A legal icon of blessed memory, Chief Bode Thomas, had a stimulating story for the present and future generations because of his greatness while alive.
Chief Olabode Akanbi Thomas, aka Bode Thomas was born in October 1919, and died mysteriously on November 23, 1953, under curious circumstances at just 34.
While chief Obafemi Awolowo was the founder of the opposition political group called Action Group (AG), the Alaafin, one of the few highly placed men of Yoruba extraction, rather threw his weight behind Nnamdi Azikiwe and the National Council of Nigerians and the Cameroons (NCNC).
There had been a test of powers of sorts with Alaafin on one hand and Awolowo and Thomas on the other. The rift led to banishing of the Oba’s son, the death of Thomas and the dethronement of the Alaafin by Awolowo.
Thomas was Nigeria’s first Minister of Transportation and later Minister of Works. He also served both as a colonial minister of the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria and a nobleman and privy counsellor of the historic Oyo clan of Yoruba land. He was Balogun of Oyo – a royal name given to a village’s warhead, although it can also mean one who can’t be defeated or conquered.
Thomas received the Balogun title in 1949 and was instrumental in the fight for self-rule against the British, serving as a lawyer, politician, statesman and traditional aristocrat.
His birth profile was scintillating, he was born to Andrew Thomas, a wealthy trader and auctioneer who was originally from Oyo but migrated to Lagos. He studied law in London and was called to the bar in 1942.
He subsequently returned to Nigeria to establish the law firm “Thomas, Williams and Kayode” in 1948, together with Chief Frederick Rotimi Williams and Chief Remilekun Fani-Kayode.
He made several exploits, especially as the legal adviser of Egbe Omo Oduduwa in 1946. He was one of the founding members of the Action Group. Prior to joining Action Group, he was a successful Lagos lawyer and was a member of the Nigerian Youth Movement.
About his academic profile, he attended C.M.S. Grammar School, a missionary school founded by Thomas Babington Macaulay and James Pinson Labulo Davies.
After completing his studies, he served as a junior clerk at the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) but towards the end of the year, he resigned his appointment and went to London to study law.
He was called to the bar in 1942 and returned to Nigeria to establish what became a successful practice in Lagos.
In 1948, together with Chief Frederick Rotimi Williams and Chief Remilekun Fani-Kayode, he set up a Nigerian law firm, called “Thomas, Williams and Kayode”.
He began his political adventure in 1946 and became the legal adviser of Egbe Omo Oduduwa, who became one of the founding members of the Action Group.
Prior to joining AG, he was a successful Lagos lawyer and was a member of the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) He is credited as the first prominent Nigerian member of the political elite during the colonial era to make a strong case for regional based political parties, which, he believed would be equipped with the necessary knowledge to develop their regions and also form a coalition at the center.
Bode Thomas was a founding member of AG which sprang up from Egbe Omo Oduduwa.
He was the first Legal Adviser of the group. He was a senior at the bar to the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Hezekiah Oladipo Davies, Justice G B.A Coker, and Udo Udoma.
Thomas was also a leading advocate for the bringing of tribal chiefs and kings into the expanding fold of the AG. With this policy, he undoubtedly gave much of his own experience as the Balogun of Oyo — a title he received in 1949.
The strategy later proved to be a potent framework for mass mobilization in some towns. The duo of Thomas and Awolowo sometimes had rival political thoughts, many of which were never settled before his death.
Most of his ideas on regional parties, which ended up becoming approximated with the early self rule government political structure, were never fully reconciled with Awolowo’s ideas, which were based on federalism.
In 1951, Thomas represented the Western region as Minister of Transport under the Macpherson’s Constitution and an advocate for self governance in Nigeria.
As stated earlier, he became a member of Regional House of Assembly in 1951. From there, he, Prest and Akintola were selected as members of the House of Representatives.
He resigned from the portfolio during a constitutional crisis in March, 1953 and later became Minister of Works after a Constitutional Conference in London.
Sir Adesoji Aderemi, Ooni of Ife also joined them in the Central Council of Ministers. But, Thomas was the leader; astute, workaholic, thoughtful and forward looking.
On the floor of the House, Thomas was a charismatic speaker. He was a lover of facts. He was a fire brand nationalist. He wanted self-rule and independence at a faster pace his colleagues from other zones could not comprehend.
