Awo was equally regarded by most Hausa-Fulani politicians, as the major threat to the ethno-religious hegemony of their people in Nigeria. Nevertheless, he is widely revered for his strong nationalist activism, which roused the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) nationalists out of their complacency and helped hasten the march to independence.

This was attained in 1960, following early home rule for the people of the Western Region, which Awolowo secured in 1957. Awo is greatly admired for his major role in saving the federation from disintegration during the Civil War and for his dynamic and welfarist leadership. In particular, he pioneered Nigeria’s free primary education and free health care programmes and implemented the first minimum-wage policy by any Nigerian government at any level. He also established the first television service in Africa and the first Nigerian university (the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University), whose creation was not even recommended by the Federal Government of the day.

Awolowo was Nigeria’s foremost federalist. In his “Path to Nigerian Freedom”(1947) – the first systematic federalist manifesto by any Nigerian politician – he advocated federalism as the only basis for equitable national integration. As Head of the Action Group, he led demands for a federal constitution, which was introduced in the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution, following primarily, the model proposed by the Western Region delegation led by himself. As Premier, he proved to be and was viewed as a man of uncommon vision and a dynamic administrator.

Awolowo was also the country’s leading social democratic politician. He supported limited public ownership and limited central planning in government. He believed that the state should channel Nigeria’s resources into education and state-led infrastructural development. Controversially, and at considerable expense, he introduced free primary education for all and free health care for children in the Western Region, established the first television service in Africa in 1959 and the Oduduwa Group, all of which were financed from the highly lucrative cocoa industry, which was the mainstay of the regional economy.

From the eve of independence, he led the Action Group as the Leader of the Opposition in the federal parliament, leaving Samuel Ladoke Akintola as the Western Region Premier. Serious disagreements between Awolowo and Akintola on how to run the Western region led the latter to form an alliance with the Tafawa Balewa-led NPC Federal Government at the centre. A constitutional crisis led to the declaration of a state of emergency in the Western Region, eventually resulting in widespread breakdown of law and order.

Excluded from national government, Awolowo and his party faced an increasingly precarious position. Akintola’s followers, angered at their exclusion from power, formed the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) under Akintola’s leadership. Having previously suspended the elected Western Regional Assembly, the Federal Government then reconstituted the body after manoeuvres that brought Akintola’s NNDP into power without an election. Shortly afterwards, Awolowo and several of his disciples were arrested, charged, convicted of treason and jailed for conspiring with the Ghanaian authorities under Kwame Nkrumah to overthrow the Federal Government. The remnants of the Action Group fought the national election of 1965 in alliance with the largely Igbo, and south-eastern NCNC.

Amid accusations of fraud from the NCNC-AG camp, the NPC-NNDP “won” the election; the AG supporters reacted with violent riots in some parts of the Western region. Awolowo was later freed by the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon, who subsequently appointed him Federal Commissioner for Finance and Vice-President of the Federal Executive Council. This took place in the tempestuous environment immediately preceding the Civil War.

Awolowo pioneered free primary education in Nigeria in the Western Region and also free health care. Although, Awolowo failed to win the 1979 and 1983 presidential elections of the Second Republic, he polled the second highest number of votes and his policies of free education and limited free health were carried out throughout all the South West states controlled by his party, the Unity Party of Nigeria.

Awo’s enduring achievements

Awolowo is best remembered for his remarkable unblemished integrity, ardent nationalism, principled and virile opposition and dogged federalistic convictions. His party was the first to move the motion for Nigeria’s independence in the Federal Parliament and he obtained internal self-government for the Western Region in 1957. He is credited with coining the name “naira” for the Nigerian standard monetary unit and helped to finance the Civil War and preserve the federation without borrowing one kobo. He built the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, the first of its kind in Africa; established the WNTV, the first television station in Africa; erected the first skyscraper in tropical Africa: The Cocoa House (still the tallest in Ibadan). He ran a widely respected Civil Service in the Western Region.

