Insight Thoughts

Envisioning National Progress Building on the Legacy of Obafemi Awolowo

Awolowo on the Economy

In Path to Nigerian Greatness, Chief Awolowo identified the characteristics of an underdeveloped economy deriving from three kinds of underdevelopment:

  1. Underdevelopment of the mind, arising from ignorance, illiteracy, deficiency in technology and in technical and managerial know-how;
  2. Underdevelopment of the body, arising from disease, bad and inadequate food, bad water, bad housing, meagre clothing, and filthy environment;
  3. Underdevelopment of agriculture, and excessive and widespread underdevelopment of the rural population arising from underdevelopment of the mind and body, and from lack of savings and capital formation. (PNG, p.154)

He then made three further propositions from which he drew an inference:

  1. All men have innate talents or talent ability” and must be given equal opportunity to develop.
  2. When all talents have been developed fully, each must be given equal opportunity to contribute to socio-economic development.
  3. The society as a whole (not just individuals) suffers when all talents in society are not fully developed.
  4. Therefore, the solution to the problem of our country’s economic underdevelopment lie in the “full development and full employment of every Nigerian-man or woman, child or adolescent.” (emphasis in original): “no economic revolution has ever succeeded or will ever succeed, whether green or otherwise, which does not give the prime of place to the full development of man.” p.155

It is to be expected that when a man of thought deliberates and arrives at a conclusion, the next reasonable step is action on the basis of the thought process unless there is akrasia or weakness of the will. No one has ever accused Chief Awolowo of having a weak will at the point of putting words to action no matter what the sacrifice on his part might be. Therefore, it is not a surprise that in 1979, for him and his colleagues in the UPN, the reasoning leads to the four cardinal programs of the party, namely:

  • Free education at all levels
  • Integrated rural development
  • Free health care
  • Full employment (155-158)

From the foregoing, it follows that the “full development and full employment of every Nigerian citizen” should be the primary national objective of the nation because A GOOD NATIONAL EDUCATION POLICY AND PROGRAM IS INDISPENSABLE TO A GOOD NATIONAL ECONOMIC ADVANCEMENT.

What needs to be added is that a good national policy without an equally good action plan for its implementation cannot lead to national economic advancement. There is no better illustration of this observation than our experience in the last thirty years or so.  The man who shepherded the economic policy of the country through a major national crisis during the civil war without the nation borrowing from external sources, cannot but be appalled at our peace time heavy borrowing that eventually led to the collapse of the economy in 1982.

While Chief Awolowo was not silent in the days of the military, he knew that those were abnormal situations and passing phases. He was forceful in condemning those policies of the military which militated against the welfare of the common run of men and he intervened strategically in a number of economic issues especially during the Agbekoya crisis in the West. But he expected politicians who presented themselves for positions of leadership to do their homework well with adequate plans in place for the welfare and advancement of the people. When this was not so, he did not hold back even when his criticism and suggestions were mischievously construed as sour-grapism. His 1982 paper on the economy and the NPN London Press Conference on same is a good illustration. The whole point about that debate was on the management of the economy in light of what was clearly a glut in the oil market.

Fast forward 33 years later, we have not moved an inch from where he warned the nation against complacency and laziness of mind and therefore we have not prevented the kind of crisis that he had responded to with thoughtful proposals which included the restructuring of the economy from our focus on oil. Now we have another oil glut. Yet, we are yet to restructure the economy away from mindless dependence on oil even when it was clear that our major export market was developing internal sources of supply including alternative sources of energy.

Is there a policy alternative canvassed by politicians and/or economists as a counter to Awolowo’s prescription? None. So, if there is a consensus of expert opinion on what needs done, what prevents those in authority from putting his prescription to work for the country? But that approach would have them include the masses in their reckoning as he did. And for those of them that still consider the masses as expendable, it was a bitter pill they would rather not swallow even if it meant that the county cannot make it developmentally.

