Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN, is one of the politicians of the pre-independence era, a First Republic parliamentarian and Minister of Education, and Second Republic Attorney General of the Federation. In this interview with Tokunbo Adedoja, Funke Olaode, Anayo Okolie and Ademola Babalola at his residence in Ibadan, he gives reasons why Nigeria shouldn’t rollout the drums to celebrate her 57th independence anniversary. Chief Akinjide, who was present at critical junctions in the life of the nation, goes down memory lane to reveal some of the untold stories of watershed moments in Nigerian history. With deliberate choice of words in some instances, rhetorical questions and long pauses, he hints that there are many untold stories of the first and second republics currently concealed in the bowels of history. He however believes the whole truth of those two epochs would be told some day. Excerpts:
Nigeria at 57, is there cause for celebration?
No. I don’t think so.
Why do you say so?
It is because the only thing that is certain is uncertainty. And I would be happy if anybody can say something contrary.
We have been together for 57 years, went through a civil war, we survived; went through military coups, we survived; and even went through some political crises and we still survived. Today, at 57, don’t you think it is an opportunity for us to look back and celebrate?
I don’t see the reason why we should. If we can, I will be happy. I would like to sit down to listen to anybody who has a contrary view. I came back from England in early 1956 and since that time I have been in legal practice; and soon after I came back, I went into politics and I have combined my life with legal practice and politics. I started my legal practice in Ibadan when Western Nigeria was a launching pad. Very soon after that, I went into politics because my ambition all the time was to go into politics. When I was in England as a lawyer, I used to go to House of Commons and House of Lords to listen to debates. I used to go to the High Courts and even registered my presence at meetings of all political parties.
I used to attend the meetings of the conservative party, of the labour party, the liberal party, of the communist party just to learn and I learnt a lot. As soon as I came back, I went into politics and since that time I have not left politics till today. I was going to the political meetings of all those parties, like I said, to learn. It was then that l knew that the journey we had to go through was very far off. We were then a Protectorate of Britain and our economy at that was controlled by Britain, the French speaking Africa countries’ economies were controlled by France. A number of other economies were either controlled by Spain or Portugal. If that arithmetic has changed today I will be happy to listen to that fellow. Not only has the economy not changed, it has become worse. The critical elements were that there was no launching pad. Looking at the American history, it was once a colony of England.
In fact, there were people who were in the House of Commons in London and also in parliament at the same time in New York. There were about 13 states and America had to fight a very bloody war in order to leave Britain. The war was so bloody that France had to come to their aid in order to win. If you go to New York today you will see a monument in honour of France. What has happened between then and now? America has become the greatest power in the world, and you might know that China has become the second greatest power in the world and Russia has become the third greatest power in the world. Where is Nigeria today? I asked that as a rhetorical question. We have gone from bad to worse.
I went into politics with the NCNC, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was right there; by 1959, I contested election to be into the House of Representatives and won. I was extremely happy because all the mathematics of politics I learnt in London, I put into practice. Soon after I entered into politics and became a federal minister of education, the British started to teach us about intelligence. At that time Alhaji Balewa was our Prime Minister, I was part of his delegation to New York to get our membership of the UN. It was a very powerful delegation and that was my first visit to America.
The plane was British, we took off from Lagos and we stopped in Kano, then Tripoli, then London where the British press met the prime minister and the entire delegation and the interview was fantastic. Soon after we took off from London, the captain was told that there was a bomb in our plane and immediately he announced it to us, we listened to him and he said he was going back to Heathrow, which he did. At Heathrow, the plane was thoroughly searched and no bomb was discovered; the plane was refueled, we took off and flew safely to New York. That was my first visit to New York; there a big delegation of Nigerians which had gone in advance and other Americans met us at the airport.
We settled down and later went to the Security Council for admission, the debate was fantastic. (Nikita) Krushchev who was the leader of Russia at that time came, as he was in New York; everybody praised Nigeria and we were admitted into the UN. That wasn’t the end of the matter as it had to go to the General Assembly of the UN. It went there, they debated and unanimously we were admitted into the UN. Since 1960 till now, we have been a member of the UN. I have told you the glowing part of our history.
Balewa asked me to stay back in New York to be a member of the Nigerian delegation, which I did. Now in that arithmetic, I was learning a lot; not only did I meet foreign leaders of the world with Balewa in New York, I also saw the other part of the globe and I told myself that I must move my legal practice from Ibadan to Lagos, that I did till today…. Things were going on well at that time. Nigeria started a career which was extremely interesting. When it comes to education, we had the best of everything, but where are we today? The truth is that we are no longer where we should be. If anybody tells you that we are where we should be, he is telling you half truth, half falsehood.
