Of symbolism and greatness: The case of Awolowo and Mandela

nelson mandela

Mandela: greater than Awo?

By Remi Oyeyemi

The famous poet and author, Odia Ofeimun stirred a very interesting debate when during an interview on Saharareporters TV asserted that the late sage Obafemi Awolowo was greater than Nelson Mandela. He noted that the choice of the Great Awo over indefatigable Mandela was informed by the fact that the philosophical postulations about the workings of a state put forward by Awolowo “were superior to those credited to Mandela.”

Ofeimun had insisted “Mandela could not match the stature of Awolowo,” and added that Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah was the only African leader that could be seen to rival Awolowo. He said, “Bring all their writings, fine phrases, alright, but reduce them to economic terms, and I can tell you that there is only one man who rivals Awolowo in this respect and that is Nkrumah. Unfortunately unlike Awolowo, Nkrumah did not believe in either a democratic or a federal theory. If you want to save Africa, you need those two.”

The reports further quoted Ofeimun thus: “People talk about Mandela’s capacity to put various classes (of people) together as theory, but 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.” Ofeimu insisted that Awo was greater than Mandela while adding that Mandela did not do anything in South Africa that Awolowo did not do in Nigeria. He noted that Mandela was involved in a negotiation that ended apartheid while Awolowo was involved in negotiations that led to Nigeria’s independence from colonialism.

Mandela: greater than Awo?
Mandela: greater than Awo?

This interview elicited lots of responses. Some of them were objective and as expected some were just crass. The intellectual perspective that Ofeimu wanted educated and informed minds to dissect and debate was not seen by those who could not overcome their dislike for Mandela or hatred for Obafemi Awolowo. Some however, were of the view that the simple fact that Mandela was more internationally known would suggest that he was greater than Awolowo. This simplistic and naïve view appeared to be more acceptable and it is the reason one has to examine whether being a popular symbol is the same thing as being great.

Why popularity could be considered a variable of greatness, there are a lot more profound variables of greatness that one would have to consider in doing comparative analysis of personalities like Awolowo and Mandela. Such variables would include the context of operation, the intellectual contributions, exuded level of discipline, manifested degree of sacrifice among several others.

Mandela has a body of beliefs. He understands what he stands for and paid a lot of sacrifices for what he believed. During the 1964 Rivonia Trial, he had said the following:

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Obafemi Awolowo
Obafemi Awolowo

This “ideal of a democratic and free society” is not novel. It did not originate from Mandela. What he espoused in this speech is not an idea that has not been heard of nor did he use this as a template of a consummated political philosophy that could be deeply studied in political or social sciences. It is political activism pure and simple.

The Free Encyclopedia noted: “Although he presented himself in an autocratic manner in several speeches, Mandela was a devout believer in democracy and abided by majority decisions even when deeply disagreeing with them. He held a conviction that “inclusivity, accountability and freedom of speech” were the fundamentals of democracy and was driven by a belief in natural and human rights. This belief drove him to not only pursue racial equality but also to promote gay rights as part of the post-apartheid reforms.”

Mandela’s beliefs have no theoretical and practical economic dimensions. Neither was Mandela able to bequeath any religious aspect of his political belief and the possible links therein that could be transformed to serious intellectual discourse in social analysis as to why certain things are the way they are and why they had to be changed and how that change had to be accomplished. Despite his profile as a “courageous man” his failure to carry out his long held belief of nationalization {borrowed from his days as a member of South African Communist Party} as a means of economic redistribution was considered as lacking in conviction.

“By the time of his death, Mandela had come to be widely considered “the father of the nation” within South Africa, and “the founding father of democracy”, being seen as “the national liberator, the saviour, its Washington and Lincoln rolled into one”. Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson commented that even during his life, a myth had developed around him that turned him into “a secular saint” and which was “so powerful that it blurs the realities.” Within a decade after the end of his Presidency, Mandela’s era was being widely thought of as “a golden age of hope and harmony”. Across the world, Mandela earned international acclaim for his activism in overcoming apartheid and fostering racial reconciliation, coming to be viewed as “a moral authority” with a great “concern for truth”. (Free Encyclopedia)

Mandela was a symbol against oppression which has no new philosophical contribution to human knowledge. Oppression is an age-long characteristic of society and will continue to be because of the tendency of man to be inhuman to fellow men. Madela is not the first in this genre of political activism and he would not be the last. There has been Albert John Lithuli in South Africa, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Frederick Douglas and Malcom X in the United States, Benigno Aquino in Philipines, Mahatma Gandhi in India, Herbert Macaulay in Nigeria and Marcus Garvey who was deported to the Carribean Islands by the US government among several others.

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There are other freedom fighters who became Presidents or Premiers to rule their respective countries after their activism just like Mandela. These include Obafemi Awolowo. Imprisoned like Mandela for treason, he came out to play the role of finance minister and vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council in the Gowon era and managed his country’s finances during a three-year war.

Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana also came out of jail like Mandela to rule his country. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Zulkafir Ali Bhutto of Pakistan,Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, Jawahalal Nehru of India were others. The only difference between them and Mandela was because the West commoditized and commercialized Mandela and made him popular for the sake of profit. The Award of a Nobel Peace Prize by the same Western World that initially demonized him was to redeem the conscience of the West that was the bastion of oppression across the non-Caucasian world. Mandela does not represent any more moral force in Africa or the rest of the world than Mahatma Gandhi or Patrice Lumumba or Awolowo or Martin Luther King Jr.