A few weeks after the expiration of the tenure of President Goodluck Jonathan, Premium Times published the result of its investigation into the management of Excess Crude Fund by the Ministry of Finance and came up with a startling revelation that N11.56 trillion of the fund had not been accounted for in 8 years from 2007 to 2014. This was at a time when all the major infrastructures were left wasting away with no visible effort to develop them for economic advancement. To the question “where did the funds go?” we are now being treated to some tragic drama with revelations about defense and security funds that ended up in private bank accounts. This has been the fate of this nation from the beginning except that the extractive agents have become bolder and more creative. It will continue unless the masses decide to take their destinies in their hands.  The Arab Spring and its aftermath clearly reminds us that poverty is at the root of citizen discontent. The authors of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty discovered this much in their research across the globe. In the particular case of the Arab Spring they interviewed the Tahir Square protesters one of who reportedly declared in palpable anger: “We are suffering from corruption, oppression and bad education. We are living amid a corrupt system which has to change.” (WNF, 2) If you didn’t know her identity and country of origin, you could justifiably deduce that she was a Nigerian.


Awo on politics and political arrangements

Chief Awolowo was clear from the beginning about the globally acknowledged characteristic features of representative democracy even if his peers pretended that Nigeria was a different entity.

He knew that a representative democracy must have competitive elections, separation of powers, rule of law, and ideological direction. (PNG p.123, Path to Nigerian Greatness.) He also knew that to be morally justified, the state must embrace an ultimate purpose, which is the welfare of the entire people without discrimination. If each family ensures this for its members, it stands to reason that they will expect the state to take up the responsibility once families are absorbed into the state. This was the logic that informed the ideology of “freedom for all, life more abundant” that the Western Region adopted in 1952. Since then, until his passing, Awolowo did not look back; neither did he abandon the ideology nor renege on the promise of social welfare policies and practices that it meant to the people. It was not difficult then for the Action Group to record its pace-setting achievements in the First Republic. Including the establishment of agricultural settlements, introduction and payment of minimum wage; establishment of first industrial estate and housing estate, first television service in Africa, Olympic size stadium, award of 200 scholarships to Nigerian students; and introduction of free universal primary education and free health services for children up to the age of 18. (PNG page 137)

When we put our minds to the philosophical rationale that Chief Awolowo presented for the four cardinal programs of the UPN, it cannot but amaze first, how much thinking went into it, and second, how clear and simple the principles were, and then third, how anyone could object to the policies emanating from such well-grounded principles to the extent of doing everything possible to scuttle their implementation.


Political structure: between federalism and unitarism

The issue of political structure was Awo’s struggle of a lifetime. His advocacy of a federal structure based on linguistic affinity was clear-headed and patriotically motivated. He reasoned that since language and culture attract, and since we had been gobbled together by an imperialist interest that paid no attention to language and culture, we could do ourselves a lot of good if we accepted the federal principle as the basis of our association. But he advocated for a federal principle based on scientific reasoning, not sentiments. He prescribed a medicine that had worked in other climes, arguing for a federation of eighteen states based on linguistic formula with great attention to the interests of minorities. If we had followed his prescription, we would now have strong and viable states that do not depend on federal allocations to survive.

No one can reasonably deny that what we have now is a sick federal system. But while there are still a few pockets of resistance to the imperative of federalism for the Nigerian state, it is no longer a dominant force. What still persists and endures is the determined effort of unitarists to circumscribe and constrain federal structure leading to the continued struggle for a true federal system.

For the unitarist, the nation is an indivisible and united entity and no room must be given to any divisive tendencies. On this view, federalism, which respects the component units in a multi-national or multi-ethnic union, is a contradiction in terms. It errs for allowing the sentiment of primordial attachments to prevail.

Elsewhere I had attempted to address the unitarist weak challenge to the advocacy of true federalism by identifying two ways of understanding the ultimate goal of unitarism as a system of building a new nation out of pre-existing motley nationalities. First, the unitarist goal is to break and grind all the pots of ethnic nationalities into one heap of clay where even the tiniest grains of the former pots would have completely disappeared. The clay is then to be used to make a new pot which bears no resemblance to any of the old. It is an illusion but reasonable people have entertained the prospect of its reality.

