Awo is still Relevant

by Emmanuel Omoh Esiemokhai


Through political struggles and national economic perseverance by ordinary Nigerians, the British colonial state was changed through evolutionary processes. There did not seem to exist in the 1950’s a potent national ideology to push a revolution against colonialism and imperialism but through hit-and-run measures, the colonial system was paralyzed.

Its colonial heritage in the legal and economic fields have remained substantially untouched although scratches on the old order have been the work of Nigerian political activism. The Royal Niger Company, which entrenched British colonial administration and strengthened commercial services around the Niger-Benue confluence lost its charter in 1900.

In 1900, the British Government “took over and renamed the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria with Sir Frederick Lugard as the first High Commissioner. Lugard established British administration by 1906. In 1906, the two separate protectorates in the south were merged to form the colony and protectorate of Southern Nigeria. In 1914, Lugard amalgamated the Northern and Southern Protectorates. A central administration was established and they were allowed to exist under Lieutenant Governors. The Protectorates were broken into Provinces over which Residents were posted. At the District and Divisional levels were British officials, who were directly responsible to the Residents. The colonial state thus had a legal and administrative edifice.

Awo commented extensively on the undemocratic nature of indirect rule in some vociferous statements in The People’s Republic (1968). He made the best out of the policy of regionalization and gave impetus to the economic administration of Western Nigeria. He promoted federalism in his “The Strategies and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria (1970). Claude Ake and Bade Onimode reflected critically on the events that took place in Nigeria’s colonial state in the area of its political economy, the formulation of the petit bourgeoisie class that later overthrew the British colonial administration. Awo being a produce buyer, a money lender, a lawyer and politician fitted into the petit bourgeoisie class. Through the National Youth Movement, both Zik and Awo impacted the process of de-colonization in Nigeria.

The Egbe Omo Oduduwa was founded by Chief Obafemi Awolowo in London in 1945. He found enthusiastic acceptance among Yoruba students in London at the time. An excellent write-up about the Egbe Omo Oduduwa by Prof. S. O. Arifalo in his contribution to the National Conference which was held at the University of Ife from 4th – 8th October, 1987 was apt I strongly recommend to any person, who wants to acquaint himself or herself with this excellent presentation on “Awolowo and the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, 1945-1948, to read Chapter 5, of the book, Obafemi Awolowo: The End of An Era?

The question still remains whether the Egbe Omo Oduduwa was a political strategy to halt the advancement of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, whose forays in Yorubaland became intimidating and touched upon Yoruba pride, which other nation-states thought was tribalism. His visit to the North in October 1952 to request the Saudauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello to rein in revolutionary avandgardists in the North, who were in favour of revolution in Nigeria did not go down well with Southern progressives.

He later became a democrat-Socialist and pushed for Federalism. He became a defender of human rights. He was impressed by the Ujamma Project of Julius Nyerere.

When Chief Obafemi Awolowo invited me to his Apapa residence in 1978, we discussed his political strategies for leading the UPN to electoral victory in 1979.

Awo’s passionate subject during our meeting was on the issue of human rights. It is true that Awo occupied himself more with politics and political philosophy. It is in his legal thoughts that the jurisprudence of his human rights crusade were embedded. Authors like Omoniyi Adewoye and Bayo Okunade treated with great energy and learnedness the cases in which Chief Awolowo was defence counsel or was a litigant. Awo opposed the inadequacy of human rights provisions in various Nigerian constitutions and even in the 1999 constitution, many rights are without adequate guarantees. He believed that national development must be built on human rights. He promised individual freedom, human dignity, the rule of law, material and cultural progress, happiness and political well-being.

He pleaded for the entrenchment of the Principle of Fundamental Human Rights in the 1960 independence constitution. He noted that these rights were for the protection of citizens at large against executive and legislative tyranny and excesses. Awo encouraged social movements to fight for human rights. Under Military rule in Nigeria, the rule of law often gave way to the rule of force.
During the Nigerian civil war, it was impossible to observe human rights because of the conflict of interest and disorganization in the society. Awo called on combatants to respect the human rights of civilians.

It is important to enforce human rights during state of emergencies in order to ameliorate the effects on individuals. Awo applauded Amnesty International for sustaining its campaign against human rights violations. He however, observed that there were impediments to human rights protection. He cited non-availability of legal institutions, non-ratification of treaties on human rights, reservations made by States in human rights treaties. There were unilateral derogations which could be superfluous and render the treaty on human rights inoperative. Also interpretative declaration, which amounts to a reservation could stultify the implementation of human rights convention. Awo regards economic and social rights as more relevant to citizens than political and cultural rights since one must have a good social standing to enjoy these rights.

On International Legal Impact on National Judicial Systems
In discussing the development of human rights under the United Nations system, Chief Awolowo acknowledged that the UN has had significant influence in the development of human rights both under municipal law and international law. This, he observed has strengthened democratic institutions world-wide.

