Among the leaders of Nigeria’s First Republic, probably none has been so unkindly treated, none so maligned by most commentators on that part of our history than Chief S. L. Akintola, the second and longest-running Premier of the Western Region. Though he lost his life in the tragic happenings of January 15, 1966, along with the many key players in the political and military establishment, Akintola was singled out not to be mourned by the generality of the people he purportedly led. Professor Osuntokun’s book on the life and times of Akintola is a courageous and more even-handed attempt to have another look at the quarrel between him and Chief Awolowo that triggered the 1966 coup and the sordid aftermath.
The delay in rehabilitating the memory of Akintola is mainly because Chief Awolowo came out of prison with even a larger-than-life image. He was literarily lionised by the regime of General Yakubu Gowon. He not only assumed the leadership of the Yoruba, Asiwaju Awon Yoruba, but also became the leading civilian in the federal military government. The military government appointed Awolowo as the Commissioner (Minister) of Finance and vice-chairman of the Federal Executive Council (FEC). Sitting on that perch would have given any other person ample opportunity to spread his tentacles around the country and make more friends across the old political divides.
Somehow, Awolowo decided to remain his old self – acutely aloof and continued to plot how he would win future elections without the help of some of the majority parts of the country. General Olusegun Obasanjo as head of state allowed him even more opportunities when he made him Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, at the time the federal government took it over from the dissolved Northern Region. It didn’t help much as my ABU final-year set of 1976 were the only graduates his tenure produced. Awolowo superintended our graduation ceremony in December 1976 after which he promptly resigned to make time for his other political pursuits.
Many believe that had Awolowo remained longer as Chancellor of ABU he would have had the opportunity to engage the Northern intelligentsia and political leaders on their home turf and probably engender some understanding of his aspirations. Alas, that was not to be as Awolowo lost a golden opportunity to gain the support of northern politicians. The mutual suspicion continued unabated. When the elections came up in 1979, Awolowo came up as a presidential candidate and he was defeated. Another attempt in 1983 produced the same dismal result for him.
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From my perspective, had Akintola lived as leader and premier of the western region the rapprochement between various parts of the country would probably have been faster. People point to his performance as leader of the Action Group party in the pre-independence coalition at the federal level where he served with distinction as a minister in various departments and the lasting relationship he established with other ministers from other parts of the country. He was a gregarious gentleman, an orator in both English and his Yoruba language, and a legendary, gracious debater.
Awolowo’s performance in the National Assembly after independence was at best mediocre. He was not an eloquent speaker and did not enjoy debates. To make matters worse, he was not a clubbable person who did not endeavor to make friends. In any case, he had disdain for northern politicians whom he regarded as ‘unlettered aristocrats’. No wonder Osuntokun has referred somewhere in the book that Awolowo “was, and remained, too dogmatic and uncompromising for the leader of a major political party aspiring for ascendancy in a politically and ethnically pluralistic country.”
Awolowo died in 1987 and it was only after that serious rapprochement began between the West and other parts of the country. The arrowhead at the time was Chief MKO Abiola who made serious inroads into the North and was able to win the hearts of the opinion leaders to add to his support in the West and win the 1993 presidential election which unfortunately the military regime of the time annulled. When the next presidential election was held in 1999, President Obasanjo had more votes from the North than in the West where he came from, an indication of the rapprochement emerging between the two regional blocks.
However, the most successful ever coming together of the two blocs was in 2013 with the fusion of the Northern-based CPC and ANPP, a break-away faction of the PDP and APGA with the West-based ACN led by Bola Ahmed Tinubu. This strong coalition, the APC, was able, in 2015, to wrest power from a sitting president and with a majority in the national and state assemblies. They were also able to win a majority of states in the gubernatorial elections across the country. As the 2023 elections beckon, it doesn’t look like the two regional blocs are in any haste to discard a winning formula which idea began with S. L. Akintola in the 1950s.
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