As Nigeria prepares to celebrate its 60th independence anniversary, 92-year-old Afenifere chieftain, Pa Ayo Adebanjo, takes us back to the events that preceded the country’s independence in 1960 and some of the remarkable incidents that followed
You were one of those born several decades before Nigeria got independence. What was life like at that time before independence?
Before independence, we were under colonial rule. It was before I left school that the agitation for independence started. That was when we joined the ruling party at that time. It was just normal life under colonial rule; we heard our leaders then talking of independence from British colonial rule. There were a lot of anti-colonial articles to remind the British administration that we wanted a government of our own. What our leaders were saying was that they were not doing enough for us because we were not managing our own affairs. We felt it would be better if we were self-governing.
Nigeria marks 60 years next week. Do you think it is worth celebrating?
It’s not worth celebrating at all because we have not achieved the dream of our founding fathers, particularly after the intervention of the military. Immediately we attained independence 60 years ago, everything went well until we had military intervention. We had our problems before then, which led to the constitutional conference of 1953, which became the MacPherson Constitution. We had the constitution of 1960; it was the crisis we had in 1953 under the MacPherson Constitution that led to the constitution of Lyttleton in 1954, which created premiership in the regions. That was the beginning of Africanism. It was under that constitution we had self-governance in 1956 – the East and the West had their governments in 1956 and the Northern region had theirs in 1959 because they said they were not ready. Then Nigeria had its own in 1960 and we were getting on fine. It was the military that changed the whole thing. That is why we’re talking of restructuring the country. That is the beginning. So, when people are talking of reviewing this (1999) constitution, I say, ‘We can’t review a constitution we didn’t make.’ That constitution was imposed by the military. So, it’s a total cancellation. You can only review or revise what you gave not a constitution we didn’t take part in. If we review the present constitution, that was not what our leaders agreed to. If they now want a review of that one, that is another matter; not to review what they didn’t take part in.
At what point was the idea of independence brought forward as a necessary solution to colonial rule?
When we had the MacPherson constitution in 1951, it was under that that we had the regional Assemblies in pre-independence. While western region had it assembly, eastern region had its own. Before then, we were under the colonial form of government. We came into parliament in 1953 under that colonial constitution. The Action Group government through Chief Anthony Enahoro made a resolution that we must have self-government. We had self-government in 1956. This was agreeable but the North said they were not ready and that, because of their educational deficiency, they couldn’t cope with other regions to have self-government. They claimed they would be cheated. So, when Enahoro was going to move that motion, the governor at that time, MacPherson, said ministers of the region must not take part in that motion because, at that time, the constitution they had was that each region would send ministers to the centre. So, the Action Group was in the West and it sent ministers there. The National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons was in the East and it sent ministers there. The Northern People’s Congress was in the North and it sent ministers there. So, when we moved the motion, the government of that time said ministers in his cabinet, although they came from the Action Group, must not take part in the self-government motion. And our ministers said, ‘No, our people sent us here to demand self-government’, and he said anybody who took part would be sacked. We had ministers with portfolios and one minister without a portfolio – that was the late Ooni of Ife, Sir Adesoji Aderemi, who was a knight of the British Empire. Unlike some of our Obas today, he said: ‘I will save you from sacking him – I will resign.’ So, he resigned. He sacked the other ministers who took part. And he asked the Western Assembly to send new members. And the Action Group sent the same members and there was a crisis. It was that crisis that led to a discussion involving all the principal parties in Nigeria. It was after that motion that the Sardauna of Sokoto (Sir Ahmadu Bello) was quoted to have said he did not support self-government. Prior to that time, he said, ‘We are not going to be part of Nigeria again.’ So, that was the beginning of the crisis. But when he said that, Chief Obafemi Awolowo said no, we can have a type of constitution that will allow you to have autonomy. You don’t need to break away. That is why when we hear some people saying Awolowo should be blamed for the problems now, because he said he should have allowed the North to go instead of persuading Sardauna, but he told Sardauna that under the constitution he was agitating for, each region or federating unit would have self-autonomy. So, when they got to the federal constitutional conference at that time, he presented this motion before them and said it was the conference he had been agitating for. Before that, he held the position that you can’t rule this country under a unitary form of government and you have to do it under federal (rule). He wrote the book titled ‘Path to Nigerian Freedom.’ It was at that conference that he persuaded all the leaders, including Dr (Nnamdi) Azikiwe, to accept federalism because that was the condition under which all of us could agree to stay together. It was under that constitution now that the position of premiership was created and each region’s constitution was written separately. To show how effective it was, it was under that constitution that each region, with its autonomy, could open embassies abroad. It was what Awolowo used to open the Western Nigeria office to London, UK then. Because the others didn’t understand it, they ridiculed it, but they followed later. We were the first to exercise the autonomy of a regional government and Chief MAR Okorodudu from Warri was made the Agent-General.
