Friday, August 27, 2010

50 Years of Nigerian Literature

By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Nigeria rules the world of literature. There is no major prize in literature that has not been won by Nigerian writers. Wole Soyinka capped it all up in 1986 by winning the coveted Nobel Prize for literature. Chinua Achebe, the acclaimed Father of the African Novel, was awarded the Man Booker Prize for his lifetime achievement in fiction writing, beating a redoubtable shortlist that included Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Ian McEwan etc. Ben Okri had earlier won the Booker Prize in 1991.

Before Nigeria’s arrival at Independence in 1960, diverse literatures had thrived in the local languages. Pita Nwana, the author of Omenuko blazed the trail in the publishing of fiction in Igbo. In the Western part of Nigeria D.O. Fagunwa, author of Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, was the trailblazer in the writing and publishing of Yoruba literature. Abubakar Imam, author of Magana Jari Ce, was the pathfinder in the North. The many Nigerian languages were well represented in literature before the almost overwhelming adoption of English by the emergent writers.

Amos Tutuola astounded the literary world with the publication of his novel The Palmwine Drinkard in 1954, some six years before Nigeria’s winning of self-rule. The book written in quaint English won the praise of the Irish poet Dylan Thomas and set Tutuola on the path of a redoubtable literary career.

Cyprian Ekwensi who had trained as a forester and a pharmacist quickly won his plaudits as an early story writer and novelist. From 1947 onwards, he published such titles as Ikolo the Wrestler and When Love Whispers which helped to launch forth the legendary Onitsha Market Literature chapbooks. Ekwensi would in the years ahead prove to be arguably Africa’s most prolific writer with the publication of books such as People of the City, Burning Grass, The Passport of Mallam Ilia, Jagua Nana, An African Night’s Entertainment, Drummer Boy, Divided We Stand, Survive the Peace etc. Ekwensi died in 2007.

In publishing Things Fall Apart in 1958 Achebe initiated a trend into looking into the history and the past to “understand where the rain started beating us”. The success of Things Fall Apart led to the initiation of the African Writers Series (AWS) that saw many African writers getting into print. Achebe’s first hero Okonkwo was a strong man who failed because he thought the white man could be confronted with force. In the sequel No Longer at Ease corruption became the undoing of the anti-hero Obi Okonkwo. The intellectual Ezeulu in Arrow of God equally fails in battling the white man with reason as opposed to Okonkwo’s brute strength. Achebe prefigures the collapse of partisan politics in his 1966 novel A Man of the People that uncannily ends with a coup and the hint of a counter coup. The advent of the military in politics recharges Achebe’s 1987 novel Anthills of the Savannah in which the telling of the story is given supreme command in the affairs of the world.

The many feats of Nigerian writing of course received the crowning glory in 1986 when Wole Soyinka won the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature. Soyinka in accepting the prize graciously said it was due honour for all the labour of his fellow writers across the African continent. Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in literature happens to be an all-rounder who is at once a playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, translator etc. His vast body of works includes the plays A Dance of the Forests, The Swamp Dwellers, The Road, Kongi’s Harvest, Madmen and Specialists, The Jero Plays, Death and the King’s Horseman; the novels The Interpreters and Season of Anomie; the poetry collections Idanre and other Poems, A Shuttle in the Crypt, Ogun Abibiman, Mandela’s Earth, Samarkand; the autobiographical titles Ake, the Years of Childhood, Ibadan: The Penkelemesi Years, You Must Set Forth at Dawn etc.

The traditional past that Achebe put on the literary front burner has been undertaken by other writers such as John Munonye in The Only Son and the sequel Obi, Elechi Amadi in The Concubine and The Great Ponds, T. Obinkaram Echewa in The Land’s Lord, Flora Nwapa in Efuru and Idu etc.

Flora Nwapa was at the vanguard of the emergence of female explorers of the lore that included distinguished writers such as Adaora Lily Ulasi, author of Many Thing Begin for Change, Many Thing You No Understand, The Man From Shagamu etc.

Buchi Emecheta, based in London, earned her lofty placing in the annals of Nigerian literature with novels like Second Class Citizen, The Joys of Motherhood, Destination Biafra etc.

After the initial flush of independence, came the disillusionment that attended the ruinous politics of the local politicians who took over from the colonial masters. Novelists such as Nkem Nwankwo, author of Danda and My Mercedes is Bigger Than Yours, turned to satire and comedy to depict the emerging world. For the poet Gabriel Okara who wrote one novel, The Voice, finding the “it” was well nigh impossible in English laced with Ijaw phrasing.

Onuora Nzekwu in Wand of Noble Wood as well as Blade Among the Boys walks the tight rope of tradition and modernity in the emergence of the Nigerian nation state. T.M. Aluko extends the divide between the modern and the traditional in his novels One Man, One Matchet; One Man, One Wife; Kinsman and Foreman; Chief the Honourable Minister; His Worshipful Majesty and Wrong Ones in the Dock. Aluko died earlier this year but not after publishing his last novel, Our Born gain President.

The emergence of Obi Egbuna on the scene somewhat made him to be seen as the enfant terrible of Nigerian literature with controversial books such as Wind Versus Polygamy, The Anthill, Emperor of the Sea, The Rape of Lysistrata, The Madness of Didi and so on. He was an unapologetic defender of the Black Power movement which made him to run into problems with the mainstream media in Britain.

A major rupture in Nigerian writing occurred with the outbreak of the Nigeria-Biafra war which affected the psyche of all the writers in a variety of ways. I.N.C. Aniebo saw action in the war and his novel The Anonymity of Sacrifice is an insightful tale on fratricidal infighting, a theme he extends in his next novel, the tradition-cum-Christian portrait The Journey Within.

Kole Omotoso had in his first novel explored the theme of black-and-white in love in The Edifice but the absurdity of war seized his consciousness in The Combat; only for him to later tackle the sweep of Nigerian history in Just Before Dawn. S.O. Mezu in Behind the Rising Sun undertakes an in-depth recreation of the Biafran debacle while Eddie Iroh engages all facets of the war in his Biafran trilogy Forty-Eight Guns for the General, Toads of War and The Siren in the Night.

Isidore Okpewho initially undertakes a study of polygamy in The Victims before winning the 1972 African Arts Prize with his second novel The Last Duty.

The situating of social reality in the appreciation of the mores of the day was given fillip by Festus Iyayi in his novels Violence, The Contract and the Commonwealth literature prize winning Civil War novel Heroes.

The 1991 Booker Prize was won by Ben Okri with his 500-page novel The Famished Road, thus confirming the great promise of the author in early novels such as Flowers and Shadows and The Landscapes Within.

The debut novels of Okey Ndibe (Arrows of Rain) and Ike Oguine (A Squatter’s Tale) were published as the last titles in the esteemed African Writers Series.

The feminine experience gets mainstream treatment in Ifeoma Okoye’s Behind the Clouds and Men Without Ears. Mabel Segun who recently emerged joint-winner alongside Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo of the Nigeria Literature Prize administered by the NLNG remains the doyen of children’s literature writing. Segun’s daughter Omowunmi is equally an award-winning novelist with The Third Dimple.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is without question the doyenne of the new writing coming out of Nigeria. Her debut novel Purple Hibiscus won the Commonwealth Prize while her second novel based on the Biafra war, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the esteemed Orange Prize for female writing. She has since released her debut collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck.

Sefi Attah won the Wole Soyinka Prize with Everything Good Will Come. Karen King-Aribisala (Our Wife and Other Stories) and Bina Nengi-Ilagha (Condolences) are celebrated award winners in fiction. Chika Unigwe writes out of Belgium, and her The Phoenix is a spellbinding read. She followed up with a critically successful novel on the black prostitution ring in Belgium entitled On Black Sisters Street. Unoma Azuah, author of Sky-High Flames, is charting her own course in the United States in the manner of Chris Abani of Graceland fame. Helen Oyeyemi made worldwide headlines with her debut novel published by Bloomsbury The Icarus Girl.

Zaynab Alkali of The Stillborn fame is the Northern star, and she is backed to the hilt by the men as represented by Ibrahim Tahir (The Last Imam) and Abubakar Gimba (Golden Apples).

Adebayo Williams is the master of the political novel while the youthful Akin Adesokan carries the carnivalesque strategy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to fruition in his award-winning Roots in the Sky. Maik Nwosu is a winner of multiple awards with books like Invisible Chapters and Alpha Song.

The new kids on the block writing their names in gold on the fiction marble are Toni Kan (Ballad of Rage), Odili Ujubuonu (Pregnancy of the Gods and Treasure in the Winds), Jude Dibia (Walking with Shadows and Unbridled) and Kaine Agary (Yellow-Yellow). Agary won the coveted Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by the NLNG.

Dulue Mbachu broke bold ground with his Biafra war novel War Games while intellectual fiction in the manner of Soyinka’s The Inte4rpreters was given pride of place by Isidore Emeka Uzoatu in Vision Impossible. El-Nukoya writes the ultimate Nigerian blockbuster in his award-winning Nine Lives.

The Caine Prize for African Writing was won by Helon Habila with his short story entitled “Love Poems” and he has since published two highly rated novels Waiting for an Angel and Measuring Time. He has just come out with a new novel, Oil on Water, limning the Niger Delta tragedy. Another Nigerian based in Britain, Segun Afolabi, also won the prize and published the well-received novel Goodbye Lucille. I happen to have been nominated for the 2008 Caine Prize, but that is by the way!

As a Black Briton Nigeria’s Diran Adebayo won much praise with his debut prize-winning novel Some Kind of Black.

Biyi Bandele has straddled the podia of drama and fiction, publishing novels like The Man Who Came From The Back of Beyond and Burma Boy as well as plays such the adaptation of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

It was Soyinka’s exploits in drama that won the Nobel Prize. A distinguished contemporary of Soyinka is of course J.P. Clark, author of the plays Song of a Goat, The Masquerade, The Raft, Ozidi, The Wives Revolt, All for Oil etc. Clark is equally an accomplished poet whose collections such as A Reed in the Tide and Casualties inspired the succeeding generations of poets.

Femi Osofisan brings the man in the margins of Soyinka’s drama to the centre stage. His many plays like Morountodun, Once Upon Four Robbers, Midnight Hotel etc are the most performed in the country.

Bode Sowande has run the Odu Themes theatre group for decades and is the author of Farewell to Babylon and Other Plays, Tornados Full of Dreams etc. Tunde Fatunde is the acknowledged master of drama in pidgin with such popular titles as Oga na Thiefman and No Food, No Country.

