SUNDAY VANGUARD INTERVIEW
Ayo Adebanjo image via Vanguard
CHIEF Ayo Adebanjo is a staunch Awoist, loyal to the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In this interview, Adebanjo narrates the origin of the crisis in the Western Region, the rift between Awolowo and the late Samuel Ladoke Akintola and how Awolowo prevailed on former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon (ret.), to fight civil war. Excerpts:
You were among those tried alongside the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, for treasonable felony in 1963...
I did not face trial but I was one of the accused persons. I was one of those who escaped to Ghana and not available for trial until they (Awolowo and others) were convicted; but we were on the list, I, Enahoro and Ikokwu. It was after that they (military) got Enahoro in London to be tried but Kwame Nkrumah (then Ghanaian President) gave us asylum until after the (Ghana) coup when Lieutenant General Joseph Arthur Ankrah sent us back to Nigeria and Aguiyi Ironsi sent us to Kaduna prison. We were in Kaduna prison when the second coup took place.
But did Awolowo receive any preferential treatment while in prison?
He (Awolowo) was in prison in Calabar.
Why I asked that question is because one of the surviving nationalists, Mabazuluike Amaechi, alleged in a recent interview that then Eastern Government under Michael Okpara took care of Awolowo in prison.
(Cuts in) That is true.
He also said that Okpara paid Awolowo’s wife salaries.
I don’t know about that. I know he (Awolowo) was given fair treatment there. I know that. You said he was paid salaries?
Amaechi said Awolowo’s wife was paid salaries.
I don’t know. I can’t vouch for that. We were in Ghana and we didn’t’ know about that. All I know is that he was given fair treatment while in prison. It was from that prison that Gowon, when he became Head of State after the July 29, 1966 coup, released him.
For the sake of the present generations who have no sense of history, what was it that led to you, Awolowo and others being implicated in that saga?
It was a betrayal by Ladoke Akintola who alleged that some of us, who were dynamic in the party (Action Group) and had a relationship with Nkrumah who had a dynamic political party in Ghana, were planning to topple Balewa government. Before then, Chief Awolowo had sent some of us down there, especially some of us who were organizing secretaries, to go and study the tactics of the Convention Peoples Party.
Yes in Ghana, which was a force at that time; it was that one that brought crisis between Awolowo and Akintola. It was the crisis that Akintola used to malign Awolowo. Not only that, when you talk about the NIPC then, it was said that you can never catch the Action Group because we had money. We established a straight trade company. We got loan from the marketing board.
From which company?
Western Nigerian Marketing Board and this was done on commercial basis. If that loan from the Marketing Board was six percent interest, Awolowo would say they should give us at 12 percent (Action Group) because he did not want grumblings from outside. It was on that commercial basis that Akintola said that Awolowo took the marketing board money. Awolowo never believed in collecting contracts from anyone. The Action Group sourced money through that business which it got from one of the top leaders of AG, Shonibare. Shonibare took a loan from Barclays Bank to establish Shonibare Estate and he was making money. Having discovered that, Awolowo called Shonibare to know how he was able to do it and that he should do it for the party so that the party won’t rely on anybody. So, instead of going to Barclays Bank, we got our loan from our own marketing board and paid interest.
That is what caused the quarrel in Western Region before the crisis.
It is like anybody going to the bank, get a loan and, because there is a crisis, you now went to the bank and said ‘don’t give anybody any loan again’. It was a purely financial system. That was what led to Coker Enquiry.
Was that what led to you, Awolowo and others being implicated?
No, Coker Enquiry was a development of the crisis in the Western Region where they wanted to cripple the activities of Action Group. But the question of treasonable felony was through the misinformation of Akintola that we wanted to topple the Balewa government because the secretaries of the Action Group went to Ghana to learn the tactics of the Convention Peoples Party.
