Class, Ethnicity, and Democracy in Nigeria : The Failure of the First Republic
To this day, the treason trial of Chief Awolowo stands out as perhaps the most bizarre episode of this period in Nigerian history. The crucial questions of the case have eluded definitive historical settlement.
The police discovered a cache of arms and ammunition in Lagos on 15 September 1962; what is not clear is whether the weapons were intended as a precautionary measure in the political climate of escalating violence and fear – as claimed by the defence – or as part of a plot to seize control of the national government by force – as claimed by the prosecution.
For eight months, between November 1962 and June 1963, these issues were contested in an extraordinarily complex trial riddled with contradictions in testimony and heavily coloured by the context of scathing political conflict in the West.
With Awolowo on trial stood 24 co-defendants, most of them leading Action Group officers and activists. Of the remaining six formally charged in the treason plot, two turned Queen’s evidence and had their charges dropped; three, including AG Federal Secretary Samuel Ikoku, took refuge in Ghana; and one, AG First Vice-President Anthony Enahoro, fled to London, from where he was later extradited to stand trial separately. The evidence of these two trials has been searchingly reviewed elsewhere (see especially Sklar, 1966: 140-8; also Mackintosh, 1966: 453-6; Schwarz, 1968: 138-149).
Even a very skeletal recapitulation suggests its highly problematic nature.
Prominent among the uncertainties were the motives and veracity of the prosecution’s key witnesses. Its principal witness, Dr Oladipo Maja, was a prosperous young Lagos medical doctor and militant AG partisan who described himself as very much to the left of Awolowo politically. Originally, he had headed the list of accused, but the charges were withdrawn when he turned Queen’s evidence.
Dr. Maja testified that Chief Awolowo had delegated him immediately after the Emergency was declared to purchase arms and ammunition in Ghana, and he claimed to have given Ikoku in Ghana half the money he was given while spending most of the rest on explosives in Nigeria. As Sklar (1966: 146) recounts, ‘Maja testified as a confessed accomplice, and there is no doubt about his intention to commit a violation of the law. The question is whether or not he acted independently or as an agent of Chief Awolowo.’
Awolowo and Enahoro both claimed to have been apprehensive that Maja’s self-initiated militant activities would implicate and harm the party. Alhaji Ibrahim Imam, one of the two Northern AG leaders to testify against Awolowo and Enahoro, confirmed that Awolowo warned him not to have anything to do with Maja, and indicated that Maja had, on his own initiative, offered Imam and Tiv leader Joseph Tarka arms and money.
But, Imam testified, Awolowo told him the AG had its own plans to fight against the government from bases in Tiv country. Awolowo, in turn, charged that Imam and the other Northern AG witness had fabricated their story in consultation with the prosecution and that Imam had conspired with Maja independently to import arms. In all, eighty witnesses testified, many filling in the picture of a planned coup d’etat.
And then there was the physical evidence: two machine guns, 24 tear-gas pistols, several revolvers with some 3000 rounds of ammunition, 20 gas and automatic pistols, 50 cases of explosives, 48 special torchlights [!]. In itself, it was ludicrous preparation for a full-scale coup d’etat, but neither was it easy to square 50 cases of explosives with the precautionary intentions claimed by defence attorneys.
The accused could point to a number of weaknesses in the prosecution case. Four of the minor witnesses broke down under defence cross-examination, and the credibility of virtually all of the major witnesses was much in doubt. Several leading witnesses, including three regional ministers, came from the Akintola faction (Osuntokun, 1982: 153). At least two witnesses (maybe more) escaped prosecution in exchange for their testimony. Others were notable for the frequency with which they had switched parties, and were alleged by the defence to have fabricated testimony in pursuit of political favour.
At the Appeal, the court rejected the conclusion that Chief Awolowo had tried to organise a coup, because it rested only on the testimony of accomplices whose evidence was inherently dubious. (On the charge of arms importation and possession, however, his conviction was sustained.) And four AG members who had been harshly sentenced had their convictions thrown out altogether on Appeal. Further doubt was cast upon the proceedings by the atmosphere of heavy anti-AG bias in which it took place.
Awolowo’s choice of British counsel [Gratiaen] was refused entry into the country, as was Enahoro’s [Dingle Foot]. The judge who should have tried the case – an independent-minded man who had frustrated the Federal Government’s original attempt to investigate the National Bank – was made an Acting Justice of the Supreme Court a few days before the treason case came up.
And while rigorously attentive to correct legal procedure, the Judge who did preside raised many eyebrows when, in dismissing the objection that three prosecution witnesses were biased against the AG as members of the UPP, he said: ‘I must confess … that I do not know what the alphabet “UPP” stands for’ (Schwarz, 1968: 146).
But most of all, the essence of the prosecution case was incredible: that so astute a politician as Obafemi Awolowo would believe he could seize power by force with such a puny arsenal, or that the shrewd Enahoro would confidently assure Imam (as the latter alleged) that the coup would be bloodless since it would be supported by the Army – an Army in which Igbo officers figured most prominently. Mackintosh (1966: 445) concludes that ‘the charges of importing arms and of sending men for [military] training were proved’.
But as to the charge that Awolowo was plotting a coup, Osuntokun (1982: 153) writes, ‘it is just inconceivable that Awolowo could have planned to fight [a 9000-man army] with his own forces. What was more probable was that the Action Group had sent out men to be trained as party thugs so that if need be the party would be able to meet force with force when in confrontation with its enemies’.
To the question of Awolowo’s guilt, Stanley Diamond (1963: 25) similarly responded: Legally and formally – perhaps; at least a few of his lieutenants may have been, although the outlines of the plot seemed childish, fragile, even irrational. It is just as plausible to believe that paramilitary activity of Action Group members would have been designed to protect themselves and their allies against violence and harassment by well-organized NPC strongmen in the North, as was in fact pleaded; or a presentiment of trouble ahead may have led Awolowo to put his party on a more military footing.
Preparations for a coup (if trouble at the Centre developed) may have been part of a vaguely defined plan – but it seems doubtful that they were seriously being considered.
In any case, scholarly assessments agree that the political element was the trial’s most significant feature. Whether or not the charges were fabricated and the witnesses orchestrated, it was clear that Awolowo’s political enemies had seized a timely opportunity to destroy him.
The trial decimated the ranks of the AG leadership. Awolowo was sentenced to ten years in prison, Enahoro to fifteen. Ikoku was in exile. Of the major AG figures, only Tarka was acquitted on all charges (in all, only three of the 25 defendants were acquitted).
The trial was the final act in a long sequence of humiliating and embittering blows to Awolowo’s huge [Yoruba] following.
H/T Dr. Femi Adebajo