Ahmed Yerima who manages the National Theatre as well as the National Troupe rivals Osofisan for prolific output of plays. He won the Nigeria Literature Prize for 2006 with the play Hard Ground.

Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo is another respected new age playwright with plays like Tower of Burden. Wole Oguntokun is a lawyer-dramatist reviving live theatre at Terra Kulture with his plays notably Who is Afraid of Wole Soyinka?

Tess Onwueme is a leading female playwright carrying further the torch of the pioneering Zulu Sofola.

Nigeria happens to be a land of poets where, it is said, if a pin is thrown up it will inevitably land on the head of a poet! Christopher Okigbo was the quintessential Nigerian poet until his death in the Biafra war. The poets dotting the land today must each have received a knock from Okigbo. Such is his influence with his collection Labyrinths with The Path of Thunder.

Okigbo, Clark, Soyinka and Okara were the first quartet of distinguished poets from Nigeria. Odia Ofeimun with his controversial collection The Poet Lied leads the charge of extending their legacy. Kalu Uka is as accomplished a poet as any.

Niyi Osundare remains an adored poet all over the world with outstanding collections like A Nib in the Pond, Eye of the Earth, Waiting Laughters, Moonsongs, Midlife etc. Tanure Ojaide, Chimalum Nwankwo, Funsho Aiyejina, the late Ezenwa Ohaeto, Obiora Udechukwu, Tony Afejukwu etc are poets who have added so much luster to what Nigeria has to offer the world in lyricism.

The Update Poets namely the recently deceased Esiaba Irobi, Afam Akeh, Uche Nduka, Emman Usman Shehu, Kemi-Atanda Ilori and the late Idzia Ahmad showed early promise in the poetic craft and they have in various degrees fulfilled the promise.

Olu Oguibe, Amatsorero Ede, Harry Garuba, Chiedu Ezeanah, Nike Adesuyi, Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, Nnimo Bassey, Kayode Adenirokun, Angela Agali-Nwosu etc are charting diverse courses in the poetic craft.

Ogaga Ifowodo has won three awards with his troika of collections, namely, Homeland, Madiba and The Oil Lamp. Amu Nnadi characteristically only writes in the lower case; he was an award winner with his first collection, The Fire Within. Akeem Lasisi and Kudo Eresia-Eke are exceptional performance poets.

Nduka Otiono bags the prize for eclecticism. His award-winning story collection The Night Hides With a Knife is a study in oral application. Nengi Ilagha is a prolific award-winning poet, author of Mantids and an ambitious omnibus twelve-volume tome.

Nigerian writing has justly earned its high placing on the global literary chart. As I wrote from the very beginning, Nigerian writers have on all the prizes available all over the world, be it the Nobel Prize, the Booker, the Orange Broadband, the Caine Prize, the Commonwealth, the Noma and so on. Even so, as the grand old man of Nigerian letters Chinua Achebe wrote “It’s morning yet on creation day.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Okot p'Bitek at Ife

Okot p’Bitek at Ife: Days of Dance, Dreams and Drinks

By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

The urge to go the university was not to earn a degree, but to hang out with writers. And lionized writers do not come any greater than Professor Wole Soyinka whose name I traced down to the department he was heading at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), before I filled in the university entrance examination forms. I got to Ife and Soyinka was there with a supporting cast of engaging characters, but it was Okot p’Bitek, the inimitable Ugandan author of Song of Lawino who took over my life completely for the period he spent at the university. Soyinka, like his art, could be aloof, but Okot was readily accessible and a charming man of disarming simplicity who drank beer and whisky with all in fetching fellowship and would not want to be referred to as “Prof” or whatever title.
“Just call me Okot,” he always said in his soft, cooing voice. Between 1978 and 1980 at Ife Okot was the issue. It was while Soyinka’s lad Francis was taking me to the great man’s refrigerator for yet another beer session on a certain campus afternoon that I ran into Okot the Ugandan. He did not wait to hear the personable Francis out before he turned to me and said: “Let’s go and drink!” Okot could not understand why I should be wandering to an absent Soyinka’s beer when his was ready to hand!
The drinking with Okot lasted till late in the night, and resumed very early the next morning. It was a process that continued until Okot left Ife, and there was hardly any space between the drinking bouts for hangover to get a look-in!
The son of a prominent Protestant family from Gulu in the northern region of Uganda, Okot was born in 1931. He published a novel, Lak Tar, in his native Acholi language in 1953. He revealed that he had earlier written a poem entitled “The Long Spear” as well as composing an opera in English modeled after Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. Okot could not really be brought into recounting the details of his juvenilia, save to say that the novel Lak Tar told the sad story of a young man who travelled to the city of Kampala to earn the bride-price for his sweetheart, only to end up coming back to the village broke after being robbed of the pittance he had earned.

In addition to his interest in literature, Okot was at once a choirmaster, schoolteacher, local politician and an ardent footballer. It was in fact for his prowess in the football field that he earned his early renown. He was in the squad of the Ugandan national team that travelled to the United Kingdom in 1958. He was an enchanting dribbler who left his opponents kicking the grass in his wake. While other members of the team went back to Uganda Okot stayed on in the UK to further his studies. He earned a Diploma in Education at Bristol University, England. He would later bag a Law degree from the University of Aberystwyth in 1962 before ending up at Oxford University to study Social Anthropology. A polymath, Okot excelled in diverse fields.

According to Kojo Senanu and Theo Vincent in A Selection of African Poetry, Okot’s study of Social Anthropology “has become an abiding passion and in some sense has enabled him to study in great depth the oral literature, culture and traditions of his people. His poetry is not only the outcome of his findings, but is also fortified by a rich blend of native traditional literary forms and acquired English forms. p’ Bitek’s poetry represents one of the best examples of African poetry to successfully express African ideas in European forms, retaining the lyric freshness and simplicity of the songs of his own tribe, the Acholi, and using personal imagery. The distinct result has no comparison in the whole range of African poetry.”

A student of traditional songs and divinities, Okot who had lost his Christian faith while studying abroad returned to Uganda to organize the Gulu festival of song and dance. The original version of the classic Song of Lawino was written in the Acholi language and was titled Wer pa Lawino. In the words of Okot, the song was “translated from the Acholi by the author who has thus clipped a bit of the eagle’s wings and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior’s sword rusty and blunt, and has also murdered rhythm and rhyme.”

Song of Lawino became an immediate phenomenon on publication in 1966. Bookshops could not stock enough copies, and the East African Publishing House was hard-pressed to meet with reprint demands. Okot won more fans for poetry than all the other African poets put together. While the general readers celebrated Okot, the politicians felt threatened. Okot in fact lost his job as the director of the Uganda Cultural Centre because of his strident lampoon of politicians in Song of Lawino. The best critic of the poem, according to Okot, was an enraged woman who broke a bottle on Okot’s head while he was drinking in a Gulu bar with his friends. The woman whose name was Tina pointedly accused Okot that she was the Clementine lampooned in the poem. Okot bore the scar of the wound till his death! Who says poetry makes nothing happen?

Song of Ocol, the husband’s reply to Lawino, was published in 1967. Writing in Books Abroad, Richard F. Bauerle states: “Together Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol constitute a heated debate over the future of Africa. In graphic metaphor and with dramatic intensity, p’Bitek presents the conflict between the new and old, and in the process reveals a remarkable sensitivity to the values of both.”

Okot also published Two Songs, made up of “Song of Prisoner” and “Song of Malaya”. The interesting story behind the writing of “Song of Prisoner” is Okot’s imprisonment after getting drunk in Uganda. He had visited some friends and took to many bottles until his friends put him on a train to send him away. The train passengers accused him of disturbing them with his noise and had him locked up overnight. In the morning he asked to talk to the district commissioner so as to contact his wife. His jailers were shocked to discover that the “vagrant” knew the big man who instantly kowtowed to Okot by ordering his immediate release from captivity. Okot wrote the poem in the weekend following the murder of the prominent politician Tom Mboya who was equally his drinking companion.

“Song of Malaya” was inspired by the hypocritical arrest of prostitutes by Ugandan potentates who use the women. Actually some of the men were actually pulled off the women in order to make the arrests!

In 1978, just before coming to Nigeria, Okot published his translation of Acholi stories in the volume Hare and Hornbill. His translation of Acholi songs and poetry is entitled The Horn of my Love.

As a scholar Okot published African Religions in Western Scholarship in 1971 and Africa’s Cultural Revolution in 1975. His disagreement with John Mbiti, the distinguished authority on religious studies, is total.

The stories Okot told me of his life can fill a very large book, but only a fraction will suffice here. After his dismissal from the directorship of the Uganda Cultural Centre, Okot was employed by Kenya’s University of Nairobi where he enjoyed a healthy rivalry with emerging East African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Taban lo Liyong.

During the years of Idi Amin’s reign of terror, Okot’s visits to Uganda became fraught with danger. For instance, when Okot travelled to his hometown Gulu for the burial of his father, he was at a ceremony where Idi Amin caught sight of him and exploded in rage: “Get him! He is one of our enemies!”

One of Idi Amin’s cabinet ministers who happened to be a friend of Okot ensured that the arrest was not brutal. The minister actually helped Okot to escape by literally forcing the adamant poet to put on a coat before pushing him into the ministerial convoy for a death-defying drive across the Ugandan border! It was the narrowest of escapes, but Okot concerned himself more with complaining that he was against his will made to put on a suite and wave to the roadside crowds like a minister!

Okot’s arrival in Nigeria and at Ife foreshadowed a time of great drama and high jinks. The delegation sent from Ife to meet Okot at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, missed the man. Okot on his own hired a cab for the journey to Ife. He was hoping to put up with his friend David Rubadiri, the Malawian poet who had also taken up an appointment with the University of Ife.

“I suddenly barged into David’s room and I was disappointed that I did not catch him making out with a Yoruba woman!” Okot said, laughing.

Okot was yet to get a breather when Soyinka came in. Then there was a knock on the door, according to Okot’s account, and in stepped JP Clark who was not then on speaking terms with Soyinka. A heavy silence descended on the room. Okot tried to make the most of the embarrassing moment but his two visitors would not play ball. JP had driven all the way from his post as a professor in the University of Lagos when he heard of Okot’s arrival at Ife. In the end, one of the poets stormed out for sanity to prevail.

Getting Africa’s three leading poets into such a charged room is the stuff of which legends are made, and Okot happens to be a legend and legend-maker. He told me of a reading he had overseas, and how a particular girl appeared to be enjoying his delivery more than the others. He later invited the girl over to his hotel suite, and he was about to start “touching” when the girl told Okot that “Mum wants you at home for dinner.” It was then it dawned on Okot that the girl was actually his daughter!

