By Louis Odion
When invitation was extended to yours sincerely in 2011 to join the Adams Oshiomhole administration, Kongi was naturally one of the key professional guardians and counselors I immediately consulted. Without hesitation, he approved that I accept the offer to gain knowledge on the workings of the public sector and, more importantly, because: “Adams (Oshiomhole) is a credible person. Give it a try. I understand he is a hardworking governor truly committed to working for his state. When you come back to writing, I am sure your experience would be enriched.”
His fiery pen and caustic tongue notwithstanding, Kongi remains tender at heart; one who may disagree with you in principle, but never holds back in the fellowship of humanity or be detained by bitterness over the past. Only that could possibly explain the complicated relationship he has had over the years with his kinsman, ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo. Feisty OBJ had decided to veer from the political turf as sitting president in 2005 to engage Soyinka in an epistolary joust. In a statement he personally signed, he took swipe at Kongi for criticizing his policies.
But discerning observers who read the open letter could not but raise their hands in panic immediately, fearful of the approaching literary wrath on the proverbial errant native doctor who carries his ritual offering past a mosque. While it was easily conceded that OBJ was cantankerous by nature, many had expected that his fabled native intelligence would have served him well by dissuading him from venturing into a square rope against Kongi in a literary duel.
Their worst fears were soon proved right. Soyinka’s response was an atomic bomb. By the time the smoke cleared, OBJ’s presidential garment was torn beyond recognition. For once, the Ota chicken farmer became tongue-tied. Months later, the animus that open ‘roforofo’ (dirty fight) had generated would not prevent Kongi from showing up at the funeral of OBJ’s spouse, Stella, who died suddenly following complications arising from a medical procedure in Spain.
When OBJ finally met with Kongi face to face on the aisle outside the funeral parlour, the story is told of how the president exploded in a playful rage, ‘Wole, iwo! (Wole, You!)’, raising an arm in mock threat. Defiant Kongi fired back, “Segun, Ori e!”, thumping his own head in a supreme Yoruba gesture of contempt. Obviously more embarrassed than amused by such show of audacity, the band of guards around the President cleverly looked away.
Again, when Chief Emeka Ojukwu qualified the victory he achieved in the sham elections arranged by the Abacha junta to select delegates for the 1994 Constitutional Conference as conferring on him a mandate “superior to June 12”, vintage Soyinka gave expression to popular thinking in the country then by simply dismissing the ex-Biafran secessionist as “an expired warlord”. That critical riposte would not prevent Kongi from attending Ojukwu’s burial two years ago to pay last respect to a personal friend.
Same generosity of spirit is very much in evidence in his warm relationship today with General Yakubu Gowon. At the presentation of a memoir by the Oba of Benin early this year, Soyinka continually poked good-natured jokes at Gowon while giving a keynote address, to the admiration of the audience. It was had to believe that it was same Gowon who had clamped him into the gulag during the Nigerian civil war. In fact, his 20-month solitary confinement birthed the book, “The Man Died”.
When it was his turn to speak, the former head of state threw the crowd into a fresh bout of laughter by cautioning Kongi to watch his tongue: “You should remember that it was because of the same sharp tongue of yours that I sent you to prison in the 60s.”
Being the first black man to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Soyinka’s life surely sends an enduring message: the infinite possibilities of the black race.
Tunji Dare @ 70
Just as we are celebrating WS for being a worthy patriarch of the letters, national spotlights also shift to another literary pathfinder. Engaging journalism tutor and master satirist, Dr. Tunji Dare, turns 70 on July 17. With his own personal example, Dr. Dare teaches us that column-writing is a public trust, to be used for common good, not abused for self-aggrandizement. That the true worth of a writer is to be measured not by the number of friends he or she has high up either the political or economic ladder; but whether his or her voice carries any weight in the hour of moral crisis.
Faced with two difficult options of job security or pursuit of personal conviction in the heat of the June 12 crisis in the 90s, Dr. Dare honorably resigned his commission at The Guardian, thereby sending a strong message: bread is tasteless without integrity?
As the master enters the septuagenarian club, here is wishing him many happy returns of the day.
Louis is an award winning Nigerian author