By Olúfémi Táíwò
Something significant happened two weeks ago in Ikogosi-Ekiti. A state government, at the suggestion and under the direction of two gifted Nigerian scholars who ply our common trade in a land that knows the value and celebrates the life of the mind, spent a considerable amount of money on knowledge that is not structured by the need to solve any specific problem. Yes, the Ikogosi Graduate Summer School was an instant and resounding success. But that judgment cannot but be transient. The real success of the enterprise may never be known or may not be known for several years hence. Even then, that success would show up in all manner of intangible outcomes, dissertations whose authors would not be able to recall where the original inspiration for their ideas came from, conversations the threads of which are traceable but would not be traced to the chance encounters hosted by the seminar, and so on. That ultimately is the life of the mind, the pursuit of knowledge for the sheer joy of knowing and an indulgence that the man whose ideas I would like to share with you this morning held that we do not do enough of, if we do it at all, in Africa.
It is a mistake to think that all researches must lead to positive results. A research can go on for years before it is abandoned or modified. Whether positive or negative, it tells something which propels us to further research. That is why in the advanced countries, unlike in Africa, a lot of money is spent on Research and Development (R&D). Since we spent little or nothing on research (which is not one of our priorities), we always depend on the products of the research efforts of others in order to survive. Again, this is where education comes in, and that is why investment in education has always been my priority, and shall remain so as long as I live.
Those are the words of Obafemi Awolowo and it is my aim here this morning to share with you my apprehension of and participation in Awolowo’s philosophical universe with a view to excerpting those elements of it that I believe speak to two keywords of this conference’s theme: leadership and governance. It will become clear presently why knowledge has been added and made lexically prior to the other two.
The severe crisis of confidence that afflicts Nigerian, nay, African scholars in their preference for foreign, mostly Euro-American, subjects for their intellectual exertions meant that until about thirty years ago, Awolowo did not attract the attention of scholars and his writings were neither taught nor his ideas expounded upon in Nigerian, much less African universities. To give you an example, when I wrote my very first scholarly article on Awolowo in 1983, only 3 articles had ever been published on his ideas.
I am happy to report that the situation has improved appreciably and Awolowo is fast approaching the level of interest in his work that other African thinkers have enjoyed. We witness this in the number of works that have been published on the man’s ideas and the growing number of dissertations that are being written on his works. Yet, at home in Nigeria where Awolowo did all his work, where he profoundly touched and drastically changed lives, much of the attention devoted to him is superficial.
My becoming an Awolowo scholar, absolutely not an Awoist, (and not for the reasons some of you may be thinking), was the product of an epiphany while I was a graduate student back in 1983. It led me to declare myself a student of the philosopher and I authored my first paper on him, a critical exegesis of his political thought, before the end of that year. Since then, I have striven to bring the world to acknowledge him as a significant thinker in the modern mode whose ideas, circumscribed by the peculiarities of his historical location, nonetheless managed to apprehend the universal. Those who are familiar with the routine denial that Africans ever apprehended the universal, not to talk of their being philosophers of it, a libel originally articulated by G.W.F. Hegel, know how important a point this is.
Thanks to Awolowo’s apprehension and theorizing of the universal, Awolowo’s ideas cannot be boxed within the confines of African phenomena. Rather he shares that especial quality of all great thinkers and writers: from their peculiar historical locations—the local—they are able to apprehend the universal—the global—and by so doing leave us a legacy of ideas that can truly illuminate the specific problems they deal with wherever in the world those problems might be confronted.
My fundamental and abiding interest in Awolowo is that of a scholar. I am fascinated by the originality, depth, and audacity of his thinking in many areas, the richness and complexity of his expostulations, the sophistication and thoroughness of his policy formulations; in short, in his status as one of the preeminent thinkers of the last century. What do the preceding details have to do with the theme of my talk?
In a recent book, Africa Must Be Modern: a Manifesto (Ibadan: Bookcraft, 2012), I argue that modern society is a knowledge society, par excellence. That in modern society, the pursuit of knowledge is undertaken for the mere sake of knowing. It is not that the knowledge obtained therefrom has no utility value or that, from time to time, specific realizations of the pursuit are not or may not be motivated by some use-value considerations. I am not suggesting that the pursuit of knowledge is aimless or without rewards for the pursuer or for the society in which she conducts her investigations. My point is simply the following: a pursuit of knowledge that is too specific-problem focused or is motivated solely or principally by the need to “solve our problems” is one that may make less attainable any significant advance towards solving the problem or set of problems that is its object.
