BY FEMI BABATUNDE
Like the sage he was, the late premier of the Western Region, Obafemi Oyeniyi Awolowo, bestrode the nation’s political firmament as a colossus. A special breed of politician, he was a great elder statesman, activist, writer, nationalist and ideologue. Even after 30 years of his departure, his name and memory still evoke much pride.
Ahead of several of his contemporaries, Awolowo stood out as a unique symbol of selfless leadership, patriotism and boundless productivity. He was a man who chose the road less travelled and made an outstanding success of it. He was as pragmatic as he was a first-rate philosopher. Rather than merely bemoan the challenges the nation faced, he took it upon himself to interrogate them and proffer bold alternatives. He did not sit idly and watch things go awry. He decided to be involved, and by so doing, became obsessed with making history.
Some would say Obafemi Awolowo was fortuitously blessed with unusual prodigious mental capacity. Perhaps. But, there was more to him. He was a prisoner of his conviction and vision. The following quotes from his very deeply philosophical statements should illustrate my point:
“I will, more than ever before, subject myself to severe self- discipline. Only men who are masters of themselves become easily masters of others. Therefore, my thoughts, my tongue, and my actions shall be brought under strict control always.”
“Those who desire to reach, and keep their places at the top in any calling must be prepared to do so the hard way.”
“While many men in power and public office are busy carousing in the midst of women of easy virtue and men of low morals, I, as a few others like me, am busy at my desk thinking about the problems of Nigeria and proffering solutions to them. Only the deep can call to the deep.”
With the clear-headedness exemplified by the above quotes, it is not difficult knowing why he so greatly succeeded as a leader. Whereas he was unable to achieve his ultimate dream of becoming the president of Nigeria, his foray into public service and public intellection is yet to be dwarfed by any president the nation has ever produced. For those who may which to debate this, the records are available for the checking! From the days of anti-colonial struggles to his leadership as premier of the western region and as commissioner of finance during the tumultuous era of the civil war, he championed the noblest ideals that brought unprecedented development to the people.
That era was marked by many firsts in Nigeria. For instance, his administration built the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, which was the first of its kind in Africa; the WNTV, the first television station in Africa; constructed the first skyscraper in tropical Africa: the Cocoa House, among others. Drawing from his administrative dexterity, he ran a widely-respected civil service in the Western Region, whose efficiency is still an enviable model till date. Additionally, the sage opened up the space for agricultural revolution in the region through the creation of farm settlements in many hinterlands of the region, which did not only engender abundance but also made prosperity for all possible.
Of all these, the most profound and perhaps the most enduring was the policy of free basic education executed by the Action Group-led government, which Awolowo executed religiously. Today, it is widely acknowledged that singular policy placed the Yoruba nation may years above other regions in the country. Talk of vision.
For a nation that is today anything but inspiring, the rich legacy and memory Awolowo bequeathed readily offers a respite. And indeed, for whatever it’s worth, the lesson from such sweet memories of histories should inspire us that indeed a great leader once straddled our political space. It is a timely message, especially for the nation’s teeming youth population, who are in need of great heroes and who continues to be cheated by current the political system and leadership that seem not to hold any promise for a secured future.
It is within this context one would appreciate the recent 108th posthumous birthday lecture organised by the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation in memory of the man once described as “the best President Nigeria never had”. With an apt theme ‘The Awolowo Legacy and its Message for the Nigerian Youth’, the lecture brought together dignitaries – from the academia, captains of industry, activists, top politicians, traditional rulers, youths, and many others. With the deluge of high-ranking participants, it was clear that the inimitable Awo spirit still looms large in the heart of many with its stanch charm. Much of this was reflected in the encomiums they eagerly showered on the illustrious son of Nigeria, whose life was an offering graciously poured forth in pursuit of the better life for all.
Professor Banji Akintoye, one of the nation’s foremost historians and an Awolowo protégé, was at his best, as he brilliantly ex-rayed the Awo legacy against the backdrop of the current leadership woes experienced by the nation. With a rich deployment of first-hand experiences as a mentee of the sage and privileged insight into the processes that shaped his policies and ideas, Akintoye reminded the audience that Awolowo was a man of deep values and unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and his genuine love for humanity. And this, by extension, impacted positively on his perspectives on governance, politics and the problems of the nation.
Certainly, Awolowo’s grass to grace testimony holds much lesson for the average Nigerian youth today. Born on March 6, 1909 in the pastoral town of Ikenne, Awolowo’s many determined confrontations with life depict him as a focused man who nurtured greatness intently. Aside his victory over the limiting forces of poverty, his life is indeed full of rich instructions and guide for anyone who seeks to navigate his pathway to greatness and global relevance despite the throes of economic hardships. A study in diligence, industry, enterprise, forthrightness, Awolowo is an enduring model and hero that Nigerian youths can look up to. His many writings in forms of books and speeches are available for those who are thirsty enough to put their feet in the sands of time. For though he is long dead, he yet speaketh!
For the nation’s teeming youth, Akintoye puts it very succinctly: “To achieve such noble purposes, our youths must develop very strong confidence in themselves, as Chief Awolowo developed great confidence in himself. You must stop the habit of thinking that you are weak, that you are weaker than, and subordinate to, the present class of politicians. Much of Chief Awolowo’s success was due to his confidence that the British white rulers of Nigeria were not superior to Nigerians, and that Nigerians can indeed achieve great things that the British rulers cannot. You are much stronger than you think. Sure, you do not have the kind of money that the corrupt politicians of these days have; but if you use your head, mobilize your huge numbers and your education sensibly, and if you operate purposefully and with discipline as Chief Awolowo would do in circumstances such as these, you can change the destiny of your peoples for the better – even in a country like Nigeria.”
In all, although much gravitas must go to the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation, ably steered by a worthy scion of the Awolowo dynasty, Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosumu, for keeping the nation in constant remembrance of the great legacy bequeathed to Nigeria. However, much still needs to be done to ensure that the nation produces more principled and patriotic youths who are inspired by the Obafemi Awolowo legacy, and who would be passionately committed to deploying the ideals he stood for in pursuit of national transformation.