“I nearly made love to my daughter!” Okot lamented. Laughing, I quoted his words from his poem “Song of Prisoner”: I want to suck the stiff breasts/ Of my wife’s younger sister.” He leered at me, and ordered yet another round of beer and whisky.

Okot always held court at the bar in the foyer of Oduduwa Hall, the big theatre of the university. Anything could happen during those drinking sessions. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor accosted Okot one day and said: “This is wrong, Professor p’Bitek. How can you take your students out to drink?”

Okot stared at the man for a good minute before saying: “You must have gone to a bush university or you would have known that professors share drinks with their students. By the way, why do you part your hair?” The man fled!

The proprietress of the bar once remonstrated with Okot on not clearing the huge bill he had accumulated and the poet promptly told the woman: “I am sure your husband didn’t do you well last night. When you go home, tell him to f—k you thoroughly!” And the woman, too, fled!

Even with the talk of unpaid bills, Okot would order a big bottle of White Horse whisky for the great actress Florence Toun Oni who had joined the table. Presenting the whisky with a flourish Okot blew a kiss to the smiling lady. Watching in a safe distance the proprietress simply shook her head. A friend of mine, Patrick Izobo-Agbebeaku who would later make history as the first university graduate bus conductor in Nigeria, demanded to see Okot’s debts. Patrick wondered aloud why the madam should be insulting “Prof Okot for a small amount of money”. Okot quickly shut up my friend with these words: “If you think it’s a small amount, then pay!”

Okot would not use the urinary of the bar, stressing that the place was dirty. Motioning to me, Okot started out of the bar. I got the message. He only made use of the Vice-Chancellor’s toilet which he said was the only clean toilet in the entire campus. It was drizzling, and I pointed at the falling rain.

“Come on, the rain makes you grow,” Okot said to me, walking in the rain.

Walking with him up the staircase, we came into the office of the VC’s half-caste secretary. “Watch me do some beautiful things to this beautiful woman,” Okot said, grabbing at the lady who ducked and ran.

Okot felt then that I was a fully-formed poet who had no business being a student. It was under his influence that I wrote the long poem “When I Shall Marry (Eater of my Wealth)” which was published in the university’s arts magazine Sokoti.

“Sharpen your pen!” This was the unique piece of advice I got from Okot on the art of writing. He discussed everything but the nitty-gritty of creative writing. I once tried to discuss Wole Soyinka’s novel The Interpreters with him. Picking up the book, he said: “Fine book by my friend Soyinka.” Then he tossed the book aside and said, “Let’s go and drink.”

He told me he was working on a book on his experiences in Nigeria to be dedicated to me. To him, everybody in Nigeria was a lizard, starting from the country’s leader who was the big lizard then based in Lagos. He had actually written the first line of the book which goes thus: “The lizard says he is coming, but the lizard never comes.” Whatever became of the book is in the lap of the gods. There was also mention of a long poem entitled “Song of Soldier.”

He would not discuss his fellow writers except to say, for instance, that Chinua Achebe is “a beautiful man.” He told the story of how Ugandans broke down and cried when Achebe was flying back to Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War after a visit to Kampala. The East Africans could not bear the thought of not seeing the author of Things Fall Apart ever again as had happened to Christopher Okigbo.

Okot took ill towards the end of his stay at Ife. He discharged himself from the hospital on regaining consciousness. He got back to his house to discover that all the drinks and alcohol had been removed. He was dying to have a quick drink. Then he saw David Rubadiri’s houseboy learning to ride a motorcycle. Okot promptly ordered the learner to ferry him to the nearest watering-hole. Both fell down from the bike, and Okot had a big gash for his efforts.

When Idi Amin was chased away from power Okot celebrated. He pointedly told me that I would follow him to Makerere University as he would not want me to continue my studies at Ife which he dismissed as a “University of Lizards”. He spoke glowingly of Yusuf Lule who was poised to take over from Idi Amin. He was so determined to take me to Makerere University that he chased me out of the examination hall of the GNS 1 “Use of English” course. I left the exam hall to help him buy meat at the Leventis Stores near the staff quarters. Then we retired to drinking beer and whisky while my mates were writing the exams!

Okot was open to a fault. He showed me letters from universities like Iowa, Harvard, Texas, Makerere etc offering him professorships in diverse disciplines such as Creative Writing, African Studies, English and Divinity. In the end I could not summon up enough courage to abandon my studies at Ife for the journey with Okot to Uganda’s Makerere University. Schoolwork and passing exams may not have mattered to me, but damaging my parents and sundry loved ones through transnational rascality did. It was while writing my degree exams in 1982 that the news was broken to me that my great friend Okot was dead. I dedicated my final year thesis to him. He deserved no less.

James Hadley Chase & Lobsang Rampa

From Hadley Chase to Lobsang Rampa

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Back then as schoolboys in the 1970s we used to enjoy such authors as James Hadley Chase and T. Lobsang Rampa. It was much later in life that one learnt that James Hadley Chase was the penname of Rene Raymond, an Englishman who used to work for the booksellers Simpkin, Marshall. In the course of his work Mr. Raymond read many trashy thrillers written by American authors and felt he could write better than the lot. He then penned his own thriller in 1939 entitled No Orchids for Miss Blandish and sent it off to the Hutchinson publishing house then under the chairmanship of the half-mad “Mr. Walter” Hutchinson. Two positive readers’ reports were needed for the maverick publisher to agree to publish the book. An editor in the publishing company, Jim Reynolds, forged the two reports that convinced Mr. Hutchison. The author who had then adopted the pseudonym of James Hadley Chase was paid an advance of 30 pounds sterling. In a handful of years No Orchids for Miss Blandish sold a staggering half a million copies thus enabling James Hadley Chase to write more thrillers such as The Vulture is a Patient Bird, Believed Violent, The Way the Cookie Crumbles, An Ear to the Ground, This Way for a Shroud, Strictly for Cash etc.

The case of another author named T. (for Tuesday) Lobsang Rampa is even more fabulous. This Lobsang Rampa fellow wrote to the publishers, Secker and Warburg, that his real name was Dr Kuan-suo and that he had authored his autobiography in which he told the true story of his life as a lama in Tibet from the age of seven. According to the self-styled Lobsang Rampa, his search for higher knowledge in Tibet led to his being operated on to open a “third eye” in his forehead. This was done by boring a hole through his forehead! The book The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa was published in 1956 and quickly sold some 50,000 copies and was translated into a handful of languages before alarm bells rang fast and free about the dubiousness of the book.

The Daily Mail of London scooped that the so-called Lobsang Rampa was no Tibetan after all; he was in fact an Englishman named Cyril Henry Hoskins, the son of a plumber from Devon! He was in real life a surgical goods maker and part-time photographer. After he was exposed for the fraud he was Lobsang Rampa was traced to a hotel in Dublin where he was hiding. He made some very interesting explanations to the reporters.

He readily agreed that he was truly an Englishman but added the dimension that his body was inhabited by a Tibetan lama! Lobsang Rampa, also known as Dr Kuan-suo and Cyril Henry Hoskins, further explained that the lama took possession of his body on one inauspicious day in which he fell down from a tree while attempting to take photographs of an owl! It was while he lay on the ground that a lama in blue and saffron robes floated in the air toward him and then suddenly took possession of his body! This kind of a tall story is deserving of the ultimate prize in fiction writing. Lobsang Rampa, even as he was exposed as a hoax, went on to publish other books such as Doctor from Lhasa, The Rampa Story, Living with the Lama etc.

The intriguing life of Lobsang Rampa forms a part of the memoirs of his publisher Frederic Warburg entitled All Authors Are Equal. Actually other publishers had turned down Lobsang Rampa on the grounds that his proposition was implausible but the enthusiatic Warburg gave the benefit of the doubt to the self-styled mystic whom he agreed to meet over lunch. Publisher Warburg was surprised that mystic Rampa ordered only fish and chips for lunch!

The scoop by Daily Mail on Lobsang Rampa was masterminded by another writer with links to Tibet, Heinrich Harrer, the bestselling author of Seven Years in Tibet.

I have been reliably informed that a Nigerian publisher is in the process of re-publishing James Hadley Chase’s bestselling titles here in Nigeria. Methinks it would have made more sense encouraging Nigerian authors to write their own thrillers instead of reissuing Anglo-American junk. The way we are going, we may end up having a Nigerian publisher actually printing for Nigerian consumption the English 419 known as Lobsang Rampa. That will be the very limit.

Scrap Aso Rock

Scrap Aso Rock today!

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Due to the request of one of my ardent readers, Chief Joe Ifedobi (Okosisi Akpo), who I refer to as a “strategic source” I am reprinting this article I had published earlier – but in a slightly amended form. The source of the plenteous troubles of Nigeria is Aso Rock. That place is deadly. Anybody who thinks that the protracted death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua is “ordinary” should have his head examined and his brain unscrambled. Aso Villa is a haunted house, haunted day and night by very vile and evil spirits! How do I know this for a certainty? Ask my jujuman in Agege, near Pen Cinema!

Actually it is only death wish that would make any man agree to occupy a house reluctantly vacated by that highly “medicated” man who propounded the immortal theory that Apartheid in South Africa could only be defeated by juju! It is my candid opinion that the departed “Umoru” was not sufficiently “medicated” to occupy that cabalistic enclave. He was grossly unprotected against the relentless onslaught of supernatural Scud missiles and preternatural Molotov cocktails directed acutely at his pericarditic heart! Now that Yar’Adua is gone I pray that President Goodluck Jonathan should promptly scrap the killer Aso Rock. There is no “Good Luck” in this matter. Let the man from Otuoke in Bayelsa State level Aso Rock for good!

In the astral plane, as observed and traversed by people with “Third Eye” like the crooked T. Lobsang Rampa, Okija shrine is a picnicker’s paradise when compared with the dastardly coven known as Aso Rock!

The trouble with Aso Rock started from the very beginning. Nigeria’s one and only Military President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida did not pack into the place under normal circumstances. As they say, it is not with ordinary eyes that harassed mortals run into the embrace of the born-again “Jehovah Sharp-Sharp” churches! The Evil Genius from Minna ran to the Villa following the hot pursuit of Major Gideon Orkar and his comrades who smoked him out of his bedroom in Dodan Barracks, Lagos. The coup lion-heart named Gideon Orkar had accused Babangida of running a “homosexually-centred oligarchic” regime; and it was only split seconds that saved the utterly frightened self-advertised “Master of Violence” from sure death. And the man fled! Let’s not be detained here by the news that I am yet to corroborate that the Evil Genius actually shat in his undies during the Orkar coup, like General Diya did when he was charged with coup-plotting by General Abacha’s goons! It suffices to say that ever since Babangida made Aso Rock Nigeria’s presidential abode the country has known no progress whatsoever. Ask Babangida or Shonekan or Abacha or Abdulsalami or Obasanjo or Yar’Adua or their wives! Now Babangida who “fortified” the place wants to get back there. God save us!

