Obafemi & HID Awolowo: Their Untold Love Story (Part 1)

Obafemi & HID Awolowo: Their Untold Love Story (Part 1)

Thursday, December 8, 2016 12:59 pm


 

 Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo


Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo

Why did Chief Obafemi Awolowo describe HID, his wife, as a jewel of inestimable value? Here are the reasons

By Wale Adebanwi

IT WAS AN UNUSUAL DISPLAY of affection for an ascetic, almost socially-awkward man whose private and public life was over-defined by an uncommon abstemiousness that was foreign to the men of such means and influence. As they approached the fifth decade of their y, those who had known the couple for many years were not unfamiliar with their deep expression of love in words and in action, both in periods of personal tranquility and political prosperity, and in periods of private agony and political turbulence. But never had their storied love been publicly affirmed in more than four decades with a public kiss. Hannah Idowu Dideolu, the more swanky of the pair, loved to kiss her husband. But the socially conservative and reticent Obafemi Jeremiah wasn’t enamoured of kissing. He would rather write down a devotional ballad to his wife in a book than express his deep love with a kiss. Still, she would not let him escape without a clear and emphatic expression of passion through a kiss in public. If only once. And he obliged, as he always did if the love of his life is the one asking.

The magazine cover design

The magazine cover design

Therefore, when HID eventually publicly planted a solemn kiss on her astute husband’s lips during their wedding anniversary, the crowd cheered. The man whose life is one of a disciplined avoidance of public emotion has finally been forced to show his love in a tactile manner. While she held her hands around him, he placed his hands on each of her shoulders, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo wrapped themselves in an unusual public display of tenderness and affection…

In that rare public moment the two elderly love-birds seemed to have closed themselves off from what Oscar Wilde called “the world of implications.” They were using the storied success of their matrimony to shun the annoying failure of the country that one of them had sought for so long to lead and reshape. Their personal imperfections and political frustrations were symbolically redeemed in that famed moment by their almost perfect love; the lifelong personal and political betrayals they had jointly expressed and their familial losses and unrealized dreams lost in one moment of intimate mutual adoration.

Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo kissing for the first and only time publicly

Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo kissing for the first and only time publicly

 HID and Obafemi Awolowo cutting a birthday cake

HID and Obafemi Awolowo cutting a birthday cake

“I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart),” croons E. E. Cummings in one of the most celebrated of his almost three thousand poems. “I am never without it.” Since they fell in love in 1934, Cummings lines constituted a summation of the shared lives of the most distinguished devoted couple in Nigeria’s history. The Awolowos’ matrimony is undoubtedly Nigeria greatest public love story. Mirroring the great love stories in human history from Abraham and Sarah, who travelled together in uncertainty and imperfection but struck together through perilous and pleasant times, to Romeo and Juliet, the archetypal love-birds who didn’t let the fear of death stand in the way of their mutual devotion, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo’s wedlock is an exemplary love story with a significance, example and meaning that survive the almost five decades in which it lasted.

Shakespeare, that unsurpassable story teller, says in Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments.” Indeed, the Awolowos never let any impediment – from the initial opposition of Hannah’s mother to whom she was devoted to their relationship, through the sudden death of the greatest bodily affirmation of their immortality, their brilliant and handsome first son, Segun, to the failure to clinch the most prized object Awolowo’s political life, the presidency of Nigeria – stand in the way of their mutual affection and reciprocal adoration. Their marriage was nothing short of a perfect harmony that blended and endured until, but even beyond, their physical separation by death. She was the passion of his life and vice versa. As Obafemi was lowered into the grave on June 6, 1987, Hannah called out to her beloved: “E ma gbagbe mi o” (“Don’t neglect me”). Everyone present thought she could no longer hear her; she knew he could….

Hannah’s children: Olusegun (back row left), Omotola (back row right, Oluwole (right), Ayodele (left), Tokunbo (middle)

Hannah’s children: Olusegun (back row left), Omotola (back row right, Oluwole (right), Ayodele (left), Tokunbo (middle)

The Love Which Makes ‘Em
For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine;’
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine;’
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.
– Christina Rossetti, “I loved you first: but afterwards your love”

IN THE PUBLIC HISTORY OF Nigeria, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo are undoubtedly the most memorable couple. No other member of Awolowo’s generation of Nigerian leaders had a similarly notable spouse who was always by his side in all matters public and private. Their attitude towards mutual public presence was almost evangelical. It was as if Obafemi Awolowo had no claim to leadership, honour, and public adoration without his wife beside him. In an instructive photograph taken when President Shehu Shagari invited the leaders of the other four political parties in the Second Republic to Abuja to witness the inauguration of Master Plan for Abuja, the proposed new federal capital city, Awolowo was the only one whose wife was present as the leaders viewed the plan encased in glass.

