(Vanguard of Sunday, January 15, 2006)
On June 12, last year, I made certain remarks about the Yoruba which I am now willing to take back. The forum was the marking of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election which Chief Moshood Abiola won. It was an outing by civil society groups, and as has been happening, progressives spoke about the need to restructure this country to achieve true federalism and all that goes with it. Most of the big names there came from the South West.
Another commemorative event was going on somewhere on Lagos Island. But those who have attended both events over the years would tell you that the one coordinated by the Gani Adams wing of the OPC drew more revolutionary elements. In this one, which was held at Excellence Hotel, Ogba, Lagos, those you could still call Awoists were in attendance.
The National Political Reform Conference had been on at Abuja and the Yoruba had walked out on what the whole country had associated them with. They were not leading anybody on restructuring Nigeria on regional lines. They were obviously more happy going to Abuja to resolve the problems in the House of Oduduwa than discussing them in-house in Ibadan.
I told them at that gathering that the Yoruba mystique had collapsed. I said people had all along thought Awolowo was Awolowo because he was Yoruba, but their outing at Abuja had shown that Awolowo was Awolowo because he was Awolowo. That comment touched the children of Oduduwa and they asked that Dr. Otegbeye should respond. We will come back to this, but let us look back into time so you can appreciate why I made the statement I made, and also give reasons why, like a dog, I want to eat my vomit, on certain conditions being met by the Yoruba.
I come from Edo State which was part of the old Mid-West Region excised from Western Region in 1963. In spite of our anger at what the dominant Yoruba were doing to us, the minorities, in the political arrangement in the Region, the focused administration of Chief Obafemi Awolowo robbed off on us.
Imagine. I rode 27 miles (Ejoor, escaping from the Biafrans, had a record to equal or break there) to do an entrance examination to Edo College which was one of the very few secondary schools in that part of the country. I missed the exams! That was before the introduction of free education in the Western Region in the 50’s. But at the height of the free education programme which Chief Awolowo introduced and moderated, Auchi had six secondary schools!
Imagine those who today would never have had the opportunity to attend secondary school or even the primary school. My age-group was the first in the history of Auchi to have everyone there literate enough to sign their signature. We were a bridge between the past and the future, just as 1960, the year we were initiated into manhood and our year of political independence, was the watershed year between the end of colonialism and our independence.
But within two years of independence, we had started to mess up the constitutional arrangements by playing with the rules, jumping legal guns to achieve narrow objectives. We packaged a law, the Emergency Powers Act of 1961, obviously in anticipation of the state of emergency the Central Government was going to declare in the Western Region in 1962.
Awolowo was taken in for planning a coup, part of the so-called proof being that he registered in his diary the flashes which any intuitive man would record for bettering the lot of those he has an ambition to serve.
So, his Flashes of Inspiration landed him in jail. Hon Justice Sowemimo’s reference to his hands being tied in having to send Chief Awolowo to jail for treasonable felony was, as far as the public was concerned, a judicial declaration of helplessness because of a duty he had to satisfy those who had told him what to do!
So, today, whether Awolowo was guilty or not, the army of his followers, including yours sincerely who could exchange blows with anyone critical of him, believed that he was done in by the powers that were.
I believed that Awolowo was that focused and that disciplined because he was a product of Yoruba culture and heritage. I argued everywhere I went that the Yoruba are the most complete and rounded ethnic group in Nigeria. They had a belief system that they brought into every level of experiencing.
Their recognitions which brought alive for them those created beings of the Animistic, which is the first port of call on your journey from the Heights into the World of Matter, accompanied them everywhere they went, be those areas of foray culture, politics or religion.
In spite of Awolowo’s landmark achievements in the West, he left for the Centre, and when he was approached to be part of a national government, he opted for the Opposition so that democracy could grow., We fought a very costly war and he, as Minister of Finance, ensured that we did not borrow a kobo or owe anyone for the means with which the war was fought for 30 months.
When we chose the Presidential system and he presented himself to Nigerians and did not get to making the First Citizen of this Giant in the African Sun, he waited for another opportunity to try again. In 1983, he did try once more, and was declared as having failed again. And he told everyone that we were not ready to practise democracy and that he would never seek elective office anymore.
He was still alive when the government that came to power through a landslide victory and was boasting of making the 1987 round a moon slide, was thrown out in December, 1983! But the frontline posture of the Yoruba in fighting for freedom and insisting on the rule of law and the restructure of Nigeria to achieve true federalism had never waned.
Between 1993 and 1998 when Abacha died, the Yoruba seemed to have been the only ethnic nationality that did not buy the slogan that when you cannot beat them, you should join them. Many of them left the shores of this country and they had a ready ear in Europe and the United States because, again, the Yoruba more than any other ethnic nationality in this country, carries what he is and has imbibed culturally into the environment in which he finds himself.
The Caribbean, Brazil and many cities in the United States bear witness to the fact that what is Nigerian culture there is no more and no less than the influence the Yoruba have impacted in manifesting life in the environment in which they live. The battle axe of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was wielded by many non-Yoruba but I am yet to find anyone who denies that the foot soldiers were from the House of Oduduwa.
In May, 1999, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba, became President and promised at his inauguration that within six months, he would organise apolitical and constitutional dialogue. He did not get to doing that until February, 2005 when the National Political Reform Conference was set up. And that was where the Yoruba deserted those Nigerians that had looked up to them for leadership in the battle to restructure this country.
The June 12, 2005 commemoration was the forum I could speak to the people I had respected. I told them, Shame on you! I didn’t know Awo was not Awo because he was Yoruba. I now know he may well have been Urhobo or Tiv!
What happened later was responsible for the change I am now publicly confessing.
We continue next week.
(Published in Vol 2 of Democracy Watch, A Monitor’s Diary by Tony Momoh, pages 82 – 85; Lagos, 2008)