THE HISTORY BEHIND THE DEATH OF AN IBADAN POLITICAL DIGNITARY, ADELABU ADEGOKE PENKELEMESI
When next are you going to be in the city of Ibadan?
One of the places you must endeavour to visit in the historic town is Taj Mahal in Oke Oluokun. That’s the residence and final resting place of Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, the Lion of the West.
Adelabu needs no introduction. He was the afternoon star that scared the elderly.
He was the morning dew that drenched both friends and foes. More than fifty-nine years after his death, he refused to be forgotten. For those who are not familiar with Penkelemesi, please read Onigegewura’s You know Penkelemesi! But do you know Ebullition? to know more about this legendary personality.
Gbadamosi Adegoke Adelabu died at his prime. He died when his sun was at its zenith. It was a death like no other. It was not the death of an individual. It was not the loss of a family. Adegoke Adelabu’s death was a national tragedy. Ibadan stood still.
Lagos was stuned. Nigeria went into a state of shock.
How did Adelabu die? Was it an act of God? Was he killed by his political opponents? Was Adegoke a victim of political conspiracy? What was Adelabu’s business with his Lebanese friends? What actually happened on that fateful day in 1958?
If there was a politician who understood the psychology of his people, it was Adegoke Adelabu. He was a master in the art and science of political psychology. And like the consummate politician he was, he spoke the language of the people. He was a compound polyglot.
His Yoruba was flawless. His English was impeccable. Adelabu was not the one to mix Yoruba with English in the same sentence.
Though small in stature, he was intellectually a giant. With his brilliance, he dazzled and dwarfed his peers. According to Bola Ige, Adelabu was “a short man, but with boundless energy, he always seemed to be on the move, he went on foot from village to village.
He dressed and appeared like a rustic villager. He never seemed to smile, not to talk of laugh. His Yoruba was devastating in pithiness and sarcasm. He knew how to leave every audience with a phrase that could not be forgotten.”
Coming from Chief Bola Ige, who himself was a wordsmith, that was an eloquent testimonial. If any evidence of Adelabu’s mastery of language is required, you need look no further than Penkelemesi and Ebullition.
The final journey of the grassroots politician did not start in 1958 when he breathed his last. It actually started three years earlier in 1955 when Adelabu was appointed the Minister of Natural Resources and Social Services. The appointment was indeed a giant leap for Adelabu, who started life from a weaver’s shed.
His Lebanese friends, the Younan family, saw his appointment as a golden opportunity to market the Penkelemesi brand.
It was decided that textile materials bearing Adelabu’s image and name be produced and sold. It was expected that the cloth would also serve a subtle campaign strategy for Adelabu who was aiming to become the premier of the West.
When the first shipment arrived, neither Adelabu nor the Younan family, expected what happened. They had expected sale to be slow and gradual.
To their pleasant surprise, the Penkelemesi fabric became an overnight bestseller. It became the social uniform, not only in Ibadan but throughout the Western Region. According to Iya Agba, textile merchants were using the cloth to sell other brands. You must buy another brand before aso penkelemesi could be sold to you.
It was no longer aso ebi. It became aso ilupeju – a global uniform. It was used for weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals, housewarming and every form of social function. Tailors were praying daily for Adelabu. There was no tailor in Ibadan that did not get one or two yards to sew.
The Younan family did not wait for the stock to run out before the second shipment was ordered. It also recorded massive sale.
This time around, Idumota traders and Onitsha merchants joined the bandwagon. The Lion of the West was the toast of the moment. He was not only a successful politician; he had also demonstrated that he was business savvy.
With the 1956 elections approaching, and with his rising political profile, Adelabu was sure of victory at the polls. He was a master strategist. As a populist leader, he gave people what they wanted. In areas of Ibadan where the indigenes were in the majority, Adelabu ensured that natives were the candidates of his party. In non-native areas, the Political Genius, fielded non-natives. It was a strategy that never failed him.
He was confident of becoming the premier.
His business partners were also confident. It was decided that in addition to the penkelemesi cloth already in the market, a special cloth should be ordered for his inauguration as the premier. The cloth was indeed special. It showed Adegoke Adelabu as the Premier holding the keys to the Western House of Assembly! It was going to be a hot cake.
To finance the project, Albert Younan obtained a loan from African Continental Bank. ACB was one of the big indigenous banks in Nigeria then. The bank became distressed in 1991 and was taken over by the Central Bank of Nigeria. It was later revived and was one of the banks that formed the present day Spring Bank. The bank even had a football club. I can see elderly people reading this nodding as they remember ACB FC of Lagos!
