People

Obafemi Awolowo

QUICK FACTS

NAME
Obafemi Jeremiah Oyeniyi Awolowo

OCCUPATION
Lawyer, Politician

DATE OF BIRTH
March 6th, 1909

DATE OF DEATH
May 9th, 1987

EDUCATION
Wesley College Ibadan, University of London

PLACE OF BIRTH
Ikenne, Ogun State

234 LEGEND
 

Given his leadership qualities, Obafemi Jeremiah Oyeniyi Awolowo has been described by many as a man of undaunted courage, charisma, intelligence and political consciousness. He was very particular about improving and strengthening the academic pillars in Nigeria and was instrumental in the establishment of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife which was originally called the University of Ife. The University of Ife was renamed in honor of him on May 12th, 1987 shortly after his death. It is not a surprise that he was described as the Best President that Nigeria never had by Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the former military governor of the Eastern Region and ex-leader of the now defunct Republic of Biafra. The face of Awolowo on the 100 Naira bill is also a testament to his legacy and the tireless sacrifices he made for Nigeria. He was fondly called “Awo” by his supporters and fans who saw him as a great source of inspiration and an amiable leader who cared deeply about Nigeria.

Early Life


Obafemi Jeremiah Oyeniyi Awolowo was born on the March 6th, 1909 to David Sopolu Awolowo and Mary Efunyela (nee Awofeko) in Ikenne, Ogun state. At age 11, he lost his father and this sudden loss had a tremendous effect on his childhood both emotionally and financially. His early education was wrought with financial struggles and in order to get by, he served as a house help to total strangers, worked as a farm laborer, and even hawked woods and sheaves of dried elephant grass for money to put himself through school.

Awolowo on the N100 currency note
Awolowo on the N100 currency note

After completing his higher education at Wesley College, Ibadan (teachers’ college) in 1927, he proceeded to the University of London and would later on graduate with Bachelor of Commerce (Hons.) and Bachelor of Law degrees from the University of London and on November 19th, 1946, he got called to the Bar by the Honorable Society of the Inner Temple, London. Prior to Awolowo’s trip to Great Britain, it is important to note that he also had a stint as a school teacher, a clerk, a stenographer and even took on reporting duties for one of Nigeria’s prominent newspaper, the Daily Times. This particular period was quite important because it served as formative years for his eventual foray into the world of politics.

Marriage & Family

On December 26th, 1937, Awolowo wedded Hannah Idowu Dideolu (HID) in their hometown of Ikenne, Ogun State. It is no secret that Awolowo was very fond of HID and he was quoted on a few occasions describing her as a “jewel of inestimable value”. Awolowo and HID will form a formidable and astute political duo that will both play a crucial role in the politics of Western Nigeria. Together, they had five children: Olusegun, Omotola, Oluwole, Ayodele and Tokunbo.

Awolowo and HID
Awolowo and HID

Career

While studying in London, Awolowo wrote and released his first book, Path to Nigerian Freedom (1947), in which he emphasized the essence of an independent and self-governed Nigeria where each ethnic group had a voice. Around the same period, he also served as a co-founder of the Egbé Ọmọ Odùduwà (Yoruba: “Society of the Descendants of Oduduwa”), an organization formed to help promote the heritage and harmony of the Yoruba people and also implement a viable path for the development of Nigeria’s Western Region.

Following his return to Nigeria in the late 1940’s, Awolowo will go on to establish the Egbé Ọmọ Odùduwà in Nigeria. Thereafter, he founded a political party known as the Action Group (AG) in 1951 and would later on become the party’s first president. The core members of the party were influential leaders from Egbé Ọmọ Odùduwà and the party advocated for a swift termination of colonial leadership in Nigeria and for the creation of societal programs that will empower Nigerians and boost the economy. In 1951, the Action Group will go on to win the first elections held in the Western Region and Awolowo will come into prominence when he became the Leader of Government Business and Minister for Local Government in 1952. In 1954, Awolowo became the first Premier of the Western Region making him the foremost representative of the Western Region at all governmental and national symposiums meant to advance Nigeria on the path to independence. The Action Group will go on to win the regional elections again in 1956 which meant Awolowo continued to serve as Premier until 1959 when he voluntarily relinquished his position as a Premier and became the leader of the opposition in the Federal House of Representatives.

