A STAB IN THE BACK
Did you know that many people who had believed that it was Justice George Sodehinde Sowemimo who betrayed Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1909-1987) in perhaps the most celebrated treasonable felony case ever in Nigeria, did not know that the man who actually stabbed the Action Group leader in the back was his friend and confidant - a prosecution star witness named Ibrahim Imam (1916-1980)? A tempestuous character, powerful orator and one of Bornu's greatest sons in modern times, Ibrahim Imam founded the Bornu Youth Improvement Association (BYIA) in 1949, emerged General Secretary of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) and was largely responsible for the expansion of the NPC in Northern Nigeria. He later became a political ally of Chief Awolowo following his dumping of the NPC for the Bornu Youth Movement (BYM) which later joined the Action Group in 1958. In attempting to understand why Ibrahim Imam turned against Awo, his benefactor and sponsor, we may need to go back to where and how it all started:
Young Ibrahim Imam was born in Yerwa to Imam Amsami and Ya Aishatu, and grew up in a highly religious and sophisticated environment. Of Kanembu stock, Amsami, his father, arrived Bornu in company with Shehu Garbai from Kukawa in 1907 at the founding of modern Yerwa. The fluency with which Amsami spoke the Arabic language ensured that he got on very well with the first batch of British administrators like Major Augustus McClintock, W.P. Hewby and later H.R. Palmer, who apart from being administrators, were also Arabic scholars. This influence with both the British and also with the Shehu of Bornu, made him to rise in esteem in the Bornu Court that he virtually became the first modern Waziri of Bornu. Formally though, he was the Alkali, but his role transcended merely performing legal duties alone.
The second youngest child of his father's eight male children and one daughter, Ibrahim Imam received Koranic and Western education which culminated at Katsina College from where he graduated in 1938. A trained engineer in the Public Works Department at Kaduna from 1938-1941, Ibrahim Imam worked as Supervisor of Works towards the end of World War II (1939-1945). The Maiduguri Airport remained one of his most notable organizational achievements, the building of which he mobilized workers for. He combined almost effortlessly his councillorship in charge of social services with his membership of the Shehu's Council.
It happened that while supervising the construction of the Damaturu Bama road in 1945, Ibrahim Imam, for the first time, got in the soup with the authorities by his being wrongfully accused of receiving a horse from the District Head of Magumeri as gratification and was, as a result, forced out of the Shehu's Council by the British officials in 1945, his proof that he bought the horse notwithstanding.
At the time, following the launching of the Lagos Youth Movement in 1934 in Lagos, and its renaming as Nigerian Youth Movement in 1936, establishing youth movements became the fad as was found also in places like Kano, Zaria and Sokoto. This prompted Ibrahim Imam to also found the Bornu Youth Improvement Association (BYIA) in Maiduguri in 1949; to primarily agitate for reforms in the rigid political organization that then ruled Bornu. It also sought to protest against the socially and politically restrictive atmosphere that pervaded the Shehu's Court as well as bring to the fore the numerous rampant abuses in the administration of justice and fiscal administration of Bornu which the British had constantly shied away from in the interest of political stability. Basking in the euphoria of its extreme influence and power in Bornu between 1950 and 1951, the BYIA organized the first strike ever by workers in the works department of the Native Authority in 1950.
The BYIA combined its attack on the authoritarianism of the Shehu and his aristocratic cohorts, with its criticism of the absurdity of such customs that forbade ownership of storey buildings in Bornu by the people except the Shehu. It also vented equal spleen on the tradition that prohibited the ordinary use of an umbrella by the people except the Shehu, regardless of what the weather dictated. In 1951, Ibrahim Imam was elected to the Northern House of Assembly in Kaduna in what seemed like he was being co-opted into the system, and for a while the BYIA missed its radical leadership. Subsequently, Ibrahim Imam emerged the General Secretary of the NPC “and was instrumental in welding what was originally an amorphous motley of individuals and N.A. officials into a well-structured party.”
Meanwhile, being one of those who were to shape the destiny of Bornu, Ibrahim Imam made decisions of great import in his capacity as NPC General Secretary launched in Zaria in 1949, when he submitted proposals for greater centralization of the party at the end of 1953 but which failed to scale through owing to their rejection by the party hierarchy. Apparently, Ibrahim Imam, a man who called a spade a spade, was becoming something of an enigma if not an outright sore point and a downright embarrassment to the NPC to say the least. Fond of swimming against the tide of his party, the NPC, Ibrahim Imam voted according to the dictates of his conscience, sometimes with the Action Group or the NCNC. Yet, other times he would just remain neutral. A non conformist who enjoyed doing his own thing and once ideological differences arose between him and the NPC, he resigned from the party almost without a second thought and returned to his old job at the works department in Bornu, only to be forced out before long due to his radical views.
