Chief Jeremiah Oyeniyi Obafemi Awolowo (Yoruba: Ọbáfẹ́mi Awólọ́wọ̀; March 6, 1909 – May 9, 1987) popularly known as “Awo” was one of Africa’s most influential nationalists, political writer and a pre-eminent Nigerian statesman whose vision and tireless work defined a modernist Yoruba political project in an emergent Nigerian post-colonial nation state after the decolonization process in the 1940s. He is often neglected among African political intellectuals because he did not become a head of state. Awo is often criticized heavily by the Ndi Igbos for committing massive genocide against the Igbos in the Biafran War, a charge he seriously denied throughout his life. His admirers refers to him as “the best president Nigeria never had.”A Yoruba and native of Ikenne in Ogun State of Nigeria, he started his career,like some of his notable contemporaries, as a nationalist in the Nigerian Youth Movement of which he became Western provincial secretary, and was responsible for much of the progressive social legislation that has made Nigeria a modern nation. He was an active journalist and trade unionist as a young man, editing The Nigerian Worker amongst other publications while also organizing the Nigerian Produce Traders Association and serving as secretary of the Nigerian Motor Transport Union. After earning a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Nigeria from a London University through correspondence, he went to the UK where he earned a law degree as an external student. While there, he founded the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, a pan-Yoruba cultural society, which set the stage for the formation of the Action Group, a liberal nationalist political party.
As Leader of the Group, he represented the Western Region in all the constitutional conferences intended to advance Nigeria on the path to independence. He was the first Leader of Government Business and Minister of Local Government and Finance and first Premier of the Western Region under Nigeria’s parliamentary system, from 1952 to 1959, and was the official Leader of the Opposition in the federal parliament to the Balewa government from 1959 to 1963. In addition to all these, Awolowo was the first individual in the modern era to be named Leader of the Yorubas (Yoruba: Asiwaju Omo Oodua), a title which has come over time to be conventionally ascribed to his successors as the recognized political leader of the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria.
Gunther started out in his book by comparing Chief Obafemi Awolowo to his chief political rival Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zik) at page 773 of the book:”… the leader of the Action Group, and Zik’s chief political rival, Obafemi Awolowo (pronounced A-wa-luwa), has an altogether different quality. He is not a demagogue, but and intellectual. There has never been a breath of scandal about him. He is a man with a good deal of reserve, conscientious, precise, and somewhat stiff-backed. I heard an Englishman say, with genuine regret, “if only Awolowo would relax, and have a glass of sherry with us sometimes!” His intellectual arrogance is marked, although he seemed reasonable enough when we talked to him.
Obafemi Awolowo was born on March 6, 1909 to Chief David Sopolu Awolowo and his wife Mary Efunyela Awolowo in Ikenne,Remo in present-day Ogun State of Nigeria. His first name, Obafemi, means ‘The king loves me’ and the surname Awolowo, the source of his nickname, Awo, means ‘The mystic (or mysticism) commands honour (or respect)’.
Awolowo`s father was a farmer and sawyer. He 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 when he was about seven years, an event that left him without financial support and compelled him to fetch firewood for sale, and do similar jobs, to support his schooling.
He attended various schools, and then became a teacher in Abeokuta, after which he qualified as a shorthand typist. Subsequently, he served as a clerk at the famous Wesley college, as well as a correspondent for the Nigerian Times. It was after this that he embarked on various business ventures to help raise funds to travel to the UK for further studies.
Following his education at Wesley College, Ibadan (a teachers’ college) in 1927, he enrolled 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.
In 1949 Awolowo founded the Nigerian Tribune, the oldest surviving private Nigerian newspaper, which he used to spread nationalist consciousness among his fellow Nigerians.
Obafemi Awolowo also 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.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Premier of Western Region of Nigeria, just landing from his helicopter to start campaigning in Sokoto for his party, the Action group, for the federal elections. He is in the green robe at the right-hand microphone, speaking in English; an interpreter at Awo’s right translates his speech into Hausa for the crowd of about 2,500.” circa 1959. courtesy Eliot Elisofon
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 Western part of Nigeria as part of the Social Programme for the emancipation of Yoruba race. Awolowo became 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. 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.
December 19, 1958: Premiers Of Nigeria – These are the faces of the Men of Destiny of Nigeria and the Southern Cameroons. From left to right, they are those of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Dr E.M.L. Endeley and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. The five men are heads of Governments which make the Nigerian federation. The happiness and fortunes of 35 million people will soon depend on their wisdom and courage. They are not only regarded as very important cogs in the wheel of Nigeria’s destiny. They are in fact so. (Photograph by Drum Photographer ©BAHA).
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. 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.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Premier of Western Region of Nigeria, campaigning in Sokoto for his party, the Action group, for the federal elections. He is in the green robe at the right-hand microphone, speaking in English; an interpreter at Awo’s right translates his speech into Hausa for the crowd of about 2,500.” circa 1959. courtesy Eliot Elisofon
Nigeria`s 1960 elections with the famous Nigeria [political heavy-weights of their time: Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Abubakar Tafewa Balewa, Ahmed Bello and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe.
From the eve of independence, he led the Action Group as the Leader of the Opposition in the federal parliament, leaving Samuel Ladoke Akintola as the Western Region Premier. Serious disagreements between Awolowo and Akintola on how to run the Western region led the latter to an alliance with the Tafawa Balewa-led NPC federal government. A constitutional crisis led to the declaration of a state of emergency in the Western Region, eventually resulting in a widespread breakdown of law and order.
Excluded from national government, Awolowo and his party faced an increasingly precarious position. Akintola’s followers, angered at their exclusion from power, formed the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) under Akintola’s leadership. Having previously suspended the elected Western Regional Assembly, the federal government then reconstituted the body after manoeuvres that brought Akintola’s NNDP into power without an election. Shortly afterwards Awolowo and several disciples were arrested, charged, convicted and jailed for conspiring with the Ghanaian authorities under Kwame Nkrumah to overthrow the federal government. The remnants of the Action Group fought the national election of 1965 in alliance with the largely Igbo, and south-eastern NCNC. Amid accusations of fraud from the NCNC-AG camp, the NPC-NNDP won the election; the AG supporters reacted with violent riots in some parts of the Western region. Awolowo was later freed by the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon who subsequently appointed him Federal Commissioner for Finance and Vice-President of the Federal Executive Council. This took place in the unsettled circumstances immediately preceding the Civil War.
Oba Akenzua welcoming Queen Elizabeth to his Kingdom whilst Chief Obafemi Awolowo looks on.
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)
University of Cape Coast, Ghana: LL.D. (1976)
He was 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.
Asiwaju of Yoruba
Asiwaju of Remo
Losi of Ikenne
Lisa of Ijeun
Apesin of Osogbo
Odole of Ife
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 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 till the very end of his life.
Republished 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). Re 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 Tribuneand Irohin Yoruba) were founded and owned by Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his famous wife Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo (née Adelana) and their family
“Violence never settles anything right: apart from injuring your own soul, it injures the best cause. It lingers on long after the object of hate has disappeared from the scene to plague the lives of those who have employed it against their foes.”~Obafemi Awolowo