Adelabu had however not taken into consideration the political wizardry of Obafemi Awolowo. As fate would have it, it was Awolowo who became the Premier. Adelabu became the Leader of the Opposition. Of course you know that it is the Premier and not the Leader of the Opposition that would hold the key to the House of Assembly.
You want to know what happened to the cloth already ordered.
You are not the only one. The management of ACB also wanted to know. More importantly, the bankers wanted to know how the Younans were going to repay the facility. Yet the cloth could not be sold as Adelabu did not become the premier.
Albert Younan found himself in a financial jeopardy. The bank was writing to him everyday demanding repayment of the loan. The cloth was in the warehouse, unsold. Adelabu was in the House, but not as the premier. This was not an ordinary matter. Ohun ti o mu bale ile wo aso iyawo re lo si oja, oro ti kuro ni se ko si nkan. Mewa nbe. Whatever made the husband to wear his wife’s dress to the market place has gone beyond ‘I hope there’s no problem’.
On March 24, 1958, Younan sent a desperate message to Penkelemesi. It was a plea for help. The bank was on his neck. He had been given a final deadline by the bank. Adelabu decided to assist his friend by following him to the head office of the bank in Lagos to plead for further credit.
Adelabu woke up very early the following day. In addition to the meeting with ACB in Lagos, he also had some issues to discuss with Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. He decided to use the same stone to kill two birds. He had just finished his morning prayers when he was informed that Albert Younan was outside. He bade his family farewell and promised to be back before evening.
The journey to Lagos was uneventful. The management of the Bank was happy to receive a politician with the stature of Adelabu. He was assured that his request would be considered. Younan was happy. Adelabu was happy. He went off to see Okotie-Eboh.
It was on the return journey to Ibadan that the unthinkable happened. It was on a straight stretch of road between Ode-Remo and Iperu. Albert Younan was the one driving the ash-grey Peugeot saloon car. Adelabu was seated beside him. Two of Adelabu’s aides were also in the car.
Without warning, the Peugeot collided head on with a light yellow Austin which was on its way to Lagos. The force of the collision was such that the Austin somersaulted and came to rest upside down facing back the way it had come. The Peugeot cracked under the impact. It burst into flames.
Ha! Ikunle Abiyamo o!
Travellers who witnessed the accident rushed to the aid of the victims. They successfully extinguished the fire. Of the four passengers in the Peugeot car, only the driver, Albert Younan, was alive. Though he was injured, he was still breathing.
The driver of the yellow Austin was unharmed. It was as if he was not the one who drove the car.
His two passengers were however not as lucky. The two Britons in the car, who were representatives of the Royal Exchange Assurance Company, sustained slight injuries.
All of them, the dead and the injured, were quickly rushed to Shagamu Hospital. It was at the hospital that it was discovered that Penkelemesi, the Lion of the West, was one of the dead.
It was late in the evening that the news reached Ibadan. It started as a rumour. No one believed it. It could not have been Adelabu. Penkelemesi was a survivor. He was a fighter.
He would never allow death to take him. Even if he was involved in an accident, the Lone Star would be unscathed. Bi Sango ba n pa Araba, bi o n fa Iroko ya, bi ti igi nla ko. If Sango, the god of thunder strikes at Araba tree and dismantles Iroko tree, he must respect the baobab tree. Adelabu was baobab. He was beyond the reach of Sango.
It was not until the following morning when his death became the headline news that reality dawned on his teeming followers. Tragedy Strikes screamed the Defender newspaper. Adelabu Is Dead announced the Daily Times.
Anthony Enahoro, as the Leader of the Western House of Assembly, proposed an extraordinary adjournment as a tribute to the dead Leader of the Opposition. In his moving tribute, he said:
“We did not agree with him or his methods, and he too, did not agree with us or our policies.
Nevertheless, he was a tireless and doughty fighter who stood firmly by the things he cherished, and it may be that when the history of these times comes to be written, that is one attribute of Alhaji Adelabu which will be remembered better than any other.”
Chief Obafemi Awolowo saluted the man who had keenly desired to take his place as Premier of the West.
According to him: “Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu was, in his lifetime, and ever since he entered into politics, a fighter first and last, with all the characteristics of a fighter. He was fearless, formidable, forthright, often caustic, and uncompromising.”
It was a day no one who witnessed it would ever forget. Lanrewaju Adepoju, the redoubtable Yoruba poet, in a recent album, observed that Ibadan had never mourned anyone the way it mourned Adelabu. More than 75,000 mourners assembled to pay their final homage to the People’s Hero.
