Monday, 03 May 2021 16:59

[OPINION] Odia Ofeimun’s 2021 Awo Memorial Lecture in Perspective - Prof. Tunji Olaopa

Just recently, the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation Lecture, the 2021 edition, was held. And the lecture was delivered by no other person than Odia Ofeimun. In the effort to determine those Nigerians who are unrepentantly patriotic and would go to any length to seek the redemption of the Nigerian state and her project of national integration, Ofeimun’s nationalist credentials have never been in doubt. And he is not just anyone who has achieved his deep knowledge of the Nigerian state and her independence trajectory through some random public commentaries. He has been involved from a defining stage of Nigeria’s development unfolding, and continues to seek the means by which he could pragmatize his ardent belief about turning Nigeria onto the right path of nationhood. In 2016, Odia Ofeimun sought, unsuccessfully, to win the gubernatorial ticket for the office of the Governor of Edo State. That is how far he believed in fighting for the soul of Nigeria.

Outside of politics, Mr. Ofeimun is a polemicist. He will jump readily into any disquisition about the problems and the possibility of the Nigerian state. For him, national possibility has nothing to do with current problematics. In other words, confronting Nigeria’s past and current circumstances could only be a means of achieving a better understanding of what we need to urgently do to redirect the ship of state that has been floundering for a long time. Odia Ofeimun is worth listening to because of his long-standing credentials. And this is all the more because he began his political tutelage under the wings of the sage himself—Chief Obafemi Awolowo. If there are still very few disciples of Awolowo that have remained as ideologically and politically untiring in championing the core values of the sage, Odia Ofeimun is eminently one out of three. He was side by side with Chief Awolowo through the latter’s political sojourn through the post-war years and the efforts to rethink Nigeria.

No one is therefore more suitable to deliver the Awolowo Foundation Lecture at a time when the Nigerian state is facing its direst circumstances. And no topic is even more apt than the question chosen by Ofeimun: “Whither Nigeria?” This is a question that not only probes into the collective wonderment of Nigerians, but also seeks to stimulate an even profound understanding of where the ship of state is headed. It is also a fundamental question that seeks to lay the foundation of what is wrong with the floundering ship. This is important to the extent that understanding a problem is a critical key to factoring its (re)solution. Nigeria is tangled in multiple complexities and contradictions that could confuse the most perceptive of politicians, political scientists and political theorists. However, Ofeimun is one political observer that has achieved perspicacity, with a very healthy dose of optimism. Indeed, at the Awolowo Foundation Lecture, Ofeimun posits that the question—wither Nigeria? — “is some way of visualizing a country ahead of us that is eminently saveable in spite of the change that has not taken place.”

Saving or salvaging Nigeria has become, for many eminent patriots, a rather exhausting endeavor. I have made the point before, in several commentaries, that Nigeria is a tough place to love, even for those who are heroic in their patriotism. From her founding, the Nigerian state has produced several heroes and heroines—too many to mention—who had invested and still are consistently investing in the redemption of the Nigerian project. However, Nigeria has not been lenient with her heroes and heroines. Indeed, and in most cases, the Nigerian state hounds and harasses them until they are lost to exile or even death. And then we roll out the drums to celebrate their heroism, while demeaning their national capital and contributions in the process. And no longer many have made the pragmatic decision to “siddon look,” to borrow the phrase of the former attorney general of the federation, the late Chief Bola Ige who, most unfortunately, also lost his life to the Nigerian condition.

But Odia Ofeimun would not be silenced. Nigeria, for him, is worth saving. And that salvation is worth discoursing, as he did at the Awolowo Foundation lecture. And the starting point of that discourse on this occasion is a clear and present danger, the problem of insecurity.” The critical state of insecurity that presently envelopes Nigeria and threatens over sixty years of independence and attempts at nationhood. And that insecurity is made worse by seeming helplessness—at the various levels of governance—to mobilize state capability to secure Nigeria. For Ofeimun therefore, all is not well with Nigeria. The center is barely any longer holding to borrow term from the famous aphorism by Chinua Achebe. For Ofeimun, part of the current situation is that the center and the peripheries have now locked horns in a titanic battle resulting arguably, from (a) the unwillingness of the center to take a firm stand on the insecurity in the state, and (b) the readiness of the state governors to forcefully do something to protect their citizens, even when the Constitution limits their efforts.