 At Tokunbo's graduation

At Tokunbo’s graduation

Doubtless there are other couples in public life in Nigeria’s history whose mutual devotion might have been comparable, but the joint lives of such couples were less storied; there are those whose companionships were sustained as co-equals like the Awolowos, but such rival matrimonies never survived as long as the Awolowos’ did; there were yet other matrimonies where the husband showered as much public adoration on his wife as Obafemi did on Hannah, but such couples didn’t attract much, let alone equal, national attention as the Awolowos did. Their love story is almost a fairytale; not because it was devoid of tension and trial, but because it triumphed over serial devastating adversities and a political failure that ceaselessly challenged the unsurpassed ideological triumph of Obafemi Awolowo’s vision of the total organization of the Nigerian state.

Even though both were born into polygamous homes in an era when it was anathema to have one wife, they turned monogamy into a moral, if not a philosophical, imperative, by not only shunning the temptations of variable amorous engagements, but even using their unique monogamy as a subtle indictment in a socio-cultural context in which being a big man more or less required turning carnality into a public virtue. In a political and social context in which multiple marriages or multiple wives (formal and informal), philandering, official and semi-official concubinage and serial betrayal on both sides was the “natural” order of things among the famous and infamous, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo’s matrimony is a storied example of love, passion and unflinching commitment in the face of uncommon private and public challenges over five decades: business failure, separation and financial challenges, loss of children in infancy and full adulthood, political success and fall from grace, imprisonment and harassment and even humiliation; electoral victories and defeats, political duplicities and perfidious slanders by erstwhile political allies and personal friends. Through it all, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo weathered the storm together remaining immoveable in their mutual devotion and unceasing in their shared love. In their obsession with each other, Hannah treated her husband as if he were a god, and Obafemi regarded his wife as a living goddess.

“[Obafemi Awolowo] had a very deferential attitude towards his wife so that her comfort appeared to matter so much to him,” observes Odia Ofeimun, poet, author and Awo’s former private secretary. Reflecting on their lives together which he watched from a vantage position for a few critical years, Ofeimun adds that Hannah reciprocated her husband’s deferential devotion. “To a very large extent, it was as if her contributions [in Awolowo’s political life] were generally to make the man comfortable with his choices. They obviously have lived together long enough for her to know all that he wanted. There is something that makes me wonder anytime I look back…. I wonder how they reached that position, because they agreed almost so totally with each other, so much that before [Obafemi Awolowo] did anything, she would have identified what needed to be done to support his choices.”

WHEREVER YOU GO… (R-L) Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim of the Great Nigerian People’s Party, HID Awolowo, Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, Chairman of the Nigerian People’s Party, Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, President Shehu Shagari, Chief Awolowo and others

WHEREVER YOU GO… (R-L) Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim of the Great Nigerian People’s Party, HID Awolowo, Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, Chairman of the Nigerian People’s Party, Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, President Shehu Shagari, Chief Awolowo and others

“Those of us who had the rare privilege of seeing Papa and Mama at close quarters will recall, with nostalgic feelings, how she became immersed in whatever cause her husband pursued, or believed in,” testifies Wunmi Adegbonmire, the former Secretary to Ondo State Government: “She cultivated and maintained the policy of making her husband’s numerous admirers and political associates feel at ease and welcome. There was no meeting held at Awo’s compound at which Mama would not personally serve food and ensure that everybody was fed. Hers was dignity wrapped with humility in public office and service.”

Theirs was an exceptional union. But their love didn’t endure because they were similar persons. It endured because they understood and expertly managed their differences and weaknesses. Obafemi was an ascetic, self-denying man with an egalitarian vision and evangelical zeal for public office; Hannah was a life-loving, warm, entrepreneurial Ijebu woman devoted to family life. The one loved to seek power and was fanatical about the monumental changes in human lives that could be wrought through power; the other, brought up by an enterprising and old-fashioned trader, was zealous about turnover. Obafemi was introspective and more concerned about the implications of the present for the future; Hannah was given to extraversion and was unsurpassable in taking care of the here and now, the want and needs of the present. So, how did these two essentially different people unite in such an uncommon harmony? How did they achieve a union in which, as Christina Rossetti sings in the epigram above, “one is both and both are one in love”?

