“If only Awolowo would relax, and have a glass of sherry with us sometimes!”
-Anonymous Englishman quoted in 1955 book by John Gunther titled “Inside Africa”
My good friend Fred Igbeare recently wrote an article published by the Times of Nigeria online on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the death of Chief Obafemi Awolowo titled “Awo: What Legacy?” He asked “What would Nigeria be like today if the whole country had come under Awo’s free education policy?” He concluded that Chief Obafemi Awolowo is so controversial that he drew fervent reactions from foes and friends alike.
In this piece, we shall attempt to dissect Chief Awolowo’s life from the lens of an American who visited with him sometimes in the 1950s and wrote his encounter with the legend in his book titled “Inside Africa.” That American is John Gunther, and the book, now out of print was published by Harper & Brothers in 1955. We will endeavor to critically examine how his life, politics and courage impacted Nigeria then and now.
Gunther started out in his book by comparing Chief Obafemi Awolowo to his chief political rival Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik) at page 773 of the book:
“the leader of the Action Group, and Zik’s chief political rival, Obafemi Awolowo (pronounced A-wa-luwa), has an altogether different quality. He is not a demagogue, but and intellectual. There has never been a breath of scandal about him. He is a man with a good deal of reserve, conscientious, precise, and somewhat stiff-backed. I heard an Englishman say, with genuine regret, “if only Awolowo would relax, and have a glass of sherry with us sometimes!” His intellectual arrogance is marked, although he seemed reasonable enough when we talked to him.”
In today’s Nigeria, corruption is not only endemic but it has become the directive principles of state policy. An erstwhile Nigeria military ruler-General Abacha was reported to have stolen $4 billion USD all of which were traced to foreign assets. When Gunther wrote about Chief Awolowo, he was then the premier of Western Region of Nigeria. Since that time Chief Awolowo rose to the position of the vice head of government and minister of finance during the regime of General Yakubu Gowon. He was also the chairman of the Unity Party of Nigeria. At the end of each of his tenure, in all the above listed position, his administration was probed, investigated and re-probed by countless commission of enquiries, military tribunals and investigating journalist. Some of his lieutenants and associates went to jail for corruption at the end of such probe but the commission of enquiry or military tribunals usually come back with a clean bill of health for him, his policies and administration. So we can repeat with certainty what Gunther wrote about him in the 1950s that “there has never been a breath of scandal about him.”
We cannot say that about many of his associates however, some of whom wined and dined with the military, stole billions out of the treasury. Some were caught with their hands in the jar. Some served deserved prison jail sentence and come out of prison to continue looting the country. I believe Awolowo’s penchant for probity and uprightness contributed in no small measure to the many myths and mystics about him. Every time Nigerians look at the present crop of charlatans ruling our dear country, we long for Papa Awo. We imagined what could have been.
We however need to point out that Papa Awo was definitely not like Caesar’s wife, “above board”, many rumors of his alleged “conflict of interest” with Western Nigerian land allocations and business abound. But they remained what they were, legends and rumors and when we look at the unabashed stealing going on in our country by current crop of Nigeria politicians it is easy to see why many Nigerians will overlook alleged conflict of interest by Papa Awo. Many Nigerians long for a politician who would not relax until his people are freed of oppression. We all long for a politician who would refuse to have a glass of sherry with oil company executives polluting our shores and farmlands. If that is intellectual arrogance we need to breed more of it. Now that we have seen what “intellectual prostitution” brings on our polity, I believe we would opt for the former.
GENESIS OF ETHNIC POLITICS IN NIGERIA?
Gunther wrote the following about Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the birth of his political party- the Action Group:
“The Action Group, which has its principal strength in the Yoruba West, is a newer party than Zik’s, and grew out of a semi-religious group, the Egbe Omo Odudua, founded by Awolowo to give voice to Yoruba nationalist and tribal aspirations. In theory at least it would like to remain on friendly relations with the British, when and if they go. But many of its members are extremist, and Awolowo himself was a prime mover for fixing 1956 as the target date for independence. Recently an Action Group member, commenting on the troubles in Kenya, went so far as to say that Mau Mau in spite of its horrors might “still be the way out of Nigeria’s bondage.”
