Was Chief Obafemi Awolowo An Awoist? Musings To Okey Ndibe


 [ Masterweb Reports ] – “Clever people are not credited with their follies: what a deprivation of human rights!” — Friedrich Nietzsche. Hate him or love him, chief Awolowo is a figure to be reckoned with in Nigerian politics in general, and in his fiefdom, the south west, in particular. And it’s going to be like that for a very, very long time to come. If you’re in the south west, you don’t mess with Awo. If in doubt, ask the immediate past governor of Lagos state, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. For many people from the south west of Nigeria, saying that Awolowo might possibly have done ANYTHING wrong is like telling Muslims and Christians that their founders might have done anything wrong. Awo, as he’s fondly called, entered the Yoruba pantheon long before he breathed his last. I mean a man whom thousands, if not millions believed to have seen in the moon is nothing less than a god. Again, that’s going to remain like that for a very long time—I would even say as long as children believe that Santa is the one who sends them their xmas gifts! Yes, for the many, the man fondly called Awo is the one who made the impossible possible, literally: think of sound economic policies, free education, free healthcare, ethnic pride, and generally la joie de vivre associated with the man we’ve all come to recognize as the sage. For the more mature mind, all these qualities have crystallized into Awoism, and they proudly call themselves awoists. In the brief history of Nigeria, the only other person that has come close to receiving something remotely like the reverence Awo receives is Buhari…


No progressive in Nigeria, and most of Africa, can afford to take the name of Awo, or awoism, in vain. But what is awoism?


It’s a tragedy that our histories aren’t taught in our schools. There’s no other way to put it! Every educated Nigerian should know everything that is humanly possible to know about our founding fathers, most notably Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Obafemi Awolowo. It is in studying these figures that we could understand how our country was founded, what each contributed in making it big, small or mediocre, and learn from them. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Reading, in general, sounds like a bad word in Nigeria. Reading our History fares even worse! Let me say that we can never develop as a country unless we find out who we are. And the only way to do that is to study our history, especially our pre-colonial history. But I digress a little.


Awolowo’s name was so dominant in Nigeria that as I grew up, I read what the man himself said and what other said of him. I believed the man more than I believed his commentators and his critics. And so I’ve always associated Awolowo with progress and progress with awoism. Awoism is something roughly close to what we know today as liberalism, a philosophy articulated by the British philosopher John Locke. That philosophy is the foundation of what we know today as liberal democracy, practiced mostly in the western part of our globe, albeit with a few variations. Among his public contemporaries, Awo was the one who articulated that philosophy most brilliantly. He not only articulated it, he also practiced it when he had the opportunity. So, to give credit to whom it is due, we call our Nigerian version of that philosophy Awoism. The state Awo ran had a slightly higher standard of living than most western democracies. (It’s an irony of fate that some of these Western powers suspected awoism to be a version of communism).


Going by his writings and his parties’ manifestos, Awo wanted to enthrone a progressive welfare state. An awoist state would be one in which people are truly free in body, mind and spirit, the people freely choose their leaders, everybody goes to school for free and to the highest level of her/his natural ability, a living-wage-paying-job would not be a privilege but a right of every citizen and those unable to work, (for genuine reasons), would have their basic needs met by the state, there would be no capital punishment in such a state. In short, Awolowo wanted to enthrone a very progressive state in which there would be no destitution—material and spiritual. He was able to put some of those policies into practice as premier of the Western Region. I believe that is responsible for his pervasive popularity in the region. And, indeed, he was bent on doing same for all the country. He was so convinced of that, and for good reasons one must add, that he was willing to take over power via a military coup, and this was the reason he was tried and sentenced to jail for treason. In other words, he made a very personal sacrifice for the good of humanity as he understood it.


Awo not only had the idea, he also knew how to actualize and sustain it. Consequently, he was a suave administrator. His administrative prowess is yet to be surpassed in Nigeria on any large scale. Again, Buhari and Idiagbon got slightly close… Awolowo’s progressive ideas are still valid for Nigeria. In fact, given that Nigeria today is held hostage by a clique of organized crooks running a very efficient kleptocracy, those ideas have what Dr. Martin Luther King called the ‘fierce urgency of now.’


So far so good; very good indeed.


But then we get to a point where we need to ask if Awo didn’t deviate from his lofty ideals. And this has been a bone of contention between those who consider themselves Yoruba and Igbo. For me it happened long before the present controversy following Chinua Achebe’s latest book (more on that shortly). It happened when I listened to Awo in his own voice, speaking when he was 74 and campaigning to be ‘Nigerian’ president. The tape was posted on an internet portal (with transcripts), immediately after the death of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. In that town hall style campaign, Awo owned up to the ‘starvation as a weapon of war’ policy even though Gowon—in whose government he served—has always denied it. He also referred to the ‘secessionists’ as his enemies, and added that he doesn’t see why he should be feeding his enemies for them to be fighting harder. Those words were very revealing. Ever since then, I’ve been asking myself if it was the Awo I knew, the one about whom I wrote that it was a tragedy that he was not the president of Nigeria, or another Awo? It has been very troubling: is it possible—who would believe it!—that Awo wasn’t really an Awoist? I didn’t need Achebe’s latest book to know it’s a huge problem. For me it’s really straightforward: If Awo was a progressive whose main aim was to wipe out destitution, how come he was celebrating destitution by refusing to allow international donor agencies to take food and relief materials to those in need? Let us remember that even though Biafra lost the military combat, she won the propaganda war. Millions of people were demonstrating all over the world in solidarity with the suffering masses of Biafra. Steve Jobs renounced his Christianity to protest the ignominious part that supposedly Christian countries like Britain were playing in the conflict, and one American student set himself on fire in protest. Mr. Bruce Mayrock was a 20 year-old a part-time student of Columbia University who went outside the United Nations Headquarters with a sign that read: “you must stop genocide - please save nine million Biafrans.” With that he set himself on fire and later died of the burns he sustained therefrom.


Compassion, anthropologists tell us, is the first sign of civilization among homo sapiens. Awoism is worth nothing if it’s reactionary or supports destitution instead of being proactively humane. Unfortunately, that was what it was at that crucial point in our nation’s history. True, Awo didn’t cause the starvation in the east. But he sadistically feasted on it and did everything in his power to prolong it, advancing ludicrous arguments for doing so. An Awoist would be keenly interested in saving people’s lives first and foremost. You can blame them later, but do all in your power to save their lives first. This is one of the reasons why an Awoist would never support the death penalty. On this score, Awolowo failed lamentably. That is why the “Starvation as a weapon of war” policy is as championed by Awo is simply tragic! How about inspecting all relief materials to make sure they didn’t conceal weapons before sending them to those in need? The Biafrans didn’t surrender because their soldiers were starving. They surrendered because they couldn’t get weapons from any of the world’s suppliers, while their ‘Nigerian’ counterparts had a steady supply of the best weapons. Both Britain and The Soviet Union supplied weapons to Nigeria and ensured that more small arms were used against Biafra during the 30 months war than were used in the five years of World War II.Why was Awo so callous in his statements? Was it because he believed the victims were his enemies?


But, one, Ndigbo, whether soldiers or civilians, rich or poor, were not Awo’s enemies. The original problem was between Ndigbo and the Hausa Fulani and their minions like Gowon. Awo just inserted himself into the problem for a rather personal reason to which I’ll return in a moment. Two, and most troublin

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