Beyond the green and white stripes that flutter in the wind lies the compelling story of the late Pa Taiwo Akinkunmi, the national flag designer, whose life, much like his creation, bore the colours of unity, but remained unjustly tucked
away in the shadows of history, Vanessa Obioha writes
Pa Taiwo Akinkunmi, the national flag designer who died on Tuesday, August 29, 2023, lived a life of historic feats.
His last heroic achievement before his passing was in 2021 when he embarked on making the world’s largest flag. The flag, unveiled at the Polo Ground in Ibadan, Oyo, covered an area of 3,275.6 square metres, a length of 75.3 meters and a width of 43.5 meters.
With pride emanating from his accomplishment, the national icon, widely known as Mr. Flag Man, remarked: “I have always dreamt about Nigeria being at the front of every good thing and I’m delighted to be part of this historical event.”
Akinkunmi’s aspiration to showcase the unity and richness of the country predates Nigeria’s independence. He grew up in an era where education was prized and brilliance rewarded. His journey led him to Norwood Technical College in London, where, in 1958, he encountered an advertisement in a daily in the college’s library. This advertisement sought out talented artists who could design Nigeria’s flag as the country embarked on its journey to independence. In his twenties at the time, Akinkunmi embarked on a mission to design a flag that would resonate with the country’s fight for freedom and its abundance of natural resources.
“I took details of what and what is expected to design a flag that would be used by a country that was about to witness independence,” he said in an interview.
With every brushstroke, he painted a canvas that spoke volumes to millions, reminding us that our diversity is a strength to be celebrated. The outcome was the iconic green-white-green flag that has come to symbolize the essence of the nation. The original design featured a red glowing sun within the white stripe, a concept later set aside by the committee responsible for the flag’s creation.
Among the numerous submissions reviewed by the committee, Akinkunmi’s design shone brightest for its ingenuity. It eloquently captured the spirit of the people, with the white stripes signifying the peace and unity of the nation and the twin green stripes representing its wealth of natural resources. Despite his background in engineering, Akinkunmi’s flag demonstrated how art and vision can weave a tapestry of shared identity, stripe by stripe. His ingenious effort was rewarded with a sum of 100 Pounds.
Thus, on October 1, 1960, Akinkunmi’s flag was raised as the official Nigerian flag, unfurling its vibrant colours in place of the British Union Jack. This event marked a new era for the nation and brought the work of a young Abeokuta native who matured in Ibadan into the national spotlight.
But that was as far as his fame would go. For many decades, Akinkunmi’s name was only mentioned in history classes with little or no relish as the country navigated through military rule and the pursuit of democracy.
Born as Michael Taiwo Akinkunmi in Ibadan, the flag designer spent his early years under his father’s care until the age of eight, after which he moved to Northern Nigeria. He began his education in the North before returning to the West, where he resumed studies at Baptist Day School, Idi-Ikan in Ibadan. After graduating from Baptist Day School Idi-kan in 1949, he proceeded to Ibadan Grammar School (IGS) in 1950, acquiring a strong educational foundation.
In 1955, he left IGS to assume the role of an agriculturist at the Western Region Secretariat in Ibadan, serving as a civil servant. Following his studies in London, Akinkunmi returned to Nigeria in 1963 and rejoined the secretariat, dedicating his efforts to the agriculture department until his retirement in 1994 as Assistant Superintendent of Agriculture.
His relative obscurity persisted until he made a surprise appearance on a special edition of the popular TV series ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ in 2008. Here, Nollywood star Kate Henshaw and musician Tee Mac participated on his behalf, securing a cash prize of N2 million. This appearance was fuelled by earlier speculations about his financial struggles and even his demise. In fact, back in 2006, during an interview with Al Jazeera, Olawale Sunday Olaniran, a researcher, reported that many told him the flag designer was dead while seeking to document Nigerian history.
Reports circulated that the man who brought honour to Nigeria through his flag design had faded into obscurity and was leading a life of hardship. Visitors to his home penned empathetic notes, describing his situation as pitiable and unjust. This outcry spurred a call for the government to acknowledge and reward national icons like him.
Therefore, in 2014, former president Goodluck Jonathan conferred upon him the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR). He was also appointed as a lifetime adviser of the Nigerian president with a compensation of about $4,000 (approximately N800,000 at the time).
Additionally, during the deceased’s 85th birthday celebration in 2021, former President Muhammadu Buhari lauded him as “an honourary life presidential adviser, who upholds the values that every citizen should emulate for nation building.”
During his lifetime, Akinkunmi held steadfast to his vision for Nigeria. He proudly adorned the colours of the flag, and even his humble abode bore its identity. Whether his former residence on Emerald Street, Dugbe, Ibadan, or his house in Aiyepe within the Academy area off Iwo Road, Ibadan, each structure radiated the brilliant colours of white and green.
Born on May 10, 1936, according to his Wikipedia page, Akinkunmi’s passing was attributed to a brief illness, as confirmed by his family. His departure ignited a national discourse on the tendency of the nation to overlook its national icons while celebrating less worthy figures.
He was however remembered by the President Bola Tinubu who in a statement through his special adviser, Ajuri Ngelale hailed him for working for the greatness of the country with a “generational legacy and a place of honour in Nigeria.”
“The president affirmed that the green and white flag is a legacy that has consistently reflected the fruitfulness, resilience, and harmony enjoyed by the nation. He said that it represented the boldness and uniqueness with which Nigerians characteristically reach for and achieve success around the world,” he said.
As Akinkunmi’s flag continues to flutter in the wind, it symbolises the unity he envisioned for Nigeria — unity in every stripe.