I had initially toyed with the title “Western Nigeria: A region in ebullition,” taking after the book by the mercurial Ibadan politician of yore, Adelabu Adegoke aka Penkelemesi (Peculiar Mess), but I changed my mind. The South-West – or more appropriately as the governors of the region poignantly decided last Monday at their Abeokuta, Ogun State meeting to henceforth use the term “Western Nigeria” to define the region – is not yet awake from its slumber; it has only started to stir. And may it truly awake!
It must awake first and be up and doing before it can be ebullient. I said “poignant” because a mention of the term “Western Nigeria” sends us back the memory lane and only a few Yoruba that we can count on our finger tips, who have no kind words to say about the late sage and Asiwaju of Yoruba land, Chief Jeremiah (not Matthew!) Obafemi Awolowo, are not nostalgic about that period in the life of the Yoruba nation when its government notched up many firsts, not only in Africa but when it also bettered some of the Western countries and most of the “Asian tigers” and Brazil. It is a matter for regrets that, today, a top-flying people and nation such as the Yoruba have regressed not only on the world stage but also within Nigeria itself.
Where did the rain start beating us, as they say? General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi’s unity decree number one of 1966, which abrogated the Republican constitution, which had established a federal system of government allowing the federating units or regions to develop at their own pace without one holding the other(s) down or dragging it back, replacing it with a unitary system of government (even though the country still continued to refer to itself as a “federation;” a contradiction in terms), is where the rain started to beat us. Subsequent military regimes built upon and reinforced Ironsi’s misadventure. It is ironic – in fact, dubious and hypocritical – that agitators for Biafra, past and present, never admitted that their kinsman got this country into its quagmire. Unitarism suited their purpose in 1966 – but, alas! – it was short-lived and as is usually the case with short-sighted folks, it has, today, become their albatross.
For the first time in recent memory, governors of the region are rising above partisan politics and other base sentiments to put the people first as well as address issues germane to the region. While the governors of Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Oyo, and Ondo are APC, Governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti is PDP. Yet, that has not been a hindrance this time round. Fayose has been as supportive of regional integration as his APC colleagues. “Peacock” Lagos – in the time of Babatunde Raji Fashola – has turned a new leaf under Akinwumi Ambode. From reports, Ambode is really, really excited about Western Region integration. This is really, really commendable. Lagos is Yoruba and must not only advertise this; it must also lend its immense economic weight to the development agenda of the region as both an obligation and promotion of its own enlightened self-interest.
As far as I can see, regional integration is being appropriately understood and interpreted by the governors and the secretariat driving the integration project – Development Agenda for Western Nigeria (DAWN). If this was in doubt before, the resolutions adopted at the Abeokuta meeting dispelled all such doubts. Western Nigeria integration will be economic and political; needless to add that it will also be social and cultural. The South-West is homogenous. Western Nigeria’s integration plan targets key areas such as agriculture, security, and the economy. There is a deliberate attempt to focus on export to generate much-needed foreign exchange; become self-reliant in food production as well as guarantee safety of life and property. Western Nigeria has always been a source of envy to others. The Biafra Army attempted to capture Lagos during the Civil War but was routed at Ore in present-day Ondo State while the spate of kidnapping and other attacks on the region is largely externally master-minded; Evans, for instance.
DAWN has been asked to develop a 25-year development agenda for the region; bi-lateral and multi-lateral cooperation amongst the states are to be consciously improved upon while competitive and comparative advantage within the states making up the region will henceforth be leveraged upon. These, indeed, are cherry news. One important committee in particular was the one tasked with the responsibility to advance values and ethos as instrument of Yoruba uniqueness to strengthen the region’s identity and unity of purpose.
The Yoruba are to be found in many parts of the world. The Slave Trade helped to disperse the race to the New World and, today, relics of Yoruba culture and people are to be found along the West African coast; in Cuba, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil; not to talk of the new wave of Yoruba “Andrews” that are to be found in the nooks and crannies of the world. I have always felt the need for Yoruba leaders to devote more attention, efforts, and resources to the Yoruba in Diaspora; neighbouring African countries in particular. When he was governor of Ogun State, Chief Gbenga Daniel aka OGD, encouraged interaction amongst Yoruba people straddled across Nigeria, Dahomey and beyond. I attended one of such meetings brokered by Professor Asiwaju, the authority on Yoruba/Dahomey history.
