Komolafe on Awojobi politics
December 28, 2006 | posted by Nigerian Muse (Archives)



This Day

Political Overview of Awojobi’s Ideas

By Kayode Komolafe, 03.12.2005


It is necessary to first make a clarification. The invitation card for this occasion  puts the topic of discussion  as Beyond Resonance.  As a matter of fact,  that was the topic of  an inaugural lecture delivered  at the University of Lagos on Friday, February 25,  1977. The lecturer on that day happened to be the historic figure whose memory we are gathered to honour  here today. We are talking of Ayodele Awojobi, a professor of Mechanical Engineering, who was born exactly  68 years ago and passed on at the unripe age of 47.

To be sure, this  is not an attempt to mimic the erudition of  Professor Awojobi in mechanical engineering.  In any case, a journalist ought to be too conscious of  the copyright law to attempt plagiarism.  What is being  attempted here is  simply an overview of the remarkable political life of Professor Awojobi, especially in the last one decade of his short existence. It is all about raising issues. We would  attempt to peruse Awojobi's politics to see  how those issues are relevant to the Nigerian condition today.

The phrase, Beyond Resonance is most apt for this talk for the simple reason of the exceptional life of the genius under discussion here. According to the Mission Statement of Ayodele Awojobi Foundation, the organisers of this memorial lecture,  the professor was an exemplar of the "interface  between science and technology on the  one hand and Nigeria's political economy on the other."  As we shall demonstrate, it  is this interface that makes the category, Resonance,  germane to our discussion. This  interface is  much evident in the last paragraph of the inaugural lecture. Although in the lecture,  Awojobi discussed mechanical vibrations,  he closed his presentation as follows: "I now wish to end by noting that there exists  a correlation between the subject of this lecture and social engineering which I define as the art and science of ruling a sophisticated society like a university; men in power succeed only when they govern firmly and fairly without double standards, this they do if, and only if, they learn to run the machinery of government well BEYOND RESONANCE." As opposed  to one-sided explanations of  the problems of everyday life, Awojobi had a holistic conception of reality.

In his seminal lecture,  Awojobi was, of course, examining resonance in the physical world.  Another expert, Jo Kepler, simplifies the matter like this: "Resonance occurs because all objects have a natural frequency. If a wave or vibration has the same frequency as an object it can cause the object to start vibrating, or vibrate more strongly. You may have heard of examples of this such as singers causing wineglasses to break as the frequency of their voice matches the natural frequency of the glass".

There are several other examples. Tuning a radio, for example, is done by adjusting the natural frequency of the receiver circuit until it coincides with the frequency of the radio waves falling on the aerial.

Resonance has many physical applications. It is resonance that children use  to increase the size of the movement on a swing, by giving a push at the same point during each swing.  You can also talk of resonance when  soldiers marching across a bridge in step  cause the bridge to vibrate violently when the frequency of their steps coincided with its natural frequency. It has been reported that resonance caused  the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, USA, in 1940. What happened was that  the frequency of the wind gusts coincided with the natural frequency of the bridge.

Beside this usage, resonance is also applicable in discussions in other areas such as  medicine, culture and society.  To some other specialists, it could mean acoustics intensification and prolongation of sound, especially of a musical tone, produced by sympathetic vibration.  In another breath, it could mean the relation of mutual understanding or trust and agreement between people, a close connection marked by community of interests or similarity in nature or character.

These  different meanings  should not be strange given the continuum of the physical world, biological existence and social life.

Talking about resonance, a writer who was once  confronted with the different  forms of usage  has this to say: " There are many definitions for the word ‘resonance’; in fact, I was astonished at the number of meanings there are for this one word. The meaning that I refer to in this article is ‘how I feel’ about something. So, when I say I resonate with something, it is because it feels ‘right’ within me.  Just as a person's ‘full bladder’ will resonate with the sound of running water (!),  your heart will tell you when something feels right, or not."

History will amply bear testimony to the fact  that Awojobi's trenchant voice resonated beyond the classrooms where he  taught engineering brilliantly or the workshop where he made ground-breaking findings as revealed in the lecture referred to earlier. The quality of his  voice being resonant was evident  in his political activism.

