinced that in order to embark upon the assignment God had for him, he would have to go to school and acquire relevant training. In other to fulfill his ambition, he entered a missionary school called Baptist Day School, Isokun, Oyo. He started in standard one, having demonstrated that he knew far more than pupils at the level of Infant two. Rev. J. C. Powell, the missionary in charge of Oyo Mission in 1920 and his wife admired Odekunle the most among all the boys at the mission. As one of the mission’s requirements was baptism, Dr. Locket baptized Odekunle to confirm his confession of Jesus Christ in public. In 1923 Odekunle completed his standard six at the Baptist Day School Isokun Oyo and was given a certificate.
In 1924 he was admitted to Baptist Academy Ogbomoso for further study. He spent three years in the school studying theology and secular subjects that could qualify him to teach in schools or be a pastor or an evangelist in the churches. In December 1926, Odekunle successfully completed the three year program of the Baptist Academy Ogbomoso.
His Call to Full Time Gospel Ministry
Odekunle began his teaching career at his Alma mater, Isokun Baptist Day School, Oyo as a pupil teacher in June 1926. After a year he was registered as permanent teaching staff.
In 1927 he married Janet Mopelola at First Baptist Church, Ilora. In January 1928, he was transferred to Aawe Baptist Day School. Before the end of the year he was transferred again to Baptist Day School Igbajo. Frustrated by the constant transfers, Odekunle thought he could do better in another economic sector besides teaching. As he contemplated quitting the teaching profession, different ideas began to creep into his mind. He packed all his luggage, left Igbajo and returned to Ilora in December 1928.
After arriving in Ilora, his confidants Rev. Aloba Lawoyin, Rev. Aikore Lawoyin, and Rev. D. T. Okediji counseled him extensively not to embark on any other activity outside church work. Odekunle was greatly encouraged by the wise counsel of these friends who were already in the gospel ministry. His call into the full gospel ministry began to actualize in December 1928 when he had the privilege of accompanying Rev. Philip Iyanda to various Christmas and New Year programs. Odekunle’s active participation kindled his interest in church ministry more than ever before.
Before the end of the year, Odekunle had made up his mind to go into the pastorate and discussed this at length with his mentor Rev. J. C. Powell who told him of the plan to send him to Igboho where Rev. Thomas Jefferson Bowen, the first American Baptist missionary to Nigeria, planned to open the first Baptist mission station. However, Odekunle had the option of going to Ilero as a missionary and becoming a new pastor in a year (1929).
After much prayer and deliberation, he told Rev. Powell frankly that he would consider being their missionary at Ilero. On December 27, 1928, Rev. Powell gave him a letter of recommendation for the Ilero church so that he could assume the pastorate of the Ilero church on January 16, 1929. Ilero is one of the towns in the Oke-Ogun area of Yorubaland.
His Missionary Activities in Ilero and Its Environs
He served as pastor of the Ilero church for over forty-four years, from 1929 to 1973. At Ilero, he preached the whole counsel of God, refusing to know anything among the Ilero community except Jesus Christ crucified. He believed that, as a pastor, his work was divided into four major functions: preaching, visiting, praying, and studying. During his pastoral ministry, he was fully engaged in all these areas.
In his function as preacher, he said that “the pastor must get ready to admonish, encourage, and instruct even by his own example.” Secondly, Odekunle believed a pastor should visit people–whether church members or simply people in the local community. Throughout his career as a pastor-missionary he visited his church members and the local people in their homes and places of work, traveling to different farm settlements sometimes on bicycle but mostly on foot. Thirdly, a pastor must pray. Odekunle usually had his personal devotions before 5:00 a.m. then he had morning devotion with his family at 5:00 am. As he visited people in their homes, places of work, in the hospitals or their sickbeds, he felt an obligation to pray for them. Finally, he believed a pastor should spend time studying. In his opinion, studying and learning should only stop when a pastor dies–and this is true of anyone.