Business became his next point of call and later when his old BYIA transformed into the Bornu Youth Movement in 1954, Ibrahim Imam was invited to be its patron. It must be noted that the BYM claimed it represented Kanuri nationalism and stood out against any attempt by the Hausa-Fulani leadership of the NPC to lord it over Bornu, which because Bornu was the first Muslim region in Nigeria, had always seen itself as superior to the Sokoto Caliphate founded by Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817), an Islamic promoter, and writer and teacher of the Maliki School of law and the Qadiriyyah Sufism who soon passed actual leadership of the Caliphate to his son Mohammed Bello (1815-1837).
When Ibrahim Imam accepted the BYM invitation, many of the leaders of the NPC, who had always liked him as a person became concerned about his apparent political instability. They knew at once that something drastic had to be done to put him in check, and realized perhaps that the only man who could match him in eloquence and oratory was the aggressive Zanna Bukar Dipcharima (1917-1969), who was well known in Bornu but at the time was residing in Bida and was on the staff of the John Holt Company in Kaduna. A well travelled man, Dipcharima, unlike his Northern and Bornu compatriots, had lived in Zaria, Kano, and Bauchi, centers that were accessible to Southerners as well as ideas emanating from the South. Although at the time, his Bornu influence may not have been too great, his fame had certainly spread to the Western and traditional leaders of Bornu as a Kanuri man who had made good even in Lagos.
Granting that a stitch in time saves nine, a rendezvous was quickly arranged with Dipcharima at Ahmed Talib's house (with the tacit agreement of the Sardauna of course), where he was asked to replace a Kanuri nationalist but reluctant politician, Sir Kashim Ibrahim (1910-1990), who wanted to give up his appointment as the Minister of Education in Lagos and return to Maiduguri to become Waziri of Bornu. To cut a long story short, Dipcharima accepted and went on to win the election to the Federal House of Representatives in 1954.
Since one could not make an omelet without breaking eggs, Waziri Kashim Ibrahim doubtlessly stepped on other people's corns and bunions in the process of becoming one of the most powerful men in Nigeria. His purge of the administration on assuming office as Waziri (with Dipcharima, his trusted protégé, in his team) in 1956 was, for instance, so drastic that many people were sent to prison which alienated a large segment of the population in Bornu. The reality of the situation was to come home to roost for Waziri Kashim Ibrahim when he contested election to the Northern House of Assembly in 1956, and was humiliated with defeat by a BYM candidate, one Alhaji Bashar Yunusa, a common N.A. truck driver in the Waziri's Yerwa North constituency. In fact, in what was indeed a protest vote against the policies of the NPC in general and against the sometimes dictatorial policies of the N.A. epitomized by Waziri Kashim Ibrahim in particular, the charismatic leader of the BYM, Ibrahim Imam himself, defeated Alhaji Dori of the NPC in Yerwa South to complete the rout of the NPC in Yerwa.
Two other factors were also responsible for the success of the BYM beside being a protest vote. Apart from the fact of its being well organized and highly disciplined, the BYM had party cells in each of the wards making up Maiduguri such as Shehuri North, Limanti, Mafoni, Gamboru, and Lamisula in Yerwa North constituency and in Zango, Hausari, Fezzani and Bulabuliri wards of Shehuri South constituency. And apart from the fact that the party branches in the various wards met daily, the ward leaders who addressed the meetings provided political education followed by refreshments and entertainments. Mostly, these daily meetings thoroughly examine NPC policies which were not dissimilar to those of the N.A. led by Waziri Kashim Ibrahim.
The talakawa of Bornu, who daily bore the burden of oppressive taxation imposed by the N.A., not only saw the BYM as a people's movement against the high handedness and oppressive measures of the N.A., they also felt at home with its ideology, and accordingly threw their weight behind it. Without wasting time, the BYM in 1955 forged an alliance with the other radical party, the Northern Elements People's Union of Mallam Aminu Kano (1920-1983) in its bid to consolidate the support of the masses of the people. Part of their agreements included the choice of a common candidate in an election so as to eschew fielding candidates against themselves. Ward executives of the two parties also met regularly to plan strategy and both parties were well represented at their respective headquarters and avoided public criticism of one another. The agreement further stated that NEPU, the stronger partner, would allow one BYM delegate as part of its team in the event that NEPU itself had more than one candidate attending any constitutional conferences to determine the future of Nigeria,. Literally, this alliance gave Bornu to the BYM on a platter since most Kanuri perceived it as their own party, one capable of guaranteeing freedom for Bornu people in the face of what was considered Hausa-Fulani domination which was equated with the NPC. Of significant note here is the fact that the BYM enjoyed the secret support of Mohammed Ngulerima, the immediate past Waziri of Bornu from 1953-1956, who brought with him all those who opposed his removal from office. They just could not stomach Waziri Kashim Ibrahim's ascendency in the political life of Bornu, and so worked against it assiduously.
