By Louis Odion
The cell-phone beeped frantically. With the caller ID with-held, it was easy to surmise that it was either a foreign call or someone preferring anonymity. Pressing the receive button, my hunch was dead right. The baritone voice was unmistakable: it was the literary lion himself roaring from his den on the other side of the Atlantic.”Hey Louis, what’s the trouble at home this time?,” he teased in his accustomed patriarchal flourish.
“Good day, prof,” I responded and, excited that my repeated dials had finally paid off, quickly switched to the sarcastic mode Kongi had set. “It’s Maradona again O. Of all the idle pensioners left in Nigeria, the NLNG people just declared that he’s the only one fit to give keynote address at the next Prize ceremony.”
Indeed, heavy dust had been raised earlier on this day in September 2007 following the unveiling of General Ibrahim Babangida as the lead speaker at the exclusive shindig, to which who’s who in Nigeria’s literary community get invited annually. As editor of Sunday Sun then with a robust literary section, this writer was urgently seeking Professor Wole Soyinka’s comment, to set the agenda ahead of the presentation ceremony scheduled for the following weekend.
Without mincing words, Kongi released the expected bombshell: “Abominable!” His logic was simple: having been linked to the unnatural deaths of a few literary celebrities as military dictator and having presided over an order that flagrantly stifled free speech, it was simply unacceptable that the microphone be yielded to the former military dictator at a ceremony intended to celebrate the spoken or written word. To him, that amounted to dancing on the graves of the likes of poet MammanVatsa (a military general summarily executed over alleged 1985 military coup despite passionate pleas from the nation’s leading writers including Soyinka) and Dele Giwa (celebrated journalist dispatched by a letter bomb on October 19, 1986).
Almost breathless with rage, Soyinka said: “I call on ANA (Association of Nigerian Authors) to boycott the NLNG Grand Award Night unless the organizers reverse themselves on the choice of General Ibrahim Babangida as keynote speaker, mindful of his antecedents. His choice is an affront on intellectuals in the country.
“NLNG has the right to invite whoever it pleases. It should also be understood that ANA, as a democratic institution, reserves the right to boycott. Saying that invitation extended to IBB is in the exercise of freedom of expression is a distraction. It is agreed that freedom of expression is consistent with democracy. Let it also be noted that ANA has, in this regard, a responsibility of action against the man who destroyed democracy in the country, whose policies stifled intellectual growth.”
With such thunderous denunciation by Kongi, yours sincerely was left salivating with some malicious pleasure at a steaming exclusive and did not think twice before making it a front-page story with the headline, “NLNG Award: Soyinka moves against IBB.”
Predictably, Soyinka’s eruptions instantly triggered a concatenation of lightning and thunder across the land. Literary snipers like Professors Niyi Osundare and Okey Ndibe added to IBB’s misery with their barbs. There were a few dissenters, however. At the end, the 2007 edition of the Literature Prize organized by the Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas was completely overshadowed by the debate on the propriety or otherwise of inviting a military dictator to a literary feast.
Fleeting as it may seem, the foregoing anecdote nonetheless speaks to one fact: another confirmation of Professor Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka as the conscience of a nation blighted by vanity and amnesia, with a deep moral voice whose resonance not only sends fear into the hearts of men of power but also inspires generations of men and women to stand up and be counted for good. By and large, what truly makes Soyinka great is not so much for the monumentality of a talent that spews pithy poetry, gripping prose and transcendental drama. His greatness lies more in the courage and character he brings to bear in creativity.
At an age when no territory seems restricted any more, when many yesterday’s heroes and heroines have been exposed to be counterfeits, when more and more of the surviving statesmen would rather trade away their honour for temporary gains, Kongi remains an exemplar, distinguished from the multitude by his trademark hoary mane accentuated by an equally immaculate goatee.
My early contact with him was through the channel of the written word. Beginning from secondary school, to the polytechnic and later the university, I read tons and tons of Soyinka’s works to find my own feet as a writer. As many students will attest, Soyinka’s poems were a source of dread and torture. But the Kongi I would later encounter as journalist was a pleasant man. Despite his world celebrity status, his humility is very numbing and, as the good teacher, he never allows any opportunity to mentor the younger ones pass.
To the younger ones like yours sincerely, Soyinka’s father-figure stature naturally makes him a guardian. But despite the wide age difference, Kongi also relates to you as a friend with incredible sense of humour. During one of his frequent visits to Nigeria, he gladly consented to an interview request I made. The only problem was time, because he had several speaking engagements already lined up. Finally, he decided to squeeze out a space in-between a lecture at the National Arts Theatre, Lagos.
Louis Odion is an award winning Nigeria author