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How fear of Zik forced Awolowo to hold Action Group meetings in secret —Basorun Arogbofa

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November 16 Now Public holiday in Anambra to mark Zik's birthday

•Conditions that will make 2023 elections hold

•Yoruba have suffered a lot

•Afenifere votes for restructuring not secession

•We’ve no problems with breakaway groups like YCE, ARG, YUF

•Afenifere isn’t a secret cult, but principled

•We’re conscience of the nation, offering Nigeria effective leadership

By Dayo Johnson Akure

The Pan-Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere has clocked 70 years. The General Secretary of the group, Basorun Seinde Arogbofa (OFR) who equally doubles as the Ondo state chairman of the group spoke with some selected journalists on the journey so far. In this interview, he explains the philosophy behind the group, its impact on the nation and its anxieties about 2023 elections amongst other issues.

Excerpts:

Afenifere is 70 years old, how was the journey so far?

   Afenifere is a little bit above 70 years, running to 71 years. The first meeting to bring Afenifere members together actually took the form of Action Group. They met on March 26, 1950 in Ibadan at the request of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He invited about 60 people but only seven turned up. Among those who attended the first meeting were Chief S T Oredein, Chief Shonibare and five others. Thereafter, six or seven meetings were held and it was not until the third meeting for example that a stalwart like Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin attended on invitation from Chief Awolowo.

And one might ask, why was it so? Why were meetings held in the secret? The simple reason was that Chief Obafemi Awolowo did not want Zik (Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe) to kill the Action Group with his press control in Nigeria, and even up to Ghana then. So, he had to plan very carefully before coming out.

Before Action Group was finally launched, there were nine meetings. During the sixth meeting, Baba Awolowo almost called it quit because of poor attendance. But by this time, he had got Chief Ajasin strongly behind him. So, it was Baba Ajasin who encouraged him to go ahead and that was why during that sixth meeting, Chief Awolowo had to tell Chief Ajasin to preside because that was his meeting. Thereafter, things started coming up, until a year after, precisely, March 28, 1951 when the formal inauguration took place in Owo, which lasted three days, as a mark of respect for the role played by Chief Ajasin.

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Nigerians have some misconceptions and misrepresentations about this group, what exactly does this group stand for?

There are a lot of controversies, misrepresentations and a lot of misconceptions, no doubt. Not very many people understood the umbilical cord between Action Group and Afenifere or what one can refer to as a symbiotic relationship between the two. Afenifere can be identified with three philosophies. The first is Afenifere as a generic term means (Love me, I love you or a group of people who show interest in one another, who love one another). Another philosophy of Afenifere is Afenifere as a political slogan for political parties founded by Awolowo family. For example, when we say Afenifere, we say ‘ire owo, Afenifere, ire omo’ (goodness of money, goodness of children). The third philosophy as a political or socio-political organization, like Action Group (AG), UPN, SDP, AD and PAC. And for each of these political parties, people relate them with Afenifere. But for the socio-political organization which we’re celebrating and which I’m the Secretary General, what we have is just Afenifere. So, we have Afenifere from three different perspectives.

One of the misconceptions by the younger generations about this group is that it operates like a secret cult

Everybody has a right to think in his own way but we do know that Afenifere conducts its activities openly in broad day light and invites people to its meetings,  for example, members of the press. And I do know too that some of us do not belong to any secret society. For example, I don’t belong to any secret society. The youths or anybody who may think that way may be because once Afenifere takes a decision, it becomes binding. And until they find out that there is something wrong with the decision taken, they don’t go back, they are always united in their actions. So, if people feel that by behaving in that way, they belong to a special group or a secret cult, no. If it were a secret organization, things would have been worse.

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Are these philosophies and ideologies on which the group is built still in existence, because many of the members both old and young have left the fold.

In a family like Afenifere which is socio-political, it’s not always that you will have everybody that will remain within the same group. A few could decide for one reason or the other to say, let’s set up our own group. Others could say, well, for this and that reason, let’s organize a parallel organization. And if they did that, the main body, Afenifere had never raised an eyebrow because you’re free to move out. You’re not bound to stay there, you can decide to opt out. And there have been groups like that, that have opted out. Take for example, the Yoruba Council of Elders (YCE), Yoruba Unity Forum (YUF), and of course, the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG). 

They opted out and formed their own organization. They appointed their leaders and things like that. Since they’re not able to stay within, they decided to stay out and we don’t have any problem with them, but we’re hopeful that one day some of them will come back. Even with the main Afenifere body, we still have one or two people who may not find everything there as comfortable as they may think. In Afenifere, you find people who are highly disciplined, people who can make sacrifices, people who can endure, people who don’t just run after political parties because of money, people who don’t change political parties as many times as possible. People who have conscience, people who love one another, people who love this country, people who are forthright, people who are principled. These are the people you find in Afenifere. So, others can decide to leave because of one reason or the other, no problem, but we’re increasing in number.

