Awo’s many happy returns

“Anybody who could plant banana in the desert and make it thrive is my friend. Anybody who could turn saline swamps into fertile, arable land is my friend.” Chief Obafemi Awolowo made that statement in an elaborate interview marking his 72nd birthday. In those two sentences is encoded the entire philosophy of the essential Awolowo that has remained eternal. The leader is the thinker, the problem solver. He is the one who casts new light on old problems; the unusual one who solves unusual problems and moves on to anticipate and tackle new ones as they come. He is the one who sees opportunity where ordinary men see problems. Society suffers and misses its way when such men are not chosen to lead, and the ones who lead are as blind as the led. Awo has been a very huge, enduring, successful brand because he didn’t ally himself with the ordinary. He was a promoter of whatever was excellent and extraordinary. He was bold, brave and loyal to principles. His success and commitment to goodness have been the very reasons every politician, even today, struggles to claim him.

One hundred and eight years ago today, Awo was born. There is nothing in history suggesting that anyone knew it was the birth of the chosen one. But, again, it was like the Lord whispered to his parents when they gave him the baptismal name – Jeremiah. You feel that what later became of him was foretold in the Book of Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” When God appoints His own, he sets him apart. He becomes great in the sight of God and man. Awo couldn’t have been the only one born that day. But he is the only one whose birthday still comes yearly and records many happy returns decades after his transition. Why? It is because he chose the hearts of the people to build his nest. When others suffer empty nests, his has remained all-time full. That would happen to anyone who serves his God so well, loving what is true, fair and just.

I saw him only once, and it was from a distance. And that was in 1983. I had heard and read so much about him over the years. The stories I heard from my parents cast him almost in the mythical mix. And so when it was announced that he would be in town, all the stories came back, flooding the unformed mind. Everyone must watch him. Then he came in amidst a surge of opulent simplicity, affection and charisma. I was part of a huge crowd of Awo-chanting supporters of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) at that open campaign event. As he mounted the rostrum, I saw a superman who spoke solemnly and with the firmness of truth. There was that electrifying conviction right there that this was the right person to lead us. We shouted and shouted and we were convinced of the genuineness of his leadership. Beside me were some elderly men and women whose own reason for being there appeared to be to use him as a prayer point. They begged God to bless them with children who would grow to become as loved and great as Awo. I prayed too. Years later, I was to approximate him to what Plato theorized as a philosopher king: “Until philosophers rule as kings in their cities, or those who are nowadays called kings and leading men become genuine and adequate philosophers … cities will have no rest from evils.” But the world is too full of evil to accommodate anyone whose reason for seeking the leadership of men is to do good. As predicted by Plato, Nigeria has not known rest. Awo himself saw it clearly as far back as 1981. He thought Plato was right in his recommendation of philosopher kings, but given the fouled air of our society, he predicted that “it will take us a very long time to have philosopher kings and kings who are philosophers.” You cannot be truthful and competent and get the job in Nigeria. Our State House and Government Houses were not built to be abodes of good and goodness; they, most times, contain the unthinkable, men who walk on their heads.

Awo was not allowed to become the president. They said it was democracy. And Winston Churchill warned as far back as 1947: “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms.” The same democracy has since been choosing for Nigeria presidents and governors whose reasons for being in state houses are always deeply suspect. They come and go and leave problems mounting for their successors to add theirs. It is one of the greatest ironies of democracy that its currency is not goodness and competence. Democracy closes its eyes to evil as long as it has the endorsement of the majority, however defined. Democracy may be the fad, the trending fashion of the moment. It may, in fact, be the best form of government the world may have yet developed, but does it guarantee the rule of the rest by the best? It kills. Democracy destroys and kills and has, in fact, proved itself consistently as the arch enemy of whatever Plato wants the philosopher-king to represent. Men who dance on the grave of truth and peace are always found clad in the apparel of democracy. We have seen democracy rolling out as the armoured tank of Satan and its designs. It is an incubator for evil to thrive and breed its type. But what other option have we? Sadly, as noted by Churchill, “all those other forms” are even worse. But would democracy be democratic when it is a composite of all those other terrible forms of government the world has learnt to reject? People who survived dictatorships have perished in democracies. Was Plato a fan of today’s type of democracy and its methods and its disdain for truth and justice? Why would persons who claim the pursuit of truth and public good as their goal use guile and lies and deception and bribery to gain power? And yet, without these you cannot be announced as having won any democratic election.