According to an eyewitness account, the crowd was so dense that that it took three hours for the funeral procession of over fifty vehicles to move from Molete to Oke Oluokun where he was to be buried.
Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe presented a coffin to the family on behalf of his political party, the NCNC. It must have been a special coffin. I remember that one verbal abuse that was popular in the West when I was growing up was to describe someone as having ‘long head like Adelabu’s coffin’.
Do you remember? Olori gboro bi posi Adelabu!
Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Leader of NCNC, was not physically present at the funeral but he was represented by top notchers of the party. He later came to pay his last his respects to his very distinguished lieutenant. At the graveside, Azikiwe announced that NCNC would provide scholarships for all of Adelabu’s 15 children. He also donated 100 pounds to the family.
Adelabu was not mourned by only the NCNC and the AG. On behalf of the Northern People Congress, Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa sent two top Ministers: Muhammadu Ribadu and Inuwa Wada to pay condolences and pray at the grave of a fellow Muslim.
Adegoke Adelabu was dead and buried. But the Lion of West did not die alone. His supporters took to the streets. They paraded through the city and stoned public buildings, including Mapo Hall and the courts at Oke Are. By evening of that day, three people had been killed in various parts of Ibadan.
It was speculated that Adelabu was shot by his political opponents.
An editor of a newspaper claimed that he saw Adelabu’s body riddled with bullet holes and that the car he was travelling in was deliberately crashed to make it look like an accident.
This claim was however without basis. Unknown to many at the time, Adelabu’s corpse did not arrive Ibadan until late in the morning of March 26 because a postmortem was being conducted to determine the cause of his death. The autopsy was witnessed by Chief Joseph M. Johnson, one of Adelabu’s friends. Johnson was the first and the only non-indigene to serve as the Chairman of Ibadan Council.
Adelabu died on Tuesday.
He was buried on Wednesday. By Friday, all hell broke lose. Reports of murders and violence began to come in by Friday evening. One account put the number of death at sixteen. Another account sighted by Onigegewura recorded eighteen riot deaths. All the victims were said to be members or supporters of the Action Group.
By March 30, more than 300 people had been arrested. Many of them were taken to Ilesha and Abeokuta prisons since Ibadan prison was already full.
It was also speculated that Younan had crashed the car deliberately in order to commit suicide as a result of his financial challenges.
This was however denied by Albert Younan who insisted that there was no special cloth printed for the 1956 election and therefore no financial loss. He claimed that he went with Adelabu to Lagos for unrelated business.
The family of Adegoke Adelabu did not appear to be convinced.
The family filed a civil suit against Younan and Sons Limited and the Royal Exchange Assurance Company. Their claim was for the sum of one hundred thousand pounds for negligence of the two drivers which led to the death of their breadwinner.
The trial judge was My Lord Justice Samuel Quashie-Idun, a Ghanaian. His Lordship later served as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
In his judgment, Justice Quashie-Idun held that no case had been made against the insurance company. His Lordship however found Younan and Sons liable. The firm was ordered to pay 6,030 pounds as damages to Adelabu’s children and 350 pounds as costs.
Younan and Sons appealed the judgment. Their appeal was successful. The Federal Supreme Court reversed the decision of the trial court on the ground that the plaintiffs who sued as Administrators of the estate of Adegoke Adelabu had no capacity to bring the suit.
At the time, the Federal Supreme Court was not the final Court of appeal for Nigeria. The apex court was the Privy Council in Britain.
Adelabu’s family appealed to the Privy Council. The appeal was pending when the parties agreed to settle out of court. The firm of Younan and Sons agreed to pay the family of the Lion of the West the sum of 3,000 pounds.
On the political front, a bye-election was conducted to fill the seat hitherto occupied by Adelabu.
Adeoye Adisa, a young lawyer who had returned to Ibadan two years earlier from his law studies in Britain emerged the winner of the bye-election.
Adegoke Adelabu died more than 59 years ago. He died at a tender age. He was 43. He was however able to cram into his short life what many who lived up to a century could only dream of achieving.
At the time of his death, he was holding three critical posts. He was the Leader of the Opposition in the Western House of Assembly. He was the Chairman of the NCNC Western Working Committee. He was also the chairman of the powerful NCNC-Mabolaje Grand Alliance. Almost six decades after his last breath, his footprints are still indelible on the political landscape.
In recognition of his achievements as a nationalist, politician, orator and mass mobilizer, the government of Oyo State in 2016 listed his Oke-Oluokun residence as one of the tourist sites in Oyo State.
I hope the next time you are in the city of Ibadan, you will find time to visit the Taj Mahal.
May the soul of Gbadamosi Adegoke Adelabu continue to rest in peace.