Obaro Ikime: The intellectual as hostage

Ogunsakin Mustapha
9 Min Read
Prof Obaro Ikime

By Owei Lakemfa

General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, the Dean of Coups in Nigeria, finally staged a coup for himself on August 27, 1985. The veteran coup plotter could sniff coups years away. On December 17, 1985, he rounded up over 100 military officers for allegedly conceptualising a coup. Some, including his childhood friend, Major General Mamman Vatsa, were sentenced to death.

When it was announced that the ruling military junta was to meet in the evening of March 5,1986 over the death sentences, Nigeria famous literary triumvirate: Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark and Chinua Achebe, rushed to meet Babangida in the morning. The dictator vowed to them: “I wish to give you my word of honour – I shall go into the crucial meeting determined to do everything in my power to save them. I assure you, I shall not be party to their execution. That I can promise you.”

But as soon as the trio left, the meeting was convened so that by the time Soyinka got to his Abeokuta home, Vatsa and the other military officers had been executed. So, when on Sunday April 22, 1990 an actual coup attempt, called the ‘Orkar Coup’ was carried out, Babangida and his gang went into frenzy. Hundreds of military officers were arrested with an unknown number murdered before they could get to trial. The junta also used the opportunity to shut-down some newspapers and detain 19 senior journalists, accusing them of participating in the coup.

It then turned on lecturers whom Babangida for years had accused of “teaching what they are not paid to teach”. The Gestapo on May 2, 1990 descended on the Obafemi Awolowo University. But the philosopher, Dr Dipo Fashina, escaped the dragnet. Then they abducted Professors Toye Olorode and Idowu Awopetu. As the convoy sped off, the alert students of the campus gave chase, caught one of the abductors, a secret service officer, whom the students detained for 12 days despite threats by the regime to invade the campus.

The Gestapo also went to Ibadan where they abducted famous historian, Professor Obaro Ikime of the University of Ibadan. While the OAU lecturers were unapologetic radicals, Ikime, who was also a well-known sports administrator and Anglican priest, had no such inclinations. So his abduction came as a surprise.

In Lagos, Olorode was detained at the Security Service detention centre on Awolowo Road; Awopetu at the centre on Kingsway Road; and surprisingly, Ikime was taken to the notorious Inter Centre, built into the Ikoyi Cemetery where the most ‘dangerous’ elements and many of the alleged coup plotters were kept. In the 95 days he spent in detention, he was allowed to wear just a pair of clothes.

Prof Obaro Ikime

The three professors were reunited at the Military Tribunal chaired by Brigadier Rufus Modupe Kupolati where they were charged as conspirators in the Orkar Coup. Olorode and Awopetu were jointly charged. The ‘evidence’ against them were that a conference against the World Bank was planned for the day of the coup attempt and that the duo belonged to a radical organisation called the Ife Collective which had produced a publication on ‘Alternative to SAP’ (Structural Adjustment Programme). Both defenders said they were opposed to coups and did not believe in replacing one set of coup plotters with another. Rather, they wanted the military’s exit from politics and the enthronement of ‘Peoples’ Power’.

The case proffered against Ikime was that he provided the intellectual basis for the Orkar coup, including campaigning for a religious upheaval and ethnic division which saw Orkar purporting to excise part of the country. In 1990, Ikime who was the Chairman of a committee on the Chapel of Resurrection, had read a communiqué to the church in which he warned those talking about dipping the Quran into the ocean in Lagos, advised against religious war and entreated the church to pray against it. The prosecution brought some members of the church, including an organist, to testify; but once they came face-to-face with Ikime, they buckled, and the case collapsed.

In order to avoid this type of collapse, the prosecution in the case of inciting ethnic hatred and conflict, decided to use Ikime’s published works against him. It produced his Keynote Address delivered at the National Seminar on the National Question held in Abuja on August 4, 1986. In the paper titled: “Towards Understanding The National Question”, Ikime had submitted that Hausa, Yoruba, Ijaw and other such nationalities did not exist before the 17th Century, so they were recent creations. Secondly, that unlike Islam and Christianity, traditional religion often serve as integrative forces and were accommodative.

Thirdly, that while Islam brought Islamic culture and made no separation between the state and region, Christianity brought Western European culture and education and secularism. So, while the Jihad created a religious and political entity in the Sokoto Caliphate resulting in a greater Northern togetherness, there was no such cohesion in the South.

Fourthly, that the colonialists in 1939 deliberately broke the South into two regions but left the North intact, thereby not just creating Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani majorities, but also giving the impression that the North was larger than the South and awarded it double the seats than the South. He argued that if it were based on population -there was no national census until the controversial 1952/53 –the East and the West would not have been awarded equal number of seats. This colonial legacy, he said, led to politics being conceptualised as largely a trade-off among the three, while the other nationalities were “treated as mere pawns”.

Fifth, that contrary to Bala Usman’s claims that the lines between the Hausa and Fulani had become blurred, the Hausa elites are conscious that following the Jihad, they lost the top political positions to the Fulani.

Sixth, that in appointments, lower qualifications were required from candidates from the North rather than promote greater equity.

Ikime’s solution was that in a federation, there must be equal ownership and greater equity for all. In the argument before the tribunal, the intellectual took the prosecutors to the cleaners. On August 1, 1990, Ikime was released but compulsorily retired on October 15, 1990. Professors Olorode and Awopetu were similarly treated. Their retirement was illegal and they challenged it in court. But the state approached them informally that if they withdrew the cases and appealed to Babangida as the Visitor, they would be recalled. While Ikime seemed to have fallen for this ploy, Olorode and Awopetu refused and Justice Moni Fafiade ordered them recalled. Thus, the country lost the active services of a father historian who still had 26 years in the university where retirement for professors is 70.

On Thursday, April 25, 2023, at 86, the mobile African library departed on a one-way flight.

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