Learning From Chief Awolowo


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Learning From Chief Awolowo




Alkasum Abba



February 2003


With the presidential primaries almost completed, an election fever is developing. This election fever is gradually gripping the electorate. Although a number of political figures have emerged as presidential and vice-presidential candidates on the platform of the political parties, the selection of Chief (General) Olusegun Obasanjo and Alhaji (Major-General) Muhammadu Buhari as presidential candidates of the PDP and the ANPP respectively is perhaps the single most important event heating the political temperature of the country. This is not because, as retired Generals of the Nigerian Army, these two leading flag bearers have out-manoeuvred and out-smarted civilian politicians, in the two political parties, or even because of their status as former military dictators. The event is heating the national political temperature precisely because their supporters have mounted ethnic, religious and sectionalists campaigns. For, it is a well-known fact that their supporters have been out, with the passion and the zeal of the born-again, exploiting the sentiments, weaknesses and ignorance of the Nigerian electorate in order to rally support for their candidates. 

What is most disturbing is that places of worship have been entangled into these destructive divisive campaigns. Worshippers in the mosques and the churches are being exhorted to vote for candidates on the basis of their religion. The question about the policies, plans and programmes of the candidates, is not even mentioned.

This campaign is as hollow as it is dangerous. This is so because behind Chief Obasanjo is Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a Muslim, and behind Alhaji Muhammadu Buhari is Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, a Christian. If any of them happens to get elected as President and for whatever reason becomes incapable of performing his constitutional responsibilities, the Vice-President, who comes from the other religion, attacked so viciously, takes over as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This was precisely how General Obasanjo became Head of State in 1976 following the abortive coup that led to the death of the then Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed. If Murtala had been elected in 1975, because he was a Muslim, most of his four-year term would have been completed by a Christian.

It is most revealing that past military regimes, including the ones led by General Obasanjo and Major-General Buhari, have accused civilian political leaders of fanning the embers of religious, regional and ethnic politics. Yet, as politicians seeking to rule Nigeria once again, both Obasanjo and Buhari are now doing the same thing. 

From NYM to NCNC 
The struggle against ethnic, sectionalists and parochial politics is quite old in Nigeria. It started in earnest in 1938 when young and radical educated elite in Lagos came together to establish a new political party, which they called the Nigerian Youth Movement, NYM. This new party, the NYM, unlike its rival, the Nigerian National Democratic Party, NNDP, established in 1923 under the leadership of Herbert Macaulay, had the central objective of mobilising all Nigerians from all works of life to struggle against British colonial rule. 

The youth were angry with the NNDP because it had confined its activities to Lagos even though it called itself the Nigerian National Democratic Party. It did not, open even a single office, or branch outside Lagos. The youth, therefore, wanted to reach out to all Nigerians irrespective of where they were. Among the leading young politicians who were eager to extend the activities of the NYM to other parts of Nigeria outside Lagos were: Mr. Ernest Ekoli, Chief Samuel Akinsanya, Chief H. O. Davies, Dr. Kofo Abayomi, Sir Adeyemo Alakija, Alhaji Jubrin Martins, Dr. Akinola Maja, Mr. Mobolaji Bank-Anthony and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. They went out in full force to establish branches in every urban centre throughout Nigeria. This was the first time Nigerians from all over were brought together into the nationalist fold. Indeed, with the extensive media support from the newspapers owned by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, like the West African Pilot, the NYM was able to reach out to many more Nigerians.

However, in 1941 the NYM split into two, one led by Ernest Ikoli and the other by Nnamdi Azikiwe. The Ikoli faction ended up being taken over by the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, The Society of the Descendents of Oduduwa, when it was re-launched in 1948 in Lagos. The Nnamdi Azikiwe faction on the other hand teamed up with the doyen of Lagos politics, Mr. Herbert Macaulay, student leaders and radical labour leaders, like Michael Imoudu and Nduka Eze to set up the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons, NCNC, in 1944. 

The NCNC took over from where the NYM stopped. But it went far ahead of the NYM by introducing public discussions and mobilisation of the ordinary people into the framework of the nationalist struggle through direct interaction with the people at mass rallies, which they organised in different parts of Nigeria. The NCNC was growing into a massive anti-colonial movement whose members and leaders were being drawn from all the three regions and religions of Nigeria. 