Second, as in variants of the melting pot analogy, a more violent exercise can be invoked. Collect all the artifices, including symbols, emblems, languages, even dialects integral to the being and identity of the component units and put them in a pot. Place the pot on fire and melt its contents until there are no traces of them to behold or identify. Thereafter, use the concocted outcome as the foundation of a new nation from which there can be no residue of the previous component cultures and their emblems. In both of these analogies, the success of the exercise is the complete disappearance of the old nations and the appearance of newly minted ideal—the unitary nation state.

The analogy is false for familiar reasons. An ethnic nationality is not a pot and cannot be melted like a wax. Nor is a language a bar of butter that can be melted by heat. The failure of melting pot ideas and practices is a reflection of the absurdity of their assumptions.

With a bit of propaganda and manipulation, the melting pot idea would work if the people are thoroughly mis-educated into thinking that indeed all of the pots were broken and melted or all of the contents were heated and melted. But the reality in the original cases of melting pot ideology was that, in fact, it was all ideology. All the pots, except the preferred one, were expected to be melted. All languages, all symbols, and all emblems were to be discarded except the preferred one into which others were to be assimilated. It was a ruse and upon its discovery as such, the scales were lifted off the eyes of folks. Now diversity is the rule and each ethnic group is proud of its symbols and linguistic heritage. A thousand flowers are blooming and beautifying the nation-space that proudly engages its differences. Of course, there are still ideologues of who the saying is true that patriotism is the refuge of the scoundrel.

There is more to the absurdity and the malady it spurns, especially in climes such as ours. In the case of the experience that we just narrated, at least there is one dominant culture into which others might be theoretically forced to assimilate. You could think of a dominant English or French or Spanish culture and you could argue, with some justification, that where immigrants are accepted and voluntarily agree to become citizens or residents, they ought to forget their past and reconcile themselves to their new life and locale. It worked in some cases, but not on a grand scale. But even where it worked, you could see it as a different setting and a different structure than ours.

From the beginning of this republic, it was clear that no one cultural or linguistic entity can lord it over others. No language was going to be superior, and no religion was going to be state religion. But apart from these negatives, it was also very clear that the ethnic nationalities that came together were going to have to retain a sensible amount of their heritage in culture, language, and customs. The regions that constituted the governing structure of these nationalities were to symbolize their distinctness and uniqueness. We thus had reason to brag about our “unity in diversity.” This means, for all intents and purposes, that we were not discarding our diversity and we were not melting the pot of our differences into a heap of uniformitarian clay.  That was our understanding of the union we were entering into.

Now what do we have? Our different languages are dying a slow death. If the National Assembly cannot reasonably avoid English as its official language because there is no wazobia yet, there is no justification for the preferences of our state assemblies for “speaking in tongues”.

And in the maddening craze to build uniformity rather than unity in diversity, we seem prepared to deny the diversities of our heritage. We seem to be so unsure of the value of our various traditions and symbols, those subtle but real markers of identity that make us who we are, that we can just pretend that they don’t exist and we will be created a new being and a new people. We are being urged to believe that this land, out of the ashes of discarded memories, will rise as a completely new entity. We deceive ourselves.

Some have irrationally questioned the audacity of a state assembly choosing its anthem and symbols of identity. But granted there is a National Flag that stands for the entire nation, why is the idea of a State having a State flag so dangerous to the theory and practice of nationhood? Where states have identity markers including flags, anthems, even trees and animals identified with them, these are means of promoting the psychological well-being of citizens and promoting healthy competition among states. We should stop pretending that we can forget our heritage and still remain ourselves. We should each embrace them and bring out their virtues to bear on the future that we covet.


Putting thought to action

More than the conceptualization of the idea of progress, the practical implementation of the idea and the fulfilment of its promise in the lives of citizens is the distinguishing mark of a progressive government. While it is true that practice without a thoughtful conceptualization is blind; it is also true that thoughtful conceptualization without practice is empty.

The purpose of governance, its raison d’etre, is first and foremost the security of the lives and property of citizens. Next in order of importance is the enhancement of their freedom and liberty; and finally, there is the welfare function of promoting equal opportunities and happiness for all.