That was the position until the military came. It was the military that absorbed that office and converted it to the Nigeria Office. In that constitution, Chief Awolowo also fought for what is called ‘revenue allocation and derivation,’ which we are now calling ‘resource control.’ Only 50 per cent of the revenue from each region would be sent to the centre (federal government). Even after oil was discovered in Nigeria, it was still 50 per cent. It was the military that changed the percentage to what it is now. That is why I say the problem that we have with agitations by Egbesu Boys, Indigenous People of Biafra, Oduduwa and so on is because of the constitution imposed on us, which is not conducive for a multi-ethnic society like our own. Unless Buhari changes the constitution now before the election, this country will break.
You had a close encounter with the late Chief Awolowo. What did he tell you about the vision he wanted for Nigeria?
The vision he had for Nigeria was justified during the period of Awolowo from 1952 to 1959. That was the time he started free education, free medical services and he initiated developmental programmes. That was the time Awolowo performed the wonders that are on the record today. We established the first television station in (sub-Saharan) Africa. The type of freedom and financial autonomy we exercised at that time gave us that opportunity.
Is it right to say that Awolowo wanted Nigeria to develop to be on a par with world powers?
Of course! He said federalism is a system of government that allows its federating states to develop at its own pace. That’s what happened in America. They have it in India and Australia. That is the position. That is why Awolowo is regarded as the father of federalism in Nigeria. It was when the military changed it that we started having all these problems.
Where were you on October 1, 1960?
No, I was a student in London then. I only came around for the celebration. I went to London in 1957 after the election in the Eastern Region, when the Action Group, in an alliance with the East, won some seats in the National Assembly. I was working at the national party before I left. At that time, Action Congress was the only national party in Nigeria although they said we were sectional. Why? We were the only party that had representation across the country. We were the government in the West and the opposition in the East, North and at the centre.
How did you feel on that Independence Day? Did you feel that Nigeria had become free?
We only hoped and we did become free. Although we had our reservations about the way it was organised, we believed under that constitution, if everybody continued to develop as they were going, things would be fine. As a matter of fact, Chief Awolowo was commended by Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who said, with Chief Awolowo’s performance in the old Western Region, he could be a premier in any part of the civilised world. It’s on the record. That was at the time of Great Britain. None of the leaders had that record.
Many Nigerians, who are embarrassed by the level of corruption, insecurity, poverty and others in the country, find it difficult identifying themselves as Nigerians. Do you also feel the same way?
Certainly, I’m embarrassed. The corruption being talked about was more or less started by the military when the military took over. We had corruption in the First Republic. I’m not saying we were free. In retrospect, those of us who were accusing the Federal Government at the time of being corrupt will now apologise and ask God to forgive us because we were accusing them of 10 per cent corruption. Now, it is 151 per cent. So, they were angels, relatively. We were accusing Tafawa Balewa government of being corrupt, but they were angels, considering what is happening now under Muhammadu Buhari.
You witnessed the early years of Nigeria when there was abundance, but Nigeria has recently been rated as the leading poverty-stricken country in the world. How does that make you feel?
Very sad. I always say there was no reason for it, if we had good management. It is the leadership of this country that has brought us into this poverty. We have been unfortunate because we don’t have the right type of leadership. We had a wrong orientation. When Shehu Shagari was in government, Awolowo was warning him that the economy of the country was going to the precipice but the ruling National Party of Nigeria said Awolowo was just an alarmist. But you see now; we got into trouble. Because of the unfortunate leadership we have, we haven’t got the right orientation. Like Buhari now, he doesn’t understand the problem; how can he solve it?
