Professor Banji Akintoye was close to the sage, Pa Obafemi Awolowo, when he was alive. The senator speaks on what papa’s view would have been like if he were to be around now that the country is beset with serious challenges in many fronts, in this interview with Tribune’s Bola Badmus. Excerpts:
IT is 30 years since Chief ObafemiObafemi Awolowo, went to the world beyond. Who was this man that everybody keeps talking about in glowing terms?
To us, to people like me, who walked by his side, he was a very special gift to all of us. He was a special gift to our world, the world of a Black man of Nigeria and of the Yoruba nation. The impression I always had about him is that he knew quite early that he was a special gift and he was ready to give that gift fully without looking for anything for himself. He was wonderful.
Today, we must be grateful that Chief Awolowo walked this earth on our land. We can see things disintegrated all around us. If we didn’t have an Awolowo in our midst at some point in our history, we would be in total disarray. He has become the pillar that we hold to. There would be people of course. We were political leaders in our own right too, but all of those don’t mean anything when you look at Chief Awolowo carefully. When you look at him deeply, you find that this was a rare gift to mankind. He was a rare gift to us and we thank God we had him. As I said, if we didn’t have an Awolowo at all to refer to as our point of reference today, we would be in total moral, intellectual and developmental disarray.
But, Awolowo was born like any other child?
Any other Yoruba boy.
You were very close to him. At what point did he decide to chart the course he went through to that enviable position? When he was just a big boy earning a living in Ibadan, he was already sure he wanted to serve his people. He was already prepared at that early life. Most of us don’t know until you have become a university graduate and you look around and you find that you are not feeling the way other people are feeling. You are now casual about it; then you begin to recognise that your people see something in you. You notice too yourself that you desire things that are a little beyond the ordinary. I think Chief Awolowo began to feel that very early in his life, as a teenager right from the time he went to Ibadan. I think that was it.
I asked the question, because I wanted to know if at that particular time, Nigerians became restive under the colonial rule and that made Chief Awolowo to think that it was something he had to challenge. Yes, to Chief Awolowo, colonialism meant you were being trivialised. The people who ruled; who were not better than you in any way were the lords of the earth around you. Europeans came to Africa thinking they were the best in the world. They were everything, but they were not different from any other children; from any other boy, who went to school, and so on and so forth, and they were not as intelligent and as incisive as a person like Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikwe, and Ahmadu Bello, as we know they were not.
One top British official in Nigeria in the late 1950s wrote a memo and said the Yoruba are one people who refused to accept the idea of superiority by the white man. He said “other black people might not look you in the eye because you are white, because they regard you as god, but the Yoruba are different. Even, the Yoruba messengers in our offices, you can see there is dignity the way they carry themselves.” That is the man who wrote the book entitled, Blue Collar, Law Man, and his name is Harry Smith.
In fact, he said “the Yoruba think we sent inferior people to Nigeria and that they were inferior to them.” Chief Awolowo was part of that thinking and in my lecture, a few weeks ago, I said one major thing about Chief Awolowo’s achievements—it is this determination that we, Black people, are not inferior to anybody in the world; that if they can do it, we can do it and we can even do it better in our own land. What the British cannot do for our people, we can do it by ourselves for our people; that was his thinking.
He went to a conference in Kinshasha, when he was serving in Gowon’s government. He gave a lecture and stunned the entire audience. We, black people, he said, “are not inferior to anybody. In fact, when it comes to understanding the problem of our own society, of our own land and facing the problem of our land, we are superior to any other people in the world. There are no other people who can understand the problem of our society the way we understand our society. There is no other people who can face our problem the way we can face our problem, so we are superior to them.” That is the thinking of Awolowo and the white colonialists in Nigeria couldn’t stand him. He was too different from all the other politicians they had to deal with.
Harry Smith wrote in his Blue Collar, Law Man, that when we gathered together with the Governor-General and we were drinking and joking and so on and so forth, we used to talk that Chief Awolowo is different; he is not an ordinary black man; you know, he is a man. The idea of the black man is that it is about all this pleasure-loving person, who you can manipulate with all sorts of things, with women, money, position, promises of support. You can’t use any of those things to buy Chief Awolowo.” So, he was one man you could not buy; one man you could not bully. If he believed this was the path to go, that was the path he would go, no matter who you were. He feared nobody. He respected people, but he feared nobody. That was Chief Awolowo. And the foundation of all of that was his belief that we are men, we are human, we are equal to other people; we are superior to them in some things, especially when it comes to dealing with the problems of our own land. We are superior because we know our people, they don’t know our people. So, the result was that Chief Awolowo was able to give to Western Region in seven years what the British were not able to give in more than 50 years.
