WE WORKED BEHIND THE SCENE TO COLLAPSE ACTION GROUP IN THE WESTERN REGION
Chief Osuolale Richard Akinjide is an elder statesman, a prominent politician and a well known legal luminary. An Ibadan-born, has been constant as northern star in the Nigerian political arena. His sojourn in the political firmament of Nigeria started before the country’s independence when he entered the Parliament at a tender age of 26 in 1959. He later became a Federal Minister of Education in the government of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first Nigerian prime minister. In the Second Republic, he was a prominent member of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and served as legal adviser where he propounded the famous ‘two-thirds’ in the legal battle concerning the presidential election won by then NPN-led government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. His legal prowess at the court battle was among the factor that helped him to win the landmark case for his party. As a result of this legal victory, Akinjide became a household name in Nigeria. During the administration of Shagari from 1979 to 1983, he was a Minister of Justice. In this interview, the soft spoken politician and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) spoke at length on his journey into politics, his role in the 1962 crisis in the Western Region headed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the issue of the two-third the problem with Nigeria, among other germane contemporary issues
What year did you join politics?
I came back from England at the age of 24 when I qualified as a graduate in law and also as a barrister. I did my LLB in University of London and was called to Bar at the Inner Temple. I had made up my mind to practise law and to be a politician. So, as soon as I came back, I went straight into politics before independence. This was in 1956. It was during the British rule, it was glorious and I know that in few years time, we were going to attain independence. When I entered Parliament in 1959, I was around 26 and my salary in a year was 840 pounds, which was a lot of money. I liked it and I enjoyed it and it was glorious, one of the best thing you can hope to have in life. When I entered Parliament, as I told you, we were under British Protectorate but Lagos was a British Colony and there was glorious fortune of being in the Parliament before independence and immediately after independence. When Tafawa Balewa was going to New York for admission into the United Nation he took me along, together with others. What we went through was something that cannot be repeated in the history of this country. It was unique, it was glorious and I was very fortunate to have been part of it. When I entered the Parliament, I was not a minister immediately. I was just a member of Parliament. I only became a minister was some years later. It during my second term as a member of Parliament that I became a Minister of Education, with Tafawa Balewa as the Prime Minister. Alhaji Shehu Shagari was also in that cabinet.
Let us talk about the 1962 crisis in which you were a supporter of Chief Ladoke Akintola. What was your role in that crisis?
At that time, I was a member of the NCNC, which was a Zik party. There was unnecessary dichotomy in the Action Group at that time between Chief Ladoke Akintola and Chief Obafemi Awolowo. And, of course, we were leaders of the opposition and it was our own ambition to take over power in the West. If you remembered that during the 1956/1957 election, our party, NCNC, defeated Action Group in the West. And people like H.O. Davies, Kola Balogun, Adegoke Adelabu and others, became federal ministers in Lagos at that time. So, it was a glorious time and I felt happy and extremely lucky to be part of history of that time.
You said there was an unnecessary rancour in the AG between Akintola and Awolowo. How do you know it was an unnecessary rancour and what strategy did your party use in coming in?
In the first place, I was the secretary of NCNC in the whole of the Western Region. And being the opposition, it was our ambition to take over the government from them. So, we were following what was going on. We did not openly take side with either of them but we were working behind the scene so that their government could collapse because what would profit us would be collapse of their government so that we can take over. If they were in our shoes, they would do the same against us to make sure our government collapsed so that they too could take over the government. So, what we were doing was quite legitimate. It is what the opposition in America will do, it is what the opposition in England, Germany, France or Japan will do. So, there was nothing undemocratic in what we did at that time at all.
Were you able to achieve your aims and objectives of working against the party?
Eventually. They couldn’t settle among themselves which was a pity because there were reasons and grounds for them to settle and make peace. But they did not and, therefore, we were able to go into government. We formed a coalition government with Akintola and with Fani Kayode to be the Prime Minister and Akintola remained the Premier of Western Region. Even Akintola invited me to resign as a member of Parliament from Lagos so as to join the government in Ibadan, but I declined.
I said I was quite happy to remain as a member of Parliament rather than go to Ibadan and become a minister.
The 1962 crisis was said to have led to the military coup that truncated your administration at that time. How true could this have been?
Well, it is not true that the crisis led to the military coup. I have had people written in papers and in books. Circumstances of the coup were totally different. But what led to the coup is long history, long story and I hope it would never again occur in this country.
What is the difference between the politics of your era and that of today?
At that time, there was no money in politics at all. Western Region at that time, started from Yaba to Asaba. When I became Secretary of the NCNC in the Western Region at that time, we had only one Land Rover and I as a secretary, was using the vehicle. It is not like today where political parties will have several vehicles. Our financial resources were extremely limited. So, it was national sacrifice, it was national effort and it was something of which we were very proud of.
