Thirty years after his departure from the terrestrial realm, the mystique of Obafemi Awolowo still endures. On Tuesday, May 9, the faithful gathered at the Ikenne, Ogun State home of the Awolowos, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his death. I too would have been there, but my wife and children insisted I stayed home to celebrate for May 9 is my birthday.
Awo, as he was known, was a larger than life figure, who dominated the politics of Nigeria for many decades. He fought against personal and public vicissitudes and triumphed. He was a man of extraordinary courage and charisma. It is interesting that of all his major works and speeches, the most remembered are the words he used to describe his unforgettable wife, Chief (Mrs) Hannah Idowu Dideolu, HID, Awolowo, the late Yeye Oba of Ife, as “My jewel of inestimable value.”
That was in his book, Awo, the autobiography of Obafemi Awolowo. By the time Awo was pouring that encomium on his wife, it was at the height of his glory as the Premier of the defunct Western Region. Everything seemed settled and the road to the future looks almost predictably smooth. But fate, always armed with surprises, was waiting in ambush for the Awolowos. The Action Group, AG, of Awolowo was worsted in the 1959 Federal elections and he became the Leader of the Opposition in the Federal Parliament. That was only a pleasurable prelude to the nightmare. The AG, once regarded as the most monolith and disciplined of all Nigerian parties, was soon split in the middle, with Awolowo’s deputy and successor as Premier, the brilliant polyglot, journalist and lawyer, Chief Ladoke Akintola, leading the rebel faction.
Awo soon found himself facing the Justice Coker Commission of Enquiry into the activities of the Western Nigeria Development Corporation, the precursor to todays, Oodua Group of Companies. By 1963, he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for treasonable felony. Many of his followers bagged longer sentences. Attempts to negotiate his freedom met with difficulties.
As the nation, especially the Western Region (now divided into Oyo, Osun, Ondo, Ekiti, Edo, Delta, Ogun and Lagos) became engulfed in tumult, Awo’s speech at the dock in 1963 reverberated across the country. I remember that it was printed in bold cursives in an almanac hung in my father’s sitting room in Okemesi in the 1960s. In that speech, Awo declared: “For some time to come, the present twilight of democracy, individual freedom and the Rule of Law, will change or might change into utter darkness. But after darkness – and this is commonplace – comes a glorious dawn. It is, therefore, with a brave heart, with confident hope and with faith in my unalterable destiny that I go from this twilight into the darkness, unshaken in my trust in the Providence of God that a glorious dawn will come on the morrow.”
I never had the opportunity of interacting with Papa Awolowo but I learnt a lot from his wife, the equally legendary Mama H.I.D. I once asked her why the couple named their first child Oluwasegun (the Lord has made us victorious). Oluwasegun is not a common name for a first born since the new parents are still relatively new to the battles of life. But not so the Awolowos. Mama explained that she was the only surviving child of her mother who was also an only child. When Awolowo, the only son of his parents (he had a sister) proposed to her, some relations warned Awolowo about marrying his lover because “they only produce one child for a lifetime.” Awo stubbornly pursued his target and they got married in 1937.
Soon their cozy world collapsed. Awo, a relatively wealthy young entrepreneur, produce buyer, journalist, trade unionist and budding politician, watched as his business came to ruins. His creditors were unforgiving and they came after him with the vengeance of a gang of barracudas. His personal belongings, including his trendy suits and ties, his shoes and his car were sold at auction. Even his new house in Ikenne was sold for forty pounds (about eighty naira then). During this crisis, his wife was pregnant and she delivered the baby prematurely. The baby, Oluwasegun survived. He later died in a tragic car accident in 1962 during the trial of his father before Justice George Sowemimo. He was one of the lawyers defending Awolowo and some of the other accused persons. However, he lived long enough to father Oluwasegun Junior, now in his fifties, who with expected credit and competence, has been serving as the Chief Executive of the Nigerian Export Promotion Council for several years.
I remember one of our meetings with Mama H.I.D in 1992. I met her in the company of my colleague, Dele Omotunde, then the deputy Editor-in-Chief of TELL magazine. Our discussion again dovetailed to Oluwasegun Snr. She said there was a newspaper photograph of him and his father in an open car, with father and son smiling broadly while the father waved to the crowd. She wanted to know if we can help her get that paper and make a copy of that page. She could not remember the name of the paper but was sure it was in 1962 shortly before Segun’s death. I later made my research at the National Library in Yaba, but without success.
