Awolowo And The Politics Of The Next Stage


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Awolowo And The Politics Of The Next Stage




Odia Ofeimun



culled from THE NEWS, April 17, 2006


I am still chuckling at the thought that I was the one invited to deliver this year’s Obafemi Awolowo Memorial lecture. It is definitely an honour. But, I am chuckling because I am intrigued by the similarities between my initial response to the invitation and the manner in which I entered the context of Awolowo’s politics in the seventies. In early February, when I was asked if I could participate in this lecture series which had already enjoyed the intervention of very distinguished lecturers, I said: if your principals are prepared to take my kind of criticism, one that could risk the borders of civility, then you have it. I was merely thinking of criticisms of this lecture series that I had already expressed in public. I happen to be of the view that a lecture series devoted to the memory of Obafemi Awolowo cannot be adequately met by any of Nigeria’s existing political parties.

This is because none of the political parties, especially after the debacle of 2003, is in a position to take the risk of identifying with Awolowo as a political philosopher rather than as a personage to whom homage is paid for reasons of ethnic competition and electoral arithmetic. I have been told that the Government of Ogun State would prove me wrong. But I also believe that any government intent on getting on with it should be prepared to create a sturdy institution comparable to the one formalized for Nkrumah in Ghana and on whose platform Obafemi Awolowo himself delivered the 1976 Kwame Nkrumah Memorial lectures which were published in 1977 by Macmillan, London with the title The Problems of Africa: the need for ideological re-appraisal.

Since my views have not changed, the invitation for me to deliver the 2006 lecture is like putting me on the spot. It is as if I am being challenged to give to this lecture series whatever I have said it lacks. I want to note, by way of response to such a challenge, that my presence here is proof enough that I have genuine empathy for the organizers even if our attitudes to Awolowo are worlds apart. My empathy comes from knowing that only a winning historical personage like Awolowo attracts the kind of committed avowal of support that he enjoys – even among those of a diametrically opposed political platform who take pleasure in identifying with him as a gamy apologetics for prizing workaday seizure of power above commitment to principle.

I understand it as a case of stubborn power seeking the cover of a more thoroughly earthed and rooted authority. Unfortunately, it fits ill with the schizoid face of a Third Term Agenda which I shall not address in this lecture. In order to make plain what my attitude is, I would like to recall the circumstances in 1978,in which I became Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Private (Political) Secretary. While teaching at Oro in Kwara State, I read a Candido column in the New Nigerian which satirized Awolowo’s advertisement for ‘involved and committed researchers’ as he was preparing to launch a new political party if and when the ban on political activities was lifted by the regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo - that is, in his first coming as a Head of State. I wrote a very short application for the job which was delivered by Bola Ige, the best friend I had across the political class.

In the application, I wrote: “if by ‘involved and committed’ you do not imply that I cannot disagree with my employer if I feel strongly about any problem, I would be glad to accept the job”. I knew I was dictating to my prospective employer the terms on which I would accept a job I had not yet been offered. But, as I have said elsewhere, the job as Private Secretary was one job I knew I would get. And not because of my distinguished courier. It had more to do with preceding events in my biography which are not part of this lecture. What is definitely part of this lecture is to answer the question which must be on the lips of anyone who thinks that a privileged insider in a political movement is always too embroiled in special pleading to be objective – whatever that means.

I’ve encountered this question most definitively since 1989 when I began in earnest to look at Awolowo from the standpoint of a student of politics rather than as his former Private Secretary, or a mere admirer of his person or follower of his political thought. I recall speaking at a seminar in the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and being challenged by one of the two black people in the hall who happened to be Father Mathew Kukah. The seminar was on Messianism in Nigerian Politics: the case of Obafemi Awolowo.

