By Lasisi Olagunju
Today is the 35th anniversary of the transition of the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. A sage is “a profoundly wise person; a person famed for wisdom.” A sage is also he that is “venerated for the possession of wisdom, possession of judgment and of experience.” That is what my dictionary says ‘sage’ means. In life, and since his death, anywhere Awolowo’s name is mentioned, you see ‘sage’ attached firmly to him. Is there any other Nigerian so venerated with that appellation? Awo earned it. In all his engagements with Nigeria, he left no one in doubt that he had wisdom; that he possessed judgement fired in the crucible of experience.
I call him Nigeria’s scientific prophet; a seer and a social engineer. Thirty five days before his death, Awo took a clear look at Nigeria and declared that “our stars have been dimmed by incompetent rulers.” And, today, the darkness lengthens; the only song in town is about the next elections. We are processing another opaque object to block the nation’s rays. A profane president and an irreverent political class are feeding taboos to our sacred institutions. The CBN governor is in partisan politics; he derides the law and is campaigning for votes. That is a very violent violation of values – a moral, legal and political extension of the devaluation misfortune they inflicted on the naira. Godwin Emefiele has told his critics to wait for his god for more details. While we wait, someone has cynically asked the chairman of our electoral commission to also come out and join the presidential race. It won’t be a shock to us; nothing shocks us. Those observing our ways won’t be surprised either. We do not get ourselves bothered that every promise in Nigeria has ended in disappointment; and that every dawn has left the country in darker darkness. But nothing that troubles Nigeria today came as a thief in the night. There were enough warnings.
A particular day 36 years ago, Chief Awolowo spoke on Nigeria and the humdrum at its sacred temples. On Friday, February 28, 1986, Samuel Cookey, a professor of political science, wrote Chief Awolowo on behalf of the military government. He was seeking the sage’s contributions to that government’s search for a new order. The professor got a reply. Awo told Nigeria, through Cookey, that its aberrant ways would always lead the lost from dank alleys to despondent depths. He spoke deeply on why the search for safe flight and safe landing was fruitless. A direct quote of the sage’s reply to Cookey will speak better: “I do fervently, and will continue fervently to, pray that I may be proved wrong. For something within me tells me, loud and clear, that we have embarked on a fruitless search. At the end of the day, when we imagine that the new order is here, we would be terribly disappointed. In other words, at the threshold of our New Social Order, we would see for ourselves that, as long as Nigerians remain what they are, nothing clean, principled, ethical, and idealistic can work with them. And Nigerians will remain what they are, unless the evils which now dominate their hearts, at all levels and in all sectors of our political, business and governmental activities are exorcised.”
The prophet was very accurate; he was also scientific in his conviction and conclusion on what Nigerians would make of their future. He continued, firmly: “But I venture to assert that they will not be exorcised, and indeed they will be firmly entrenched, unless God Himself imbues a vast majority of us with a revolutionary change of attitude to life and politics or, unless the dialectic processes which have been at work for some twenty years now, perforce, make us perceive the abominable filth that abounds in our society, to the end that an inexorable abhorrence of it will be quickened in our hearts and impel us to make drastic changes for the better. There is, of course, an alternative option open to us: to succumb to permanent social instability and chaos.”
Read the above immortal words very carefully again. Thirty six years ago, Papa Awo spoke those words about “the filth that abounds in our society” and “the evils which dominate the hearts of Nigerians.” You and I know that not only has everything in that statement come to pass, the evil he spoke about has metastasized and the filth has grown to compete with Everest. Every sector is ruined; every effort cursed. Every striving towards “a new order” has been a deeper journey into darkness. Most tragically, in the years following Chief Awolowo’s warning, we took a plunge and chose the worst of the options; we ticked “permanent social instability and chaos.” See Nigeria of 2022: Schools are closed; kidnappers are kings; kings are kidnappers; they rob the market to gild their palaces; pregnant women give birth in captivity; airlines to stop flying in utter surrender to the ravages of aviation fuel and its abhorrent costs. Nothing works here apart from the crimes of banditry, partisan politicking and kidnapping.
Extraordinary insight and understanding go with philosopher kings. Great leaders don’t wait till tomorrow to save tomorrow. When Chief Awolowo turned 72 on March 6, 1981, he spoke about the security troubles we face today. That was forty-two years ago. He told the Nigerian Tribune in a birthday interview that he suspected that the enemy was already planting seeds of insecurity in the North-East. He said because of the ethno-geographic peculiarity of that area, it was possible for the enemy to “establish posts in every part of the place and put in up to 10,000 people who are well trained.” He warned that “if they launch against us, we may have about half a million soldiers but soldiers can only fight against pitched soldiers on the other side and not against guerrillas who are scattered all over the place, burning houses, killing this, killing that, raping women” everywhere. The sage then called for definite, proactive steps to prevent the worst from entering Nigeria through that corridor. His call went unheeded. Today, thousands have perished, millions displaced and more millions ruined. Children of those who ignored his words are today in government paying billions to bandits and dispatching prayer warriors to North Africa in search of medicine to fight murderous insurgents. Things are getting worse and the ones coming into government after the present will fiddle the more as their Rome burns. The campaigns have started.
