Sunday, January 29

The Toyin Falola Interview – A Conversation With Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo Dosumu

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PART 6 of 6 – Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo Dosumu on Nigerian Leadership and Citizenship

(This is the third and final report on the interview conducted with Dr Tokunbo Awolowo Dosumu on February 21, 2021) For its entire recording, see https://youtu.be/LOQ4lsdm_VY

Leadership means direction. In virtually every area of human endeavour, either at home, corporate, religious, or national level, leadership is needed to provide the organization with the focus and commitment required to produce desired objectives. It takes a good leader to inspire responsible citizenship. Hence, he/she must also be a good citizen, keeping the law and leading by example. A good leader must possess the will to serve the interests of the collective, and by so doing, spread the values of selfless service amongst the citizenry. Therefore, the measure of a good leader and effective leadership is in the extent of the citizens’ wellbeing. In this way, they are mutually dependent on one another, and through cohesion and collaboration, their interaction can produce positive change.

Post-war developments worldwide have further emphasized the centrality of (good) leadership to social, economic, and political transformation. This is especially exemplified in the way erstwhile “underdeveloped,” and “third world countries” such as China (under Deng Xiaoping), Singapore (under Lee Kuan Yu), Brazil (under Luis Inacio Lula Da Silva), South Korea (under Kim Dae-Jung), and the United Arab Emirates (under Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan) amongst others, have through the vision, hard work, and selfless commitment of outstanding leaders, transformed their socio-economic fortunes to become the world’s shining beacons of development. At home in Africa, names such as Nelson Mandela (South Africa) and Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), and Mokgweetsi Masisi, the Botswana President, are highlighted by some for their exemplary leadership contributions towards their respective countries’ peace and progress.

Photo: Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s statue in Lagos

Often dubbed “the most populous black nation on earth,” Nigeria is also reputed for its ethnolinguistic diversity, resourceful population, vast material resources, and economic potentials. Regrettably, for all its endowments, the country has not been privy to the exemplary–committed, patriotic, and nationalistic–leadership required to harmonize, harness, and deploy such valuable attributes towards the development and upliftment of the nation and its peoples. Except for some isolated and far in-between instances of sterling leadership display, Nigeria’s leadership history has been a succession of one bad leadership experience after another–both in military regimes and civilian dispensations.

This “poverty of leadership” in Nigeria has over time engendered corruption and nepotism, economic mismanagement and infrastructural decay, the collapse of institutions and the subversion of the rule of law, widespread illiteracy, and debilitating poverty. The constant pressure from failing institutions and inept leadership have transformed Nigeria into a weak state, challenged by a myriad of issues, including lack of cohesion and political direction, economic decline and brain drain, insecurity, and threats of secession and national disintegration, arising from a mass disillusionment in Nigeria’s nationhood.

At a time, such as this, when Nigeria appears to have arrived at yet another precipice–with each occasion being more frightening than the preceding one–pertinent discussions have been initiated about how we arrived at the steps of Armageddon and what avenues, if any, are available to salvage and rebuild what’s left of a once blossoming society and economy. Identifying lousy leadership as the foremost impediment to realizing Nigeria’s true potential has inspired a quest to identify or develop the selfless and committed leadership necessary to reform and transform the Nigerian space. And in this search for befitting leadership, one individual’s actions have impressed citizens enough to warrant the consideration of adopting his philosophy and acts as a template for transformative leadership. This individual is no other than the venerated Chief Obafemi Awolowo of blessed memory.

A core nationalist and statesman, Chief Awolowo served as the first premier of the Western Region (1954-1960), a Federal Commissioner for Finance (1967-1971), and the vice-chairman of the Federal Executive Council during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). He was also a three-time contender for the country’s top office. Apart from his ingenious ideas (“blueprint for self-rule“) for the transformation of Nigeria, which are contained in several and widely circulated publications, he is most famous for the free education policy he instituted in the Western Region when he was a Premier in 1954. Hence, this occasion of the Toyin Falola interviews featured, as a guest of honour, Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s daughter, Her Excellency, Dr Tokunbo Awolowo Dosumu (the former ambassador of Nigeria to the Netherlands), to share from her wealth of experience as a diplomat, and to offer unique insight into her father’s person–his philosophy, motivations, and aspirations. The occasion also served as an avenue for a selected audience to ask pressing questions on the leadership lessons and opportunities representative in Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s legacy and how it is being kept alive.

Photo: Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Prime Minister of Nigeria, 1957-1966

In the usual manner, the session opened with a welcome address and an introduction of the honoured guest delivered by the host and a member of the team. This was followed by questions from the host and subsequent ones from the participating audience. The host, myself, asked questions about Dr Awolowo Dosumu’s current project, how she is coping with the Covid-19 pandemic, and the purpose of the Awolowo Foundation, which she chairs. Responding, Dr Awolowo Dosumu described her recent involvement with the various stakeholders–intellectuals, state officials, NGOs, and consumers–in Nigeria’s education sector. She mentioned that the purpose was to start a conversation on how to use the opportunities offered by the Covid-19 pandemic to move education to online platforms and to manage the challenges this poses for the less privileged who stand the risk of being cut-off as a result of their inability to afford online facilities. Hence, research has been commissioned into the various education sectors to gain workable solutions suitable for the parties affected. As for the Awolowo Foundation, she pointed out that it was a non-profit advocacy agency set up to engage the pertinent questions of the day and fashion out solutions to contribute to nation-building in her father’s tradition.

