AWO AND NIGERIAN POLITICS: THEN AND NOW
Professor W. Alade Fawole
Department of International Relations
Obafemi Awolowo University
An Invited Paper discussed at 2016 AWO Birthday Commemorative Symposium on the theme: Awo, Then and Now: Politics, Economics & Education , held under the auspices of the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation, at Efunyela Hall, Awolowo Residence, Ikenne, Ogun State, on Thursday, 3 rd March, 2016.
AWO AND NIGERIAN POLITICS: THEN AND NOW
Introductory Remarks: Awolowo and Politics
Without prejudice, it is impossible to discuss Nigerian politics in any real sense without making reference in one form or the other to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, foremost Nigerian nationalist, politician, party leader and organizer and undoubtedly a peerless political philosopher of his generation. Nigeria's former military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, in an obituary statement after the passing of the great sage, remarked most aptly that Chief Obafemi Awolowo has been “a central issue in Nigerian politics since independence.” It was not for nothing that the late Ikemba of Nnewi, Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu also described the man as “the best president Nigeria never had.” These descriptions are by no means exaggerated or frivolous, for they were made appropriately and in appreciation of the larger-than-life role that Chief Awolowo had played and the indelible marks that he left in Nigerian politics and governance, from the struggles to end colonial rule, to the achievement of independence and sovereignty and after, and more so because of his timeless and enduring political philosophy and numerous writings which have made him an indelible reference point in political discourse till date. The freshness of his ideas, his uncommon grasp of the intricacies and nuances of Nigerian politics, his developmental philosophy and orientation, his exemplary organizational and administrative competence and matchless commitment to the greatest good for the greatest number of Nigerians, set him apart from the crowd and underscore his evergreen relevance. Even in death, he remains indubitably the most discussed nationalist and politician of his generation. That is why President Babangida's description of him must be taken seriously.
To be meaningful and enlightening, any discussion of the politics of Obafemi Awolowo must go beyond the recognition and acknowledgement of his notable landmark accomplishments as Premier of the Western Region, and as Federal Commissioner for Finance and Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council during the heady days of the Nigerian civil. As spectacular and matchless as those achievements are, they nonetheless pale into insignificance when compared to his monumental intellect. He was such an original thinker and philosopher that Professor Wole Soyinka aptly described as “a one-man laboratory of political and developmental possibilities.” Awolowo's politics was, from the beginning, the expression or manifestation of his deep-seated intellect, and every developmental idea or policy that came out from him was thus a final product of scientific rigor. His books and written speeches testify to this. I hasten to conclude that Awolowo emblematized, or at least was the closest Nigerian approximation of Plato's notion of a philosopher-king. According to the famous Greek philosopher and scholar, Plato, (himself a student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle), in The Republic :
Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have rest from evils … nor, I think, will the human race.
In this treatise, Plato asserted that human society ought to be governed by men and women of reason and wisdom, both of which can only be acquired by deep and intense study, rigorous intellectual exertions, such that whatever comes out eventually as the policies, programmes and actions of a government are indisputably the products of deep reflection and rigorous interrogation, as opposed to the plethora of ill-digested and whimsical ideas that pervade governance in our country today. Regrettably, Nigeria remains spectacularly backward because of the dearth of philosopher-kings among the political leadership who are restless in their spirits and are constantly driven by intellectual curiosity, that unique attribute that makes one to search ceaselessly and relentlessly for true knowledge about how human society should be governed and improved.
Let us return to Plato again:
The philosopher is he who has in his mind the perfect pattern of justice, beauty, truth; his is the knowledge of the eternal; he contemplates all time and all existence; no praises are too high for him.
What I believe Plato has in mind for human society here is a leadership not necessarily by scholars or practitioners of philosophy but that the men and women who ordinarily should aspire to leadership ought to be those equipped with ability for deep introspection, imbued with the unusual capacity for deep thought, men and women of rigorous reflection and uncommon profundity. These are usually people who are given to ‘thinking outside the box', querying and challenging existing and inherited orthodoxies and who are not needlessly constrained by inherited traditions or customs. They are not given to shallowness of thought but to deep reflection; spurred on by clarity of vision rather than momentary expediency. They strive for rationality in all that they do and are thus guided by reason as opposed to emotions; they are neither moved by condemnations or adulations, nor do they seek cheap popularity; they hold steadfastly (and stubbornly I might add) to the truth which remains eternal even when doing so seems quite unpopular; (Chief Awolowo exemplified this stubborn streak by his reaction to Margery Perham's comments ion his 1947 book, Path to Nigerian Freedom ); they often remain focused on the established goals and objectives which have emerged from deep reflection. For them, the truth remains absolute and unchanging, not amenable to whims and emotions. Often, they use the head more than the heart, not because they are callous and heartless but exactly because they have hearts that can feel the need and pulse of the society and thus pursue the goals of the ultimate good for the society.
