A renowned historian and Second Republic senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Professor Banji Akintoye, speaks with BOLA BADMUS, maintaining that the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was never given any preferential treatment by then Eastern Nigerian government while he was serving his term in Calabar Prisons, as claimed by a former Aviation Minister, Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, in an interview with a national daily, few days ago.
Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, a few days ago, said in a media interview that the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was given comfortable treatment by then Eastern Nigerian government when he was serving a prison term there, that he lived in an apartment rented for him by Eastern Region government outside the prisons and that Mama HID Awolowo was paid a monthly stipend by the same government. Can you comment on this?
Well, Mbazulike Amaechi is welcomed back to the public space after years, or even decades, of disappearance. But he should know that the world he has come into now is a lot different from the one he knew. The one he has come into now is one the Yoruba and the Igbo have found the beginning of rapport between them so that they can unite to liberate themselves from slavery in Nigeria. Nothing can disrupt that now. But the type of statement Amaechi is making can cause disruption. We won’t let him to cause any disruption; we will not allow him.
His statement that Chief Awolowo was given a house outside of the prisons so that he would be comfortable is pure lie. It is not true; it’s a lie. A large number of people were visiting Chief Awolowo on a regular basis from the Western Region. They were visiting him in prisons, not in any rented house. Any time we went to see him in Calabar, we found him in prison, not in any rented house. So, it is not true. It is not true at all that anybody rented any house for him.
And as for the allegation that Chief (Mrs.) Awolowo was being paid some stipend by the government of Eastern Nigeria, that is a more atrocious lie. It is not true. I have an uncomfortable feeling that Amaechi is saying this thing in order to pollute the waters between the Yoruba and the Igbo again. But it is not going to happen. The politics of the past is gone. The politics of today is politics of open eye, of realisation that we have been hurting ourselves while we were fighting each other: when we, Igbo and the Yoruba, were fighting each other. We are not going to go back to fighting each other now. It is not going to happen.
So, Mbazulike Amaechi is welcome back. He is a very capable man. He can contribute to the season of rapprochement between the Yoruba and the Igbo and he should not bring anything that can cause disruption. That’s all.
Who is this Mbazulike in your own estimation?
Yeah, he is a little older than me. He was one the frontline leaders, a frontline in the Zikist Nationalist Movement in the 1940s and he grew up to become one of the notables among the youth that were in the Zikist Movement and he played a part in politics. I can’t remember when he dropped out of politics, but I know he was still in it about 1983 or so or even beyond that. But he was very influential within the party and he was very influential with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, particularly.
And he was one of those people who could never see anything good in Chief Awolowo and so, whatever he says now must be taken in the light of that. He was one of those who were viciously hostile to Chief Awolowo among the Zikist leaders.
As close as you were to Chief Awolowo then, was there any time he told you: ‘thank God for me, the Eastern Region government has been wonderful; it has made life comfortable for me and provided me an accommodation and also paid me monthly stipend through my wife?’
Never. He never told me anything like that. The relationship between Chief Awolowo and many of us was no longer that of political associates or something like that. He became like our father. There was nothing he couldn’t tell us. There was nothing he wouldn’t tell me and my wife, for instance. We have been in the Action Group Youth Association since our undergraduate days, both of us. We got married and continued. We came amongst the leaders of Action Group Youth Association. When Chief Awolowo was in prison, we were the people who kept the party alive and then, the coup occurred in January 1966.
And when he came out later that year, we were among the closest persons. Very regularly, he would visit Ife and stay for days and nights. I don’t think there would be a whole week that we would not see him, either that we would travel to see him in Ikenne or travel to Ibadan to see him. Later, we would go and see him in Lagos, when he bought his Park Lane house in Lagos.
Chief Awolowo could never have received that kind of favour from anybody without my knowing, without people like Ayo Fasanmi knowing; without people like Wunmi Adegbonmire knowing and without people like Soji Odunjo knowing. We were the young leaders of the party.
And when it became time for Chief Awolowo to start a new party, we were among the makers of that party. I would say that the group of us that became known as the Ife Group was the intellectual power house for the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). So, there was no reason Chief Awolowo would have gone through that experience, that somebody rented a house for him out of prison so that he would be comfortable, and he would not tell us and we would never know. It is impossible, totally impossible. And that Mrs. Awolowo would receive money from anybody without our knowing, it’s impossible.
I know there was a time there were some talks that the Tafawa Balewa-led Federal Government was trying to do some favour for her and so on. She didn’t receive it. This was because she was a very faithful woman: a very faithful wife. She would not take anything from anybody without asking her husband, without sending someone to Calabar to ask Papa. And Papa is a type of man who would never allow his wife to take any favour from anybody. Yes.
How was the environment like, to be sure that it was indeed a prison indeed that you were visiting Papa when he was serving his term?
It was prison. A prison is a prison; it was a prison environment. There is nothing more to it. We would visit him; he would come out and meet us and then, go back to his cell. That is all.
But if no place was rented for him outside the prisons where he could live, do you have any feeling that Chief Awolowo was being treated fairly, in a separate manner?
No, not at all. Actually he was losing weight a lot in the prison. He was losing weight a lot.. He had been very careful about what he would eat from anybody in the prison and, so, the result was that when he came out, he was very lean.
The morning after he was released and the whole of Ibadan erupted in joy, I woke up very early in the morning to go and see him in Ikenne. Mama saw us coming, as we parked our car. She came and opened the door wide, wrapped us in huge hug and said “your father is at the back of the house greeting the women who were doing the cooking” and so on and so forth. And so, we rushed there and when my wife set eyes on him, she broke into tears, because he was so lean. He was so lean. And he hugged us: me, my wife and others. He led us back into the house. But he was very lean, fearfully lean.
Now, it was an interview that the man granted and you said Mbazulike told a lie. Assuming other people came out to say what he said was true, how would you feel?
Maybe another Igbo man, for instance…
A person of his and my age would come and tell a lie? I don’t think so. In any case, as I said, throwing bricks between Igbo and Yoruba is a matter of the past. By the grace of God, it’s a matter of the past. It’s a thing of the past. We are not going to enter into throwing bricks at each other anymore. We have suffered; we now have learnt. We have been reduced to second rate citizens in this land. In fact, our young people are saying that we have been enslaved in this land, as a result of foolishly fighting one another when we, the two large nations of the South, who were the leaders of development and modernization, should have held hands together, protected Nigeria and led Nigeria in the right direction. We fought one another and we let Nigeria be led in a terrible direction, the result of which we have seen now.
So, I think we are not going to fight one another ever again. Our children would be throwing stones at us, if we start fighting ourselves again. We have created a situation in which future generations of Igbo and Yoruba, young people in this land, will be slaves; it’s obvious. It is no longer politics, even now; it’s an attempt at conquest, actual conquest of the South and Middle-Belt. And so, we in the Middle-Belt and the South are finding our way to building a strong union among us to protest ourselves against enslavement in Nigeria. And so, nobody can turn that back. It can no longer be turned back by the grace of God. It won’t be turned back.
Finally, right now and around this time, we used to hear that some very important people used to have special treatment in prisons, that some of them sleep in their houses and come to prisons to mark register, show faces and go back home. Did that happen in the past?
I don’t know whether it happened then.
As an historian, wouldn’t you know?
At that time, I can’t remember anybody being given any special treatment. I can’t remember and definitely Chief Awolowo was never given any special treatment. He was the type of a man who would not accept any favour. Chief Awolowo would not accept favour from anybody, even if it was offered