Awolowo, Oba Adesoji Aderemi and Nigeria’s leadership crisis

By Idowu Akilotan

Forty years after his death in 1980, and more than any other oba in the Southwest, the reign of Oba Adesoji Aderemi, the Ooni of Ife, still resonates with many south-westerners. That reign lasted for all of 50 years, enough to accommodate first and second terms of eight presidents. Under the American-style presidential system, which Nigeria inexpertly borrowed and began, with many hiatuses, to clumsily operate since 1979, five presidents have since presided over the affairs of Nigeria. Oba Aderemi’s reign necessarily provokes an enduring paradox that transforms the mystery, chemistry and complexity of leadership into a veritable arcanum.

By the admission of Obafemi Awolowo, eminent statesman and Nigerian immortal, the reign of Oba Aderemi (1930-1980) brought development and modernity to Ile-Ife in what passes for the so-called bread and butter and roads and bridges dividends of democracy which politicians are besotted to today. But it was not what he attracted to Ile-Ife, cradle of the Yoruba race, that made the Ooni a legend. His reign witnessed the first private secondary school in Nigeria and attracted a university, the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University), to his domain. But it was not these firsts that also set him and his reign apart from other less visionary leaders. In his tribute to the Ooni, Chief Awolowo remarked how supportive of the Action Group policies and programmes Oba Aderemi was. Still, it was not even this support, as remarkable and great as it was, that made him a legend.

What set Oba Aderemi apart was his uncanny and subliminal understanding of the nuanced building blocks of leadership. Chief Awolowo tangentially referenced this quality, but was probably too awed by the Ooni’s sagacity and unerring judgement to extensively dwell on it in his books. Both men were kindred spirits, and both, especially Chief Awolowo who documented his forays into politics and government, proudly recognised how uncommon and transcendental their leadership perspectives were. In none of his many seminal and original books, some of which skirted the boundaries of philosophy and explored his political life and woes, does Chief Awolowo offer his audience a close examination, or at least a glimpse, of the intangible forces and elements that ennobled his perspectives and choices. Had he chosen to, he could doubtless have helped millions of his admirers and followers to understand better what drove his life and politics, and explicated the otherwise inscrutable mind and farsighted ideas and choices of Oba Aderemi.

Chief Awolowo was unlikely to be the most intelligent or hard working politician of his day. But he towered above his contemporaries by his uncanniness and farsightedness. Oba Aderemi, despite being a preeminent oba, was unlikely to be the most regal of the obas of his day, nor the only one with interest in politics. But his perspectives, choices, determination, conviction, decisions and sacrifices, including putting his throne on the line many times, were ennobled by an intuitive, if not mystifying, grasp of contemporary and exigent issues far above the common level. As Chief Awolowo put it in his tribute: “Some people demand honour from their fellowmen, and sometimes, by sundry devices, succeed in forcing and enforcing it. Others, who are very rare in their breed and number, command honour: they evoke it; they deserve it; and they do so because of their profound, worthy and abiding contributions to the welfare and happiness of their fellowmen, and the greatness of their fatherland. OBA ADESOJI ADEREMI belongs to this latter breed of mankind.”

The fortieth anniversary of Oba Aderemi’s passing should, therefore, afford students of leadership another opportunity to examine the factors that forge a great leader, in the hope that perhaps some of those who have ruled Nigeria or who aspire to the presidency might learn a lesson or two, assuming they have the seed of great leadership in them needing to be planted and watered. Before attempting a consideration of those factors and reminding everyone the sorry pass to which Nigeria has come, it may be relevant to look at a few examples of just how some of Nigeria’s rulers got their leadership so wrong.

After many trials and errors lasting nearly two presidential terms, with some of the trials and errors judged to be well-placed policies and programmes, military head of state Ibrahim Babangida came to a dramatic and life-defining fork in the road in 1993 when history beckoned him to either uphold or annul the presidential election of that year. It is inconceivable that Oba Aderemi would have failed that test, or that Chief Awolowo, despite his alleged regional bias, would have failed to weigh the consequences of being caught on the wrong side of history. But almost effortlessly, Gen Babangida chose the wrong side of history, a choice that continues to haunt him and the country till today, despite their indifference and pretences. With that fateful choice, the general forfeited the opportunity to be a legend, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the farsighted leader that helped the country diminish, if not completely extinguish, the ethnic and religious fault lines that continue to hobble national existence and debilitate politics.

Gen Babangida’s successor, Sani Abacha, another army general and military head of state, was too hedonistic to care about history. In 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo assumed the presidency, nature and heaven presented him a clean slate to write a great name for himself and his country. He was tireless though embarrassingly and indefensibly presumptuous, and he was gifted with stamina and a lot of opportunities many leaders would offer anything to get even half of. But despite the natural and celestial conspiracies that urged him to greatness, and despite being spoilt for choice in terms of burgeoning national revenue and clement international environment, this most naturally obtruding and interposing of men single-mindedly planted himself between his fondness for self-absorption on the one hand and the tantalising apotheosis heaven reserved for so undeserving a man on the other hand.

It was expected that in 2007, after presiding over the country for eight years, President Obasanjo would through his glimpse of history set the right tone and tenure for political succession and democracy. For someone who had postured so extravagantly as a messiah, it was shocking that he organised and presided over the worst succession in Nigerian history, save perhaps the President Shehu Shagari re-election politics of 1983 that brought out the beast in the country. Neither Yakubu Gowon, another general and military head of state (1966-1975), nor Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015), regardless of his successful and peaceful transfer of power to an opposing political party, made the right calls in their years in office, exhibited sound judgement, understood the coded messages of history, and envisioned their country decades and possibly centuries after their rule.

