‘THAT IS TRUE CULTURE WHICH HELPS US TO WORK FOR THE SOCIAL BETTERMENT OF ALL’ (Henry Ward Beecher)
ADDRESS DELIVERED BY DR ỌLATOKUNBỌ AWOLỌWỌ DOSUMU
AT THE LAUNCHING OF
‘ỌBAFẸMI AWOLỌWỌ AND THE MAKING OF RẸMỌ’, BY INSA NOLTE,
AT THE SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES, LONDON,
ON TUESDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2009
Let me begin these remarks by congratulating Insa Nolte, the author of the book that we are gathered here to launch, ‘Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ and the Making of Remo – The Local Politics of a Nigerian Nationalist’, for this timely contribution to available knowledge not only about the political evolution of Rẹmọ but also the revelation, or confirmation, of the symbiotic relationship between the Rẹmọ community and its most outstanding son to date, Chief Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ.
Her painstaking research and brilliant analyses are evident throughout the book. Also evident is her superb documenting skills which manage to convey a scholarly treatise in such clear and readable language that it makes enjoyable reading for everyone, including a humble medical practitioner like me. I salute and thank her for her efforts.
I congratulate the International African Institute and the Edinburgh University Press as they launch this, the 40th title in the International African Library series and we at the Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ Foundation feel honoured to have been invited to collaborate with them as they celebrate this milestone especially as it coincides with our year-long celebration of the centennial of Chief Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ.
It is, for me, a personal privilege to have been invited as Guest Speaker at this important event. As I read the book, I was left with a distinct impression that some of the issues raised in it will generate yet more research so that we will increasingly understand the factors that went into the making of the transformational leader that AWO was in life and the extraordinary phenomenon that he has become in death.
To illustrate his trailblazing leadership, a little less than 50 years before the UN 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.
As former UN Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan said in his Centenary Lecture, ‘identifying the challenges facing our continent long before many others, (he) AWO worked tirelessly to find solutions which would allow us to overcome them.’
Clearly, several other factors, including his naturally endowed qualities of courage, intellect, determination, diligence and integrity must have contributed significantly to the astonishing transformation of a local boy to a national and international figure. Nevertheless, the impact of the cultural environment and the traditions within which AWO was nurtured cannot be denied, particularly when we look at the evidence presented in the book.
I would like to state, at this juncture, that the overall positive tone of my brief review, with specific regard to AWO (because, let’s face it, that is the way daughters generally view their parents) should, in no way be taken to mean that this book was a mere image management exercise on behalf of Chief Awolọwọ. That would be an unfortunate and mistaken assessment of a brilliant piece of research. Some issues raised in the book will no doubt provoke lively debate in the months and years ahead and even I look forward to following those debates.
I will now attempt to present a few highlights from the book, but before I do so I would like to express my personal thanks to the author for introducing into academic discourse the fact that, contrary to previously held opinion, sophisticated concepts such as democracy, popular participation, good governance and social justice are historically and culturally embedded in the organisation of rural African societies, of which Rẹmọ is an example.
Indeed, she found that in Rẹmọ and other Yoruba towns in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was the norm for rulers or leaders to be ‘...reminded of and confronted with the limitations of their office and the need for consent from the community’. In fact, as she observed, ‘in precolonial town politics, (rulers) could only lead their towns if they knew where their subjects wanted to go’.
This was amply illustrated when, in 1950, the then Alapẹru decided, against a long-standing popular trend, to not only support the Akarigbo but also when the time came the Akarigbo’s party, the NCNC. At the subsequent Western Regional elections in 1951, Ipẹru’s citizens used the power of their votes to ‘reinforce the precolonial understanding that a ruler could only lead and represent his town if his decisions were based on popular consent’. The result was a massive 95% vote for the Action Group. The Alapẹru declared his support for the Action Group a few days later.
Furthermore, rulers’ authority was balanced, traditionally, by broad-based civic associations, on whose advice and with whose cooperation they were obliged to rule. The most powerful of these associations was the Oṣugbo or Ogboni whose symbol of authority was, interestingly, a staff of office equivalent to the modern ‘mace’.
