For most of his later years, the name “Mr Twelve Two-Thirds” clung to Richard Osuolale Akinjide like a limpet. When he passed on this past week at the ripe old age of eighty nine, it was this image of a legal fixer of electoral conundrum that loomed large in the popular imagination.
But the part cannot be greater than the whole. The Ibadan-born politician was much more than this. He was a master political strategist, an accomplished historian, anti-colonial intellectual, gifted raconteur, wit and a legal prize-fighter of exemplary forensic brilliance.
Yet if the truth must be told, whatever Akinjide’s glittering gifts in other departments of human endeavour, it is the picture of a talented but reactionary lawyer; an enemy of his people in the service of a feudal/military complex that prevails in folk memory. The sum total is far more complex and intriguing to say the least.
There is a reason for this and it can be located in the fierce tussle for power among Yoruba elite, ancestral political animosities and sub-ethnic cultural tensions which often spill over to the canvas of contemporary politics. Yoruba post-colonial politics is merely the continuation of the old pre-colonial civil war by other means.
For over half a century, and having qualified as a lawyer well before the age of thirty, Akinjide was a major political gladiator and principal arms bearer in the turf war. With his death this past week, Nigeria has lost one of the last surviving members of the old master-class politicians.
It was an era of titans and great political combatants. The curtain is virtually closing on this generation and Akinjide’s death represents the last flicker of its dying ember.
On the surface, Chief Akinjide’s politics seemed to have rotated on a fixed fulcrum: an abiding personal animus for Chief Obafemi Awolowo and an even greater aversion for his brand of politics. But it could be deeper than this and even less personal. Right from the word go, there is no record of public affection or a private meeting of mind between the two titans.
Akinjide’s formative years were spent under the tutelage of the combustible Adegoke Adelabu and the Mabolaje Grand Alliance with its “up and at em” hell raising and combat-joyous exertions, whereas Awolowo, no less deadly when roused to political confrontation, appeared outwardly more restrained and sedate.
It was a mode of politics that hugged the fault lines of old pre-colonial cultural divisions in the Yoruba nation and embraced the contours of sub-ethnic supremacist battles for political hegemony among the emergent Yoruba political elite. Akinjide who regarded himself as a scion of a master-class of political strategists and Empire philosophers did not hide his inclination for right-wing patrician politics.
He never mastered how to rouse the rabble. This was to prove fatal to his dynastic aspirations in the post-military garrison politics of Ibadan. But since he bought into the logic he could not complain about the logistics or the end-product particularly if it favoured former thugs and muscle-men.
For Akinjide, the centre of the Yoruba universe was to the north of Ibadan and not to its south east towards the coast where Chief Awolowo and his people were erupting in one remarkable burst of energy and drive.
Yet it was when this unstable coalition of clashing worldviews and conflicting ideologies coalesced into the Action Group through the visionary and integrative Egbe Omo Oduduwa that the Yoruba recorded their greatest modern achievement, a development which pushed them almost beyond the portals of modern civilization in one frenzied and frenetic surge. It is needless to add that it also contained the seeds of future destruction.
Perhaps it is the the cultural affinities with a feudal north and an ancient Yoruba empire that convinced Akinjide that Awolowo was not only politically wrong but wrong-headed in his egalitarian politics and his attempts to isolate the Yoruba nation from the mainstream of Nigerian politics however grossly misconfigured the architecture of the new nation may be.
As far as this vision of politics is concerned, it is not only at the personal level that politics is about the allocation of resources, it is even more so at the level of the multi-ethnic nation where there is a permanent run on the national canteen. It does not matter if this allocation takes place in a condition of great inequity or against a background of unsettling poverty and misery. Every empire must have its own slaves. It is the immutable law of human history and nature.
Tales abound of Richard Akinjide’s derring-do as a youthful Federal Minister of Education as he fought and strove to give the Yoruba nation a fair share of the national cake. An older colleague who became a notable librarian of a prominent university narrated how Chief Akinjide made this possible against all odds. The logic is that if you do not register your strong physical presence at the food hall, you cannot begin to question how the meal was shared.