It was part of my larger interest in the theme of Messianism as a political platform, a theme that Father Mathew Kukah later adapted for the title of chapters of the thesis which he was then writing for his doctorate. The confidence and fortrightness of his question was jolting. He wondered if I could ever be trusted to be objective in whatever I said about Awolowo. I answered that I could be. But one and half decades after, I know I did not answer the question right or even to my own satisfaction. Although I am not exactly trying to answer the question in this lecture, I think there is a need for me to stake a position.

As it happens, I really do not think that it is fair to be objective, or non-partisan about Awolowo. I have personal and public reasons for saying this. From the personal angle, I will let you into a private mythology of mine. I was born in the month in which Awolowo’s political party the Action Group was founded. With the free education scheme which began five years later, Awolowo made it possible for many of us who would never have gone to school to do so . He domesticated the revolutionary idea which many still do not appreciate today, that education is the right of every child. After I enjoyed free primary school education, I dropped out of the fee-paying secondary school, midway, as many children are forced to do today.

Without a school certificate, I worked, at the age of eighteen, as a reporter in the Midwest Echo, a sister provincial newspaper to Awolowo’s Ibadan-based Nigerian Tribune. In a number of articles written in those years, and as an undergraduate three years later, I identified with his positions on various Nigerian issues. I was critical of aspects of his stand on socialism. But I believed he was more rational and credible than all the proponents of African socialism whom he pooh-poohed: that is, including Kwame Nkrumah before he fell from power.

In general, what I thought of him as a political leader and as a man of ideas was a function of my reading of books that were clearly beyond my formal educational bracket. Having read, or better to say, garbled the works of philosophers and political and literary thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Pandit Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Bernard Shaw, Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, Arthur Koestler, Betrand Russel, H.G. Wells and Harold Laski, before I went to the University, I told myself, I could take on Awolowo.

In relation to these thinkers that I admired, Awolowo had impressive form. In a very creative manner, he had domesticated the best in ideas that was being thought across the world about nation-building. He summarized for me an enlightenment tradition that went beyond what many of the original thinkers had thought. Compared to all his contemporaries, he was the master with whom it was most theoretically valuable to be in cahoots. It never occurred to me to raise him to the level of worship. Even as his private secretary, I was too enthralled by the need to see him from the level of how he used his mind. I could not be distracted by the fawning that you would encounter in every political organization.

True, I claim a peculiar biography in this regard which I do not expect other people’s biographies to approximate. But I am not one of those who make personal closeness to Awolowo a measure of how adept they are at interpreting the man’s thought and politics. The short of it is that I don’t see myself as an Awoist. I am not your run-of-the mill Awoist who may be counted upon to churn out a mantra of sorts at the behest of a prompter. But I am self-aware enough to know that there is nothing I say about how Nigeria is run, or how it should be run, which is not mixed up with what Awolowo has already said or done. It has nothing to do with my partisanship.

The unvarnished truth is that it is not possible, if you are a Nigerian, to escape Awolowo’s influence. Inter-subjectively, and from the standpoint of public interest, no matter how defined, it is arguable that even at his most dogmatic, or because of it, Awolowo tackled fundamental problems of political and social theory with creativity that speaks to contemporary issues with the freshness of new knowledge. He is easily the most daring and enduring political thinker that Nigeria produced in the 20 Century. He ranks with Frederick Lugard, the first colonial Governor General of Nigeria, as being one of two whose ideas have most influenced how Nigeria is dreamed and conceived. “While Lugard, his ideas and legacy, dominated the first half of the century, Awolowo was pre-eminently the personage whose ideas and political struggles most positively defined the second half into the 21st century”.

If, like me, you believe that our history did not begin when the colonizers came on the scene, you may wish to go as far back as the writings of Shehu Abdulahi, one of the leaders of the Jihad, in order to measure the significance of his progressive political thinking on our national culture. By the way, it may surprise the parochial-minded to see Abdulahi and Awolowo being linked within the same tradition. But there is between them so much coincidence (not necessarily agreement) on the most fundamental issues covering the mode of recruitment, discipline and accountability of leaders, education of the masses, Federalism, social welfare, good governance and even economic development and the national question. These are the core issues that form what could be called the Awolowo territory. In this territory, the writings of the 19th century religious leader, if read without the jaundice of ethnic and religious bigotry, may be seen as advance guard for what the secular political thinker of the 20th century would write.

