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Awo’s enduring relevance

Awo: Unfinished Greatness: The Life and Times of Chief Obafemi Awolowo; Olufemi Ogunsanwo; Pace Books and Periodicals; Lagos; 2009

OLUFEMI Ogunsanwo in this book reaffirms the continuing relevance of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s politics and ideas in the making of Nigeria and the significant role played by the politician and statesman in the political evolution of the country, and further underscores Awo’s socialist political ideology and theory. That Awo and his ideas continue to excite both intellectual curiosity and practical emulation years after his death, when the legacies and examples of his closest rivals have all but been totally forgotten is a reflection of the quality and superiority of his politics. The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, co-founder of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, founder and leader of the Action Group and Unity Party of Nigeria, leader of Government Business in Nigeria’s Western Region, Premier of the Western Region, leader of Opposition in the Federal Parliament, Federal Commissioner of Finance of Nigeria during the Gowon administration and Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Military Ruling Council, a founding father of modern Nigeria, author, polemicist and acclaimed sage is one of the most remarkable characters in Nigerian politics of the 20th century, and a leadership figure of exceptional note in Africa.

He was however also to the same degree of his achievement, a complex and controversial figure. Many books have already been written about the man Awo and his politics, and he himself in his lifetime did a good job of recording his life, times and ideas for posterity, but in Awo: Unfinished Greatness, the author’s achievement is in bringing to already known details a freshness of analysis, passion and partisanship. But this is the work of an Awo fanatic; as the author confesses in the introductory pages that he is not writing a biography as such but hagiography to the extent that he considers Awo a saint, he tells the reader that he is not afraid to express his emotions and so he is not interested in bland, academic analysis striving at balance and compromises, he intends to write he says, as a political scientist and he tells us not only what to expect but also the specific regards in which he is critical of Awo’s politics.

I consider the author’s forthrightness courageous; by alerting the reader early enough, he allows the reader to make a choice as to whether he or she wants to read the book or not, although in this regard, it is precisely the reason why anyone should want to read the book. It is also the reason why this book is bound to be controversial for the author is completely unrestrained in ruffling settled feathers of ethnic rivalry in Nigerian politics and in waking up all the ghosts that prepared the grounds for the unfinished tension and animosity at the heart of Nigerian politics. What does Ogunsanwo bring to the shelf?

His snide remarks about the character of academic writing notwithstanding, he manages to write a book on Awo that is distinguished by its enchanting lucidity and flow, and the author’s depth of research and erudition. Ogunsanwo stays true to his objective of defending Awolowo as the “best President that Nigeria never had,” and as a man of superlative genius. He takes us through Awo’s background, how he managed to survive the many adversities that he faced in his growing up years and how his resilience and strength of character must have prepared him for future challenges, a man tested by the heat of fire and the crucible of misfortune. Awo’s foray into a lifetime political career is carefully sketched as well as his political philosophy, his mysticism and his commitment to his Yoruba kindred, particularly the conviction that the economic and educational liberation of the Yoruba would provide a basis for leadership at the centre and the liberation of the rest of Nigeria in a federal system. The author does a good job of illustrating the viability of Awo’s political ideology and choices through a detailed documentation of the achievements of the Action Group as a political party and Awo as leader, in the Western Region during the years of Awo’s service as Leader of government Business and Premier. He paints a balanced picture of Awo’s welfarist programmes, the opposition to his free education policy and the political cost and Awo’s steadfastness. The result was a Western region that was way ahead of other regions in Nigeria. Awo’s nationalism, his participation in the various Constitutional conferences leading to Nigeria’s independence in October 1960 are also diligently reported. Convinced that he had laid a good foundation in the Western region and that the momentum for progress had been initiated, Awo sought to do at the centre in Nigerian politics, what he had done in the Western region. He however did not reckon with the cynical truism later articulated by General Olusegun Obasanjo before the 1979 general elections that the biggest job in the land may not necessarily be meant or reserved for the best man. The author’s conviction is that Awo was the best man for the job of leading Nigeria.

The bane of Nigeria’s development process has been the concerted attempt to stop the best man at all times from leading: years after Awo, Nigeria’s Achillee’s heel lies in its wonky leadership recruitment process and the hijack of the leadership cadre by persons of dubious distinction. The author’s thesis in this regard is that Nigerian history would have taken a different course for the better if the best man, Awo had been allowed to lead and if stopping him by all means and subverting the system to do so had not been the main preoccupation of his opponents.

Ogunsanwo pushes this messianic theory of power in Awo’s favour a bit too trenchantly, but it leads him into the self-chosen task of defending Awo against his political opponents, creating a hero/villain binary that confirms his own partisanship and which may further expose him to the charge of ethnic irredentism and the familiar conclusion by non-Yoruba that the Yoruba are arrogant and tribalistic. The same even-handedness of scholastic inquiry that Ogunsanwo disclaims in his preface is perhaps his book’s main shortcoming.