The reason for this outcome is simple. Reality is messy; nature is complex. At bottom, everything is related to everything else. A simple problem is the ultimate deception. The order that phenomena present us with, on serious investigation, often turns out to be an imperceptible whirl of activity in which pulling one strand might mean the unraveling of the entire structure. This is why Albert Einstein declared that the primary motivation of his work was not to solve this or that problem. Rather it was “to know the mind of God,” the ultimate principles lurking behind the phenomena that we apprehend with our senses. It is an acknowledgment by the great scientist of the interconnectedness of things and of why those who desire to understand and maybe untie this knot do not adopt an atomistic, problem-by-problem approach to their task. To be agitated by single problems or immediate problems is to limit and, as a result, impoverish the imagination of our knowledge seekers. It is to tie their hands and render them incapable of anticipating future problems or serendipitously happening upon unanticipated, unforeseen problems. An expansive imagination, an imagination that dares to mimic God, is at the base of humanity’s greatest knowledge conquests. Needless to say, since the success of the scientific revolution, science has become the paradigm of this knowledge seeking model.
I would not want to be misunderstood. Science may be paradigmatic but science is by no means alone. Whether in philosophy or in religion, in sociology or in economics, in political science or in linguistics, all disciplines are regional variations on the singular theme of untying reality’s knot, forcing nature to yield to us the grounds, the logos, of its complex operations in their infinite concatenations. In this endeavor, a country that is satisfied with constricting the imagination and investigative energies of its knowledge seekers and knowledge producers to the exigencies of work-a-day problem solving, if what I have just said is true or plausible, is one that is unlikely to make any serious headway in securing the benefits of knowledge seeking of the right kind.
I would like to argue that Awolowo embraced the preceding characterization of knowledge. Not only that, he made it one of the pylons of his philosophy as well as a prerequisite for good leadership in a modern setting. This aspect of Awolowo’s modern outlook deserves more attention than it has received so far in the scholarship on his ideas. Indeed, the need for knowledge is the principal fulcrum for his lifelong pursuit of and insistence on free education for all.
In his conversation with Moses Akin Makinde, my former teacher and fellow worker in Awolowo scholarship, Awolowo said: “First of all, when I was in the Calabar prison I decided, if possible, to know something about everything.” [Moses Akin Makinde, AWO: The Last Conversation (Ibadan: Evans Publishers, 2009), p. 59] Later, he cited the philosophers that he had read and who had influenced him. “Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Nietzsche, Locke, Hegel, Marx and Engels, Mill and a few others I can’t remember now. By the way, I am also interested in science” (p. 61). We shall come back to this point anon.
Given that knowledge seeking requires a knowledge seeker and knowledge’s fruits are not meant to serve a nebulous world, Awolowo turns his attention to philosophical anthropology, a rather pompous way of describing a theory of human nature. “I take a theme,” he declared, “from the point of view of man as an instrument of change.” (p. 62)
So my central theme has always been man. And when you come to economics, my view is that man is the sole dynamic in nature. There is nothing you can do to change that. The time to produce, man is the vector of production, and the time to consume, man is the vector of consumption, etc. So with man there as my theme, I take him as one. I do not take him as an Hausa man, an Igbo man or Yoruba man. I take man as whole without caste, creed or colour. (p. 63)
There is the universal moment again. There is no hint here of some peculiar ‘African’ view of humans. There is no suggestion that human problems may be amenable to some specific African solutions. And when he asserted that “it is my duty now to write and explain the position of man, the status of man in the scheme of things as a domineering figure, a sacred figure,” we are not to understand this only in the context of Africa or any other culture or historical boundaries.
No doubt, under the inspiration of Christianity, Awolowo believes that we are creatures made by God and that our lives as well as our way through the world are supposed to be wending towards fulfilling God’s purpose for us. Yet, simultaneously, we detect some Deistic echoes in Awolowo’s metaphysics. In his account, God practically made us, gave us our marching orders and retreated, leaving us free to make or mar the world created by God alongside us only for us to render account to God when we shall have departed this world marked by mortality. I am not in a position to present to you a full explication of the thesis I just summarized. But Awolowo’s philosophical anthropology and the relationship between that anthropology and his religious faith have implications for his position regarding the place of knowledge in the human journey through the world.
God made us. God made the world, what we ordinarily call “Nature”. God gave us dominion over the world thus made and, endowing us with the power of naming, made us co-creators. So, at the very bottom, our relationship with the world is one of knowledge, both of the world made up of our propensities and the natural world of which we, too, the lawgivers, are a part. So far, Awolowo. Such is the premium that he placed on knowledge and on our responsibility to relate to the world from its standpoint that he turned the old perennial philosophical problem of evil from one of theodicy—respecting the incompatibility between God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence and the presence of evil in the world—into one of epistemology—evil as ignorance of how things work or lack of knowledge of Nature’s logos, human and material.
