Chief Jeremiah Oyeniyi Obafemi Awolowo was an iconic Nigerian nationalist and statesman who played a key role in Nigeria’s independence movement, the First and Second Republics. He is most notable as the outstanding first premier of the Western Region and was thrice a major contender for his country’s highest office.
Awolowo was born on March 6, 1909, to Chief David Sopolu Awolowo and his wife Mary Efunyela Awolowo in present-day Ogun State of Nigeria.
Young Obafemi Awolowo had his primary school education at St. Saviour’s School, Ikenne, and at Imo Wesleyan School, Abeokuta. His education at this early stage was interrupted for several years by the sudden death of his father in April 1920, a development that left him without financial support and compelled him to fetch firewood for sale, to support his schooling.
He had higher education at Wesley College, Ibadan (a teachers’ college) in 1927, and much later at the University of London as an External Student. He was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Commerce (Hons.) and the Bachelor of Laws by the University of London. He was called to the Bar by the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple on November 19, 1946.
On 26th December 1937, Obafemi Awolowo got married to Miss Hannah Idowu Dideolu Adelana. They remained each other’s best friend to the end; together they fought for the cause of justice and for the release of their fellow man’s mind from ignorance and the freedom on his body from disease. They had 5 children: Olusegun (1939-1963), Omotola, Oluwole, Ayodele and Tokunbo.
Activities Of An Eventful Life
After a brief stint as a school teacher, stenographer, and Daily Times reporter-in training, Obafemi Awolowo set himself up in Ibadan as a produce buyer and a transporter. It was in Ibadan that his political life began to unfold: he served there as secretary of the Nigerian Youth Movement before he went abroad to study Law in Great Britain.
Back home from Britain, Awolowo formed the cultural group known as “Egbe Omo Oduduwa” in 1949 and a political party, the Action Group, (AG), in 1951 also known as Egbe Afenifere in the Western part of Nigeria as part of the Social Programme for the emancipation of Yoruba race.
His party won the first elections ever conducted in Western Nigeria. As a result of that victory, the AG formed the first elected government in the Western Region and Obafemi Awolowo, now a Chief, became the Leader of Government Business and Minister for Local Government in 1952.
In 1954, Awo (as he had come to be fondly known within his party) became the first Premier of the Western Region. His party won the elections again in May 1956 and Awo retained his position as Premier. He voluntarily gave up that position when, on December 12, 1959, he was elected into the House of Representatives where he became the Leader of Opposition in Nigeria’s central legislature.
He stood up stoutly against mediocrity and drift in government, and began to define alternative channels along which Nigeria’s government should go. His own concept of a Nigerian nation was probably too advanced for his opponents, who began to see the Awolowo-led opposition as a major threat. Following a trial for treasonable felony, he was jailed for 10 years in September 1963.
By July 1966, Nigeria’s problems had become so intractable that the disintegration of the country seemed inevitable. A new Federal Military Government promptly opened the gates of Calabar Prison, brought Awolowo out and appointed him as a minister to take charge of the country’s treasury and to provide political support as Vice Chairman in the Federal administration. In those two roles, he was one of the major architects of Nigeria’s victory over s~cession in the 3D-month Civil War.
When the war ended, Awo waited just long enough to give Nigeria a National Development Plan; as soon as the Plan was completed, he resigned from the government, although, to his last day, he remained grateful to the man who gave him an opportunity to serve his country.
When Nigeria’s Armed Forces lifted the ban on civilian participation in politics in September 1978, Nigerians who believed in Awo’s political ideas and principles joined him in forming the Unity Party of Nigeria which presented Nigeria with a dynamic programme of socio-economic change along democratic socialist lines. Awo led the party until it was banned, along with Nigeria’s other political parties, during the military take-over at the end of 1983.
Chief Awolowo was a great political thinker who committed many of his thoughts to writing. From 1946, he had started a long career in political writing, which flourished whether he was in freedom or in detention, whether he was in power or out of it. It continued to flourish until the very end of his life.
Chief Awolowo’s greatest achievements resulted from the foresight, clear sense of direction and sheer competence that he brought into government.