Philosophers don’t rule in a democracy. They are too pure to be allowed to take charge of the affairs of men. Socrates’ engagement with the people was premised on love and truth. He was killed in a democracy. His offence was teaching wisdom to the foolish. People who know are plainly dangerous to the power establishment. If the foolish becomes wise and the blind can see, who would the privileged cheat? In the build-up to the 1979 elections, the Nigerian establishment stopped Awo’s momentum at every moment. He must not be allowed to tell the people how to cast away their chains. The story is better told by the sage himself: “I went to Ilorin (to campaign). As soon as I got down from my car, there were the police waiting for me. Then the police invited me to the office of the Commissioner (of Police) and said he had had instructions from Lagos to ask me to go back to the point of entry and return to base. I said what does that mean! He said well what it means is that you shouldn’t be allowed to hold meetings here and that I should go back to Lagos or wherever I choose.” Awo said he told the police officer that he could not stop him from holding meetings. “He agreed and said he had to phone Lagos and get directives. Later he came in and said I could drink but no meeting. So, I said that is alright. So, he didn’t allow me to talk except people now came in fours and fives to talk to me. And I didn’t have the advantage of going round for the people to see me. Whereas Waziri Ibrahim could move around, Aminu Kano ditto and NPP and Saraki and co.”

At another time, Awo was in Anambra State where, after he managed to address a group of people at a yam festival, the police moved in: “The police got wind of my presence in town. At Enugu, as I was about to talk to a group of people, a policeman just came in and jumped onto a stool with a sub-machine gun saying put your hands up. So, we looked at him with contempt. Then the big boss came in and said we should disperse. I said why? I told him that if he wanted to arrest me I will be glad to go with him to the police station. He said my friends should leave me alone. And I told him, these are my friends and we are not dispersing because I cannot stay alone. Then he said we should not talk politics. I said how come. Should we talk police affairs? When people meet me, we discuss public affairs. I can only discuss two things: politics, public affairs and law…In the end, he went away.”

It is difficult to believe that all these happened in 20th century Nigeria. It became even worse after the enthronement of a democratic civilian government post October 1, 1979. Standards fell in governance and in observance of the basic principles of fairness and the rule of law. Can we say it is better even today?

But that precisely is how democracy works. It shoots down dialogue and endorses monologic engagements for the wise and the knowledgeable. He can engage within and with himself. Socrates was given hemlock to drink because he was too wise and he didn’t keep his wisdom to himself. If the wise is enthroned what will the rent collectors be eating? In Nigeria, democracy has worked to privatize public power and domesticate unearned benefits for the powerful. It delists goodness and legality using the mandate of the contrived majority. And you would say there are theoretical checks and balances. Presidents and governors and their law enforcement apparatuses could become unhinged against the other side of power but the legislature is there to help. If you believe this, just wait and think. Since you have been voting in and voting out senators, have you seen any set that is not in some form of illicit affairs with the executive branch? They could shout and yell in daytime but at night what do they do? They commit incest, clean up and come out smelling so pure.

Sensible people use the past as their compass. When you rule, rule well. But you cannot give what you lack. The successful leader is the one who prepared himself for leadership. Awo was premier of the western region for how many years? Has the applause for his stellar performance in that office stopped almost 60 years after? His transition will be 30 years ago in two months time but the national narrative is still about him. Performances are still benchmarked by how close or how far from the Awo standard they are. Some persons were the favoured when he was harassed and oppressed. Where are those today? Can anyone remember something enduring about those who restricted his moments? He is being celebrated today and everyday because he worked hard and achieved greatness through selfless service. There is reward for everything one does under the sun. “No great man lives in vain,” so noted Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), (and) “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The reward for great men is that they never die. Happy birthday, Awo.