Sixty-two years after a British journalist first suggested the name “Nigeria”, a 23-year-old Ibadan-born student gave the new country its national flag.
Michael Taiwo Akinkunmi was studying engineering at Norwood Technical College in London when he saw a newspaper advert calling on people to enter a competition to design the Nigerian flag.
He mailed his submission to Lagos a short time later, and in October of the following year received a letter inviting him to the London office of the Commissioner for Nigeria in the United Kingdom, where he was told that his green and white design had been selected. He had won 100 pounds ($281 in 1959) as well as a place in Nigeria’s history books.
It was October 1959, exactly a year before Nigeria’s independence.
Akinkunmi is now a retired civil servant who resides in one of the poorer areas of Ibadan, in a green and white house that can only be reached on foot. Separated from his wife for about two decades, his only live-in companion is his 28-year-old son.
He does not have a phone and last owned a car in the early 1990s. But he enjoys walking through the neighbourhood and further afield to visit two friends from his school days. These excursions add colour to his days.
The furthest he recently travelled was a visit to Abuja in 2014, where he received a national honour from then-president Goodluck Jonathan. He was also given a lifetime’s salary of a presidential special assistant – around 800,000 naira (roughly $4,000) is now paid into his account every month. Akinkunmi is effusive as he remembers that day, but he cannot recall what Jonathan said to him. He also has trouble remembering the names of his two oldest friends.
“Well, I was just pleased,” he says about his feelings on that day. Yet Akinkunmi gives the wrong name for the college he attended in London, doesn’t remember why he underwent surgery within days of winning the competition and cannot give a single detail about what he was doing on October 1, 1960, when Nigeria raised its national flag for the first time.
Sunday Olawale Olaniran was an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan when he got to know Akinkunmi, or as he later dubbed him the “hero without honour”.
“When I met him in 2006, he would never say anything negative,” Olaniran remembers. “He would say ‘God bless Nigeria,’ or ‘Nigeria is moving forward and will keep moving forward.’ Even when you could see around him that he was not well taken care of.”
At the time, Olaniran was compiling a pamphlet on Nigeria’s history. It was during his research for that history that he learned who the designer of the Nigerian flag was and decided to track him down.
“People said he was dead, that I should forget about looking for him and just write about the flag,” he says. But Olaniran kept searching until he found him in Ibadan. Akinkunmi was living alone, left to the care of his neighbours. On the first day they met, Olaniran says the older man was incoherent and kept talking to himself. His state drove Olaniran to tears. “So I got in touch with a journalist and we went back two days before Independence Day,” he says. “Even the journalist couldn’t believe the man was still alive.”
The resulting story was published in the national The Sun newspaper on October 1, 2006, and Olaniran says it was only after it appeared that most Nigerians became aware of Akinkunmi‘s condition. Akinkunmi was a pensioner when Olaniran found him, but his pension payments were so irregular that he could not even depend on them to feed himself. “Some Nigerians went to him and donated foodstuff, clothes,” Olaniran says.
Then, in 2008, Olaniran was contacted through his blog by a representative of the Nigerian edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, asking to be put in touch withAkinkunmi. For his appearance on a special edition of the TV show, Akinkunmi was given a cheque for two million naira (around $10,000). This was the money his son says was used to complete the green and white building they now live in.
Following that second bout of nationwide publicity, Olaniran and other supporters began writing to the Nigerian government about Akinkunmi. The then minister of information, Dora Akunyili, came to hear of it, and went to Ibadan to meet him. “I think it was because of her that he was selected for the 50 distinguished Nigerians honour,” Olaniran says.
During Nigeria’s golden jubilee celebrations in October 2010, Akinkunmi received a presidential award for being a distinguished Nigerian, the first time the federal government had publicly honoured him. Four years after he first discovered Akinkunmi‘s role in Nigerian history, Olaniran’s cause celebre had finally caught the attention of the country’s leaders.
Akinkunmi doesn’t remember much about the official ceremonies in his honour, but he does recall how he returned from the UK with his degree in 1964, and 29 years later, left government service. In 1993, he was advised by his superiors to go into early retirement because of illness.
His son does not know what the illness was, and Akinkunmi cannot remember what the doctors diagnosed. The only symptoms he can describe are a relapsing fever and “thinking too much”. He has been on medication for many years, but three months ago the doctors took him off the pills whose names he cannot remember.
One memory that has not forsaken him, however, is the admiration and support he received from ordinary Nigerians upon coming back to the country after the Union Jack had been replaced by his green-white-green flag.
“I was well-known all over the place,” he says. “Everybody was calling me Mr Flag Man.”