Saturday, 12 December 1959 was a great watershed in the history of the Action Group when the party lost a very important federal election its leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, had anticipated to win. This election was significant in because Nigerian politicians and significant parties were awarded that the party that won the majority of parliamentary seats in the Federal House of Representatives was going to be the recipient of sovereign power when the British Colonial Administration transferred it on 1 October 1960. Also, the election was to determine the balance of power between the major political parties in the Federation since it preceded the grant of political independence to the country.
The electioneering campaign that preceded 1959 election up to that time was most expensive, intensive, protracted and sophisticated election campaign in Africa. Due to the deep and notorious ethnic nature of Nigerian politics, to a very large extent, ethnic and regional considerations, rather than good party programme, determined which political party got people’s votes. Consequently, Chief Awolowo Obafemi became the leader of opposition in the Federal Parliament rather than the Prime Minister he had hoped to become.
In the preparation for the independence of Nigeria, in 1959, the Government of the United Kingdom indicated its willingness to grant independence to Nigerian parliament moved and passed a motion to that effect. Consequently, on January 14, 1960, there was motion calling for the British Government to grant self-rule or sovereignty to Nigeria on October 1, 1960. It was moved and passed in the Federal House of Representatives. As regards this important motion, the Government kept Awolowo and his opposition group in dark. They only heard the news that such motion was coming up. Sir Abubakar moved motion and seconded by Mr. Raymond Njoku, the Minister of Transport (NCNC). On July 29, 1960, the United Kingdom parliament passed ‘Nigerian Independence Act, 1960’, which provided for independent Nigeria. Awolowo did not attend many of the official functions and ceremonies that were organized to mark Nigeria’s attainment of independence as he was not invited in the way that his office and contributions to Nigeria demanded.
Obviously, it was as a result of the deep-rooted animosity between the Government and Chief Obafemi Awolowo that led to ugly situations. Despite the fact that Chief Obafemi Awolowo boycotted all the independence celebration ceremonies, he and his wife attended the night of September 30, 1960, where the Union Jack was lowered and replaced by the Nigerian Flag. Also, Chief Awolowo attended Independence Dinner which took place on the night of October 1, 1960, where he and his wife were seated far away from the high table that could hardly recognize the faces of those who sat there. This incident created a sense of aggravated insult and humiliation in the personality of Chief Awolowo and his wife as some ex-colonial officials bore unspoken ill-will against him for the role he played in the struggle for the Nigeria’s Independence 1960.
Before Awolowo embarked on his ambition for the office of Federal Prime Minister, he was keen as ever on putting this region (Southwestern) on a sound economic footing as a major player in industrial and commercial concerns. He raised the minimum wage of workers from the 5 shillings of 1954 to five shillings and sixpence on April 1, 1959. He incorporated the Western Hotels Limited which invested in the building of the majestic premier and Lafia hotels in Ibadan where industrialists and tourists could have decent accommodation and cool their heels. Chief Obafemi Awolowo set companies and empowered them with government funding to shore up their working capital.These include Western Nigerian Development Corporation (WNDC), the Finance Corporation, and the Western Nigeria Housing Corporation. The Western Nigeria Ministry of Industries was the main supervisory department of government which incorporated these mega-corporations.WNDC under the leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo floated a large number of industries and companies wholly owned by the government or held in partnership with several foreign investors. These include: National Bank of Nigeria, Wema Bank of Nigeria, Great Nigeria Insurance Company, the Nigeria General Insurance Company, the Nigeria General Insurance Company, Gravil Enthoven and Company, Lagos Airport Hotel, Vegetable Oil, Cocoa Industries, Odu’a Textiles, Wrought Iron Ltd, Union Beverages Ltd, Sunga Company, Wemabod Estates, Western Livestock, Fisheries Services Ltd, Caxton Press, Epe Plywood, Askar Paints, Nigeria Crafts and Bags Ltd, Nipol Plastic, Phoenix Motors, and several others. Today, many of these companies are still viable and have been consolidated in the Odu’a Group of Companies which is regarded as the largest conglomerate in the history of Nigeria .The 25-storey building known as Cocoa House was built started by Chief Awolowo’s administration. Chief Obafemi laid the foundation and saw its completion by his successor as the crowning glory of his party’s success story. After completion in the sixties, the building remained the tallest in West Africa for decades thereafter .Chief Awolowo’s term in office as the premier was valid until December 1961 but he resigned his premiership and vacates his seat in the House of Assembly two years ahead of his mandate. Ironically, those who wanted independence postponed indefinitely were the beneficiaries of these selective royal honours in 1959 and 1960. The British Government was very pleased to hand over the reins of government to the northerners on October 1, 1960.An opposition leader could be charitable and part the government on the back when its policies are good and commendable.
In this regards, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, opposition leader, demonstrated this maturity. Unfortunately, he was no pushover, either.Because of his stand against the Federal Government, Balewa encouraged the administrator, his personal physician, to issue proclamations and decrees confining and restricting the movements all the leading political leaders in the Western Region including Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Opposition in Lagos, to remote villages in the region in October, 1962, while Akintola and his followers were given preferential treatment and treated with kids’ gloves. Awolowo, a top federal lawmaker, was abruptly relocated from Ikene his hometown to the mosquito-infected fishing village of Lekki Island in Epe by the administrator.Moreover, Chief Awolowo was arraigned alongside 27 of his associates for allegedly plotting to the overthrown government of Balewa. He was sent to jail for ten years in 1963 with the leading lights of his party.
The government was determined to silence the opposition once and for all.Awolowo appealed against the judgment at the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice, Sir Ademola, the Prime Minister’s friend, and his two expatriate colleagues, wasted no time in discussing all their grounds. But the acting Supreme Court Judge Louis Mbanefa, an Igbo man, wrote that Chief Awolowo could not be pronounced guilty because the evidence of his Chief accuser was not corroborated by any other witness. Just before Chief Obafemi Awolowo was sent to prison, the Federal Government decided that it was a good time to split the Western Region into two and it duly seated the Midwest region on August 10, 1963, after a referendum. In spite of sustained agitations, no states were seated in the east or north. Chief Obafemi Awolowo observed this and raised alarm and advocated for Midwest Region, he was arraigned for treasonable felony.
Chief Awolowo was very lucky to win his freedom again at his second treason trail. On April 2, 1963, Chief Obafemi Awolowo went into the witness box to give evidence in his own defense in a marathon effort which lawyers present in court described as a brilliant and sterling performance and which the judge described as very interesting. He defended himself for sixteen days, he poured scorn on all the allegations of a violent take-over of government by him and his men with the use of torchlight and ammunitions, none of those could be produced in court. As he was standing in the box, Chief Awolowo said it was the legitimate ambition, to want to succeed as the head of government in any future election. He voluntarily resigned because of his ambition. Before, Awolowo was sentenced to ten years in prison, he welcomed any sentence the judge might impose on him even though, he did not agree with the judge’s verdict. He noted that his concern was not for himself by his imprisonment might do harm to Nigerian for three reasons. On April 10, 1964, the appeal lodged by Awolowo at the Supreme Court in Lagos was heard. This time, the Federal Government was confident that it could afford to relax its earlier ban on Awolowo to have a solicitor of his choice from Britain most probably due to the pressure of public opinion. The prophetic words of Chief Obafemi Awolowo while he was in courtroom came to pass as the soldiers who carried out the January 15, 1966, coup showed no mercy to their victims.