In response to this dramatic expansion and consolidation of pan-Nigerian nationalism led by the NCNC, the British colonial government moved swiftly to break the ranks of the nationalists using the typical colonial tactic of divide-and-rule. They promulgated the Richards' Constitution of 1946, the cornerstone of which was the creation of three powerful regions. The British aim was to truncate the growth of the pan-Nigerian outlook of the nationalists by dividing them along regional lines. They achieved this objective through three important steps. 

The Egbe
The attempt to deliberately and systematically introduce ethnic and sectionalist politics in Nigeria started in
1945, when Chief Obafemi Awolowo along with Dr. Oni Akerele, Mr. Akintola Williams Professor Saburi Biobaku, Chief Abiodun Akinrele, Chief Ayo Rosiji and others established the Egbe Omo Oduduwa in 1945, in London. They said that they set up the organisation to unite the Yorubas in a similar manner that the Ibibio State Union and the Ibo Federal Union were doing for the Ibibio and the Igbo respectively. The Ibo Federal Union, which was set up in 1943, had Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as its President. However, both the Ibibio State Union and the Ibo Federal Union were not able to exert political influence in the manner that the Egbe Omo Oduduwa was able to do. This was perhaps because those who set up the Egbe Omo Oduduwa were already powerful politicians in Lagos. 

The Egbe Omo Oduduwa did not become important until 1948 when it was revived and re-launched in Lagos with great fanfare by prominent and parochial Yoruba politicians associated with the beleaguered Nigerian Youth Movement like Chief Bode Thomas, Sir Adeyemo Alakija, Chief H. O. Davies, Dr. Kofo Abayomi, Dr. Akinola Maja and others. The revival of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa in 1948 was not accidental, because 1948 was, in the real sense, the deciding year of Nigeria's political orientation. That is to say, whether the nationalist or the parochial politicians would hold sway in the course of the struggle for independence. Radical nationalism was on the ascendancy from 1938 but it became very pronounced, between 1945-1948. This period was marked by the General Strike of 1945 and the 1946 Nigeria-wide NCNC campaign against the imposition of the Richards' Constitution. 

The parochial Yoruba politicians in Lagos led by Chief Bode Thomas were particularly worried that a large number of the politically active Yoruba, particularly the youth, were being drawn, more and more into the nationalist fold under the leadership of Zik. They thought that one way of countering this was the revival of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, which under the guise of ethnic unity would take away all the Yoruba associated with Zik and the radical section of Nigerian nationalism that he was leading. But this did not work. It did not work because the Yoruba did not accept ethnic politics and refused to be drawn into the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, under any guise. On 21st March 1951 the Egbe Omo Oduduwa set up a political party called the Action Group. The party was to serve as the vehicle for realising its primary objective of mobilising Yorubas into one political umbrella. The Action Group was therefore formed to implement the ideals and objectives of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa and was led by no less a person than, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the founder of the Egbe in 1945. To add to the status of the AG as Yoruba party, all the leading Obas met in Ibadan on Sunday 10th June 1951 to endorse the AG as the political party of the Yorubas. Among the Obas present were: the Oni of Ife, Sir Adesoji Aderemi; the Alafin of Oyo, Sir Adeniran Adeyemi; the Alake of Abeokuta, Sir Ladapo Ademola; the Ewi of Ado Ekiti, Oba Aladesanmi II and the Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Gbelegbuwa II.

The Example of Ibadan
But to the dismay of the adherent of ethnic politics in the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the AG did not find general acceptance among the Yoruba electorate and important politicians like Chief Kola Balogun, Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, Chief T.O.S Benson, Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya and later Chief H.O. Davies. They did not see the AG as the political party representing Yoruba people, irrespective of their diverse interests. According to Chief Lamidi Adedibu, in his book, What I Saw On the Politics and Governance of Ibadan and the Issue of June 12, the endorsement of AG by the Obas and the deference of the Obas to Awo in full public view made the common people in Ibadan to realise that the AG was the party of the Obas and the few elite associated with them. He said:

