Why did Chief Obafemi Awolowo describe HID, his wife, as a jewel of inestimable value? Here are the reasons
By Wale Adebanwi
IT WAS AN UNUSUAL DISPLAY of affection for an ascetic, almost socially-awkward man whose private and public life was over-defined by an uncommon abstemiousness that was foreign to the men of such means and influence. As they approached the fifth decade of their matrimony, those who had known the couple for many years were not unfamiliar with their deep expression of love in words and in action, both in periods of personal tranquility and political prosperity, and in periods of private agony and political turbulence. But never had their storied love been publicly affirmed in more than four decades with a public kiss. Hannah Idowu Dideolu, the more swanky of the pair, loved to kiss her husband. But the socially conservative and reticent Obafemi Jeremiah wasn’t enamoured of kissing. He would rather write down a devotional ballad to his wife in a book than express his deep love with a kiss. Still, she would not let him escape without a clear and emphatic expression of passion through a kiss in public. If only once. And he obliged, as he always did if the love of his life is the one asking.
Therefore, when HID eventually publicly planted a solemn kiss on her astute husband’s lips during their wedding anniversary, the crowd cheered. The man whose life is one of a disciplined avoidance of public emotion has finally been forced to show his love in a tactile manner. While she held her hands around him, he placed his hands on each of her shoulders, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo wrapped themselves in an unusual public display of tenderness and affection…
In that rare public moment the two elderly love-birds seemed to have closed themselves off from what Oscar Wilde called “the world of implications.” They were using the storied success of their matrimony to shun the annoying failure of the country that one of them had sought for so long to lead and reshape. Their personal imperfections and political frustrations were symbolically redeemed in that famed moment by their almost perfect love; the lifelong personal and political betrayals they had jointly expressed and their familial losses and unrealized dreams lost in one moment of intimate mutual adoration.
“I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart),” croons E. E. Cummings in one of the most celebrated of his almost three thousand poems. “I am never without it.” Since they fell in love in 1934, Cummings lines constituted a summation of the shared lives of the most distinguished devoted couple in Nigeria’s history. The Awolowos’ matrimony is undoubtedly Nigeria greatest public love story. Mirroring the great love stories in human history from Abraham and Sarah, who travelled together in uncertainty and imperfection but struck together through perilous and pleasant times, to Romeo and Juliet, the archetypal love-birds who didn’t let the fear of death stand in the way of their mutual devotion, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo’s wedlock is an exemplary love story with a significance, example and meaning that survive the almost five decades in which it lasted.
Shakespeare, that unsurpassable story teller, says in Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments.” Indeed, the Awolowos never let any impediment – from the initial opposition of Hannah’s mother to whom she was devoted to their relationship, through the sudden death of the greatest bodily affirmation of their immortality, their brilliant and handsome first son, Segun, to the failure to clinch the most prized object Awolowo’s political life, the presidency of Nigeria – stand in the way of their mutual affection and reciprocal adoration. Their marriage was nothing short of a perfect harmony that blended and endured until, but even beyond, their physical separation by death. She was the passion of his life and vice versa. As Obafemi was lowered into the grave on June 6, 1987, Hannah called out to her beloved: “E ma gbagbe mi o” (“Don’t neglect me”). Everyone present thought she could no longer hear her; she knew he could….
The Love Which Makes ‘Em
For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine;’
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine;’
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.
– Christina Rossetti, “I loved you first: but afterwards your love”
IN THE PUBLIC HISTORY OF Nigeria, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo are undoubtedly the most memorable couple. No other member of Awolowo’s generation of Nigerian leaders had a similarly notable spouse who was always by his side in all matters public and private. Their attitude towards mutual public presence was almost evangelical. It was as if Obafemi Awolowo had no claim to leadership, honour, and public adoration without his wife beside him. In an instructive photograph taken when President Shehu Shagari invited the leaders of the other four political parties in the Second Republic to Abuja to witness the inauguration of Master Plan for Abuja, the proposed new federal capital city, Awolowo was the only one whose wife was present as the leaders viewed the plan encased in glass.
Doubtless there are other couples in public life in Nigeria’s history whose mutual devotion might have been comparable, but the joint lives of such couples were less storied; there are those whose companionships were sustained as co-equals like the Awolowos, but such rival matrimonies never survived as long as the Awolowos’ did; there were yet other matrimonies where the husband showered as much public adoration on his wife as Obafemi did on Hannah, but such couples didn’t attract much, let alone equal, national attention as the Awolowos did. Their love story is almost a fairytale; not because it was devoid of tension and trial, but because it triumphed over serial devastating adversities and a political failure that ceaselessly challenged the unsurpassed ideological triumph of Obafemi Awolowo’s vision of the total organization of the Nigerian state.
Even though both were born into polygamous homes in an era when it was anathema to have one wife, they turned monogamy into a moral, if not a philosophical, imperative, by not only shunning the temptations of variable amorous engagements, but even using their unique monogamy as a subtle indictment in a socio-cultural context in which being a big man more or less required turning carnality into a public virtue. In a political and social context in which multiple marriages or multiple wives (formal and informal), philandering, official and semi-official concubinage and serial betrayal on both sides was the “natural” order of things among the famous and infamous, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo’s matrimony is a storied example of love, passion and unflinching commitment in the face of uncommon private and public challenges over five decades: business failure, separation and financial challenges, loss of children in infancy and full adulthood, political success and fall from grace, imprisonment and harassment and even humiliation; electoral victories and defeats, political duplicities and perfidious slanders by erstwhile political allies and personal friends. Through it all, Obafemi and Hannah Awolowo weathered the storm together remaining immoveable in their mutual devotion and unceasing in their shared love. In their obsession with each other, Hannah treated her husband as if he were a god, and Obafemi regarded his wife as a living goddess.
“[Obafemi Awolowo] had a very deferential attitude towards his wife so that her comfort appeared to matter so much to him,” observes Odia Ofeimun, poet, author and Awo’s former private secretary. Reflecting on their lives together which he watched from a vantage position for a few critical years, Ofeimun adds that Hannah reciprocated her husband’s deferential devotion. “To a very large extent, it was as if her contributions [in Awolowo’s political life] were generally to make the man comfortable with his choices. They obviously have lived together long enough for her to know all that he wanted. There is something that makes me wonder anytime I look back…. I wonder how they reached that position, because they agreed almost so totally with each other, so much that before [Obafemi Awolowo] did anything, she would have identified what needed to be done to support his choices.”