The Genius Of Obafemi Awolowo And The Contest For His Political Space

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By Kunle Ajibade

Bill Clinton, in an article he wrote for TIME magazine in 1999 titled “Captain Courageous,” described one of the best American presidents, F.D. Roosevelt, as an architect of grand political designs. Obafemi Awolowo could also be described as an architect of grand political designs. He was a great political builder among great political builders. If he remains a commanding intelligence in modern Yoruba and Nigerian history, it is because he worked tirelessly to shape some significant events of his time. He chose courage over cowardice. He chose competence over mediocrity. His legacy teaches us diligence, it teaches us hard work, integrity, fortitude, honesty, self sacrifice, responsible leadership and accountability. We are taught by his inspiring example that true leaders must work for the common good. We are taught by him that genuine leaders ought to have purposes greater than themselves. Obafemi Awolowo was a moral force who taught us to live a life that meets the ideals we profess.

In Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and Corporate Agency, Wale Adebanwi renders the significance, the prestige, the influence and the messianic drama of Obafemi Awolowo’s life in incisive, brilliant, elegant and engaging narrative. He combined his skills as a trained journalist, a political scientist and anthropologist to conduct a research which ranges across important territories and domains. This book, in its first formulation, was his Ph.D thesis at the University of Cambridge. Adebanwi displays in it fireworks of theories especially in the introductory parts which may overwhelm the lay readers but will gladden the hearts of his academic peers immensely. He interrogates some received theories in order to propound his own. The theories, if you take time to crack their nuts, will yield useful insights. Theories that explain and describe Obafemi Awolowo as a peerless leader who kept the political promises he made. Theories that help to deepen our understanding of the Awolowo’s mystique, his phenomenon and charisma. Theories of a leader who remained focussed and kept expanding the magnitude of his mind and the frontiers of his vision till the very end. And theories of friends who betray their friends and principles.

Book reviewer, Kunle Ajibade Excutive Editor, TheNEWS

Book reviewer, Kunle Ajibade Excutive Editor, TheNEWS 

Adebanwi tells us that Awolowo’s education policy, his investment in Agriculture, his social welfare programmes and a vibrant, productive economy in Western Region brought into being a vast middle class that had enough energy, buoyant optimism and supreme confidence to engage the rest of the world. He was s game-changer who really made politics admirable and respectable. The author shows that, compared to his contemporaries, Awolowo was the most articulate advocate of the rights of the minorities and a clear-headed defender of federalism. By the time he died in 1987, he had not only been justly monumentalised, he had been variously mythologised. In the words of Adebanwi: “Years after Awolowo’s death, and more than half a century after he left office as the premier of Western Region of Nigeria, the Yoruba elites continue to regard him as the very symbol of their ethnic nationalism and a shining example of the benefits of self-governance, not only in Nigeria but in all of Africa.”

Adebanwi agrees with Banji Akintoye and Toyin Falola and other scholars who argue that if Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba, founded the Yoruba nation, Awolowo came to modernise it. He observes that at the start of his political career, Awolowo knew that the Yoruba were a highly progressive but badly disunited group, that they paid lip service to a spiritual union and affinity in a common ancestor – Oduduwa. They waged war against one another. The Yoruba, in the course of the British and Portuguese slave trade, had conducted violent and merciless slave raids on one another. And when the inter-tribal wars and slave raids were brought to an end by the British, mutual hatreds among the Yoruba continued. Given the propaganda of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the younger elements in Yorubaland saw themselves as inferior to the Igbo.  According to Adebanwi: “Awolowo’s declared resolve in the early 1940s was to save the Yoruba from ‘the state of impotence, into which they were fast degenerating’. Awolowo further resolved ‘to infuse solidarity into the disjointed tribes that constitute the Yoruba ethnic group, to raise their morale, to rehabilitate their self-respect, and to imbue them with the confidence that they are an important factor in the forging of the federal unity of Nigeria’”.

Egbe Omo Oduduwa and the Action Group took on these cultural and political projects. This mission of what Adebanwi describes as “the construction of a pan-Yoruba identity,” was resisted by Awolowo’s political adversaries like Dr. Azikiwe and Adegoke Adelabu, the feisty Ibadan politician who wrote Africa in Ebullition. The formation of Egbe Omo Oduduwa was not his only political achievement at this time when he was studying law in England, he also wrote Path to Nigerian Freedom in which he shared his ideas of how independent Nigeria should be governed. With his ideas and politics, Adebanwi argues, Awolowo “became both a symbol of the Yoruba nation and its ethnic nationalism, as well as a symbol of the struggle towards a ‘more perfect’ Nigerian nation; a concept that included the federalist ethos, good governance, egalitarian rule, enlightenment, modernity, bureaucratic rationality and welfarism.” Adebanwi observes that while some among Awolowo’s followers are able to embrace their Yoruba identity as well as the acceptance of a Nigerian identity, other ardent followers embrace the first and not the other.