Membership of this powerful body, which could rightly be described as the equivalent of the modern parliament or legislature, was drawn from ‘trustworthy freeborn men and women who had taken an oath to validate a covenant in which they agreed to put the public interest above their own’.
On the matter of civic rights and responsibilities, the author’s research shows that great emphasis was placed by the communities on ‘personal convictions and concerns about morality, honour and truth in the political process... even to the detriment of their economic and other ambitions’.
A few examples will confirm the author’s observation that, ‘Awolọwọ (was) equally a product and producer of Rẹmọ politics’ and that ‘throughout his life, Awolọwọ’s visions for Nigeria were influenced by his insights into the political processes that characterised Rẹmọ.’
DEMOCRACY AND FEDERALISM
AWO’s advocacy for the education of all Nigerian citizens was legendary. He was, however, no less renowned for his passionate avowal of his preference for democracy as the ideal form of governance for Nigeria. His most famous quote on the issue is that ‘democracy is the best form of government’.
Almost prophetically, he stated in his autobiography, ‘... there are two important factors which, if fully employed, will make for the permanent and harmonious unity of Nigeria. The first is the acceptance and the practical enfoldment of federalism.... The second is the pursuit and the preservation of a democratic way of life in the conduct of our governmental affairs. Any departure or continued falling short at any level from this form of government might gravely threaten the unity of Nigeria and weaken her influence in the comity of nations’.
AWO appears to have drawn heavily from his cultural background in his preference for popular participation early on because from his entry into nationalist politics, through his membership of the Nigerian Youth Movement, he and his colleagues, like the late Ọba Samuel Akinsanya, the Ọdẹmọ of Ishara, advocated ‘a nationalist politics based on mass mobilisation in the provinces.’
In the light of his knowledge of time-honoured strategies for mobilisation in Rẹmọ and beyond, AWO’s party, the Action Group, introduced the politics of issues by presenting to the people its ideals and principles of action and ‘for the first time in the history of Nigeria carried party politics and political consciousness to the rural areas...’.
From then on, AWO’s preferred method of political mobilisation even in other parts of Nigeria was from the grassroots up.
Crucially, he knew enough to realise that his quest for the support of a people whose emphasis on personal convictions and morality transcended any potential material benefit must never be based on financial inducement as he most certainly would have been laughed out of court if it was.
Rather, the Action Group articulated a manifesto that promised to deliver ‘life more abundant’ to the entire citizenry. This strategy remained the template for the party’s successor organisations.
One of the results of AWO’s brand of politics, based as they were on the concepts of the common good and grassroots mobilisation, which Rẹmọ people readily identified with, was that he and his party were very quickly embraced by the majority in the area. This, in turn, placed him in the position to play a pivotal role in the unification of Rẹmọ after many years of disagreements.
For example, the initial resistance by Rẹmọ citizens to the ‘attempt of the then Akarigbo to link the effort for Rẹmọ’s independence to his own recognition as Rẹmọ’s paramount ruler’ was later easily and amicably resolved because the succeeding Akarigbo affiliated himself with the prevailing political trend of support for AWO’s emergent politics.
LEADERSHIP & GOOD GOVERNANCE
As I mentioned earlier, the people of Rẹmọ traditionally demanded trustworthiness and selfless commitment to the common good from their leaders.
The author’s description of AWO says it all. ‘... (he) was respected by his peers for his advocacy on their behalf’. He was a ‘proud and principled man who did not tolerate what he perceived as injustice and was certainly not prepared to make baseless promises or profess sentiments he did not feel’. For AWO, election promises were made to be kept.
His record indicates that through the Action Group government, AWO ‘.. reproduced the ‘general cultural politics of Rẹmọ - an ethic of enlightenment, accountability and duty to the community’.
He was able to achieve his party’s vision in government with the help of a ‘well-knit, highly disciplined and ... loyal’ team of Ministers when he took charge in the Western Region on February 6, 1952; a team he also described as ‘unexcelled’ and, ‘of which any head of government anywhere in the world would be proud’. Consequently, in his valedictory summing up in September 1959, he described their achievements as ‘unequalled in any other part of the Federation’.
