Archive for February, 2008

Dark days behind enemy line

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos

biafra.jpg 

Title: 888 Days in Biafra

Author: Samuel U. Umweni

Publishers: iUniverse

Date of Publication: 2007

No. of Pages: 220

Price: $24.95

Prison of any form is not a desirable residence. In war time, however, the terrible turns petrifying.

Sam Umweni was heading the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Benin City when the Biafran forces overran the city in August 1967. In the confusion that ensued, he, like many top officials, went into hiding. Words of assurance from the occupational forces brought him out. Thereafter, he and some others responded to a summon to meet with the new authorities. That was on August 12, 1967. As it turned out, the “meeting” lasted till January 12, 1970.

888 Days in Biafra is Unweni’s memoir on his experience during the Nigerian Civil War that lasted from 1967 to 1970. Opening with Acknowledgement, Foreword written by Pius Oleghe in 1976 and a Prologue, the book is divided into eleven chapters. The closing part contains Epilogue, Appendix and Index. It is also spiced with photographs seasons in Umweni’s life surrounding the period and those of his “souvenirs”, mementos of his prison experience.

In the Acknowledgement, Umweni paid tribute to God and people who were helpful to him during his incarceration while Prologue gives a brief biographical sketch of the author.

The book opens with historical background of the crisis that rocked Nigeria and the events leading to the Civil War. One of the first major encounters of the war was the invasion of the then Midwest Region by forces of the secessionist Republic of Biafra. This was despite the Region’s declared neutrality in the crisis, a situation made possible by the semi autonomy the federating regions enjoyed in Nigeria then.

The declared intention of the invaders was the “liberation” of Midwest Region. Thereafter they would move on to “liberate” the Western Region and throw Head of State Yakubu Gowon out of Lagos.

With a pseudo-government put in place, a meeting of the Midwest Executive Council was summoned by Colonel Victor Banjo who headed the “liberation army” at the State House in Benin City. Being personally invited albeit amidst threat of his immediate family paying the price of his not showing up, Samuel Umweni was one of those who responded. Others who were to form the quartet that would cross the Niger in Republic of Biafra that fateful day included Mid West Region Commissioner of Police Joseph Adeola, Olu Akpata and Joseph Imokhuede. It is noteworthy that these three were Edo speaking – like Umweni himself – members of the Council who showed up for the meeting. Samuel Umweni remains convinced that he was betrayed by his Ika Ibo assistant.

The four were informed that they were to have a meeting with top officials of Biafran government in Enugu and were driven across the Niger that night.

Initially there were pretences. Top officials including rebel leader Odumegwu Ojukwu either visited them at their hotel or received them. The was permanently put on hold until the fall of Enugu after federal troops had chased the invaders out of Midwest Region. When they were evacuated along to Awgu, the courtesy began to dissipate. Eventually the pretence ended. They were separated and sent to different prisons. Umweni ended at Okigwe Prison.

As the war progressed and towns had to be evacuated due to pressure of federal troops, they were moved and brought together at Umuahia Prison. The author also served term at Ntueke Detention Centre which he describes as “the gates of hell.” It remained his home until the end of the war.

In war time, things are bad enough. It was horrible in Biafra. What with the federal blockade and the reality of the fact that the Igbo who spearheaded the rebellion are a landlocked people.

Right from the beginning, the crises that followed the first military coup in Nigeria and led to the Civil War had their roots in tribalism. With the declaration of the Republic Biafra, the multi-dimensional nature of the national question came to the fore. The Ika Ibo, seeing themselves as part of Igboland collaborated with Biafra. The illusion soon evaporated as the real Igbo began to manifest arrogant discrimination against all non-Igbo in the republic. The Onitsha Ibo who had always regarded themselves as not being fully Igbo suffered as well as other minority tribes of what is now referred to as South South.

As Biafra lost battles especially on these fronts, people from the areas were herded to the prisons, detention centres, firing squad and the gallows in droves.

Isolated, Biafra suffered all sorts of lack. This situation grew continuously worse as the war progressed. Commodities like salt virtually disappeared. Whatever aid agencies like International Council of the Red Cross and Catholic mission brought were fought over, stolen and rationed out in merger proportions. “Sabo” meaning saboteurs, as Umweni and his co-travellers were tagged suffered worse than the ordinary citizen.

Facing the antagonism of gaolers both the humane and outrightly demonic, forging friendship and alliances with people like Professor Chike Obi and Senator/Justice Daniel Ibekwe who were fellow detainees and other facets of prison life are documented in 888 Days in Biafra. The degradation, deprivation, filth and deaths of inmates that progressed with the war in figure and different attitudes of different prison officials are all there.

In presenting his memoir, Samuel Umweni with the wisdom years bestow on he who has been fired in the kiln of affliction speaks rather than write. One gets the feeling of a man telling his story at the informal gathering of say contemporaries.

Beautifully packaged, 888 Days in Biafra reflects how publishing has grown in Nigeria although in the United States of America. However there are errors like capitalisation of words unnecessarily and misspelling which more careful editing could have eliminated. These slips are however covered by the flow of the story.

The author did not attempt to be an erudite analyst. He rather presents his experiences during the war as he perceives them. Things like discrimination against Protestants by mostly Catholic Igbo that someone who was not there would not have imagined were painted vividly. Although he mentioned his wife’s betrayal in the course of his incarceration, the reader’s curiosity goes unquenched as he closes the story at the point where he finally returned to Benin City when he regained freedom.

In the Appendix, Umweni presents brief information about 57 major characters in the story. The Index section too becomes helpful for the researcher. But one wonders why the chapters have titles but these titles are not written in the contents. You simply have chapter numbers.

Coming 37 years after the end of the Civil War, 888 Days in Biafra, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, is a reminder that that period of our history cannot just be swept under the carpet. Like Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died that tells the Nobel Laureate’s experience in federal custody during the same Civil War, this documentation of a man’s experience tells us we must join Ellie Weisel in his “we must not forget” philosophy. Maybe then we can resolutely say, NEVER AGAIN!

Advertisements

An exceptional gathering

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos

yoruba-23-01.jpgadedayo.jpgtinubu.jpg set-forth-13.jpg

Rich in distinctive cultural heritage, the Yoruba people at home and in the Diaspora often manifest their values in unique dimensions. Now, in what promises to be a celebrated gathering, they are coming together from all over the world to celebrate the first ever Yoruba Festival of Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC). The clarion call is “Let’s go home to celebrate” as Fatherland beckons

With Professor Wole Soyinka and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as ambassadors, the World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture scheduled for April promises to be an uncommon gathering of the nation as the man behind the project, Alaroye publisher Alao Adedayo, told Group Arts and Culture Editor, SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

His sojourns around the world exposed Alao Adedayo to cultural trends among his Yoruba people scattered across the globe. What he saw left him not only worried but also inspired. So after sharing the vision with his top team at Alaroye, a stakeholders’ meeting was quickly summoned. The purpose of which was to work out modalities for hosting a cultural festival of the Yoruba peoples.

Legal practitioner and Islamic leader Dr. Lateef Adegbite, former Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife Professor Wale Omole, cultural icon and former Nigerian ambassador to Ethiopia Chief Segun Olusola, Oodua People’s Congress founder Dr. Fredrick Fasehun and retired General Alani Akinrinade were among personalities at the stakeholders’ meeting. All South West state governments were represented.

“The whole thing began in June last year,” Alao Adedayo told The Nation. “I was out of the country in May. During the trip, the erosion of cultural links of our people abroad came up again and again. I can’t say how it actually happened… that is how I got the vision. But it was on my return to the country after the trip that we at Alaroye decided to organise a festival of Yoruba arts and culture.”

It goes beyond cultural concerns. Alaroye is at the forefront of indigenous language print medium in Nigeria. A Yoruba language, its patronage is predominantly by the people of the South West Nigeria. In Adedayo’s words, “It is the Yoruba people who had brought Alaroye to where it is today. And it is Alaroye that has brought us to limelight both home and abroad. So, the festival is part of our giving back to the society where we got everything. It a gesture of appreciation and social responsibility.”

When Adedayo shared with those present at the stakeholders’ meeting, his proposed Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture nomenclature for the proposed event earned an addition. According to Adedayo, “Those present said if we were planning to bring organise an event that would involve people from all over the world, while no name it so? So, ‘world’ was added. Hence the name World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC).”

One of the people who could not make the first stakeholders’ meeting was Wole Soyinka who was out of the country at the time. On his return, he placed a call to Alao Adedayo to be updated on developments. After another trip abroad, one of the first things he did on his return was to call Adedayo again to get updated. The events that took place at the Ake Palace Ground at Abeokuta last October 2 therefore came as no surprise.

On October 2, 2007, the logo of WOFEYAC was formally unveiled at a ceremony the had in attendance the crème de la crème of Yoruba sons and daughters from all walks of life. The ceremony also doubled as the official announcement of Wole Soyinka as the Global Ambassador of WOFEYAC.

As the Alake of Egbaland Oba Adedotun Gbadebo, Professor Wole Soyinka and a handful of other dignitaries came out of the residential section of the sprawling palace complex to the Palace Ground, an open events venue with VIP sitting area, drumming and singing resounded in the air. The excitement was infectious. By the time the events proper took off, nobody was left in doubt of the enormity of what was happening – a landmark event that those present will proudly announce their witnessing when culture historians refer to it in future.

The front row of the seating that was several rows deep would convince anybody that the organisers were serious. If King Suny Ade represented the Yoruba musical constituency its royal sector was ably represented by the Alake and the Olowo of Owo Oba Folagbade Olateru-Olagbegi. The intellectuals? Dr. Lateef Adegbite was present while Professor Akinwunmi Isola, Yoruba author and linguist delivered the lecture of the day. Oodua People’s Congress founder Dr. Frederick Fasehun who sat alongside business moguls said the opening prayer – of course, in the traditional way. Representatives of the South West states’ governors later took their turns to deliver solidarity messages. Scintillating performances by the cultural troupes of Lagos and Ogun states gave a foretaste of what one can look up to at WOFEYAC.

This was not the first time Alaroye was gathering Yoruba leaders together. Beginning from 2002, the publishing house has organised a series of forum tagged Gathering of Yoruba Leaders. These forums boasts of having great names in Yoruba land present at different times and in different capacities. Among these are Professor Bolaji Akinyemi who delivered the lecture at the first forum, Chief Richard Akinjide, Pa Abraham Adesanya and Pa Emmanuel Alayande who sent a representative. Others are Dr. Lateef Adegbite, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, the Alaafin of Oyo, retired Generals Adeyinka Adebayo and Alani Akinrinade, Otunba Gani Adams and Dr. Frederick Fasehun who never missed any session.

“We organised Gathering of Yoruba Leaders to bring together leaders of thought in Yoruba land to ponder on issues of unity and progress of the Yoruba people,” Adedayo said. “We were concerned with creating a vision for the future development of our people.”

Adedayo said the Alaroye team was concerned by the state of affairs in the land whereby a people with great potentials for development had been reduced to their present state because of what he described as self interest of the leaders. Immediate gratification, he said, had taken the place of planning for say the next sixty years.

