In 1923, Herbert Macaulay, the redoubtable freedom fighter and doyen of Nigerian nationalism, made history by forming the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), the first political party in the annals of Nigerian politics.
Shortly after this, he forged an alliance with the pro-Eleko traditional chiefs and other prominent personalities, who had formed a body called the Gbobaniyi Society; a body of patriots defending the prestige and interest of the Eleko. It was the alliance of these two bodies that canvassed funds and subscriptions which were partly used to cater for the Eleko’s welfare at Oyo, while the rest was used to fight his case in court.
It was a tribute to Macaulay’s organisational skill and the diverse range of his sterling qualities that the NNDP was able to win all the seats in the Lagos constituency, during elections to the Legislative Council between 1923 and 1938, after which the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), successfully counteracted its overwhelming dominance.
Macaulay was undoubtedly the major force of inspiration to the unrivalled pre-eminence of the NNDP in the politics of the Lagos Colony, which of course, was the pivot around which the macrocosm of Nigerian politics revolved. To be sure, his towering image loomed large over the party with such clarity that was unmistakable, even to the average observers of the politics of Lagos Colony in those days.
The veracity of this fact was indeed attested to by no less a personality than Ernest Sesei Ikoli, Editor of the African Messenger, a formidable intellectual and one of the foremost opinion leaders of that era, when he remarked in one of his writings on May 1, 1926: “After all, the Democratic Party is Herbert Macaulay, he inspires all its actions and policies and to allow the Democratic Party to influence unchecked the trend of affairs in Lagos is to give Mr. Macaulay a blank cheque”.
Even his close friend and associate, J. Egerton Shyngle, the first president of the NNDP, also called Macaulay “Mr. Democratic Party.”
Ironically, Macaulay, since the founding of the party, had tried to his utmost to remain at the background by refusing to accept any party post. He was just contented at being referred to as one of the leaders of the party. It was precisely for this reason that he refrained from arrogating to himself the presidency of the party but rather chose that the apex position be thrown to quarters other than him.
Thus, Shyngle became the first president of the party and was succeeded by C.C. Adeniyi Jones. It was not until the 1930s and the 1940s that he consented to the idea of a party post for himself and even when he accepted, it was still not as leader or president, but as the Honorary Secretary.
Macaulay’s decision to maintain such a low profile in the official hierarchy of the party had for some time, remained a puzzle, but historians and political analysts argued that it was probably a strategic measure to insulate the party from the turbulence of his personal life and the unforeseen eventualities that might arise, especially in form of government persecutions, which from time to time might arise as a consequence of his vociferous anti-colonial struggle for independence and self-determination.
It was therefore a tribute to his keen sense of foresight that in 1928, when he was imprisoned because of the gunpowder plot rumour, his travails at that time in question did not in any way constitute a draw-back to the fortune and progress of the NNDP.
To be sure, the NNDP was populist in its philosophy. It shared a similarity of value with the utilitarian school of thought, which professes the greatest good of the greatest number. This populist value was manifested in the motto of the party: Salus populi suprema lex (The safety of the people is the greatest law).
A practical demonstration of this philosophy was expressed in its stiff opposition to oppressive government policies such as the General Tax Ordinance of 1927. In a general meeting of the NNDP on January 22, 1927, Macaulay expressed his profound disapproval of the tax, adding that he had joined the executive hierarchy of his party to draft the protest statement against the tax, which, according to him, was not only imposed, but offended the tenet of justice.
The NNDP would also be remembered for championing the issue of cemetery facilities in the Lagos Colony in those days, when the colonial government, compelled by the mounting congestion of space at the Ikoyi Cemetery, directed that Lagosians should henceforth resort to the use of the Atan Cemetery in Yaba, five miles to the Lagos Island.
The NNDP, influenced by the motivating spirit of Herbert Macaulay, rose up to the occasion as it was joined in a united force of action by the Women’s League of the 1930s, led by Mrs. C.O. Obasa, to mount pressure on the colonial government to change its stand.