In the light of building institutions that last forever there was the Biblical injunction on Peter the Apostle thusly: Upon this rock I will build my church. This way, the Evil Genius turned to Aso Rock and said: “Upon this rock I will build my evil empire!”

For a visibly shaken man running for his dear life from Dodan Barracks in Lagos all the way to Aso Rock in Abuja, there was the clear and present need to fortify the place against all spiritual attacks, metaphysical onslaughts and terrestrial diabolism. I have it on good authority that hoary marabouts and voodoo grandmasters were put to work from all corners of the globe to root forever the life presidency of the then First Family deep inside the rock. It is against this background that any wannabe so-called leader of Nigeria who hopes for a place of abode in Aso Rock is doomed to occult failure.

So when Chief Moshood Abiola sought to succeed his bosom friend Babangida via the June 12, 1993 presidential election he was promptly made to understand that Aso Rock was not made for another family through the instant annulment of the election! The like of old man Tony Anenih who was ostensibly rooting for Abiola suddenly turned tail with the evergreen slogan: “No Vacancy in Aso Rock!”

Even when so much heat was put on Babangida to quit power it’s remarkable that he told all willing to listen that he was merely “stepping aside”. Chief Ernest Shonekan whom Babangida installed as interim leader of Nigeria could not get a hang on the spiritual and sundry grigri underpinnings of Aso Rock until he was shabbily kicked out by Abacha. Then Abacha had to stay holed up in Lagos for quite some time for Aso Rock to be detoxified for his occupation! See what I mean; even the ordinarily tough Abacha did not want to dash in where angels feared to tread!

Once Abacha got his bearing within the Aso Rock terrain he upped the ante in making the ornate palace his permanent home. He reportedly ferried in a million blind mice from Niger Republic into Aso Rock to keep all Nigerians eternally blind to his antics at self-perpetuation in power! Marabouts became two for a kobo in the biology and geography of Aso Rock. Even so, Abacha did not reckon with the terminal depths of Indian apples! And thus the man expired, giving place to General Abdulsalami Abubakar who just took as much money as he could in nine fast months and simply ran from the deathbed of Aso Rock.

A lot of people had so much faith in General Olusegun Obasanjo during his reign as a military leader back in Dodan Barracks in Lagos, but now see the donkey that eight long years in Aso Rock made of the Owu man! Who out there is still arguing with me that there is “something” in that Aso Rock? To illustrate the matter of the recurring decimal of madness in Aso Rock, let’s play up the role of a certain comical character that appeared at the Oputa Panel. This fellow whose name I will not mention here as it will only elicit laughter - and I am such a serious writer whose essay should not make people laugh! Yes, this fellow, let’s just call him Tokyo, complained to Oputa that he was detained by Abacha’s security goons, Gwarzo and Mustapha. This Tokyo fellow was fond of going to the security agents in Aso Rock from the time of Babangida with his waxed music in which he sang the praises of any government in power. After making so much money with his music “Babangida forever”, “Shonekan forever”, “Abdulsalami forever” he approached Gwarzo and then Mustapha with his brand new CD “Abacha forever!” They promptly clamped him into detention for his bad repetitive music! Mustapha then told an astounded Justice Oputa: “As we are talking now, this shameless fellow is back worshipping with Obasanjo at the Aso chapel with the selfsame music!” “Obasanjo forever” indeed! Everybody at the Oputa Panel burst out laughing. Poor Oputa had to chid the audience by saying that instead of laughing the people should weep for Nigeria.

Any wonder then that Obasanjo fell like Humpty Dumpty with his Third Term calamity. And now see what became of ex-President Yar’Adua! President Jonathan should take urgent heed. Except Aso Rock is scrapped there may be no light at the end of a very dark tunnel. As my buddy Bob Marley would sing, “Total destruction is the only solution!”

IBB & Death Threats

Death threats in a time of kidnapping

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Journalism is a dangerous job even at the best of times. In Nigeria where the times tilt from bad to worst it is akin to a death sentence being a journalist. Just the other day, after my column entitled “Babangida on politics of personality” was published an “Unknown” caller put through a call on my line reserved for only sms messages.

“You are Uzor, you wrote that nonsense on IBB, you are a politician, you are dead!” the voice at the other end said breathlessly.

“This line is only meant for text messages,” I said evenly. “You can send your text message if you please…”

“We are going to kill you!” the voice cut in.

“Do you really need to make a phone call before killing a person?” I asked, only for the fellow to cut the line.

I did not pay much attention to the call, knowing that not a few cranks have taken advantage of the cheapness of mobile phones to play idle pranks.

Shortly after, the man called again, saying, “Uzor, you are dead” and cut off before I could deign to make a reply.

When he called yet again I pressed the “answer” button without bothering to put my ear to the phone to hear his gibberish. I felt he could waste his credit till kingdom come. It was when he kept repeating the call at the office that I gave the phone to my colleague, Ayodele Ojo, the Saturday Editor to answer the call.

“Speak out loud so that I can hear you,” I heard Ayodele say over the phone before turning to me to say that the man has cut the line.

Ever since, the voice has not called again, and I happen to still be alive! I have not looked back to see if I’m being stalked. I still come to work without taking any security precautions whatsoever. I as ever frequent my regular haunts without let or hindrance. In short, my life has not changed in any way whatsoever. Death will come when it will come, as the great bard wrote, death threats or no death threats.

We cannot stop doing journalism because Dele Giwa was threatened and then killed. Bagauda Kaltho was brutally murdered yet Nigerian journalists are still penning truth to power. The only thing that struck me in receiving the death threat calls was that it was happening at a time three journalists and their driver had been kidnapped in Abia State. Not a few persons have called over the phone to inquire of my safety since the advent of the menace of kidnapping journalists in Nigeria. The solitary voice calling for my death was by far outstripped by the many praying for me to be alive. The minority of murderers deigning to superintend over Nigeria should actually be pitied.

My concern really is about the freedom of my colleagues in the custody of the kidnappers rather than the threats of a disembodied fellow. Making death threats over the phone reminds me of a scene in the celebrated Western film, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, in which the assailant pointed a gun at the hero in the bath-tub and was sounding triumphant with so much talking. Of course the man in the bath-tub had his gun under the foam and promptly shot to death the assailant by saying the following words: “If you want to shoot, shoot; don’t talk!”

One refuses to be intimidated. Babangida in his first coming was driven away by my pen. Now that I have a laptop I don’t think he can survive any better. Already people all over are hearkening to my poem to vote for him with stones! Not even the deadliest killer squad in the world can help him survive! A tear for him…

As my hero Che Guevara would say, "Whenever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear and another hand reaches out to take up our arms."


Babangida on politics of personality

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Nigeria is indeed a very wonderful place where wonders shall never end. What with characters like former military president and now a desperate presidential aspirant for the 2011 election on the platform of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), General Ibrahim Babangida calling on the PDP to rise above what he termed “politics of personality” or that of “he who pays the piper”. Thank God for democracy, Babangida who during his days as a military dictator boasted that he was not only in government but in power is now crying out like a rain-beaten chicken! Whatever became of his claim that he is a master of violence? It is incumbent on him to use his so-called powers to rein in on those playing the politics of personality. And, pray, who has more money than Babangida to deign to pay the piper?

Babangida has been very fast to make two reactions in two days over PDP Chairman Okwesilieze Nwodo’s deposition that zoning is dead in the party. In his second reaction in two days flat to the statement by Nwodo, and the follow-up clarification the next day that the party may re-visit zoning, Babangida pointed out that he was pleased to read the position of the PDP chairman. According to Babangida, “Nwodo was first among equals when he was zoned-in from a group of other persons from the South-east zone. He is a direct product of zoning after waiving some encumbrances that would have mitigated his emergence as the new chairman of our great party. Nwodo pronounced the zoning policy of the PDP as dead, even though he said it can be revisited and that he is not afraid of an open discussion of the issue. By making room for further discussion on the zoning policy, Nwodo has demonstrated his liberal and progressive disposition to the whole world.”

To underscore the importance attached to the matter, the statement was signed personally by the man who likes to be addressed as “Evil Genius.” The gospel according to Babangida goes on thusly: “In order for the PDP to be seen as a progressive vehicle for change, it must rise above politics of personalities or that of ‘he who pays the piper’.” Let us remember that in his days of authoritarian power Babangida used to tell anybody who cared to listen that every Nigerian had his price.

As former Kenyan president Arap Moi used to say after he took over power, all Kenyans must be singing songs of praise to him because when his predecessor, the legendary Jomo Kenyatta, was in power every Kenyan was singing for the old man and he (Arap Moi) was the chief praise-singer. In the case of our dear Nigeria, it is President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s turn now, so Babangida should turn to praise-singing instead of disturbing the peace of the country with his latter-day convolutions.

The truth of course is that Babangida has made matters difficult for himself by coming across as a Northern irredentist in his championing of the so-called zoning arrangement in the PDP. It will be well-nigh impossible for him to clear himself of the charge of pursuing a Northern agenda. Even Gen. Muhammadu Buhari who used to seen as being too pro-North is making better noises than Babangida this time around. In a sense, Babangida is somewhat antagonising the more liberal stalwarts in the selfsame North through his current tribal politics.

Babangida would want us to believe that he stands the chance of winning a free and fair election in Nigeria as notice his noises on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the body’s newly-minted chairman: “There is a glimmer of hope with current happenings at INEC most especially with the refreshing appointment of Professor Attahiru M Jega, as the new INEC chairman. It is hoped that all stakeholders will rally round the new INEC in order to have credible elections where voters will not only guard the count of their votes, but rather that their votes would truly count in the emergence of winners in all elections. I believe Professor Attahiru will need the support of all Nigerians because he alone cannot do it unless the people truly want him to do it by expressing their franchise in accordance with the dictates of the electoral laws.”