Hannah helping the “baby of the family” Tokunbo, to remove her jumper in the early 1950s

Hannah helping the “baby of the family” Tokunbo, to remove her jumper in the early 1950s

Perhaps the core of the answer lies in what they shared which helped in managing their fundamentally different natures: fortitude. While Obafemi Awolowo’s fortitude could come across as muscular, HID’s was abiding fortitude. The one confronted adversity with an unwavering self-belief, the other accepted the tricks of fate with dignity. They were essentially united in their capacity to endure life vicissitudes, but slightly different in the temperament with which they responded. In the end, in addition to their love, it is the essential similarity in their capacity to suffer and endure, to wait and triumph that made them an unsurpassable pair and has turned their union into a story for the ages. Adversity didn’t bring them together; but the fortitude and love they shared when adversity came made them inseparable….

The Grammar of Fortitude
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, O abide with me….
– “Abide with Me” – Henry Francis Lyte (1847)

It isn’t life that matters, but the courage one puts into it
– Peter, in Hugh Walpole’s Fortitude

INHERITORS OF HID’S LEGACY: The eldest and youngest daughters, Revd, Tola Oyediran (R) and Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo Dosumu.

INHERITORS OF HID’S LEGACY: The eldest and youngest daughters, Revd, Tola Oyediran (R) and Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo Dosumu.

IT IS EARLY MORNING in the scenic but desolate island. A sudden rush of water at the beachfront gathers in a multitude of crests as if in a choreographed salute to Providence. As the crests crash by the beachfront with salty water gently wetting her, Hannah raises her voice in supplication. She is here to beseech the One whom she believes is omnisciently regulating the world and everything that happens therein; His help, mercy and grace are especially needed at this period of misery when all forms of comfort seem to have suddenly departed. As the ocean rumbles again in eagerness of yet another of its endless rushes, Hannah ends her prayer that morning and walks back to the house.

The wind is coming. She has to brace herself by spreading her wings. She is going to fly, but would never let the wind of adversity carry her away….

A while after Hannah returns to the small house, an abandoned Government Reservation House where her husband, Obafemi Awolowo, is under restriction, the man takes his usual early morning walk by the beachfront and the bush path, partly to reflect again on his fate and to exercise his body. The events of the last few weeks are on his mind as he contemplates the intrigues of his political adversaries who had crashed him from the heights of formal gravity and personal dignity to the grimy small house in the mosquito-infested island of Lekki, accessible only by canoe.

The Atlantic Ocean offers a beautiful scenery as the Leader of Opposition in Nigeria’s federal parliament casts his glance over the endless waters over which he once sailed to England about two decades earlier to further equip himself for what, he was convinced, was the expected salvation of his fatherland. But the ugliness and the constriction which are taking over his beloved Western Region and the country he is seeking to lead, and his own restriction by the new “emergency” government of the Western Region contrast sharply with the beauty and plenitude of the ocean. Whatever comes, he assures himself, he would remain unbowed in his self-possession and unyielding in his convictions that his country deserved better; Nigeria, he further reassures himself, is in painful need of the kind of visionary leadership and egalitarian rule that he, more than any other of his contemporaries, could offer….

Back in the “guest house,” Mama Segun, as her husband and many others called Hannah, looks around her again as she prepares to make breakfast. Whoever thought of making this a guest house must have had only unwanted guests in mind. It is the break of dawn still and the villagers would start to come to the house to help in any way they could. She needs to prepare for the new day…

The tempest was rising all over the Western Region. Also, the situation in the country at large was tense. It was an opportunity to show the woman of fortitude in Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo. The world had come to know her husband as resolute, forbearing and resilient. But the world was yet to know the stuff that she was made of. Would the coming tide wash her away or give her the opportunity to prove her worth too?
She would show the world, particularly her husband’s wide and widening circle of adversaries and his inveterate enemies that she was no mere appendage of a great man; she was a great woman in her own rights. She will stand by him like a Rock of Gibraltar….

