Obafemi Awolowo (1909-1985)

Obafemi Awolowo, July 21, 1972
© National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Nigerian nationalist, politician, lawyer, statesman, and chancellor, Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo was born on March 6, 1909 in Ogun State, Nigeria, where he commenced his political career.

Awolowo attended various local schools in Ogun State, Nigeria and later served as an editor of The Nigerian Worker. While working as a journalist in the 1930s, he founded many political and economic organizations such as the Trade Unions Congress of Nigeria, The Nigerian Produce Traders Association, The Nigerian Motor Transport Union, and Egbe Omo Oduduwa, a Yoruba political and cultural organization that sought to unite the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. In 1947, while in England studying law at the London School of Economics, he founded The Action Group, a political party centered mostly among the Yoruba people in the Southwestern part of Nigeria.

Upon the completion of his degree in 1949, Awolowo returned to Nigeria and became the leader of the Action Group and the premier of the Western Region of Nigeria which at the time was still under British colonial control.

During the 1950s, a period in Nigerian history associated with the struggle for independence from British rule, Awolowo used his position as leader of the opposition to challenge the government of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa who led the Northern People’s Party, the largest political party in the colony and the group most closely aligned with the British colonial administration.  In 1957, the British appointed Balewa Prime Minister three years before Nigeria actually became independent to advocate for greater political autonomy for Nigeria and its eventual independence.  Though Awolowo initially faced enormous opposition within his Action Group party, he eventually rallied support to end party division which he felt fueled violence and allowed continued British domination.

As a nationalist, Awolowo campaigned not only for Nigeria’s independence but also for its economic and social development. He thus introduced free primary education and free health care in Western Nigeria and facilitated the building of Nigeria’s first stadium, Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. Awolowo wrote two books: Voice of Wisdom and The People’s Republic urging Nigerians to use the nation’s resources to promote educational and infrastructural developments.

Obafemi Awolowo died in Ikenne, Ogun State, Nigeria at the age of 78 on May 9, 1987.

In recognition to his contribution to Nigerian statehood and development, the Federal Government of Nigeria renamed the University of Ife, The Obafemi Awolowo University on May 12, 1987. In addition to this honor, the Nigerian Federal government on October 1, 2010 while celebrating the nation’s golden jubilee in Abuja, honored Obafemi Awolowo posthumously for his contribution to the Nigerian independence movement.