“It would be stupid for any set of people to start thinking of separation in Nigeria today,” he said. “We have gone beyond that level. What we are saying is that the Yoruba people have the potentials of becoming more economically powerful, politically developed and socially advanced than any other group in Nigeria.”

According to him, the reason for this is not far fetched. Its root is in the early education of the Yoruba people which produced among them professors and doctorate degree holders at a time when some other groups were yet to reach out for university education. He referred to two pointer during the colonial era. “Way back in 1945, late sage Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote a book challenging the presence of colonial rulers in Nigeria. Education is a tool of liberation. It is a fact that because of the edge the Yoruba people had in the area of education they were the administrator running the government in the north and part of the east during the colonial days.”

Regrettably, gains of the gatherings could not be consolidated. According to Adedayo, “The gatherings brought great promises. For example, it was at the first gathering that Chief Richard Akinjide raised the issue of two thirds and called upon those who might have been aggrieved to let’s put it behind us.”

The two thirds issue was when Chief Richard Akinjide representing Alhaji Shehu Sagari of the National Party of Nigeria whose 1979 presidential election victory had been challenged by Unity Party of Nigeria presidential candidate late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In what not quite a few Yoruba consider betrayal of great mischievous proportion of Yoruba interest, Akinjide went before the election tribunal and in what would earn any mathematician a Nobel Prize calculated two thirds of nineteen states. Twelve states and two thirds of one!

Gestures such as Akinjides and promises of united front for progress ended up falling on their face as soon as political jostling for power took over.

“We had thought the leaders would steer Yoruba people in the right direction,” said Adedayo. “But we have discovered that it was wrong not to also try and carry the people along.”

WOFEYAC which is scheduled to hold in April in Lagos and Abeokuta simultaneously is an attempt at this.

Alao Adedayo went further to paint a vivid image of second motivation for WOFEYAC. All over the world, there are Yoruba people who had travelled abroad to better their lots in life. Most of them, he said, did not plan to stay long. They only planned to stay maybe five or ten years. At the end of the day, lack of concrete achievements keep them there for long.

Offspring of these Yoruba people end up growing up not as Yoruba. Apart from the fact that they are in different cultural environment, there is the problem of their parents who do not have the time to raise them. They are brought up by foster parents such as day care centres as the parents have to go to work early and return late. By the time they grow up, there is nothing in them resembling Yoruba heritage. Some, contends Adedayo, end up marrying people from other countries and getting to settle down in places like the Caribbean.

The fate of these people is different from that of earlier Yoruba Diaspora of the slave trade era. Completely uprooted in groups and settled permanently, the latter held on to their cultural heritage. The Diaspora of this age is made up of individual sojourners whose plans never went beyond going away for a few years.

To convert this disadvantage into an advantage, the Alaroye crew believe the World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture is a veritable tool. Drawn back to their roots, these scattered Yoruba will become part of the movement to move the Yoruba nation forward.

While Professor Wole Soyinka who according to Adedayo hardly stays more than two weeks at a stretch in Nigeria is mobilising the outside world, former Lagos State governor Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu has been named the National Ambassador of WOFEYAC. His own former presentation in this capacity is billed for next month.

Adedayo explained how these choices were made: “Prof. you know is an arts man, a cultural man. His itinerary takes him all over the world. He is therefore well positioned to spread the message. At the same time, we need someone who can take the message to all parts of Nigeria. I am talking of someone who has access to places like the presidency and national assembly because we need to present a clear image of what we are doing before people will come to the wrong conclusion that it is paganism. Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu is well positioned for this.”

The event itself is billed as a cultural fiesta featuring different aspects of Yoruba life – dance, music, festivals, arts, food, just name it. While groups like Yoruba Council of Elders have representatives on the planning committee, Professor Wande Abimbola is the link with the Ifa devotees. Talks are on with Osun State government to stage a mini Osun Festival. All governors in the South West are patrons while traditional rulers are life patrons. Either as part of the steering committee or as advisers, hardly is there any part of Yoruba leadership that is not involved in WOFEYAC. Adedayo explained that this was to carry everybody along.

Egypt’s role as a base of Black civilisation brought the country in as it is expected to send a cultural team. Countries of West Africa with Yoruba presence, Europe and the Americas are sending delegates. In fact, there are groups in the Caribbean who are requesting that the dates be moved forward a little to enable them prepare better.

In the entrenched Yoruba cultural habit of wrapping even the most serious notions in fun and excitement, the payoff of the festival is Omo Yoruba, e je ka rele odun o. Yoruba sons and daughters, let’s go home for festivities. Homeland beckons. No doubt millions are bound to respond.

Death on the rails track

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos

Railway lines in Nigeria are death traps where a good number of precious lives are lost regularly as Group Editor (Arts and Culture) SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE reports

rail-3.jpgrail-1.jpgrail-2.jpgrail-osogbo-1.jpg

Kingsley was his name but everybody called him Akilapa. His body builder’s frame and six feet height led to his being nicknamed Akilapa, the well-built one. His body that was found on the rails track close to Agbado Station in the suburb of Lagos this early morning was a far cry from the glorious body that housed the youthful thirty something. The left leg was severed close to the hip. The rest of the body, mangled and twisted in awkward angles, was about twenty feet away.

Akilapa’s physical body had been wasting away for several months. The first son of parents each of whom owned a house at Agbado, he was regarded as privileged. After all this is an area where not quite a few cannot afford to rent a single room. A bricklayer by profession, he was married with three beautiful children.

Then he got hooked on alcohol big time. He would start hitting the bottles – bottles of local gin soaked in different kinds of roots – before sunrise. Where he would sleep at night was not assured as he might as well crash at any open shed or the frontage of any house too drunk to carry himself home. It became so bad that one could hardly get him to execute a job except one woke him up before daybreak and stuck to him till the job was completed.

This took a toll on his physique. He started losing weight and the texture of his once luscious hair thinned just as his eyes became permanently bloodshot. Not quite a few of his erstwhile “close friends” and even some family members drew away from him.

As the six o’clock train took off this morning, hardly did anybody had the premonition of the event that was about to occur. Alas, not too long after its departure attention of people in the neighbourhood was drawn to the crushed body on the rails track.

Family members quickly made arrangement to collect the body, whatever was left of it, for a quick burial. It would have been another trouble to allow the railway unit of The Nigeria Police whose post was nearby lay hands on it. Officially, a payment of 20,000 naira would have to be paid to collect the body. Then the family would had to pay for mortuary services nor matter how long the body was there while the police carried out its investigation. Of course, there would be unofficial “settlements” of officers in charge of the case.

The spot where Akilapa died was just some eighty or so yards from where Mama Bola lost her life. A mother of four, she was a trader at Osodi Bus Stop in Lagos and lived at Agbado area of Ogun State. Every morning she woke early to take care of her children and then hurry to her trading post. The train was a more practical means of mobility for her just like many others in the area. A train ride was much cheaper. At fifty naira a trip, it was about half the bus fare. What is more, it takes one off the path of notorious traffic jams on the roads.

Like other days, Mama Bola took care of her children and set her husband’s meal on the table. After bidding members of her family and neighbours farewell she headed for the railway station. Thank God two trains were expected to run this day so the rush for ticket was not as bad as it usually was. Commercial vehicle operators have a way of jerking up their fares when only one train or none at all was running.

She obtained her ticket just in time to jump into the train as it was pulling out of the station. Holding her handbag in one hand and her GSM in the other, she had enough trouble holding the on the handle bar on the side of the door. She managed to hold it and climb the rather high steps that run up virtually vertically. By now the train was on the move. Then fate played a dangerous game on Mama Bola. As she scaled the last step her handset fell from her hand.

Whatever went on in her mind within the following seconds is now lost forever, buried with her. Considering the height of the coach floor from ground, it would have been foolhardy for an athletic six-footer to dream of reaching down to pick a handset even as the train rolled on. But that was that was what this woman did. The result? Her loose wrapper got caught in one of the rolling wheels. She was pulled out of the coach and sucked into the rolling wheels. The family had to bring the coffin to the location to collect the pieces that became of her body.

A policeman attached to one particular railway station police post who spoke with The Nation on condition of anonymity said it was difficult to give figure of how many lives were lost on the railway lines in a year. People generally try to get the bodies off the rails track without reporting to the police. This is to avoid the expenses and stress associated with collecting a corpse from the police. The cases that end up at the police station are generally those in which the deceased is killed where there is nobody knows him to collect the body immediately. Such bodies sometimes lie on the spot for long hours before they are spotted by maybe another train and report is filed as people are not wont volunteer to go and report such incidents.

Deaths that occur on railway lines are results of different factors. The number of casualties also vary. Take the case of the one that occurred at the railway cross at Oyingbo some years back. The Toyota Coaster bus was fully loaded and it took off from Oyingbo bus stop heading in the direction of Apapa Road. Destination, Orile/Mile 2.

As if the devil was determined to soak the railway with blood, soon after the bus rolled out of the park, its engine packed up. This occurred right on the railway track. All attempts by the bus driver to restart the engine proved abortive.

Lo and behold, an express train was rambling up from either Apapa or Ido station heading north. When the driver saw that he could not manage to get the vehicle started and move of the way of the rolling mammoth, he simply opened the door, jumped out and took to his heels. Noticing this, his conductor borrowed a leaf from his boss and took off. A couple of passengers seated near the driver’s door and the only exit door of the long bus succeeded in getting out. A couple of others jumped out through the windows. Of course, the panic senseless rush to get out got people getting stuck as everybody wanted to be the first out of danger’s way.

The train rammed into the bus midriff. By the time it had gone through, the mangled metallic corpse of the bus laid some ten feet from where it stood earlier. A metal pole by the rails track was what actually stopped it. Sighting it, one could hardly said if it was a Coaster bus or a smaller Volkswagen combi bus. The corpses that were recognisable were indeed very few out of the over twenty causalities.

A good number of people while stuck in traffic hold up are careless enough to wait right on the rails track despite the fact that the driving code forbids it and it is a traffic offence. When the GSM means of communication came newly, a young man driving a beautiful BMW car nearly sacrificed himself at the altar of “hello, hello”. He was so busy on the phone while driving that either he did not realise he had reached the rails crossing or he did not connect the deafening blaring horn he heard with a coming train.

He was lucky enough only a small part of the tail end of his vehicle was caught as the train kicked it out of its way and moved on. Double lucky: youths in the area knowing that the train’s driver would file a report and the police would come to tow away the car helped push it into a fenced compound where it remained hidden until the owner came back for it. Yes, it took quite a couple of hours before he came back. Stunned by the impact of close brush with death or scared of authorities’ reaction, he simply jumped out of the car and took to his heels immediately after the accident occurred.

Traders across the nation see railway stations for what they are – booming business sites. Usually markets are established close to railway stations by communities that are lucky to play host to such stations. What is supposed to be a blessing however becomes a curse as traders spread their wares up to right on the railway line. Their belief is that they can always pack up and leave the tracks at the approach of trains. This does not always happen like this as deaths are recorded regularly among these traders. One of the reasons is that they sometimes mistake express trains for local shuttle ones. The former are going long distances and move at a speed that is much faster than the latter.

