Septuagenarian, blunt-spoken, firebrand politician Obafemi Awolowo, the asiwaju, or leader, of the Yoruba people, has grudgingly allowed age to slow down his usual whirlwind pace. But his deep black eyes remain fiercely intent and his legendary impatient tongue as sharp as ever.
As the fervently loved "papa" of one of Nigeria's three largest ethnic groups, the Yoruba, Awolowo has been at the center or focal point of every political storm that has erupted in this nation, one of the most volatile in black Africa, since the decade before it won independence from Britain in 1960. Few if any of the estimated 100 million Nigerians is emotionally neutral about Awolowo, a name that connotes controversy.
He was premier of the Yorubas' Western Region before independence, the uncompromising leader of the parliamentary opposition afterward and two years later tried and convicted of plotting to overthrow the government. He sat out in prison the riots and anarchy that rocked his homeland Western Region in the mid-1960s after his political enemies rigged elections in favor of his opponents, the same government officials he still accuses of framing him on charges of treasonable felony.
A welcome Army coup in January 1966 momentarily ended the bloodletting. A bloody countercoup followed in six months, with its leaders unconditionally releasing Awolowo from prison and bringing him into their government as finance minister. He has campaigned three times to become Nigeria's head of state and lost his third consecutive bid in August.
Awolowo has accused the National Party of Nigeria, the party of reelected President Shehu Shagari, of "daylight robbery" in stealing the election from him through "massive rigging." In turn, National Party official Uba Ahmed accused Awolowo on national television after the last election of yet again planning to overthrow the government.
"That is absolutely not true," Awolowo responded during a rare interview at his home here in his native village, 50 miles north of Lagos. "They once framed me for treasonable felony, but they can't frame me again."
"I'm 74," he added indignantly. "I don't want to leave a legacy of violence."
Riots erupted in the two western Nigerian states of Ondo and Oyo when National Party challengers initially won the gubernatorial elections in mid-August from two of Awolowo's Unity Party of Nigeria incumbents. Officially, at least 100 people were killed--some doused in gasoline and burned alive--hundreds injured, hundreds more arrested and millions of dollars in property destroyed.
A panel of five judges overturned the election in Ondo state as fraudulently won, giving the victory to the incumbent governor. The judges' panel for Oyo state split 3 to 2 in upholding the challenger's victory, ignoring that the votes of two densely populated constituencies that favored the loser were not counted.
"What we're seeing now typifies what happened" leading up to the disorders and the first army coup of 1966, Awolowo asserted. "The rigging has been so blatant people don't know what to think," he added.
Shagari has rejected Awolowo's charges, saying, "I don't take it very seriously. Nigerians like to complain, especially when they lose."
At his age, Awolowo said emphatically, he is "not retiring" from politics. "A politician goes on until he dies," he continued. "I want to reorganize the Unity Party and make it a stronger party."
"Any system of government can work," he continued, commenting on Nigeria's federal system, partly based on the American model. "It all depends on who is running it. The average African, for example, does not want to leave office. That is why you have coups here and there. Those in power want to remain at any cost."
Of the hundreds of his Unity Party officials arrested in the Ondo and Oyo riots now awaiting trial, Awolowo charged that a number of them have been tortured by the police and required hospitalization after release. Prominent lawyers sent to bail out some of his jailed officials were also arrested and tortured, he claimed.
Police spokesman Felix Musa said he would not comment on Awolowo's allegations.
Awolowo was asked if he will run for president in 1987. "I will run if I'm called upon by my people to run," he said. "I'm popular throughout the country."
Although many independent political observers said Awolowo is disliked by the majority of Nigerian voters, who see him as strictly a Yoruba leader, Awolowo disagreed. "The masses want me," he insisted.