Again, we find Awolowo discounting the role of God in the quotidian operation of the created world. Instead, as àrólé Olórun, humans are charged to be like Einstein in all things and do our best simulation of God without at the same time permitting ourselves to think, even for one moment, that we are God. On the contrary, Awolowo’s point is that our refusal to take knowledge seriously, to have our relationship with the world denominated by knowledge seeking and knowledge production, to make available the necessary resources to underwrite this core function of our human nature amounts, for him, to behavior bordering on blasphemy, a sin in the eyes of God, our presumed creator.
Consider the following exchange in The Last Conversation. In the wake of Awolowo’s asseveration that “There is no evil as such. Things that don’t please us we call evil”, Makinde asked, “But what about those who argue that natural evils like volcanoes, earthquakes, etc. are not man-made and that for this reason man cannot be held responsible for them.” (p. 73) Certainly, in our legal system, we call those “acts of God”. Awolowo was not buying it.
O.K. For instance, all these forces of nature like volcano, earthquake you mentioned. You see, God ordained us to dominate the earth, and to dominate anything you must know about it. [My emphasis.] God intends that there will be a time, may be about one thousand years from now, may be less, when we shall know that the so-called forces of nature—they are accidents really—will not happen again. We will be able to predict, for instance in America and some parts of Europe, I believe especially in America; I say, we will have some devices by which we can predict an earthquake, or volcanic eruption. If we have such knowledge, then volcanoes and earthquakes which you call natural evils but which I call accident will not occur again. (p. 73)
He would later conclude: “When knowledge expands, there will be no evil of these kinds.” (p. 126) Awolowo’s account applies not only to the natural world. It can be extended, without distortion, nor any objections from Awolowo, to the domain of human nature and its psychological proclivities.
To round up this section. According to Awolowo, God created the world, Nature, including humans. God elevated humans above other creatures by giving them reason. Reason made humans co-creators of reality both of themselves and of the world that they inhabit. Thereafter God sort of retired and entrusted humans with the responsibility of mastering both worlds through the acquisition of knowledge of them.
Any society, any human, that turn their backs on knowledge represent an unacceptable departure from God’s plan for humans. Simultaneously, any humans, as individuals or groups, that insist on always going back to God for instructions on how to rule their dominion betray a lack of understanding of God’s mission for them. Finally, humans that yield total control of their affairs in their dominion to God have thereby abandoned their inheritance and brought shame to God’s intention.
In case you think that I am going beyond what Awolowo believed or shared with us in his writings, here is evidence. Prompted by his interlocutor regarding how many “in Africa, especially in Nigeria, when our economy collapsed some people said we should pray to God for economic recovery. I [Makinde] think that God will not consider our prayers since we have left undone those things we ought to have done, i.e. make use of our God-given brains and scientific intelligence to solve our economic problems instead of asking God to solve the problems for us.” (p. 75) Awolowo’s reply is pithy and instructive: “Yes, because we can do it ourselves, why then do we call upon God to do it for us? This is stupid.” (p. 75) [My emphasis]
There is widespread ignorance of Awolowo’s works and his more philosophical ideas. That is part of what I mean by the superficiality of the attention that he receives in the academy, not to talk of the wider intellectual scene. The impact can be seen in the fact that Awolowo’s homeland, the immediate laboratory for his social, political, economic and cultural experiments has, to put it mildly, regressed and now exhibits some of the worst maladies that Awolowo’s intellectual and practical exertions were designed to attenuate, if not eradicate. We find indisputable evidence of this in the dilapidated infrastructure, in all sectors; in the general collapse of all that Awolowo led us to expect we, as citizens, have a right to have and to enjoy: education, healthcare, agriculture, industrialization and gainful employment, in short, the good life.
Additionally, few would disagree that, across the African continent, knowledge has been displaced from our horizon. Contrary to Awolowo’s admonitions, obscurantism fuelled by superstitiousness, supernaturalism and the abandonment of reason are now the dominant modes of our interaction with both human and physical nature. And no one evinces this abandonment of what, for Awolowo, is the correct path than our leaders and our intellectuals.
We now have African presidents who are overwhelmed by the task of governing and run to Imams, prophets, and soothsayers who claim to have God’s direct line and can summon him at will. They sleep in synagogues or kneel to be blessed in full view of the world in abject displays of fake piety. Indeed, if we believe Awolowo, a president sleeping in a church or kneeling before a preacher is the ultimate sin of abandonment, not fulfillment, of God’s purpose for humans: to use reason to procure knowledge designed to constrict the place of evil in the unfolding of human evolution and that of our relationship to nature.
