“Nigeria Will Not Move an Inch Without Restructuring” – Ayo Adebanjo
For a man who is so frank, blunt, sincere and patriotic, his autobiography couldn’t have had another title than what it is: ‘TELLING IT AS IT IS’. Ayo Adebanjo, lawyer, journalist, elder statesman and one of the last titans of the old Western Region, has, undoubtedly seen it all having been actively involved in politics since 1951 with the formation of the Action Group Youth Wing. He has dedicated his life to fighting for the establishment of true federalism, restructuring, and the holistic development of the nation.
In this no-holds-bared interview with The Issues Magazine, held at his hometown of Ogbo in Odogbolu Local Government Area of Ogun State, the elders statesman poured his heart out on his views on Nigeria and Nigerians as well as how hard he and others of his ilk have fought for the country and the regret that things have not really changed as they had wished. It is simple exclusive.
Sir, you have said a lot on Nigeria and the way forward. Now we want you to take us back to your childhood days so that people can really know where you were coming from. How was your childhood like?
My childhood at Ogbo, (a town in the outskirts of Ijebu Ode), my hometown, was very short. Most of my mates then are gone. It’s only by the special grace of God that I’m still living. I attended Christ School, Okelamuren. From there I went to Lagos to Holy Trinity School, Ebute Ero when my father migrated to Lagos to practice his trade as a goldsmith. That was in 1937. Before then, I was in St. Saviour’s School founded by the late Osibogun. Then I went to Cathedral School, Lagos. At the age of 14 I took entrance into secondary School.
At CMS Grammar School, I was given the nickname ‘Spotless Banjus’ because I was very neat. As I said, I was the only issue of my mother and, by that, people thought I will be spoilt but to the pleasant surprise of those who loved my mother, I was doing well at school. I didn’t behave like a spoilt child and I never failed my examinations. In fact, they didn’t expect me to go to the Grammar School. The mentality then was that one doesn’t need to go to school or be educated before one gets rich after all, Odutola (late Chief Timothy Adeola Odutola), the wealthiest man around then only had Standard Six certificate. But I was determined. I saved and used my pocket money to pay for my entrance examination form. I was contributing three pence a day. Our school fees then was one pound and ten shillings. You know they wear white dress in Grammar School. I was so neat to the extent that my Class teacher used to give me his own canvass to polish. There was an occasion when my mother was helping me to fix my cufflinks and in the process my shirt got dirty. I was so furious. When I returned home, my mother had bought me about six more new shirts. She really encouraged me because she just felt as the only child; the only disgrace was if I did not face my studies. So, I didn’t lack anything.
Only a few people know you were once into journalism. How did you find yourself in the media world?
Yes. I practiced journalism under late Chief Olabisi Onabanjo, Ayekooto. You see, this is what happened. When I left school, I joined the Civil Service. I was working at the medical headquarters. Then, one day, an expatriate just came into the section where I was working. He just jumped into the office and said “Where is the Dental Office?” A white man for that matter and that was the days nationalism was burning in us. Then I said; “Don’t you say good morning in your country?” He was furious. He reported me to the Head of Department and I was given a query that I was rude. I explained that courtesy demanded that he says good morning first. My boss then said “Adebanjo, won o ki n se bayi ni Civil Service” (meaning Adebanjo, they don’t do this in the Civil Service or else they will sack you”). Eventually my appointment was terminated because I didn’t apologise. Then I went to Dr. Maja and Alhaji Gbadamosi and told them I needed a job. Dr. Maja said; “Don’t look for an appointment from the Civil Service, because you can’t work there. Then I was taken to Ikorodu Trading Company and started working there. From there I said I was going to be a reporter with the Evening Service. I switched over there and started covering reports for them. I always chose to cover court proceedings because of the flair I had for law as I wanted to be a lawyer. I was so fascinated by the exploits of Rotimi Williams and others. It was there late Fani Kayode and I founded the Action Group Youth Association, AGYA. I was the Secretary while he was the Chairman. So when the Action Group now wanted to employ full time Organising Secretary, Chief Awolowo said they should appoint me and that I should be posted to his own constituency in Remo considering my activities as a member of the AGYA. It was from there I was recruited into the Action Group to become the foundation Organising Secretary and I was indoctrinated into what the Action Group really stood for: the programmes and the contract with the people because Chief Awolowo was telling us that we shouldn’t be lying to the people or spread propaganda. “Go and tell them what is in stock for them if they vote for us” were his instruction. That is why it was said that Action Group was the best organized political party in Nigeria then.
