By Dapo Akinrefon
PROFESSOR Banji Akintoye is a historian, and one of the leading scholars on the history of the Yoruba people. In this interview, Akintoye, who was Deputy Youth Leader of Action Group (AG) in the First Republic, expresses worry that the causes of the Jan 16, 1966 coup and the ‘revenge coup’ of July 29 of the same year are still staring Nigeria in the face. An Afenifere leader and senator who represented Ekiti Central in the Second Republic on the platform of then-Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) led by the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he spoke to Sunday Vanguard in his Lagos residence last week.
Opinions are divided about the inevitability of the Jan 16, 1966 coup after the crisis in the Western Region proved intractable. But the general view is that the political leaders of that time behaved badly. With a benefit of hindsight, can you tell us what happened?
Problems started as soon as we became independent in 1960. The British planted the roots of evil. What they did was to manipulate everything to make one little group in the country the controllers of the country at independence because they regarded that little group as friendly people. So, they created a large number of precedents and traditions. First, it became clear that the election was not the means of choosing rulers but the real people who chose rulers were the people who had power in their hands. That was the beginning of the disaster. The second thing they did was to write into the Constitution the right of the Federal Government to declare a state of emergency in a region, take over the region, suspend elected governor and appoint a sole administrator. So, it happened that by the time independence came in October, it was clear in the minds of the people controlling Nigeria that the Western Region had to be stopped because it was going too far ahead of the rest of other regions. They were achieving great things.
So to stop the Western Region became a passion for them?
Yes. A few days after independence, without any reason for it, members of government then asked: What will happen to a region if law and order broke down there? No reason was given. It was discussed at high levels of government. In 1962, they carried out the war they intended to carry out. To cause disagreement in the Western Region and declare a state of emergency, clamp down on the Western Region, appoint a sole administrator and institute discriminatory commissions of enquiry to discredit the people who had been ruling the region before, and then install the people who will not give the Federal Government any problem. In 1965, when they then rigged elections for the same people and the people of the Western Region knew that the elections had been blatantly rigged, a lot of people revolted, and things got worse until the regional and federal governments lost control. It is they themselves that began to invite military into politics. The Federal Government of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa invited the military to take control of the country.
The coup was described as Igbo coup targeted at the North. Right?
The coup is not an Igbo coup, they said it to stigmatize the Igbo, it just ended up that an Igbo man who was senior in the army stepped out and drove the boys that made trouble away and took over. Considering the situation then, a coup was not the right thing. We grew up in the Western Region that was very orderly, we heard from a distance than that people rigged election in faraway from North, but we were very proud that it could never happen in Western Region, even our politician had a viable opponent in their area. It was not always sure who will win the election in the Western Region, and that made it fun and improved the region. In 1964, they rigged the federal elections in our region and people were like, is that possible here? So, the following year when they rigged the regional elections, young people revolted, we fought the federal and regional governments to a standstill in the Western Region. The result is that when the army took over, we were happy but that doesn’t mean coup is a good thing
So the coup plotters were not right in the first place!
There are different answers to that question. I don’t believe that any special profession in the country has a right to drive away from the government elected by the people to rule them. I don’t think a coup is a good thing to do. In 1966, however, we young people of the Western Region were very happy that somebody drove the Balewa, Akintola group away.
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We were happy because we had been fighting the government. Awolowo leadership was dedicated. For instance, he (Awolowo) was always quoted as saying that all we need was to win elections and not to destroy the opposition. He even appointed members of the opposition into his government so that the opposition will not become too weak. But, in 1964, they rigged elections in our region and we young people revolted. It was the young people of my age who fought the Federal Government and regional government to a standstill in the Western Region which was known as ‘Wetie’.
What do you think were the consequences of the counter-coup and do you think they were properly handled?
The counter-coup was the first regional-based coup in Nigerian history. It was northerners who plotted to remove General Aguiyi Ironsi from the government; they came after him, found him in Ibadan, they killed him and his host, the governor of Western Region. So, it was not a broad-based Nigerian coup, it was northerner coup, and the objective was that the British gave them power.
The counter-coup led to the pogrom against Igbo people in the North…
(Cuts in) The pogrom had been going on before the counter-coup.
But opinions are divided on why Igbo people saw war as the last resort.