The agitation at that time derived from the popular complaint that the Atan Cemetery and its immediate environ were not only swampy, but also very water-logged for burial. Apart from these were the transportation difficulties involved. Hence, those who lived at places close to Atan had always chosen the option of either burying their dead at home or at places near their homes.
It was for these major reasons, among others, that the NNDP, along with the Women’s League, had vociferously agitated for the expansion of the cemetery facilities at Ikoyi. Salutarily, their agitation yielded positive dividend when in 1940, Governor Bernard Bourdillon agreed to assist the Lagos Town Council with a loan to acquire additional space at Ikoyi for public burials.
However, in the 1940s, an event unfolded, which seemed to put to test Macaulay’s avowed populist stance of ever sticking to the side of the masses and his often professed readiness to put their interest first and defend it above other contending interests.
The occasion came up specifically in 1943 during the Second World War, when the colonial government took measures to control the prices of foodstuff like yam, gari, pepper, rice and corn, among others.
To this end, it evolved the idea of a Special (Pullen) market in Lagos and other places near it, where the prices of the aforementioned items could be controlled.
In a move seemingly untypical of his popular pro-masses standpoint, Macaulay was in support of the market men and women over a policy that appeared to be against the interest of the masses.
A school of opinion had argued that Macaulay, in towing such a supposedly uncharacteristic anti-populist line of action, was actually influenced principally by Madam Alimotu Pelewura, the Alaga (Head) of the Ereko Market and her deputies, who led over 8,000-strong Lagos Market Men and Women Association. As a matter of fact, the Alaga and her deputies were very strong and influential members of the NNDP and had a close rapport with Macaulay.
However, a contrary argument was that Macaulay had painstakingly listened to the grievances of the market men and women, particularly members of Pelewura’s association and Traders’ Association from Ijebu-Ode, who all agreed that the idea of a Pullen scheme was oppressive and detrimental to their own interest, adding that it was actually impracticable as government did not control the production and distribution of foodstuff whose prices it wished to check.
It was based on this simple economic logic in their complaint that Macaulay decided to take up the cause of the market men and women by drafting a petition which they later submitted to the government concerning the Pullen market which they described as negating the logic of economic reality. In towing the line he chose, Macaulay, as argued by this school of opinion, was only aligning with the reality of simple economics and was therefore, not decidedly anti-masses.
However, the West African Pilot, founded and edited by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, sided the consumers, only to later shift ground in the wake of severe public criticisms attending the inability of government to make a success of the scheme, which it continued until the end of the Second World War.
One could therefore aver, without any shred of equivocation, that one easily discernible attribute of Macaulay was his abhorrence of any form of violence whatsoever in the pursuit of a cause, no matter how just it might appear to be.
He would rather pitch his preference for peaceful dialogue, based on sound reasoning, persuasion and constitutional weapon cherished by him as legitimate channels of civilised agitation.
It was, therefore, for this reason, that the NNDP refused throughout its eventful span of existence, to identify with workers’ strike, in spite of its pro-masses philosophy.
For instance, in his address to the Trade Union Congress on May Day in 1944, he advised workers against strikes, which, according to him, was not only harmful, but inimical to the overall interest of the society. He argued that the prosperity of a nation or community depended on the level of production, which would surely be hampered by workers’ strike action, adding that it was the masses that would come out the worse in the end.
Also at a general meeting of the congress in Lagos on August 1, 1944, he charged members to reflect and remember at all times that “an exasperated crowd, literate or illiterate, neither reflects nor argues, but blindly rushes and before its rush can be stopped or guided or pacified, much that are most valuable may perish.”
Although Macaulay also noted that strikes by Nigerian workers would tarnish Nigeria’s reputation and record of its firm allegiance to the British Crown. However, in June 1945, when workers embarked on a turbulent strike action during the war, Macaulay deliberately did not chide nor rebuke them. In September 1945, however, under a more relaxed atmosphere of peace and normalcy, Macaulay revisited the strike action as he identified with the workers, but regretted their June 1945 strike.