That is why those who are  interested in rediscovering the Awojobi phenomenon should decode the resonance in the important  socio-political statements Awojobi made in several publications. The echoes of those statements are still loud today for those whose resonance are consistent with his.

In  other words, Awojobi's  voice still resonates today because  the deterioration of the  Nigerian condition has not been halted. For our present discussion, we shall look at a few of his prodigins publications. They are, Nigeria In Search of a Social Order,  a  public lecture delivered under the auspices of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs; Nigeria Today, a compilation of his 42nd birthday lectures delivered in 1979;  Where Our Oil Money Has Gone,  a lecture delivered at the University of Ife on Tuesday, 11th May 1982 under the auspices of the  Students' Union  and Nigeria In Search of a Political Order, a compilation of his birthday lectures in 1980.

Going by the titles of these publications alone, it’s as if  Awojobi were alive and commenting on the Nigerian situation today. If anyone doubts this, let him answer the question: Are we not still searching for a new political  order 21 years after Awojobi? Is the social order still not crying for transformation? Have we found answer to the question : where has the oil money gone? 

Once upon a time, the voice of Awojobi about the Nigerian condition resonated along side the voices of many of his compatriots. Notable among them was that of Dr. Tai Solarin. Incidentally, in his foreword, which was full of his admiration for the author, to Nigeria In Search of a Political Order,  Solarin describes Awojobi  as an "academic prodigy" and a "Nigerian exceller" who  "analyses and synthesizes". 

But beyond that resonance, where are we today? For the avoidance of doubt, other voices are resonating today, but the point at issue is what happens thereafter.

In order to balance historical perspectives to the struggle for popular democracy, up-coming generations should be familiar with what Awojobi did and said about such situations while he was alive. That is why the Awojobi Foundation should be assisted  by all  who value ideas as a material force in the search for solutions to Nigeria's problems to re-print these publications. Popularisation of his ideas represent the  most enduring way to immortalise a hero of Awojobi's stature.

Awojobi himself was, no doubt, conscious of the historic  importance of the ideas he propagated.  In the preface to the 1979 lectures he said : "In Nigeria, average life-span is below 40 and we have been ruled by Heads of State and Governors who came to power even in their thirties. On this ground alone, I believe any Nigerian above 40 is qualified to consider himself old enough to start counting how many years he has left and so reckon what he has given to Nigeria before the spark of life is extinguished.

"Consequently at 42, I feel qualified to choose my birthday - the only day which can be regarded as a universal constant from cradle to grave - as a suitable period for an annual presentation of papers or lectures on very important and thorny issues of the Nigerian scene".

It is, perhaps, worth remarking that to demonstrate the seriousness that Awojobi attached to these lectures, on one occasion he agreed to pay for the space used for the lectures at the University of Lagos. He actually paid  N3, 000 when one naira was almost equal to a dollar!

Why  should we discuss the politics of Awojobi when he was not  known to be a registered member of any of the political party in his time? Or is there any record that he contested any election? We must transcend the narrow concept of politics being foisted on society  through the dominating ideology of the ruling class. As Awojobi's life demonstrated, to be political means more than such a reductionist perception.

In discussing the politics of Awojobi, two themes readily  come to mind.  First is the role of the intellectual in the society.  He was not just  content being an accomplished professor of engineering whose genius was acknowledged far and wide. He saw the need to give voice to the struggles of the ordinary people. The second  issue for reflection is the role of the individual in history.  Awojobi  acted as an individual  convinced about the need for intervention in the direction of the society even when there was no solid organisational platform to match the intervention.

The place of the intellectual in the society has received  a significant theoretical attention from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker who emphasised the importance of critical awareness. Gramsci was an intellectual, a journalist and a major theorist who spent his last eleven years in prisons. The Italian fascist,  Benito Mussolini actually said  during the trial of  Gramsci that  "we have to prevent that this mind continue thinking."

But that was impossible as Gramsci completed 32 notebooks containing almost 3,000 pages during his incarceration. These notebooks were smuggled out of prison and published after World War II.