Is it also right to say that members of the group are too rigid

As for being too rigid, yes we can be rigid if our philosophy can’t be faulted. You can’t fault our philosophy, our principle of good intentions. We stick to our philosophy. For example, we believe in true federalism. So, until the end of the world, we’ll be singing that song. We also believe in restructuring. Until anything comes that is better, we’ll stick to this point. If they say we’re rigid on that basis, yes we’re rigid. You can’t fault what we believe in, and what we believe in is the right thing. It is just about determination and strength of character. Not people who will be here today, but will be there tomorrow and will change camps because of one thing or the other. We believe strongly in our philosophy because we’ve fought about it because of the advantages it will bring to the people. So, until we’re faulted, we’ll stick to our principles.

70 years of Afenifere, yet the Yoruba are not speaking with one voice, they are marginalised, has the group really done much for the race?

The Yoruba race is a beautiful race, very sophisticated, very enlightened. You can’t take Yoruba people for a ride. You just can’t lead them by the nose. They have different opinions on issues and so, we don’t expect such a people to just be in one common pool, it’s difficult. We’re very intelligent. Even, when Chief Awolowo was there, the election he contested which made him the Premier of Western Region, I’m not sure he had more than 50 percent of the populace on his side, yet he won because of his own programme and his philosophy. 

So, we don’t expect everybody in the land to be ‘follow follow’ because of the socio and economic problems in this country, and because of our own intelligence and ability not to be held down unnecessarily. Despite the problems we have as a race, and these are problems of intelligent people, trying to outwit one another, Afenifere has been able to give effective leadership. Not only to the Yoruba but also to Nigeria despite the fact that we don’t control the greatest percentage of the populace. Take for example, a few years ago, you’ll recollect when this problem of marginalization was becoming too oppressive, Afenifere brought the Yoruba leaders together in Ibadan. All the other Yoruba socio cultural groups were there. We extended the invitation beyond the Yoruba circle, the Ohaneze and some other groups were there, so we’re offering effective leadership.

What exactly is the group celebrating?

We are celebrating maturity and old age. We’re also celebrating the group’s ability to continue to offer leadership to the Yoruba people and simultaneously celebrating the group’s ability to offer quality opinion and leadership traits. We are also celebrating the respect the nation has for Afenifere. The nation has respect for us. Any time we speak, they listen, so we’re celebrating this. We’re also celebrating our ability to stick to philosophy and ideology despite apparently insurmountable problems. In particular, we are celebrating quality leadership the Afenifere has been providing for this nation. From the time of Awolowo to Ajasin, from Ajasin to Adesanya and from Adesanya to Fasoranti. So, we are celebrating all these.

What is the relationship between the group and others like Arewa, Ohaneze and what has been the group’s impact in the polity

Afenifere is socio-political while Ohaneze and Arewa are socio-cultural. That marks the difference. We talk politics when the need arises. We accept it as our own philosophy. 

The others too, don’t come out, they’re more concerned about their socio-cultural activities. And when there are crises, occasionally, those who see things from the same point of view can come together. Like Afenifere and Ohaneze on the issue of marginalization, they came together, socially and politically as well. Essentially, all these groups were founded after Afenifere to defend the interests of the people in their geopolitical zones.

As to the impact of Afenifere on the Nigeria polity, I’ll like to say that we have a lot to say in this regard. For example, the welfare policy of Afenifere on free education, free health, gainful employment and integrated rural development, in deed, what the founder himself referred to as life more abundant to the people. This has transformed the lives of Nigerians and has continued to be a reference point and benchmark for performance, for the government whether at local, state or federal level in Nigeria. Alongside this welfare philosophy is the political philosophy of true federalism as best option for a heterogeneous and multiple society like Nigeria. 

Thirdly, Afenifere serves as watchdog and conscience of the nation as demonstrated in the actions and addresses of our leaders and communique of meetings. For example, the effect of Papa Awolowo’s short but pungent dismissal of a census that took place sometimes, where he described it as barren exercise. Or Papa Adesanya’s damning condemnation of Yoruba crawlers in a federal government where they were playing a second fiddle. And of course, a recent world press conference, addressed by Chief Fasoranti entitled ‘Nigeria heading for the cliff’.

