Blast from the past: How I was treated at Independence, 1960

Blast from the past: How I was treated at Independence, 1960

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 12:23 pm

Obafemi Awolowo

By Obafemi Awolowo

As the attainment of Independence approached, invitations for various functions and ceremonies came to me in large numbers. Invitation cards were sent to me for all the functions. However, on examining them and accompanying car labels, I was satisfied that they were not meant for me as the Leader of the Opposition for whom the Prime Minister or his Government had any due regard. As one of the leading architects of Nigeria’s Independence, I felt greatly affronted by the types of invitation cards and car labels sent to me. I decided to ignore all the invitations but one: that for the ceremony on the night of 30th September, 1960, where, at midnight, the Union Jack would be lowered for ever to be replaced by the Nigerian Flag. Consequently, I did not, at all preceding functions, put in an appearance.

In the meantime, both Sir Abubakar and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe noticed my absence from all the functions preceding that of 30th September. Zik spoke to me on the telephone from Lagos and expressed surprise at my absence. Sir Abubakar also spoke to me on the telephone and expressed similar surprise. I gave Sir Abubakar the same reply as I had given to Zik. Sir Abubakar gave me an appointment for seven o’clock at his official residence in Lagos. So I left Ibadan the same afternoon, and was in the compound of his official residence at 6.55 p.m. prompt. When I got there, his Private Secretary, Mr. Odukale, told me that I would have to wait for a while. He very respectfully invited me to wait in his office until the Prime Minister was ready. The Prime Minister regretted the inconvenience that might be caused me; but he had to attend to some Heads of State who were attending the Independence Ceremonies. I then asked to know from Mr. Odukale for how long I would have to wait. He did not know; but it would not be up to an hour. Then I remarked to Mr. Odukale:

‘I see-e-e. You will tell the Prime Minister that I am here at the time appointed by him. I have come all the way from Ibadan. I certainly cannot and will not wait. If he is still keen on having a meeting with me, he could contact me at Dr. Akanni Doherty’s place between now and eight o’clock, or at the Ikeja VIP Rest-house anytime after half past eight.’

To his credit, Sir Abubakar rang me up about 9 p.m. at the Ikeja VIP Rest-house. We spoke. He expressed regret for not being able to attend to me at the time appointed by him, and offered to come over to see me immediately at Ikeja. He came, and we discussed. I repeated what I had told him previously on the telephone  and added, from my point of view, one important piece which I had earlier mentioned to Zik on the telephone, but did not tell Sir Abubakar during our telephone conversation. I stated, with all emphasis at my command, that in any ceremony or function connected with Nigeria’s Independence, I was prepared to give precedence to only Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, and himself as Prime Minister of the Federation. If they were around, I would give precedence to three other outstanding nationalists, namely, Ernest Ikoli, Oba Samuel Akinsanya, and H.O. Davies – all of whom were great pioneers in the agitation for Nigeria’s self-determination. I would not give precedence to anyone else. But the invitation cards sent to me put me in the same bracket as Junior Ministers and Civil Servants.

Sir Abubakar apologized and promised to make amends. In addition, he undertook to send me a police motor-cyclist to help me beat the traffic hold-ups on my way to and from social functions. I thanked him very much, and we parted.

The following morning I received new invitation cards and car labels for the night of 30th September. I was accompanied by my wife who was also invited. When we got to Tafawa Balewa Square, our invitation card was examined by the official usher who, after visibly shaking his head, took my wife and myself to the appropriate place indicated on the invitation card. On getting there, we found ourselves in the midst of ex-servicemen! I was shocked to find Sir John Rankine and his wife there too! Sir John Rankine was the immediate predecessor in office of Sir Adesoji Aderemi as Governor of the Western Region. He had been invited to the Independence Ceremonies by the Federal Government, only to be treated in this shabby manner! I knew that that was not my place; and felt a sense of aggravated insult and humiliation. I turned to my wife and commented: ‘Don’t you see that this fellow Balewa is a clever deceiver? Or is he not?’ ‘Indeed!’ she said, and added: ‘Don’t let’s talk about him here.’

