National progress and Awo’s legacy

National progress and Awo’s legacy

Saturday, March 5, 2016 9:00 pm

Chief Obafemi Awolowo

Chief Obafemi Awolowo

By Segun Gbadegesin

Chief Obafemi Awolowo did not fake being Christ or the Son of God. He claimed no sainthood while on earth. But it is safe to suggest that as a human being, he must have felt the kind of anguish that Christ the Messiah felt when, gifted with such an unusual capacity for zeroing in on the nation’s challenges and the responses they required, he was shunned time and time again by his peers.

In his own words:
“…in order to justify the rationale for its evolution and existence, the State has an imperative duty to declare economic, social, and political objectives, and through its programmes, to pursue such objectives most sedulously. The objectives must be such, when implemented, as to bring to every citizen, without exception, maximum welfare, social justice and equity, and happiness.” Path to Nigerian Greatness, 76.

This was the supreme moral imperative which guided his leadership of the Western Region. It was for the same objective that he struggled unsuccessfully to lead Nigeria.

Existential challenges

Upon attaining independence, a former colonial enclave, which had been brought together under inauspicious circumstances, whose conquerors had no visible commitment to its cohesion or unity, is faced with three fundamental existential challenges:

1. How do we carve a national identity out of a motley crowd? This is the question of political structure and constitutional arrangements.
2. How do we equip each individual with the necessary skills to make him or her a useful member of society? This is the question of education and human development.
3. How do we organize the social means of production for the benefit of all? This is the question of the economy and production and equitable distribution of resources.

Had the entity in question come into being in a natural process of evolution and not through the imprimatur of an imperialist robbery, it might still face the three questions but perhaps with different answers to the first of the existential questions. These were the questions and issues that Chief Awolowo, as a responsible citizen, felt morally compelled to address and to offer workable and pragmatic answers. He did with remarkable thoughtfulness and uncommon passion.

Let us dismiss the false assumption that every political leader struggles for political power in order to benefit the people and make progress for the nation. There are quite a number of power seekers whose motive is selfish interest. Therefore, we must not get conned by a pretence to universal altruism on the part of leaders. In our own clime, too often we have been beaten and bruised not to understand this logic of egoistic power-seeking.

By the same token, we should not assume that every political leader seeks power for his or her own selfish motive. If this were the case, we would have no morally upright role models in politics. But we do. And though, we have been captivated by some ugly revelations in recent times about our immediate past as a nation, it is just as unfair to brush every political pot with the paint of corruption as it is to naively paint everyone with the beautiful color of saints.

Let us then make a justifiable assumption that a self-acclaimed progressive party is in quest of power to make progress its watchword and therefore to seek national progress on the issues of existential concern that constitute the core of a nation’s being and which must therefore move it forward to greater heights. By the same token, then, it makes sense to assume that such a progressive political party, once it secures power, would, like the proverbial bird, seek to flock with those of its kind, whether present or past, political birds which have ascended greater heights in the matter of progressive governance. After all, provided that we deal with similar entities albeit separated by a time lag that need to be taken into consideration, why would there be a need for reinventing the wheel of governance? If the assumptions turn out to be false, it is not unfair to challenge the claim of that party to the progressive label.

Therefore, my intention in what follows is to bring back to our collective memories, the feat once performed by a progressive political party in this country under conditions that were not too dissimilar from where we find ourselves today. Indeed, back in 1952, Nigeria was in a worse shape because she was under the yoke of an imperialist rule that couldn’t relate to the idea of progress for a colonial enclave. It was under such inauspicious condition of suspicion of every move that progressive nationalists made that Chief Awolowo and the Action Group, through sheer determination, made their lasting contributions to the progressive development of the Western Region.

Awo, the thinker
Deep thought has to precede great achievement. Indeed, in the case of Chief Awolowo, it was the payment of adequate homage to thought that facilitated the action required and that clarified the means to adopt. True to his humanity, he put his mind to work for the progressive advancement of the nation that he believed in. It was thus that progressive governance has its thought leader and its foremost agent of praxis. He was an active thinker and a thoughtful actor.

