By Yinka Odumakin
IT was all fireworks last Thursday as the prestigious Island Club under the Chairmanship of Mr. Banji Oladapo gathered the best of Nigerian patriots to explore the most debated issue in Nigeria today : Restructuring.
To have Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Prof. Banji Akintoye, Gen. Alani Akinrinade, Dr. Amos Akingba, Chief John Nwodo (represented), Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, Mr. Labaran Maku and Ms Ankkio Briggs as speakers and yours truly moderating under the roof of a club could not have been an easy pull for an ordinary club.
Well, the Island Club is an extra-ordinary outfit. Not about beer, wine and pepper soup conception of a social club.
ISLAND CLUB was founded on Friday, October 29, 1943 by 50 Nigerians and Non-Nigerians distinguished gentlemen in a private residence of Mr. Ladipupo Odunsi now deceased. Among those distinguished gentlemen were Sir Adeyemo Alakija, Chief S.O Gbadamosi, Bishop A.W. Howells, V.T. Fox, J.H Davies, D.O Johnson, Sir Odunmegwu Ojukwu, Sir A.O. Omololu, Dr. R.O. Taylor-Cole, J.F. Winter, H.C.B. Denton, F.H. Bowen, Ernest S. Ikoli, Sir Loius Mbanefo, Chief J.K Randle, Chief W.H. Biney and Percy Savage. Sir Adeyemo Alakija was elected the first Chairman of Island Club.
Fight against segregation
Just five years down the line,the social club played a major activist role that would earn it immortality in the history of Nigeria in the order of the civil rights movement in America. It was to the credit of the club that racial segregation in Nigeria came to an end. The story is best told by Chief Alfred Rewane who was shot dead in his Ikeja residence under Sani Abacha’s monstrosity:
“In 1948, Mr. Ivor Cummings, a distinguished African-Caribbean national and a top official of the Colonial Office in London was scheduled to pay an official visit to Nigeria. Naturally, his first port of call was Lagos, then our capital. Accommodation was reserved for him at the Bristol Hotel, Martin Street, Lagos, then owned and managed by expatriates.
Apparently, the hotel authorities thought, from the name Cummings, that he was a white Anglo-Saxon. But they were shocked when he presented himself at the reception to find that he was black. He was refused a room at the hotel on that ground.
One witness to the incident was a Warri-based Sierra Leonean legal luminary called T. E. Nelson-Williams. He deeply resented the action of the hotel management but was helpless in the circumstances.
It was a hot and humid afternoon and Nelson-Williams left for the Grand Hotel (now defunct), on Broad Street by Odunlami Street, Lagos, to rendezvous with friends for an afternoon drink. There, he met Frank Olugbake, the trade unionist, and others and narrated to them the Bristol Hotel incident.
They later trooped to the Island Club where they met me and my friends, also having a drink and cooling off in the gentle breeze from the lagoon. The Onikan Stadium was not walled round then. Nelson-Williams told us what had happened, and we were dumb-founded, angry, outraged, furious and bitter.
One of my friends at the Island Club was Oladipo Odunsi, a distinguished and enterprising Lagos lawyer. He stood up and exclaimed, “Our Nigeria of 1948, we cannot have this, let’s go and die.” I jumped up and shouted: “Die? No! Let’s go and teach them a harsh lesson.”
The atmosphere of the club was now charged, and under Odunsi’s leadership, the late Milton Macaulay, the late Akiniran Olunloyo, Prince Adeleke Adedoyin, the late Garnet Williams and others and I marched through the Onikan Stadium, to the Marina.
Our elder friends, the late JK Randle and the late Bolaji Finnih, wanted to join us but we asked them to go and get hold of two lawyers, the late Oladipo Moore and the late Alaba Akerele, and our other colleagues to go to Tinubu Police Station (now defunct) on Customs Street, which is now part of the land on which the Central Bank of Nigeria headquarters is located (then), to wait for us because we were sure that we would be arrested and brought there if we carried out our plan “to die or teach them a lesson.”
At the Onikan Stadium point on Marina, we assembled all sorts of people known compendiously as Boma Boys, who collected their clubs and sticks and horse whips (koboko) and followed us without hesitation, although they did not know our plan or where we were headed to.
The Sacking Bristol Hotel
We then launched an assault on Bristol Hotel. By the time we finished, the reception, bar and restaurant were sacked and the white men in the hotel premises and its vicinity had a sorry tale to tell. The whole place was wrecked and left in a shambles.
Meanwhile, some police officers arrived on the scene but, surprisingly, did not arrest any of us. The job completed, we trooped back to the Island Club, to a rousing reception and warm congratulatory embrace from members.
