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Awo: 23 years after

By Come Ovbiagele

IT’S 23 years since Africa’s statesman and man of the Century, Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, the Asiwaju of Ijebu Remo, the Losi of Ikenne, the Apesin of Oshogbo and the Isikalu of Ado-Ekiti passed on.

Papa Awo as he was fondly called, was a political juggernaut and a legendary figure who transformed the socio-political landscape of Nigeria. He was a man with indomitable courage who was never shy to articulate his views and who was always calling attention to the follies and foibles of government.

The story of Awo may well be one of the most dramatic human stories ever told: because it has all the ingredients of great epics. This all-time great philosopher and quintessential politician may not have realised his ambition of being the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but all the same, he lived a fulfilled life.

As a thoroughbred administrator and an extraordinary organiser of men,  Awo was an achiever par-excellence and a shinning example of honesty simplicity and humility. No wonder the Biafran warlord Chief Odunmegwu Ojukwu lamented at his passing that Chief Awolowo was the best President that Nigeria never had.

In 1944, Awo left the Nigerian shores for the United Kingdom to study law.  In 1946, he was called to the bar as a member of the honorary society of the inner temple. Few years later, the revered Chief was co-founder and first Secretary General of a socio-cultural group called Egbe Omo Oduduwa. It was under this platform that he formed the Action Group (AG) political party, which won the  elections into the former Western Region.  Upon ascending the reins of power, Awo transformed his region into a semi-paradise to the envy of many of his peers.

As Premier of the Western Region in 1954, Chief Awolowo brought joy to the hearts of his people and hope to their eyes. He demonstrated visionary  leadership by re-engineering the polity. His administration laboured tirelessly to revolutionise and to transform the socio-political landscape of the Western Region. The result was that the Western Region under the leadership of Awo was miles ahead of the other regions in terms of infrastructural development and in the provision of basic services.

Among Awo’s landmark achievements were:

*The introduction of free Universal Primary Education.

*The establishment of (WNTV) which was the first television station in the whole continent of Africa.

*The erection of such structures like the Liberty Stadium., which was also  the first in West Africa.

He also built the 25-storey Cocoa House for farmers and the prestigious University of Ife now named after him.

Chief Awolowo the “primus interpares” or the first among equals, later relinquished the premiership of the Western Region to become the leader of opposition in the Federal Parliament. He was also one of the delegates to the 1953, 1954, 1957 and 1959 constitutional conferences that ushered in Nigeria’s independence.

Awo’s illustrious career, however, took a dramatic twist when in 1962, he was arrested on phantom charges of coup plotting. He was arraigned in a court of law and accused of planning to overthrow the Nigerian government. His travails had just started but while the Chief was still languishing in jail, and serving terms for treason, his Cambridge-trained lawyer-son Olusegun Awolowo  was killed in an auto crash. Then out of political expediency, the now retired General, Dr. Yakubu Gowon in 1966, released Awo from prison and then appointed him Federal Commissioner for Finance and Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council.

In 1967, three universities, namely the University of Ife, the University of Cape Coast Ghana and the University of Lagos awarded Awo one after the other, the Doctor of Science degree, the LLD degree and the Doctor of Letters degree in recognition of his meritorious services to the nation.

Awo was later conferred with Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) along with the jewel of the crown, Nigeria’s highest honour, the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR).

Barely 24 hours after the then General Olusegun Obasanjo lifted the ban on politics in 1978, Awo criss-crossed the nation in pursuit of his elusive presidential mandate. In one of Awo’s campaigns in Eastern Nigeria, a man threw a stone from a storey building which landed on Awo’s head. Instead of reacting, Awo simply concealed his pains from his wife and continued with his speech as if nothing had happened.

Awo eventually lost his bids for the presidency to President Shehu Shagari in 1979 and 1983 under suspicious circumstances. On May 9, 1987 the old-man quietly passed into eternity. But besides Oduduwa the founder of the Yoruba race, no other person rises taller than Awo in the Yoruba nation.

Dr.  Ovbiagele, a media consultant,  writes from Lagos.


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