Dr Olatokunbo Awolowo Dosumu is the daughter of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The former Nigerian Ambassador to The Netherlands shares her memories about her father and his vision for Nigeria
October 1 is a significant day in Nigeria’s history. What significance does it have for your family?
It has great significance for my family simply because of the role that papa (late Chief Obafemi Awololo) played in securing that independence for Nigeria. So, yes, it has great memories.
What are the memories Independence Day brings to you?
On a personal level, I remember that on that day, of course, I was in boarding school together with my sister. I was 11 at that time. There was a special fabric that was made for Independence Day at that time. Mama made outfits for us. I think, perhaps, we were the only two that wore that fabric at school obviously because papa was in government at that time and they were part and parcel of the celebration. And I remember that was one of the few times we were served jollof rice at school. It was a special occasion. It was a memorable day. We all felt the significance of the day.
I also remember that afterwards, I heard from my parents what happened at the ceremony. For them, it was bittersweet. There they were celebrating the fruition of some years’ effort, but at the same time, the seating arrangement was such that papa’s seat was amongst those of ex-servicemen and he was the leader of the opposition. So, he was deliberately diminished on that day and that wasn’t nice. But, at least, they were happy that Nigeria got independence.
Are you saying that your dad was not given the right recognition on that day?
No. He was put among ex-servicemen. It came as a surprise to me. As young as I was, I still knew that it wasn’t proper for him to have been put in such a place. I’m not saying ex-servicemen are not important but I don’t think that was a position fit for the leader of the opposition.
Your father participated in major events that led to Nigeria’s independence. Which among them stood out for you?
I remember that he used to travel a few times to London, UK for constitutional conferences. But those didn’t really make us have any trepidation, although air travel, at that time, wasn’t as safe as it is now. But still, perhaps, one was too young to really appreciate the risk at that time. But the times that I remember feeling anxious were those times when he was on the campaign trail leading to the federal election that took place before independence, especially when he campaigned in other regions that were not too friendly. But he was always very upbeat about it, courageous and bold. I remember once reading in the newspaper that there was a swarm of bees that came towards the campaign ground. I can’t remember where. The swarm of bees headed towards them but, somehow, changed direction and went away. That was a close shave. That showed the kind of risk he was taking. But we learnt to live with it.
Did he share with you and your siblings what he wanted for Nigeria?
I’m not sure that he sat us down (and did that). We were too young to be able to engage with him. But we watched him live his life and do his work as the Premier of the Western Region. We saw his zeal and enthusiasm for the best interest of all Nigerians. So, I don’t think we needed to be told (about his vision for Nigeria). There is a saying that, ‘My father never taught me how to live. He just let me watch him live.’ We didn’t have that conversation about his vision until the Second Republic when, during the United Party of Nigeria days, I remember we, his children, asked for an audience with him and were wondering why he wanted to throw himself into the political struggle again and he gently explained it to us and we understood. I remember coming away from that conversation with a message that that was his mission, his life, and we should just continue to support him as we had been doing. Everybody just accepted that.
As a visionary, do you think he would have been pleased with where Nigeria is at 60?
He wouldn’t. What would he be pleased about? Is it about our human development indices, good governance indices, state of our infrastructure or insecurity? He would have been horrified. I feel sad. I am a product of his free education programme. I attended a public school and I know the standard of education that we received. It is a far cry from what is happening today for so many reasons. So, it is rather depressing. There can still be solutions; we can work at it if we want to.
How would you assess the performance of the Federal Government in that regard?
If we start from the percentage of the budget that is devoted to education, it is very low, compared to the recommendation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. In papa’s time, I don’t think UNESCO had brought out its recommendation yet. The percentage that they (Awolowo and his contemporaries) devoted to education was way higher than the current UNESCO recommendation. So, education was obviously their priority. That was what they thought they needed to do first to develop the people in every way. In his book, he said that they were determined to deploy resources to those sectors that would benefit the people and anything that didn’t meet that criterion; they were not going to countenance. If priorities change, I think we can gradually get back to where we should be because without education, the future will be rather bleak for this country. As we move into the future – a future that will be knowledge-driven – in order to give coming generations a fighting chance of surviving in that kind of global environment, they need to have a very sound education. It is not a luxury; it is a necessity.
Many Nigerians have expressed disappointment that despite one of your father’s protégés as the Vice President in the current Federal Government, his ideals have not been felt in policies and actions. Do you find that worrisome?
Given the accepted role of a vice president, I’m not sure he is in the position to do more than he is doing right now. So, I don’t think it’s his fault.
But many expect that even as a VP, he should have important input in policymaking except he has been sidelined…
He can have his say but the majority will have their way, I think. I don’t know what goes on in government but I’m not sure that it is for want of trying.
