Fahamu (Oxford)

6 December 2012

Africa: Was Chief Awolowo an Awoist?

opinion

There is no question that Chief Obafemi Awolowo is one of the greatest Nigerian political figures ever. But nobody, no matter their ethnic affiliation, would in all honesty support the callousness Awolowo exhibited during and after the Biafra war

'Clever people are not credited with their follies: what a deprivation of human rights!' -- Friedrich Nietzsche

Hate him or love him, Chief Obafemi Awolowo is a figure to be reckoned with in Nigerian politics in general and in his fiefdom, the southwest, in particular. And it is going to be like that for a very, very long time to come. If you are in the southwest, you don't mess with Awo. If in doubt, ask the immediate past governor of Lagos state, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. For many people from the southwest of Nigeria, saying that Awolowo might possibly have done anything wrong is like telling Muslims and Christians that their founders might have done anything wrong. Awo, as he's fondly called, entered the Yoruba pantheon long before he breathed his last. I mean a man whom thousands, if not millions believed to have seen in the moon is nothing less than a god. Again, that's going to remain like that for a very long time -- I would even say as long as children believe that Santa is the one who sends them their Xmas gifts! Yes, for the many, the man fondly called Awo is the one who made the impossible possible, literally: think of sound economic policies, free education, free healthcare, ethnic pride, and generally la joie de vivre associated with the man we have all come to recognize as the sage. For the more mature mind, all these qualities have crystallized into Awoism, and they proudly call themselves Awoists. In the brief history of Nigeria, the only other person that has come close to receiving something remotely like the reverence Awo receives is Buhari...

No progressive in Nigeria, and most of Africa, can afford to take the name of Awo, or Awoism, in vain. But what is Awoism?

It's a tragedy that our histories are not taught in our schools. There is no other way to put it. Every educated Nigerian should know everything that is humanly possible to know about our founding fathers, most notably Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo. It is in studying these figures that we could understand how our country was founded, what each contributed in making it big, small or mediocre, and learn from them. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Reading, in general, sounds like a bad word in Nigeria. Reading our history fares even worse. Let me say that we can never develop as a country unless we find out who we are. And the only way to do that is to study our history, especially our pre-colonial history. But I digress a little.

Awolowo's name was so dominant in Nigeria that as I grew up, I read what the man himself said and what others said of him. I believed the man more than I believed his commentators and his critics. And so I've always associated Awolowo with progress and progress with Awoism. Awoism is something roughly close to what we know today as liberalism, a philosophy articulated by the British philosopher John Locke. That philosophy is the foundation of what we know today as liberal democracy, practiced mostly in the western part of our globe, albeit with a few variations. Among his public contemporaries, Awo was the one who articulated that philosophy most brilliantly. He not only articulated it, he also practiced it when he had the opportunity. So, to give credit to whom it is due, we call our Nigerian version of that philosophy Awoism. The state Awo ran had a slightly higher standard of living than most Western democracies. (It's an irony of fate that some of these Western powers suspected Awoism to be a version of communism).

Going by his writings and his parties' manifestos, Awo wanted to enthrone a progressive welfare state. An Awoist state would be one in which people are truly free in body, mind and spirit, the people freely choose their leaders, everybody goes to school for free and to the highest level of her/his natural ability, a living-wage-paying-job would not be a privilege but a right of every citizen and those unable to work, (for genuine reasons), would have their basic needs met by the state; there would be no capital punishment in such a state. In short, Awolowo wanted to enthrone a very progressive state in which there would be no destitution -- material and spiritual. He was able to put some of those policies into practice as premier of the Western Region. I believe that is responsible for his pervasive popularity in the region. And, indeed, he was bent on doing the same for all the country. He was so convinced of that, and for good reasons one must add, that he was willing to take over power via a military coup, and this was the reason he was tried and sentenced to jail for treason. In other words, he made a very personal sacrifice for the good of humanity as he understood it.

Awo not only had the idea, he also knew how to actualize and sustain it. Consequently, he was a suave administrator. His administrative prowess is yet to be surpassed in Nigeria on any large scale. Again, Buhari and Idiagbon got slightly close... Awolowo's progressive ideas are still valid for Nigeria. In fact, given that Nigeria today is held hostage by a clique of organized crooks running a very efficient kleptocracy, those ideas have what Dr. Martin Luther King called the 'fierce urgency of now.'

So far so good; very good indeed.

