Afenifere: The Yoruba masses and the future (Part I)
By Kola Odetola
Many of us on the left disagreed with the line taken by the late Yinka Odumakin (who started with us on the radical left) later in his life as he got closer to elite politicians and took what appeared to be an excessively ‘ethnic” position Albeit it has to be said he always remained to a certain degree in some form of opposition to the dominant conservative dynasty that has ruled Nigeria uninterrupted since flag independence in 1960. Restructuring the federation and promoting the right of self determination is a progressive demand as it would weaken the artificial federal state of Nigeria which since 1914 has functioned as little more than the unaccountable colonial office responsible for the native territories straddling the Niger, an office that in 1960 was handed over to black house trained staff.
Afenifere the yoruba nationalist group which Yinka fronted in public represents a wing of the yoruba bourgoisie that was once dominant in yoruba land but has been progressively degraded and diminished by the development of Nigerian capitalism. In the pre independence era when wealth came from trading commodities, mainly cash crops like cocia in the south west, the elite in yoruba land came from the merchant class and the newly minted educated layer linked to the European missionaries. Frugal, self disciplined and socially conservative they dominated early nationalist politics and led the struggle for independence. They chafed under direct colonial control and thirsted for direct access to the state treasury and the taxes and income it obtained from the lucrative trade in cocoa and palm oil.
As their economic base was in the south west, their interest in the Nigerian federation was circumstantial at best, a compromise with colonial reality rather than acceptance of economic necessity. Wealth came from the regions which were large and rich enough to stand on their own rather than depend on a distrusted centre.
To win the support of the masses in their struggle against colonialism the yoruba bourgoisie leaned left adopting and implementing left wing reforms such as mass free education public investment in infrastructure and a Pan Africanist ideology when it won power in the western region in the run up to independence. A similar pattern emerged in the eastern region, but not in the north of Nigeria where feudal conservatism ruled unchallenged legitimised by the historic force of Dan fodio’s 18th century islamic revolution and the contemporary reality of british bayonets always more visible and present in the north of Nigeria from whose peasantry it drew most of its rank and file troops.
The left leaning Action Group led by Obafemi Awolowo became the main political platform of the yoruba bourgoisie and dominant political force in the south west and Lagos. Lifting its manifesto almost word for word from Clement Atlee’s radical Labour party, it drew a near fanatical support from the yoruba masses and the broad acqueisance of the yoruba elite in the run up to independence in the 1950s. At the time all the yoruba rich were ‘progressive’ or Afenifere’.
The unanimity of purpose wasnt to last. Even in those heady days there were rumblings of right wing discontent.
At a time, during the heat of the anti colonial struggle when every self respecting bougois nationalist were keen to pay lip service to the fight against colonial rule, some couldnt help even then reveal their reactionary hatred and fear of their peoples struggle.
One little known yoruba journalist and nationalist broke ranks with the progressive consensus and shot to notoriety by penning a vicious denunciation of the celebrated 1948 workers anti colonial general strike.
His name was Samuel Ladoke Akintola. It was the opening shot of the war between the two major factions of the yoruba elite, black Africa’s most educated and cultured ruling class.
A clash between two factions conservative and progressives (Afenifere), whose outcome, the crushing defeat for the progressives would define Nigeria’s post independence history would reduce the progressives to marginal players on the political scene reliant for relevance on a mass movement they fear even more than their traditional enemies on the right of Nigerian politics