According to officials of Nigerian Railway Corporation who shared with The Nation, another cause of deaths is stationary coaches. When a coach is parked at a station and the engine has been driven off, people tend to view it as harmless and spread their wares on the tracks. The officials said there had been cases in which these coaches rolled away on their own without any engine to stop them nor drivers to hoot any horn. Before emergency steps could be taken to halt such runaway coaches, only the shouting of people nearby alerted others and sometimes a few lives would have been lost before the macabre movie rolls to an end.

It is said that he whose relative is crushed by a train has no explanation. Would he say the relation was deaf he could not hear the train’s deafening horn? If this were so, was he also blind he could not perceive such a giant contraption? In a situation where the fellow happens to be deaf and blind what of the mere vibration of the ground at the approach of the mighty means of transportation? Folly is always a strong factor in deaths on the rail track.

Probably the most foolish way go on the rail track is one that is very common in Lagos. A good number of train passengers are low income earners with their unique lifestyles. At the stations in the morning you would find not a few intending passengers patronising paraga joints before boarding the train. These are mostly outdoor outlets where cheap spirit and cigarettes are sold. One for the road, some end up consuming some 150 naira worth of paraga the local gin soaked in roots supposedly for the purpose of treating malaria, back ache or general purpose healing plus enhanced sexual performance thrown in for good measure. In the course of this the man might bring his account balance to a round figure of 200 naira with cigarettes that normally go with alcohol.

Now hear this: a man who has just blown 200 naira on feel good will then stand by waiting for the train without making any attempt to purchase the 50 naira ticket. This is what negates the argument that people one found sitting atop coaches like some actors in a B-rated Bollywoon movie do for lack of financial power to obtain tickets. These people wait for when the train it already rolling out of the station to jump aboard.

Not a few had dropped to their deaths in the course of boarding train in this manner. Others fall off the roof as it is a favourite position for those seeking to evade officials who go around checking tickets. The fate of these people is not helped by the fact that level of alertness would have been lowered by the alcohol in their systems. To add to further danger their precarious position, they enjoy freedom up there to smoke marijuana without restraint!

A Lagos banker once argued that train drivers are simply heartless. He recounted a journey he once made to the north. A passenger did not realise that the express train was not scheduled to stop at the station where she wanted to drop. At the last moment she pulled the alarm bell to alert the driver. The train was able to pull up for her to disembark.

Another accusing finger pointed in the direction of Nigeria Railway Corporation and its management and staffs is the state of facilities. Although they rightfully point accusing finger at the government lack of funding for the sector, the truth remains that NRC facilities are at best dilapidated and in many cases outdated. Modern trains in the world make rail transportation in Nigeria look like a tour of Jurassic Park of transport development.

Kingsley AKA Akilapa’s death brings in another dimension to the story of deaths recorded on our rails tracks. At the very least, his death looked suspicious.

This writer saw the corpse less than thirty minutes after a train was supposed to have crushed it. Nothing in the body indicated a fresh corpse. Akilapa who had emaciated due to alcohol abuse had become swollen. No only this, the body had decolourised taken on the dark parlour of a cadaver that had lost heart’s function at least hours before. The most damning evidence to support this suspicion was that despite the several feet over which the train dragged the body cutting it in bits, there was no sign of a drop of blood on the scene. Beyond this, the corpse had lacerations that although fresh were not as fresh as those made during the encounter with the moving train.

The point then is that it is definitely not all bodies found on the rails track are victims of actual train accidents. Ranging from mischievous trigger-happy cops to armed bandits, hired killers, ritual murderers and other dubious elements, the rails track provides an avenue for disposing of a body without raising suspicion.

Did Akilapa fall victim of any of these people? Or did he just drop dead around someone’s compound and the person devised the clever was of disposing of the body without causing himself unnecessary stress? The questions remain hanging.

People The Nation spoke with on the matter all agree to one thing – deaths on the rails track in Nigeria is a manifestation of the decay in the country. Improved transportation system and economic empowerment of the people, better law enforcement system and social reorientation combined will no doubt reduce these accidents.

When these will become parts of the dividends of democracy is what Nigerians are waiting for. For now… ouch! A new victim has just probably been recorded!

My life with Awo – HID

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation three days after Chief (Mrs.) HID Awolowo’s 92nd birthday

hid-3.jpghid-4.jpghid-1.jpg

Last Sunday, matriarch of the Obafemi Awolowo dynasty clocked 92. Just before then, she shared the story of her life with the late legendary politician in an exclusive interview. ADEWALE ADEOYE and Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE write on the encounter 

The compound was serene. Some old men hung around the corridors. The mausoleum, where the late patriarch of the family was kept for nine years stood like a timeless monument. Some birds sang sonorous songs on a bevy of flowers that dot the beautiful landscape.

Inside the building, the sitting room was elegant, modest and full of saintly aroma. It could have been the abode of a clergyman of an earlier century, a principled school principal or a nun. There were no cobwebs, no waste bins, no dirt: the large sitting room was immaculate.

Welcome to the Ikenne, Ogun State home of late political jaugernaut, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The leader’s been gone now – for years. But it still remained home for the object of this hunt, his widow, Chief (Mrs.) Hannah Idowu Dideolu Awolowo.

There were several pictures on the wall: supporters, as numerous as sand upon the seashore with Awo raising the iconic two-finger “V” victory sign, the meeting with Indira Ghandi if India, shaking of hands with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, the meeting with the Queen Elizabeth of England in the late 1950s, and interestingly too the picture of Mama as Chief (Mrs.) H. I. D. Awolowo is fondly called and her late husband oon their wedding day in 1933. In the photograph, Awo was been 24 years old and Mama, 22. She looked like an innocent dove perching on a dew-soaked flower in early summer.

She looked radiant, beautiful and precious. She held the hand of her soul mate, the man who would later transform political landscape of Nigeria in ways no one else has done. Another picture in the room showed her when she was 50 looking as 20 years younger than her age.

She still looked younger and stronger than her 92 years age when she stepped out at her birthday thanksgiving service last Sunday leading the chorus of praise. Accompanied by her children, grandchildren and selected dignitaries such as Governor Gbenga Daniels of Ogun State, she moved with the grace the belied her and radiated what the officiating bishop described as divine glory.

Although her husband passed on some two decades ago, Mama is still alive to see him being celebrated as politicians scramble to proclaim belief in and be identified with his political philosophy and legacy – a good number no doubt dubiously so. Just last week, Otuunba Gbenga Daniels’ government in Ogun State forwarded a draft law to the state legislature seeking the late political legend’s house being named a state monument.

Not that this would be a difficult task. Even his bathroom slippers and comb still lay at appropriate locations in the house as if awaiting the return of their owners. His last diary sits on the table as if awaiting the next entry. Although it is not functional now, there are talks of repairing the Mercedes Benz limousine that took Awo round as he criss-crossed the nation in pursuit of his elusive presidential mandate.

The guests settled in the sitting room awaiting the unique encounter. A lady passed served them pineapple juice. They were on the second round of taken in ornamental glasses when Mama walked into the room. She settled at one corner of the room. Now a few days short of 92, she sat like a god. She was assisted by a young charming lady of Igbo extraction, Chinyere. But the locals in Ikenne now prefer to call her “Kikelomo” meaning a treasured offspring.

Mrs. H. I. D. Awolowo had been intimated with the fact that she was to speak on the travails and triumphs of hersel, her late husband and her family, a clan that is no doubt one of the most influential in Nigeria.

Two daughters were with Mama during the interview. They were Mrs. Oyede Ayodele and Dr. (Mrs.) Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu. Mama requested of them to remind her of events she might have forgotten assuming the posture of mild senility usually associated with people her age which her sharp looks did nothing to confirm. Of course, she spoke clearly vividly recalling events way back to the first day she met her late husband around 1930.

How did you feel on the first day Awo met you? She was asked, writer looking straight into her scintillating eyeballs.

“In those days,” she recalled, “a man would propose to you in writing. Obafemi wrote a letter to me that he was in love with me and wanted to marry me.”

Wisdom teaches that women are like diplomats. Do not expect a straight anwer from them to such a request. They would never say yes. They would say “No” when they actually mean “Maybe” and “Maybe” when they mean “Yes.” So it was that young Hannah said “No” which late graduated to a “Maybe.” At this point, young Obafemi knew he had won the battle.

The couple got married in 1933, few years before the outbreak of the Second World War. Awo was 24 and his bride 22.

“We had a good beginning,” she reminiscences her face glowing the memories of a wonderful past barely exposing what looked like a set of milk teeth, “and I thank God for the good time we both spent together.”

Hannah Idowu Dideolu was born in 1910 to a modest family in the small Ikenne community of Ogun State. It was at a time when the educated elite and number of cars in the country could be counted on fingertips. Lagos, which is now barely 40 minutes drive from Ikenne would take drivers two days in those days. Kano to Ikenne in 1910 would take two weeks. Travellers going overseas, mostly to London, spent about one month seafaring.

It was an era when colonialism was rife in Africa, revolutionary movements threatened autocratic regimes in Asia and Eastern Europe and Black renaissance movement was gathering steam in the United States of America. Nigeria in 1910 was a young politically. In fact, only one political party, the Peoples’ Union, established in 1902 and led by two medical doctors, J. K. Randle and Orishadipe, were in existence. By 1933 when Hannah got married to Obafemi, there had been rapid growth in the social and political awareness in Nigeria.

It was not long the wedding that the family moved to Ibadan. In the late 1930s, Hannah’s husband journeyed to London where he studied law. He left behind his wife now the young mother of a baby boy, Segun. She was equally pregnant with Oluwole.

“I felt a bit lonely when he left for London but was contended that it was for the good of the family,” Mrs. Awolowo recalled that period of their lives. She recollected one remarkable event that took place which brings to mind the young couple’s not too comfortable financial status.

Having secured admission to study in London, the family had no money to pursue the course. H. I. D. said, “Awo wrote a letter to a prominent businessman seeking financial assistance. I will not wish to mention the name. The request was turned down. But we thank God for everything. He was the one who saw us through.”

Although Mama would not disclose the identity of the businessman it is now a well known fact that the business mogul based at Ijebu Ode who is now about 110 years old, said later that he regretted not lending Awo the money he needed to pursue his education.

By the time Awo came back to Nigeria, the political space was largely dominated by Herbert Macaulay, an engineer and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. The latter could speak several Nigerian languages and had the habit of bamboozling the crowds with his verbose use of the English grammar.

In 1948 when Egbe Omo Yoruba was launched by Awo and his friends, Hannah was on hand to play the role of a supportive partner. She went with him on campaign trips and hosted political associates and other guests at home. She also accompanied him on as many trips as caring for the children would permit.

Most remarkable about this woman was her dogged support for her husband through a traumatic epoch in Nigerian history an in which her husband was the main actor. In 1962, the arrest of her husband on phantom charges of coup plotting was shocking to her. She was with her him when the gang of armed security personnel came calling. He was accused of planning to overthrow the government of Nigeria.

