My life with Awo – HID

First published in The Nation three days after Chief (Mrs.) HID Awolowo’s 92nd birthday

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Last Sunday, matriarch of the Obafemi Awolowo dynasty clocked 92. Just before then, she shared the story of her life with the late legendary politician in an exclusive interview. ADEWALE ADEOYE and Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE write on the encounter 

The compound was serene. Some old men hung around the corridors. The mausoleum, where the late patriarch of the family was kept for nine years stood like a timeless monument. Some birds sang sonorous songs on a bevy of flowers that dot the beautiful landscape.

Inside the building, the sitting room was elegant, modest and full of saintly aroma. It could have been the abode of a clergyman of an earlier century, a principled school principal or a nun. There were no cobwebs, no waste bins, no dirt: the large sitting room was immaculate.

Welcome to the Ikenne, Ogun State home of late political jaugernaut, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The leader’s been gone now – for years. But it still remained home for the object of this hunt, his widow, Chief (Mrs.) Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo.

There were several pictures on the wall: supporters, as numerous as sand upon the seashore with Awo raising the iconic two-finger “V” victory sign, the meeting with Indira Ghandi if India, shaking of hands with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, the meeting with the Queen Elizabeth of England in the late 1950s, and interestingly too the picture of Mama as Chief (Mrs.) H. I. D. Awolowo is fondly called and her late husband oon their wedding day in 1933. In the photograph, Awo was been 24 years old and Mama, 22. She looked like an innocent dove perching on a dew-soaked flower in early summer.

She looked radiant, beautiful and precious. She held the hand of her soul mate, the man who would later transform political landscape of Nigeria in ways no one else has done. Another picture in the room showed her when she was 50 looking as 20 years younger than her age.

She still looked younger and stronger than her 92 years age when she stepped out at her birthday thanksgiving service last Sunday leading the chorus of praise. Accompanied by her children, grandchildren and selected dignitaries such as Governor Gbenga Daniels of Ogun State, she moved with the grace the belied her and radiated what the officiating bishop described as divine glory.

Although her husband passed on some two decades ago, Mama is still alive to see him being celebrated as politicians scramble to proclaim belief in and be identified with his political philosophy and legacy – a good number no doubt dubiously so. Just last week, Otuunba Gbenga Daniels’ government in Ogun State forwarded a draft law to the state legislature seeking the late political legend’s house being named a state monument.

Not that this would be a difficult task. Even his bathroom slippers and comb still lay at appropriate locations in the house as if awaiting the return of their owners. His last diary sits on the table as if awaiting the next entry. Although it is not functional now, there are talks of repairing the Mercedes Benz limousine that took Awo round as he criss-crossed the nation in pursuit of his elusive presidential mandate.

The guests settled in the sitting room awaiting the unique encounter. A lady passed served them pineapple juice. They were on the second round of taken in ornamental glasses when Mama walked into the room. She settled at one corner of the room. Now a few days short of 92, she sat like a god. She was assisted by a young charming lady of Igbo extraction, Chinyere. But the locals in Ikenne now prefer to call her “Kikelomo” meaning a treasured offspring.

Mrs. H. I. D. Awolowo had been intimated with the fact that she was to speak on the travails and triumphs of hersel, her late husband and her family, a clan that is no doubt one of the most influential in Nigeria.

Two daughters were with Mama during the interview. They were Mrs. Oyede Ayodele and Dr. (Mrs.) Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu. Mama requested of them to remind her of events she might have forgotten assuming the posture of mild senility usually associated with people her age which her sharp looks did nothing to confirm. Of course, she spoke clearly vividly recalling events way back to the first day she met her late husband around 1930.

How did you feel on the first day Awo met you? She was asked, writer looking straight into her scintillating eyeballs.

“In those days,” she recalled, “a man would propose to you in writing. Obafemi wrote a letter to me that he was in love with me and wanted to marry me.”