•The Book ‘Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria’

•The Book ‘Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria’

The Yoruba identity and Nigerian identity is a paradox which Awolowo’s political enemies have capitalised on. But to Awolowo, there is nothing wrong in combining Yoruba nationalism with a progressive, federalist, egalitarian, democratic nationalist politics. It is important to note that, in concrete terms, Egbe Omo Oduduwa set out “to study fully the political problems of Yorubaland, combat the disintegrating forces of tribalism, stamp out discrimination within the group and against minorities and generally infuse the idea of a single nationality throughout the region; to study its economic resources, ascertain its potentialities, and advise as to the wisest utilisation of its wealth as to ensure abundance and prosperity for its people; to plan for the improvement of educational facilities both in content and extent; to explore the means of introducing mass education promptly and efficiently and to foster the study of Yoruba language, culture and history; to promote the social welfare of Yorubaland, combat the cankerworm of superstition and ignorance, spread the knowledge of medical relief and stimulate the provision of hospitals, maternity homes and suchlike amenities.” The Egbe Omo Oduduwa also aimed to co-operate in the fullest measure with other regions to see that its aims are applied to the whole country. One of its objectives was to aid and encourage similar groups in the other regions in every way possible to achieve their ideals. Ire ti won fe fun ara won, won tun fe fun gbogbo Nigeria. What could be more egalitarian than that?

Those objectives formulated in the 40s are still relevant today, and they show the excellent organisational capacity of Obafemi Awolowo. Shortly before the Action Group was launched on 21 March, 1951, Awolowo said that any new party under which he was prepared to work and serve must place a premium on action rather than words. Awolowo was never mealy-mouthed about truth. He told The Guardian in May 1987: “I do not rank myself with great leaders, but those I am trying to emulate – Churchill, Nehru, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Gandhi – provoke extremity of hatred and affection.” In 1979 when many ardent followers of him insisted that they saw him in the moon smiling and waving at them, Awolowo must have been very amused by that extremity of affection. Relying on the incontrovertible evidence of Ganiyu Dawodu and Odia ofeimun, Adebanwi shows, for instance, that the extremity of Chinua Achebe’s hatred for Awolowo was based on big lies of history. No one can rob Awolowo of his achievements. Awolowo struggled against Nnamdi Azikiwe and his NCNC and against the ultra conservative northern political elite in NPC just so that Nigeria could become a better place. If the country had listened to him, we won’t be singing songs of lamentation today.

In the dominant progressive Yoruba politics, he remains a hero which is why even before he died, in 1987, some of his associates, specifically Bola Ige and Lateef Jakande, had started scheming to take over the mantle of Awo. The narratives of Awolowo and the Awoist movement have been subjects of rigorous and vigorous scholarships. What Adebanwi has done here is to deepen our knowledge with new perspectives. In Yoruba Elites and ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and Corporate Agency, he writes lucidly about the crises that the physical absence of Awolowo brought about and the appropriation of his symbolic presence in Yorubaland. He recounts the long history of internal wranglings in Afenifere culminating in the assassination of Bola Ige on whom other elders wanted to foist the mantle of Samuel Akintola but who in death wore the mantle of Awolowo. For about a decade, Adebanwi spoke to all the parties involved, he spoke to their camp followers, he attended some of their meetings, he read minutes of their meetings, he read many of the abusive interviews in newspapers and magazines, he read reports of all the reconciliatory efforts that failed woefully. The conflicts, he believes, were driven by animosities bordering, not strictly on ideological matters, but largely on towering ego and pettiness. As Yoruba would say, ija ilara kii tan boro. The elders in the Awo Movement from AG through UPN down to APC have been engaging in what Margaret S. Archer describes as a “competitive contradiction” which “prompts attempts at mutual elimination.” This part of Adebanwi’s book will make not just every proud Yoruba man and woman uncomfortable but will make every progressive Nigerian sad. The Awo Movement should not have come to this sorry pass.

In the course of their deep personal rivalries, Olusegun Obasanjo, who hates Awolowo with passion, has always moved in to establish himself as the new patriarch of Yoruba politics. But the masses of Yoruba people have always said: Give us Awo! Give us Awo! Give us Awo! But who becomes the new leader of the progressive movement? Or who steps into the big shoes of Awolowo? Adebanwi, in the light of other contenders for the throne, thinks the cap fits Bola Tinubu, who has “pursued the ambition to become both the leader in Yoruba politics and the leader of the progressive movement in Nigeria.” He observes that while Awolowo believed that one ought to mobilise for power on the basis of ideological interests, Tinubu has demonstrated that it is only by accessing power that one can mobilise one’s interests and make one’s vision of society practical.

Let me end with the Obafemi Awolowo’s preamble to the speech he gave in Ondo Town Hall in July 1974 at the presentation of Gani Fawehinmi’s book, People’s Rights to Free Education At All Levels. In that preamble, he praised the brilliance, the diligence and hard work of Fawehinmi. He said that “the trouble with many Nigerian youths is that they sleep too much, play too much; and indulge too much in idle chatter and gossip.” He then advised them to “take each day as a sacred unit which must not be misused or dissipated.” Out of 24 hours available to them, he said, at least eight concentrated hours should be spent on work, eight should be spent on serious study, creative leisure and self-development. He then concluded that eight hours are enough for feeding, relaxation and sleep. If Obafemi Awolowo were to be in this hall at this moment, he would praise Adebanwi’s brilliance, diligence and hard work.

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