Action Group Chieftains in 1953. (L-R) Chief Bode Thomas, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola. Courtesy:
Action Group Chieftains in 1953. (L-R) Chief Bode Thomas, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola. Courtesy:

He was a nationalist who fought along with other compatriots for independence. But, Chief Olabode Thomas died seven years before the realisation of that dream. He was barely 34; young, agile and promising. His ideas survived him, serving as beacons of hope for a distraught nation. Deputy Political Editor, EMMANUEL OLADESU, revisits the life of a political icon who passed on without realising his full leadership potential.

He came, stayed briefly and went back to his maker at the age of 34 years.

But, at that prime age, Olabode Thomas, frontline lawyer, nationalist politician and former Federal Transport Minister, had accomplished what men who lived for a century could not achieve in an entire life time.

Fifty-five years after the demise of the Balogun of Oyo, his name continues to ring a bell. The magnetism has endured. The pain of the irreparable loss lingered. It was a black day in the Western Region.

Thomas was a colourful political megastar. His speeches in the pre-independence parliament remain legendary. His robust political ideas are evergreen. And the generation that ignored his warnings about the rejection of regionalism have since kissed the dust.

Younger generations only think of Thomas in terms of a street named after him in Surulere, Lagos Mainland. Young students of politics come across him daily in books. When danfodrivers plying the route were asked who the politician was, they all said he may have been one of the big men in those days.

He was more than that to the polity. If he had been alive in 1959, he would have succeeded Chief Obafemi Awolowo as Premier of the Western Region. And the region would have been saved from the rebellion of the late Chief Ladoke Akintola, the Aare Ona Kankanfo of Yoruba. Thomas was born in 1921, four years after the amalgamation by Governor Frederick Lugard, to a wealthy, trader who had migrated from Oyo.

He was privileged from childhood. He attended the C.M.S. Grammar School, a missionary school founded by Bishop Ajayi Crowtter.

When he left the school, he started work at the Nigerian Railway Corporation. In 1939, he went to London to study law.

His huge frame earned him the appellation “buldozer”. Whenever he set a positive goal for himself, every obstacle on the way must be uprooted. His successes in law practice, politics and government were hinged on his sheer resolve to triumph in the face of all odds.

Perhaps, that also was why he was always controversial. He was a founding leader of Egbe Omo Oduduwa and Action Group which sprang up from the socio-cultural organisation. He was the first Legal Adviser of the group.

Before the formation of the chain groups, Thomas, an erudite speaker had made his mark as a member of the Nigerian Youth Movement. There, he promoted debates on contentious national issues. Long before his colleagues could digest the dictionary meaning of federalism, he had opposed it by making strong expositions for strong regional based political parties.

Thomas’ idea was that only a coalition at the centre was necessary, pointing out that the people of the diverse regions should only be equipped with skills, knowledge and opportunities to develop their regions. To him, that would also engender a healthy competition.

As the Legal Adviser of Egbe Omo Oduduwa and later Secretary-General of AG, he had advocated for the laying of modern governmental foundation on the traditional pillars held by the natural rulers. That was the baseline for enlisting the support of native chiefs and kings into the Action Group.

The fruit of that policy was first harvested by the party in 1951. When AG was launched, the ceremony, which had the blessing of major traditional rulers in the old South-West, was held at Owo, with the Olowo, Sir Olateru-Olagbegi as host.

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The strategy became a potent framework for mass mobilisation in many Yoruba, Itsekiri, Edo, Kwara and Kogi towns.

Full-time politics was not the vogue in Thomas’ days. Politics then was a vocation. Thus, he consolidated his hold on the Bar. The eminent lawyer became a Queen’s Counsel (QC) before many of his peers. He had endowed Jankara Street, in the heart of Lagos, with visibility when he and his friends, the meticulous Rotimi Williams and the rascally, yet deep and witty Remi Fani-Kayode set up a chamber in partnership in 1950.

Thomas was ahead of them all. He was a Senior at the bar to the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, his bossom friend, political soul mate and leader, Chief Hezekiah Oladipo Davies, Justice GBA Coker, and Udo Udoma, a former federal parliamentarian and jurist.

But, a hot-tempered fellow, he was perceived in some circles as a bully, a successful, yet arrogant lawyer and a domineering figure. Some judges loathed his style of argument in the court. But, he was full of masterful logic.

