Archive for the ‘Nigerian artists’ Category

Life’s a party

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published in The Nation, Lagos, on WednesdayMarch 12, 2008. Poeple know him more in the sports arena than in any other area. He was a civil servant till he retired at the age of 60. Art is his passion. But Chief Frank Okonta believes…

Chief Frank Okonta is better known as a sports administrator than a public officer. What is less known about him is that he is a man who takes life as one long leisure cruise. He is also an arts addict whose collection is one of the most enviable in Nigeria. Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE learnt much about him in the hours they spent together at his home and galleryokonta-2.jpgokonta-4.jpgokonta-1.jpgokonta-5.jpg With wife, Patience

He’d rather be called Frank Okonta without the complication of a “chief”. So do not expect him to tell you where he bagged the chieftaincy title. But that is just one of the many things Chief Frank Chukwuma Okonta himself cannot define about himself.

Where was he born? This is a question that is as difficult for him to answer as what he did with eight years of his life in Europe. Don’t even bother asking him where he grew up.

“My mother told me,” he responded to the question about his place of birth, “that when she was eight months pregnant, my father sent her to the village to deliver. A month after I was born, she returned to Lagos where my father was based then.”

Thus Frank Okonta was born in Lagos, although the delivery took place at Ibuzo, his parents’ hometown. By the time he was old enough to begin primary school, his medical officer father had been transferred and he started his educational pursuit in Bauchi. His father, who was a nurse/dispenser, was again moved and he finally completed his primary education at Jos thereby earning the nomenclature “Dan Jos”. By the time he was entering secondary school, his parents were on their way back to Lagos where they were when he was born. Although he went to secondary school in Kaduna, he traces his living in Lagos back to those days.

“I attended St. John’s College in Kaduna,” Okonta told The Nation.

He spoke about his college days with uncommon enthusiasm. But that is the way he speaks about everything. He never believes in any negativity in life. To him, all developments contribute to the building of the whole man.

“Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was our PT captain,” he recalled. “Even then we used to call him ‘major’. He would go into the houses to ensure that all students come out for sporting activities. In fact, sports was so much active at St. John’s College that no student participated in less than three sports.”

If the sharp reporter goes to Chief Frank Okonta’s Frank Okonta Close residence at UPDC Estate at Lekki in Lagos, he would be wrong to come armed with a recorder to tape a one hour interview. This writer did not make that mistake and his gamble paid off. The appointment was scheduled for 2 pm. But considering the notorious Lekki traffic, early start guaranteed this writer got to his house before one o’clock.

What should have been a one-hour engagement did not end till more than four hours later. From his residence to his gallery, Frank Okonta chatted like an old friend. The age gap was no barrier for him at all. He spoke on different subjects with equal enthusiasm. Here is someone who loves life and does not care to hide it.

Born on August 3, 1939, Frank Okonta’s father wanted his son to follow him into the medical field. After leaving secondary school Frank’s love for the media world led him to the Radio School between 1959 and 1960. Thereafter the father thought it was time for his son to pursue a “real career”. In 1961 he was sent to England to pursue studies in the medical field. His elder sister who ended up with a glorious career in the medical field was already out there building herself up in the same field. So the second born being the first son of the family was expected to better the father’s career success.

It took the whole of between two and three years for Frank Okonta to turn his back on the stethoscope and scalpel. He had finally made up his mind that the world of television production and documentary films would suit him better.

He proceeded to attend a television and film school in England and thereafter launched into a life that the average parent would not want to discuss with his relatives and friends.

“I lived more or less as a hippy in those days,” Frank Okonta said. “I had a very, very good time.”

He did not bother to pick up any regular job. Instead, he made contributions to British Broadcasting Corporation and the Office of Information among other media houses. He travelled all over Europe generally having fun. In the process he took time to take a course in Political History at Oxford College of Technology. Although it might not appear in his CV, he also made his first forage into the high-tide world of marriage.

