Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, titled his 1946-1965 memoirs, Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years. He explained that “The inventor and embodiment of this deliberate, populist corruption of ‘peculiar mess’ was, appropriately, a certain Ibadan shon of de shoil (son of the soil) by the name of Adelabu.”
Joseph .A. Sanusi who later changed his name to Alhaji Adegoke Oduola Akande Adelabu, was an embodiment of anti-colonial, Nigerian politics. Born one hundred years ago, this month, Adelabu with a razor-sharp mind and mouth, was charismatic, populist, theatrical, engaging with the gift of oratory and an uncommon command of English, fiercely anti-colonialist, passionately patriotic and Pan Africanist.
With his unmatched charisma and many songs composed in his praise and memory, he has passed into folklore in Western Nigeria. Although he was known as ‘The Lion of the West’, he was Pan-Nigeria in his thoughts and politics and unlike most of his contemporaries, saw himself first as a Nigerian. When in the 1940s and ‘50s, many politicians gravitated towards parties steeped in their ethnic groups, he chose to swim against the currents. He explained in his little known 1952 book AFRICA IN EBULLITION that “Nigeria is dearer to my heart. She is my mother, the author of my beginning…If my child dies and I live long enough I may bear another. If my mother dies, I shall go through life a wandering orphan.”
He was convinced that ethnic-based politics will destroy the country, hence the need to act. “ If I sit idly by, whilst the ship of state is sunk by the enemy, I and all other passengers will go down to the bottom of the sea with her.” Turning to the political party in his region, he said “The North and the East are anxiously waiting for the Action Group Mission when it has rechristened itself appropriately, out-grown its self-imposed Provincialism and shed its petticoat of shabby parochialism.”
He watched in sorrow as many of his comrades from Western Nigeria were carpet-crossing to deny the NCNC, a majority in the Western House of Assembly and chance to produce the first Premier of the region who might have been Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. He vowed to remain in the party even if he stood alone. He said of their action: “I believe it is the first time in the long history of legislatures that members openly desert their parties for no differences of opinion or principle, but an insult on the maturity of our race.”
Adelabu, a produce merchant, transporter, farmer, journalist and consummate mobilizer, had attended Soyinka’s alumnus, the Government College, Ibadan where his brilliance, earned him double promotion from Class Two to Four. His contemporary in the school, Professor Saburi. O. Biobaku described him as “perhaps, the brightest boy” the school ever produced. Although he attended the Higher College, Yaba, his brilliance caused him his graduation. It had first won him the UAC scholarship. He had then during an holiday assignment, written a Memorandum on how the company can reorganize its produce buying system. The company management was so pleased, that it offered him immediate employment as African Produce Manager to put his proposal into practice. The offer was too attractive, and he abandoned his studies as he said, to “moisten the soil of knowledge with the water of experience.”
Adelabu stirred the masses (the Mekunu) with his pro-poor rhetoric and a populism which saw them pour to his home and take rides with him in his cars. The only other politician like him was his ideological friend and fellow NCNC stalwart, Mallam Aminu Kano who moved the Talakawa in Kano.
Richard .L. Sklar in his “Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation,” wrote: “No Nigerian leader was closer to his people or more familiar with their thinking than Adelabu. When they rejoiced he danced with them, when they sorrowed he wept, and when they mocked their enemies his was the rudest tongue. His way to power was to dance in the streets to the strains of Mabolaje songs that celebrated his name.” British biographer of post- independence Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa narrated how Adelabu, the then Minister of Natural Resources and Social Services took on the Colonial Governor-General, James Robertson. “Adelabu in Council would feign that he was just following Robertson’s own line, to which the Governor-General had to retort that he did not have ‘a line’ – No, sir, but you’ll develop one!”
Adelabu who described himself as a freelance thinker, economic adventurer, radical socialist and fanatical nationalist, argued that the world would be a happier and better place “if we would only dare to be ourselves completely instead of trying to be faded copies of other unknown and misunderstood mythical heroes”.
For him, independent Nigeria should adhere to four fundamental principles; unabridged sovereignty, financial autonomy, political democracy and federal supremacy. In an independent Nigeria, he said the children of the Jukun farmer, Fulani herdsman, Ibadan cocoa plantation labourer, the Enugu rail porter and those of the Emirs, Obas and Obis should have the same education and career opportunities.
In June, 1955, he was removed by the colonialists as Chairman of the Ibadan District Council, but rode back to power the next month with greater majority.
On October 11, 1957, he issued a joint statement with Aminu Kano to condemn the big three parties; NCNC, AG and the NPC for constituting “reactionary forces of regionalism.” An angry Azikiwe decided to discipline him and other dissenters, Adelabu openly challenged him at the NCNC Convention, was replaced as First Vice President, and went on to form a distinct opposition within the party with stalwarts like Kingsley Mbadiwe and Kola Balogun.
On March, 25, 1958, it was a shocked nation that heard Adelabu had died in a motor accident. Parts of the West, particularly, Ibadan went up in flames with his supporters who claimed their hero was murdered, going after his perceived enemies. At least twenty persons were killed, over six hundred arrested with sixty four of them sentenced to death. Adelabu had “faded copies” in politicians like Eruobodo and Lamidi Adedibu, but there can only be one Penkelemes in history.
Lakemfa is a journalist and public affairs commentator