During the week, a statue startled. When alpha governor Akinwunmi Ambode unveiled it to the delight of some Awo faithful and family, he probably did not expect such firestorm from the critics. Some loved it as a tribute to an artist’s sense of the avatar. Others embraced his cap, his rimmed glasses, his stately pose.
Others cavilled at the face. They railed at its lack of statesmanlike poise. They said its neck was too thin, his girth to fat, his shoes a fashion faux pas: Awo did not wear lace-up beneath his buba and sokoto.
Suddenly, Awo was back again from the grave, just like when he was here in flesh and blood. Some were awestruck, some struck him. While he was god to some, he was Mephistopheles to others. Critics forget, as is often the case with every work of art, that an artist can give a new twist to reality. It can be charmingly bland if you look at it from the familiar. But the artist can defamiliarise to refocus attention on the familiar. The critics had a field day, but remember the words of Finnish violinist, Jean Sibelius: “Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic.”
This is not the first statue to rake up dust. They said the Martin Luther King Junior one made him arrogant, the monument to Princess Diana caused an accident, the Peru Jesus made the Lord too flamboyant, many saw the Peter The Great statue in Moscow as bizarre and nothing like the iconic Russian leader. Today, confederate statues are generating raw passion on both sides in the U.S. when Awo’s bust was removed in Ibadan under Alao-Akala, it led his lovers to the genius’s burst of ideas.
Everyone cherishes their own Awo. Those who want him ugly will condone no Adonis Awo. The one who wants him a god will preserve his shrine. Those want him buried and forgotten will preserve his ashes. The person who turns him into a bigot will violate any other kind of purity. So Awo is handsome, detestable, divine, dystopic, visionary, shepherd, shelter, depending on the court where you declaimed your verdict. All want to breathe their own life into a still Awo. For the sage who tenanted his genius in the west while the rest envied, this is a Pygmalion moment.
Everyone is entitled to their own view of Awo as a still image as they are of his life. But the flurry of verbal rage only shows how Awo has remained the significant personage in Nigerian history. By unveiling the statue at this time, the Lagos State Governor only unwittingly restored Awo’s stature on the front burner of the Nigerian debate. Some want to burn him, others want to burnish him. But no one can banish him. In either case, he is aflame in glory. He is the dead, whom Senegalese poet Leopold Senghor wrote, “have always refused to die.”
Nothing shows this more than the current jaw-jaw over our future. The key word is restructuring. Why is everyone speaking about it? It is because Awo made a pearl of his region. If the West failed in the first trial, few will have any cause to cast back our course. Memory has become refuge because Awo is that memorial. He set the West as a city on the hill. He lit it with free education, lifted its infrastructure, made cocoa into wealth and built a monument, the Cocoa House, as Nigeria’s first such edifice, built an envy of a civil service, instilled a work ethic we crave wistfully, installed a politics that looked inward and shone to the world.
Hence the recent meeting in Ibadan. Among other things, they called for regionalism. They wanted Awo’s rebirth in the West. They were endorsed by the East and South-south. The East under Zik also aped Awo’s doing with good success, if not up to Awo’s stellar colours. The Midwest was part of the West and, when it came to its own, it still bore the image of its forbears.
Yet, as Awo’s still figure in Alausa sparks different views, the Ibadan meeting forgot that the Awo that bloomed in the Westminster system believed Nigeria should do away with it. The Ibadan meeting wanted us to go back to the parliamentary system. But Awo hailed the presidential. This point was amply explained by columnist Segun Ayobolu in his analysis of the sage’s book, Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution. We take what we want from our heroes. Awo knew that the parliamentary system was effective before it became effete.
But it is a system that courts alienation of the people, according to him. Once the parliament is formed, government becomes a collusion of prime minister and his law makers. Awo also witnessed the presidential system, and he lamented it when the NPN routed his UPN and acted like a monarchy and manipulated the courts. His last interventions showed that he did not expect that generation of Nigerians to witness good governance. In Babangida’s time, he said we were involved in a “fruitless search.”
Awo’s despair about Westminster made him call for the presidential, which also torpedoed our hopes. Our present return to presidential politics has exposed something that many are not willing to address. It is not about the system. It is about us. “No constitution, no document can govern a people if the people are not ready to govern ourselves,” noted former Ghanaian leader Hilla Liman.
That is the crux. We can call for restructuring. Some Southeast elements can call for Biaxit. But what is at stake is not restructuring, however desirable it might be. It is a sense of values. If we still do not believe in a template of justice, where everyone acts by a moral code and the rule of law, we can restructure the country to the finite detail, but we shall never be content with ourselves.
It is because we distrust ourselves that we argue over restructuring. One person’s restructuring is another person’s disfiguring. That is the case with Awo. Hence his image will continue to become a source of tweaking. Some see Westminster and forget he had outlived it. Others see his love for economic development. Some forget that if Awo were a creature of the 21st century, he wold not be obsessed with television as with the new frontiers of Apple, Facebook, etc.
Societies often wake up past heroes to redefine contemporary challenges. Reagan governed in the 1980’s but we still have Reagan Republicans and Reagan Democrats, each defining him their own way. Charles de Gaulle still haunts French politics today. Although the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, it is doubtful if the man who stopped slavery will hug a Donald Trump. President Andrew Jackson, a self-confessed racist who tormented Indians with a trail of tears, is Trump’s hero today. Last week, German polls gave Hitler’s descendants significant seats in parliament and Chancellor Merkel is forced to dialogue with them. When people look back they see different. On addressing the Renaissance and Reformation, historians said: “Erasmus laid the egg, and Martin Luther hatched it, but Erasmus said the colour of the feathers was different from the one he intended.” So, is Awo going to accept what the Awoists are saying today?
Awo was dynamic in life. We expect him not to be static in death. As we seek a new nation, the greatest Nigerian ever tugs us out of our ideological complacency, out of our doctrinaire closets. We could search for him with the optimism of poet Edmund Spenser: “For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.” In doing so, we should find us in him and he in us. Awo is a guide, not a doctrine.