Awolowo’s 50-year old letter from prison: 7 reasons he wanted Ironsi to release him, his colleagues

Awolowo’s 50-year old letter from prison: 7 reasons he wanted Ironsi to release him, his colleagues

Saturday, September 24, 2016 2:47 pm

Obafemi Awolowo

Obafemi Awolowo

Major General Aguiyi Ironsi

Major General Aguiyi Ironsi

Here is Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s letter from prison to Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, pressing for his release and that of his colleagues. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

While many believed that Ironsi turned down the request, others argued otherwise. One of them is the Dr Raphael James, Director General, Center for Research, Information Management and Media Development (CRIMMD). He argued: “Gen JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi did not turn down the request, he approved the release of Chief Awolowo, Chief Awolowo got the news on July 27, 1966 and he was released from prison the morning of July 29th, but the prison authority held him back when the news of the kidnap of Ironsi and Fajuyi got to Calabar. Chief Awolowo was told that he was being kept behind for his own security since they were not sure of the events going on in Ibadan and Lagos. After Gen. Yakubu Gowon took over, he requested that Chief Awolowo be brought to Lagos. Unfortunately we are killing out history for political reasons as such the main characters in this political game kept the secret to themselves. The records are there for verifications. The details can be found in “My March Through Prison” by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Pages 302-303″

However, Gowon came on board, released the man and the rest as they say is history .

Dated 28th March 1966


To: The Supreme Commander and Head of the Federal Military Government, Lagos.
Thro: The Director of Prisons, Prisons Headquarters Office, Private Mail Bag 12522, Lagos.


Prerogative Of Mercy:
Section 101 (1) (A) of the Constitution of The Federation Act 1963

1. I am writing this petition for FREE PARDON under Section 101(1) (a) of the Constitution of the Federation Act 1963, on behalf of myself and some of my colleagues whose names are set out in the Annexe hereto.

2. Before I go further, I would like to stress that the reasons which I advance in support of this petition, in my own behalf, basically hold good for my said colleagues. For they share the same political beliefs with me, and have intense and unquenchable loyalty for the ideals espoused by the Party which I have the honour to lead.

3. There are many grounds which could be submitted for your consideration in support of this petition. But I venture to think that SEVEN of them are enough and it is to these that I confine myself.

(a)In the course of my evidence during my trial, I stated that my Party favoured and was actively working for alliance with the N.C.N.C. as a means, among other things, of solving what I described as ‘the problem of Nigeria’, and strengthening the unity of the Federation. In October 1963 (that is about a month after my conviction and while my appeal to the Supreme Court was still pending), a Peace Committee headed by the Chief Justice of the Federation, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, made overtures to me through my friend Alhaji W. A. Elias to the effect that if I abandoned my intention to enter into alliance with the N.C.N.C. which, according to the Committee, was an Ibo Organisation, and agreed to dissolve the Action Group and, in co-operation with Chief Akintola (now deceased), form an all-embracing Yoruba political party which I would lead and which would go into alliance with the N.P.C., I would be released from prison before the end of that year.

I turned down these terms because I was of the considered opinion that their acceptance would further widen and exacerbate inter-tribal differences, and gravely undermine the unity of the Federation. TODAY, THE MILITARY GOVERNMENT, OF WHICH YOU ARE THE HEAD, LEAVES NO ONE IN ANY DOUBT THAT IT STANDS FOR NIGERIAN UNITY. BUT IT MUST BE EMPHASISED, IN THIS CONNECTION, THAT IF I HAD PRIZED MY PERSONAL FREEDOM ABOVE THE UNITY OF NIGERIA, I WOULD HAVE BEEN SET FREE IN 1963. IN THAT EVENT, THIS PETITION WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN NECESSARY, AND THE WORK OF CONSOLIDATING THE UNITY OF THE COUNTRY TO WHICH YOU AND YOUR COLLEAGUES NOW SET YOUR HANDS MIGHT HAVE BEEN MADE EXTREMELY MORE INTRACTABLE AND IRKSOME. As recently as 20th December, 1965, identical peace terms (the only variant being that the alliance with the N.C.N.C. which was now a reality should be broken) were made to me here, in Calabar Prison, by a delegation representing another Peace Committee headed by the self-same Chief Justice of the Federation and purporting to have the blessing of the Prime Minister, with the unequivocal promise that if I accepted the terms my release would follow almost immediately. I rejected the terms for the reasons which I have outlined above.

(b) One of the monsters which menaced the public life of this country up to 14th January, this year is OPPORTUNISM with its attendant evils of jobbery, venality, corruption, and unabashed self-interest. From all accounts, you are inflexibly resolved to destroy this monster. That was precisely what my colleagues and I had tried to do before we were rendered hors de combat since 29th May, 1962. On two different occasions I was offered, first the post of Deputy Prime Minister (before May 1962), and second that of Deputy Governor-General (in August 1962), if I would agree to fold up the Opposition and join in a National Government. I declined the two offers because they were designed exclusively to gratify my self-interest, with no thought of fostering any political moral principle which could benefit the people of Nigeria.

