By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
A seemingly innocuous spark in an otherwise isolated part of a nation can change the course of history. Nigerian history as we have it today owes its shape to the handling or mishandling of the Action Group crisis of the early 1960s. The initial crisis led to a chain of events culminating to the Nigeria/Biafra war and the deeply polarized and wounded nation such as we have today. “May you live in interesting times,” is a twice-told charge; and thus Chief Simeon Olatunde Oloko found himself through forces beyond his control to be in the epicenter as a witness of the events that reshaped Nigerian history. Born at Agodi in Ibadan, the author who studied at the esteemed London School of Economics and Political Science, and was called to the bar of Inner Temple in 1958, served as secretary of the pivotal Western Nigeria Development Corporation (WNDC) from the vantage point of which he lived through the manifold crises that bedeviled the old Western Region and Nigeria.
According to Chief Oloko, in his book, …And the West Went Wild (Aftermath of the Action Group Party Crisis of 1961/1962), “One of the questions I try to find answer to in this book is how the Western Region, the foremost, the wealthiest, and the most dynamic of the three regions that made up the country at that time became a political football and object of derision and contempt by those that thitherto used to look up to her as a model. Was it merely a failure of management leadership or a mismatch of economic and political variables? Might events not have turned out differently if the resources of the region had been better husbanded and the cart not put before the horse? Was it just a coincidence that the crisis broke out at the time the region was broke? What lesson in human management and control of resources can the future generation learn from the catastrophic events that plagued the region?”
The author answers these questions and more. Even as he stresses that a greater part of the book came from memory and personal recollection, Chief Oloko assures that as much as possible memory slips had to be guarded against through cross-checking with other living witnesses and newspaper records. A good chunk of the book is made up of actual court judgments such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s treasonable felony trials and government commissions like the Coker Commission of Inquiry. “Nigeria has so often been described as a mere geographical expression,” writes the author who goes on to assert that “Nigeria is a creation and victim of British imperialism, an administrative contrivance to suit the whims and caprices of Frederick Lugard…” He iterates the early nationalist movement as championed by Herbert Macaulay and Nnamdi Azikiwe and deposes: “Dr Azikiwe was not cast in the mould of a regional leader as he had always seen himself as a federalist. Chief Awolowo was at that time a regionalist, a tribal leader who owed his leadership to a pan-Yoruba cultural group known as the Egbe Omo Oduduwa. Sir Ahmadu Bello distrusted them both and wanted the north to develop at its own pace without any pressure from what he considered as the radical south.”
The 1951 election to usher in internal self-government for the regions brought with it the spectre of carpet-crossing based on tribal linkages, and Chief Oloko writes: “The NCNC and its allies did very well at the polls, but between the time the results were declared and the first sitting of the House of Assembly, the picture changed miraculously.” Adegoke Adelabu was the only man left standing in Zik’s corner at the NCNC while Adisa Akinloye led others to cross carpet into Awo’s Action Group. Zik perforce left the West to oust the Eyo Ita regime in the East, and the old nation was thus divided along the tribal lines of the major ethnic groups and the marginalized minorities.
It was in 1959 that Chief Oloko was employed as Senior Assistant Secretary (Legal) of the WNDC and, according to him, “had I gone back into legal practice and left the WNDC, I would not have been able to witness at close quarters the cataclysm which engulfed the western region not long after and which is the main subject of this book. The WNDC was a good vantage point from which to see all that was going on in the western Region. It was the economic hub of the region, the region’s window to the business world. The top political party men were all there either as executive directors, board members or representatives in associated companies.” The book is rendered in chapters that overlap with headings such as: Chief Obafemi Awolowo; Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola; the National Investment and Property Company; Chief Mrs H.I.D Awolowo & Faderera Akintola; the Action Group Crisis of 1962; State of Emergency 1962; the Coker Commission of Inquiry; Chief Akintola’s Government; the Treasonable Felony Trial; the NNDP Government and the Aftermath; Treasonable Felony – Extracts from Proceedings; the 1965 Western Regional Election; the 1966 Military Coup and Beyond; the Release of Chief Awolowo from Prison; the Nigeria of Tomorrow; and Nigeria’s Leadership. As can be seen from the titles of the chapters, Chief Oloko tackles well-known, if controversial, issues in Nigerian history. What he brings to bear on them is bold and fresh personal insight.
