How Awolowo Wrote a Passionate Letter To Richest Ijebu Man Chief Timothy Adeola Odutola In 1943 Begging for £1,400 Loan So He Could Study Law Abroad
On the 25th of March, 1943, 34-year-old Obafemi Awolowo had a brain full of ambitions but pockets that were empty. With what can only be described as the audacity of hope and an unwavering belief in himself, he decided to write a letter of plea to the richest Ijebu businessman of the day, in the person of Chief Timothy Adeola Odutola.
In the letter, Awolowo was going to elaborately explain his future ambition, plan to set politics aside for four years so he can pursue his passion in the study of law. In the letter, he was also going to demand for the princely sum of £1,400 as a loan that he will make use of in the United Kingdom. The loan was to cater for his school fees, housing, examination fees, upkeep and so on while he will just focus on his studies in England and work towards becoming a lawyer. Here is the letter precisely as Awo wrote it:
Dear Mr. Odutola,
I think it will be an exceeding saving of time and more business-like if I avoid all sweet preliminaries and go straight into the object of this letter and say that I am writing to ask you to be good enough to lend me a sum of £1,400 (One thousand and four hundred pounds) free of interest for twelve years.
It is a staggering figure! More staggering indeed does it become, when it is realized that I, who am asking for this loan, have nothing in all the world to give as a security for this money, excepting my good faith and my brains which again are of value only so long as I continue to breathe the breath of life!
Nevertheless, I here proceed to outline in brief why i want this big loan from you. And I hope you will be kind enough to sacrifice some time to go through what I have to say, even though, in the end you might find yourself unable to do me this grand favour.
One great ambition of mine since my boyhood days is to be a lawyer, a politician and a journalist, rolled into one. I cherish politics and journalism as a career, and I desire advocacy as a means of livelihood. For you will agree with me that a politician or journalist who has no money with which to support himself and family comfortably, is like a blade which has no razor.
Now, at one time, I was on the verge of making enough money with which I could proceed to England in order to pursue the object of my ambition; but I suffered a twist in my fortune, and I crashed. Ever since, I have tried without success to recover lost grounds, financially. But spiritually and intellectually, I have made appreciable advance in spite of towering difficulties, all of which have now been surmounted.
As you are aware, I have just passed the intermediate Bachelor of Commerce Examination. Next year, I am taking the final B.Com. Having a degree is not my goal; I hate to be a government or mercantile employee. Otherwise, there are opportunities for me here and there to get a suitable and well paid job under government or one of the mercantile houses. As you know, however, once I become an employee of government or a mercantile establishment that is the end to my career as a politician and journalist. I have therefore resolved that under no circumstances will I take up such employment.
That is just by the way. I am now thirty-four years of age. After careful thought, I have come to the conclusion that if I could raise a loan free of interest sufficient to cover expenses, I should go to England, this year and within three years, I should qualify as a Barrister –at –law, and also obtain with Honours the LL.B Degree of London University. In addition this degrees apart from giving me good backing as a solicitor and Advocate will help me immensely as a politician and journalist.
But where on earth could i get the money? Who in Nigeria today could give £1,400 free of interest to help his fellow-man? J. Henry Doherty, Esq., of illustrious memory who did the like to many successful Nigerians is no more. But after meticulous, shifting and weighing, I hit upon you.
I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that out of the bounty with which providence blesses your grit and efforts as a businessman, you can well easily afford to advance such a sum of money. I have no doubt too that as a young and progressive man you will be quite happy to give the money for the pursuit of the project for which I desire it.
But then, could you take this risk?
That is the question. As I have said before, I have no security for this loan. Moreover, I want it free of interest. So that you stand to gain absolutely NOTHING in the whole transaction, except the satisfaction that by helping me to achieve my ambition you are indirectly or even directly helping Nigeria or even Africa.
This risk becomes greater when it is borne in mind that I might die in the course of my studies or immediately after, so that, since I have no security or surety, you stand the chance of losing not only the money but also the satisfaction which you may cherish that you are contributing to the uplift of Africa. It is indeed a great risk; the greatest any man ever embarks upon.
But, this is a big BUT, if I live, as I have no doubt I will do, you will not only get your money back in full, but you will, to the end of your days, have cause to rejoice that you have done one of the most outstanding and most philanthropic acts any human being ever does. Among other things, I shall make excellent use of the money while in England by breaking records in my examination. On my return to Nigeria, I shall strive to be one of the foremost advocates, politicians and writers in West Africa, and while I do all these, I shall make it a point not only to pay your money back in full, but also to repay your kindness and generosity towards me in every way I can.
All the same, it is a big risk! So, Sir, I like you to think seriously about it, and see if you can take it in the interest of a young man who has brain, industry and determination to back his ambition, but lacks the money. I know we have never been close friends, but I have a shrewd idea that you may take the risk and help me.
On this assumption, therefore, I proceed to the next and last stage of this letter.
