Analysis of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s 1963 prison speech – using impressionism

By: Adekunle Adebajo, University of Ibadan


THE SPEECH

Delivered in the High Court on 11 September 1963 before his sentence, following a charge of treasonable felony

I must say, and this may have to be taken up with a higher tribunal, that I do not agree with your Lordship’s verdict, and the premises on which it is based. For upwards of 30 years, I have been in politics in Nigeria; during this period I have operated in various important theatres in the life of this great Federation. I have, with others, fought against British imperialism with all my might, and with all the talents that it pleased God to give me.

Together with other nationalists, some of whom are with me and many of whom are not with me here, we have successfully thrown out British imperialism and enthroned Africans in positions which, 20 or more years ago, they never dreamt of occupying.

I have been an unyielding advocate of a Federal Constitution for Nigeria. I have all along, with other leaders of this country, been a very active and constructive participant in all the constitutional conferences which have taken place since 1953, and which have culminated, not only in the attainment of independence, but in the production of a Constitution of which Nigerians are very proud.

This Constitution is now being gradually violated. I have also fought against anything which savours of injustice. It is, thus, an irony of history that, as one of the architects of Nigeria’s independence, I have spent almost half of Nigeria’s three years of independence under one form of confinement or another.

Since 1957 I have fought, as your Lordship remarked, with vigour against the feudal system in the Northern Region and for its eradication. I have also fought to prevent the spread of this evil political system to other parts of Nigeria.

During the same period I have strongly advocated the breaking up of Northern Region into more states in order to have true  federation in Nigeria ,to preclude the permanent subservience of people of Nigeria  to the autocratic ruling caste in the north ,and to preserve peace and unity in the country.

In short I have always fought for what I believe ,without relenting and regardless of consequences to myself .i have no doubt ,and I say this without spirit of immodesty ,that in the course of my political career ,I have rendered  services to this country which historians and the coming generation will regard as imperishable

Naturally, Sir, in the course of my long, turbulent and active political life, I have attracted to myself a sizeable crop of detractors and political adversaries. Similarly, I have in the course of this long career seen both triumphs and setbacks; and I have met them with equal mind.

Peter, not Peter the Apostle, but Peter the hero of Hugh Walpole’s novel entitled ‘Fortitude’ said: ‘It isn’t life that matters but the courage you bring to it’. After life had done terrible things to Peter, he heard a voice that said to him, among other things, ‘Blessed be all sorrow, hardships and endurance that demand courage. Blessed be these things: for of these things cometh the making of a man.’ In the words of Peter, therefore, my Lord, I declare (not that I have heard a voice): Blessed be your verdict; and I say in advance, blessed be the sentence which your Lordship may pass on me.

I personally welcome any sentence you may impose upon me. At this moment my only concern is not myself, but that my imprisonment might do harm to Nigeria for three reasons.

First, the invaluable services which I have hitherto rendered and which I can still render will be lost to the country, at least, for a season.

Second, there might be heightening of the present tension which has lasted 15 months, and has done incalculable injuries to the economy of the country.

Thirdly, for some time to come, the present twilight of democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law, will change or might change into utter darkness. But after darkness, and this is common-place, comes a glorious dawn.

It is, therefore, with a brave heart, with confident hope, and with faith in my alterable destiny, that I go from this twilight into the darkness, unshaken in my trust in the Providence of God that a glorious dawn will come on the morrow. My adversaries might say: who am I to think that if I am imprisoned the country might suffer? What if I died? The point, of course, is that I am still alive and will not die in prison. Furthermore, the spirit of man knows no barrier, never dies, and can be projected to any part of the world.

This being so, I am confident that the ideals of social justice and individual liberty which I hold dear will continue to be projected beyond the prison walls and bars until they are realised in our lifetime. In this connection, I must stress that in this very court room, indeed, in this dock and in the entire Federation of Nigeria, the spirit of a new Nigeria is already active and at work. This spirit, working through constitutional means which I have spent the whole of my lifetime to advocate, is sure to prevail, before very long, to the diligent, freedom and prosperity of all and sundry.

Before I close, I must say that in spite of the delay of the past few weeks on the part of your Lordship in giving judgment in this case, and in spite of my disagreement with your verdict which I have just given expression to, I must acknowledge your Lordship’s patience throughout the trial of this case. Particularly, I want to thank your Lordship for the due and special consideration which you have always accorded me and other accused persons.

I thank your Lordship; and I am prepared to abide by your sentence.

