Speaking of late Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola politics, I have a pertinent personal testimony to tender. I had a pretty early and unique exposure to Nigerian politics which can be literally cited as baptism of fire. I was born into one of the contradictions of Yoruba politics which fostered in me a lifelong skeptical attitude towards the totality of Nigerian politics and its received wisdoms.
My first memory of life on this planet was as a witness to an arson attack on our residence, as me and my grandmother fled the scene. She had earlier refused entreaties to leave the compound because in her consideration, her son had not committed any crime, let alone, the generic accusation of public office theft, with which, the Western regional political leadership under the premiership of Ladoke Akintola were collectively tarred. Her son and my father, was Chief Oduola Osuntokun, who served as cabinet minister from 1955 to 1966 straddling the premiership of Chiefs Obafemi Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola.
Why would, perhaps, one of the most ethically upright and conscientious public servant of his generation be subjected to the censure and demonisation that was visited on those who took sides with Akintola in the violent Awolowo/Akintola schism that rocked the Western region from 1962 to 1966? It is on record that, as Minister, he midwifed the establishment of the ikeja, ilupeju and bodija housing estates without allocating a single plot of land, directly or by proxy to himself.
More significant was the character witness of being the only Minister exonerated by the Justice Kayode Esho panel that was charged by the first military governor of the Western region, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi to probe the preceding Akintola government. Neither did he partake of the widespread election rigging that characterised the 1965 regional elections in the Western region were the testimonies of his opponents in the four general elections he contested to be believed.
This was the riddle I had to grapple with as a child growing up in the Yoruba society of the late sixties and early seventies. Yet, in acknowledgement of one of those rare moments of ‘good things happening to good people’
I would, at this juncture, want to express my immense appreciation and gratitude to the Odua group of companies, for deeming my dad worthy of adoption as a political role model in its memorialisation of Yoruba exemplars. The debt of gratitude I owe, commensurately escalates, with the choice of my uncle, Professor Olukayode Osuntokun for the same recognition in the academic/ professional category.
In earnest, the phenomenon of Awolowo’s embodiment of Yoruba politics, began with the formation of the egbe omo Oduduwa in 1948. ‘In 1951 he founded the Action Group, with some of the Egbe’s members as its nucleus, and in the process became the party’s first president. In the same year, the party won the first elections held in the Western Region, and Awolowo subsequently served as leader of government business and minister for local government.
From 1954 to 1959, as premier of the Western Region, he worked, assiduously, to establish the imperishable legacy of the socioeconomic transformation of the Western region with such enormously successful progressive policies as free universal primary education and free health care for children. The constitutional provision of
regional autonomy that undergirded the practice of Nigerian federalism gave him the latitude to make a peerless impact on the socioeconomic development of the Western region and thereby eternally capture the imagination of the Yoruba people.
From the authentic and the original to the mutant and superficial, the Awolowo political brand has run the gamut of the Action Group, AG, Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, Social Democratic Party, SDP, and the Alliance for Democracy, AD until all pretences and affectation of any such brand were thrown overboard at the formation of the All Progressives Congress, APC in 2015.
The stillborn outreach of Awolowo to the similarly rigorous modernisation platform of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and the NCNC was resurrected in the formation of the United Progressives Grand Alliance between the AG and the NCNC (shorn of its Western region component) in 1964. ‘Up until the eve of the civil war, argues Ralph Uwechue, Nigerian politics was dominated by the big three tribes….In this triangular fight the key to victory was the combination of any two sides. It did not matter which two’
This was the political challenge and context that subsequently tasked Awolowo in his bid to become the Prime Minister of Nigeria in 1960. Thus advised, he reached out for a coalition with Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC (dominated by the Igbo writ large Eastern region). For reasons that were not quite clear, his hands of fellowship were spurned by Azikiwe in preference for Ahmadu Bello and the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC.
Beyond the speculation of a tit for tat display of ethnic chauvinism, semblance of an explanation may be found in the calculations of patronage politics and benefits accruable to any of the southern regional rivals that secures an alliance with the Northern region partnership. In the event, the most insidious by-product of this alliance was the lapse into ideological normlessness and a resultant prioritisation of the politics of consumption over the sacrificial and tasking politics of development.