It was against this background of his irrevocable disposition to peaceful constitutional means as against forceful violent confrontation that Macaulay compared, in apt similarity with Mahatma Ghandi of India, the renowned progenitor of the philosophy of positive resistance. Ghandi led one of the greatest marches in the history of peaceful resistance which was also successfully adopted by Martin Luther King, the universally acclaimed symbol of black resistance, in his avowed battle against racial segregation and oppression in America.
As a man of dynamic temper, ever forward looking in his avowed bend for progressive change and the eager quest to accelerate the exit of colonial rule, Macaulay displayed exemplary selflessness and statesmanship, when he tried, in concert with other progressive forces, to build towards a broader inter-party cooperation and alliance after 1938.
Thus, on September 25, 1941, the first joint meeting of the NNDP and its ally, the Nigerian Youth Democrats (NYD) and the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM), took place in Kristen Hall, 8, Balbina Street residence of Herbert Macaulay. This was to be followed by series of other meetings at the same venue.
The highpoint of the meeting was that Macaulay, who all along had refused to hold any party position, eventually changed his mind, when in October 1941, he agreed to become the Honorary Secretary of the Joint Committee of the three political parties.
Unfortunately, this committee could not achieve any meaningful success in the struggle for self rule, neither was it successful in forging the expected sense of unity among the parties.
It was against this background, therefore, that when in September 1943, Macaulay eventually resigned his membership of the committee, the move did not come as a surprise, just as it was similarly no surprise that the committee died a natural death shortly after.
Following the failure of the committee, Macaulay busied himself with the task of injecting greater vigour into the NNDP and improving it towards a firm footing.
Just around this time, another epochal event occurred, which for the rest of his eventful existence, was to define the course of his turbulent but heroic activism on the Nigerian political scene.
On this occasion, a memorable meeting was held at the historic Glover Memorial Hall in Lagos in June 1944. The meeting was at the instance of the National Union of Students in connection with the King’s College Boys’ strike.
The result of this meeting was the birth of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), of which Herbert Macaulay was elected the president and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the general secretary. The NCNC, as need be emphasised, was an amalgam of political parties, trade unions, literary societies, professional associations and social clubs, among other interest groups.
It needs be stressed also that the presentation of a common political front was in fulfillment of the same idea very dear to Macaulay’s heart and which informed his spirited but futile attempt at the NNDP/NYD alliance on one hand and the NYM on the other.
Ironically, however, in the bid to sustain the momentum of this united political front, Macaulay’s attempt to bring the NNDP as an integral part of the NCNC was to elicit a clash of interest between him and his good old friend, Adeniyi Jones, the then president of the NNDP, who insisted that he was not willing to join any new organisation, no matter what it stood for.
In the face of this development, Macaulay urged the party’s executive committee to resolve the issue, vowing: “I am willing to resign my membership if the executive decided against an NNDP/NCNC alliance in order to be able to better serve the country in which I was born, where unity is strength.”
The executive eventually decided for an alliance in tandem with Macaulay’s will. This development, however, led to the sagging of the hitherto intimate bond of friendship between Macaulay and Adeniyi Jones. However, whatever he might appear to have lost in the cooling of relations with Adeniyi Jones was soon found in a more intimate relationship with another chieftain of the NNDP, Dr. Ibikunle Olorun-Nimbe, who also became Macaulay’s personal physician and treasurer of NCNC.
There was certainly no doubt that by 1944, Macaulay, already 80 years old, had become the revered patriarch and grand old man of Nigerian politics, still kicking and active and remarkably dynamic. It needs be recalled that in 1944, in accepting the offer to lead the NCNC, Macaulay, in a rare show of patriotism, reiterated his readiness to die in the service of his fatherland – even as he appealed to his followers and fellow Nigerian compatriots: “We must unite to serve Nigeria. Let us make up our minds to ask for what we want constitutionally.”
