HE represents an institution: Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, GCFR. His name conjures leadership by example. He was one hero that believed in building institutions and developing human capital. And it is no surprise that his name resonates across the universe because of what he stood for and demonstrated as a quintessential leader. Because of his unparalleled legacy, the refrain in official and private circles within and outside Nigeria is, if he were here today, what would Nigeria be like?
Indeed, a man was here, as he touched the lives of many, who have continued to shape the destiny of the country, nay humanity. The sage, who was born this day in 1909, invested in human capital, because of the established fact that the human being is the most prized resource of a nation. So, decades after his glorious transition, Awo, as he is fondly called, remains the issue in a country that is so endowed, yet groaning from the fangs of leadership crises.
He was deep and through his exceptional intellect, he was able to redefine the Nigerian society and left it better that he met it, carving a niche for himself in different areas and fields. His lectures and books are timeless intellectual works. From the onset, he was determined to create an identity for himself. A self-made man, he rose from a humble background in Ikenne-Remo to become a global figure in different spheres of life.
In a lecture he delivered to the Western leaders of thought on May 1, 1967, Awolowo defined the make- up of a true leader from the perspective of service.. He stated, “The aim of a leader should be the welfare of the people whom he leads. I have used ‘welfare’ to denote the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the people.”
Throughout his sojourn on the earth, he anchored his life on that principle. He never allowed any feeble mind to obscure his vision, especially in politics, which he said many had tended to use to oppress the vulnerable members of the society. He said, “For too long have the good people of this country been taken for a ride by some political leaders who, shamelessly, propound the false doctrine that politics is a power game. As far as I am concerned, politics is the art of selfless service to our fellowmen. Let me assure you that I can never and will never play pranks with the sufferings masses of our country. To do so, as some others had done and are still doing would be despicable and damnable.”
But way back in 1961, Awolowo had provided a clear a analysis on the relationship between the wealth of a nation and leadership visa-vise the welfare of the citizenry. His painstaking exercise was meant to put the young Nigerian nation on a true path of steady rise to greatness and prosperity. In a lecture tagged, Philosophy for Independence which he delivered to Nigerian students at the Conway Hall, London on September 3, 1961, he stated, “The influence which a nation exerts, the respect which it enjoys, and the prestige accorded to it on the world scene, depend on two important factors: the size of its wealth and the calibre of its leadership. Granting an incorruptible, courageous, public-spirited, enlightened and dynamic leadership, the wealth of a nation is the fountain of its strength. The bigger the wealth, and the more equitable its distribution among the factors and agencies which have helped to produce it, the greater the outflow of the nation’s influence and power.”
His legacy in politics is best captured in number of his views on party politics. Awo recognised what he described as the popular misconception that politics was a dirty game. But he situated such misconception on the character of a few of the players. His words: “We all have heard it said times without number that `politics is a dirty game’. The description of politics as a game is `a felicitous one, and it looks as if it is a contradiction in terms to daub a game as dirty. Speaking generally, any game at all, other than a game of chance, is good. But the manner of playing it may be clean or dirty, all depending on whether or not the players observe the rules for playing the game which mankind has laid down in conformity with universally accepted standards of decency and ethics. In other words, whether the game of politics is clean or dirty will depend wholly and solely on the manner in which a particular set of politicians play it.”
Awolowo cherished integrity, which formed part of the cornerstone of his brand of politics. He would not compromise on honour and would categorically declare so before the people any time anywhere. An instance will suffice. In his speech heralding the birth of the Unity Party of Nigeria [UPN] in the Second Republic, he told Nigerians, “I had never let you down in the past; and I will not now or in the future, fail you.” In the views of many, that is the hallmark of a leader and hero.
The sage was prophetic and would avail the country of his wisdom through wise counsel when situations demanded it. He was never deterred or discourage even if his frank and constructive criticisms did not go down well with necessary official quarters. However, he was usually vindicated.
A military top brass, Chief Olutunji Olurin, was among senior citizens, whose summations of the life and times of Awolowo are remarkable. In his tribute to the inimitable Awo, had declared, “Now here lies the legendary Awo; Here lies a great patriot; here lies a great nationalist; here lies the prophetic Jeremiah of Africa, Here lies the end of an era.” According to many, Awolowo’s glory is not in the quality and number of monuments named in his honour. Neither is it about the scholarly books he churned out but his impact on nation-building, creation of institutions and generating progressive ideas.
He believed in Nigeria and was familiar with its heterogeneous structure. In his first address as the president of the defunct Action Group on April 28, 1951 in Owo in the present Ondo State, Awolowo unequivocally recognised the unity in diversity of the Nigerian federation. According to the sage, the peoples of the country have a common root, adding that, “It is true we speak different languages; but it does not require any laborious research to discover that, broadly speaking, we originated from common stock; and that in any event our political and cultural associations have been of such long standing as to make us look upon one another as close relations. And above all, we are Nigerians whom both Nature and Constitution have joined together. It is within our power to remain together.”
A nationalist, author, writer, lawyer and philosopher, Awo was not just an quintessential leader, but one man another nationalist and cerebral politician, late Dr.Mogwuko Okoye, described as a “man of exceptional intellect, courage, and organizational ability,’ who accelerated the educational, economic and political development of the country. He was a symbol of party discipline, a factor he emphasised during the formation of the formidable AG in the First Republic. He had said about the birth of AG, “I would like to say that this, in my humble opinion, is the first time in the annals of Nigeria that a political party is reared on a really scientific basis. For if all the leading members in the Action Group have more or less identical conceptions as to the principles which shall guide their activities, and jointly evolve common methods of applying those principles, it is my firm conviction that the organization will be successful and lasting. Only we must make sure about two things, namely: that our principles are just, and that our methods are practical. For nothing defeats their own ends so easily as unjust principles and impractical methods of approach.”
It is difficult to capture the essence of the legendary Awolowo in a single piece. But this is what Professor Ade Adefuye, then of the University of Lagos [UNILAG] wrote about Awolowo in 1987. “Obafemi Awolowo was not born great. He did not have greatness thrust on him. But events of the recent past showed that if Awo was great while alive, he was even greater in death.
Awo’s road to greatness was long and eventful. Perhaps, the most admirable aspect of Awo’s life is that, after achieving success, he did not forget how he rose, and did not remove the ladder by which he climbed. In fact, his economic and political philosophy was centred on the determination to make it easier for children born in circumstances similar to his own to cross and climb the social order.”
One of the timeless words of Awolowo was made 1951. It was contained in an address he delivered before his party men. He said, “After almost 100 years of British rule, our land is still riddled with unspeakable ignorance, disease and want. An ignorant and poverty-stricken people are the easiest preys to political enslavement and economic exploitation. Diseases of all kinds follow in the wake of ignorance and want.” How far has Nigeria been able to tackle those vices as it prepares to mark its centenary as a federation? What would Awo have said today about the country?