LEGENDS are deeply planted in revering minds the way the triumphs of heroes are told with passion by narrators who treasure them in their hearts. This is the case of the late Chief Jeremiah Oyeniyi Obafemi Awolowo, a sage and phenomenal figure who was a vital leader in the pre-independence and postcolonial politics of Nigeria between the 1930s and the 1980s.
As Insa Nolte captures in her new book, Obafemi Awolowo and the Making of Remo: The Local Politics of a Nigerian Nationalist, the man best referred to in the national political circle as ‘Awo,’ was a product a formidable socio-cultural system.
In the rich research-based book, Dr. Nolte, a lecturer in African Culture at the Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom presents the man who lived between March 6, 1909 and May 9, 1987 as natural seed planted and harvested from the intricate political institutions of his native Remo culture in the Ijebu-Yoruba land of Nigeria.
Ms. Nolte states in the blurb of the publication: “This book examines the evolution of a distinctive Yoruba community, Remo, and the central role played in this process by the Remo-born nationalist and Yoruba leader Obafemi Awolowo (1909-87). Based on a stubtle analysis of local-level politics, this book argues that traditional and modern participatory structures play an important role both in Yoruba politics and in the African postcolonial state. At the same time, its focus on Awolowo makes an important contribution to the scholarly debate on one of Nigeria’s most important politicians.”
Thus priming the taste for a seldom highlighted closet of Obafemi Awolowo study.
Nolte’s book sums Awo as a quintessential Remo whose steep in the intricate socio-political organogram and institutional networks of his people made him one of the best known and articulate leaders in Africa.
Born in Ikenne, presently in Ogun state territory of Nigeria, to a father – a farmer and sawyer – who died when he was seven years old, Awo, through hardship and sheer focus on noble heights climbed with bare hands out of want and the unknown ends to limelight. He attended early schools in the Ijebu and Egba regions, and became a teacher in Abeokuta (now capital of Ogun state). Thereafter, he qualified as a shorthand typist and served as a clerk in then top-ranking Wesley College. He was also a freelance news correspondent for the Nigerian Times newspaper and a business man. After earning a Bachelor of Commerce degree through correspondence in Nigeria, he went to the United Kingdom where he earned a law degree from London School of Economics. Though difficulties in running his business ventures in Nigeria had preceeded his travel to the United Kingdom for further studies, he went there and expanded his coast both in knowledge base, political clout and entrepreneurial acemen. Hence he returned later to Nigeria, an activist, political movement leader, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur.
But given natural understanding of the workings of politics he knew the value of bonding with vital groups and building structures. To get to his point as a Nigerian political leader the man gifted with wisdom and outstanding organisational skills first became the frontman of Yoruba race. Armed with what he imbibed from his native hinter Ikenne in the Remo zone, he started as a regional political leader like most of his pre-independence contemporaries. He founded many organisations, including Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Trade Unions Congress of Nigeria and the Action Group political party. He was an active journalist and trade unionist as a young man, editing The Nigerian Worker amongst other publications while also organising the Nigerian Produce Traders Association and serving as secretary of the Nigerian Motor Transport Union. He was the first indigenous Premier of the Western Region under Nigeria’s parliamentary system, from 1952 to 1960, and was the official Leader of the Opposition in the federal parliament, 1960 through 1963. He had permeating clout with many leading figures, locally and internationally.
What Nolte’s book offer is how Awo’s root rubbed-off on his larger-than-life-but-true national political legacies. Awo’s advocacy for strong regional government, weak central power, fiscal federalism and parallel zonal economic growth may be artibuted to the nature of his Remo region which is an assembly of 33 federating towns – Remo Metalelogbon. Offering a background of the major town of the Remo people, Sagamu, the author in page 86 states: “Unlike Ibadan and Abeokuta, it was founded not out of necessity but on the basis of negotiation and consent. Sagamu was from its inception, based on an agreement of its confederate towns.”
Interestingly, one of the issues Awo dotted on as a political leader is the need for confedrating units of Nigeria to sit and negotiate the clear terms of there federation.
The author also established how some key developments in the subject’s public life framed him into a modern Nigerian myth.
Citing one Mosanya’s article (dated 1960s), Nolte captured how purpose, character and foresight as well as historical circumstances made Awo monumental in the sub-chapter ‘The Myth and Legacy of Awolowo’ (p25).
