I was distressed by what Achebe wrote about my dad –Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosumu
Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosumu, a former Nigeria’s ambassador to the Netherlands and Executive Director of Obafemi Awolowo Foundation, shares her experience in this interview with ADEOLA BALOGUN
Somebody would think you would be more interested in politics than in the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation, why are you not in politics?
Because if I go into politics, the only reason I would be going there is to promote the legacy of Papa. I tried politics and I realised that it was not the best route to promote the legacy. Because when it comes down to what Papa stood for, it was all about development and using the development of every individual as the building block to the larger picture. Because Papa was very cerebral; he had a very intellectual approach to everything he did and he wrote a lot and committed most of his thoughts into writing. It just made sense that that is the best way to sustain and promote his legacy and constantly referring to his thoughts and attempting to develop them through research, through dialogue to adapt them to contemporary situation in Nigeria while not losing the essential core. When I look back, I am glad that I chose the foundation.
Are you saying that the name is not enough to make headway in politics?
It was never going to be enough anyway. To be truthful, I think that anybody that would want to capitalise on the Awo name must also bring something to the table as well and people have to be convinced that you have what it takes. Partisan politics is a contest and it is all about trying to disqualify your opponent and trying to magnify whatever the shortcoming you think they have in the minds of people and magnifying your own good quality. So, at that time, it just didn’t work and I moved on.
What would you say has been the impact of the foundation?
I wouldn’t like to say that everything that is happening around papa’s name is due solely to the foundation. But I would like to think that we have contributed in no small measure to keeping Papa’s memory and his work alive and in keeping it in the minds of people through our activities over the past 21 years. When you look around today, Papa’s name is almost more potent than when he was alive and I think we at the foundation have contributed to that.
As his daughter, why is it that almost everybody wants to identify with the name Awo?
I would say it is the people who benefited from Papa’s work, activity and philosophy in government that have kept the flame alive and they have refused to let go the dividends and they are looking for people who will continue that. What he stood for is enduring; it has stood the test of time and it continues to be relevant; it continues to be the truth and the way to go. And don’t forget, what he did, especially in education, was nothing short of a revolution at the time because he offered free education to people who neither asked for it nor had any idea that they needed it. Papa told a story of being summoned by the then Deji of Akure who was no particular fan of his. So he went there expecting to be told off but he said that by the time he got to his palace, the Deji had assembled the people of the community and said what he wanted to find out from Papa was that if it was possible for all his many children to get free education by paying just 10 shillings as education levy. When he was assured they would, the traditional ruler then proclaimed that everybody should pay up and threatened to ex-communicate defaulters. Then there was a lot of resistance to education levy in the region.
When Awolowo was alive, was it that he was writing every minute because of the volume of literature he authored?
Oh yes. He died on May 9 and when we got to his room, we found out that he had been working all night; he had written the things to do for that day. His devotion to this nation was total and he worked very hard to realise it. He sacrificed a lot, he was attacked because of that but he never looked back until the day he died.
Was it that in the house, he had an apartment all to himself without interacting with anyone to be able to devote time to writing?
He had his room but in his room, there was always a desk at which he could work. He worked in the night as well; he slept very little. He would sleep and wake up very early to work. But later in life, he would get ready for the day, have breakfast and then go back to have a nap and then start the day again. But he was always looking for ways to make things better and he committed everything to all of this.
He was always keeping diary faithfully, how has that affected your life as his daughter?
We wish we could be like him but there could only have been one Obafemi Awolowo. Even though we are his children, we can not claim to be him. He had been keeping diary from a very tender age and he just kept doing that until the end. When he was going for his last outing in Warri, the entry was in the diary and on his last day on earth, the entry was there.
Is that why people believe he had magical powers?
Well, he was a very deep thinker. He had the ability to study a situation and project where it was likely to lead and he would be invariably correct. He was always reflecting on things. Even in the personal lives of his children, he would come out and say this thing, I don’t think you should do it and if you do it this way, this is likely how it would come out and invariably, you were better off listening to him.
