Augustus Taiwo “Tai” Solarin was a Nigerian educator, social critic and philanthropist. An avowed atheist, his unique clothing style inspired some people to describe him as a “village eccentric” rather than as the renowned intellectual he truly was.
Tai Solarin was born on August 20, 1922 in Ikenne-Remo, Ogun State. He and his twin sister, Caroline Kehinde Solarin, were the only children of Daniel Solarin, a drummer, farmer and palm wine tapper, and Rebecca Okufule Solarin. He was educated at St James School, Iperu-Remo for three months and Wesley School, Ogere-Remo (both in Ogun State) from 1927 to 1929. He attended Otapete Methodist Primary School in Ilesha, Osun State from 1930 to1931 where he completed his Standard Six Certificate. He then enrolled at Wesley College in Ibadan, Oyo State for his Higher Elementary (Grade Two) Teacher’s Certificate from 1933 to 1936. Solarin married Sheila Mary Tuer in Manchester, England on September 14, 1951 and they had two children (a boy and a girl).
Solarin taught at the Methodist Primary Schools in Ago Iwoye and Sagamu (both in Ogun State) from 1937 to 1941. He also served as a typist at the Nigeria Customs Office. In May 1942, Solarin went to England as a volunteer in the British Royal Air Force during World War II, where he was trained to become a navigator. After his discharge in April 1945 from the Force, he enrolled at the University of Manchester in 1946, and earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Geography in 1949. In 1950, Solarin earned a Postgraduate Diploma in Education at the University of London’s Institute of Education. He taught Yoruba as an assistant lecturer from 1950 to 1951 at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Solarin relocated to Nigeria in 1951. He was immediately appointed the new principal of Molusi College in Ijebu-Ogbo, Ogun State, from 1952 to 1955. He disagreed with Molusi College’s governing body over the policy of opening each school day with hymns and prayers and taking the students to church on Sundays. Solarin later ordered that copies of the Songs of Praise used by the students be confiscated and that if the students would not compose their own songs, then there would be no more singing in the school. This led to the students creating the Melodious Molusian, an unorthodox hymn book which discarded songs that called on God to help people rather than rely on hard work.
The school board, horrified, forced Solarin to resign in January 1955. He moved on to open the first secular school in Nigeria in partnership with his wife. Mayflower School in Ikenne, Ogun State was founded in January 27, 1956. Solarin served as its principal for twenty years. The institution’s primary arm − Mayflower Junior School − was opened in 1959. He retired in 1976 and established the Student’s Second Home in 1977, a boarding house which still serves over two thousand students from the three public high schools in Ikenne town.
Solarin started writing regular columns for two national newspapers, the Daily Times and Nigerian Tribune, in 1958 and 1967 respectively. He was also a contributor for the Guardian and several other papers. Solarin routinely wrote over thirty articles a year and is said to be the only known Nigerian columnist to have had a continuously running column for over twenty years. As a columnist he relentlessly accused the Nigerian military government and the Church of corruption.
Tai Solarin published several books including Towards Nigeria’s Moral Self-Government, Thinking With You, A Message for Young Nigerians , Timeless Tai and To Mother With Love.
In 1979, Tai Solarin adopted what he referred to as permanent “battle dress” after his visit to densely populated China where he discovered that almost hundred per cent Chinese children were in school as against less than twenty-five in Nigeria. In protest, Tai swore to only appear in public in a pupil’s school uniform of khaki shorts, short-sleeved shirts and “knowledge is light” cap pending when the subsequent government will address the issue of sending every Nigerian child to school.
Solarin had several confrontations with the government due to his unpopular political views, which resulted in his being incarcerated. He was arrested by Yakubu Gowon’s military administration for his verbal attack on Gowon for a lavish state-sponsored wedding party in the middle of the Nigeria-Biafran Civil War and was locked up for forty-eight hours. In 1974, he attacked the Gowon government again for reneging on the promise to return power to a civilian authority. To drive home his position, Tai stood by the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway to distribute fliers bearing a statement he had crafted on the matter; the government responded by imprisoning him for thirty-two days. Amnesty International, on more than one occasion, declared Tai “a prisoner of conscience.”
His criticism became even more fervent during Shehu Shagari’s rule. Every Sunday, Tai would go to Campus Square in Lagos – which he later renamed Freedom Square – to abuse the administration. In March 1984, during the Buhari-Idiagbon regime, Tai was again arrested at his Ikenne home and incarcerated at Abeokuta Prisons for “acts prejudicial to state security” for eighteen months.
Tai Solarin died at the age of 72 on June 27, 1994 in the town of Ikenne, Ogun State. Before he died, he wrote the inscription on his tombstone which reads: “Here lies Tai Solarin, who lived and died for humanity.”
In 1971 Tai Solarin was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in literature by Alma College, Michigan.
In November 1995, the National Universities Commission of Nigeria formerly recognized the Tai Solarin University of Educationin Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State as the first specialised university of education in Nigeria. He was also recognised by Lagos State with the establishment of the Tai Solarin Hospitals in Mushin and Apapa, the Tai Solarin Memorial School in Amuwo-Odofin, and a statue of himself at Sabo in Yaba…OGA TASERE LIVES ON