Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nigerian history through Awolowo (1)

I WAS not disappointed when I eventually obtained a copy of Awo: On the trail of a titan: Essays in celebration of the Obafemi Awolowo Centennial. Since its presentation to the public early in March 2009 I had sought the book because I believed that it would not only answer some lingering questions on the life and career of the late pre-eminent Nigerian leader, but also fill some gaps in my knowledge of Nigeria's political and social history. This fulfilled expectation explains the title of this article.

In general, I have for long held that any collection of essays on aspects of the life and career of any great political leader will be a good introduction to the history of the particular polity. In particular, I have held that any collection of essays on aspects of the life and career of any of these three Nigerian political leaders - Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello - will be a good introduction to the history of modern Nigeria. As I said earlier, I was not disappointed when I opened the pages of the book under reference.

The Awolowo book was edited by David Oke, Olatunji Dare, Adebayo William and Femi Akinola - four prominent Nigerian intellectuals who had previously researched and written on Chief Awolowo. The first three of the four editors have contributions in the book - with the first appearing twice. There are altogether 17 essays divided into four parts: Part 1: Obafemi Awolowo as leader (Chapter 1-7); Part II: Obafemi Awolowo's legacy for Nigeria (Chapter 8-11); Part III: footprints on the sands of time (Chapters 12-16); and Part IV: Awolowo in and through history (Chapter 17). There are, in addition, an opening poem, For Obafemi Awolowo (Ten Mays later) composed in 1997 by Niyi Osundare; a Foreword, A Guru for all time and all places by Wole Soyinka; a Founding Philosophy by Obafemi Awolowo Foundation; and Acknowledgements by Olatokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu.

These four introductory entries take up 24 pages, bringing the total volume of the book to about 370 pages. Awolowo-Dosunmu categorised the contributors to the book as follows: "Professor Wole Soyinka, Noble Laureate, who was asked to write the Foreword; two other Nigerian National Order of Merit laureates; distinguished veterans of the struggle for Nigeria's development, particularly those who had worked closely with Papa; rising stars with the enthusiasm to make a difference in their generation; and a friend who identifies so passionately with Nigeria that he has practically become one of us". You will be able to place each contributor in his category as you read his essay.

I think I should list the 17 chapters of the book. Chapter 1: Obafemi Awolowo: politician, prophet, philosopher and patriot by Akinjide Osuntokun; Chapter 2: The essence of the Awolowo phenomenon by Itse Sagay; Chapter 3: The quintessential Awo by Wole Adebanwi; chapter 4: Obafemi Awolowo and the golden era of the Yoruba by Segun Gbadegesin; Chapter 5: Awo as a humanist by Sam Aluko; Chapter 6: Remember Awo: Reminiscences by Mvendaga Jibo; Chapter 7: Obafemi Awolowo: Reflection of a native son by Richard Joseph; Chapter 8: Fundamental essentials of the Awolowo heritage by Banji Akintoye; Chapter 9: Obafemi Awolowo's development legacy by David Oke; and Chapter 10; Resuscitating Awo's development legacy, also by David Oke.

Chapter 11 carries the essay: Awo and the opticom idea by Akin Mabogunje: Chapter 12: Awoism, the Awoist and Awology, by Francis Ogunmodede; Chapter 13: Rebuilding the Nigerian educational system for the 21st Century, by Anya O. Anya; chapter 14: Awo on minorities and revenue allocation, by Obaro Ikime; Chapter 15; Awolowo and culture by Ropo Sekoni; Chapter 16: In the fraternity of the pen: Obafemi Awolowo as a journalist by Olatunji Dare; and chapter 17.The titan and the titanic, by Adebayo Williams. Ending the book is an 11-page Corporate Profile of Odu'a Investment Company Limited, titled Welcome to the Awolowo economic development legacy.

We are thus presented with 18 essays; if we include Wole Soyinka's strongly-worded foreword. In this first series of review-article we shall look at some of the essays more closely - starting naturally with the Foreword. The other essays in this very important work will be appreciated in a future series.