Source: Greatest Speeches of Historic Black Leaders, Volume Two, 5th Edition, Edited by Ben Anagwonye, 2013, Mindex Publishing Company Limited, Benin City. Pages 71-74.

 

ANALYSIS

This speech was delivered by Chief Obafemi Jeremiah Awolowo on the 11th of September, 1963 during his trial alongside several others. He had been charged with conspiring with some Ghanaian authorities under Kwame Nkrumah to overthrow the federal government. It will be analysed chiefly from the impressionistic perspective i.e. based on the author’s understanding and opinion, and secondarily from the analytical perspective.

First and foremost, reading through the speech, one may be in doubt as to Chief Awolowo’s level of humility. This is because while he uttered such self-effacing remarks as, ‘and with all the talents that it pleased God to give me’ and ‘I thank your Lordship and I am prepared to abide by your verdict’; he equally spent the bulk of the time narrating his exploits and the ‘invaluable services’ which he has rendered to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. In a speech of 966 words, he used the persona in a total of 43 places. He even dared suggest that his ‘imprisonment might do harm to Nigeria’ thus indicating how highly he thought of himself.

Perhaps Chief Awolowo was only being truthful and indeed his freedom and personality was that crucial to the nation’s progress. Perhaps he was merely calling a spade a spade and pride had nothing to do with it for even Sir Lennox-Boyd, the British colonial secretary of the time, declared Awolowo as ‘the only politician in Nigeria, other (self-declared) politicians are merely his followers’. Or perhaps he said all this just to remind the judge of who it was he had the ‘privilege’ of presiding over and ultimately tilt the scale of justice in his favour. If the latter is the case, it was worth a try but we can say he did not practically succeed. This is owing to fact that the trial Judge, Mr Sowemimo, while delivering his verdict had said;

Whatever others may say, this is my personal view. I am not speaking as a judge but as a Nigerian. Here we have one of the first Premiers of the autonomous region standing trial. If you were the only one before me, I would have felt that it was enough for you to have undergone the strain of the trial. I would have asked you to go. But I am sorry; I cannot do so now because my hands are tied. Having sentenced those young chaps, whatever happen I have to pass some sort of sentence … I was never hoping or thinking that I would be called upon to try a former head of Government and Leader of Opposition. I am only happy that this is a court of first instance.

We can infer from the above that, had he not already sentenced other accused persons, the trial judge would have murdered justice in cold blood and acquitted Chief Awolowo, not because the evidence against him was insufficient but because his respect for him was tremendous. He was literally justifying his judgment, pleading with the accused to understand and rolling over himself to ensure he understands why the trial had to take some time.

Furthermore, this speech may be likened to Nelson Mandela’s ‘An Ideal for which I have Prepared to Die’ in that it was also delivered in a courtroom before a subsequent imprisonment. Nelson Mandela’s speech was delivered just a year later in 1964 in the Supreme Court of South Africa. But then, Nelson Mandela’s speech was not reeking massively of the red herring fallacy. While Awolowo did not seek anywhere in his speech to void the argument of the prosecution, Nelson Mandela right away in his introduction said;

Some of the things so far told to the court are true and some are untrue. I do not however deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it is a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love for violence.

It should similarly be mentioned that the two personages (both of them lawyers) carefully laced their speeches with their ideals and worldview. Chief Awolowo said close to his closing that;

I am confident that the ideals of social justice and individual liberty which I hold dear will continue to be projected beyond the prison walls and bars until they are realised in our lifetime.

Nelson Mandela analogously said;

During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Moreover from the speech, I could also sense that Chief Awolowo is a stoic who believes in the truism/maxim – que sera sera (i.e. what will be, will be). The basis for this are his occasional admission of fate. For instance, he made such remarks as, ‘I personally welcome any sentence you may impose upon me’ and ‘…and with faith in my unalterable destiny’. There are other aspects of the speech which paint him as an optimist, a revolutionary, a philanthropist etc.

Finally, Awolowo through his speech should strike his listeners (and readers) as an intellectual. This is not manifested only in the way his strung his sentences and his choice of words, but in his allusions as well. A classic example is where he quoted “Peter the hero of Hugh Walpole’s novel entitled Fortitude.” His diction is also brimming with intellectual flavour and linguistic depth. Though he may not have been able to alter his fate away from the cold bars of prison, Chief Awolowo did indeed make his mark not just as a political prisoner and juggernaut, but as someone who heralded his jail term with rhetorical intrepidity.

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