“I made a mistake,” Frank Okonta said in his usual jocular manner. “I thought love should be the sole basis for marriage. Love is one of the basis for marriage but it is not enough. There are other factors that must be considered.”

When he speaks about his wife Patience, whom he married much later, there is no doubt that he has made a greatly successful comeback.

“I deeply pity those who do not have happy homes,” he said. “If a man is not happy in his marriage, it is a great problem. I thank God for the woman I married. She has been such a great source of joy for me in life.”

Okonta’s first marriage was not without any blessing anyway. It produced a daughter, Nkem who became an artist. Okonta’s gallery at Lekki was named after her. As it happened, she died of cancer a few years ago. His second marriage has produced children who are doing well in their different fields.

By the time Okonta returned to Nigeria towards the end of 1972 he showed no interest in picking up a regular job. He spent a year with the Midwest TV producing a programme on farming. Then he moved on to join Tam Fiofori at Sunart Production to produce a documentary of the Rivers State people.

Recalling his days at Midwest TV, Okonta said he used to travel to Lagos every week to process his films. Sometimes, according to him, he would leave Lagos at eight pm to head back to Benin.

“Crime rate was low then,” Okonta said. “You know I have been living in Lagos for much of my adult life. Even while I was schooling in Kaduna I spent all my holidays in Lagos because my parents were in Lagos. My father was in the civil service while my mother was a successful business woman. She built quite some houses in Lagos here. I still have a place at one of houses and my brother lives there.”

To him, the freewheeling life of travelling around shooting documentaries was fun enough. The security of paid job with hope of retirement package simply did not appeal to Okonta. For him, his beer, wine, champagne, cigarette and later cigar were all that made the world go round. The night clubs where life bands played and sporting events were enough fun.

Frank Okonta’s love for sports had taken roots before he left St. John’s College, Kaduna. He recalled how he and his brothers would walk from their Ebute Meta residence to King George V Stadium, now Onikan Stadium to watch football matches.

“Lagos was much safer then,” he recalled. “Life was much sober. Whenever one walked down the road, there was no apprehension that someone might be out there waiting to snatch your bag or car. We moved around freely at all times.”

By the time the one-year project of documenting the people of Rivers State was completed, Frank Okonta moved on to another temporary engagement. This time around, he worked with Prof. Nwachi of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs as a liaison officer alongside the Yeye Oge of Lagos Chief (Mrs.) Opral Benson. Preparations were then in top gear for the Festac ’77.

Then came the change. Close to the age of forty, Frank Okonta finally decided there was the need for some sort of stability in his life. First he went out in search of a regular job and ended up at the Ministry of Information. Secondly he met the woman that has since remained his lifetime companion, Patience. He got married to her and the family settled at 1004 Estate on Victoria Island where they lived for several years.

At the Ministry of Information and Culture – the two ministries were one then – Okonta found a perfect home. Operating in the areas of protocol and liaison, he travelled widely. “In fact, I’ve been to virtually all the continents of the earth.”

Apart from travelling widely Okonta utilised the opportunity to pursue one of his greatest passions in life – African arts. As he travelled, he took works of Nigerian artists along using every forum to market African arts. In the same sweep, the avid films and documentary lover had more than his take as the Nigerian Television Authority among other such media agencies of the Federal Government were under the supervision of his ministry.

It was during this period that Frank Okonta became renowned as a sports administrator. He spent so much time at sports administration meetings that, according to him, his wife often wondered which came first – sports or the family. He held several positions including those of President of the Cycling Federation of Nigeria and Chairman of Boxing Association of Nigeria.

Another great change came in Frank Okonta’s life in 1999. Clocking 60 years of age, he retired from the civil service at the position of a Deputy Director.

“When I retired,” he said, “I chose to live a sober life. I wanted no more headaches. So I left the world of sports and other such things and opened this gallery.

“The world of sports is very turbulent. Sports administrators in Nigeria are hungry people. There would be five naira meant for a project and someone who does not even attend meetings would come and ask you to account for how you spent the fifteen naira you got. If you buy a new car or build a new house the suspicion is that you had stolen money meant for sport.