Awolowo (in green robe), Premier of Western Region of Nigeria, campaigning in Sokoto State for his party, the Action group, for the federal elections (1959). PC: Eliot Elisofon
Awolowo (in green robe), Premier of Western Region of Nigeria, campaigning in Sokoto State for his party, the Action group, for the federal elections (1959). PC: Eliot Elisofon

Between 1959 and 1963, Awolowo was very vocal in his new role as the official leader of the opposition that spoke out again the Balewa government. He became an outspoken critic of the government citing their inconsistent national policies and a lack of understanding in addressing the challenges faced by everyday Nigerians. In addition to his candid political stance, he also had an ongoing rift with Samuel Ládòkè Akíntọ́lá, a key leader and a former legal adviser to the Action Group Party. Awolowo and Akintola were at odds over the direction of the party which led to Akíntọ́lá joining the coalition government of Tafawa Balewa. The power struggle within the Action Group eventually led to riots starting in 1962 in the Western Region and a state of emergency was subsequently declared by the federal government. Awolowo and his loyalists were blamed for inciting chaos and violence and the Balewa government will accuse him of treasonable felony. After his trial, Awolowo was sentenced to 10 years in jail on September 1963.

Awolowo coming out of the Black Maria (A black prison van used to transport prisoners) on his way to the High Court in Lagos to answer criminal charges brought against him by the Tafawa Balewa government on the November 1st, 1962
Awolowo coming out of the Black Maria (A black prison van used to transport prisoners) on his way to the High Court in Lagos to answer criminal charges brought against him by the Tafawa Balewa government on the November 1st, 1962

Ethnic violence and political dissonance was on the rise following the January 1966 coup. By July 1966, the country was about to erupt with obvious mounting tensions within the military and political elite and the country was on the verge of collapsing. A new Federal Military Government with the General Yakubu Gowon at the helm takes over the reins of power in July 1966 and speedily releases Awolowo from his Calabar Prison. Awolowo’s prompt release by Gowon’s government was a calculated move that was made to quell concerns that westerners and southerners had about the supposed ethnic maltreatment shown by northern leaders during Balewa’s regime. Gowon will appoint Awolowo as the Federal Commissioner for Finance and also tasked him to provide political support as Vice Chairman in the Federal administration. In those two influential roles, he became one of major strategists of Nigeria’s victory over secession in the nearly 36 month long Civil War. Once the war ended, Awolowo stuck around to ensure that his National Development Program got enacted and completed and then resigned afterwards.

In 1978, the Nigeria’s Armed Forces would lift the twelve year ban on political parties and once again many Nigerians who still believed in Awolowo rallied around him and joined him in forming the Unity Party of Nigeria. He will go on to run for presidents during the 1979 and 1983 elections but will lose on both occasions to Shehu Shagari. Following the military coup of December 1983, political parties were once again banned and Awolowo finally decided to withdraw from politics. Less than four year after his retirement, Awolowo died peacefully in his hometown, Ikenne, on May 9th, 1987 at the age of 78.

234 Impact


Awo is considered one of Nigeria’s foremost nationalists because he not only fought against colonialism but he also advocated for Nigeria’s social, economic, infrastructural and educational developments. At the beginning of his career, Awo amended government policies in the Western Region and demanded that colonial leaders hand over the reins of leadership over to Nigerians. Below are some of his key contributions between 1949 and 1959:

  • Built the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, Oyo State, the first such modem sports facility in Nigeria
  • Presented and launched the first Free Medical Service program in Nigeria – for children up to the age of 18
  • Established the first Television Station in Africa – Western Nigerian Television (WNTV)
  • Established the first Free Primary Education program in Africa
  • Founded the Nigerian Tribune, the oldest surviving Nigerian newspaper
  • Introduced and executed the first minimum wage policy in Nigeria
Liberty Stadium, Oke Ado, Ibadan, Oyo State
Liberty Stadium, Oke Ado, Ibadan, Oyo State

Awo, who was once the Chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University; 1967 – 1975) and Ahmadu Bello University (1975 – 1978), was also recognized for his intellectual contributions to Nigeria and Africa at large. Below are some of his academic honors at various institutions in Nigeria and Africa:

  • 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)
  • Chancellor of the University of Ife (1967 -1975)
  • Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (1975-1978).

His wide appeal across various ethnic groups in Nigeria didn’t go unnoticed either. He was conferred with numerous chieftaincy titles including

  • Asiwaju (means Champion) of Yorubaland
  • Asiwaju of Remo
  • Losi of Ikenne
  • Lisa of Ijeun
  • Apesin of Osogbo
  • Odole of Ife
  • Ajagunla of Ado-Ekiti
  • Odofin of Owo
  • Obong Ikpan Isong of Ibibioland

Decades before his October 1st, 2010 posthumous honor which took place during Nigeria’s golden jubilee celebration in Abuja, Awolowo impact was recognized when he was awarded the Grand Band of the Order of the Star of Africa by the Republic of Liberia in 1968, and made the Grand-Officer de l’Ordre National du Lion, Republique du Senegal, in 1972. He was a man whose impact is still felt today in Nigeria and Africa almost 30 years after his death. He is truly an African legend.

Sources:

  1. Ogunsanwo, Olufemi. “The Life and Times of Chief Obafemi Awolowo”. Pace Books and Publishers. 2009. Print.
  2. “Obafemi Awolowo” – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Modified June 2 2016. Web. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obafemi_Awolowo

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