Book Review: SLA: Warrior Enslaved By History

A number of books have been written on the collapse of the Nigerian First Republic. Not even one has had the historical temerity to posit that the destructive feud between Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola and his erstwhile boss and friend, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was not the primary reason for the collapse, a process which Awolowo himself called a “journey through the dark and dreary tunnel.” Femi Kehinde’s Samuel Ladoke Akintola: A biography and postscript is a credible addition to the historical reconstruction of that “fierce and howling storms,” again apology to Awolowo. The storm swept off peace from the prosperous and hitherto peaceful Western Region and eventually became the fire that burnt into ashes Nigeria’s first, and I dare say, only successful practice of an appropriate system of governance fit for her plural peoples – federalism.

Divided into nineteen chapters, the book, which apparently set out to be a biography of one of the most misunderstood, yet most formidable politician in the history of Nigeria, unwittingly became the rendition of the history of Nigeria’s immediate post-colonial government and the most incendiary political turmoil that engulfed Nigeria shortly after the lowering of the Union Jack. Scholars have posited that the years between 1962 and 1966 could unarguably be said to be the most politically tumultuous for the Western Region. Nigeria eventually partook of the turmoil, with the overthrow of the First Republic by the military and since then, in the words of John Keats, things have fallen apart for the country as the centre has found it difficult to hold.

The 19 chapters of the book are divided into themes like, the growing up years of the young Ladoke, Ogbomosoland, the people and society, Akintola as teacher and youth activist, his early political career, his voyage into politics and sojourn at the federal parliament, his time as Premier, the crisis in the Western Region, among others.

Of all Nigerian leaders, especially those who contributed to the struggle against colonial rule and who thereafter became heirs to the emerging leadership of Nigeria, Akintola is undoubtedly one of the most understudied. There is sparse knowledge of him. The most dominant story that is paraded about him is his stiff-necked stand-up to his political party, the Action Group, in defiance of the parliamentary system of government which brought him into power. Little is known about the consummate polyglot who spoke Nupe, Hausa, Yoruba and English very fluently, the extremely witty polemicist who, according to Awolowo, could argue the two sides of an issue with equal dexterity, the deft administrator and lawyer, the pithy, firebrand writer and the Editor of one of the most consequential newspaper organs at the time called the Daily Service.

In the nineteen chapters of the book, Kehinde situated the essential Ladoke Akintola, revealing a Yoruba irredentist who meant well for the future of his people but who became imprisoned in the labyrinth of volatile party politics which eventually set the Yorubaland he loved so much on a path of destruction. The author traced the genealogy of a mutual friendship between Awolowo and Akintola which manifested in SLA and his family living in Awolowo’s Oke-Bola, Ibadan home for almost three months after he became Premier and how the two families were closely-knit and bonded inseparably. However, this brotherly bond eventually glided towards an Aristotelian concept of tragedy, a concept which goes thus: Two good men began a jolly good friendship that was primed towards a good ending; the two friends hit their feet against the stone and the gods destroyed their land for this.

The Aristotelian tragedy was not only that S. L Akintola, Tafawa Balewa, Sir Ahmadu Bello and other Nigerian leaders were killed by the coupists of January 15, 1966. The Western Region itself partook largely of the tragedy in the freezing of its growth and development within this period. Between 1962 and 1966, the Region witnessed its own version of the September 11, 2001 American twin towers destruction, for on that same day in 1963, pursuant to the crisis, Awolowo was jailed for 15 years. To understand the enormity of the tragedy that befell the Western Region through the friction between Awolowo and Akintola, one can only imagine the level of development that would have further accrued to the West if Awolowo, the great administrator and Akintola, the builder of men, had jointly collaborated to administer the region after 1959.

Till today, scholars have sought to understand what exactly led to the acrimony between the duo which eventually consumed a Western Region that hitherto witnessed one of the most effective political growths in Africa, a growth fertilized by an enviable amity of its political leaders. A number of reasons have been averred for the schism. While Billey Dudley, in his book entitled, An introduction to Nigerian government and politics (1982) puts the schism to an ideological disagreement over the running of government and the Action Group, and Professor Eghosa Osaghae, in his book, Crippled giant: Nigeria since independence (1988), also attributed it to the combative, anti-Northern stance of Awolowo as Leader of Opposition in the Parliament which incensed Akintola and other crucial members of the Action Group, Bola Ige, in his book, People, Politics and Politicians of Nigeria (1940 – 1979) published in 1995, put it to the decision by Akintola to act independently of the Action Group by building his own political base and structure, abhorring the idea of basking under the political sunshine of Awolowo who had vacated the Premiership for him.

