Never a man to shy away from controversy or debate, he was forceful with logic and unyielding on principles, a man of strong convictions, moral fortitude, integrity and selflessness. He remains a part of our national narrative on the strength of his vision, fecundity of thought and character.
“I don’t want funeral songs to be sung at my funeral because I won’t die. I will (only) change my life and life after this life and I believe that when I shed off this bodily shell, I would be reborn into a new life. So, having lived this type of life, I will like triumphant songs to be sung at my funeral”. – Chief Obafemi Awolowo
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the transition from this earthly realm of the legendary sage, Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the Action Group, first premier of Western Nigeria, member of the Federal House of Representatives and leader of opposition in the first republic. He was also vice chairman and federal commissioner for Finance during the Gowon administration and presidential candidate of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria in the 1979 and 1983 elections, both of which he lost under controversial circumstances. His death on May 9, 1987 appears a distant memory but his impact on the politics and polity of Nigeria remains as indelible, just as unrivalled and profoundly intact as ever.
By popular acclamation, he is regarded as one of the greatest Nigerians of all times; some even assert him the greatest and “the best president Nigeria never had”. Every cranny of the Nigerian reality is illuminated by his critical reasoning, as exemplified by his postulations either by way of writings, speeches and interviews. Persuaded early in life about his mission, he trained both as a journalist and lawyer, honing his skills in advocacy and reaching out to people; he propelled his vision and gained uncommon acceptance with the people who saw in him the best chance for them to realise their social aspirations. He never wavered in his avowed commitment to the liberalisation of Nigeria, either as a fighter for independence, attacker of feudalism or as an unyielding welfarist.
For me, his physical absence has not diminished his continuing impact on the body politic of Nigeria. It was General Babangida who said shortly before his demise that, “It can be truly said that Chief Obafemi Awolowo has been the main issue in Nigerian politics during the last 35 years: the main political question has been whether you are with Chief Awolowo or against him”. Even in death, that is still largely true and the reason is not unconnected with his penetrating insight, with the shinning brilliance too powerful to ignore, by which he articulated his points.
He was a great man by all standards and one completely devoted to the cause of the country, which he sought to lead, with an avalanche of ideas that would make it a great land of promise. He remains by all standards a political maestro, a political gadfly and high priest of federalism in Nigeria. Confident, knowledgeable, rigorous, and completely devoted to the service of humanity, as a writer, he wrote 18 seminal books.
He experienced reversals and set-backs sufficient enough to break the spirit of others, but not Awo. To get educated, he passed through hell and when allegations of plotting to overthrow the government of Alhaji Tafawa Balewa were preferred against him, in his allocutus, he said, “It is not life that matters but the courage you bring to it”.
He toiled, campaigned, planned, read and was a vociferous advocate of good governance from as far back as 1951, when he, along with some of his friends, floated the Action Group of Nigeria in Owo, Ondo State. He led a colourful political career and could perhaps pass for the most prepared politician of his time, but he unfortunately didn’t make the office he sought with evangelical zeal. Even at that, his not becoming president couldn’t have robbed him of an honoured place in the history of Nigeria. Loved and hated in equal measure, suspected by the political elites, dreaded by the military top brass, it didn’t come to many as a surprise when the then military Head of State, Lt. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, said, “the best candidate may not win”. Not a few still think that Obasanjo and his military henchmen helped foist Shagari as the first president in 1979 and the National Party of Nigeria, (NPN), in collusion with security forces by 1983, won by a ‘landslide’, promising to return in 1987, with a ‘moon slide victory’ – that never happened as the military struck, terminating Nigeria’s Second Republic.
Awo, as fondly called and hailed by many, proffered solutions to the intractable challenges of his time and even beyond. When his contemporaries weren’t sure of the political system best for the country, it is on record that he proposed federalism and even went ahead to publish a book, Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution, with far-reaching prognosis, from within the Calabar Prison where he was serving a jail term.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo was conferred by President Shehu Shagari with the title of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR), the first and only non-president to be so honoured in recognition of his sterling qualities and contributions to the service of the country.