The political tempest of the early days sought to consume his political career. He had joined the political vanguard at a time the political platform was not clear. As the Nigerian Youth Movement was fading away, thoughts on how to establish a new political organisation pre-occupied him and his contemporaries who refused to team up with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.

Zik was a popular politician, held in awe in Lagos. He was not a Yoruba, although he spoke the language fluently. Early politicians in Lagos could not easily break his hold on the city. The alternative left to them was to seek political refuge and relevance in the virgin political lands hitherto controlled by the Sole Native Authorities abolished by the Western Regional Government.

To accommodate the new comers, the Sole Native Authority was democratized. As a historian recalled: “The small fish in the big waters of Lagos politics became big fish in the small provincial waters and new alliances of the natural rulers, and middle class professionals invaded the grassroots structures of administration.

“Bode Thomas sought and was given the office of Balogun of Oyo, not so much because he wanted to heal the demands of the reforms against the most obscurantist of the first class rulers in the West as because the road to regional and central legislatures must, for him, as for other anti-Zik Lagos politicians, begin from a Native Authority Area.”

On May 1951, the AG, Lagos branch was inaugurated. The register showed that only 15 people were pioneer members, and Thomas was one of them. All of them were leaders of NYM – Dr. Akintola Maja, Akanni Doherty, Jonathan Odebiyi, Ladoke Akintola, Arthur Prest, Sir Kofo Abayomi, Rotimi Williams, Alhaji Jibril Martins-Kuye, Sule Gbadamosi, M.A. Ogun, Alfred Rewane, Lady Oyinkan Abayomi, S.O. Sonibare and Ladipo Amos.

The popularity of Zik’s National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) dwarfed the new party in Lagos. But its formation was a right step in the right direction.

The NYM and Egbe Omo Oduduwa were inadequate to play the role of a regionally based nationalistic political party envisaged by Awolowo and Thomas.

In his book, “Path to Nigerian Freedom,” Awo had emphasized “cultural nationality” so that the regions should develop its political institutions within the frame work of the Nigerian federation.

Awo said it was the natural right of the educated minority of each cultural group” to lead their fellow nationals into higher political development.”

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AG was not a party of intellectually barren power –seekers It was serious business. The leaders drew up captivating welfarist programmes to attract the people of the West. When policy papers were to be prepared, the party identified the major subjects – education, agriculture, labour, industries and public works.

Awo turned in papers on local government, local courts and agriculture. Ayodele Rosiji, who later succeeded Thomas as National General Secretary, wrote papers on industries and public works. Thomas wrote on transport.

He became a member of Regional House of Assembly in 1951. From there, he, Prest and Akintola were selected as members of the House of Representatives. Sir Adesoji Aderemi, Ooni of Ife also joined them in the Central Council of Ministers. But, Thomas was the leader; astute, workaholic, thoughtful and forward-looking.

On the floor, Thomas was a charismatic speaker. He was a lover of facts. He was a fire brand nationalist. He wanted self-rule and independence at a faster pace his colleagues from other zones could not comprehend.

During the debate on self-rule, his speech infuriated the legislators from the North. Thomas labelled them collaborators in the extension of British rule. He did not only speak; he acted. Thomas and the three AG parliamentarians consequently resigned from the Council of Ministers in protest over the elongation of colonialism. On that note, the MacPherson Constitution collapsed immediately.

In the quest to preserve Lagos as part of the old West, Thomas was also at the forefront. In contrast, H.O. Davies was campaigning vigorously for the retention of Lagos as a symbol of national unity.

At the 1953 London Constitutional Conference held in August, AG vigorously campaigned for the preservation of Lagos as part and parcel of the region. Awo, the AG leader and Thomas, Deputy Leader of the party, were delegates to the conference.

The party also printed and distributed pamphlets in some cities to sensitise the people. The message was: “Lagos belongs to the West.’

Awo was very rigid on the issue. Rosiji’s biographer, Nina Mba, a historian, stated that “Awo’s rigidity on this issue can be attributed to Thomas’ influence. His (Thomas’) toughness rubbed off on Awolowo, even though usually, Awo’s toughness rubbed off on others.’