Naturally, the landslide victory of the BYM in 1956 gave the NPC quite a turn and necessarily invited a vigorous response from Waziri Kashim Ibrahim and Zanna Bukar Dipcharima, who a decade later, would be nominated acting Prime Minister in the absence of the substantive Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912-1966), whose whereabouts were not then known, but whom the acting President Dr. Aweke Nwafor Orizu (1915-1999) would refuse to swear in on the ground that he needed to first contact Nigeria's president, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904-1996).
The NPC charged both Kashim Ibrahim and Dipcharima “to clear up the mess” by whatever means possible and make Bornu safe for the party. The two, therefore, mobilized at full stretch the entire N.A. staff, N.A. Police, the Emirate Council and all the force at their command to fight back. Even the Shehu's Council at the time became synonymous with the Bornu NPC executive. Through systematic persecution by way of exile, imprisonment, forceful arrest and detention, arson and harassment by party thugs, the BYM had by 1957 become so weakened that it won only eight seats compared to twenty-three won by the NPC in the elections to the Yerwa Town Council. The NPC had turned the political tables in Bornu on the BYM for good. Both men (Kashim and Zanna) saw this victory as the beginning of their onslaught against the BYM and its leadership.
Not resting on their oars, they issued strict orders which forbade any social and commercial contact with the supporters of the BYM. As expected, many supporters of the BYM were as a result ruined since most businesses back then owed their existence and survival largely to government patronage. Vivid abuse and exploitation of sanitary laws were carried out to pull down houses of opponents. Even Ibrahim Imam's house was not spared. It was in apparent desperation to raise the wind and thus attract badly needed funds from Chief Awolowo that the BYM joined the Action Group. But despite the generous infusion of funds into the BYM by the Action Group, the party seemed to have clutched at straws as its fortunes continued to dwindle for several reasons:
Firstly, Kashim Ibrahim and Dipcharima enjoyed the full backing of the Northern Nigerian government of Sir Ahmadu Bello (1910-1966) as well as local police and federal police, and so employed the full Native Authority machine to contain both the leadership and rank and file of the BYM. In order to prevent the holding of political rallies by other parties except the NPC, they resorted to the effective use of the laws that gave power of maintenance of law and order to the N.A. And where denying permission proved an impossibility, it was granted with the proviso that rallies be held outside the city purposely to frustrate supporters of opposing parties who had no means of transport. In all this, the tacit support of the British authorities was crucial as it was evident by their allowing Kashim Ibrahim to combine the Waziriship of Bornu with the leadership of the NPC.
Secondly, all the members of the BYM were virtually ostracized with the issuance of what was known as the “Eighteen-point Resolution” first in 1957, then again in 1960 and finally in 1961. The resolutions declared them persona non grata in the province and commercial as well as social relations with them were forbidden to their great discomfort. The NPC added insult to injury by encouraging dissension and factionalism within the BYM following the single-handed decision by Ibrahim Imam to affiliate the BYM with the Action Group, and they reaped bountifully from it. BYM members who wished to remain with the NEPU broke away and others decamped to, or were lured into the NPC with the hope of landing jobs and or contracts in the local administration or in the NPC Government of Northern Nigeria. Yet, some other members who could no longer weather the storm chose to avoid the painful ordeal of political victimization by simply fleeing the party.
The NPC unleashed a campaign of calumny and tribalism against the BYM leaders who were accused of selling the Kanuri to the “infidel” Yoruba. Toing and froing, NPC agents visited all the nooks and crannies of Bornu and preached religious hatred against the BYM as well as slandered its leadership as infidels and apostates for associating with a non-Muslim party. Even the local Imams were forced to ensure that their followers swear allegiance to the NPC using the Holy Quran. And since Waziri Kashim Ibrahim and his henchman Dipcharima did everything in the name of the 85 year old venerated Shehu of Bornu, illiterate people of the realm came to regard the NPC as the Shehu's party and the BYM as opposed to the Shehu.
And so, the unflinching loyalty of the Kanuri to the Shehu was exploited by the Waziri to further the interest of the NPC in Bornu. Wielding NPC absolute control over the N.A., he charged Ibrahim Imam to court for embezzlement of funds during his years as Councilor of Works, an office Imam held last in 1951. He was convicted by the Alkali Court, but for the High Court of Maiduguri which discharged and acquitted him, Ibrahim Imam would have been shoved into jail. His house was again attacked and subsequently burnt after a fight, which resulted in not a few deaths, broke out in front of his house between party thugs of the NPC and those of the BYM. In 1959, still licking his wounds, Ibrahim Imam fled Bornu to reside in Jos and to contest elections to the Federal House of Representatives in one of the constituencies in Tiv land. He was accommodated politically by his good friend, Joseph Tarka (1932-1980), leader of the United Middle Belt Congress (UBMC), whose party was also in alliance with the Action Group.