Students of Nigeria’s precolonial history would like to consider the similarities and coincidences between the situation of Abdullahi after the Jihad with that of Obafemi Awolowo after independence in the sense that the views which the former expressed, the rationale for resisting oppression and the proposals for putting a proper Islamic state in place are not too different from the very ideas that Awolowo expressed in Path to Nigerian Freedom, Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, The People’s Republic, The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria and even Problems of Africa. In the same manner that Abdulahi’s views did not become the hegemonic position after the Jihad, so Awolowo’s position never became the hegemon after independence.

If you live in a country where the best things that the political mind has thought were never allowed to become the norm, you would need no special explanation for why those interested in creating an enduring tradition are always in trouble. This is especially the case when the untried roads consistently prove to be the answers to the problems that society faces. In our case, there is indeed a radical progressive tradition that has not been allowed to register in our national affairs from pre-colonial times to our so-called post-colonial era.

With particular reference to Awolowo, the best way to put it is that in spite of the homage that every constitution and therefore every government has paid to the relevance and centrality of his ideas to core areas in his territory, the reality is that none has accommodated either the spirit or the letter of the original propositions. Or let me put it more squarely: the solution to Nigeria’s problems are proving more and more by the day to lie in genuinely federalizing central authority in the manner in which Abdulahi and Awolowo pictured it with the emphasis they placed on education and social welfare as the basis of governance.

The big deal in showing the coincidence of emphasis between the views of Abdulahi and Awolowo is that even in the days when Sharia is viewed by some as a basis for a major distancing of one part of the country from another, the practical import of Awolowo’s ideas, ideas that are very strongly influenced by a Christian outlook, reveal affinities that point to a common future irrespective of the religious position occupied by citizens. Seriously, I would recommend that the two be read together by anyone who is interested in plumbing to the roots of a radical, progressive tradition in our part of the world.

And when you come to it, my point is that it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Awolowo is the summit of that tradition. His writings take Nigeria much more seriously than that of any other Nigerian alive or dead. As a thinker, his is the most credible summation of the progressive mind in our politics - covering Aminu Kano, Mokwugo Okoye, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ola Oni, Tunji Otegbeye, Bade Onimode, Tai Solarin, Omafume Onoge, Bala Usman, Anthony Enahoro, J.S. Tarka, Funmilayo Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi, Balarabe Musa, Edwin Madunagu, Saro Wiwa, Itse Sagay, and Femi Falana. He, more thoroughly, comprehensively and undistractedly, brought together the ideas that any Nigerian could deploy in building a nation that can be a World Power.

From the North, West, South or East, we are all beneficiaries of the strategic thinking that Awolowo had already done and to which so much else may be seen as elaborations and emendations that make hardly a difference. Beyond this is that the vibrancy of all the progressive movements in this country since the sixties always depended on Awolowo’s already mobilized bias to stay on course. The constituency he had firmed up has remained the cover under which even those claiming to be more radical than him found refuge in times of crisis.

Unlike many of his ideological competitors, Awolowo always moved left in moments of crisis while all the others moved right. True, when the man was an avid gladiator canvassing at every turn to be President of Nigeria, many Nigerians, understandably, feared him enough not to give him the benefit of the doubt. But ninety seven years after he was born and nineteen years after his death, even the most untoward events that should normally be supposed to signal his irrelevance are yielding incontrovertible proof that his ideas hold the key to the solution of Nigeria’s problems of nation-building.