Thomas was also at ideological loggerheads with Rosiji. Both differed on their views about “federalism”. While Rosiji favoured a federalism in which the majority of powers would be delegated to the centre, Thomas believed in regionalism.

In fact, the AG deputy leader canvassed confederation. In later years, Rosiji moderated his views when federalism failed in Nigeria. That shift in position was a tribute to the foresight of Thomas.

Rosiji said: “We inherited and endorsed the British created federation and those of us in the South thought that it was the best system. We had read all the books on federalism and debated them at length at the various constitutional conferences. We were enclosed in the Westminster strait jacket and couldn’t see beyond it. It failed us. What was the advantage of insisting on maintaining such a huge country just because the British wanted more resources to share?’

Thomas’ view on regionalism later shaped Zik’s opinion. It was an afterthought. Zik shifted from his strict unitarist ideas to federalism, drawing enormous lessons from the compelling reality of a shallow unity imposed by the forceful amalgamation of the antagonist and incompatible social formations.

Awo who held Thomas in high esteem placed him on the pedestal of leaders who could see beyond the moment. He had observed while paying tribute during his funeral that whenever Thomas’ line of thought was rejected, the political family had often regretted it after some time.

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The antagonists of Thomas’ viewpoints must be prepared for debate and war of words. If you don’t share his view, he would turn the heat on you. On strict political issues he canvassed, he once had confrontation with Babatunde Jose, a senior journalist in the fifties, who sought to probe his ideas.

Thomas and Ahmadu Bello, Premier of the North, were also not the best of friends. He had defended the Sardauna of Sokoto before the colonial court over allegations of financial embezzlement of Native Authorities funds. Thomas won the case. But, he was perplexed that the Sokoto prince fret in the court room.

Bello’s recurrent unpleasant encounter with Thomas made him to conclude that his more qualified educated rivals in the South were very pompus and arrogant. Many believed that Bello was reacting to that complex by refusing to come down to Lagos to serve as Prime Minister.

Thus, while Thomas was universally acknowledged as an accomplished lawyer, he was also perceived as arrogant and supercilious. He was hated by his peers from the North to the extent that Bello always preferred to communicate with Akintola to Thomas.

As noted by Mba, Thomas’ lack of interpersonal skill was glaring. But, he earned commendation, even from his political foes, for “his articulacy as an exponent of a particular political philosophy”.

Throughout, “he was a conservative who favoured power to the traditional rulers, the promotion of capitalism and development of the regime rather than the federation”.

Thomas died in controversial circumstance. It was a chain of events that led to his death. According to an account by Davies, there was a protracted feud between him and Alaafin Adeyemi II, the father of the current Alaafin Lamidi Adeyemi III.

Both Alhaji Adeyemi and Thomas were members of the Oyo Divisional Council. At a time, the respected ruler was chairman. Later, Thomas became the chairman when the Oba was still a member. Davies stated in his look that when Thomas arrived at the meeting of the council, all the other councillors, except Oba Adeyemi, stood up to welcome him. He then asked from the royal father while he was sitting down, after reminding him that when he (oba) held forte as chairman, he gave him the respect. The Oba felt insulted. Davies who gave the account was Alaafin’s friend. In later years, his son, Lamidi, lived with him in Lagos while attending St. Gregory’s College, Obalende.

Thomas later fell ill. He died on November 23 without realising his full potential as a leader. He was mourned by his Oyo kinsmen, the political class and the emerging professional class.

The AG Government of Awolowo lamented his demise. His death created a big vacuum.

“I was in school when he (Thomas) died. I was at Okitipupa, in the present Ondo State. His death was painful to the people of Western Region,” recalled Bisi Akande, Action Congress (AC) National Chairman.

He paid tribute to him as “a brilliant lawyer who saved Ahmadu Bello from imprisonment, shortly before he became a federal minister.”

“We were told he was a very fierce debater, so much that the British members of the cabinet were always uncomfortable each time he was contributing to a debate. We knew him to be a famous chief of Oyo, the Balogun,” Akande added.

Among the children who survived Thomas, two stood out – the late Dapo Bode Thomas, former member of Lagos State House of Assembly and later Political Adviser to former Governor Bola Tinubu and Mrs Eniola Fadayomi, two-time Commissioner in Lagos State.


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