In the book under review, Kehinde, like previous writers before him, also averred that the friction was due to the desire by SLA Akintola to approach the governance of the Western Region with a master-of-his-own-game approach. Awolowo himself, in his book, My march through prison (1985) gave credence to Kehinde’s submission. Though it may sound intangible, Awolowo said Akintola was angry at being welcomed to functions by the slogan, Awo!, which was hitherto the sloganeering of the Action Group. On one occasion, specifically on April 3, 1960, at the installation of Oba Sikiru Adetona as the Awujale in Ijebu Ode, Awolowo, quoting a source, said that Akintola, in a discussion with his wife, Faderera, after arriving the venue of the installation, had said: “This kind of unseemly behaviour must stop; and he must do something about it. In his response, SLA said that the crowd (was) extremely discourteous; they had treated him with contempt by shouting ‘AWO’ on him. That was not the first time that this kind of thing had happened, since he became Premier; indeed, he was determined to do something about it, without further delay. He declared, and assured his wife: ‘Give me six months, and no one will hear the shout of ‘AWO’ in this Region again.’ And the wife promptly commented: ‘That is how it should be!’

Kehinde’s Samuel Ladoke Akintola: A biography and postscript, while also contributing to the debate on what indeed led to the friction, submitted that, in the clash between the spouses of the two gladiators of the Western Region, could be found one of the reasons for the crisis. Even though the claims of a spousal causation of the crisis are unsubstantiated, they have been too strident to ignore. The book affirmed that the distributorship of Coca Cola that was hitherto solely handled by Chief Mrs. HID Awolowo, which Mrs. Faderera Akintola, as the wife of the new Premier, wanted to change hands, was a major cause of the friction. It was also alleged that Akintola’s wife’s disavowal with the alleged overbearing attitude of Awolowo on the Western region government, even while in Lagos as Leader of Opposition, aggravated the clashes of personality that eventually snowballed into an unwholesome crisis in the region. Akintola’s wife, Faderera, in Femi Kehinde’s book, encouraged him to defy Awolowo’s alleged overbearing hold on the Premier.

In contrast to all these, however, Akintola believed that, having been vested with the Premiership, he ought to be left alone with all the full paraphernalia of his office which Awolowo enjoyed in his own time as Premier of the region. Olarinmoye O. O, in a PhD dissertation submitted to the University of lbadan, entitled, “The politics of ethnic mobilization among the Yoruba of South Western Nigeria”, had quoted the late Premier to have said in Yoruba: “ti a ba fi agbo fun eegun, a jowo okun e,” translated to mean that, if a ram is given to a masquerade, it is consequent upon the giver to let go of its leash.

One major missing point which the book, Samuel Ladoke Akintola: A biography and postscript failed to mention is that, apart from advisers and self-serving politicians, the newspaper press was responsible for the aggravation of the crisis between Akintola and his friend, Awolowo. Indeed, many scholarly works have said unequivocally that the press was one major grenade that was used effectively to bring down the First Republic.

One cogent reason why the humongous contributions of SLA Akintola to the development of the Western Region and the immense footprints he left in today’s South West have remained unappreciated (he was instrumental to the establishment of the University of Ibadan, for example; he established the Airport Hotel; he had a hand in his government’s acquisition of the Cocoa House, and many others) is because his developmental contributions were blanked out by the press and thereafter, chroniclers of history followed suit. This was solely because, even though he was a veteran journalist, Akintola went into that war without a newspaper press of his own to back him up. This point was corroborated by Bola Ige, in his book earlier mentioned, when he said:

