How Yoruba have been fighting for secession since 1952
Thinking about the wisdom and practicality of the creation of an independent and sovereign Yoruba homeland has only come up intermittently in moments of crises and tension among the pro-Nigerian Federation-minded Yoruba.
The first occasion in which serious thought was given to it was at the 1954 Constitutional Conference in Lagos. According to Professor Crowder at page 235 of his book, The Story of Nigeria (London: Faber and Faber, 1978): “…The most bitter issue of the conference (the 1953 London Constitutional Conference), which broke up the NCNC-Action Group alliance, was whether Lagos should remain part of the Western Region or become federal territory. The NPC pressed for the latter solution, since it was anxious to ensure that the main outlet for its goods should not be under the control of any other part of the federation. The NCNC, which had many members in Lagos, also felt that a federation should have a true federal capital.
The Action Group, however, argued that Lagos was a Yoruba city and did most of its trade with the Western Region, and as far as the North’s fears were concerned both the railways and ports were under federal control. In the end the three parties agreed to arbitration of the issue by the Colonial Secretary (Oliver Lyttelton), who decided that Lagos should become federal territory. Despite its agreement to his arbitration, the Action Group bitterly attacked his decision, and for a while it seemed that the resumed constitutional conference in Lagos proposed for January 1954, at which the fiscal arrangements for the federation and the position of the judiciary and the civil service were to be decided, would founder over the future of Lagos.
However, when the conference opened, the Action Group did not raise the Lagos issue but demanded instead that the right to secession be included in the constitution. This was again rejected by the Colonial Secretary, and the Action Group acquiesced in his decision.”
The following excerpt, from Dr Azikwe’s interview with the New Nigeria newspaper in 1975, describe the debate at the 1954 Lagos Constitutional Conference over whether to include a secession clause in the proposed new constitution:
“…Again, however, when the 1954 Constitutional Conference started, my good friend, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, tabled a motion to the effect that in the new constitution provision should be made that any state which feels like seceding should do so. I was opposed to it and said ‘No’; and said that once we have a federation, we are indivisible and perpetual.
“That was when we began to use that expression – ‘The indivisibility and perpetuity of the federation’ – and that to secede would amount to treason.
And so a debate ensued. The Secretary of State then was Oliver Lyttelton, later Lord Chandos; and he was very much interested, and that was the first time he said that the people of African descent were people actually debating at a high level.
“So a full day was given to Chief Awolowo to make his points. He spoke brilliantly as a lawyer. He made his points why secession should be incorporated in the constitution. He cited the case of the Soviet Union, which is a federation, and that secession is written there, so that any state in the Soviet Union can secede at will.
“He also cited the case of Western Australia and eventually he finished his case and was applauded. We adjourned. The next day, I had to reply. I availed myself of the opportunity to, well, demolish the arguments of my friend and I cited the case of the United States which based its Constitution on that of the Swiss Confederation.
“That is Switzerland. I pointed out a case, I think, that of Texas versus White, where Mr. Salmon Chase, the Chief Justice laid down the principle – he was really an arbiter – that the Union was intended to be perpetual and indivisible and that any attempt to divide the Union by secession was treasonable.
“The North (NPC) supported Action Group. The question was then: should we have secession? The Colonial Office came to our rescue. You know, the usual principle of Britain – ‘Divide and Rule’ (laughs). But this time, it was in our favour. So the Colonial Office backed us.
“Lord Chandos said that on the face of the arguments before him, it would be suicidal to incorporate secession in our Constitution and that is why we have Section 86 in our Constitution: that if any region or state should secede, then it will be an act of treason. And that was what led to this war, because Col. Ojukwu seceded and so violated the Constitution….”
The next occasion on which serious thought was given to the question of the creation of a sovereign and independent Yoruba homeland occurred in the months following the Aburi Conference of 4 and 5 January 1967, as war clouds gathered over the country. Awolowo and his senior colleagues from the disbanded Action Group, as well as much of the Yoruba establishment, remained committed to the maintenance of the Nigerian Federation.
Their position was clearly spelt out in Awolowo’s speech of 1 May 1967 to the Western Region’s Leaders of Thought conference at Western Hall, Agodi, Ibadan: “…With regard to the second categorical imperative, it is my considered view that whilst some of the demands of the East are excessive within the context of a Nigerian Union, most of such demands are not only well founded, but are designed for a smooth and steady association amongst the various national units of Nigeria…The dependence of the Federal Government on financial contributions from the Regions? These and other such like demands I do not support. Demands such as these, if accepted, will surely lead to the complete disintegration of the Federation which is not in the interest of our people.