Haba! I have heard enough, for crying out loud! Talk of a man who annulled a free and fair election pontificating on credible elections! This Babngida fellow is simply insufferable! Why are we so blest? As the ace Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah would ask…



By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

The Nigerian national football team, the Super Eagles, was in 2005 having a pulsating match with the Zimbabwean national team in Harare, and the Zimbabwean supporters had one big banner in the stands on which was written in bold red: “Nigeria – Good only for Films!” For the many men and women of Zimbabwe, the prowess of Nigeria in the football pitch was not as great as the accomplishment of the country in the film industry. The Zimbabweans are not alone, for across the length and breadth of the African continent the Nigerian home movies are all the rage. The phenomenon has extended to the frontiers of Europe, North America and Asia with throngs of foreigners making the frequent pilgrimage to Nigeria to have a feel of the revolution known as Nollywood, which accounts for the third place in worldwide film production after America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

Professor Jude Akudinobi who teaches film studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says: “What Nigeria has in Nollywood is a global brand. I am always being consulted from all over the globe about the workings of the Nigerian home movie industry. The government has a goldmine in the industry if properly managed with the requisite technical competence.” Akudinobi has in the past many years made many trips from his base in California to Abuja and Lagos to facilitate Nollywood projects undertaken by Emeka Mba’s National Film and Film Censors Board (NFVCB) and Amaka Igwe’s Best of the Best African Film and Television Programmes Market, aka BOBTV.

Film luminaries who have shown profound interest in Nollywood range from the top Hollywood director Bill Duke to the respected acting coach Ms Adilah Barnes, the international copyright expert Ms Avalyn Pitts and the Paul Robeson Award director Prof Shade Turnipseed.

In the words of Alder, “The revenue generated by sales and rentals of movies in Lagos State is N804 million per week.” This adds up to an estimated N33.5 billion per annum. Demand for broadcast content in Nigeria averages 836,580 hours of programming per year valued at N250 billion. Uptake of CDs at Alaba International Market, Lagos alone is estimated at 700,000 discs per day. Alder submits finally that “the market potential of the movie industry in Nigeria relative to the size of each state’s economy is at least N522 billion per annum.”

World Bank President and former Nigerian Finance Minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had at a seminar on “Global Imperatives for the Nigerian Movie Industry in 2005” said that the “Government expects the industry to generate about US 250 dollars in foreign exchange.”

The Nollywood phenomenon being celebrated globally today started most inauspiciously. A few Nigerian dramatists and comedians in Lagos and Onitsha had recorded and sold some of their plays via the VHS format until the advent of the Igbo language home movie Living in Bondage which launched forth the revolution. At the heart of the making of that breakthrough film is the story and tenacity of one young man known as Okechukwu Ogunjiofor, popularly known as Paulo, after the character he played in Living in Bondage. Okey, that is short for Okechukwu, needs to be quoted at length on how Living in Bondage came about.

Here is Okey’s story: “I would want to start by saying that when I left TV College, Jos in 1987, one of the challenges I had then was that my parents were confused as to what I went to do in the university. I went to Jos because I had admission to study law. That year, on October 1st, we had a very terrible accident that left me in the hospital for eight months. I broke my legs, and so I was in the hospital when the others matriculated and it never occurred to my parents and uncles to go and defer my admission.”

The young Okey got out of hospital only to see that his admission to the University of Jos had lapsed. He had to do the JAMB University exams all over, and could no longer pass the exams. It was against this background of incipient failure that his uncle advised him to take advantage of the advertised Nigerian Television (NTA) College course on Television Production “instead of staying and wasting away at home.” He found his niche in the course, but had to make do with hawking at National Theatre in Lagos on completion of the course.

Other theatre artistes such as Frank Vaughan, Ruth Osi and Wale Macauley who were rehearsing at the theatre could not understand why he should be hawking after his training. The personable Ruth Osi gave Okey a note to meet Kenneth Nnebue who was into the marketing of Yoruba movies on VHS.

On meeting Kenneth Nnebue who would eventually provide the funding for Living in Bondage Okey said he needed N150,000 to be able to make the film. Kenneth told him that the amount was enough to make three Yoruba movies. The self-assured Okey instantly did an analysis of how Kenneth could quickly recoup his money on the investment. Kenneth then told Okey to bring along his certificate to prove that he was not some nobody. He went home and came back with his certificate. As Okey had said he was not willing to shoot on VHS, Kenneth told him he would make a trip to Japan to procure cameras.

Kenneth then told him to put the story together while he made the trip to Japan. Okey went back to the National Theatre, and began rehearsals without any script whatsoever. Okey who had been under the tutelage of the ace director in the NTA Chris Obi-Rapu could not but bring the great man into the project. Since Chris was still in the employ of the NTA he could not append his real name to the project.

According to Chris Obi-Rapu, “What made the Nigeria home video industry to take-off was the input from Okey Ogunjiofor and my direction. Nobody had wanted to do anything in Igbo or Yoruba among television producers around then because they felt it was degrading. There had been some shootings of Yoruba and Igbo videos. Mike Orihedimma recorded Igbo home videos in Onitsha, while NEK (Kenneth Nnebue) was recording and marketing Yoruba videos in Lagos. They were poorly produced and directed. It is a known fact in filmmaking that it is the direction that makes the film. If I had not shot Living in Bondage and Taboo there could not have been any Nollywood. This film business really took off because Living in Bondage was well shot as at that time. If I had not stood my grounds the financier could have influenced the production and direction in a negative way. I resisted him because I knew that he lacked the knowledge of filmmaking. It was a deliberate directorial effort that brought about the home video revolution. It was not accidental.”

The making of Living in Bondage, according to Okey Ogunjiofor, marked “the first time some people were paid in thousands of naira to act on a film. I got N500 because I had not made a film then. People like Bob-Manuel (Udokwu) and others were paid a thousand naira. As a producer and an actor, what I got was only N500.”

Okey stresses that the formula that pushed him on was that unlike in the western part of Nigeria where the Yorubas always went to the theatres to watch movies the easterners, especially the Igbo needed the movies to be brought to their homes. For whatever it is worth, the young man’s dream has materialized into a phenomenon that now holds the entire world in thrall.

The words flow almost childlike from Okey’s mouth: “I had some stories and something to share but I am looking into bringing something into film for people to buy because I had thought that since the Eastern part of this country does not have cinema culture, and all of them are rich enough to have video machines in their homes, why don’t I take the film to their home so that they can watch it?” He adds the following words of fulfillment: “Since after we shot that film (Living in Bondage) the only happiness I have is that God used that opportunity to lift the celluloid era. And what we said was let’s bring the current format of celluloid film into digital and let’s create jobs for people and today we can imagine the number of thousands of people that are feeding from film.”

The movies have since proliferated in the major languages such as Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa as well as in Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio etc. The English language films are seen as welding the diverse ethnic groups together. Major players in the English language films include the producers Zeb Ejiro and his brother Chico Ejiro, Amaka Igwe, Mahmood Ali-Balogun, Tade Ogidan, Andy Amenechi, Opa Williams, Kingsley Ogoro, Charles Novia, Fred Amata, Don Pedro Obaseki; marketers-cum-producers Ken Nnebue, Rob Eze (Reemy Jes), Ossy Affason, Gabosky Okoye, Azubuike Udensi, Arinze Ezeanyaeche, Ugo Emmanuel and Alex Okeke (Emmalex) etc.

Actors who used to earn peanuts while hanging around the NTA premises are now worth their weight in gold, notably Richard Mofe-Damijo, Olu Jacobs, Pete Edochie, Bob-Manuel Udokwu, Sam Loco, Justus Esiri, Enebeli Elebuwa, Ejike Asiegbu, Saint Obi, Jim Iyke, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Clem Ohameze, Emeka Ike, Segun Arinze, Ramsey Noah, Emeka Enyocha, Nkem Owoh, Mr. Ibu, Hanks Anuku etc. The equally distinguished ladies of the klieg lights compete with the men in the earning front, and the list is made up of Amazons such as Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde, Chioma Chukwuka, Sandra Achums, Stephanie Okereke, Liz Benson, Joke Silva, Ebube Nwagbo, Rita Dominic Nkiru Sylvanus etc

The making of Glamour Girls by Kenneth Nnebue shortly after the making of Living in Bondage showed that movies made in English language could make good returns on investment. Actors and actresses such as Zack Orji and Eucharia Anunobi shot into limelight, if not notoriety.

Diverse themes were explored along the line, from traditional practices such as the Osu caste system (Taboo) and prostitution as in Zeb Ejiro’s high-grossing Domitilla. Some of the films were shot outside the shores of Nigeria like Kingsley Ogoro’s record-breaking Osuofia in London acted with requisite mastery by the inimitable Nkem Owoh. Comedy films have over the years proved to be winners with the actors Nkem Owoh, Mr Ibu, and the diminutive duo Aki and Pawpaw acquitting themselves as the masters of the genre.

The banks have started to show interest with Ecobank funding the films of Charles Novia, Fred Amata, Chico Ejiro, Fred Duker etc. The actors are fast gaining recognition in the national honours list with such eminent recent honorees as Pete Edochie, Justus Esiri, Lere Paimo, Eddy Ugbomah, Zeb Ejiro etc.

Schools and agencies are springing up for the training of the new talents from scriptwriting through directing and marketing. Leading the charge are such schooled eminences as Wale Adenuga, Muritala Sule, Victor Okhai etc.

51 Iweka Road, Onitsha retains its top spot as a major market for the home movies. It would appear that any film that comes out of Nollywood must bear the imprimatur of the ubiquitous 51 Upper Iweka Road, the most famous address in Nollywood. It used to be a place for electronic merchants who have since abandoned there trade for the making f home movies. That famous address is an old building, about 60 metres in length, and made up of three storeys of a thousand and more shops owned by the Modebe family of Onitsha.

The Yoruba film setup continues to draw the crowds to the film theatres in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta and so on. A major player in Nollywood is obviously Tunde Kelani who is almost always invited to all the major film festivals across the globe. He is almost 60 years of age but he still talks film with the passion of youth. He started out as a cameraman and literally knows all the nooks and crannies of the film world. The maker of such masterpieces as Thunderbolt, Saworide, Agogo Eewo etc says, “I think the journey to become a cinematographer is a long one and it could as well be a lifetime.”

The indomitable Hausa film world is tagged Kannywood, and Sanni Muazu who produces films in Kano stresses: “We may not produce tapes or cameras but we have a product: films. So we do have an industry.” Ali Nuhu is arguably the most highly rated actor out of Kannywood having acted in about 100 Hausa films. Mama Hajara on her part has acted in well over 100 films in her 20-odd-year career. The industry currently employs about 15,000 talents working as directors, producers, scriptwriters, engineers and costume designers. Ibrahim Mandawari doubles as a leading actor and director, saying: “You cannot expect filmmakers to have a free ride. Custodians of society’s heritage, clerics and conservative elite will react, stressing the need for social responsibility in the kind of themes we display.”

