Obafemi Awolowo
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Had Awolowo Decided: A Critical Assessment of the Dilemma of a Nation

When a race is less critical, it is more likely to make less advancement

Nigeria we hail thee
Our own dear native land
Though tribes and tongue may differ
In brotherhood we stand
Nigerians all, are proud to serve
Our sovereign Motherland.

Our flag shall be a symbol
That truth and justice reign
In peace or battle honour’d,
And this we count as gain,
To hand on to our children
A banner without stain.

O God of creation
Grant this our one request.
Help us to build a nation
Where no man is oppressed
And so with peace and plenty
Nigeria may be blessed.

(Nigerian National Anthem-1960-1978. Lyrics by Lillian Jean Williams, Jonathan xuk Music by Frances Berda)

Arise, O Compatriots
Nigeria’s Call Obey
To serve our fatherland
With love and strength and faith
The labour of our heroes past,
shall never be in vain
To serve with heart and might,
One Nation bound in freedom, peace and unity

Oh God of creation, direct our noble cause
Guide our leaders right
Help our youth the truth to know
In love and honesty to grow
And living just and true
Great lofty heights attain
To build a nation where peace and justice reigns.

Lyrics : John A. Ilechukwu, Eme Etim Akpan, B. A. Ogunnaike, Sota Omoigui and P. O. Aderibigbe, 1978, Music: Nigerian Police Band under the directorship of B. E. Odiasse,

Executive Summary

Professor Soyinka wrote in his memoir “You Must Set Forth at Dawn” that he once approached the great Awólówò and threw on his table the thought of an opportunity for the Yorùbá group to leave Nigeria. The ball was put on Awólówò’s court to help decide a pathway forward as this would have eliminated the option of the Nigeria civil war of the mid-1960s. That must have been a challenging decision to make- with many things put on the table to consider- and as a result, the opportunity of a new republic was lost. A lost opportunity at that time only meant postponed decision for another period and perhaps it becomes more difficult to decide to secede now as opposed to then (pre-civil war era when the Igbo(s) were set to demand secession). A much younger actor who is to be baptised Moses and renamed Kúrunmí is on the horizon. He is demanding secession and pursuing the agenda of Yorùbá nation that excludes the reluctant Yorùbá elites but drawing his authority from the average man and woman on the street is now making waves. What are the options opened to Sunday Ìgbòho, how will he navigate the ocean of crises ridden decisions that must be made. No doubt, for as long as a multi-ethnic confluence exists, the thought and question of separation will always be both perennial and a dilemma.

Overview:

In recent times, the global pandemic, COVID-19, where people had been locked down and movements had literarily been cancelled has not succeeded in moderating growing agitations for nationhood in Nigeria. One would have imagined that lockdown, social distancing, mouth and nose cover would hinder the debates for self-rules. However, suddenly, the clamour for the creation of Odùduwà Country became louder than it has ever been. Rather than demoralising any agitation, the consequences of Covid-19 has been responsible for sharp rise in self-rule agitations particularly in the south west as manifestation of the increasingly economic deprivation, more social dislocation and failure of the government to provide safety nets and palliatives for the people. I tried to stay away from the discussions because I was afraid that the fire of agitation would start, but would suddenly quench with the same energy with which it started. But this time, it seems not to be dying but to be getting louder. The reason for the continuous inflammation of the fire is not unconnected to the general frustration in Nigeria and the economic challenges Nigeria is currently going through. My thoughts today are to wonder, how we got here; to this stage of clamour for nationhood and if we could have sorted this out before it peaked to its present state.

When I was in school in the early 70s, students were required to recite the Nigeria national anthem with robotic precisions. The first anthem prayed to God to “Help us build a nation, where no (man) is oppressed”. The intention of that line was to engage a country where every man, woman, child, ethnic or religious group and perhaps animal does not feel oppressed by others but where everyone feels, a great sense of belonging. Later it was  substituted for another anthem that says “the labour of our heroes past shall never be in vain”. The words of the anthem were supposed to inspire us to honour the decisions of our leaders as the right decisions that were best for the country and not for them. As a consequence, their honour must be condoned and respected.

