Political differences should not obviate the truth. – Dr. Akin Onigbinde SAN
February 2, 1962 was the day everything spoken in hushed tones across Nigeria’s the streets and its corridors of power morphed into the obvious. Samuel Ladoke (S.L) Akintola, a political heavyweight of the Western Region, was supposed to be in Jos with fellow members of the Action Group at the party’s congress. Power tussles had reached breaking point, overshadowing the congress; Obafemi Awolowo who was at the time Leader of the Opposition and S.L Akintola, the region’s premier, were involved in a personality clash that finally came public.
On this auspicious day, Sir Ahmadu Bello was visiting Ibadan, to open the Sultan Bello Hall in the University of Ibadan, named after his grandfather. Akintola decided to stay back to honour the “most powerful man in the country,” holding a state banquet to honour him. Akintola would have no idea of the seismic shift in political terms that was happening, simultaneously, to the North; in Jos.
There, Chief Awolowo affirmed that the Action Group party (AG) would not be joining the coalition at the center and he would prefer to continue in his role as opposition leader. Awolowo’s assertions were not taken as fact, because there were already secret discussions that the AG was joining the center, controlled by the coalition of Northern Peoples Congress and the National Council of Nigeria & Cameroon.
Akintola was alerted, and he arrived Jos by airplane, to join the Congress, but the end result was far from amicable. Despite pleas, Akintola stormed out of the meeting with his faithfuls. This time, he was going back to Ibadan via rail. Hordes of his supporters waited for him in anticipation at Dugbe, Ibadan until he arrived, immediately entering a secret session with traditional rulers.
But the long-sown seeds of discord had already begun to take root: while the Congress continued in Jos, the position of the Deputy Leader which Akintola occupied was abolished; Awolowo was firmly in charge.
When Akintola succeeded by Awolowo in 1959, there had been a groundswell of ill will rippling in. Akintola was in charge of the treasury of the Western region, which in turn oiled the AG party, via the Nigerian Investment and Property Company. There were anecdotes that: Akintola loathed the Awolowo cap, refusing to wear it; Akintola favoured the use of sirens while Awo didn’t; he raised poll taxes from one pound seventeen shillings and sixpence to two pounds and five shillings; Akintola also made appointments with the Party Leader’s input; it was even said that their wives were not on talking terms. These stories, peddled by fans, kept widening the gulf between both men.
The tell-tale sign of rising tensions came on Independence Day. The seating arrangement for Nigeria’s leaders saw Awolowo placed at the rear row, while Akintola gleamed with the Prime Minister and dignitaries, a clear testament to the latter’s quiet rise.
While the cracks were appearing and the North was looking for “a man to do business” with, Akintola, fluent in Hausa, Nupe, English and Yoruba, was extremely willing to hop into bed with the North. This was because he believed for the Yoruba nation to have a fair advantage, they can’t keep camping in opposition. Most of his convictions lay that it is better than Action Group stay in Western Nigeria and if it was interested in the central government, it can’t win by election except through coalitions.
Akintola’s inclinations towards the North were revealed right from the time he midwifed the negotiations which brought the North back to the table for Nigeria’s independence in 1953, a development which seemed to present him as a man the North could trust. By contrast, Awolowo, the leader of the opposition in the parliamentary house came across as more combative in presentation, a man of deep intellect and conviction. Awolowo also began to push democratic socialism in late 1961, an ideology already gaining interest among young people who were lured; Akintola however found that as lacking in political astuteness.
These were the circumstances which preceded the Jos congress. There, it was clear when Akintola arrived, that he was late in actual and political terms; he had lost the party machinery. The many who once envied his clout wanted only one thing – to pass a vote of no confidence in him, which would have cost him his position as Premier but a patched up arrangement barely held the peace. However, in the weeks that followed, from February 1962 onwards, partisan politics took a more active turn in Ejigbo, spilling over into the Oshun Division; a nexus of power which Akintola once belonged to, and controlled. As Chief Awolowo became more assertive in the Oshun Division, the cracks reappeared. With differing ideas in political ideology, and the gradual partitioning of its key players and their backers across varied party lines, it was clear the Action Group was at great risk of imploding.
By May 1962, at an AG party meeting Chief Awolowo reeled out 24 charges against Akintola, condemning the Premier for flouting party rules, engaging in anti-party activities and taking for granted the same government he served. Akintola accepted the charges, and tendered an apology; a move that was deemed insufficient by his peers.
Chief Anthony Enahoro moved that since Akintola accepted the charges, it was time he quit the position of Premier. In a surprise move, the standard secret ballot system was jettisoned for an open ballot to cast a vote of confidence. Chief Akintola lost the vote, and most humiliating, in a public vote.
Akintola’s next step was to resign, or dissolve the parliament through a Governor’s request.
By the rules at the time, if parliament is dissolved, everyone was to go to the party to test their popularity with the voters. With the cards decked against him, Akintola wrote to the Governor to constitutionally dissolve the parliament. This was declined. Sir Adesoji Aderemi, the Ooni of Ife and then Governor of the Western Region, demanded Akintola’s resignation as Premier, naming Alhaji Dauda Adegbenro as his successor.