Wisdom teaches that women are like diplomats. Do not expect a straight anwer from them to such a request. They would never say yes. They would say “No” when they actually mean “Maybe” and “Maybe” when they mean “Yes.” So it was that young Hannah said “No” which late graduated to a “Maybe.” At this point, young Obafemi knew he had won the battle.

The couple got married in 1933, few years before the outbreak of the Second World War. Awo was 24 and his bride 22.

“We had a good beginning,” she reminiscences her face glowing the memories of a wonderful past barely exposing what looked like a set of milk teeth, “and I thank God for the good time we both spent together.”

Hannah Idowu Dideolu was born in 1910 to a modest family in the small Ikenne community of Ogun State. It was at a time when the educated elite and number of cars in the country could be counted on fingertips. Lagos, which is now barely 40 minutes drive from Ikenne would take drivers two days in those days. Kano to Ikenne in 1910 would take two weeks. Travellers going overseas, mostly to London, spent about one month seafaring.

It was an era when colonialism was rife in Africa, revolutionary movements threatened autocratic regimes in Asia and Eastern Europe and Black renaissance movement was gathering steam in the United States of America. Nigeria in 1910 was a young politically. In fact, only one political party, the Peoples’ Union, established in 1902 and led by two medical doctors, J. K. Randle and Orishadipe, were in existence. By 1933 when Hannah got married to Obafemi, there had been rapid growth in the social and political awareness in Nigeria.

It was not long the wedding that the family moved to Ibadan. In the late 1930s, Hannah’s husband journeyed to London where he studied law. He left behind his wife now the young mother of a baby boy, Segun. She was equally pregnant with Oluwole.

“I felt a bit lonely when he left for London but was contended that it was for the good of the family,” Mrs. Awolowo recalled that period of their lives. She recollected one remarkable event that took place which brings to mind the young couple’s not too comfortable financial status.

Having secured admission to study in London, the family had no money to pursue the course. H. I. D. said, “Awo wrote a letter to a prominent businessman seeking financial assistance. I will not wish to mention the name. The request was turned down. But we thank God for everything. He was the one who saw us through.”

Although Mama would not disclose the identity of the businessman it is now a well known fact that the business mogul based at Ijebu Ode who is now about 110 years old, said later that he regretted not lending Awo the money he needed to pursue his education.

By the time Awo came back to Nigeria, the political space was largely dominated by Herbert Macaulay, an engineer and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. The latter could speak several Nigerian languages and had the habit of bamboozling the crowds with his verbose use of the English grammar.

In 1948 when Egbe Omo Yoruba was launched by Awo and his friends, Hannah was on hand to play the role of a supportive partner. She went with him on campaign trips and hosted political associates and other guests at home. She also accompanied him on as many trips as caring for the children would permit.

Most remarkable about this woman was her dogged support for her husband through a traumatic epoch in Nigerian history an in which her husband was the main actor. In 1962, the arrest of her husband on phantom charges of coup plotting was shocking to her. She was with her him when the gang of armed security personnel came calling. He was accused of planning to overthrow the government of Nigeria.

Earlier on when Awo came to power in 1954 in the Western region, he had transformed the area into a mini-paradise and the envy of many of her peers. He built the first TV station and the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa. Awo built the most formidable University located at Ile-Ife. Every child in his region was given access to free and compulsory education. Several industrial estates were established including but not limited to the Ikeja and Bodija Estates in Lagos and Ibadan respectively. The whole of the South West was also mapped into agrarian and industrial estates. The United Nations Development Program, UNDP rating the region as being at per with many European countries at the time in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the growth rate.

H. I. D. stood with her husband throughout all these years providing the conducive atmosphere for him to function at his best. However, the early 1960s was for her an era of travails. The Federal authorities waged consistent propaganda on the radio and TV denouncing Awo.