The learned Judge who presided over the Treasonable Felony Trial, commented unfavourably on my non-acceptance of one of these posts and held that my action lent weight to the case of the Prosecution against me. I must say, however, that in all conscience, I felt and still feel that a truly public-spirited person should accept public office not for what he can get for himself — such as the profit and glamour of office — but for the opportunity which it offers him of serving his people to the best of his ability, by promoting their welfare and happiness. To me, the two aforementioned posts were sinecures, and were intended to immobilise my talents and stultify the role of watch-dog which the people of Nigeria looked upon me to play on their behalf, at that juncture in our political evolution.

(c) This leads me to the third ground. From newspaper reports, it would appear that you and your colleagues — like all well-meaning Nigerians are anxious that on the termination of the present military rule, Nigeria should become a flourishing democracy. Now, democracy is a political doctrine which is very intimately dear to my heart.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo coming out of the Black Maria (A black prison van used to transport prisoners) on his way to the High Court in Lagos to answer criminal charges brought against him by the Tafawa Balewa government on the 1st day of November 1962 for (1) Treasonable Felony, (2) Conspiracy to commit a felony and (3) Conspiracy to effect an unlawful purpose.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo coming out of the Black Maria (A black prison van used to transport prisoners) on his way to the High Court in Lagos to answer criminal charges brought against him by the Tafawa Balewa government on the 1st day of November 1962 for (1) Treasonable Felony, (2) Conspiracy to commit a felony and (3) Conspiracy to effect an unlawful purpose.

It was to the end that it might be accepted as a way of life in all parts of the Federation that I campaigned most vigorously and relentlessly in the Northern Provinces of Nigeria, from 1957 to 1962, to the implacable annoyance of some of my political adversaries. It was to the end that this doctrine might survive the severe onslaught of opportunist and mercenary politics that I refused to succumb to the temptation of the National Government. Many views — some of them well-considered and respectable — have been expressed about the value or disvalue of opposition as a feature of public life in a newly emergent African State. Speaking for my party, I submit that the Opposition which I led did, to all intents and purposes, justify its existence and was acclaimed by the masses of our people as essential and indispensable to rapid- national growth.

This was so, because it was unexceptionably constructive. The abrogation of the Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact was one of the feathers in its cap. Some of the policies which the Government of the day later adopted — such as the creation of a Federal Ministry of Agriculture and the introduction of drastic measures to correct our balance of payments deficit — were among those persistently and constructively urged by the Opposition inside and outside Parliament. The point I wish to emphasise here is that it was not out of spite or hatred for any one that I chose to remain in Opposition instead of joining the much-talked-of National Government. I did so in order to serve our people to the best of my ability in the position in which their votes had placed my Party, and to ensure that the young plant of democracy grows into a sturdy flourishing tree in Nigeria.

(d) Since the declaration of emergency in the Western Region on 29th May,1962, political tension has existed in Western Nigeria. My conviction on 11th September, 1963, together with the surrounding bizarre circumstances, has led not only to the heightening of that tension in Western Nigeria but also to its profuse and irrepressible percolation to the other parts of the Federation. The result is that it can be said, without much fear of contradiction, that today the majority of our people are passionately concerned about and fervently solicitous for the release of myself and my colleagues. The work of reconstruction on which you and your colleagues have embarked demands that all the citizens of Nigeria in their respective callings should give of their maximum best. A state of psychological tension, however much it may be brought under control or repressed, does not and cannot conduce to maximum efficiency. In spite of themselves, people labouring under emotions which this kind of tension automatically generates are bound to make avoidable mistakes which in their turn have adverse effects on national progress. It is, therefore, in the national interest that this tension should be relaxed, if possible, without further delay.

(e) A petition of this kind is, by its very nature, bound to be replete with self-adulation. I hope and trust that, in the circumstances, this is excusable. It is in this hope and trust that I assert that my colleagues and I have the qualifications and capacity to render invaluable services to our people and fatherland. Every day that we spend in prison, therefore, must be regarded as TWENTY-FOUR UNFORGIVING HOURS OF TRULY VALUABLE SERVICES LOST TO OUR YOUNG COUNTRY. Even my most inveterate enemies have given the following testimony about me: ‘AWOLOWO HAS STILL A GREAT DEAL TO GIVE TO THIS COUNTRY.’ No country however advanced and civilized can afford to waste any of its talents, be they ever so small. Nigeria is too young to bury some of her talents as she was compelled to do under the old regime. It is within your power to restore my colleagues and me to a position where our fatherland can again rejoice at the contributions which we are capable of making to its progress, welfare and happiness.