He acknowledged that the campaign by the United Nations for the respect for human rights accelerated the de-colonization process in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the 1960’s. He said that he benefited enormously from the UN Charter, 1948, which enabled him to form the synthesis for his constitutional struggles both as a legal practitioner and vitigant. He observed that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not very precise yet, it formed the legal basis for the struggle against colonialism and against oppressive regimes world-wide.

On Apartheid
He gave strong support to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He challenged the Group Areas Act, which was passed by the apartheid regime in South Africa. He applauded the passage of the Declaration Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which he said concretized the provisions of the Universal Declaration of 1948.

He criticized some of the existing contracts in 1960 between British companies and Nigerian workers on the grounds that these were in conflict with human rights (see Drummon Wren (1945) (40. R 778) He spoke extensively on sections 17-32 of the Nigerian Constitution of 1963 and relevant sections of the 1979 Federal Nigerian Constitution. He noted that the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, under which individuals can take their states to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, was better than the Nigerian Federal Constitution lacked enforceability against the state.

Marxist Appraisal of the General Theory of Law
During our conversation

, referred to earlier, Awo inquired about my appraisal of the General Theory of Law under the Marxist jurisprudence and whether indeed they reflected legal reality. I adumbrated my perspectives on Marxist theory of law, which I later published on pages 232-233 of my book, “Human Rights in International Law” (1992). The General Theory of Law in Marxian dialectics, “studies legal reality as a whole. Unlike the specific legal disciplines, it has developed as a relatively independent field of legal science. According to Professor Nedbilo, it entertains a high degree of generalization. It is closely linked with philosophy and sociology, political science and history, which enables it to penetrate deeply into the nature of law and to answer many problems of social life that frequently go beyond the framework of jurisprudence and justice, special, value, axiological approach to legal and political reality. As a result of this, the socialist general theory of law is regarded as both a philosophy and sociology of law.

Prof. Nebilo, Kiev Law Lecture series 1965, also L. S. Jawitgch, 1981, page 8.

According to D. A. Kermov et all …… the methodological problems of understanding law are treated and expounded to a greater degree in the general theory of law than in any other branch of jurisprudence.

D. A. Kermanor and method of Legal Studies, Moscow 1974. See also Hermann Klenner, Rechtphilosophie in der Krise. Acad-Verlag, Berlin 1976. This is perhaps why one may see the content and essence of the general theory of law as encompassing “not only the ontology of legal reality but, also, to a considerable extent, its epistemology.

The job of the general theory of law is to concretise and re-work this means of mental mastery of the world in relation to the specific nature of law and to translate philosophical laws, categories and concepts, very precisely into the logical and categorical apparatus of jurisprudence.

And if the socialist science of law succeeded in principle, in overcoming the dogmatism and formation of juristic constructs, it is primarily because of materialist dialectic, which has through its flexibility exposed the role of law in a class society. Strictly speaking, the Marxist concept of law was the first to disclose the social nature of legal systems. It took over the best traditions of the philosophical and moral comprehension of legislation and justice, of the natural, human and socio-democratic essence of civil rights and freedoms re-working them on its own principles and norms and consistently applied the function of the General Theory of Law of the Marxist School of legal thought.

It is generally the opinion of Marxist legal scholars that “the Marxist Leninist general theory of law is called upon to bring out all the progressive democratic possibilities of the legal form of social relations to determine the creative potential of law and the social value of the rule of law and to show the significance of a human legal order in reforming social life on the principles of new socialist morality and on the firm basis of socialist relations of production, which are based on comradely mutual assistance and exclude the exploitation of man by man. L. S. Jawitsch, 1981 p.23

L. S. Jawitsch explains materialist dialectics as a universal means of understanding all phenomena of nature, society and thought. In this, dialectics functions both as logic and as the theory of knowledge. Plotinus (204.AD) had observed that “knowledge has three degrees, opinions, science, illumination. The instrument of the first is sense, of the second, dialectics and the third, intuition.
Awo impressed me as someone who was illuminated as a result of his famed association with learned societies, whose occultic dispositions had perhaps intrigued him.
His intuitive knowledge was profound and is reflected in his books.

Interaction with great minds is always a rewarding experience. In my case, after my meeting with Chief Obafemi Awolowo, some of his legal thoughts have had an indelible effect on me and resulted in my publishing “Human Rights in International Law” in 1992 and “Awo is still relevant” in 1997.

To ask whether Awo’s demise is the “End of an Era?” must take cognizance of the fact that his ideas like those of other great leaders, extend their influences to new eras.

1. Akin Mabogunje, “Awolowo as a Charismatic Leader” Obafemi Awolowo: The End of An Era,” Edited by Olasope O. Oyelaran, Toyin Falola, Mokugo Okoye, Adewale Thompson, University of Ife Press, 1988, page 4
2. Ibid, page 5
3. Ibid page 5
4. Ibid page 13

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