Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a man many would describe as a leader like no other. Even though he was the Premier of the Western Region between 1954 and 1960, when Nigeria was operating regional government, he was a nationalist and statesman whose contribution to national development remains a model that subsequent leaders try to emulate till date.
While he was the Premier of the Western Region, late Chief Awolowo executed several developmental projects that were lauded openly by many, including people from other regions, and those programmes included free health care for children, free primary education for all, etc. In furtherance of his love for Nigeria, he championed the efforts for Nigeria to gain independence from Great Britain, and together with members of the political party he founded in 1951, the Action Group, and other notable personalities, Nigeria’s independence became a reality on October 1, 1960. Chief Awolowo, died in his Ikenne home on May 9, 1987. Today, the independence that Chief Awolowo and several others fought for is being celebrated as Nigeria marks its 56 years as an independent nation. In this interview with TUNDE AJAJA, one of Chief Awolowo’s children, Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu, talks about her late father’s beliefs, his experience in prison, the troubles he faced and why he never gave up on Nigeria
Chief Awolowo led several others to make case for Nigeria’s independence and he was one of those who initiated the move. Would you know what prompted that idea?
He started since he was young, almost from the moment he got involved in political activism in the Nigeria Youth Movement. So, the independence of Nigeria was always top on his agenda and of course when he went to the United Kingdom to study Law, that was when he and a few like minds started the Egbe Omo Oduduwa and the Egbe had noble objectives, one of which was the independence of Nigeria.
When he came back to Nigeria, he formed the Action Group, which also championed the idea and he had to lead a delegation to the UK several times. Do you remember those times?
Yes, he led the Western Region Delegation to several constitutional conferences at Lancaster House in London. Those were the times when they were trying to draft the constitution for Nigeria. By the way, he was always an advocate of federalism. On several occasions, he took people from the northern minorities and the eastern minorities together with the Western Region delegation as proof that these were real people with real yearnings within Nigeria. So, he made spirited representation for granting of independence to Nigeria.
In spite of all the efforts he made, we learnt he was somehow embarrassed at the venue of the declaration at Race Course on that day. Did he mention that?
Unfortunately, he felt terribly humiliated on that day because he had played a very significant role in securing independence for Nigeria, and he was at that time the leader of the opposition. With the sitting arrangement, he was seated among the ex-service men, which was not the ideal sitting arrangement for the leader of opposition. Not that ex-service men were not important to Nigeria but I don’t think that was the ideal seating position for the leader of the opposition. He wasn’t even an ex-service man. So, he felt sad about that and it was something he always remembered with a ting of regret. And I think it was at that moment that he knew that there might be some troubles ahead. Strangely, papa retained an almost childlike innocence and trust in his relationship with people.
Was there any of the other members of the delegation who were given ideal seat on that day?
I wasn’t there. I think I was eleven years old then and I was in boarding school. I remember that my mum came to the school to give my sister and I Ankara for us to wear. It was a special day, such that the school authorities gave us jollof rice. So, I don’t know, since I wasn’t there.
While he was alive and seeing the way Nigeria was led since independence, were there times he wasn’t satisfied with the way things were going?
Oh yes. The country’s trajectory wasn’t going exactly the way he had wished, because he wanted Nigeria to develop very rapidly and he saw no reason why we couldn’t. And come to think of it, Nigeria had talents and the civil service in the West then, led by the likes of Chief Simeon Adebo, was to be compared with any other in the world. They were stars. There was no reason why we couldn’t look after our own affairs, and their hope at that time was that the graph would continue to go up, but unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be going that way even while he was alive. So, he was not happy, but always hopeful. And he was never frustrated. Papa was an incurable optimist. He remained optimistic till his last days. He always believed that Nigeria would pull something out of the bag and make things right. So, he always looked on the bright side. Every time he had the opportunity and he felt like it, he would put his thoughts on paper and send to the powers that be. He wouldn’t criticise just for the sake of it but he would try to proffer solutions, suggest options and the way out. And that is the reason the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation is existing; to begin to bring all opinions around the same table and try to work out the way forward for Nigeria. So, he was always optimistic and looking for the way forward. That was his attitude, always.
Was he hoping that independence would fasttrack the development of Nigeria than when we were under the colonial masters?
Yes, of course and I think a lot of it was confidence and the ‘rightness and wrongness of it’ as far as he and his colleagues at that time saw things, especially when they felt that they could do it and people were actually making impact even then. He thought that once we were in charge of our own affairs, we would move very rapidly towards the goals that we set for ourselves and he couldn’t imagine any other goal than the best.
Since things did not turn out that way, did he ever think Nigeria would have been better than with colonial masters?