Speaking of Obafemi Awolowo and politics, it must be understood ab initio that we refer to democratic politics only. For Chief Awolowo was not only a democrat par excellence in practice but he was also well versed in the philosophy and theories that undergird it, the latter being reflected in all his numerous books and writings. Awo, as he is generally and affectionately called, was an incurable believer in democratic politics, as he himself made clear in several of his writings, public lectures and other public engagements. For example, while addressing the elected students' parliament of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in December 1975, Chief Awolowo clinically dissected the distinctions between the three major forms of government, namely, autocracy , oligarchy and democracy , and concluded that of the three identified above, democracy , warts and all, is the best form of government that mankind has so far devised. This is so because, of the three types, it is only in a democracy that political power is actually vested in the people, i.e., the power to choose those who will make laws and govern the state. Only in a democracy is the Rule of Law , i.e., the equal application of law across board without prejudice to rank, stature, position, wealth, gender, religion or any other consideration, made a cardinal principle. It also contains built-in checks and balances to prevent it from degenerating into either autocracy or oligarchy, and whenever an elected people or government derogates from popular wishes and aspirations for which they were elected to govern, the people can exercise the power to recall elected representatives.
In his public life, Awo founded and led major political parties that were based and functioned on the highest democratic tenets; he contested, won and lost elections based on his subscription to democratic ideals, and he governed his region ably as a democrat of the highest order. Politics was for him more than mere public service, not merely a platform for the advancement of mankind, but also a serious intellectual exercise as well. According to Professor Jide Osuntokun, because Awo was an intellectual, he was able to demonstrate “uncanny and prophetic insight into the problems of Nigeria” which politics and governance should address. He was the same man that Professor Wole Soyinka in the foreword to the same volume described as “an original mind, intellectually disciplined, resolute on principles,” in short, “a one-man laboratory of political and developmental possibilities.” As Chief Awolowo himself confessed in his writings, he was seized with the politics of ideas, issues and programmes, not that of acrimony that encourages resort to guttersnipe. No wonder, the Action Group which he led was the first political party in Nigeria to publish a manifesto in which its philosophy, beliefs, aspirations and programmes were clearly articulated for all to see, a development that other politicians and parties reluctantly embraced latter because Awolowo had set the pace for them to follow. His writings reflect his convictions on the desirability or imperativeness of engaging in critical interrogation of issues of public concern to enable effective policy making. In this regard, he was actually more of a scholar and public intellectual than a mere politician for whom intrigue, acrimony, and dirty tricks are tactics to be deployed for selfish advantage. No wonder he himself quipped that only the deep can call to the deep!
For Chief Awolowo, politics and its pursuits were matters of theory as well as of praxis, i.e., practical politicking must be predicated upon sound philosophical ideas and principles that would enable it to have meaning and positive developmental impact on the society. It therefore demands intellectual rigour and philosophical depth that are not usually the forte of the ordinary politician or the freelance political jobber. Because it is a serious intellectual exertion in the first instance, politics as far as Awo was concerned must be:
based on a sound ideological footing which, itself, is a product of intellect and deep understanding of the environment
leadership must be sacrificial, i.e., a real servant-leader for whom politics is a vocation for service to humanity, not for self-aggrandizement
leadership must be disciplined in all respects in order to be effective
tenacity must be embraced as virtue, even when one's well thought out ideas, policies and programmes seem unpopular for a moment (for example Awo never for once wavered in his advocacy of federalism as the best option for governing a multi-ethnic country like Nigeria; his insistence on state creation, free education as a means of liberation and societal empowerment, taxation, etc). Chief Awolowo hung on doggedly to his ideas because they were products of deep-seated and rigorous intellect, they were not whimsical or fanciful.
that governance must emphasize massive infrastructural development side-by-side with human capital development through the provision of universal and compulsory free primary education to be accompanied by the building of schools, provision of scholarship schemes, etc.
But unlike Awo, most other politicians of his era were generally shallow in thought and ideas, hedonistic in conduct, prodigal and wasteful in resource management, severely disconnected from the sentiments, aspirations and wishes of the vast majority of the people, and therefore not imbued with those sublime attributes that make for good governance.
Democratic Politics in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and in the 4 th Republic?