But I wholeheartedly support the following demands, among others, which we consider reasonable and most of which are already embodied in our memoranda to the Ad Hoc Committee…That revenue should be allocated strictly on the basis of derivation; that is to say after the Federal Government has deducted its own share for its own services the rest should be allocated to the Regions to which they are attributable.That the existing public debt of the Federation should become the responsibility of the Regions on the basis of the location of the projects in respect of each debt whether internal or external.That each Region should have and control its own militia and police force.That, with immediate effect, all military personnel should be posted to their Regions of origin…”
But opinions differed on the streets and among the intellectuals and younger and more radical activists of the disbanded Action Group, as Michael Gould confirmed at pages 66 and 187 of his book, The Biafran War: The Struggle for Modern Nigeria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012): “…Certainly by then Adebayo, with Awolowo, having failed to convince Ojukwu that secession was not his best option, were prepared to ensure that the necessary revenue was available for the Federal Government to declare an all-out war on Biafra. As Adebayo explained: ‘The North was always hopelessly insolvent, and in no position to embark on an expensive war against Biafra.
In spite of her military and political aims of defeating and subjugating the Biafran people, without the West’s financial support the Federal Government would not have been financially capable of fighting a successful war.’ (Interview with Adebayo on 12 March 2008)…Furthermore, as Adebayo commented, in view of the North’s ambivalence about remaining in the Federation, the West was also considering its position. As the economic centre of the country, the Western Region, together with Lagos, had every reason to suppose that it would achieve economic success and prosperity without the encumbrance of the other Regions, especially the North. As Adebayo said, the North had always been an economic drain on the West, and in view of the traumatic conditions at the time there was gathering sentiment in the Western Region for greater autonomy and distancing from the rest of the country.”
Dr Insa Nolte confirmed this assessment at page 199 of her book, Obafemi Awolowo and the Making of Remo (Edinburgh University Press, 2009): “…even Awolowo’s most ardent supporters in his Remo Division were baffled by his decision to support the Federal Government, under ‘which they had suffered and sacrificed so much during the Balewa regime.’ It took Awolowo almost a year to come around to supporting the Gowon government…By supporting the Gowon administration against Biafra, Awolowo disregarded, for the first time in his political career, popular opinion in his area of origin, Remo. After the clashes of 1965 and 1966, many Remo citizens were sceptical about the central government and thought that Yorubaland should secede from the Federation, just like Biafra…Throughout the Civil War, people in Remo housed and hid Igbo refugees who were in danger of being arrested for detention by the central government….”
This separatist current was still strong in the West even after war had broken out in July. The declassified US diplomatic cables of 1967 confirm that there was some support for the Biafran forces incursion into the Western State from the Mid-West in August 1967: “…With troops blazing with Biafran agenda already at West’s door at Ore, it became clearer to Awolowo that Ojukwu was not interested in secession, but actually in conquest. Awolowo proceeded to rally the Yoruba, who had hitherto been lukewarm to Gowon’s government with a powerful ‘I am absolutely and irrevocably committed to the side of Nigeria’ press release on 12 August 1967. It was Awolowo’s first statement defending the Federal Government since the Civil War began on 6 July. Unlike many of Awolowo’s speeches and public statements, this one derived its forceful elocution from the use of adverbs and intensifiers. There were no ‘could,’ ‘might’ and other hedge-betting modal verbs. It was all ‘must,’ ‘will’ and other commanding auxiliary verbs.
‘It is imperative that the unity of Nigeria must be preserved and the best judge of what to do now is the Federal government, which Yorubas must continue to support. The Yorubas have never set out to dominate others, but have always resisted, with all the energy in them, any attempt, however slight or disguised, by others to dominate them….Indeed it is for these reasons that they must now be ready to resist any attempt by rebel forces from the East and the Mid-West to violate their territory and subjugate them….To these ends, therefore, all Yoruba people, particularly those in Western and Lagos States, which now face the threats of invasion, must not only be as vigilant as ever, but must also lose no time and spare no efforts in giving every conceivable support to the Federal troops in defence of their homeland and of the fatherland,’ Awolowo said.
“He was not only rallying the Yoruba people, he was sending a powerful message to the Biafran High Command in Enugu. Victor Banjo, on 11 August, had sent a secret note to Governor Adebayo, the man who, according to the Biafran High Command, was slated for assassination by Banjo’s gun. In the letter, amongst other things, Banjo asked for ‘clarification of the Western position.’ Adebayo promptly passed the letter to Awolowo in Lagos. S.G. Ikoku, an Awolowo loyalist in the East and Secretary-General of his Action Group, who was in exile in Ghana, said Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna told him when he escaped to Ghana, that their plan in the January 1966 coup was to free Awolowo from Calabar prison and install him as prime minister. Awolowo was serving time for treason.
In reality, there was no army unit heading to Calabar to spring Awolowo from jail. Receiving the secret note, Awolowo publicly pledged his allegiance to the Federation and called upon special adverbs, forceful intensifiers and commanding modal verbs to elicit and consolidate the patriotism of his fellow Westerners. The statement split the Action Group and the West down the middle. They had not forgotten the monstrosity of Northern hegemony; they had not forgotten how the North colluded with Igbos to forment trouble in the West. They had not forgotten how the North-East coalition had excluded Yoruba from key posts and grassroots recruitment policies.