In Awolowo’s approach to his office and practical politics, we find him modeling the man of knowledge and putting knowledge at the base of everything that he and the parties that he led did. Between 1952 and 1959, he ran the most progressive regime in Africa, second only perhaps to Kwame Nkrumah’s government in Ghana. The remarkable fact is that this was done while the country was still under the thumb of British colonial rule. The highest achievement of that regime was the introduction of free universal primary education for all children in the Western Region of Nigeria beginning in 1955, a mere three years after taking the administrative reins of the region. His approach to the introduction of the scheme was characteristic of his attitude to the role of knowledge and it is what has marked him out for scholarly recognition by philosophers and political theorists. He would gather intellectuals and charge them, under his leadership, to research and produce a blueprint for the programme. His capacity for planning was legendary; a reputation that was solidified by his performance as the Finance Minister in the Federal Military Government of Nigeria during the Civil War that lasted from 1967 to 1970. Under his able stewardship, Nigeria fought and won the war without accruing any foreign debt.
The programmes that he designed, championed, and implemented were merely practical manifestations of deep intellectual engagement with philosophy and the history of ideas. I am suggesting that it is not enough to want to build schools when you have not thought long and hard about those for whom the schools are being built, what kind of education would empower them to realize their best potential, etc. Rather, now we build schools in many parts of Africa because children must go to school even if there are no teachers, or they are bloody incompetent and unmotivated, and the school buildings barely rise above the level of chicken coops, and so on.
We can do better at this stage of our historical and material existence. In any case, I am sure that such a manner of proceeding would not have attracted Awolowo’s approbation. The humanist in him would have been horrified by such a decidedly expedient approach to the management of human destiny. Motivated by a primary concern with the dignity of human beings which had been battered under colonial rule, Awolowo sought “freedom for all, and life more abundant”—we must not ignore the combination of freedom and abundance or the lexical ordering that placed freedom before abundance—and insisted that that dignity is impaired unless it were exercised in institutions marked by beauty.
Certainly, in explaining the current situation, we must not discount the devastating impact of military rule, especially on the imagination of Nigerian youth most of whom were born after 1970 and whose political socialization has unfolded for the most part under military tutelage. The trend towards ugliness and mediocrity began under the military and progressively got worse the longer military rule lasted. We have now come to the point where no one thinks of beauty or grandeur in the design of our public spaces and everything is now dominated by how quickly it can be built so that the dash can be secured and a plaque stuck on it in futile attempts at securing immortality for the worst of our pretenders to greatness.
But so limiting the cause of our current predicament to the ravages of military rule alone will be mistaken. Unlike our present rulers, Awolowo’s practical engagements were built on some solid, very profound philosophical foundations. Very few young people now know how and why we ought to pay serious attention to Awolowo’s intellectual legacy. If the Nigerian example is repeated in other African countries, their youth, too, may hear the slogans but they are unlikely to know the deep thought the slogans were coined to distill. I don’t see how we can begin to undo the philistinism that military rule and authoritarian\totalitarian regimes have made the quintessence of our lives in Africa and mobilize young minds once again to embrace idealism, optimism and nobility and not just be content to “make it”, unless we begin to make available, in language that is accessible without being condescending, the core ideas that made Awolowo and other thinkers such a powerful presence in global intellectual history.
I hope that the preceding ruminations are a sufficient indication of the centrality of knowledge and its principal author, reason, in Awolowo’s philosophy. This commitment to knowledge undergirds his specifications of what leadership ought to be. Once again, the core, the beginning point, is humans. Not only must the leader be committed to organizing life and thought guided by knowledge and designed to maximize knowledge in order thereby to reduce the play of evil in human life.
Although he believes that, as children of God, we are all equal, he makes a lot of the inequalities that proliferate among humans. Humans have different innate abilities and they do not all possess the same diligence levels when it comes to their working their gifts and excelling with them in their multifarious engagements in life. He was convinced that “the majority of the people do not have the disciplined education which is indispensable to systematic and scientific thinking. Consequently, their perceptual faculty is dull, vague and desultory, and their aperceptual, conceptual, and ideational capacities are either underdeveloped or never developed to any significant level.”
Awolowo does not think that these inequalities are unbridgeable and whatever consequences follow from them are not rigidly foreordained. Whether or not these inequalities persist has less to do with nature and more to do with social conditions and the strivings of individuals. His commitment to the improvability of human nature provides the metaphysical grounds for his emphasis on self-improvement and self-discipline and on the insistence that the society provide the wherewithal for all to do these tasks. The reward for those who diligently pursue self-improvement and acquire the highest levels of self-discipline is entry into what Awolowo calls the regime of mental magnitude, properly and eminently equipped with a considerable measure of intellectual comprehension and cognition, insight, and spiritual illumination. In this regime, we are free from: (1) the negative emotions of anger, hate, fear, envy or jealousy, selfishness or greed; (2) indulgence in the wrong types of food and drink, and in ostentatious consumption; and (3) excessive or immoral craving for sex. In short in this regime we conquer what Kant calls ‘the tyranny of the flesh’, and become free.
