The Memorable Interview I had with Awolowo
By Lade Bonuola
‘When asked, I have had no hesitation in saying that my interview with chief Obafemi Awolowo was my most memorable and enduring experience with a statesman, not so much because of the quality of what was said, but also because of what was never said! The philosophical; depth of chief Awolowo’s power of reasoning was, in every respect, outstanding.
Yet, the interview itself might not have happened, but for the prompting of my good friend and colleague at the Guardian newspapers at the time, Mr. Lade Bonuola, that I do the interview as part of the activities to mark the chief’s 76th birthday celebrations. And I was glad that I agreed to do it because it ended up bringing me close to one of the brightest minds of modern Nigerian history.
Arranging the interview was the easiest part. Using as contact my good friend, Odia Ofiemun, who had been the chief’s personal secretary, a date was quickly fixed for Saturday, February 23, 1985, some weeks before the chief’s birthday. I arrived at Ikenne for the scheduled late afternoon session, accompanied by our talented photojournalist, innocent Okafor, who ended up taking photographs that left the chief enthralled.
Although Innocent Okafor’s cute photographs of the chief may not have captured it, at close quarters, even with his framed round-rimmed glasses, the chief looked slightly frail. But as we were soon to discover, subsumed beneath his seemingly frail steady soft voice was a rugged thought process that has remained unmatched in modern Nigerian political history. And I am not referring here to his sound knowledge of political processes, such as, for instance, his proposals, supported with figures, statistics, and projections, as contained in his book, ‘Path to Nigerian Freedom’, that in a multilingual, multiethnic, and multicultural country such as our own, only a genuinely proper federal form of government would safeguard the interests of each of the different, distinct nationalities and create the bases for unity.
But I also refer to his vast knowledge of extraneous details that sometimes had no direct bearing on politics or even his legal discipline. For instance, while setting up my recording equipment for the interview, the chief, without warning, tackled me head-on! He took me up for attempting to draw a parallel between Chief Bola Ige and the ancient Roman Lawyer, scholar, and orator Marcus Ciecero in my 1983 opinion piece in the Guardian entitled ‘Cicero goes back to Esa-Oke’. I had written the piece after Chief Ige lost the gubernatorial elections in Oyo State.
‘By the way, Yemi, I liked your opinion article on Bola (Ige), which appeared after the elections in Oyo. But don’t you think the Cicero parallel was inappropriate?’
First, I was pleasantly surprised that he had read my piece. But then, I wasn’t ready for the ‘offensive’. Besides I was in the middle of settling down and setting up my equipment for the interview. So, quite absent-mindedly, I stammered an answer! ‘Inappropriate? No! I don’t think so, Papa. Cicero, like Uncle Bola, was a brilliant lawyer and orator,’ I quipped. ‘Besides, sir,’ I continued, ‘that nickname goes back to his undergraduate days at the old University College, Ibadan.’
‘Yes, but don’t you remember how Cicero died! After he violently met his death by beheading, they put a stake through his tongue because they thought he talked too much while he was alive! You don’t wish that for someone you love.’
Turning to the Chief with raised eyebrows, there was a brief embarrassed silence from me!
‘Oh, dear! I don’t know that sir,’ I screamed.
‘Well, well, well…you don’t know your classics then! A better classical model, if you ask me, would have been Demosthenes.’ Yes, Yemi, Demosthenes! He was a Greek stateman and orator who was reputed for his lofty and impactful speeches. You, remember? What was that old saying again about Cicero and Demosthenes?’
‘When Cicero spoke, the people said: “How well he spoke”. But when Demosthenes spoke, the people said: “let us march!’’’
‘By now, of course, I had stopped everything I was doing. I was mesmerised by the 76-year-old lawyer politician, who, I later found out, was a self-taught student of the classics.
But there was more to come! When I showed up days after the interview at his informal birthday reception on March 6, carrying extra published copies of the Guardian interview for him, an interview in which my prefatory comments had started with a quotation from a Bertolt Brecht play, the Chief, now surrounded by fawning party faithful pulled me aside after a mere glance through the interview and asked me: ‘Yemi, who’s Bertolt Brecht?’ Again, caught entirely unawares, since I wasn’t expecting a Brecht question at such a gathering, I was thrown off balance and do not now recall how I answered him. But I believe that I tried to mumble that Brecht was a German Marxist playwright and poet who popularized something known as the epic theatre. Then he bent over closely and whispered to me: ‘Do you have any of his works? If you do, could I see them?
Again, I looked away in amazement and kept wondering what he would want to do with a Brecht work. Brecht was not a politician. He was not a lawyer. He was a playwright and poet, for God’s sake! However, after returning to Lagos, I sent him three volumes of Brecht’s works through Odia. After the books were returned, I could tell that they had been thoroughly read.
That was the man with whom I sat down for three long memorable hours for an exchange of ideas. And what a session it was; what a rare, unforgettable moment.
In an interview that covered a whole range of topics from free education, systems of government, representative democracy to the debt crisis, the IMF, Marxism and the class struggle, his tenure in Gowon’s government, the Nigerian judiciary, and his belief in theosophy, namely, that the human soul undergoes reincarnation upon bodily death according to a process of Kama, Obafemi Awolowo betrayed an eclectic mix of a sound grounding of theories, practical ideas and philosophies that put him, head, and shoulders, above his peers….
There were, of course, a few unnerving moments during the period of the interview that I would never forget, the two moments when Awo politely asked me to switch off my tape recorders to enable him to answer my questions, ‘off the record’. One of the questions that elicited that request from him was simply: ‘How do you relate with your UPN Governors?’ (Bola Ige, Michael Adekunle Ajasin, Ambrose Alli, Lateef Jakande and Bisi Onabanjo).
When I asked that question, he took one long piercing look at me, took a long pause and directed me to switch off my recorders. And for close to twenty minutes, he poured his heart out. After paying glowing tributes to them as loyal, dedicated, and committed party stalwarts and stating that no humans are perfect, he divulged certain areas of flawed vision as displayed by these lieutenants that he was compelled to overlook while they were in office. ‘Just so no one ‘accuses me again of intransigence as was the case during the 1962/63 Action Group crisis’. I recall that the only governor about whom he had nothing specific to say was Adekunle Ajasin.
Those off-the-record sequences of my session with him were the most touching. They included other intimate details about his philosophy of life, about wrongdoings, grudges, and the act of forgiveness, about the death of his son Segun, and what it meant to him, about his assessment of some of his other children, about other domestic details that I am unable to disclose because they were strictly off-record comments.
But his final comments to me, which, in certain respects, approximates everything he said to me, including his off-record comments, deserve to be reproduced extensively. My final question to him was this; If you had to live life again, is there anything you would do differently?’ As if jolted by the question, he shot the question back at me and asked: ‘What would I do differently?’ I nodded approvingly. ‘Yes, what would you do differently!’ Then he took a long pause. His most extended pause of the afternoon. Adjusted his seat slightly, and as if to time himself, he took one look at his wristwatch and gave me his longest answer of the interview.’
‘The Road Never Forgets: Memoirs’ Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, BookCraft Ibadan, 2022;