Awo: The path to travel on restructuring

Peace and security constitute Siamese twins in all climates. They complement each other to create stability for a nation. A threat to one portends danger for the other.

Against the backdrop of critical challenges of attaining nationhood over the years, many stakeholders say the foundation of the Nigerian federation rests on quick-sand. The fragility is underscored by the fact that the country often oscillates in the sky of grim uncertainties. Tension, bigotry and insecurity of lives and property occasioned by various forms of agitations have become a recurring decimal.

Whereas years of military interregnum partly succeeded in suppressing bottled up emotions from going awry, emotions have run high since the return to civil rule in 1999. Government has spent billions of public funds in its attempt to write the wrongs in a defective constitution.

  1. C. Wheare, author of the famous book, Federal Government, is regarded an authority on the concept of federalism. He provides a clear illumination on the features of a federal system of government. He states that: “The fundamental and distinguishing characteristic of a federal system is that neither the central nor the regional governments are subordinate to each other. But rather, the two are coordinate and independent.” In short, there is no hierarchy of authorities, with one sitting atop the others, as all governments have a horizontal relationship with each other, a critical issue that underlines the cerebral and practical contribution of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in institutionalising federalism in Nigeria.

Dating back to 1947, the sage published his first book entitled Path to Nigerian Freedom, with the foreword written by Miss Margery Perham, a British authority on Nigeria. Awo, who is among the nationalists that charted Nigeria’s path to independence in 1960, had strongly vilified British colonialisation of Nigeria, saying, it “cannot be justified by any standard of morality.”  In his characteristic, courageous manner, he expressed  utter disgust that the colonialists were unwilling to grant self-government to Southern Nigeria; even as he insisted that the country must be governed by the most educated and enlightened men, as opposed to a unilateral arrangement. “Broadly speaking, there are three classes of people in Nigeria: first, the educated classes consisting of the professional men and women, teachers and clerks; second, the enlightened classes consisting of traders and artisans; and third, the ignorant masses.”

Known for his seminal ideas,  Awo wrote another book in 1966, Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, in which he painstakingly analysed the core challenges of Nigeria. He stated: “The evils  which afflicted Nigeria and brought about the end of the First Republic may be put in a nutshell as follows: 1) Abnormal imbalance in the constituent units of the federation. 2) Gross incapacity and utter lack of honesty and comprehension on the part of those who directed and administered the affairs of the federal government. 3) Total absence of correct ideological orientation and courageous and selfish leadership at all levels of our government activities, but more especially so at the federal level. 4) Tenacity of power –that is, over-powering and obsessive desire on the part our political leaders to stick to indefinitely to public offices by all means fair or foul.”

Awo was convinced that the solution to the challenges of attaining nationhood was in a suitable constitution that would become the building blocks for political stability in Nigeria.

He wrote: “It must be generally agreed that the making of a constitution is not an end itself. It is a means to the welfare and happiness of the people, the fountain of which, in a material sense, is economic prosperity. Of all the factors which conduce to the economic prosperity and, again in a material sense, to the greatness of a nation and its people, the most important is political stability. Without it, material resources, manpower, and capital, whatever their quantity and quality, plus technical knowledge will avail very little.

Drawing from his vast and in-depth knowledge about the constitution and practice of federalism in most advanced countries,  Awo declared that, “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.”

He argued that there are four linguistic principles and laws of constitution: “1) If a country is unilingual and national, the constitution must be unitary; 2) If a country is unilingual, and also consists of communities which though belonging to the same nation, have over a period of years, developed some important cultural divergences, as well as autonomous geographical separateness, the constitution must be organized on the dual basis of language and geographical separateness. 3) If a country is bi-lingual or multi-lingual, the constitution must be federal and the constituent states must be organized on a lingual basis. 4) Any experiment with a unitary constitution in a bilingual or multi-lingual or national country must fail in the long run.”

The book is widely acknowledged as a veritable reference material by perceptive experts on issues of constitution, federalism, restructuring, encompassing fiscal federalism and general power devolution. In it, the visionary leader had warned: “It is the prerequisite and indispensable task of making careful and correct diagnosis that we must diligently apply our minds before proceeding to the equally, indispensable but delicate task of prescribing remedies.”

While recognising the diversity of the country, he said complexity has engendered centrifugal forces and tendencies all of which “tend to induce in the ethnic groups concerned a strong and burning desire for separate existence from one another.” But, he proffered a realistic solution to the stiff challenge of co-existence among the constituents of the Nigerian federation.  That was as far back as 1966, when he published the book. “Let us be honest with ourselves and confess our failings and limitations. What we lack very much is a sufficient number of powerful leaders with the calibre, character, and qualities, requisite for uniting and keeping happily together the diverse elements in our infant nation,  and for the courageous  and effective assault on the multitudinous and intractable-looking problems which beset us.

“Whatever we do, we must not permit ourselves to run away from this stark reality. Besides, the much-talked-of and much-dreaded tribalism must be recognised for what it is. It is more of a psychological and an economic problem than a political one. As a political epiphenomenon we can certainly minimise its evil effects. As a psycho-economic phenomenon, it can be effectively tackled on two fronts: first, the State must make education available to young and old, and to the former from kindergarten to the university level. Second, those chosen to lead, and administer the affairs of the country must set a good example by cultivating mental magnitude and spiritual depth.…”

By 1968, Awolowo further expanded the scope of his analysis on the political evolution of Nigeria, constitutional quagmire and the national Question with a book entitled, The People’s Republic. In it, he maintained his stance as a federalist with the assertion that a state with a multiplicity of governments and authorities ought to have a federal constitution.  He provided a more incisive insight into his political philosophy that a state is characterised by (a) freedom from external aggression, (b) internal stability and peace, and (c) economic well-being of all its citizens; finally that an educated and healthy citizenry is indispensable to the maintenance of the good state.

