I was asked to give a talk last week on one of the prominent Nigerian leaders-Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. I struck a conversation with another speaker who was to talk about Chief Obafemi Awolowo. One phrase coincidentally dawned on both of us simultaneously-the founding fathers. Now, I don’t remember this phrase being used to describe those outstanding individuals who led Africa to Independence just as they do in the United States.
Almost all the Africa countries would have these fathers ranging from Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and so on. The talk focused mostly on reflection and putting them in a historical context. The prominent questions we asked were these: What have they left us with? Are there worthy of emulation? Could they have done better?
My first point of defense is that they lived in a time very different from ours, and hence were their challenges. Take education as an example, most of them had the determination to succeed and self sponsored to attain the best education even in foreign lands where little was known of their homeland. They had to start from nowhere setting up publishing houses, forming political parties, challenging the status quo, and mobilizing their compatriots. They eventually led their countries to independence , some ” on a platter of gold” as Azikiwe described it, and some others through prolonged and disastrous struggles.
But looking back from here we ponder over the following: How often do we quote or make reference to them as the Americans do? Have they left behind any philosophies and guiding principles we could adhere to? Did the have any written foresight regarding the present day Africa? Did they have dreams that are left to us to fulfill? On the contrary, is it possible they got it completely wrong on many issues and we are now ideologically and intentionally turning our backs and distancing ourselves from them?
One early dream most of them seem to have had was the concept of Pan-Africanism– the idea that we are better off together, and unity is vital for economic and social progress. Hence, People like Azikiwe considered both Ghana and Liberia home, and initially settled and set up businesses there. They also seemed to have appreciated the importance of economic self reliance: One interesting conclusion that the two of us arrived at was that they ran the countries successfully on agricultural produce such as palm oil, cocoa and groundnut – that was before the greed of fossil fuels came into the equation. Thirdly, I think we ought to be proud of them for their honesty and selfless service- there is little to prove to the best of my knowledge that they were involved in illegal accumulation of wealth just for its sake!
There is however one dimension to them that many in the audience found amusing which I though was worth being mentioned: it was the myth and mystic that surrounded them. Most of my childhood association with Nnamdi Azikiwe popularly known as Zik centered around his adventure with the mermaid of the Niger River who had apparently entrusted him with the key to this famous river. He was therefore said to be capable flooding the whole country if anyone annoyed him. There were other stories of how he turned into flies each time British colonial masters tried to kill me. What does that say about us and perception of founding fathers?
I think we have done well by naming numerous institutions after them such as stadiums, universities, roads, and hospitals. As regards the much to be desired, I suppose we all have so much to live up to in the first place!