“SLA (Akintola) did not have any newspaper support to back him in 1962 when he went to war against Awo. He may have been a veteran journalist, but the Daily Service was now a weekly magazine; and, worse for him, it was being edited by L. K. Jakande, one of the group whom SLA so much disliked. The other newspaper sympathetic to the AG and its government of the West was the very popular Daily Express. But the editor-in-chief was Bisi Onabanjo who had never liked SLA. In addition, the financial backer of that paper was Chief S. O. Shonibare whom SLA was planning to put into trouble with Awo. In Ibadan, there were three newspapers – Southern Nigerian Defender which was as good as dead, and the Nigerian Tribune and Irohin Yoruba which were Awo’s newspapers. When SLA and his group started Morning Star and Irawo Owuro in 1963 for NNDP purposes, it was too late and his new government newspaper, Daily Sketch… could not help him much…”

Indeed, the Service, which Akintola once edited, had turned full circle against him. At this time, it was being edited by one of his students at the Baptist Academy and one of Awolowo’s trusted allies, Bisi Onabanjo, who used his column called Ayekooto in the newspaper to persistently pillory SLA’s policies. Akintola was only in control of provincial leaflets named Morning Star and Irawo Owuro. By the time Akintola woke up to establish the Sketch in 1964, the war had been won and lost.

Kehinde’s book, while featuring Chief Awolowo’s alocutus in the presence of Justice Sowemimo during the treason trial, also revealed an essential contemporary issue which the late Premier briefly touched on. Awolowo had said in the allocutus: “I have been an unyielding advocate of federalism in this country. I believe that only in federalism can we find happiness for all the people of this country.” This is a word from Awolowo to all those who have stood sternly against restructuring of Nigeria.

What this book by Femi Kehinde did was to show the other Akintola, which posterity has not adequately shown to generations after him. In lucid prose, he revealed the late Premier as a man with a genial heart who loved Yorubaland to a fault. For the first time, through sources who spoke to him and were close to the late Premier, Kehinde revealed to the readers that Akintola was most likely fed up with the destructive outcome of the Western Region crisis and had begun to wonder if the whole shedding of blood and probably, his long-drawn battle with his old friend and leader, Obafemi Awolowo, was worth it after all. While Awolowo lost his first son during the crisis, Akintola also lost his own bosom daughter, Mondole and SLA’s health had lost its erstwhile bubble. His hands, said the author, had started shivering and he could no longer append his signature on a straight line. SLA however never lived to make amends. Indeed, he had told one of his aides, Adewale Kazeem, who suggested his resignation, soberly that, Adewale, O ti bo, iku lo ma gbeyin eleyi, meaning, Adewale, it is too late, it is only death that will end this feud.

Femi Kehinde’s Samuel Ladoke Akintola: A biography and postscript is a book which every home, every library, every school deserves to keep on their shelves. Those who desire to go into government and those already paddling canoes of states need to read about this consuming schism in the West. It is didactic and contains unheard of revelations about Akintola and how the late Premier was far from being what the press of the time said he was.

Told in very lucid prose with adequate supply of memorable dates in history to back it up, the fluid manner in which the story was written could be ascribed to the often-said pithy manner in which the subject of discourse, Akintola arrested his audience with his depth and ability to talk, while alive.

I recommend the dirge sang by the late Dadakuada exponent, Odolaye Aremu, for the late Akintola, whose cognomen was Ajala-gbe, to you. He had sang,

Mo ranti Ololufe mi o, Akintola Premier Western Region

Iku o, tii je a dagbere fe’nikeji eni, ko to mon mu ni lo

Mo ranti Olola ti sakeke, mo ranti olola ti fabaja…

A n pe won o mon paa, won paa dandan,

Won pa’gbe tan, aye a r’aro da mon o,

Won si paluko tan, aye o kosun,

Won wa pa lekeleke, aye o kero efun…

Translated, the musician said that the death of the great Akintola significantly affected the Western Region. Even his enemies agreed that the Yoruba people lost a great administrator.

Having said all these, Femi Kehinde’s Samuel Ladoke Akintola: A biography and postscript could do with some more attention to its editing as it contains avoidable typos. However, this shortcoming is not able to whittle down this historical masterpiece from the stable of the master story-teller himself.

Adedayo delivered this book review at the launch of a biography on the former Western Region Premier entitled SLA Akintola: In the Eyes of History, at the International Conference Centre, University of Ibadan, on July 10, 2017.

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