By Wole Akinyosoye
Now it is hard to remember I was a major participant in the Nigerian pre-independence politics, where I was popularly known as Penkelemess. That cognomen was derived from ‘Peculiar Mess’, a vernacular coinage from the ever-ingenious foundry of Ibadan politics.
I was first a prominent member of Ibadan Talaka Parapo, and believe me it was a genuinely folksy movement without the coloration of Amala politics. I later became a member of NCNC, a leading political party in my period. I variously served as chairman of Ibadan Municipal Council and a federal minister. I was Opposition Leader in Western Region Parliament from 1956 and Chief Obafemi Awolowo was Leader of Government. The Western Region Hansards attest to my sagacity in parliament before I exited the mortal world in a ghastly road incident in 1958.
It is difficult not to introspect about Nigeria since I arrived here on that fatal day in March 1958. It was first about what was left undone when death stopped the symphony of life, and the thoughts were engrossing; on the possibilities in the fledging political firmament of my country; especially the roles I could have played in the months leading to independence.
I was a delegate at the Lancaster House Conference in 1957 where we tried to get the Colonial Secretary of State, Sir Alan Lennox-Boyd, agree to a definite date for independence. Imagine my thrill when I learned a date was set for independence back in 1958 when the conference reconvened. I kept abreast of the passionate campaigns for the independence elections, and how greatly I missed politics.
But despair set in around 1962 when I first saw a drove of bloodied folks untimely dispatched here from the Western Region crisis. I started to question if Sir Lennox-Boyd was not right after all, about us being ‘too hasty’ in our demand for self-rule. I remember Sir James Robertson also counseled we should allow the nation to ‘bond a little bit longer’ before asking to take the reins. The bulky fellow even repeated the unsolicited counsel at the Lancaster House Conference in 1957. He warned we should wait for more institutions to be built and mature before asking the British to exit and I always retorted that self-rule is a fundamental right that shouldn’t be cast in future tense. Remember, I canvassed in my book, Africa in Ebullition, published in back in 1952, that colonialism was in fact the main impediment to progress in Nigeria; that we would soon be on the road to greatness when we rid the country of British rule.
Independence was the main issue on the table at our convocation in Lancaster House in 1957. The event was a major highlight in my political career, and what a bash it was! You would think our culture was also on the agenda that summer in London. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the leader of my party, came to the conference in resplendent kaftan and a cap to fit. Chief Obafemi Awolowo opted for Ofi, in place of his signature woolen Buba and Sokoto. Sir Ahmadu Bello was in full turban and you would think he intended to stamp some Sokoto norms on the soul of London. I recall how Sir Lennox-Boyd intensely pouted at my Gbárìyè and Abetiíajá on a cold morning as I strode the corridors at Lancaster House.
Imagine my dismay when Mr. John H. Smith CBE; a certain British Administrative Officer, later dismissed the outing as ‘an overt display of ostentation in an occasion that called for somberness’. Smith also wrote of the gathering as ‘lavish hospitality by the UK tax payers’, and went on to lampoon a delegate for downing ‘prodigious amount of brandy.’ I found his comments particularly amusing, especially his mindless ascription of ‘lavish hospitality’ to the United Kingdom. How could he manage that without a tinge of conscience?
Of course, we did not get all our wishes from Britain in the 1957 conference but it was not the fiasco Smith and his ilk made it. Dr. Azikiwe moved for immediate self-government for the regions and that national independence should be fast-tracked. Chief Awolowo asked for same, and demanded for creation of more regions to assuage minority doubts. Sir Ahmadu actually reiterated that the North was not yet ready for national independence and regional self-government. The British did not commit to a date on independence or creation of additional regions. East and West got their wishes on regional self-government and North its wish to wait. In the end politics triumphed as usual, and Sir Ahmadu read the communiqué.
Sad Nigeria became a gory spectacle soon after independence and its morbid dispatches to this side have continued unabated since the 1962 Western Region crisis. Grotesque streams of maimed souls trooped here in 1966 from the Northern Region riots, followed by the unending stream of souls from the civil war. I kept pondering the unsolicited counsels of Sirs Robertson and Lennox-Boyd.
Sixty years on and my doubts are unabated, as it appears the gods are waxing more homicidal on Nigeria. The youths are fleeing in droves and the land of Sir James Robertson and Sir Lennox-Boyd is a destination of choice; some in despondence even prefer drowning in the Mediterranean to the bleak prospects they see at home!
It is obvious from here that the Nigerian project is not working as we had hoped, certainly not for most of the nationalities. It is not surprising the whisper has become a shout for a conference to discuss its future and I wish that government would timely heed before it becomes a cacophony.
The solutions of yesterday have become insufficient in the face of present realities. There is a need for a parley on practicable, better options to prepare the present for the future and it needn’t elicit suspicions, after all, independence was bequeathed on consensus by Nigerians on the conference table, such as the one I participated in 1957.
Shouldn’t Nigeria learn tactics from its erstwhile colonial masters to discuss its future, especially the skewed structure handed down by the military? A parley of the nationalities on the commonwealth would indeed be a veritable gift to the nation at sixty.
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