By Owei Lakemfa
I WAS honoured on February 5 2018, to deliver a lecture on one of the builders of Nigeria who left a legacy of service, initiative, hard work, dedication and loyalty. A matchless patriot and a unique Pan-Africanist who from colonial times, taught us that we are not inferior to the Whiteman and that with painstaking planning, hard work and perseverance, we can build a first class country.
Nigeria is said to be in search of an Agenda. But we seek what we have, and search for what is not missing. Contained in the life and times of Alhaji Sule Oyesola Gbadamosi, SOG, OFR and the Otun and Lion of Ikorodu, is a viable Agenda for our country.
For decades now, we have debated restructuring, and today, our country can be said to be split over it, and what it means. Yet, our founding fathers like SOG who negotiated our independence and future at the London Constitutional Conferences, had in place, a restructured country based on federalism with separation of powers between the federating blocs and the centre.
Today, there are horrendous massacres in the country by rampaging criminal gangs clothed as ‘herdsmen.’ If we had continued in the tradition of SOG and his fellow leaders in the then ruling Action Group, AG, in the West, by now, we would have had ranches and there would be no so-called “Herdsmen-Farmers Communal Clashes.” Before independence, they knew ranching was it and established a huge one in the West as the beginning of a new culture.
What SOG taught us about Religion and Politics
SOG was one of the leading Muslims of his day. He went on his first pilgrimage to Mecca in 1940 and went a few times more. He built mosques. Despite his high standing in the Muslim community, he did not only send one of his sons, Rasheed Abiodun Gbadamosi to the Christian Mission School, the Methodist Boys’ High School, MBHS, Lagos, but also asked the Principal, the Reverend S. A. Osinulu to take him in as part of his household. This shows the high enlightenment of SOG; his open-heartedness and tolerance. Apart from funding Muslim groups, he also donated to churches.
SOG demonstrated in practice that we cannot run our politics and governance based on religious discrimination. When in July 1957 some Muslim groups decided to introduce religion into politics by forming an Islamic party, the National Muslim League (Egbe Musulumi Apapo) he and some leading Muslims countered it. They formed the United Muslim Council and succeeded in check mating the sectional party.
The SOG generation did not permit religious cleavages. In the Second Republic, when the AG transformed into the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, it did not allow religious considerations to decide who led the people. It actually had two persons from the same religion as governor and deputy governor in the states they controlled. In Lagos State, they had two Muslims, Alhaji Lateef Jakande and Alhaji Rafiu Jafojo as governor and deputy governor, in Oyo State, they had two Christians, Chief Bola Ige and Sunday Afolabi, as were Chiefs Adekunle Ajasin and Akin Omoboriowo in Ondo State. In Ogun State, there were Chiefs Victor Olabisi Onabanjo and Sesan Soluade, who later became the Agbaakin of Egba Christians. Had we continued in the SOG culture, our country might have experienced less contentious and fragmentary politics.
The industrialist as Anti-Colonialist and Nation Builder
SOG became a businessman at 25 in 1935 when with his cousin, Alhaji Rabiu. A. Alison he established the Ikorodu Trading Company, ITC. For the next six decades, he represented the best tradition in African business and industrialisation. Although he had political weight in the country, he was not a portfolio businessman seeking contracts. He was an industrialist who liked producing things you can hold and sell. People like him utilised inter-European divisions and rivalries to advance their economic interests and those of their country and the Black race. They also reached out to other non-European nations to undermine the British. For instance, SOG imported German goods to fight British monopoly. He established a garment factory on Adeniji Adele Street, Lagos using fabrics from Germany and Japan. Then the British transnational, the United African Company, UAC, went into garment manufacturing and produced cheaper garments to under-sell the SOG garments. Rather than back away, he imported Japanese machines to produce cheaper underwears than those UAC sold. He won the price war and eventually, bought out the UAC garment factory.
There was another war he fought against colonial British monopoly. The main banks like Bank of British West Africa, and Barclays Bank, primarily, rendered services to European companies and the colonial government, not to local businesses.
Three noted nationalists; Dr. Akinola Maja, Mr. H. A. Subair and Mr. T. Adebayo Doherty decided to break this monopoly by incorporating the National Bank in 1933. SOG invested in the bank and eventually became one of its directors.
This step was emulated by leading nationalist, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who bought a small property bank, Tinubu Properties Limited in1944 and transformed it into an indigenous bank, the African Continental Bank, ACB.
SOG was into many businesses including ceramics, but perhaps the biggest enterprise he was involved in was the National Investment and Properties Company, NIPC, established in 1958 by him and some leading nationalists, Dr. Akinola Maja, S. O. Sonibare and Alfred Rewane.
The company built such historical monuments in Lagos and Ibadan as the Western House, Cocoa House and Investment House. Government later seized the NIPC and renamed it Odua Investments.
Unlike the elite in Nigeria today whose aim is to sell public enterprises to themselves and strip their assets for personal gains, the SOG generation was selfless and patriotic: they were not prodigals who sold national wealth, rather, they were builders who even under the capitalist ideology, believed that private and public enterprises have their usefulness. He was a father of industrialisation and indigenisation.
The Politics that defined Nigeria
SOG was a man of conscience. He detested and rejected racism. His participation in politics and the political life of our country was not accidental. It was a logical progression of his own politics; his belief and fight for a just and egalitarian society.
When the Europeans who dominated the then leading social association, the Ikoyi Club consistently claimed racial superiority over Nigerians, SOG was one of the 50 members who in 1943, pulled out to found a new association, the Island Club.
