“Throughout all the changing fortunes of my life …, my wife, Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo, has been to me a jewel of inestimable value. She is an ideal wife … The outpouring of her love and devotion to me and to our family is exceeding and beyond words … I do not hesitate to confess that I owe my success in life to three factors: the Grace of God, a Spartan self-discipline, and a good wife. Our home is to all of us, a true haven; a place of happiness, and of imperturbable seclusion from the buffetings of life”
–Obafemi Awolowo, My Early Life, 1968
As the news broke at the weekend that the matriarch of the Awolowo’s cultural and political dynasty has passed on, I had furiously scanned both the print and online media to catch up on the various perspectives that her exit would elicit. The death of any human being is an occasion to either grieve or celebrate life but for a matriarch like Mama Awolowo, her demise was always going to be an event in itself-a rite of passage. One comment by a Nigerian writer aptly described her death. It read: “HID Awolowo: Rest in Peace. An era has closed”.
The passing on of HID is indeed the end of an era. Her death marks the physical departure of a woman who is not just Awo’s spouse but a protagonist and witness of a political era that has been adjudged as the most significant and successful in Nigeria’s modern political history. HID nurtured the man and his politics. She was there till the very end. Mrs. Awolowo became the custodian of the late Sage’s political dynasty. But like all mortals, she has answered the final call. At the age of 99, he was almost becoming immortal. She was just a few months to marking a century on earth. Interestingly, her death came 28 years after the death of her husband.
As an aside, I had curiously been thinking of the almost immortal existence of HID of late. Every time she appeared in the news, I had wondered if the matriarch was going to live forever. Even at an advanced age, she had the presence of mind to mediate in political issues as she sought to be a bridge among the warring political forces in the South-West and even beyond. Given her role while alive, her death no doubt will create a vacuum in the political landscape of the South-West. HID witnessed firsthand the making of Awolowo, as a young lawyer to the fiery nationalist who joined forces with Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and other nationalists to bring an end to colonial rule.
After Awolowo’s death, she was the most recognisable face of the Awolowo dynasty. While Awolowo was one of the most significant political and cultural figures in Nigeria, HID also stand tall among the pantheons as a woman who stabilised the home front. Since the patriarch’s death almost three decades ago, HID kept the ideals of the late sage alive. Even when many of Awolowo’s closest associates strayed from his political ideology, she stayed to the principles and became a rallying figure for the South-West’s political establishment.
Mrs. Awolowo seemed to have had her future role cut out for her when she married Awolowo on December 27, 1937. As the spouse of one of Nigeria’s foremost nationalists, she had had to cope with a husband who spent his entire life in the pubic glare. But she was no ordinary wife. As a big-time trader, she was unable to divorce herself from the politics of her husband. She really had no choice as she was thrown into a political role. When Awolowo was jailed in an alleged treasonable felony in 1964, she filled the vacuum by representing her husband in the alliance formed between the National Council of Nigerian Citizens and the Action Group, under the umbrella of the United Progressive Grand Alliance. As Awolowo was kept away in prison in Calabar, she was left alone to bear the burden of taking care of their children. But tragedy soon struck when the family’s eldest son, Segun Awolowo, died in an auto crash the same year.
In the Second Republic, Mama Awolowo also stood by her husband as he campaigned twice to become Nigeria’s president in 1979 and 1983. To fulfil his dream of becoming president in the Second Republic, she toured the length and breadth of the country with her husband campaigning. She also coordinated the women’s wing of the Unity Party of Nigeria and was always present at all party caucuses
When Awolowo died in 1987, Ikenne became the hub of South-West politics. HID hosted regular meetings of Afenifere and some other Yoruba socio-political groups, in efforts to give the Yoruba nation political unity and focus. She sometimes had to settle political quarrels among Yoruba politicians.
In the years since the demise of Awolowo, HID had been the face of the family. The death of the first son, Segun, and in later years, Oluwole, left Mrs. Awolowo to play the dual role as the matriarch and political face of the family. None of Awolowo siblings, not even second generation Awo’s clan, could match his larger than life image. But Mrs. Awolowo ensured a vacuum was never created.
But with her demise, there is no doubt that a significant vacuum has been created. Mrs. Awolowo, in the years she held forte after the death of her husband, was well-respected by the political establishment in the South-West. She was consulted by sundry political leaders. Even beyond the South-West, politicians who wished to gain political inroad into the geopolitical zone often visited Ikenne to pay homage or receive her blessings.
Her death may have put a halt to such pilgrimages. As politicians gather to pay their last respects in Ikenne, this trip may be the last. More importantly, over the years, there has been controversy over who among South-West politicians is qualified to step into Awo’s shoes. Why that has created intense controversy, it did not in any way diminish the role of Mrs. Awolowo. The controversy has only demonstrated how far politicians were willing to exploit and even cause divisions as they sought to dominate the politics of the South-West.
As a confidante of her late husband and custodian of his tremendous political and cultural legacy, Mrs. Awolowo kept the family dynasty till she breathed her last. It will always be to her credit that the family remained intact years after the demise of Awolowo. Certainly, an era has ended. But will there be a new one for the Awolowo clan?
Indeed, Mrs. Hannah Dideolu Awolowo’s passing represents the departure of the last of Awo’s original political dynasty. By the time Awo passed on, he stood like a colossus, his image dominated the land. It has been said that apart from Oduduwa, the founder of the Yoruba, no other person had risen taller than Awolowo both as a cultural and political icon in the South-West. But until her death, HID ensured the extension and influence of Awoism as a political philosophy. She played the unifier role till the very end. Now that she is gone, who will be the face of the Awo political dynasty?