With such contrasting and conflicting visions of the nation and the Yoruba place in it, and with neither side willing to yield position, a collision of altars was inevitable. Even after the political conflagration that consumed the old west, the old divisions continued. The attempt to unite all the warring Yoruba political factions under Chief Awolowo proved a bridge too far.
In the event, the advent of the Second Republic signalled resumed political hostilities among the Yoruba combatants. The military interregnum was just an opportunity to restock and sharpen their political daggers. A bad-tempered televised debate between Chief Akinjide and Chief Bola Ige foreshadowed things to come. It ended in a fiasco.
Richard Akinjide had pooh-poohed the free education programme of the Awolowo school of thought, dismissing it as the ideal breeding ground for thugs and jailbirds. But in a rapid return of fire Bola Ige challenged him to name any member of his family that could be so described. The legal luminary stormed off but not before murmuring something about the mental status of his opponent.
Having been resoundingly trounced in the election by the UPN, Akinjide now turned all his attention and considerable legal skills to preventing Awolowo and his acolytes from capturing power at the centre. Tension was already building up even before the Second Republic had fully commenced.
The political puzzle thrown up by the technically inconclusive federal elections provided a perfect cover for the legal wizard. Richard Akinjide unfurled his celebrated magic formula to upend Awolowo’s long standing ambition to rule the nation. Once again, political infighting among the Yoruba political elite had cost one of their most illustrious sons his ambition to rule the nation.
Ten years after in 1989 when everything had ended up in smoke once again and Chief Awolowo had gone to join his ancestors, yours sincerely found himself a regular visitor to Chief Akinjide’s magnificent pile in suburban Stanmore, London. Having spent eighteen months in various prisons and detention camps in the aftermath of the first coup, Akinjide was not going to take chances when the soldiers came back in 1983. He scampered into safety and exile.
Somehow, he got wind of the fact that I was around Birmingham on a sabbatical leave and he invited me over. The legal titan appeared pleasantly surprised at my family background. Perhaps a full disclosure is appropriate at this point. I write this with considerable filial trepidation. Chief Akinjide was a colleague and party associate of my old man going back to the early NCNC days.
But having committed caste suicide as a youth by renouncing all right-wing affiliations and their perquisites, this columnist has never looked back. The perils of caste suicide can be more severe than ordinary class suicide. In class suicide, at least you have the comfort of solidarity with the great unwashed. But in caste suicide, you are a washed up refugee in a political orphanage.
Chief Akinjide was warm, urbane, gregarious and a magnificent host. But he was also a man of oracular reticence. One moment, he could be chatty and wittily irreverent, only to become taciturn and tongue-tied the next moment. He could be cagey and measured in his responses to my probing queries. He surely knew a lot, particularly every sarcophagus in Nigeria’s vast catacomb of the politically expired. But he also knew that survival depends on self-restraint and auto-recoil.
Once when a former head of state wrote a book containing indiscreet disclosures about the 12 2/3 saga, he was asked for his views. “I will not respond”, he began with a sad, wistful look. “Now that he is going about shooting his mouth, what if I were to bring out my own confidential files on the matter which shows that I was already a consultant to the military council on the matter?”
The late legal titan could also be mercilessly caustic. He once dismissed a former Chief Justice in one of the western states as lacking in elementary proficiency in both English and Yoruba language. When he was asked how this could be possible, he retorted that the man was born and raised in Ghana.
After some time, it was clear that the chief gave up on my anti-militarism and left of centre views. He was himself a militantly anti-colonial intellectual but his views on domestic politics remained nuanced, bristling with conservative complications. The invitations to visit declined dramatically. By the time he returned home in 1993 and to quiet legal collaboration with the Abacha regime over the Bakassi tango, all contacts between us had ceased.
My last contact with him could have been a scene straight out of Yoruba political drama. At a meeting of Yoruba Leaders of Thought to harmonise the Yoruba position at the then impending Obasanjo Conference that took place at the main hall of Airport Hotel, Ikeja in 2005, Chief Akinjide swept in only to find yours sincerely sandwiched between the two Afenifere grandees, the late Sir Olaniwun Ajayi and Pa Ayo Adebanjo .