I shall not require the whole £1,400 in a lump sum. To start with, you will help me pay a sum of £208-13s-3d to the Inner Temple. I have already received an application form from this Inn of Court; and from the details forwarded, I gather that the sum of £208-13s-3d will cover all the cost of training as a barrister, examination fees excluded.
When I am ready to sail, you will advance me a sum of £100 to cover passage, provision for my family and any other incidental expenses (NOTE: If I got torpedoed on the way, you would certainly lose this £100 but you will recover the £208-13s-3d).
At the same time you will remit to a London Bank the sum of £491-6s-9d. It is out of this amount that I shall pay the university fees for LL.B course and for special courses in political science and journalism, when I land in England. This is to say, the initial advance will total £800.
At the end of the first year, provided I make satisfactory progress in my studies, you will give instruction to the bank to honour all cheques from me drawn on this account. There will be an arrangement to be signed by me on my return.
On my return, I shall require TWO years within which to establish a solid practice and build a good reputation. After these two years, I should commence to pay at least £200 per annum either in monthly, quarterly or annual payments. So that in seven years after the first two years, I should pay back the whole sum of £1,400. That will be TWELVE YEARS from the time you help me to pay this in April or so this year, then I should be due to pay the whole of £1,400 by April 1955.
Now, as you yourself will see, this is the farthest limit within which I can pay the money. It may be possible for me to pay the money within THREE to FIVE years of my return. As a matter of fact, the sooner I pay it off, the better. But it is much better to be on the safe side in a matter like this. It is no making promises now which will be difficult to fulfil in future. On the contrary it is better to mention a period of twelve years and pay within SIX or EIGHT years than to mention FIVE YEARS and fail to pay within TEN years. Personally, I prefer that I should fail to get the loan under theses unattractive but sure conditions, rather than succeed in getting it under attractive but precarious conditions.
Now, this is all I have to say. You have my request before you, and the reason why i make the request. It is left for you to decide whether it is worthwhile to take the risk of helping me in the manner outlined above or not.
If you do me the great favour, not only myself and all that are mine, but also God and Africa will be grateful, I shall have no cause whatsoever to grumble or to blame you, FOR THE RISK IS GREAT.
Since this is a very selfish request, I enclosed herewith a self addressed stamped envelope to be sent under a registered post.
So that was how Awolowo sent the letter to Odutola and waited with bated breath. One week passed, Awo did not hear peem. Two weeks passed, one month passed, yet he did not hear peem from the wealthy businessman. After waiting for six weeks and getting no response, Awo decided do a physical follow-up to the letter. But his hopes were dashed as Odutola refused to give him the loan. However, Awolowo did not let the refusal kill his dreams.
He later reached the conclusion that he was going struggle for the next five years to get the funds on his own so he could fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer. But luck smiled on Awolowo in ways he never expected. On the 14th of August, 1944, he would be on his way to England. By November 1946, he was already a barrister at law, one full year ahead of schedule.
The most interesting part of this story is that by 1954 which was the year that Awolowo had promised to repay the loan to Chief Odutola, he was already the Premier of the Western Region, doling out scholarships to more than 200 undergraduates in a program that was the very first of its type in all of Africa.
Okay, but that is not all. There is another side to the story and that was what Odutola himself later said on the matter.
What Odutola told TheNEWS:
What will you say is the most difficult problem you encountered in running the business?
I found out that people don’t like the way we do it, but we have no alternatives. The style has served us well.
What is this style they do not like?
That I oversee the business myself. They don’t like it. But what do I do? I am still living.
Some of the trading companies are not doing well. The Odutola Stores for example, is quite unlike what it used to be. It is not well stocked. Why is it so?
It has to do with the economy generally. The purchasing power of consumers has reduced. Some of the things we used to store there cannot be easily come by again. Sometimes, they are very expensive.
There is something that always comes for mention whenever people are discussing you. There is this belief that you are tight fisted, that you don’t like to part easily with your money. What is your attitude to this?
What do you call somebody who is imprudent and extravagant in financial management? (Pause)?
You have just described it…
How do you describe somebody who knows how to control his money and dishes out what he wants and at the time he wants it? Naturally, people will call him another name because he is not wasteful. Whatever people say is an opinion. But what is important to me is that I know what I want to do with my money and I use exactly for that purpose. People are entitled to their opinion.
Interestingly, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in one of his books, mentioned that he wanted to go abroad to study and he approached you for part-sponsorship, you did not oblige. Any explanation for this?
I did not know him (Awolowo) then. I knew him only as a letter writer. He said he was going to study abroad, I should give him money. He did not tell me how much he wanted and how long it would take him to pay it back. If he had told me these, I would have probably acted differently. Besides, that time, myself and my brother were running the business together. He needed to seek the consent of my brother before I could release the money to him. But I still don’t know why you are raising the issue when the man is already dead. But do you know how much I expended on him later?
-Excerpts of Chief Adeola Odutola’s interview, published in TheNEWS, 12 December 1994 edition.
So what lessons did you learn from this? Share your thoughts!
Thanks for your time,