The lost president and a nation in grief: Remembering Chief Obafemi Awolowo

Famed as the president who never ruled Nigeria, or in the much-cited words of Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu,”the best president Nigeria never had,” Chief Obafemi Jeremiah Oyeniyi Awolowo was born in the town of Ikenne in the southwestern part of Nigeria on March 6, 1909.And in the same location, he was transformed to the world beyond onMay 9, 1987. Like the proverbial elephant, he wasdifferent things to different people, having explored various fields of knowledge and areas of public engagement.He was known as a statesman, a nationalist, pro-independence fighter, committed activist, reputable journalist, graduate economist, a trained lawyer, and above all, a politician and a Yorubaist. Awolowo was a well-educated man and an ideologue with independent and innovative ideas about leadership that is perhaps unparalleled to any of his contemporaries and the latter actors in Nigeria’s political scene.The legendary statesman came through as the modern-day Oduduwa,andfor obvious reasons, the latest in the pantheon of Yoruba deities and cult figures, which this article borders on.But permit me to reminisce a little on this orisa.

My life and career are entangled in Awolowo’s life. I mentioned this in Lagos in 2012 when I had the privilege to give the annual Obafemi Awolowo Lecture, the pivotal gathering on Nigerian nationalism backed up occasionally with the biennialObafemi Awolowo Prize for Leadership. As it is known, this prize has gone to three notables—Wole Soyinka, Thabo Mbeki, and Afe Babalola. I am also the only one who has given the Chief Adegoke Adelabu Annual Lecture on two occasions, escaping a third outing. This point is important, as Awolowo and Adelabu were on the opposing sides of politics. I was in school when Adelabu died in a car accident in March 1958, with riots on the streets immediately following and my first experience with police tear-gassing. As I reached home on that fateful day, incidentally, our house was within a walking distance of Awolowo’s house on the Agbokojo/Okebola/Oke-Ado axis, I remembered the allegation that Awolowo must have planned Adelabu’sdeath. I memorized the first political statement that someone made: “Awolowo, omitútù tíí da omigbigbóná lá́àmú” (Awolowo, the cold water that troubles the hot one)! I was later to know more, hear more, see more, all the way from the 1960s onward. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo died, I was privileged to be appointed by the University of Ife (soon renamed after him) to organize the first major conference in his honor with a successful launching of the book,  Obafemi Awolowo: The End of an Era?, which was co-edited by Olasope Oyelaran.

Rightly revered as the first to be acknowledged as the Asiwaju Awon Yoruba, otherwise known as Asiwaju Omo Oodua (the leader or the generalissimoof the Yoruba race), Awolowo hailed from Ikenne in Ogun State, sharing a state of origin with Olusegun Obasanjo, a recent guest on the Toyin Falola Interviews series. Awolowo, who many like myself fondly call “Awo”or “Baba Awo,”was a thoroughly learned and great manof profound wisdom, fierce passion in the welfare of the people, sheer charisma, an undaunting penchant for good governance, and respect for the will of the people. His mental adeptness was up there with the very best. There arenumerous stories of people who rose from grass to grace, and Awo is not left out. Faced with the gloomy future of uncertainty over his father’s death in 1920 and the prospect of not being able to continue his education, Aworefused to give up hope. Standing firm on this pillar,he had to take on several odd jobs, like serving as a house boy under several masters. He also switched schools within Abeokutaa lot of timesbecause offinancial difficulty. That he is a legend of the Yoruba, of Nigeria, and even of Africais a testament to his strive and growth out of nothing. His story, famous for the rise and greatness that he epitomized, inspired many in his generation (many of whom became great) and even generations unborn, on the possibility of rising against all odds to attain excellence.

