Chief Theophilus Owolabi Shobowale Benson Known popularly known as T.O.S. Benson, was born on July 23, 1917 in Ikorodu, Lagos. He was a prominent lawyer who became one of the most prominent Yoruba politicians in the period leading up to Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
He attended the CMS Grammar School, Lagos, and then joined the Customs Service at the age of 20. In 1943 he moved to London and studied law at Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the bar in 1947. That year he returned to Nigeria and joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC).
In 1950 he was elected into the Lagos Town Council, and later became the Deputy Mayor of Lagos. Benson owed his political success to the support of the cosmopolitan electorate of Lagos. Benson’s Lagos constituency was one in which Ibos formed the largest ethnic group, but in the pre-independence period he won election easily despite being Yoruba since the NCNC was broadly supported.
In the 1951 election Benson was chosen as one of the NCNC candidates for the five Lagos seats in the Western House of Assembly, the others being Nnamdi Azikiwe, Adeleke Adedoyin, A. B. Olorunnimbe and the trade unionist H. P. Adebola. The five candidates easily defeated their opponents from the Action Group. Benson became a national officer in the NCNC.
He was a participant in the constitutional conferences in London in 1953, 1957, 1958 and 1960 that led up to Nigeria’s independence. TOS Benson was elected to various positions on the NCNC platform between 1950 and 1959. In 1954 – 55 Benson was chairman of the Western Regional Organization Committee. In May 1957 he was National Financial Secretary of the NCNC. He accompanied Nnamdi Azikiwe, Premier of Eastern Nigeria and President of the NCNC, to London for the Nigeria Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House.
In 1958 he was National Financial Secretary and member of the NCNC Strategic Committee. He was also NCNC Chief Whip in the House of Representatives and Chairman of the Lagos branch. In 1959 he was Chairman of the Western Working Committee, having been elected to replace Salami Agbaje.
Benson was re-elected to the House of Representatives in the 1959 federal election. His victory was challenged on the basis that he had not resigned from his office under the Crown before running for election. The Lagos High Court nullified the election on this basis, but the Federal Supreme Court reversed the decision on appeal. The Ministry of Information was created in 1959, with Benson as first minister. Benson remained a federal minister in the first government after independence.
The Ministry of Information published the Nigerian Handbook and the Nigerian Magazine, publications that gave information about the country after independence. Benson was the driving force behind establishing the Voice of Nigeria (VON).
In the early 1960s the Western NCNC was torn between allying with the United Progressive Party (UPP) or the Action Group. The essence of the question was whether Yorubas should align with Hausas or Ibos. Inter-ethnic tensions continued to build. In early 1964 the newspapers were full of charges against political leaders of various ethnic backgrounds saying they were promoting dominance of their ethnic group. Benson, the leading Yoruba politician, Vice-President of the NCNC and Minister of Information, was attacked on these grounds by the Igbo State Union. In the run-up to the 1964 election the local NCNC in Lagos overrode Benson’s objections and chose its four candidates by election in constituency caucuses. An Igbo candidate easily defeated Benson, and the party rejected Benson’s appeal. He resigned from the NCNC to run as an independent.
After taking control of the Nigerian Government earlier in January 1966, the military decreed the arrest, in March 1966 for “state security” reasons, 30 politicians from the south. Benson, K. O. Mbadiwe and M. N. Ugochukwu were detained at Alagbon, then transferred to the Ikoyi prison. At first the three men were held in one room with no toilet, and were not allowed visitors. Later General Ironsi allowed improvements in the prisoners’ detention conditions. They were released on August 2, 1966, four days after the second military coup.
He returned to practice as a lawyer and became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. He was given the chieftaincy title of Baba Oba of Lagos, even though a native of Ikorodu, Chief TOS Benson died on 13 February 13, 2008 at the age of 90, at his home in Ikoyi.