In this interview granted Sahara TV and uploaded to YouTube, writer, poet and social critic, Odia Ofeimun, speaks about the late Nelson Mandela’s criticism of Nigeria and why he believes the late Premier of the old Western Region, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was greater than the anti-apartheid leader. Here are excerpts of the interview as transcribed by Temitayo Famutimi
What’s your view about Mandela’s criticism of corruption and underdevelopment in Nigeria?
Mandela spoke from the standpoint of a new triumphalism that came into South African politics as apartheid was being eliminated. But we know that apartheid has not been totally eradicated in South Africa. We know that black people have been sucked up by a ‘suction’ effect that makes many of the new black elite believe that freedom has come for the whole people simply because they can ride their jeeps and live in new mansions and the rest of it.
The majority of South Africans are not in the same camp. There is a clear sign of how they are not in it by the fact that the failure rate or dropout rate in schools in South Africa is up to 60 per cent in many cases. When you look at that, you will understand what I mean when I say the triumphalism with which they set out was good from the standpoint of people who have just become independent.
I mean Nigeria also became independent and we were talking about being the greatest country in Africa and the rest of it. But, as I once told a student population that invited me to speak in Durban (South Africa), they were happy to see a film that put down Nigeria and I told them that that is where they are going in the manner in which their society was being structured and run.
Mandela was good for liberation. But let us define liberation, not just in terms of taking the white man out of power; but ensuring that whether we are living with black, white, yellow or green human beings, we adopt an economic system that provides justice; that allows the people as a majority and as a community to acquire the knowledge that saves lives.
The point that needs to be made here is that what Mandela thought of Nigeria was based on the sassy reporting of international politics and journalism – which makes Nigeria look like the epitome of the corrupt state.
That is without considering that in every poor society, where the majority are ground down in poverty and have no access to the means of proper livelihood, all the symptoms, all the things he said about Nigeria occur in South Africa and they have occurred at such a fast rate that anybody who pretends Nigeria is more corrupt than South Africa today has never looked at both societies.
Both countries have exactly the same forms of corruption and the same forms of abandonment of the poor majority. If you are thinking of any change at all, you therefore need to revise all those things Mandela said about Nigeria because they are things that are applicable to the South African society of today. Because of the first world infrastructure that has been built in South Africa by what I call Africana socialism, it is possible to talk about a basis that makes the country looks different. Nigeria used to be in that developmental state. South Africa may just be talking about a first world infrastructure, but they have a political life and a social existence that are not in any way different from all the corrupt African states that we are talking about. We need to redefine our terms. It is important for us to emphasise this point that South Africa is actually being saved by globalisation in the sense that they can take from several African countries and acquire some semblance of economic stability for their structural adjustment programmes.
They do not see that many of the African societies that they do business with are being impoverished in a way that will eventually bounce back on South Africa. As those countries are being impoverished, denatured and moved in the wrong directions, trouble will start in those countries and put South African investment in those places in jeopardy.
Rather than work out a corrective arrangement with many of these countries, what South Africa is doing on the basis of this triumphalism is to create a bounce back culture that they will not be able to deal with. The reason is that within South Africa itself they have already adopted a policy that will self-destruct and the new elite in South Africa is more brainless than the one in Nigeria.
When I say this, I’m not being sassy or patriotic or nationalistic. I say they are more brainless because the number of educated people Nigeria has created and driven into the Diaspora is so vast that today South Africa runs well – because there are some universities in South Africa where 60 per cent of the teaching staff are from Nigeria. If Nigeria can be serious and bring back half of the educated people we drove away, we will have a wonderful economy that can industrialise and face the rest of the world without fear.
But what we have been reduced to and what the South African triumphalism does not perceive is a country that has accepted its own self-destruction by creating a self-forgetting form which allows the leaders to pretend that they could be excellent even if their country is not excellent.
What is your assessment of Mandela and Awolowo’s struggles for independence in their respective countries?
I am too much of an Awolowo man not to see that the process of moving into independence in South Africa and in Nigeria followed exactly the same pattern. It was based on a negotiated settlement. The liberation struggle did not create the end of apartheid. It was a negotiation and Nigerians negotiated exactly the way Mandela negotiated. You can hype it if you like; the pattern was exactly the same. You move from one meeting to the other, discussing politics and economics, and they successfully convinced Mandela to buy the pig in a poke of an economy and he successfully succeeded in convincing Nigerians to buy the pig in a poke of an economy.
The only man in Nigeria, who stood up against it, was Awolowo. He was quickly jailed and all his men scattered across the prisons in Nigeria. Some were driven abroad and the educational system that he had put in place was smashed. All that talk about free education, free health, full employment and old age pensions were removed from the contention of very many Nigerians.
Awolowo was lucky that he had a large ethnic group which has benefitted enough from his own policies and was never going to forget him, so that when he returned from jail he could still continue saying the same things without fear. And he had educated that region enough to the point where their leadership positions intellectually across the country was turned into a central definer of where Nigeria was and where Nigeria was likely to go.
Are you comparing Mandela with Awolowo?