His learned status can never be contested, and even in an era dominated by himself alongside other greats like Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso (to keep the list inexhaustive), he stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest. He had some of the best intellectual productions of the time, especially on matters bordering on politics, the evils of colonialism, nationalism, pan-Africanism, democracy, development, African socialism, federalism, etc. His prolificity in writing cannot be subjected to questions. He worked as a clerk atthe Wesley College, Ibadan, and from thereto the Nigerian Times newspaper, where he worked as a correspondent. His penchant for continued success and quest for greatness brought the first peek into Awolowo’s business acumen as he engaged in a series of businesses to fund his further studies in the United Kingdom, where he studied law. Having worked in various capacities as a journalist and a writer, his passion became his productive business, and in 1949, he founded the Nigerian Tribune, a print newspaper that still exists to date.

In 1947, he combined his writing skills with his agitation to decolonize Nigeria to create his ideal country in his influential book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, which I find excellent and enjoyable. While Awo’s advocacy, as exemplified in this book, advances the practice of systemic federalism as the best form of government for Nigeria, it is sad that seven decades after, Nigeria has only practiced this federalism in name and written documents,vis-à-vis the structure of the country. According to several academics, political analysts, and even as agreed by politicians, this failurerests on the bad and ineffective leadershipthat the country has had since independence. Being a leader within the same period, Awolowo became the main brain behind the federal structure,effectively operational and sustained from the eve of the country’s independence until the January 15, 1966 military putsch that ended the first republic. Fast-forward to the present,when the unity of the country is so much in question and the promise of nationhood shaky, bringing back the memory of the independence negotiations between the leading nationalist leaders and the colonial government, not a few across the social strata of the Nigerian state are clamoring for a return of this structure that made the creation of a Nigerian state possible in the first place.

As an intellectual ideologue, Awo, unlike the sundry politicians in Nigeria and many parts of Africa, had political philosophies that guided his policies as a politician and political administrator. Throughout his lifetime,he was mostly identified with socialist democracy or as a democratic socialist. There is perhaps no better identifier of that than Olayiwola Abegunrin, who dedicated a 268-page book, The Political Philosophy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo,to the political ideology of Awolowo.Indeed, it is difficult to argue that his personal or political lifedid not mirror most of Abegunrin’s sentiments, as he identifies Awolowo’sphilosophy as “democratic socialism” andalsoas “liberal democratic socialism.”He describes Awolowo as a “brilliant politician, highly cerebral thinker, statesman, dedicated manager, brilliant political economist, a social democrat, and a committed federalist.” Unarguably, each of those carefully selected words aptly describesAwo; such was his ingenuity and brilliance.

Awolowo Family: Wife and Daughters

Awolowo’s book published in 1947 influencedMacpherson’s introduction of a quasi-federal constitution before the ultimate introduction of full-fledged federalism in 1954. It would not be far-fetched to call Awo a seer who saw into the future and chronicled, in the same book, the need to create more states to identify with the multi-ethnic realities of Nigeria. Although he had only advocated for eight states in 1947 to include the Middle Belt, Calabar/Ogoja, Rivers, and Borno State, he was far ahead of almost all his peers. Not only did many of his peers not agree, but it also took major crises in the country for his fellow leaders in power to implement this. In the end, his wit and foresight were used against him, and his excellent intention turned into a tool for political shenanigans. The first state to be created under the administration ofTafawa Balewa (the first and only Nigerian prime minister), so argued the Yoruba political elite, was not for their ethnic group’s goodwill but was aimed at weakening Awolowo and his political base in the then Western Region. The administration of Yakubu Gowonas Head of State from 1966 to 1973 was to weaken the politics of the secessionist leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu, in the eastern region and frustrate his attempts to secede and actualize Biafra.

