Adelabu and the quest for gold
When an Iroko falls in the forest, shrubs would grow in its place. So it was with Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, described as the Stormy Petrel of the West, by the contemporary press of the 1950s who covered his meteoric rise to national prominence and his sudden and tragic death. Were he alive, he would be 100 Saturday, September 3. He was a larger than life personality whose very name invokes awe in Ibadan, his native city and beyond. Since his death March 20, 1958 in a motor accident, there had been other colourful characters in Ibadan politics, notably Busari Adelakun, alias Eruobodo and Lamidi Adedibu, the Alaafin Molete, but none possessed the electrifying presence of Adelabu and the evocative magic of his name.
On Saturday in his old home at Oke-Oluokun, Ibadan, his descendants and their friends, old associates and other people would gather to celebrate this great man.
Adelabu’s contemporaries in Ibadan politics were the likes of Adeoye Adisa and Meredith Adisa Akinloye. They had bounded together to form the Ibadan Peoples Party, IPP, in the wake of serious constitutional changes that took place in the Nigeria of 1950s. It was a period of ferment not only in Nigeria, but all over colonial Africa and the Black World. The question of the day was what should be the future of Africa and the colonial people. Activists like George Padmore and Marcus Garvey who advocated universal action by Black people, were the precursors of pan-Africanist like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea and Patrice Lumumba of Congo.
Adelabu was to follow in their footsteps having come under the spell of that great nationalist and charismatic leader, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. He was custom-made for Ibadan, the great city that was founded by warriors during the turbulent 19th Century when Yorubaland was convulsed in an almost endless Civil War that lasted almost 70 years. He was born September 3, 1915, in Ibadan, a year after the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates with the Colony of Lagos to form one country called Nigeria. Adelabu was a precocious child, who though from a poor background, towered in academics above many of his contemporaries at the Government College Ibadan. He was to maintain an even keel at the Yaba College, Lagos, where he enjoyed scholarship on the auspices of the United African Company, UAC.
By the time Adelabu came into the consciousness of Ibadan people in 1949 during the Salami Agbaje Affairs, he had already made his mark as a manager of the UAC, a produce buyer, journalist and public agitator. He was at the forefront of Ibadan indigenes, especially the Mogajis, (the junior chiefs) that were opposed to the prospect of Agbaje, the Otun Olubadan, becoming the Olubadan. Agbaje, a wealthy reform-minded businessman, was accused of dictatorial tendencies. He was also said to be in league with the Alaafin of Oyo with the intention of returning Ibadan under Oyo after his accession to the throne. Part of the reforms instituted by the colonial authorities was to place Ibadan under the Alaafin, who became the nominal authority to appoint the Baale of Ibadan, a situation that the Ibadan people seriously resented. Ibadan was to get its freedom in 1934. Salami too never became the Olubadan though a Commissioner of Inquiry into the matter found him innocent of the allegations.
Therefore, it was in the heat of trying to reform the traditional institutions in Ibadan and taking part in the nationalist ferment of Nigeria, that Adelabu found his destiny. During the 1951 regional elections, he was one of the leaders of the Ibadan Peoples Party, IPP, which won all the six seats allocated to the Ibadan District. While all the other five elected members teamed up with the nascent Action Group of Barrister Obafemi Awolowo, Adelabu preferred to join the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, led by that remarkable journalist, Dr Azikiwe. By the time he was elected to the Federal Parliament in 1954, Adelabu was also the chairman of the Ibadan District Council where he wielded near absolute powers.
By the time he died in 1958, Adelabu was the most important political figure in Yorubaland after Awolowo. He was the Leader of Opposition in the Western Parliament. It was in that parliament that he dismissed the activities of the government as “a peculiar mess,” which his rustic followers soon corrupted to mean Pekelemesi! He dominated Ibadan with his spell-biding oratory and commanding presence. His contemporaries say that he would address rallies during daytime and then at night move on foot from house to house to ensure the victory of the NCNC candidates. Despite the sympathy and participation of many Ibadan indigenes in the AG, including the likes of Akinloye, E.C.B. Omole, S. O. Lanlehin, S.A. Akinfemwa and Emmanuel Alayande, the party was no match to the Adelabu political organisation. It was not surprising that the NCNC won the Federal election of 1954 in the Western Region and Adelabu emerged the Minister of Social Services in Lagos.