Why did Awolowo started out on an ethnic platform? The mystery will always remains with us. Why a so called intellectual giant should reduce himself to a Yoruba irredentist by giving voice to “Yoruba nationalist and tribal aspirations” will forever remain a puzzle for us. Each time I read about the very beginnings of Awolowo’s politics I shudder. Is Nigeria not worth fighting for.
Gunther gave us a tepid explanation for this when he quoted Chief Awolowo in his book at page 747 as saying the followings:
““West and East Nigeria are as different as Ireland from Germany. The North is as different from either as China.”
Thanks to the likes of Awolowo, Nigeria remain divided in 2007 as it was in the 1950s even though Germany and Ireland are now part of a united European Union with a commonwealth economic and political behemoth that has brought Ireland out of economic doldrums to one of the most industrialized nation on earth. The allusion to China is in itself laughable. The geographical nexus of the three regions at that time render Awolowo’s metaphor incongruent. This is atypical of Nigeria’s ethnically jaundiced politician from all the regions. They sowed the seeds of discord that has held Nigeria in bondage to date.
Yes. Nigeria is complex, full of bewildering variety of peoples and languages within a limited area. But, thanks to Nigerian politicians, the lack of homogeneity noticed by Gunther in the 1950s remain with us today. And this lack of homogeneity remains the overriding political and national problem. It is now a curse, an albatross hanging over the neck of this great country. Many have wrongly called it “tribalism’ or ethnic prejudice, but I believe the proper word for it is sectionalism. I called it sectionalism because many of the so-called tribes and tongue tugging at different parts of Nigeria, trying desperately to pull it apart have little or nothing in common until the Europeans arrived on the continent. In fact, there were no homogenous group called the Yorubas until the Europeans asked their neighbors to the north what they called the people to the south of them. The same thing with the East, where every village is as fiercely independent of each other and jealously guard it’s border from the next neighboring village. The closest thing to a united northern Nigeria is the Sokoto caliphate, which contained within it’s borders over 120 different “tribes and tongue” with nothing in common other than it’s oppressive and repressive subjugation by the Fulanis.
Most of these ethnic groups like the Jukuns, the Tivs, the Hausas, the Kanuris were fighting each other with passion before the colonialist came. Same thing applies in the West where they were having internecine civil wars raiding and pillaging villages for slaves for the trans Atlantic slave trade. The East was even more amorphous. Majority of the inhabitants could barely understand each other. The colonialist and Christian missionaries forced Hausa language on the North and encouraged the West to develop the language of metropolitan old Oyo on the West. The word Yoruba itself is etymologically derived from Hausa language. So where did Awolowo got the idea that the West is homogenous from.
One can see the crass opportunism in Nigerian politician use of “tribalism” to divide and rule Nigeria, as the colonialist did. Incase anyone thinks Awo’s inglorious contribution to the demise of Nigeria unity is underserved, read the following at page 773 of Gunther’s book:
“ Awolowo has a tidier mind and more planning capacity than Zik. Awolowo, people say, seized the Nigerian nationalist movement away from Zik, by organizing his own party in the West. Before this, Zik had a claim to be leader everywhere. Overnight, there were two parties, which is a healthy enough sign of democratic evolution if they are not too rigidly regional. The Action Group uses scabrous language in attacking Zik’s East. One of its newspapers recently characterized the Eastern Assembly as a home “of terrorism, gangsterism, blackmail, shameless lying, and mob politics.” At one juncture, when they were quarrelling ferociously, Awolowo and Zik sued each other for libel for considerable sums; the two awards more or less canceled each other out. Then, after the crisis in 1953, the two began to work together again, each keeping his own sphere of influence, with Awolowo stronger in the West, Zik in the East. But in 1954 and later came other bitter quarrels, and split venomously once more.”