Gramsci saw the role of the intellectual as a crucial one in the context of creating a counter hegemony. For Gramsci, mass consciousness was essential and the role of the intellectual was crucial in bringing this about.

His definition  of intellectuals  was wider than  academics writing  erudite pieces for academic journals only read by their professional colleagues. Gramsci says in his  Prison Notebooks  that "all men are intellectuals. But not all men have, in society, the function of intellectuals". In other words, everyone has an intellect and uses it but not all are intellectuals by social function. He explains further:  "everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor". The logic is that each social group that comes into existence creates within itself one or more strata of intellectuals that gives it meaning, that helps to bind it together and helps it function. They can take the form of teachers, civil servants, the clergy, professors and scientists, lawyers, doctors and managers etc. In his definition, Gramsci dismisses the notion that intellectuals are a distinct social category independent of class as a myth.

In Gramsci's classification, there are two types of intellectuals-traditional and organic. Traditional intellectuals are those who regard themselves as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group. In any case, people regard them as such. They seem autonomous and independent. They give themselves an aura of historical continuity despite all the social upheavals that they might go through. Examples are clergymen, professionals,  philosophers and professors. These are the ones we tend to remember most whenever we think of intellectuals. Although they like to think of themselves as independent of ruling groups, this is usually a myth and an illusion. They are essentially conservative and are in the service of the ruling group in society.

We also have the organic intellectual. This is the group mentioned earlier that grows organically with the dominant social group, the ruling class. This group usually serves as the thinking and organising element of the dominant group. For Gramsci, it was important to see them for what they were. They were produced by the educational system to perform a function for the dominant social group in society. It is through this group that the ruling class maintains its hegemony over the rest of society.

What then must happen to make intellectuals  in the society contribute to human progress?

Gramsci, in his Notebooks, maintains that not only must  a significant number of ‘traditional’ intellectuals  embrace the struggle for change for a humane social order,  but also the working class movement should produce its own organic intellectuals.

Gramsci’s insists on the fundamental importance of the ideological struggle to social change. The corollary to that is that the struggle should not be limited to consciousness raising but must aim at consciousness transformation. It is not something that could be imposed on people but must arise from their actual working lives.

The import of all this is that the intellectual realm should  not  be seen as something confined to an elite; it must be seen as something grounded in everyday life. Gramsci says that "the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence … but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, "permanent persuader" and not just a simple orator”.

This is hinged on the conviction  that there is  the innate capacity of human beings to understand their world and to change it. In his Notebooks, Gramsci raises the question: "is it better to "think", without having a critical awareness, … or, on the other hand, is it better to work out consciously and critically one’s own conception of the world?". He wants revolutionary intellectuals  to be critical and makes it clear that "the starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is …".

Now, the point to all this is that critical consciousness  was manifest in the whole personality of Awojobi. The man felt  thoroughly scandalised by the sheer  backwardness and the irresponsibility of the ruling class. He was incensed at misgovernance, corruption and waste. He could  not stomach the litany of wasted opportunities. Being a scientific genius, Awojobi could not fathom the unscientific approach of the rulers to issues. He was appalled at the disdain that those in authority had for scientific thinking in solving problems. Here, we are talking of either natural science or social science. With the benefit of his education in Europe, Awojobi  saw that even the minimal requirements for governance as practised in Europe and America were  not even met here. He was concerned about the  rule of law, constitutionalism and good governance. He discovered, like Professor Claude Ake, another genius in the social sciences who died  nine  years ago,  that Nigerian politics is "like  a football match  without referees". Ake was lamenting the disdain politicians had for rules. And just like Ake,  Awojobi observed  that Nigeria was trying to build "democracy without democrats". How can democracy be built when actors obey the constitution in breach, when rule of law  is trampled upon and when elections are brazenly rigged? He could not just find accommodation with a ruling class whose policies bred poverty and underdevelopment. For him there was no compromise with gross injustice anywhere in the land.