What encourages me to be so definitive is that nothing in the structure and philosophical outlook of this country has changed since Awolowo died in 1987 to alter the nature and drift of the problems, not to talk of the solutions. Or better to say that what has changed are the results of highly inadequate responses to the propositions that Awolowo made. His ideas have been impossible to ignore even by those who will not listen to the mere mention of his name. Look around the country today: you will find that everyone talking about change and solutions to Nigeria’s problems is literally wearing Awolowo’s clothes and dancing to his music.

Due to ethnic hatred, ideological myopia, or plain ignorance, those who have most gravitated towards the salience of his ideas may be seen pretending to be doing something else. The good student of Nigerian politics can see through it. No matter how insistently it is denied, it is easy to show that the most insistent ideas in Nigeria’s nation space, the decisions reached at all previous constitutional conferences, and the most germane of the proposals for getting out of the jams arising from them, are part of the nation’s arguments with Awolowo. Incidentally, most of Awolowo’s proposals were usually acknowledged as a basis for political action only when a crisis in the nation made looking elsewhere suicidal.

Or it was done to silence his opposition. That was how come the ideas became planks in the national Constitution but only in a paired-down, watered-down, fashion that quickly defeated the purpose of their original formulation and thresh. In my view, this is why anyone who wishes to come to grips with Nigeria’s inevitable leap beyond the pig-in-the-poke of the Fourth Republic’s halting transition to democracy and what I call the politics of the Next Stage ought to feel obliged to turn to, and have the courage to travel on, the roads that Awolowo built but Nigeria has not quite taken.

Since their continuing relevance cannot be wished away by a mere wave of the hand, I am setting out in this lecture by presenting a short list of them, if only to facilitate discussion around my key interest, to present the uniqueness of Awolowo’s leadership and to show why he is inescapable in the politics of the Next Stage. My short list begins with:
1. Awolowo’s proposal to mix elements of the Presidential system with the Parliamentary system. It was a means of removing the fault lines of both systems in order to enhance political effectiveness at the highest level of national leadership. Because it was not considered, there is today a respectable campaign for a return to a Parliamentary system. Which suggests where we are not looking.

His ideas on Federalism as opposed to unitarism or confederalism were being pooh-poohed for a long while before they were grudgingly adopted as a National platform. Unfortunately, the subsequent creation of states without respect for the linguistic formula or the principle of derivation, damaged the ideas in the process of their implementation. The result is the jolting experience and the continued subsistence of a regional veto that once empowered the annulment of the election of a President, and has yielded the wounded, but marching logic, of internal colonialism, in the Niger Delta. This unfinished business demands of every ethnic jingoist, especially the ‘mainstreaming’ Yoruba of today, to support a constitutional restructuring with which they would be comfortable if their kith and kin were not President of the country.

Awolowo, while being vilified as a tribal leader, proposed and it was accepted, that the election of the President of Nigeria should be on the basis of the whole country serving as a constituency instead of the old parliamentary system in which a candidate could return unopposed in a village and become the Premier of the country. Without true Federalism, as distinguished from the unitarized hotchpotch practiced at the moment, a President elected by the whole country becomes a veritable driver of fear. It brings up the eternal Awolowo question: what structure must the country have so that ethnic groups, zones and regions, would have enough self-governance not to be afraid when they cannot produce the President.

Awolowo’s campaign for political parties to be registered like trade unions and to be funded by the state was accepted in 1979 but the idea that a region-wide political party may pursue the election of a Governor without having a nation-wide platform, is yet to be accepted. Also, the question of state-funding of political parties remains in limbo. The implication is that if you belong to a minority group in Nigeria the Constitution requires that you deny your nationality, and whatever dreams you have, if it is challenged by a majority group or combination of other ethnic groups. The Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People and the Ijaw National Congress have given it a name which has stuck. They call it internal colonialism.