Membership of the regime of mental magnitude provides Awolowo with a certain metric with which to determine those who deserve preferment in the modern state. Not everyone is deserving but the commitment to equality is preserved by the insistence that everyone be provided with the necessary tools to render themselves fit for membership of the regime of mental magnitude: everyone should have equality of opportunity. A primary tool, in his view, for self-improvement is education and it is no surprise that throughout his life, as was shown earlier, he was a principal theorist, advocate, and practitioner of free education for all. And as far as he was concerned, the state exists, principally, to provide the wherewithal for citizens to improve themselves and, by extension, their communities and, ultimately, humanity. This is one use of knowledge to reduce evil in the external world.
The leader must also be a knowledge seeker dedicated to removing evil from his own person. That is, the leader must be conversant with human nature, its propensities for evil and good, and do all she can to ensure that she minimizes, if she cannot eliminate, the evil of ignorance, of greed and others that scuttle human plans and unfit us for the task of eliminating external evil. This means a serious education in the sciences that study human nature and the arts that educate humans concerning the best life for humans. That is, the leader must enter “the regime of mental magnitude”, a state in which the individual who would rule “will rule through reason rather than his appetites or desires.” (p. 189)
Our leaders must be well educated, possess good intellect. They must be righteous, for The Bible says, ‘righteousness exalteth a nation.’ Of course, they must be self-disciplined and possess the ability to comprehend salient details in economics and the art of governance. In addition, they must have what I call spiritual depth. Above all, they must always act in accordance with the injunction, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ or ‘Do unto others as you would wish them do unto you’. (p. 132)
Awolowo modified his position in The People’s Republic where he insisted that a university degree, at not less than Second Class Honours, Lower Division, should be requisite for leadership: “I am not saying that a university education is both necessary and sufficient for good rulership. But I think that a good education, probably a university education, is necessary, as it is the case in the civilized countries, and even in some so-called Third World.” (p. 141) In light of our experience in Nigeria, for instance, where the infusion of multi-degreed university graduates has simultaneously witnessed disastrous declines in the quality of public life and discourse, it is obvious that we would have to revise Awolowo’s prescriptions on this score or reinterpret his position on this aspect of leadership.
The second option is apposite here. Awolowo reminded his audience “that the word university means universal institution, disseminating universal knowledge in all its ramifications.” (p. 153) By their very nature, universities seek to expand the horizons of those who come to them. They are the embodiments of the approach to knowledge adumbrated in the first part of this address above. Our universities have not quite met this definition; they have instead been founded essentially for the purpose of manpower training. All the expectations Awolowo had of the university-educated person have either been frustrated or betrayed. This explains the divergence we just noted between the array of university-trained persons and dismal leadership at all levels of our public life and discourse. Should a leader exhibit the appropriate temperament, the preoccupation with knowledge would lead to the kinds of outcomes that we talked about earlier.
Here is an illustration of the kind of leadership that combines knowledge of human nature with the requirement to procure the good life for humans. One of the practical implications of Awolowo’s philosophical anthropology was his insistence on humans having sound minds in healthy bodies—mens sana in corpore sano, was his preferred Latin rendering. Sports, games, and sundry physical exercises designed to strengthen the body were integral parts of the people’s academy that was supposed to be the crucible in which the superior minds were to be forged that would deliver on the promise of life more abundant and freedom for all for the members of the People’s Republic. I am deliberately omitting the direct inspiration from Plato that Awolowo not only acknowledged but celebrated in his magnum opus: The People’s Republic.
If sports and other forms of physical activities were adjudged integral to the best life possible for humans, is it any wonder then that Awolowo would build, as one of the first tasks of his administration in the defunct Western Region in the immediate post-independence period, a befitting temple to the cultivation and celebration of healthy bodies: the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, Nigeria. In other words, I am suggesting that the Liberty Stadium was not a prestige project and it definitely was not built for purposes of having a plaque celebrate Awolowo. Because it was meant to be the physical manifestation of deep philosophical convictions, the Liberty Stadium was, for its time and context, big, beautiful, and well-constructed. It said a lot about the vision that undergirded its building that the stadium had a capacity for 55,000 spectators and the National Stadium, built to serve the entire country more than ten years later, originally had a capacity for 65,000 spectators.
