The visionary leadership, austere lifestyle and selfless service philosophy of Nigeria’s First Republic leaders contrast sharply with the myopic, profligate and selfish way of life of latter-day rulers
Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa, Obafemi Awolowo, Anthony Enahoro, Michael Okpara, Akanu Ibiam, Aminu Kano and many other leaders of the struggle for Nigeria’s independence and the First Republic had many things in common. They lived exemplary lives in and out of government. Today they have become mythical figures.
Azikiwe, the Owelle of Onitsha, first President of Nigeria and first indigenous governor-general of Nigeria is a legend in Nigerian politics. Historians tell tales of his political exploits and engagement with the colonial masters in the fight for Nigerian independence. In language and dressing, Zik of Africa, as he was popularly known, was flamboyant and had a magnetic personality. His aura was so captivating that many people assigned him extra-human qualities. The father of President Goodluck Jonathan underscored these qualities when he made him the perfect role model for his son, prophetically nicknaming him ‘Azikiwe’. Zik’s greatness and immortality, though his grave lies in ruins in Onitsha today, did not come from his worldly possessions. Among the Igbo, a race known for their industry and mercantile spirit, his personality and philosophy of life contrasted with the impulse of his society. When he died on May 11, 1996, he did not leave money in offshore accounts to last his children and grandchildren their lifetime. The Igbo grudge that he did not benefit them in his “One Nigeria” philosophy but he left them two important legacies – a can-do spirit and education as the key to the future. To Nigeria and Africa, he symbolises the spirit of freedom and humility.
Fame did not come to him by a sudden flight. Nothing along the Catering Rest House Road that leads to his quiet, unassuming Onuiyi Haven suggests that a great man of his stature once lived here. Nothing in the desolate unmanned gate that welcomes you suggests that one of the master spirits of an age lived here. The compound itself is a lesson in humility. It just has two houses, one for his workers and aides and the main house, a two-storey building where Zik held court. The most priced part of the house is the library where Zik’s intellectual property is jealously protected from abuse. Perhaps, in the invisible world where he now resides, he would wish that his library be made a national library so that the world can access the numerous books he authored and the books that influenced his thinking. For now that wealth is under lock and key.
Uche Azikiwe, his wife and a professor of education at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, recalls her life with Zik as a journey of greatness. She says at home, as outside, Zik was the best of men. “Zik wasn’t seen as a human being...We were afraid of him! His personality, his achievements in the world, all those stories about his appearance and disappearance!” (See interview with Uche Azikiwe)
Zik did not only lead an exemplary life; he inspired it in his followers. The Zikist Movement was founded around his political philosophy and lifestyle. Every member tried to be a little Zik in his own area of competence. Those he appointed into political positions also replicated this attitude in their lifestyle and governance.
Michael Okpara, former Premier of Eastern Region and Akanu Ibiam, former governor of Eastern Region were of his political school. Most legacies of that era in the old Eastern Region, which now comprises the South-east and Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Bayelsa and Rivers states in the Niger Delta, were products of M.I Okpara, as he was popularly called. Yet, he did not loot the treasury, as is the case now. He did not build mansions; rather the little money he had he invested in building cottage industries to provide the needs of the community. He did not leave his children millions in the bank, or salt away money in foreign accounts; rather he gave them education and taught them to be self-sufficient. Uzodinma Okpara, his eldest son and a former chairman of Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in Abia State, says he was a bundle of energy, and taught his children the virtues of hard work, integrity and service.
Ibiam was not any different. He was a professional, God-fearing and a workaholic. His daughter, Alu Ibiam, the regent of Unwana, Afikpo, says: “He was so humble that sometimes we wondered if this is the real life of a governor. We kept asking ourselves whether a governor was not supposed to live a flashy lifestyle. Certainly, the environment where we lived showed that the position of a governor was something extraordinary, but my father will be so humble... He maintained a pretty conservative lifestyle in his own home. He wasn’t a flashy governor at all. My father was rather low-keyed, and certainly not one to blow his own horn if anything at all.”
Ibiam, like other leaders of his generation was not materialistic. He had only a four-bedroom bungalow. “In fact, the missionary house was all that my father knew... No more. It was only when he was invited by the great Michael Okpara to be the governor of Eastern Region that Okpara persuaded him to take a piece of land in Enugu, and build something. He accepted the land and built something there. Before then, he had nothing. Later, he acquired the land where we are now (Unwana, Afikpo). Otherwise, he wasn’t a propertied man.” Not anymore will politicians live such austere life. Now a political office holder recoups all his investment in the election within six months, and goes on to stockpile for his unborn children or plant them in juicy positions of power as successors of his political dynasty.