Nigeria is never tired of funding fruitless searches. Like swines, it is dear to demons; its snout digs forever for what it cannot find unless it is cleansed of its perfidy. We crown false prophets and celebrate false prophecies; the result is the chaos we sip every minute. As a criminal enterprise, we have begun another search for a messiah. We call it the 2023 project. And we are doing it in a very dirty, iniquitous way. We preen about in sin. We do our bad things, rheum in eyes, mucus in nostrils. Relations may understand that we are possibly sick with catarrh, but disgusted outsiders scan and proclaim us filthy, dirty, insane. They are right. We are a sick nation of dirt and scum. And it has never been as manifestly clear as it is now after seven years of ‘change.’ Millard Fillmore was the 13th President of the United States. In his 1852 annual message to Congress, he spoke about what he called “an exuberance of enterprise” which caused “some individuals to mistake change for progress.” Every Nigerian who supported the campaign that gave us this filthy present suffered that “exuberance.” And it is tragic. This ‘change’ has inverted Nigeria’s progress. The dead are the fortunate ones. We have begun another fruitless journey using the compass of the old.
With heavy heart, the people I condole with are the NADECO people. In case you are too young to know what NADECO is, it is an acronym which means National Democratic Coalition. It was a group of dare-devil persons who fought and drove the maximum ruler, Sani Abacha, out of this world. When Abacha died and elections were held in 1998/99, NADECO joined everybody to rejoice for democracy. But the joyous forgot to benefit from the wisdom in not clinking glasses because the grand old witch has died. The wicked may be dead but the child she left behind won’t eat anything apart from what the mother ate. In 2014/2015, NADECO walked into an ambush; it entered into an alliance with the rump of Abacha’s team and formed a party called APC. The alliance won the 2015 elections. Both prey and predator danced and the forest knew there were celebrations. Today, the rout is complete; the dead triumphed over the living. There is no “new order” anywhere. Papa Awolowo’s prophecy came out prescient. The ‘democrats’ are drenched in sweats of shock. With their own government, they have seen clearly what defeat in victory means.
Read Chief Awolowo again. He did not curse Nigeria but he warned that “as long as Nigerians remain what they are, nothing clean, principled, ethical, and idealistic can work with them.” Abraham Lincoln said his mother’s prayers followed him everywhere he went. It was so for Lincoln because he chose the pious road rarely taken. The way of Nigerians won’t ever allow prayers to work. Everyone who wants to be president is a billionaire. And he must praise the failed incumbent for the ‘great’ job he has done for Nigeria and pray for more of the heat. You listen to them and ask what kind of people are these? Obsequious servility is what William Stubbs (1878) called what they do. And it is the logical sequence of our act of creating shrines for money and power and position. We should just thank Buhari for not seeking a third term. If he does, he will beat Olusegun Obasanjo’s record by getting not just a third term but even life presidency. The fifteen million human scum and dross who worship him and the ambitious dogs baying for bones would make his spell unfailing. Some people are that lucky. And there are many in history. There was such a king in England, Henry VI, whose reign was worse than this horrendously abysmal tenure in Nigeria. But, warts and all, the man sat pretty long in power. John Watts (1999) describes Henry VI as “one of the most spectacularly inadequate kings of England…Yet he held on to the throne for 39 years and, for almost thirty of them, without much difficulty.” The inexplicable ambivalence of fate should also explain why a failed APC is the very expensive beautiful bride of Nigeria’s office seekers.
The day Chief Awolowo died in May 1987, I was an undergraduate in Ife. The first person that announced it in my Angola Hall of residence received a hail of curses. No one wanted the sage to die. When eventually the transition was officially announced, there was no sleep again. His funeral took place in every city, in every town and in every village in Western Nigeria. No one got that before him, no one has got that after him. The military government described his transition as the end of an era. Yet, he was in government for less than ten years. His years in government were years of liberation; they gave hope to the hopeless and a voice to millions that life would have silenced forever. Thirty five days before his transition, he counseled that the government must be seen as “big business where the shareholders (the people) are happy at the end of the year, when good profit is declared and good dividends are paid.” He warned that “government should not be run as if it is nobody’s business where everybody will like to steal and steal public money to no end.” He set up political parties and made the people own them. He did not, because of power, form an alliance with the opposite of what he stood for. His parties in the first and second republics were models in mass mobilization for service delivery. The tickets of his Action Group and the Unity Party of Nigeria were not priced out of the reach of the intelligent poor; they were not baits to hook the rich and their millions. His love was genuine. That is why he lives forever. Those using his name to cheat and eat, we wait to see who among them will outlive this short season.