(f) Nigeria is now SIXTY-SIX MONTHS old as an independent State. The final phase in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence was initiated by my Party in the historic Self-Government motion moved by Chief Anthony Enahoro and supported by me on 31st March, 1953. IT SHOULD BE REGARDED AS MORE THAN IRONICAL, AND AS PALPABLY TRAGIC, THAT TWO OF THE ARCHITECTS OF THAT INDEPENDENCE AND, INDEED, THE PACE-SETTERS AND ACCELERATORS OF ITS FINAL PHASE SHOULD BE UNFREE IN A FREE NIGERIA. In precise terms, I have spent FORTY-SIX out of the SIXTY-SIX MONTHS of independence in one form of confinement or another. I happened to know that the leaders of the old civilian regime, in spite of themselves, did not feel quite easy in their conscience about the plight into which they had manoeuvred me in the scheme of things; and I dare to express the hope and belief that you, personally view my present confinement with concern and disapproval.

(g) It is usual — almost invariably the case — on the accession of a revolutionary regime, for political prisoners and, indeed, other prisoners of some note, to be released as a mark of disapproval of some of the doings of the old regime, or in token of the new dawn of freedom which comes in the wake of the new regime. It would be invidious to quote unspecific instances. But in the case of my colleagues and myself, by courageously and adamantly opposing the evils which your regime now denounces in the former civilian administration, I think we are perfectly justified if we expect you to regard us as being in tune with your yearnings and aspirations for Nigeria, and therefore entitled to our personal freedoms under your dispensation.

4. In view of the foregoing reasons which clearly demonstrate:

(i) that I have always and, under trying circumstances, steadfastly and unyieldingly
(a) stood for the UNITY OF NIGERIA,
(b)been opposed to POLITICAL OPPORTUNISM with its attendant evils, (c)fostered the growth of DEMOCRACY in Nigeria;

(ii) that my incarceration:
(a) has led to the heightening of political tension among Nigerians, which tension can only be relaxed by my release, (b)has deprived our fatherland of invaluable services such as we have rendered before, and can still render now and in future, in greater measure; and

(iii) that the evils which my colleagues and I condemned and valiantly refused to compromise with in the old civilian government are what you now quite rightly denounce, and are taking active steps to remove in order to pave the way for national and beneficial reconstruction, I most sincerely appeal to you to be good enough to exercise, in favour of myself and my colleagues, the prerogative of mercy vested in you by Section 10 (I) (i) (a) of the Constitution of the Federation Act 1963, by granting me as well as each of my colleagues A FREE PARDON. If you do, your action will be most warmly, heartily, and popularly applauded at home and abroad, and you will go down to history as soldier, statesmen, and humanitarian.

Yours truly,



1.Chief Obafemi Awolowo 2.Chief Anthony Enahoro 3.Mr.Lateef K. Jakande 4.Mr.Dapo Omisade 5.Mr.S.A.Onitiri 6.Mr.Gabby Sasore 7.Mr.Sunday Ebietoma 8.Mr.U.I.Nwaobiala

1.Mr. S.A.Otubanjo 2.Mr.S.J.Umoren 3.Mr.S.Oyesile.

1. Mr.S.G.Ikoku 2.Mr.Ayo Adebanjo 3.Mr.James Aluko

Credit: Bayo Aina and Babafemi Ojudu (FB)


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  • Datti says:

    No, Ironsi couldn’t have released him, going by the dates. Ojukwu did not release him either – Gowon took the credit.

  • Bayo Oke says:

    More Greese to your elbows the publishers of this great article and letter of Baba. Many thanks to you dear brothers Bayo Aina and Femi Ojudu.I am very grateful for your efforts to bring out this letter for our consumption and digestion. I forgot to take my breakfast this morning when I stumbled on this precious note from Baba Awo. My heart is filled with joy and my thanks go to him Baba and those of you who brouth out the precious note from the custody or library. We expect more of it so as not to forget the person that granted me schorlaship and also who gave me the key to knowledge without any charge.
    Once again, thanks to you dear brothers; Bayo Aina and Femi Ojudu.
    May today bring joy to you and your family as you have done to me today by bringing out this golden letter.
    Thanks you my dear father BABA AWO.
    Bayo Oke, Madrid. Spain.

  • Bayo Oke says:

    First and foremost, many hearthful thanks to the custodian and publisher of this meaningful letter from Baba Awo. With this publication, you have brought back joy to my heart and soul. Your(this publication) is bringing us out of wilderness and from the tunnel of ignorance.
    Today, I am able to write and comment on this publication, thanks to Baba Awo simply because he granted me the great opportunity and everlasting scholarship of FREE EDUCATION. I am one of those who benefited from that FREE EDUCATION SCHEME. Thanks to you Sir Baba. It was this scheme that brought me out of wilderness, darkness and illiteracy. I used free slate, ink, fountain pen, drawing books and free uniforms. What about the inkwell carved in the bench. Baba scheme brought a very big relieve to my parents who were farmers planting cocoa and other agricultural products.
    Papa Awo boosted the cultivation of cocoa and its prices making farming more attractive to farmers.
    What a joyful day when we were served with books like TAIWO & KEHINDE, ALAWIYE, ABDUL and host of others. Many thanks to you Baba Awo.

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