No, Papa never looked back. He just felt that we would get it right somewhere along the line. He was always certain that there were good people in Nigeria. He believed we would get it right eventually.
Between the time we had independence and when he was arrested, what marked the beginning of his travails?
Between independence and his travails, I cannot give specific examples but I do know that from conversations at home that he knew that the storm was gathering. He had no doubt at all. He was sure that something was coming and the crisis that started at the Jos conference of the Action Group was what precipitated the whole thing and from then on, in 1962, things just fell apart.
Since he knew the storm was gathering, did he consider leaving the country to avoid those troubles?
That for him would have been a cop-out. Papa was never a coward. When the civil war was about to begin, I remember one night, he was in Ibadan when he got a call and he was advised by people who knew that he should leave home and that it was dangerous to remain, but Papa said why would he leave his house and where would he take his family to or was he going to leave his family in danger and go and hide somewhere? He was never someone to hide and that would never even occur to him, because he was sure that his cause was just and he knew that the travails were coming. I don’t know whether this was what he was thinking, but it would have been something similar; I read somewhere where Selwyn Hughes, the author of Everyday with Jesus, wrote that ‘the world demands a uniform gray conformity, by which we are all supposed to behave and be the same way and that if you fall below the world standards, you will be punished, but if you rise above the world standards, you will be persecuted. I’m sure papa had that kind of understanding and he suffered that kind of treatment but he was certain that he was on the right path, so he never thought of running away.
Do you think he went through that because of independence or because of his rising profile?
Nigeria’s independence was a wish shared by many, and in any case, when we had the independence, he wasn’t well treated, even at the event. So, I think it was just politics.
He was in prison for about three years. Did you visit him throughout?
When he was in prison, we used to wake up by 3am to visit him in Calabar. We would spend a few days and come back. It was a long journey because the Niger Bridge had not been constructed at that time. Then we were at Ibadan. We would travel to Asaba and cross by ferry to Onitsha and then travel through the East to Oron and from Oron to Calabar. It was a long journey and we used to get there around 6pm. We used to follow mama. And whenever we visited, he was always talking about our future, and never about what he was going through. He didn’t look like someone who wanted to be pitied and then when we went back to school; it was that courage that he exhibited that kept us going. He always said we should never forget that we had a future and that none of what was happening then should affect our aspirations. That was when I wanted to take the exam for direct entry into University of Ibadan and a few days to the date, I was notified that I shouldn’t bother presenting myself for the exam because I was too young. At that point, papa decided that my sister and I, who were still pursuing our education at that time, should rather go abroad to study, and mercifully, mama could afford it because she was working. So, he was in detention when we travelled.
How were you communicating with him then?
We used to write letters to mama and mama took them to him. He used to write letters to us as well. We were able to communicate with mama by phone once in a while but letters were the surest means of communication with him. He wrote a lot of letters to us.
Since you were much younger then, did it affect you when you went abroad, knowing that your father was in detention?
Strangely, it was always at the back of our minds but it was not something we were downcast about. We took our cue from both him and mama, and both of them were always looking ahead. I just knew that I was looking ahead.
Was he able to visit you?
No, it was only mama that was able to visit. She donated a pew when a new chapel was constructed in the school. Afterwards, she came to see the pew and the chapel, and after papa came back from prison, he came to visit when he was the Federal Commissioner for Finance. He actually came to visit me in the university when he came to represent the head of state at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London in 1969, and they gave him all the logistics that they would give the head of state, and my colleagues in the university were discovering for the first time that that was who my dad was. I felt very proud because all the university authorities were in attendance and it was good.
He gave the name ‘Naira’ to the Nigerian currency. How did he arrive at that name?
(Laughs…) He just took the name of Nigeria and collapsed it to Naira. That’s what he told us and that was how he arrived at the name ‘naira’ and that was when he was the Federal Commissioner for Finance.
He did a lot of things, like free health care, education even when the beneficiaries of those programmes never expected or canvassed for them. Would you know how he came about his ideas?
Largely, I think it was divine. And he read a lot, right from his youthful days. He knew a lot about the world in which he lived and he expected us to follow the footsteps of developed countries. He looked at what other countries did, how they arrived at where they were and he came to the conclusion that that was the way we should go. In an interview, he was asked the question, why he was so passionate, especially about free education. He said it was probably because he went through a lot to acquire education. He then said that other people went through similar experiences or perhaps worse and they don’t feel that anyone should get education easily. So, he concluded that perhaps it was divine. It was just divine. So, looking back, I believe that his mission was divinely ordained and his choice of life partner was divinely ordained also to achieve all he did. Everything that he needed; the intelligence, the wisdom, the people, the skills and all that was needed to achieve what he needed to achieve was given to him by God. Also, if he didn’t have mama, it probably would have been a different story. I think it all went almost perfectly for them because God was in it.