“Writing on the Action Group is tantamount to writing on Awolowo,” asserts the author, adding, “The Action Group was his party to which he invited others to join. The Party and Chief Awolowo were two sides of the same coin.” Chief Oloko cites the disparaging saying by some that “the Action Group was a tribal political party formed by Chief Awolowo to propel him to the leadership of Nigeria.” Awo carried a messianic aura on behalf of the Yorubas who were “affronted by the Igbos boasting that their domination of Nigeria was a matter of time.” Chief Oloko admits that Awo was not Zik’s match at the national level, though a particular poem “If we must die let it not be like hogs…” which he attributes to Zik was actually written by the African-American Claude McKay!
Awo was venerated to the extent that Chief Alfred Rewane who was the author’s boss always took off his cap whenever talking to the sage on phone! Others such as Chief S.O. Awokoya who fell out of Awo’s grace were summarily discarded. The Action Group led by Awo “believed fervently in the power of money.” The chieftains controlled all the business pies, notably Dr Akinola Maja, Chief S.O Gbadamosi, Chief S.O Shonibare, Chief Rewane, Dr. Doherty etc.
Chief Akintola, as Awo’s deputy, fell into trouble with the leader in the field of undiluted loyalty. The author believes that the Action Group crisis could have been averted if Awo had remained in the West and left his subaltern Akintola to fight the elections at the centre as Ahmadu Bello did with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in the north. Just as Awo had a powerful wife in HID, Akintola had an equally powerful missus in Faderera who would not submit to further humiliation of his husband by the leader. Akintola found allies in the north. Awo had to undergo the Coker Commission of Inquiry and the treasonable felony trial and was eventually jailed even as Justice Mbanefo wrote a minority judgment that cast a smear on the process. Awo was thus propelled to the realm of martyrdom. Akintola and Chief Remi Fani-Kayode rigged elections in the west and the people rose in protest wetting their oppressors with petrol and burning them to death on the freeway. Even Chief Oloko escaped death by whiskers when he had to hide inside a vehicle in 1965 during a trip home while honouring the President of Nigeria’s scholarship to pursue a postgraduate course in Industrial Management at the Centre d’Etudes Industrielles in Geneva, Switzerland, which he won.
When the military coup supervened to halt the madness in the west it was as though Awo’s prophecy had come true. Akintola lost his life as did Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa and many military officers and politicians in the north and west but hardly any in the east. There was euphoria in the west though the charge of “Igbo coup’ and the feared Igbo domination soured up things until there was a revenge coup by the northern officers. Awo was released from prison to a tumultuous welcome by unimaginable crowds and he fittingly donned the toga of “leader of the Yorubas.”
Chief Oloko offers this lament about the rise of Awolowo: “His return from prison was at first widely acclaimed as a masterstroke for peace in the Federation and provided him a great and unbeatable opportunity to put himself at the head of a country that needed reconstruction, reconciliation and restitution. But he did not avail himself of the opportunity. He came back with vengeance, with visceral animosity running through his veins. He saw his release as a victory against his political enemies, the living and the dead. Like the French émigrés after the French revolution, he learnt nothing and forgot nothing.”
This is indeed a very bold and courageous book. He is not interested in writing a hagiography as several authors are wont to do in dealing with subjects such as their political heroes. He pillories Nigeria’s lack of quality leadership and critically assesses the privatization regime of ex-President Obasanjo. The few pitfalls of the book can only be located in the misspelling of words such as “accused” which is spelt as “accussed” in some places. The attribution of Claude McKay’s poem as Zik’s has been highlighted earlier.
Even so, Chief Oloko has written a very rewarding book that is recommended reading for anybody anywhere interested in Nigerian history. The pity is that this book I am writing about here is hardly ever seen anywhere in Nigeria, especially at this time that the country is travelling the old familiar road of crisis!
Uzoatu writes from Lagos