Earlier on when Awo came to power in 1954 in the Western region, he had transformed the area into a mini-paradise and the envy of many of her peers. He built the first TV station and the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa. Awo built the most formidable University located at Ile-Ife. Every child in his region was given access to free and compulsory education. Several industrial estates were established including but not limited to the Ikeja and Bodija Estates in Lagos and Ibadan respectively. The whole of the South West was also mapped into agrarian and industrial estates. The United Nations Development Program, UNDP rating the region as being at per with many European countries at the time in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the growth rate.

H. I. D. stood with her husband throughout all these years providing the conducive atmosphere for him to function at his best. However, the early 1960s was for her an era of travails. The Federal authorities waged consistent propaganda on the radio and TV denouncing Awo.

She was however a great source of emotional, spiritual and physical strength for her deliberately persecuted husband. Mama did not only face the jeering of political opponents, she also lost her first son, Segun, a lawyer in a ghastly motor accident along Lagos-Ibadan road at a time her husband was serving prison term for treason. Looking back at those years, Mrs. Awolowo said she bore the tribulations with the passion of a Christian realizing that all things that come into being must pass away.

Chief Ayo Adebanjo, a close political associate and friend of the family, told our correspondent in a chat that in one of Awo’s campaigns in Eastern Nigeria, a man threwn a stone from upstairs of a storey building which landed on Awo’s head. He said instead reacting, Awo simply concealed his pain from his wife and continued with his speech as if nothing had happened.

The Federal authorities did not help the situation either. The Tafawa Balewa regime was faced with uprising in the Western region after the 1959 elections believed to have been widely rigged. Mama said she was disturbed. Awo was in his late 40s and she in her mid-40s, usually the prime time that couples hope to have the most passionate relashionship and the spend the best of times together as a family. This was a privilege the Awolowos were not to enjoy.

“They came with armed men and led him away,” she said.

Her husband was at first taken to Epe on the Atlantic Ocean. As the armed men led him away, she recalled how she felt lonely and dejected. A crowd of supporters burst into the old ballad as Awo was led across the sea as if he was never to return. It was the Christian hymn Abide With Me rendered in Yoruba: Wa ba mi gbe, ale fere l’etan, Okun kun su Oluwa Bami gbe, bi oloran lowo miran baye, iranwo alaini wa ba mi gbe.

Mrs. Awolowo said from Epe Island, her husband was again returned to their family home until he was whisked away to Calabar Prison after his conviction where he was served his until the coup of July 1966 after which General Yakubu Gown set him free.

Mama is particularly thrilled by the cultural revolution that the late Hebert Ogunde led through her sonorous revolutionary music, Yoruba Ronu, an epistemological appeal to the people of the South West to wake up in their mental slumber and rescue the race from her political stupor. The military leaders did not only release her husband, something she was thrilled to witness, the events also led to the victory of light over darkness. By 1966, almost all the conspirators that worked day and night to persecute and humiliate the late sage had either been shot on the streets by the coupists or found themselves in exile. Mama’s better half made a triumphant re-entry into Nigerian politics and he was latter appointed as the Vice Chairman of the Finance.

Things ran smoothly with Awo playing different roles until the Second Republic when he returned to politics on the platform of his party, Unity Party of Nigeria. He lost bids for the presidency to President Shehu Shagari both in 1979 and 1983 under suspicious circumstances. The obvious fraudulent charade that went by the name of 1983 elections saw the military coming back to power exactly three months into the new term. Again, the Awo camp felt vincicated.

By the time Awo passed on, he stood like a colossus his image dominating the land. It has been said that apart for Oduduwa the founder of the race, no other person rises taller than Awolowo among the Yoruba nations of South West Nigeria. From his humble peasant background days to the peak of his achievement, the Senior Advocate of Nigeria had on woman on his side confirming the much misused cliché, behind every successful man, there is a woman. She was there during the travails and they shared the laurels of victory together. Now the children and grandchildren are there the keep Mama happy while the legacy of her husband sweetens her life. Paragon of in her younger days, she has aged graciously.

As the interview wound up, a simple request was made of his widow. It turned out to be the peak of the encounter. Asked if she could recite some of her late husband’s oriki Yoruba praise chant, she lit up like a Christmas tree. Beaming as if she could actually feel and see his presence in the room, she plunged into it in their native Ijebu dialect. No doubt she was actually seeing him in her mind’s eyes. She reeled out the lines with the ease and skill of much use. Her eyes roved over spaces in the sitting room as if conjuring wonderful moments they spent together. No doubt her mind was filled with happy memories. After all, it is said that sweet is the memory of the righteous. Such memory of Awo is clearly more alive in the mind of Chief (Mrs.) H. I. D. Awolowo that any other living being.

Isedale’s journey to Christmas Eve groove

February 26, 2008

This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos

isedale-049.jpg

Isedale 

Last December, Isedale and De Cowries and other artists go on stage launch the next level of their musical pursuit. His is a fusion of traditional rhythm and elements of classical jazz. Alliance Francais first put him on stage. Then Felabration at the Afrika Shrine last year confirmed his worth. The crooner cum instrumentalist spoke on his journey so far with The Nation Group Arts and Culture Editor PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

When his name was announced as the next performer during last year’s Felabration, an event set aside to celebrate the life of late Afro beat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti, hardly did anybody know what to expect. He was billed alongside other artistes both worldwide famous ones and obscure ones. But what kind of name is Isedale? Could it be another imitation of Lagbaja?

The opening glee was a fast rush of heavy African percussion reminiscent of acrobatic masquerades’ shows. It is a hot charge that seemed a thunder on assignment in the dry season. The musicians, instrumentalists and dancers skimped onto the stage with the same gusto skipping like dervishes. The choreography reflected coordinated complex moves that could only have been born out of rigorous rehearsals.

At the head of the team was Isedale himself. Standing at six feet, dark skinned and well built, he was the archetypal African male image. Surging with energy that befits a poster boy of African personality, he moved so deftly that at times members of his Cowries band had difficulty moving with him as he changed from one mode to another.

The fast tempo drums work lasted only a few minutes. It was brought to an arresting halt that created an eerie silence. The audience did not know what to do – applaud or wait for the next. Before anybody could resolve what to do next, the musician changed gear.

Blaring horns ushered in the mellow ballad that followed. Lagbaja has succeeded in incorporating traditional drums into his Felaresque Afro calypso. But this was something else. Both the rhythm and the predominance of percussions in their raw forms spoke of deep-rootedness in African tradition.

Then the lyrics.

Any child who grew up in traditional African village knows about the folklores the entertained, enlightened and instructed young ones in Africa of those days. One form of folklore is what the Yoruba people call alo apagbe in which call and response songs go with the tales. Imagine presenting it through a modern musical orchestra ensemble and you would begin to perceive what Isedale is all about.

The king put together a special reception to receive a unique guest. The festive gathering was to welcome Isedale. No, not Isedale the musician although pun was intended. The Isedale is :tradition” personified in the track, Teremina. The difference between sweet potato and Irish potato is as clear as that between the heads of an elephant and the buffalo. Thus Isedale blended witty lines with mumbling additives to chart out his conviction that African traditional culture remained superior to modern pop culture.

He is actually a product of the tradition he celebrates. His father was a peasant farmer and the mother a petty trader. They could hardly afford to train him and after his mother died an aunt took him to a neighbouring West African country where he had a first taste of people often encounter when they stake their destinies upon promises of mortals.

His father was also a musician who had his own band. “He played molo,” Isedale said, “which some people sometimes call sakara. It is a genre that has more or less disappeared completely by now.

“My father taught me to play drums when I was eight and a half years old. In those days, someone would actually carry me on the shoulder while another would hold the drum for me to dish out my stuff.”

Even at that early stage his prodigious talent was manifest. The community had a number of were bands that would go round in the morning to rouse up Islamic faithful early to prepare sari during the fasting month of Ramadan. The leader of one band took particular interest in young Isedale. He would take him out to perform with his band even that early in the morning. Isedale’s father was not happy about this development. He had lived a hard life and concluded that life as an alagbe begging minstrel was not for his son. Although he taught Isedale to play drums he insisted the young boy must aspire to acquire western education and seek career far from the music industry.

Primary school was at the village while secondary school he began there was concluded at Ota when he went to stay with one of his sister to get exposed to life beyond the limited horizon of hamlet – more or less a farmstead – where he grew up. Thereafter he headed for the technical college to study computer. This he did not conclude as an aunt resident in a neighbouring West African country invited him over with the promise that he would continue his training there in a better set up.

Isedale soon returned to Nigeria as the promises made were nothing more than empty shells. Frustrated, he drifted up and down swimming in the slime of lack and emotional pain. Depression was his daily companion.

A friend he had known before leaving Nigeria introduced him the his brother who was a sailor. Without any maritime training, he was brought on board as a cook. In the course of this, the friend’s brother who was the captain started breaking him on the rudimentary principles and practical of handling a vessel. It was when he moved to another sea-faring fishing vessel that fate brought him in contact with a captain who himself was a saxophonist. The man encouraged him not to abandon music and so when the crew of the vessel were dismissed alongside their captain Isedale came back home to turn to music.

Meanwhile, an incident occurred upon his return from his first sailing trip. When he was leaving home to pursue his career, his pauper father was able to put together 300 naira for him to transport himself from Ogun State to Port Harcourt where he was to report. Upon his return, a mysterious eye problem made the chairman of the company give him money and put him on a flight to Lagos from Port Harcourt to go and treat himself.

As he landed in Lagos, the eye problem just disappeared. “It just disappeared. It was as if it was never there.”

Well he was home anyway. So he headed for Agege where his fiancé, a lady he had met during his computer training, lived with her family. It was upon getting there that he was met with the devastating news of his father’s death. Having lost his mother much earlier in life and seen what the father had to go through to make sure he became something in life, it was difficult to handle. The 5,000 naira he had packaged as a gift for his father now went into funeral expenses!

Isedale was trying to put together a demo when fate brought in contact with the man who would become his manager. Together they have put together a formidable band of trained professionals and cut at least three solid tracks.

It was the manager who introduced him to the French Cultural Centre in Lagos where he was first given an opportunity to perform live on stage during their celebration of Fela. Incidentally his next engagement was Felabration at the Afrika Shrine. He could not honour invitation to perform at the World Music Day concert put together by the French Cultural Centre as elements within PMAN insisted only “registered” artistes could perform.

Tonight, Isedale goes on state at the Community Hall at Alagbado, a suburb of Lagos that is the location of a major railway station. Other upcoming artistes too will be on stage with him.

“What we plan to do,” he explained to The Nation, “is to try and raise fund while at the same time creating more awareness about our music. We need the fund to put finishing touches to and get our first work into the market.”

Life in automatic gear

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos 

Timothy Abiodun Olatokunbo Tugbiyele’s life appears to be an uncharted path. He has moved from one point to another in life – into law, teaching, writing, publishing and organising seminars – without necessarily consciously preparing for the next level. He shared his life journey with The Nation Group Arts and Culture Editor PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

 

“They say people go into Law because of ambition,” Timoty Tugbiyele stated candidly, “honestly I did not have any ambition of studying Law. I never consciously planned to be a lawyer. I wanted to study Mass Communications.”

