Posted by By Wole Soyinka on
I returned to Nigeria on New Year’s day, 1960; it was to a nation that was wound up to a fever pitch of social expectations.....
I returned to Nigeria on New Year’s day, 1960; it was to a nation that was wound up to a fever pitch of social expectations and self confidence as her date for independence from British rule drew close. Its future was already mapped out however, for the eve of Independence elections had already taken place the previous year, and all that was left was for the British government to hand over power to the victorious party and take its leave.
I was not pessimistic about the future, but extremely cautious, having come into contact with the first generation leaders in my student days in England. The enemy, as I had identified it, was power and its pitfalls, a cautionary motif that dominated my would-be Independence play, A Dance of the Forests. The view was not shared by the cultural bureaucrats, quick to smell out subversion.
They cautioned that the play contained a subversive message. It had won the contest for the official theatre presentation for the occasion but was now deemed a damper, unsuitable for a festive occasion. I staged it anyway, in an alternative venue, using the prize money, and forming a theatre company - the 1960 Masks - in the process.
On the much anticipated Independence Day, October I, 1960, the ‘subversives’ presented their shoe-string world-view on the stage of the University Theatre, Ibadan, while the nation celebrated its formal liberation from colonial bondage in a series of sumptuous events and ceremonials in the capital, Lagos. The nation space known as Nigeria had come of age, a federation made up of three semi-autonomous regions - the Eastern, the Western, and the Northern Regions - the last occupying a landmass larger in size than the other two combined. Each had its own legislature in its regional capital, while a Federal house sat in Lagos, the nation’s capital. Those regional legislatures - or Houses of Assembly - had been in place since 1952, and functioning. However, the results from the preparatory federal election of 1959 that decided who held power at the centre, conducted by the departing British officials, had been most bitterly disputed, and it was already a divided nation that ritually lowered the British Union Jack that October, folded it away, and hoisted the green-white-green of Nigeria - surely the most uninspiring national flag on the surface of the earth! The white was said to symbolise peace, green stood for agriculture; combined they misrepresented the sum of a nation’s imagination.
Recent memoirs by former colonial officers have revealed how crooked that beginning was. The elections that placed a government in power at the centre were rigged - by the British! John Bull was not about to leave an independent Nigeria under the control of any uppity radicals - as the southern nationalists - the East and the West - were perceived. Thus, on instructions from the British Home Office, even the Nigerian census was falsified, giving an artificial majority to a North that was largely feudalist by tradition and conservative in political outlook. The census was actually based on sample head counts - random or selective, no one knew - which were then roughly multiplied by the acreage of the land mass, irrespective of actual population densities!
In its resolve to ensure that the nation was handed over to a conservative power, the British did not rely on a concocted numerical strength alone. After all, the North did harbour radical or rebellious elements in quite sizeable numbers - the Tivs, in what is still known as the Middle Belt, or the Northern Elements Progressive Union. And so, to make absolutely certain that power did not fall into the wrong hands, specific instructions were issued by the British Home Office to its civil servants - the final results of elections to the federal legislature must be manipulated, where necessary, in favour of the political conservatives. Archival material, now free of the time constraints of the Official Secrets’ Act, testify to this. An admission, and even statement of regret was wrung out of a serving British minister during the Abacha years. The precedent had however been set, and rigging now answered the name of democracy.
Not surprisingly, the nation’s flag began to unravel rather quickly after Independence. To begin with, each of the three regions, West, East and North, had its own restless minorities. A low-intensity armed warfare, largely unpublicised, accompanied the nation into Independence in the Tiv region of the North. Elections merely modified the geography of hostilities.
On Independence Day, October 1, 1960, my own West was ruled by the Action Group party, led by the dour, ascetic Yoruba, Obafemi Awolowo, affectionately known as ‘Awo’. However, his party lost the fight for federal control at the centre to the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), the North based party, which was headed by Sir Ahmadu Bello, a feudal Fulani scion. Ahmadu Bello claimed descent from the legendary Othman dan Fodio, the jihadist who once swore that he would dip the Koran in the Atlantic.