In retrospect, I cannot but hate the system that made me cram and robotically recite those anthems which had little meaning to the leaders and which have eventually turned out to be of no consequence at all. This is because decisions were not always made in the best interests of the country but taken over the ambitions of the leaders. There are hardly any consequences for taking wrong decisions except some occasional rebukes and history is never told with the inclusion of those decisions. It was their selfish political ambitions to rule that were the favourites of their decisions and hardly the consideration of generations “born or yet unborn”.

One of these heroes is the much-respected Chief Jeremiah Obáfémi Oyèníyì Awólówò. Respected for his political vision and leadership and worshipped almost to the point of deification among his Yorùbá ethnic group. the great maverick politician of the old, the indefatigable leader of many energetic followers, the brain behind the ravishing brains of young excited politicians of Egbé Omo Odùduwà (1948-1951), Action Group (AG, 21 March 1951,- 16 January 1966- the political party of likes of Anthony Ènáhòrò, Adéníran Ògúnsànyà) and Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN: 1978-1983). In no small way, was Awólówò a true leader. His mind was far above the mind-sets of leaders of his generation, yet he was humbled enough to condone and managed all. He was above being ordinary and was respected for his intellectual contribution to the Nigerian political development.

My familiarity with Chief Obáfémi Awólówò

I am a native of Ìkénné, Ìkénné – at least I was made to realize that this is my official town of origin or native town as we used to refer to the city/ town where our progenitors came. Late Chief Obáfémi Oyèníyì Awólówò too, was a native of Ìkénné. So, I shared a certain level of familiarity with this great man and great politician who was highly revered in Nigeria and feared by his opponents and detractors. I met him personally a couple of times and enjoyed personal and sentimental attachments to Awólówò. Therefore, with those levels of personal connections and familiarity, how insane can it be for me to second guess what Awólówò should or should not have done in circumstances that I am going to cite in this piece? And besides, Awólówò has long been gone; “deader than dead”. Unfortunately for all of us, the current generations only know him from the name of streets and re-named Universities and hardly more. We barely read histories nor are curious about the efforts of our past heroes. And so, of what wisdom is it for me to dedicate precious time second-guessing a hero, who lived with people that worshipped him and had been long gone (March 6, 1909- May 9, 1987).

It has been over 65 years since Nigeria obtained her right to rule herself and got independence from the British Colonial Empire. Throughout these decades and long years, Nigeria has witnessed its own share of ups and downs and most often very terrible moments with few moments of joy. There have been so many mismanaged expectations; the economy has crumbled so many times that we all lost count. Nigerians have been begged to be patient with many different governments and economic policies. We have been asked by politicians to fast, to pray, to keep vigils and assured that things would be better. But in none of these pleas have things been better. The pains have transformed the costs of being a Nigerian and living in Nigeria has been very dire. Politicians were well paid and those who stole pension funds of working-class people were let off the hook to come back and display their acquired status of being untouchable. Things got so bad that the future truly became bleak! There was nothing else to look up to again; no messiah on the horizon to bail the country out of her miseries. There were no jobs coming up in the future and the social infrastructures were simply not going to be better.

It was in this spirit of despair, that the youths gave up hoping that Nigeria would be better, took their constitutional right to protest and martyred themselves as they protested the “EndSARS” and demanded answers regarding how their future would be. In the true form of Nigeria, some of these protesters were shot with live bullets and they too wrapped the dead in the green white green Nigerian flag. NOW the flag is stained with physical blood; the blood of its youths, its emerging generation. Now the green-white-green flag is no longer a “banner without stain but a banner with stain”. And in response, the Presidency of Bùhárí opined that the youths wanted to remove him from office. Things are no longer about Nigeria; they are about the survival of those who feel that they alone are Nigeria.