The events that led Obafemi Awolowo and his wife, Hannah Idowu Dideolu (who was later to be popularly known as “HID”) to Lekki started no sooner than her husband’s political philosophy and ideological standpoint became popular in Nigeria. His adversaries, ranging from a mix of ideological, political, ethnic and personal rivals or antagonists, quickly identified him as the greatest threat to their vision of Nigeria and personal and/or political ambitions. His articulation of social democracy, decentralization of power based on pan-ethnic solidarity, egalitarian rule, and opposition to any form of ethno-regional domination clashed with the creed, or belief-system and/or practices of his contemporaries from the 1940s when he emerged as an important force in the politics of late colonial Nigeria. His opportunity to prove that the ideas of egalitarian rule and decentralized national governance that he had championed in his writings could be accomplished was his premiership of the Western Region from 1954-1959.

After his widely acknowledged success as premier, in his bid to become the prime minister of independent Nigeria, Awolowo relinquished the position to his deputy in the Action Group, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola. However, he lost his bid as his party could not secure an alliance with the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), which could have made it possible for him to have a shot at the headship of the government as Nigeria moved towards independence in October 1960.

However, the immediate events that led to his restriction to Lekki were the crisis in the Action Group…

A TOAST TO THE PATRIARCH AT 70: Tokunbo (extreme left) joining HID, Venerable Sewo, the Vicar of St Saviours Church, Ikenne, Chief (Mrs.) Longe and one other in a toast to Chief Awolowo.

A TOAST TO THE PATRIARCH AT 70: Tokunbo (extreme left) joining HID, Venerable Sewo, the Vicar of St Saviours Church, Ikenne, Chief (Mrs.) Longe and one other in a toast to Chief Awolowo.

Shortly after the proclamation of the State of Emergency, Balewa appointed his Minister of Health, Moses Adekoyejo Majekodumi, the Sole Administrator of the Western Region in May 1962 for a period of seven months. One of the first acts of Majekodunmi was to use the Emergency Powers (Restriction Orders) Regulations, 1962, to restrict Awolowo to “a distance of three miles from the L. G. Police Station” in his hometown of Ikenne. The restriction order was dated May 29, 1962. Awolowo and Hannah arrived in Ikenne in the evening of May 31, 1962. His restriction formally began on June 1.

HID had started to bear the heavy burden of the crisis engulfing the Western Region. She too had been under immense pressures to mollify her husband as the AG crisis erupted. Some wanted her to persuade him against taking a principled stand. They wanted her to convince him to compromise with his adversaries in the region and the rest of the country. But she refused. She was convinced he was fighting a just cause. She had watched the events unfold, not from the ring side. She was at the centre of things. She was a witness to how her husband’s good faith in his successor had been abused and how the other regions, and the other major political parties, working in concert with the federal government had worked in concert to destroy her husband and his party; she had listened to her husband explain the proceedings at the Federal Parliament, including the role played by erstwhile allies turned dangerous adversaries. She was resolved that no matter what happened, she would stand wherever her husband stood. They started their mutual life together with little or nothing and they rose together to the pinnacle of power in the Western Region and as Leader of Opposition. She will remain steadfast, come rain or shine.

However, the incessant flow of people to the Awolowos’ home alarmed the authorities. What they wanted to achieve was to isolate him, and cast him as a belligerent, intransigent and disruptive element who should be avoided by all. After all, Okunnowo had said only a “handful of people from Yorubaland” supported him. But they realised that to be able to vanquish Awolowo, he had to be quarantined. They had assumed that the restriction would help to diminish him and reduce his popularity. If nothing was done about the experience of incessant flow of supporters and well-wishers to Ikenne, Ayo Rosiji might be proved wrong that Awolowo’s “political death” had commenced as the Federal Parliament debated the declaration of state of emergency. Thus, the attempt by Awolowo’s supporters to turn Ikenne to political Mecca had to be aborted. Okunowo’s appeal to Balewa “to do something” to “put this man under check” had a new resonance to the authorities.

Therefore, a decision was taken that Awolowo had to be moved to an inaccessible place. After they considered a few options, Majekodunmi ordered that the isolated island of Lekki not too far from the Epe beach was the best place to restrict the man. There was an abandoned Government Rest House there. On June 19, 1962, shortly after noon, the order for restriction in Lekki was delivered by a British officer of the Nigerian police force to Awolowo in Ikenne.

