By Obadiah Mailafia
I AM an Awoist — but an Awoist without illusions. I first met my hero when I was an undergraduate at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria in the seventies. He was Chancellor of the University. I recall an address he once gave to the university community. His delivery was magisterial. He spoke calmly but with power; radiating uncommon gravitas. I was in awe.
I must have been an exception among the common run of “northern” youths. We were taught that Awolowo was the recrudescence of evil — of everything that was repugnant to Arewa. My late bosom friend, Ahmadu Abubakar who died two years ago, had this penchant for coming up with rare books. I once waded through his copy of The People’s Republic.
Beyond the heavy disquisitions on federalism, public finance and welfarism, I found nothing in his thought suggesting Obafemi Awolowo was by any stretch of the imagination an enemy of the North. The rabid anti-Awo sentiments stemmed from nothing but mere propaganda. He was hated mainly because his commitment to education and liberation was inimical to the class interests of the Caliphate.
Sadly, the anti-Awo feelings were not restricted to the Old North. He has been the object of opprobrium by some of our Eastern compatriots. First, they said he had promised that the West would follow suit if the East were “allowed” to secede from the Federation. Some hold him personally liable for the food blockade that led to mass starvation in Biafra.
They also blame him for the policy of awarding only £20 to all Igbo people after the war. And much later in life, when he campaigned against importation of second-hand clothing from abroad, there was an uproar that the man was out to destroy a vital part of the Eastern economy.
For one thing, there is no evidence that Awo ever promised Ojukwu that the West would secede if the Igbos were ever allowed to go. He himself noted that they were according him far more powers than he deserved; noting that even if he had made such a promise, it would have been utterly reckless for anyone to gamble the future of an entire people on such a whimsical obiter dictum.
With regards to the use of food as a weapon, he was, if truth be told, guilty. In his own words: “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.”
As for the issuance of £20 notes, he explained that it was a cabinet decision and his role as finance minister was merely to implement it. And on the matter of the okirika business, I would follow him in insisting that it is beneath the dignity of our people to wear the smelly cloths of dead white people. It is not only a collective insult to our dignity; it is a factor in the destruction of our once prosperous textile industry. I pray for the day when we would ban these odious second-hand clothing.
Early this year, I gave the Annual Distinguished Lecture on Sustainable Development at our premier University of Ibadan. I used the opportunity to visit the university bookstore where I bought the entire collection of Awo’s books. I also came back with a haul on Yoruba language, history, ethnology, Ifa metaphysics and works. The prices were a fraction of what one would normally pay for such books in places like Abuja, Port Harcourt and Lagos.
Obafemi Jeremiah Oyeniyi Awolowo (1909 – 1987) was an economist, lawyer, philosopher and statesman of the highest order. When he passed away, the London Times obituarist declared that he was a man who could have headed any western country. It is not for us to retell the details of his political career, with which most of my gentle readers are already familiar. He was the first Premier of the Western Region, and, later, leader of the Opposition in the Federal Parliament. After incarceration on trumped-up treasonable felony charges, he was released in 1966 and made Finance Minister and de facto Number 2 under the Gowon military administration. He contested for the high magistracy three times without success.
Although he was denied the ultimate prize, Obafemi Awolowo has left the legacy of a permanent influence. General Ibrahim Babangida was right when he described him as “the main issue” in Nigerian politics. He was a man of sterling integrity and iron discipline. We are told that the departing British administrators used to complain that the only problem they had with Awolowo was that he would not deign to share a glass of wine with them!
He once confessed: “While many men in power and public office are busy carousing in the midst of women of easy virtue and men of low morals, I, as a few others like me, am busy at my desk thinking about the problems of Nigeria and proffering solutions to them. Only the deep can call to the deep.”
I believe that if Awo were President today, he would have brought his profound scientific mind to bear on the enormous challenges facing Nigeria today.
For one thing, he was extremely parsimonious with respect to public finances. He would have stemmed the mindless borrowing that has ballooned our national debt to more than N18 trillion. He would have ensured that we cut costs across all departments of government to free enough money to finance vital development projects.
He would not have left the arduous business of governing in pursuance of common thieves. Rather, he would have put in place effective systems to checkmate financial haemorrhage. He would also have reorganised the civil service to ensure a developmental state apparatus that delivers optimal performance rather than the Byzantine nightmare of grand larceny, nepotism and sloth that we have today. He would have applied rigorous management principles to supervising and implementing infrastructure projects. He would have tackled frontally the electricity and power deficit.
Awolowo would also have taken bold steps to reorganise the military and salvage the morale of our Armed Forces which is today at its lowest ebb. He would never have borrowed to fight Boko Haram, just as he did not borrow to execute the civil war. He would have called the bluff of the Fulani militias.
Above all, he would have placed a premium on education, innovation, science and technology. He would have launched an industrial revolution; constructing world-class infrastructures. He would have built high-speed rail networks linking the entire country. He would have embarked upon a programme of political reform and restructuring to place our federation on a better footing to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. He would have built a social protection safety net for the poorest groups while providing succour for the physically challenged. He would have embarked on mass job-creation for the youths. His cabinet would have comprised the best and highest talents that our country could boast of.
Like all great men, he was not without some weaknesses. He was sometimes inflexible and could rather be blunt. He was easily predictable to his enemies. This is why he was denied the ultimate prize.
The new coalition of the Middle and South would have gladdened his heart. I pray that my Ndigbo brethren would forgive him for whatever wrong he might have done them. The challenges we face are more than our petty differences.
More than ever, Awolowo’s ideas and philosophy are needed to salvage our ship of state from the jaws of catastrophe. Despite his shortcomings, he was a great nationalist and patriot; an avatar who saw the future; a statesman of great vision who understood Nigeria’s high destiny. He shall be our model and our guide.