The coup and counter coup of 1966 and its ultimate degeneration into the civil war in 1967 required Awolowo and the Yoruba to make a choice of which side to support between the North and the East. It was a no easy choice and it would take the strategic cultivation of Awolowo by the northern dominated federal government and the non strategic implacability of Ojukwu and the Eastern regional political elite to break the tie. Integral to the choice was the notion that whichever party that released Awolowo from prison was always guaranteed to reap a debt of gratitude from the Yoruba political leader.
Nonetheless, the natural allies of the North among the Yoruba was the Akintola faction and this dialectical contradiction reasserted itself in the political isolation of Awolowo to its regional stronghold in the 1979 presidential election. The fact that he felt compelled to seek recourse to the incredulous (and non-starter) presidential ticket comprising himself and Philip Umeadi from the South East was an indication of his
insurmountable political distance from the north. The futile defiant gesture of this presidential ticket ironically bolstered his credentials as the avenging angel of the progressive political movement of Nigeria.
The bitter political reality of Nigeria was that Awolowo would only have a fighting chance of realising his presidential ambition once he was ready to capitulate and played the protégé to the mentorship of the feudal conservative North. This option of self-abnegation (otherwise coined political compromise) was, of course, one step too far for Awolowo to contemplate and the reality must have dawned on him even if he gave the impression of being oblivious of it.
Out of the ashes of Awolowo’s frustrations as leader of opposition at the national Parliament, rose his belligerent backward glance at the position he voluntarily relinquished and bestowed on Akintola. As the tension between the two intensified, so did pressure grow on Akintola to seek a powerful external ally in the regionally controlled federal government. In the circumstance, Akintola entertained no compunction in accepting the terms of the relationship including, especially, the implication to serve as proxy for Sir Ahmadu Bello and Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa.
A critical aspect of the ensuing patron/client relationship was the entitlement to increased patronage (appointments, scholarships etc) from the federal government. This sense of entitlement played out in a chauvinistic inter ethnic jostling between the East and the West for the dispensation of pork from the senior partner.
The struggle was theatrically captured in a witty rendition by Akintola in his peerless mastery of Yoruba illocution and lores. It was accomplished through a dexterous manipulation of the surname of Dr Ikechukwu Ikejiani who was the chairman of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, ECN. Intended to illustrate the lopsided patronage of the Igbo to the disadvantage of the Yoruba at the federal government level, Akintola parodies “Ikinni a ni, ikeji a ni, iketa a ni”. Pronounced in Yoruba tonation, Ikejiani means, the ‘second one is given’.
Deriving from this deliberate malappropriation, the late Premier draws a sketch of a tendentious marginalisation of the Yoruba corresponding to the gluttonous satiety of the Igbo. He then contrived a three line stanza to prove the point, with a preceding ‘Ikinni a ni’ (the first is given) to Ikeji a ni (the second one is given) followed by Iketa a ni (the third one equally takes!).
Ultimately, the objective of Akintola was (for the Yoruba) to supplant the Igbo as the new favoured beneficiary of federal government largesse
The incendiary tribal jingoism was perniciously echoed in the ivory towers and the point of incidence was the university of Lagos. In the words of Tim Livsey, “The University of Lagos, like the universities at Ibadan and Ife, was affected by the rise of the NNDP (Akintola’s party), which had formed a coalition with the NPC in the federal government. The NNDP took the federal education portfolio, and installed nominees on the University of Lagos council”.
“A crisis broke out in February 1965 when the university council announced that Prof Eni Njoku, the founding vice-chancellor, would be replaced by Dr Saburi Biobaku. Njoku was considered a capable administrator, and his dismissal was widely understood in ethno-political terms because he was Igbo and supported the NCNC. ‘It will be difficult for the Council’, noted the ‘West African Pilot’, ‘to escape the charge that it has practised naked tribalism’’.
Like Akintola before him, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s politics is predicated on the victimisation of the Igbo on one hand and voluntary (albeit gainful) submission to the protective custody of the Muslim North on another. The former was unfurled in raw and open display of latent genocidal threat to the Igbo during the 2023 general elections in Lagos while the latter was heralded by a subordinate partnership in the formation of the APC and a crowning Muslim/Muslim presidential ticket.
Substantially and within the context of Yoruba politics, the emergence of Tinubu as the President of Nigeria is an epiphenomenon of the transition from Awolowo politics to Akintola politics. Indeed, it is the ultimate triumph of Akintola’s vision of Nigerian politics encapsulated in a menu comprising pragmatic hostility against the Igbo; pragmatic deference to the north and pragmatic monetisation of politics.