But the then chairman of the club, late Mr. Omololu, was deeply concerned about our action, realising that the then British Governor of Nigeria, Sir Arthur Richards, was himself the grand patron of the club. Mr. Omololu was sure that sooner or later we would be rounded up. We had only a pyrrhic victory and the inaction on the part of the colonial government was no more than the calm before the storm. However, we waited all day but there were no arrests.
Meanwhile, Mr. Omololu contacted our patron, the late Sir Adeyemo Alakija, to intervene with the authorities to preempt our arrest. Subsequently, Sir Adeyemo made an appointment to meet with Sir Arthur in his capacity as grand patron of our club and it was suggested that we who led and participated in the sacking of Bristol Hotel should accompany him. We reluctantly agreed.
A day or so before we were to meet with Sir Arthur, the Governor made a statement to the nation in which he referred publicly for the first time to the Bristol Hotel incident. His Excellency declared that some seventy years previously, there might have been justification for whites and blacks to live apart, for the reason, if none other, that there were some diseases to which whites were immune but which killed blacks, and vice versa.
But for well over seventy years there had existed a medical department in Nigeria maintained at public expenses to find a solution to the problem and if no solution was found, then there was left only one of two choices, that is either to continue to live apart and abolish the medical department or to live together and continue to maintain the department.
Sir Arthur then declared: “I have chosen the latter. With effect from today, there will be no more European hospital, club or reservation in Nigeria.”
Thus, racial discrimination or apartheid was abolished in Nigeria. The European hospital in Lagos (now Military Hospital) and European Club at Ikoyi were renamed Creek Hospital and Ikoyi Club respectively. The European hospital at Warri serving the then Central Provinces of Ondo, Benin and Warri, was changed to Maple Annex. The European hospital at Ibadan was changed to Jericho Nursing Home. Areas otherwise known as European Reservation were renamed Government Reserve Area (GRA). And so on throughout the country. There was general jubilation throughout the country.
Led by Sir Adeyemo and Mr. Omololu, we later went to meet with Sir Arthur at Government House, Marina. Naturally, we expected a hostile reception, but we were widely mistaken. Sir Arthur, undoubtedly tempered by age and maturity and experience, welcomed us warmly, smiled broadly and, turning to Sir Adeyemo, said jokingly something in words like these:
“Sir Adeyemo, I did not make my statement because of your young rascals, who took the law into their hands, but deliberately to preempt an imminent danger. This is the first time that violence has been introduced into the public life of Nigeria, and once it started, it may never recede. I have seen it happen in many countries where I served, in India, Burma and the Caribbean. My statement, therefore, was to prevent violence spreading.”
Lessons for today’s leaders
After reading this story,you are bound to wonder why the type of sanctified common sense available to our colonial rulers now eludes our internal colonisers not to realise that you introduce reforms from above to prevent revolution from below.Why is it difficult for them to see that the various agitations from across Nigeria today are the kind of Island Club revolt against the culture of alienation which a unitary constitution is promoting in a multi -ethnic Nigeria, a natural consequence the sage Awolowo warned against in his book Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution published in 1967? Papa penned these words on page 56 of the book:
“Besides, it is not difficult to forecast that the work of government in Nigeria under a unitary constitution is bound to become unduly complex, inextricably tangled, extremely unwieldy and wasteful,and productive of disunity and discontent amongst the people. Unless we have veritable supermen at the helm of affairs, the administrative machinery would eventually disintegrate and break down under the crushing weight of ‘bureaucratic centralism.”
Have we not broken down enough?Are we waiting for total disintegration before we act?
The patriots did their best to teach “harsh lessons” at Island Club on the fierceness of the urgency of restructuring.The four contributors apart from the speakers-Odia Ofeimun,Bayo Fabiyi,Tony Nnadi and a retired Ambassador all struck the nail on the head rightly.
The Island Club has done again in 2017 what it did in 1948 in a moment of moral crisis.It is not sitting on the fence and has taken a bold stand in the effort to pull Nigeria back from the brink.
The lead speaker at the event, Prof. Akintoye gave the easy way out for those running Nigeria at the moment if they are not destined to be last rulers of “One Nigeria”:
“Almost in unison, the demand by the citizens crying for restructuring is that we should return to the pattern of division of power and functions that prevailed between the Federal Government and the Regions from the 1950s to January 1966. This aspect of restructuring has, in this debate, become conceivably the easy task in the process of restructuring. We know the pattern of federal- state share of powers and responsibilities in the 1950s to 1966, and we can easily replicate it now.”