He briskly ignored me and greeted the old men glumly. But he seemed to have immediately recovered his sense of humour. He rounded on the old men. “By the way, you this Ijebu people, what exactly are you doing with my boy?” he demanded from the duo.
“Richard, who is your boy here?” Sir Olaniwun replied with his customary suavity.
“Ha, it is that fellow sitting between you, or don’t you know that his late father was my good friend? This is how I heard from the grapevine that you are trying to recruit him into your moribund organization. You must desist from such political pranks, or have your people ever produced anybody who can write better than him?” the old Ibadan legal warrior rumbled.
“What about Soyinka?” Chief Adebanjo demanded with hearty good humour.
“Well, I don’t know about that one”, the legal juggernaut retorted and moved on.
As the meeting wore on, one could sense that a great pincer movement in classic military textbook manner was unfurling against the aging progressives. But it turned out that they were willing hostages. It was to cost the Yoruba nation a coherent position at the Obasanjo Conference. There is no further need to spill tribal beans in the open.
Richard Akinjide was an extraordinary politician and talented lawyer who was single-minded and focused in his pursuit of his brand of politics and the dividends accruing from this. There was always a hint of cynical pragmatism just bubbling below the surface.
The logic is clear. If Nigeria was created to fail, it is not the business of anybody or any ethnic group to labour endlessly in correcting its fundamentally flawed structure. To a man of Chief Awolowo’s radical idealism and humanistic vision of society, this must be nothing but nihilism at its most destructive and berserk.
For over seventy years, Yoruba people have killed and maimed themselves at the shifting frontlines of these conflicting ideals of the post-colonial nation. Akinjide, Awolowo and even Akintola may not be the issue after all.
These heroic men are just external manifestations of the inner turmoil and contradictions of an ancient tribal formation as it tries to overcome its own weaknesses and align itself with the emergent realities of progressive modernity. After every alliance either across the upper Niger or the lower Niger, the Yoruba have always felt profoundly short-changed. May Chief Richard Osuolale Akinjide rest in peace.
Covid-19 has been trying everybody’s soul across the globe. Nobody expected a situation as dire and dismal as this. Sadness abounds everywhere and there is an eerie stillness abroad, as if the world has become one huge funeral cortege.
After sustained incapacitation, the living are dazed and disoriented. It is hard to imagine how the post-Covid-19 world, or what they choose to call the new normal, would feel like. The normalization of the abnormal always comes with its own perils.
Yet it is a fact of human existence that adversity often brings out the best and finest in humanity. The current eclipse is not without its sterling heroes. There has been a rash of noble conduct and exemplary selflessness which cuts across countries, races, religions and creed. Despite the poor conduct of a few, our collective humanity is roused again by collective suffering.
A peep into the stars’ parade reveals a rainbow coalition of triumphant humanity. Please step forward, Captain Tom Moore, centenarian and veteran of the Second World War, who has raised several million pounds for the National Health Service in Britain by daily trudging across his estate behind a wheeler.
His original aim was to raise a thousand pounds before his birthday. But the outpouring has surprised the wildest imagination. At the last count, it has topped twenty million pounds. Arise, Sir Tom? The British surely know how to honour their heroes. They must not keep the old man waiting.
Across the globe in South Windsor, Connecticut, the bugle of honour has already sounded for Dr Saud Anwar, a Pakistani-American Muslim at the Manchester Memorial Hospital who devised a contraption that allowed a ventilator to be shared by at least seven people.
This became very critical in saving lives during the acute shortage of ventilators in the US as the dreaded scourge rapidly proliferated. It was a thing of joy to watch Dr Anwar stand in solemn attention as the convoy of cars filled with grateful fellow Americans hooted their way past his house. This was a moment America renewed and revalidated its promise as a land of immigrants.
There are so many more that cannot be mentioned in this brief tribute, particularly Nigerian-born health practitioners in the Diaspora who distinguished themselves in the course of serving their new fatherland. Quite a number of them did not live to tell the story. Among them was our own beloved aburo, Dr Kayode Adefolu Adedeji, who fell in North Wales in the course of duty. May their noble soul find perfect peace in the bosom of God.
Tomorrow, the clouds will recede, darkness will be lifted and the world will smile again.