The travails of the 1960s turned Mama H.I.D into a formidable politician. Awo was transferred, after his conviction, from Broad Street Prisons, Lagos, to Calabar Prisons. At least once a month, she and one or two of the children would travel by road from Ibadan to Calabar. The roads were tortuous and there were no air-conditioning for cars in those days. By 1964 and 1965, the roads have become dangerous with thugs and political agitators causing violence and deaths. Those were the era of Operation Weti e!” – The incendiary response of the West to the controversial outcome of the 1964 Federal elections and the 1965 regional elections which returned Akintola back into the premiership. H.I.D was planning for such a trip when Ibadan, unsettled for many months because of political upheavals, was gripped by something worse and dramatic. It was January 15, 1966, and unknown to many, Nigeria has just experienced her first military coup. Ogun, the Yoruba deity of war and the patron saint of soldiers, hunters and artists, had struck.
HID and her household fled their famous residence at Oke-Bola, Ibadan and took refuge with her son-in-law, the famous physician, Dr Kayode Oyediran, at the staff quarters of the University College Hospital, Oritamefa, Ibadan. It was later they learnt that the Premier had been killed just like several other top politicians including Prime-Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the North and Chief Festus Okoti-Eboh, the flamboyant Minister of Finance.
Left in the relative safety of the prisons, Awo busy himself with writing the book, Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution. The new ruler, General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, had abolished the regions, replacing it with groups of provinces. Awo’s letter to him for an unconditional release from prison did not receive immediate attention. Awo was later freed, along with most of his lieutenants, when General Yakubu Gowon came to power in August 1966.
It was the struggle of the 1960s that was responsible for Awo’s apotheosis with its full sacerdotal implications. During the dark days of General Sani Abacha, I and some of my colleagues, especially Bayo Adenekan, Niyi Afuye, Dayo Adeyeye, Demola Oyinlola and Dokun Abolarin (now our royal father, the Orangun of Oke-Ila, Osun State) were in the habit of visiting Chief Alfred Rewane, the former private secretary to Awo, in his expansive home at Ikeja GRA. Whenever Papa Rewane mentions Awo’s name, he would remove his cap as a sign of respect. Also in 1998, I and some of the leaders of Idile Oodua, had gone to hold a meeting with the Leadership of Afenifere, the mainstream Yoruba political and cultural movement, in the law office of Sir Olaniwun Ajayi at the UBA building on the Marina in Lagos. At 3 p.m., the old men stopped all discussions and their leader, the intrepid Senator Abraham Aderibigbe Adesanya, directed that we should pray. He later explained that “our leader has directed that at every gathering, we must stop and pray for Yorubaland and Nigeria at 3 p.m.”
All of them loved to talk about Awolowo, his thoughts, his philosophy, his wits, his sagacity, his fearlessness, his integrity and his love for Nigeria. Now, that he is gone, there is a painful longing and almost helpless nostalgia for Awo was a hero of universal stature. He invested his time and energy to solving Nigeria’s problems and proved to us that good government was possible. His philosophy of governance and his social engineering in the old West and his prudence and capacity when he served Gowon as a Minister (then called Federal Commissioner) remained unsurpassed. So it was not out of place that the faithful in Ikenne lamented the state of today when leadership is no longer guided by ideas nor prompted by love nor moderated by patriotism.
About 250 years ago, there was a man called Abiodun. He was the Alaafin of Oyo, one of the kingdoms founded by Oranmiyan, a prince of Ile-Ife, who assumed the cognomen, Alaafin (Owner of the Palace) at the start of his reign. By the time of Abiodun in the 18th Century, Oyo had become an empire, the largest and most powerful in Yoruba history. Abiodun presided over a period of peace and prosperity. After his death, the empire fell apart, visited by civil wars and external invasions. One of its fortress cities, Ilorin, was seized in a coup spearheaded by Muslim activists who soon declared war against the rest of the empire. The enemies prevailed on many fronts, Oyo, the capital was sacked, never to be rebuilt till today, and the reigning Alaafin, Oluewu, betrayed on the battlefield by some of his generals, including the Onikoyi, and his ally, the King of Borgu, was slain. Oyo citizens, once the proud flag bearers of an empire, were carried as slaves to different parts of the world.
In those days of vicissitude and captivity, the Oyo citizens use to sing in lamentation:
Abiodun ma bo,
Tete ma bo ko wa tun aye se,
Awon omo re n jiya!
Abiodun come back,
Return to us quickly and redeem the world,
Your children are suffering.
Like the great Alaafin Abiodun, Awo is gone but his work remained unfinished. Whence comes another?