Was your dad concerned about the domination of a section of Nigeria over the others after independence during his time just as it is a burning issue today?
He was and he even mentioned it in his allocutus just before he was sentenced for his treason trial.
How pained was he about it?
He wasn’t. He was just anxious for that situation to be reversed so that there would be justice and equity throughout the country. It wasn’t a personal thing. It was a national situation and he just felt that there should be greater equity.
Chief Awolowo and other founding fathers were renowned for their selflessness and patriotism. Knowing that many of our current political leaders knew his style of leadership, are you disappointed about the state of governance in Nigeria today?
Of course, every Nigerian should be concerned and disappointed. We need to see a lot more selfless service. I feel very concerned about that and I hope that, going forward, as more voices are raised about this issue, the political elite will listen. Papa would have been disappointed with the lack of selflessness displayed by politicians because his kind of leadership was based on selfless service all the way. He gave everything he had to Nigeria and to the people. He was consumed by the passion to see this country thrive and he didn’t ask for anything for himself. Rather, he spent his talent and resources.
A former Minister of Transportation, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, was reported as saying that those calling for the creation of Oduduwa Republic were acting against the ideals of your father. What’s your response to that?
I do know that until he died, he was a firm believer in this country, Nigeria, as long as it was structured in an equitable and fair manner to all the nations. In other words, he wanted a truly federal union. He was totally convinced about that and he had been a federalist. He believed that Nigeria was destined for great things if we got the structure and governance right. What has happened since he passed away has made it even clearer the dangers inherent in running a multi-ethnic, almost multinational country called Nigeria with a unitary constitution. It has made it clear. The irritations have increased and the voices for self-determination have become so shrill.
I personally don’t think we have exhausted the dialogue route; I believe there is still room because I can hear sound bites from all over the country. From the six geopolitical zones, there are voices that are calling for caution regarding the governance structures and the governance of Nigeria. I think that those voices need to be listened to and they need to come out more. Federalism simply means devolution of powers and resource control. These were the things they had in the First Republic. That was why it worked for all regions because it became a kind of competition and in that process, the people were the beneficiaries. That is really what you would want from a government. I think that if we can go that route, it will be a lot better.
Do you think the 1999 Constitution can ever give Nigerians the Nigeria your father envisioned?
That is the problem we are talking about. It is more like a unitary constitution. Certainly, it is being run like it. The letter and spirit of the constitution, until recently, were at the fore. People, though not obliged to, tried to be fair and equitable in everything that they were doing. But overtime, it has become clear that any president that chose not to do that wouldn’t be going against the law at all. So, it becomes clearer that we need to have a constitution that will prevent any functionary of government from doing anything less than equitable, and that is a federal constitution. It is as clear as day.
There have been divergent views expressed by pan-Yoruba organisations about issues that affect the region. How do these make your family feel?
I don’t think I want to dwell on division. I believe that every Yoruba man and woman wants the same things. I think there is a unity of purpose. I’m not terribly worried about it. I’m sure the Yoruba have a way of coming together when the chips are down.
It’s been more than 33 years since your dad passed on. How is the family keeping memories of him alive?
There is the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation. That’s one way we do it. We keep the Nigerian Tribune going, which is the voice of the voiceless. We tried to reinvent the Tribune during our 70th anniversary. That way, we keep his pact with the Nigerian people alive. At the family level, we remember him and mama every year on the anniversaries of their births and deaths. This year, COVID-19 made that difficult but we tried to do something anyway. In the church, we try to keep their memories alive. In partisan politics, maybe not. For me, papa is now a universal ideal because his prescriptions for the progress of this country are even more relevant now than they ever were. Any political leader worth that name needs to take a look at Chief Awolowo’s prescriptions and methods and work towards them.
Does the family still have his diary where he documented his plans for Nigeria?
He had a diary but he wouldn’t put those things down there. There was a transcript of a book that was in progress but nobody is able to translate it because papa had a unique style of shorthand that nobody can crack. So, unfortunately, that is not available to anybody. We can find it but we can’t translate it.
Have some of his followers come to your family to ask whether they could translate it and get information that could be useful to Nigeria?
The title of the book was ‘For the Good of the People.’ So, I don’t think he would have written anything other than what he had been preaching. Not many people credit him for the fact that what is today called the human development paradigm is what was in the manifesto of the Action Group and what was implemented in the 50s in the Western Region. The Millennium Development Goals that transformed into the Sustainable Development Goals were those things that he actually did several decades earlier. They are all still valid and there for anyone who wants to work and serve the people. The methods they used may be a bit different now but the goals should remain the same. – Punch.