From your narrative, you have raised a critical issue – that there is no cause for celebration, which you hinged on the fact that we are not where we should be. Could you tell us why we are not where we should be?
In the first place, a number of factors are responsible for the control of a country. One of them is leadership. Leadership is very critical. You tell me, and I open my arms to you, what is our leadership today? Do you have the leadership who can control Africa, just as United States of America has a leadership that can control the United States? Do you have the type of leadership that is obtainable in China? When I was in England, an Indian wrote a book on China and he was a professor in one of the Universities in India, and when China became independent, he was made an Ambassador to China.
He wrote a book on China before and China after. In other words, he saw China when it was in abject poverty when it hadn’t developed and he saw China when it moved from poverty to wealth; this is one of the best books in the world that I have ever read; I encourage all of you to read that book. Have you seen any Nigerian who has written such a book? Have we produced such leaders as those who moved United States of America from thirteen states in New York to the greatest power in the world today? Have we produced such leaders as China produced, who moved China from abject poverty to the second most powerful in the world today? Those are the critical questions. China is even now greater than Russia, don’t let anybody deceive you. I always ask myself a critical question; what do I do with my children and grandchildren? I have children and grandchildren who have been well educated in this country and abroad, and from time to time I talk to them, engaging them in debates, and the critical question is ‘we are not waiting in this country, we are going abroad’. And I ask them why? They say there is nothing left. Of all the great newspapers which existed when I came back from England, where are they today? The control of our economy in whose hands is it? Those are the critical question. And the critical question which many people avoid to debate is that; what really changed the history of this country is military coup.
I was in cabinet when the first military coup occurred, I was also in cabinet when the second coup occurred. When the first coup occurred, myself and the other ministers were detained for no just cause. There is nothing I have in the world today which I cannot account for, so what are you detaining me for? When the second coup was coming, we saw it and one of the key leaders of that coup is well-known but I am not going to mention his name. We told Shagari of that coup, giving him all the details. We sent that military officer to go and lead the (operation to solve the) problems we had in Chad, we had a lot of problems on Lake Chad and I traveled on that lake for two, three years, but he didn’t believe us. He said it was not possible, that how could that man do a coup and he gave a number of reasons. When he gave those reasons, we laughed because all the details were available to us. So when he did not believe us – one Igbo, myself and one northerner – and when the thing was coming, we left the country. I just went to London, the second one also went to London, the third one went to Nairobi. When it happened we started phoning each other saying that we told him but he didn’t believe us, look at what has happened. He was detained.
The paradox of the matter is that when he was eventually released from detention, Alhaji Shehu Shagari sent two of his wives to me in London for medical treatment and I received them. I arranged the best medical treatment for them before they came back. Now will you be surprised to know that I stayed in London for ten years practising law, and some of my matters were even in the law reports. Before then I was elected by the United Nations in New York, and that is very critical, to be a member of a body in New York where I served for six years. So, there was no problem for me at that time. But the problem with Nigeria has continued from then till today. Don’t let anybody deceive you, if anybody tells you we have gone out of our problems, they are telling you lies. And I repeat what I told you before, that a lot of my grand children come to me for discussion and they say they are not staying in Nigeria today because there is nothing left. That is their belief. When you debate such matters on that line, it is extremely sad. My philosophy and belief is to make my children and grandchildren serve Nigeria and make Nigeria great. One of my grandchildren had first class in Oxford and first class in Harvard, two of the best universities in the world; she said to me ‘daddy I am not staying in this country’, and she gave an analysis of the situation of the country. She said where am I going from here? She is still around, but she has told me she is not staying. Having finished in Harvard, jobs were just calling her left, right and centre just like Jumoke. Jumoke had first class in London, first class in Havard, and Yomi had double degrees from Cambridge.
So, we are in a very sad era in our history, and I hope that sad era will go away and we will move from unknown to the known. If you look at the mathematics of Nigeria today, one of the most predominant things is crime and unemployment. Why should that be the case? I will like to see a Nigeria that will be able to lift up Africa.
I told you about my grandchildren, today they are not ready to come and live in Nigeria. In those days, Nigeria was the launch pad and the first port of call but not anymore. What makes me unhappy is their unwillingness to come to Nigeria because the country is destroyed. When I was going to New York with Balewa after Independence, Nigerian currency and British were the same. In fact, you could exchange Nigerian currency with British pounds in any bank in London. Can you do that now?
Who destroyed Nigeria?