How was it growing up as Awolowo’s daughter?
It was very simple. He was premier when I was growing up but there was nothing to mark us out from any other children in the neighbourhood. He didn’t have security details more than one police constable who reported for duty in the morning just before he left for office and went back home when he returned from the office. The police constable had one function; he would sit in the front of the car and that was it. There was nothing special about us at all; we ran around the neighbourhood and we had our friends. Honestly, I didn’t realise that there was anything special about us at all and we went to public schools.
Probably you were closer to him than your mum?
No, there is no possibility that happened; his wife was the closest to him. He was a very busy man and he had very little time to spend with us but the little time he had, he made the most of it.
Did he influence what you studied in the university?
No. Apparently, I had decided that I was going to be a doctor since I was like three or four years. I think mama confirmed this in her memoir and I also had confirmation from one of the colonial officers that was posted to the Western Region at that time; he was papa’s secretary before independence. His name was Mr Ronnie Brown. I met him again in London as he came to visit Papa when he led a delegation from Nigeria to the Commonwealth Head of Government in London. That was 1969 by which time I was a medical student. I met him and he asked me what I was doing and I told him I was in medical school in Bristol and he said, ‘oh you made it! You had determined to be a doctor since you were very young.’ What I do remember is that Papa would always tell me heroic stories of what great doctors did to save lives and all of that. And my own interpretation now is that having said that I wanted to be a doctor, he kept telling me things that would reinforce that determination. I think that was as far as he went; he had no influence. He did ask me though whether I wanted to study law after I had qualified as a doctor and I said no, that I was tired of studying, so he left it.
What kind of human being was Awolowo?
He was completely urban-centred; he was focused on his environment and the betterment of everybody around him. When he was asked in an interview why he thought of free education, he answered that maybe subconsciously because he had difficulty in acquiring education that he decided that other people would not go through what he encountered. He said that there would be others like him who went through the same thing and would feel that everybody must have the same experience.
Why do you think he found it difficult to win election to realise his dream of leading the country even with his record at the Western Region?
I don’t know because it doesn’t make any sense. If someone had a good track record and still wanted to do more, you would have thought that he would be given the opportunity to do all that he wanted to do but here we are as a result of the wrong choice that we all made.
Is it correct to call Awo a tribalist as some people have alleged?
No. If by being a tribalist, people mean that he was very proud to be a Yoruba man and he felt that the natural progression was to first be a Yoruba man before anything, well, that maybe their perception. In any case, that was where he started his politics. He started as a councillor in Remo; then he became premier before he tried to go national. I don’t think there was anything tribalistic in his philosophy; his ideals and when he was premier, he fought for the minority rights. He was the only leader of government that included delegates from the minority on his delegation to the constitutional conferences in England before independence. He took people like JS Taka for example to those conferences.
Did Awolowo plan coup or train militia anywhere?
No, certainly not. You know people say all sorts of things; that is why he was arrested and prosecuted. They were all trumped up charges. You know politics can be very bitter, very rough but we thank God, he was through and he was not bitter. His attitude was that of someone that tried his best and would love to do more but for circumstances beyond his control.
How was medical practice?
I practised up to 2011 when I came back home but I still offer free consultation to friends and families. I am still very much in it; it is my passion and I love it. When I left my post as ambassador, I went back to medicine, I looked forward to going to work everyday. I am an occupational health physician; we manage the effect of health on work and work on health. In other words, if there is anything in your work environment that could affect your health adversely, we manage it and if anything about your health could affect your work, we look into that without necessarily denying you employment. Where I practised in England, there are laws to govern that to make sure that for the fact that people have chronic conditions does not mean that they are denied employment. It’s just that every employer is obliged to make reasonable adjustment to accommodate such persons.
But you could own a hospital here when you finished, why didn’t you take that option?
