The purpose of this article is two fold.
1 The first is to contribute to the general quest to ÔÇśreinvent' and redefine issues-based political party system in our country.
2 The second is to attempt to clarify political positions and beliefs within the broad political spectrum in the southwest geo-political zone. There are two questions here that need to be answered. [A] Is the Afenifere an umbrella grouping , inclusive of all identifiable political tendencies in the southwest, thus by this definition, a mere socio-cultural organization? [B] Is the Afenifere the Yoruba socio-linguistic abstraction/interpretation of a definable political praxis/beliefs and thus a political party made up of members who identify with and subscribe to these beliefs and positions of the party?
We should take it granted that for a person to understand a phenomenon, particularly a social phenomenon, one has to study its origin and history. So, to history we must go.
In 1951, the year of self-government in Western Nigeria, the Yoruba were largely illiterate. In that same year, a political party was born in Owo, which gave itself the name, ÔÇśAction Group'. The chiefs and elites who formed this party had specific objectives in mind, to wit, to embark on a radical socio-economic transformation of western Nigeria, particularly in education, health, agriculture. Pursuant to this singular agenda, they commissioned among themselves, position papers that would form the fulcrum of the transformative agenda if the political party were to win elections in western region and become the government in power. But the leaders faced a dilemma, how to inform and propagate the ideals and positions of the Action Group to a people who do not speak nor understand the foreign language. So they came up with the name, ÔÇśEgbe Afenifere' . The group [political party] that ÔÇśloves you and wishes good things for you or wishes you well' And the ÔÇśgood things' this [egbe] party wishes you include ; [a] all school age children in western region will now be enrolled in primary school at government expense [b] medical expenses in the hospitals for all children from birth to the age of eighteen will now be free, that is borne by the government.
These epoch-making policies, needless to say were unheard of in the annals of the political history of colonial Nigeria. The British, starting from 1861, in a hundred years of colonialism never came up with any plan to transform Nigeria, in education, health, agriculture etc. Theirs was for Nigerian produce, to feed British industries, with scattered church- missionary driven education. To demonstrate how radical and all-encompassing in transformative impetus the Action Group agenda was, ÔÇśschools for Adults' literally translated ÔÇśIle Eko Awon Agba' were established in western region to teach artisans, farmers, market women etc to read and write; the goal being to eradicate illiteracy in this region within two decades! The Action Group believed that it will be difficult to misrule a literate people because they will defend their rights. I know people in southwestern Nigeria today who are products of these schools, they are able to read and write the Yoruba language today because they went to the ÔÇśIle eko awon agba'. One of them told me the biggest thing for her is that she could go to the bank and sign her name today, fifty years after.
The propagation and enunciation of these policies by the emergent government of Nigerian nationals attracted thinly-veiled hostility, derision and ridicule from the colonial government and Obafemi Awolowo , the leader of this group was dismissed as a mere ÔÇśflash in the pan', that is, until the party won the election and commenced the implementation of what it had promised the electorates.
The policies of the Action Group ÔÇśThe Egbe Afenifere' set the party apart from OTHER parties. It was ONLY in Yorubaland that the Action Group was known as the ÔÇśegbe afenifere' for easy translation and identification in the mind of the largely illiterate people and to DIFFERENTIATE the Action Group from all OTHER parties in the region. That is to say the Egbe Afenifere was NOT an all-inclusive umbrella for all political tendencies in Yoruba land, it was an umbrella ONLY for those who subscribe to its ideology and praxis. There were many outstanding Yoruba political personalities that remained outside the Afenifere ÔÇśThe Action Group', like Chief T O S Benson, Chief J M Johnson, Chief Kola Balogun, Chief Olu Akinfosile, Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, Chief OsuOlale R. Akinjide, Chief Babatunji Olowofoyeku, Chief Richard Akinyemi and Sir Odeleye Fadahunsi etc, all who were members of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, the OTHER party that was in parliamentary opposition in the western region.
The Action Group was the ÔÇśEgbe Afenifere' in Yorubaland only for obvious reasons but it was the same Action Group that was in opposition in the regional houses of assembly in Enugu and Kaduna, and after the federal election of 1959, in the federal legislature too.
From the onset of self-rule in Nigeria in 1951, to the termination of the first republic, the Action Group government set the pace in Nigeria; the free education and free health scheme for all children from birth to the age of eighteen are well-known, but it also brought minimum wage to Nigeria, the British paid one shilling and six pence, the Action Group made it five shillings; it set up the pilgrims welfare board for western Nigerian muslims; the agricultural settlements; the industrial, housing schemes and western Nigerian radio-television [wnbc/wntv]. These were all Action Group firsts, to be copied by other regional governments after first deriding the policies or describing the content of the party manifestoes as ÔÇśimpossible' to achieve. There was no magic to the Action Group, its success was that it would NOT promise the electorates what it could not deliver; and it could deliver the promises because it had done its home work and the costs of these schemes BEFORE the commencement of electioneering campaigns. Nonetheless, the Action Group faced a fastidious and highly skeptical electorate, eventually its performance gave it its name and its leaders their reputation, but even then, the Action Group lost the 1956 election to the NCNC. Policies even when well-intentioned, still had to be tested in the realm of popular acceptance and against hostile interpretation by adversaries. The leadership of the Action Group made the free education program compulsory initially [Awolowo et al, who had canvassed the non-compulsory option lost the debate within the party]. The NCNC seized upon this compulsory aspect of this laudable scheme to tell the electorates that the Action Group wanted to destroy livelihood of the farmers by forcing them to withdraw their children from the farms to send them to school. Facing revolt and electoral reality, the Action Group reversed course and made the educational scheme non-compulsory. Of course nothing succeeds like success; once the skeptics among the electorate saw the success of the scheme, they sent their children to school in droves.