You see, when you see me being stubborn about restructuring, about federalism, it is not easy for me like others to rationalize federalism. Or when they talk about Afenifere being a Yoruba organization or being a sectional one. No. The Action Group was founded as a political party all over the country. What happened was that the catchment area was Yorubaland. It is the interpretation of our policy paper of welfarism which was the love of people for themselves and for others. And that was what is was all about. So it is not easy for me like others to switch from one political party to the other. People find it easy to jump gun because they don’t know how Action Group came into existence. And, you see, the performance of the Action Group in those years was unparalleled in the country. Even those who are opposed to us in the Western Region just said; “this is our party”. Then people now said Action Group was a Yoruba Party. It is our performance that convinced our opponents while other parties were there. Now if you people want to help this country it is about the historical background. Because of the goodwill of the Action Group and Afenifere now, people just feel they can belong to Afenifere and be in other political parties (not endorsed by Afenifere) and I say no. Because you pollute the principle of Afenifere, that principle that was executed and made it acceptable; the growth of egalitarianism that distinguished us from other political parties. So, you cannot be in other political parties and say you are in Afenifere. You are either here or there. That’s why you heard people telling you that Adebanjo is a stubborn fellow. He doesn’t want others to come on board. No. I want others to come on board but, believe in Awoism. Because it is that Awoism that distinguishes us from other parties. But, at that time, the NCNC was for unitary form of government. As you must have read from my book, I was a Zikist. It was Zik who awakened us politically against colonialism. But he was equating One Nigeria to unitary form of Government. That was not known to us until Awolowo came and said that we can be one but we can’t be under unitary form of government. It can’t work. Because of our various diversities in religion, language etc. That was what converted me to Awoism and more so, Awolowo was practicing what he was preaching and he made sure I became the organizing secretary so that I could see him in and out and see him as somebody who practices what he preaches. That is why I am not ashamed to tell you that I am an uncompromising Awolowo fanatic. Why? Here is somebody telling you this is what must happen and in his private life whether eating or in any corner, he practices what he preaches in public. And for the period of my life that I have been with him, I have not regretted following his principles. Any man that follows Awoism must not deviate. Just like Tinubu is doing now. He believes he can deal with the northerners better than Awolowo. But he is already reaping the result now. Take for instance this issue of restructuring. That was the basis of sponsoring him to become the Governor. Then it was Sovereign National Conference. But people don’t know that what they are telling you about resource control and the likes, Awolowo fought for that in the 1950 Constitution. It was then derivation. It was that derivation that gave us more money in the cocoa sector and by the time we did free education.
The former Premier of the then Western Region, late Chief S.L. Akintola was the Chairman at your wedding ceremony. We wondered how being a antagonist of your political leader, Awolowo.
Akintola was the Deputy Leader of the party then. It was the crisis that separated us. In fact, when Akintola’s father died, he asked Awolowo to release me to organize his father’s funeral ceremony in Ogbomosho because I was the only one in the party who knows who is who in the party. I was their darling.
Many did not also know that you were charged alongside Awolowo as accused number 30 during the Treasonable Felony Trial period.
People would not know much about that because I never held any political post since then and that is why it is easy for all these people to do as they wish. Take for instance Tinubu’s actions and others. If they had carried on with the way we did for the Alliance for Democracy, AD, this wouldn’t have come to us. And right now if Tinubu had not sold us to Buhari, would we be in this position? Ask yourself. That is why I said you these journalists have not been honest enough because you get envelope from Tinubu.