That’s precisely what I’m doing. When they were negotiating in South Africa, the South African friends I had in London – I was living in Oxford then – I told them that they should go to the old Western Region in Nigeria and find out what happened and how it was destroyed because they needed to know what happened in Nigeria in order not to follow the same part.
What Awolowo did for the Western Region was what every African country needed to do. Awolowo believed not in a tyrannical undemocratic system but a proper democracy and he believed in a democracy based on a federal ethic. He did not agree with (Kwame) Nkurumah that you needed a one-party state in order to run a modern African society. And he believed in industrialisation and free education in the way Nkurumah believed in it.
Nkurumah was forced by imperialist pressure to go tyrannical. Don’t ever let us forget it. But Awolowo was not of that kind. Awolowo is the only African leader in government who lost an election – the federal election of 1954. He lost it to the NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons) because he insisted that before the region could start free education and free health services, every tax-paying adult must pay a levy of 10 shillings. I mean, a levy of 10 shillings was what was required to make it completely free forever. And the only reason why you needed the 10 shillings was because he had calculated that after a number of years of pursuing free education there would be nothing in the budget to sustain it.
All the people who refused to pay the levy, he sent tax collectors to force them to pay. It was then free and compulsory education, many people refused to pay and he forced them to pay and he told them, ‘We can be forced to be free. If you do not like me for it today, your children will like me for it.’
Let us look at Awolowo: Aren’t we praising him today? Even his enemies have all now come to his side and in fact, they have so turned themselves to his side that in 1979 the constitution of Nigeria adopted Awolowo’s programme in economics and in politics as the only basis for running Nigeria. Many people pretend not to know that the 1979 constitution was an Awolowo constitution, and that the only thing wrong with that constitution was the refusal to accept the things he demanded.
And one of those things was that education should be ‘justiciable’ which is to say that a child who is denied education can go to court and insist on being given education.
If Awolwo’s programme was good yesterday, I insist that it is still good today. And I believe that if South Africans needed to move away from where they are obviously going, they will need to go back to Awolowo. It is not just about socialism, it is investment. If you put money in social welfare, you are investing. Anyone who tells you that there is a ‘conflictual’ relationship between investment and welfare has never studied history.
When people talk about Mandela’s capacity to put various classes of people together as theory, Awolowo ironed it out very clearly why you don’t need a class struggle in order to create a society in which all children can go to school, in which everybody can get a job, and in which old age pensions will be paid to people. It is not just love and I want to emphasise that. Those who criticise Awolowo’s socialism for wanting love are obviously basing their argument on his claim that a government should be like a sun that shines on all equally.
Hmm! You actually rated Awolowo so much that if they give you Awolowo and Mandela, you will pick Awolowo first…
(Cuts in)Yes. The simple reason is that what needed to be done in South Africa, after apartheid, was precisely what Awolowo wanted for the Western Region and Nigeria after independence. This is to say: Put every child in school. Ensure that productivity takes the creativity of the individual citizen into proper focus. Build the relationship between people not on whether they do not love each other, but whether there is justice and equality.
Awolowo used to brag that workers could go on strike in the Western Region when he was there because before they thought about it he would have done something proper. He raised minimum wage from one shilling nine pence to five shillings when many people thought it was silly to do so.
The western region survived it. People have forgotten that the only reason Daily Times was able to sell 600,000 copies of their paper every day was because from the day people got their minimum wage of five shillings more and more people could buy newspapers. Even those who could not read bought Daily Times and put in their armpit and take it for people at home to read for them.
He created a society of enlightened people by ensuring that the radio-vision was in major cities and everywhere. He created a television system and a mobile free cinema system to go into the villages where you could not build proper cinema houses. We had a system that not only worked but promised a future that was better than the one that the western world was promising their own people.
But that was only in the Western Region….
That is exactly the point that I am making! A very deliberate effort was made to ensure that Awolowo or somebody like Awolowo would not become head of an African country. And when they discovered that Nkurumah was such a person they hacked him down.
But you read Chinua Achebe accusing Awolowo of committing genocide against the Igbo community. If he became the President of Nigeria….
I am happy you have mentioned it. Where Chinua Achebe should have started his story is just at the level of basic theory. All the Igbo people in the Western Region enjoyed free education and the five shillings minimum wage. They who rejected free education and voted against it because they voted against Awolowo, they who rejected the minimum wage by voting against Awolowo, who wouldn’t accept full employment for that reason were the actual creators of the basis for genocide…
It began by saying after the colonialist must have been driven away, the northerners, who will take over the government do not have enough educated people to fill the job that the Oyibo man will be leaving. So the NCNC representing the East organised for the job to be taken over. They took over the job and ensured that people from other regions were eliminated from strategic positions. Don’t never let us forget it.
Chinua Achebe himself became director of external broadcasting as a young man fresh from the university. They took over as many jobs as could be taken over. But they did not count on something while they were taking over the jobs. The northerners whom they thought were silly and did not know what to do made sure that all the railway extensions in Nigeria, all the military installations, the Kainji Dam for electricity and even the iron and steel industry, which was already proposed to be sighted in the east, all of them went to the north. It was at that point in 1964 that the easterners realised that the northern ruling class was not as bankrupt, ignorant or unthinking as they had imagined.