His life was not all rosy. He experienced reversals and set-backs sufficient enough to break the spirit of others, but not Awo. To get educated, he passed through hell and when allegations of plotting to overthrow the government of Alhaji Tafawa Balewa were preferred against him, in his allocutus, he said, “It is not life that matters but the courage you bring to it”. While in prison, he lost his heir apparent, Segun Awolowo Jnr.
He advocated a rational restructuring of the Nigerian political system long ago along federal lines. In Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution, he posited, “From our study of the constitutional evolution of all the countries of the world, two things stand out quite clearly and prominently. First, in any country where there are divergences of language and of nationality – particularly of language – a unitary constitution is always a source of bitterness and hostility on the part of linguistic or national minority groups. On the other hand, as soon as a federal constitution is introduced in which each linguistic or national group is recognised and accorded regional autonomy, any bitterness and hostility against the constitutional arrangements as such disappear. If the linguistic or national groups concerned are backward, or too weak vis-a-vis the majority group or groups, their bitterness or hostility may be dormant or suppressed. But as soon as they become enlightened and politically conscious, and/or courageous leadership emerges amongst them, the bitterness and hostility come into the open, and remain sustained with all possible venom and rancour…”
For me, the fundamental lesson that can be drawn from is life is the compelling need to return to the study of history. The lesson of his life remains a reminder that if Nigeria continues to grope under the guise of “Reversed Federalism”, then our journey of nationhood would remain bumpy and uninspiring.
Awolowo, the undisputed deity of federalism in Nigeria would recoil in shock at the turn of events in today’s Nigeria. A gifted politician, administrator par excellence, outstanding orator, writer, philosopher, thinker, teacher, technocrat, lawyer and visionary leader, he lived a distinguished life. As a politician, he was a moral beacon and humanist devoted to propagating his message of “life more abundant”.
Never a man to shy away from controversy or debate, he was forceful with logic and unyielding on principles, a man of strong convictions, moral fortitude, integrity and selflessness. He remains a part of our national narrative on the strength of his vision, fecundity of thought and character. His obvious brilliance and articulation of ideas was a threat that made reactionary politicians to do all within their powers to curtail him. Awo, was great, and remains great on the strength of the ideals which he espoused. At any rate, not many Nigerians know that he coined the name of our national currency, the naira.
For me, the fundamental lesson that can be drawn from is life is the compelling need to return to the study of history. The lesson of his life remains a reminder that if Nigeria continues to grope under the guise of “Reversed Federalism”, then our journey of nationhood would remain bumpy and uninspiring. In several years, we can learn from his thoughts to mould our ways and deepen inter-communal relations in these era of herdsmen attacks, kidnapping and insurgency. The true measure of paying deserving tributes to Awolowo’s personality and his manifold contributions to Nigeria can only be meaningful if we consider and implement his well thought through postulations on how to govern our country.
He was deep, profound, engaging, resourceful, committed, indomitable, resilient and clairvoyant. The Awolowo mystic is nothing more than the strength of his personal example and dye-in-the wool talents; he recruited for the task of good governance. His life and contributions have become an imperative on how smart, informed, selfless and committed leadership can effect improvements on a large scale. His postulations, especially his numerous interventions in several areas of our national life, are sufficient to enable us build an oasis of stability instead of the desert of fragility that currently stares us in the face.
There is no doubt that the principle upon which Nigeria is founded is fraught with several imperfections and continuing in this path is a sure recipe for disaster, the magnitude of which will shock humanity. The indices are there for all to see, the storm is gathering, the butchering/killings continue and only an activation of the reverse gear will save Nigeria. It is a matter of when, and NOT if, the consumming crisis will occur, if we do not do the needful as a matter of expediency. It is time to start the process of restructuring this country for the peace of all.
Rotimi Opeyeoluwa writes from Abuja.