The role of intellectual which Awojobi performed was to articulate and interprete those issues that rankled popular sensibilities. To that extent,  he approximated in our own context the organic intellectual that Gramsci theorises about. And as another African intellectual giant, the Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa T’hiongo observed on this issue of the commitment of the intellectual: "... It is necessary for an intellectual who really wants to contribute to the liberation of the African people - that is, the liberation of their productive forces and their genius - to put his intellectual resources at the service of the people; to make sure that whatever he articulates in writing, in lectures, in essays, everywhere is in harmony with the needs of the struggling classes in Africa..."

Such was the conviction  of Awojobi about his cause  that he had  to move out of  his engineering classrooms and take time to intervene in the larger society. For instance, before the uproar that greeted the  reportedly missing N2.8 billion oil money in 1980/81, intellectuals including  Awojobi had articulated the issues with well-researched arguments. There were allegations that the missing amount was siphoned oil revenues certain elements in power.

The official declaration later was that the money was not missing. However,  as an intellectual, Awojobi  was convinced that his role was  to explain, "where the oil money had gone," to people. What Chief Gani Fawehinmi  has been doing in this regard is  reminiscent of  what Awojobi did. Fawehinmi's recent analytical publications on the price of fuel, the President's many travels, other issues of popular democracy and the state of the nation in general are in this  mould of  political education.

Those issues that  Awojobi gave the brilliance of his intellectual articulation are essentially the same issues  that the ordinary people knew about, but only  by instinct. He, however, went beyond popular anger, as an intellectual, to interprete the reality and suggest ways out of  the problems inhibiting human progress.

It was, therefore, not surprising that Awojobi chose to celebrate his birthday with meticulously researched  lectures  and his pre-occupation  was the condition of Nigeria and its people. For instance,  in the lecture series  to mark his 42nd birthday that were compiled in the publication entitled  Nigeria Today, Awojobi  demonstrated his arguments  with facts and figures. The sort of details he gave in the lectures also showed  how clinically his mind worked on issues of development.

The lectures were laden with detailed statistics on agricultural yield of major crops, pipe-borne water supply, health establishments, NEPA transmission lines, major sub-stations, states' rural electrification scheme and comparison of states' rural scheme with NEPA. Others include the balance sheet of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, passenger train receipts, the costs of roads, flyovers and bridges, primary school enrollment, academic staff and student enrollment in universities (faculty by faculty) from 1965 to 1978.  He even scrutinised the fleet earnings of Nigerian National Shipping Lines as well as the  volume of cargo handled in all Nigerian ports between 1970 and 1978.

His comments on NEPA were interesting and incidentally they bear some relevance to our present cul-de-sac as regards electricity supply. And by the way, the Power Reform Bill is awaiting the President's assent. It may become law in the next few days and  legalise the process of "unbundling NEPA" as our neo-liberal reformers say.  But hear what Awojobi said of NEPA way back in 1979: "It is also my own view that the Constituent Assembly committed an error of judgment in entrenching in the new constitution  that NEPA should be decentralised because the running of a national grid by its technical nature has to be centrally controlled to optimize  the use of our scarce expert manpower resources, to guarantee the safety of operators and consumers  at all times and to reduce the drain  on foreign exchange through the importation of unsuitable and short-lived equipment or through characteristic uneconomic delegation to Europe in search of power plants for rural electrification". Awojobi was responding to moves by the 1977/78 Constituent assembly  that debated the 1979 Constitution to make  the decentralisation of NEPA a constitutional matter. Again, can't  we hear  that his voice on this matter bears some resonance today?  With stupendous data, he argued against the official position on the matter.

According to the current neo-liberal thinking that informs policy, government should be excused as much as possible from the responsibility of provision of energy to run the economy and social life. The standard explanation  is, of course, the obviously abysmal failure of NEPA to deliver electricity despite the billions of dollars that government has sunk into it especially in the last six years.

However,  as we embrace the concept of "unbundling NEPA", it is instructive to observe that Awojobi's view was vindicated three  years ago with the electricity collapse in California in the United States. The private operators who took over  the electricity sector resorted to cutting corners taking advantage of relaxed regulations and lack of control. In the ensuing emergency, the state government had to borrow money  to salvage the situation. The collapse  was admitted to be a failure of regulation. The relevant lesson here is that "unbundling NEPA" should not mean the abdication of government's  responsibility that energy be  made available regularly at affordable cost to  industrial and domestic consumers. You don’t solve the problem by merely making government to abdicate its responsibility. Like Awojobi warned then, the new process must not  lose sight of the fact of NEPA being a "national grid (which) by its technical nature has to be centrally controlled." Central to Awojobi’s  genius was the ability to see issues beyond the present.  