What was your reaction when you were appointed as a minister for the first time in your life?
The first time I became a minister was when I became Federal Minister of Education under Balewa. I was very happy, I was very lucky and I liked it very much. I had a minister of state under me. The Parliament and the seat of government were in Lagos and I hoped that our National Assembly is going to preserve it as a national museum because that is what they do all over the world. I have been to London to look at the House of Commons and the House of the Lords. I have been to America to look at the institutions there. They regard them as sacred institutions. Ours too here should not be used for anything else but preserved as national institutions. Look at the Race Course here in Lagos, it was built by Balewa to mark our independence, it is now in a state of decay. I hope the Federal Government will repair it so that it can become a tourist centre, not in the condition it is today, which is an embarrassment to all of us.
Sir, during the Alhaji Shehu Shagari regime, you came about the famous issue of ‘two-thirds’ that surprised a lot of people. How did you come about it?
Don’t forget that I was in the committee that drafted the constitution with F.R.A. Williams as the chairman. It was that time that I suspected that there was going to be a problem. We did not debate the points at the meeting when we were drafting the constitution. But I have taken notes of it at that time, something nobody addressed. So, immediately we drafted the constitution and that issue came up, I knew that there was going to be a problem. Now, during Shagari’s election, I was the legal adviser to the NPN. Two, I was agent for Shagari in Kano, Bauchi and also in Plateau. That was the assignment NPN gave me and it was very critical because we needed Bauchi seriously. The Bauchi of that time is now two states, very huge, so, we did a massive work there. Plateau was controlled by Chief Solomon Lar. We couldn’t defeat him but we needed votes there, we needed at least 25 per cent of the votes there. Three, Aminu Kano controlled Kano and therefore, it was very critical. We needed 17 per cent there, although at the end of the day we got 19 per cent. Those three states were very critical. In Bauchi, we needed massive votes in order to neutralise whatever votes we would get in Ogun State. We also needed Plateau State in order to get 25 per cent we needed there. We got 35 per cent.
Let us go back to the issue of two-thirds again. You said the issue was not well debated at the committee level and you were aware of it. Was it during the drafting or after it was drafted?
It was when we were drafting it that I took notice of it that this might create problem because at that time, we had not got the 19 states. And the way we structured the constitution, problem might arise if somebody did not have overall majority. But as it happened, it now showed that Shagari had the majority. I debated that when the election results were announced. When the election results were being announced, I was asked to come and make contribution on a national television at the Tafawa Balewa Square. When they called me, I gave them a number of conditions. I said, one, I would accept to come and debate provided all the other agents of other political parties would be there. There were five political parties to take part in the debate on the national television. Two, I would be the last to speak and they agreed to those conditions. So, after they had spoken, I listened and watched them, none of them touched the point which was sacred and most important. When they called me, I went to that it in detail and it was glorious. Before I went into television debate, I had granted an interview for Radio Kaduna in which I analysed that thing and at that time, Radio Kaduna was very powerful. So, at the time I was analysing the issue of ‘two-thirds’ on national television, Radio Kaduna was already carrying it on radio. So, the television was not the first to carry it, it was Radio Kaduna.
But why couldn’t you point it out at the constitution drafting level then, when you knew that problem was going to arise at that point in time?
We wanted it to be known, we wanted it sacred and you know power is very delicious.
At that time sir, people, especially from the South West, saw your action as a betrayal by defending a Northerner against a fellow Yoruba man, Chief Obafemi Awolowo?
No, it could not be a betrayal. I was not in the same party as Awolowo. I was in another political party and I was serving my own party, just as if somebody on Awolowo side did something which favoured Awolowo, you can say it was betrayal to us because that person was serving his own party. So, for anybody to say it was a betrayal is totally rubbish. It is just like anybody who opposed the American President, Barrack Obama who won the election, to say he is a betrayer. It is not a betrayal; he was working for his party. And the person who worked for Obama to win was also working for his own party. So, the role I played was legitimate, it was sacred and acceptable in any democratic norms.
The two-thirds issue favoured your party at that time. What if it was the other party that it favoured, what would have been your reaction?
When you go to war, you either win or lose. I went to war and I won and those who opposed me lost. That is the name of the game.
You went to prison in kirikiri, Ilesa and Ibadan. why?
We were detained. I was not the only person who was detained. It is not that I committed any crime or I was charged to court for any offence. All former politicians scared the military boys. They knew we had the masses behind us and that we were very influential and if we remained free, we might cause problem for them and so they detained all of us. And when there was another counter coup, we were released. It was political. It happened in Australia, it happened in the US, South Africa, it happened in India and it happened in Asian countries.
Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi invited you to serve in his government but you declined the offer. Why?
