(Chief Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ)



In the words of Maxwell Anderson, ‘there are some men who lift the age they inhabit, till all men walk on higher ground in that lifetime’. Chief Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ was, without a doubt, one of such men.

He introduced issues-based politics to Nigeria when his party, the Action Group, was launched in 1951. The party promised four freedoms in its manifesto, three of which were ‘freedom from ignorance, freedom from disease and freedom from want’. In other words, he articulated a development agenda that put people firmly at the centre of the process.

On January 17, 1955, the epochal free primary education scheme was launched in the Western Region of Nigeria. In his budget speech in March that year, Chief Awolọwọ said, ‘Of our total expenditure of £12.45 million not less than 82.6% is devoted to services and projects which directly cater for the health, education, prosperity and general welfare of our people. Of this high percentage, 27.8% goes to education, 10.7% to medical services, 5.4% to agriculture…’

Indeed, on assumption of office in 1952, he enunciated three principles by which the drafting of the Region’s budget would be guided. Essentially, these principles were about spending more money on services which would enhance the welfare, health and education of the people at the expense of any expenditure that did not ‘answer to the same test’.

He went on to say in his 1955 budget speech,’ From the figures I have just quoted, Honourable Members will see quite plainly that thrift is one of the keynotes of this government, and the general well-being of our people the supreme law’.

The dedication contained in his major political work published in 1968, ‘The Peoples Republic’, reads thus, ‘the sole object of our discourse in this work is man’. By 1979, he had further developed his thoughts in this regard and was able to state, categorically, that, ‘(the) characteristics of (a) developed economy are entirely and inseparably human’. He, therefore, propounded what has become one of the main tenets of the Awoist philosophy, that is, ‘…man is the sole creative and purposive dynamic in nature’.

I have traced the abovementioned timeline in order to demonstrate that, astonishingly, a little less than 40 years before the human development paradigm was developed by some brilliant scholars at the World Bank, Awo and the Action Group had articulated, and begun to implement their people-centered development agenda.

The human development paradigm is about much more than the rise or fall of national incomes. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accordance with their needs and interests.

The Human Development Report was launched in 1990 with the single goal of putting people back at the center of the development process in terms of economic debate, policy and advocacy. It, therefore, represents a globally accepted paradigm shift and a remarkable confirmation of Awo’s position on the matter.

To further illustrate his trailblazing leadership, a little less than 50 years before the United Nations Millennium Development Goals came into being, Awo had already made universal education, maternal and child health, poverty reduction, employment opportunities, agricultural reforms, as well as environmentally correct policies including forest reserves and reforestation, priorities of his government.

I need not dwell here on his other attributes - his administrative and planning genius or his leadership approach that transformed individuals and society. On assumption of office on February 6, 1952, he moved rapidly to deliver on his promises to the electorate. By June that year, most of the policies the Action Group published before the elections had been embodied in the sessional papers and bills. After being fully debated by the House of Assembly, they were unanimously passed by July 1952.

He engendered trust, admiration, loyalty and respect in his followers and because of his qualities they were willing to work harder than would be expected. He was honest, competent and intelligent. More than that, he provided his followers with an inspiring mission and vision. Together with his team, which he described as ‘well-knit, highly disciplined and fanatically loyal’, he was able to record remarkable successes in government.

A few examples will suffice: in education, primary school population more than doubled between 1953 and 1959; the number of secondary schools rose from 46 in 1953 to 139 in 1959, with a phenomenal increase in pupil numbers. The labour policy of his government was the most enlightened in the whole Federation, having introduced a 5/- per day minimum wage in 1954 (as opposed to 2/4 in other Regions). Rapid industrialization, provision of infrastructure and democratization of local governments within the year of his assumption of office, among other achievements, marked him out as an exceptional moderniser in government.

He was, indeed, a transformational leader in life and has, not surprisingly, become an extraordinary phenomenon in death.

As the institutional custodian of his intellectual legacy, the Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ Foundation considers it its responsibility to encourage contemporary leaders, and the citizenry, to make the example and considerable body of ideas that Awo left to posterity a constant reference point in Nigeria’s quest for development. The Foundation must remain faithful to its mission by constantly engaging with the policy making and governance process in a constructive manner as Chief Awolọwọ did throughout his life, in or out of office.

In order to perform this mission effectively, it is imperative that the democratic and development-oriented ideals of Chief Awolọwọ remain the Foundation’s definitive guide. Furthermore, the Foundation must, in our view, avoid partisanship and adopt a more inclusive strategy in order to successfully assist to advance Nigeria’s development agenda.

In life, although Awo advocated absolute rigidity about goals, principles and ideals, he was willing to concede flexibility about methods for their attainment. To us, Awo was translated from a partisan politician to a universal ideal on May 9, 1987. Time, of course, appears to have advanced the emerging consensus that Awo’s prescriptions are, in fact, unassailable strategies for development in these parts.

As recently-elected Federal and State governments prepare to settle down to business, the Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ Foundation feels privileged to, once again, actualise its mission-mandate by organising a scholarly review of Awo’s leadership and governance models, and distil lessons therefrom, through this Special Dialogue, for the benefit of newly-elected and appointed functionaries of government and as our contribution to the process of nation-building.

Finally, let me say this: we at the Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ Foundation feel proud and honoured to bear a truly illustrious name. Therefore, we will continue to strive to walk, and talk, worthy of Chief Awolọwọ’s legacy of commitment, integrity and excellence in service and to ensure that his legacies continue to endure, for the benefit of posterity. In doing so, the best interests of Nigeria will remain our only guide. This is our pledge.

I welcome you all, most warmly, to this Special Dialogue and I thank you for your attention.

Dr Ọlatokunbọ Awolọwọ Dosumu
Executive Director 
July 20, 2011


© Obafemi Awolowo Foundation. All rights reserved. 2012.
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