Amidst these national questions, the other pains Nigerians have been enduring reared their heads in obvious colours; the menace of the Fulani marauders. These became more intolerable as they penetrate the mid-west, the central and the south-south states leaving behind messes of blood destruction of farmlands and livestock, destruction of villages, rapes, kidnapping and general insecurity in the villages, towns and cities of Nigeria. Kidnapping is not only restricted to isolated areas alone, kidnappers even went into people’s homes, knocked at their doors and took them from their sleep. Nowhere is safe anymore. Yet the president’s mindset is that every policy critique or complaint or protest against his government is meant to remove him from office. Even if these were to be true, is occupation of political office meant to be for life? The mindsets of our leaders are to view oppositions and critique as personal attacks rather than constructive suggestions on how to make things better. This is also due to the fact that these leaders have always thought, political offices are their birthright and not privileges.

Nigerians with vocal platforms seek public statements from the president to assure them the country would read less breaking news of kidnapping and violence, that the mayhem would stop, perpetrators would be arrested and Nigeria would be safe and liveable again. But his silence created another problem; the problem of nations rising up and questioning the union and amalgamation of 1914.

Then the unpalatable rod of self-defence and ethnic governance reared its head again. Unlike when it was in the civil war of 6 July 1967 – 15 January 1970 (2 years, 6 months, 1 week and 2 days) when Nigerians of Igbo extraction wanted secede; this time, the ethnic group that played privileged group during the civil war- the Nigerians of Yoruba extraction now wants out. So, now turbulence is becoming a daily occurrence; houses are burnt down, people are killed, ethnic jingoists are now becoming heroes, advocating for the session of Odùduwà Republic. Folks who, ordinarily are without the maturity or loud voices are now the super mouthpieces of the race! While one will take nothing away from these socio-cultural heroes, one needs to review how we got to this point of hero-worshipping and if we could have avoided it.

The different nations of Nigeria have never actually trusted one another. They are full of suspicion and they know that the conglomerations were done without consulting them. The error committed way back in 1914 when all the protectorates of Nigeria were merged together are now showing up as bases of irreconcilable differences and a marriage that was never ever meant to last forever but for the length of its convenience and endurance. Nations lord it over the others and project each as though they were better than others within the conglomerations. This type of feeling of superiority in the marriage of convenience expedites the inevitable question of whether or not “we are happy together”. Had the British been fair to history, had the colonial masters been honest to acknowledge that they amalgamated nations that would ultimately distrust one another and had they allowed each group to leave and exist to search for its own grace, the entities in Nigeria might have been better. Each would have developed at its own pace and each pace would have suited its natural and mineral resources which would have lubricated its engines of survival.

Perhaps the best of all the chances for the major nations of Nigeria to leave without violence and bloodshed was when, before the civil war of 1969, the Yoruba group was offered the opportunity to also leave the amalgamation of Nigeria and thus prevent Nigeria from embarking on a war to keep the Igbo race together with Nigeria. According to Wolé Soyinka’s account, this ball to break the tie fell on the laps of Chief Obáfémi Oyèníyì Awólówò. It was his decision to save Nigeria from its inherent messes or to extend the mess for a longer time. Chief Obáfémi Oyèníyì Awólówò, in the counsel of the men and women he led (significant numbers of whom were young(er) radicals and highly progressive people who would have jumped at the prospects of a Yorùbá Republic like; Bólá Ìgè, Làtéèf Jákà´ndè, Ebenezer Babátópé, Bísí Ònábánjo, the legal luminary Abraham Adésànyà, Ayò Adébánjo, etc. all of who would have easily been persuaded to decide in favour of secession or lay down their lives pursuing such progressive decision), said that the Yorùbá race was not interested in leaving the “contraption” called Nigeria. Few days after Awólówò rejected the offer to leave the contraption, he was invited to join the military government of General Yakubu Gowon and became the second in command- a very juicy and brilliant position for someone of his calibre, integrity, intelligence, advanced thinking, strategic planning, logical reasoning and constructive leadership. Was the decision not to leave in the best interest of the Yorùbá race, or was it, as it appeared to every thinking or critical being, that Awólówò was positioning himself for a greater role in a contrived Nigeria rather than a sectional leader of a “small” race?

While it is true that decisions taken in the heat of the moment might not necessarily be accurate, it is fair to respect the inaccuracies. It is also true that we cannot determine right now if Awólówò’s invitation to government by Gowon was an inducement or compensation for the sacrifices he made for not leading the Yorùbá race into the war or out of Nigeria. One will never know. We can only interpret the handwriting as it appeared on the wall.