One good thing about the discourse on the Nigerian condition is that it has arrived at a specific point of clarity where the issues at stake are poignantly in bold relief. And Odia Ofeimun did not only come to these clear elements of the Nigerian predicament with a characteristic perceptiveness; he also brought along the weighty arsenal of a clear ideological apparatuses bequeathed by the social and political philosophy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

The analysis of Ofeimun’s lecture throws up the diagnosis that Nigeria’s problem is essentially ideational and ideological. And this affects the states of the critical elements of the Nigerian condition. As is usual, let us start with leadership. From Chinua Achebe’s foundational diagnosis, the leadership problem in Nigeria has been iterated to a depth of significant analyses, though many seem to be confusing the import of the “strong man” vs “strong institutions” leadership theory assumptions. Forgetting that strong institutions are invariably built by strong men who don’t have to come in the mold of heroes and giants, the sense in which “leaderless revolution cum leaders without titles” have become veritable perspectives in critical national transformation journeys. Leadership is fundamentally about critical ideation.

A leader’s first responsibility is to visualize reality, and then to impose an ideational and ideological framework on that reality. This was essentially what Obafemi Awolowo did with the old western region. The ideology of democratic socialism birthed the infrastructural wonders that distinguished the region from others on the continent. But we have been waiting in vain for such an ideational process with successive Nigerian governments. The insecurity conundrum has become all the more menacing because of the perception of government complicity that has arrested every effort at nipping the danger in the bud.

The political process that puts leaders in place is mightily flawed. Ofeimun astutely points at what he calls “a flat ideological landscape” across the political parties “which is easiest explained by the fact that they are mutually interchangeable, outside, and even within ethnic differences.” In this regard, Awolowo’s Action Group and the Unity Party of Nigeria were the critical exceptions in the First Republic. The ideological leaning of any political party explains the nature of the vision it wants to impose on Nigeria’s postcolonial reality and predicament. Without such an ideological template, leadership could only flounder in interpreting what is to be done. And further, a political culture has mushroomed that permits an unscrupulous politicking that impoverish the citizenry. If the political parties lack critical internal values, in what ways then will they be able to stimulate the moral rebirth required by a country like Nigeria?    

Leadership is not only the fulcrum for a viable institutional framework and dynamics, leadership successes are also crippled by the very lack of strong institutional initiatives that leaders fail to put in place. The state of our insecurity has become what it is due to the glaring absence of significant political will and shared passion in the ruling class to set in motion the legislative machinery to activate constitutional provisions that will generate institutional strength to resolve it. The issue of state policing has been bandied about so much that we all seem to have come to the conclusion that Nigeria is not serious about policing the boundaries and flashpoints of her plural and postcolonial complexities. And yet we wonder why the security challenges keep metamorphosing dangerously. We wonder why the youth population has become a cannon fodder to feed the murderous impulses of unconscionable politicians and radicalized clerics.

The alarming out-of-school rates in Nigeria speaks to the laxity with which successive Nigerian governments have pursued a viable educational philosophy that would get children out of the street and into schools where they can be molded into critical citizens. Education is a veritable consequence of a firm ideational process, and a prominent tool for oiling it. Ofeimun signaled the sad policy zigzagging that saw, for instance, President Yar’Adua jumpstarting an educational policy that will take educational backwardness in Northern Nigerian seriously. Nigeria indeed recognizes the significance of a viable educational philosophy in national development. However, as the policy trajectory over the last three decades demonstrates, policy actions speaks louder than philosophy.

Mae Jemison, the American engineer and physician, once wrote, “I like to think of ideas as potential energy. They're really wonderful, but nothing will happen until we risk putting them into action.” And nothing has really been happening that could be called national integration and national development in Nigeria because the energetic ideas that are required to actively jumpstart these processes have not been activated. We keep refocusing on the same old ideas rather than energizing new ones that have the potentials for transforming our collective situation. The choice is clear now. As Odia Ofeimun puts it graphically: we either remain in our sustained state of perpetual transitions, arrested development or restructure. It is as simple as that, if we must save Nigeria.  

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