“The politics in Nigerian sports administration is so much that a good number of administrators have no problem moving into partisan politics. Both are about the same except that they are not sending hired assassins after themselves in sports administration politics.”

Why did he then choose art?

“I’ve always loved arts. I love beautiful things. I’ve been collecting works of arts for several years. I have works of masters like Ben Enwonwun as well as works of younger ones. I have paintings, carving mixed media works and all sorts of works.

“When I come into this gallery, I feel fulfilled. No doubt I am a wealthy man. My wealth is not in digits stored in a bank. But how can one derive fulfilment from going to the bank manager and asking him to let him sit down and watch his savings. I come into this gallery and I see things that make me happy.”

Last August 3, Frank Okonta’s Nkem Gallery hosted the opening of a one-week exhibition of painter Larry Isima to mark Okonta’s birthday. Immediately after the opening ceremony was over, the other side of Okonta took over.

His residence, a walking distance from the gallery, has a large garden. No doubt his architect wife and his partying spirit must have connived to create the fairy vista. There a lavish party was thrown where friends, especially fellow arts lovers, wined, dined and chatted till late.

“My philosophy in life is to be happy,” Frank Okonta told The Nation during the interview conducted recently. “In my house, we always look for an excuse to throw a party. If I offer to throw a party for a friend and he has nothing to celebrate at that point in time I will ask him to locate a friend of his who has something to celebrate.”

Now he has stopped drinking and smoking for health reasons. But Frank Okonta’s love for the bottle and the butt was legendary. Although he does not regret his teetotaller status he still speaks about champagne and cigar with the relish of a man who would not mind spending his entire life between France and Havana.

Well that is what he has actually done. His entire life has been spent living. While a good number of people spend their days worrying about problems that might never manifest, Okonta spends his days just being happy.

Among guests at Frank Okonta Close at Lekki on that August 3 were prime arts collectors Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Engineer Yemisi Shyllon and Chief Sammy Olagbaju and painter and arts teacher, former Lagos State Chairman of Society of Nigerian Artists, Kunle Adeyemi. The four have something in common. They are all arrow heads of the Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON) a co-sponsor of the exhibition. Frank Okonta is a patron of VASON, an organisation that seeks to do for visual arts what MUSON is doing for music.

At 68, Frank Okonta’s nothing of retiring into total sober peaceful life just cannot include staying away from his passion for arts and partying. Bubbly and easy to approach, Okonta radiates the air of someone whose arrival at the most sober funeral would create a cheerful atmosphere. To him, life is one long party. And the party just goes on.

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Peter Igho: Long walk through the stage

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published in The Nation, Lagos on Wednesday, February 27, 2008

igho-2.jpgigho-1-ed.jpgIgho, the Dan Jikan Kabi

 After a lifelong career in the entertainment industry, 33 of them spent at the NTA where his network productions were household names and he rose to Executive Director, Marketing, Peter Igho is retiring at 60, moving on to…

The next level

Peter Igho bows out of the organisation on March 28 upon attaining the mandatory retirement age of 60, he would have put in 33 years into the tube industry in Nigeria. However, his romance with the stage has lasted longer just as he plans to still remain in the industry that is his life as he told Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

The Argungun Fishing Festival in Kebbi State is one of the nation’s leading tourist attractions. This year, it holds between March 12 and 15. Apart from the usual events, one special event will feature in this year’s edition of the festival. The special event is to celebrate the Dan Jikan Kabi, Peter Igho. It is the beginning of a series of events lined up to celebrate the 60th birthday of Peter Igho and his impressive career in the Nigerian television industry which winds up as 60 is the mandatory retirement age in the nation’s civil service.

