Last night I was unable to sleep, and I decided to engage in a bit of rabble-rousing. I stirred the hornet’s nest – and asked the sacrilegious question “What exactly has Awolowo done to merit the being deified”? Did I get stung! Sifting through the answers, and the emotions, I was able to draw some conclusions, which I will share below.
The background to this is the slew of comments I have encountered on Facebook over the past couple of weeks, stemming from Chinua Achebe’s opinion of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s actions – principally during the civil war. It seemed any attempt to question the value of Chief Awolowo’s actions sits smack in the zone of religious heresy. Given such high regard – I stood back from the noise to ask myself – “What has Awolowo done, really done, do deserve such unquestioning fealty?”
I evaluated the responses using a rubric applied by a man who has influenced me more than any other except my father – Nsa Harrison (a bit of name-dropping won’t be bad, eh?) This pretty much asks “What has he done?”, “What is the value?” and “Why was it done?”
The replies are grouped below:
1. Free education
2. Action Group / Political machinery
3. Infrastructure – Cocoa House, Liberty Stadium, WNTV
4. Tribune Newspapers
5. Cocoa boom
6. Ikenne rubber plantation
7. Industrial estates
8. Farm settlements for promoting rural economy and ensuring improved agricultural productivity
9. University of Ife
10. Honesty, i.e. he was honest.
Without trying to besmirch his character with hearsay or stories that are not in public domain, I will put in perspective all of these achievements listed above. I will however start by agreeing – Chief Awolowo was an intelligent man. This admission, I plead, should be the backdrop of every other thing I will say hereinafter. I will tackle the free education bit last – largely because it is the most contentious. Here is a quick dismissal of most of the others in no particular order.
Infrastructure – I opine that a number of what Chief Awolowo engaged in was tokenism He inherited an effective civil service that was put in place by the British colonialists and if it isn’t broken, why fix it? Establishing icons of regional supremacy – at a time when each region was trying to outdo the others was the order of the day. For each of the items listed under infrastructure carried out by Awolowo, there are more enduring “infrastructural legacies” put in place by IBB, yes, read Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. Yet, no one rushes to proclaim IBB lord and saviour – quite rightly so I must quickly add. What distinguishes Cocoa House (a skyscraper built with public funds from proceeds of cocoa) from the CBN HQ in Abuja (another skyscraper built with public funds from the proceeds of crude oil); or Liberty Stadium from National Stadium Abuja? For good measure IBB completed the 3rd Mainland Bridge in Lagos. I will re-visit this issue further down.
Tribune newspapers – Lord help me! A propaganda newspaper owned by a politician is now considered an earth-shaking achievement! For all its merits, the Nigerian Tribune was and still remains a privately owned company, run for the benefits of its shareholders – who I ought to point out are the descendants of Chief Awolowo. It was neither unique – all the major political ideologies had their respective publications – nor was it a forerunner by any means. I do not want to waste further time on this. Next?
Action Group / UPN – my response, AG was a socialist version of PDP. A bit of history – that can be independently verified here; Olabisi Onabanjo was jailed by the Buhari regime for diverting Ogun State funds to UPN. With the benefit of seeing things through an adult’s prisms now – I have often wondered what could the hapless Olabisi Onabanjo really do? He was the governor in Ogun State where Chief Awolowo (SAN) was the capo dei capi. Questions have been asked over the unduly lengthy prison sentence handed down to Gov. Onabanjo, few questions have ever been raised regarding the veracity of the accusation. And by the way, there goes your “Honesty” achievement. If anyone has time, read the Coker reports, not so much for their attempts to vilify Chief Awolowo but for the details of the financial shenanigans that went on under his watch or with his active connivance. Oh, I forget, it’s bad to speak ill of the dead.
Cocoa boom! May I point out – like I did last night, attributing cocoa boom to Awolowo is akin to attributing the current petroleum price boom to Goodluck Jonathan. Both are equally ludicrous, trust me on this one. These are internationally traded commodities, over which no single seller or buyer has appreciable impact on prices.
At this point, we start scraping the bottom of the barrel. Farm settlements, rubber plantations “etc, etc, utc”. These were essentially activities carried out by the WNDC, whose precursor, the Western Regional Production Development Board pre-date Chief Awolowo; but we are not taught this in school. We are taught about WNDC / Oodua Group of Companies which handled these development projects. It was a mixed bag – there were embarrassing failures as well as some resounding successes. Interestingly, the financial success of the WNDC was engineered by a young Alfred Rewane; but I guess it took the divine vision of Chief Awolowo to enter into partnership with Alfred Rewane. Situating a rubber plantation in Ikenne is a matter that will always be subject to debate – was it an ego trip to satisfy the lord and master himself in the face of contrary advice by meteorological services? What is indisputable was that the Sapele plantations have fared better. Honesty… I’ll leave the reader to conclude.