A: Here is a sampling of Awo’s logical reasoning on the three existential issues:
a. Human beings are the sole dynamic agents of development
b. Education is fundamentally important for humans as individuals, family, and society to fully develop their skills
c. The state has a duty to provide free education at all levels to citizens.

a. The welfare of citizens is the most fundamental concern of the government
b. The economy is the most fundamental social political arrangement that impacts the welfare of citizens
c. A good economic outcome requires adequate planning
d. A progressive government must have a sound economic plan that prioritizes diversification and integrated rural development.

a. There is a scientific and objective formula that determines the best political and constitutional arrangement for nation-states
b. The best political and constitutional arrangement for a multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic state isa true federal system
c. The best political and constitutional arrangement for Nigeria is a true federal system

It has been almost seventy years since Chief Awolowo first published and enunciated some of these ideas in his Path to Nigerian Freedom(1947) with subsequent reformulations and refinements in his other books and monographs. Since then, and especially since his passing, every serious contribution on the matter of Nigerian social and political challenges has been a series of footnotes on his seminal ideas.

Professor Segun Gbadegesin

Professor Segun Gbadegesin

An interesting question presents itself: How is it that Chief Awolowo, a politician who never attained the highest political office in the land, continues to be relevant to social and political discourse in the land almost thirty years after his transition?

An answer is not far-fetched: It is not Awo the body that resonates. It is Awo the mind that continues to animate and confound. Awo the mind remains an enigma of immense proportion. This is an interesting thought which again is traceable to him. Didn’t the sage himself place premium on the development of the subjective mind? Indeed, Awo himself was not shy about his worth in ideas and thoughtful solutions to national challenges:

“Look at the books which I have written, the lectures which I have given, and the many speeches and statements which I have made. You will find that there is no problem confronting or about to confront Nigeria to which I have not given thought and for which I have not proffered intelligent and reasoned solutions.” “The Framework of National Policies” in Path to Nigerian Greatness, 1981, page 89.

“I have never regarded myself as having a monopoly of wisdom. The trouble is that when most people in life and in the position of leadership and rulership are spending whole days and nights carousing in clubs or in the company of men of shady character and women of easy virtue, I, like a few others, am always at my post working hard at the country’s problems, and trying to find solutions for them. With them the slogan always is: Drinking and Dancing Till Day Break; but with those of my breed, it is: Hard Work Till Midnight or the Early Hours of the Morning. Now, when out of the inflated emptiness of their minds they speak, they are naturally superficial. Only the deep can call to the deep. When, on the other hand, others of my ilk speak out of the fullness of their minds, what they say more often than not command attention and sometimes appeals to the majority of the people. This is the difference.”

In a series on the essence of progressivism as a body of ideas, I asked and attempted to answer a few questions: What issues present themselves to the mind of the progressive? What challenges agitate their mind? In the circumstance of a nation to which they express unflinching loyalty and express an unparalleled affection, what keeps them awake at night? And I suggested that at a time such as this, when the morale of the nation is at the lowest it can be before despair gives way to anarchy; when the level of corruption is sky-high and neck-deep, in an environment of thick social dysfunction occasioned by joblessness and hopelessness on the part of the youth; progressive thinking cannot just be reactive, it must be proactive and deep.

The message of progressive governance is simple. It stakes a claim in the arena of the progressive development of every citizen. It does not exist for the 1 per cent. The present reality has shown that where the fortune of the 1 per cent is the objective, there is no guarantee of peace and stability. Besides this instrumental and prudential reasoning, however, the rationale of progressive governance is substantive. The right policy is one that promotes the progressive development of all without bias or discrimination on any ground. It is an obligation which a government must discharge faithfully.

The common good of all as opposed to the special interest of a few must be the battle cry of a progressive government. In the wake of the political tension in the horizon, in the face of economic inequality, in the climate of religious bigotry and educational decline, this is an opportune time for progressive thinking and action. To paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, action without thought is blind and thought without action is empty. Let us then examine Awolowo’s thought and practice in the areas of education, the economy, and political structure or constitutional arrangements.

Awolowo on education
AWO’s defense of the right to education (PNG, 164-172) is based on a philosophy of family relations between the paterfamilias and materfamilias and the children. We bring children into the world. That act comes with a heavy dose of responsibility which was not lost on our ancestors even without the benefit of formal education themselves. They knew well that they had to train their children so they can assume their role as grownups.