The type of politicking Chief Awolowo embraced, advocated, theorized about and had the opportunity to practice, emphasized probity and accountability. He was fortunate to have operated in a British-type parliamentary system of government where those who held positions of political power had to account to the public for their policies and actions through the parliament of peoples' representatives. Government was routinely held to account and thus had to be more transparent in its activities. Under that system, both the elected Premier in the Region and the elected Prime Minister at the federal level had to subject their policies and actions to thorough scrutiny not only by their own members but much more so by the opposition which would seek to exploit every loophole to sponsor or move a vote of no confidence in the government. The awareness that such a no-confidence vote, if successfully carried in parliament, could lead ultimately to the dissolution of the government was a major restraining factor on government and a critical disincentive to official irresponsibility or misbehavior. Even when Chief Awolowo was no longer a regional premier but had moved to the Federal Parliament and became leader of opposition he remained an active participant and a consummate democrat.
After thirteen years of centralized and authoritarian military rule that had begun in 1966, the adoption of the American-type executive presidential system for the Second Republic from 1979, so comprehensively altered the fundamental character of politics and governance from what operated in the first six years of democratic rule. Unlike the Westminster model, the presidential system divides the power of government into three distinct but constitutionally equal branches, namely, the executive, legislature and judiciary. In terms of its theory, none of the three branches is superior to the others. However, in practice, the powers exercisable by the executive president can easily make it an imperial and possibly imperious presidency. So much power is impounded into that office that both the legislature and judiciary have to try really hard to put it under the necessary check. In the first instance, the principle and practice of collective responsibility to the parliament is absent. The president appoints his own cabinet members who are answerable to him, except that they have to subject their activities to occasional parliamentary oversight. Again, that depends on how important the parliament sees its own responsibilities in bridling the propensity of the executive for recklessness and irresponsibility.
In his political career, Chief Awolowo had the fortune of practicing politics under both types of governance systems, first as Premier of Western Region and later as party leader and presidential candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria. Even though he did not occupy any elective office and had no real authority during the Second Republic, he nonetheless played the role of party leader, ideologue and moral gate-keeper. He superintended the party to ensure good performance in the states that it controlled, and the manifestations are still there for all to see. But there was no doubt as to which system he preferred.
Awo and Leadership Recruitment:
Without question, Chief Awolowo was an effective team-builder and team-player who believed in putting the best hands in the right places. The stellar performance and exemplary developmental successes recorded in the then Western Region from 1952 through to the early 1960s, and subsequently by Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Bendel and Ondo states (termed the LOOBO states) during the Second Republic could not have been possible without careful preparation, stringent leadership selection process and recruitment of the finest, most hard-working and committed men and women to run with the developmental vision of the sage. The National Assembly of the Second Republic was blessed with some of the finest and most cerebral legislators from the Unity Party of Nigeria whose elevated contributions to parliamentary debates made the difference. This, indubitably, is a product of rigorous and impartial elite recruitment process. In his acceptance speech after his nomination as the Presidential candidate of the then UPN for the 1979 election, Chief Awolowo made a rather cursory allusion to the confidence he reposed in those who had been chosen to be at the helms of the Party. According to him, that confidence came from intimate knowledge of the individuals after close interactions with them. He said, “After close association of well over one year with them in the National Committee of Friends, I am satisfied that the leaders of the Unity Party of Nigeria have the attributes requisite for the effective and satisfactory discharge of the gargantuan national assignment ahead.” The governments of the five states controlled by the UPN between 1979 and 1983 were exemplary in the faithful adherence to their Party's manifesto and programmes, thereby making them reference points for development in Nigeria.
What Has Changed?
A few pertinent posers beg to be addressed, although they cannot all be fully answered in a single paper. Has there been any fundamental change in the mode and style politics and governance since Chief Awolowo's passing? This question is relevant to the Fourth Republic. Without any intention on my part to be cynical, I think that the famous French aphorism that “the more things change, the more they remain the same” is perhaps the most apt description of the evolution and development of politics. That is to point out that there have not been appreciable positive changes in the nature and style of politics since the dawn of the Fourth Republic. Saying this is not intended to make me sound alarmist but to underscore the reality that Nigerians have to grapple with. Many times I have had cause to bemoan (in my column in the Nigerian Tribune ) how that democratic rule has been going berserk because its practitioners and political office holders do not even understand its fundamentals much less adhere to its rules and time-honoured procedures.
