Of Awolowo, Abiola and Obasanjo 


In the effort to decipher and formulate the chances of All Progressives Congress, APC candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s presidential aspiration, narratives and speculations have resurfaced on the political behaviour of the Yoruba. Employing the precedents of Obafemi Awolowo, Moshood Abiola and Olusegun Obasanjo; Mr Farouk Kperogi of Saturday Tribune, for instance, came to the conclusion that 

“The most time-honored fixity in Nigerian electoral politics since independence is the certitude that the Yoruba electorate will always overwhelmingly vote for a Yoruba candidate in national elective contests” 

“Well, one can attribute Awolowo’s political iconicity in Western Nigeria to his admirable policies and inclusive strategies when he was a premier of the region. But how about Chief MKO Abiola”? 

“Abiola spent the better part of his political career swimming against the political mainstream in Yoruba land. “But when his opponent turned out to be Alhaji Bashir Tofa, a Kanuri Muslim born and raised in Kano, the Yoruba electorate closed ranks, eschewed religious divisions, accentuated Abiola’s ethnicity, and voted for him overwhelmingly” .

“We saw a repeat of this with Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. When his major opponent was Chief Olu Falae, another Yoruba man, he lost not only the Southwest but also his natal Ogun State. However, when his major opponent in 2003 was Major General Muhammadu Buhari, the Yoruba electorate voted for him massively”-Kperogi 

Here is a response from Awolowo himself. 

“It has been suggested that I didn’t make efforts enough to widen my base. Since 1952 I made strenuous, strenuous and relentless effort to widen the base of the Action Group, and I succeeded to the extent that the Action Group at that time was the only party that control the regional government and have opposition members in all the other regions, in the other two regions, the only party that did, no any other party did”.

If there is any political attribute Awolowo repudiates, it is the equation of his political leadership (and the Action-Group, AG) with Yoruba leadership. In his presidential address to the AG in 1963 he did, in fact, call any member of the party who propounds such equation as traitor. In the same manner and while getting set for participation in the politics of the second republic he relinquished the title of Yoruba leader bestowed on him in the run up to the civil war. He argued that it was logically inconsistent and incompatible with partisan politics. 

The reason the name of Awolowo has become the personification of Yoruba political leadership had to do with the transformative ramifications of his exceptional utilitarian premiership of the western region; and less to do with the reality of his field performance in elections. On the former, Dele Shobowale succinctly captures the point 

“Awo is today next to God worshipped by my own generation. His government devoted such a large percentage of the annual budget to Education – in all its ramifications – and gave the Western Region (including Edo and Delta) a huge advantage which we still enjoy till today. Yoruba people are the leaders in any legal profession in the country. The collateral advantage, for Nigeria, of Awo’s strategic vision, was the competition it induced in other regions to educate their own children”. 

Ironically, it was the need to contain the challenge of this leadership appeal that prompted his opponents to seek recourse to the ploy of framing him as a dangerous ethnic irredentist out to subordinate other Nigerians to the Yoruba. With regards to this political demonisation, the original sin was the divide and rule policy of the British colonialists 

“By 1914, modern Nigeria came into being under an autocratic Governor, Sir Frederick Lugard, who succeeded in isolating one Nigerian group from the other” (Jide Osuntokun) . “In administration, in land policy, in a dozen different fields of colonial government, the administration reinforced not the unity of the colony, but the differences between North and South” said Ruth First. 

Since 1960 and of the big three of Nigerian politics including Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello, Awolowo was the most active and painstaking in reaching out to the rest of the country. Unfortunately, the returns on this political investment drive have been rather poor. At best, the harvest consists of little more than appointment as vice chairman of Yakubu Gowon’s federal executive council; and the speculation that the coup makers of January 1966 had pencilled him down as their choice for the position of prime minister. 

In his unique devotion to the cultivation of political leadership myth, he was the most intellectually rigorous, propaganda savvy and practically driven among his peers. There is no more apt citation of him than the tribute paid him by President Ibrahim Babangida as “the main issue of Nigerian politics”. Further apotheosis vocabulary came from Emeka Ojukwu who cited Awolowo as “the best president Nigeria never had”

Contrary to the impression of many commentators however, from 1951 (when he became the leader of government business in the Western region) to 1979, Awolowo never enjoyed the kind of Yoruba hegemonic political dominance ascribed to him until his martyrdom (spawned by his trial and conviction for treasonable felony) in 1963. The reason the results of the 1951 elections in the Western region became so contentious was the less than compelling victory of the AG. Indeed the party would have lapsed into becoming the opposition party were the other contestants to gang up against it. 