In these areas to which a purposive government is required to pay attention and work effectively, Nigerians have been shortchanged in the last sixteen years. Surely, some very important personalities have fared a lot better than the majority of ordinary citizens. Some others have taken advantage of and exploited the atmosphere of lawlessness and gross indiscipline to make way for their interests. Those at the short end of the stick of insecurity and unfreedom are the hoi polloi of society; the helpless and hapless masses that a progressive government cannot ignore.

The starting point is the understanding that if an enabling environment is provided for them, our people are resourceful and ingenious. This is why the present syndrome of dependency is distressing because it misrepresents who we are as a people. It’s doubly sad that the syndrome is encouraged, indeed canvassed, by politicians who should know better. The syndrome is at the institutional and individual levels, with states dependent on the federal government, while individuals are dependent on both state and federal governments.

Where does a progressive government begin? What practical actions must it take to procure for the people the goods of security, freedom, equal opportunity and happiness? If security is a foremost item in the contract between the governed and the government, how does the latter deliver on its side of the contract?

No citizen, including those that find themselves in the highest echelon of leadership, can sincerely negate the verdict that Nigeria has been playing an unfair game with the lives of its citizens for many decades. We tend to blame colonialism for everything even more than half a century after independence. But I am not sure that we saw our current level of insecurity in our colonial past. At least I have not come across a documented record of the loss of more than two hundred innocent school girls to terrorists between 1900 and 1960. That is not to diminish the evil that colonialism represented. It’s simply to observe that while we have it in our power to make progress in the matter of the security of the lives and properties of citizens, we chose to retrogress.

Progress requires that we move with the times. In the matter of crime prevention and detection, to move with the time is to dismantle the anachronistic system of policing that has proved embarrassingly ineffectual. Before 1966, the crime bursting function of the police was adversely impacted by the politicization of the force. Party leaders, government officials, and traditional rulers abused their positions of authority and used the police against their political enemies.

The military took this aberration as the norm and, since it is unacceptable in a civilized society, the reaction of the armed forces was to centralize the police ostensibly to avoid the evils of politicization and abuse. This would be a valid argument and a logically sound approach if the new system was an effective and better alternative. But it wasn’t and it still isn’t. Politicization is still the bane of the Nigeria Police.

A progressive government in a federal system will seek the benefit of community and municipal policing as practiced in the United States. It is baffling to common sense that we consider the American constitution ideal for our situation but judge ourselves immature relative to its approach to law and order. Assume, however, that immaturity truly describes our condition. A progressive government will lead the inquiry into why this malaise is our lot and design a plan of action to confront it. We came out of colonial rule as a dehumanized lot. It required the foresight of one of the visionaries of our time to proffer a solution with his insistence that human capital development was the indispensable key to the development of a nation.

The ever-present obstacle to national advancement that a progressive government must confront head-on is the hydra-headed monster of corruption. A serious progressive government will confront corruption at its root. It will make the center less attractive and make government accountable to the people. In doing so, it will create the possibility of its own weakness. But, indeed, that is the virtue and strength of progressivism. As a progressive party, the APC must enter into a binding contract with Nigeria to eradicate corruption, invest in the education of the young, create an enabling environment that fosters job creation and entrepreneurship, and restore the confidence of citizens in the nation without abetting religious fanaticism and ethnic jingoism.


Summing up: Awo then and now

From the foregoing it is clear that Chief Awolowo and his progressive party were confronted with the issues of:

education: particularly the issue of access and quality

economy: especially the issue of growth and development

politics: including the matter of structure, constitution and leadership

The issues now are not different. They are similar if not identical.

Awolowo and his team intervened with solutions to the problem and responses to the challenges by tapping into progressive and liberal solutions including:

Free education

Economic diversification, including rural integration and development

True federalism, by means of a national constitution that they were fortunate to struggle for and achieve, and

Strong and committed leadership which they furnished.

The advantage that Awolowo and his team had was that

the facts were on their side

the moral was on their side, and

the masses were on their side

The challenge that they faced included

  1. dealing with peers and adversaries unperturbed by facts, masses, or morals.
  2. control of economic and political institutions by those whose objective was to advance political and economic interests with little or no attention to the end of the common good

NOW: The country is fortunate that

the facts are still there.

the moral is still there and

the masses are still there.

