- Insa NolteInsa NolteDepartments of African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham
Obafemi Awolowo (full Yoruba name: Ọbafẹ́mi Jeremiah Oyèníyì Awólọ́wọ̀, b. 1909–d. 1987) was one of the most important statesmen and political thinkers of Nigeria in the 20th century. After losing his father at the age of ten, Awolowo worked as a teacher and journalist to complete his secondary education before moving into business. Following his marriage to Hannah Awolowo in 1937, he was able to mobilize the resources to travel to the United Kingdom, where he obtained a law degree in 1946. Confronted with ethnic rivalry during his early activism in the Nigerian Youth Movement, Awolowo developed a federalist vision for Nigeria. Building on his understanding of grassroots Yoruba politics, he mobilized Yoruba ethnicity and solidarity through the cultural organization Ẹgbẹ́ Ọmọ Odùduwà. Awolowo’s party, the Action Group, became the dominant Yoruba party in the 1950s, and Awolowo served as the first premier of the Western Region in 1954–1960, when he presided over an ambitious modernizing program.
Reduced to the leadership of the opposition in 1960, Awolowo was subjected to a politically motivated trial in 1962 and imprisoned. The loss of his eldest son while in prison encouraged a turn toward the spiritual but also gained him widespread sympathy: after his release from prison in 1966, Awolowo was recognized as the leader of the pan-Yoruba politics, to the emergence of which he had contributed. As he also embraced a more distinctly socialist politics, many of his supporters also saw him as a potential reformer for Nigeria. However, as the vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council (1967–1970) and as federal commissioner for finance (1967–1971) during the Nigeria–Biafra War (Nigerian Civil War), Awolowo also attracted bitter criticism by eastern Nigerians, who held him responsible for the loss of human lives caused by the war. In 1979, Awolowo returned to party politics with more explicitly socialist policies but, having failed to win the presidency, resumed his role as the leader of the opposition. When another military coup ended the Second Republic in 1983, Awolowo retired from active politics.
Following his death in 1987, Awolowo became a focal point of struggles within the Yoruba elite both over his succession and over the nature of Yoruba politics. In the process, he was posthumously ascribed virtues, agency, and powers beyond the historical record. However, in the context of a broader Nigerian politics, he was also seen as having larger-than-life negative qualities. His legacy continues to divide Nigerian public debate in the 21st century.
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