An Irony of History The Complicated Legacy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo

Peer, predecessor or successor, the unequivocal articulation of a clear and consistent political ideology by Awolowo places him above anyone else in Nigeria’s political history. 

‘For upwards of 30 years, I have been in politics in Nigeria; during this period, I have operated in various important theatres in the life of this great Federation. I have, with others, fought against British imperialism with all my might, and with all the talents that it pleased God to give me… I have also fought against anything which savours of injustice. It is thus an irony of history that, as one of the architects of Nigeria’s independence, I have spent almost half of Nigeria’s three years of independence under one form of confinement or another.’

— Obafemi Awolowo, September 11, 1963

When, in September 1963, Chief Obafemi Awolowo stood up to address Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo of the Federal High Court in Lagos, he made three gloomy predictions about what his criminal conviction might portend for the Nigerian polity. First, he said Nigeria would lose his ‘invaluable services’, at least for the period of his incarceration. Second, that his incarceration would heighten political tension and impact negatively on the country’s economy. His final prediction was tinged with his characteristic optimism: that though ‘the present twilight of democracy, personal freedom and the rule of law’ was a harbinger of ‘utter darkness’, it was—as all nights are—also a prelude to a ‘glorious dawn’. Delivered in the lucid, soaring prose typical of him, this was both Awolowo’s denial of the charge of treasonable felony levelled at him by the federal government and the testament of a man fully convinced that he still had a role to play in determining Nigeria’s destiny. In the end, Awolowo was found guilty and handed a ten-year sentence.

Awolowo’s sentence was the climax of a series of events that began when he resigned his post as premier of Nigeria’s Western Region to stand for election into the Federal House of Representatives in 1959. A coalition between the Northern People’s Congress and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, ruling parties in the North and East respectively, edged the Action Group, Awolowo’s party, out of the federal calculus. Awolowo opted to remain Leader of the Opposition in parliament.

While Awolowo prepared to lead the opposition at the centre and consolidate his party’s stronghold in the West, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, his deputy and successor as premier, advocated forging closer links with the federal government. The friction between both men and Akintola’s eventual expulsion from the party would spark riots in the region in 1962, prompting the federal government to declare a state of emergency in the region and assume full administrative control. Dr. Moses Adejoyejo Majekodunmi, personal physician to Nigeria’s prime minister and the region’s sole administrator, initiated an inquiry into Awolowo’s five-year stewardship. The Coker Commission—so-called for Justice George Baptist Coker, its head—uncovered evidence of financial malfeasance, including the diversion of public funds to finance ‘political activities’. Akintola was absolved of any wrongdoing and allowed to return as premier. Awolowo was hurled before Justice Shodeinde soon after.

Opinions remain divided till today as to whether Awolowo and his cohorts were indeed plotting the violent overthrow of Nigeria’s central government, or whether the accusations were fabricated by the ruling party to discredit and silence the government’s main opposition. Whatever the case, Awolowo’s conviction and incarceration would, as he himself predicted, ‘do harm to Nigeria’.

A Prophecy Told

Awolowo’s predictions proved especially accurate, as even the most cursory overview of Nigerian history will reveal. Barely three years after his imprisonment, Nigeria was plunged into the darkest period of its history when a group of middle ranking army officers staged a coup d’état against the government, ushering—over the next 30 years—a period of staggered military rule that would devastate the nation socially, economically and politically. The coup, though unsuccessful, provoked a chain of events that culminated in the secession of the Eastern Region and full-blown civil war, a war in which Awolowo would feature prominently.

A Prophecy Fulfilled

The role Awolowo’s incarceration played in catalyzing Nigeria’s first military coup is often erroneously underplayed by political scientists and historians. The coup was led by young, well-educated army officers whose left-wing political ideology and vision for Nigeria—as described in the only piece of literature written by one of the main conspirators—aligned with Awolowo’s.

Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, a key figure in the coup plot, was a military intelligence officer who participated in the trial investigations of Obafemi Awolowo and other Action Groupers. ‘Chukwuma,’ according to General Olusegun Obasanjo, ‘had some scathing remarks to make about [Nigeria’s] national security, and about those who were being investigated. If he had his way, he said, his treatment of the whole case would have been different’. It is easy to see how the coup plotters must have seen Awolowo’s incarceration as an extension of what they considered to be high-handedness and corruption of the ruling political elite. If General Olufemi Olutoye is to be believed, the Majors had intended to release Awolowo from prison and install him as president as far back as 1964, when the earliest iterations of the coup plot were first hatched.