The relevance of Nollywood in the cultural renaissance of Nigeria cannot be gainsaid. It is getting obvious by the day that Nigeria can indeed conquer the world through the reach of film just as the Americans did through the exploits of Hollywood. Through training and re-training such as the annual SHOOT! Workshops organized at the National Film Institute, Jos by the Afolabi Adesanya-led Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) in association with Refuge Island Media, Nigerian movie makers are breaking bolder grounds. For instance, producers can now upgrade movies shot on video to the world-class 35mm celluloid format. The technology is readily available, and Nigerian producers can avail themselves of the breakthrough to push their works into the mainstream of world cinema. This way, Nigerian filmmakers will no longer only serve as observers or as idle bystanders in the many film festivals all over the world.

Peace Anyiam-Fiberisimma who organizes the annual AMAA awards says, “When a man wants to make up with his wife, he comes home with ten video cassettes. If he wants to go out without her, the same thing – that way, she won’t want to come with him!”

Nollywood has become an integral feature of the life of every Nigerian, and the joy is that the phenomenon has spread through the Diaspora, blazing through all of Africa. The hotel rooms of the major cities across the East and West coasts of Africa beam to the guests from all over the world films featuring such Nigerian celebrated stars as RMD, Genevieve Nnaji and the redoubtable diminutive ones known as Aki and Pawpaw. Little wonder there was a riot in Sierra Leone when some conmen duped a mammoth crowd about bringing the Aki and Pawpaw duo to the stadium!

Now that Nigeria is poised on the dream of pushing to the very front of filmmaking in a fast-changing world, the exploits of the champions of Nollywood can only readily stand “the Giant of Africa” in good stead.

Ken Saro-Wiwa



Ken Saro-Wiwa was controversial in life, and his death by hanging was even more so. It is therefore understandable that any discussion of the man is almost always fraught with controversy. A book about to be published, Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays by Adewale Maja-Pearce, is currently bogged down by controversy bordering on censorship.

Becky Clarke of Ayebia Clarke Literary Agency & Publishing Ltd had all but agreed terms with Adewale Maja-Pearce to have the book released in the first half of the year. Becky and Adewale had been friends since their days in the African Writers Series (AWS) and the publisher suggested there was no overarching need to sign a formal contract. The title essay “Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa” had earlier been sold by Adewale to Lagos-based Glendora magazine published by Kunle Tejuosho. This background is crucial in the light of unfolding events.

Author and publisher were at peace, promoting the forthcoming book in their different ways. Then The Guardian of March 19, 2005, published an interview with Adewale. The rather solicitous reporter who conducted the interview Tajudeen Sowole writes: “For late Ken Saro-Wiwa, it is back to back attack from Maja-Pearce. While The (sic) Mask Dancing (an earlier book by Adewale) has the author faulting the late Ogoni activist’s literary use of English in the latter’s book Soza Boy (sic), Maja-Pearce’s new book Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Essays due to be launched soon has a stronger (sic) view on the late poet. Disclosing some of the issues raised in the book, he narrated how he was forced to re-visit Ken Saro-Wiwa because the Ogoni question cannot be divorced from the complex nature of Ken who was one of the leading character” (sic). The reporter goes on to quote Adewale directly as saying: “Ken was part of the problem.” According to the report, Adewale said Ken had a “long romance with the federal government and military establishments” while insisting that Ken was Abacha’s friend: “They were neighbours in Port Harcourt during the civil war.” The Sowole report continues thus: “Until the tragic death of Ken the children of late General Sanni Abacha and that of the activist were friends, Maja-Pearce said. The veracity of his assertion notwithstanding, this may not be strong enough to post-humously (sic) dock Ken in the court of morality.”

It is obvious that reporter Tajudeen Sowole has more than a soft spot for his beloved Ken Saro-Wiwa! The first inkling I had of the trouble afoot was when I got a call from Dr Ike Okonta, the Caine Prize nominee, asking if I had read Adewale’s interview and if I knew anything about the proposed book. Of course I replied that I had read the essay in typescript and that it posed no dangers whatsoever to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s legacy. I felt that the essay would elicit much-needed intellectual engagement in the Ken Saro-Wiwa enterprise rather than the hagiographies that are the order of the day. I told Okonta to wait for the book to come out instead of coming to judgment based on a poorly presented newspaper article for I believe in the dictum of Thomas Hardy: “Never retract, never explain, get it out and let them howl!”

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Wiwa, author of In the Shadow of a Saint, was however beside himself with rage and fired a riposte to Adewale’s publisher: “I just saw Adewale Maja-Pearce’s interview in the Nigerian Guardian and I’m livid. I cannot believe he is still repeating the same lies he has been peddling for years regarding my father’s financial affairs. Let me be frank about this – Adewale Maja-Pearce is a liar and poor excuse for an objective journalist. He has never substantiated ANY of his claims about my father’s business dealings – he constantly repeats old allegations and rumours that have NEVER been proven by ANYONE. Don’t you think it is time to put an end trying Ken Saro-Wiwa by rumour? Don’t you think it is time responsible people, especially Nigerians, insist on reconstructing our history and our futures on the basis of solid facts instead of recycling rumours and allegations that have been put out to smear the hard earned reputations of honest men? Etc. etc…”

Publisher Clarke who was almost poised to release the book now had to go back to “re-editing” it in order to stay in line with the liberal establishment that had always held Ken Saro-Wiwa up as a saint. Adewale on his part argued that he would only remove a word if a qualified libel lawyer found anything libelous in the essay. Incidentally Adewale stresses that Ken Wiwa helped him with some of his sources for the essay, notably Richard Boele who in his 1995 Report of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) Mission to Investigate the Situation of the Ogonis of Nigeria wrote: “In Nigeria, there is a clear patronage system that usually runs along family, tribal, or friendship lines. Large sums of money are simply given through the granting of government or company contracts for road building, electrification and so on… Many of the Ogoni leaders… benefited from this patronage system – securing either government or oil company contracts… Ken Saro-Wiwa also received such government contracts in the 70s and 80s but ceded this practice in the 1990s so as not to compromise him once he became actively involved in the political struggle…”

The point really is that it diminishes the Ken Saro-Wiwa legend if a book has to be stopped to keep it up. No book or essay can defeat a man whose cause is well situated as Ken and the Ogoni cause. The recourse to blatant censorship is unconscionable. Clarke who was not initially talking of signing a formal contract with Adewale now has this to say: “The way forward is for you to sign a contract. This contract will include the standard right of the publisher to edit your work to make it marketable internationally. Without this undertaking I cannot proceed to publish.” Adewale would rather not publish than change a word. He has since instructed Glendora, the magazine he first sold the essay to, to publish the original essay. He was profoundly surprised when he serendipitously learnt from Lolade Bamidele, the editor of Glendora, that Clarke had sent a re-edited copy of the essay to the magazine in PDF format that cannot be changed.

Author and publisher have clearly fallen apart. My take on the matter is that the book should be published as originally planned. The argument that “the man is dead and unable to defend himself” belittles the fact that Ken Saro-Wiwa left behind an intimidating legacy. In the making of saints, warts and all are explored before the destination is attained.




By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

The road to Ajegunle is rough. On this hot Lagos noonday the rickety, overcrowded kombi bus takes almost an eternity to get to Boundary Bus-Stop, the bustling gateway into Nigeria’s most celebrated slum. Another ride, this time on the ubiquitous motorcycle, alias “Okada”, takes one into all the nooks crannies of the shanty town that evidently lives up to its nickname: “Jungle City”. At the very busy Orodu Street, an odd spectacle arrests all attention. A drunken tall man was staggering on the very centre of the road and all the buses, cabs and motorcycles were mightily dodging him! A closer inspection of the drunk reveals a wounding truth: the fellow is from my hometown, a man I know only too well, Geoffrey, the son of Fara! Welcome to Ajegunle where everything is possible…

Away from the drunk and his wobble, in an open ground amid the jumble of churches and mosques and brothels, a group of bare-bodied teenagers are engaged in a pulsating game of football. The goalposts are formed with stones, and there is a heated argument over whether to allow as a goal a shot that flew past the stone. The argument nearly results in fisticuffs until an elderly man watching from a corner walks into the group to settle the matter. The game continues. A pint-sized boy of about 12 gets a pass, dribbles nearly all the players of the opposing team and scores.

“Okocha! Okocha!” the motley crowd intone, saluting the skill of the lad who had taken after the former Super Eagles skipper Austin Jay-Jay Okocha.

The dream of nearly every child you meet in Ajegunle is to be a star: in football, in music and show business.

According to Daddy Showkey, the musician who is arguably the greatest export out of Ajegunle, “In Ajegunle, you choose what you want to be yourself. A gunman, or you want to be a footballer, a musician, or anything you want.”

Daddy Showkey’s original name was John Odafe Asiemo. A very poor kid indeed, Daddy Showkey had a rough childhood in what he calls “the roughest neighbourhood, the strongest neighbourhood, the toughest neighbourhood in the world. That is Ajegunle.” His father died when he was only nine. His hapless mother had to face up to the daunting task of bringing up the five children of the marriage, all boys. He became a street hustler, selling stolen goods and was once shot for his efforts. The idea that he came from Ajegunle denied him legitimate jobs as all the boys from the neighbourhood were looked at with suspicion.

He even suffered the indignity of being accused of stealing a dog when he applied to a security company to work as a guard. He was taken to the police station, and when he was told that he had stolen a German Shepherd he taught they were accusing him of stealing a white man!

He was a street entertainer par excellence, performing all over Ajegunle as an acrobat, a boxer, an actor, as a comic, dancer and then singer. It was against this background of street entertainment that he got the nickname “Show Kid”. He would modify the name to Showkey, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Channeling all his energy into music, he became the dancer of the group, Sexy Pretty Boys, he formed with other Ajegunle boys in 1990. They were able to release an album entitled “Biggy Belle”. The band soon broke up and Daddy Showkey was left in the lurch. He eked out a living as the clerk amongst motor-park touts, and the manner he barked out orders with a funny tone amused his colleagues who advised him to sing with the voice. Without much ado Daddy Showkey sang his first hit: “Congratulation! Jubilation! Celebration! In our nation!” The song ended with the prophetic words: “Welcome Daddy Showkey, welcome!”

Daddy Showkey is the acknowledged master of the Ajegunle street sound known as “Galala”. Influenced by roots reggae, galala fuses Jamaican, African-American and highlife into pulsating dance music. The music is mostly delivered in pidgin English of the Warri, Delta State blend. Incidentally most of the Ajegunle stars hail from the Niger Delta axis of Warri, Bayelsa and sundry interlocking towns.