And even if the leader does not have the innate ability to evince the qualities we have discussed in this section, she might be in a position to attract to herself the kinds of counselors and advisers who will help advance the task of removing evil from human life. “My respect for intellectuals lies in their ability to see things critically, differently and objectively, and comprehend salient details of issues, apart from their research capability. That is why I always have a romance with intellectuals…” (p. 203) Uneasy truly lies the head that wears the leadership crown in Awolowo’s philosophical universe. Doubtless his insistence on a combination of intellectual curiousity and spartan discipline and his effort to model this in his own life fed unfounded accusations of self-preference and arrogance. His response is quintessentially Awolowo-ic:
I have never regarded myself as having a monopoly of wisdom. The trouble is that when most people in public life and in the position of leadership and rulership are spending whole days and nights 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 to them… Only the deep can call to the deep. (p. 208)
On the issue of governance, Awolowo addressed in his works one of the central questions of political philosophy: who ought to rule when not all can rule? The leadership qualities by themselves do not suffice to make someone a ruler. He or she must be able to persuade her fellow citizens of her suitability for office. As much as the leader should possess the qualities of the regime of mental magnitude, the followers should not be any less seekers after knowledge.
His mantra always was to develop the mind and strengthen the body as prerequisites for sound achievements in personal as well as public life. To this end, he fought tirelessly to the very end of his life for the implementation of free education at all levels for all Nigerians as a precondition for freeing the country and its peoples from the evils of ignorance, ill-health, poverty and the predations of vestigial survivals of feudal rule in different parts of the country, most notably its northern sections. The dialectic of the deep is not without relevance in the area of governance, either. The deep are not limited to the ranks of the rulers, actual and prospective. The ruled, too, must share of the characteristics of the deep if they are going to play their part in the drama of democracy and would not succumb to paltry inducements to line up behind charlatans or be swayed by empty demagoguery.
I address the issue of governance from two core pieces of Awolowo’s political philosophy: federalism and liberal democracy. Again we find the centrality of knowledge and a serious engagement with philosophy as a template for formulating policies.
Africa’s philosophers and other theoretical types have been remiss in ignoring the theoretical knowledge produced by Africa’s statesmen and women. We are all too often eager to assimilate their writings to their political concerns when we are not actively denigrating them as unworthy of our scholarly attention. As I have repeatedly pointed out in various works, that is a mistaken attitude that is totally unwarranted. In the case of Awolowo, it is scandalous.
Unlike many other African leaders, he labored to produce substantive philosophical works. Awolowo was an original thinker whose work was marked by incomparable erudition. For one who never proclaimed himself a Marxist or any of the other monikers associated with marrying theory to practice, Awolowo acted on the dictum that “practice without theory is blind; theory without practice is empty”. His major works are not mere collections of his speeches, policy papers, party manifestoes, and interviews. In this regard, four major works are deserving of attention in any attempt to make sense of Awolowo’s philosophy. They are: (1) Path to Nigerian Freedom ; (2) Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution ; (3) The People’s Republic ; and (4) The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic .
Additionally, his speeches brim with recondite explications of the core ideas of his philosophy, erudite analyses of various problems and incredible solutions to them. Whatever problems interested him were never, strictly speaking, practical problems. They were apprehended by him at the philosophical level and the theoretical blueprints he came up with owed everything to his philosophical anthropology, that is, his philosophy of human nature; his views of who ought to rule where not all can rule, that is, his theory of political obligation or what some will call the moral distribution of political power in a state; and his understanding of what constitutes a good society and the best means for realizing it, one of the perennial questions of ethics and political philosophy.
For a man of Awolowo’s stature in the intellectual history of the twentieth century, though, I am not persuaded that we have paid sufficient attention to his intellectual accomplishments and the theoretical genealogies of his core ideas. I argue that the scholarship on and about Awolowo is nowhere near what it should be in terms of volume and quality. In fact, it is a source of disappointment, if not anger, for me that few scholars have bothered to dig deep into Awolowo’s voluminous writings and, in so doing, argue with him, confute his postulations, push his ideas in directions that he himself may or could not have anticipated or even wanted and, generally, produce first rate original and secondary scholarship about his wide ranging body of work.
Next we consider Awolowo’s theoretical defence of federalism as the best state structure for a multilingual, multi-national country such as Nigeria is, marked as it also is by cultural pluralism. If there is one area where Africa has been ill-served by the indifference of its scholars to the perorations of a thinker like Awolowo, it is in the area of federalism. Dominant in the scholarship on Africa regarding what state structure is best suited for the multination-states of the African continent is the idea that the central problem facing African countries after independence was that of turning the hodge-podge of states that had been bequeathed to them by colonialism into nations.
This is captured in what has come to be known in the literature as the “nation-building” problematic. Underlying this idea is the questionable assumption that there were no nations in Africa before colonialism and none were fashioned while colonialism lasted. It then fell to the governments and peoples of the then newly-minted states to form and consolidate nations in the continent. Once African scholars allowed themselves to accept this template they were led down a theoretical blind alley that made them believe that African countries are unlike other countries in the rest of the world because they do not approximate the true definition of nation-states. This accounts for the popularity of themes in African political science respecting the challenge of creating nations in Africa. Yet, if Walker Connor were to be believed, only a tiny fraction (ca. 10%) of the world’s states really qualify to be called nation-states; the rest are state-nations or multi-nation states. This means that African states are very much ordinary in their multinational character and several insights can be garnered from looking at how other multination-states in the world have managed the relationships among their many nationalities while evolving a supra-national identity to which all citizens of the state subscribe and in which they take pride when they celebrate their patriotism.