On November 18, 1948, the British colonial police shot dead 21 striking coal miners and injured 55 others in what became known as The Iva Valley Massacre. Before then, there was no collective consciousness that the different peoples and nationalities of Nigeria were one country; it was this event that spread that consciousness as the country rose as one in condemnation demanding justice. The success of that mass movement of Nigerians led by 18 leading Nigerians including SOG, who formed the National Emergency Committee, NEC, convinced Nigerians that united, they can win.
In 1948, SOG had joined other elite in Western Nigeria to found the Pan-Yoruba socio-cultural movement, Egbe Omo Oduduwa in the country. Earlier, the Egbe had been founded in London in 1945 by men like Dr. Oni Akerele who was its President, Samuel Ladoke Akintola, SOG’s former teacher and friend, and Obafemi Awolowo who was its Secretary.
That 1948 when the Egbe was established in Nigeria, a women uprising led by a conscientious teacher, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the President-General of the Women’s Union, had forced the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Ademola to abdicate and go into exile to Oshogbo. The women protest was against women paying taxes and the powers of the Alake which they considered as excessive. The Egbe intervened; it sent SOG and Akintola to meet with Oba Ademola and agitated that the monarch should be recalled because taxes were collected by the colonial administration not the monarch. The Egba Central Council agreed with the submission and the colonial authorities allowed the Alake to return to his palace.
Chief Awolowo, the General Secretary of the Egbe, initiated moves to establish a political party. Thus, the Action Group, AG, was born in Owo on April 28, 1951 with SOG as one of its founders. Nigeria ran a West Minister system of government. The departing colonialists organised pre-independence general elections to determine the government it would hand over the reins of government. In the elections, the Action Group won 33 seats in the Western Region, 25 in the North, 14 in the East and one in the Lagos Crown Colony.
In comparison, the NCNC won 58 seats in the East, 21in the West, 18 in the North and 2 in Lagos. The Northern People’s Congress, NPC, which had the majority seats of 142, won all, except one in the North. The exception was the seat in the Brass Division won by NPC ally, the Niger Delta Congress,NDC.
It was this result that produced one of the biggest ‘Ifs” in Nigerian politics. The Action Group believed that the best option for Nigeria was an AG-NCNC alliance to form government with the NPC being the opposition. SOG was sent to work out this alliance with NCNC leader, Dr. Azikiwe who was offered the position of Prime Minister with Awolowo as Finance Minister. After three days of waiting on Azikiwe, SOG failed because the former worked out an alliance with the NPC and agreed to be President, which was a largely ceremonial position rather than become the Prime Minister of the new country. That NPC-NCNC alliance was to back Akintola to remain as Premier of the Western Region against the wishes of the AG which led to the calamitous uprising in the Western Region called Wetie. This quite bloody “Wild, Wild West’ conflict, was to lead to the 1966 military coup and then the three-year civil war which left over two million dead. It is a matter of conjecture if Nigeria would have been a different country had SOG succeeded in his mission to forge an AG-NCNC alliance and post-independence government.
Blessed are the peace makers
One of the contentious issues after independence was state creation and the right of the provinces to join regions of their choice rather than be forced to remain in a particular region. The NPC had vehemently opposed this at the 1957 Constitution Conference. With the stalemate, SOG called an informal all-parties meeting in his house in Ikorodu. It was well attended with Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa personally leading the ruling NPC delegation.
The rather informal meeting surprisingly secured a resolution. It was agreed that any ethnic group within an existing region can join a neighbouring region if the majority of such ethnic group desire it and provided that the region it sought to join, is willing to accept it. This meant that the Ilorin and Kabba provinces in the North could realise their aspirations to join the West. The lesson for today’s politics, is that we do not need to dig in and try to impose our views on others. Rather, we should be open to dialogue and be willing to accommodate the interests of others.
SOG, a liberal organiser also used his negotiating skills and sense of social justice to ensure peace in the AG. There was, however, a conflict he could not solve; that between his two friends and political allies; Awolowo and Akintola, the leader and deputy leader of the AG. With the battle lines drawn, a meeting of the AG’s Federal Executive Council was summoned on May 19, 1962 during which Anthony Enahoro moved a motion that Akintola resigns as Premier of the Western Region. SOG, sought a middle ground, he moved an amendment that Akintola be reprimanded but should remain as Premier. The SOG amendment was taken as a counter motion. The motion that Akintola resigns got 81 votes while SOG’s motion had 27 votes. With the defeat of SOG’s motion, peace was defeated in the Western Region; moderation had failed, good sense had not been allowed to prevail, and the consequences were chaos, bloodshed and imprisonment while death came to not a few including some of the participants.
As the political conflict assumed national dimensions, Awolowo was tried for corruption, and eventually for treason. SOG was torn between two friends but although he appeared closer to Akintola, he resolved the matter based on principles by backing Awolowo even when his businesses were threatened.
SOG helped build the culture of industrialisation that individuals like Razak Akanni Okoya (Eleganza) and Samuel Adedoyin (Doyin Group of Companies) have further built on. SOG and his comrades taught us that political parties are built with the people not for the people, and that it has to be funded by the people who pay membership dues not the new culture where political parties pay members even to attend party meetings and rallies. He taught Nigerians that political parties should be people-oriented movements where people of like minds converge to seek power for the welfare of the citizenry. Not, as they are today, mainly political platforms to contest elections for personal gains and advancement. That was why unlike many politicians today, he was not a nomadic politician belonging to the All Peoples Party at dawn, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the morning, the Congress Party at noon, back to the PDP at dusk and the All Peoples Party at night, and may wake up in another political party the next day.
I congratulate us for we are political sons and daughters of SOG and other builders of modern Nigeria. We never lacked heroes and heroines. Nigerians were never orphans; we had fathers and mothers like SOG who strived to build a solid socio-economic and political foundation for Nigeria, our dear native land.