“While Awolowo was a resourceful and imaginative politician throughout his career, early popular notions of his extraordinary destiny can be traced back to his imprisonment in 1963. After Awolowo’s political and administrative successes as the Western Region’s first premier during the 1950s, his sudden downfall contrasted extremely sharply with his earlier achievements, and many of his followers and admirers could only understand it as the result of malevolent interventions. When Awolowo’s political demise was aggravated by personal suffering through the loss of his oldest son Segun in the same year, his ordeal appeared to be too great to be ordinary. Many narratives imbued his affliction with historical and religious meaning by drawing on religious and cultural archetypes, but perhaps the most important political implications were inherent in references to pan-Yoruba traditions. “Entrenching Awolowo’s role as a leader of Yoruba politics, he was seen by some as representing a ‘second Oduduwa’, alluding to the mythical founder of Yoruba (and all) civilization in the town of Ile-Ife. In this context, Awolowo’s suffering represented both personal history and ethno-national political fate. In his pamphlet The Faults of the Yorubas, a contemporary political commentator explained the link between myth and contemporary politics and its implications for the immediate future.
“The imprisonment of Chief Obafemi Awolowo depicts the banishment of Oduduwa from Ife (the town Ile-Ife). Ife, the seat of our ancestor, made intrigues against Oduduwa, and Oduduwa went into exile. His sin then was that he was too popular more popular than those who were more advanced in years than himself. After the Oduduwa exile, properity eluded Ife and people consulted the Ifa Oracle.
The Oracle directed that unless Oduduwa was... begged to come back to Ife, there would be no serenity, there would be no prosperity, famine would continue unabated, and all manners of ill luck would permeate the whole land. Fears of general ill luck derived from Awolowo’s maltreatement were at least partly confirmed by developments under the (Samuel Ladoke) Akintola government. During his time as the premier of the Western Region, Awolowo had presided over the introduction of free primary education and reasonably high agricultural incomes from the Regional Marketing Boards. But by the time Akintola came to power, his government had to reduce both cocoa producer prices and school subsidies. In retrospect, many people now perceived Awolowo as a good leader, even if they had not thought so while he was in power. Fears that Awolowo’s persecution would bring suffering on them personally, or on the Yoruba as a whole, may have contributed to the political radicalisation of his followers in Remo and elsewhere, which eventually led to various forms of violent protest against Akintola, and which was only ended by the military coup that also led to the death of Awolowo’s main adversaries in 1966"
University of Texas at Austin, United States of America based Nigerian scholar, Toyin Falola, advocates that Nolte’s “admirable and richly textured book should be widely read not only by those interested in Yoruba history and modern Nigeria but by all those who seek a mature understanding of the intricate connections between local and national politics. Nolte provides powerful insights on the towering stature of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the preeminent politician of the era, along with the social dimensions of power, the richness of political networks, institutional conflicts, the construction of mythologies of power and popular loyalty, and many more crucial topics, all ably analysed with clarity and precision.”
Indeed, Obafemi Awolowo and the Making of Remo: The Local Politics of a Nigerian Nationalist comes across as a compendium on Nigeria’s politics of the the early post colonial days. Though narated from Awo’s standpoint, the thesis captures some of the vital developments in the country’s pre-independence era as well as the first and second republics.
Though at first view the title communicates a dwell on how Awo and his Remo heritage in Nigerian politics, the content is actually heavy on the nuances of the breathtaking political activism of the 1950s through the 1960s. Sometimes it reads like a long threatise on Nigeria’s contemporary history book. Yet the simple, fluidy prose employed by Nolte in his narative and the icons of modern Nigeria which he lampoons without deep cuts makes any history-minded Nigerian read and relish the long trek through text.
A good example is in exerpts from the sub-chapter, ‘Awolowo in National Politics.’
“As the first premier of Nigeria’s Western Region in the 1950s, Awolowo continues to be compared with Ahmadu Bello and Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first premeirs of Nigeria’s Northern and Eastern Regions respectively. After independence in 1960, both Azikiwe and Bello were able to establish themselves as important power-holders at the federal level while Awolowo was relegated to the opposition. Representing a political vision that might be described as occupying a middle ground between Bello’s and Azikiwe’s, Awolowo’s party, the AG, found itself increasingly under pressure from both sides and eventually broke apart. Awolowo found himself on the losing side of this process too, and his personal suffering as well as his identification with ethnic and social equity contributed to a growing myth about his personality and destiny. This development probably contributed to Awolowo’s lifelong relegation to the opposition at the level of national politics, but it also helped to significantly expand his popular support base, which was further strengthened by the fact that Awolowo was not associated with the failures of any elected central governments.