From experience, Awolowo knew there was nothing to eat in the island apart from fish. But he had little time to prepare for the journey. Therefore, Hannah went to work with the women assisting her. Within three and half hours, she was ready to accompany her husband to Lekki with sufficient provisions for feeding him there. But he didn’t want her to come along to Lekki. She would have none of it. She would go wherever he went, unless she was legally prevented from doing so. Even though she was ready to brave the odds, yet Hannah kept asking herself what her husband had done to deserve being tossed around like this. They were both despondent as they drove out of their house in Ikenne. There was uneasy silence in the car. After a while, Hannah broke down in the car and wept. But her husband hugged and consoled her. She eventually took care of herself. She even began to smile and so they began a discussion about their destination.

“We had been there before, when we went there for a holiday….” Said the Leader of Opposition who had become the opposed. He was trying to make light of their burden.
“Yes, but the place is no good!” Hannah insisted on the gravity of what awaited them in Lekki.
“Well. What can we do? Go there, we must. The decree has come from His Excellency, the Administrator….”
“And there is no electricity there!” HID retorted.

He acknowledged that and added that he had called the Administrator to tell him about his rheumatic pains which were usually acute in that part of the year, the raining season. Hannah was shocked at Majekodunmi’s callousness.
“You told him that?”
Her husband was affirmative.
“And yet he insisted on our going to Lekki. How cruel!”

At this point, Awolowo became convinced that, despite the brief expression of emotion by his wife, her fortitude and “joyful spirit had been fully regained.”

PRAYER TIME: HID and Obafemi Awolowo at the altar for prayers

PRAYER TIME: HID and Obafemi Awolowo at the altar for prayers

The conversation between the two – with Awo saying “we must” and his wife saying “our going” – was yet another demonstration of the unbroken bond between the two. Instinctively, they knew they were in this together.

“My wife’s resilience was… astonishing and inimitable. If anyone had visited us at Lekki six hours after our arrival there, he would have thought we had been there for weeks,” writes Awolowo in his memoirs about the way H.I.D. took charge of affairs as they landed in his place of confinement on June 20, 1962. After shedding tears as they left Ikenne, she stilled her nerves and figured out in her mind how to take command of the space they would occupy and make their time there as convenient as possible in what would clearly be an unpleasant environment….

Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo with a white couple

Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo with a white couple

When they moved back to Ikenne, it was obvious to Hannah that her husband was being tossed around in preparation for something more sinister. What it was she and her husband couldn’t decipher yet. He was to remind the judge in his allocutus fourteen months later of Peter, the hero of Walpole’s Fortitude – cited in the epigram who heard a voice saying to him “Blessed are all sorrow, hardship and endurance that demand courage.” Earlier, he commented in his biography that Hannah had “courage of a rare kind.” But he quickly added that “I have that too.” Still, he confessed that “I am no match for her at all in her exercise of infinite patience and forbearance under all manner of circumstances….”

Gold Reserve
Through Love all that is bitter will be sweet,
Through Love all that is copper will be gold,
Through Love all dregs will become wine,
through Love all pain will turn to medicine
– Jalâl ad-Dîn Muhammad Rûmî, 13th century Persian Poet and Sufi mystic.

The Awolowos and clerics

The Awolowos and clerics

WHEN HANNAH IDOWU DIDEOLU ADELANA married Obafemi Jeremiah Awolowo on December 26, 1937, she was hoping for marital bliss in the context of perilous economic circumstances into which her new husband was being thrown. For a young lady who had never known want all her life, marrying this promising young man was a gamble. At his point, Obafemi was hovering between striving and thriving. He had experienced much turbulence in his short life. Even though he started out with a lot of opportunities under the watch of a father who had invested much hope in his future, the death of his father seventeen years earlier, that is, in April 1920, meant that Obafemi was pushed hither and thither in the course of life until he became a man.

Despite the fact that the young Obafemi had survived the “abrupt cessation” of his schooling in 1920 — and the resultant “remorseless” dashing of “all the hopes and aspirations which [my] father had systematically and relentlessly instilled in me,” —to graduate from high school in Abeokuta and later Wesley College, Ibadan, thus becoming a journalist, clerk, money-lender, public letter-writer and now a produce buyer (in that order), his business was on the brink of collapse by the time Hannah was moving from the comfort of her home in Ikenne first to his house in Ikenne and subsequently to Ibadan.