At the beginning of his career in government, Chief Awolowo quickly reformed the Local Government system of the Western Region and took revolutionary steps to Nigerianise and improve the Western Nigeria Civil Service. An extremely good judge of men’s qualities, he had also put together a very efficient team of ministers. Having taken those steps, he was set to achieve within 5 years a string of “Firsts” in the history of Africa:
- Between 1954 and 1959, his government evolved, and was served by, the most efficient Civil Service in Black Africa;
- Introduced and successfully implemented the first Free Primary Education programme in Africa;
- Introduced and successfully managed the first Free Medical Service programme in Nigeria – for children up to the age of 18;
- Established the first Television Station in Africa;
- Built the Liberty Stadium, the first such modem sports facility in Nigeria;
- Introduced and successfully implemented the first minimum wage policy in Nigeria and actually paid to Western Nigerians from October 1954 a minimum wage that was double the amount paid to workers of the same level in some other parts of Nigeria;
- Set up Nigeria’s first industrial complex at Ikeja;
- Set up Nigeria’s first commercial Housing Estates at Ikeja and Bodija, Ibadan.
Besides these, Chief Awolowo’s government had laid the foundation for development in commerce and industry by:
- Creating an efficient Western Nigeria Development Corporation, the ancestor of the present-day O’dua Investment Company;
- Taken successful bold steps to revolutionise the production and marketing of cocoa by farmers in Western Nigeria; and .
- Created the infrastructure for rural development by promoting 900 cooperative societies in about 3 years and by providing within 5 years almost 10 times as many miles of road as he inherited from the British administration.
Transformational Political Leadership
By making election promises and fulfilling them within a few years, Awo had led his region to evolve a culture that demands and evaluates a socio-economic programme from those who seek to govern them.
In the Federal government, Awo managed the finances of Nigeria so shrewdly and so competently that the Federal Government successfully waged an expensive 30-month war against secession without resorting to foreign loans and without compromising its sovereignty.
Awolowo was Nigeria’s foremost federalist. In his Path to Nigerian Freedom (1947) – the first systematic federalist manifesto by a Nigerian politician – he advocated federalism as the only basis for equitable national integration and, as head of the Action Group, he led demands for a federal constitution, which was introduced in the 1954 Lyttleton Constitution, following primarily the model proposed by the Western Region delegation led by him.
As premier, he proved to be and was viewed as a man of vision and a dynamic administrator. Awolowo was also the country’s leading social democratic politician. He supported limited public ownership and limited central planning in government. He believed that the state should channel Nigeria’s resources into education and state-led infrastructural development.
Controversially, and at considerable expense, he introduced free primary education for all and free health care for children in the Western Region, established the first television service in Africa in 1959, and the Oduduwa Group, all of which were financed from the highly lucrative cocoa industry which was the mainstay of the regional economy.
In recognition of his intellectual contributions, Awolowo was honoured by the following institutions of learning:
- University of Nigeria, Nsukka: LL.D. (1962)
- University of Ife, Ile-Ife: D.Sc. (1967)
- University of Lagos: D.Litt. (1968)
- University of Ibadan: LL.D. (1972)
- Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria: LL.D. (1975)
- The University of Cape Coast, Ghana: LL.D. (1976)
Chief Awolowo was the Chancellor of the University of Ife (1967 -1975) and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (1975-1978).
In recognition of his professional contributions at the Bar, he was made a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in 1978.
In recognition of his invaluable service to Nigeria, he was given the highest honour in the land, the Grand Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (GCFR)in 1982.
He was honoured with many chieftaincy titles, including the following:
- Odole of Ife
- Asiwaju of Yoruba
- Asiwaju of Remo
- Losi of Ikenne
- Lisa of Ijeun
- Apesin of Osogbo
- Ajagunla of Ado-Ekiti
- Odofin of Owo and
- Obong Ikpan Isong of Ibibio Land.
In recognition of his esteemed contributions, he was awarded the Grand Band of the Order of the Star of Africa by the Republic of Liberia in 1968 and made Grand-Officer de l’Ordre National du Lion, Republique du Senegal, in 1972.
Chief Awolowo published many books and still had some in the press at the time of his transition. Among his best-known works are:
Path to Nigerian Freedom (1947),
Awo – an autobiography (1960),
Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution (1966),
The People’s Republic (1968),
The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic (1970),
The Problems of Africa: The need for ideological reappraisal (1977),
Adventures in PowerBook 1: My March Through Prison (1985). Chief Awolowo had planned to launch Book 2 entitled The Travails of Democracy and the Rule of Lawon 6th June 1987.
The oldest privately owned newspaper in Nigeria, The Nigerian Tribune, and two other newspapers (the weekly Sunday Tribune and Irohin Yoruba) were founded and owned by Chief Obafemi Awolowo.