Wole Soyinka introduced the subject - Chief Obafemi Awolowo - in the strongest terms possible: "This individual (meaning Obafemi Awolowo) was not only ahead of his time, he was ahead of his environment, and light-years ahead of his peers. A social philosopher, he was not content merely to see ahead, but to prescribe confidently ahead. The loss, not only to Nigeria, but indeed to the African continent, is immeasurable". To assist the readers appreciate Soyinka's assessment here we may remind them that Awolowo's "time" can be taken to be from his formation of Egbe Omo Oduduwa (1945) or the publication of his first book Path to Nigerian freedom (1947) to his death in May 1987. And among his peers were Nnamdi Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello.

Soyinka had earlier wondered why the works of Awolowo, cited by various contributors to the book under appreciation did not make him a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Economics and how the "Forum of Federations, based in Canada, could have failed to induct such a mind into their Governing Council", and indeed why "a number of those works are not textbooks in the highest institutions of learning". I can as well say at this point that I share Wole Soyinka's assessment having now re-read Awolowo's Path to Nigerian Freedom (1947); The autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1960); thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution (1966); the People Republic (1968); the Strategy and Tactics of the People's Republic of Nigeria (1970); and The problems of Africa: The need for ideological reappraisal (1977).

On the question of ideological affiliation, Soyinka testifies that "Awolowo was not a dyed-in-the wood absolutist of any contending ideologies. If anything, his ideological leaning may be summed up as one of welfarist capitalism, based however, on socialist humanism". Rigidity in ideological precept, he says, "was one constriction in prescriptive thought that Awolowo vigorously avoided: Awo's book. Strategy and Tactics of the people's Republic "remains applicable to more than just one developing nation, or the over-developed". For an assessment of Soyinka's opinion on this matter I would refer the reader to the concluding installment of the series of lectures which Awolowo delivered in Ghana in 1976 under the general theme Problems of Africa: The need for ideological re-appraisal. Awolowo's endorsement of socialism was unambiguous - even as late in his life as 1976.

Describing Obafemi Awolowo as a "passionate democrat and humanist by instinct", Soyinka regrets that he (Awolowo)" underwent the irony of a trial for treasonable felony, accused of attempting to overthrow, by violent means, a 'democratically elected government'. Soyinka refers to those who testified against Awolowo as "witnesses of untruths and distortions". This may well be true. But the deeper implication here is that Awolowo did not commit the offence for which he and a number of his follower were tried and jailed. That was one of the critical questions whose answers I had sought in the anthology.

Having now got my answer, I would simply re-state my view. The post-independence Federal Government run by the Northern People's Congress (NPC) and National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) deserved to be overthrown by truly nationalist and revolutionary forces. But I sincerely regret the tragic and senseless murders and liquidations which accompanied the majors' coup of January 1966. As to whether plans were made by the Action Group leadership to overthrow the Federal Government in 1962 - a question which Soyinka has answered in the negative - you may also need to read the testimony of Samuel Ikoku in Samuel Ikoku Inside Out: An authorised biography of an African statesman (1997,written by Kelvin Oji and Victor Efifik.

Finally, Soyinka says: "Awolowo, easily the most disciplined leader, after Mahatma Ghandi, that the world of national liberation and humane politics has ever known, was easily the most prolific- and that brooks no exception...We are constantly faced with an original mind, intellectually disciplined, resolute on principles yet pragmatic in the pursuit of political goals". I endorse this general assessment except to say that Awolowo was also sometimes rigid, rather than pragmatic, "in the pursuit of political goals". Apart from Mvendaga Jibo's opinion which we cite later on in this appreciation I would relate my personal experience.

In December 1978, or thereabout, Chief Awolowo came to Calabar on his Presidential campaign tour. With the Agency of Odia Ofeimun, his Private Secretary, I met the Presidential candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) as he was taking his dinner (of bread and Lucozade, if I remember correctly) about 1.00 am. After the pleasantries, I told Chief Awolowo that I liked UPN's four cardinal programmes and would like to campaign for him but would not like to be a card-carrying member of the party. After appreciating my choice Chief Awolowo insisted that I should formally join the party. He also politely turned down the request that a particular "newbreed" politician - much more popular than the "old-bread" Awolowo loyalist-be adopted as UPN candidate for the governorship contest in the then Cross River State.

In the event I campaigned for Awolowo and for UPN in 1979 and 1983 without Awo's permission, and without joining the party.