But then we get to a point where we need to ask if Awo didn't deviate from his lofty ideals. And this has been a bone of contention between those who consider themselves Yoruba and Igbo. For me it happened long before the present controversy following Chinua Achebe's latest book (more on that shortly). It happened when I listened to Awo in his own voice, speaking when he was 74 and campaigning to be 'Nigerian' president. The tape was posted on an internet portal (with transcripts), immediately after the death of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. In that town hall style campaign, Awo owned up to the 'starvation as a weapon of war' policy even though Gowon -- in whose government he served -- has always denied it. He also referred to the 'secessionists' as his enemies, and added that he doesn't see why he should be feeding his enemies for them to be fighting harder. Those words were very revealing. Ever since then, I've been asking myself if it was the Awo I knew, the one about whom I wrote that it was a tragedy that he was not the president of Nigeria, or another Awo? It has been very troubling: Is it possible -- who would believe it! -- that Awo wasn't really an Awoist? I didn't need Achebe's latest book to know it is a huge problem. For me it is really straightforward: If Awo was a progressive whose main aim was to wipe out destitution, how come he was celebrating destitution by refusing to allow international donor agencies to take food and relief materials to those in need? Let us remember that even though Biafra lost the military combat, she won the propaganda war. Millions of people were demonstrating all over the world in solidarity with the suffering masses of Biafra. Steve Jobs renounced his Christianity to protest the ignominious part that supposedly Christian countries like Britain were playing in the conflict, and one American student set himself on fire in protest. Mr. Bruce Mayrock was a 20-year-old a part-time student of Columbia University who went outside the United Nations headquarters with a sign that read: "You must stop genocide - please save nine million Biafrans." With that he set himself on fire and later died of the burns he sustained.

Compassion, anthropologists tell us, is the first sign of civilization among homo sapiens. Awoism is worth nothing if it is reactionary or supports destitution instead of being proactively humane. Unfortunately, that was what it was at that crucial point in our nation's history. True, Awo didn't cause the starvation in the east. But he sadistically feasted on it and did everything in his power to prolong it, advancing ludicrous arguments for doing so. An Awoist would be keenly interested in saving people's lives first and foremost. You can blame them later, but do all in your power to save their lives first. This is one of the reasons why an Awoist would never support the death penalty. On this score, Awolowo failed lamentably. That is why the "Starvation as a weapon of war" policy is as championed by Awo is simply tragic. How about inspecting all relief materials to make sure they didn't conceal weapons before sending them to those in need? The Biafrans didn't surrender because their soldiers were starving. They surrendered because they couldn't get weapons from any of the world's suppliers, while their 'Nigerian' counterparts had a steady supply of the best weapons. Both Britain and the Soviet Union supplied weapons to Nigeria and ensured that more small arms were used against Biafra during the 30-months war than were used in the five years of World War II.Why was Awo so callous in his statements? Was it because he believed the victims were his enemies?

But, one, Ndigbo, whether soldiers or civilians, rich or poor, were not Awo's enemies. The original problem was between Ndigbo and the Hausa Fulani and their minions like Gowon. Awo just inserted himself into the problem for a rather personal reason to which I'll return in a moment. Two, and most troubling: For a man who had devoted the greater part of his life to abolishing destitution to overtly support destitution was simply incredible. What led a fine mind such as Awo's to such a callous blunder? Before I get to that, let me say that I could imagine the 'less educated' northern oligarchs chuckling as they watched the 'more educated' southerners kill themselves, starvation and all. The argument that there were Igbos in the Biafran enclave who cornered the few food and relief materials that managed to trickle in sounds jejune. How many of those greedy people are now cornering food and relief materials? There are greedy people everywhere, in war and in peace time. The difference is that in war it becomes so conspicuous because almost everyone is in need. During fuel scarcity, there are also those who hoard the product. Should that be the reason for the government to deny sending it to those in need?

Achebe had written on page 233 of his latest book, "There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra" that, "It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose -- the Nigeria-Biafra war -- his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation -- eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations."

