October 01, 2016

How My Father Coined the Name ‘Naira’ as Nigeria's Currency – Awolowo’s Daughter

Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a man many would describe as a leader like no other. Even though he was the Premier of the Western Region between 1954 and 1960, when Nigeria was operating regional government, he was a nationalist and statesman whose contribution to national development remains a model that subsequent leaders try to emulate till date.

While he was the Premier of the Western Region, late Chief Awolowo executed several developmental projects that were lauded openly by many, including people from other regions, and those programmes included free health care for children, free primary education for all, etc. 
In furtherance of his love for Nigeria, he championed efforts for Nigeria to gain independence from Britain, and together with members of the political party he founded in 1951, the Action Group, and other notable personalities, Nigeria’s independence became a reality on October 1, 1960. 
Chief Awolowo, died in his Ikenne home on May 9, 1987. 
Today, the independence that Chief Awolowo and several others fought for is being celebrated as Nigeria marks its 56 years as an independent nation. In this interview with The Punch's Tunde Ajaja, one of Chief Awolowo’s children, Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu, talks about her late father’s beliefs, his experience in prison, the troubles he faced and why he never gave up on Nigeria.

Read a brief excerpt below:

Chief Awolowo led several others to make case for Nigeria’s independence and he was one of those who initiated the move. Would you know what prompted that idea?He started since he was young, almost from the moment he got involved in political activism in the Nigeria Youth Movement. So, the independence of Nigeria was always top on his agenda and of course when he went to the United Kingdom to study Law, that was when he and a few like minds started the Egbe Omo Oduduwa and the Egbe had noble objectives, one of which was the independence of Nigeria.

He was in prison for about three years. Did you visit him throughout?
When he was in prison, we used to wake up by 3am to visit him in Calabar. We would spend a few days and come back. It was a long journey because the Niger Bridge had not been constructed at that time. Then we were at Ibadan. We would travel to Asaba and cross by ferry to Onitsha and then travel through the East to Oron and from Oron to Calabar. It was a long journey and we used to get there around 6pm. We used to follow mama. And whenever we visited, he was always talking about our future, and never about what he was going through. He didn’t look like someone who wanted to be pitied and then when we went back to school; it was that courage that he exhibited that kept us going. He always said we should never forget that we had a future and that none of what was happening then should affect our aspirations. That was when I wanted to take the exam for direct entry into University of Ibadan and a few days to the date, I was notified that I shouldn’t bother presenting myself for the exam because I was too young. At that point, papa decided that my sister and I, who were still pursuing our education at that time, should rather go abroad to study, and mercifully, mama could afford it because she was working. So, he was in detention when we travelled.

He gave the name ‘Naira’ to the Nigerian currency. How did he arrive at that name?
(Laughs…) He just took the name of Nigeria and collapsed it to Naira. That’s what he told us and that was how he arrived at the name ‘naira’ and that was when he was the Federal Commissioner for Finance.

He did a lot like free health care, education even when the beneficiaries of those programmes never expected or canvassed for them. Would you know how he came about his ideas?
Largely, I think it was divine. And he read a lot, right from his youthful days. He knew a lot about the world in which he lived and he expected us to follow the footsteps of developed countries. He looked at what other countries did, how they arrived at where they were and he came to the conclusion that that was the way we should go. In an interview, he was asked the question, why he was so passionate, especially about free education. He said it was probably because he went through a lot to acquire education. He then said that other people went through similar experiences or perhaps worse and they don’t feel that anyone should get education easily. So, he concluded that perhaps it was divine. It was just divine. So, looking back, I believe that his mission was divinely ordained and his choice of life partner was divinely ordained also to achieve all he did. Everything that he needed; the intelligence, the wisdom, the people, the skills and all that was needed to achieve what he needed to achieve was given to him by God. Also, if he didn’t have mama, it probably would have been a different story. I think it all went almost perfectly for them because God was in it.

Given the kind of developmental projects he executed, did he have mentor(s)?
He had heroes, and the two outstanding ones are Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. He had pictures of both of them in each of his homes, in Lagos, Ikenne and Ibadan. They were his heroes, and that was because of their struggles for independence, the way they carried on with that and the way they ran their countries. Those are the kind of selfless leaders that he really looked up to.
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