The core of South West success story under Obafemi Awolowo


In this keynote lecture, I am going to distil for this august audience what I consider to be the core elements that constituted the celebrated success story that went into the administrative template of the Old Western Region.

The lecture is foregrounded on the hypothesis that historical awareness is crucial for social reconstruction in a way that enables us to identify and optimize critical insights from history into contemporary predicament.

Nigeria’s present political and development impasse requires this reconstructive exercise because it simply implies that there are storehouses of ideas and paradigms internal to us that can be excavated towards redeeming our developmental listlessness.

The old South West Region is significant in this regard because it represents a critical project, situated within Nigeria’s post-independence context, which succeeded despite the challenges of development faced by Nigeria. What then are the core lessons and ideas that can be redeployed on a larger scale towards tackling Nigeria’s development challenges?

Nigeria began its national life as a regionalized entity. In fact, it is a testament to the success of this regional experiment that we have as one of the core elements of the call for restructuring, the need to return to the regional arrangement of the 60s.

Regionalism in Nigeria is built on the country’s ethnic configuration as well as the natural spread of mineral and agricultural resources. Thus, the Southeast has coal in abundance, and this is matched by the cultivation of cocoa in the Souhwest, with groundnut and leather dominating in the North.

This arrangement makes for a healthy national rivalry, in economic and administrative terms, amongst the three regions. In essence, regionalism built on the comparative economic advantages enjoyed by one region, which equally served as the point of interaction amongst the regions, but more importantly, it was also the crucial point of economic growth and development for the Nigerian state.

What essentially drove regional success, at least in the case of the South West was an administrative framework that served as the platform on which the political agenda for the region is executed and managed. The administrative apparatuses of any state are without doubt the engine room for the success of the governance architecture of such a state.

One of the core prognosis of the Nigerian predicament is that our governance situation will persist unless we are able to achieve a significant fit between policy and administrative dynamics in a manner that ensure that governance initiatives feed policy and requires administrative acumen that gets the job of policy execution done optimally and efficiently.

The South West became an infrastructural wonder essentially because of a collaborative partnership between the political and administrative leadership. Awolowo’s own valedictory remark in 1959 gives us a hint of what the partnership entailed:

Our civil service is exceedingly efficient, absolutely incorruptible in its upper stratum, and utterly devoted and unstinting in the discharge of its many onerous duties. For our civil servants, government workers and labourers to bear, uncomplainingly and without breaking down, the heavy and multifarious burdens with which we have in the interest of the public saddled them, is an epic of loyalty and devotion, of physical and mental endurance, and of a sense of mission, on their part. From the bottom of my heart I salute all of them.

But Chief Awolowo was just being modest with this compliment. What this remark failed to demonstrate is Awolowo’s own contribution to what is now known as the Awolowo-Adebo governance model. When Chief Simeon Adebo left the Federal Civil Service and made the decision to join the regional civil service system, he came because of his avowed belief in Awolowo’s political acumen. And he was not disappointed. He met on ground not only a well-developed policy architecture that came from a focused political agenda outlined by the Action Group, but also a willingness on the part of the political elite to make the agenda work.

The Awolowo-Adebo model not only captures a suitable relational experience between a perceptive politician and an efficient administrator, it also gives a critical link between a functional civil service and what Adamolekun calls “good development performance”. In fact, the success of that partnership also enables us to (re)think the possibility of readopting the parliamentary system as a viable substitute for the exorbitant presidential system.

Indeed, part of Awolowo’s ideological legacy stems from the principled fight for a federal system of government as the one that is most suitable for Nigeria’s development as a plural state. It was a testament to his political vision that the regional system enabled him to achieve his infrastructural wonder in the Southwest.

If Awolowo did so excellently well in spite of all the constraints, then the key lesson for us, paraphrasing William Shakespeare, is that the fault is not in our star that we are underlying, the fault rests squarely in us that we cannot convert Nigeria’s natural endorsement to greatness. The second message is that there is something called the spirituality of service exemplified by Chief Awolowo at the political leadership level and Chief Adebo at the administrative cum technocratic level.

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The duo regarded service to country as a calling to serve a higher purpose as of priesthood in the Levitical Order. This is a sense of service which overrides personal willfulness to assume a sense of value. A sense of value that inspires a search for meaning which if one succeeds, like Awo did, creates a craving significance. Underpinning this whole dynamic is a sense of deferred gratification which is the theology of eternal reward as distinct from the reigning Nigerian culture of ‘something for nothing’ that has been given a dubious significance by the miracle mentality that is the language of evangelizing in the churches and mosques today.