However, the meticulous and prudent young man did not plan to bring his beautiful wife into a matrimony beset by financial worries. After abandoning money-lending, the “seamy side” of which he didn’t like, Obafemi concentrated on public letter-writing. But realizing that he could not make enough money from this to travel to England to study law, he got into motor transport business and produce buying.

Hannah and Obafemi Awolowo arriving at a campaign rally in the Second Republic.

Hannah and Obafemi Awolowo arriving at a campaign rally in the Second Republic.

The motor transport business soon “came to grief” and Obafemi concentrated on produce buying, involving commodities such as cocoa, palm kernel and cotton, which though hazardous, was bringing good profit. He formed the Progressive Economic Corporation (PEC) in which friends and some others invested. In the 1935-1936 season, the profit was good enough for his business associates to either get the profits due them or for such profit to be ploughed back into the business for further gains. Things were even better the next business season. In the 1936-1937 season, as Obafemi planned to wed Hannah, Nigeria witnessed the best cocoa boom such that it was, as Obafemi Awolowo later revealed, “all too easy to make money.” In fact, he made enough profit in this season to pay off the capital investment of his business associates in addition to profit. Now he must have considered the fiscal comfort which Hannah would enjoy after they were married.

Obafemi had enough in this season to proceed to England for his life-long ambition to study law. However, since he was already engaged to the charming lady, Hannah, whom he described as “a beautiful damsel,” and was set to marry her in December of 1937, he had to wait to conclude the ceremonies so he could take his wife along to the United Kingdom. His decision to delay his journey was made even more sensible by the forecast for the 1937-1938 cocoa season shared by most people in the business. After making lots of profits in the following year, he projected, he would sail to the London with his wife to begin a new life.

Olusegun, Obafemi, Omotola and Oluwole Awolowo in London, August 1960. Obafemi Awolowo had stopped over in London tosee his children on the way to the Summer Olympic Games held in Rome, Italy

Olusegun, Obafemi, Omotola and Oluwole Awolowo in London, August 1960. Obafemi Awolowo had stopped over in London tosee his children on the way to the Summer Olympic Games held in Rome, Italy

Obafemi and all others engaged in the business of produce buying were terribly wrong about the forecast for the following year. Cocoa business experienced a slump and not only did he lose everything, he also became terribly indebted. Therefore, as he exchanged vows with Hannah on Boxing Day of 1937, all he held onto was hope for a better future and a firm belief in the goodness of God….

“My mother said this man is too obstinate. He was inflexible. She didn’t want me to marry a man like that,” Hannah recalls her mother’s warning against marrying Obafemi almost eighty years later. She was not feeling too strong this afternoon in June 2015, so I spoke with her as she reclined on a sofa chaise in her room. But she recalled her mother’s warning distinctly.

“Even people, other people in Ikenne, were saying he was too tough, too stubborn. Will you be able to cope with this stubborn man if you marry him?” she remembers people asking her.

As an only child, her mother was over-protective when it came to the choice of a spouse. She was happy that she wanted to marry an Ikenne young man so that she would not be taken too far away from her. But she wanted an easy-going and unassuming man. Not this Obafemi who was so “obstinate,” “assertive” and “troublesome.”

Even though Hannah had not met Obafemi, nor knew of him when he received his first “love letter” — as a propositional letter from a man to a woman was called in those days — his reputation preceded him. Most of those who knew him in Ikenne only knew him in his younger days. He never suffered fools gladly and was eager to pick a fight with anyone who threw down the gauntlet.

What came across to many as conceit and obstinacy in Obafemi in his youthful days, therefore, were manifestations of what he described as a resolve to exercise “spartan control and discipline over myself [and to go about] my business independent and unafraid.” This independent-mindedness and fearlessness morphed into a psychological and political tenacity and intense deliberateness almost unequalled in the private and public lives of any other political leader in Nigeria’s history.

Hannah was soon to experience this tenacity and deliberateness after Obafemi started taking himself “extremely seriously” from 1932….

The Awolowos greeting Chief Solomon Lar (standing second left) with Wole Awolowo behind Lar.

The Awolowos greeting Chief Solomon Lar (standing second left) with Wole Awolowo behind Lar.