Awolowo’s achievements, brilliance, and intellectual prowess notwithstanding, he had his fair share of criticisms. He was at the center of many huge controversies, especially within his stint in politics and quest for ultimate power. Perhaps, the first major one would be the series of events that led to Nigeria’s independence, with Awolowo allegedly kept in the dark throughout the process of the motion moved to secure independence. In response to this act coming on the heels of the increasing phobia that the colonial government and his comrades in the independence struggle were developing for him, he boycotted almost all independence celebration ceremonies,except the one on the eve of independence and the independence ceremony finale. None of these entities could withstand his intellectual fecundity consistently on display at every event, circumstance, and through his books. Awolowo was simply a threat to London’s plan of a post-colonial Nigeria. Worse still, Awoism came through as one of the first efforts packed and soaked in a nationalphilosophy for the decolonization of an African colony. The colonial government was perturbed by the possibility of losing their grip on a post-colonial Nigeria, just as his comrades were worriedly concerned about the eventuality of being dominated by “four-eye” colleagues, which could deprive them of the power they sought in the post-colonial state. What the colonial government needed to perfect their second stage of colonization was heavily present in others leading this movement for independence. With this intersecting interest, it was easy for these entities to team-up; after all, the sweetening of the sugar attracts the insects. The majesty of this horse has to be curbed!

The animosity between Awolowo and the NPC-led government was the basis for Awolowo’s continuous struggles in the Nigerian political space, especially at the federal level. The peak of his political tussle with Tafawa Balewa had to be his relegation to the slum of Epe from Ikenne in 1962 before he was subsequently arraigned and charged with treasonable felony and jailed for ten years in 1963. During this dark period,he foretold another prophecy, perhaps the biggest he ever did. During his trial, he made three predictions during his trial, the second of which he said his incarceration would “heighten political tension” in the country. True, the crises continued, and three years after, the country was at the receiving end of its first coup and consequential civil war.

Shall we talk about Awolowo’s influence on the Civil War, which made him the most prominent foe to many Igbo todate, with many taking it as retaliation for Azikiwe’s decision to side with Northern-controlled NPC at independence? It is no common knowledge that the war against actualization was not won withjust with guns and tanks. Awolowo himself confirmed this as extracted from The Republic that,”All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war.” This was no mere quote as Awolowo, who was finance minister to Gowon and his leading adviser during the critical time, persuaded Gowon to change the legal tender of the Nigerian currency in 1968, which made the Biafran currency “non-convertible and useless in the international market,” apparently owing to the non-recognition of the seceding state internationally. Awo followed that with the most potent weapon that resulted in Biafra’s capitulation barely seven months after—an economic blockade that made it impossible for them to access food and all forms of aid and supplies directly—the French’s support of Biafra was not enough to prevent the three-year-old sovereign state from collapse.

While many Igbo resented him for his role in preventing Nigeria’s split, neither did many Yoruba like him for it. Allegations were rife on both sides of the ethnic divide. The Igbo voice drowned the rest, forgetting that the Civil War also divided the Yoruba political elite. To this day, you find many in various Yoruba groups saying they regretted not seceding with Biafra. To this set of Yoruba, the allegation was that rather than supporting the northern-dominated federal government, Awolowo, who was the Yoruba leader then in all ramifications, should have led the Oduduwa into secession as well. To those who subscribe to the view, Nigeria would have ceased to exist if Awolowo had taken a bite from Ojukwu’s pie, considering the North was incapable of taking on the force of both the Eastern and the Western regions. Controversial takers and conspiracy theorists would believe Awo did all these calculatingly, in the hope that Gowon was going to hand over the reins of power to him when it was time to transition to civil rule. There is no evidence for this, and Gowon himself said such an idea did not even occur to many in his cabinet. I asked Gowon directly about it, and he said while he had enormous respect for Awo, no discussion ever came up to hand over power to him. On the contrary, what people told him was to be careful not to hand over power to the politicians.Whether that was the motive would not be strongly affirmed or denied, as Gowon himself was ousted from office. However, Awo’s supporters would argue that while there is no morality in warfare, where there is a bigger cause to fight for, they add that he tried to ensure the economic integration of the Igbo in the post-war era. There are two sides to any war—one from the loser, one from the victorious—and no reconciliation of both stories can ever be possible, at least not the one between Biafra and Awo. Indeed, even this short essay has entered into the debate: once it crosses the Niger Bridge to Onitsha, Toyin Falolawill be downgraded from a Pan-Africanist to a tribalist!