The facts speak for themselves. In the 1951 regional elections, AG won 37 seats. Mabolaje (Ibadan people’s party) won 6 seats. NCNC won 18 seats, Independents won 19 seats]. The AG then went on to lose the elections into the federal house of representatives in 1956 to the NCNC. It was on account of this loss that the federal ministers from the western region were the likes of the flamboyant Adegoke Adelabu, T.O.S Benson and Akinfosile, all of the NCNC. Similarly the results of the 1960/61 regional elections all over Nigeria were as follows Western region: Action Group 79:

NCNC–NEPU 33: Mabolaje Grand Alliance 10. Total: 122. In the Eastern Region: NCNC 106; Action Group15; Dynamic Party 5; Independents 20. Total 146. In the Northern Region:  Northern People’s Congress 156; Action-Group–UMBC 9; NCNC–NEPU 1. Total166

A major extrapolation from these results is that the AG was the least regionally dominant relative to the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC and the Northern Peoples Congress NPC in their respective regions- contradicting the suggestion that “Chief Obafemi Awolowo enjoyed the kind of political dominance in Western Nigeria that Sir Ahmadu Bello didn’t have even in Hausaphone Muslim Northern Nigeria (he could never win over Kano, for example) and that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe didn’t enjoy in Eastern Nigeria”. 

For whatever it is worth, here are the results of the 1959 parliamentary elections in Nigeria  National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon (2,594,577 votes) (34.01%)   (81seats)  Action Group (1,992,364 votes)  (26.12%)  (73 seats) Northern People’s Congress (1,922,179 votes)25.20%) (134 seats).

On Abiola. The predisposing background to the political ascendance of Moshood Abiola (as winner of party primaries and subsequently as winner of the 1993 presidential election) consisted of the following elements. First is the imposition of the two party system by Babangida which constrained all ethno regional cleavages to find accommodation within the two parties. 

The Babangida prescribed two parties followed from the evolutionary tendency of Nigerian political system to culminate in two grand alliances. In the first republic it was the United Progressive Grand Alliance, UPGA vs Nigeria National Alliance, NNA. In the second republic it was between the Peoples Progressive Alliance, PPA and the National Patty of Nigeria, NPN. Rather than leave the party system to evolve by the force of its own internal logic, President Babangida peremptorily decreed it into existence. Hence the establishment of the left of centre Social Democratic Party, SDP and the right of centre, National Republican Convention, NRC. 

Alongside this experiment was the increasingly strident agitation for power shift to the South regardless of the religious identity of the prime beneficiary. More than any factor it was Babangida’s game of ulterior (motive) political brinkmanship that resulted in the unlikely emergence of Abiola (who was not in the reckoning as a potential presidential aspirant). It was the vacuum created by the banning of more compelling aspirants that Abiola stepped into. 

Ultimately the choice of Babagana Kingibe (regardless of his religious identity) as running mate to Abiola was motivated by the SDP governors with whom he had shared intensive political relationship as party chairman. Taken together, the elements that superceded ethnic identity politics in the constitution of the SDP presidential ticket of Abiola and Kingibe were the imperative of power shift to the South; the bond between Kingibe and the SDP governors; and winnability. It was not the candidacy of Abiola, ab initio, that prompted the Yoruba support for SDP. The Yoruba were predominantly SDP before Abiola ever aspired to become president. There had been a prior mobilisation of the Yoruba into SDP before he showed up.

Abiola went on to win the Jos convention primaries not because of Yoruba support which the governors had pledged to Kingibe but despite their preference. Given the totality of this backdrop, it would have been peculiar were the Yoruba to then vote against the SDP candidate who also happened to be Yoruba in the contest against Bashir Tofa and the NRC at the general elections. 

On Obasanjo. Kperogi recalled “In a February 21, 2003, confidential cable revealed by WikiLeaks in 2011, the US Consul General reported Tinubu to have told him that Yoruba people would vote for Obasanjo against Buhari because even though Obasanjo was unlikeable, he was Yoruba and Buhari wasn’t”

The specious argument here is the assumption that the unlikability of Obasanjo should translate to a vote for Buhari. But what if the Yoruba detest Buhari even more? And they have enough reasons to do so. As military head of state it was Buhari who had the residence of Awolowo violated and had innocent old men like Adekunle Ajasin locked up for no just cause. And like the leopard which nary changes its colour, it was Buhari who led a fuming Fulani moslem delegation to the oyo state governor, Lam Adesina, to complain on the maltreatment of (his people the Fulani) by Adesina’s people (the Yoruba). Yet the man had been a president of Nigeria. 

Beyond these speculations is the compelling implausibility of a Fulani moslem especially Buhari, coming to displace Obasanjo and thereby preclude him from getting a second term in office . More so against the polarising background of the annulment crisis that brought him to office in the first place.

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