We have not learnt any lesson. Those who have not learnt are those who did their politics without principles. For instance, the name Action Group has been changed but the name Afenifere stuck. When they banned Action Group, we became UPN. When they banned UPN we became Alliance for Democracy, (AD). And when we were campaigning for Tinubu remember, was it AD or Afenifere? Because people did not know AD it was Afenifere that they knew. That was the trade mark of the people who believed in Awolowo. Those who believed in Social Democratic principles. So when that organisation was on now during the military then we want to come back and that was what led to Sovereign National Conference. And if you remember most of you journalists were grown up then, over 30 or 40 years ago, Afenifere then said, including NADECO, that we were not going to take part in any election until we had Sovereign National Conference because the military has changed the constitution in 1966. If the military is going away, send us back to we were coming from. And if you observed in my interview critically, I openly challenged Buhari asking why is he opposed to restructuring. It was the principle of restructuring that Awolowo, Balewa and Azikiwe agreed on at Independence before we came together until the military changed it. Are you more intelligent, more educated or more Fulani that the Sardauna? I challenged him openly. And I challenged Femi Adesina and Garba Sheu that they should reply me on that accusation because there is nothing strange. Restructuring is not a political philosophy, it is a way of getting to Federal system and we say we want to go back to restructuring. You cannot do that until you restructure the country. Take us back to who we were before the military changed the constitution. Simple. And I added, after the 1954 constitution, because some people are mischievous saying are you taking us back to the four regions, no, but the contents, the principle of those four regions. What were the dynamics because, at that time, after the 1954 Constitution at in dependence, the constitutions of the East, West North were written separately.
You were arrested and detained by the military after the June 12 debacle. What was the experience like?
Terrible. It was worse than when the colonialists were ruling us. Even worse than Balewa’s treason and felony trial when they put me in prison and Gowon sent us back. They just wanted to weaken our moral. They locked us up with criminals. Hardened criminals. And you see, for you the young men coming behind us people are watching you. Even the criminals recognized us. Those who committed capital offence. When they locked me there, I was sweating then they said “E Toshiba Baba” then I didn’t know what Toshiba meant. I didn’t know they said they should fan me because of the very poor ventilation. The smell was worse. My wife broke down when she saw me asking; “Is this the meaning of one Nigeria?” We did our best for Nigeria only that Nigeria doesn’t not appreciate it. The military had been a bad influence in our public life. A lot of people out there you see now came into limelight during the military regime and they saw the lifestyle of the military people. So, their entire mission is to replace the military and continue with what they were doing. They didn’t know that the military didn’t get any mandate from the people. That was what separated us from them. What should have separated us with Tinubu and co who now said they are not Afenifere? You remember, each time people say why don’t you work with Tinubu and others, you ask them, why don’t they work with us? Simple. Having got to office, they now think they ought to control the party, then we say no, this is not how it is done. Having become the man in charge of distributing largesse, the young men that could have followed us, because we can’t give them office, appointment and the likes, followed them. And that is why Afenifere was sidelined by Tinubu and we took our luck. Today he said he is the owner of his party but we didn’t go with him. Ask him, what separated him from the leaders of Afenifere? Did we ask for jobs? Did we ask for contract? Did we ask him to give our children anything or what is the problem? We put him there. You journalists have not asked him anything about that. You are not honest enough because of your envelope. Ask him those questions to pressurise him. I challenge the press to ask him these questions. I signed his papers. He can’t claim that I got one naira from him and if you remember, during my 90th birthday, when I launched my book, he came there and said that if not for me he won’t become governor. It was an open statement that if I were corrupt, he wouldn’t have been governor. But you people are not taking him on on that. To ask him questions on what he is doing now. And when we make deriding statement about him you don’t ask him questions. All you say is yes, he is now the Yoruba leader and he is winning elections either by hook or crook. I won’t go there because I know the truth shall prevail. That is what is happening now. He is with Buhari, does he know what is going on in that government? That is the question any investigative journalist should ask. Go and ask him how we got to this position. Instead, you are asking me; “Baba, how did we get here?”
As an elder statesman who has passed through all the past administrations, how would you assess Buhari’s government?