“Both Azikiwe and Bello were men roughly of Awolowo’s generation, and like him they were strongly influenced by the restrictions and opportunities associated with local relations of power under British rule during their formative years. Born in 1910, Ahmadu Bello grew up as an important member of the northern Nigeria Hausa-speaking aristocracy while also benefiting from the educational options provided by the British government. After attending Katsina College, Bello worked first as a teacher and later as a member of the Native Administration. After a failed attempt to become Sultan of Sokoto in 1938, Bello became the Sardauna, an adviser at the Sokoto court, and soon emerged as a modern political leader. His primary political concern was not the immediate removal of British overrule, although he ultimately welcomed it, but the creation of an alliance between the native aristocracy, the urban mercantile class and the younger educated elements to prevent the domination of the North by more educated Southerners once Nigeria attained independence (Bello 1962).
“Like Awolowo’s Action Group, Bello’s party, the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), was a political party that had emerged from a cultural association and was strongly focused on affirming a local identity. However, unlike the AG, the NPC was not focused on ethno-nationalist discourse but rather on the historic and, to a large degree, religious unity of the North (Paden 1986: 155-9). Bello’s vision for the North reflected his close embeddedness in aristocratic politics and especially his position as a member of Sokoto’s ruling lineage, and as a result he supported a slow pace of reform at the local level in which traditional authority remained central to local and regional government strcutures. As a result, Bello did not join his southern rivals in the struggle for power at the federal level and was perfectly content to let his close but in many ways junior political ally, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, act as Nigeria’s prime minister (Bello 1962-208-27). Thus Bello, like Awolowo, supported the creation of a weak central power, albeit for very different reasons.
“Committed to a politics of compromise and conciliation, Bello was often taken aback by the more confrontational styles of Southern Nigerian politicians. Bello was particularly affronted by the frequently defiant rhetoric of Obafemi Awolowo, perhaps especially so because of the religious and cultural affinities of many Yoruba groups with northern Nigeria. When preparation for Independence in 1960, Bello found the new premier of the Western Region, Ladoke Akintola, much more congenial. Unlike Awolowo, Akintola spoke Hausa fluently and, though himself a Christian, had his political base in a part of Yorubaland dominated by Islam. Akintola was also, much like Bello, a politician whose career had relied on compromise. Believing that a political alliance between North and West would ultimately contribute to Nigeria’s national integration and unity, Bello and Akintola pepared to include the Action Group, which had been in opposition to an NPC-NCNC alliance, into the central government. But Awolowo felt that Akintola had sold out the AG’s ideals of reform in a bid for central power, and this negotiation ultimately led to the split and eventual collapse of the AG and to Awolowo’s imprisonment in 1963. Providing backing for Akintola’s politics, Bello ensured that Akintola remained in charge of an increasingly divided Western Region until he, Bello, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and others associated with Bello’s socially conservative politics, were murdered in Nigeria’s first military coup in 1966.
“While Awolowo and Bello clearly disliked each other, their relationship was not subject to the feelings of personal betrayal that characterised the relationship of Azikiwe and Awolowo, whose joint history in Nigerian politics spanned a half-century from the late 1930s to Awolowo’s death in 1987. Born into a prominent Onitsha family in 1904, Azikiwe was the most consmopolitan Nigeria leader of his generation. Following the itinerary of his civil servant father, and in pursuance of education, he spent his childhood and youth in northern, eastern and western Nigeria. Fluent in English as well as Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa, Azikiwe was accepted into the Nigeria civil service in 1921 but eventually succeeded in establishing himself in the United States. After studying at several American universities, Azikiwe had obtained an undergraduate and two graduate degrees by the mid-1930s (Azikiwe 1970: 1-182).
Azikiwe’s American experience provided him with a more radical political perspective than Awolowo and Bello, and for him the fight against colonial domination was linked to wider struggles against political, social and intellectual forms of racial discrimination. Consequently, Azikiwe shared the belief of Awolowo and other progressives of his generation in the technologies of enlightenment but rejected Awolowo’s and Bello’s revalidation of precolonial identities. Thus Azikiwe envisioned a meritocratic Nigeria in which individuals’ educational and other achievements would determine their influence. But to some degree, the pan-Nigerian ambition in Azikiwe’s politics also reflected his cultural roots as an Igbo and member of the Eastern Region’s ethnic majority. Precolonial Igbo society had been more oriented towards individual achievement than most groups in western or northern Nigeria, and Igbo-speakers had embraced education with exceptional enthusiasm. In the Western Region, the perception of the value of education differed greatly according to locality, and highly literate communities in Lagos and more recently, Remo contrasted with parts of the country where educational opportunities were not taken up with the same zeal.
