Nigeria: Who is the greatest Nigerian ever?

By IndepthAfrica
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Aug 27th, 2013
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Azuka Onwuka

At a time like this when every issue is twisted and given ethnic or religious hue, thereby dividing Nigerians and raising tensions in the land, one could only wish that many Nigerians were like one man who I consider as the greatest Nigerian that has ever lived.

Once a Nigerian is told to mention who his or her greatest Nigerian is, the name that usually pops up is one of the three founding fathers: Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, former Premier of Eastern Nigeria and first President of Nigeria; Sir Ahmadu Bello, former Premier of Northern Nigeria; and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, former Premier of Western Nigeria. These three men were seen as the three pillars that held Nigeria together. They achieved a lot, especially for their regions, and have remained evergreen in the minds of many Nigerians. Because of the achievements they recorded in their regions, they are seen as demi-gods by their people, and almost worshipped. It is seen as sacrilegious to say any negative thing about them, no matter how true such a statement is.

However, some believe that their action and inaction contributed a lot in sowing the seed of ethnic and religious discord that has continued to work against the unity of Nigeria. This is because the regional type of politics in existence then led them to focus more on their respective regions to the detriment of other regions. The downside of that is that even though they are venerated in their respective regions, they are either hated passionately outside their regions or treated with indifference. That makes it impossible for me to accept any of them as the greatest Nigerian ever.

Another such figure is Chief Dennis Osadebay, who became the Premier of the Mid-Western Region when it was created in 1963. Some, especially from the Igbo-speaking part of Delta State, where he hailed from, see him as the greatest Nigerian. He coined the name ANIOMA – which he took from the names of the four original local government areas: Aniocha, Ndokwa, Ika, Oshimili, and added “MA” to make it a name that means “Beautiful Land” in the Igbo language.

But Osadebay has the same shortcoming the other three founding fathers have, for even though he was a poet and fighter for Nigeria’s Independence, his influence was later in life limited to the area he superintended over: the Mid-West.

Another figure that comes to mind is Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who led the Republic of Biafra, which seceded from Nigeria in 1967. Among the Igbo, many rank Ojukwu higher than Azikiwe because he is seen as a man who stood for them against annihilation from Nigeria and restored their dignity, not withstanding that they lost that war. Anybody who says anything against him is seen as also making sacrilegious statements.

However, Ojukwu is viewed with either hatred or indifference by most non-Nigerians. So even though there are still non-Igbo Nigerians who view him as a hero, his influence is also concentrated more in Igboland. He therefore has the same drawback as the other three founding fathers.

Then, there are the two literary icons: Prof Chinua Achebe and Prof. Wole Soyinka. Achebe is Nigeria’s and Africa’s highest-selling author. His novel, Things Fall Apart, changed the global perception of Africa as a land of savages and culture-less people. Soyinka is Africa’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He has brought international acclaim for Nigeria through his books. He has also fought against military dictatorship, mis-governance and corruption.  Both of them are top contenders for that position, but for me there is still a man that ranks above them.

Another man that may be mentioned is Chief MKO Abiola, the winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election that was wickedly annulled by the military dictator, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Abiola was seen as the richest man in Nigeria at that time. He was also the biggest philanthropist at that time. But he was also viewed as being a part of the establishment that had kept Nigeria politically and economically underdeveloped.

When Babangida annulled that election, many had thought that as a very rich man who had known comfort for many years that Abiola would let it go. But to the surprise of many Nigerians, Abiola demanded the restoration of his mandate for a year, and when that was not heeded, he declared himself the President, and was arrested and detained. He was offered the opportunity to renounce his mandate and accept freedom, but he rejected that for four years, until he died mysteriously in prison in 1998 at a time most Nigerians were expecting him to be released after the death of his captor, Abacha.

For his stand against dictatorship and injustice and for his sacrifice, Abiola is therefore a top contender for that position. But for me, there is a man that edges him out.

Other Nigerians like Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Mr. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa could also be mentioned. Obasanjo has the record of being the only Nigerian that has ruled the country as a soldier and civilian. He was the first African that voluntarily relinquished power to civilians. He fought gallantly in Nigeria’s Civil War to keep Nigeria one. His tenure as a civilian President also had some high points in some respects, especially in off-setting Nigeria’s debt.

Fela was a musical legend with his Afro-beat, which he popularised. Saro-Wiwa was an environment activist, who led his Ogoni people to demand compensation for the damage done to their land due to oil exploration. He was eventually hanged by Gen. Sani Abacha in 1995.

These men are contenders, but in my estimation none of them rivals Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the only man that has been conferred with the title the Senior Advocate of the Masses (SAM). Fawehinmi, who was popularly called by his first name “Gani,” was a Yoruba Muslim, but he did not let his religion or ethnicity count in his dealings with anyone. For him, what came first was Nigeria as well as Nigerians. He would fight a fellow Yoruba or Muslim in defence of an Igbo Christian or Tiv Christian once the issue of justice was involved. He offered scholarships, legal services and financial support to Nigerians irrespective of their ethnicity or religion.

He fought against military dictatorship, mis-rule and corruption so passionately that he holds the record of the Nigerian that has been jailed more times than any other Nigerian, in spite of his health challenges.

Even though he was financially comfortable and could afford any lifestyle he wanted for himself, he regularly abandoned his comfort and safety to put his life in harm’s way in defence of common Nigerians. He never ran away from the military. Even when his passport was seized by the Abacha junta and he needed to seek medical care abroad, he sneaked out of Nigeria’s borders and went to take care of his health, and when people thought he would not return for fear of arrest, he returned and was arrested.

When Abacha formed his Provisional Ruling Council, Gani went to court to challenge Abacha for forming his PRC with no Igbo man as member. Abacha remedied that immediately.

Even when cancer wore him down, he still continued to speak in a cracked voice against injustice and oppression. He continued thus until his last breath. Among Nigerians, he had no like. It was disappointing that he was not given the Nobel Peace Prize, even though many recipients of that prize were not as dogged and selfless as he was.

Nigeria will be a strong and united country if the nationalistic and patriotic principles of Gani Fawehinmi are truly imbibed by Nigerians in their attitudes to issues involving Nigeria and Nigerians. Unfortunately, once anything happens in Nigeria, most Nigerians, including those who are well educated, crawl automatically into parochial holes and start the tribal war. Nothing else matters at that time.

Four years after his death, if Gani could see us from where he is, he would look at us disappointingly and shake his head in sorrow at how parochial many of us have remained in the face of the great need to forge a united nation that fights against injustice and oppression. Gani was a Nigerian par excellence; when comes another? Via Punch

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