The NPC also controlled the Northern Region. In the East, the party that held power was the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by the charismatic, US educated Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, a self-described Fabian whose oratory at public rallies drew shouts of ‘Ze-ee-eek’ from delirious crowds. That party also lost to the NPC at the centre, but teamed up with the winner to form a ruling coalition at the federal level. The position of the nation’s prime minister fell, naturally, to the senior partner, the NPC.
The leader of the NCNC, Nnamdi Azikiwe, having failed to capture power at the centre, announced his retirement from politics, waxed biblical in a valedictory speech that declared that, with national Independence, ‘my task is done’. He was compensated with the ceremonial position of Governor-General of Nigeria, representing the Queen of England - Nigeria had chosen to remain within an arrangement that was still called the British Commonwealth, headed by the Queen. Sir Ahmadu Bello, leader of the victorious party, chose to remain at the head of the regional northern government, nominating his lieutenant, Tafawa Balewa, a former school teacher, as the first Prime Minister of the newly independent nation - regional heads of government were designated ‘premiers’. The Action Group of the West thus remained the minority opposition party in the federal legislature. Unlike his Northern counterpart however, the leader of the Action Group, Awolowo chose to lead the opposition at the federal level, leaving his second-in-command - Ladoke Akintola, a nationally acknowledged master of Yoruba oratory and a shrewd political strategist - as premier of the West.
The developing fissures, nation-wide, were perhaps inevitable, given the artificial grafting of the British parliamentary system on a patchwork nation with different pre-colonial histories and systems of self-governance. The West was the first to manifest the contradictions. An open rift developed between the party leader Awolowo - and Akintola, his lieutenant in the West, a region whose politics had always been as volatile as its people were politically advanced. The rift intensified, and the party broke in two, with a little help from the recruiting ambitions of the ruling party, the NPC. The breakaway group in the West, transformed into the Nigerian National Democratic Party, the NNDP, was led by the erstwhile lieutenant, Ladoke Akintola. It became increasingly perceived as an ally of the ruling party, the NPC; certainly its political ideology became more conservative, more openly impatient with the ‘radical’ tendencies of the parent party. Defections, intrigues, ideological polarisation, political blackmail, greed for a ‘slice of the national cake’... finally all the ingredients were in place for a new political experience, an arbitrary order of governance. In 1962, the elected government of the West - and with it, democracy - was suspended, and the region placed under emergency rule.
The immediate justifying episode for taking over the West, one that fulfilled the condition of ‘a breakdown of law and order; was provided when the Western House of Assembly converted its chambers into a boxing-cum-wrestling arena. This well laid plan to destabilise that region was activated by a pre-set signal in the shout "Ina l’ori oke" - Fire on the mountain! A legislator vaulted benches and desks, seized the speaker’s mace and attempted to make off with it. It ended up in two pieces, but only after first drawing blood from the head of a fellow law-giver. A famous image, captured by an alert photographer in the press gallery, showed my favourite political maverick, Tony Enahoro, escaping the melee through a window.
Tony Enahoro would again take to flight, this time clandestinely through the borders, but that was yet some months away. For now, the organisers of this legislative rout had achieved their purpose, and the nation - the Western Region at least - embarked on a novel adventure. The region was placed under an administrator, a medical doctor then in government service and, we would learn later, personal physician to the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa. He had powers to rule by decree, detain citizens without trial. The nation had heard of such things in other places but never imagined that we would actually taste of it in Nigeria - little did most imagine that this was merely a rehearsal for worse. The administrator wasted no time in placing political leaders under his sanction, including my friend from student days, Bola Ige, a lawyer and rising leader within the Action Group. Bola Ige’s final, and most prolonged place of detention was an isolated Rest House on the outskirts of Ubiaja, the divisional headquarters of Ishan in the then Benin Province - about 600 kilometres from Ibadan. His party, the Action Group, was undisguisedly the real target of Federal intervention. A few token politicians from the breakaway branch of the Action Group - the NNDP - were also detained, but mostly in cosy circumstances. Government catering rest houses were their favoured choice, where they continued to conduct party affairs and even receive connubial visits. A quite substantial proportion of Nigerians - among whom I was - read in the move of the Federal Government the beginning of an attempt to strangle the democratic infant in its crib and turn the nation, gradually, into a one-party state. So soon - I could be forgiven for thinking - the actualisation of warnings from A Dance of the Forests?
