Chief S.L. Akintola was slated to give a victory speech after the rigged 1965 regional election which returned him to power as Premier of the Western Region.
On 15 October 1965, just before a radio broadcast of the Premier’s speech, a certain armed man allegedly gained entrance into the premises of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) at Ibadan, and seized the tapes containing the Premier’s pre-recorded speech.
The armed man, alleged to be Wole Soyinka, then compelled the continuity announcer to broadcast another tape which he had brought along with him. Instead of the triumphant address of the Premier, the people of Western Nigeria heard, inter alia, the following defiant message:
“Akintola get out; Akintola, get out and take with you your band of renegades who have lost with you any pretence to humanity, and have become nothing, but murdering beasts. . . .
The lawful government of Western Nigeria is the UPGA government, elected by the people of the West. Let every self-seeking impostor get out now before the people, losing patience, wash the streets in their polluted blood. . . .
In the name of Oduduwa and our generation, get out! Before the frustration of ten million people, their anger and their justice in an all-consuming fire come over your heads.”
This incident embarrassed and angered the Premier, and Wole Soyinka was swiftly declared wanted, detained, and subsequently charged with the offences of conspiracy and theft of the Premier’s tapes.
Soyinka’s detention caused many influential literary figures and public intellectuals to lodge protests and appeals for clemency with the Nigerian government.
Although Soyinka unsuccessfully raised an alibi, at trial the prosecution failed to secure a conviction due to the conflicting testimony of several witnesses concerning the identity of the armed man.
According to Justice Kayode Eso (as he then was), who presided over the trial, the proper course of action in the circumstances was to acquit and discharge the accused person.
Resisting pressure from powerful Western region politicians who wanted Soyinka convicted at all costs, Justice Eso held as follows: “All the eye-witnesses [at the radio station] were positive that the [armed] man who held them up was not masked.
The place was well lit, they said, and they had no doubt about their examination of the gunman’s face. The gunman, they had all said, was bearded.
[One of the witnesses who gave evidence for the prosecution testified that Soyinka, whom he saw two hours before the incident at the radio station, was clean-shaven].
While l can understand a bearded man at five o’ clock in the evening becoming clean-shaven at 7 p.m., I cannot unravel the mystery of a clean-shaven man at 5 p.m. becoming bearded at 7 p.m. [when the incident occurred] except he is somehow masked.
And the overwhelming evidence placed before the court by the prosecution itself, was that the gunman, who held up the cubicle that night was not masked. That ‘un-masking’ kept up recurring like a ‘recurring decimal’.
It is clear to me therefore, that no tribunal should be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that it was the clean-shaven ‘Wole Soyinka’ at 5 p.m. without a mask who metamorphosed into the bearded gunman at 7 p.m.
With this sharp contradiction in the evidence of the prosecution, I am bound to give the accused person the benefit of the doubt. I therefore find him not guilty and he is, accordingly, acquitted and discharged.”
Reflecting on this incident several decades later, in 2019, Soyinka recalls that he was strongly motivated to intervene in the old Western Region Crisis on behalf of the disenfranchised people whose democratic rights had been frustrated by brazen electoral fraud:
“I was one of them, my voice was being stolen. I could not sit down and accept that somebody should steal my voice. I felt at one with the majority of the people.”
J.F. Ade Ajayi & Yemi Akinseye George, ‘Kayode Eso: The Making of A Judge’ (Ibadan: Spectrum Books 2002) 144-150
Ademola Adegbamigbe, “Wole Soyinka at 85: His Ibadan Radio Station Invasion and Why Court Set Him Free” (The News 15 July 2019)
Henry Louis Gates Jr., ‘Being, the Will, and the Semantics of Death’ in Biodun Jeyifo (ed.), ‘Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity’ (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) 65