Where do I start to speak about Bishop Anthony Saliu Sanusi — a man who was my rector for less than one year and who had been the mentor of my mentor, Archbishop Felix Alaba Job? Look at it this way: Back in the day, Archbishop Job was a mass server to Bishop Sanusi. Many years later, I served Bishop Job at mass. Today, I’m honoured to be talking about a man who was at least two generations removed from mine. It is a privilege I do not take lightly. What is clear to me from the long life of Bishop Sanusi who was a priest for almost 65 years (40 of them as bishop), is that each human being was sent to this world to fulfil a purpose and will not depart until that purpose is fulfilled. God tells us in the Bible that, “Just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return without watering the earth, making it bud and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so My word that proceeds from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please, and it will prosper where I send it” (Isaiah 55:10-11) It is exactly the same way that I view the errand that God sent Bishop Sanusi to run on this planet.
It is to the glory of the same God, the Unmade Maker, that Sanusi delivered the message like the good and faithful servant that he was and thereby left a glorious legacy of integrity, hard work and holiness that all of us are now trying to follow. It is not easy for a mere child to see as far as the elders. But that is quite possible if the child perches on the shoulders of a giant. That is why I’m climbing on the shoulders of Archbishop Job to understand and contextualise Bishop Sanusi’s early ministry as a young priest. When he returned from Ireland as a young priest with two Bachelors degrees in Education and Music, Sanusi represented the new breed of indigenous Catholic priests — well grounded in secular education and equally solid in spirituality. Predictably, he was posted to educational institutions.
He was a tutor and housemaster at St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos, June 1946 – September 1949; tutor at St. Leo’s Teachers’ Training College, Abeokuta, November 1953 – December 1954; principal at St. Anthony’s Grammar School, Ijebu-Imushin, December 1954 – September 1962; and education secretary of the Archdiocese of Lagos, October 1982 – October 1964. He went on to become the Catholic regional educational secretary of the former Western Region, October 1964- June 1968; served as part-time member, State School Board Ibadan, July 1968 – September 1971; Secretary National Episcopal Conference of Nigeria, 1970 – March 1974; and Nigerian representative at the Kinshasa Regional Office of the International Organisation of Catholic Education. He was also a recipient of the award of Officer da L’Ordre National du Dahomey given by Benin Republic.
Such a distinguished man was the person God used — along with Frs. John Aggey, Galvin and others to nurture the vocation of a young Felix Alaba Job who, himself, was destined for greater things in the Church many years later. Job recalls that he met the then Fr. Sanusi as a little boy in the parish at Esure when the young priest returned from Ireland. He usually journeyed from Ijebu-Ode to Esure to prepare the parishioners for Holy Week activities. He was a stickler for time. Whereas Aggey was a pastoral man going round the villages, Sanusi was the institutional type who oversaw discipline, especially respect for time. Sanusi considered concepts like African time (i.e., arriving late for scheduled events) as an insult to the African personality. He always arrived for any event several minutes early and he insisted that everyone else do the same. He forced this into the psyche of his students.
He was very strict. He was straightforward. Wouldn’t spare the rod to spoil the child. Over time, the legend spread among his students: Never let Sanusi arrive at an event before you, otherwise the disciplinarian was ready to demonstrate that he didn’t believe in sparing the rod and spoiling the child. As an educationist, Sanusi encouraged the youth to develop themselves. He made sure people were encouraged to dream bigger dreams because he was convinced that many people set their targets low because they lacked self-confidence and encouragement. Young Felix Job used to come from OkeAre to Esure for holidays. If Sanusi saw him still wearing the same shirt he travelled with, he would order him to open his suitcase and bring out a fresh one. He was that finicky.
As they said in those days, cleanliness was next to godliness. As a young priest, Sanusi made serious efforts to inspire vocation among young people in Esure and surrounding areas. Having been baked in the oven of perseverance himself, he was in a good position to mentor others. It is instructive to recall that young Saliu Sanusi ran away from home to live with his brother in Lagos in order to escape his ‘destined’ railroading into Islamic clerical life. His father brought him back to Iperu, hoping to groom him as a future Chief Imam of the town. Sanusi escaped to Odogbolu, then Ijebu-Ode but his father went after him and brought him back. When he now linked up with Reverend fathers in Ijebu-Ode and Odogbolu, he was able to enrol in the seminary. The fact that his father immediately disowned him did not bother him. But eventually, it was the same Saliu Sanusi that God used to convert many members of his family, including his father and laymen and women in many parts of Ijebu land and old Western Region.
He did not become a chief Imam but a chief shepherd of the Universal Church. Sanusi was a scout; that helped him to maintain a certain level of discipline. The story was told of the day Sanusi was driving from Ijebu to Lagos in the company of Cosmas Aggey (brother of then Fr. Aggey). Sanusi had been so busy the previous day that he went to bed very late. Still, the scheduled trip had to go on. Somewhere along the route, Mr. Aggey noticed that the priest was dozing. He tapped him and suggested that he should park to take a rest. The priest agreed to a five-minute stopover. He parked, rested his head on the steering wheel and slept. It must have been what is described today as power nap. Five minutes later, he woke up, washed his face and continued with the journey.
