By Jide Ajani
When on Friday, February 28, 1986, Samuel Cookey, a professor of political science, who had just been given an appointment by then military President, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, IBB, wrote a letter requesting the Yoruba sage, Pa Obafemi Jeremiah Awolowo, to avail the Nigerian state the benefit of his wisdom, he (Cookey) did not bargain for what would be the response.
Babangida had promised the Nigerian nation that he would enthrone a new social order by doing away with the politics of the past, bring in new breed politicians and change the political landscape.
And since he was not going to wave the magic wand, he sought and got Cookey to chair a Political Bureau. That Bureau was saddled with the responsibility of fashioning out, after due consultations with Nigerians via memoranda and public presentations, a new political order. It was in the pursuit of this mandate that the professor wrote to Pa Awolowo, requesting his participation and views.
To that request, Awolowo wrote the following:
“I received your letter of February 28, 1986, and sincerely thank you for doing me the honour of inviting me to contribute to the National Political Debate.
“The purpose of the debate is to clarify our thoughts in our search for a new social order.
“It is therefore meet and proper that all those who have something to contribute should do so.
“I do fervently and will continue fervently to pray that I may be proved wrong.
“For something within me tells me, loud and clear, that we have embarked on a fruitless search.
“At the end of the day, when we imagine that the new order is here, we would be terribly disappointed.
“In other words, at the threshold of our New Social Order, we would see for ourselves that, as long as Nigerians remain what they are, nothing clean, principled, ethical, and idealistic can work with them.
“And Nigerians will remain what they are, unless the evils which now dominate their hearts, at all levels and in all sectors of our political, business and governmental activities are exorcised.
“But I venture to assert that they will not be exorcised, and indeed they will be firmly entrenched, unless God Himself imbues a vast majority of us with a revolutionary change of attitude to life and politics or, unless the dialetic processes which have been at work for some twenty years now, perforce, make us perceive the abominable filth that abounds in our society, to the end that an inexorable abhorrence of it will be quickened in our hearts and impel us to make drastic changes for the better.
“There is, of course, an alternative option open to us.
“To succumb to permanent social instability and chaos.
“In the premises, I beg to decline your invitation.
“I am yours truly, Obafemi Awolowo”.
When Sunday Vanguard planned to review this letter in the light of Nigeria’s contemporary developments, President Muhammadu Buhari had not pronounced the June 12 redemption song. However, it is as well meet and proper to situate the letter within the praxis of responses to the honour done the late Chief MKO Abiola, the man who won the June 12, 1993 presidential election.
But the June 12 issue in itself is a metaphor for what Awolowo referred to in his letter. (That is interrogated in the piece, Muhammadu Buhari & June 12: The Agenda).
Though written in 1986, the letter remains very profound in its postulations that “as long as Nigerians remain what they are, nothing clean, principled, ethical and idealistic can work with them. And Nigerians will remain what they are, unless the evils which now dominate their hearts, at all levels … are exorcised. But I venture to assert that they will not be exorcised, and indeed they will be firmly entrenched, unless God Himself imbues a vast majority of us with a revolutionary change of attitude”.
But why would Awolowo be so condemnatory in tone and pessimistic in appreciation?
His views were based on decades of his involvement in the Nigerian political system – the whole prison experience was rather traumatic for him; though he bore it with fortitude. When he referred to “dialetic processes which have been at work for some twenty years now”, he betrayed his disgust for the stranglehold of the North, directly or indirectly, on Nigeria’s political space, since after the counter coup of 1966.
Well, for a man who was a philosopher and an administrator but not a ‘politician’, events and developments that should not have shocked an individual, shocked him.
Awolowo didn’t believe people were capable of doing the things they did, nor were people capable of saying the things they said.But if Papa Awolowo, who was fondly called Awo, had studied human nature seriously, he would have understood and, therefore, wouldn’t have been surprised that people will rejoice in the adversity of others. But that is human nature.In fact, Charles Kindleburger, an American economist, captured it succinctly when he said “there is nothing more depressing to a man than to see his fellow human being making progress”.
To be sincere, Awolowo was not the typical Nigerian politician, because in the politics of this clime, a politician is expected, as of necessity, not to be principled but should be as flexible as possible to suffer the idiocy of many and, indeed, where not avoidable, tolerate and accommodate criminality if only that would achieve the objective of capturing political power. And while not advocating for a dirty patch, Awo, to many, was too rigid for the political sphere in which he operated.
However, that rigidity is itself, in retrospect, beneficial on some fronts.
Take, for instance, Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State and National Leader of the All Progressives Congress, APC. While he can be said to be the major pole on which President Buhari hoisted his chances of winning the presidential election of 2015, the selfsame Tinubu cannot say he is getting a fair deal from a government he helped to enthrone.
And, if truth be told, Awolowo’s insistence that he would not play the politics of convenience and tokenism, a game which would have seen him tag with the conservative North just to have access to political power, is the single most important example of the rigidity of Awolowo that political historians readily point to.
Since 1986 when he wrote that letter, Nigeria has experienced a plethora of evil including but not limited to the following landmark events, which have validated what the sage talked about in his letter: The annulment of the June 12 presidential election which is still considered the freest, fairest and most credible election in Nigeria’s history; the horror of the years of the maximum dictator, General Sani Abacha; Obasanjo’s eight-year rule which culminated in the ignominious pursuit of a third term in office which failed; the Turai Yar’Adua cabal that refused to allow then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan take power in the face of the manifest incapacitation of then President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua; the perfidy of the Jonathan years; and the alleged strange things that have been happening since 2015 when President Buhari took over.
Perhaps, it came a bit late in the day for Papa to be able to influence his philosophy and actions, particularly regarding what he would have advocated as practical political engagements. A very good example was his visit to Babangida as President and Commander-in-Chief.
When asked why he visited IBB, Awolowo simply said the young man showed him respect; and he needed to reciprocate.
But since 1986 when Awolowo wrote that letter – some 32 years ago – would anyone candidly disagree with the fact that “Nigerians will remain what they are, unless the evils which now dominate their hearts, at all levels and in all sectors of our political, business and governmental activities are exorcised?”.
Time is already telling.