Consider the following empirical claim by AWO:
“Many rights are enjoyed within the family; these rights are fundamental and inalienable, because the urge for their enjoyment is inherent and instinctive in man….. Because of their inherent and instinctive nature, these rights cannot be permanently suppressed. In the short run, they can be held in abeyance, but even only at great risks to the peace, harmony, and cohesion of the family.” (PNG, 164)

On this basis, he provides a list of 12 rights, which includes the right to life, right to freedom from torture, right to freedom from slavery or servitude, right to freedom from interference with privacy, right to freedom of expression, right to freedom of assembly and association, right to freedom of movement, right to freedom from discrimination, right to education, right to work and just reward, right to support in the event of sickness, disability, or old age, right to personal property, and to protection thereof.

Out of curiosity we may raise the question whether the rights identified by Chief Awolowo here were indeed construed as rights in our traditional societies. That won’t matter much as he himself didn’t rely solely on the reality of these rights for his argument for educating the youth. Rather he anchored his argument on the “instinctive urge” on the part of parents, an urge which makes them “feel compulsively impelled to consider it their bounden and inexorable duty, as much as it is within their competence, to instruct their offspring to the best of the abilities of such offspring.” (165) In other words, one may feel an obligation or duty to someone (a child) without acknowledging a right on the part of the recipient. In the end, however, Chief Awolowo presents ideological, ontological, politico-economic, and moral arguments in support of the obligation of the state to educate its citizens.

From the ideological angle, the Nigerian government has a duty to freely educate the citizens who come from various ethnic groups with inherent right to education which they cannot be expected to give up upon their voluntary agreement to become citizens of Nigeria. But in case there is no such inherent right, the state, having taken over as the adoptive parent has a duty to educate her wards.

The ontological argument, on the other hand, is based on the nature of man as a living soul which must be nurtured through sound education so that the man/woman retains that quality of being above other animals. Since many cannot do this by themselves, the duty falls on the state.

On the politico-economic basis of the argument for free education, AWO insists that the rapid political economic development of Nigeria by Nigerians for Nigerians requires the full development and full employment of all Nigerians. To be fully developed is to be fully educated and this is the responsibility of the state.

On the moral argument, the state is construed as an institution with objectives to, among others, protect citizens, promote their welfare, and guarantee the exercise of their rights. It is immoral and unethical for the state to discharge its responsibilities to a small section of “haves” while a vast majority of “have-nots” are neglected.

With regard to practice, Chief Awolowo introduced the first universal free primary education system in the nation. Other regions soon followed. Those who still engage in disparaging and badmouthing that singular achievement cannot truthfully identify what else was responsible for the advancement of the region in the late fifties and up to the early eighties when there began a deliberate policy of reversal supervised by the military. The regional governments of the 1st Republic, in spite of their known deficiencies, ensured that government was responsible to the people. Members of the various regional Houses had their regular jobs for which they were accountable.

An educated citizenry is a vital bulwark against an uncaring and contemptuous government, the kind that we have been forced to endure in the last fifteen years. Without a good education, a citizen is at the mercy of those who see him or her as expendable and exploitable. Ignorant of their rights and ill-equipped for decent jobs, the uneducated become puns on the chessboard of the powerful and wicked. A human being with a good education doesn’t volunteer to become the thug of another. And a caring and compassionate politician with a sense of justice and fairness must feel the pinch of conscience when he or she exploits and takes undue advantage of fellow human beings.

Awo insisted on the responsibility of the state to educate her citizens rather than leave it to private hands. The reverse appears to be our policy orientation now as private institutions literally litter our streets and residential blocks because the state has abandoned its responsibilities. In his response to a respected Catholic Archbishop on the matter of private education, Awo objected to the latter’s preference for private schools “the existence of which emphasizes the division of our society into classes.” He might have also added the unfortunate unintended consequence of private religious institutions on unhealthy sectarianism. Surely, these institutions blazed the trail of education in the country. But the prize that the nation had to pay was the division that naturally comes with that approach. Where national unity despite sectarian division is a priority, an independent country cannot afford to outsource the education of citizens.

In spite of his rebuke of the Archbishop’s critique of the UPN educational policy, Chief Awolowo did not foreclose a role for private institutions in the education of children. He must have believed that it was an area where freedom of choice should be available. In his term as Premier, private institutions including religious institutions participated in the education of children. What he was against was the divisive and discriminatory role that those institutions are capable of playing.

A more thoroughgoing approach would prefer the public, through its government, to educate its children. There are good reasons for such a radical position which was actually adopted by the UPN when the party took over all schools as government institutions.

