By Adewale Adeoye
In my opinion, Obafemi Awolowo is the greatest African that ever lived. I do not expect everyone to agree with me. Four elements stood Awo out: Selflessness, Discipline, Honesty and his preference for Knowledge. Let us take them one after the other.
Selflessness: Awo worked for his people. He put the interest of the people first. I was once told by an elderly man that Yoruba people and their leaders are like the hen and her chicks: The chicks find the route, the mother hen follows unlike others, who are like the duck. The mother duck leads and the ducklings follow. For the Yoruba, the people are the guide of their chosen leaders who is like fish in water that becomes hollow without the water. For others, the leader gives orders, but for the Yoruba, the people decide for their leader what they want and the leader appropriates the majority views and make it law.
In recent times, a new generation of Yoruba leaders has tried to reverse this fiercely democratic culture, without success. They nevertheless impose and parade themselves as leaders but in reality, command no natural respect expect the euphoric dignity purchased by cash.
Discipline: Awo was a man of organizational and personal discipline. He kept records of his daily life. During my last visit to Ikene, I beheld his personal diary and was excited by his diligence. In the party, Awo had his opinion, but the view of the majority would prevail. He was a very honest man. He did not lie or deceive his people. He never gave promises he could not fulfill and above all, there were no records he knew any other lady apart from his jewel, Hannah. Awo studied hard and had a brilliant position on every issue. At less than 40, he had written many books on the challenges of Nigeria and how to fix them. He came with Democratic Socialism. This is the new wave in Europe decades after Awo.
Knowledge: One of his most important traits is his preference for knowledge. Brain is superior to brawn. Greatest countries of the world are driven by ideas. The people that rule the world, whose names remain as timeless as diamond, are those driven by knowledge. Ideas produced cell phones, computers and their micro chips, the airplane, the submarine and the new social media handles that transmits messages in seconds.
Leaders of today would prefer to give you cash and not knowledge and this is the reason their policies are never long lasting. This is the reason that for the past one century, Awo is the most dominant personality of discuss in Nigeria and in Yorubaland. Awo built a succession of leaders through the “Summer SCHOOL” located at Ibadan dedicated to the thorough training of leaders.
Free Education and Free Health: This takes me to his policy on free health and education which he launched in 1954. I stand to say that what revolutionized the Yoruba and old Western region were three things: Free Education, Free Health and the Organisational discipline of the Action Group, (AG) led by Awo.
How did he do it? Of course, through share knowledge-that weapon that opens the door of impossibility. When Awo muted the idea the British said it was utopian, the same way Singapore was never given a chance after leaving Malaysia in 1965. Even the then Finance secretary in Western Region, a civil servant said it was impossible. But Awo knew where there are honest ideas and ideology, any blockade would be removed.
Chief S.O Awokoya, the then Minister of Education had produced the blueprint after intensive debate by the AG informed by the template already designed by Chief Adekunle Ajasin after the AG inaugural party held in Owo, Ondo State. Awo’s team began with research. The cell recalled a Yoruba man of international standing, Dr Adenola Igun who was then working for the United Nations. He came to Western Region and initiated the first Statistics section. Today, our leaders have no effective statistics and can hardly plan. With this, the party discovered there were 170,000 pupils that would enroll in schools by 1955 based on the 1952 census.
It gave a graphic image of what work needed to be done. Ironically, it was this knowledge of statistics that made Awo to realize for the first time that the 1952 census was censored to disfavor the Western Region by imperial powers because when it was resumption time, close to 410,000 pupils came up to enroll in schools across the SW instead of the projected 170,000.
What did Awo do? He put on his thinking cap. First, the AG introduced Education and Health tax of 10 shillings. Each male adult was to pay. Female was excempted, except for women in Ijebu where Awo came from. He went home, lived with the women and called on them to make the sacrifices for their son. They did. He also introduced salt tax. Is there man born of woman that does not take salt? No. He hiked capitation from 6 pence to 10 shillings and 6 pence. He introduced lottery. He did something significant. It was not without resistance. He was derided. In Badagry, armed group rose. They seized some parts of the creek. They hated the idea of tax. Awo took Canoe, with the then Oba Akran. He met the rebels. He convinced them.
There was pressure from party members who saw the project as an opportunity to make money. Party members scrambling for contracts to secure supply of wood and buildings were shunned. Awo approached the communities to take over the responsibility. You can hardly steal community funds. This was the beginning of Community Schools. It became a competition. The people on their own made sacrifices to ensure their communities had the best primary and secondary schools. Today, the Free Education, free health programmes, whatever is the grandeur of the Yoruba people and Western region, was the pillar and the impact, endureth unto this day.
The education was with Culture. From primary schools, pupils learnt folklore of the tortoise, all ended up teaching that greed , avarice, indolence were bad. Through those books, Alawiye and others, pupils were thought to honour knowledge and hardwork in different ways. Yoruba people became distinguished all over the world with strength of character and knowledge.
Community schools meant children of cobblers, hunters, plamwine tappers, armed and defenseless people alike would share the same class and interact, poor, rich. Today, there are different schools for children of the rich and the poor and the haves and the nothings. This sows the seed of hate and everlasting exclusion, partly the root of disconnect, violence and societal disorder that we have today These children of the rich come back to rule an society they dont understand. They dont know the meaning of poverty and view such with disdain.
Yes. Awo proved that around us is wealth. We are poor because we lack ideas. It reminds me of the story of an African King and his American friend who were on holidays in a tall Hotel overlooking the ocean in India. At the duck were thousands of poor, shoeless Indians with their tattered clothing. It was in the 1900s. The African King looked through the building and proclaimed: “this is poverty. Thousands of people without shoes.” The American looked through and said: ‘This is not poverty, but wealth. Shoe business.’ The American went back to his country and shipped in thousands of shoes, all exhausted right at the port of entry. He went back again and again. He became a multimillionaire. The King went back to his dominions, poor-stricken, except for his colourful dresses that would be eaten by ants, at the passage of time. A visionless leader looks up and sees only the moon disc, but a great leader sees almost any creature within the tiny moon: Art, science, drawings, oranges, apples, cloud, heat and even a blonde, smiling at roses. Awo remains a legend that continues to dwarf past and present leaders.
Our society is driven by Power and Primitive Accumulation of wealth. That is why Britain, one of the richest countries in the world has her PM lives on No 10, Downing Street, a 3-bedroom flat, but our Presidents live in a whole city of no fixed address. That is why we have vast oceans, but import fishes, rich forests, but we can’t feed children with ordinary vegetables. Money comes. We guzzle. It comes again and we spend exhaustively, leaving the future to lay in ruin. Put under siege, Nigerians are revolting, and violently so-in all forms.
Lack of ideas makes a country turn into a cemetery. That is why a traditional ruler gets a N15m worth of jeep from the government but his community brook has no good water and no borehole worth 500k. The dearth of ideas is the source of our collective wretchedness. No wonder, like Fela said, we are PARAMBULATOR: Pretend as if moving forward, but the legs remain on one spot. We celebrate yesteryears, which means, year in, year out, our humanity diminishes, our essence fades away, like a kite, or chaff, in the whirlwind.
Adeoye, an outstanding journalist is the Executive Director, Journalists for Democratic Rights (JODER)