“Some of the Ibadan leaders saw and reported to their people the deference with which Awo was treated by the Obas and the respect and courtesy they extended to him. All these put together created in the minds of the common people in Ibadan that the Action Group as a political party was essentially not meant for their kind. For this reason, they shunned it; boycotted its meetings and sometimes booed its leaders, particularly Chief Awolowo who had lived and worked among them, but who had now risen into unassailable prominence, a phenomenal rise they could neither understand nor appreciate. (pp.34-35) 

Thus on 15th June 1951 representatives of the interest groups in Ibadan met and decided to set up a party. They called this party the Ibadan Peoples Party, IPP. Its founding chairman was Chief A. M. A. Akinloye. The other leaders of the IPP were: S. A. Akinyemi, S. O. Lanlehin, Moyo Aboderin, Samuel Lana, D. T. Akinbiyi, S. Ajunwon, S. Aderonmu, R. S. Baoku, Akin Allen and Akinniyi Olunloyo. The IPP gave the leaders of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa its first shock during the 1951 regional elections, where the AG had expected that as the “party of the Yorubas” it would sweep the elections clean, and with ease, at all levels to form the regional government. When the election into the Western Region House of Assembly was completed in November 1951, the Action Group won only 29 out of the 80 seats contested. In fact, the AG lost in all the constituencies in Ibadan, the capital city of the Western Region and in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. 

In Ibadan, the IPP won all the six seats, with the following as the elected members: Chief Adisa Akinloye, Mr. Moyo Aboderin, Mr. S. O. Lanlehin, Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, Mr. D.T. Akinbiyi and Mr. Samuel Akinwale Akinyemi. In Lagos NCNC won all the five seats with the following as the elected members into the Western Region House of Assembly: Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Ibiyinka Olorun-Nimbe, Prince Adeleke Adedoyin, Haruna Popoola Adebola and T.O.S Benson. Leading members of the AG like Chief Rotimi Williams, Dr. Maja and Chief M. A. Ogun were defeated. 
Faced with this situation, the Egbe Omo Oduduwa moved out swiftly to get 20 elected members on the ticket of the smaller parties and independent candidates to join the Action Group, to tilt the balance in favour of the party, against its primary opponent, the NCNC. Some of the leaders of the small parties were offered ministerial appointments to join the AG without the approval of their constituencies. One of them was Chief Adisa Akinloye who was appointed Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources when he swayed four out of his five colleagues in the IPP to join the AG. The only IPP member who refused to join the AG was Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, who, instead, joined the NCNC. 

But the Ibadan electorate did not take kindly the defection of its elected representative on the platform of IPP to the Action Group. They used the opportunity of the 1954 Federal elections and the 1956 regional elections to express their dislike of the Action Group. In the 1954 Federal elections, the electorate in the Western Region voted for the NCNC against the Action Group; the NCNC won 22 seats into the House of Representatives and the AG secured 19 seats. In Ibadan, the capital city of the Western Region the ruling party AG secured just one out of the five federal seats in the area. The victory was however marginal in terms of the votes cast. For example the AG candidate Gbadegesin Adeniran obtained 1,713 votes while his NCNC opponent got 1,587 votes, giving a victory margin of just 126 votes. This contrasted with the margin of not less than 50% given to the AG candidates by the NCNC. For example, in Ibadan South Federal constituency, the NCNC candidate Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu polled 5,485 votes against AG's Mr. S. O. Ladipo's 1,256 votes, thus giving a huge margin of 4,229 votes. (P.172)
This dislike of the AG by Ibadan electorate was further demonstrated in the 1956 regional elections, which was held on Thursday 26th May 1956. This election was held after the AG was in office for five solid years, when it said it had implemented significant social programmes, particularly in education. From the results of the election, the AG lost one seat in 1956 as compared to 1951. The results for 1956 were: 48 seats to the AG and 32 for the NCNC. But if you examine the actual votes cast, the margin between the AG and the NCNC was just 39,270 votes; the AG got 623,826 votes (48.3%) while the NCNC got 584,556 (45.3%). 