She was however a great source of emotional, spiritual and physical strength for her deliberately persecuted husband. Mama did not only face the jeering of political opponents, she also lost her first son, Segun, a lawyer in a ghastly motor accident along Lagos-Ibadan road at a time her husband was serving prison term for treason. Looking back at those years, Mrs. Awolowo said she bore the tribulations with the passion of a Christian realizing that all things that come into being must pass away.

Chief Ayo Adebanjo, a close political associate and friend of the family, told our correspondent in a chat that in one of Awo’s campaigns in Eastern Nigeria, a man threwn a stone from upstairs of a storey building which landed on Awo’s head. He said instead reacting, Awo simply concealed his pain from his wife and continued with his speech as if nothing had happened.

The Federal authorities did not help the situation either. The Tafawa Balewa regime was faced with uprising in the Western region after the 1959 elections believed to have been widely rigged. Mama said she was disturbed. Awo was in his late 40s and she in her mid-40s, usually the prime time that couples hope to have the most passionate relashionship and the spend the best of times together as a family. This was a privilege the Awolowos were not to enjoy.

“They came with armed men and led him away,” she said.

Her husband was at first taken to Epe on the Atlantic Ocean. As the armed men led him away, she recalled how she felt lonely and dejected. A crowd of supporters burst into the old ballad as Awo was led across the sea as if he was never to return. It was the Christian hymn Abide With Me rendered in Yoruba: Wa ba mi gbe, ale fere l’etan, Okun kun su Oluwa Bami gbe, bi oloran lowo miran baye, iranwo alaini wa ba mi gbe.

Mrs. Awolowo said from Epe Island, her husband was again returned to their family home until he was whisked away to Calabar Prison after his conviction where he was served his until the coup of July 1966 after which General Yakubu Gown set him free.

Mama is particularly thrilled by the cultural revolution that the late Hebert Ogunde led through her sonorous revolutionary music, Yoruba Ronu, an epistemological appeal to the people of the South West to wake up in their mental slumber and rescue the race from her political stupor. The military leaders did not only release her husband, something she was thrilled to witness, the events also led to the victory of light over darkness. By 1966, almost all the conspirators that worked day and night to persecute and humiliate the late sage had either been shot on the streets by the coupists or found themselves in exile. Mama’s better half made a triumphant re-entry into Nigerian politics and he was latter appointed as the Vice Chairman of the Finance.

Things ran smoothly with Awo playing different roles until the Second Republic when he returned to politics on the platform of his party, Unity Party of Nigeria. He lost bids for the presidency to President Shehu Shagari both in 1979 and 1983 under suspicious circumstances. The obvious fraudulent charade that went by the name of 1983 elections saw the military coming back to power exactly three months into the new term. Again, the Awo camp felt vincicated.

By the time Awo passed on, he stood like a colossus his image dominating the land. It has been said that apart for Oduduwa the founder of the race, no other person rises taller than Awolowo among the Yoruba nations of South West Nigeria. From his humble peasant background days to the peak of his achievement, the Senior Advocate of Nigeria had on woman on his side confirming the much misused cliché, behind every successful man, there is a woman. She was there during the travails and they shared the laurels of victory together. Now the children and grandchildren are there the keep Mama happy while the legacy of her husband sweetens her life. Paragon of in her younger days, she has aged graciously.

As the interview wound up, a simple request was made of his widow. It turned out to be the peak of the encounter. Asked if she could recite some of her late husband’s oriki Yoruba praise chant, she lit up like a Christmas tree. Beaming as if she could actually feel and see his presence in the room, she plunged into it in their native Ijebu dialect. No doubt she was actually seeing him in her mind’s eyes. She reeled out the lines with the ease and skill of much use. Her eyes roved over spaces in the sitting room as if conjuring wonderful moments they spent together. No doubt her mind was filled with happy memories. After all, it is said that sweet is the memory of the righteous. Such memory of Awo is clearly more alive in the mind of Chief (Mrs.) H. I. D. Awolowo that any other living being.

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