It was at that point that the idea of a coup began in Nigeria’s history because that year, when the NPC (Northern People’s Congress), NNDP (Nigerian National Democratic Party) coalition NNA (Nigerian National Alliance) won the election, ZIK (Nnamdi Azikwe) refused to call them to form a government because, as he said, they had rigged the election.
They knew if an Awolowo had been the President of Nigeria, Singapore would be just small stuff, in relation to the kind of achievement we would have had. We had television in the western region. Before many Europeans heard about it, we had a free education system before most people in the world heard about it.
The health policy that is throwing Obama into a hate figure for the rightist in America was already in place in the old Western Region. It was moving speedily on. Americans were getting on to it in the 21st Century and we were there in the middle of the 20th Century.
When the World Bank opposed free education in the Western Region, Awolowo went to court and pursued the policy and succeeded. But they took a group of Nigerian social scientists away from this country, trained them in miserable World Bank economics that devalue productivity in favour of consuming what the west produces and it has become the culture.
In South Africa, it has also become the culture. We had people who genuinely fought. In Nkurumah’s case what they did to him was a different ball game. Like Awolowo who could not become the head of state of his country, and therefore could only perform his magic in a region, Nkurumah had a country to play with. And what did they do to him? They went after Nkurumah consistently and hacked him down. When Nkurumah shouted against imperialism, people always asked what was he talking about – until Nkurumah was thrown out of power and died. And then the issue became obvious and clear through true confessions by CIA operatives who admitted that they were the ones who created Nkurumah’s problems.
Actually if Awolowo had pursued genocide, the war wouldn’t have gone the way it went. Awolowo insisted that Nigeria must remain a united country. And that was number one and he said so from the day he left prison till the day the war started and he went out making every effort to ensure that all the regions came to the common table to take the decision.
Unfortunately, those who did not have guns, but were campaigning for war, are the ones talking of genocide. No, the genocide started by those who went to a war they knew they were not prepared for. It is wrong to land your people in a mess because you refused to make use of the practices you learnt in a proper war school. They weren’t proper soldiers. What they learnt in the war colleges, they refused to make use of them.
No it wasn’t genocide. It was about a group of intellectuals and military men who refused to make use of the knowledge available. Their failure is now being interpreted as the genocide bid of the other side. No, it is wrong to interpret the Nigerian civil war as that.
But there is one opinion that if Awolowo was going to prove that he truly loved Nigeria and he wanted it to be one he wouldn’t have encouraged the blockade…
No, blockade had already happened. Look, blockade did not happen because Awolowo said so. It was the military system that created the blockade because the soldiers had already surrounded the Eastern region and the soldiers ensured that only they got the resources being brought in. It was the soldiers that starved the children of Biafra because they did not allow even the Red Cross to distribute the foods properly to those who really needed it. We have been reading Alabi Isama. We all know that one of the greatest failings of the Biafra side was that they moved populations from where they could farm and moved them to areas where they were bloody refugees waiting to be fed. That was a plan-less revolt.
When you don’t plan your revolt and you do not think it through, when people talk about genocide in that kind of situation, for God’s sake we should also ask them where their brains went to. Because if you say children are dying, it means you are taking a military decision. How many children will I let die in order to wait for ammunitions to come?
The point I am making therefore is this: When you hear of the word ‘genocide’, don’t look at it as something Nigeria did to Biafra. It was something that the Biafran military and intellectual class did to their own people. They had to make a choice, as to how many children they would allow to see dead in order to continue with their revolution. They preferred to see the children dying.
Are you familiar with this quote credited to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, “All is fair in war; you don’t continue to supply food to your enemies to wax stronger and continue to fight against you.” Was this statement truly credited to Awo?
So if I say it wasn’t credited to him that makes the statement either right or wrong? Just listen. I have just described the situation for you. If you say all is not fair in war and you want to quote me in the Geneva Convention, the first question I will ask you is: “There is a meal between you and the next army. If you grab the meal, you will eat and you can fight back, are you going to give it to your opponent to take so that he will fight you and have the means to fight you? If you talk about all things being fair or unfair in war, you are talking about allowing your opponents to get the resources that you should use. Would you rather commit suicide so that your opponent can live? It is a very simple question. Just answer the question if you are honest.
You will agree that what Awolowo said at that time made enormous sense. If we are fighting with the Republic of Benin, will we be giving them oil so that they will have the means to drive their armoured tanks into Nigeria? That is not how to fight a war.
Americans are using drones to kill all their enemies today. Are we pretending that they are doing it in pursuit of the Geneva Convention? If you want to say that all is not fair in war, and that everybody must follow the GC, lose a war first and then you will answer the rest of the question. There are things you don’t do in war.
Actually you have a lot of people the federal troops protected and saved during the war. Where were the Nigerians saved by the Biafra? Or it has never occurred to you that we don’t have prisoners of war in that sense. So, don’t bring that into it.