Nigeria’s destruction started the first day we had the first military coup. And if things are right since then I would like you to give me the details.
I think politicians of the first republic share in the blame of the destruction of Nigeria by allowing the military coup, because military intervention in politics is an abnormal thing. But it happened at a time when Nigeria just started as an independent nation. At that critical time the leader of the opposition was in prison for treason. The South-west was in crisis, that was the period of ‘operation wetie’. Would you agree that politicians of the first republic didn’t manage the situation well and allowed the military to intervene in politics? Secondly, when the Prime Minister was missing for a couple of days, the politicians at that time or those who were in charge couldn’t seize the opportunity and present leadership because the nation was in a state of anarchy for two days. We didn’t have a head of government and eventually allowed the military to seize power. By then, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, the president, was outside the country and the acting president, Orizu Nwafor, announced that the politicians had handed over power to the military. Don’t you think politicians of the first republic, which you are part of, have a share of the blame?
That information is not true.
This thing happened about 50 years ago. I was in that cabinet as federal minister of education. When the head of Army of the British was to go, there was disagreement between Balewa and Saudana (Sir Ahmadu Bello). The leader in Kaduna said (Aguiyi) Ironsi should not be made the Nigerian Army chief for reasons which he gave. He said he was preparing a coup. Balewa insisted that he wanted to put Ironsi there. That dichotomy between the Prime Minister in Lagos and the leader in Kaduna was very critical. And Akintola was the premier in the West and he decided to go to Kaduna to explain his own views to the leader in Kaduna because they were of the same view. These are the internal dichotomies that some of you didn’t know.
Now Akintola went to Kaduna with some leaders including Lekan Salami. Unfortunately, some of the foreign media such as Financial Times started mentioning my name instead of Salami. It was not me. I didn’t go to Kaduna with Akintola. When he (Akintola) got to Kaduna, he explained that the situation at hand was dangerous that they should try and convince Balewa. Akintola flew back to Ibadan and when he came back he gave me a telephone call because I was in Lagos. He said as a secretary of the party I should summon a very urgent meeting of the party so that he could give them the details of the Kaduna meetings. I agreed. That night was the last discussion I had with Akintola. By the following morning, he was dead. When l woke up the following morning as a federal minister, I didn’t know there had been a military coup but somebody came to me and was telling me that Akintola was dead. It was the first time I heard the news. The critical thing for me was to keep myself safe, and I did that.
A lot of dichotomies and internal things that happened at that time, the history has not been written till today. And that is why many writers write half-truths and half falsehoods. Again, there was no vacancy as people assume because one Bukar (Sulloma Dipcharima) from the North-east and minister of transport in the cabinet then was chosen as our leader when we didn’t know where the Prime Minister was; he was not dead then in our view. We heard Akintola had been killed, Saudana had been killed and Commander of the Army in Ibadan, who was in Eko Hotel, was killed in Eko Hotel. But we continued holding cabinet meetings in Bukar’s house. That gap was there and because many of you didn’t know about that gap and what happened at that time, you continue to write half-truths and half falsehoods. What was critical at that time was that Ironsi started coming to the cabinet meetings with soldiers, sitting outside the door where we were holding meeting. What was he doing there? I was there as a cabinet minister.
Did anybody raise any objection?
Of course, we asked him and he said just to keep us safe. We didn’t ask him to come. We didn’t need your security but he kept coming. Right then, we smelt a rat. Later on, I must tell you that I got a report, very big report, from foreign intelligence that in fact Ironsi was the leader of that coup.
But Nigerians believe it was Major Kaduna Nzeogwu who was the leader of the coup?
No, no, no. I was given a bulk report on Ironsi’s involvement in the coup. As said, we didn’t know where the Prime Minister was but Ironsi was going left, right and centre. We discovered later that he was indeed the leader of the coup. He now asked us to hand over power to him for safety. I said why do we have to hand over power to you? You are the head of the army, keep the country safe. But he insisted and ‘forced’ us to hand over power to him at the cabinet meeting. Power was not handed over to him but he took power from us by force.
But Orizu Nwafor announced to the nation….
(cuts in) That is not true. Don’t forget that at that time, head of the army was Ibo, Zik the president was Ibo, the acting president, (Nwafor) Orizu, was Ibo. Zik was far way, in the Americas, he said he was on holiday, holiday in inverted comas; don’t believe that story.
Would you say Zik was aware of the coup too?
I won’t answer that question, because if I answer that question, it will lead to other questions. Don’t forget that he came back eventually and went straight from the airport to one Bakare’s house in Ikoyi. You see, the area you are taking me (to) is extremely dangerous and I don’t want to create headlines for you.
