Archive for the ‘Nigerian politics’ Category

Tongues wag – in mother tongue – at Amb. Tinubu’s investiture

March 18, 2008

This piece was first published in The Nation, Lagos, on Wednesday, March 5, 2008 

  

Yoruba language on parade

 At the formal investiture of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the National Ambassador for the World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC), prominent Yoruba leaders came out displaying different communication skills in their mother tongue as reports Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE 

My speech was prepared in Yoruba considering the nature of this gathering. But the earlier speaker spoke in English. So I have just begun translating the speech into English. I hope you will help me.”

As the audience shouted their disapproval of such a move encouraging the speaker to deliver his address in Yoruba, the atmosphere was filled with gaiety one hardly expects from boardroom players.

The speaker was Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas who was the chairman at the occasion of the investiture of former Lagos State Governor and AC chieftain Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as the National Ambassador for the forthcoming World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC). It held at the MUSON Centre last Sunday.

At an event put together for the promotion of Yoruba culture and language, it was just appropriate that people spoke in Yoruba. That was it. These were men we hardly ever saw speaking the language.

Professionals, business tycoons, academics, politicians, traditional rulers, entertainers… from all walks of life Yoruba leaders gathered to honour Tinubu. Even the part of the tribe in Benin Republic sent the Alajase of Ajase-Ile, Porto Novo to represent them.

Well the chairman finally gave his speech in Yoruba. But such expressions as describing Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) as an “excellent student” the Asiwaju as an “excellent professor” just did not come out in the mother tongue. Ditto his description of Tinubu as governor emeritus.

It was quite refreshing to see the topmost industrialist communicate effectively in the native tongue. The image of westernised corporate player might be a myth after all.

Just wait. Next in line was a “young man.”

Iwure, all who know will agree, is no business for the young in Yoruba land. It is special prayer that is more or less divine pronouncement. So, when former governor of Western Region retired General Adeyinka Adebayo was picked to perform the duty, organisers of WOFEYAC, Alaroye publishers led by Alao Adedayo, must have assumed they made the right choice.

The general who turns 80 next Sunday did not agree with them.

Iwure, is for elders not young ones like me,” he said drawing roaring laughter.

Anyway he prayed and no doubt the ancestors were listening.

Now away from one of our elders speaking the language laced with proverbs and other forms of expressions that are the jewelleries of Yoruba language. The next person to pick the microphone was one of the ivory tower. I mean a professor can speak Yoruba but it is usually laced with sprinklings of English language. Not the Director of Centre for Black and African Arts and Culture Professor Tunde Babawale.

If there was a competition in the use of Yoruba last Sunday, Prof. Babawale would probably win the prize. He spoke in sonorous Yoruba that makes one wonder when to expect his music album in the marked. The simple task of introducing Governor Fashola to unveil the WOFEYAC calendar turned into an exceptional display of Yoruba language skill with him. Whoever recommended him for his present position had good counsel.

If the prof. was qualify for lifting the trophy of use of language, Governor Fashola would not just him still the show. Far from the Latin-studded bamboozlement of the court room, the Senior Advocate of Nigeria came out smoking hot a Senior Advocate of Yoruba Language Usage. His smooth Yoruba flew effortlessly without his needing to retrieve English words that had found their ways into his short speech.

But there was a problem. The Governor had been called upon to unveil the calendar.

“I was just asking my egbon the honourable a question,” Fashola said addressing the audience. “The question is, how do you say ‘calendar’ in Yoruba language?”

Beyond the laughter he drew not a few left with the poser in mind. Maybe a word will be invented to cater for the need.

Meanwhile party stalwarts decked in the green T-shirts of the AC kept interrupting the governor by singing his praises.

“They are already spoiling for another election,” the governor joked. “Of course if one is coming up tonight we are ready.”

Recalling that Chief Okoya-Thomas had earlier said that Fashola’s term is an eight-year term, if Alausa is anybody’s target, he might have to wait till 2015!

You can bet the mood of the gathering changed when Asiwaju Tinubu stepped out to be decorated. From his sure gait, whoever calls him ato-fi’se-ogun-ran, he who can be sent to the battle front, did not make any mistake. Okanlomo of the Universe – a most outstanding son – was among the unofficial titles with which people hailed him.

When the time came for him to give his acceptance speech, the good old sing song Tinubu captivating oration came to the fore. While remembering to appeal to the Ndigbo and the Hausa community present to pardon his speaking in Yoruba the Ambassador reeled out Yoruba expression in impressive intonation.

Before it was over however, he reverted to English. There are some things that one would rather express in English. After all, what is the Yoruba word for “calendar”?

It was a fun-filled evening during which the glory and beauty of Yoruba language and culture took the centre stage. At the main WOFEYAC event in April, one wonders what it would be like.

Awo: Orderly in life and death

March 18, 2008

First published in TheNation on March 3, 2008.

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Late Awo and HID’s wedding photograph still hangs on the wall.

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The trade mark Awo fez caps were specially made for him using good mater

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Time management was essential to him in private and in public. The chess board here was presented to Awo by Professor Toriola Solanke and Chief Folake Solanke.

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A pair of shoes normally worn at home and an oak hammer for moderating political meetings.

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Toiletries including shaving kit, Vaseline, Mentholatum, combs, toothbrush and torch light. Inset: sponge and soap.

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The dress in which his body was taken from Ikenne to Ibadan after embalmment.

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The buba and sokoto Awo was wearing when death came calling as he was brushing his teeth.

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Two pairs of slippers he used in his bedroom.

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NYSC kit gift.

(Coming soon) The meal never taken? The way his table was set in his lifetime.

Foremost Yoruba sage and politician Chief Obafemi Awolowo has been dead for nearly 21 years. A legend, Awolowo commanded admiration that bordered on worship among his followers. The reason was not far-fetched. Awo was an extremely organised man and this made his life yield maximum results.

In private and public, Awo was a man who insisted on things being done the right way, at the right time with the right tools. The orderliness of his life was legendary.

Twenty-one years after his death, the heritage of orderliness that he left behind lives on!

Over the years, the little essentials he used have been properly labelled and preserved at his country home at Ikenne, Ogun State by his family led by its matriarch, Chief (Mrs.) HID Awolowo.

The Ogun State House of Assembly is considering a bill for the naming of Awo’s family house a state monument. The preservation of his personal effects will no doubt make the execution of such a decision easier when the bill is passed and signed into law.

Group Arts and Culture Editor SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE and ADEWALE ADEOYE caught glimpses of some of the things preserved at the house

Dark days behind enemy line

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos

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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.

My life with Awo – HID

February 26, 2008

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

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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.

On the road less travelled with Kongi

February 26, 2008

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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.