A little over a decade after the crises of the 1960s,Awolowo was at the center of another political imbroglio.This time, it was in the election that brought in Shehu Shagari as President (1979-1983). DespiteAwolowo’s heavy contestations and logical arguments to support his disputations, Obasanjo allowed Shagari to maintain his win and waved off a re-run, perhaps to prevent another major political escalation between the North and the South. The Second Republic, headed by Shagari, did not last.The political instability it created in Nigeria, very akin to the unrest in Western Nigeria in 1965, prompted a return to military rule, bringing in a Buhari who would imprison Awo, confiscate his passports, and deny him access to foreign medical treatment, which many believed facilitated his death.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo would be remembered for many things. While he eventually severed ties with Gowon in 1971, supporting a military regime for that long only to back off because Gowon postponed transition time from the military to the civilian and, contrary to the initial plan, raised many eyebrows about howAwo stayed true and thorough to his political beliefs, philosophies, and ideologies.

Despite this, he was not without the achievements that complemented his advocacy of socialist democracy hinged on citizens’ welfare priority. He instituted free education and free basic healthcare across all parts of the Western region.In 1959, he increased the minimum wage from the general payable fee of five shillings in 1954. Also, he empowered companies such as the Finance Corporation, Western Nigerian Development Corporation (WNDC), and Western Nigeria Housing Corporation with public fund support and merged them for supervision towards full efficiency under the Western Nigeria Ministry of Industries. Others, either solely held by the state or in partnership with foreign investors, are Wema Bank of Nigeria, Wemabod Estates, Nigeria General Insurance,National Bank of Nigeria, Union Beverages Ltd., Askar Paints, Sunga Company, Gravil Enthoven and Company, Cocoa industries, Wrought Iron Ltd., Vegetable Oil, and Odu’a Textiles, among others. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to firmly assert that Obafemi Awolowo set the industrialization of South-Western Nigeria in motion with heavy investments in the region’sinfrastructural development. Seventy years on, it is easy to see that the region still benefits from Awo’s productive leadership and political acumen.

Beyond his socio-economic contributions to the country, he contributed perhaps the most to Nigeria’s political and intellectual production, with several books directly relating to the Nigerian situation of the time, hence, being completely original. In his second book, Awo: An Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he reiterated his commitment and belief in federalism as the best practicable form of government for the country. While in prison, he wrote Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution,where he again outlined his belief in the practice of federalism and advocated for the creation of 18 states out of the then existing four regions. In 1968, he released his fourth major book, The People’sRepublic, reviewing the civil war and thinking of the way forward for Nigerian politics to be shrouded in federalism, socialism, and democracy as the three pre-conditions for a prosperous Nigeria. His fifth book came in 1970 in the form of policy on government spending, criticism of Gowon’s excessive military spending, and priority for economic development in The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria.Throughout his life time, he communicated to Nigerians about his views, vision, and political philosophies throughout his lifetime.

In introspection, Awo is overqualified to be described as what Plato called the “philosopher-king,” the ideal leader for a state. Even his big foe,Odumegwu Ojukwu, whose biggest dream Awo brutally crushed, regarded him as a great intellectual and politician. By the time the history of Nigeria is revisited, as it has been repeatedly done, the city of Abeokuta will, undoubtedly, be known as the place where Nigeria was incubated. At the same time, Awo will be regarded as the architect whose design was too grounded for full implementation on the site.

Obafemi Awolowo, talk about a man, head above shoulders, ahead of his peers. In life and death, Awolowo has remained the Number One citizen of the Yoruba people, much beloved by his people but heavily resented by some other ethnic groups, and one group in particular. Who introduced “tribalism” to Nigeria? The answer depends on who you ask—maybe Zik, or is it the Sardauna, or is it Awo? Such is Nigeria’s fate that, other than soccer, a national hero is yet to emerge.


  • Toyin Falola is a historian and professor of African Studies


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