The physical removal of Ibrahim Imam from Bornu meant that the captain of the BYM had abandoned ship and it was only a matter of time before the BYM ship itself sank. By 1959, when there was going to be a federal election, the BYM had cost the Action Group an enormous sum of money with nothing to show for it in return, and just as much in the other areas of the North inhabited by non-Hausa-Fulani people. This credit, of course, went to both Kashim Ibrahim and Zanna Bukar Dipcharima, who through the same adroit and clever use of the Native Authority machinery, succeeded in frustrating all the efforts of the Action Group.
While conformity was attained by suppression of all opposition, the duo managed to restore confidence in the Native Administration through their example of transparent honesty, zero-tolerance for corruption at all levels of government and the visible progress and development achieved. The futility of opposition to the government began to dawn on the people of Bornu and they gradually deserted the BYM which formerly closed shop in June 1961. Cowed, harassed and subdued, they once again put their toes in the water, and renewed their allegiance to the NPC in the North: a classic example of how African leaders force and muzzle their OWN people against their wish, and wrest support from them for the governing party.
Interestingly, following the departure of the Governor of Northern Nigeria Sir Gawain Bell (1909-1995) in May 1962, Waziri Kashim Ibrahim would, on the recommendation of his bosom friend, the Sardauna of Sokoto, be appointed on 1st June, 1962 to the vacant office of Governor of Northern Nigeria via an announcement made in London by Buckingham Palace. A few weeks later, the Waziri received a congratulatory letter to that effect from the Governor-General of the federation, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, and he was later knighted by the British monarch and Colonial head of state of Nigeria Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926).
Apparently for the sake of Northern solidarity and Islamic brotherhood, Ibrahim Imam, who obviously had finally thrown up the sponge, cited what he called regional and religious grounds to justify this course of action. But only after he had met with the charismatic Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, a man who was used to having his way and who was said to be hell bent on playing his trump card against the Action Group leader, did Ibrahim Imam reach this decision. As Fred Williamson said in the film 44 Specialists, “…if the price is right, the job is right.” The Sardauna of Sokoto, it was alleged, awarded Ibrahim Imam a non-negotiable, mouth-watering, multi-million pound contract only after Imam had promised to testify against Chief Awolowo! To this television comedian, Chika Okpala a.k.a Zebrudaya alias 4.30, would appropriately have remarked: “Aaha, there you are!”
This man, Ibrahim Imam, was the prosecution star witness in that celebrated case where Chief Awolowo was charged in 1962 with thirty others on three counts (including treason) in the High Court in Lagos before presiding trial Judge Mr. Justice Sowemimo. Imam had claimed in court to have received funds from Chief Awolowo, not for party organization but, for the procurement of arms and ammunition meant for use in the possible destabilization and takeover of the Federal Government of Nigeria at a date yet unknown. He “alleged that plans were made to overthrow the Balewa Government by a popular (non-military) revolution…that men were sent to Ghana for training and that firearms and ammunition had been illegally imported.” On hearing this, and coming from a political ally of Chief Awolowo, a genuinely stunned Justice Sowemimo, who two decades later would become the Chief Justice of Nigeria (1983-1985), proclaimed that 'my hands are tied'- meaning that he would have loved to release the Ikenne chieftain for lack of evidence but that Ibrahim Imam's testimony before his court had changed what he had so far decided upon. Said Justice Sowemimo:
“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... I do not see what useful purpose a sentence of imprisonment will do to you, but I have come to the conclusion that these things emanate from you. To get yourself involved in this thing is enough shame. But this is a political crime. There are things which one may never know. All I know is what is before me and I am bound by the evidence.”
On 11th September, 1963, Justice Sowemimo accordingly slammed the following sentences on Chief Awolowo: 1st Count- Ten (10) years Imprisonment with Hard Labour - Treasonable felony, contrary to Section 41(b) of the Criminal Code; 2nd Count- Five (5) years Imprisonment with Hard Labour - Conspiracy to commit a felony, contrary to Section 516 of the Criminal Code; and 3rd Count- Two (2) years Imprisonment with Hard Labour. Conspiracy to effect an unlawful purpose, contrary to Section 518 (6) of the Criminal Code. All sentences ran concurrently.
Indeed, no thanks to those who manipulated an arm of the law and made it an instrument of crime…those who made a bitchy, lying traitor out of the once principled Ibrahim Imam against his will.