Again, any government founded on Afenifere philosophy has always provided good administration and kept to its welfare policies. For instance, Action Group under Awolowo, UPN and even AD. Such governments have benefitted the people immensely. And if I may add, even while Afenifere parties were in opposition, the Afenifere welfare and political ideas were preeminent in such administration. A case in point was when Awolowo was leader of the opposition. He was able to bring all these ideals into the government, even though they were not acceptable. But in retrospect, you’ll recollect that was the beginning of the problem in this country because he kept on saying all was not well, that nepotism was already in place, that people were not having access to the good things of life and things like that. So, Afenifere has always impacted positively on the polity.

What is the relationship between Afenifere and some splinter groups in the region like YCE, YUF ARG and how has the group been coping and still remain as the leading voice of the Yoruba people?

All these groups were part of us. But like I said, we didn’t tie down anybody. It’s a matter of belief. These groups opted out for one reason or the other and we don’t quarrel with their going out because we’re optimistic that one day, they will still come back. 

But we also realized that they have high respect for us. And of course, the Yoruba people and all Nigerians know that Afenifere is the conscience of the nation, the other groups are under us. When the other groups speak or take action, they are not heard, but when Afenifere comes out, it’s like bush fire. When we come out with our communiques after our monthly meetings, people are eager to know what are they saying? What do they have for us? And when we address the press, people are eager to know what else do they have to say. So, Afenifere has a very large image. Our other brothers, we have no problem with them.

 They have their reasons for doing what they did, we didn’t send them away and we haven’t closed the door against them, the door is still open. I think it’s a matter of differences in personalities and differences in operation.

From the time of the late Pa Adesanya, Ajasin, Fasoranti and now to Adebanjo, the change of baton of leadership seem to be seamless, but why do you prefer older people and not the younger generation?

Afenifere is an old socio-political organization. 

We’re celebrating age, maturity, doggedness. We’re also celebrating experience and we feel that all these qualities are more in the hands of the elderly ones. Papa Awolowo crossed the 70 years barrier before he died. Of course, Baba Ajasin, I think crossed 80 years barrier and Adesanya too and Chief Fasoranti, 95. You can’t buy experience in an old organization like that. Myself as secretary, I’m 82. I’m also an old man. It’s only those who have experience that can manage such an organization but there are places and positions for other members of the group. As an organization, we leave the field to the younger ones. And if you look back, you’ll see that it is the younger who have been governors, commissioners, ministers and so on.

 When Chief Adefarati was there, he was a relatively young man and his commissioners were made up of young people. What about Mimiko himself, a young man, the commissioners were made up of young people. When you go to Lagos, when Asiwaju Bola Tinubu was there, he was a young man and his commissioners were also young people. Afenifere as a political organization stayed behind the scene to offer the experience, ideas and to call them to order when we feel they are going astray. Afenifere is a group with principles, it is matured, it’s not just a young organization. 

There are opportunities for younger ones in Afenifere. Even as at now, if they say I’m an old man, younger ones are manning the other positions. Chief Shonibare who is the treasurer is not an old man, the late Yinka Odumakin, our former Publicity Secretary was not an old man. Kole Omololu is not an old man, he’s a young man. So we’ve been fair and balanced. And any young man who can prove himself is welcomed at that level. In Nigeria politics, how many women do we find there. It’s all over because the impression we have about our women is that they should hold the home front to stabilize the home while they allow their men to go out because they see politics as a hot area. 

As to the absence of very many young men, the problem is that, the present situation in our country has not helped young men to be stable anywhere. Most of them are on the move, they are on the fast lane for wealth. 

Even when they come into politics, changes come as many times as possible within a year. So, in a socio-political organization like Afenifere which believes strongly in ideology and philosophy, you can understand why they would not be able to stay very long there because they know, this is a group of people who are thinking for this country, making sacrifices for this country, where the money is not there for them to share. So, they go to political parties where they can make money or contest elections even when Afenifere has gone out of its own way to found political parties for them.

What is Afenifere’s position on the call for secession by some leaders in the South West?

Afenifere sees itself as the father of the Yoruba groups and also sees itself and behave as the conscience of the nation. These two have to be blended. We’ve been talking about restructuring this country, it’s not a new thing. Baba Awolowo said it and ever since, it has become a singsong that the country should be restructured to have true federalism. We believe that if this country is restructured our problems will be solved. Afenifere still stands on restructuring. As to secessionist tendencies, we’re being cautious because of the outcome of secession. We’re being very cautious, but for restructuring, we support it fully. 

Those who are calling for secession may be doing so because of their recent experiences which are not good. Look at what is happening all over the country, especially in the south with kidnapping, raping, killing, herdsmen atrocities as well as insecurity of lives and property. It appears as if the federal government is becoming powerless and our people are being denied a lot of things. If the younger ones see things from this angle and they see themselves being driven away from their lands or being harassed from their lands or the Fulani herdsmen want to take away their lands by force, they are right to seek a redress. And I think all these things are now pushing the younger ones to talk of secession. In Afenifere, from what we called self-determination, Yoruba have suffered a lot within the recent past but we are of the opinion that restructuring will be better for us than secession.

