Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a founding father of Nigerian nationalism, was the leader of Nigeria’s Action Group party and the first indigenous Premier of Western Nigeria. Chief Awolowo’s journey began when his parents wanted him to go to school, an education that came with Spartan discipline at the slightest of mistake. This included his struggle to navigate the social realities tied to being in an environment filled with youth. However, the social struggle he experienced during this time allowed him to shape his understandings of the world. This statement that “any position, status or preferment that comes only by mere patronage or favouritism has never since interested me” strikes at the very core of his work ethic that developed as a result: rugged individualism that disregards ascriptive rights. For that spirit of individualism to work, education became a key, and the conversion of that knowledge to skill sets could bring rewards and satisfaction.
Along the way, he acquired the values of defiance, toughness, fearlessness, and truth. He acquired both secular and religious training, and he benefitted from the rich legacy of missionary education. In 1926, he spent a year at Wesley College, the famous teacher training school at Ibadan. Wesley not only imparted academic knowledge but respect for legitimate labour and humility. He also imbibed strong habits of discipline in terms of consumption, hard work, and resoluteness. When his cocoa business collapsed in 1939, he entered in his diary of March 7, 1939, a poetic chemistry of hope, even in downfall:
“After rain comes sunshine; after darkness comes the glorious dawn. There is no sorrow without its alloy of joy, there is no joy without its admixture of sorrow. Behind the ugly terrible mask of Misfortune lies the beautiful soothing countenance of Prosperity. So, tear the mask!”
Chief Awolowo campaigned heavily for developmental change and implemented free primary education and child healthcare policies across the Western Region. Chief Awolowo, a lawyer, publisher and politician, served as Premier of the self-governing Western region from 1954 until Nigeria achieved full independence from Britain in 1960. He played a major role in the constitutional conferences in London and Lagos that paved the way for independence.
Chief Awolowo was opposition leader in the first post-independence Parliament and came to be regarded as leader of the Yoruba tribe. The Yorubas are one of the West African nation’s three major ethnic groups and live mainly in the south and west. In 1979 and 1983, Chief Awolowo was the Unity Party’s presidential candidate, losing to the northern-based National Party of Shehu Shagari. When the Shagari Government was overthrown by a military coup Dec. 31, 1983, Chief Awolowo returned to private life.
In recognition to his contribution to Nigerian statehood and development, the Federal Government of Nigeria renamed the University of Ife, The Obafemi Awolowo University on May 12, 1987. In addition to this honor, the Nigerian Federal government on October 1, 2010 while celebrating the nation’s golden jubilee in Abuja, honored Obafemi Awolowo posthumously for his contribution to the Nigerian independence movement.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo Biography
Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a founding father of Nigerian nationalism, the leader of Nigeria’s Action Group party and the first indigenous Premier of Western Nigeria, was born in Ikenné, Western State, Nigeria, on March 6, 1909. He received his early education in the mission schools of Ikenné, Abeokuta, and Ibadan. Often he worked at odd jobs to raise money for tuition fees, and his entrepreneurial spirit continued to express itself in the various careers which he subsequently sampled: journalist, teacher, clerk, moneylender, taxidriver, produce broker. His organizational and political inclinations became evident as he moved to high-level positions in the Nigerian Motor Transport Union, the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association, the Trades Union Congress of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Youth Movement, of which he became Western Provincial secretary.
Despite his interest in business ventures, Awolowo wanted to continue his formal education. In 1944 he completed a University of London correspondence course for the bachelor of commerce degree. His greatest ambition, however, was to study law, which he undertook in London from 1944 to 1946, when he was called to the bar. Returning to Nigeria in 1947, he developed a thriving practice as a barrister in Ibadan.
During his residence in London, Awolowo moved to a position of prominence in the struggle for Nigerian independence. In 1945 he wrote his first book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, in which he was highly critical of British policies of indirect administration and called for rapid moves toward self- government and Africanization of administrative posts in Nigeria. He also expressed his belief that federalism was the form of government best suited to the diverse populations of Nigeria, a position to which he consistently adhered. Also in 1945 in London, he helped found the Egbe Omo Oduduwa (Society of the Descendants of Oduduwa, the mythical ancestor of the Yoruba-speaking peoples), an organization devoted to the study and preservation of Yoruba culture.