Young T. A. O. Tugbiyele’s life was on a roll from the start. Encounters and accidents – in the realistic and metaphorical use of the word – shaped him into a successful law career. Born in the United States of America in 1955 where his parents were students, he did not grow up there. He attended primary and secondary schools in Nigeria attending the famous Christ School, Ado Ekiti and Igbobi College in Lagos. It was at this point that fate took over the shaping of his life.

“I grew up in an academic setting,” he told The Nation at his Yaba law chambers office with expression of explaining the obvious. “In the academic setting, it was just normal that you went to primary school and from there to the secondary school. From there you naturally proceeded to the university.

“I wanted to study Mass Communications. It was then being offered only at the University of Lagos while University of Nigeria Nsukka offered Journalism. I could not secure admission to UNN. Unilag on its part did even consider me as my A level grades were not good enough. Mass Communications and Law were the most competitive courses in Unilag in those days.

“There was no JAMB then. You had to apply to individual university on you own. Now University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, had the system of preliminary concessional admission. I obtained the form and applied for Law. I applied to study Law because it was the best course an arts student could apply for. They granted me admission and that was how I went into Law.”

Without any interest whatsoever in the field of Law, Tugbiyele confessed he was not a serious student in the university. “I was not a serious student at the university o,” he said with the chuckle of a mischievous child. “Because I was not interested in Law, I just passed through the university playing the normal youthful student.”

That was to change when he entered the Law School after leaving Ife in 1979. While at the Nigerian Law School, his legal epiphany occurred. While on law office attachment, he discovered what law practice was all about for the first time and fell in love with it. Since then he has been pursuing its teaching, practice and publishing all of which he has done rather successfully.

After he was called to Bar in 1980, he served the compulsory NYSC in Bauchi State. Thereafter he worked with the firm of Barrister Niyi Oyetunde in Jos, Plateau State for about three years before returning to the Nigerian Law School, Lagos – this time as a lecturer.

Again fate dealt him another hand he did not plan for. His plan was to remain at the Law School as a lecturer for as long as possible. Both his parents were teachers. The father retired as a professor from the Education faculty of Unilag while the mother retired as a secondary school principle. So, it is jus understandable that the first son of the family of five siblings would take to teaching.

One and a half years into his teaching career, the then military junta led by Buhari and Idiagbon issued a decree banning civil servants from private practice. Rather than foregoing the courtroom confined to the classroom, Tugbiyele opted out of the Law School and opened his own chambers. He has not looked back since then.

Despite his childhood dreams of going into the field of mass communications, Tugbiyele never planned going into writing. He recalled his sojourn into writing: “Right from when I was in Jos, we have been involved quite a good number of debt recovery. So, I thought the experience I had gathered could enrich others. That was what led to my writing my first book entitled Debt Recovery Through Summary Judgement first in 1996 before it was repackaged and released in 2007.

After publishing that one book, Tugbiyele went back to focusing his attention on the practice of law organising seminars for lawyers and corporate bodies on the sideline – the teacher in him simply refused to be buried. Without seeking his approval, the hand of fate again shifted the gear of Tugbiyele’s life. In 2004, he fell sick.

“I fell sick in 2004 and my movement was restricted. Although I am okay now, the result of the sickness is my publishing six books between then and now because while confined to my house, I turned to writing.”

Debt Recovery Through Summary Judgment  deals with “short cuts” to obtaining judgment in debt recovery matters and is a practical handbook for judges, lawyers, law students, businessmen and all who are interested in that aspect of law as debt recovery without the rigours of trial is a must for debt recovery practitioners.

A specific case is the focus of Debt Recovery Mareva Injuction and Anton Piller Orders released in 2006. Law of Banking and Motor Vehicle Accident Claims, Defamation Laws, Practice and Procedure were published in 2007. These are all purely legal books for lawyers and law students. An interesting exception the Tugbiyele’s collection of books is his biographical work, F. R. A. Williams – The Legal Icon. It was published in 2005 after the passing on of the father of legal practice in Nigeria.

Looking back with the hindsight of someone with 27 years experience in the field, Tugbiyele assessed the state of legal practice in Nigeria and gave kudos to the rulers of the past eight years of civilian dispensation.

“Take Lagos State for example,” he said, “new court rooms built by the Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu regime. Most court rooms are air conditioned. They have power generators. They are equipped with computers. Magistrates and judges are better paid and they have good cars with some of them even riding jeeps. It is quite a positive development in the legal system.”

Beyond these provisions, Tugbiyele also assessed the dispensation of justice itself saying, “In those days, it was believed that you could frustrate someone by pursuing a case up to the Supreme Judge level. But look as what is happening today. Take for instance the Ladoja and Rotimi Amechi cases whereby the Supreme Court took care of the cases within one year.

“Another thing you have to pay attention to is that civilian rulers obey court judgments – although many people correctly pointed out that Obasanjo disobeyed court rulings. It was  not so during the military. They ruled by decrees and flagrantly disobeyed court rulings. The judiciary suffered much under military regimes. I think the civilians have tried. To me, Obasanjo tried. At least we have democracy. My quarrel with him is that he was busy selling Nigeria. Had the third term bid succeeded, he would have sold the entire nation into the hands of foreign interests.”

Taking a look into the state of things at his former primary constituency, the Nigerian Law School, Tugbiyele commended the state of affairs there. “The present Director in my view has good intentions. The issue of backlog is over. According to information available to me, the Law School has been computerised. Every student is now expected to have a laptop. The days of writing on the board with chalk is over. That is a good development as computer literacy is the trend all over the world.”

He however frowned at the cost of obtaining law training.

“I learnt that the school fees at the Nigerian Law School is now 220,000,000 naira.” He should know – his first born is due to resume there in a few days. “Apart from this, the student is expected to acquire a laptop computer that goes for between 120,000,000 and 180,000,000 naira. Then he or she has to have two to three black suits, black shoes, white shirts and ties. So, anyone planning to send his ward to the Law School now has to be thinking of about one million naira. How many Nigerians can afford that? What that means is that only the rich can have access to legal training. That is wrong in a society where egalitarianism should be the order of the day.

“If the cost of Law School is this high there is the need for the Council of Legal Education to have a rethink. Maybe it is time they allow private law schools. That is what is obtainable in the United States of America. Even in the United Kingdom there are four inns through which barristers can be called to the bar while there is Society of Solicitors where solicitors qualify. There should be private law schools with the same Council of Legal Education setting the examinations and marking the scripts. One can then be able to choose whether to go to an expensive law school or a cheap one.”

Apart from writing, Tugbiyele publishes and markets his books. Assessing this area of endeavour, he concluded: “I have not found publishing economically rewarding. I did not study publishing or marketing. The first thing I observed is that the cost of printing is very exorbitant. The second is that Nigerians are very dishonest. Give a bookseller books on sales on return basis, when you go back to collect the money, they would claim the books are not yet sold. Okay, bring the unsold copies and they would tell you they had given them out to other booksellers.”

In Tugbiyele’s opinion, Nigerian law books are of the same quality as imported books. “The only problem is that the quality of printing out there is better than ours. That is why some writers in Nigeria prefer to print abroad. I have not done that. I print my books here which makes their prices reasonable.”

That took us into the area of the high cost of legal books.

“Law books cannot be cheap. The legal practitioner is not a writer. So when he goes into writing, he is going out of his normal schedule. So you have to pay for the time he is taking off to write. Another point is the cost of doing research. There are law books in my library here that go for as high as 80,000 a book and 100,000 a set. We also have to buy weekly law reports some of which go for 1,000 naira. So, the cost of putting together law books are high. That is why they are expensive.”

His next project which is expected to see the light of day in the first quarter of 2008 is an effort at making legal materials readily available at cheaper prices. It is going to be an annual publication, a digest of Supreme Court, the Appeal Court and high courts judgments.

Apart from this, Tugbiyele is working on some new books one of which is co-authored with his father who passed on in April this year. It is a collection of papers presented at a seminar where they were both facilitators.

Tugbiyele took a swipe at some of his colleagues when asked what the value of an average lawyer would be. He said the problem of many of them is that rather than invest in their law libraries a good number waste money on buildings, flashy cars and cloths, jewelleries and wining and dining. An average lawyer of about 15 years practice, he said, should have a library worth some five million naira. He however pointed out other research avenues are rendering book filled shelves obsolete as books have short lifespan. CDs and online research are taking over.

Asked what his typical day looked like, Tugbiyele said he wakes up around four o’clock every morning. “I live at Ikotun,” he said. “If you live at Ikotun, you have to wake up early as you would need about two hours to get Yaba or the court on the Island. Ikotun is a terrible place. There you would find people who had taken over one side of a two-lane road selling TV which prospective buyers gather to watch right on the road. If you as much as move too close they would fight you for encroaching on their territory. I waste average of five hours a day as a result of hold up. I have written the Alimosho Local Government Chairman but he has not even acknowledge the receipt of my letter.

I hope Governor Babatunde Fashola, who incidentally is building on the good foundation laid by Bola Tinubu, would do something about Ikotun area. The Chairman there is not performing at all. Look at Musin, it is cleaner now than it was two years ago which means the government is doing something there.

Lagos generally is a dirty place. It is polluted. What with all the fumes coming out of the exhausts of the molue and other automobiles. If you have asthma you will soon drop dead in Lagos.”

Although he plans by a bicycle for riding toward the end of the year, Tugbiyele does not believe in hobbies neither does he belong to any social club. “Work to me is not work. It is a hobby – whether I am preparing for court or I am writing. The only thing I call work in Lagos is the tress on the roads.”

Tugbiyele is a Christian, a status fate bestowed on him in another accidental encounter.

Hear his story: “When I was in the university, I was like any normal youth. I drank and smoked. I enjoyed riding my power bikes. I was not a womaniser but I had what we called general fun. My father was a deacon in the Baptist church but never compelled any of us to take religion seriously. Meanwhile while I was at Christ School, it was a matter of going to church sometimes three times a day which turned me off. So I stopped going to church.

“In 1976 I had a really nasty accident right on campus while riding my bike. That sobered my up and I started attending church. On January 1, 1979, I prayed saying, ‘God, if you are in this church I want to stop drinking’ and the Lord granted my request. On April 18 that same year I got born again. I am not saying I am perfect o. I fall and rise. But I am reconciled with God.”

Tugbiyele’s word for upcoming lawyers is to pursue excellence through diligence. Not all have to necessarily become litigators. And you don’t have to stick rigidly to some view points. The important thing is to be diligent.”

‘I wouldn’t write what I write if I had remained in Nigeria’

February 26, 2008

This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos, Nigeria 

Chika 

Chika Unigwe is a Belgium-based Nigerian author with highly priced awards in her kitty. Last December, she came into the country to promote her first full-length novel, The Phoenix. She took time off to speak with The Nation newspaper of Nigeria’s Group Arts and Culture Editor PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE on her art, life as a Nigerian married to a Belgian, life of Nigerian writers abroad and state of Nigerians in Belgium

“I travelled down to Antwerp to research my forthcoming novel,” Chika Unigwe told The Nation with a sense of discovery. “Do you know that I went into a café to get information about the lives of Nigerian prostitutes there. I met a good number who spoke openly about their profession and what life is like living in Belgium as a prostitute.”