“After his return from the USA, a visit to London and a period of work in Ghana in 1937, Azikiwe joined the NYM, the nationalist movement of the day, and published its views in his newspaper, the West African Pilot. When a rival newspaper, the Lagos Daily Service, was established in 1938, Azikiwe however, began to seek political support outside the NYM. In 1941, Azikiwe announced his resignation from the NYM, and many Igbo members followed him. But while Awolowo and most Yoruba-speakers sided with the NYM, a number of leaders from Ijebu and Remo, including the later oba of the Remo town Isara, Samuel Akinsaya, also left the organisation, suggesting that at this stage ethnic and economic rivalry were also refracted by facts such as local factionalism and a shared position in Nigeria’s educational landscape. In 1944, Azikiwe attempted to revive nationalist politics through the new organisation of the NCNC. However, the national focus of this organisation conflicted with its organisational structure, which relied to a large degree on the leadership of the pan-ethnic Ibo (Igbo) Federal Union. After Awolowo’s return from the UK, unease over the dual position of Igbo intellectuals in the NCNC enabled him to establish the Action Group in the Western Region. Soon, both Azikiwe and Awolowo encouraged the factional mobilisation of political identities through their own parties, while at the same time asserting that this was simply a response to the ‘tribal’ interests of their rival.
“During the 1950s, Azikiwe’s unequivocal focus on Nigeria as a whole was reflected in his commitment to negotiations with the NPC, despite the great ideological gulf between the two parties. Azikiwe’s accommodating style eventually enabled him to choose between the AG and the NPC as coalition partners, and to Awolowo’s great dismay, Azikiwe preferred a coalition with the NPC. He became the country’s first Nigerian Governor General in 1960. however, Azikiwe’s concurrent lack of commitment to the creation of local structures of support also forced him to abandon his constituency in the capital Lagos in 1953, albeit to be eventually elected as the premier of the Eastern Region in 1954. In a development reminiscent of Adelabu’s problems in Ibadan, Azikiwe’s inability to maintain political unity in the politics of his home town Onitsha enabled his rivals to accuse him of corruption in 1956, an allegation that led to the Foster-Sutton public inquiry, and which did much to damage his personal reputation outside his core area of support. Further rifts within the NCNC affected Azikiwe in 1958, when prominent party members demanded his resignation as party leader in response to a range of concerns including the failure of a programme of universal free education in the Eastern Region, which had been successful under Awolowo in the West. Yet despite these problems, Azikiwe maintained his position as the NCNC’s leader, and it is perhaps in his career that the importance of power at the national level for the generation and maintenance of regional and local support during his period is most obvious. But while the difficulties encountered by Azikiwe did not undermine his control of Eastern Nigeria, they certainly contributed to the NCNC’s loss of power in the West.
“By 1960, the defining difference between Awolowo and his political rivals was that he failed to retain a viable base for political action. While Bello remained entrenched at the regional level, and Azikiwe moved from the Eastern Region’s premiership to the office of the Governor-General, Awolowo had given up his premiership to contest the national elections, but after negotiations with the NCNC failed, he moved to Lagos only as the leader of the opposition. Attempting to maintain control of the Western Region and his party, Awolowo increasingly came into conflict with the new Premier Akintola, whom he perceived as subverting both Awolowo’s authority and the ideals of the party. As Akintola seemed to move towards a more socially conservative politics, Awolowo increasingly identified with and represented his own past successes as part of a redistributive and socially reformist agenda.”
The narative, long-drawn though but engaging, gets the reader desiring more. But beyond interesting tale, Nolte would have dotted the book well with good photographs for effective illustration. The few pictures in the package, all black and white, may not suffice for a 321-page tome of raw history even if the author’s gift of good writing makes tale enjoyable. Moreover, there are archives, libraries and museums full of Awo’s and the Remo’s landmark photographs around the world. All shots needed not have been those taken during the research period by the author.
Again, the heavily black graphics-choked cover of the book could have done better on bookshelves with a more appealling contemporary design.
More so, seeking a section for a capsular background of Awo takes a reader through all the nine chapters of the book which is good for an analytical long essay because it makes the entire thesis whole. But for academic – say, undergraduate readers for whom one would strongly recommend the book and those who are not deeply knowledgable of Nigerian modern history like young ones of the country’s origin in the Diaspora – such effort would be drudgery.
All notwithstanding, Nolte’s Obafemi Awolowo and the Making of Remo: The Local Politics of a Nigerian Nationalist is an outstanding book. In the words of Olufemi Vaughan of Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, it is “... one of the most important books in Nigerian Studies in the last decade.”
Nolte’s years of thorough scholarly search came out well and it deserves the acolades it is currently receiving among Nigerian intelligentsia.