In 1950 Awolowo founded and organized the Action Group political party in Western Nigeria to participate in the Western Regional elections of 1951. The Action Group’s platform called for immediate termination of British rule in Nigeria and for development of various public welfare programs, including universal primary education, increase of health services in rural areas, diversification of the Western Regional economy, and democratization of local governments. The Action Group won a majority, and in 1952 Awolowo as president of the Action Group became leader of the party in power in Western Nigeria. In 1954 he became the first premier of the Western Region, on which occasion he was awarded an honorary chieftaincy. During his tenure as leader and premier, he held the regional ministerial portfolios of local government, finance, and economic planning. He was also chairman of the Regional Economic Planning Commission.
In 1959, confident of an Action Group victory in the federal elections, Awolowo resigned the premiership to stand for election to the federal House of Representatives. About that time he published his second book, Awo: An Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in which he once more endorsed federalism as the most appropriate form of government for Nigeria. He also outlined the successful history of the Action Group and was optimistic of Nigerian independence.
However, the 1959 elections were to become an important turning point in Awolowo’s career, for the Action Group was decisively defeated, and Awolowo found himself leader of the opposition in the Federal House of Representatives, while the deputy leader of the Action Group, Chief S. L. Akintola, remained premier of the Western Region. This situation led to a power struggle within the party which ultimately erupted in 1962 in disturbances in the Western Region House of Assembly. The federal government intervened and suspended the regional constitution. When normal government was restored, the Akintola faction had won; Akintola and his followers withdrew from the Action Group to form the Nigerian National Democratic party, which governed Western Nigeria until 1966.
In 1963 Awolowo was found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government of Nigeria and was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. In 1966, however, an attempted coup d’etat led to the suspension of the Nigerian federal constitution and the empowerment of a military government which promised a new constitution. That year, while in prison, Awolowo wrote Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution, in which he argued for the retention of a federal form of government composed of 18 states. Later, in 1966, he was released from prison and the following year was invited to join the Federal Military Government as federal commissioner of finance and as vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council.
In 1968 Awolowo published his fourth book, The People’s Republic, calling for federalism, democracy, and socialism as the necessary elements in a new constitution which would lead to the development of a stable and prosperous Nigeria. Although he praised the Federal Military Government for creating a 12-state federal system in 1967, he predicted further political difficulties because these states had not been based on ethnic and linguistic affinities.
Awolowo continued to serve the government as commisioner of finance and vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council throughout the years of Nigeria’s civil war with Biafra (1967-1970). In his 1970 book, The Strategy and Tactics of the People”s Republic of Nigeria, he implied a position which he would state more firmly in subsequent years: that the government’s post-war spending should be devoted to development rather than to the military. He resigned in 1971 to protest the government’s continuation of military rule, and in 1975, following the overthrow of the Gowon government, issued a press release questioning the country’s military spending.
In 1979 and 1983 he ran for president as the candidate for the Unity Party of Nigeria, losing to Shehu Shagari. Awolowo returned to private life upon the overthrow of the Shagari government in December 1983. He died in Ikenné on May 9, 1987.
Chief Awolowo in Focus: His Doctrine for Nigeria Chief Awolowo was primarily concerned with how to bring progress to Nigeria, to free it from European domination and exploitation, to restore its dignity, and to question all negative assumptions and racist prejudices. He did not make distinctions between scholarship and politics, academy and ideology. What we may call scholarly paper, he conceived as a document of economic and political liberation. His motive was to attain development. He created a body of ideas on progress, conscious of the need to respond to negative comments about his people and country. The major ideas they espoused addressed issues of Western domination, imperialism, exploitation, African personality, identity, and alternatives for Africa.
Chief Awolowo belonged to the nationalist phase of African history and the forest of ideas that they all generated, although he did not agree with some of them. He made his own distinctive mark in various ways: intellectual ideas, community organizing, political mobilisation, and leadership. First and foremost, he has to be understood as an intellectual, one who was able to reflect on a large body of data and then able to create policy actions from the conclusions. He was intellectually restless, in the sense that the ideas and policies were many and often came in a flood.
At a time when Nigeria was underdeveloped and with limited resources, the task of effecting change was tremendous. Chief Awolowo was able to do this through the use of one skill in particular: visionary leadership. That is precisely what is missing today in the management of our institutions. We once blamed the woes on the British. The British left but the woes remained. Then the politicians were replaced by the military. The woes continued. Then we blamed the military and called for democracy. Greater woes. Now is the time to call for accountability and visionary leadership of the type demonstrated by the example of Chief Awolowo.