Once understood this way, it is possible to remove the foolish idea that Africans have to stop being whatever national identity they have in order for them to become citizens of the new states. One way in which this has been tackled in other areas is through the facility of federalism; an arrangement in which the federating units have autonomy within the context of a system in which they all agree to submit certain powers and delegate particular functions to a central authority. Whatever the federating units are—national, ethnic, religious—they can maintain those identities and practices while they all subscribe to an artificial supranationality denominated by a common, indivisible citizenship within a single geo-polity.
Federalism has become popular again in Nigeria. No other Nigerian thinker, including all our professors of political science—and I know that of which I speak—has written anything more original or better than Awolowo’s theory of federalism. Again, the point being made here is apt to be misunderstood. He makes clear that his preference for federalism was not a pragmatic embrace dictated by political expediency. As he puts it in the major work in which he articulated and developed his theory:
The making of a country’s constitution is applied political science. The science of politics has built up over the years a body of principles which are identifiable, and which, in spite of incessant frictions and deliberate distortions, are capable of universal application….
In other words, we make bold to assert that at this stage in the evolution of man, it is possible to discern political principles or laws of universal application which must determine the type of constitution best suited to a given country. It is also possible, in the face of such general principles, to declare and predict that any wide departure from 1wuraola7them, in identical cases and circumstances, is bound to come to grief sooner or later.
It is incumbent upon us, therefore, in making a choice between a unitary and a federal constitution, to endeavour to discover, from the empirical facts which political history supplies, and from the conclusions which political scientists and analysts have reached, whether there are any patent and well-established political principles by which our action can be guided. And if we discover them, to follow them with objective fidelity, whatever our predilections, personal feelings or secret aspirations.
He proceeds to show how his preference is compelled by his consideration of political scientific principles and analyses as well as his thorough study of the peculiar circumstances of Nigeria. Awolowo’s theory of federalism represents a creative adaptation of ideas that he culled from some of the classics of federalist literature with a very thorough investigation of the empirical data regarding the demographic distribution of nationalities and ethnicities within the boundaries of Nigeria. His aim was to come up with theoretical postulations regarding what geopolitical structure is most likely to redound to the even development of Nigeria and the advancement of its diverse population.
Unfortunately, our penchant for always seeking to work on themes that might endear us to foreign sponsors has meant that few are the Nigerian, nay, African scholars who can lay claim to being experts on this aspect of Awolowo’s ideas. It might be an indication of how sound the promise of Awolowo’s theory was that Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution was a frequent companion of Ken Saro Wiwa in his heroic quest for Ogoni self-determination in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. In a more decent environment in which the life of the mind is celebrated, many would be the writings around Awolowo’s postulates on federalism. Few would be the baseless accusations of tribalism usually levelled at Awolowo on account of those postulates. I cannot wait to see the fruits of the engagement—expository, critical or comparative—with Awolowo’s ideas on this score.
Let us turn now to the second exemplar of his position on governance. Writing in his autobiography, Awolowo affirmed his unhesitating and unequivocal preference for Western democracy in the context of the then existing division of the world into ideological camps. His unyielding and, till his death, undiminished commitment to liberal democracy was an integral part of his embrace of the much wider movement of modernity. This is not the place to expound upon this larger claim. I limit myself here to pointing out how this democratic preference has not been seriously studied or canvassed by scholars of Awolowo, not to talk of his followers. Yet, the investment in liberal representative democracy based on the party system and universal adult suffrage, in which free citizens freely choose their representatives in electoral contests marked by clear articulation of ideas and policies, ranks as Awolowo’s most significant commitment.
As we planned for Nigeria’s independence, we were fully conscious that freedom from British rule does not necessarily connote freedom for individual Nigerian citizens. I and most of my colleagues are democrats by nature, and socialists by conviction. We believe in the democratic way of life: equality under the law, respect for the fundamental rights of individual citizens, and the existence of independent and impartial tribunals where these rights could be enforced. We believe that the generality of the people should enjoy this life and do so in reasonable abundance. The most detestable feature of British administration was that the governed had no say in the appointment of those who governed them. A Nigerian administration by Nigerians must be erected on the general consent and the united goodwill of the majority of the people. In my view, there can be no satisfactory alternative to this. At the same time I fully recognize that the healthy growth of a democratic way of life requires the existence of an enlightened community led by a group of people who are imbued with the all-consuming urge to defend, uphold and protect the human dignity and the legal equality of their fellow-men.
