By Chido Onumah
In the last three and half decades, whether as a student, rights activist, journalist, author, researcher and father, I have come across numerous men whose writings, advice and support have stood me in good stead and helped shape my persona as well as my ideological and political persuasion.
I can’t forget Pa Alfred Popoola Jaiyesimi, administrator per excellence and teacher extraordinaire. Pa Jaiyesimi not only treated me as one of his sons, he unfolded a vista of knowledge for me as a teenager. I adored Pa Jaiyesimi, a man given to details and a fanatical drive for learning, hard work and perfection. He opened my world to Shakespeare, Churchill, Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere and other notable world figures long before I knew and began to appreciate the importance of history. He spurred my interest in the anti-colonial struggle with stories of political and anti-colonial rallies and his interactions with the veterans of the Zikist Movement.
Pa Jaiyesimi’s teachings were not only about historical figures. They were also lessons on what he called the “intricacies” of life. I remember a particular case, that of EjiGbadero, the notorious Lagos land grabber who was sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of an “ordinary” citizen who refused to give up his land. Gbadero caused some amusement in court when the judgment was read. Not knowing why the courtroom was animated after the judgment, he turned to his counsel and asked in Yoruba, loosely translated to “What did his lordship say?”
By the time I left secondary school at 17 in 1983, a period that coincided with the emergence of The Guardian newspaper – a phenomenon that revolutionalised the newspaper landscape in Nigeria – I had formed my worldview. The Guardian helped refine that worldview. Even though as a teenager, I read the Tribune, The Punch and the different papers in the Daily Times stable, for me and some of my friends, The Guardian was the coming of age paper. There were many fine writers in the early years of The Guardian, intellectuals, academics and professional journalists whose writings not only set the tone for national discourse but helped define an era.
It was on the pages of The Guardian that I first met Prof Chinweizu, Comrade Edwin Madunagu, my ideological mentor, and Dr. Olatunji Dare, media scholar, master satirist and one the country’s best newspaper men, who turns 70 next week. Dare would popularize a genre of journalistic writing – satire – that has not only endured, but was a veritable weapon against military dictators and their collaborators.
Among the writers that caught my attention as a teenager, the iconoclast and polymath, Prof. Chinweizu, fascinated me the most. I don’t know whether it was his “contrarian” position, but I was so enamoured of “the writer with one name” that by the time I got to UNICAL in the mid-80s, I not only abandoned my birth name – which would prove costly later in life – I resolved, albeit unsuccessfully, not to use a last name.
Of all the influencers I had growing up, the humanist, teacher, author, organiser, dogged fighter and proletarian internationalist, Comrade Madunagu, and I, have maintained the closest relationship, understandably so. More than anybody else, his writings have shaped my ideological views. It was inevitable that our paths would cross sooner or later. And it happened at the University of Calabar (UNICAL) where Madunagu taught mathematics before he and other lecturers across the country were expelled in the late 70s by the military dictatorship of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo for “teaching what they were not paid to teach.”
During my early days as a journalist, I benefitted immensely from the advice and support of Gbemiga Ogunleye and Kunle Ajibade who encouraged me to go beyond my remit as a reporter on the news desk. Of course, there is my boss on several occasions, Dapo Olorunyomi, the self-effacing journalist and wordsmith, who has remained a constant guide.
Like many of my generation, I first met the poet, dramatist, novelist and Nobel laureate, Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka, in print before I met him in person at UNICAL in 1989. As a secondary school student, reading and owning his books, The Lion and the Jewel and The Trials of Brother Jero were rites of passage. Literary criticism is not my forte so I won’t venture into the arena of Soyinka’s literary fecundity and accomplishments. For me, the “essential” Soyinka is the political Soyinka. I grew up hearing different versions of the tale of how Soyinka, in 1965, seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio and broadcast a demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria regional elections. Soyinka has always been the conscience of a nation in search of identity; a constant thorn in the flesh of military dictators. As he revealed to Maya Jaggi, in a 2002 interview in The Guardian UK, his preoccupation has been “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it.”
Soyinka’s political intervention has always been timely and of great interest. He was one of the few voices of reason during the Nigerian Civil War that started on July 6, 1967. He was a moral force. He was only 33! That same year, he was arrested and put in solitary confinement for two years by then military dictator, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, after he (Soyinka) had secretly met with Biafran leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu, in Enugu in an attempt to avert the internecine civil war.
Who can forget Soyinka’s role during the dark days of the Abacha dictatorship for which he was sentenced to death in absentia in 1997. In my own study and analysis of our national crisis, I have drawn immense inspirations from Soyinka. His lectures on nationhood remain a reference point for those who want to understand our current dilemma as a country.
I salute Prof. Wole Soyinka at 80 for his contributions to Nigeria and to humanity. As he noted in his prison memoirs, The Man Died, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” I hope, like him and others, we can inspire a new generation of young men and women whose mantra is, a better country and, indeed, a better world is possible!
Chido Onumah via firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @conumah