They reached Lagos without any further incidents. What surprised Mr. Aggey was Sanusi’s alertness after the nap. In relating the story to people after the trip he put it all down to discipline — the fact that Sanusi had mastered control over his mind and body. There were only seven priests in Ijebu-Ode Diocese when Sanusi was appointed bishop. He took up the challenge with courage. When you saw Sanusi, you saw a convinced and dedicated priest of God, 24 hrs of the day. He set about laying the building blocks of the new diocese, brick by brick, till it became the giant it is today. How did he relate with fellow bishops, especially those among them who were his adopted children? “As co-bishops, our relationship was close”, said Archbishop Job. “From childhood, we had been taught to respect our elders. He was still my respected adviser.
For example, he was the one who persuaded me to accept being bishop of Ibadan. I refused initially but he was the one who finally persuaded me to accept. Even after I became bishop, I used to rely on his words of wisdom. Sanusi was a very straightforward man and totally reliable”. Ijebu-ode used to be considered a diocese of grannies because the young people were out in the bigger cities doing business while leaving the old people at home. Not anymore. Ijebu-Ode is now as cosmopolitan as many big cities and the advancement in internet technology has made the town a vibrant part of the global village. The visionary cleric that he was, Sanusi was not impressed by the wasteful burial rites where a corpse would be kept in the morgue for months while the family gathered money for a so-called befitting burial. He saw it all as vanity and fought a valiant battle to persuade the faithful that the spiritual was more important than mundane material things.
Eventually, everyone agreed with him that a period of between five days and two weeks was adequate to plan and hold a befitting Catholic burial. Sanusi wasn’t one to line up behind popular shenanigans. Indeed, he was not interested in being popular but in doing what was right. We used to joke that the bishop would not mind being the only one on a queue of propriety even if the entire world was on the other queue. Before he was appointed bishop, Providence had reserved another first for him when he was named the first Nigerian Rector of St Theresa’s Minor Seminary, OkeAre, Ibadan. That was where our paths crossed. The reputation of Fr. Anthony Sanusi, as he then was, preceded him. We had been used to the genial Irishman, Fr. DJ O’Conor who was immensely popular. We nicknamed him “A-Gentlemen”, after his manner of speaking.
The arrival of Sanusi was the first time a black man was taking the position of the white man and we wanted to see what changes that would bring. The first change that happened was a big blow indeed. We had been used to having Titus sardines with bread and stew on Sunday morning. When the food prefect took the bill for the following Sunday to Fr. Sanusi, he struck off Titus sardines. “Lesi ma raa?” (“Who’s going to pay for that?”) He asked. The food prefect said that was the approved menu. After serious protestations, Sanusi shifted ground and approved iced Titus fish (known as Oku Eko). And he instructed the cooks on how to make it attractive, squash the fish into the stew and it would be exactly like the tinned fish! Some other cost-saving measures were introduced, especially as many of the erstwhile overseas benefactors of the minor seminary were withdrawing their sponsorship.
That was how the Rector, Fr. Anthony Saliu Sanusi, earned the nickname, “Baba Econs”. To our young eyes, he came to economise everything. Many ex-Oke-Are students still recall how, as latecomers, they ran into the chapel not knowing that Fr. Sanusi was standing ramrod against the pillar. One by one he would harvest the offenders and pull their ears – which made some ears hard of hearing for quite a while. I think Sanusi’s tenure at St Anthony’s Esure, had taught him the many tricks that young people could employ to fool the authorities. It is a testimony of our own inventiveness that we still managed to pull off a few remarkable tricks right under Baba Sanusi’s pastoral nose. Now, as one looks back, more than five decades later, I can say without equivocation that many of us would probably not have turned out as good as we did but for Baba Sanusi’s strict upbringing.
Whether as priests or laymen, you can’t shake off the discipline that Baba Econs infused in you. He taught us that integrity was everything and we believed him. The way he carried himself, too, made us see him as larger than life. Personally, and I’m sure this applies to many of my schoolmates, I had always seen Bishop Sanusi as an old man, even before he became a confirmed old man. Remember that the great Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe insisted on making a distinction between a young old man and an old young man. Baba Sanusi was neither. Rather, he was a grand old man whose calling was to show the younger generation the way — and what a marvellous job he made of it. I am told that in his old age, he would wake up early to say his prayers. Even when he was very frail, he always said his prayers kneeling down. I find it remarkable that God used a former Muslim to establish the Catholic faith and build the Diocese of Ijebu-Ode. In the same vain, God appointed Bishop Albert Fashina, another son of Muslim parents, as his successor.
The Holy Spirit has now gifted us another gem in Bishop Francis Obafemi Adesina who has instituted the annual Remembrance Day to remind us of the pioneering strides of the founding bishop of the diocese. Equally remarkable is the fact that Bishop Sanusi was consecrated in Kampala, Uganda by Pope Paul VI who is himself now a canonised saint of the Catholic Church. We may not have to wait too long for the recognition of our own St Anthony of Iperu, of Ijebu-Ode, of Nigeria as a saint of the Universal Church. Can I have an Amen! To God be all glory, honour and adoration forever and ever