The Igbo had been badly treated in the North, large numbers of the Igbo people were killed, we all saw them returning from the North. Many died on the streets, and the Igbo people concluded that they were not secure in this land. So, they started to insist but the Federal Government did not look like it was capable of giving them security. There was an insistence that they (Igbo) must be secure and Igbo people began to flee from all parts of the country to their land and even in the Western Region, where they were not being killed, many fled because they were afraid of northern soldiers deployed to the Western Region. Gradually, the crowd that built up in the East, especially in Enugu, began to tinker with the idea that the best thing for them was to have their own country. That is what happened.
The war ended with then Gowon regime declaration of ‘no victor, no vanquished’. How true was the slogan at that time and how true is it to our situation today?
Gowon meant well, but gradually it turned out that he couldn’t make that a reality. So, a lot of discriminatory actions were taken against people who had just lost the war and the effects were bad on the people.
You were one of the top senators of the UPN in the Second Republic. I know the efforts the party led by Chief Awolowo made to assume power at the centre to fix national problems. What efforts did the opposition make to fix the problems of ethnicity, mutual suspicion, claims of domination that seem to be the major issues bedevilling the nation?
Chief Awolowo saw it very early that we are a country of many nations. We are not yet one nation. Nigeria is not one nation and Chief Awolowo proposed this in a book he wrote as early as 1947, that we should be organised as a federation where, as much as possible, each region will be able to manage their affairs; that those groups that are large enough should have their region. The smaller groups should be assisted to come together and have a little federation in the context of the Nigerian federation. That was the idea. Chief Awolowo became the greatest supporter of all minority groups seeking regions of their own, that was closer to a federation. But they did not want it but he fought very honestly and hard for it and he did not achieve it.
Many people think military intervention contributed significantly to the major issues we have. Do you agree?
Yes. They took over in January 1966 and we did not have another election until 1979. That was 13 years of military rule and, in those 13 years, they just mangled everything. The military does not appreciate the need for a federation. Military operates through central command. That is not how a federation operates. Another thing they brought into the polity is corruption; they created a situation whereby they saw the public fund as their own money. That is when corruption became a system of government in Nigeria.
Are you impressed with how the Buhari administration has tried to resolve the issues of mutual suspicion and ethnicity in Nigeria?
Today, Nigeria has gone down more than it should ordinarily do. The President is fostering mutual fear and suspicion in Nigeria. His style of government is promoting fear in Nigeria.
You were the Deputy Youth Leader of the Action Group in the First Republic. Can you share your experience and why we cannot afford to go back to that era given the anarchy and insecurity that we are going through as a nation?
The fabric of the country was still holding together considerably then and we were a newly independent country, there was still a lot of ambition and expectation for the country. So, when the revolt occurred in the Western Region, it was within that context. We were only talking about freeing our region from the oppressive rule of the federal authorities. Today, the situation is different. If young people go as far as we did then and decide to fight back, it won’t end well. For instance, the Federal Government is pushing the Fulani in our mouths saying we must create conclave for them in our land, it is insensitive. It hurts deeply to be treated like that. Now in the 21st century, somebody is telling us that because we are part of Nigeria, we must accept these people, they are pushing themselves and the government is assisting them. If the youths of today explode they will not do what we did.
What did you do?
What we did was to fight for the freedom of our region within the context of Nigeria.
How did you fight?
Well, they were young peoples’ fight. We were rioting in the streets and attacking the people we regarded as enemies. That was what young people do in every culture. Our youths of today are more sophisticated than we are then, a larger number of them are now educated, they have contacts with the whole world through the internet which we didn’t have then. If they explode, Nigeria cannot hold because they will be determined to take their part of Nigeria out of Nigeria, the signs are already there. In some parts of the country, there are self-determination groups for an independent country. Whether you like it or not, these young people are very powerful, if we let them start a revolution against Nigeria, Nigeria is gone because they are very many, and educated. They have the knowledge that the youths of my time did not have. During our time, we didn’t know how to buy guns abroad like the youths of today do. No power can hold our youths if they want to break away.
There have been allegations and counter-allegations over the actors that played roles in the crisis that engulfed Afenifere in 2003. What actually happened?
I was abroad then but as a historian, I know that what happened is that the leadership, after they won the election, did not know how to hold people they had put in power together. So, some ambitious governors imagined they could control the region. It was already happening before Obasanjo interfered in 2003. Then Alliance for Democracy, AD, was no longer cohesive and that is why it was possible for Obasanjo to do what he did to it.