In the circumstance, the solutions and responses of Awolowo and his team are still unassailable, especially for a self-acclaimed progressive party, which has as a pillar of its manifesto, political restructuring and devolution of power to the states.

If it will leave up to its identifier, therefore, the new progressive party must focus its laser beam on the development of human beings as the most important resource. It must educate the nation’s children. It must revive and strengthen the system of public education. It must revisit the challenge of school drop outs who end up in the slaughter slab of political thuggery and terrorist camps. The country is long overdue for 2-year community colleges as bridge institutions. Teacher education and retraining are important aspects of what must be a new philosophy of education in the progressive era.

Security matters, and it must be taken seriously as the first duty of government for which it has a monopoly. Everyone now appears to be open to the idea of state police. There is no reason a progressive government cannot initiate a pilot program. There are a number of ways in which state policing can be set up to take care of the fear of politicization. Every state may be made to establish an independent Police Board or Council with an independent budget.

Corruption is a substantive subject. I remain convinced, however, that this is one area where the whole world will be watching and evaluating the new administration.  The matter of emoluments and compensation for political office holders from the Presidency to National Assembly, State Assemblies and even Local Governments is the 100 Ib. gorilla.  There is no doubt that many Nigerians are resentful of the exorbitant take-home of political office-holders.

Finally, of course, is the economy. With a mono product which is daily losing its value and relevance in the world economy with competition from everywhere, we have the immediate task of diversification. This will take time given where we are. However, as the Chinese teach us, the journey of a thousand years starts with the first step. We needed that first step long ago.

In spite of his thoughtful solutions, there are, as in his time, significant challenges to Awolowo. Today, there are still the usual conservative adversaries who still support

  • political and economic institutions that are hostile to economic growth and equitable development: decades of military rule and extractive political institutions benefitting the few,
  • rentier and extractive economic institutions,
  • the status quo because of the fear of creative destruction: a condition in which breakthrough in economic growth ushers in egalitarianism that disadvantages and displaces erstwhile political elite.
  • Strangely, however, there are even more challenges from some of his followers and other progressives deriving from
  • a general fear of loss of elite advantages enjoyed on the back of the poor: house help, chefs, security, drivers, etc. Illustrate: inclusive educational system guarantees independent lives for many and block servitude. No cook, no driver, no domestic security for most middle and upper class in US;
  • an adulterated commitment to progressivism;
  • too much ego-centeredness; and
  • crippling DISUNITY among core progressives that stood tall with Chief Awolowo.


What is to be done?


  1. – Unity across ethnic and class divides ensured independence on a platter of gold
  2. –Unity across ethnic and class divides ensured defeat of impunity in First Republic
  3. –Unity across ethnic and class divides ensured victory of SDP in 1993
  4. –Unity across ethnic and class divides ensured defeat of dictatorship in 1998
  5. –Division ensured defeat of progressives in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011
  6. –Unity across ethnic and class divides ensured merger and registration of APC
  7. –Unity across ethnic and class divides ensured victory of APC with renewed hope for a new era of progressivism again in 2015

Today, there are original disciples of Awo. There are also second and third generation followers. They all take seriously the man we all know as the Sage, the Avatar, Baba, Philosopher, and Politician-benefactor, one of his kind. The irony is that while they all accept him as their political leader, study his words and try to emulate his deeds, and look forward to a reunion with him some day, while here on earth, they would rather not get together to push the agenda he bequeathed to them. They would rather be like the proverbial snakes who wander around alone until they become victims of their loneliness.

The post-Awo Awoists would not even cooperate to uplift the message of their great master and leader. How are they different then from his adversaries? And considering that they would want one day to resume their dinner time chats with Awo Mimo, what will be their report? How will he respond? I challenge each and every Awoist here today, old, young, and young at heart, to rethink and reflect on what has been lost to progressivism in the last 29 years of his passing. What have they collectively contributed to the progressive maturation and practicalization of his philosophy? How will the present chaos and confusion in the camp of Awo shape the future of his ideas in Yorubaland, in Nigeria, and in Africa? Are they, by their inability to get together as Awoists, inadvertently contributing to the strength of his known political enemies who had predicted his political death more than fifty years ago? Oro sunnukun, oju sunnukun laa fii woo.