The unfortunate thing in the country is that when Awolowo, Enahoro and politicians of the First Republic were fighting on principle, we are presently using a unitary power under a federal system. We had already established federalism before independence but it was as a result of the agreement at the 1954 constitutional conference, which stemmed from the crisis in the Federal House after Enahoro’s motion. They summoned all the leaders at that time and they agreed on the 1954 Constitution whereby they made the Constitution of each region separate from the federal Constitution. It was under that Constitution that you had premiership being established. Before then, you had the McPherson Constitution that came into effect in 1952. So, when the crisis came, McPherson said ministers of the cabinet, who were normally chosen from each region that had the majority, will not take part in the self-government motion. McPherson also threatened to sack anyone who participated in it. The ministers of the Western Region said that was why they were elected by the people. We told him that we were ready to go but then-Ooni of Ife, Oba Adesoji Aderemi, told McPherson than rather than sack a Knight of the British Empire (KBE), he (Aderemi) would resign. So, the whole team from the Western Region resigned from the cabinet and that was the beginning of the crisis because there was no representation from the Western Region.
It was there that then-Colonial Secretary, Santos, sent for the leaders of the various parties-Azikiwe, Sardauna, Awolowo and others. That was the origin of the Constitutional Conference. It was at that conference that things were broken down, and then they all agreed on those terms which created premiership and autonomy. The autonomy was such that the Western Region established a foreign office in London and Chief E.M.R. Okorodudu from Warri was the first Secretary-General.
It was in that embassy, 15A Kessington Palace Garden in London, that I got married in 1960. When Awolowo exercised that pride, other regions were ridiculing him. Then they followed suit, the Eastern Region created its embassy. We were completely autonomous, it was that system we had until the military came in 1966 and gave us this rotten Constitution that is confusing.
The question of derivation was settled, we (West) had more money through cocoa, the North had the groundnut pyramid and the East had palm oil. It was on the return of that conference that Zik said at the airport that federalism was imperative but before he left for the conference, he was unitarist.
Many believed that you people were just victims of brinkmanship of that time. Did Papa Awolowo forgive those behind that incident before he passed on in 1987?
He did. When Yakubu Gowon came into power, Chief Awolowo made a tour. Gowon wanted to tell the country that the whole country was united, so he told Chief Awolowo to tour the country for peace to show that there was no crisis in the country again.
So, Chief Awolowo had to tour across country for peace, declaring that peace had returned and, after that, Gowon wanted us to tour the world to show that the whole country was okay. So, our passports that were seized, government gave them back to us and had to include us in the delegation of the opposition then to show that the country was united.
There is this impression that Chief Awolowo was used by the military government during the civil war to conquer the Igbo. How true is this?
No. Some Igbo spread that falsehood.
What led to it?
Before Ojukwu declared the war, Awolowo offered to go and speak to him. Gowon, who is alive, did not want to go to war. That was the time Chief Awolowo made the statement that if by an act of commission or omission, the East was allowed to secede, the West will go. That is what led Awolowo to prevail on Ojukwu not to secede but that they should fight for federalism. It was the insistence of Chief Awolowo to keep the Eastern Region in the federation that made Gowon fight the war because Gowon was not prepared to allow the East to go. That is what made Chief Awolowo to participate in the war. Remember that Chief Awolowo was Minister of Finance and all the allocations and allowances meant for the Eastern Region, Chief Awolowo kept them during the war and handed over to them after the war. He made Ikokwu the Minister of Economic Planning for the East after we were released from prison and he handed over all the money for the development of the East. It is on record.