Had the unrest in the West not ended in Awolowo’s arrest and detention, and had he been allowed to continue leading the opposition that functioned as a check against the excesses of the federal government, the coup might have never happened. But had the coup not happened, Awolowo might never have been as politically prominent as he was to become.

A Clarity of Purpose

Awolowo’s uniqueness in Nigerian political history becomes even more pronounced against the backdrop of present-day politicians—and the parties to which they belong—who have no discernible ideological convictions but bend in whatever direction the wind of power and influence blows. Peer, predecessor or successor, Awolowo’s unequivocal articulation of a clear and consistent political ideology places him above anyone else in Nigeria’s political history. He was a staunch advocate of a federal socialist democratic system of government in which each region is essentially autonomous and could craft policies best suited for its people without undue interference from a central government. Published in 1947, Path to Nigerian Freedom was the first systematic federalist manifesto articulated by a Nigerian politician. In this manifesto, he advocated federalism as the only basis for equitable national integration. He would go on to author several other books in which he would reiterate his beliefs in limited central planning and state-led infrastructural development.

Asides securing a lasting legacy by establishing free primary education and healthcare in the West, Awolowo’s catalogue of achievements as the West’s premier includes building Nigeria’s first stadium, establishing the first television station in Africa, raising the minimum wage of workers and empowering private sector industries with government funding to shore up their working capital. Awolowo’s people-centred policies created a thriving middle class in the West and effectively ensured that his region would remain on a sound economic footing as a major player in Nigeria’s industrial and commercial development for generations to come.

Awolowo’s legacy as the galvanizing force behind the Yoruba intelligentsia is so pervasive that some commentators opine that party politics did not properly begin in the Western Region until the emergence of the Action Group, the party he founded to champion Yoruba nationalism. Conceived as a pan-Yoruba movement, the AG, led by Awolowo, stimulated the political consciousness of the entire Western Region.

Sleeping with the Enemy

Six months after the failure of the coup that would have installed Awolowo as president, there was a counter-coup in which the head of state, Maj. Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, and predominantly Igbo soldiers lost their lives at the hands of northern soldiers. Under the pretext of resisting Igbo domination, the violence soon spread beyond the barracks leading to the cold-blooded massacre of thousands of Igbos. Upon threat of annihilation, Igbos all over Nigeria fled home to the East, whose governor, Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, refused to acknowledge General Yakubu Gowon, the head of state installed in place of the murdered Aguiyi-Ironsi. The ensuing political impasse would eventually lead to a civil war.

In reality, the North has always dominated Nigerian politics—and it continues to do so today. It had—and has—more seats in parliament than the other two Nigerian regions combined. No decision could be made in Nigeria without its participation and agreement. For most of Awolowo’s political life, he advocated for the ‘political self-determination of each ethnic or linguistic group’ as an imperative principle for abiding peace and unity within Nigeria. He decried as evil the cultural feudalism that had carried over into the modern administration of the North and sought to combat its spread. As a federal legislator, he made several attempts to dilute the sheer political might of the Northern Region by championing the creation of new minority states. Awolowo described Nigeria as:

…monstrously abnormal in structure in the sense that one of the three Regions is not only bigger in territory and population than the other two put together, but has also in actual practice succeeded in placing itself in a position where, at its arbitrary and capricious pleasure, it can bend the will of the entire Federation to its own.

By and large, the conflicts sparked by the coups of 1966 pitted North against East, but the West still had a choice to make. As its most influential thought leader, Awolowo’s primary concern was for the West. He consistently sued for a peaceful resolution to the political stalemate in the nation and urged the federal government to honour the agreements of the Aburi Conference, which Ojukwu’s East insisted was the minimum requirement for its reabsorption into Nigeria. Though Awolowo expressed a desire for the country to remain united, he also declared in a May 1967 speech to Western leaders of thought his willingness to follow the East’s example should it be allowed to secede: ‘If the Eastern Region is allowed by acts of omission or commission to secede from or opt out of Nigeria, then the Western Region and Lagos must also stay out of the Federation’. In addition, Awolowo was staunchly resistant to a military resolution to the impasse, insisting that a war against the East would be ‘an unholy crusade, for which it would be most unjustifiable to shed a drop of Nigerian blood.’

Two days after this speech, Awolowo led a government delegation to the East to urge Ojukwu to reconsider his stand on secession and embrace dialogue. This last-ditch attempt to avoid conflict failed, with Ojukwu reiterating his resolve to dissociate his region from Nigeria. In hindsight, it appeared that Ojukwu might have given more weight to Awolowo’s perceived solidarity with the Eastern cause than the conciliatory talks, and he assumed it was unlikely that the federal government—which would really now be the North—was prepared to fight a war against both East and West. On 30 May 1967, the Eastern Region of Nigeria officially seceded and became the Republic of Biafra.