The problem as I see it today is that because the Afenifere lives in the hearts of the Yoruba. as a result of its socio-economic and educational exploits in the past , many naturally want to be identified with its historical aura, sense of nostalgia and most importantly uncommon and unparallel commitment and service to the people.
However there is a problem. As a result of the fractured natured of our political system today, there are elements in the southwest, who want to be seen as Afenifere when they do not subscribe to its beliefs and praxis. What Afenifere stands for can be distilled thus;
1 The idea of social contract between the government and the people.
That is, Afenifere will take clearly-staked out positions on socio-economic and political issues and canvass for votes on the basis of such positions. Once voted into power, the people will hold the party accountable to translate these positions into policies for the welfare of the people. NO EXCUSES. The Action Group position paper on education was prepared by Chief M A Ajasin, Oladipupo E Alayande et al, and adopted by the inaugural conference of the party in Owo, in 1951. Positions that a political party takes on public issues SET the party apart from others, so the voters can decide.
2 Afenifere does NOT subscribe to the idea that the purpose of being voted into power is to ÔÇścome and eat' or share perks and patronage. Obafemi Awolowo put it bluntly, ÔÇśDo not enjoy in government what you cannot provide for yourself in private life'. This is why many of our politicians cannot conceive of life outside government.
3 The Afenifere believes in a virile opposition as a bulwark against a ruling party's excesses. The political space must be contested for through robust debates and ideas tested in the public domain.
4 The Afenifere believes in the electorate as being rational and is best left to make what it considers its best informed decision. The late Canon Oladipupo E. Alayande was Obafemi Awolowo's personal preference to be governor of Oyo state in 1979. Chief Bola Ige won the primary and became the governor. The party will not subvert the democratic process by imposing candidates against the wish of the people.
5 The Afenifere does NOT believe in government of ÔÇśnational unity', ÔÇśbroad-based government' [except perhaps in time of war], and is not afraid of being in the opposition. Indeed a political system must have credible opposition parties ready and waiting to sell its programs and ideas to the public and thus win elections on the merits of positions canvassed.
6 The Afenifere does not believe in a unitary system of government masquerading as pseudo federalism where the component states are so dependent on the federal government that they become its mere outposts.
7 The Afenifere does not subscribe to the false consciousness of mainstream politics where indolent politicians, unable to win elections in their locale, masquerade as ÔÇśnational' leaders because the party they belong to happens to be the party in power at the federal level.
I am aware that the above may sound idealistic and utopian to some reading this article given the vulgar and farcical that go for party politics in our country now, where little distinction can be made among the fifty odd parties we have. But it is clear from the above that the Afenifere CANNOT be an all-inclusive organization , it is NOT a socio-cultural organization but a socio-political one, the Yoruba language interpretation of what the Action Group stood for, from 1951 to the termination of the first republic. Back then as I stated above, NOT all Yoruba subscribed to the ideals of the Afenifere and NOT all Yoruba do today. We must keep this firmly in mind, especially in the consciousness of the electorate.
The challenge of today as I see it, is to
[a] develop a national party with clearly-defined goals and objectives like the Afenifere of old. The ideals of Afenifere are pan-Nigerian, translatable in any language. Many who are fed up with what goes for party system today in our country can embrace these ideals and propagate them all over Nigeria, among our different ethno-linguistic groups.
[b] I am aware there are personalities in many parties in Nigeria who subscribe to the Afenifere credo, who for sundry reasons have migrated to other parties where they co-exist uneasily with people of totally divergent views. For example, Gbenga Daniel, the intellectually resourceful governor of Ogun state whose Afenifere inspired ideas on Nigerian federalism are well known, is in the same party with Professor Jubril Aminu who believes Nigeria's future lies in a unitary government. So the likes of Daniel and former Edo state governor John Odigie-Oyegun who is of the ANPP, who are comfortable with what the Afenifere means and stands for can be identified and coming together can form a truly issues-driven political party. The yearning in our country today is for our politicians to truly provide leadership in establishing credible and issue-driven political parties where voters can see distinctions among alternatives. This was what Afenifere was, is, and should be.
Ibiyinka Solarin is a professor of political science at Texas College, Tyler, Texas