In Odu Ifa, the story is told of how Orunmila in his prime years was so proud of what his eight children had turned out to be as kings of notable kingdoms over the land, that he invited them to his annual ceremony. With filial respect, they all responded to their father’s invitation. However, not all was there with respectful demeanor. The last born was prepared to assert himself as an equal of his father in every respect. When others pay obeisance to their father, he stood erect. To their father’s challenge, he responded that he couldn’t care less. After all, Orunmila wore a beaded crown and he too wore a beaded crown. Orunmila had a beaded walking stick and he also did. Just as his father had beaded shoes and necklace, he, the son, also had his own. So why should he pay a stupid obeisance? Orunmila was hurt and he decided that it was time to go back to where he belonged. He retired to the land of the spirits. But the aftermath wasn’t pleasant for the land of humans. Rain withdrew from the land. Crops refused to germinate. Hunger and disease appeared. The children, with the disrespectful one, repented and went in search of their father. They found him but he refused to go back with them. Instead, he gave them the tools they needed to reach him anytime they were in trouble. These included opele, opon, irokin and the paraphernalia of Ifa divination.

Chief Awolowo did what was humanly possible to make Nigeria great. But like the last son of Orunmila, Nigeria shunned and disrespected him. He left for the land of ancestors. But for the faithful who believe in him and his strategies for making Nigeria great, he left them the tools, the outcome of his sleepless nights, the result of his deep thoughts, to consult and reflect upon as we continue to struggle for the progress and development of dear country. In this address, we have made reference to some of them. It is in our interest as a nation to go back to him from time to time to make our nation as great as it is destined to be.



Adebanwi, Wale, Yoruba Elites and Ethnic Politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and Corporate Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014

Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A., Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, New York: Crown Publishing, 2012

Awolowo, Obafemi, Adventures in Power Book 1. My March through Prison Lagos: Macmillan Press, 1985

Awolowo, Obafemi, Adventures in Power Book 2. The Travails of Democracy and the Rule of Law Ibadan: Evans Brothers, 1987

Awolowo, Obafemi, Awo: The Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960

Awolowo, Obafemi, Path to Nigerian Greatness. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1981

Awolowo, Obafemi, The People’s Republic. Ibadan: Oxford University Press, 1968

Awolowo, Obafemi, The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria. Lagos: Macmillan Press, 1970

Awolowo, Obafemi, Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution. Ibadan: Oxford University Press, 1966

Awolowo, Obafemi, Voice of Reason: Selected Speeches of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Vol. 1. Akure: Fagbamigbe Publishers, 1981

Awolowo, Obafemi, Voice of Courage: Selected Speeches of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Vol. 2. Akure: Fagbamigbe Publishers, 1981

Awolowo, Obafemi, Voice of Wisdom: Selected Speeches of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Vol. 3. Akure: Fagbamigbe Press, 1981

Gbadegesin, Segun “Obafemi Awolowo and the Politics of Democratic Socialism” in O.O. Oyelaran Obafemi Awolowo: The End of an Era?  Ile-Ife: Obafemi Awolowo University Press pp. 166-177

Gbadegesin, Segun, “Obafemi Awolowo and the Golden Era of the Yoruba”, in David O. Oke, Olatunji Dare, Adebayo Williams and Femi Akinola (eds.) AWO: On the Trail of a Titan: Essays in Celebration of the Obafemi Awolowo Centennial Lagos: The Awolowo Foundation, 2009, pp.57-73

Makinde, Moses Akin, Awo as a Philosopher. Ile-Ife: Obafemi Awolowo University Press, 2002

Oke, David O, Dare, Olatunji, Williams, Adebayo, Akinola, Femi (eds.), AWO: On the Trail of a Titan: Essays in Celebration of the Obafemi Awolowo Centennial. Lagos: The Obafemi Awolowo Foundation, 2009











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