‘The point at which Nigeria collapsed’: Understanding Banji Akintoye through an unpublished interview

Banji Akintoye advises the Yoruba society to pick up the pieces and work to build a great and prosperous society where there will be freedom for all and life more abundant
Reading time < 11 minutes
Published by The Welfarist on
March 30, 2021
Last modified 7 months ago


It is difficult to misunderstand renowned professor of history, Banji Akintoye. He has the charisma to articulate his vision into lucid speeches that even teenagers will understand. Therefore, the different interpretations that his Yoruba self-determination agitation is attracting can only find an explanation in the diverse political prisms that exists in Yoruba land and Nigeria.

For critics whose good reasonings may have been corrupted by partisan influence, no defence could be made for Banji Akintoye. But for observers who are divested from partisan influence and would wish to understand the octogenarian leader, here is an interview conducted five years ago when he turned 81. Looking back, it may be providential that the interview was not published, as it serves a better purpose now.

In this interview, Prof Banji Akintoye clearly articulates the passion that beats in his heart and runs in his veins and which he still pursues as he ages. His prognosis for a prosperous and peaceful order in Yorubaland is a fundamental philosophy of TheWelfarist.Com–a project of Afenifere Renewal Group–and one which well-meaning Yoruba sons and daughters should ponder on.

The Interview

At 81, how do you feel about Nigeria? Is this the country you dreamt of?

Definitely not. When I was young, I had the opportunity to travel round many African countries, and I was sure then that if Africa is to get off the ground, Nigeria will have to provide the lead. And I was sure that Nigeria had the capability to provide the lead.

I was part of Nigeria’s delegation to many pan-African conferences. It used to be that if the Nigerian delegation were late, the rest of Africa waited for us. It is when we arrived that the conference started. We carried that vision of ourselves as the people who would provide the way forward for Africa. And we were quite ambitious about achieving that.

As a young professor when Chief Awolowo was released from prison, we coalesced around him and started brainstorming about Nigeria. The ideas we were churning out were beyond anything that you see now. We were sure that Nigeria was going to become the black man’s world power, and we were ready to work hard to make that happen. Chief Awolowo used to say to us ‘gentlemen, this is going to take everything from us’.

Why has that dream remained elusive?

It is not elusive. It was achievable and has a clearly workable roadmap. However, it has eluded us so far because there were people who did not share that vision from the beginning, no matter what it portends for the country. They were more interested in other mundane matters. And the British laid the foundation for that. We were aware of that opposition, but our strategy was to rally the Nigerian people as a force to achieve what we believe serves their interest better.

Nigeria was always at the crossroad. It could go right or left; between the forces that want to pull it in the right direction and those that want it to go the other way. Particularly in 1979, the forces that want the country to go in the other direction proved stronger than us. They had the support of the rulers who manipulated the electoral process and gave the victory to them when they have not won. That was the point at which Nigeria collapsed.

As of that point, Nigeria was earning a lot of revenue that could have been used to develop the country into a great economic power, which was what we had in mind in the Unity Party of Nigeria, which we started building from 1976 to 1979. People like me had to travel around the country holding consultations on how best to solve the country’s problems and employing comparative analysis of how those problems had been solved in other countries. We put together what was not just a political party but a movement.   

Can you be specific about those ‘retrogressive’ forces?

The soldiers had grabbed power for the sake of personal enrichment and had entrenched the culture of cronyism. Being in government became synonymous with flamboyance and extravagance rather than implementing visionary leadership. They changed leadership from that attitude that cared for the health and wealth of the country to that which cared only about themselves and their cronies.

So, under that system which reigned between 1976 to 1979, the people who only wanted to rule for that sake of it had become rich and could work in connivance with the military rulers for all the support they needed to grab power. They treated us as enemies of the government and the people of Nigeria.

The result was that by the end of the election, both Shagari and Awolowo had done very well, but neither of them had done well enough to be declared president. The obvious answer was a run-off election, but instead of that, the military rulers agreed to a sort of crooked formula to declare Shagari as a winner, although he did not win. That was the point at which I think Nigeria lost the fight to become a great country.

The preparation for it had started under the Gowon administration with the soldiers creating a new elite class from their cronies and it peaked in 1979. Nigeria started getting worse, going down and down since then because a terrible philosophy of governance had been planted successfully.

Today we are talking about Buhari’s fight against corruption. He tried in 1984 really, but the forces controlling the country were stronger than him, even as a soldier. As a senator in 1983, we had tried to wage battle against retrogressive forces, tried to make people see the right direction that the country ought to go, but they controlled the leverage of power and everything went downhill until Buhari came in via a coup. But the controlling forces got another army general, who was like them, to topple Buhari.

Under Babangida, corruption became institutionalized, as the official modus operandi of Nigeria’s government. He reportedly operated under the principle that every Nigerian has a price. This is what Buhari is trying again to fix. I wish him luck, but I have my doubts because those who are benefiting from that corrupt system will fight back. Those who want continued and unrestrained access to Nigeria's treasury have become influential. The Buhari presidency will have to confront them decisively.

What will be your advice to President Buhari?

He must stop treating this war against corruption as if it is a personal war. Rather, he should make it the war of all Nigerians. It is our war and if we, against all odds, fought and defeated the corrupt system under the PDP, then we can be trusted to fight this war and win it. Buhari as president cannot win it.

All we see currently is news about arrests. This is good, but not good enough. Nigerians are happy with what he is doing, but they do not know how to help him. He must show them how to defend their country. What brought Buhari into power was a people’s revolution, that revolution must not only be for electoral victory, it must now be harnessed for nation-building by allowing the voice of the people to decide vital issues. In modern times, Buhari’s electoral victory is the greatest thing the black man has experienced; therefore, he must make himself the leader of that revolution.