On a personal note, my abiding impression as a child growing up in a household that was the hub of meetings and consultations was of the boundless enthusiasm, comradeship and delight with which AWO and his colleagues went about their historic assignment. Nothing appeared to give them greater satisfaction than working towards the fulfilment of their promises to the people by whose mandate they occupied high office. They knew the electorate well enough to know that only by so doing could they hope to renew their mandate at the next election. They, most certainly, had their eyes firmly on history.
The result of AWO’s manifest commitment to their best interests was that, over the years, he developed such an enviable rapport with the citizenry that they saw his political travails during the Western Region crisis from 1962 to 1966 as a direct attack on the well being of each individual. By the end of that crisis and until he died, increasing numbers of even his former opponents identified with his politics and policies and openly declared their admiration or support for his principled stand on several critical national issues.
He was famously described, not by one of his acolytes, as ‘the issue’ in Nigerian politics.
And after his transition, the following was said of him, again not by a professed supporter, ‘He was regarded as a model politician in the sense that he brought probity, sincerity, courage, discipline and dignity to bear on political parties and the art of governance ... he had a vision of Nigeria and throughout his political career which spanned a 40-year period, that vision was consistent....’
Outside government and during periods of political inactivity, AWO remained engaged with development issues in Rẹmọ and he ‘contributed to, and encouraged, the institutionalisation and expansion of a new type of civic association within the Rẹmọ towns – the local development associations, thus reviving the ‘political memory of such ... egalitarian practices’.
The activities of these development associations are well documented by the author. I can only add my confirmation that they continue to perform excellently in the various towns. I am reliably informed that the diaspora chapters of these associations also continue to contribute in no small measure to development at home. I salute them all.
From the foregoing, it is probably not surprising that, as the author stated, ‘...unlike any of his contemporaries, Awolọwọ has created a political legacy that includes a lasting template for critical engagement with the Nigerian state.’ This may explain why ‘the growing appropriation of Awolọwọ outside the circle of his close political disciples suggests that his legacy is increasingly that of an ethno-national ancestor, who is owned, like Oduduwa, by every member of the ethnic nation’.
The memory of a leader who in contemporary times approximated people’s culturally imbibed expectation of a ‘trustworthy leader who would (not only) put the public interest above his own’, but one who also successfully and selflessly fast-tracked their lives into modernity by his programmes and policies simply refuses to go away. This phenomenon might be a very interesting topic for future research.
Since AWO passed on there has been, in the South West, a dramatic shift in political alliances at the leadership level. And a somewhat bemused electorate looks on as AWO’s name is ‘increasingly claimed by everyone’.
This is neither the time nor place to debate the rationale for these developments or whether or not they were an inevitable outcome of the vacuum left behind by the sudden exit of a towering leader.
Suffice it to say that in a globalised world where certain standards of behaviour are demanded of every country that wishes to be accepted by, and derive the full benefits of membership of the global community; where the new emphasis on Africa is partnership; it is probably prudent to pay due attention to those demands and reconsider the fundamental truths, particularly in the areas of leadership and good governance, that AWO espoused so eloquently both in his words and actions.
ỌBAFẸMI AWOLỌWỌ FOUNDATION
One important development after AWO was the establishment, in 1992, of the Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ Foundation, the custodian of AWO’s intellectual legacy, which was set up as an independent, non-partisan, non-profit research institute, dedicated to immortalizing the ideals of Chief Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ, and is committed to the promotion of a socially-edifying interaction between policy and scholarship.
In its short history, the Foundation has, in the best tradition of Chief Awolọwọ, dared all odds by organising Dialogues on themes such as ‘Nigeria: In Search of Leadership’ and ‘Nigeria: Democracy and the Rule of Law’, during a period in our recent history when it seemed almost reckless to do so. We have, over the years, established our credentials as credible advocates on many other issues, including education, health, the economy and poverty alleviation. We have endowed professorial chairs in four Nigerian Universities, occupants of which we intend to name as part of the celebration of 55 years of free education in Nigeria in January 2010.
We consider it our responsibility to continue to encourage contemporary leaders, as well as the citizenry, to make the considerable body of ideas that AWO left to posterity a constant reference point in our quest for national development.