Thus, we can talk of an Awolowo Doctrine, which, over time, has now become the very doctrine of the majority of Nigerians. Let there be one Nigeria, an indivisible entity. He so much believed in Nigeria that he dedicated his autobiography not to his wife of inestimable value, but to “A New and Free Nigeria Where Individual Freedom and More Abundant Life Are Guaranteed to All Her Citizens.” He did not say that Nigeria should collapse into pieces, even when he regarded the space as an artificial creation of the British. He believed that political leaders ought to be committed to the maintenance of the country’s unity.
A second component was that there must be a constitution, republican in nature. States, with their local governments, should be semi-autonomous and federating units. He devoted considerable amount of reflections on the idea of federalism and how to put it into practice. His notion of federalism was located in democracy. To those who alleged that he wanted to take over government by force, they should be reminded of his belief that “Government by tyranny or dictatorship is maintainable only by the use of force and by various acts of repression and oppression against those who disagree with or are critical of the tyrant or dictator.”
Ultimately, this reflected his belief that the business of government is about people. He insisted that resources should be devoted to the elimination of poverty. He was opposed to expensive expenditure on the military and defence on the grounds that spending resources meant for development on arms was unproductive. He was in support of building an army to protect the country and its territorial integrity, but not “as an instrument for maintaining a totalitarian regime”. He warned, “Any government that does not enjoy the goodwill of the people should resign: it must not utilize the people’s money for the purpose both of their enslavement and starvation.”
The focus on people led to the third doctrine: progress and development. All citizens must be educated, and he was the principal figure in the introduction of free universal primary education in the Western Region in 1955. The educated citizens must be active in developing the country’s resources. For Nigeria to progress he argued that the state must use the resources of the nation to cater to the people by creating jobs, making education available, and creating the conditions to have access to the basic necessities of life: housing, food, clothing, and health. He linked an economic set of objectives to the larger principles of state objective: “the more prosperous a State is, and the more equitably and justly distributed its wealth is, the less liable it is to the danger of internal disorder and the more able it is to discourage external aggression.”
The objectives his work itemizes were grounded in welfare politics. His own personal narratives of overcoming poverty became translated into the project of allowing all to do the same. He genuinely believed that no one should be poor and was most happy when formulating and implementing policies to eradicate poverty. He believed that poverty is manmade, “the direct outcome of an inhuman and ungodly social order, in which a strong, selfish, ruthless few exploit and deprive the masses of the people, politically and economically.” The state, he argued, is the only one with the resources and capability to eliminate poverty and ensure equality of opportunity to children, irrespective of the income of their parents.
However, the most important lesson to take away from Chief Awolowo’s work is his prescription for the implementation of welfare politics. His legacy to Nigeria, and indeed the world, is the proposal of critical conceptions that must be infused into political leadership. He argued that leadership must be grounded in ethics—a morality of spending resources more carefully, without corruption, and with compassion for people. Leadership must respect the rules of law and human rights and cannot be based on violence and the oppression of alternate political ideology. As Chief Awolowo concluded, politics is about vision, the politics of formulating ideas and objectives, the politics of presenting those objectives, and the politics of implementing them. People cannot be expected to accept a set of objectives different from their own aspirations. Neither will they accept leaders who say one thing and do another or who create budgets on grandiose projects only to divert public money to their private pockets. Leadership is about service—no more no less. Wesley College got it right in its motto: “Bi Eniti Nse Iranse” (as he that serveth), drawn from Luke 22:27. While the secondary schools of the time, whose mottos were in Latin, ridiculed this Yoruba one, the young Awolowo saw servant-leadership in practice; the students lived the motto, did everything for themselves, and ran the school using teamwork. A nation is teamwork. Chief Awolowo wanted to serve, and he also sought to lead.
Today, public service has become about accumulation and personal aggrandizement in which the leader becomes the master. The state is imperialized, converting citizens into subjects, resources into private ownership. Politics is about how to control people and resources, and the game of politics is how to game opponents to create greater access to the spoils of office. The higher the level of power, the more the resources that flow to private pockets so that the wealthy is the one with the closest access to the corridors of power. In that environment, power brings wealth, fame and adulation, not public service.
If Chief Awolowo were still alive he would argue that we need a set of leaders who will be our servants not our bosses, who will not ask us to look at their grandiose houses while we live in shanties, who will endure the same kind of suffering as the majority of the population, whose children will attend the same public schools as those of their “subjects,” who will use the local hospitals when they are sick. He would make the same immortal statement he made over sixty years ago:
“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.”
His slogan, “freedom to all, life more abundant,” will forever remain true. Let us all work for it.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo Biography and Profile (OBF)