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Awo: Reflections on a social engineer
|Awo: Reflections on a social engineer|
‘That is true culture which helps us to work for the social betterment of all.’ (Henry Ward Beecher).
Let me begin these remarks by congratulating Insa Nolte, the author of the book that we are gathered here to launch, Obafemi Awolowo 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 Remo but also the revelation, or confirmation, of the symbiotic relationship between the Remo community and its most outstanding son to date, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
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 a 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 Obafemi Awolowo 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 Obafemi Awolowo.
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 Awolowo. 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 debates 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 Remo is an example.
Indeed, she found that in Remo and other Yoruba towns in the 19th and 20th 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 Alaperu 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, Iperu’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 percent vote for the Action Group. The Alaperu 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 Osugbo 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, ‘Awolowo(was) equally a product and producer of Remo politics’ and that ‘throughout his life, Awolowo’s visions for Nigeria were influenced by his insights into the political processes that characterised Remo.’
Awolowo FoundationDEMOCRACY 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 Oba Samuel Akinsanya, the Odemo 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 Remo, 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 Remo 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 Remo after many years of disagreements.
For example, the initial resistance by Remo citizens to the ‘attempt of the then Akarigbo to link the effort for Remo’s independence to his own recognition as Remo’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.