Given the kind of developmental projects he executed, did he have mentor(s)?
He had heroes, and the two outstanding ones are Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. He had pictures of both of them in each of his homes, in Lagos, Ikenne and Ibadan. They were his heroes, and that was because of their struggles for independence, the way they carried on with that and the way they ran their countries. Those are the kind of selfless leaders that he really looked up to.
A letter he wrote to Chief Adeola Odutola to borrow money for him to pursue his education has been going round. In the letter, he was so certain that he would pay. Did he truly write the letter?
That was when he wanted to go abroad. It is true and he was so certain how he would pay back the money. In fact, someone still sent the letter to me on Wednesday morning.
Some people think he did extraordinary things that were beyond imagination, and that maybe he was mystical or he had a secret room he used to visit to think. Was there anything like that?
He worked in the night when everyone was asleep and woke up very early, usually, to work, so he could have some serenity and time. Honestly, the volume of work he was able to do and the much he managed to achieve, in the time he did, was unusual. For example, he went to the UK, and he spent two years, but not only did he get his law degree, he went to the Inns of court, where he was exposed to the professional side of the legal profession and he got his certificate in two years and then he wrote his first book, Path to Nigeria’s Freedom, all within those two years. That was unusual. I think it was just a gift that he had, he was disciplined, focused and was totally committed to what he wanted to do.
When he was the Premier of the Western Region, what kind of relationship did he have with other regional Premiers?
Their kind of politics was quite interesting and quite different. They were all committed to what they were doing and to the progress of Nigeria. Of course, they had different methods but their commitment was never in doubt. They had gentlemanly relationship, they respected one another, very highly, and when it came to politics, that was just superficial, but they were all very committed and you could tell when you looked at what they achieved then.
Beyond the common interest, were they friends, did they visit one another at home?
I can’t quite remember but I know they did meet and exchanged phone calls when the need arose.
How did he feel the three times he lost the Prime Ministerial and Presidential elections?
He was disappointed, not in Nigerians, but in the system that rigged him out. He never believed that Nigerians did not understand his message. His party was the first party that had a structure, a manifesto, took campaigns to people and told people what they wanted to do and actually did those things. So, he had implicit faith in the judgement of the average Nigerian, they understood what he was saying but he believed it was the system that was the issue.
After the civil war and he was invited by General Yakubu Gowon, he was reluctant and it took mama to persuade him to accept. Did he say why?
He probably was reluctant because it was a military government. He always believed that the worst democracy was better than the military system. And I think because he really didn’t know who he would be working with and whether they shared his vision or not. I’m sure those were his reasons but I can only surmise. It’s a different ball game when you go into elections with a team of people who share the same philosophies, aspirations and objectives, so you know exactly how to relate with one another. But when you go into that kind of setting, it was a different thing. He shared the news of the offer with his closest associates and I think the consensus at that time was that he should take it, plus mama’s advice.
Nigeria clocks 56 today, what were his dreams for Nigeria?
By now, I am sure he would have wished that Nigeria be counted among developed nations. Do you know that Malaysia took their palm seedlings from Nigeria, and today that country is the largest exporter of palm oil? They did so much. Then, there were industries everywhere, we had industrial layout in Ikeja, Ilupeju and other areas. They were streaking ahead. So, how could he possibly imagine that we wouldn’t be the likes of Malaysia, at least, or South Korea.
He is the only Nigerian till date with GCFR title and was never a President. How did he receive it?
That was when the government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari decided to honour him that way and we were glad. I was there. It was at a ceremony at the National Theatre in Lagos, and papa was very pleased. He was thrilled. Of course at that time, we didn’t know that he would be the only one with the title without having been a head of state, till this time.
How do you feel when you see the N100 note that has his image?
I feel very proud because it’s a very high honour indeed that his image adorns one of Nigeria’s currency notes.
Even though there are institutions and streets that are named after him, do you think he has been adequately immortalised?
He has been adequately immortalised, because what he wanted most was to live in the hearts of people and that he achieved even beyond his imagination. One of the few sessions that he had with us later in his life was in his sitting room. He asked if we realised that his name had acquired a life of its own. He said none of us could spoil that name any longer. He said if we used the name properly, it would work for us but if we didn’t, we were on our own. Those were his very words that day. Such times, we would say papa had started philosophising (laughs…). Anytime I remember those words, they pull me up and that helps to remember again that actually that was the name that was forged in the crucible of sacrifice and a lot of struggles and therefore it is not a name to toil with and it is not a legacy that can be sold for any kind of currency and I don’t mean money.