The 2014 National Conference report has not been looked into by the present administration, will the group subscribe to another

 constitutional conference and participate?

Some of us are not too happy because all we need to make this country work is already in the 2014 Confab report. What are the problems facing us in this country? Insecurity of lives and property. Ways of addressing them are there. For example, the need for state police, we stated it there. When you talk of unemployment, in that report, there is solution for the issue of unemployment. Another problem we’re facing in this country is lack of development. We made provision that every state should develop what it has. Apart from giving a competitive orientation, it will make every state to be more responsible to its citizens because we were very well briefed of the fact that every state has enough mineral deposits good enough to make everybody in the state happy, but this is not being done. 

We’ve held so many meetings to do this kind of thing and if there is the need for any Confab or whatever, let the presidency bring together all these reports and harmonise them. 

That will solve the problem. It’s very unfortunate that the present government started on a false note of not having the strength of character and courage to look into the 2014 Confab report. The theory of continuity of governance is being breached. It must be about the continuity. Whatever lapses that might have been contained in that report shall be separated and those things that were good for the country should have been implemented. After all, it was not foreigners that sat for that period, it was us Nigerians, brought together from different parts of the country.

Was Afenifere supporting former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 so that he would implement the 2014 Confab report if reelected?

We fully supported him because, long before that period, we were asking for an opportunity to discuss Nigeria and the way out. The National Assembly wouldn’t give us a chance, but President Jonathan then decided to organize it. We were very happy that yes, a time has come to see how this country can move forward instead of crashing. And we came together from different nooks and crannies of this country, irrespective of age, status. 

He allowed us to talk about Nigeria, short of dividing it which effect was very patriotic. And we went to action and came up with about 600 resolutions without a division. We didn’t vote on any of them. Jonathan gave the impression that he would implement all those resolutions but don’t forget that there were about three major areas of implementation. Those that could be implemented through administrative fiat, those that will go through legal implementation and the National Assembly. I’m not sure that Jonathan knew then that it was going to take that long process and so many organs would be involved but we were optimistic that this was an opportunity which we bought and did the best we could and gave all we had for making the Confab report a success. Some were trying to blame Jonathan for organizing a Confab very close to the elections, well, but who knew that he was not going to win. He didn’t know he was going to win, we didn’t know he wasn’t going to win either. So, we gave him our support.

Another general election is due soon, is the group still out to back whoever will implement the Confab report?

As for 2023, things are still dicey. Afenifere is of the opinion that until two things are in place, one might find it difficult to stake his neck. Restructuring is one of them. Look at the issue of terrorism, killings, attempts by some groups to drive others away from their possessions and things like that. There is also the constitution that is faulty and foisted on us by the military. 

All these are problems. There is insecurity of lives and property, unless all these things are addressed, how can you have a successful election? These are our anxieties about 2023. So, we want a situation where some of these things are addressed, so that whenever we are going to have an election, you and me will be safe and alive. With the way things are going, unless some drastic measures are adopted, who knows who will see 2023 or who will be alive by that time. So let us see how much of the problems we can clear now before we go into 2023. People are on the field talking about 2023, but they should please also address the issues on the ground.

You’ve signified your intention to step down as the group’s General Secretary, what’s your story in the last ten years of your stewardship

It has not been easy, but I thank God. I took over during a domestic crisis but I was able to pull the association out of the crisis when I was brought in as Secretary General. 

This was in 2011. I was able to mobilize the few members I inherited. Now, we are very many, despite the many problems. For instance, we now run state branches effectively which was not so then. Afenifere consists of all manners of characters, politicians, local and national leaders in their rights, coming from different backgrounds but meeting on the Afenifere platform. It also consists of different sexes, ages and religious backgrounds. 

The fact that the membership is increasing daily is a pointer to my effective management and harmonizing all these differences. Again, many members must have been able to learn something from what they refer to as my level headedness and the way I handled issues when they were at breaking points. I served the leaders to the best of my ability but I had to serve the association better serving the leader with the best of my ability but serving the association better for continuity. And of course, mine is a peaceful and smooth handover of power, no rancour, no acrimony, no altercations despite dealing with human beings of different characters, different orientations. It’s been a period of 10 years of brain tasking all the time because of what we stood for in this country as the conscience of the nation. And of course as the Secretary, the life wire of any organization, there were problems but because of skillful management we were able to overcome all these problems by the grace of God and the cooperation of other members.

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