And what did the handwriting read like? Part of the handwriting was that Awólówò was ever relentless in the pursuits of power. No doubt, he was “the best president Nigeria never had” (à la Odumegwu Ojukwu), but throughout his political career, it was only him who was the best to lead the party and no one else was offered as a presidential candidate, not even any of the young Awoists. Was that handwriting not that  of someone who would sell off the future of a race for the benefit of being called The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria? Examine the case of Mahatma Gandhi who fought and made incredulous personal sacrifices for the independence of Indian. He never ran for political office as the Prime Minister but nominated Jawarhl Nehru who went on to become the first Prime Minister of Independent India. As providence would have it, three generations of Gandhi ruled India after the demise of Mahatma. But Awólówò did not play Godfather to younger Awoists and never prepared anyone else to be president apart from him. Would such a leader not compromise in his decisions when there was a greater political profit to be made?

It is both difficult to conclude and unfair to second-guess that decision taken 55+ years ago. The reluctance of politicians of Yorùbá extraction to support the current agitation for separation can also be used as evidence of how tough the decision could have been for Awólówò to conclude. Till today, we have no evidence that the Yoruba people would have been better for it economically or socially, or if they would have supported a campaign aimed at secession had Awólówò pushed the secession questions of 1967. Was the ground fertile for such agitation during this period, were there grounds for secession, were the Yorùbá suffering any structural impediment to their dignity and honour as citizens in the same manner in which the other ethnic groups such as the Igbo were suffering during this period? These were rhetoric that were taken for granted in this piece because there are no empirical data or referendum supporting these rhetorics. We have no data of whether a tiny or overwhelming majority of the Yorùbá people in this period were in support of secession. What we have, is just an emotional guess that it might have been easier to dismantle the three amalgamated regions of Nigeria then (pre-civil war) than it will be now-2021. As a result of what we have- the emotional guess, the blame game on what Awólówò should have done or not is becoming weakened. But it is also true that a forward-looking leader looks at history and projects for the future. While one might be apt to accept that as humans, we are susceptible to errors of judgment, but being objectively critical and not just nodding at things is a significant attitude necessary for making social progress. In the wisdom of our Yorùbá sages, “bí omodé bá subú, á wo iwájú: bí àgbàlagbà bá subú, á wo èyìn wò” meaning, when a youth trips and falls, s/he looks ahead to see if there are other obstacles. But when an elder, a sage, a more experienced person trips, the sage looks backward at errors or omissions, or mistake, that must have caused the fall with the view to learning from the experience. It is in that light that we must look at this piece, not as a chastisement of the personality of Awólówò for any offense committed other than accepting where we, as a people, erred.

The day of reckoning is now here. That decision we did not take then is now scratching us in the face now; as a people, as a race and as a country. When they asked us to recite the anthem that the efforts of our heroes past shall never be in vain, they should also have asked us to include in the recitation, that history will judge them for the right and wrong decisions they took. It is time for us to imagine if Awólówò had so nobly taken the counsel and proposed that the Yoruba too would like to leave. The race have more than enough academics- the intelligential- to reason about the appropriateness of such a proposal and to justify it. Had Awólówò decided to move with the Yorùbá away from Nigeria, what would life be? How will the demography be described today?

Since the 1960s, it had been clear that there was something wrong with our being together. However beautiful it was, however gigantic the dream was, however true that “Though tribes and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand” but the benefits of such unity had been lost when one ethnic group wants to lord it over the others. “Ajòje o dùn bí enìkan o bà ní” the joy and fun of communal sharing is defeated when one of the participants do not bring anything to the table. The “…in brotherhood we stand” cannot have significant meaning when one, out of three is a super race and the one who has always been promoting itself, imposing its race on others and giving itself credits while others who are due are pushed off the trail does not put anything on the table as its own sacrifice for the union.