A day after the festival winds up, there will be a special dinner put together by friends and associates in Lagos. The Abuja version holds on March 22. Coincidentally, Igho shares the same birthday with his alma mater, University of Ibadan which was established the year he was born. On March 27, he will be heading there for a double celebration – his and his alma mater’s birthdays. The following day, the exact birth date, his Victoria Island, Lagos home will play host to fireworks display that promises to be as impressive as his distinguished career. The following day is slated for the birthday thanksgiving service at St. Gregory Catholic Church, Obalende, Lagos while reception of guests follows at the Air Force Officers’ Mess at Victoria Island. He will spend March 30 with his friends at the IBB Golf Course in Abuja where he is a member.

Peter Igho has good reason to celebrate life at 60. When one speaks of the television industry in Nigeria, it is impossible to name the top ten people without his name being included. He has won the movie industry award. At work he won the Director General’s Best Executive Director’s Award. Nationally, he holds the National Award of MFR. Looking back at his journey through life, he said, “The people we grew up together, especially those who had more privileged backgrounds, where are they today?”

His journey in life is like a script – a lot of which he wrote. It is one of positive outlook, determination, hard work and most especially talent triumphing over initial challenges.

Peter Igho was born on Easter Sunday, March 28, 1948 in the mining city of Jos in northern Nigeria. Of Urhobo parentage, his own father had lived in Jos from his youth where he worked as a miner.

“The mining industry then,” Igho recalled, “wasn’t much better than it is today. Sometime digging would be carried out for several weeks only to find out there is no mineral at that particular site. Meanwhile one would have spent much money paying labourers doing the digging. When there was success we had good life. My father was not rich but he was comfortable.

“One thing told me how things were financially in those days. It was the state of our accommodation. We lived in this face-me-I-face you kind of accommodation. Whenever things were in good shape, we occupied four rooms. When things took a downward turn, we managed two rooms, a situation that led to our things being piled up along the passage and corridor.”

Of course, two rooms should be sufficient for a modest family. What was then the problem? Was it that his father had a large family?

Asked how many children his father had, Igho surprised this writer with his response. “When we got to around 35, I stopped counting. But I think in all we were around 45.”

Legendary wouldn’t one say? The senior Igho married four wives of which Peter Igho’s mother who had six children was the first. But the definition of his siblings is unconventional just like it is in many parts of Africa.

“Apart from biological children,” Igho explained, “there were children of my father’s brothers and other relatives who were either dead or still alive. Beyond this, we even had children of neighbours living with us. We were treated equally as children. In fact, when I was growing up, I was closer to one of my step-mothers than my mother. She had some delay in having her own children. So, I was the one who was close to her. Coincidentally, I was born on a Sunday, when she finally had her own son, he was born on a Sunday. Beyond this, when I went for my baptism, I chose the name Peter. He too on his own chose the same name when he went for baptism. So, in the family, there are two Sunday Peter Ighos. To differentiate, people refer to us as Sunday Peter Bida and Sunday Peter Lafia.”

As Igho narrated the story of his growing up, one could perceive the joy of the recollection. It was a warm morning and we endured the heat as we chatted. The idea of postponing the interview did not appeal to any of us.

The first time it was to hold the drugs he was taking for typhoid which had put him in a state in which he could not really undertake it. We only spent time in his sitting room chatting mostly about his younger days when he took time off from University of Ibadan to night-crawl in Lagos visiting leading night spots like the late Bobby Benson’s club.

Another schedule was scuttled despite chasing him to his Victoria Island residence and to the local and international wings of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport. He had an urgent flight to take to Abuja. Schedules and postponements followed and at a point in time he was out of the country to attend to an eye problem that required surgery.

During this eventual session, more than once the unassumingly friendly Igho more than once expressed his appreciation “for your endurance.” As the interview ended, he was asked when he would be leaving for Abuja. The answer came without hesitation: “The moment you leave now.”

Whatever energy propelled Peter Igho through life seems not have diminished at the age of 60 – at least not noticeably. One can only imagine what the below average height entertainment legend was like growing up. He, however, spoke about his life with fervour. “My childhood years were some of the happiest in my life.” He said. “Although we were not rich, we were happy. I recall that I wore shoes only during Christmas.”