The forthcoming book is entitled A Tale of Choices and Displacement. Its theme is the lifestyle of Nigerian ladies plunged into prostitution in Belgium. Chika could not have carried out the research at Turnhout where she lives with her Belgian husband and four sons and where she is also a councillor. The town is a smaller one and the Nigerian population there is small. More so, Turnout is not the primary setting of A Tale of Choices and Discipline quite unlike The Phoenix, the book Chika is currently in Nigeria promoting.

Chika Unigwe believes Belgium has been good to the teeming Nigerians resident there. A good number have of them, according to her, have valid papers and have good jobs and live good lives. Others, of course, entered the country illegally or are there with expired visas. As a result, there are engaged in cat and mouse game with immigrations officials.

The subject of prostitution is a major preoccupation with Chika. She had always been interested with the plight of women. Living in Belgium now, she has continued to explore the subject. In Belgium, prostitution is legal. As a result, those engaged in the business have no need to fear the law.

“When I walked into this particular café,” Chika continued, “the ladies I spoke with freely gave me information. I discovered for example, they were not ashamed of telling me their places of origin in Nigeria. I found out that most of them were from Edo State. I asked one where she came from, she replied, ‘Edo State, of course” as if I must have been uninformed asking her where she came from.”

Chika met her husband at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in her undergraduate days. They got married just before graduation and moved on to Belgium soon after. If she has risen to become a city councillor, no doubt she had integrated well. More so, she writes first in the Dutch language of her husband’s homeland. The Phoenix was released in Dutch 2005 as De Feniks. Even her parents-in-law had learnt English language to be able to communicate with her properly.

Yet it must have been a daring move for her to just pack up and move to a strange land. What was her parents’ reaction, for example? “Oh, my parents said they had always known I could make such a more. You see, before I met my husband I had gone out with an Indian.” Chika explained with a mischievous grin.

Oge, the main character in her The Phoenix did not fare as well as Chika although they share far so many resemblances one is tempted to think the author had set out to write a biographical novel.

Like Chika, Oge grew up in Enugu. She met a Belgian there and married him and they later moved to Turnhout, the city where Chika lives. But there the similarities end.

The Phoenix is at once arresting and haunting. The entire story takes place in the course of a train trip from one town to another within Belgium, a country not reputed for large landmass. Oge was on her way to keep an appointment with her surgeon. On the way, a fellow passenger, a white woman who said she had been to Africa although she could not understand while an Igbo speaker would not be able to speak Swahili, kept pestering her with questions about her continent, herself and life of the Africans in Belgium.

In the course of this questioning, Oge’s state of mind was revealed. She was just to preoccupied with her personal burdens she was in no way interested in listening to any small talk or answering pointless questions. As she ruminates absent-mindedly, flashbacks take the reader to the events of her life in both the recent and far past. Of course, with author’s style, things do not follow logical sequence. The story goes back and forth floating with the subject’s mental journeys.

The book opens in the first person narrative form. As soon as Oge’s inner man took over, the narrative shifts to an unusual second person. Consumed in the bipolar manifestations of her life, Oge, living in self denial following her only son’s death, began to refer to herself as “you” as if the subject was an individual not connected with her.

When Oge met her husband, it was a tale of love at first sight. He was working in Nigeria as an expatriate oil worker. They later got married and moved to Belgium. Even then, crisis did not begin until Oge got pregnant. Her husband told her he was expecting her to go into motherhood that early in their relationship when he still enjoying his new status as a husband. Why bring a stranger in between them?

When pregnancy did not destroy his wife’s stature as he feared Oge’s husband began to soften. By the time the scan of the pregnancy presented them a preview of their baby, he began to fall in love. By the time the baby was born, they both fell in love with him and set out the business of parenting. Then at the age of five, death struck. The baby died as the result of an accident at his school.

Both parents were devastated no doubt. But Oge went to the extreme. She insisted her boy was not dead. For a whole year she bought his Christmas gifts and birthday gifts. The pyjamas were laid out for the dead boy every night and neatly folded at dawn. The physical evidence of the cremated boy’s ashes poured into an urn that was in the sitting room did nothing to make her face reality.

When Oge met a Nigerian at a supermarket while shopping and that one invited her to a church where miracles happen on a regular basis, she jumped at the opportunity. Special offerings, fasting and prayer accompanied with reading of prescribed Bible passages daily did nothing to reverse the situation. When she told the pastor her son was not yet back he simply replied that it was because her faith was too small. She walked away from the church but with nowhere to turn to.

With the death of their son and their resultant opposite poles acceptance of the situation, husband and wife drifted apart. The love that bound them together evaporated and bickering ruled the home. Cultural differences between the two came to the surface and Oge would have returned to Nigeria but for the fear that her parents – her mother in particular who was a devout Catholic – would not accept her divorcing her husband.

One blow knocking one down is not the same as being hit after taking the fall. Son dead, marriage turned into a nightmare, Oge would have thought that was enough. Then the discovery of a lump in her breast which turned out to be cancer. Oge refused to share with anybody including her husband and even the pastor of the church she attended and the only person she has close to a friend in Turnhout. Her mental torture snowballed into frenzied search for a way out of the hell hole. Suicide seemed the best option.

When Oge received a letter from his father in Nigeria, she knew it was something odd as it was the first letter from him in her eight-year stay in Belgium. Skilfully Chika Unigwe steers the reader back to Nigeria. In fact the ruminations of Oge’s husband is another such “intrusion” at this stage of the narrative. In this particular “diversion” the crises rocking the Niger Delta zone of Nigeria became the setting.

Her mother who although married to an Igbo man hailed from the Niger Delta joined other agitators to protest a new pipeline project that was going to further adversely affect her hometown. In the course of the peaceful rally, the police moved in with batons and guns. Some died but Oge’s mum only escaped with major injuries. His father then persuaded both mother and daughter for the mother to visit Belgium for a short rest.

The mother’s arrival was the turning point. On arrival, she was moved into the only spare room in her son-in-law’s apartment. It was the late son’s room which Oge still preserved proclaiming that her son needed to meet his things in proper state on his return. When she suggested taking his clothes back to Nigeria as gifts for a needy child, Oge flared up. What would her son come home to meet? The mother was flabbergasted. With a child dead for a year how could it have been impossible for someone to come into terms with the reality of his eternal departure?

This was the time Oge came to accept the reality. That night too, her husband turned to her in bed and held her as of old. Healing time one might say. It was then the story reverted to the first person narrative.

Although the problem of cancer persisted till the end of the story it was not a major problem if the doctors assurances were anything to go by.

Can a Nigeria-based author create the kind of stories told by Nigerian authors in the Diaspora? That was the question The Nation put to Chika Unigwe after discussing her novel. Her response was that the experience of relocation from one’s homeland is a peculiar one. The sense of loss of roots forges in the writer what no other experience can achieve.

Hear her: “I wouldn’t have been able to write The Phoenix is I had not left Nigeria. The theme and story line are just in line with my experiences gathered in the course of living in Belgium for years. I have no doubt it is the same with other Nigerian authors based abroad.”

Based on this premise, one was tempted to conclude that home-based writers were at a disadvantage. Not so.

Chika Unigwe was flanked by Anwuli and Eniola of Farafina during the course of the chat. Farafina is the publishing house that published The Phoenix and organised the book tour that brought Chika to Nigeria. As we chatted sitting opposite each other on low stools separated by a low table, Muktar Bakare worked at one section of his office. Farafina is his brainchild and he runs the outfit. The section had normal working table while this side had a relaxed curio-filled furnishing. Both sides boasted of exquisite art works hanging on the walls most being paintings of another Nigeria author and painter, United States of America-based Victor Ehikhamenor.

The journey started three years ago. Today, not only Diaspora-based authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chika Unigwe are enjoying Farafina’s commitment to the book industry.

“Our mission and commitment is telling our own story,” Farafina’s Anwuli said quoting the company’s pay-off line. Qualitative publishing of books by Africans is their commitment. The editing and printing of their books leaves no one in doubt of their commitment. From new authors to established ones, the work only needs to be a good one to attract Farafina’s attention. From Kenyan Ngugi wa Th’iongo to Nigerian Ben Okri, Tanure Ojaide to Segun Afolabi, they have been shunning out works of fiction of high quality. Even now, as reflected in the list of coming works in The Phoenix, at least four books by Maik Nwosu are in the pipeline. Beyond fiction, they are moving into school books and other areas of publishing.

No doubt one of the greatest problems of Nigerian authors is that over the years there had been a dearth of committed publishers. This resulted in many writers having to publish themselves – a shoddy arrangement, to say the least. With the entrance of committed publishers like Farafina, aspiring writers now have hope.

Farafina does not just publish, they take the books and the authors to the reader. Last weekend, Chika Unigwe had readings at Quintessence at Ikoyi, Lagos and Bookworm at Victoria Island also in Lagos. A week before that she was at Jazzhole at Ikoyi. Months earlier, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was in town to promote her Half of a Yellow Sun.

Were these readings organised to expand the reading audience? “No,” Farafina officials said. “That comes with it but it is not the main objective. The main objective is to introduce out authors and their works to the reading public. It does not make sense if an author’s work is released to the market and those who actually read are not aware of it. So, the readings are interactive sessions between the authors and the reading public.”

Is Farafina interested in expanding the market? You bet. Part of their efforts at expanding the reading audience is the ongoing Farafina Read and Rule campaign. It started on December 1 and runs till January 15 next year. During this period, anybody purchasing any title on the Farafina stable enjoys between five and ten per cent discount. There is also gift vouchers valid for purchasing their books which one can give out as season’s gifts.

“This is a season of giving. This is our way of giving back to the society while at the same time growing the book market.” Definitely a reasonable combination. Despite its commendable success in three years in the business, it is in the interest of Farafina to grow the market.

“Being an author is Nigeria is not the same thing as publishing abroad,” words of Chika Unigwe. The Phoenix, she said, passed through close to ten re-writes. “Over there, you have editors and all sorts of people to work with. This is both an advantage and an irritant at times. It enhances the quality of the work you finally produce but at the same time their insistence on some changes can be difficult to swallow at times.”

Chika’s stories have been broadcast several times on BBC World Service, Radio Nigeria and many other Commonwealth radio stations around the world.The author won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition for her story Borrowed Smile and a Flemish literary prize for her first story written in Dutch, De Smaak van Sneeuw. She was also a nominee for the 2004 Caine Prize. Her short stories Dreams and Thinking of Angels were short-listed for the Million Writers Best Online Fiction in 2005. The same year her story Confetti, Glitter and Ash came third in the Equiano Prize for Fiction.This beautiful, married mother of four began her foray into the world of Arts with a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and holds a Masters of Arts from Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Chika Unigwe also holds a doctorate from University of Leiden, Netherland with a thesis tracing the antecedents of Igbo women’s art of writing as a form of setting things right.

Having to take care of four boys, Chika explained, was responsible for her wearing simple braids – dreadlocks. Asked what her odd traits were as all creative people manifest different such traits, Chika answered with a low laughter. She cannot burst a balloon. She does not wear wrist watches. Throw in a couple of such oddities more and the image is nearly complete.