About fifteen minutes after we had been in the ex-servicemen pavilion which, by the way, was in complete darkness compared with other pavilions or areas which were brightly lit, we saw the police outrider who had escorted us from Ikeja beaming a torchlight into the pavilion. He was obviously looking for someone. He was accompanied by a man whom we recognized later as the Prime Minister. We had been seated not on the front row in this pavilion, but well into the heart of it. When the ex-servicemen by whom we sat recognized us, they appeared embarrassed from the way they tried to make more room for me and my wife by squeezing themselves together. It occurred to me that Sir Abubakar was looking for us. I did nothing, however, to help him locate us. The police outrider knew where we went in, but did not know where we sat. In the same way, the official usher knew where we went in, but, as the seats in the pavilion were not numbered, he had left me and my wife to fend for ourselves. So, he too, did not know exactly where we sat; and, in any case, he was not with Sir Abubakar and the police outrider.

Then, after some two or more minutes, the light landed on my face. The police outrider moved quickly towards us. He informed us that the Prime Minister had been looking for us, and wanted us to come out of the pavilion. I was reluctant to leave where I was. It was enough for my wife and myself, no matter where we sat, to see the Union Jack lowered, and the Nigerian Flag raised aloft in its place for ever. This was what great contemporary nationalists  and patriots like Ernest Sisei Ikoli, Samuel Akinsanya (the Odemo of Ishara), H.O. Davies, Zik, Mbonu Ojike, and my humble self – to mention a few – had for many years fought for.

However, on seeing Sir Abubakar coming towards us, I nudged my wife, we rose, and went out of the dark pavilion to meet him. ‘Chief, what are you doing in that place?’ he asked in surprise. He was quite affable, and added: ‘You don’t belong there!’ He then turned to my wife: ‘A-ah! Good evening, Chief (Mrs) Awolowo; I am sorry about this. Chief shouldn’t have taken you to that place.’ ‘But that is where the invitation you sent to me places us! I didn’t choose the place!, I remarked.

‘Where is the invitation card?’

‘Here it is!’

He took It, looked at It, said he was sorry, and put it in his pocket. He remarked at the same time someone had made a grave mistake, and that he would look into the matter. We were then taken to the place where the Prime Minister, the Premiers, and the Federal Ministers had sat. The ambassadors were seated behind them. Chief Akintola, on seeing me, got up and offered his place to me. I declined the offer. For, if I was expected at the front row, places should have been reserved for me and my wife. As soon as we arrived at the VIP seating area, Sir Abubakar left me and my wife to the care of another official usher who sat us among Ambassadors from African countries. If I remember right, we sat next to the Ghanaian High Commissioner.

That night (or, more correctly, that morning) after returning to the Ikeja VIP Rest-house, we found an invitation card waiting for us. We had been invited to watch the ceremony of the handing-over of the Instrument of Independence which was taking place at Tafawa Balewa Square later that morning at ten o’clock. We were to join a procession starting from the premises of the office of the Prime Minister. But in that procession, I was to take the rear immediately after Chief Adekoye Majekodunmi who was Federal Minister of Health. I showed the invitation to my wife, and we decided not to attend the ceremony, but to go to Dr. Akinola Maja’s Bar Beach residence to rejoice with the market women on the advent of 1st October 1960. Nevertheless, we were both depressed by the treatment that had been given to us. At the Bar Beach on that morning of 1st October 1960, I was able to put on a cheerful front among the women. But my wife could not bear it as I did, and she went into one of the rooms to lie down, instead of rejoicing with the women.

Just as we decided, in the early hours of the morning, not to attend the handing-over ceremony, the telephone rang.

‘Is that Chief Awolowo?’ A voice said.

‘Yes, please.’

‘Have you received your invitation for today’s  handing-over ceremony at the Race Course?’


‘Are you attending?’

‘Who are you speaking, anyway?’

‘Please, Sir, don’t press for my name. I am a civil servant but an admirer. Are you attending, Sir? We here think you should not attend. You have been slighted!’

‘Well. I have decided not to attend!”

‘We are happy, very very happy. Congratulations, Sir!’ And the caller rang off.

Nothing daunted, my wife and I attended the Independence Dinner which took place on the night of 1st October, 1960, but I had to prevail upon her to come with me. Quite frankly, I regretted that I did. We were seated so far away from the high table that we could hardly recognize the faces of those who sat there. We were dumped in the midst of ex-colonial officials, many of whom bore unspoken ill will against me for the part I had played in the struggle for Independence. In contrast, and to his eternal credit, when Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was installed as Governor General of Nigeria, he personally saw to it that I was given a place of honour only next to the Prime Minister, and my wife was accorded a status second only to that of Chief(Mrs) Flora Azikiwe.

■Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s account in ADVENTURES IN POWER – BOOK TWO: The Travails of Democracy and The Rule of Law (1987) – Pages 12-17


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