Awolowo’s proposals for having Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles inserted in the Constitution have become the norm. They were inserted but not made justiciable as he proposed it. This has ensured that his Free education and free health services, old age pensions, full employment and other welfare policies are still in the offing as unrealized hopes. Even enemies of free education now begin their training in populism from the vacuous repositioning of the provisions for it in the 1979 and 1999 Constitution. Some, these days, are seeking a new language to re-possess and personalize the struggle for free education so that they can remove the fact that Awolowo suffered to make it a national scheme.

This being the last on my short list, I have chosen a non-constitutional issue: Awolowo’s proposal for economic independence based on an agro-industrial revolution. It was based on agricultural settlements in Awolowo’s government in the Western Region in the fifties. In the Unity Party of Nigeria, the proposals were for self-sufficing agricultural communities called optimum communities (opticoms) in the eighties. As a private individual, Awolowo had mortgaged his property to support farmers at Elere, near Abeokuta, to pool their lands for mechanized agriculture, not aimed at exporting raw cassava but finished products.

Machines specially re-fabricated by scientists and engineers at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, helped them to produce three types of garri - hard grain, soft-grain, and pure flour that could be used for baking cakes, biscuits and other home cookies. If it worked for cassava, it could work for other staples - other tubers, plantains and grains - across the country. If it worked across the country, it was easily the promise of a rounded agro-industrial revolution that would link the farmer to the university system and link the University system to the indigenous manufacturers of the machines. With trains that would link various parts of the country, such as the fast train he proposed to turn Kano and Lagos virtually into one city, movement of the goods would be easy. As we all know, Awolowo died 19 years ago.

The machines have rotted in the bush and the scientists in our universities and the would-be manufacturers are no where near being linked. This short list could be extended almost interminably. But it suffices to show that there are so many paths not taken which, if followed as proposed, could have removed and could still remove the constraints, bottlenecks and debilities that have plagued the Nigerian system and led to a continuing habit of taking the disease as the cure. Or seeking to re-invent the wheel as a means of addressing Nigeria’s future viability.

To those of us who believe in the quintessential viability and therefore the indivisibility of Nigeria and the eventual raising of the country to the status of the so called developed countries that are, today, our nemesis, it is a matter of great moment, not only that Awolowo was a man of ideas who remains as fresh as today’s newspapers, but that he has remained, even in death, an implacable frontrunner, an incomparable performer, proving that his ideas are not a matter of mere theorizing but practice.

As anyone reading the serialization of his speeches in the Sunday Tribune can attest, he is not just regurgitating a speech writer’s spunk. He is genuinely original in a way that explains why he, a man who was in opposition to all successive governments in Nigeria’s history, is credited with so much more centrality than even the actual actors and performers who were actually in office as Heads of State. What counts here is that it is not the number of achievements or even the volume that convokes the zeal with which they are recounted but the durability, quality and the centrality of the performances to the issues and events that may be termed the heart of the matter in Nigeria’s development.

Unlike many contemporary leaders who would measure height with Awolowo only because of their capacity to throw the wealth of the Niger Delta at problems, and who may cite their building of a road, stadium, school or factory as credence, the essence of Awolowo’s sense of occasion resided in his doggedly generating income by dirtying hands with the farmers and other productive citizens. He knew the difference between building an educational system rather than merely erecting schools, building a sporting culture rather than a mere stadium, erecting a factory system through industrial estates rather than merely slapping factories on the ground. Awolowo initiated projects that had enduring character from take-off.

Communities were involved in the planning. They were backed by well-run bureaucracies. The proof of the pudding, 40 years later, is in the amount of records from that era that have survived the destructive engagements of political jobbers across the military era into the present dispensation who have waged war on school systems, dislocated industrial estates, and harried solid economic acumen off gear by making a show of contrariness to Awolowo’s stated ideals.

•Being an extract from the 2006 Obafemi Awolowo Memorial lecture organized by the Ogun State Governor’s Office, Cultural Centre, Abeokuta, on 14th March, 2006.



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