In an inspiring fit of emotion, this distinguished Nigerian statesman and symbol of Nigerian unity, went poetic as he chanted on that memorable occasion:
“Oh beautiful and rich Nigeria
Our own, our native land
Of thee we boast
Great Empire of West Africa
The dearest and the best
Made up of all the rest
We love you most.”
To be sure, Macaulay’s devotion to the service of his fatherland, in spite of his failing health, will ever remain a marvel, even to posterity yet unborn. Indeed, for a man, who was credited with the memorable phrase that “it is a noble life to be found dead embracing my country”, Macaulay’s sense of patriotism had warmly endeared him to all, irrespective of tribe, class, religion or sectarian differences of any hue.
It was against this background therefore, that as Macaulay’s 80th birthday anniversary approached, a section of his teeming mass of admirers resolved to make special plans to make it a fittingly memorable occasion for a political hero of immense stature and patriotic devotion such as Herbert Macaulay.
This expectedly eventful birthday project was championed by the West African Pilot owned by Zik, who was also the secretary of the NCNC then.
Zik, inspired by similar gesture being undertaken at that time for Mahatma Ghandi, the world acclaimed hero of India’s struggle for independence, spear headed the launch of a special octogenary birthday fund for Herbert Macaulay.
Even coincidentally too, there were marked similarities between Macaulay and Ghandi; as expressed not only in their passionate quest for freedom, unity and justice, but also for their vociferous insistence on non-violent confrontation.
With this gesture, Zik had expected to make a statement that the blackman can also honour their heroes, not only in death, but even in their lifetime.
In this respect, Zik anticipated a generous flow of contributions and had therefore earmarked that the first £1,000 realised from the fund would go personally to Macaulay, while other surplus accruing subsequently, would convert into the Herbert Macaulay Octogenary Fund, from which a certain sum would be extracted to erect a statue or monument befitting of the distinguished Nigerian nationalist and redoubtable freedom fighter.
However, on the 80th birthday of the revered elder statesman, contributions from the public had only amounted to £108 which was grossly short of the projected estimated sum. Dr. Azikiwe, then the treasurer of the fund, extended a cheque for £100 out of the afore-stated sum, as a token of appreciation, love and gratitude.
In a subsequent editorial, the West African Pilot followed up as it expressed regret over the uncheery public response to the Octogenary Fund. It lamented the propensity of Nigerians to forget so easily and pledged its readiness to ensure that the sacrifices of the grand old man of Nigerian politics was kept on the front burner of eternal appreciation, even for posterity yet unborn.
In a glowing tribute only befitting of a man of great stature as Macaulay, the newspaper likened him to great world figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt of America, Mahatma Ghandi of India, Sir Winston Churchill of Britain and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union.
Indeed, even at 81, Macaulay did not betray the impression of one whose end was near. He fought to the last drop of his energy as if he had an inexhaustible reservoir of it. This, of course, should not be surprising within the context of this acclaimed wizard of Kirsten Hall and his ever memorable word on the marble, that “It is a noble life to be found dead embracing one’s country.”
But even if this veteran fighter had chosen to throw in the battle towel for a good rest or slow down a bit, the proposed constitutional reforms for Nigeria between 1945 and 1946 would scarcely give him cause for rest because of some aspects of the draft constitution, which Governor Arthur Richard, later Lord Milverton, made public in 1945.
The nationalists were particularly piqued by a number of laws enacted by the governor in March 1945. Among them was the one which conferred the right of ownership to all minerals in Nigeria, whether already discovered or yet to be discovered.
Another aspect of the obnoxious laws was that all lands in Nigeria which were not actually yet in use belonged to the British Crown, which had the right to take over the land without any due compensation to the owners. The third law empowered the governor to appoint and depose chiefs.
In the face of these unseemingly developments, it was clearly predictable that these oppressive enactments were bound to agitate Macaulay’s zero temper for injustice as aptly illustrated in the relentless zest and fury with which he fought the Apapa land case of the Oluwa Family and that of the Eleko in the court.