Setting up a hospital is capital extensive but there is an effort going on to set up the hospital that papa left behind. It never really took off at the level that Papa envisioned. That is where we are going now and we are making some progress in that direction. But I still keep my eye on practice.
Your father described your mum as a jewel of inestimable value; have you delved into their story to find out why he came up with such description?
Mama was a jewel to him really; she was an asset to his life. You know he did his first degree by correspondence but he did say that before he married Mama, he was having difficulty passing his exams; but once he married her, his fortune changed and he began to make headway in his studies. He said when he was encouraged to go abroad and do law, Mama not only looked after the four children, she was able to send him pocket money while she was here. Throughout his political career, they worked strictly together and she never complained. It would have been understandable if after all the crisis in the first republic was over and she told him he had had enough. But Mama was always supportive; she never complained about it.
Your name implied that you were born abroad…
No, I was born after he came back from the UK. He named me Tokunbo maybe to remember that he came back from abroad and I was born. I grew up here but I went to school abroad after my school certificate.
What did you feel about what the late Prof Chinua Achebe wrote about your father in his book, There was a Country?
Naturally as his daughter, I felt distressed by such weighty accusations that were not based on facts but fortunately, Papa had millions of children and they did justice to that.
When he was the vice chairman to General Gowon, can you tell us the privilege you children enjoyed?
None whatsoever. He lived in a very tiny house in Surulere, off Bode Thomas that he rented for himself. When I came back for holiday; that was where I met them. I was in the UK for much of the time; I didn’t even come back until 1972. He rode in his own car with his own driver. Nothing at all; he just did his work in service to the nation.
When he was in prison, did he express regret anytime you went to see him?
Never. He was as defiant and as buoyant as ever. Because you will regret if you had done anything wrong but if you are convinced that you had not done something wrong, you would have nothing to worry about.
Were you aware that he actually anointed somebody to take over from him as Baba Kekere?
I don’t think so; I am not aware that he anointed anyone. There was a group of people close to him, any of whom could have taken over. If he had lived long enough to do a proper handing over, if the circumstances had permitted him to do that, but if you remember, he left us so suddenly and so we would never know.
But we read it somewhere that Awolowo committed suicide to avoid humiliation from government of the day. Is it true?
That is arrant nonsense. He would never do that; he had enough faith in God. He had no reason whatsoever to do that. Do they know the method in which he committed suicide? They should tell us. The Babangida administration was very well disposed to him; he had a good relationship with IBB. Remember Babangida wrote a letter to him on his birthday; there was no acrimony between him and the military president and I don’t know where that one came from.
When you wanted to get married, did it occur to you that your father, being a famous man, might not approve of your choice?
He never interfered in our choices of spouse; it was just for him a no go area. He trusted our good sense; trusted in the training he had given to us and trusted us to make the best choice. But he would always say that you made your choice and you would have to live with it. Whoever we presented, he embraced.
We asked the question because you in particular retained his name, thinking that he influenced your choice of husband.
That was my choice. Professionally, I am registered as Dr. Awolowo and that was purely my choice. I did that to honour my father. When I came back, I didn’t even include Awolowo in my name, but when I checked into politics, I decided to use what I have to get what I want. I thought that was the greatest asset I had and I used it. I am not ashamed and I don’t have any regret.
Or do you at times wish you should have come as a man?
No, again, our parents never made any distinction between male and female child. They gave everybody the same opportunity and as far as they were concerned, it didn’t matter whether you were male or female. I certainly don’t; I am happy to be a woman. There are many advantages to be a woman; many privileges and I am happy to be one.
If you were called tomorrow to take up a position either as a deputy governor or minister, would that still be an avenue to pursue the Awo ideals?
Is that still possible at my age? That is the first question. The second question is, for the sake of argument if that could happen, most certainly. Again, I hope that I have been able to prove that I have something in me also. I would know that if the criteria were based on hundred per cent, about 60 per cent would be because I am a daughter of Awolowo, so I would be doing a great disservice if I forgot that. And people who put me there would be expecting me to perform.