Mandela eventually did not need to die for his “ideal” like Thomas Sankara, Walter Rodney, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Ken Saro Wiwa, Kudirat Abiola, Che Guevera among several others. His adoption by the Western world as a postal boy and symbol of freedom in the West’s eagerness to atone for its supporting the evil apartheid system in South Africa could not be divorced from the objective of profit making. The West, always sniffing profit in anything and everything consciously encouraged Mandela’s commoditization and commercialized him. Countless books and memorabilia fostered the popularity of Mandela as a symbol but not essentially as an idea. But given today’s information technology, Mandela could not be anything but popular because of his long incarceration. Yet this does not make him essentially GREAT as Ofeimu correctly contended.

This is because other than being an adopted symbol, a role in which any of the other freedom fighters could easily have been very effective and comfortable, Mandela has no identified political theory that he postulated. He has no economic theory that he could be associated with. He did not put forth any original social theory that has any intellectual value. But those other theories he adopted and described as “ideal” were clear and he was committed to them to the last.

When Mandela became the President of South Africa, his era could only be described as “a golden age of hope and harmony”. Mandela could not claim to belong to the class of serious philosophers. Neither could he claim any serious administrative acumen. His only claim to fame was being jailed for 27 years and becoming a symbol of the struggle against oppression. But so was Obafemi Awolowo, Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others.

Mandela was a freedom fighter like Awolowo. Awolowo was jailed like Mandela, though for a shorter span. Mandela became the leader of his people like Awolowo. Awolowo is a symbol of political activism like Mandela. Awoism is an idea symbolized by Awolowo while Mandela is a symbol propagated as an idea devoid of serious original philosophical fundamentals other than borrowed and adapted body of beliefs. Unlike Awolowo, Mandela was not an administrative genius. Mandela has no philosophical profundity like Awolowo. Mandela had no socio-economic and political theories that he propounded unlike Awolowo who had theories on politics, economics, religion, social sciences in relationship with man. Unlike Mandela, Awolowo was not commoditized or commercialized by the West and as a result could not have been as popular as Mandela. Unlike Mandela, Awolowo was not on the stage in the 1990s when the information technology was unraveling. But obviously, Awolowo is deeper and more profound.

Awo is an idea – an idea about humanity for the development of its potential in relation to factors of production without enslaving man. He was a philosopher as in Socrates, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Descartes, John Locke, Leibniz, Jean Jacques Rousseau and others. Mandela was not. Awo was a prophet – his uncanny ability to make predictions about society is unequalled. Mandela was not. Awo was a pacesetter in so many areas for the African Continent. Mandela was not. Mandela as president has no landmark achievement for his South African people that we can point to.

Awolowo was first a thinker, and only secondly a politician of whatever genre one may want to ascribe it to. According to Obafemi Awolowo Foundation, “Among Africa’s political leaders he is pre-eminent in the analytical manner in which he approached Africa’s enormous economic, political and social problems. His mind ranged far and wide on very complex issues of governance in Africa. Because of his strong belief in the power of the intellect, Chief Awolowo developed and propagated his ideals and vision for Nigeria in a forceful manner. He was concerned to break the- cultural barrier existing in Nigeria and to develop the State into a modem industrial nation . . .In his conduct, in and out of office, Chief Awolowo was guided by the need to promote social justice. The truths which he espoused are marching on, and will remain valid for all time.”

Looking at all the books published by and about Mandela, 90% of them are about his struggles and his prison experience. There are little about any propounded theories on any subject. There are some about his beliefs. But there is a big gap between having beliefs based on what other more gifted intellectual minds have propounded and actually coming forward with your own. This is where Awolowo ascended a higher ladder of greatness than Mandela. Their writings are the evidences of this. Mandela is a packaged product, commoditized and commercialized for profit. Awo is not. He is as authentic and substantive in the realm of idea, with seminal ability to provide the synergy between theories and practicality than Mandela ever was or could ever have dreamt.

On the basis of the internationalization of Mandela, some, out of dislike, bitterness, “bad belle” and naivity, referred to Awo as local and limited to the Yoruba Nation. They fail to realize that Socrates, Edmund Burke, Francis Bacon, Mahatma Gandhi, Bertrand Russel, David Hume, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Jean-Paul Sartre were local just as many other philosophers. Mandela did not belong to this special class for obvious reasons. Mandela did not do anything for any Nigerian or Malian or Kenyan except being a symbol for them. But Awolowo did a lot more for Africans and humanity by propounding theories on their socio-economic and religio-political troubles, why things are the way they are, what they can do about it and how to go about liberating themselves from the vagaries of subjugation, oppression, poverty and want. Mandela does not come close.

Looking at levels of discipline, it would be difficult to say that one is less discipline than the other. But in terms of self denials which is also a genre of discipline in itself, Awolowo towers above Mandela. Mandela ended up with three wives while Awolowo remain unalloyedly faithful to his one and only wife, Dideolu. Mandela divorced his first wife Evelyn after 13 years in 1957. The divorce was attributed to his unfaithfulness characterized as “multiple strains of adultery” and constant absences. Mandela later had two other wives before his death.

Odia Ofeimun was very correct when he pointed out that the philosophical postulations about the workings of a state put forward by Awolowo “were superior to those credited to Mandela.” And guess what, everything is about the state. It was the State that put Mandela behind bars for 27 years. It is the way, manner and how a state is organized that determines the fortunes and freedom of man in relation to the factors of production. It was the main reason why the French King Loius XIV uttered the immortal words “l’Etat c’est moi” – “I am the State.” Awolowo gave serious thoughts to this in his writings as opposed to Mandela who regaled us with stories of his incarceration. Awolowo provided thoughts that would continue to be the curious subject of objective as well as subjective intellectual research, discourse and study in religion, politics, economics and social studies across the planet, while Mandela would only continued to be held as a symbol of struggle against oppression. Both would continue to have their days in the classrooms all over the world, but at the end of the day, there would not be any doubt about who has more intellectual depth and was more profound among the two.