In his tribute to Oba Aderemi, Chief Awolowo enthused about the unerring judgement of the Ooni of Ife. So, what made the oba unerring in judgement as a leader, especially as the radical traditionalist everyone came to recognise him to be? The question can be extracted and applied to other leaders: why was Winston Churchill, despite his numerous political, military and racial foibles, almost alone among his peers in sensing the dangers implicit in Nazism and Adolf Hitler’s irredentism? France and Italy after World War II had almost similar defects in their constitutions; why was Charles de Gaulle so persistent in condemning the French Fourth Republic constitution, even describing it as incapable of guaranteeing the stability and greatness he thought was France’s manifest destiny? In fact, he had to wait for more than 10 years to see the fulfilment of his prophecy. How did Nelson Mandela grasp the futility of revenge after apartheid began to collapse in South Africa, especially at a time when many African National Congress (ANC) leaders, including Winnie Mandela, thought some form of revenge was not inappropriate?

It is crucial to inquire into how leaders take decisions and persist in sometimes unpopular but ultimately prescient course of action. Chief Awolowo recounted Oba Aderemi’s abhorrence for violence, but it did not detract from his sound, often radical, judgement, while Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and even Abraham Lincoln saw the indispensability of violence and realpolitik in the pursuit of greatness or the promotion of an idea. How do these leaders come to their decisions? How did Nebuchadnezzar discover the sound judgement of Daniel, a Jewish slave, and bother himself about what the world and his empire, Babylon, would look like after his reign; and why were both Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar consumed by the passion to lead and expand their empires? Most importantly, what are the ingredients that made most of these great leaders hunger for a great legacy that deeply impacted all areas of national life — from justice to politics, from economy to infrastructure, and from social engineering to the philosophical ramparts upon which their empires were moored? No single answer suffices. But, clearly Chief Awolowo saw some of these elements in Oba Aderemi’s reign, and in contrast failed to observe it in Nigeria’s presidents and heads of state.

In one of his books, ‘Leaders’, former United States president Richard Nixon attempts to answer the puzzle. Says he: “When the curtain comes down on a leader’s career, the very lives of the audience have been changed, and the course of history may have been profoundly altered…Great leadership requires a great vision, one that inspires the leader and enables him to inspire the nation. People both love the great leader and hate him; they are seldom indifferent toward him. It is not enough for a leader to know the right thing. The would-be leader without the judgement or perception to make the right decisions fails for lack of vision. The one who knows the right thing but cannot achieve it fails because he is ineffectual. The great leader needs both the vision and the capacity to achieve what is right. He hires managers to help him do so, but only he can set the direction and provide the motive force.”

Explaining further, the former US president suggests that, “Some leaders do, as individuals, tower over their contemporaries…They have to be able to see above the mundane and beyond the immediate. They need that view from the mountaintop. Some people live in the present, oblivious of the past and blind to the future. Some dwell in the past. A very few have the knack of applying the past to the present in ways that show them the future. Great leaders have this knack.”

Then giving a concrete example to illustrate his argument, Mr Nixon sums up: “Great leaders are the ones who first see what in retrospect, but only in retrospect, is obvious, and who have both the force of will and the authority to move their countries with them. De Gaulle in the 1930s did not yet have that authority, but he demonstrated the qualities that would be crucial when he later got it. MacArthur in the 19940s had this authority. If de Gaulle had had the authority sooner, and if Churchill had had it in Britain, the history of Europe might have been different, and there might have been no world war II. De Gaulle and Churchill were, in the 1930s, ahead of their time — or tragically, Europe had not yet learned the hard way that they were right.”

President Nixon may not have answered everything, but Nigerians will gasp in horror at how the lack of sound leadership led them to a civil war in 1967, and how even poorer leadership has made their country a global laggard, consigning their population to poverty, division, ethnic supremacist struggles, religious extremism, and general political paralysis. Chief Awolowo dwelled on and enthused over Oba Aderemi’s sound judgement. It is tragic how a lack of judgement seems to be driving Nigeria to another round of general instability, division and fragmentation. The country is suffering from widespread insecurity, with skirmishes breaking out in nearly all parts of the nation, and law enforcement and military forces stretched to breaking points in their sometimes desultory efforts to put a lid on social, religious and ethnic revolts whose causes and courses the leaders have no clue how to tackle. As President Nixon argues, a leader needs the right judgement and perception, qualities Nigerians must ask themselves, in light of the next presidential election, whether their current and aspiring leaders possess these virtues or not.

It is indeed puzzling that any student of leadership could imagine that given how Nigeria is structured, not to say its abysmally poor quality leadership, a positive change would occur soon. It will take a miracle. The reality confronting the country is that, instead, a gradual descent to chaos is unfolding. The structure is wobbly and unsustainable; leaders have poor self-esteem and education; policies are targeted at satisfying private or primordial interests; law enforcement and security agencies are a spent force designed to satisfy the wrong interests; and there is widespread lack of discipline, cohesion and vision. Building roads and bridges, as indispensable as these are to economic growth and the people’s wellbeing, will not cure the inadequacies of leaders whose judgement and perception on key national and developmental issues remain poor.

The widespread insecurity ravaging Nigeria should propel the country’s leaders to re-examine their country’s national and existential paradigms, understand and properly contextualise the myriads of problems afflicting the polity, and summon the discipline and the will to produce a lasting difference. But as it is, Nigeria will have to look beyond 2023 to find leaders with the depth, judgement, and intuition to alter the course of national history. This will, however, not happen in the near term. Indeed, given the disintegrative forces rapidly, remorselessly and relentlessly tearing the country apart, almost without check, patriots must hope that the country will be sustained through the coming years until hopefully, without the infusion of sentiments, competent leaders can be elected, leaders who after the curtains come down on their time in office, have changed the people for the better and profoundly altered the course of history.

Cc: The Nations