He has as many as five albums to his credit, and he is proud to be addressed as “Ghetto Soldier”. He has a professional management team run by the inimitable showbiz impresario Edi Lawani. He is married to Sandra, with a son, Raymond. He bears the title of Aare Onifaji of Ajegunle.

Daddy Showkey has an alter ego in the other celebrated Ajegunle musician, Daddy Fresh, who stresses that a cordial relationship exists between the duo despite media reports to the contrary. A very sensitive artiste, Daddy Fresh reveals that the most traumatic experience of his life was losing his 57-year-old mother on May 23, 1996. It took him all of five years to get over the trauma. Happily married with a daughter, his latest album is “Nwon Kpariwo”.

Just as musicians from Ajegunle dominate the charts, star footballers are daily being minted from the slum. Celebrated national team players such as central defender Taribo West, left wing-back Ifeanyi Udeze, and strikers Jonathan Akpoborie and Samson Siasia were all born and bred in Ajegunle.

Taribo West started life as a local roughneck in Ajegunle, being a member of the shanty gangs. He narrowly missed death before his skills in the beautiful game of football attracted the attention of soccer scouts. He distinguished himself in the Nigerian football league, playing for the elite cubs, notably Sharks of Port Harcourt, Rangers International of Enugu and Julius Berger of Lagos. He later took his talents abroad, first to the French top division side Auxerre and later to the two Italian giants Inter Milan and AC Milan. He was a Trojan in the central defence of Nigeria for many years, capping his achievements in the 1998 World Cup in France.

On his part, the flying left-sided wing-back Ifeanyi Udeze was a star in the Korea/Japan World Cup of 2002. Jonathan Akpoborie starred as a striker in the Nigerian Under-17 team that won the maiden FIFA cadet world cup of 1985 in China. He would go on to star for the Under-21 and the Super Eagles.

Samson Siasia stepped out of Ajegunle to be a schoolboy international soccer player, barely completing his secondary school examinations to star in the 1983 Under-21 world tourney in Mexico. He was a pivotal player in the Super Eagles for many years, helping the team to qualify for its first ever World Cup in the United States in 1994 where he scored a spectacular goal against Argentina, complete with Diego Maradona. Since quitting active playing, he has turned into a successful coach, winning the African Under-21 competition and leading the team to the silver medal in the World tourney in Holland in 2005.

Even as Ajegunle justly celebrates its established stars, many wannabes are coming up fast to dominate the world stage. Simon Okwori, a 20-year-old from Benue State, and Nimikini Mackintosh, 19, are masters of Ajegunle Street soccer. Okwori happens to be one of the twelve children of a retired soldier living in a one-room home in Ajegunle. Mackintosh’s parents have moved back to their native Bayelsa State, leaving the boy behind to fend for himself by sleeping with friends. The two young footballers have found a measure of fulfillment in the “Search and Groom” street soccer initiative of FIFA.

The young achievers in the field of music are the Dixon Twins, Anthony and Andrew of the Mamuzee singing group. Their father officially has 10 wives and nine concubines, with their mother ranking as ninth in the official wives’ list! They are proud of their album “Born to Reign”, and readily admit that “Life in Ajegunle is a do-or-die affair.” They shot into the limelight with the 1999 single “Bobo” and consolidated their presence on the scene with the gospel track “Abi you no know say Jesus na God?”

Ajegunle boasts of its resident philosopher in the poet, musician and activist Aj Dagga Tolar. By way of explanation, the “Aj” before Dagga Tolar stands for Ajegunle! Aged about 40, Dagga Tolar is tall, wears dreadlocks and is gap-toothed. His tiny shack of a room is crammed full with books and CDs. He accommodates several artiste types of Ajegunle in his digs. A big poster of Tupac Shakur, the murdered American rapper, dominates the blue wall. He writes committed poetry and has just been elected the vice-chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Lagos Branch. He recently led the body to protest the proposed privatization of the National Theatre which was broadcast on Lagos Television (LTV).

“Ajegunle has become a metaphor for the entirety of the Nigerian nation,” says the angry Dagga Tolar. “It is in this part of the country that you meet the poor of the poorest, and we try to survive day in and day out.”

His poetry boldly says: “This Country is not a Poem.” His poetry as well as his singing is primed on protest against a system that supplies no light, no water, no infrastructure for the teeming masses he loves so much.

As Ajegunle musicians such as Baba Fryo of the “Denge Potz” fame and Papa English play up the numbers, the multi-ethnic ghetto of Ajegunle thrives and throbs, lending a way of life like no other for her five million or so inhabitants. This trip on the rough roads of Ajegunle ends as a beautiful game of soccer on a sandy pitch comes to a pulsating end with a penalty shootout and the moving music of Daddy Showkey:

If you see my mama


Tell am say


I dey for ghetto


I no get problems



Richard Mofe-Damijo, popularly known as RMD, is arguably Nigeria’s most famous actor, but he simply introduces himself to me as a “Warri boy”. Clad in a flowery shirt with two buttons seductively undone to expose his hairy broad shirt, he is full of passion anytime the topic is Warri, the city in Delta State where he grew up. His father was a wealthy landlord who let out his house to a multi-ethnic mix of Nigerians – Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ijaw, Igbo etc. RMD was then known as “The King of Boys” as all his friends from the neighbourhood had access at all times to his room. It is in the drive to promote his beloved city that RMD in December 2004 founded the “Made-in-Warri” show, a music-and-comedy concert showcasing musicians and comedians who remarkably mostly have a bond with the Lagos shanty Ajegunle.

The celebrated comedian Bright Okpocha hails from Abia State but was born in Ajegunle. The Sociology graduate of University of Benin uses the city of Warri as fodder for his jokes, quite like other comedians such as Ali Baba, Okey Bakassi, Julius Agwu and so on. The blending of Ajegunle and Warri can be likened to Siamese twins joined at the navel of jokes.

Ali Baba, who is generally acclaimed as the godfather of comedians in Nigeria, is an “original Warri boy” as he unabashedly admits. He has taken comedy to such heights as to compete with top-rated corporate gurus in the field of take-home cash. Ali Baba is a splendid advertisement that one can rise from the ghetto to take over the high street. Struggling comedians from Ajegunle and sundry slums such as Orile, Amukoko, Badiya and so on have been mentored by Ali Baba. Some of the comedians have taken after his Warri style of delivery, with a particular young comedian actually taking the name Omo Baba, after the maestro.

Marvelous Benji of Ajegunle combines the music and comedy of Ajegunle while Fragrance (real name: Bright Kayo) was born in Warri but is today recording his music out of Ajegunle studios.

Obus Bezalee Brodo formed the music-and-comedy group known as DC Envoys, a group that has wowed crowds from Ajegunle to Warri. The legacy of Warri and Ajegunle is extended by the likes of Rymzo and Gzay.

The jokes combining Warri and Ajegunle are so much such that there is hardly anybody who can truly trace the copyright of the jokes to any particular comedian. The multi-ethnic jumble of Ajegunle and Warri makes it imperative that the lingua franca is Pidgin English. The galala music that accompanies the jokes is equally rendered in pidgin or broken English.

The comedian Okey Bakassi laughs at my mention of Ajegunle and tells matter-of-factly: “A poor Ajegunle man was in church with his wife and the pastor asks the widows to step out for special prayers. The woman leaves her man, stepping out. The man protests only for the woman to retort that a person as poor as him cannot claim to be alive!”

Then he reminds me of Warri thieves who would ask you if you wanted to buy a watch. When you ask him where the watch is he would point at the watch somebody passing by is wearing!

The Ajegunle-Warri connection is the Nigerian spirit writ large. Nigerians across the ethnic divides find fruitful communion in the abode provided by the waterside of Ajegunle and Warri.

Encounter with President Obasanjo


By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

9.42 AM. Friday, May 20, 2005. Aso Villa, Abuja. A well-modulated voice announces the coming of the leader of the nation. The five men and one woman in the hall rise as one. In strides His Excellency Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. His colorful agbada radiates against the soft amber of the hall as Mr. President walks to his chair with that characteristic swagger that is all his. He sits expansively, scans the hall and turns to his right to ask his Senior Special Assistant, Media, Mrs. Remi Oyo: “How much time do we have?” Mrs. Oyo is fast with her response: “Thirty minutes, Sir.” Mr. President adjusts his cap and asks jocularly in pidgin English: “Se my cap dey well?” All say “Yes, Sir” with laughter.

The mention of his cap by Mr. President struck a particular resonance with my presence in the hall. When I came into the hall a handful of breathless minutes before the arrival of President Obasanjo, I had no cap on my head even I was in a traditional attire that ought to be complete with a cap. It was the photographer Tunde Olaniyi who first asked of my cap as I took my seat between Mr. C.K. Alabi and Ken Tadaferua. I brought out the cap from the pocket of the gown and put it on my head where it ought to be. When running late to meet up with an appointment with the President, it is infinitely more important getting to the venue in the first instance rather than be properly fitted out only to end up arriving when the door had been locked!

The interview with Mr. President was a case of running against time. It had earlier been fixed for 2 O’clock in the afternoon, but because of unforeseen pressing presidential matters the interview had to be brought forward to 9 in the morning at very short notice. For Tadaferua and me who had to travel from Lagos that very morning it literally meant running a marathon with the speed of a sprint. Getting out of bed in the pre-dawn hours and making it to the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, before making the long journey from Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja, to the seat of power in Aso Villa called for all the effort and coordination in the world.

Consulting Editor (Copy) Taiwo Obe, fondly known as TO, who had coordinated the pre-interview sessions was on top of the matter from the very beginning. At exactly 4AM, he sent across the text message that it was time get up for the journey to the airport. He was himself heading for the office to muster additional questions for Mr. President. Tadaferua made it in good enough time to make the first flight out of Lagos on Bellview Airline. The construction site at Iyana-Ipaja impeded my journey to the airport and I was forced to make a detour through Agege, that is, after losing a bag in the melee! Even so, TO was always in touch with me until I boarded the Chanchangi flight to Abuja. The journey in an unmarked taxi to Aso Villa was another matter entirely, a very fast race not unbefitting of Michael Shumacher of the Formula One fame! There was no time in my mad rush to send the message to TO back in Lagos that I made it after all before submitting my mobile phone to the security apparatchiks at the last door in the Villa.

