Bode Thomas – Everybody knows the street but how many know the man?

Bode Thomas – Everybody knows the street but how  many know the man?

Still painful sixty-three years later, the early, tragic death of the astute lawyer, politician and nationalist Olabode Akanbi Thomas at the age of thirty-four robbed Nigeria of one of the best and brightest of a generation. Cerebral, astonishingly well read and unashamedly intellectual, his short and eventful life confirmed the adage that “it is far better to live an eventful short existence than an age without a name”.

Popularly  referred to as Bode Thomas, a scion of the Oyo and Lagos Colony aristocracies, he was a brilliant tactician whose intervention, had he lived,  might have altered the course of Nigeria’s history. For as his party leader and contemporary Chief Obafemi Awolowo said of him, “he had the gift of intuition bordering on the prophetic”. How this “gift of intuition” would have been used to resolve the knotty issues in the build-up to independence will forever now remain a matter of speculation and historical conjecture.

Bode Thomas had a sense of nobles oblige. This is not surprising as he was born into great wealth. His father, Andrew Bell Thomas, was a trader and auctioneer who was originally from Oyo but migrated to Lagos. The magnificent “Water House” which he built in central Lagos gives us an idea of his asset base.  The son attended the highly acclaimed C.M.S Grammar School founded by Samuel Ajayi Crowther.

Completing his studies, he had a one-year stint as a clerk at the Nigeria Railway Corporation before resigning his appointment to read Law in London. Returning home, he established a very successful law practice. Later on in 1948, he teamed up with childhood friends Chief Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams and Chief R. A Fani- Kayode to set up the first Nigerian indigenous law firm, called ” Thomas, Williams and Kayode”.

He entered the nationalist agitation straight away. He was a member of the Nigerian Youth Movement, legal adviser of Egbe Omo Oduduwa and was one of the founding members of the Action Group. He is credited as the first prominent Nigerian politician during the colonial period to make a strong case for regional-based political parties which, he believed, would enable the parties to develop their regions and, at the same time, form a coalition at the centre.

These issues continue to resonate in the national discourse today. Indeed, at the very heart of the “National Question”.

Bode Thomas with Chief Obafemi Awolowo

Bode Thomas with Chief Obafemi Awolowo

He was also politically savvy enough to see the advantages of bringing in tribal chiefs and kings into the expanding fold of the Action Group. This strategy became a veritable tool for political mobilisation.

There were fundamental differences between the approach of Bode Thomas, who favoured regionalism, and the federalist position of Obafemi Awolowo. The differences between the two were never fully resolved at the time of his death. Socially and intellectually they were two very different men. Nevertheless, leader and deputy still managed to have a fruitful working relationship.

By the time of his death at the age of 34, Bode Thomas had held many high offices of state, including Chairman of Oyo Local government, Minister of Transport and, later, Works. He was a highly principled man, resigning as Minister of Transport in 1953 as a result of a constitutional crisis. Not many have resigned ministerial appointments in Nigeria since he blazed the trail.

His principled stand on the demarcation between traditional and contemporary authority was at the heart of his bruising battles with the traditional authorities in Oyo centred around the paramount traditional ruler the Alaafin. Ironically he combined the two in his persona as he was not only a lawyer and politician but also the Balogun of Oyo.  Legend has it that as Chairman of Oyo divisional council he insisted on reverence from the Alaafin (he was the Chairman of the council while the Alaafin was a member).

The disputes between traditional and modern authority was also reflected in the disagreements between the two over the levy of the capitation tax which was to be used to finance health and education. The clash between traditional authority and the modern state continues till today.

Bode Thomas was Chancellor of the African Church of Nigeria and was a member of the editorial board of a leading newspaper of the era, The Daily Service. Married with children he fell ill after returning from Oyo and died in Ijebu Igbo while undergoing medical treatment.

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