Awolowo was prophetic on the dire consequences of inept leadership in a federation many say remains defective in structure and governance till date. “While the masses of the people must be given time to cultivate mental magnitude, those who aspire to lead Nigeria are expected to be equipped with this great attribute before they venture to embark on the great and onerous assignment. Otherwise, in the Nigerian context, it would be a case of the blind leading the blind. Let us not make a mistake about it. A defective and inadequate leadership would only bring curses rather than blessings on the Nigerian peoples,” he stressed.

In his quest for a workable and resilient federation, Awolowo completed the trilogy he had initiated while in prison on the predicament of Nigeria, when he published The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria in 1970.  The first of the trilogy was My March Through Prison and second, For the Good of My People. All the three had the collective title of Adventures in Power. Remarkably, each of them dissected knotty issues bordering on a constitutional framework premised on federalism in Nigeria.

In the candid view of Olúfémi Taiwo of the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY U.S.A, Awo, shares that special quality of all great thinkers and writers. “My fundamental and abiding interest in Awolowo is that of a scholar. I am fascinated by the originality, depth, and audacity of his thinking in many areas, the richness and complexity of his expostulations, the sophistication and thoroughness of his policy formulations; in short, in his status as one of the preeminent thinkers of the world.”

In his autobiography entitled, Awo, published in 1960, Awolowo unequivocally stated his position on the issue of federalism. His words; “In 1951, when the controversy on the form of Nigeria’s constitution began, I had already been, for more than eighteen years, a convinced federalist. This position is further corroborated by a professor of literature and African studies at Carlton University Ottawa Canada, and winner of the prestigious the 2013 Prize for African Writing, Pius Adesanmi.  Quoting chapter 12 of the autobiography, he stated: “In 1951 when the controversy on the form of Nigeria’s constitution began, I had already been for more than 18 years a convinced federalist, “ and that the conviction started in 1928.

“When one looks at Chief Awolowo’s extensive oeuvre, one is struck by the recurrence of certain registers, themes, and concepts. He has hardly a book in which a chapter is not dedicated to reiterating the importance of getting Nigeria’s constitutional framework right. The 1947 book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, written in 1945, contains a chapter, Towards Federal Union, which, as usual, makes the case for a federal constitution. In 1968, The People’s Republic, offers two significant constitutional chapters. Chapter 5 is entitled “constitutional basis” and Chapter 10 is entitled “suitable constitution.”

“This is not counting the volume of essays and speeches in which these keywords and registers appear. Indeed, wherever the word, “constitution” appears in the Awolowo opus, you can almost always count on encountering the qualifiers, “suitable”, or, even more frequently, “federal”, which the thinker always poses in a binary opposition to unitary.

“After all, given the condition of Nigeria today, given our report card after fifty-three years (2014) of this experiment, it should by now be visible to the blind and audible to the deaf (apologies to my good friend, Patrick Obahiagbon) that the author of Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution was right on the money about the factors he identified as weighing heavily in favour of true federalism. Those factors are: ethnic divergence, geographical separateness and diversity, different economic visions and divergent resources, religious differences and, above all, linguistic differences. Identifying these factors which compel federalism is the easy part. “

How the author arrives at his unshakable conclusion that any nation in which these factors are assembled but which insists on foraging in constitutional pastures other than federalism is doomed is an entirely different proposition.

“If between 1928 – when the seeds of these ideas were sown – and 1966 when Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution was published, the cripple named Nigeria was given repeated forewarnings of war and doom, does this particular cripple have any excuse for being caught up in wars and rumours of war in 2014? What do you call a cripple who gets caught in war even after receiving the benefit of repeated forewarnings and foreknowledge of the impending war?

“Apart from true federalism and its associated advantages, the minority question constitutes another significant signpost on the Awo road to constitution-making and treats the issue with so much passion, hence his warning that a federal constitution must at all times be sensitive to minorities and sufficiently malleable to take care of their legitimate fears of domination whenever the need arises.  Awolowo said on the issue  of ethnic minority groups: We must not group them or any of them with any of the larger and self-sufficient linguistic groups. If we did, we would be placing the small linguistic group or groups concerned in a state of comparative political and social disability. A minority problem would thereby be created which would demand solution… with great respect, we do not think that it is possible to charm the minorities and their problems out of existence… the truth is that minorities do and will always exist in Nigeria… Vis-a-vis the majorities, these minorities, these minorities have their fears –real or imaginary – which can only be allayed by unequivocal and entrenched constitutional arrangements.”

“A suitable constitution, Chief Awolowo, declares again in Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, is the bedrock of political stability. But he also recognises the fact that even the best and most suitable constitution is useless if a country is hostage to corrupt and visionless leadership. And because he is convinced that “the only alternative to Federalism for Nigeria is the wide road to national impotence and ruin,” he presses the question of leadership, qualitative leadership in the service of a suitable constitution. For him, the constitution must somehow find a way to guarantee qualitative leadership and weed off moneychangers from the temple before they get a chance to turn it to a den of robbers.

“ Luckily for those currently ruling Nigeria, they hardly read books! Imagine if they read books and stumbled on Chief Awolowo’s idea of a good leader that could deliver on the promises of a suitable constitution: Good leadership involves self-conquest; and self-conquest is attainable only by cultivating, as a first major step, what some applied psychologists have termed ‘the regime of mental magnitude’. In plain language, the regime of mental magnitude is cultivated when we are sexually continent, abstemious in food, abstain totally from alcoholic beverage and tobacco, and completely vanquish the emotions of greed and fear, Adesanmi stated.