A more adaptable, more pugnacious theatre company than the professionally competent but top-heavy 1960 Masks was clearly required. Enter Orisun Theatre, primed for instant, improvised sketches on the political situation. The administrator’s dictatorial conduct in the West, his uneven apportionment of sanctions, hard suspicions of a ‘secret agenda’ provoked my lampoon on his office and governance style. It took the form of a song adapted from ‘The Vicar of Bray’ and was published in the media. Nothing untoward resulted from this foray beyond a friendly warning passed through’ official channels’ of Ibadan University where I was serving my stint as a Rockefeller Fellow in Drama. The administrator was not pleased.- He was prepared to tolerate the exercise of my freedom of expression, but wanted me to know that he was in the West, after all, to carry out a repair job, to stop the West from descending into utter chaos. This, he urged us to appreciate, was a delicate task of healing - for which, presumably, his medical training especially fitted him. He expected the academic community to cooperate with him in the achievement of his mission. I assured my interlocutors that I was indeed engaged on an important contribution to his objectives as I proceeded to prepare a series of political satires, the first of which would appear on stage as Before the Blackout. It included a dramatised version of the adaptation from ‘The Vicar of Bray’.
And then, as if the political scene was not sufficiently heated or complicated for such a young democracy, the nation was riveted by news of a far grimmer dimension than a mere rough-and-tumble among lawmakers - a conspiracy had been unearthed that sought to execute what would have amounted to a civilian coup d’ etat. The nest of conspirators was located in the Action Group. There was talk of proscribing the party altogether. Its leading figures were rounded up, some were placed under house arrest, others taken straight to prison - it all left the nation, but especially the Western Region in shock. Gradually, the net contracted, closing in on the real target. No one was especially surprised when the party leader himself, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was arrested.
The trials followed lengthy, drawn out investigations, during which the name of an Irish police officer, Mr. John Lynn, pioneered the conflation, in Nigerian modem history, of an individual name with torture. When trials began, a number of the accused protested that their statements had been made under duress, their confessions extracted under torture. The statements were nonetheless admitted in evidence. Not surprisingly virtually all the accused, including Obafemi Awolowo, were found ‘guilty as charged’ and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. The judge then committed the astonishing indiscretion of proceeding to recuperate from his marathon hearing as a vacation guest of the head of the ruling (and ‘persecuting’) party, directly after convicting and sentencing the accused. Never was a well known Yoruba saying more eagerly seized upon: The witch cried one night, and the child died the morning after; who still disputes that it was the witch who killed and consumed the child? It contributed in no small measure to the interpretative twist given to the judge’s words when, before delivering judgement, he declared, ‘my hands are tied’. Even while considering his verdict deeply flawed, I believe till today that his words were completely innocuous, being no more than the standard observation by any judge that, no matter his personal inclinations or public expectations, he was duty bound by the law. For the majority of government adversaries however, the judge had admitted that he was carrying out orders!
With those trials, the Nigerian political atmosphere was drastically transformed. The hunt continued for the fugitives, including Tony Enahoro, nearly all of whom had taken refuge in Ghana, then enjoying the reputation of a radical nation under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah.
