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Awoism and the unending search for transformational leadership in Nigeria: Challenges

By  Afe Babalola

ON March 6, 2018 I was conferred with the 2018 Obafemi Awolowo Prize for Leadership. As part of the award ceremony, I delivered a lecture which revolved around the political philosophy of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the eternal search for transformational leadership in Nigeria. Owing to the relevance of this issue to current events in Nigeria, and my conviction that there is still so much that the current crop of Nigerian political leaders can learn from past leaders, I have decided to serialise the lecture over the course of the coming weeks.

The hallmark of Chief Obafemi Awolowo

In my heart, there is no question of my pleasure and pride in receiving the prestigious award. However, I am at the same time very mindful of the high moral duties and responsibilities that such an award brings to its recipients. It is a direct call to reflect upon, and exemplify, the virtues and principles of good governance, selflessness, public spiritedness and transformational leadership which Chief Awolowo exhibited and championed all through his life on this planet. Chief Awolowo was a political institution and innovator, who made the impossible possible. His people-centred ideals and policies: free education, free healthcare, economic empowerment, first television station in Africa; the Liberty Stadium, Cocoa House, public welfare, ethical tolerance and national pride were all very expensive and impossible at that time, given that there was no oil and gas windfall at the time, and were financed by income from agriculture. They were, however, made to look easy and possible by Chief Awolowo’s careful and meticulous planning. This doggedness and determination of making the impossible possible is the hallmark of Awoism.

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Transformational leadership versus transactional leadership

Since Nigeria and Africa lost the visionary leader, many self-proclaimed Awoists have emerged, whose actions and priorities outrightly negate the people-centered ideals and philosophy of Awoism. Rather than offer transformational leadership to the Nigerian people, we have witnessed the rise of transactional leaders who view leadership from the narrow lens of self-aggrandisement, self-interest, short-termism and the suppression of the public will. Some of our leaders have simply become our greatest hazard as a nation.

The present system and government encourages politicians to do everything and anything to attain power. The politicians see attainment of power not as a means to an end but as the end in itself. They will bribe, corrupt, intimidate, coerce, browbeat and indeed resort to every trick in the book to be a senator, Reps member, governor, minister, commissioner, local government chairman, Member of the House of Assembly and even local government councillor. This has a direct effect on the quality of leadership available to the country. On their part, members of the electorate, many of whom have been affected by the downturn in the economy of the country will easily be bought over with the huge resources available to the corrupt politicians.

Obafemi Awolowo
Obafemi Awolowo

Many rulers but few leaders

On the contrary, the old Western Region under Chief Awolowo had a higher standard of living than most Western democracies at the time. Today, Nigeria is the poverty capital of the world. Eighty seven million Nigerians (about half of our population) currently live in extreme poverty. Also, according to UN estimates, extreme poverty in Nigeria is growing by six people every minute. Life expectancy in Nigeria today is about 48 years, which is lamentable when compared to United States (79 years), Canada (82 years), Switzerland (83 years) and even Ghana (63 years). The Nigerian nation has lost its direction and focus, and has become a state with many rulers and a few leaders. For many years, the prosperity, peace and progress of the Nigerian nation has been held hostage by a clique of kleptocratic rulers who make the possible impossible, and make the impossible unattainable. Thirty two years after Chief Awolowo’s transition, the search for transformational leadership across Nigeria’s political, economic, social and educational sectors remains complex, desperate and incomplete.

Nigeria can witness peace, progress and prosperity again, if our political class fully understand and implement the political philosophy and postulations of Chief Awolowo on political, economic, social and educational governance. My remarks will, therefore, reflect on the tenets and political, economic and educational ideology of Awoism and how they remain indispensable if Nigeria is to address the structural imperfections and deformities in our political, economic, social and educational systems.

  1. Awoism as a political ideology: True federalism, regional autonomy and multiculturalism

Awoism as a political philosophy puts premium on true federalism, regional autonomy and multiculturalism. His book, Path to Nigerian Freedom (which I will rebrand as path to a nation Nigeria)- the first federalist manifesto by any Nigerian politician-expertly advocated federalism as the only basis to safeguard the interests of the over 250 diverse ethnic nationalities that make up Nigeria. Given the size and diversity of a heterogeneous nation like Nigeria, Chief Awolowo foresaw that it will be impossible for a central government to effectively finance and oversee all key sectors of the economy. Furthermore, he understood that Central, Eastern, Northern and Western regions of Nigeria have divergent cultures and belief systems; different religions; distinct languages; and most importantly dissimilar interest in formal education.

While the Western region believed very strongly in formal education, the North believed more in pastoralism, agriculture and informal and largely Islamic education; while the East was the home of industrialists and tradesmen. Thus, at the end of the amalgamation in 1914, even the colonial authorities struggled to understand a functional and coherent structural direction to which the new Nigerian state should evolve. Studies show that the official records of Mr. A. J. Harding, a clerk in the Colonial Office, after reading through Luggard’s proposal for the amalgamation of 1914, concluded that the emergent state would be ‘impossible to classify’.

He warned that:  “…It is not a unitary state with local government areas but a central executive and legislature. It is not a federal state with federal executive, legislative and finances, in addition to provincial executive, legislatures and finances. It is not a personal union of separate colonies under the same governor. It is not a confederation of states. If adopted, his proposal can hardly be a permanent solution. With one man in practical control of the executive and legislative organs of all the parts, the machine may work possibly for sufficient time to enable the transition period to be left behind, by which time the answer to the problem – unitary state or federal – would probably have become clear.”

Mr. Harding further described Lord Luggard’s amalgamation idea as an “unauthorised scheme”, and recommended breaking the country into four provinces, namely the Central, Eastern, Northern and Western provinces. Perhaps this was why our first national anthem cautiously acknowledged that “though tribes and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand.”

Buhari’s philosophy similar to that of late Obafemi Awolowo- Olusola Oke

Chief Awolowo was an unrepentant federalist. As the leader of the Action Group, he presented clear and compelling proposals for a federal constitution in the constitutional conferences held in London pre-independence. He had a vision for equal power and resource sharing arrangement between central government and the federating units. As he famously noted in his book, Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution: “If a country is unilingual or bilingual or multilingual, and also consists of communities which over periods of years have developed divergent nationalities, the constitution must be federal and the constituent states must be organised on the dual basis of language and nationality…any experiment with a unitary constitution in a bilingual or multilingual country must fail in the long run… since Nigeria is a multilingual and multinational country per excellence, the only Constitution that is suitable for its peculiar circumstances is a Federal Constitution.

Some of these ideals were reflected in the 1954 Lytleton Constitution which recognised the autonomy of each region with each region having its own legislative and executive powers. The 1960 Independence Constitution, as well as the 1963 Republic Constitution, retained the federal structure with each region remaining semi-autonomous and self-governing.

However, the unfortunate incursion of the military into the Nigerian political space led to a gradual annihilation of the tenets of true federalism in Nigeria. With military leadership came the absolute concentration of powers in the central government. The military constitutions, amongst other things, accumulated several executive powers to the central government, thereby strangulating the capacity of the regions and states to independently finance and execute development programmes.


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