Last Tuesday in Osogbo, Osun State, I encountered another group of Yoruba from Benin Republic hosted by Governor Rauf Aregbesola. Three of the original sons of Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba race, are in present-day Benin Republic. Going down memory lane, the Kabiyesi, who led the delegation to Osogbo spoke flawless Oyo. He disclosed that 10 out of the 12 regions making up Benin Republic are Yoruba and that the Yoruba race stretches up to Accra, whose autochthonous people, though Yoruba, have lost the language. This is sad. Conscious efforts must be made to preserve the Yoruba identity, of which language is number one. We must also strive to recover lost grounds. In Nigeria, West Africa, and the other parts of the world where we have Yoruba people, culture, and history, efforts must be made to protect, promote, preserve, and advance our cultural heritage.
Culture and politics flowed freely and mixed effortlessly last Tuesday night at Osogbo, whose ruling party, APC, only recently lost the senatorial by-election in Osun-West to the opposition PDP. Gov. Aregbe or Ogbeni, as he is fondly called, was stoic and philosophical about the reversal but there was no hiding the fact that he had a different opinion about the credibility of the election. He wondered why voter apathy affected only his own political party as well as considered the voting pattern suspicious. The Aregbe that I saw last Tuesday was a humbled personality; this argumentative, combative, sure-footed Socrates was more willing to sit back and listen to others. He contested the suggestion that he lost the by-election due to non-performance or inability to pay salaries and pension. From the records he touted: the payment of Levels 1 – 7 workers’ 100 per cent salary up to June; Level 8 – 10, 75 per cent; and Levels 12 – 17, 50 per cent; he certainly stands head and shoulders above many of his colleagues in the region. A similar formula, he said, has been employed to pay pensioners. Why, then, are the stories oozing out of the state those of huge and crippling debt burden; non-performance; and inability to pay salaries and pension? Aregbe admitted that the pensioners’ outstanding gratuities totalling about N5billion is why they have been up in arms against his government – but he was not the architect of that misfortune. There is also no denying the fact that he has to overhaul his communications machinery and find a way to tell his story. His claims and the perception of the public – the ubiquitous elite, to him – are at variance.
Is the Osun-West senatorial by-election a sign of things to come? Aregbe, crouching like a wounded lion, believes it is not and will stake everything to make the PDP victory an aberration. The PDP had better watched it. If they go to bed after the Supreme Court and Osun-West by-election victories, Aregbe could make them pay dearly for it in 2018. Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to go round Osogbo; it has transformed drastically. I could still find my way around, though with some difficulty. I was an auxiliary teacher at Osogbo Grammar School between 1976 and early 1978 and my residence was directly behind the Railway Quarters. I could still pick out landmarks like Igbonno Adenle; Faderera Akintola’s house should be somewhere on the other side of the road; my friend, Femi Akinfenwa’s family house and the Ogunmolas a stone-throw away; Raja (Bayo Jimilehin’s ) house across the road and the Oyinloye Ola’s tucked somewhere inside. I could still find my way around Alekuwodo; and recognised the two-storey building where Yemisi Adeduntan and her younger sister, Bukola (who was my student), used to reside with Mom.
I have heard of the “Oyinbo” schools built by Aregbe; former Governor Segun Mimiko reportedly built similar schools in my home state, Ondo. Last Wednesday, I entered one of such schools – Osogbo High School, next-door to OsoGrams. It was massive; it was aesthetically sweet and a good learning environment. The principal, amiable Mrs. Bisi Ladapo, took me round. As I composed this, I enjoyed the can drink she offered me. I was really, really impressed with what I saw. But at what cost and whether or not Osun can afford it, I cannot say.
As I negotiated my way out of Osogbo, I could not but imagine what next year’s governorship election will be like in Osun – and in Ekiti a few months before it. Hopefully, the burgeoning interest in Western Nigeria integration will help to temper what in the past was a fight-to-the-finish. We cannot ask political gladiators not to throw their hat into the ring but they must bear in mind that the coming contests must be handled as “ija ara ile” and not any more as “ija ara ita.” That, to my mind, will be a true test of the political leaders’ seriousness about the arduous but must-do task of emancipating the Yoruba nation.