What astonished the AG in 1956 was the devastating defeat it received in the hands of the NCNC in key Yoruba cities of Ibadan and Oyo. While in Oyo the AG managed to secure 2 out of the five seats against NCNC's 3 seats, in Ibadan the story was different. Ibadan had eight seats into the Western Region House of Assembly. The AG got just one seat. In this case the victory margin was just 267 votes; in Ibadan West regional constituency, O. A. Adedeji of AG secured 5,010 votes to defeat I. A. Akinyele of NCNC who polled 4,743 votes. This was the smallest margin of victory in the election, in Ibadan. Chief Adisa Akinloye, who moved over from IPP to AG and got appointed a minister also contested in his Ibadan North-East constituency on the platform of the AG. He was defeated with a wide margin of 2,734 votes by Lekan Salami of the NCNC. 

The Roots of The N.P.N
Out of the three first regional Premiers, only one, that is Sir Ahmadu Bello, continued to remain a regional Premier after independence. The other two, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo moved over to Lagos. But having operated as regional leaders for nearly one decade, both Dr. Azikiwe and Chief Awolowo were not able to graduate into acceptable national leaders. That is to say that the Nigerian electorate did not have sufficient confidence in any of them as to give their political parties the requisite votes to enable them clinch the position of Prime Minister in the First Republic and the President in the Second Republic.

This, however, contrasted sharply with the case of NCNC and NPC politicians who had moved over to Lagos from the 1950s to serve as national leaders. These politicians developed a national outlook even when their party leaders were insisting on regional parochialism. The NPC for example became divided into a Kaduna group and a Lagos group. While the Sardauna, the Makaman Bida and the rest were insisting on the pursuit of what they regarded as “northern interest” using their members in Lagos, the Lagos group led by Tafawa Balewa and Mahmud Ribadu, were able to resist and insist on a more national outlook. 

It is therefore not a co-incidence that the Lagos ministers, parliamentary secretaries and members of the House of Representatives from the NPC and the NCNC of the First Republic succeeded in co-opting a handful of their colleagues from the other political parties, namely the AG, NEPU, UMBC etc to form the National Party of Nigeria, NPN in 1978. It was this party that produced Alhaji Shehu Shagari to contest the 1979 presidential elections against formidable candidates like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Mallam Aminu Kano, who were party leaders since the 1950s. He was able to get 25% and more votes in 12 states of the federation. His nearest rival, Chief Obafemi Awolowo got 25% of the votes cast in only seven states.

The efforts of Chief Obafemi Awolowo 
Chief Obafemi Awolowo has often been described, as “the best President Nigeria never had” because of his strenuous effort to get elected into national leadership. He struggled so hard, for decades to become, first the Prime Minister, and later the President of Nigeria but failed. His failure to achieve his life long ambition of leading Nigeria has to do more with his association with ethnic and sectionalist politics rather than anything else. He contested presidential elections in 1979 and 1983 and lost. In 1979, Chief Awolowo secured 4.9 million out of the 16.8 million votes cast. He was not able to win because most of his votes came from one part of Nigeria, the South-West where he got 82% in Lagos, 85% in Oyo, 92% in Ogun and 94% on Ondo states. On the other side of Nigeria he polled 7% in Kaduna, 5% in Plateau, 3% in Bauchi and Borno, 2% in Benue, 2% in Sokoto and 0.7% in Anambra. What this result point out is that ethnic politics consumed Chief Awolowo even though he made strenuous effort to go beyond it.

The Fate of Obasanjo

The fate of Chief Awolowo, seems to face General Obasanjo, but in a reverse order, from building his political fortune on a nationalist platform, Obsanjo has reversed himself getting his politics trapped in a tribal cul-de-sac. With the virtual endorsement of his Presidential ticket by the parochial Yuruba tribal organisation, the Afenefere and its political arm, the Alliance for Democracy, he is moving to complete the full circle from being a nationalist candidate to becoming basically a tribal candidate. No matter how massive the AD campaign for him, this may not win the Presidency for him because the intensity of that parochial ethnic campaign will backfire, and he will lose support in the rest of the country. But, of course he is counting on Chief Tony Anenih to use his tentacles to fix the elections for him.

Similarly, the more intensely Buhari is sold, as the Northern, Muslim candidate, the more he’s likely to loose elsewhere, Okadigbo, or, no Okadigbo. The problem is that ethnic and religious politics in a country like Nigeria cuts both ways. The more your tribal men gang up around you to vote for you, the more others are likely to distrust and desert you.


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