Questions from Prof. Yemisi Obilade of Obafemi Awolowo University covered her Excellency’s childhood as the daughter of an influential political figure, her role in the 1988-89 constituent assembly, and if she felt it had served the Nigerian people. He also asked about Dr Awolowo Dosumu’s position on her father’s legacy, if this legacy has been upheld in Nigeria, and what kind of politics her father would endorse, especially given the predispositions of today’s politicians to imitate his apparel as a way of capitalizing on his achievements and trading on his political and socioeconomic developmental philosophies.

In her response, Dr Awolowo Dosumu described her childhood as regular, except for her father’s busy schedule that had him away most of the time. This notwithstanding, she recalled he always made time to engage his children during holiday retreats. She submitted that there are valuable lessons to be learned from her father’s approach to leadership. According to her, Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s work ethic, commitment, and sacrifice express the need for leaders to be passionate and committed to the people and be fully prepared with an alternative means of livelihood to avoid a “do or die” approach to politics.

Photo: Chief Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, 1963-1966

Coming to the question of the relevance of the 1988-89 constitutional document, she expressed regret that it never saw the light of day. Nevertheless, she emphasized the importance of a constitution that guarantees equity, fairness, and justice, which she says means “everything” for any nation’s development and wellbeing. And to those who wish to emulate, build or capitalize on her father’s legacy, she admonished that they should endeavour to serve the nation, wanting nothing for themselves, as this was the kind of politics her father practised and would endorse. Therefore, all who wear replicas of “his glasses and cap must build upon it and make it a complete package.”

His Excellency, Ambassador Michel Deelen, a counterpart in the field of diplomacy from the Netherlands, asked questions based on foreign policy, international relations, and globalization. These covered the challenges that Dr. Awolowo Dosumu faced as an ambassador and the lessons therein for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new head of the World Trade Organization. Ambassador Deelen’s questions also covered what the Nigerian government can learn from other countries in development, education, and other critical sectors and how the government can stem the brain drain from the country.

Responding to Ambassador Michel Deelen, Her Excellency noted that she was not a trained diplomat and, as such, was thrown in at the deep end. As for her experience, she recalled being confronted by how deeply Nigeria’s reputation in the Netherlands had sunk. Thus, it became her immediate goal to fix the situation by showcasing Nigeria in a more positive light. She achieved this with the expertise of individuals like the host (Toyin Falola) and subsequently Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, whose reach facilitated a process of debt pardon. Citing this and a sterling track record as proof of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s competence, Her Excellency expressed complete confidence in the capacity of the new Director-General of the World Trade Organization to handle her position effectively.

As far as learning from other developed countries is concerned, Dr. Awolowo Dosumu opined that Nigeria could learn from the pragmatic, committed, and coordinated approach displayed by these countries’ leaders by seeking the nation’s development and wellbeing of all Nigerians. She also emphasized the weight thrown behind the education of their people. Her Excellency insisted that to stem the loss of critical professionals to brain drain resulting from migrations in search of better pay and living conditions, Nigeria must strive to make conditions more favourable to incentivize this critical population into staying back to develop the home front. She reiterated that Nigeria must become competitive by demonstrating how much it appreciates these professionals and their skills and provides opportunities for growth and development.

Photo: General Olusegun Obasanjo, military head of state, 1976-1979

The next set of questions posed by Chief John Nwodo were drawn from the nature of Nigeria’s domestic politics. These questions cover issues around resolving ethnic divisions and clashes so Nigerians can settle at any location of their choosing, just like in the old times, government’s handling of insecurity, especially the herdsmen-farmer clashes that have been a source of widespread anger among the citizenry, and the possibilities for the success of federalism given several failures.

Reacting to Chief Nwodo’s questions, Dr Awolowo Dosumu proposed that the first step to resolving ethnic clashes is to look back at the origins of ethnic suspicions and how minor irritations grew into open anger and intolerance. This can be tied to the failure of leadership represented in Nigerian ethnic politics that breeds prejudice. Therefore, solutions can be found in promoting an understanding of the mutual dependence between ethnic groups and the fact that the threats facing them–poverty and insecurity–do not discriminate. Also, the government needs to dispel the impression that there are sacred cows and should be seen to be very decisive, not just in making public statements but also in implementing strategies that will renew grassroots confidence in its commitment to the nation.

Furthermore, Her Excellency maintained that creating a “suitable” federal structure, complete with state police and resource control, would not only assuage tensions capable of turning Nigeria into another Somalia but encourage innovation and development. She explained that in the absence of common consensus if people are not allowed to determine their fate, control their resources, and address their concerns and aspiration, they will continue to irritate one another. As for Nigeria’s possibility of ever returning to former harmonious coexistence levels, she believed it is yet too early to tell.

Responding to questions from the youth wing on the political marginalization of women, lack of political ideas within the country’s political ranks, and the role of the diaspora in Nigerian politics, Dr. Awolowo Dosumu made the case that women’s marginalization comes from three angles; the dictates and expectation of a patriarchal society; the roles of money and violence in politics, and insufficient support from the womenfolk. However, she believed that with adequate preparedness, readiness, and help from family and friends, the number of women in political offices would improve.

Coming to the absence of political ideologies, she called for a more pragmatic approach, recalling that her father, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, favoured such. It was instrumental in his success, partly dependent on his ability to balance welfarism and business interests. She emphasized further that people must know what they want and be clear about how they want to achieve it. As for the diaspora population, she pointed out that this group is Nigeria’s most valuable offshore asset. She explained that the group possesses the ideas and reach that can serve Nigeria’s (lobbying) interests. Unfortunately, members of that group are not encouraged or empowered by the home government to deploy these influences to national advancement. Hence, it goes without saying that affording this group the room for greater participation in local governance will present more opportunities for improvement.

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