How the Olofa won his shoes
This month, it is 59 years since Chief Obafemi Awolowo stepped down as the Premier of the defunct Western Region. He had been in power for eight giddy years, the first Yoruba person to preside over the affairs of most of the Yoruba country since the princes departed from Ile-Ife at the dawn of time. Even then a large swath of Yoruba territory were outside his purview, in the neither-land of Northern Nigeria and across the border in then Dahomey, now better known as the Benin Republic. Western Region also contained the ancient Kingdom of Benin, whose dynasty was founded by an Ife prince, and other nationalities now grouped in Edo and Delta States.
What was significant was that the West gained internal Self-Government in 1957 and Nigeria gained independence in 1960. Today that old West, ruled most efficiently by one Premier in Ibadan is now being governed by eight governors (Oyo, Osun, Ekiti, Ondo, Lagos, Edo, Delta and Ogun) with varying degrees of efficiency and success.
Awolowo was a towering figure in modern Nigerian history, more so in the history of the old Western Region and the now constituent states. Awo accomplished many great things. He changed our world. His impact was far-reaching and profound. When I started primary school in Okemesi in the 1960s, Awolowo was no longer the Premier. The man in the saddle was the highly gifted Chief Ladoke Akintola. Yet we were regarded as Omo Awolowo. Our school, Saint Andrew Anglican Primary School, Okemesi, was Ile-Iwe Awolowo. Thank God that was the era of leaders, not just politicians. If it were now, Akintola would have cancelled the Free Education Programme and replaced it with his own programme and people like us may have been stranded.
I never had the privilege of discussing with Papa Awo, but I have been lucky to talk to some of his associates. One still wonders why he had to leave the premiership of the West when there was so much left to be accomplished. In his valedictory speech to the Western Region House of Assembly, Ibadan on November 3, 1959, he explained why he had to leave for the Federal Capital of Lagos. “I have never had any doubts that the place for the leader of a nation-wide political organisation is the centre,” he said. “With the attainment of self-government by the Western Region in 1957 and the irrevocable promise of Independence for Nigeria on 1st October 1960, our objectives have been realised and my assignment in the Western Region is completely discharged.”
Note that Awolowo was just 50 when he was retiring from the West.
There were issues that Awolowo believed could only be handled by players at the centre. One of it was the creation of new regions and boundary adjustments. For him, the boundary of the Western Region should be at the River Niger in the North for Awolowo and his partisans believed that those Yoruba of the North ought to be in the West. He also believed that even the Nupe, the Ebira and other ethnic groups south and west of the Niger have more in common with the Yoruba than the Hausa and Fulani of the North. He wanted the North split to at least three regions: Bornu, the Middle-Belt and the Hausa-Fulani Region. He was always critical of the “obnoxious feudal system imposed on the people by the Fulani aristocracy.” What he failed to acknowledge at that time was that that aristocracy, imposed by war in the 19th Century, had taken roots and become popular among the people.
What Awolowo would not accept was that the claim of the Northern leaders to part of Yoruba land has some historical basis. After the defeat of the Caliphate at the battle of Burmi in 1903, the British commander, Colonel Frederick Lugard, had reached an agreement with the defeated Fulani rulers that they would help them maintain control over their territories including those occupied by non-Hausa people. In the 19th Century, a Fulani man had led a coup against the Yoruba ruler of Ilorin, killing the Are Ona Kakanfo, and igniting a revolt that ultimately led to the collapse of Oyo Empire. With the coming of the British conqueror now, the Ilorin emirate laid claim to a large swath of the Yoruba country including Offa, Ogbomoso, the whole of Ekiti, Ila-Orangun and Kabba. The British backed that claim and tried to implement it.
The Yoruba rulers did not fully grasp what was afoot. They thought with the coming of the British and the imposition of peace, everyone could become the ruler of his household. They thought that the British would help them regain control of Ilorin and other Yoruba towns lost to the emirates during the years of upheavals. The British had a different idea. When the British realised that another revolt was brewing, they allowed most of the Ekiti towns to go. Otun, one of the principal Ekiti towns, could not regain its freedom from the emirate until 1945. One of the perspicacious statesmen of that era was the Orangun of Ila. He was invited to Ilorin by the British District Commissioner. He declined. “I belong to the House of Oduduwa,” he told the British emissary. “I do not recognise any emir.”
By the time Awolowo came to power in 1952, the system appeared settled. His attempt to re-work the system irritated the British. When the issue of creation of new regions was raised at the 1958 Manchester House Conference in London, the British demurred by agreeing to set up the Willinks Commission to look at the “fears of the minorities.”
Awolowo failed to get the Ilorin and Kabba Province of the North into the Western Region. When the news broke that the North would not be broken, the Sultan of Sokoto, Abubakar Siddiq, despatched a congratulatory message to the leader of the Northern delegation, Ahmadu Bello. The Olofa of Offa, who had been championing the agitation for a return of his people to the West, was deposed by the Sardauna. When a delegation of Northern Yoruba leaders met him to plead the Olofa’s case, the Sardauna said “we retire him because of his age.” He said the Olofa was a district head and held his office at the pleasure of the Emir of Ilorin and the regional government.
The North was broken eventually. In 1967, faced with the threat of seccession by the defunct Eastern Region, Nigerian second military ruler, General Yakubu Gowon split the four regions into 12 states. He gave the Yoruba of Ilorin and Kabba Province their own West Central State which was later renamed Kwara State. He appointed Colonel David Bamigboye, a Yoruba, as the first military governor. Bamigboye was to do the job for eight eventful years. He ruled with temperance, dignity, commitment and firmness. He died recently and was buried last week at his hometown, Omu-Aran, one of the principal Igbomina towns. Note that the headquarter of the Igbomina is Ila-Orangun which is now in Osun State.
When Bamigboye resumed in Ilorin, the Emir of Ilorin and all the principal traditional rulers welcomed him. He found that the Olofa was shoeless and wondered why and he was told that the Olofa and many of the other traditional rulers must not wear their shoes in the presence of the Emir of Ilorin. Offa was the headquarters of the Ibolo and a provincial headquarters of the old Oyo Empire. Offa was also the hometown of Moremi, the legendary wife of Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba. The town was noted for its intractable obaship dispute and it was during such disputes in the 19th Century that a rebel faction invited in the Ilorin soldiers. The then Olofa fled to Oshogbo where he established another town called Ofatedo. When Bamigboye came to town, the Olofa had fallen into bad times and he was reduced to a vassal of the Emir of Ilorin. It was Bamigboye who gave the order there and then that every traditional ruler in Kwara State was free to wear his crown and his shoes. That was how the Olofa won his shoes back.
So when Awolowo left for the federal centre, he was not able to change many things. The Yoruba of the old Kwara and the new Kogi State still believed they are left out of the mainstream Yoruba affairs. It is worse for the Yoruba of Benin Republic. About four years ago, I attended a Yoruba Conference in Ibadan where delegations came from all the Yoruba States including Kogi and Kwara. The Kogi and Kwara delegations were not represented on the high table. I had to call the attention of General Alani Akinrinade to this omission and his intervention saved the day.
Africa must find save itself from the lingering aftertaste of the colonial occupation. Nigeria too, being the leader of Africa, must find a way to cope with its unique experience and its consequences. Sometimes I have a nagging feeling that it was an error for Awolowo to have left Ibadan for the Federal centre. Whether what was lost can ever be recovered is another matter. This does not reduce from Awolowo greatness for greatness must come in fallible form.