Oh, I lay the blame at the doorstep of Awólówò. He knew there was something wrong and things were not right. Had Awólówò decided to take the bull by the horn, will the Yoruba race still be in the shape and form it is today? For decades, qualified Yoruba (and indeed Southern Nigerian) men and women in the Nigeria Civil Service have been pushed aside while Kaduna Mafia ensured that those of their tribesmen who were least qualified both in talent and required educational status and therefore without merits, took the senior management positions at federal ministries and parastatals to the detriments of qualified southerners. It is mind-boggling how, during the military era, Hausa men were promoted several levels in one promotion cycle and how they keep watch of every available vacancy to ensure there were available Hausa men prepared to fill the space before a southerner was moved up in the ladder. There is hardly a family in the south that do not have stories of being cheated out of deserved top positions and promotion in the Service because the wrong person with the right cultural belonging was preferred and chosen. It could not have been that the super brilliant and first-class politician like Awólówò did not see the handwriting on the wall that things could not go on like this. Again, I wonder where the Yorùbá would have been, had Awólówò decided to move the race out of Nigeria!

Professor Wolé Sóyinká wrote in “You Must Set Forth At Dawn: A Memoir”, that when he took the chance to meet with the secessionist leader of the southeast, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu on the counsel that the war was ill-advised and senseless, Ojukwu promised not to engage in the war if the Yorùbá(s) also opt-out of the contraption called Nigeria. He relayed this wish to Awólówò who said he would think about it first. A few days later, Awólówò was appointed the highest civilian position in the then Yakubu Gowon’s government with a non-evidence based perjury that there must have been an understanding that when the military vacate the government, Awólówò and his political party would have the best opportunity to lead a new democratic Federal Republic of Nigeria. That, rather than the wisdom of secession, must have been the motivation and the answer was then obvious. And so Awólówò did not only announce that the Yoruba would not be leaving Nigeria, but he ensured that the civil war that followed was executed to precision and the Igbos were defeated in a “no victor, no vanquish way” and forced to remain in Nigeria. Even the “Aburi Accord” (the name of the peace agreement reached in a reconciliation negotiation in 1967 by the government of Nigeria and the Biafra Republic) which was meant to channel a pathway forward in the secession war, was jettisoned the moment Gowon returned to Nigeria from Aburi, Ghana where the peace talk was held. Now the toes of a wrongly buried ancestor are showing up; the mess is for everyone to bear.

I am one of those who hero-worshipped Awólówò- and for the right reasons too- because truly, he deserves it; he led the UPN government that gave free education that took folks out of poverty, free medical care and led the best policy gifts in the southwest. However, there is no hiding the fact that he made a crucial decision then that is affecting future generations and he must be told (even though he is no longer alive) that his was a wrong decision. Had he decided to take the Yoruba race out of the slavery we were subjected to since the 1960s, perhaps, we would have advanced in technology, perhaps electricity would be functioning more regularly than now, perhaps the academia would have been more productive rather than blackmailing us to submission at the whims and caprices of each union leader, perhaps there would have been competitions amongst the various ethnic groups of former Nigeria, so fiercely it would be tagged healthy and productive competition.

Had Awólówò decided in the affirmative, why would we need an Aàre Ònà Kankanfò; the Yorùbá Generalissimo who has no temerity to say “Ótó gé”? Why will we need to beg the personality of Sunday Ìgbòho to come and rescue and perhaps lead us? Well…, Awólówò did not decide but decisions still have to be made. The struggles for human dignity, cultural rights, the sense of belonging, the joy of nationhood and the pride in a nation that truly has prospects- a nation where there “will be men who have honour; men who will not lie” must be embarked on and fought. Although Awólówò chose to be a national hero, reserving his political capital for the future when he would be the president of the republic rather than a sectional leader (something he had earlier demonstrated when he left his position as Premier of the Western region to attempt to gain the political power to rule Nigeria), still we are here and decisions must be made.