I would have expected him to kick-start his administration with introducing a whistle-blower bill. That would have gone a long way in recruiting the masses for this war. Another way he could recruit Nigeria is to go round the country holding town hall meetings. He cannot sit in Abuja and expect people to feel him.

When Murtala Mohammed came in, people were happy. But what happened? When Buhari came in 1983, people were happy. But what happened? Now he is here again, people were happy but what will happen? The failure of previous revolutionary interventions is because Nigerians were not included.

Another thing Buhari must do which he is not talking about is restructuring Nigeria’s governance. We do not have a federation. What we have in reality is a unitary government controlled from Abuja. The resources are controlled from Abuja. It is difficult to keep out corruption in a system where few people are surrounded with a fund that they can spend with little or no accountability or check and balances.

The ‘Change’ that the APC promised is such that cannot be realised meaningfully unless the country is restructured. That is the foundation of corruption. You cannot ignore that and expect to defeat corruption. If this is not done, Buhari will leave, another person will come, and the cycle continues. Restructuring is needed to break the cycle of corruption and set Nigeria on a different tangent.

Some resolutions to restructure Nigeria are contained in the report of the 2014 Confab, which the current administration is not considering. What is your advice?

Buhari and his party do not want to talk about it. That is not a problem. But let him come out with his own idea about the proper reorganisation of the country’s governance for effectiveness. He cannot continue to keep quiet on that because like I said, he cannot leave any lasting legacy that will set him apart from others who have occupied that office if he did not restructure Nigeria and help her win the war against corruption, profligacy, and nepotism once and for all. 

President Buhari has started the probe of Jonathan’s administration but many said the probe should start from say 1999. Do you share that view?

If Buhari can mobilise Nigerians to defend their country, it becomes easier to go as far back as possible. He must let Nigerians defend Nigeria. If there is a Whistle-blower Act, for instance, people can expose atrocities of 1979. Buhari should see his administration as an opportunity to free this country and restore the pride of the Blackman in the world. It must be an administration that gives our children the ambition to build a great society.

The vision you talked about earlier that got you involved in Nigeria’s politics, is it still realisable?

If we do not change the way we govern ourselves, nothing will happen. We cannot continue like this. At some point, something will give. There are three possibilities in my view. Maybe some young men will wake up one day and begin to kill every important person. Jerry Rawlings is still fresh in our minds, and we should not just wave it off as something that cannot happen here. The danger with such bloody revolution is that it may not produce the needed change.

Another possibility is that among the young people playing about on the streets today, an Awolowo emerges who can think clearly about Nigeria’s problems, come up with workable ideas and fortunate enough to attract like minds. 

The third possibility, should things continue like this, is disintegration. Majority of people will wake up one day and say Nigeria is not working. To thy tent.

The importance of Buhari is that he represents the last chance to have a go at building a genuine country. We must beg him to do it right and succeed. If he fails, any of these three options will happen.

Awolowo has been the de facto standard of measuring an administration’s performance, particularly in the Southwest. Is it a valid aspiration for Yoruba people to continue asking for another Awolowo?

Awolowo gave the Yoruba people a picture of leadership that can never be eroded from their minds. They will always look for Awolowo. What they want is an Awolowo. Period. If you do not measure up to Awolowo’s standard, Yoruba people have doubts about you. It is not just about free education or infrastructure. The political system that Awolowo developed made us the most orderly democratic people on earth. It was an open and democratic society where incumbents are not even sure of winning the next election.

Even Awolowo would have to battle against some young men in Ikenne and people would wonder whether Awolowo would lose. No matter what he did, Adelabu would defeat him in Ibadan. And once you lose, no bickering or pull him down. Government settles down and gets everybody’s support while we await the next election. We also had a very robust civil service. Look at agriculture then, not that Awolowo bought new equipment or machineries for farmers then but he created a partnership that made them proud and made their effort productive even with those crude farm implements. I still believe we can have another Awolowo.

What is your advice to Nigerian youth?

To be honest, I cannot answer that question. I cannot look our youths in the face and give them any advice because they have been betrayed a lot. How does one with conscience talk to them? When I was young, I had free qualitative education. The day I graduated from the University of Ibadan, I was writing my last examination when the vehicle sent by my prospective employer was already waiting for me in front of Trenchard Hall. By the evening of that day, I was already employed.

Today, I read about young Nigerians living as sex slaves in Western countries. Some of them are trying to cross into Europe through the desert. I feel ashamed having to look them in the face and advise them. We have betrayed them. I don’t know what to say to them, for I am ashamed. We had the best of Nigeria, but we could not bequeath the same to the young ones.

Listen to Prof Banji Akintoye at the Celebrating Yoruba Conference organised by Yoruba Academy in 2016

My advice rather is to the larger society, particularly the Yoruba society, to pick up the pieces and work to build a great and prosperous society where, in accordance with Awolowo’s slogan, there will be freedom for all and life more abundant. We ask ourselves how our forefathers built great cities. They built walls around cities, built palaces, international markets.

Our forefathers were not slave-owning people. So they built those infrastructures through communal effort and that is the key for unlocking a new prosperous order in Yorubaland. This communal effort metamorphosed into progressive unions, development associations, which were instrumental in development of communities, provision of scholarships, building of schools, etc. Why don’t we go to that system and forget about government? Our culture offers us a way to organise our societies, with or without the government.     

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