Wale Adebanwi on Mama HID (58)

The longest twilight

WHEN AWOLOWO DIED, H.I.D PLEDGED to “keep Papa’s flag flying”. One of the most crucial ways in which she has done this is to defend his legacy from an assortment of misbegotten lies and orchestrated campaigns of calumny by elements who have always worked hard to assail his legacy. Some of them tried while he was alive and he responded adequately either in media interviews or in his many books. However, the craven ones waited until he was dead. His wife was the strongest voice among those who defended Awolowo after his demise….

H.I.D was looking forward to meeting Olusegun Obasanjo on the evening of February 12, 1976, in her Apapa residence. Obasanjo was a brigadier in the Nigerian Army and the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters in the military administration of Brigadier Murtala Mohammed. The young soldier had made an appointment to see Chief ObafemiAwolowo. When Awolowo told his wife that the man was coming, she was curious to see the man she had heard a lot about.

The image of Obasanjo that H.I.D had was that of an irascible and tempestuous “philanderer”. This was the image presented to the Awolowos by Obasanjo’s first wife, Oluremi. The previous year, Oluremi had visited Chief Awolowo to relate her experience of serial abuse in the hands of her husband to him. Awolowo asked his wife to join them when Oluremi arrived. As Oluremi Obasanjo alleges in her book, Bitter-Sweet: My Life with Obasanjo, the last quarrel that got her chased out of her matrimonial home by her soldier husband had to do with one LaboSalako, whose husband, a captain in the Nigerian Army and Obasanjo’s friend had died in a motor crash. Labo Salako was finding it hard to survive after the sudden death of her breadwinner. She mentioned to Oluremi someday that Obasanjo had asked her to quit her apartment and move in with them since she was finding it hard to survive.

“It seemed reasonable to me, acquiesced, rationalizing that Mr. Salako would have done the same thing for me if the tables were reversed. She became my confidant”, writes Oluremi Obasanjo. She later found out, she alleges, that Obasanjo and his late friend’s wife who had moved in with them were having an affair. Mrs. Labo Salako had even requested that Oluremi be kicked out of the home so she could replace her. She found the letter Labo Salako wrote to Obasanjo in his briefcase. After confronting Labo, Oluremi kicked her out of the house. She also circulated copies of the letter to family members. When one family member intimated Obasanjo with the letter, he returned home to his wife in utter anger, according to her.

“When my husband returned to our Lugard Avenue home that day, he was in a murderous mood”, relates Oluremi. “I was on the phone talking to Mrs. Salako, who had called to abuse me. Apparently, Obasanjo had phoned her to let her know I saw her letter in London. We were having a shouting match on the phone when my husband pounced on me and began to curse and punch me. When I saw him go for a knife, I ran out of the house. He pursued me. I ran across the road…. Gbenga, my son, who was tailing me, was nearly hit by a car…..”

This was how Oluremi left her matrimonial home and was not allowed to return by the then Nigeria’s number two man. All attempts by family members to intervene were rebuffed by Obasanjo. There was another woman, Mrs. Mowo Sofowora, that Oluremi alleges was having an affair with Obasanjo. The woman, she claims, wasmuch older than Obasanjo. When Ouremi called the woman on the phone to challenge her regarding her relationship with her husband, she alleges that Obasanjo again physically attacked her.

“When I discovered in April 1975 that I was carrying his baby, I forced my way to his Broad Street Office to ask for financial support for antenatal care. He told me that I was on my own and should expect nothing from him. I went to highly-placed Nigerians to intervene in the rift. I first called on Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of Nigeria’s founding fathers. I related my story and on hearing of the involvement of Mrs. Mowo Sofowora as one of my husband’s concubines, he was aghast”.

“Is that not Sunny’s wife:” Oluremi recalls Awolowo exclaiming.

Awolowo promised to intervene. When she returned, the old man apologized that “he could not achieve much” with Obasanjo.

In her book, Oluremi assumes that Awolowo could not achieve much because Mrs. Sofowora was a major lace merchant like HID What she didn’t realize was that for such an exemplary and decent couple who had kept their marital vows for so long and sustained their mutual respect from the inception of their relationship, the Awolowos were indeed saddened by her experience of battery – whether the allegations of philandering she leveled against her husband were true or not. In actual fact, the old man’s effort to get Obasanjo to end the conflict and allow his wife back home failed to yield any fruit with the obdurate soldier.

Indeed, it was the knowledge of Oluremi’s accounts of Obasanjo’s alleged serial philandering, battery and his refusal to listen to Awolowo’s advice regarding the expulsion of his wife from their home that made H.I.D curious to see Obasanjo when she was told that he was coming to meet her husband.

But Obasanjo did not keep the time. He didn’t show up at the appointed time. As H.I.D told me in 2006 when I first interviewed her for my book on the Awolowo Movement; after waiting till late in the evening, she went to bed. It was only the next morning that her husband told her that Obasanjo came much later in the night.

In his own account of the visit in one of the series of self-glorifying diatribes – dull of malignities towards virtually everyone – that Obasanjo occasionally publishes about his public life, Not My Will, he claims that that night was the first time he was meeting Chief Awolowo.

“The first occasion was when on the eve of Dimka’s abortive coup, my predecessor, General Murtala Mohammed invited me to his office, thundered and expressed disgust and anger at the report of “Chief Awolowo’s subversive activities”, alleges Obasanjo. “He promised to deal severely with him if he continued in his design of destabilizing and destroying the nation. Murtala asked me to talk to him seriously. As a Yoruba man brought up to respect age and authority, I decided to visit Chief Awolowo in his house at Apapa rather than invite him to my office or to my house….. I warned him of the dangers of his persistence in his devious, diabolic and unpatriotic designs and actions.” I told him that he was being watched and that our administration was no respecter of person who did not respect the country and the law of the land…..”

Obasanjo concludes that “I expressed that my visit was at the instance of General Mohammed. The Chief denied engaging in any covert act or desings inimical to the interest of Nigeria or our administrations. He asked me to reassure Murtala and I did report back…. Reporting back to Murtala that night after my visit to Chief Awolowo turned out to be our last discussion as the coup planners hit the following morning”.

The man who would later be roused again in 1999 to preside over Nigeria after he survived General Sani Abacha’s gulag, then adds an egregious statement that is meant to speculate that perhaps Awolowo knew of the Dimka coup. Says Obasanjo: “The information and the facts at the disposal of Murtala which made him react as he did in respect of Chief Awolowo on the eve of Dimka’s coup would ever remain in the realms of conjecture”.



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