Alu says the cause of the present disconnect between the political leaders and the people is lack of the fear of God. “If we believe in God, sincerely and honestly, I think we should not have much corruption in the system. There will be no need for EFCC and ICPC. My father was a true disciplinarian, and that was why he succeeded in leadership and governance. So, if our leaders are disciplined, I don’t see why they would not succeed too.”
Up North, Balewa, the first prime minister of Nigeria, was an example of a servant-leader. He did not have the flamboyance and fluency of Zik, and Awolowo, who was the first premier in the then Western Region, but his humility and sincerity were eloquent enough. Bello chose him to represent the North at the centre because of these qualities. By the time he was assassinated in a coup d’état in1966, he had only built a small house comprising a sitting room, two rooms for his wives and a guest room. “Even a single ‘504’ (Peugeot) he did not buy for himself, not to talk of cars for his mother or his wives. He had only the official car that the government provided for him. He was using an old Peugeot. Later, they changed it to a Mercedes Benz,” Abdalah Sadiq, the late politician’s tailor and houseboy disclosed while recalling the last moments of Balewa in an exclusive interview with this magazine in 2006.
Bello, the premier of Northern Region up till 1966 when he was assassinated, was a good example of leaders who never stole public funds to live a good life. Reputed as a flamboyant and generous politician, the late Sardauna of Sokoto liked to look good and live in comfort. He also wanted people around him to look and live like him. Thus he was in the habit of giving people, including visitors to his house, hundreds of rims of expensive brocade materials and already made gowns. Those who were close to him said there was nothing he could not give out as gift. But after his assassination and the probe that followed, no kobo of public funds was found to have been diverted by the late Sardauna. He was found to be a financially prudent public office holder.
In fact, he was said to be in debt at the time of his death. Even though he was the premier of Northern Region and lived in Kaduna, he never owned a house in the city. The only house he owned was a mud house in Sokoto, his home state. But he had a farm and a farmhouse in Bakura, Zamfara State, which he developed with a loan from the Northern Nigeria Development Company, NNDC. The management of NNDC had to write off what was left of the loan, posthumously, in appreciation of his effort to develop the North.
Bello treated the whole North as a unit. His pan-northern philosophy made him choose Kaduna as the headquarters of Northern Region, instead of Sokoto, his hometown and the seat of the Caliphate. Again, he chose Balewa from Bauchi State to be the prime minister when NPC won the parliamentary election, instead of a legislator from Sokoto. Today, this would be hard to come by as to be a minister or any other federal appointment; you must have a relationship with the governor of your state, or some political godfathers. Unlike today, those he put into powerful political offices did not make financial returns to him.
Chukwuma Nzeogwu, one of the leaders of the 1966 coup, later regretted that if he had known the late Sardauna was not corrupt they would have spared him. His wealthy friends and in-laws in the business community sustained Sardauna’s appetite for the good things of life.
Late Aminu Kano, proponent of talakawa (Marxism) politics, was a sharp contrast to the late Sardauna in terms of lifestyle, but the two demonstrated the creed that public office is trust, which must never be betrayed. Even though he was federal commissioner for health, and later communications from 1967-1974, he could not save enough money to build a house for himself. Aminu Dantata, a Kano-based businessman and his good friend, took a loan for him to build his only house in Gwamaja quarters in Kano. He repaid the loan by deducting from his salary as federal commissioner. The house has now been acquired by the Bayero University, Kano and turned into a museum.
When he died in 1983, Aminu Kano did not have a bank account, and only N63.50k was found on him. He lived a very Spartan lifestyle devoid of luxury and extravagance. He never had more than four sets of clothes, and whenever he had more, he would dash them out. His only car at the time of his death was a Peugeot 505 SR, which was bought for him by Frederick Ewen, one of his wealthy friends. Whenever he needed to go for medical check-up abroad, his friends would raise the money.
Maitama Sule, First Republic minister of petroleum, is like Aminu Kano. As Nigeria’s first petroleum minister, the most lucrative cabinet portfolio in Nigeria today, he negotiated all the oil drilling deals without any benefit to himself, his family and friends. When the First Republic was overthrown in 1966, he borrowed money from a friend to transport his family from Lagos to Kano. Not only that, he too, did not have a flamboyant country house. He returned to his mud house in Kano. Today, Sule is a legend, much sought-after by conference organisers who want to show him as icon of selfless service. He agrees with novelist Chinua Achebe that the trouble with Nigeria is poor leadership, unlike in the First Republic.
