Nigerian youths have always protested against bad legislations, policies or unfavourable pacts with foreign colonial and domineering countries. An example is the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact that the Nigerian youths and students resisted vehemently.
The Nigeria independence from British colonial rule on October 1, 1960 came with a lot of excitement from the entire citizenry. However, sixty days after, precisely on November 29, 1960, the great Nigerian students rose up against the Anglo – Nigerian Defence Pact, which gave the British government legal rights to establish military base in Nigeria. Six of them were subsequently tried on the protest, but they won as the defence pact was abrogated.
On the fateful day, students from University College Ibadan numbering more than a thousand stormed the Parliament building at Race Course (now Tafawa Balewa Square) in Lagos to protest the signing of the defence pact ten days earlier. What started with a peaceful protest soon became rough as the students insisted on speaking with Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa. All entreaties by some parliamentarians to calm them down proved abortive. One of the parliamentarians and a minister had a rough deal in the hands of the students.
This forced others who had already been cowed by the students to take cover. The students with one voice declared: “We have come to see the Prime Minister and not just any minister”. With these they made spirited attempts to force their way into the chambers of the two houses. However some courageous parliamentarians quickly telephoned the Anti – Riot squad of the Nigerian Police. The Police responded quickly by rushing down to tear gas the students. Six of them were arrested and detained.
Before the students interrupted the proceedings of the day, the then Minister of Defence, Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu was actually on his feet presenting a sessional paper that contained the terms of the defence agreement between the two governments. While these were going on in Lagos, the same was simultaneously taking place at the British Parliament in London.
Ribadu listed in the Order Paper a resolution demanding the House to approve the steps taken to arrange proper training of the Armed Forces and for the acquisition of weapons necessary for the defence on Nigeria. Furthermore, the Minster asked that the House authorize the government to include the defence agreement with the government of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in the terms presented in the House in the sessional paper.
The debate on the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact actually began in October 1958 during the London Constitutional Conference. The representatives of the two countries had discussed the possibility of working together and the assistance they could render to each other.
Part of the draft agreement has to do with the British government provision to assist the Armed Forces of the Federation of Nigeria. Article I Part 3 reads: “The UK government will make available facilities for the training of members of the armed forces of the Federation. In particular, places will be made available for officer cadets and other ranks at training establishments in the UK such as Royal Military College, Sandhurst; Royal Naval College, Dartmouth; The men’s Officer Cadet School, Aldershot; and other British military training centres.
Part vii also stated: “The UK government will pay landing fees for the use of civil airfields in the federation by the aircraft referred to in article 3 of this agreement (not being aircraft of or under the control of the armed forces of the federation) at the rate applicable to civil aircrafts of comparable size and will reimburse the government of the federation any extra expenditure by the government of the federation.
Article 3 reads: “The government of the federation and UK government each undertake to accord to military aircraft of, and the aircraft under the control of the Air Force of each other, unrestricted overflying and air staging facilities in the federation and in the UK and dependent territories respectively.
Many people including the leaders of opposition felt that the defence pact had the tendency to undermine the sovereignty of the Federation. Prominent amongst the critics was the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and the late Kwame Nkrumah, former President of Ghana who felt that such a pact with Nigeria will make the whole of Africa vulnerable to Western attack. This was at a time that the whole world was divided ideologically between capitalism/ democracy as represent by the United States of America, and Communism as represented by the Union Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR)
It was against this background that the students from the University College, Ibadan stormed the parliament in Lagos seeking to stop the pact from taken effect. Six of them were arrested and charged to court for “unlawful assembly”. They are B.O Esan, T.K Alabi, E. Kobeni, M. Anibaba, R. Adu, and E.O Akinsola.
Their trial came up before Tapa Magistrate Court before Magistrate Franklin Atake, who initially granted them bail on the equivalent of N 80 then. At the trial, the students were represented by a team of lawyers led by Mr Adewale Thompson, who later became the Chief Judge of Oyo State.
Delivering judgment, Magistrate Atake found the students guilty but rather than imposing a sentence, he bounded them over to be of “good behavior” for twelve months. They entered into the bound on self -recognition. The magistrate said that the students acted on cheer youthful exuberance and over stretched zeal.
He said: “These are young students who, if given any chance, may reform and turn out to be useful to the country in dire need of personnel. I do not wish to record a conviction against them. It is hoped, however, that they would justify their future conduct by respecting the leniency which this court adopted towards them.”
Magistrate Atake said that the court is convinced that the students participated in the assembly and that they had a common purpose to protest against the pact. He said that failure of the prosecution to call as witnesses, members of the parliament rough handled by the students weakened the case of the prosecution. One of those so treated was Chief TOS Benson, who was then a serving minister.
On the issue of fundamental human rights pleaded by the defence, the magistrate said: ‘ one must add a rider that everybody is entitled to exercise his rights as such, but he is obliged to mind how such exercise of the rights affects those of his neighbours and in particular, how it affects the rights of the state”
Commending the decision of the court, the leader of the defence team, Mr Thompson said: “Fundamental human rights are meant to be fundamental but if there should be any rider or limitations on such rights, it is not for members of the Bar, including magistrates, to emphasize these defects. It is the spirit of the fundamental human rights that must be considered and not the letters of rights”.
Fellow students later organized a reception for their mates at the Island Club, Lagos. It was a continuation of the protest as they carried placards, some of which read NO MILITARY BASE ON OUR SOIL, “DOWN WITH STALLARD”, and DOWN WITH OBNOXIOUS DEFENCE PACT”
On January 21, 1962, an announcement came from London that Britain and Nigeria had decided to abrogate the Anglo- Nigerian defence pact which came into force on the eve of Nigeria’s independence on October 1, 1960. The abrogation came on the eve of a conference of African countries in Lagos. The announcement bulletin stated that “the two countries noted with concern that the scope and purpose of the agreement have been widely misunderstood and that in particular, fears have arisen that in consequence of the agreement, Nigeria’s freedom of action might be impaired and that she may even be drawn into hostilities against her wishes”.
And such, Nigeria was saved by the power of her youths against a Pact that would have undermined her sovereignty.