The government as the center, led by Tafawa Balewa, sided with Akintola, a development which contributed to the latter fighting to remain Premier. Akintola decided to exploit a legal loophole, stating that he did not lose a popular vote on the floor of the House, and the votes were cast at a mere party meeting. After Akintola’s bid for a second vote of confidence, violence broke out at the Western Region Parliament. The central government pushed for a state of emergency, restricting Akintola to Ogbomoso.
Akintola grew vengeful, expanding his cache of enemies, he tapped on his legal and political resources to relieve the Ooni of Ife, Adesoji Aderemi, from his post as Governor of the Western Region.
As the intra-party fighting escalated, external forces proved just as unrelenting. On June 20, 1962, a Commission of Inquiry, headed by Justice G.B Coker was instituted to probe five corporations which had direct links to the Action Group. In those days as seen now, campaign finance for political activity was tied to big business. The Coker Commission of Inquiry concluded with an indictment of Awolowo and his aides. Oddly, Akintola, despite the depth of his influence in government, was not indicted. This raised a lot of dust on the credibility of the Coker report, though it established that state corporations provided monetary backing for the AG.
The year ended with Akintola’s popularity waning in the region. On January 1, 1963, Akintola proceeded to appoint a new Governor, and with the fall in cocoa prices globally, coupled with the dissolution of the Marketing Board after the Coker Inquiry, farmers were paid less.
Akintola bore the brunt, maligned as having betrayed his leader (Awolowo), who faced the twin crises of the Coker Inquiry indictment, and charges of treasonable felony.
Stripped of his clout, Akintola embraced the NCNC in the West and other minority parties, forming the National Democratic Party (NNDP). The coalition got bigger in size and influence, with NNDP joining the Northern Peoples Congress to birth the Nigerian National Alliance.
The Action Group Akintola had left was not idly sitting on its hands; it joined the fray, forming alliances with other parties and creating strain in the Western Region’s once compact politics.
Alhaji D.S Adegbenro, who was meant to take over as Premier after the Governor, Adesoji Aderemi sacked Akintola won a case at the Privy Council with the Court affirming that the Governor can remove the Premier without a parliament majority. Don’t forget that the Governor acted based on vote in the party meeting not in the parliament. In high octane politics, the judgment was nullified after the Western House of Assembly passed a law and applied a retroactive effect that made Privy Council ruling had no effect.
Against this backdrop of widening political alliances and the consequent vested interests, elections came in 1965. Unsurprisingly, the proceedings were very fraudulent, with different results read at different radio stations. Both parties claimed victories, and tempers flared, escalating communal violence which peaked with people being bathed in petrol before being burned in an act infamously named “Wetie,” which translates to English as “wet him/her.”
By all accounts, Akintola already knew a coup was in the offing. Less than a day to his death, he flew to Kaduna to meet Sir Ahmadu Bello, arriving around 2pm. The Sardauna met him at the airport with a warm embrace, which would turn out to be the last for both men. Akintola came back to Ibadan and in a few hours, would find himself under attack by coup plotters raining a hail of gunfire on his Iyaganku residence. Captain Nwobosi led the fierce duel from 10pm until around 2am in the wee hours of the morning. With bullets bringing his front door crashing, Akintola remained stoic, bravely defending his family. He wounded a few soldiers in the process, till he stepped out and took a corner down some stairs out of necessity. There, Nwobosi found Akintola and gunned him down.
Perhaps Akintola should have taken a bow as Premier after the party vote, and left to rebuild his political base. Instead he kept pressing on, despite waning popularity, walking into landmines, sometimes clashing with the federal and regional might in place.
Akintola was by no means infallible, but he was undoubtedly a man whose legacy has been misjudged in turns. Most of his ideas, sound recordings and speeches were destroyed by zealots, in a bid to eliminate his memory.
He commissioned and built Cocoa House, inaugurated the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University), Daily Sketch (now Cocoa Mall) and Premier Hotel Ibadan.
Akintola continued the free education programme instituted by Chief Awolowo but such feats paled in the light of his protracted battle with his leader (Awolowo) and have continued to dim with each passing year, courtesy the continuous campaign to cast his political expediency as symbolic treachery. We are witnesses of recent history that at every turn when a Yoruba person aims to lead Nigeria, it has never happened without a pragmatic alliance with the Northern region.
Akintola was born into a Baptist family, a founding member Egbe Omo Oduduwa and Action Group, orator, a firm believer in the Yoruba nation, as well as a shrewd mobilizer, lawyer and educationist. He attended the constitutional conferences in London and Lagos, former Minister of Health, Aviation and raised the second motion for Nigeria’s independence, after the initial one by Enahoro ended in crisis. He was married to Faderera and they had five children.
Akintola was the 13th Are Ona Kankanfo – the Field Marshal of the Oyo Empire. And just like his forebears and his successor, M.K.O Abiola, Akintola died in active battle.
This piece is based on extensive reading on the lives and time of S.L Akintola and open to debate. I also wrote this piece in the memory of my grandfather, tailor to SLA & my late father who also had kind stories about the Premier.