Awolowo was reputedly admired by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. Some of his disciples in the South-West have continued to invoke his name and the policies of his party, the Action Group, during campaigns, while his welfarist policies have influenced politicians in most of the other geopolitical zones of the nation. He was a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Chancellor of the University of Ife (his brainchild) and Ahmadu Bello University. He held many chieftaincy titles, including those of the Losi of Ikenne, Lisa of Ijebu, Asiwaju of Remo, Odofin of Owo, Ajagunla of Ado-Ekiti, Apesin of Osogbo, Odole of Ife and Obong Ikpa Isong of Ibibioland. He was also conferred with the highest national honour of Grand Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (GCFR), a rank and title that has ordinarily been bestowed upon the country’s presidents. Many institutions in Nigeria have honoured him, and some regional and national institutions are named after him, including Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Osun State (formerly University of Ife), Obafemi Awolowo Stadium (formerly the Liberty Stadium) and the Obafemi Awolowo Institute of Government and Public Policy in Lekki, Lagos State. His portrait is on the 100 naira currency. He was also the author of several publications on the political structure and future prospects of Nigeria, the most prominent of which are “Path to Nigerian Freedom”, “Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution”, and “Strategies and Tactics of the People’s Republic”.

Awolowo established  the western Nigeria Cocoa Board. The Western Nigerian television –  the first in Africa. The African publishing company. In 1992, the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation was founded as an independent, non-profit, non-partisan organisation, committed to furthering the symbiotic interaction of public policy and relevant scholarship with a view to promoting the overall development of the Nigerian nation.

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The Foundation was launched by the then President of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Babangida, at the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan. However, his most important bequests (styled “Awoism”), are his exemplary integrity, his welfarism, his contributions to hastening the process of decolonisation and his consistent and reasoned advocacy of federalism, based on ethno-linguistic self-determination and uniting politically strong states – as the best basis for Nigerian unity. Awolowo died peacefully at his Ikenne home, the “Efunyela Hall” (so named after his mother), on 9th of May, 1987, at the age of 78 and was laid to rest in Ikenne, amid tributes across political and ethno-religious divides, Nigeria and globally. Awo came. Awo saw. Awo conquered.

Next week, we take a look at Dr. Michael Okpara, a prodigy of a kind.

Awo as “Best President…”: IBB or Ojukwu: Who  crafted it?

Last week, I committed a faux pas when I wrote that it was General Ibrahim Babangida (IBB), who famously described Awo as “the best President Nigeria never had”. I have since received a deluge of protests from readers across the globe, saying it was not IBB, but Ojukwu, that made the statement. I totally agree. I erred gravely and sorely. The late sage, Awo, died on 9th of May, 1987. Tons of funeral orations poured in. Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi and foremost protagonist of a Biafran Republic, stole the show in his heartrending elegy, wherein he described Awo as “the best President Nigeria never had”.

Ojukwu was later to elucidate on this most eloquently, when in a subsequent interview, he declared, of Awo:    

“In political terms, he would be considered an adversary of the Igbo given the intense rivalry between him and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. As a leader of the modern cast, he has left Nigeria standards, which are indelible, standards beside which future aspirations to public leadership can be eternally measured. He was, for a long time, the only Nigerian leader that enunciated principles and played down personalities. He was a brilliant political administrator and a most erudite teacher. He not only identified himself wholly with the aspirations of the Yoruba people of Nigeria but also he was able to convince the Yoruba people of Nigeria that he, only he epitomised the highest point of their political aspirations and consciousness. He was loved, he was feared but above all, he belonged to the people he professed to lead. At his death, I had the singular honour of proposing for him this epitaph that has endured – ‘he was the best President that Nigeria never had.’

“Many have wondered what I meant by this, but I believe the statement was clear. Nigeria would have benefited from his presidency because of his innate presidential qualities. Nigeria must continually regret that he never, for many reasons, had the opportunity to serve at the presidential level. Awo was a leader of great stature. He was a leader who was eminently successful. That he did not fulfill a presidential ambition cannot detract from his leadership, and us, poor us, who were not his people, must continue to regret that our own leaders had not led us, as he did his people or achieved for us as he did for his people.

“He perceived his job as leading his people and God bless his soul. He did a lot for them. Whenever he saw an opportunity for his people, he went for it. He had a dream for the Yoruba and was steadfast in the pursuit of that dream. He knew where he was going and he took his people with him without deceit. That is why he will remain immortal in the area of his influence.”

I cannot add more to the above uncommon ode to Awo by Ojukwu.

Thought for the week

“Power isn’t control at all – power is strength, and giving that strength to others. A leader isn’t someone who forces others to make him stronger; a leader is someone willing to give his strength to others that they may have the strength to stand on their own.” (Beth Revis).

Is Nigeria there now? We siddon dey look.