Sir, you have played significant roles in the life of Nigeria: You were in your 20s when you were elected into the parliament, and later became federal minister in the First Republic; you were part of the constituent assembly in the 70s that gave birth to 1979 constitution that we have continued to modify up till now; you came up with 12 2/3. At every junction in our history, you were there. Some of the people mentioned earlier are dead. You had personal conversation with Akintola etc. Can you throw more light on what happened? Was there a conspiracy between a section of the political class and the military leadership to take power in the first republic?
There was. You are taking me to an area which I am avoiding and which I don’t want to talk about. There were a number of civilians who were in the coup conspiracy, particularly in the university of Nigeria Nzukka, University of Ibadan and University of Lagos. But all those things have never been unfolded. The question is, what should we say now? That is the critical question. Should we reveal them now or later? If we reveal them now, are they adding more wounds to our problems or solving our problems? Let me be honest with you, the problem of this country is complex. Even those who play significant roles in the civil war have been writing books on falsehood, telling lies. When I see such books, I just laugh. I don’t know when all will be unfolded. But one day, I think all the truth will be told.
But the first republic generation which you belong is almost gone…
(cuts in) It is almost gone but not dead. The story will be told one day. The critical question is what do we do now? And the answer is, keep quiet. Isn’t it 50 years ago the whole thing happened?. Recently, I was invited to Ogbomoso to the anniversary of Akintola’s death. You will be surprised that throughout I didn’t utter a word. When I arrived in Ogbomoso, I went to Soun Ogbomoso’s house, I greeted him, paid my respect, then I went to the university in Ogbomoso and I sat near Akintola’s son throughout and they spoke and spoke and spoke but would you be surprised that throughout I did not utter a word. When they finished, I shook hands, entered my car and came back to Ibadan, because if I spoke at that time and tell the truth, I am giving your papers headlines. It would create headlines.
But we need to know about the past to explain the present and help project into our future?
But I have just unveiled certain information and for now, I won’t reveal all.
Looking at what happened in the first republic: the coup and all that. Would you say there are things the politicians could have done differently that could have changed the course of history?
It was not possible because the people who controlled the country were the people controlling the violence at that time, and even now. I told you my antecedents earlier on. I have been involved in Nigeria’s politics before independence and I am still involved in a way till now. Where is this country going now? Where is it going now? Where is it going now? I asked this question three times. The truth is that, many of you, when I read your paper, I just laugh. You don’t know what is going on. And then the fact that we have different tribes affect our judgement. The fact that I am Yoruba may affect my judgement, the fact that you are Igbo may affect your judgement, the fact that you are Fulani may affect your judgement, the fact that some people are Deltans may affect their judgement…
You got wind of the plot to overthrow the Second Republic government and you went to the then President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, to tell him about the plot.
No, don’t go to that area again.
No, it is just a follow up question sir. You went to Shagari, obviously, because you wanted him to act to save the country from another military misadventure but he didn’t act, perhaps he didn’t believe you. But because you were sure of your facts, you left the country with the other people mentioned earlier. Casting your mind back, could you have done something differently at that time to save the country from the military coup? Would you call it a failure of leadership the fact that Alhaji Shehu Shagari didn’t act on that vital information?
Do you want me to pass judgment on him? I told you what I did. I left the country.
Could you have done any other thing to change the situation at that time?
It wasn’t possible to change the mathematics as at that time. It was too hard… You see, head of the army before was a whiteman and we recalled him to come back to assess the situation for us. He did. What information he gave us and what he gave the British I will not know. But I will tell you something which I don’t know whether I should tell you. There was a Prime Ministers’ conference in Lagos which Harold Wilson led and came here on Rhodesia at that time and there was a dinner for all the prime ministers and Balewa brought in to that dinner for prime ministers, three of us, of which I was probably the youngest. We had the dinner and at the right time, Wilson called Balewa privately, he said he should follow him to London in his private plane because there was going to be a coup.
But Balewa refused and said he didn’t think there was any problem. If he had followed him to London all he needed to do was to broadcast from London as head of government and ask the British Army to move in and quash the coup. But he didn’t do it. You see, you are born with leadership; it is either in you or it is not in you. The three of us who met Shagari and told him all the details knew what we were doing. We got all the details and when he didn’t listen to us, the three of us left the country. And at the right time, they hit. They went and locked him up. We started phoning ourselves saying this man, we warned him but he didn’t listen to us… But he wouldn’t listen. We knew that there were X,Y,Z in it, but there are aspects of that that I will not reveal to you. It is too dangerous.
