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Richard Akinjide in national politics

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With the death of Chief Richard Akinjide on 21st April 2020, Nigeria lost one of its brilliant and historical politicians of an era. The exact date of his birth is not documented, but Akinjide was said to have been born at Ibadan in 1930. His aggregate of 6, upon the completion of secondary school at Oduduwa College, Ile-Ife, marked him out as a genius of some kind. Even when his political career could be deemed controversial in some respect, not many would deny that he quite often deployed his prodigious talent when it mattered.

When Chief Akinjide became Federal Minister of Education in 1965, quite a substantial number of students from his ethnic group benefited from a federal scholarship for university studies. As would be explained later, this is not to say he was tribal or nepotistic. The point one is trying to make here is that it was a departure from previous years when members of that ethnic group were discriminated against in the distribution of federal advantages.

The so-called Government and Opposition attributes of the parliamentary system of government, as practised in the Nigerian First Republic, meant that those who belonged in the latter were regarded as enemies to those who belonged in the former. The Action Group, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was the leading party in opposition to a coalition government comprising mainly of the ethnocentric Northern Peoples Congress and the NCNC which sought national character.

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Any attempt to punish the opposition party was directed at curtailing the advantages of its Yoruba-dominated regional base and this accounted for tension between the politicians of that region. The rift within the Action Group in 1962 had an ideological context to it. It was a contest between those who would rather have the party continue with its principled opposition to the federal government and those who wished the party to team up with the government so that the Western Region could benefit from federal resources.

Chief Awolowo preferred to continue with his principled opposition to a federal government he had come to regard as corrupt. However, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola who succeeded Awolowo as Premier of Western Region in the aftermath of the 1959 federal election, favoured a relationship with the federal government. Coupled with an equally-serious personality conflict between the duo, the collapse of the otherwise disciplined Action Group became inevitable.

The Akintola faction of the Action Group transformed into a new political party, the United Peoples Party which governed the Western Region in an alliance with the erstwhile opposition party, the NCNC. However, a new political party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party, soon emerged when Akintola succeeded in persuading some key members of the NCNC to team up with him. The NNDP entered into an alliance with the NPC, to form the Nigerian National Alliance, in the run-up to the 1964 federal election. The AG, on the other hand, teamed up with the NCNC to form the United Progressives Grand Alliance. 

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The NNDP, although very unpopular with the Yoruba, claimed to have won 38 of the 57 regional seats in a highly-controversial federal election. It got a reward of 14 seats in a mammoth cabinet of 54 ministers, 7 of which were of cabinet rank. This was how Chief Akinjide, a brilliant lawyer representing an Ibadan constituency, became the second Nigerian Minister of Education in 1965. That ministerial joy of his did not last long enough, not least because the crisis-ridden First Republic was brought to an end by a military coup-attempt on the 15th of January, 1966.

Akinjide went back to his legal practice. He was invited by a military governor of the defunct Western Region to serve as a commissioner in his administration, an invitation which he rejected on the ground that he only heard about it on the radio. That, to many, was a principled position he took. Quite a number of his compatriots would have shamelessly lobbied for political appointments and celebrated their successes at every conceivable fora.

Akinjide returned to active partisan politics when the military offered another opportunity in 1979. He joined the National Party of Nigeria which was, more or less, a reincarnation of the Nigerian National Alliance. The NPN won the 1979 presidential election and Akinjide was appointed Attorney General and Minister of Justice in the administration of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Many will not remember him because of that position, but for his controversial interpretation of two-thirds of 19 states as 12 -2/3. That interpretation of his, endorsed by the Federal Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court, put paid to the ambition of Chief Awolowo to possibly upstage Shagari was an electoral college decision to be courted in deciding who won the 1979 presidential election.

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For the sake of our students of politics, may I quickly highlight here that the 1979 Constitution had mandated that whoever would be president would have won the highest number of votes, as well as had not less than one-quarter of the votes cast at the election in each of at least two-thirds of the 19 states making up the Federation. Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the NPN met the latter requirement in 12 states, while Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria only did so in 6 states. However, Awolowo who contended that two-thirds of 19 states was 13 had hinged his hopes on possible support by the political parties that had constituted themselves as the Progressive Parties Alliance-something that could hardly be taken for granted in our conspiratorial ethnic politics.

Be that as it may, Akinjide was alleged to have again outsmarted Awolowo and the so-called progressives in the 1983 presidential election. He was said to have been the mastermind in persuading the Electoral Commission to reverse the order of elections from that of 1979 which ended with the presidential one. Unable to compromise a presidential candidate among themselves, the progressives had hoped to support whichever candidate posed the greatest challenge to the NPN in the final hurdle. The 1983 elections were rearranged to begin with the presidential one, and that was it.

Forever a conservative Nigerian politician, Chief Richard Akinjide ended his political career as a member of the Peoples Democratic Party. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. Akinola, the author of Party Coalitions in Nigeria, wrote from Oxford, United Kingdom.

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