His childhood also prepared him for what he became in life. From the stories his parents told him, the books that were read to him and that he read and his frequent visits to the cinemas, Igho developed a passion for the stage. Late theatre legend Herbert Ogunde came to Jos around this time for a drama production. Igho said this production had such an impact on him that it was one of the factors that shaped him into what he later became.

After primary education at a Catholic school in Jos, he proceeded to a Catholic secondary school in Kaduna. “In those days,” he recalled, “if you attended a Catholic school, you would learn Igbo because most of the teachers were Igbo. If you attended an Anglican school, you would learn Yoruba as most of the teachers were Yoruba.”

Beyond perfecting his Igbo which he had grown up with alongside children of Igbo people whom his parents lived with in the same neighbourhood, Igho began his sojourn into the creative world while in secondary school in Kaduna. In school, he was one of the best English students. He was also active in literary and dramatic activities winning the prize in the Kennedy Essay Competition organised by the United States embassy then.

After his secondary school examinations in which he secured the much coveted division one, he proceeded to pursue higher school certificate at the same institution. When he completed the HSC, he taught for a while in the school during the months between the final examination and resumption date at the university. This period can be said to be the beginning of his career in entertainment.

“While teaching there,” Igho recalled, “the principal called me and said, ‘Look, you are interested in literary activities, why not organise an inter-house drama competition among the students?’ I took up the challenge selecting plays like The Incorruptible Judge for the houses. But I faced a challenge. There was a house that had no play. So, I took up the challenge of writing a play for the house. The play was entitled Gods of the Ancestors. As it happened, I left to resume at the university before the competition took place. When next I saw the principal, he congratulated me. Surprised, I asked him what he was congratulating me for and he told me that the panel of judges that sat at the competition adjudged my play the winner.”

With such interest and background one would have expected Peter Igho to study theatre arts at the university. Yes, he wanted that but University of Ibadan did not offer theatre arts as a major course then. So, he opted to study English with theatre arts among others as a subsidiary course.

There was just no way his creative mind could have rested while in the university. Even in secondary school, he had formed a music band named The Heart Renders where he played the piano and accordion and was the lead vocalist. Now in UI, he and some like minds put together what has remained arguable the greatest band in the history of UI, The Q Mark. Its inauguration which the authorities were generous enough to allow them use the famous Trenchard Hall came as a surprise to many on campus as people were wondering when they formed the band and where they had been rehearsing. “We were rehearsing deep in the bush behind the campus,” Igho said.The Q Mark performed at different occasions on campus and outside the proceeds of which went into payment of equipment rentals and a little earning that supplemented the financial base of the generally financially challenged band members.

Peter Igho secured employment before leaving the university in 1972. As it was in those days, prospective employers came to the campus to recruit. Igho opted for the civil service.

“During the interview,” Igho told The Nation, “they asked me if I was prepared to serve in the northern part of the country. Obviously they only paid attention to my name and added that to the fact that I had schooled in Yoruba land. They didn’t know I had grown up in the north raised by parents who spoke Hausa and Fulani fluently.”

They finally posted him to the Northwest State. Upon resumption at Sokoto, he was posted to a teachers training college at Bida. A sleepy town, Bida was a sharp contrast to Ibadan that Igho was coming from. But before long, he had turned the town into a hub of activities that attracted people from far and near. Again, it was his talent and interest in entertainment that gave birth to this.

Bringing in students from a nearby female school – hardly a conceivable idea then – he wrote and produced a drama piece that was to run for six days. It ended up running for six weeks. Then the community demanded to see it. That one ran for a month. By then the fame of the presentation had spread throughout the state leading to a state-wide tour. To cap it all, the state governor requested for a command performance. It went on to be the state’s entry that won award at the 1974 Festival of Arts and Culture. This feat led to its being one of the plays chosen for performance at the Festac ’77 for which the ’74 was preparatory.

Despite his promotion in the teaching sector in 1974, the Ministry of Culture which organised the festival struggled and succeeded in attracting him to be one of the pioneering staffers of the NTV, Sokoto that took off in 1975. He was the one-man drama department.

