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Otegbeye: A debt of gratitude

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MY generation and the younger generation may not be aware that we owe a debt of historical gratitude to Jeremiah Olatunji Otegbeye who passed away on Friday October 9, 2009.

With the approach of independence, the British colonialists agreed to grant independence only if the nationalists signed an agreement committing the new Nigeria to giving Britain the right to militarily control our waters, land and air.

Under this Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact, Lagos and Kano were to be military air bases of the British who were to be given 400 acres of land in Kano for this purpose.

All the major political parties, including the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), the National Convention Of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and the Action Group (AG) signed the draft of this “Agreement” which was meant to ensure that Nigeria remained a colony in all but name.

It was also agreed that after the formal proclamation of independence, the Federal House of Representatives would formally pass this into law.

On the 50th  day of independence, precisely on Saturday November 19, 1960  the Defence Minister, Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu, tabled the “Agreement” as a bill in parliament. Despite the objection of the AG, it was passed.

With the bill passed, there did not appear to be any power on earth that could stop the British military recolonisation of the country.  Then on November 28, 1960 Nigerian youths and students led by Otegbeye took over Lagos streets and invaded the House of Representatives.

Ribadu saw the wave of protesters and fled with the youths in  pursuit. Works Minister, Inuwa Wada was not that lucky; he was seized, forced on his knees and spat on before the police rescued him  and his Information counterpart, Theophilus Benson.

Otegbeye who was born in 1925 read Medicine at the University College, Ibadan and went to do Clinical Medicine in Britain before returning home.

He was fully radicalised during his sojourn abroad and could not understand why a new Nigeria with all its human resources would be run mainly by anti- intellectual errand boys of the departing colonial masters.

He lamented that: “The British had handed over power in such a way as to facilitate the installation in office of only those who oppose change. Those who eventually emerged to rule the country were the neo-colonialists.

In collaboration with them were the feudalists and that section of Nigerian businessmen whose interests were linked with those of the foreign capitalists”.

When Balewa argued in parliament that the conscientious patriot, Mrs Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was denied a passport because she was likely to visit a socialist country and that the government  “…shall use everything to prevent the infiltration of communism and communistic ideas into Nigeria”, Otegbeye agonised.

“What is the logic of a government standing against a people or a doctrine they know very little about? Why cannot Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa go on tour of the USSR and then from his personal experience, indicate the line of action to adopt? Shall we all live in the cage of ignorance and hearsay and hope that our future is secure?”

He was employed as an Assistant Medical Officer at the Lagos City Council, which made him a public civil servant but that did not deter him from writing critical articles. These earned him a query and  he resigned to set up  private practice  on  June 5, 1960.

With independence approaching, some youths felt an urgent need to rescue the country from the hands of neo- colonialists.

In August 1960, the Bornu Youth Movement, United Middle Belt Congress, the Northern Elements Progressive Union and the Zikist Movement  decided to establish a pan- Nigerian youth movement based on an ideology of national liberation and Pan-Africanism. It was called the Nigeria Youth Congress (NYC) and Otegbeye was elected its founding president.

The NYC amongst other issues, advocated for the convocation of a constituent assembly drawn from all sections of the country “… to redraft the Nigerian constitution  with a view to abolishing the present regional form of government and instead dividing Nigeria into no less than 12 states…”  Seven years later, the Yakubu Gowon military regime implemented this suggestion.

The NYC  was against foreign loans and investments with strings attached, and advocated for “…the introduction of compulsory national service for training people on their civic duties…”. Thirteen years later, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) was introduced.

Doubtlessly the biggest challenge and victory of the NYC under Otegbeye was the Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact which would have brought Nigeria under NATO, committed her to whatever wars Britain choose to fight and destroyed her Non-Aligned principles.

Under the Pact, British troops had immunity from arrest or prosecution (even if they spied or committed murder) were also exempted from immigration and other security measures and could store nuclear or other weapons of their choice in Nigeria.

Balewa in a covering letter on the new law to Britain wrote: “All obligations and responsibilities of the Government of the United Kingdom which arise from any valid international instrument shall henceforth, in so far as such instrument may be held to have application to Nigeria, be assumed by the government of the Federation of Nigeria”. It was that bad.

The violent protests resulted in the arrest of some, including Otegbeye, NYC Secretary  Tunde Lawrence, National Union Of Nigerian Students (NUNS) president, Osita Okeke and University College Students president Dapo Falase. It also resulted in the death of the “Pact”.

I did not identify with most of the politics of Otegbeye, especially when he served in General Sani Abacha’s fraudulent Constitutional Conference Commission . Rather, I preferred the politics of his comrade, Wahab Omorilewa Goodluck. But the progressive politics of his youth cannot be forgotten.

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