When the crisis was gaining momentum, were there times his wife tried to caution him to play down on some things?
Never, they were in it together. They were a team. During the crisis, when he was under house arrest, in prison, in detention, several occasions mama was called by some important people, advising her to talk to her husband and making all sorts of offers but she never bought any of that. She stood solidly with her husband. So, they were the same.
He was in prison when his son, who was on his way to visit him in prison had an accident and died. How did he manage it?
He heard the news on the radio. The others in prison were crying and he was the one consoling them. That same day, he worked on the note of evidence for Chief Enahoro’s case which needed to be ready the next morning. He said that if anything would bring him back, people would have donated whatever it was, whether it was tears, prayers or anything, but there was nothing he could do. Chief Enahoro was still fighting for his freedom and his case depended on what papa had to do, so he sat up and did it. Chief Abraham Adesanya was astounded when he came to take the documents from papa the following morning. He had worked on them, despite what happened. He was a remarkable man.
Even though people from other tribes benefited from the free education programme he introduced, some people still see him as a tribalist. How does that make you feel?
There is a senator who spoke at an event that I attended. He didn’t know I was in the audience, and he was just extolling the virtues of mothers and how his mother shipped him from the old Rivers State to the mid-west to benefit from the free education that papa introduced. He went to school and that was how he got free education and today, he is a Ph.D holder. There was no discrimination and anybody who could show a proof of residency in the Western Region was accepted, and of course all papa’s children and ministers’ children went to those schools as well. Papa supported Mr. Ernest Ikoli for the Chairmanship of the Nigerian Youth Movement against (former Mr.) Oba Samuel Akisanya at the time when the contest was on. That was another example. Also, all his domestic staff were people from other tribes. There was no Yoruba among them. So, when people talk about tribalism, it is just politics.
Sometimes, when great men are about to die, there are signs. But in his case, was there any?
There were, but we missed them. On his last birthday, he was asking for a book called ‘Life after Life’ and he was talking about life after life and I was thinking papa had come again with his philosophies, so I was just enjoying myself. The following day, Chief Alfred Rewane came to the house, distraught, and raised the issue with him. He asked papa why he made such remarks, as to looking for a book on ‘life after life’ but papa laughed and dismissed his fears. Obviously, Chief Rewane got the message but none of us did. Also, his last Sunday, which is the 3rd of May, 1987, they had the Jerusalem Pilgrim Anniversary and he was talking about living life or something about that. Again, we missed it. I think when you are so close to someone, the tendency is there to miss certain facts. So, we missed those signs. I was with him on Friday and he wanted me to stay till Saturday. He said he wanted to talk to me, but I just decided on my own that I would come back on Monday to see him and then he died on Saturday. I regret that but I consoled myself with the fact that that last night was for mama and he shared his deep thoughts with her, according to her, but she also didn’t have an idea that she would not see him again. Mama said when she left him, she just bade him goodnight (asunji o). In the morning, he had woken up that day, because we saw his note on the table where he wrote the things he planned to do (like he always did) that day and the order of service for the church service on Sunday morning. He had done his devotion and he had been to the chapel. And in fact, his steward had taken his water to his room. All those signs were there. There was a connecting door between his room and mama’s room and he locked it anytime he was going to the bathroom because his bathroom had no connecting door to his room, so that little children would not just come in at a wrong time. So, he locked that connecting door. Papa’s sister came to see mama and they were both in mama’s bedroom. After a while, they realised they hadn’t seen him for a while and so mama knocked that connecting door gently. No response, they knocked several times, and there was no response, so they felt something must have happened. By the time they forced the door open, there they found him and he was still warm at that time. So, he died in his room, and I think he just spent his last moment alone with God.
He was a national figure that people could relate with, even from the distance. What kind of man was he at home?
He was a very loving and very devoted father at home. Due to his many engagements, he could spare only very little time at least when we were growing up. He could only spare brief moments but he tried his best to make those moments count. We also appreciated those times that we spent with him. I remember he used to keep a box of chocolate in his room and he would tell us to go to his room and get chocolates. As we grew older, he tried to spend time with us, still those times were spent advising us, talking to us about our lives and trying to teach us what life was like and telling us to draw examples from his life. He tried his best, and of course when grandchildren started coming, he was thrilled and took them as his own. He was really a very devoted father. Everybody feels that they belong to him and he’s theirs.
Do you remember his favourite meal?
I think it was pounded yam with Okro.