In Awolowo we are not dealing with an ordinary politician. His commitment to liberal democracy was founded upon his study of modern political philosophy and it takes but little familiarity with the classics of modern political philosophy to realize that the principles enunciated by Awolowo are the same ones that animate the countries that we look up to as models of the democratic way of life. At the bottom of those is the core principle that no one ought to be bound by the dictates of a government in the constitution of which she has had no hand: this is the principle of governance by consent that emerged at the dawn of the modern age. Given his firm commitment to this principle, he was opposed to one-party rule and he did not think that a government could be legitimate that was not a product of the popular will freely expressed through the mechanism of fair elections.
“In my view, therefore, democracy exists only when the people are free, periodically and at their will, to re-elect or remove those who have been elected by them to administer their affairs. It is when this freedom exists that man can grow into the self-reliant and fearless creature that God intends him to be.” Needless to say, he was not enamoured of the democracy that he witnessed in Nigeria prior to his death in 1987. His dark view of democracy’s prospects remains germane today but I think that we are making progress to reduce the gap between the ideal and our reality. And I dare say that it was, in part, his commitment to the freedom of the individual to choose those who shall rule him\her and to not be subject to a government in the constitution of which she has had no part, which is the metaphysical foundation of liberal representative democracy, that stood in the way of his acceptance by the elite in the northern part of Nigeria.
It is a testament to this preference of his that Awolowo departed from the colonial regime’s preference for rule by chiefs and subjected “traditional authority” to that of modern elected officials. That is, in spite of Awolowo’s much-vaunted and justly celebrated enthusiasm for Yorùbá culture, he made it clear that chiefs could no longer enjoy any supremacy in politics relative to the elected representatives of the people. In other words, the elected representatives of the people were superior to successors to “traditional authority” derived from inheritance, appointment, and other forms of ascription. This is a feat that is yet to be duplicated in areas of Nigeria still dominated by the emirate system and backsliding from which in Western Nigeria continue to hold the rest of us back, even as I write this.
I observe that this was an issue that featured prominently in the nineties in the process that led to the new South African constitution regarding the role that indigenous modes of governance would play in the new dispensation. In many parts of the continent positions based on ascription, not merit, continue to play significant roles in the political structures of various countries and societies. Such perpetuations represent radical and, as Awolowo might have insisted, unacceptable diminutions in the quality of our commitment to and strengthening of a democratic way of life in our polities. Studying Awolowo’s ideas and those of others like him, especially Sylvanus Olympio, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, regarding their theoretical expostulations on democracy and the way of life it enjoins, is likely to elevate the quality of political philosophical debates across our continent.
Awolowo was a gifted, even if self-taught, student of political economy and its historical evolution. Although he was an avowed socialist, he did not subscribe to the idea that the state had to control every aspect of economic production. As he insisted in his writings, socialism was more of an attitude than a system of production of goods and services. He wanted to preserve the prodigious production associated with capitalism while using the instrumentality of the state, especially through taxation, to effect a more equitable distribution of the wealth that is produced, especially with regards to providing the lower classes with the resources requisite for humane living with dignity.
This philosophical orientation combined with his study of political economy led him to use the state to create enabling conditions for private capital to operate and for the state to use its power to put in place the infrastructure necessary for wealth and job creation as well as the wherewithal for funding the social services the provision of which by his administration assumed legendary proportions. What has now been reduced to expedient means predicated on the abdication by the state of its responsibility to its citizens—so-called public/private sector partnership—originated for Awolowo in carefully articulated, well-grounded philosophical and politico-economic principles as well as a critical engagement with comparative political economy in other parts of the world. This is one area that can use specialized studies in the larger context of Awolowo scholarship.
Multiplying illustrations of Awolowo’s philosophical genius in the present discussion would be otiose. Areas that a larger study of the sort that I said motivated this article will cover include his philosophy of education, his model of the mass political party—an idea that he introduced to Nigeria—his prescient recognition of the centrality of communication in the modern polity, his sponsorship of research into Yoruba culture and just his general insistence that the service of the masses is the only justification for seeking public office.
My modest objective in this short piece has been to introduce my audience to the ideas of a man who played a pivotal role in twentieth century Nigeria and, by extension, Africa. I hope that my isolation of my three themes help set the ball rolling for the exciting discussions promised by the titles that I have seen announced in the conference programme. Awolowo was an individual who embodied the kind of knowledge production that should catalyze thinking about the themes of this conference. I have argued that the kind of knowledge that he produced has not received the critical attention from scholars that it deserves. I can only hope that this piece helps along the process of discovery and engagement.
—Being a Keynote Address to the International Conference on Leadership and Governance in African held at the Obafemi Awolowo Institute for Government and Public Policy (OAIGPP), Lekki, Lagos State, Nigeria, July 12-13, 2013 by Olúfémi Táíwò, Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY U.S.A.