Physically, the slim fair-skinned beauty hardly manifests traits of someone who had given birth to a child let alone four boys. Artistically, The Phoenix reveals her and a highly observant and deeply meditative writer. Her use of language is simple without being simplistic. She picks her words carefully and the story flows fluidly with considerable use of similes.

As Chika heads for Abuja on the next phase of her book tour, one gets the impression of some whose only destination is upward. Does she plan to go into other things in life other than writing?

“No. Although I intend to obtain a PhD in Anthropology,” she answered with a giggle.

No doubt a digger – into the souls of men and the past.

 

On the road less travelled with Kongi

February 26, 2008

 set-forth-12.jpgset-forth-13.jpg

This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s new memoir You Must Set Forth At Dawn is more than an individual’s life history. It encapsulates our collective journey in Nigeria as a people tracing painful steps and tumbling in our chequered history as The Nation (Nigeria) Group Editor (Arts and Culture) SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE writes

What would you give to spend time with your hero?

He is someone you greatly admire, but from afar. His person is an embodiment of your greatest dreams and aspirations. To just get into his presence would fill you with so much joy and fulfilment that money cannot buy.

People get trampled upon and die in attempts to catch glimpse of their heroes. Be it a football star or a political juggernaut, a business tycoon or a religious leader, heroes all over the world are desired – nay, coveted – objects of their admirers.

The Queen of Sheba of old crossed a long distance to reach King Solomon’s court. Julius Caesar’s victorious return and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem albeit atop a humble ass were hailed. In the same manner, when Wole Soyinka returned from four years exile at the demise of late dictator General Sani Abacha, Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos became a potential death ground due to the number of people who gathered to welcome him. In fact, Arthur Nwankwo, of the pro-democracy activists on the official welcome list had to be taken aside and resuscitated when he passed out due to the suffocating crowd.

He had not just won the Nobel Prize for Literature being the first Black man to win it. That happened in 1986. Yet it was a heroic welcome for a worthy leader. The truth is that that return was actually a summation of the nation’s struggles of recent years. Yes, the first fruit of the labour of our heroes past.

So, what would you give to spend time with this genius cum activist extraordinaire? What if he invites you to accompany him on a journey during which he is willing to talk about his escapades, trials, travails, tribulations, temptations, triumphs… the truth and nothing but the whole truth?

 WHEN THE DAY BREAKS

When the lion roars, the whole jungle goes quite. When a writer of Wole Soyinka’s status picks up the quill, it is time to pay attention. Yet it is difficult to pay attention to this complex man. This writer has read a lot of reviews of the book, You Must Set Forth At Dawn. In the same vein, he has asked many learned Yoruba speakers to translate the title into that language in which Soyinka thinks before writing in English language.

The truth is that Soyinka’s writings are difficult for many to understand because they approach them from the angle of English literature. As Yoruba linguist and distinguished writer Akinwumi Isola told Soyinka when the former was translating one of the latter’s works into Yoruba, it was a retranslation. In other words, the original work, Death and the King’s Horseman was composed in Yoruba and translated into English in the process of writing.

You Must Set Forth At Dawn is not just a title. It is, like any good book title, a summary of the thematic essence of the memoir. Owuro l’ojo. That is the way Yoruba since ancient days expressed it. Life – whether of an individual or a community – is a journey.

A saying talks about what happens when the day breaks in Africa. The antelope needs to run faster than the fastest lion to stay alive, otherwise it becomes food. The lion has to run faster than the slowest antelope to stay alive, otherwise it has no food. So, when the day breaks in Africa, whether you are a lion or an antelope, you must start running. You must set forth at dawn. Owuro l’ojo!

 A COMPLEX TALE

Decades after breaking free from the shackles of colonialism, most African nations still grapple with the elementary stages of development. Natural and man-made hurdles make self fulfilment a near impossible task for the average African. Conflicting opinions struggle for space on the pages of newspapers just as machine guns and tanks reverberate in the jungles and on the streets. Theorists and analysts give different interpretations to the root causes and solutions to the continent’s myriad of problems. It is such a complex web, an enigma shrouded in mystery.

How then does one tell the tale of Africa?

Wole Soyinka.

Nigeria is symbolic of Africa’s complexity. In size, diversity and complexity, Nigeria has manifested about all the woes of the continent – and some more. From the days preceding her independence from Great Britain in 1960, Wole Soyinka has been part and parcel of this giant of Africa’s story. So, in telling his story, Soyinka tells the story of Nigeria. In telling the story of Nigeria, he tells the story of Africa. It is like a fiction character presenting the story of a people. Only this is a real character telling a real life story.

Whoever designed the book cover was really in the mood. The illustration portrays an abstract image of the writer’s bust. Yet it is deeper than that. It is actually silhouettes of four acrobats, two head up and two upside down. Paired in twos, their ecstatic body juggling create an outline of the drama icon.

 THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

From undergraduate days at Leeds when he joined the officer training corps in 1955 with the intention of marching to South Africa to break loose the bonds of apartheid, Soyinka takes the reader on a journey. We follow the footsteps of the writer even up to the level when as a “senior citizen” he had to escape into exile on a motorcycle fully armed with a pistol. The crisis in the land has dictated that his coming of age precludes “T’agba ban de, a a ye ogun ja – as one approaches an elder’s status, one ceases to indulge in battles.”

Now he did not fight in the kraals between Pretoria and Johannesburg. Rather, the Royal Government summoned him to take up arms against Egypt in the Suez Canal crisis! Such is the history of Africa. Take up arms against your brother! Of course, he declined renouncing his former oath of commitment. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, he would rather not decline the call up. But Essay – his pet name for his father, S. A. Soyinka – reprimanded him. “Come home and fight if you must die on the battle field.”

Fatherland beckons. So arm in arm with arms we go marching. Such is the journey of Africa, nay, the Black race as Soyinka tells it from the 1950s.

No, it predates even that. The story goes back to the dusty road that linked Isara, his paternal hometown, with Abeokuta, his maternal hometown, where he mostly grew up. The same Lufthansa airline that conveyed him along with a dear friend of his Femi Johnson’s corpse from Germany years earlier brought him home from exile.

A full circle? Life out of the deaths we had recorded?

Pained by the many deaths of colleagues and students along Ife-Ibadan road through motor accidents, he pioneered the Federal Road Safety Corps collaborating with dubious military dictators in the process. Yes, on this road, we must find a way of making our corpse walk. The blood shed in the course of the revolutionary struggle must make the land fruitful.

From the dusty paths to unsafe skyways, from prison custody to audiences with the world leaders, Soyinka has travelled Africa’s tortured road probably more than any of her citizens. Who then is better equipped to tell the tale? Rather, whose tale better tells the tale?

 WHERE ARE THE GODS?

Atop Temple Mount, Wole Soyinka received a “revelation” as he tells it in You Must Set Forth At Dawn.

It was in the course of his last preparations to return to Nigeria to further ruffle Abacha’s feathers by stirring the protests within the nation’s boundaries after playing junketing the globe – everywhere but Nigerian soil – for four years. On the eve of his departure from Israel, he visited the Temple Mount, that much disputed ground that is regarded as most sacred piece on planet earth by adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike.

“There is a most eloquent spirituality about that much fought over land – I, an adherent of none of the three principal faiths that inhabit it, testify to this.” His words. There he received a spiritual shower of peace that informed him deep in his entrails that peace had come – at last. How, he could not tell. He writes, “But I felt no more anxiety, only a quiet trust in that moment, a serenity that transcended questions and uncertainties, as a pilgrim might who finds the mundane substance of his quest subsumed in a vision of eternity.”

Straight from Temple Mount, he went to the house of his host for a reception. There a persistent journalist trapped him for an interview. On his way home the journalist heard a news report on his car radio that made him return to Soyinka who was still at the reception. Abacha had died!

This came at the brink of actual armed struggle. Soyinka and other democracy activists had struggled with the idea for years and it seemed there would be no other option. Now on the brink of the nation plunging into civil war, the man leading all to Armageddon whom Soyinka referred to as Triple “D” – diminutive, demented dictator – became Quadruple “D” – diminutive, demented, deceased dictator!

Divine intervention? So many believe.

Africans always wonder, where are the gods? Or where is God or Allah? It all depends on one’s spiritual position. Raised within the premises St. Peter’s at Ake in Abeokuta, Nigeria’s first church location, Wole Soyinka never followed the footsteps of his mother whom he calls the Wild Christian. His paternal grandfather set his feet on the path Ogun very early in life. He himself has come to identify with the deity. If not Ogun reincarnate, he is at least Eni Ogun, he who belongs to Ogun. “My adopted Muse would remain Ogun,” he decided early in life.

Ogun is the Yoruba god of iron. He is the god who protects from metallic weapons as waste in battles and on the roads. All the hunter’s exploits are attributable to him. He is also the creative muse, father of poetry. His flirtations are legendary. Soyinka is all Ogun is and thematic explorations in his works reflect these right from his early writings to You Must Set Forth At Dawn.

The truth is that the complexity of Ogun is a reflection of the path Nigeria, nay Africa, has travelled. We have been on the road. We have encountered all sorts of turns and tumbling. Some can be explained but a good number of our fortunes are mysterious. So, we often wonder where the gods are when people like Idi Amin Dada reign while people like Patrice Lumumba are wasted without recompense or retribution.

In this book, Soyinka does not claim to have the answer. His position is that of ancient African belief. Those things we can control we must seek to control. Those that are beyond us, the gods will handle. Armed with the faith of a man on divine mission, he moves into every battle believing nothing is impossible. BENEATH THE MASQUERADE

At a reception for Soyinka as described in You Must Set Forth At Down a masquerade did the unusual. It swung its massive covering over the celebrant showering prayers as the spirit spit chewed kola and sprayed mouth-rinsed drink over his head. Now the masquerade is the spirit of departed ancestors on visit to the living. So, no one is supposed to behold he who is beneath the mask just as no stranger beholds oro, the more mysterious masquerade that alights only at night.

Soyinka also had an encounter with oro. On his way into exile, he stopped over at a town in Benin Republic in the night while the festival was on. The oro masquerade showered prayers on him and gave him a “sacred” kola nut.

Eniyan ni n gbe eegun, ara orun o w’aye ri. Beneath the masquerade is a human being, the dead do not visit the physical world. That is a Yoruba proverb that unmasks the mystery. Yet the mystery persists.

Where was Radio Kudirat operating from? Who and who played what role in the June 12 crisis and the Abacha conflict years that follow? How has Soyinka related with Nigerian rulers over the years? What roles did foreign nations play in the democracy struggle? There are many questions the curious would love to get answers to when the issue of our recent history is raised.

In this memoir, Soyinka confirmed that the masquerade is actually a covered human being and yet retained that mystery behind it. A good number of names are revealed and their different roles tabled. Radio Kudirat, for example, was transmitting from the Scandinavia! A strictly confidential letter from then South African President Nelson Mandela to Sani Abacha as well as the latter’s replay are reproduced in the appendix. Roles of different governments – who gave money, who offered military training support, etc. – are presented. For example, while Burkina Faso was ready to be the launching pad for armed insurgency and Sierra Leone rebels offered collaboration, Ghana’s J. J. Rawlings was no only an Abacha collaborator but was actually on the hated dictator’s payroll.