There is a consensus that the nation’s fault lines, the things that divide us as a nation, have never been this obvious. Why do you think it is so now?
You won’t like the answer. It is because the country might collapse. I know you won’t like to hear that.
Do you feel the country may collapse?
I used the word might, so you modified it for me. But that modification I won’t accept.
Do you entertain such fears?
Your guess is as good as mine.
After 57 years?
Your guess is as good as mine. Are you not worried about Nigeria of today? Can you put your hand on your heart and say you are not worried about Nigeria of today. Would you be a honest Nigerian and say Buhari should be governing us as a nation? I won’t say yes and no to that question. But I put a question to you to answer, not here but at home.
You gave a speech at the launch of a book ‘Fellow Countrymen: The Story of Coups D’etats in Nigeria’ by Richard Akinnola, where you said The Amalgamation of Nigeria was a fraud…
(Cuts in) I repeat that it was a fraud. Let’s start with the fact the amalgamation was a fraud. Don’t you know that the amalgamation of 1914 is a fraud? In 1900, there were too separate Nigeria, Northern and Southern Nigeria. Anybody taking products to the North paid duties to us here in the South.
That was the reason for the amalgamation… That was the beginning of our problem and they forced us together by themselves in 1914, without our consent and without consulting us, they forced us together. And they got a lot of laws from Australia, Australia Law of Evidence, Australia Criminal Law, about two or three laws from Australia. The word is amalgamation, and that is very critical. Do we have any Nigerian don or journalist who has analysed its meaning? So from that time they didn’t pay any duty again to the South, when they brought their goods, they just passed to the North. And because they were paying duties to the South, the northerners were not happy and the British were not happy.
And once they had the amalgamation in 1914, Lugard became governor general of Nigeria. First of all in 1910, there were two governors in Nigeria – governor of the South and governor of the North. Did they consult you before they merged us together? They didn’t consult anybody. It was on their own in 1914 that they just issued a British Order in Council and merged us together without consulting anybody. It was since then that problem began till today, and that problem has not stopped. And I don’t see it stopping, because the northerners think they should be ruling Nigeria whether they know how to rule or not. Have you toured the North? I was Pro-chancellor, University of Jos. The North is so backward and I have my doubt if they think of progress. And if they think of progress, I will be surprised. I have toured the whole of the North – from Sokoto to Maiduguri, Jos to other areas across the North. Just name it. They don’t think the way we think. We think differently and our problem is the British. Why must the British merge us together? They merged us together for their own economic interest. It is as simple as that. Not for our own development or greatness but for their selfish interest and it is because they don’t want our development.
Since that amalgamation, there has been nothing right in Nigeria. The people who made the matter worse were the military who now created states, from 12 states to 19 states and so on.
Apparently to foster unity and bring development closer to the people?
Can you tell me what is the common denominator between the Igbo and the Yoruba? If there is, I don’t know, may be you can tell me. What is the common denominator between Hausa /Fulani and the Igbo? If there is, tell me. Nothing. They just did it for the economic interest of Britain. Now, look at the whole of Africa, all the French speaking country of Africa are used for the progress of France. Tell me in what way does the economic interest of French speaking countries in Africa benefits Africans? When people are not the same, it is a fraud to merge them together and force them to be the same.
Again, the fault lines are now so obvious that some are calling for Biafra, Oduduwa Republic and all that. Why is it so now?
Because the country is so divided and there is no unity again. Things are so bad now. It has always been like that underneath though. It has always been like that.
What do you think of the quit notice by Arewa youths to Igbo to leave the North by October 1.
(cuts in) But they have withdrawn it.
Yes, the notice has been withdrawn. But the fact that they even issued a quit notice at the Arewa House in Kaduna is symbolic. What do all these portend for 2019 election?
It will be held but it will be rigged.
In favour of who?
I don’t know. Do we really have honest elections in this country?
Would you say previous elections two were rigged?
I don’t know. I don’t want to go to that issue.
We now have agitations more than ever calling for restructuring. We even have IPOB group in the South-east calling for secession and the government had to move in troops. What is the way out of our problems?
I moved the motion for the adoption of the report of 2014 Constitutional Conference. I will recommend that we revisit the recommendations of that conference. There are a lot in it that can help address some of our problems.
Nigerian leaders have always said the unity of Nigeria is settled and non-negotiable. President Buhari reemphasised it recently. What is your opinion on the position that Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable?
I don’t have any comment.
What will be your message to Nigerians at 57
They should not quarrel.