That is why some westerners said we should not do anything with the East because they are not reliable. The Igbo have not been fair to us at all. For instance, when Chief Awolowo met Ojukwu, he (Ojukwu) agreed that they were not going to wage a war. He (Awolowo) convinced him (Ojukwu) to go back to the round table and resolve the question of federalism. But no sooner than he (Ojukwu) returned to the East than he (Ojuwu) reneged on the agreement. So, the statement Awolowo made to compel Gowon to fight the war to retain Ojukwu was misconstrued by Easterners. And after the war, they retrieved the interview Awolowo had with Ojukwu because, when Awolowo came back from his visit to Ojukwu at his own risk, some detractors, including northerners, told Gowon that Awolowo had gone to make a pact with Ojukwu but Gowon did not believe them. But when the war was won and they played the tape (Gowon is still alive), they saw the discussions Chief Awolowo had there with Ojukwu. Unfortunately, there had been some misconceptions around this. The West has always played the role that the country should be united. That is why we (West) are insisting on restructuring, we don’t want the country to break. The current Constitution was indeed made without our consent but we have since realized that there are value and advantage in being a big country but on the terms that everybody will agree to live together, and not on the terms that a section will dominate the other. That is why I asked: what is the problem of Buhari in restructuring? Let us go back to where we were at independence.
I often make a statement which he (Buhari) has not refuted yet that: Can Buhari claim to be northerner than the Sarduana (Sir Ahmadu Bello, first republic premier of Northern Region)? That is the Constitution that Sarduana, Azikiwe and Awolowo agreed to; let us go back to it. Should that be a problem if he (Buhari) has no hidden agenda? Which is what he (Buhari) is doing now; and I have been saying it that he (Buhari) will not restructure because once he restructures, the question of Islamisation will not be possible, the question of domination will not be possible, the question of excluding the East will not be possible because all these things are settled.
What you call resource control now is what Awolowo fought for under derivation. Even after the discovery of oil in 1957, oil was still distributed based on derivation.
Buhari’s refusal to restructure
It is this Constitution that is causing conflict, we need to go back to federalism so that all areas will be sorted. The refusal of Buhari, in particular, to go back to federalism and restructure the country is evident in the fact that he has a hidden agenda. I have challenged him that if he does not have, let him restructure.
So, it is left to him. My view is that all those calling for peace, including Abdulsalami Abubakar, are all living in denial. Everybody knows what is to be done to get peace, they are only afraid to do it. Restructure the country and see what will happen.
How true is it that the coup plotters of January 15, 1966 executed the Prime Minister to release Awolowo from prison and hand over power to him?
I was not among the coup plotters; we only saw the result of the coup. All we know is that some people were killed and at the time they were executing the coup, we were all in prison. We were in Ghana; Awolowo was in Calabar prison, so how can we be part of the coup. It is so illogical, it is cheap blackmail.
Do you support the agitation by some people that power should shift to the South-West in 2023?
You see, that is part of the deceit of some people in this country. Whoever is saying it is deceiving himself and the people. How do you want to keep the country and say a section of the country should not be President? The West has done, the South has done, the North has done several times, then you want it to go back to the West again, and you want the country to be together, and you don’t want IPOB to talk, why are we deceiving ourselves? There is no honesty in it; there is no principle in it. Anybody who is saying power should come back to the South-West (2023) is an enemy of Nigeria’s unity. If we are sincere about keeping the country together under a federal system, it is illegal and immoral for that Constitution to exclude an important unit of the federation. It is not a question of whether you like it or not.
I will add that those who are saying power should come to the West are just deceiving themselves. The North does not want to give up power; they just want to push that to the South so that we can be quarrelling over it. The North is deceiving the South-West.
When Chief Awolowo was alive, he became a rallying point for all Yoruba, but presently, there seems to be a division among the Yoruba…
There is no division, there are only rebels. All those who are not in Afenifere today broke away from Afenifere; they were Afenifere before but are no longer there because of selfish interests. We know them. Who is opposing Afenifere? Is Chief Fasanmi not there? These are people who used Afenifere to make a name and I often repeat that, for Fasanmi, I won’t comment, I will only say the two of us will soon see Awolowo and face Awolowo. By the time Fasanmi and I see Awolowo, I don’t know whether he (Fasanmi) will be able to face Awolowo and say he continued the fight the way Awolowo left it. I won’t say more, he knows it. All others are products of Awolowo who are bashing Awolowo, I want them to challenge me.