Awolowo is another legend of Nigerian politics whose life is an everlasting inspiration to generations after him because of the exemplary life he lived. He formed Action Group in 1951. Over 23 years after his death, he still remains the issue in the politics of the South-west, in particular, and Nigeria in general. Indeed, it is argued that every other politician in the South-west is only a footnote to Awo, as he was fondly called. He led a Spartan lifestyle and did not have visible vices. He ate sparingly; neither smoked nor drank alcohol, and certainly, did not womanise. These days, most politically exposed persons, PEPs see women as the prize of their success. They devour both married, unmarried women and even underage girls, and filled with this life of impurity they pollute the national psyche and do not achieve much. It is believed that if Awo had ruled Nigeria, a proper foundation could have been laid for a productive economy, instead of the present sharing economy, which is dependent on oil and gas revenue.
Awo inspired a fanatical following in life and death. His adherents are called Awoists, and his philosophy is selfless service. Among the leaders of his generation, he appeared to have been the most proactive about education, as education was free in the Western Region. It is argued today by political historians that Awo and Bello may have understood Nigeria and the disparate forces within it more than Zik, and this influenced their politics. Alliance for Democracy, AD; Afenifere, the pan-Yoruba cultural organisation; and Bola Tinubu’s Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, are seen as products of Awo’s political philosophy. Indeed, on his way to political relevance, Tinubu spotted spectacles similar to that of Awo and put his picture, Awo’s and that of Mahatma Ghandi on billboards, asking the rhetorical question, “What do these men have in common?” He was building unconscious connection between him and Awo to sell himself to the Yoruba people.
Cyprian Ekwensi, a late Nigerian novelist, said of Awo and his followers: "The Awoists almost deified Awo. The factor which led to this state of hero-worship are made up of Awo's vision for Nigeria, his consistency of promise and delivery, his planning strategy, his dedication to making good life available to all, the visible and provable transformation of the standards of those who embraced his philosophy and practised his own exemplary self-denial and modest style, his mystic and ascetic life bordering on the occult and his unselfishness". According to Ray Ekpu, former editor-in-chief of the Newswatch magazine, “In many respects, Awo was an unusual man, a man of Spartan discipline... He upheld a rigid regimen of life and became for many people a tough act to follow.” General Yakubu Gowon, a former military head of state, who appointed Awo minister of finance said of him at his interment in 1987 that “he was dedicated, disciplined and serene. In the single-mindedness of his devotion to the business of government and in his political career, he was resolute and almost stern. He was, indeed, a charismatic leader who commanded respect among his followers."
Chukwuemeka Ezeife, a former governor of Anambra State, described Awolowo at the late sage’s foundation lecture in 1994: “Possessing vision, that is actual and analytical! Power that is guided by a higher spirit endowed with a great organising ability, Chief Awolowo was generously blessed with wisdom and administrative skills. His thoughts and actions flowed from a base of correct and sound principles, which principles provided light, illuminating the paths of his followers, exceptional light that made following him a delight. He was, indeed, a leader in his own right; he was indeed a leader of leaders.”
Of himself during his trial in 1963, the late sage said, “I would like to be remembered for helping to build a united multi-ethnic state. I want to be remembered for creating the basis for an irreversible resolution in education for social justice in Nigeria. I have not yet succeeded in all of these. But I have set a pattern which, no other Nigerian can ignore or reverse.” Today, the educational foundation he laid in the South-west has made the zone the most educated in Nigeria.
Although a wealthy politician when compared with his contemporaries, he never operated any foreign account nor built a mansion in the United Kingdom in particular where he frequented. Awo was a knowledgeable, courageous and confident man. According to him, “I have always fought for what I believe in, and I say this without any spirit of immodesty that in the course of my political career, I have rendered services to this country which historians and the coming generations will regard as imperishable.” He said this in 1963; today Nigerians can confirm its veracity. Indeed when he died in 1987 without fulfilling his presidential ambition, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi, described him as “the best president Nigeria never had.”
