Wale Adebanwi on Mama HID (10)

IN the last decade of Nigeria’s transition from colonial to post-colonial existence, the profound transformation in local governance that ultimately reached the regional and national levels placed Awolowo at a very critical juncture to make the most of his wife’s family ties and royal kinships in Ikenne and Sagamu and to leverage himself in the politics of Remo – as he had done before he left for England.

The colony had experienced some turmoil in the opposition of the leading nationalists to the Richard’s Constitution of 1946. The Governor-General of colonial Nigeria, after whom the constitution was named, did not hold wide consultations when he imposed the constitution. Therefore, after his exit in early 1948, the nationalists and anti-colonial activities expected a better deal under the new Governor-General, Sir John Macpherson. One of the great agitators of that period making a case for the democratization of the existing native authority system was Obafemi Awolowo. The year before Macpherson arrived Nigeria, Awolowo had published an important book, “Path to Nigerian Freedom”, described in the leading scholarly journal, Africa, as “one of the best and most objective studies that have jet appeared in this field” and “a very courageous work”. The reviewer of the book concluded that “Mr. Awolowo has written a valuable and constructive criticism of Nigerian political development, and his book in its brevity, its lucidity, its objectivity, and its sound sense could well serve as a model for future writers in this field whether African or European”.

In the book, he made elaborate structural and policy suggestions as colonial Nigeria moved towards the end of foreign imposition. He was specially concerned with the modernization and democratization of local governance, exposing in chapter seven – which he entitled “Bone of Contention” – how the colonial government invested traditional rulers with powers in excess of what they had under native custom. Against this backdrop and to the pleasure of the likes of Awolowo, upon his arrival in Nigeria on April 14, 1948, Macpherson declared that “I shall devote my special interest to the problems of local government”. Democratization of the native authority system subsequently began apace.

All politics is local, as they say. By the following year, Awolowo supported by his wife, won a seat in the Remo native Administration Council. He used his clout as a leader of Majeobaje in Remo to propel his ambition. Earlier, he had intimated his wife with the fact that his political life was beginning in earnest with the elaborate participation in Egbe Omo Oduduwa and the subsequent contest for elective office in Remo. The formation of the Action Group will follow later. Hannah too pledged for unflinching support to the political career of her husband. Unknown to the husband, this commitment further led Hannah to redouble her efforts in her business so that she could support his political career by being able to provide for the family without needing his intervention.

When the Alakenne, Adejumo Orenowo, died in June 1949, it provided an opportunity for the couple to test their emerging leverage in Ikenne cultural politics, specifically, and Remo politics, generally, in the selection of a successor. Again, they were pitched against Onafowokan, who had not forgiven Obafemi for helping his wife’s ruling house in defeating him and his constituents in the court case which reached the West African Court of Appeal (WACA) in 1940.

Once the Alakenne died, Onafowokan was convinced that the throne which some people wanted him to claim in 1930 – but which he claimed to have rejected because, among other things, it was not prestigious enough vis-à-vis his job as Treasurer in the Ijebu Province at that time – was now his. But there was a problem.

There were three officially recognized ruling families in Ikenne: the Orogbe, the Gbasemo, and the Obara. Hannah Awolowo belonged to the latter. A fourth ruling house, the Moko, had made a claim to the line of succession. Their narrative is that, if Onafowokan had accepted to be the Alakenne in 1930, instead of the candidate of the Orogbe house, Adejumo Orenowo, the Moko would have been formally integrated into the lines of succession. Therefore, Onafowokan retired from his position as Treasurer on the salary of twenty pounds (20) shortly after the death of Orenowo, in preparation for contesting for the throne. Even though he had been such a pre-eminent “big man” in Ikenne as the Treasurer and number three man in the Ijebu Province in 1930 when some members of his family wanted him to contest for the position of Alakenne, while he retained the respect of the community, in 1949, Onafowokan now had strong potential rivals in the town. For instance, the year in which Onafowokan retired on a salary of twenty pounds (20), Obafemi Awolowo’s average annual net income for the same year was four thousand, three hundred pounds (4,300).

Then again, Onafowokan’s ambition had great implications given his role in the controversial land on Ikenne-Sagamu Road, which the Court had affirmed nine years earlier to be held in trust by the Obara family. His support for the Osugbo against the Obara had transformed his position and what he represented in the politics of Ikenne. Obara family approached his ambition for the Ikenne as not only as attempt to ensure official recognition of the Moko claim, but more importantly, as attempt to undermine the 1940 decision of the West African Court of Appeal and deprive the Obara family of their rights to the now more valuable land.

The current Alakenne, Oba Adeyinka Onakade, argues that Onafowokan was never a member of any ruling house.

“Baba Onafowokan wanted to become king because he believed that he was brilliant. He wanted to use his position in the province to be the next king (after Orenowo died), even though he does not belong to any ruling family. He was relying on his being educated and influential at that time and almost ascended the throne, but God did not allow him. He had laid the foundation before the then king (Orenowo) died in 1949”, says Oba Onakade.

The Alakenne explains further that “Onafowokan published a piece in (West African) Pilot stating that he had been made a member of the ruling family. Fortunately, one of the members of the Obara ruling house saw the publication in 1944 and went to the then Alakenne for clarification on when the Moko became a ruling house. He claimed that the Osugbo in conjuction with the Kabiyesi made him a member of the ruling house. The Kabiyesi debunked this and they tried to publish a rejoinder but Pilot refused to publish it in 1944”.

The publication in Pilot and the refusal of the paper to publish a rejoinder can be understood in the contest of the politics of the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM). In the crisis that engulfed the NYM in early 1940, Awolowo had supported Ernest Ikoli, former editor of Daily Service – the mouthpiece of the Movement – for the presidency of the NYM, while Nnamdi Azikiwe, and his newspaper, Pilot, supported Samuel Akinsanya (later the Odemo of Isara). In the election that was held in March 1941, Ikoli defeated Akinsanya. The acrimonious battle which preceded and followed this election pitting Awolowo and Ikoli against Azikiwe and Akinsanya became the basis of the collapse of the Movement. Therefore, Onafowokan would have known that Pilot, in 1944, would support anything to which Awolowo was opposed. He was proved right as the paper published his piece and refused to publish a rejoinder.

The Obara, also recognizing the politics of Pilot’s refusal, sent the rejoinder to Service, which published it in January 1945.

However, in the battle to stop Onafowokan from becoming Alakenne, the Obara family looked up to Hannah and her husband to help secure their interests. At any rate, they believed that it was the turn of the Gbasemo family to present a candidate for the position.

Recalls Oba Onakade when he spoke to the author in July 2015; “When the king died in 1949, Baba Onafowokan was preparing to become king. They had consulted the oracle and manipulated the divination process, offering etutu (appeasement) and lots of ebo (sacrifices). He almost became the Alakenne. But the Obara stood up to him and insisted that it was the turn of the Gbasemo ruling house. That was how the bitterness was fuelled”.

Hannah and Obafemi Awolowo worked hard to support Gilbert Awomuti, a literate Lagos-based tailor, for the position.  Awomuti also got the support of a majority of the town council members, even though the Osugbo, who called themselves the ilu, supported Onafowokan.