“On 7 August 1967, the American Consul in Ibadan, Strong, wrote: ‘An old line of supporters, including more mature intellectuals like Professor Hezekiah Oluwasanmi (Ife University Vice Chancellor) and S.O. Ighodaro (lecturer at the University of Lagos) support the statement. They said Awolowo has always been a minorities man and the Eastern takeover of Mid-West and continued occupation of Eastern minority areas is an indication of continued Ibo desire to dominate Southern Nigeria.’
On the other hand, Strong continued: ‘Action Group activists and the man in the street are convinced Awolowo made the statement under duress…They say Awolowo’s true position was indicated in the Leaders of Thought resolution in May, which said if any region was allowed to secede or was forced out, the West would automatically become independent.
The activists feel that Awolowo missed the opportunity to bring the present conflict to a close by coming to Ibadan to make a Western Declaration of Independence speech, supported by Victor Banjo and his National Liberation Army.’ Mr Strong provided another dimension. ‘Since there are no secrets in Yorubaland, it is very likely that Awolowo was aware of the coup talk here and issued the statement to forestall a Western coup attempt and try and keep the tenuous peace in the West,’ he wrote. On the night of 11 August, Mr Smallwood, British Deputy High Commissioner, came to inform his American counterpart that a ‘decision has been taken by a group of Action Group activists to support efforts to stage a Mid-West type coup here in the West. Timing is uncertain, but it could happen anytime from the 12th.
Planners supposedly do not include top members of the Action Group hierarchy, but certain young activists who hope to present the Action Group leaders with a fait accompli consistent with their own sympathies.’ Strong was sceptical of the success of the coup, not because of Awolowo’s rallying call, but, as he wrote: ‘In the West, several ingredients for a successful coup are lacking. There is, for example, no real counterpart of Ibo officers here.’ And that was the coup for which Victor Banjo, confident of its success, received Ojukwu’s bullets with his head raised high and his chest pumped out at the firing squad in Enugu. Odumosu, Secretary to the Western government, was to later tell the Consul in a secret document of 11 October 1967, that Bola Ige and Bisi Onabanjo, both commissioners, were suspected to be involved in the plot to make Banjo replace Adebayo, once he invaded the West…”
According to Professor Wole Soyinka at pages 145-172 of his book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (London: Methuen, 2007): “…I called Obasanjo over a secret telephone. We agreed to meet unaccompanied and unarmed at a petrol station on the road between non-commercial Jericho and Mokola sections of Ibadan. I was to tell him in very bald terms that Victor Banjo wanted unimpeded passage to Lagos, that he wished to avoid battle in Western Nigeria – finis! This was the exact message I delivered…Banjo did not act to promote Biafran secession or aid an Ojukwu takeover of power in Lagos.
If anything, Banjo felt that he should take over power in Lagos. I have no doubt whatsoever that Banjo represented the most viable corrective. Obasanjo’s response, that I would later transmit to Victor Banjo, was this. ‘Well, tell him that I have taken an oath of loyalty to Lagos. There are other routes to Lagos – by water through Okitipupa for instance.
If he makes it to Lagos and takes over, well, my oath of loyalty is to Lagos, and I’ll stand by that. But to let him pass through my Western Command, that would be betraying my oath of loyalty. Who ever is in power in Lagos – that’s the person to whom I owe my allegiance.’ …It was from this bungalow that I telephoned Obasanjo’s reply to Banjo in Benin, verbatim. I kept up communication with him and his increasingly impatient collaborators in the West…Banjo had organised cadres of people committed to the ‘Third Force’ standing by ready to support Banjo once he had crossed over into Lagos. The links were widespread and were run by politicians since the West had begun its protests against Federal military presence in the West, decrying it as an army of occupation, and demanding its removal.”
As the Yoruba, once again, approach another rendezvous with destiny, which will increasingly become urgent in the months and years ahead, it is imperative that thoughtful men and women pause and reflect honestly and objectively on the alternative paths that lie before them.
They must consider certain questions, foremost among which are the following:
1. Whether the Islamic North is sincerely committed to a co-equal partnership that is based on justice and fair play, as conceived by the Founding Fathers?
2. Whether the Yoruba are prepared to accept an associated membership [without control over their destiny] of the Nigerian Federation, as a replacement for the co-equal partnership [with control over their destiny] which was the basis upon which Nigeria attained dominion status as one country on 1 October 1960.
3. Whether, in the light of past experiences, the Nigerian Federation has given the Yoruba the quality of life that their potential makes possible.
In concluding, I must remind everyone of Peter Enahoro’s words in his article, “Before the Darkness Falls,” which was published in the Nigerian Outlook of 1 April 1967: “…confederation will not break up the country. On the contrary, it is enforced federation that will lead to more strife and bitterness. And out of that chaos only disintegration can follow….”