Obafemi Awolowo

Obafemi Awolowo
Obafemi Awolowo. Photo: Bassano; 1972 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Audio within is Awolowo’s closing of speech at opening of WNTV Ibadan in 1959.

Obafemi Awolowo was a statesman and philosopher, one of the principal founding fathers of Nigeria, revered like no other in southwest Nigeria politics. Awolowo was born 6 March 1909 in a small town, Ikenne, to Sopolu and Efunyela who were both early Christian converts. The death of his father in 1920 unsettled his life, but he staggered through St. Saviour’s Anglican School and Wesleyan School, both in Ikenne, to pass the Standard V exam. By 1928, Awolowo had taken correspondence courses in English, Commercial Knowledge, Book Keeping, Business Method, and Short Hand.

With his shorthand typing skill Obafemi will earn a living, but this was to be followed by a nineteen months of unemployment. Being a young man of serious spirit who desired to spend time judiciously, he worked on mathematics and Latin, which was exclusive to elite intelligentsias. Around this time he went on a literary and mental excursion with the Agnostic essayist, Robert Ingersoll, and his faith in God consequently diminished.

Obafemi’s employment as a clerk in his Abeokuta Alma Mater ended in September 1934 when he joined the Daily Times as a reporter, but his little fortune soon vanished till he was immersed in debt and his properties including his Chevrolet car auctioned. Although he had married Hannah I. Dideolu in 1937, shortly before the downturn, his self-assurance for a great future was the only thing that could keep him going and his inner spiritual rebirth will make it all bearable. Stoic in the face of adversity and even present at the auctioning of his own effect, he had earned the commendation of a police constable at the site who said to him “you are indeed a man.”

Having drawn knowledge through his personal spiritual journey and having seen the best of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the reigning politician of the day during a press briefing as Daily Times reporter, Awolowo had mustered enough conviction that he will become a great man himself. This, he stated immodestly in his letter to Timothy Odutola, a rich man of his Ijebu stock. Although the loan which he requested with the letter was declined, he found his way to London to study law nevertheless, leaving his four children to the care of his enterprising wife.

Awolowo was called to bar at the inner temple in England in 1946. The Egbe Omo Oduduwa, a Yoruba nationalist group which he helped organize in London as a student was re-launched in Ile-Ife in 1948. His political ideology at this time had become clear. Against the reigning belief promoted by the bigwigs of the day, Herbert Macaulay and Azikiwe, Awolowo preached federalism as the better means of advancing the ethnically-variegated Nigeria.

The seminal impact of the Egbe was proved by the special Yoruba history projects, linked today to Professors Saburi Biobaku and Akinjogbin, the inspiration of the great dramatist, Hubert Ogunde; and the encouragement given to traditional arts and dress habits[i].

Action Group days

Shortly before the adoption of the federal system of government for Nigeria, Awolowo had formed the Action Group party with the help of friends; the only serious political organization that slugged out the elections of 1951 with the popular party of the Azikiwe and a host of conservative elements in the western region, winning the majority in the regional government. Six years later he led the Western region in securing home rule ahead of the national independence. In 1959, Awolowo resigned as a premier to contest election at the centre, leaving the seat for his extrovert, and charismatic deputy, Ladoke Akintola. His party lost the elections and he became head of the opposition at the Federal House of Representatives.

Awolowo and family
Awolowo with family © National Portrait Gallery, London


Travails and Jail

The lack of common vision for the western region between party leader Awolowo and premier Akintola led to the crisis of 1962 for which the region was tagged the Wild Wild West. Awolowo suffered persecution from the centre with which his former deputy, Akintola, was allied. Attempts were made to discredit his government through the Coker Commission. Also, he was arraigned together with his close associates for planning to overthrow the federal government. Added to his woes during the trial was the death of his first son, Segun, who, armed with a vital document for his father’s defence, died in a motor accident. Segun had freshly qualified as lawyer from Cambridge. In 11 September 1963, Obafemi Awolowo was sent to jail for ten years.

Gowon years to 1983


Awolowo campaigning
Awolowo campaigning in Sokoto for his party in 1959. Creator: Elisofon, Eliot Source: SIRIS Image

Three years after the sentencing, Awolowo was freed by a new military Head of State, Yakwubu Gowon. The political unrest which he predicted in his allocutus had enveloped the country and there had been two bitter coups. The eastern region of the country was at the edge of a huge conflict, and there was need for the west to forge a common front. The leaders of thought, meeting at the instance of the military administrator of the west in May 1, 1967 elected him by proclamation as the undisputed leader of the Yoruba people.

Awolowo as Gowon’s Finance Minister effectively became the second most powerful man in Nigeria and he helped funding the war without compromising Nigeria’s treasury, which in any case, improved after the war. Awolowo contested the 1979 and 1983 presidential elections and lost, but his socialist polices of Free Health and Education were carried out through out all the states controlled by his party UPN, which had evolved from the AG in an effort to have a more national outlook.


Two years before his death which occurred in 1987, he was described by the new Nigerian military head, Ibrahim Babangida, as the big deal in Nigerian politics in the preceding thirty-five years. Even before his death Awolowo had begun to be metaphorically attached with the Yoruba progenitor, Oduduwa. In a clear case of Mythopraxis, he is widely seen as having repeated in his life, the timeless lives of the greatest ancestors. As a foresighted premier, he achieved many firsts for his region and in his personal life he maintained a high level of discipline and spirituality . His roles during the Civil War was criticized in Chinua Achebe’s There was a country.
[i] Awo: The Issue, even in Death, Odia Ofeimun, 2007

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer