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- Published on Sunday, 29 August 2010 05:34
- Written by Olufemi Ogunsanwo/Punch
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CHIEF Awolowo had bided his time since 1971 when he resigned from the post-war cabinet of General Yakubu Gowon and resumed his legal career. He said he had an ‘enduring longing for the Bar‘ and he took part in several celebrated court cases in many parts of the country once he donned his wig and gown again. His law chambers in Lagos had a former university research fellow, Mr. Abayomi Sogbesan, SAN, as a partner. His daughter, Ayodele, was also an active lawyer in the practice. Awolowo, himself became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) on January 12, 1978, one of the first lawyers in the country to be so honoured.
But politics was never far from his mind. During the prolonged period of military rule, he had told a gathering at the Mainland Hotel, Lagos, in 1975 that he was in the game for the rest of his life when asked by reporters when he would make a comeback to the political arena.
“You do not make a comeback to a vocation that you never left,” he quipped. Law might be his profession but politics was his life-long vocation.
He did not believe in sitting tight in government without an electoral mandate. He had told General Gowon in plain language in his well-publicised letter of resignation on June 13, 1971 that: ”I certainly cannot be tempted or induced to participate or head an unelected or electoral-college elected civil administration in any setting.” If Gowon was inclined to draft him and install him as president after he had had his fill (Major C. Nzeogwu and company wanted to conscript him as executive president in January 1966), the answer was ‘no‘. Gowon, of course, had no such intention, as he was busy enjoying the lavish perks of office. In reply to this letter, he was effusive in his praise of Awolowo‘s distinguished contributions to the government‘s successful war effort. Gowon truly admired his minister‘s talents in the treasury. Major General Hassan Usman Katsina, former military governor of the North, also acknowledged the expertise of Awolowo as finance minister in the war cabinet and praised the chief as ”the best manager of a national economy Africa has ever produced.”
There were speculations at the height of the civil war, in September 1967, that Brigadier Victor Banjo and Major E. Ifeajuna (one of the five majors who staged the 1966 coup now fighting for Biafra) had also planned to install Awolowo as head of government in Lagos if they succeeded in dethroning both Gowon and Ojukwu. But would Awo have acquiesced and allowed himself to become an unelected president and a sitting duck for other potential coup plotters? It was unlikely. Clearly, his participation in Gowon‘s military government was due to the national emergency and as soon as that emergency was over, he withdrew his services. A democrat at heart, he could not condone or be seen to be part of an unelected government at peacetime.
During the 30-month civil war, Awolowo managed the economy so adroitly that not one kobo was borrowed as an external loan to prosecute the war in spite of the fact that the federal government had no access to the oil fields in the rebel-held areas which severely curtailed its export earnings. General Adeyinka Adebayo, governor of the Western Region, has attributed this success to the foreign exchange earnings from cocoa exports from his Region among others.
But dexterity in macro-economics management apart, Awo‘s astuteness, firmness of purpose and dedication to the task at hand at Mosaic House, Lagos, as finance minister was praised by many people outside government circles. His dramatic change of the Nigerian currency during the war in 1968 cut the ground from under the secessionists‘ feet by rendering millions of Nigerian pounds in their bank vaults worthless in procuring arms and munitions. Biafra‘s leaders were upset and their high command bemoaned Awo‘s ‘collaboration‘ with Gowon in 1967. The Ibo war machine had dreaded Awo‘s adroitness in managing the war economy more as a stumbling block than Gowon and his federalists‘ fire-power. He continued to manage the treasury in this adroit way even after the cessation of hostilities in January 1970.
In 1971, when he was still in charge of the economy, he pursued vigorous fiscal and monetary policies and chided his friend, British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, for devaluing the British pound sterling without forewarning Nigeria and he refused to follow in tow by devaluing our currency which was then tied to the sterling standard saying Nigeria was a sovereign nation not tied to British economic coattails. The Nigerian pound was thus stronger than the British pound. Awolowo, a first-class economist, exuded confidence in his country and himself because he knew his onions and how to fine-tune the engine of the nation‘s dynamic oil-rich economy.
Gowon expressed his regrets about Awolowo‘s departure from the cabinet. It is true that the elder statesman had pushed many controversial pet schemes dear to his heart there after the war when the second 5-year National Development Plan was being produced. For example, Awolowo pushed hard for the introduction of free education at all levels throughout the federation in the post-war era. He countered the figures supplied by the Department of Federal Statistics in buttressing his point that the nation could afford the free education of its citizens if the political will was there. But he was defeated in the cabinet on this crucial agenda when it was put to a vote because the will among other ministers to embark on free education was not there.
The chief had demonstrated clearly that the free-education- at-all-levels campaign was not a game to be played only to catch votes at an election by asking a federal executive council of which he was the second-in-command to embark on its implementation. Awolowo deposed:
As Commissioner for Finance in the federal military government, I was a one-man army in the Federal Executive Council fighting for the inclusion of free education at all levels in our second National Development Plan. I fought relentlessly for three long days, even though I knew the military would be the beneficiaries of public applause if my proposal was accepted but I lost.
He lost because there were few who had the foresight to back him up in the cabinet debates. Gowon was indecisive on this matter as in many others. In any case, Awolowo had tried his best to help him keep Nigeria in one piece. That was enough and he had to move on.
In a 1985 interview, Awo reminisced: ”I could have been in Gowon‘s government until we were all thrown out. But I resigned. I advocated for free education at all levels. The money was there in plenty but I lost. And I said to myself, what am I doing here? The war is over. The national emergency is over. I have made my contribution. Why should I sit down here when there is nothing more for me to do?”
In his response to Awolowo‘s resignation letter from the government, Gowon said:
I respect your maturity, objectivity, and sagacity, all of which you placed at my disposal. Your outstanding performance as this government‘s Commissioner for Finance during one of the most critical and turbulent periods of our history will always be remembered. You displayed consistency, great courage, forthrightness, leadership and a spirit of understanding which helped us to get out of our financial disaster.
This was a worthy testimonial for any ambitious politician. Awolowo was eager to submit these credentials to the electorate at future elections. He quit the second most powerful job in the federal government at the appropriate time so that the electorate would exonerate him and remember that he was not part of the rot setting in. As noted earlier, Gowon was beginning to enjoy the trappings of power and the pleasures of dictatorship after the war and was no longer eager to quit the stage. He made excuses to delay the return to civil rule which he had promised to bring about by 1976 when he would have been sitting in the saddle for ten years. Corruption was rife in the Gowon years (post-civil war) and Awolowo was not the kind of statesman to be disgraced out of power by a putsch.
(On July 29, 1975, Gowon was overthrown, as expected, by Brigadier-General Murtala Muhammed in a palace coup which was staged when he was abroad. General Murtala promised to run a brisk administration and set the return to elective government for October 1979. Before long, another set of ambitious coup plotters led by Brigadier-General I.D. Bissalla and Lt.-Colonel Dimka staged a bloody coup attempt which killed Muhammed. His deputy, Brigadier-General Olusegun Obasanjo assumed power on February 14, 1976. He promised to hand over power to elected civilians as scheduled in October 1979.)
Awolowo began his meticulous plans to become the nation‘s first elected executive president in 1979 once he became convinced that this set of military rulers meant to keep their words and were not taking the people on a roller-coaster ride. He had been sceptical that soldiers-in-government could honour their words in terms of giving up power voluntarily if Gowon‘s conduct in trying to stay put in power in 1974 was anything to go by. But this Murtala/Obasanjo regime appeared to be different.
On October 4, 1975, he was invited in an informal manner to be a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) under the chairmanship of his erstwhile Attorney-General in the West, Chief Rotimi Williams and 48 others. Williams had, meanwhile, disavowed further interest in partisan politics. Awolowo turned down this invitation. First, he felt it was degrading for a man of his stature to be asked to perform a major national assignment by a radio announcement without the courtesy of being consulted in advance.
Those who included his name in that purely technical assignment must have been deliberately mischievous or ignorant of the nation‘s recent history. His associates felt it was gratuitously infra dig for the most senior nationalist in the country, in the absence of Zik, to serve under his former appointee. It could be that the soldiers who drafted him to the CDC without his consent were too young to know this fact. Rotimi Williams himself had pointedly declined to serve under Akintola when he succeeded Awolowo as premier in 1959 preferring instead to resign from the cabinet and practice law. The country had not reached the level of political maturity where a former premier and a potential president would now serve under his political junior even on an ad hoc level.
Culled from Awo Unfinished Greatness
The author, Olufemi Ogunsanwo, grew up in Lagos with primary education at Holy Cross School; attended King’s College, Lagos, and is a Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) graduate of Oxford and studied journalism at Columbia University, New York. A former political editor with the Daily Times of Nigeria, he lives a quiet literary life in Abuja, the federal capital city. His other books include General Yakubu Gowon – The Supreme Commander; The Sunday Times – the first 25 years; and his own memoir, Baptism of Fire
To be continued