Who is Longa Throat? Don’t expect to find the answer in You Must Set Forth At Dawn. Named after American Watergate scandal’s Deep Throat, he is the deep source of information at the topmost level in Aso Rock who revealed, for example, that M. K. O. Abiola was going to be murdered. Stating that preventing the president-elect from ascending the throne was “a pre-conceived plan of the new regime” of Abdusalaam Abubakar, the source informed the movement that there were forces within the army that were “hell bent on destroying the corporate existence of Nigeria than see Abiola become the president.”

In the same vein, while referring to the Pirates Confraternity and roles of its members and even publishing a photograph of its founding members, Soyinka refrains from revealing identities of members directly. BEYOND THIS STAGE

The path of the road is deep. Under the ground it rumbles. The enshrouding forests tell tales of passages and passengers gone by. The sky bear witness of current traverses. Bends and curves, slopes and plains speak of endlessness of not only the road but also of passengers.

In Petals of Blood, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Th’iongo tells centuries of history of a people in the course a story spanning a few days. In the same manner, in You Must Set Forth At Dawn, Wole Soyinka took the years of June 12 struggle and in it weaves the tale of our history up to May 29, 1999.

The street protests that immediately followed the annulment is used to cast the reader back to Operation Wet E election protests of Western Nigeria in the mid-1960s. Abeokuta women’s reaction at the same time is linked with Egba Women Riot led by late Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. Horrors of penetrating violence ridden Lagos from Benin Republic by the author recalls similar experience along with Bola Ige in the 1960s along Sagamu-Lagos road.

Apart from brief mention of Olusegun Obasanjo becoming a civilian president and mention of post-May 29 events like the murder of Bola Ige, Soyinka virtually closed You Must Set Forth At Dawn with his return from exile.

When he published his first autobiography, Ake: The Years of Childhood, Soyinka promised he would not write another like it. Why? He believes no biography that goes beyond “the age of innocence”, which he puts at around 12, is accurate. Then he returned from exile to drop Ibadan: The Penkelemesi Years on our laps. Does the ending of his latest work mean he is planning another one?

This might be so or might not be so. In his ruminations on years following the Nobel Prize when he could not write, Soyinka revealed that he writes as moved by the Muse. If it comes, good. If it does not, there are other things to do.

Beatification of the Area Boy was originally the story of Lagos and Ibadan street boys and girls. But it found home in Kingston, Jamaica and became the launching pad for a theatre movement there. In the same vein, Soyinka’s sons, Olaokun and Ilemakin, had become path of the struggle in the book. So, maybe Soyinka reserves the documentation of our history as it continues for coming generations.

His faith in the next generation is revealed in an encounter at Wimbledon soon after the demise of Abacha and he was now free to breathe the air of freedom. Accompanied by his first son to go and watch a tennis game, Soyinka was confronted by a young lady who upon recognising him rushed forward to enthusiastically greet him. Soyinka said he later regretted missing the opportunity of buying a drink for the lady whom he had never met before and telling her her generation holds the future.

The lady? Zainab Abacha – daughter of his dead enemy!

Songs of the caged bird

February 26, 2008

Niran MalaoluBehind the brick walls

Nine years after Sani Abacha’s mostly unmourned expiration delivered him from death sentence handed him for “coup plotting”, journalist Niran Malaolu has put together his prison memoir. The book, Behind the Brick Walls, which is a collection of poems written in Katsina Prison is here reviewed by The Nation Group Editor (Arts and Culture) PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

t was a small compound. Its nondescript worn and tattered look blended with the environment. At the junction where it stood by the road side, there were many other compounds that bigger than it. Yet, something about it arrested the traveller’s attention. Observation revealed a dirty and tired looking flag of the country hanging from a short pole. Closer examination revealed the sign post: Nigerian Prison Service. It was actually the Okene Prison. What stood it out was the same thing that made the flag pole appear short.

The walls.

Thick and forbidding, they stood round the small compound as if daring any who perceives himself bold to try entry or escape – which actually was its duty. Walls are like doors. They serve basically two utilitarian purposes – lock out or lock in.

Although only the fence walls remain on the empty lot, one needs no handwriting on the wall nor be familiar with the history of the territory to identify the old Broad Street Prison on Lagos Island for what it is.

A prison is a building in which nobody would willingly seek accommodation. Even a visit there is undesirable, that is except you are a warder or prison supplier. Yet it was not built for livestock. Men are the target.

The prison is supposed to be a correctional facility. It is supposed to reform those who defy the rules guiding acceptable social order. However there are law breakers who deserve special treatment. The Rock was a military fortress and military prison facility between 1859 and 1934. Located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, it served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Occupied by Indians from 1969 to 1971, it is now a tourist site.

Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years incarceration too has become a tourist site. One of the photographs featured in Bill Clinton’s biography, My Life, is that of him standing alongside Mandela peeping out of the latter’s prison through the window.

But let’s go on a tour of another kind of prison system. Our tour guide is Niran Malaolu. The tour is going through his forthcoming book, Behind the Brick Walls.

The government of late General Sani Abacha is regarded as the most repressive the nation has ever had to endure. Brutally it brought every perceived opposition under the gun boot. The streets were littered by victims of murdered citizens whose lives were terminated either under the guise of quelling protest or through thinly veiled state sponsored assassinations. The prisons overflowed with victims of different kinds whose sins included, as Niran Malaolu puts it in Behind the Brick Walls, “thoughtcrime, viewcrime, speakcrime and even jobcrime if, of course you’re unfortunate enough to be a journalist.

Trained at the University of Lagos, Akoka and University of South Florida in the USA, Nniran Malaolu knew what he wanted to be when he obtained a Masters degree in Journalism. At 37, he was the Editor of The Diet, a Lagos-based newspaper. He was at work on the following day’s edition when Abacha’s goons came calling in the night at the paper’s 62, Queens Street, Yaba, Lagos on Sunday, December 28, 1997. It was the beginning of what he described as “A 15-month trip to hell.”

When Newswatch co-founder Dele Giwa was eliminated through letter bomb in 1986, such an occurrence was novel in Nigeria. By the time Abacha he reached the peak of his satanic rule, even those walking on the streets did not feel save let alone someone taken to the underground dungeon of the Directorate of Military Intelligence. People were being eliminated left, right and centre.

No means of liquidation was considered unusual. While people like 80-year-old was sprayed with bullets in his sleep at his Ikeja GRA residence, democracy activist and wife of winner of June 12, 1993 presidential election, Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola – himself in Abacha’s detention – Kudirat Abiola was wiped of with showers of pellets in broad daylight on the streets of Lagos. Former Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters serving as number two man in the country General Musa Yar’adua died in mysterious circumstances while serving term for alleged coup plotting at the Abakaliki Prison. It was believed that he was administered lethal injection. His erstwhile boss, Olusegun Obasanjo was also in jail for the same phantom coup.

One can hardly put it better than Dr. Olatunji Dare, one of Nigeria’s most outstanding veteran journalists. He said when one is in incarceration with a very high probability of not coming out alive, the concentration becomes extremely sharpened. Aleksandr Solzhentsyn’s Gulag Achepelago, Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Detained and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom readily come to mind of what such a sharpened mind can produce. The captive, especially someone in solitary confinement, becomes ingenious in putting their thoughts down. Sylvester Odion Akhaine for example wrote books on empty packs of anti-malaria drugs and toothpastes while in detention – of the same Abacha.

In spurting flow, Niran Malaolu churned out lyrics after lyrics in the months of October and November, 1998 while in Katsina Prison awating execution. The only exception is For Kongi which was written in July of that year as a birthday present to Wole Soyinka.

Yes, he had been sentenced to death alongside military men for coup plotting. One question he keeps asking even up till today is how can a man conspire with himself. In his words, “They said I made a comment that the army might react because Yar’adua was among those who had been arrested over the coup. Having tapped my phone, they said I was saying that to an American. After reading the offence, they did not give me any opportunity to say anything.”

This bizarre experience produced the poems that now appear in Behind the Brick Walls.

Divided into three sections, the book is made up of a 12-page opening section and 111 pages of poetry and comments. It is published by Spectum Books Limited based in Ibadan in association with United Kingdom-based Safari Books.

The book is not your typical prison memoir. It is more in the tradition of Wole Soyinka’s Shuttle in the Crypt and South African poet Dennis Brutus’ prison outpouring.

The first section is entitled My Ordeal and is made up of 31 poems. The second, The Fluid of Hope has 13 while Between God and Man comprises of 16.

My Ordeal narrates the different experiences the poet passed through while in detention. The poems are not arranged according to the sequence of what he passed through. Rather, they are arranged according to dates they were written thus allowing the normal flow of creative impulse to be felt by the reader.

Situation in the four by four cell in which he was chained are spoken about just as he wrote songs for the Dornier jet in which he and his co-travellers were transported wrist bound and feet chained to the military airplane. In this section, the reader will encounter different characters such as warder in Strange Fellow, Wicked Warder whom the poet asked, “Are you a sibling of Sani-the-terrible?” The dilemma of the prison physician whose heart and professional commitment demanded he be humane while his employers are bent only on destroying their captives is the subject of The Physicians’ Task. The Fair Sanni compares its subject with the hated general, “Sanni, you’re so different/In your thoughts, in your deeds/Unlike the other Sani, I know”.

From Lagos to Jos and Katsina, songs are written for otherwise beautiful cities that had not become torture movies locations. As the poet poured out his pain and agony, he still has time to salute his heroes – Nelson Mandela, Beko Ransome Kuti, Wole Soyinka. Ever the journalist, Malaolu lets his reader into the happening in the lives of fellow detainees in A Tale of Two Phoebes. It is about two women, the lanky one taking care of “an asthmatic” believed to be Colonel Fadipe while the “rotund Phoebe” was “Good company to a diabetic”, believed to be General Diya.

Rolex Watches! reduces handcuffs into a mere joke – laughing that we might not cry, you might say. Telephone Conversation With God speaks about an engineer in detention loss of mental balance! This section closes with A Cry For Justice.

Section two, Fluid of Hope is a celebration of relationships that sustained Niran Malaolu while in detention. From immediate family members to church leaders and members and professional colleagues, he has a word of appreciation for everyone.

Between God and Man is where “pastor” becomes a David and Paul rolled into one. As the former he wrote songs of praise and appreciation to God. As the latter, he preached to the sinner to repent.

In Behind the Brick Walls, Niran Malaolu displays a high level of creative skill using different poetic tools to achieve his aim in each poem. Lyrically, one can easily imagine the poems being presented as chants in a performance.

In addition to the poems, each section contains an introductory note. Apart from about five, each of the sixty poems is accompanied by a note written by Akeem Lasisi. Any obscurity? That is the solution.

Well written, edited and printed, Behind the Brick Walls is definitely going to find its level among great titles produced by poets who had had to sing from inside the cage. Its coverage of different tendencies the human soul is capable of conceiving and executing makes it a handbook for living.