In 1977, the different television stations in Nigeria were brought together under the new name NTA. In 1978, NTA organised a competition among all the stations. Perceived as an outpost, NTA Sokoto’s entry’s winning the competition came as a surprise to not a few. The entry was Moment of Truth written and produced by Peter Igho. This led to his being selected to produce a series aimed at promoting the ideals of the Federal Government’s Operation Feed the Nation (OFN). The initial one-page material handed over to him is far from what Nigerians later saw in Cockcrow at Dawn.

To produce Cockcrow at Dawn, Peter Igho approached a village head that his father had had a relationship with as a miner. That made the series the first of sort completely on location in Nigeria apart from it being the first network soap in the country.

After producing about 38 episodes, NTA decided Igho would be more useful at the headquarters in Lagos. As a result, in 1983, he was promoted a General Manager in charge of network programmes. Peter Igho’s experience in production soon came to the fore in managing network section forever transforming that area of television broadcasting in Nigeria.

“Upon my arrival in Lagos,” Igho said, “I saw a lady rehearsing a production. I told her to see me after rehearsal. She was Lola Fani-Kayode. That was how the network production, Mirror in the Sun, came on board. I soon brought other regional productions on board the network ship. Samanja from NTA, Kaduna; The Village Headmaster from the west; and The Masquerade from the east, which became The New Masquerade.

“Others like Behind the Cloud also came on board. No doubt, 1983 was the beginning of the highpoint of network programmes in Nigeria. We ended up with a network programme nearly everyday.”

To appreciate iconic stars in the industry, Igho began the Stars of the Tube which featured musicians like Ebenezer Obey and Eddie Okonta in 1996. In 1997 he was transferred to NTA Enugu where he served as General Manager until his return to the headquarters as Executive Director in charge of production in 2006. Thereafter, he was moved to the marketing section where he handled the marketing of such projects as the English Premier League. It is from this department that Peter Igho is ending a most outstanding career at NTA.What next?

Having being denied enough time with the family and for rest due to the nature of his chosen career, Peter Igho intends to spend some time resting. Since 1972 when he joined the civil service and 1975 when he joined the television industry, it has been all work. No doubt he deserves it. Thereafter he intends to go seek other ways of, as he put it, “earning my daily bread.”

Of course, he intends to remain in the industry operating in the area of content, marketing and consultancy. As it happens, his children, all of whom had graduated, are in such fields as movies, animation and musicals.

When he was asked as a parting shot to recall any sad moment, the nature a man who has lived his life on stage came forth: “I read a lot of books while growing up – Greek classical and Shakespeare inclusive. This and other things I have experienced taught me that events of ones life cannot be isolated. The total person is a product of all he has gone through, good and bad. So, my tears and smiles all come together to make Peter Igho who he is. If you ask me what I’d like to alter if I were to live my life all over again, I’d tell you nothing.”

What a fulfilling way to end a career in a particular sector of the society. But Igho’s career is not ending yet. He is simply changing gear to move to the next level!

Poems on demand

March 18, 2008

This poem by Emmanuel Eni has been published in The Nation and will be available if the author’s permission is obtained.

What’s the next level in education?

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published as a photo story in The Nation, Lagos, on March 11, 2008

eni-and-minister-2.jpg 

Emmanuel Eni is no doubt one of the foremost Nigerian artistes in Germany. A poet, playwright, painter, sculptor and stage performer, he comes home regularly to host events just as he is never less busy in his Germany chosen base of operation.

Not long ago, he appeared on Deutsche Welle, Germany’s version of British BBC and America’s VOA, in a joint interview with German Foreign Affairs Minister and the new Vice Chancellor Dr. Claus Walter Steinmeier to discuss new education system in Sub-Sahara Africa. Guess what the new education system is? Education through the media! Photo left shows Eni with the Vice Chancellor.

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!

An exceptional gathering

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos

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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.

Isedale’s journey to Christmas Eve groove

February 26, 2008

This material was first published in The Nation, Lagos

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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.”