Nigeria: Verdict in Lagos

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It was shock enough to learn of the conspiracy to overthrow the government of Nigeria by violence, for Nigeria has been one of the most stable of Africa's new nations. But it seemed almost incredible that the ringleader could have been the bespectacled chief prisoner in the dock of a Lagos courtroom last week—the respected Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

Educated by Protestant missionaries and still a nonsmoking teetotaler, Awolowo worked his way to a London University law degree, served five years as the solid, efficient Prime Minister of his native Western Region and headed Nigeria's opposition party, the Action Group. Before independence in 1960, he was influential in drawing up Nigeria's constitution. Would Awolowo, a masterful organizer, really get mixed up in a half-baked, amateurish plot to wipe out his nation's top leadership with a handful of explosives, arms, and rebels trained in nearby Ghana?

Winks from the Dock. Indeed he would—and did—insisted Nigeria's federal prosecutor in the marathon, ten-month trial that filled 1,400 pages of testimony. Witness after witness—53 in all—came into court to testify that Awolowo planned to topple federal Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa last Sept. 21 with the help of 200 trained men, on the eve of a state visit by India's Jawaharlal Nehru.

A government witness testified that on Awolowo's instructions he had carried a check to purchase arms in Ghana. Police claimed that they had dug up four cartridges hidden in Awolowo's backyard. Although conducted with grave decorum, the trial had its interruptions. One prosecution witness complained that some of the accused in the dock were giving him the juju version of the evil eye—a wink.

Awolowo, denying all the accusations, said there was insufficient evidence to prove the case, and declared that some of the testimony was obtained under duress. In a half-hour closing oration, Awolowo frankly lamented that "the invaluable services which . . . I can still render will be lost to the country." The judge, George Sowemimo, who was openly distressed by the entire proceeding, said he had no choice but to convict. In a nine-hour decision delivered last week, he gave Awolowo ten years in prison for treasonable felony, just a bit milder than the 15-year prison term meted out to Awolowo's crony, Politico Tony Enahoro, a few days earlier.

Headless Opposition. With the convictions of Awolowo and Enahoro, the opposition Action Group is virtually decapitated. But the party still enjoys the loyal backing of Western Nigeria's predominant, advanced Yoruba tribe. The clannish Yorubas will almost certainly reorganize to challenge the North and East once more. At week's end many a Nigerian was wondering how long his country's delicate balance of regional rivalries, which has been the key to Africa's most admired democracy, could last.

Unperturbed, Sir Abubakar, a Moslem from the North, went ahead with plans to convert Nigeria on Oct. 1 from a British dominion to a republic within the British Commonwealth. Sir Abubakar will remain the real boss. The changeover will merely install a ceremonial President as head of state to replace Queen Elizabeth, who is now sovereign.