Restructuring is still an issue in Nigeria, largely due to discontentment by a section of the country. Was it a bigger issue then than it is now?
No! The clamour for restructuring came after the military took over. When the military took over, they introduced this constitution. So, by the time they said they were going back to the barracks in 1999, we said, ‘Thank you, o. Take us back what we used to have.’ That was the agitation we had then. That was when we founded the Alliance for Democracy after the military. The National Democratic Coalition was calling for a sovereign national conference. What does it mean? We were saying, ‘We don’t want to fight. We don’t want to go back to the federal regime under a military constitution, so let us have a conference and agree whether we still want to live together or on what terms we are going to live together. That was the essence of the sovereign national conference at that time. While we were shouting for that, Abdulsalami Abubakar said, ‘No, when you go back to the federal regime, we will do it.’ But Afenifere and NADECO at that time insisted. I want you to know that the struggle we have now is not new. We had foreseen it before Olusegun Obasanjo came into office. We insisted that there should be a sovereign national conference to agree on the constitution to go back to federalism before any election. But the pressure was so much; people were accusing Afenifere of being stubborn. We must restructure if we want to have peace.
Would you say the level of security in Nigeria has improved with the introduction of Amotekun?
They didn’t give Amotekun full powers. The introduction of Amotekun is just a small part of restructuring. It came because of the reluctance of Buhari’s government… How can you have a government of a state without having control over its insecurity? The governor of a state cannot control the police and you say they are the chief security officer of the state. Those are our problems. Those are all the inefficiencies in this constitution affecting our land.
Many current political leaders were born before and shortly after independence and they enjoyed the benefits that came with it. Why do you think they are failing to replicate these dividends enjoyed?
(Laughs) Remember when I said Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Bisi Akande, and all those Yoruba leaders in the All Progressives Congress have sold out because it was the principle of federalism that was the mantra they used to get them into power. And it was on this restructuring that we are fighting for that the Vice President (Prof Yemi Osinbajo), who was then the Attorney General of Lagos State, took Obasanjo to court when he denied Lagos State the power to create local governments. He won the case at the Supreme Court. It is the same people who now say they don’t understand what restructuring is; that is how they are.
There is this notion among Nigerians that the country is under the grip of a few wealthy individuals and families. Do you share that opinion?
That is a plain matter and that is why we are agitating. When the military took over, they made a constitution that would make the North to dominate us. And we have been saying that is why it is easy for Buhari to appoint all the security officials from his area. That is why he could be nepotistic unabashedly. It is this constitution that empowers him to do that. That is why he will not want to review the constitution easily.
Do you think the younger generations are taking the right steps to reclaim their country from the grip of bad leaders?
It is your generation that is hesitant; you are not fighting for it – people of your generation.
Some Nigerians believe that only a revolution can save the country from bad governance. Do you think that is possible?
That is a political principle. That arises from the adage, ‘When you make peaceful change impossible, you make violent change inevitable.’ It is not everybody that believes it. For instance, those who are shouting in the West and IPOB are doing so out of frustration. If restructuring had been done and we had returned to federalism, and every federating state had its own autonomy, there would be no need for it. People became frustrated and said ‘we don’t even want restructuring again, we want to go away.’ The military, dominated by the North and northerners don’t want a change because they are enjoying the advantage of the constitution that is skewed against us. Buhari won’t accept restructuring easily because the constitution is skewed in favour of his people. I’ll give you an illustration because when we talk about these people, you don’t understand. The revenue allocation formula being used now was what the military came up with on their own; not what was agreed on at the London constitutional conference. You can now imagine saying ‘you will contribute money on the basis of the extent of your land, whether it’s productive or an arid area.’ Extent of land is the condition, and they claim to have many local governments and states. On what does the number of local governments in the South fewer than that in the North? What is the yardstick? No basis! Some local governments in the North are not up to a constituency in the South. That is one of the awkward things in this constitution. That is one of the things we are fighting against.
But do you think that a bloody revolution is inevitable if things continue like this?
I’m 92. If you people accept the way things are going, it’s up to you.
As an accomplished man, do you have any regrets about being a Nigerian?
Not about being a Nigerian; only about the fact that Nigeria is not what we say it should be. I am a very proud Nigerian; I am a very proud Yoruba man.