Obafemi Awolowo was born in Ikenne, Western State, Nigeria, on March 6, 1909. He received his early education in the mission schools of Ikenne, Abeokuta, and Ibadan. Often he worked at odd jobs to raise money for tuition fees, and his entrepreneurial spirit continued to express itself in the various careers which he subsequently sampled: journalist, teacher, clerk, moneylender, taxi driver and produce broker. His organizational and political inclinations became evident as he moved to high-level positions in the Nigerian Motor Transport Union, the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association, the Trades Union Congress of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Youth Movement, of which he became Western Provincial secretary.
Despite his interest in business ventures, Awolowo wanted to continue his formal education. In 1944 he completed a University of London correspondence course for the bachelor of commerce degree. His greatest ambition, however, was to study law, which he undertook in London from 1944 to 1946, when he was called to the bar. Returning to Nigeria in 1947, he developed a thriving practice as a barrister in Ibadan.
During his residence in London, Awolowo moved to a position of prominence in the struggle for Nigerian independence. In 1945 he wrote his first book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, in which he was highly critical of British policies of indirect administration and called for rapid moves toward self-government and Africanization of administrative posts in Nigeria. He also expressed his belief that federalism was the form of government best suited to the diverse populations of Nigeria, a position to which he consistently adhered. Also in 1945 in London, he helped found the Egbe Omo Oduduwa (Society of the Descendants of Oduduwa, the mythical ancestor of the Yoruba-speaking peoples), an organization devoted to the study and preservation of Yoruba culture.
In 1950 Awolowo founded and organized the Action Group political party in Western Nigeria to participate in the Western Regional elections of 1951. The Action Group’s platform called for immediate termination of British rule in Nigeria and for development of various public welfare programs, including universal primary education, increase of health services in rural areas, diversification of the Western Regional economy, and democratization of local governments. The Action Group won a majority, and in 1952 Awolowo as president of the Action Group became leader of the party in power in Western Nigeria. In 1954 he became the first premier of the Western Region, on which occasion he was awarded an honorary chieftaincy. During his tenure as leader and premier, he held the regional ministerial portfolios of local government, finance, and economic planning. He was also chairman of the Regional Economic Planning Commission.
In 1959, confident of an Action Group victory in the federal elections, Awolowo resigned the premiership to stand for election to the federal House of Representatives. About that time he published his second book, Awo: An Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in which he once more endorsed federalism as the most appropriate form of government for Nigeria. He also outlined the successful history of the Action Group and was optimistic of Nigerian independence.
However, the 1959 elections were to become an important turning point in Awolowo’s career, for the Action Group was decisively defeated, and Awolowo found himself leader of the opposition in the Federal House of Representatives, while the deputy leader of the Action Group, Chief S. L. Akintola, remained premier of the Western Region. This situation led to a power struggle within the party which ultimately erupted in 1962 in disturbances in the Western Region House of Assembly. The federal government intervened and suspended the regional constitution. When normal government was restored, the Akintola faction had won; Akintola and his followers withdrew from the Action Group to form the Nigerian National Democratic party, which governed Western Nigeria until 1966.
In 1963 Awolowo was found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government of Nigeria and was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. In 1966, however, an attempted coup d’état led to the suspension of the Nigerian federal constitution and the empowerment of a military government which promised a new constitution. That year, while in prison, Awolowo wrote Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution, in which he argued for the retention of a federal form of government composed of 18 states. Later, in 1966, he was released from prison and the following year was invited to join the Federal Military Government as federal commissioner of finance and as vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council.
In 1968 Awolowo published his fourth book, The People’s Republic, calling for federalism, democracy, and socialism as the necessary elements in a new constitution which would lead to the development of a stable and prosperous Nigeria. Although he praised the Federal Military Government for creating a 12-state federal system in 1967, he predicted further political difficulties because these states had not been based on ethnic and linguistic affinities.
Awolowo continued to serve the government as commissioner of finance and vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council throughout the years of Nigeria’s civil war with Biafra (1967-1970). In his 1970 book, The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria, he implied a position which he would state more firmly in subsequent years: that the government’s post-war spending should be devoted to development rather than to the military. He resigned in 1971 to protest the government’s continuation of military rule, and in 1975, following the overthrow of the Gowon government, issued a press release questioning the country’s military spending. In 1979 and 1983 he ran for president as the candidate for the Unity Party of Nigeria, losing to Shehu Shagari. Awolowo returned to private life upon the overthrow of the Shagari government in December 1983. He died in Ikenne on May 9, 1987.
Further Reading: The most thorough treatment of Awolowo’s life is his Awo: An Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1960). An excellent examination of the growth of the Action Group is in Richard L. Sklar, Nigerian Political Parties: Power in an Emergent African Nation (1963).
Adekson, J. Bayo, Nigeria in Search of a Stable Civil-Military System (Westview Press, 1981).
Metz, Helen Chapin, ed., Nigeria: A Country Study (Federal Research Division, 1992).
New York Times (May 11, 1987).