First, it appears that at all levels, we are inadvertently managing to entrench a dangerous system of inequality with our educational system in which the public education of our children is fast becoming a relic of the past while we enlist the services of private institutions and agencies and we seem to relish the idea. From pre-school to college, private institutions have become the vogue. The impact of this shift on citizens could be serious, with the poor and middle class being more adversely impacted than the wealthy. We cannot allow this to continue because of its implications for egalitarian development.

Second, it is in the interest of the nation to be in the driver’s seat as far as the upbringing of its children is concerned. Where the inculcation of national values matters, this cannot prudentially be outsourced. But that is exactly what we do when we neglect public institutions and expect private institutions to fill the vacuum. I still marvel at the thought by those in position of authority over our system of higher education when they claim that private university is the future of the nation.

There is no better response to the current national and state policies with regard to the imposition of impossible fees and tuition on poor kids than Chief Awolowo’s original defense of the duty of the state to provide universal and free education at all levels. But let us acknowledge at least two thoughtful objections, both of which can be answered conclusively.

Contemporary objections to free education
First, there is the matter of budget and the paucity of national resources. In the current state of national fiscal challenges, it would be argued that it is even more unreasonable and impractical to suggest free education at all levels. The response to this is two-fold. First, even when the nation wallowed in stupendous wealth, critics of free education objected on the ground of its impracticality. That is just to say that for them, there is no season when it is practicable simply because they do not support it. Could it be that for them, when the gates of educational institutions are open wide and everyone takes advantage of what it offers, the special advantages and privileges that accrue to the ruling class would disappear? In other words, they are against free education because it comes with creative destruction, a purely selfish motive on the part of the ruling class. The second response to the matter of budgetary concern was made by Chief Awolowo himself with detailed tables of numbers and figures about the sustainability of his proposal. It calls for the removal of waste and the elimination of corruption. That is the real issue.

There is a second thoughtful critique which makes reference to the fact that not a few parents in the upper echelon of society are more than able to pay for the education of their children. If so, why should the state pay for those children? Why can’t the state identify indigent students, make funds available for them through scholarships or fellowships? This is a reasonable observation. However, Chief Awolowo would respond that all children must be seen as children of the state and the state has the obligation to educate her children. But it is also necessary for every parent as citizens to make contributions through tax payment to the social responsibilities, including education and health, that the state assumes on their behalf. And since there will have to be progressive taxation, every citizen, including the filthy rich, will pay toward the education of all children and every child will therefore see him or herself as a citizen of a country that takes seriously her responsibility to her children. That is the beginning of national consciousness.

Examination and examination malpractice
As Chief Awolowo saw it, education is not only good as a leveller, it is important as the means of nourishing the subjective mind, the cultivation of which makes the human being closest to the image of God. To educate, therefore, is to move a child towards his or her ultimate destiny as a Godlike being. But what if that process is adulterated and polluted? What if despite the nobility of the intention and the sacrifice of the public purse for its achievement, those charged with the responsibility to educate prove incapable of that trust. That unfortunately appears to be where we are at this juncture of our development and commitment. Chief Awolowo would be justifiably alarmed at the state of our education in terms of the quality and the attitude of those in charge to this very crucial aspect of national journey.

A WAEC report was published by Punch and a columnist, Azuka Onwuka made observations on the percentage of students who earned a minimum of five (5) credits with English and Mathematics inclusive and the ranking of the states. According to Onwuka, “the surprise in the report was that almost like in 2014, no South-West state except Lagos was on the top 10 of the chart. The top 10 states were the five South-East states, four South-South states and Lagos: 1st – Abia (63.94 per cent), 2nd – Anambra (61.18 per cent), 3rd – Edo, 4th – Rivers, 5th – Imo, 6th – Lagos, 7th – Bayelsa, 8th – Delta, 9th – Enugu, and 10th – Ebonyi. Ekiti was 11th; Ondo was 13th; Ogun was 19th; Oyo was 26th; while Osun was 29th. In 2014, the top 10 states were similar: Anambra (65.92 per cent), Abia (58.52 per cent), Edo (57.82 per cent), Bayelsa (52.83 per cent), Rivers (52.78 per cent), Enugu (51.91 per cent), Lagos (45.66 per cent), Imo (40.64 per cent), Delta (40.12 per cent), Kaduna (36.12 per cent). Ebonyi was 11th with 36.05 per cent.”

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