After Adelabu’s death, four lawyers were to emerge in Ibadan in the leadership of the NCNC. Mojeed Folarin Agbaje, son of the late Otun Olubadan, Salami Agbaje, Emmanuel Fakayode, Adeoye Adisa and the youngest of them all, Richard Akinjide, who at 27 became the publicity secretary of the NCNC/ Mobolaje Alliance. All the four were to play prominent roles in future.
Dominant Ibadan politician and community leaders have tried to emulate the Adelabu model. Every Saturday, Ibadan people from all walks of life would troop to Oke-Oluokun residence of Adelabu to confer with him. Food would be prepared round the clock as long there were guests in the house. That was also the model emulated by Adedibu, the Alaafin Molete.
Adelabu’s life shows that power, to endure, must emanate from the people. It must have its tap roots among the general populace. The people of Ibadan trusted Adelabu with power because they knew he would not betray them. His record of public service was sterling. He was the one who first moved Motion for Independence at the Federal Parliament, a logical follow-up to Chief Anthony Enahoro motion for Self-Government of 1953 in the same House. When he died at 43, despite his almost a decade of occupying public office, including being a member of the House of Representatives, Minister and District Council Chairman, he had only one house and paltry sum in his bank account. He did not have a Swiss account nor build houses in Dubai. No one could accuse him of padding the budget or using public fund to buy himself a bullet proof car. He never went about with sirens nor did he have outriders and musclemen in his entourage. He moved about with only one car.
But there was a muted debate in Adelabu years of power as our country marched to independence which has not gone away till today. In the heady march towards freedom, the debate on how Nigerians would live together was in the air, but it was disguised as the fear of minority nationalities. How we live together is still an ongoing national question embedded in the call for the restructuring of Nigeria. Adelabu was an unabashed nationalist and he was opposed to the particularistic tendencies of the AG with its patronising and fervent promotion of Yoruba irredentism. He was a Zikist, and Zikism at that period meant one Nigeria forever. The Awoist were seen as men and women of little faith who wanted to re-order the polity. I wonder what would have been the views of Adelabu if he had lived to witness the turbulence of the 1960s, the collapse of the First Republic, the Civil War and the post-War era.
Adelabu’s death changed the fortunes of the West. With his exit and the new rebellion led by Kingsley Mbadiwe, the NCNC was to lose its prime position in the West. Following the excising of the Osun Division from Ibadan, new leaders emerged to challenge the dominance of Ibadan in the NCNC. Few years later, Fani Kayode, an old Action Group activist, who had rebelled against his party in Ile-Ife and had successfully challenged the Ooni Adesoji Aderemi over the control of Ife forest resources, moved over to become the new power in the NCNC.
The division within the Western NCNC proved to be final. When the split in the AG came, Chief Ladoke Akintola, the man who succeeded Awolowo as Premier, reached out to a faction of the NCNC led by Fani Kayode and they formed the Nigerian National Democratic Party, NNDP, an evocative name, being the name of the first political party in Nigerian history, led by Herbert Macaulay. The consequences were far-reaching especially from the 1964 elections upward and the coup of January 15, 1966.
Adelabu’s career shows the importance of a life in service and leadership. It is good that after more than 50 years of his death and one Century of his birth, his countrymen and women still remember the heroic life of this great man. I hope those political leaders who are seeking treasures above service would remember that a good name is better than gold. If you are not sure, try and remember 10 names among those ministers who served with Adelabu in the Federal Cabinet. Those who fail to write their names in the minds and hearts of the people are soon consigned to the dustbin of history.