If we accept that Awólówò goofed in the landmark decision he took which would have given us different narratives today, what can we do about it; what is the way forward? Obviously, the present crop of leaders, who benefit from the imperfectness of the union, are unconcerned and nonchalant about synergizing Nigeria’s previous histories with the present narratives to produce a sound dialectic. Obviously, those who are hailing Sunday Ìgbòho to go on; “Máa jó lo mo wo èyìn re”, are those who are poor and who have given up on any miracle that would make them another Òtédólá or the tyre merchant of the old, Òdútólá, but are prepared to accept the imagination or mirage of an Odùduwà Republic as a substitute to the current crisis-ridden country with ubiquitous fears of kidnapping, encroachment of farmlands, insensitive leaderships, lack of social justice and economic prosperity. History has shown that previous dialogues were nothing but talk shows and the Nigerian political class loves the jamborees because they buy them time and provide them false importance of their status as champions. Where do we go from here and what are the ways forward? In the absence of any drinkable water, people will accept a mirage and drink it even if it is an illusion!

Moving forward and going beyond the rhetoric of blame games and undermining the secessionist struggles, rather than engaging in continuous battles of an illusion of a glorious empire, why don’t we adopt a more academic approach and consider the following steps first before other battles

  1. Should we not begin more academic or intellectual discussions about what the Odùduwà Republic will look like if and when granted? So far, no one is talking about the look of the Republic but just assuming that things will fall in place
  2. Should we not begin to propose a map that guides the geographical scope of the Republic so that everyone living within the proposed territory can accept a referendum that confirms them as members of the Republic?
  3. Should we not begin to compel our elected representatives about what we want rather than what they want?
  4. Should we not begin to persuade our distractors about how the Republic will look, how it will be governed, how it will be different from the current scheme of things and how it will be a glorious substitute of the present conglomeration of nations?

You have to look first at the foundation that will give rise to the civil service structure. Meaning, what will be the power relations between the governed and the elites in a supposed Oòduà nation. What type of political and judicial system do you foresee. How will the system adopted make political and elite corruption less appealing with credible governing institutions and an empowered citizenry to ensure transparency and accountability?

  1. If the rest of Nigeria should call the bluff now and give the Yorùbá(s) a nation, how do we ensure that the mess we as we have identified with Nigeria will be corrected in the new Republic? For instance, what will the civil service look like in the new republic? What will be the foundation of that civil service and the structure; how will workers’ pension be protected; how will leadership be structured; what system of governance will be put in place as opposed to the one we are currently going through?
  2. What will be the power relations between the government, the governed and the elites in a supposed Odùduwà nation. What type of political and judicial system do we foresee in the new republic. How will the system adopted make political and elite corruption less appealing with credible governing institutions and an empowered citizenry to ensure transparency and accountability?….And if the current one is perfect- why then are we leaving?
  3. Should we be on the same page that while getting the nod of the traditional institution as a strategy for engaging in the agitation, consulting the Oba-s and Baálè-s is starting off from the middle and not from the top of the “to do” lists? When the fire of revolution gets ignited, the traditional political class will not be under any illusion of their present status in the scheme of things.
  4. Should we not approach this clamour for a new nation with more matured and intellectual fire-power than previous agitations? The maturity in the style will include compiling a compendium of claims about Rights and Privileges; the case of irreconcilable differences in the marriage of 1914; the legal proof of the legitimacy of the right to secede and so one and so forth and garnishing these with precedence such as former Senegambia (now Senegal and Gambia), former Sudan (now Sudan and Southern Sudan), former Czechoslovakia October 1918- 1 January 1993 (now Czechs and Slovakia), former Yugoslavia- 1918- 25 June 1991 (now Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) etc.

So, before we begin to castigate Sunday Ìgbòho and his emergence as a new ethnic hero, we should realize that we would not have gotten to this stage Had Awólówò Decided earlier when the opportunity presented itself; to lead the Yorùbá out of the journey of 40 years in a 40 days paradigm of the biblical wilderness thereby baptising Sunday Ìgbòho as Moses and to addressed as the Yorùbá nation’s new Generalissimo- Kúrunmí!

May God guide and bless those who have to decide on behalf of others; with strength and courage to make the right decisions, with boldness to implement the right counsels, with sincerity to realize that what they do today will affect the children of Yorùbá parents born and yet unborn and the temerity to admit when they are tired or limited. In the words of Nigeria’s old and discarded anthem:

O God of creation

Grant this our one request.

Help us to build a nation

Where no man is oppressed

And so with peace and plenty

Yorùbá nation may be blessed.

Written by
Dele A. Sonubi
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