Welcome primordial ethnic prejudice. I hope folks who think that ethnic’s politics in Nigeria is only a recent creation will now see where it started from. So when in 2002, Chief Bola Ige, one of the ardent followers of Awo, exclaim that the Yoruba race is far more superior than any other ethnic group in Nigeria, we can understand where that is coming from. It has been a miracle that the kind of ethnic holocaust witnessed in Rwanda has not happened in Nigeria, given all these very inflammatory words by Nigerian politicians.
CHIEF OBAFEMI AWOLOWO CONTRIBUTIONS TO NIGERIA INDEPENDENCE
Having said that, we need to acknowledge and perhaps acclaim the contributions of many Nigerian nationalist politicians like Chief Awolowo, to the struggle for independence in Nigeria despite their effete ethnic chauvinism. John Gunther wrote the followings about Awolowo and his party member reaction to his attendance at a dinner party hosted by the colonial Governor General:
“..at this particular time, a severe constitutional crisis was at its peak. The African ministers representing one important political party, the Action Group, had adopted a non-fraternization policy, and would not accept hospitality from the Governor, although their Northern colleagues did. They were perfectly willing to talk business with Sir John McPherson in Government House, but they would not accept “hospitality” from him, not even a glass of water. There was nothing particularly personal in this. Macpherson was widely liked as an individual. But Government House symbolizes the Crown, and both West and East were at that time boycotting the Crown as a matter of principle.” (Page 750).
We can only wish that Chief Awolowo and his co-nationalist like Dr. Azikiwe, Sir Tafawa Balewa and the Sardauna of Sokoto- Ahmadu Bello had come together and reasoned together. What makes Abraham Lincoln a legend in America today, is due largely to his desire to fight for freedom not only for Chicagoans or the North but for all of America. Our politician in Nigeria knows nothing about consensus and consequently they lost the big picture and lost Nigeria in the labyrinth of their short sighted parochial mind. One of my friends had tried to explain Awo’s appeal to ethnicity to advanced his political agenda on the grounds that Awo never imagined that all the regions will be granted independence at the same time. “In short,” my friend concluded “Awo never thought the North will ever be ready for independence, he therefore opted to rule a part of the whole and thus mortgaged the whole for a part.” My instant retort, is what happened subsequently after October 1, 1960? Why did he not changed? Why did he allowed himself to be anointed the Leader of Yoruba at the height of Nigerian civil war? Why did he promised to lead a breakaway Nigerian if East succeeded in it’s secession? How can you run for the presidency of a nation, when your world view is that some of it’s people are more inferior to another within the same polity! What was going on in his mind in the 1940s when he came back from Great Britain to join Nigeria politics?
I found something else startling about Awolowo, reading Gunther’s book. Let me quote the first paragraph of page 774 of the book:
“Awolowo was born in a small Yoruba village in 1909; he was poorest of the poor, and is entirely self-made. This is unusual in Nigeria; an intelligent youngster, if destitute, will in the normal course of events be taken in by some family. Awolowo, on his own, managed to get a British education at a mission school in Ibadan, and then made his way to London, where he studied law. He is a barrister of the Inner Temple. Returning to Nigeria he became an advisor to the trade unions. He did not take a strong political line against the British until about 1948. Awolowo is an extremely cultivated and intelligent man. He speaks, of course perfect English. His book Path to Nigerian Freedom was well received by intellectuals in London. He has a world sense somewhat unusual among Africans (if only because few Africans ever have opportunity to acquire it) and recently visited India and Egypt; Jawaharlal Nehru made a great impression on him-and vice versa. In 1954 he became Premier of the Western Region, which means that he is in effect prime minister.” [italics mine]
Setting aside Gunther’s racial prejudice for the time being, it is interesting to learn here for the first time that Awolowo did not take a strong political line against the British until about 1948. Does this explain his distaste for the NCNC politics? Did he form his world views after he came back from India and Egypt? What impact did his membership of West African Student Union (WASU) in Britain whilst studying for law had on him? Most importantly why did he start out in politics by establishing a quasi ethnic outfit by the name: “Egbe Omo Odudua?” These are question I have tried to understand from many books on contemporary Nigerian politics without avail. If indeed Awolowo is as intellectual as widely claimed why did he not have a more Pan-Nigeria outlook when he started politics. Why the acerbic attack on Zik and other Eastern Nigerian born politicians in the West Assembly?