What further compounded Macaulay’s anger were the sore issues in the Richard Constitution, which did not accommodate the enabling provision for a responsible government with a parliament in which Nigerians would be in the majority and a cabinet that alloted a greater ministerial portfolios to Nigerians. Added to this was the fact that the governor did not consult Nigerians before drafting the constitution.
The NCNC, with Macaulay leading the vanguard of the agitation for justice, resolved to fight with every grit and determination to ensure not only a constitutional change of a more democratic tenor, but also a repeal of the despotic laws on minerals, land and chieftaincy. And even at that, Macaulay did not fail to emphasise the need for a peaceful struggle devoid of any element of violent confrontation.
A decision was consequently reached to the effect that the party (NCNC), will send a delegation to London to fight for the repeal of the oppressive bills. The delegation, which would be led by Macaulay, would also comprise Zik, the General Secretary and Ibikunle Olorun-Nimbe (Treasurer), who also happened to be Macaulay’s close friend and personal physician.
In this connection, one could not but recall that at a mass meeting at the Glover Memorial Hall on 11 April, 1945, Macaulay swore: “I am prepared to go to England, even if it costs me my life, to fight these obnoxious bills.”
However, prior to the proposed tour of London, the NCNC had planned a tour of strategic parts of the country, between April 8 and June 5, 1946, to explain the issues at stake to fellow compatriots across the nation and also intimate them of their position on these issues, while also using the opportunity to raise funds for the proposed visit of the delegation to London.
True to his determination to fight to his last breadth, Macaulay, the tireless Trojan war horse, volunteered to lead the delegation, even in spite of his failing health. Unfortunately, while the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak.
He suffered a severe attack of rheumatism in Kano while on tour of the former Northern Provinces and was, therefore, compelled to hurry back to Lagos, accompanied by his physician and fellow chieftain of the NCNC, Dr. Olorun-Nimbe.
Macaulay’s sudden bout of illness and hasty return to Lagos caused quite a frenzy of fear and anxiety among his teeming mass of friends, colleagues, admirers and well-wishers, as tension and a pall of uncertainty enveloped the horizon.
But a dogged fighter that he was, Macaulay remained unperturbed by his severely debilitated physical condition as he told the teeming mass of sympathisers who had visited him on his sick bed: “If you give me the mandate, I will make a noise in England and you will hear it in Nigeria.”
Mr. Kola Balogun, who later rose to become a very prominent politician in the nation, was one of those who were opportuned to see him a few hours to his death. He recalled, with a sense of admiration, that Macaulay, remained an unrepentantly dogged optimist, even to the end. But unfortunately, time was no longer on the side of this symbol of lionic courage and soldiery.
As it dawned on him that the end was near, the iconic Wizard of Kirsten Hall, as he was fondly called, whispered: “Tell the National Council Delegates to halt, whereever they are, for four days, for Macaulay and then carry on. Tell Oged (Macaulay) my son, to keep the flag flying.”
At 8.10 p.m, on May 7, 1946, the Wizard of Kirsten Hall breathed his last, thus marking the end of the turbulent, but progressively eventful era of Macaulay’s activism on the Nigerian socio-political arena.
The vast Nigerian landmass and the Lagos Colony in particular, shook and quaked in a tremulous fit of frenzied hysteria, as news of his death rent the national space, evoking the nostalgia of his glorious heritage on the Nigerian political scene.
Torrents of glowing tributes and evocative pathos of mournful dirge and lamentations rendered in the most colourful verse and prose, enveloped the national space as a befitting epitaph to the fallen political colossus and legend, who had taken on the British colonial terrain in a grueling long-running duel of life-long engagement against the oppressive tenet of British colonial imperialism.
The festive spirit spread like a massive contagion, electrifying the Lagos Colony in such pervasive spell to which the average Nigerian compatriot and Lagosians in particular, could not but succumb in a last ditch endeavour that drove them with such frenzy of maniacal hysteria to accord their fallen hero a most memorable burial that would continue to resonate and re-echo in the annals of time.