The woman who gave us Awolowo
IT is debatable whether Nigeria would have had the benefits of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s imperishable service if he had married another kind of wife, instead of Hannah Idowu Dideolu, the inimitable HID Awolowo (nee Adelana). Awolowo knew what he had. Even before the storms of the 1960s were to reveal the steely strength and sagacity of his wife, he described her as “my jewel of inestimable value.” In listing the reasons for his success in public life, Awolowo ranked his wife third after God and his personal iron discipline.
Therefore, in the reckoning of the late sage, no person ranked higher than this magnificent woman in his struggles and imperishable accomplishments. Now 28 years after the passage of Chief Awolowo, Nigeria’s most famous widow is finally being committed into the red soil of Ikenne.
By the time I met her in 1991, most of her great deeds were past. Gone were the days of power and its perilous struggles and giddy glory. But she carried with her the dignified halo of the born leader. In her expansive sitting room, where the legendary Chief Awolowo once held court, she was surrounded by the memorabilia of her life-long romance with power and arduous journey to prominence.
Mama and Chief Awolowo paid a steep price for their service to the Nigerian people. Both in public and private life, she subdued great obstacles to reach her goals. She once told us the story of why she named her first child Oluwasegun (the Lord has granted me victory). She was an only surviving child and her mother too was an only child. Obafemi Awolowo, who proposed to her, was also an only son (he has a sister) who lost his father at 12. Therefore, they could not marry for many months because of opposition from extended family members who thought the marriage may be plagued with childlessness because of the personal history of both lovers. But Awolowo was a stubborn suitor and eventually they married on Boxing Day in 1937. Victory won.
But that was not the end of the story. The new Mr. and Mrs. Awolowo were living in Ibadan where her husband was a produce buyer, journalist, trade unionist and nationalist agitator. Awolowo was building his country home in Ikenne and it was the practice that his wife would always travel there to supervise the construction. She was on such a trip when she fell into labour, though the pregnancy was not yet up to term.
It was her infinite devotion to her husband that gave us the titan, Awolowo, and made him perform the wonders of the West
There was no hospital in sight, no electricity and no modern facilities. Dideolu had her baby boy prematurely and he was put on a cushion of freshly picked cotton and moved to Ibadan. He survived. Hence his name, Oluwasegun. It is noteworthy that Segun Awolowo became a lawyer like his father. He died suddenly during the crisis of the 1960s. His only son, Segun Awolowo Jnr, is now a visible player in the power loop of Abuja.
But few months after Oluwasegun was born, Awolowo became bankrupt when his produce buying business collapsed. His much cherished house in Ikenne was sold for 20 pounds and his car, his dresses and books went under the hammer. He was dreaming of going to the United Kingdom to study law, but this had to be deferred. Throughout all these years of privation and reversal of fortunes, his wife, the great H.I.D, stood by him.
Fortune smiled on the family after almost a decade and Awo travelled to the UK in 1944 to study law leaving his wife with the children. By the time he returned with a law degree, he realised the burden his wife carried, taking care of the family while he was away. It was while pondering on the sacrifices of his wife, her role in providing him a stable anchor of domestic felicity despite the turbulence of life that made him refer to her as “my jewel of inestimable value.” It was a well-deserved tribute for a woman who was to prove her worth in subsequent tempests and occasional calms that were to characterise Awolowo’s epic struggle for power.
On the day of the first coup, January 15, 1966, her husband was in Calabar Prisons and Dideolu was home in Ibadan. She had just returned from the long, arduous and dangerous road trip to Calabar. Ibadan and other towns in the West were in the grip of Operation Wetie! Rival party thugs were having a field day in the bitter struggle between Awolowo’s and Chief Ladoke Akintola’s supporters and people and houses were being set ablaze. Then the fateful day! Someone brought the news at dawn that Akintola, the Premier of Western Region, had been killed. Dideolu felt this was a new height in the fire that was overwhelming the Wild, Wild West!
She fled home and took refuge with her son-in-law, Dr Kayode Oyediran, husband of Omotola, who was then a young physician working for the University College Hospital, UCH, Ibadan. It was while she was at the Oyedirans that she learnt the details about Nigeria’s first coup d’etat. Few days later, the new military governor, Lieutenant-Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi came to town. Nigeria had changed forever.
But for the Awolowos, things remained almost the same. The Operation Wetie dissipated its force, but Awolowo and his leading followers, who had been convicted of treasonable felony, remained in prison. Entreaties were made to the new military ruler, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, the Supreme Commander, but he was not able to take any action until the counter coup of July 29, 1966 that brought Lt. Colonel Yakubu Jack Gowon to power.
On August 3, 1966, HID was home in Ikenne when the news came that Chief Awolowo and most of his imprisoned followers had been granted state pardon by the new ruler, Colonel Gowon. Soon enough, a Mercedes-Benz car driven by a young major, brought Awolowo in. He had been flown to Lagos from Calabar early that morning and the major had volunteered to drive him to Ikenne. Awolowo was happy about the benevolence of the young stranger. The major was Murtala Muhammed and he was later to become the successor to Gowon after the coup of July 1975.
As Awolowo served as the oracle of Nigeria’s public life, his wife was the power behind the throne. She wielded her influence with deliberate majesty. Not for her, the occasional public spats or the controversies. Her husband lived a life of public probity and perpendicular integrity and she felt duty bound to do everything that would meet his high standard and demanding values.
In the thick of the crisis with Akintola, she would not join the fray despite consistent baiting. As the First Lady of the West, she maintained a high profile and yet ran a lucrative personal business as one of Africa’s leading merchants in the textile business. She ran a large store in Gbagi, in the heart of Ibadan business district and the area is still called Awolowo Corner till this day.
In the twilight of her years, you will meet her in her Ikenne home elegantly dressed. She remained a fastidious fashion enthusiast till the very end. She also remained vigorously interested in politics and she took her role as a troubleshooter with passionate vitality.
In one of the meetings a few years ago at the Efunyela Hall at the Awolowo home in Ikenne, she had cautioned the feuding members of the Awolowo political family members: “What do you want me to tell Papa when I get there?” Mollified by her display of anger, many of them prostrated before her.
When she was born 100 years ago, Nigeria was just beginning. The Yoruba civil wars that started with the collapse of Old Oyo in the 19th Century had ended and the new British Raj had moved to control this territory allocated to them at the Berlin Conference. She was a simple country girl whose life had changed our lives and our world. It was her infinite devotion to her husband that gave us the titan, Awolowo, and made him perform the wonders of the West.
She had an encyclopedic knowledge of Nigeria and her people. It is fitting and noteworthy that she is committed to Mother Earth on her 100th birthday in the same Ikenne where her story started a century ago. Such poetic end can only be accorded to the matriarch who bore her title as the Yeye Oba (Mother of the King) of Ife with such dignity and seriousness.
She knew so much. Once we had spent about three hours with her, but Dele Omotunde, my colleague and then deputy Editor-in-Chief of TELL, would not let her attend to another engagement. One more question, Omotunde persisted. She responded with motherly exasperation: “Eyin omode yi, e tun ti bere!” (You these boys, you have started again!)
Mama has finally ended her remarkable odyssey and joined the pantheon of the ancestors