I remained one of the skeptics. I believed there was never any weighty matter to the treason attempt, and hold till today that Awolowo, in particular, was a victim of political intrigue, largely fomented by the NPC, but with the full collaboration of elements from within the breakaway party, the NNDP. This, perhaps, was because I was aware that, in pursuit of its increasingly socialist objectives, the Action Group leadership had decided to send some cadres to be trained at the Winneba Ideological Institute in Ghana. A number of young African revolutionaries in the anti-colonial struggle also attended the course, some of whom returned home to take up armed struggle against colonial domination - Angola, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique. Additionally however, clobbered by the strong-arm tactics employed by the governing parties, as well as the extra-legal deployment of the local constabularies under the control of the governing parties - thugs and local government police were becoming indistinguishable - the Action Group engaged in some soul-searching and concluded that it had been negligent in its physical department. The party " thereupon assigned a number of its youths to specialised training - self-defence and general toughening-up sessions - in a camp said to have been set up in Northern Ghana. I had a good rapport with some of the inner circle of the Action Group and its allied opposition groups. In addition to Bola Ige, who was never arrested or charged, I had become quite close to Dr. Chike Obi, a wiry, eccentric mathematician who was reputed to have come close to uncovering the proof of the elusive ‘Fermat’s theorem’ - nobody knew exactly what ‘Fermat’s theorem’ was about, or who Fermat was, but academic folklore had placed this theorem at the pinnacle of mathematical pursuit, and the media had enshrined the name in public consciousness. It was a surprise to me to learn that Chike Obi had launched a political party in Eastern Nigeria, the Dynamic Party, but no surprise that it was a radical leaning party that preached revolution - and even dictatorship! - as the only recipe for the nation’s ills. The latter remained our main point of disagreement. It was typical of the mathematician to have driven one of the suspects - Tony Enahoro himself? - to safety across the border, for which he was arrested, but later released. Between Bola Ige and Chike Obi, I obtained quite reliable information on the thinking within the party.
That some elements within the Winneba trainees from the Action Group may have been converted by the actual revolutionaries in waiting at that school and organised themselves into an insurgent unit, bent on overthrowing a government that was considered reactionary, a stooge of the British government, etc., was a distinct possibility, and probably closer to the truth. That Obafemi A wolowo was involved in such an attempt was a charge that I found incompatible with the man’s nature - his entire nature was legalist-constitutionalist to a fault. Chike Obi was an astute reader of politics, quite close to Awolowo, and he was contemptuous of those charges. I visited him at Kirikiri prison a few times, taking, naively, a bottle of cognac to keep him company. The bottle was taken in charge by the prison officer who promised that it would be kept among his other possessions until his release. That was my first intimation that such indulgences were not permitted on the prison menu.
Tony Enahoro became Nigeria’s ‘Most Wanted’, accused of being one of the masterminds of the plot - now that, I felt, was likely to contain more than a grain of truth. In the anti-colonial struggle, Enahoro’s record was one of direct, confrontational activism, while Awolowo was a convinced, indeed punctilious legalist. Alerted in good time of his impending arrest, Enahoro fled to Ghana, then to the United Kingdom, convinced of his safety in a thriving democracy. At the request of the Nigerian government, he was arrested and detained in London. A determined attempt to extradite him back to Nigeria to stand trial with others turned into a cause celebre. It wound its way through the British courts, the Houses of Parliament, and the Privy Council - then the final Court of Appeal. Whether Enahoro was guilty or not, I found it intolerable that all the progressives were being netted and incapacitated, and decided to contribute to the effort to prevent his extradition. In any case, there was the issue of equity: any means to recover what has been unfairly or illegally acquired cannot be unfair or illegal. Electoral robbery, rather than equitable contest, was already the rule in the nation.
Enahoro’s case now took centre stage in the British Houses of Parliament - to sustain the time-honoured claims of political asylum, or butter up the ego of democratic neophytes in apprentice nation states? I became restless with the knowledge that I was fortuitously placed to lend a hand, thanks to relationships I had developed with one or two figures in the British establishment while undergoing my apprenticeship at the Royal Court Theatre, London. An interventionist tendency had begun to manifest itself in my temperament, though I was yet to become fully conscious of it. I scraped together what money I could find, borrowed the rest, bought a ticket and flew into London to add my own quota to the lobby against his extradition, profiting from my friendship with Tom Driberg, an enfant terrible of the British Labour Party, and Lord Kenneth of the House of Lords, whom I had known in his plebeian days as Wayland Young.
To my astonishment, the battle was lost. The space of political sanctuary had always seemed a universal given, now it appeared that there were huge gaps in my history education. Tony Enahoro was flown home to stand his trial, like the others, on the charge of treasonable felony. He was found guilty and joined his leader, Awolowo, and other party leaders, for a long sojourn in prison.
The field for the consolidation of one-party rule was now wide open. The ruling party and its allies could afford to throw all democratic restraint to the wind, the opposition having been demonised and discredited. The government was now well placed to lay claim to the mantle of democratic defenders even as it engaged in undemocratic conduct. Alas, it had completely misread the mood of the West!