The Weapons of War

By far the most controversial aspect of Awolowo’s political life is the role he played during the civil war. As finance minister and Gowon’s top adviser, he was instrumental in persuading the federal government to change Nigeria’s currency in 1968, a move which effectively rendered Biafran currency non-convertible and useless in international markets. In addition, he instituted an economic blockade of Biafra, which made it nearly impossible for food and other forms of aid to reach an already impoverished region. His assertion that ‘All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war’, lends credence to the notion that he deliberately sanctioned a policy he knew would cause deadly suffering. The war ended seven months after the implementation of the blockade. A report by the Sunday Times four days before Biafra’s total surrender captures the situation succinctly: ‘People are now choosing in large numbers to risk massacre at federal hands rather than die slowly from starvation in a shrinking enclave.’

It is not far-fetched then to suggest that Biafra’s capitulation had more to do with the collapse of the Biafran economy—instigated by Awolowo’s policies—than with a successful military campaign by the Nigerian military. Awolowo’s prudent management of Nigeria’s war economy bears mentioning as Nigeria did not borrow any money from the international community to prosecute the protracted war.

To many Igbos, Awolowo is considered persona non grata for dealing a fatal blow to their dreams of political independence and helping to perpetuate the northern hegemony he had previously fought vehemently. But to apologists of Nigeria’s ‘non-negotiable unity’, he did what was required to protect the territorial integrity of the nation. At the end of the war, Awolowo approved a 20-pound policy where all re-integrated Biafrans, regardless of how much they had saved in banks across Nigeria prior to the war, were only entitled to an ex-gratia payment of 20 pounds, further exacerbating the economic woes of a region badly reeling from the losses of war.

So pervasive was this view of Awolowo that he would feel compelled to grant a town hall interview addressing these issues 15 years after the end of the civil war. The 20-pound policy, he claimed, was instituted because Biafran pounds could not be expected to convert into Nigerian pounds and because the government could not accurately ascertain how much money Igbos had saved in bank accounts prior to the war. In that interview, he also claimed to have bypassed the federal executive council in ensuring that revenue—‘millions of pounds’—that had accrued to the East Central State during the war was remitted.

Awolowo resigned in 1971 to protest the government’s continuation of military rule, and in 1975, following the overthrow of the Gowon government, issued a press release questioning the country’s military spending.

The Cult of Awolowo

Even in death, Awolowo continues to exert considerable influence on the Nigerian polity. His political legacy is so immense that many Nigerian politicians today, especially those of southwestern extraction, perform kinship with him by identifying as ‘Awo-ists’. Many continue to attempt to profit politically, socially and symbolically by paying homage to his personage—even down to mimicking his garb and signature horn-rimmed glasses—in an attempt to supplant him as the de facto leader of Yorubas. It is, however, unfortunate that rather than offer the transformational leadership which Awolowo embodied, Nigeria has seen the rise of transactional leaders who view leadership through the narrow lenses of self-interest and suppression of the public will.

In terms of political philosophy, Awolowo put a premium on true federalism, regional autonomy and multiculturalism. Given the size and diversity of a heterogeneous Nigeria, he foresaw how extremely difficult a central government would find the task of effectively managing all key sectors of the economy. Unfortunately, successive military governments ensured that most of the administrative impetus of the nation was consolidated at its centre, leading to the dire situation of present-day Nigeria where only four states are economically viable when federal handouts are discounted. The fact that states are unable to cater to the needs of their people is largely responsible for the high rate of poverty, illiteracy and insecurity in Nigeria. Debates in favour of restructuring the nation to achieve true federalism have intensified in recent years as political leaders are belatedly beginning to concede to Awolowo’s arguments.

Awolowo’s controversial role in legitimizing the unelected Gowon regime and preventing Biafran secession seemed to contradict all he had written, had lived and was even imprisoned for. He remains one of the most polarizing characters in Nigeria’s political history who, at different times, found himself as either the best friend or worst enemy of the federal government. He is venerated by rivals and friends alike; Ojukwu, for whom Awolowo proved a great undoing, once described him as the ‘best president Nigeria never had’.

Of all the founding fathers of independent Nigeria, Awolowo seemed to have the most realistic view of unity in the incredible ethnic complex known as Nigeria. In Awolowo’s vision, Nigeria could be a peaceful union of tribe and tongue not because of a homogeneity of outlook or aspiration but if each region could sustain itself and if none thrived at the expense of the other. This, perhaps, might prove to be his greatest legacy

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