Some people are born in palaces. Some are born in mangers. But a very rare few are born in the midst of tumult. The deeds of this latter breed are rarely replicated but echoes of their significance become the stuff history is made of. One such is Niyi Adegbenro, son of the late Premier of defunct Western Region, Alhaji Dauda Soroye Adegbenro. In this encounter with Lanre Alfred, he speaks about his childhood, political crisis that enveloped the Western region in the 60’s and some of the behind-the-scene political developments at a time considered the dark era of Nigerian political history
Seventy three-year old Niyi Adegbenro nurses only one regret; hard as he tries to put it behind him, it sticks to him like a mortal silhouette, haunting him every time he casts his mind and memory back to the crucial decision he took in the tumult of 1962. No man is responsible for his father. That is entirely his mother’s affair, you would think; but in the tumult of 1962, when the Nigerian Federal Parliament declared a state of emergency in the country’s Western Region, Niyi Adegbenro, then a starry-eyed lad, manifested a compelling negation to the assertion.
In the wake of the parliamentary decision, he said: “My father was addressing a rally at Amuto in Lagos State. Immediately they declared a state of emergency in Western Region and Dr. Adekoyejo Majekodunmi of blessed memory was announced as Administrator, my father was the first person to be issued with restrictive order Number One. They were searching for him, they knew he was in Lagos and it was at that rally that they arrested my father and whisked us to Osogbo.”
Contrary to what most other relatives would have done, Adegbenro stuck to his father like a leech and refused to let on even at great risk to his safety. He stuck to his side as they whisked him from the point of arrest to detention in Osogbo, Osun State. “They took us to Osogbo in a colonial house. We thanked God that things were still okay in the country back then. We still had the British mentality then as the colonialists had just left and they were doing things with some order,” said Adegbenro.
According to him, the colonial houses were large and spacious but “the only problem was that the mosquitoes were big and plenty as the house was unkempt” hence they had to arrange for people to cut the bushes and clean it up. Adegbenro disclosed that although the house had a Boys’ Quarters his father was kept in the main building and always stayed downstairs.
“We were kept till January 1963. I remembered that millionaire Ambassador Deinde Fernandez brought prominent northerners like Shettima, Maitama Sule and Ribadu to appeal to my father that enough is enough, he should soft pedal. But he told them that as far as Awolowo was still in Calabar Prisons, he could not do any deal with them. They said they come to plead with him, being Muslim leaders like my father. But he told them that Awolowo was his leader and his loyalty would always be with him and he was not ready to jump ship like some were already doing.
“So, what is happening today, moving from one party to the other, I don’t know what they want to gain; in those days, some honourable members were also leaving Action Group to go and join the NNDP. But my father remained resolute and so we were there.
While they were under house arrest, his father was restricted within a three mile radius. And the reason was not far-fetched: “When we got to Osogbo, people were flocking to us. Each Friday, whenever we went to the mosque, the crowd was usually massive and that was why they now restricted him within three miles radius; he could not move beyond that point,” disclosed Adegbenro.
According to him, throughout his father’s incarceration, well wishers from neighbouring States assisted with food and cash. “It was wonderful as ordinary people from Ekiti, Oyo, Ondo States brought food items and money in order to keep the spirit of the man up. But nowadays, you don’t find such good things. They knew Adegbenro didn’t have wealth, he had no money, and so people were keeping his spirit alive with all the support. And those were ordinary people, not leaders. Thus, his spirit was high throughout the detention period.
“When he came out, he was leading the party to all elections and during the boycott of elections. In fact, during the boycott, someone suggested that they should not do so, but my father said it was the wish of the people and he could not do otherwise. They formed an alliance called United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) with NCNC under Opara who was Premier of the East in order to fight the NPC at the centre then. All these things started when it was discovered that NPC wanted to destroy the areas they were not in control of. So, it was resolved that all southerners- Ibos and Yoruba – join hands together to check the NPC and this led to the setting up of UPGA. But unfortunately in the Western Region, my father was not in control of the government, it was Akintola who was in control; the boycott was not successful unlike in the East where Okpara was on ground and in control,” said Adegbenro.
He said that people boycotted the election unlike in the West where pockets of people went out to vote and the Akintola group was declared as winners. “The crisis eventually led to the serious disorder in the West known as Operation Wetie. People reacted violently to the fact that the people they did not elect were declared winners,” he said.