The Awolowo you portrayed was a genius no doubt, but in a situation that we have found ourselves today, even the Yoruba would say, Igi kan ki dagbo se (literally meaning a tree does not make a forest). What support do you think he got from those who were his associates for him to have achieved so much? Awolowo was created by his God to be a leader of men. He was made to be a leader of men. He knew how to mobilise other people and bring them together without any feeling of superiority to anybody, to achieve worthy purposes for people. When it comes to gathering people, mobalising people, motivating people, Awolowo was the best that we’ve ever had. We have other leaders, but I don’t think it would be easy to find, in a long, long time to come, a leader with the capability of gathering people together, giving them more confidence in themselves that they could change their society and that they have the power like Awolowo. And when he gave you something to do, he backed you up with all the authorities of the system. Chief Awolowo was different.
Chief Awolowo came out of prison and in 1976/77 after serving in the Gowon government, he decided: ‘Let us try and build Nigeria. We can make Nigeria great country.’ He would say ‘let us go and build.’ Young men like me, I was in Ife as a young professor with people like David Oke, Wunmi Adegbonmire, and so on and so forth, including the older Professor Sam Aluko, Professor Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, the vice chancellor and we would go into deep talk and thinking about Nigeria; on how to make this country a great country from every angle. Chief Awolowo was the centre of it all; he was the motivator of it all. And when it came to such moment, it was as if he was incapable of getting tired. We could sit down talking all night and he would sit down there as the younger ones like us. Chief Awolowo would sit down at the meeting as chairman, and he would not stand up to go anywhere no matter how long the meeting lasted.
We younger people, who were like his children, who were like his sons, one day after a long meeting in Ikenne, two of us went to him and said, ‘Baba, you need to take it easy a little; take a rest a little.’ There were series of long,long meetings and he would sit. He was sharp all the way, from the beginning to the end. In his response to what we said, he said, ‘Thank you my sons, I will be okay, I assure you.’ That’s the type of father we had.
Chief Awolowo was premier of Western Region. To what extent would you say he had the support of people who had a similar idea of what Nigeria should be? He had a group, but outside of his group, no. Within yes, he generated the idea; he started it all by gathering a few friends together in London in 1945. He was also a student. He gathered his friends together and said we needed to do something to our society back home. Yoruba people are brilliant people, capable of development, better developers than any other people in Africa, but they were hopelessly divided. So we needed to create some unity in order to maximise their capability. That was how they started the Egbe Omo Oduduwa and then they came back home two years later and had it inaugurated.
He was good at doing that, and that was what he did all his life: bringing people together. And as to the idea of developing Nigeria, he had no illusion at all. Nigeria is not a nation; it’s a country of many nations. Therefore, it cannot be governed as if it is a nation. It has to be governed as a country of many nations. So, that means we are in a federation, and we must make sure that the different component parts of the federation have enough autonomy to do their own things, and then we must have the Federal Government that coordinates, not to control – a Federal Government that controls will destroy Nigeria, but if it is just coordinating, that’s fine. There are other big men in the situation, they didn’t do like that.
It’s 30 years now after he died, what would you say we miss dearly with his passage? The morning he passed, I was in Ado-Ekiti and my telephone rang. I was working around the garden tending some flowers. My telephone rang, I cleaned my hand and grabbed it and it was a voice that said, ‘Senator, have you phoned Papa this morning? Have you phoned Ikenne this morning?’ Then I said, ‘no, who is that?’ And the person dropped the telephone. So, I tried to call Papa, the telephone kept ringing, nobody was answering, so it was busy. I decided to go to Ikenne. When I got there, I found out that Papa had gone.
I found that a few of our people were already there who knew before me, and I stood there and looked and the world suddenly looked empty. I had never imagined that we would ever be without him. So, here we are without him! We have never gone back to the path of solid times, the type of very creative moments, the type of unity, the type of achievements, the type confidence, the type of pride that we used to have; we’ve never gone back to that.