How do I assess Buhari’s government? Again I ask you to go back to the basics. Did I put him there? It is those who put him in government that should assess him. I said he shouldn’t be there and that is where I stand. I didn’t say it out of arrogance. I’m only telling you that I warned you that this man is not competent to be in government and I refer you to my interview with the Vanguard before he was elected where I said the greatest mistake Nigerians will make is to elect this man. And he has not disappointed. He is the Buhari that I know. Again, I have to be hard on you journalists, you have not done your job as the fourth estate of the realm. You know the truth but either because the government will not give you advert or you want to take envelope, you don’t strike the nail. In the interview, I accused Buhari of specific defects why he shouldn’t be in government. Is there any of the defects that I haven’t been vindicated upon? So these are the questions you don’t direct to me again. I’ve already given you answers to such. Whatever he is doing now, he is behaving true to type of the Buhari I knew as to the reason why I told people not to vote for him and to the reason why I warned Tinubu “don’t go along with this man”. He knew. Didn’t Tinubu see all this before he went into alliance with him? If Tinubu is a typical Awoist elected on the principles of Awoism, he wouldn’t have gone into alliance with Buhari. If he is not deceiving himself about the Presidency. He is in government with him but what is Buhari doing now that he knows about? If not, he should tell the Yoruba people that the concentration of security architecture in Katsina and the North, that he approved of it with Buhari. I have to confess, I am a very embittered Nigeria. I am an embittered old man. Why I’m embittered is that there are the problems that I have foretold and you refused to listen to and when the result is happening as it is now you are not magnanimous to give credit and take steps to correct the. How can Tinubu, swallow the idea that the northerners will concede to him the Presidency? It is absolute stupidity. I don’t know how to rationalize that. I’m saying this on the basis of what I know of Buhari and the Fulani people. If not for the fact that they are deceiving themselves. The calculation is Tinubu allows Buhari to do up till 2023 and we now give it to the Southwest. You can see how illogical the calculation, how unreasonable that is. I know if anybody says that, Tinubu can’t tell me this. We have been dealing with the Fulani people before he was born. Does he now want to tell us that he knows better? I take responsibility for every statement I make. We are not getting anywhere because you people are not listening. If, honestly, without any personal gain, Tinubu had an alliance with Buhari in 2105, has he not learnt his lessons during that period to show that, “oh, here we are, this is how far I can go”. He still stubbornly goes there after he has been sidelined in government. All because I’ll give you Presidency in 2023. Those he recommended for Ministerial appointments were rejected.
Unfortunately, the people who are following him, the military under Babangida has monetized politics. They have impoverished the people. Tinubu is so successful to have enslaved us to Buhari. That is why they are doing all things possible to acquire wealth while in office and impoverish the people. People now don’t want to starve on election day, they collect money to vote forgetting that they will starve for the next four years. In the interview, I put a rider that I only wish that “I am proved wrong” but if I am vindicated, I won’t be happy because Nigeria would have wasted four years. Go and read the interview.
Most of you know this and there’s no social sanction. Immediately they appoint one of you as a Minister you start celebration. You don’t ask what he is going to do there. The way out now is warn your people, your wife, your husband, your cousin, your relation. Look at what Adesina is doing there. Is that not a shame to Yorubaland and to the practice of journalism? That fantastic journalist. I’m his fan in The Sun. can you believe that he could become what he has become? Defending the indefensible. Placing logic on its head.
I’ve said it, this country cannot move an inch until you restructure. Go back to federalism. Maybe I should give you the background to Sovereign National Conference. We want to change the constitution that the military gave. We don’t want violence. Let’s see down and agree on what conditions if we are to live together.
There is the need for a Sovereign National Conference and that is what Jonathan did in 2014 although he didn’t do it early enough because he too didn’t appreciate the importance. If Buhari is serious about keeping this country together, if he is sincere about Nigeria being one, he should implement 2014 recommendation now! Not just paying lip service. He has lost his integrity. I have said it repeatedly. He is not a man that can be trusted with anything. Who is he fooling that he will make sure 2023 election is transparent? Who is he fooling? How many promises he has made and kept. I take people back to 2007 when Afenifere supported Buhari. I have said it severally and I have never refuted it. He said there will be restructuring. We are all here in this country when Tunde Bakare ran with him on the principle that there’s going to be restructuring. Now restructuring is top on their agenda in 2023 and you want me to believe that. You’re not talking to fools.
I have said my own. I’m nearing my grave. Even if you do restructuring today am I going to be governor or President? That is why at 95, I am still vehement. It’s not a pleasure but makes me weep when the people of the country are suffering for no just cause. When people are enslaving us and our people who are close to him because of the crumbs they are picking on the table cannot face him. Look at the insult they gave us on Amotekun which I want to be believe is just a scratch. How can you rationalize a government who has not got control over security. If Buhari is serious, he should give full autonomy to the governors as Chief Security Officers of the respective States.
Published in Nigeria by The Issues Magazine Vol 6 No 39