University of Ife… Jo now! Established in 1962, alongside ABU and Unilag, behind University of Nigeria, Nsukka; this was the result of another regional race for educational supremacy and more importantly, the Ashby Commission Report – carried out before independence. I guess, like everything else, we were taught in primary school – Awolowo established the University of Ife. And we believed it. Without question, he was involved in his capacity as the premier of Western Nigeria pre-independence, but so were other regional premiers. I really do not know what to make of this point though, universities were established before and after my Alma Mater, the University of Ife. Is it an earth-shaking, heaven-rending event worthy of apotheosis? I do not know.
Finally free education! My people love awoof! A clear mind is required here. So I’ll crave the indulgence of the reader. I asked, and I still ask, what was the value of free education? The response then ranged from biased to the vague. I’ll quote someone a response here “Free education created an enlightened society, tolerance and mutual respect within the Yoruba. That sums up all his achievements!” My retort to this vague remark – were Yorubas an unenlightened, barbaric and rambunctious lot before Awolowo’s free education policy? If the answer to this is “yes”; then I will agree that indeed the free education policy “created an enlightened society, tolerance and mutual respect within the Yoruba”. Then I got this one, “Free education that has placed the southwest on a pedestal”. Again, the same regurgitated dogma we have been handed down by the ethnicists of the AG/UPN machinery. What pedestal? The first Nigerian vice-chancellors of the University of Ibadan and the University of Lagos were Igbo men!
The argument then goes on in circle about how Yorubas have been exposed to Western education long before other ethnic groups, blah, blah, blah. If indeed this were the case – a wide exposure to Western education, as opposed to an elitist exposure – the free education policy would effectively be a redundant policy, because Chief Awolowo would have been offering for free, what was already widely available and which everyone was willing to pay for. So, it was either Western education was not widely available, and Chief Awolowo made it available – which falls flat in the face of the missionary schools established as far back as the 1860s in Abeokuta, Ibadan and other parts of what would become Western Nigeria; or Western education was widely available and the free education policy was just another cheap populist policy.
Huff and puff aside, let’s examine the free education policy. The free education policy was “mandatory and free primary school education”; it did not extend beyond this. Bear in mind that before this was implemented, the colonial government had been subsidising the mission schools whilst monitoring their performance. In 1955, when the policy was implemented, there were 6,407 primary schools; this figure reached its peak of 6,670 by 1958, after which there was a steady decline in the number of primary schools to 6,311. The enrolment in schools increased from 456,000 before the policy was implemented to a peak of 1.13 million in 1961, the rate of increase over time however decreased until 1962 when there was a reduction in the absolute number of enrolments. Quite apart from mass enrolment – there is a feature of the period that is not often discussed – mass and automatic promotion, regardless of academic standards. This factor has been held by some to be responsible for the initial decline in educational standards from that which was set by the mission and colonial schools. What is equally questionable is the sustainability of this welfare policy – by 1964, this constituted about 40% of the total government recurrent expenditure (compare this to 14% for the UK government). Like many policies of the AG era, I can safely say again – this was a mixed bag, it granted literacy to many families who perhaps were otherwise indifferent, but lowered the overall standards in a bid to do so. It certainly was one policy which would have required significant overhaul had it been allowed to run its course.
Honesty and infrastructure revisited.
Take this to the bank – Gowon did more for the infrastructure of Nigeria than Awolowo did for the Western Region when he held sway there. The last significant investments in pylons for the electricity network, roads and bridges were carried out by Gowon; without a whiff of financial impropriety attached to his name. No one is yet to deify Gowon. So I ask, why am I barred from subjecting Awolowo’s performance to further scrutiny.
I realised after a lot of thought that many of us – Nigerians – have not been encouraged to challenge what we are taught in school. Consequently, it is easy for a state funded school to impart propaganda of any sort at an early age and this remains unchallenged for decades afterwards. Heck, Nigerian schools still teach that Mungo Park discovered the River Niger!
Education is meant to empower us to probe – and revisit long-held dogmas. Sadly, it seems many of us just go to school to acquire the credentials to enable us earn a living and pass the dogma to the next generation. This reluctance to challenge the status quo, invariably seeps through to other facets of our lives; so – using an underhand example – Fashola is seen as performing in Lagos State in the face of the laughable state of affairs, woe betide anyone who disagrees. A scoundrel is asiwaju of somewhere and everyone kowtows to him without questioning his competence. Some mini-bandit somewhere calls himself eze gburugburu ndi igbo and we all genuflect before him. Another bestows on himself the Seriki of Arewa and we shout “rankadede”! All without asking – “why?”.
I owe Nsa Harrison a debt of gratitude for shattering this attitude – for I once was like this as well – when he asked us in 2001, name your Nigerian hero, tell us why he is your hero, and tell us what he or she has done. I left that class with Nsa knowing we had no heroes in Nigeria. And in the lacuna created by the paucity of genuine heroes, bold charlatans and Machiavellian politicians strut their stuff.