Our democracy in some instances exhibit characteristics of autocracy and oligarchy. Since 1999, elected presidents and state governors have been operating like medieval potentates rather than holders of popular mandates. It is without question that Chief Olusegun Obasanjo ran an imperial presidency for the first eight of the Fourth Republic, nearly sidelining the National Assembly and brazenly disobeying the judiciary. During the tenures of Umaru Musa Yar'Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, secretive cabals whose memberships were based on ethnic and primordial qualifications ran riot with governance. In the case of Yar'Adua, a cabal held the country hostage for months in gross violation of the 1999 Constitution and all forms of decency while the President was fatally incapacitated, until the National Assembly devised the Doctrine of Necessity which enabled the then Vice President Jonathan to assume the role of Acting President. Under Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria was held in the vise-like grip of a posse of ethnic rabble-rousers, murderous militants and sundry “enemy nationals” (apologies to Adebayo Williams) in the Niger Delta who vowed to wreck the nation unless they had their way. As revelations of humongous state robbery are beginning to show, even the nation's treasury was mercilessly plundered by those entrusted with the affairs of the nation-state. Even now under President Muhammadu Buhari, governance is increasingly showing signs and outlines of a messianic one-man show unless the trend is checked.
Things are much worse in the states, where governors are omnipotent tin-gods, cornering their respective political parties through financial inducement, pocketing the legislature, financially emasculating the judiciary and enfeebling or stifling all other avenues of popular participation in governance, in effect casually making nonsense of democracy. When they are not able to manipulate the state legislatures to do their bidding, governors simply use the security forces to chase away legislators, lock up House of Assembly buildings and operate without that critical arm of government. Local governments have been rendered virtually useless and irrelevant to democratic governance because instead of allowing elections to take place, elected state governors simply appoint their own minions and loyalists as care-takers. In most cases, these local governments are unable to render even the most basic services since all that the omnipotent governors allow them to do is pay monthly salaries!
The implication is that Nigerian politicians have yet to divest themselves totally and completely of the inherited authoritarian and autocratic tendencies of military rule. Actually, most of them, even though they were democratically elected and are supposed to be guided by the constitution, nonetheless find it convenient to operate as autocrats, the African style! Evidence from the gale of impeachment of governors, deputy governors, presiding officers of state legislatures or threats thereof have swept across the land since the return of democratic rule will readily convince you that not much has changed, that since 1999 democracy has been little more than an elaborate hoax, an elegant but alien concept that our politicians merely employ to hoodwink us that the will of the people is the raison d'être of government.
Permit me to quote from a piece I published in the Nigerian Tribune in August 2014 on why politicians are the obstacles to the deepening of democracy in Nigeria:
“Politics will remain a continuation of war for as long as politicians refuse to adhere to the elementary tenets of democratic practice, for as long expediency is allowed to trump democratic procedures, and for as long as crude partisanship is substituted for established constitutional provisions. And ordinary Nigerians would never reap the real dividends of democracy which include, among others, strict adherence to the rule of law. For now, what prevails is the rule of force, replacement of the rule of law with the law of the jungle, and abandonment of procedures for sheer expediency. And the democracy that Nigerians had sacrificed so much to enthrone is now going berserk right before their very eyes. Trust me, there is nothing wrong with the democratic system, its Nigerian operators or practitioners are the real problem, they are the obstacles for real democracy to take root in the country.”
In actual fact, most of our politicians and those that had been put in charge of running the affairs of the country have been acting more like “enemy nationals” who are bent on wrecking the nation than as patriotic Nigerians who should value the democratic mandate we have freely given them to govern.
Let me revert to Chief Awolowo's critical analysis of Nigerian politics especially in the post-independence years of 1960 to 1966 before the military forcibly took over the reins of authority from the elected civilian governments. In a Convocation Address he delivered as Chancellor, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria on 9 th December, 1977, Chief Awolowo x-rayed the acrimonious politicking that characterized the period. He said, inter alia,
“…there was deliberate persecution of the opposition, and a vigorous and sustained attempt to silence the voice of dissent in whatever form it manifested. In this campaign of persecution and suppression, no organ of government was spared. Indeed, the opposition and those who voted for them were, in the entire scheme of things treated as political pariahs.”
Signposting this rather malevolent spirit of competition, was the deliberate and systematic emasculation of the electorate, whose will ordinarily should prevail in a democracy, in the exercise of their voting rights, as rigging and other egregious electoral malfeasances pervaded the entire electioneering processes, invariably rendering democracy no more than an alien phenomenon to the mass of the people. According to Chief Awolowo, not only were the electorate severely hamstrung from expressing their preferences, even “the opposition was harassed and eventually rendered hors de combat .” How much has this politics of acrimony, exclusion and intimidation changed over the years? Though Chief Awolowo's assertion quoted above referred to the 1950s and 1960s before military rule, it would appear that politics during the Second Republic from 1979 to 1983 was hardly different, a clear validation of that French aphorism, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose .
