AWOLOWO 30th ANNIVERSARY

AWO LECTURE: THE PAST AS COMPASS
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Ayo Olukotun

“Much of Chief Awolowo's success was due to his confidence that the white British rulers of Nigeria were not superior to Nigerians, and that Nigerians can indeed achieve great things that the British rulers cannot.” – Topnotch historian, Banji Akintoye at Awolowo's Birthday Lecture, March 6, 2017

Ordinarily, Birthday lectures, even of influential leaders are tiresomely repetitive, sometimes incredibly boring. The same familiar praise words, the same sacred priests ministering at the shrine of carefully policed interpretations of history, and much the same true believers affectively slain in the spirit year after year.

Interestingly, however, there was an unusual high turnout of citizens, high and low, cutting across political persuasions at Monday's Awolowo Birthday Lecture, delivered by globally acclaimed historian, Professor Banji Akintoye. How do we explain the fact that a huge and diverse audience showed up on Monday morning to join in the celebration of a politician, admittedly a hugely successful one, who died almost 30 years ago?

Of course, I know about the administrative and organisational skills of Dr Olatokunbo Awolowo-Dosumu, Nigeria's former Ambassador to the Netherlands and the Executive Director of the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation. In this respect, she of course evokes her father who manifested the unusual combination of social vision with administrative acumen, as General Yakubu Gowon, former Head of State and the Chairman of the event reminded the audience. But the more fundamental explanation is that, admit or not, Nigeria is once again, drifting in treacherous political waters and is in need of consolation from its glorious past, as it is in need of a compass to guide it out of what Akintoye called “these terrible times”.

There is no better illustration of the current impasse than the imposed mystery and political abracadabra surrounding the health of President Muhammadu Buhari, currently on extended so-called medical vacation in London. As a substitute for clear political communication and trust generating openness we are fed at intervals with news about whom Buhari has lately spoken to on phone. This is a vacuous and unintelligent political strategy which has the intended intention of showing that something is wrong.. For ordinarily, it should not be news that the President who has been away for over a month called his spokesperson who should otherwise be in close touch with him or condoled with a former head of state over the loss of a relation. So, the political class, in what is unfolding, as a replay of the late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua saga, has dropped the ball and owes the nation an explanation and open apology for leading us into a wilderness brimming with ghosts and gnomes. It was as if Nigerians are once again rummaging aspects of their illustrious past to glean comfort, insight and understanding last Monday. Akintoye, whose lecture is titled “The Awolowo Legacy and its Message for Nigerian Youths”, did not disappoint the expectations of the audience. He succeeded, as the opening quote suggests, in explaining why Nigeria dropped from a projected world class stature to its current morass. Before developing the narrative further, this writer characteristically digresses to offer a short, if somewhat personal take.

On Monday, as I returned from an assignment, word was given to me by a relation that my father whose 100 years Birthday celebration we had planned for April had passed on. Pa S.D Olukotun, in whose library I discovered early in life, the pleasures of reading widely and wildly, had been with us for so long, hardly ever falling sick, that we took his age and vigour for granted. Surely, or so we assumed, his medical vacation in Ibadan would be a short-lived one, more so, as he was being treated by some of the best experts in Nigeria. There was one foreboding however. He showed little, if any, enthusiasm about our plans for his hundredth Birthday. He did not object but hardly passed any comment either.

Displaying a rare gift of scanning future events, my senior colleague and Punch columnist, Professor Niyi Akinnaso, spoke with Daddy on the phone and actually begged him not to depart before the April celebrations. This turned out to be a futile plea. The senior Olukotun will be remembered and sorely missed for his love of education, community leadership, acute intelligence and the ability to turn the tables on adversity, ability which had obviously waned in his final encounter with mortality.

To return to the initial discourse, Akintoye summoned a vast array of empirical evidence, anecdotes and reminiscences to suggest how wayward and disabling the country where Awolowo and other pioneers stood at par with the white man had become. For example, the famed educational innovations of Awolowo, for which Universal Free Primary Education is merely a generic metaphor, had given way to the disastrous neglect and underfunding of that social service by successive leaders. Hear him: “The persons who have been controlling most of the affairs of Nigeria through the federal government since independence are apathetic or even downright hostile to education”. A passionate federalist in the mold of Awolowo, Akintoye went on to lament that federal “policies and federal dictation of the nature, content and direction of education”, have had tragic effects.

The point here is that even if we had a visionary federal government which we have never had the luck of having thus far, it will still have been unwise for that government to squeeze educational policy into one suffocating straight jacket, as this runs against the logic of federations in which the federating units are co-equal with the centre. But then, the woes of imposed uniformity, in which even the curriculum of university education is determined by the National Universities Commission, are compounded by an often mediocre centre lording it over constituent nationalities. Akintoye points up as fallouts of governance failure, the victimization in xenophobic outbursts of Nigerians in South Africa, East Africa and imaginably under a Donald Trump presidency in the United States. Obviously, were Nigeria a better governed country, the deluge of immigrants frantically besieging other nations for what their country does not offer them will be very much reduced.

Importantly, Akintoye draws the portrait of Awolowo as an unequaled planner, political and policy strategist who developed a template for governance rather than make policy on the run or in reaction to contingencies. This is one lesson which successive generations of politicians has failed to learn. And in this respect, what comes to mind is our current situation in which, as former Central Bank Governor observed, Buhari inherited a bad economy but made it worse.

The final part of Akintoye's message to Nigerian youths contains advice and suggestions on how our youths orphaned by non-performing governments can turn things around. Specifically, he urges them to believe in themselves, downgrade complaints about an inclement environment and strike out for their future. They can best do this by reading about inspiring steps taken by leaders such as Awo at very tender ages. That will not be enough. They should devote themselves, as Awo did, to the love of learning by relentlessly seeking information and knowledge. Finally, they should join the struggle to make Nigeria better through a reversal of the current over centralised mode of governance.

© Obafemi Awolowo Foundation. All rights reserved. 2012.
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