THE BEAUTIFUL MIND OF CHIEF OBAFEMI AWOLOWO
We can write volumes and tomes about Awolowo sectionalist mind, but one thing we cannot begrudge him is his monumental contribution to discipline, vision and forthright administration:
“ We met Awolowo in odd circumstances, on a lonely road out in the bush, driving back to Lagos from Ibadan. We had missed him in Ibadan, and were pursuing him to his home village, by name Ikenne. To catch Awolowo at Ikenne, we had to be there by 5P.M., since he was proceeding elsewhere. The British said, “He will not wait for you-get there on time.” But we were delayed, and when we finally reached the outskirts of Ikenne at about seven we had given up hope of seeing Awolowo. It was becoming dark, and soft, steamy rain came down. Then a shiningly bright new American car appeared suddenly over the crest of the red road, like a metallic apparition charging out of tropical dusk. In it was Awolowo. Our chauffeur recognized him as we slithered past. We stopped. He had been waiting for us but could wait no longer. So we stood out there in the rainy twilight talking. We became conscious of a strange buzz and stir-the sound of myriads of insects. It became darker, and the shafts of light from the two cars made furrows into the green mask of jungle. Rain fell harder, and Awolowo stepped into our car, saying “I can give you a quarter of an hour.” We could still hear the solid, strident call of insects. It was a strange place to have a conference.”
Herein lies much of mysticism about Awolowo, he is as diverse an African as you could find in any African university campus, full of ideas and serenity, and yet with an ethnically prejudiced bent. But at least there is no ounce of inferiority complex in his bone! Let’s continue the excerpts from Gunther’s book:
“Awolowo is of medium height, with a studious look; he wore Nigerian robes, and a dark red and gold turban. His manner is suave, considered, and aware. I asked him if Nigeria would, after independence, become a republic. He thought not. The Nigerian chiefs would not like the word “republic.” He went on, “We have to consider our princes. They do not resemble princes elsewhere. They fight for independence with us.” He discussed briefly constitutional anomalies within the Commonwealth. I asked him what his principal grievances against the Britain were, considering the British record of accomplishment in Nigeria. He replied, first, that it was morally wrong for one nation to govern another; second, that British administration was carried out by incompetent, inferior officials, third that the British did not have the true interests of the country at heart. “In fourteen months, under the present government, we have done more for Nigeria than the British did in 120 years.”
The question is can the present corps of Nigerian politician say the same thing, 40 years after independence from Britain? Chief Awolowo was right on all counts against the British rule in Nigeria but the same thing cannot be said about the ethnically jaundiced Nigerian politicians and military rulers who took over from the British. We can all agree that it was morally wrong for military to rule Nigerian for over 40 years out of almost 47 years of independence. Governments, which like the colonial rulers is without any accountability. A government of subjugation, with little or no voice for the people of Nigeria. We can also safely conclude that Nigerian government since the colonialist left in October 1960 has been carried out by incompetent nincompoops, inferior civil servants, and politicians who have little or no interest of the country at heart. Can we in all seriousness argue against this judgment given the massive corruption by Nigerian “militricians” who have stolen the country blind. It is quite an irony that in late 2004 and 2005 we have to sought the help of the same British to recover stolen corrupt funds stashed away by the military ruler, General Abacha and Governor Alamiesigha of Bayelsa in of all places-British banks!