When Hannah returned to Ikenne from Lagos in 1933, the cute 13 year-old that left the small town five years earlier, had become an attractive 18-year old young woman. She was turning heads in the small Remo town. Her beauty was complemented by her charm, modishness and cosmopolitan skills. Young men in Ikenne were in awe and not a few of the mothers of young men were eager to “snatch” this young woman for their bachelor-sons….

Even though Hannah was unaware of the young Ikenne man living in Ibadan who had moved from public letter-writing into transportation business and then produce-buying, he was aware of her. He knew of her family background and had heard so much about what a beautiful, amiable, conscientious, and disciplined lady she was.

In the immediate post-Victorian era Western Nigeria, “love-letter” had become the significant and acceptable way by which the educated and the “modern” men courted similarly educated and modern young women. But when Obafemi wrote his first letter to Hannah intimating her of his love for her and his desire for a relationship that would lead to marriage, she hadn’t even met him and was left wondering who this love-struck man was.

“My husband started courting me in writing ever before we met face to face,” Hannah discloses in her autobiography. He was then the secretary of the transporter’s union in Ibadan and a leading member of the produce buyer’s association. The skills he had deployed as a public letter-writer came in handy in the process of expressing his affection for Hannah. Even though he deployed the language facilities he had acquired from wide-ranging literature, he made the core of his message very clear: “I want to marry you.”

Hannah was not interested in a relationship; she was not even interested in dating a man she had not met. There were a few others who had expressed interest in her. They were mostly non-Ikenne indigenes. Given her mother’s very clear and strong position that she was not ready to “lose” her to some non-indigene who could take her to a “far-away” place after marriage, she turned down her suitors. Even though the latest suitor was an Ikenne indigene, she was still not interested. But the letters continued to arrive from Obafemi in Ibadan. He needed to move on the next stage of what was emerging to be a well-planned life and would not be deterred by the lady’s rebuff.

One day Mr. Emmanuel Obajimi Olutunda, a native of Ikenne and Obafemi’s friend who was also a relation of Hannah met her to verbally relay another message from Obafemi. Olutunda spoke glowingly about this man. He was a “serious,” “successful” and “focused” man who would make a good husband, he said. The relentlessness of the suitor through letters and Olutunda’s testimonial succeeded in raising some curiosity in Hannah. She told Olutunda, “Look, I don’t even know the man you are introducing to me.” That was an ice-breaker. Olutunda promised to bring the suitor as soon as possible.
He sent a message to Obafemi in Ibadan. It was a message of optimism, or more precisely, of possibility.

At the London Constitutional Conference in 1957 (L-R) Segun Awolowo, HID, a British friend, and Obafemi Awolowo

At the London Constitutional Conference in 1957 (L-R) Segun Awolowo, HID, a British friend, and Obafemi Awolowo

On the appointed day in 1934, the smartly-dressed Obafemi, accompanied by Olutunda met Hannah in her friend’s house. Here, at last, was the man behind the sweet words. And here was the object of his desire, the much-sought after beauty. Obafemi introduced himself and added that he was the one behind the letters. He had come to re-affirm his craving for her love. He asked for her hand in marriage. Having satisfied her curiosity, Hannah again repeated her rejection of his request for a relationship that could blossom into marriage. She told him she had someone else in her life. It was just a ploy to shake him off.

Before that day, as Hannah repeated, “I did not know him very well, because he left Ikenne in 1921 when I was just six years old, but I have been hearing about him. He had written to me, as was the pattern in those days…. I rejected his offer saying there was a man already in my life.” Hannah added with a smile, “You know you won’t agree immediately….”

“Eventually, we came to terms and settled down,” was how Hannah described her decision to enter into a relationship with the man who would go on to redefine modern political leadership in Nigeria….

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7 Comments

  • bayuse says:

    Odi Odi, why don’t you get your history correct: Awo never said that genocide is a legitimate weapon of war. The phrase does not even make sense. What Awo said was ‘hunger is a legitimate weapon of war’. That has consistently proven correct in wars.

  • ODI ODI says:

    Make sure you add the journey part of conceiving “Genocide as a legitimate weapon of war”, in Nigerian war policy, in your assessment. A man must own his thoughts and actions.

  • Edward Osadebay says:

    What a glorious journey of love, dedication and perseverance.

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