During the debate on self-rule, his speech infuriated the legislators from the North. Thomas labelled them collaborators in the extension of British rule. He did not only speak; he acted.
Thomas and the three AG parliamentarians consequently resigned from the Council of Ministers in protest over the elongation of colonialism. On that note, the MacPherson Constitution collapsed immediately.
In the quest to preserve Lagos as part of the old West, Thomas was also at the forefront. In contrast, H.O. Davies was campaigning vigorously for the retention of Lagos as a symbol of national unity.
At the 1953 London Constitutional Conference held in August, AG vigorously campaigned for the preservation of Lagos as part and parcel of the region.
Awo, the AG leader and Thomas, Deputy Leader of the party, were delegates to the conference.
Whenever he set a positive goal for himself,every obstacle on the way must be uprooted. His successes in law practice, politics and government were hinged on his sheer resolve to triumph in the face of all odds.
It should be noted that Bode Thomas and Ahmadu Bello, Premier of the North, were also not the best of friends
In spite of the differences, Bode defended Ahmadu Bello before the colonial court over allegations of financial embezzlement of Native Authorities funds.
Thomas won the case and Ahmadu Bello was freed. But, he was perplexed at the way the Sokoto prince fretted in the court room.
He saw Bello as unlettered and uncultured. Bello’s unpleasant encounter with Thomas made him conclude that his more qualified educated rivals in the South were pompous and arrogant.
Many believed that Bello was reacting to that complex by refusing to come down to Lagos to serve as Prime Minister but allowed Tafawa Balewa.
Thus, while Thomas was universally acknowledged as an accomplished lawyer, he was also perceived as arrogant and superciliousness.
Bode Thomas was hated by his peers from the North to the extent that Bello always preferred to communicate with Ladoke Akintola to Thomas.
He had endowed Jankara Street, in the heart of Lagos, with visibility when he and his friends, the meticulous Rotimi Williams and the rascally, yet deep and witty Remi Fani-Kayode set up a chamber in partnership in 1950.
Thomas was ahead of his peers. He was a Senior at the bar to the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, his bossom friend, political soul mate and leader, Chief Hezekiah Oladipo Davies, Justice GBA Coker, and Udo Udoma, a former federal parliamentarian and jurist, but hot-tempered, he was perceived in some circles as a bully, a successful, yet arrogant lawyer and a domineering figure. Some judges loathed his style of argument in the court. But, he was full of masterful logic.
However, despite his brilliance, the arrogant Thomas had strained relationships with some of the local leaders like Sir Ahmadu Bello and Alaafin Aderemi II.
He was said to have been rude to the Alaafin at an Oyo Divisional Council meeting because the Alaafin did not stand up in reverence to him. He was the chairman of the council while the Alaafin was a member, but then this was an aberration because as the Balogun of Oyo, Chief Thomas was traditionally one of the Alaafin’s subjects.
Indeed, he was leader of a group that included the majority of the Oyo Mesi, who were against the rule of Alaafin Aderemi on the grounds that the Alaafin was against the capitalisation of taxes used to finance education and health.
Thomas, being a chief himself, must have known the Yoruba practice of respecting the elderly and traditional authorities as high as the seat of the Alaafin, which is held in high esteem.
It is on record that Thomas rudely asked the Alaafin Adeyemi II, why were you sitting when I walked in? Why can’t you show me respect?”
The Alaafin, feeling disrespected, asked Thomas “se emi lon gbo mo baun? emi ni ongbo bi aja mo baun”.
Meaning, is it me you are barking at like that? Keep barking!”
It was learnt that Thomas on getting home after the Oyo meeting, started barking through the night at his Yaba, Lagos home.
However, it was obvious that the two do not ‘see eye to eye’, which had to do with power play and political party differences as well as rights of traditional authority.
With Thomas’ style, he was regarded as brilliant, logical, astute, thoughtful, forward-looking and a workaholic. On the other side, he was viewed as arrogant, hot-tempered and a bully.
Bode Thomas married Lucretia Shobola Odunsi having children Eniola and Dapo together. He was chancellor of the African Church of Nigeria and became a member of Regional House of Assembly in 1951.
On 22 November, after returning home from the Oyo meeting, Thomas became ill. He was later taken to Ijebu-Igbbo for treatment. He died in Ijebu-Igbo on 23 November 1953.
The popular ‘Bode Thomas Street’ in Surulere is named after him.