Over 25 years of Nigeria’s post-independence 51 years were spent under military rule. Soldiers in government, by the benefit of hindsight, are blamed for the bulk of the country’s woes. But just like their civilian counterparts, not all of them were bad and ravenous. The first generation military presidents, like their civilian presidents were statesmen, selfless and clean. Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first military head of state, was in a class of his own. He believed in one Nigeria and surrounded himself with northern officers who unfortunately assassinated him in 1966. As a general and the chief of army staff, he lived within his means. Till date, the humble bungalow his family lives in at Umuahia, Abia State, is testimony to his integrity. His wife, Victoria, summarised his lifestyle: “My late husband was a responsible family man. He lived within his means. When he was killed during a military coup in July l966, he had no landed property anywhere in the world, except an undeveloped piece of land on Victoria Island, Lagos, and the place where the family lives now on Nkwerre Street, Umuahia. But he did not build the house where we currently live in. This house was built during the civil war, after the death of my husband. He was both a head of state, and head of the armed forces, but you can see the type of house the family he left behind is living in. You will recall that his children were very young when he was killed in l966. They needed to go to school. They needed food and shelter. I don't want to talk about how we struggled to raise up the children but suffice it to say that my late husband loved his country, and died for the country.”
Gowon, another general that ruled Nigeria from 1966 to 1975 did not equally amass any wealth. Although corruption in public office festered under his watch, he had no house of his own anywhere. It was recently that the government of Plateau State built a country house for him in Jos. But the same cannot be said of many of the generals that succeeded Gowon as many of them built palatial mansions in their home states and other cities of their choice. In this class was the late Sani Abacha who after building his mansion in Kano reportedly bought the entire stretch of the street but was challenged by one of the landlords in the area who bluntly refused to ‘cooperate’. Abacha’s sudden death saved the stubborn man from harm by Abacha’s hit men.
Late Pa Anthony Enahoro was another first generation Nigerian leader who lived a selfless life in public office. He moved the first motion for Nigerian independence in 1953 and lived very long to see the promise of independence betrayed. Born in 1923, he died on December 15, 2010, at the age of 87, still fighting to convene a sovereign national conference to sort out an appropriate political system for Nigeria’s centrifugal ethnic nationalities. Since 1944 when as the editor of Zik’s newspaper, the Southern Nigerian Defender, in Ibadan, he became Nigeria’s youngest editor at 21, Enahoro deployed his years of journalism to the quest for independence and good governance.
Enahoro was a leader of the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, a pro-democracy group that fought dictator Abacha till death. After NADECO, he continued the quest for true democracy for Nigeria under the Pro-National Conference Organisation, PRONACO, which he chaired till his death. Today, and for generations to come, he will not be remembered for the housing estates he left for his children and grandchildren; or the millions of petro-dollars he salted away from the national treasury in offshore accounts. Those were not his passions. He is fondly remembered for insisting on the ideals of democracy and good governance.
In the last interview he had with TELL at his country house before he died, Enahoro noted that leadership during their own time was remarkably different from what obtains now, and the immediate past. He regretted the primitive accumulation of public wealth for private use by those in power now, and further lamented: “We can’t quickly get it out. I don’t see any quick answer to the issue of corruption. And if you really see some of it, you will be shocked.”
Ibrahim Haruna, retired general and chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum, puts the situation more succinctly. To him, “the leadership today is like the fabric and the mystique of advertisement where people look at the packet and believe that the cigarettes packed inside are gold and doesn’t kill. It is interesting that those of us in the past have been turned to audience in the theatre. Like someone said, ‘Siddon look’. We look at the stage and applaud the unfolding drama and intrigues. That seems to be how the present leadership seems constituted. It’s like we are in a Nollywood or Hollywood life.” (See interview)
Today, the opulence and primitive accumulation of wealth by PEPs contrast sharply with the poverty of their thoughts, words and deeds. Their lifestyle inspires waste, corruption and violence. For example the country is still puzzled by the ravening appetite of many of the new generation politicians. As at last week, 14 former governors are being investigated by the Code of Conduct Bureau for allegedly breaching certain sections of the nation’s code of conduct for public officers. They were alleged to have operated foreign accounts during their tenure, apart from making false declaration of assets, which include state-of-the-art cars, mansions and landed properties in and outside Nigeria worth billions of naira. Some of these PEPs are also facing criminal charges of graft and embezzlement levelled against them by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, the two agencies battling corruption in the country. But since the country’s judicial system allows for political manipulation and creates escape route for the big thieves, the fear is that many of these soiled politicians will not only go scot-free, they will multiply themselves and descend on the country like locusts, which they are.