At the centre of any “good development performance” therefore, is a visionary and transformational leadership, which Chief Awolowo represented in the Southwest region. A transformational leader is often contrasted to a transactional one. A leader is transactional if all s/he is ever concerned with is managing law and order without any attempt at instituting concrete policy programmes that have transformational capacity. On the contrary, a transformational leadership is essentially proactive—it pushes the boundary of policies that empower the citizens. Awolowo’s proactive vision commenced with the founding of a political party whose objective goes beyond an instrumental conception of attaining political power.

Action Group fulfilled all the attributes of the classic political party organization as known in best practice. It brought together people with common underlying ideologies about how society should be organized to achieve the common good. Besides, AG possessed a vision and a mission that was matched to an ideology defined around the empowerment of the people.

The Action Group, unlike many political parties in Nigeria today, is classic: it possesses a vision and a mission that was matched to an ideology defined around the empowerment of the people. Awolowo’s political agenda was defined by a policy dynamics in core policy areas of education, health, employment, agriculture, infrastructural development and a functional and efficient public service. The free primary education scheme and the universal fee health programme were the two elements of his governance project that meant to produce an enlightened and healthy citizenry.

The Awolowo political leadership was not only farsighted but also realistic. A realistic leadership works according to the implications and consequences derived from a well-researched development agenda that is balanced between policy expectations matched by the cost implications of the intended programmes with a funding strategy.

Awolowo’s people-oriented leadership was formed along this line. Awolowo was aware, for instance, that the real burden of a universal, free and compulsory education came from the challenge of funding it.

In 1952, the government projected a total of 170’000 pupils to be enrolled in the primary schools. By 1954 (a year before the launch of the programme), 394’000 pupils had already registered! But then the government realized that a free education scheme cannot really be “free”. Economic realism led to the introduction of a capitation levy which was later abandoned for an increment in the existing tax regime.

The success of the universal basic education scheme derived essentially from the fact that the Awolowo government did its homework, and was ready for the eventualities of policy execution that would have fazed any other government unprepared for the consequences of a complex implementation dynamics.
We must not forget the singular role that the organization of agricultural and mineral resources played in the governance breakthrough of Chief Awolowo.

Agriculture, for him, must be benchmarked against global knowledge bank. The Israeli Kibbutz system of agricultural collective was a good idea to adapt. On the one hand, the Action Group successfully organized farmers into functional cooperative movements, especially around the cocoa farmers marketing cooperative. The development of the Ewekoro Cement Factory was also very significant in boosting the socioeconomic fortune of the Western Region.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the singular arrowhead of the Southwest governance success story. With him, power was not an end in itself; it was a dynamic of responsibility that was entrusted into his hand as a governance issue to be used on behalf of the people. This is one democratic point that contemporary Nigerian leadership need to take to heart.

The core insight here is that it is possible for the Nigerian context to throw up a competent leadership that is able to harness a core of likeminded democratic competences for a good development performance.

Awolowo’s transformational leadership demonstrably transformed the Southwest into an infrastructural paradise that resonated even till now. It is just unfortunate that those who have prided themselves as the political heirs of Awolowo and the Awo ideology have failed to carry on the governance baton that would have extended Awolowo’s legacy to the six Southwestern states of Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Lagos and Osun, including Kwara, states.

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In the hands of these new leaders, leadership has become essentially transactional. Politics is now defined by the need for self-aggrandizement rather than unfolding the core responsibility of democratic governance. Chief Obafemi Awolowo saw beyond politics to what the people need to make their lives meaningful.

And what was brilliant in his understanding of transformational leadership is his deep understanding that a leader needs a network of partnership and institutional support to succeed. It was not just enough to establish a classic political party with all the visions and mission statement in impeccable conditions. It became immediately clear to Chief Awolowo that the success of such a political party must derive from a concerted effort from a network of collaborators and partners to get power to serve the people. This is the genesis of the administrative and managerial acumen of Obafemi Awolowo.

In his autobiography, Awo, Chief Awolowo was very proud of his executive team: “My team of ministers was unexcelled. It was a team which any head of government anywhere in the world would be proud of.” What he could not have said, for modesty sake, is that it takes a strategic leadership to know who has the requisite skills, competence and capacities to build the kind of esprit de corps that gets the work of governance done. It was a function of Awolowo’s transformational leadership style to immediately recognize that government is a collaborative teamwork made up of knowledgeable governance partners.

If I am asked, I will argue that the most important governance development decision Awolowo made goes beyond his policy architecture, made up of the core governance items from education to infrastructure. While these are very significant in defining “good development performance,” Awolowo’s genius lies in the inauguration of a functional and efficient public service system that will facilitate the execution of the development agenda that will empower the citizens of the Southwest.

•Being lecture delivered by Dr. Tunji Olaopa, executive vice-chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy (ISGPP), at the Town Hall meeting convened by Prof. Pat Utomi’s Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL) in Ibusa, Delta State, on Saturday, February 11, 2018.

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