Similarly, during the dispute over the 1979 presidential election on what constituted the 1 2 2/3 states of the federation, Awojobi brought his mathematical Prowess to bear arguing that it was not possible to have 2/3 of a state.  A state he said, is like a person that cannot be fractionalised. Taken as a whole, 12 2/3  of the federation should be taken as 13, so the argument went.  Shagari had won 25% in 12 states and 25% in the 2/3 of of Kano State. The 1979 Constitution required him to win majority votes as well as 25% in 12 2/3 of the 19 states existing at that time. The argument of Shagari’s lawyer,  Chief Richard Akinjide, was that since the 2/3 of 19 was 12 2/3,  it was possible to have 2/3 of a state and since Shagari won in 2/3 of Kano he had met the constitutional requirement.  Again the role of the intellectual came to the fore. Outside the courtroom, Awojobi joined the public debate that ensued arguing that mathematically it was illogical to talk of 2/3 of a state. He applied his specialist knowledge to illuminate on an  issue that cast a dark cloud on the poltical horizon at that material time in our political history.

Awojobi never spared the government of the day on constitutional infringements. He consistently advocated constitutionalism as he scrutinised the issues. He spoke vehemently against the deportation of the majority leader of the old Borno State House of Assembly, Alhaji Abdurahman Shugaba.  Shugaba was of the Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP ) which was in opposition to the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) under  President Shehu Shagari. In his 1980 birthday lectures, he pointed out the contradiction between  President Shehu Shagari's Independence Day Broadcast that was suffused with exhortations about "sanctity of the rights and liberties of citizens" and the criminal deportation of Shugaba.

Awojobi was also not scared  to question conventional wisdom. In one of the 1980 lectures, he relied on data and mathematical logic to dismiss the official population figure of the country at that time. Said he: "We begin with the shocking hypothesis that the population of Nigeria today is about 60 million and certainly not near anything like the wild guess of over 80 million." Such views were bound to generate controversy, but he was never afraid of controversy.

Awojobi believed and acted out his resolute faith in the rule of law and institutions of democracy. With benefit of hindsight, it is instructive  that while he was brutally critical of the  dispensation in the Second Republic, he still expressed a modicum of faith in the institutions of democracy. For instance, in his reflection on the question of ideology in one of the 1980 birthday lectures, Awojobi remarked as follows: "What then should be our suggestion for a political direction under the present constitution and in our ideological vacuum we have created for ourselves? In this respect, our salvation lies in the investigative  powers of the Senate as the constitutional whip behind the ministers and  the President if he is directly at the head of a ministry or corporation."

In the same lecture, he defended federalism by condemning the appointment of liaison officers for the states by the federal government. Resolutely, he tested the system to the  limit of  its possibilities, that is beyond resonance. He was frequent in court as he never spared the Shagari administration of any infringement of the law. His many cases against the government were to ensure that those in power keep to the rules. Again, he shared this tenacity in using the instrumentality of the rule of law  to correct the wrongs in society with Fawehinmi. On issues of the constitution, the welfare of the people, abuse of office and blatant injustice,  Awojobi employed litigation as a weapon. So enamoured with the court  was  he that he resorted to reading law so that no one could say he was not technically equipped with the point he was making about the rule of law. Intriguingly, the dialectics of reform and revolution played itself out in a manner that is noteworthy in the politics of Awojobi. On the one hand, he spoke of change and acted to bring it about with all the commitment of an intellectual, and on the other hand, he demonstrated so much faith in the ability of the judicial institution  to achieve some reforms for justice.  