What do you think has been responsible for that? Or was the fault with Awolowo himself? Could it be that he failed to raise a possible successor? No. I have heard people say that Papa did not lay out his successor. He did. This is Awolowo’s style of leadership. He is not saying be loyal to me as a person; that is not what he is saying. He is saying you create a body of ideals and principles that become the mark of us all, my master, your master; we are all servants of these ideals and principles. And it is that servant-hood of those ideals and principles that martyrs us as a group. So, whoever does that has already provided for leadership forever. It is just that the Nigerian situation is destructive. Don’t forget that when he died, we were in the military regime; that was under the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. So, where was the space for the Awolowo type of leadership to emerge in that type of situation? When all that Nigerians were being told was that everybody had a price and that there was no ideal, no loyalty; all that is important is that you make money.
The Nigerian type of situation has no room for the Awolowo type of leadership; that is the truth of the matter. It is not that Chief Awolowo did not provide for succession to himself; he did. He created a team that was very solidly dedicated to ideals very high ideals and principles; and that team could have led Nigeria or any country in the world to greatness. I was invited to come and help write a cultural policy for Nigeria under regime of former military President Ibrahim Babangida. I couldn’t see myself serving under that type of government. No way! I couldn’t see myself doing so. I would have loved to sit down. I had taken part in some discussions of cultural policy for Nigeria in the past. I had attended the conference over it in Ghana; I was sent by the government under Murtala Muhammed. It was a subject I was interested in. I was the director of the Institute of African Studies.
But, Chief Awolowo served under Gowon, who was a military Head of State. Why didn’t you want to serve under the Babangida regime?
I didn’t want to go near the Babangida kind of government at all. I didn’t want to. Awolowo served under the military in a situation of dire emergency. The country was breaking up and when they asked him to come and serve, he met with us. He didn’t just grab the opportunity that they had asked me to come and serve, no, no. We held meetings. There were some of us who said don’t do it, and there were some others who said ‘Papa, if you don’t do it, you will be creating a bad historical record. This country is about to break up and we know with you in that government, you can help Nigeria to survive, so go and serve, but come out as quickly as possible, as soon as it is over.’ And that was what he did. As soon as it was over, he walked out of the government. That was the type of man Chief Awolowo was.
Chief Awolowo had the tradition of offering candid views and suggestions on prevailing situations in the country periodically. What do you think could have been his suggestions if he were alive, given the current predicament of the country? If Chief Awolowo were around, he would speak with a bigger voice than people like us can and he would be telling the world about the thing I am saying now – that they are destroying this country, that you people, you are destroying this country. It is not that there are no people to rule Nigeria decently, it is because some people think that it is their exclusive right to rule Nigeria. A political party was put together mostly by the energy and resources of the South-West under Bola Tinubu and others. The first thing that the Buhari government did was to push them aside and to make them nonentities. That’s not how to rule a country.
A political party came before all of us Nigerians and Nigerians said Buhari was our candidate. That party has a right to rule Nigeria. There is a contract between that party and Nigeria; and if anybody goes to push that party aside and then presume that you can rule Nigeria without it, you are doing something terrible. So, that is it. It is not a question of whether one likes Tinubu or anybody, no. It is a question of order. That’s how to have order. A party came before Nigerians and said this is our candidate, he is a good man and all that. They told all lies that political parties tell. We bought it, we voted for the man, he became our president. He is president only within the context of that party. For you now to come and gather some people who we do not know and hide them in some corner and ask them to be ruling us is a disorder. That is the situation, and Chief Awolowo, if he were alive, these are the things he would be saying with bigger voice than people like me, a university professor. He was our leader. This is what he would be telling the world.
I have always spoken with hope. I say some day, some of these boys playing around, little kids they don’t know themselves yet, these boys, you know, two-year old going to school, their sisters are carrying them on their back, one of them someday would show up and be the Awolowo of his time. I believe that will happen, I don’t think Awolowo is gone forever. The Awolowo quality will show up in some child; it will come.
To rule this country.
Maybe not rule this country, at least, he would give mankind the type of decent leadership that Awolowo represented.
People are already clamouring for restructuring of the country. What is your take? Let us restructure; that is the solution. We should restructure the country in a way that more powers should be devolved to the states. There is every need now to whittle down the powers at the centre. The centre is too powerful and controlling nearly all the resources of the country. That should not be so. We should make it in such a way that the centre, the Federal Government, should be left to control lesser resources to the advantage of the states. That’s how it should be. Let us restructure the country now.