To show that nothing really changed, the report of the Political Bureau put it very bluntly that politics in the Second Republic “was largely a resurrection of the old leadership, schooled in the politics of intrigues, insincerity, and the manipulation of ethnic and regional sentiments to sustain themselves in power .” (emphasis mine). There was no departure from what obtained during the First Republic. According to Chief Awolowo, politics became an avenue for ethnic hegemonic contests. To quote the sage again,
“…there was fierce and almost cut-throat competition among the three so-called majority ethnic groups for federal hegemony. It was a war of giants for the waging of which the consent of the minority ethnic groups was never sought and, in any case, was taken for granted; it was a war into which these minorities were impressed by force of political maneuvers, cajolery, and sometimes blatant intimidation. Each of the three major ethnic groups regarded it as its destiny to lead the country to the permanent exclusion of other ethnic groups.”
The pertinent question that is germane to our understanding of the state of our nation's politics and governance is: what has changed in the Fourth Republic? Or to put it differently, has anything really changed? If yes, how much has changed? And are these changes, if any, in the positive or negative directions?
Experiences from the Second Republic demonstrated unmistakably that nothing changed from the First Republic. Throughout the period, politics was little more than a mortal combat between political parties and their candidates engaged in a duel onto the death. It was, to use a common aphorism, a continuation of war by other means! What should have passed for the Third Republic was still-born on account that its principal architect, General Ibrahim Babangida, cynically aborted his regime's transition to civil rule programme. Rather than allow the transition to reach final destination with the enthronement of civilian rule, he annulled the presidential election that would have ushered in a democratically elected civilian president and instead put in place an illegitimate contraption called the Interim National Government. This ING was later declared illegal by a competent court, and was overthrown by the armed forces after only 82 days.
The current Fourth Republic began when the military retreated to the barracks in May 1999. Not much purpose would be served if I try to recap all that have been happening under the Fourth Republic, since all of you my listeners are all living witnesses. The build-up to the 2015 general elections witnessed the most acrimonious and virulent electioneering campaigns, accompanied by threats, violence, verbal and physical intimidation of opponents so much that many in and outside Nigeria became apprehensive that Nigeria might vanish in a cloud of smoke. Primordial considerations, ethnicity, religion, became major factors in the electioneering process. Even after suffering inexplicable postponement on flimsy pretexts, the actual elections witnessed massive riggings across the nation and voting that were marred by violence and bloodshed. Thus far, it is safe to conclude that Nigerian politicians have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing; that they are yet to develop the requisite intellectual and attitudinal dispositions without which democratic governance will remain a forlorn hope.
Judging from the preceding analysis, it is not difficult to see why Chief Obafemi Awolowo remains a critical factor and central issue in any discourse on Nigerian politics and governance. This is what makes President Babangida's description of him in the obituary statement cited in our introductory paragraphs rather profound. Thus far in Nigeria's political history, only Chief Obafemi Awolowo can be equated to Plato's philosopher-king, and is hereby affectionately remembered and justly celebrated. Until we have leaders and politicians who will give themselves to deep intellectual exertions and rigorous philosophizing, the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, Agustinho Neto, Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela who can engage in rigorous analysis of issues and come up with authentic developmental ideas, I am afraid that politics and governance in this country would remain merely pedestrian and underdeveloped, and Awolowo would remain the indisputable exemplar. Thank you for your attention!
Wole Soyinka, “A Guru for All Time and All Places,” (Forward), David Oke, Olatunji Dare,
Adebayo Williams and Femi Akinola (eds.)., Awo: On the Trail of a Titan: Essays in
Celebration of the Obafemi Awolowo Centennial , Lagos: The Obafemi Awolowo Foundation,
2009, p. xvii
Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in Voice of Wisdom: Selected Speeches of Chief Obafemi
Awolowo, vol. 3, Akure: Fagbamigbe Publishers, 1981 (reprinted 1999), pp. 39-46
Jide Osuntokun, “Obafemi Awolowo: Politician, Prophet, Patriot and Philosopher,” p. 17
Soyinka, p. xvii
Awolowo, acceptance speech as presidential candidate of the UPN, 1979, Voice of Wisdom ,
1981, reprinted 1999, p. 146
Chief Awolowo's Convocation Address, December 9, 1977, at ABU Zaria, Voice of Wisdom p. 157
Chief Awolowo, ibid, p. 157
The Report of the Political Bureau, March 1987, (Lagos: Mamser), chapter 2, p. 35
Awolowo, Voice of Wisdom , op.cit., p. 157