When Odekunle arrived in Ilero in 1929 there were only 39 members in the congregation of First Baptist Church–thirty men and nine women. By the time he retired in 1973, the congregation had grown to more than 1,000 members. In 1947 the foundation of the imposing tower church was laid and the church auditorium was dedicated in 1961. It was estimated that the modern stone sanctuary could accommodate over 2,000 worshippers.
Abraham Odekunle Aiki was ordained into full gospel ministry on Sunday, February 25, 1951. Afterwards he was able to baptize new converts, administer the Lord’s Supper and conduct wedding services.
Odekunle had a vision to evangelize all of Ilero town and its environs. He mapped out a strategy to establish more churches in different localities. The churches he established were Ebenezer Baptist Church (1960), Calvary Baptist Church (1962), Kajola Baptist Church (1962), Alaafia Oluwa Baptist Church (1967), Living Faith Baptist Church, and Abraham Odekunle Aiki Baptist Church (which the church founded in his name). Other churches established outside Ilero town were Baptist Church Gboro, Baptist Church Idi-Ayin, and Baptist Church Ajo Ijoba. Through Odekunle’s efforts the Ilero Baptist community was granted its own association called Ife Oluwa. During his pastorate many deacons and deaconesses were ordained.
Odekunle also achieved great things in the field of education. For example, there were no schools when he arrived in Ilero in 1929 but, thanks to his work, the first school was established in 1936. The schools established through his tireless efforts were First Baptist Church Day School, Second Baptist Church Day School, Local Authority School, Baptist High School, Baptist School Adebiopin, and Baptist Secondary Modern School which metamorphosed into Baptist High School Orita-Ilero. He also helped to establish an adult literacy class to assist those who could not attend regular school classes in the morning. He was appointed by the Nigerian Baptist Convention to succeed the late Rev. Adesina of First Baptist Church, Okeho as the school manager for Baptist schools in the Kajola area from 1944 to 1973.
Odekunle also contributed immensely to the health program in Ilero. Through his efforts Baptist Hospital Saki started a medical centre at Ilero. He also helped establish a public cemetery in Ilero and taught the people to stop the practice of burying the corpses in their houses and places that were closed to wells. According to him such practices were unhygienic and could cause epidemic diseases.
His Last Days
His wife Janet Mopelola Aiki slept in the Lord on September 7, 1973. Odekunle retired from active service of First Baptist Church, Ilero after 44 years of meritorious services in the vineyard of the Lord from 1929 to 1973. A retirement service was organized for him in the church on Sunday, December 30, 1973 at 10.00 am. The General Secretary of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, Rev. Dr. J. T. Ayorinde, preached the sermon.
Odekunle–affectionately called Baba Ilero–lived briefly in his bungalow. He started a children’s ministry in his house. It is wonderful that the ministry metamorphosed into a nursery and primary school–a private institution of the First Baptist Church, Ilero. One great event that punctuated his retirement took place in 1983 when the ruler of Igbojaye, Oba Joel Mofoye Akinyode, conferred the chieftaincy title on Odekunle as well as the Christian title of the Asiwaju Ihinrere, meaning “the frontline missionary,” in appreciation of Odekunle’s enormous contributions to the expansion of the Gospel in Oke Ogunland and for being a civilizing agent in Ilero in particular.
In February 1990 his children decided it would be best for him to move to Ibadan where most of them lived so that they could care for him more adequately. He passed into glory at exactly 6:10 p.m. on Sunday, August 26, 2001, after spending 120 years in the world.
Samuel Olatubosun Oyedele
Aiki, Abraham Odekunle. Vertical File. No. 1512. Ogbomoso: The Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, n.d.
Oladoja, Jacob Osuolale. Rev. Chief Abraham Odekunle Aiki: A Frontline Missionary in Oke-Ogun Area of Oyo State, Nigeria. Ibadan: Ola-Oluseye Press, 2001.
This article, received in 2007, was researched and written by Samuel Olatubosun Oyedele while a student at Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, P.M.B 4008, Ogbomoso, under the supervision of Rev. Dr. Deji Ayegboyin, DACB liaison coordinator.