The Foundation decided to seize the opportunity of the AWO centennial this year to plan a series of events in an attempt to inspire, challenge and renew the collective commitment of all Nigerians to an ennobling future for our nation by refocusing our attention on the lessons that can be drawn from the life and example of Chief Awolọwọ.
Flagged off in January with the launch of a commemorative compilation of essays titled, ‘Awo: On the Trail of a Titan’, the celebrations were followed in March by two Centenary Lectures delivered by two of Africa’s most distinguished sons, the first by Professor Wọle Ṣoyinka, Nobel Laureate and the second by Mr Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations and Nobel Laureate.
We were also pleased to successfully host, in July, a 2-day Special Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ Foundation Dialogue in collaboration with Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University, Ile-Ife, themed, ‘The Awolọwọ Legacy & the Youth’.
What was most gratifying to us about the success of the Dialogue was that it took place in the thick of the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities but with the kind permission of their National Strike Coordinating Committee. The surprisingly large attendance, particularly by the youths, at the Dialogue and their enthusiastic participation in the proceedings belied the often-held notion that most Nigerians have given up on Nigeria. Rather, on display throughout was an almost poignant craving for a more optimistic direction into the future.
THE ROLE OF THE NIGERIAN DIASPORA
I cannot end this speech without a few words to Nigerians in diaspora who no doubt make up the majority of this audience.
There are, apparently, an estimated 3 million Nigerians resident in the UK. It is also estimated that most African immigrants to the US are from Nigeria, with a 368% increase in the population of Nigerians between 1990 and 2000.
Astronomical figures are reported to be remitted annually by Nigerians abroad.
You are, therefore, Nigeria’s most precious offshore assets and with your experience, values, knowledge and creativity, you could make a massive difference in transforming our country.
I am aware that, thanks to modern communications technology, many of you are engaged almost on a daily basis with the political debates and developments at home. In this respect, you probably have faster access to news even as they develop than Chief Awolọwọ did when he was an aspiring Remo politician living in ‘diaspora’ in Ibadan.
As you become involved, however, I urge you to be mindful of taking extreme positions - that of undermining the country on one hand or joining the gravy train on the other. I am confident that you are creative and intelligent enough to make a difference, even if you choose to do so outside the realms of partisan political contest. Opportunities abound, for example, to offer advice, suggest policy options, or even facilitate valuable contacts for development at home.
And if partisan politics is your preference, always bear in mind that, as Albert Einstein said, ‘you will never solve (a) problem with the mindset that created it’.
In conclusion, let me say this. It is often claimed that AWO came before his time. The evidence in this book appears to suggest that, on the contrary, what AWO did was to use his prodigious talents to re-affirm and apply traditional, and timeless, values of honourable leadership and responsible citizenship to his time. The result is the phenomenon that we celebrate today.
The challenge, therefore, is for this and succeeding generations to follow AWO’s footsteps back to those landmarks.
Let me round up with three self-evident quotes.
The first is from the final paragraph of Insa Nolte’s book: ‘The commitment of Remọ’s rural constituents to political participation suggests that, despite the authoritarian interventions of the colonial and postcolonial state ... the potential for political transformation and reform exists at the Nigerian grassroots.’
The second is from President Obama’s recent speech to the Ghanaian parliament: ‘... just as it is important to emerge from the control of other nations, it is even more important to build one’s own nation.’
Finally, a more fitting end to these remarks than the last paragraph of AWO’s autobiography published 49 years ago, is hard to find:
‘But in order that our independence may be worthwhile, it is urgent and imperative that we should plan on a much bolder and grander scale. To this end, the governments of the Federation must avail themselves of the services and advice of all the talents which Nigeria and nations friendly to her can provide. Nigeria has in her all the makings of greatness. But we would be deluding ourselves if we imagined that size, population and natural resources, which are nothing but latent factors, are all that are required to boost us into a position of eminence and leadership. On the contrary, it is the amount of patriotism, unstinted effort and wisdom which we apply to the exploitation of our vast resources, and of the just and equitable distribution of the results of such exploitation, that will determine the measure of our greatness and happiness as a people.’
I thank you all for your attention.
Dr Ọlatokunbọ Awolọwọ Dosumu
October 6, 2009