Okey Ndibe has speculated in his piece titled "Achebe's Acts of Memory" (Nigeria Village Square, 22 October 2012) that in writing the above, Achebe was indulging in 'speculative overreach.' Okey commands the English language better than many people command their footsteps. But in this instance, he's the one indulging in 'speculative overreach' because there's nothing speculative about what Achebe said. The old man was simply stating the facts as they are, even though he called them his 'impression.' Achebe indeed provided the answer to the puzzle in the same passage: Awo had come to see the Igbo elite as an obstacle to his aim of rallying 'his people.' Read your history and you will see that as early as 1952, Zik's party, the NCNC, had won enough seats in the election that could have enabled him to become the first premier of the Western Region. Zik, ever the dreamer, with his philosophy of 'One Nigeria,' wasn't as ethnically minded as Awo. Awo worked very hard to reverse that momentum, organizing the widely reported carpet crossing in Ibadan. Some have argued that the crossing wasn't directly from the NCNC but rather from its allies. Whatever the case, Awo engineered a change of course for which he was the principal beneficiary. That Awo did this by appealing to ethnicity is plausible. However, anyone who concludes that from that point on, or even earlier, he saw the so-called Igbo elite as a threat to his own political ambition should not be accused of speculative overreach. Zik, despite all his failings, was bent on detribalizing Nigeria with the mindset of Julius Nyerere who made sure that Tanzania is the most detribalized country in Africa. But the 'Carpet Crossing' that happened in Ibadan in 1952 struck a fatal blow to 'One Nigeria.' The country is yet to recover from that blow. It's not implausible to think that if the carpet crossing didn't happen, the civil war might not have happened because the northern oligarchs would have thought twice before attacking nationals from a united south. "Clever people are not credited with their follies: what a deprivation of human rights!" says the great Nietzsche.

When Awo died, Odumegwu Ojukwu called him "The best president Nigeria never had." It's one of the most misunderstood phrases in modern Nigeria, even after Ojukwu elaborated on it thus:

"Nigeria must continually regret that he never, for many reasons, had the opportunity to serve at the presidential level. 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."

There's basically nothing different from what Ojukwu said here and what Achebe says in his latest book. It is simply a matter of semantics. And I am surprised that many well known writers and professional grammarians simply miss Achebe's point here. When Achebe said 'for his Yoruba people,' he was not talking about the Yoruba as a group. The focus is still on Awo and Yoruba in the sentence is passive. Many Yorubas would readily agree with Awo that he did most of what he did for them, but not all Yorubas saw Awo as their champion. So, Ojukwu and Achebe were saying the same thing. But where Achebe said Awo did what he did "for himself and for his Yoruba people," Ojukwu, who was more politically minded, simply said "for his people." But Awo's fans applauded Ojukwu because he added that Awo was "the best president Nigeria never had." But if you look more carefully at what Ojukwu said, it is not really different from what Achebe just said in his latest book.

When Ojukwu said that "poor us, who were not his people," must regret that we didn't have anybody to achieve for us what he achieved 'for his people,' he was basically calling Awo a regional cum ethnic leader. And that is how historians all over the world who are interested in Nigerian politics see Awo. Ojukwu said there were 'many reasons' for which Awo remained the best president Nigeria never had. What Ojukwu was saying implicitly was that there were Nigerians who were not 'Awo's people.' I have written elsewhere (http://tinyurl.com/blm226t) that it is a tragedy that Awolowo never became the president of Nigeria.

My position hasn't not changed; but now I wish to add that the man himself must also take responsibility for that tragedy. Again, no matter what the commentariat says, Achebe wasn't talking of the Yoruba as a group. He's too wise for such a blunder. Rather he was talking of Awo's ambition as a leader of the Yoruba. These are two distinct things. After all, as I already pointed out, there are Yorubas who don't accept Awo's leadership, even if they constitute a minority.

So, let us remember, before we condemn Achebe, that an Igbo would have occupied the seat of power in Ibadan before any Yoruba had the chance to do so, but for the deft political manoeuvring of Awo. He probably said, after successfully fighting off Zik's political machine: never again! In Nigeria, ethnicity is a very strong issue. And Awo, better than Zik, understood that all politics is local. So by appealing to their ethnic pride, Awo was able to get a majority of the Yoruba on his side. I leave it to the reader to judge what that singular political manoeuvring did to ethnic relations in Nigeria and particularly in the southern part of the country. It's a problem we are still struggling with as all the Igbo-Yoruba reactions to Achebe's latest book would readily testify.

As for the charge of overriding ambition for power, let us note that a civilian who agrees to be a major beneficiary of a military coup d'état must have a great deal of political ambition. And, of course, when the opportunity presented itself, he grabbed it, becoming the second in command in the military government of Gowon.