Were Awojobi to be alive today he would still be confronting the same issues of abysmal underdevelopment, bad governance, injustice, lack of respect for the rule of law and the relegation of the welfare of the people to the background. He would confront  not just underdevelopment of the economy, but also retrogression in politics. The essence of the headlines has hardly changed except that the dates of publications have changed:  election rigging, looting of public treasury, poverty, socio-economic tension, executive disobedience of court orders etc. The brazenness of the enemies of human progress has also gone beyond what Awojobi witnessed and struggled against. Whereas Awojobi worried about the reportedly missing N2.8 million oil money, which  was later declared officially as not missing, today the story is about  the recovery of billions of dollars (that is hundreds of billions of naira) looted by General Sani Abacha which has since been confirmed to have been stolen. Awojobi was shocked at the stuffing of ballot boxes.  Today the reports from electoral tribunals speak of  figures just written on the electoral sheets without counting  ballot papers.

Amid this theatre of the absurd that the political economy has been turned into,  Awojobi would, doubtless,  find out that  he had to go beyond the resonance which his voice found in 1984 before his demise.

 It is only safe to say that what Awojobi would say precisely  and do are  appropriately in the realm of conjecture. After all, like any other human being, he was still developing in his critical consciousness as an organic intellectual in the service of the people.  Glimpses of this were, however, already visible towards his last days. Four years before his death, he predicted  the consequence of the activities of exploiters in the political economy : "Unless these very few citizens are identified and exposed so that their stock and kind never again come near the position of influence and power  to the detriment of our economy, a class struggle in Nigeria, unprecedented in the history of underdeveloped countries, will overtake the nation and engulf her, until the forces  of progress and genuine welfare of the masses triumph over those of deceit and selfish interest ."

As we draw lessons from the politics of Awojobi, it is apposite that we reflect on  some developments. The June 12 struggle abated with the death of General Sani Abacha and  that of Bashorun Moshood Abiola about  a month later.  But the struggle did not  end with the defeat of Abacha and what he represented in Nigerian politics. Yes, Abacha died, but the Abacha phenomenon was not defeated. It has not been possible for forces of progress to go beyond  the ferment generated by the struggle. The organisational platform for the agitation could not be sustained. Hence, no democratic leap could be said to have taken place beyond the June 12 struggle. Some of those in control of strategic loci of power today were in league with Abacha to  frustrate democratic transition.

Since the return to civil rule, the campaign for constitutionalism, good governance, socio-economic justice and the respect for the rule of law have been intensified by the same forces that fought  in the June 12 struggle. In a seeming  response to the redress of the injustice of the past,  the government set up the  Oputa Panel  for reconciliation and restitution. The panel held sittings across  the country and its proceedings generated enthusiastic response from Nigerians. It  wrote a report  and made recommendations. The best the government has done with the report is to pass it on  over to another committee inaugurated on March 21 by the President called the National Political Reform Conference. Again, the conference in Abuja itself was supposed to be a response to  almost 15 years of clamour for a  sovereign national conference to prepare a people's constitution. Now, those who called for national conference are effectively out of what is going on in Abuja. Instead,  among the delegates to the conference in Abuja  are  those who at one time or the other opposed the idea of a national conference.  

The lesson of  the foregoing is that whatever ideas that  forces of progress may popularise in the society there is the need for political muscle to translate them into concrete achievement of popular democracy. And the instrument for that is a solid and sustainable organisational platform. That is why re-flections, on occasions like this must naturally compel us to call on all progressive elements (radicals, leftists, social democrats nationalists, patriots etc.) to coalesce their energies in a formidable organisation that could effect change in the socio-political order. It is only then that we can begin to see beyond resonance in the struggle for popular democracy and a humane social order.

It now remains for me to salute the exemplary efforts of the Ayodele  Awojobi  Foundation in keeping the memory of the late professor alive by spreading his ideas. In particular, I admire the tenacity of purpose of the Executive Director of the Foundation, my  friend and comrade,  Kunle Awobodu.

If Awojobi were to be alive he would probably,  as was his custom, deliver today’s lecture  himself. You can then imagine how much I feel honoured that I am called upon  to attempt  an overview of his politics.

May the dream of Awojobi  for Nigeria come true.

• (Being a presentation made by Kayode Komolafe at the Memorial Lecture organised by Ayodele Awojobi Foundation on March  12, 2005 at Airport Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos)


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