Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Best president Nigeria never had

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Obafemi Awolowo, a Nigerian politician some describe as the best president Nigeria never had. The son of a Yoruba farmer, he pressed himself through layers of education to become a successful lawyer, and then a powerful mover for his country’s independence, one embracing a federal structure, inclusive of all tribes and regions. Though never president, he served in various positions which allowed him to introduce much progressive social legislation. He wrote several influential political books, and some autobiographical works.

Awolowo was born on 6 March 1909 in Ikenne, some 50km northwest of Lagos, then part of British controlled Southern Nigeria. His father, a farmer, died when he was 10. He went to a local Baptist school and Wesley College in Ibadan. To support himself, he worked as a teacher, a clerk, and a newspaper reporter. He was an active trade unionist. In 1927, he enrolled at the University of London as an external student, graduating with a degree in commerce. Back in Nigeria, during the 1930s, he became increasingly involved in nationalist politics, rising to become an official in the Nigerian Youth Movement. In 1937, he married Hannah Adelana, and they had five children. In 1944, he returned to London to study law, and was called to the bar in 1946. While in the UK, he founded Egbe Omo Oduduwa to promote the culture and unity of the Yoruba people. He also published an influential book Path to Nigerian Freedom, in which he made his case for an independent Nigeria in which the interests of each ethnic nationality and region were safeguarded.

Returning to Nigeria in 1947, he set up a sucessful law practice, acting as a solicitor and advocate of the Superior Court of Nigeria. In 1949, he founded the newspaper The Tribune to help disseminate his political ideas, and the following year he cofounded a political wing of Egbe Omo Oduduwa called Action Group, and became its first president. He won the first Western Region elections in 1951 and was chosen as minister for local government structure. In 1954, he was appointed the first premier of the Western Region. It was a position in which he was able to improve education, social services and agricultural practices. He resigned his post, in 1959, to run for a seat in the Federal House of Representatives, but his Action Group party was heavily defeated in the election, leaving Awolowo as leader of the opposition.

A power struggle soon developed between Awolowo and Samuel Akintola, his Action Group deputy, who had taken over as premier of the Western Region. Ultimately, this led to the federal government suspending the Western Region’s constitution, and to Awolowo being prosecuted for treason. In 1963, he was found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Three years later, as the result of a coup and the empowerment of a military government, Awolowo was released. He became a member of the National Conciliation Committee, which attempted to mediate a rift between the federal government and the Eastern Region (inhabited predominantly by the Igbo people), but when this failed, and the region seceded as the Republic of Biafra, he backed the government. During the civil war that followed, Awolowo was federal commissioner for finance and vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council. In the mid-1970s he was chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and Ahmadu Bello University.

In 1977, Awolowo published The Problems of Africa: The need for ideological reappraisal. And, the following year, when a 12-year ban on political activity was lifted in preparation for a return to civilian rule, he emerged as the leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria. He ran for president in 1979 and 1983 but was defeated both times by Shehu Shagari. Following yet another military coup at the end of 1983, political parties were again banned, and Awolowo retired from politics. He died in 1987 (though his wife Hannah lived to 2015, just a few months short of her 100th birthday). Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia BritannicaNew World Encyclopedia, the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation or Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue Memorial Libraries.

Apart from his political books, Awolowo left behind a couple of autobiographical works: Awo - Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo; My Early Life; Adventures in Power: Book 1 - My March Through Prison; Adventures in Power: Book 2 - Travails of Democracy. None of them seem to be available online (nor available for preview at Amazon or Googlebooks). It’s possible that the first Adventures in Power book contains a prison diary by Awolowo but I’m not sure. Two biographies, however, do make mention of diaries (described variously as personal, political or prison diaries), and both these can be previewed at Googlebooks: Chief Obafemi Awolowo: The Political Moses by Adedara S. Oduguwa (Trafford Publishing, 2012); and The Political Philosophy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo by Olayiwola Abegunrin (Lexington Books, 2015).

In his preface to the first book, Oduguwa states: ‘As readers will discover, Chief Obafemi Awolowo: The Political Moses is a book that encompasses politics, law, and the search for power, as well as incarceration, denial, and betrayal by respected members of the Action Group (AG) and the political environment of Nigeria in the 1960s. It is a book that vividly investigates a 1962 treasonable felony, bringing into focus the case hearings and its implications for the young Nigerians. [. . .] This book reminds us of how a man who dedicated the entirely of his life (as stated in his diary) to serve his fatherland was denied his ambition, and now, twenty-five years after his death remains the most celebrated Nigerian that ever lived. Even one of his contemporaries at the time attested “Awo is the best president Nigeria never had.” ’

Here is one quote he provides from Awolowo’s diary.
19 August 1959
‘I affirm that by the grace of God, the AG will win 200 seats at the federal elections, I also affirm that I Chief Awolowo will be the Prime Minister of Nigeria. In the return for this privilege, I solemnly aver and promise in the presence of God that I will strive and do my utmost best for the entire people of Nigeria irrespective of their tribe, religion, political affiliation and ensure individual freedom, human dignity and cultural progress, for Jesus says: whatever we ask for, we shall have it; I believe the AG will win 200 seats and 1 will become the prime minister of Nigeria. I affirm that by the grace of God, the AG will win 200 seats. I also affirm that I Chief Awolowo will be the prime minister of Nigeria at the conclusion of the election.

As prime minister of Nigeria, I will strive to ensure the rule of law; happiness and spiritual well being of the people of Nigeria. I therefore believe firmly that the AG will win 200 seats: I thank God for granting my desire.’

And here are two quotes provided by Olayiwola Abegunrin in his biography of 

7 March 1939
‘After rain comes sunshine: after darkness comes the glorious dawn. There is no sorrow without its glorious joy: there is no joy without its admixture of sorrow. Behind the ugly terrible mask of misfortunes lies the beautiful soothing countenance of prosperity. So. tear the mask.’

2 August 1966
‘On this triumphant occasion I believe that the following decision of mine is irrevocable under all and any circumstances, namely: That I hereby solemnly and resolutely dedicate the rest of my life, even second of it, to the service of the peoples of Nigeria in particular, and of Africa in general, by promoting their welfare and happiness. So be it-Amen.’

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