It is worth remarking that Awo's participation in the Gowon government was the closest he got to the seat of federal power. And he was quite close. What he did he do with that power? He decided to designate people whom his kinsmen Wole Soyinka, Tai Solarin et al, rightly noted were victims of genocide, his enemies. He enthusiastically championed the 'hunger as an instrument of war policy,' and the '20 pounds insult.' In other words, the period in which Awo had real federal power was also the period he was so far from his own hitherto avowed ideals that one can't help asking if he was a true Awoist himself. A finance minister who oversees a policy that gives people who had thousands or millions in the bank a paltry 20 pounds of their hard earned money should, at the very least, resign for dereliction of duty; that's one of the ideals of awoism. But Awo defended that policy. I'm sure that if Awo was true to his ideals when he was the de facto prime minister in Nigeria, Ojukwu would not have lamented that there were some Nigerians who were not 'Awo's people.' (It's also possible that the'20 pounds insult' is at the root of the craze by Nigerians to stash their wealth, ill gotten or legitimate, overseas). "Clever people are not credited with their follies," says the great Nietzsche.

Where does this leave us? I suggest that we begin the process of healing. Both Ojukwu and Achebe acknowledged Awo's greatness. And so do I. But I don't think anybody, no matter her/his ethnic affiliation, would in all honesty and sincerity support the callousness Awo exhibited during and after the war against the 'Other'. Awoists simply have to accept that fact for their own good. They can thus highlight Awo's starling qualities with a loving heart. No amount of spin can change a fact. As the Latinists say, argumentum contra factum non valet. We simply need to stop calling a spade a mortar. There is work to be done!

An American interlocutor once told me that unless the Igbos and the Yorubas, the dominant groups in the south of Nigeria, get their act together, they will continue to play second fiddle to the northern oligarchs. I want to emphasize that there are progressive elements in every ethnic group in the country. So, I would substitute 'northern oligarchs' with the PDP which is the current incarnation of the NPN. We have seen it happen again and again. For instance, the mandate Nigerians from Potiskum to Port Harcourt, from Kano to Kwale, gave to Abiola was stolen from him and given to Obasanjo because Abiola was said to be unacceptable to the oligarchs. The same thing has happened to Buhari a number of times, and may yet happen again. We urgently need to move beyond divisive ethnicity. And we need to stop celebrating the induced starving of millions, irrespective of their ethnic affiliations.

There are many progressives from the four corners of the Niger River. It's time for them to get together and set a really progressive agenda for the next generation of Nigerians. In order to do that effectively, we need to eschew negative tribalism, ethnicity, and regionalism which run very deep in the Nigerian psyche. When religion is added into that negativity, it reaches epidemic proportions. If it could affect a mind as fine as Awo's, any wonder it has been the most potent tool for the oligarchs in oppressing the people and keeping them oppressed? For some to say that aiding in starving millions of people to death is acceptable is horrific. When Abiola's mandate was stolen in broad daylight, some people justified it based on those denominators. And hundreds of lives were lost. One loquacious information minister even told Abiola to go and commit suicide--for winning a free and fair election. Elections are continuously and blatantly rigged; and some keep justifying it, again, based on those denominators. It is time we confront those demons head on. If Achebe's book helps us in doing that, then it might have served a great purpose, despite some of the gaps it leaves.

In order to do this effectively, we need to accept the facts of the matter under discussion. One, that a great injustice was done to the people of eastern Nigeria who were killed so callously in the north, only for them to go back and lose millions. Pretending otherwise would be simply dishonest. Two, Ndigbo should look beyond the war and realize that no matter what happens, even if they succeed in retaliating in kind, nothing would bring back the lost ones. Evidently looking beyond the genocide is difficult given the continued official denial. But for their own good they've to let the past be past. Going through life as a victim is tantamount to self victimisation.

I believe these steps, and more, will bring us the necessary healing we need so that we can put the past behind us and move forward to face the 'fierce urgency' that is facing us. We have great individuals in our midst who can really lead this nation with distinction. Achebe argued elsewhere that the problem with Nigeria is squarely that of leadership. That may be the case, but it naively abstracts our collective history. When did this leadership crisis start? Our ancestors didn't experience that crisis. That crisis started when some foreign fortune seekers forced themselves on us with their superior military power. And when when progressives like Zik and Awo told them to go, they went but left mediocrity in charge.

For so long we have left our fate in the suffocating embrace of mediocrity. Let us begin to close ranks and aim for excellence. Let us begin the healing process.

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