Adegbenro claimed he was with his father throughout the crisis period. “At that time, there were lots of differences between the politics of the First Republic and now. That’s why I cannot understand the reason for this Boko Haram; because leaders are not being attacked by the Boko Haram. They are killing ordinary people and children; they are destroying property and schools. During the Operation Wetie, the people were going to the houses of the leaders that they felt had betrayed them. So, those followers didn’t just go out to attack the common people but the leaders who they felt betrayed Awolowo. And the NNDP leaders were those affected as people felt they teamed up with the Northerners to destroy the good legacies of the AG in the West after sending Awo to jail. They accused them of being used against their own people. The common people were not touched nor schools destroyed.
“And this took us to 1966 when my father and a few others were supposed to be killed; when the army struck. Whether true or false, Akintola was reported to have gone to Kaduna to see Ahmadu Bello to tell them the reason my father and other AG leaders in detention in Lagos should be killed as they were those who constituted entrenched opposition to the success of NNDP in the West, hence they must go,” he alleged.
According to him, “We were all at Chief Lawrence building in Ikoyi when Ifejuana came very early in the morning. That was January 15. They were to be killed on Monday, January 17 but the coup happened on January 15, early Saturday morning. Then after the coup, we now found out that brave journalists like Alade Odunewu and Olusegun Osoba who brought his scooter to interview my father. And we learnt that Osoba had discovered the bodies of Tafawa Balewa and Okotie-Eboh along Ilepa on Ifo/Abeokuta road. We all believed that that was the turning point for Osoba as a crack reporter. If the coup had not taken place on Saturday, my father and other AG leaders would have been killed by Monday. It was a close shave.”
To set the records straight, Adegbenro said that the Action Group (AG) parliamentary body had elected his father, Alhaji Dauda Soroye Adegbenro, as Premier of the defunct Western Region during the crisis of 1962. But the government did not last for more than one week because it suffered an untimely abortion.
In retrospect, Adegbenro said the only decision he regrets ever taking was his desertion of his academics to stay by his father. “I took a decision when my father was in detention in Osogbo to leave Ibadan Grammar School during my final year to join him. That decision terminated my education. It robbed me of the opportunity to read further to become someone knowledgeable; to be a lawyer because my ambition as a child was to become a lawyer…The crisis of 1962, which led to the declaration of state of emergency truncated my ambition to be a lawyer,” he said. According to him, “It was fun throughout playing around with other children of the affluent. I also remember that I played football for Ibadan Grammar School. I was nicknamed Aneyetoto. As the first centre forward for the school, it was fun as I participated in the first ever Hallogen Cup finals ever played in Liberty Stadium. It was between Ibadan Grammar School and Ife Grammar School. In my childhood, I had my own fair share of playing football and pranks and being a rascal. I did so many other nasty things too”.
“I will define success as the ability to raise others from the shackles of poverty. Helping those who want to be in a particular office achieve their aims and aspiration, to me is a success. I don’t rate success based on the amount of money or affluence one has. There are so many people in this state that when they were aspiring to hold one office or the other, I played prominent roles. To me, that’s success. Being useful to others who are in need is real success. I always tell people to trust God, because He alone provides and gives longevity. I admire simplicity, honesty and transparency. I hate bickering and side talks or someone trying to pull down his colleague just because he or she wants a position in life.
“My late father and Chief Obafemi Awolowo were my role models. I admire them for their foresight and leadership qualities. Believe me or not, I admire Chief Olusegun Obasanjo even though we don’t agree on a number of issues. I see him as a role model because he has achieved what our forefathers could not achieve by becoming president of this country. He did successfully both as a military and as a civilian. Awolowo did well by raising many political leaders across the country. I think Obasanjo should do same, particularly in the Southwest. A good leader must be able to train others to succeed him. I also admire Gbenga Daniel for his courage, resilience and contribution to mankind as a leader.”
Chief Adegbenro also talked about life as a-one-day commissioner. “Former Governor Olusegun Osoba appointed me as commissioner for finance, but unfortunately, the joy did not last because the military administration of General Sani Abacha truncated it. After the swearing-in ceremony at Government House, I was entertaining my guests at the house of Alhaji Sule at the GRA, Ibara (Abeokuta) only to receive a telephone call from the governor that one Army Brigadier had ordered that all commissioners should hand over. I had nothing to handover because I was barely one day in office as a commissioner.”