Brigadier Oluwole Rotimi was a gentleman. It was three times he invited me to come and join his government and to be his Commissioner for Finance in Western Nigeria and three times I declined. Why? One, I didn’t want to serve in the military government. In fact, that was the first and the most important thing. Two, I was the President of the Nigerian Bar Association. I preferred being at the bar as president than being a commissioner in a regional government. And, in any case, as a president of the bar, I was also practising my law. The position I held at that time was more important than being in any government whether at the federal or regional level. So, I had legitimate reasons for declining.
You have been an active player in Nigerian politics, what do you think is the problem of Nigeria?
First of all, we should never have been merged into one country. That is the biggest mistake Britain made, merging us into one. It is too late to disband us now. We are one country, one nation and I believe and pray that we remain so forever. So, our problem was created by the British, that is the origin of our problem. I mean, the Yoruba should have been in one state, the Igbo should be in a separate state, the Delta people should be in one state and the Northerners should be in one state. That is how it should have been. If you look at the whole of Europe, the only country that is not unilingual as far as I know is Switzerland, which has French, German and Italians into one state. That is unique but it has worked. But under our own circumstances here, it didn’t work because colonialism was economic exploitation. The European colonial power came here for economic reasons, not because they wanted to help us to develop.
There is this talk shop going on now on constitutional amendment and one contentious issue is state creation. What do you say to this?
State creation is a legitimate demand and I pray that we have Ibadan State so that the present Oyo State will be broken into two and we can have two states. Another area which I think should be broken into two is Ogun State. It is totally unfair to make a whole Ogun into one state. Ijebu-Ode was a regional capital. Abeokuta was a regional capital before. It is the only two regional capitals in Nigeria which were created into one state. All other regional capitals became a state on their own. Look at Sokoto which was once one region but it is now three states. So, why should two states in Yorubaland become one entity? It is unfair, it is wrong and it should be corrected.
What about the South East people who have been agitating for additional one state to be created in tandem with other regions which have six states each to balance the equation?
It should be carefully studied and correct thing should be done.
Sir, don’t you think that the process of creating states which has to go to the National Assembly and state houses of Assembly is too cumbersome?
It is not. When America fought Britain and became independent, there were only 13 states in U S. But now, America has 50 states. So, state creation is a continuous process. I have been to Australia and I know how many states they have. I have been to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and most part of the world, state creation is a continuous and continual process.
Why did you study law sir?
I studied law because when I was in secondary school in Oduduwa College, Ile-Ife, I made up my mind to be a lawyer. I was then a great reader of West African Pilot, Nigeria Tribune and other foreign newspapers; so, I made up my mind that I should be a politician. And that is what I have been all my life and I enjoy it.
Did you have any person or role model in law that you really admired that encouraged you to read law?
There were so many in Britain, United States and in Nigeria. I have a lot of role models I tried to emulate and aspired to excel, aspired to do as much as they do or, at least, to copy
Nigeria has been described as a country with one of the finest constitutions in the world but that problem is its operators. Do you subscribe to this?
I agree entirely with that. What is wrong with us is not the quality of the constitution; it is the quality of the people who operate. This micro midget you are using to interview me is good. As the users, you can use it well and you can use it badly too. Look at Switzerland which consists of French, German and Italian speaking country and they are doing very well. I have been in all the three areas and I enjoyed it. When I am in Italian area where they are speaking Italian, in the German area where they are speaking German and in the French area where they are speaking French, it was a delight. Part of the Geneva Airport is French territory and another part of it is in Switzerland. So, if we take a flight from Geneva to France, they record it as local flight. It is the attitude and the peoples’ mind that matter.
What do you think is the way forward for Nigeria?
The way forward is to have unity and good education. Unfortunately, education is collapsing now. Nigeria used to be one of the best in the English-speaking countries during our time. But many of our universities have now collapsed like a pack of cards. I accept we have some universities which are still excellent, but they are not many.
How will you asses your constituency, the judiciary, in the last 50 years?
It is excellent. We have done extremely well in the last 50 years. Nigerian has been Chief Justice of Botswana, we have been Chief Justice at The Hague International Court in Netherland, and we have been Chief Justice in Gambia. Nigeria is one of the finest English countries in the world when it comes to law.
What do you have to say to our modern politicians, especially looking at your experience in the past as an old politician?
Those who should go into politics should be people who feel for the populace, not just because you want to make money or you want to make name. Can you imagine the glory of the era when people like Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, Chief Obafemi Awolwo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Alhaji Sardauna and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Chief William Opara and other prominent Nigerians were in the Parliament? Those were the people I copied when I was young in politics. But the people to copy now are very few. We should go back to what we used to be.
What do you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered as a good lawyer, a patriot and a good family man.