He criticizes a few of Awo’s choices: his agreeing to anoint Samuel Ladoke Akintola as his successor as Premier of the Western Region and his selection of Philip Umeadi as running mate in 1979, but for the most part, the author takes on all the controversial and high points of Awo’s political career and heaps all the blames on the doorsteps of his political adversaries. These include: the 1951 Western region election, and the cross carpeting episode, the 1959 Federal elections, the 1962 crisis in the Western region resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency, the trial of Awo and his associates in 1962 and Awo’s incarceration, his return from prison and role during the civil war as political leader and as Federal Commissioner of Finance, the 1978 Constituent Assembly and Awo’s refusal to accept the invitation to serve through radio announcement, the 1979 elections and the founding of the Unity Party of Nigeria. The villains of the author’s narrative include the British whom he accuses of setting up the template for the failure of independent Nigeria with their selfish romance with the north, and their deliberate manipulation of the crisis in the First Republic even if the Privy Council was a voice of reason that was soon muffled; Nnamdi Azikiwe (the late Zik) whom the author paints in very unflattering colours, more or less presenting him as the cause of all of Nigeria’s woes due to his indecisiveness and opportunism at critical moments and his refusal to work with Awo; the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello whose rivalry with Awo stood in the way of the Awo genius, particularly his political strategy of reaching out to northern minorities.

Ogunsanwo does not spare Igbos either for believing wrongly that Awo is a tribalist who sabotaged the NCNC and Zik in the 1951 Western Region elections and later became the mind that won the civil war for Nigeria with the anti-Igbo policies he allegedly introduced as Commissioner of Finance. In the same manner, the author vilifies those he assumes betrayed Awo in Yorubaland by colluding with outsiders to sabotage or frustrate Awo’s political ambitions.

But the question is to be asked: in defending Awo, what does Ogunsanwo seek to achieve? If his intention is to change the perception of the Awo-critics, he merely provokes them the more in this book. His partisanship is unmistakable, and may provoke annoying responses. He allows himself the indulgence for example of referring to northerners as “laid-back northerners” (p. xix). He also cannot imagine why Zik an Ibo man would think he should be the Premier of the Western Region. At every turn he makes snide remarks about Zik, and there are comparisons that could only inflate existing prejudices.

Here is one example: “The African Continental Bank established by Zik in 1951 is now defunct while Awolowo’s Wema Bank which he established for his government in 1954 is still standing tall fifty years after.” (p. 57). Another example: “Some observers have commented that the hostility of the Ibo people was really directed at the Yoruba as a group and that they merely made Awo their scapegoat. The Ibo have been locked in competition with the Yoruba whom they perceived as their main rivals since the inception of Nigeria in 1914. This age-old ethnic rivalry was proved conclusively, said the observers, with the way they abandoned Chief MKO Abiola, another Yoruba Presidential aspirant and his June 12 crusaders after his election as president was nullified in June 1993 by the Northern oligarchy led by General Babangida and his clique…Awolowo himself has given a very good explanation to this baffling question of Ibo hostility to his political aspirations.” (p. 136). This kind of commentary is unhelpful, more so as it is prejudicial. With regard to the June 12, 1993 Presidential election, the truth is that some of the more consistent supporters of the struggle and who remained steadfast till the end were Igbos and this includes Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, Chukwuemeka Ezeife, Bobo Nwosisi, Sam Mbakwe, Arthur Nwankwo, Joe Igbokwe, Pat Utomi, Ndubuisi Kanu, and one Chief Ralph Obioha, who was one of Abiola’s closest henchmen during the turbulent moments. And on the question of Wema Bank, did Awo set up Wema Bank or was it National Bank?

But Ogunsanwo cannot be taken to too hard a task for whatever omissions or generalizations may be found in his book, for he served an early notice, and he is entitled to his opinions, but he must expect protests where there are errors of fact. That Awo, his subject, remains a man of great and enduring relevance in Nigerian life and politics is however not in doubt. That the denial of the values and ideals of Awo’s politics and their bastardisation by poor imitators and latter-day pretenders is a matter of regret is also unarguable. Awo’s leadership style and commitment represent the example that is missing in Nigerian politics. He was devoted to his Yoruba people. For more than fifty years, his footprints in the area formerly known as the western region have remained indelible and incomparable; his attempt to combine ethnic nationalism and Nigerian nationalism may have appeared contradictory to his critics and adversaries, but the plain truth is that the same issues to which Awo devoted his energy and intellect: access to education, health, federalism, democracy and the integrity of the ballot box, and life more abundant for the people have remained the key issues in Nigerian politics.

Awo’s self-discipline, organizational abilities, the example of the Action Group and the Unity Party of Nigeria as ideas-driven political parties, Awo’s commitment to public good: these are missing elements in contemporary Nigerian politics; the path to Nigeria’s greatness lies in their rediscovery and application at both corporate and individual levels. By writing his story, Ogunsanwo achieves the larger objective of drawing attention again to Awo’s essence, as well as the fault lines in both Nigerian history and politics: the cut-throat competition for power among majorities-minorities, the crisis of nation-building, and the continuing fragility of the Nigerian state. Ogunsanwo raises afresh the questions of leadership in Nigeria and the moral authority of those who seek a career in the public arena. The book contains a few typographical errors on pages xviii (“He tenacity was folklore”); p. 1 (Awofeko which should read Awofeso); p. 21 (“identified its themselves”), p. 25 (“secreatary”); p. 42 (“the both the”); p. 65 (“saved his breadth”); p.91 (“Saraduna”); but it is on the whole, a well finished book, well illustrated and presented in classic reportorial style. It is a welcome addition to the Awo bibliography.



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