Editorial Board Chairman Alhaji Ibrahim Ida (CON), C.K. Alabi, Tommy Odemwingie and Tadaferua were already seated waiting for the arrival of Mr. President. After the issue of my cap had been sorted out, the little time left was used to assess the questions to be directed at President Obasanjo. There was no point repeating questions that had been elaborately addressed by Mr. President in other interviews and whose answers were already known to the wider Nigerian public. The point of the interview was freshness, an issue that had been stressed by Consulting Editor (General) Chido Nwakanma who would have been at the interview but could not make it at short notice from Enugu where he had gone to for an assignment.

It was therefore meet to grill Mr. President on the true worth of Nigeria’s foreign debt, an issue that had taken much of his time. There was also the dimension of the IMF stressing that Nigeria’s foreign debt is sustainable at the current $50 per barrel for crude oil, except that the body ominously did not say what would happen in a future of declining oil prices. The cost of the peacekeeping exploits of Nigeria was also an issue at question. The vexed question of Charles Taylor’s continuing asylum in Nigeria when the rest of the world would rather have him surrendered to face the war crimes tribunal equally needed an answer from the horse’s mouth. Even as they sound somewhat alike, NEPA and NEPAD are worlds apart, but it is a measure of the vastness of President Obasanjo’s enterprise that only he can provide the requisite progress report on both issues. The farmer-president cannot but be put to task in the field of agriculture. Matters such as dearth of long-term funds, bank recapitalization and the battle of poverty against slogans like NAPEP, SMEDAN, SMEIES etc, it was agreed, would give the President sufficient food for thought. Other questions slated for discourse included independent funding for INEC, restiveness in the Niger Delta, the controversies attending to the then ongoing National Confab and the embarrassing issue of importers using neighbouring countries’ ports because of high Nigerian tariffs. The clinching question goes thus: If the Confab recommends a third term for you, will you accept?

Of course when it dawned on us that we had only 30 minutes to exhaust a score or so questions, there was an immediate re-ordering of priorities. Mrs. Oyo was quick to point out that the President would not take kindly to undue flattery; each interviewer should go to the meat of the question immediately, not going round in circles. It fell on Alhaji Ida as the chairman of the board to put the introductory question. While waiting for the arrival of Mr. President I took in details of the room, the handful of paintings on the wall, the quietude of the place, and the general sense of order pervading the atmosphere.

The appearance of Mr. President belied the “tough” image always portrayed in the media. He was as relaxed as can be, showing a kind of media savvy he had never been given credit for. He advised not to allow ourselves to be bullied by Mrs. Oyo while hurling our questions at him. He took all the questions without any ill feelings whatsoever, and was somehow helped to be at ease with all because none of the interviewers got his facts and figures wrong, a feature that almost always annoys Mr. President. The interview took more than the allotted time, with President Obasanjo allowing for more questions even when Mrs. Oyo felt we had had enough. Even the Chief of Staff and other stalwarts had to come into the hall, and wait a little while, before Mr. President genially answered the last question. For a man who remonstrated against us for not coming with a woman, Mr. President was quite generous to the “male chauvinists” who had come to interview him! At the photo session that followed the interview, he amiably exchanged banters and pleasantries before departing to another urgent engagement.

However, the impression that would forever remain green in this encounter with the President is how at home he appeared to be with the interviewers immediately he entered the hall. For a man who is widely seen as practicing the art of attack as the best form of defence he did not initiate any gesture to put us out of our stride. After making sure that his cap was sitting well on his head, he waved at the interviewers to start the encounter with the pidgin word “Oya!”

Fire in the House of God


Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Religion provides an anchor to the lives of believers. The belief in a Supreme Being lends meaning to man’s existence on earth, and the promise of the afterlife makes the toil of life more bearable. Toying with matters of faith almost always brings conflagration in its wake; little wonder church and state can hardly ever be yoked together. In the liberal evolution of the world the church, given its innate conservatism, has met with much controversy.

The confirmation of the openly homosexual Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire in the United States has whipped up much controversy within the ambit of Christianity, especially the Protestant or Anglican dominion. Nigeria’s Most Rev. Peter J. Akinola has formidably opposed the phenomenon to the extent that he is being seen in much of the Western world as an intolerant apostle of conservatism. The redoubtable Rev. Akinola would not bend, stressing that the church should not support what is not scriptural. Anglican bishops in much of Africa, Asia and Latin America severed ties with the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia when it sponsored same-sex marriage, a development rocking the church across the globe. The 77 million worldwide members of the Anglican Communion are mired in a crisis that gets more intractable by the day.

Christianity is indeed in dire straits. Like the church at Antioch, its many followers are seeing all kinds of visions. Witch-catchers and sundry demon-arresters are today parading themselves as Christian preachers and Pentecostal evangelists. There are more charlatans on the pulpits of Christianity than there are criminals on the streets of Lagos and Onitsha. You can sum up the antics of these so-called Christians with one short sentence: The devil finds work.

The early church found its anchor by the salvation of the soul. The Nigerian church mostly preaches material success. Prosperity is the word. Every pastor stresses that his “God is not a poor God,” and the name of the game is crass materialism. There is no greater trading organization than the church.

All through history the church flourishes at the worst of times. Nigeria today suits the bill. Christianity has been commandeered for nefarious reasons by the cream of Nigeria’s wannabes. The man-made churches of today are as wonky as all single proprietorships which more often than not die with the owner, or may be transferred to the wife or “Mummy” until fatal fate takes its toll.

There is the need to return Christianity to its roots. The church should go back to its spiritual moorings in the Bible, to wit, when Christ anointed St. Peter. The Catholic Church traces its history to Christ’s naming of Peter the Apostle as the rock on which the church is built, thus naming him the first Pope. The Catholic Church was the universal faith until 1517 when in Wittenberg, Germany Martin Luther challenged the Catholic sale of indulgences and the doctrine of salvation by merit. Henry VIII followed suit in 1534, breaking from Rome for marital-cum-political reasons. Thus was born the Protestant Anglican Communion which got a boost when the Protestant Episcopal Church was founded in the United States in 1789.

John Calvin’s efforts during the 16th Century Reformation movements led to the birth of the Calvinists and ultimately to the founding of the Scotch Presbyterian Church by John Knox in 1560. The history of the Baptists dates back to John Smyth and the English Separatists of 1609; and later, Roger Williams of Providence in 1638. The Methodists started out within the Church of England, Rev. John Wesley having founded it in 1738.

The Church of Christ Disciples would in turn challenge the decline of fervor and the factionalizing within Protestantism by carving out yet another faction among evangelical Presbyterians from 1804 to 1832. Joseph Smith received visions of the Angel Moroni as revealed on the golden tablets of The Book of the Mormons to found the faith of the Mormons in 1827 in New York.

Charles Taze Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses movement in 1870, incorporating the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in 1884; and the church finally adopted the Jehovah’s Witnesses name in 1931.

A major rupture in Christianity occurred in the American cities of Topeka and Los Angeles in 1901 and 1906 when the Pentecostal movement of “speaking in tongues” began as a reaction to the loss of fervor among Methodists and sundry Christians at large. The advent of Pentecostalism has been quite sweeping across the globe.

To take one example of church-founding from nearer home, Samuel Bilewu Joseph (SJB) Oschoffa founded the Celestial Church of Christ in 1947 in the jungles of Porto-Novo after wandering in the forest for three months without food or water. Like the other sects, the Celestial fold has broken into factions since the death of the founder.

The history of the church as summarized here clearly shows that all the other churches in one way or the other were protesting against the Roman Catholic Church, the pristine universal faith. Even as far back as 1054AD the Orthodox Catholics had broken away from Rome following intractable doctrinal dissension. Even amid the factionalizing, some churches did see the need to come together to form a strong union. The United Church of Christ is a 1957 ecumenical coming together of Calvinists and Lutherans.

The crucial issue to address in the greater need to save Christianity is that the dissenting churches have over the years not fared any better than the original church. Critically, Vatican Council 2 has shown that the church is not inimical to change from within. As Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, he said: “The whole world expects a step forward.” Well over 2,400 patriarchs, cardinals, bishops and religious superiors participated in the proceedings. In an unprecedented display of accommodation, observers from Protestant and Orthodox churches were consulted and sat in attendance at the deliberations. Vatican 2 differed markedly from the 20 previous ecclesiastical assembles of Roman Catholicism that preceded it, and the 16 promulgated decrees, constitutions and declarations are a testament to modernization and liberation. Vatican 2 did more to accommodate the other protesting churches than the First Council of Nicaea which was summoned in 325AD by Emperor Constantine to combat the Arian heresy. Of course the abortive Vatican 1 was undermined by the Industrial Revolution. It was Pope Paul VI who closed Vatican 2 in 1965, proclaiming it as “among the greatest events of the church.” As Christendom’s oldest and largest body, the Catholic Church has used Vatican 2 to provide a shelter for all followers of Christ.

It is unfortunate that factionalizing lingers within Christianity despite the catholic appeal of the universal church. It is as though everybody wants to head his own church, in the manner John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, to wit, “To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” Every bloke today adorns the toga of Man of God, even when caught with bleeding severed heads of human beings! Christ is simply seen as the winning brand that can serve as cover for a vast range of practices such as voodoo, juju, magic, grigri etc.

The protesting churches should retrace their steps to the beginning, that is, where the rain started beating them, to redeem Christianity from the disrepute into which it had fallen through crass factionalism. From within all true believers can reform the one Christian church into a great institution worthy of Christ’s name. It is a pity that Christian brethren are still disaffected by the pejorative indictment: Roma locuta; causa finita (Rome has spoken; the case is closed.) But my inquiry shows that Rome has since embraced the modern times with all its plurality, especially with the landmark changes wrought by Pope John Paul 2. Catholic theology has taken into its stride the ideals of social justice, the revolutions of science and the mores of global secularization. Even controversial matters such as homosexuality, abortion, divorce etc can now be queried without the Inquisition stepping in!

Jesus Christ founded only one ministry and made faith the cardinal principle of worship. In losing faith in the universal church, the acolytes of the other churches have without apparently knowing it forfeited their stake in Christianity. The modern day claims of being “Born-Again” holds no water outside the very idea of becoming a Christian through baptism that started in the days of John the Baptist, St Peter, Nicodemus et al, and is still upheld today. Christianity is all about having faith in Christ’s laid-down institution instead of erecting parallel bodies. In truth these man-made parallel bodies cannot be Christian. The founders of these other churches could well have named the bodies after themselves – instead of dragging the name of Christ along. A revolt against a divine mission cannot be mitigated by nomenclature. Christianity is divinity and any breakaway contraption is a distraction courting damnation and the flames of hell for putting fire in the house of God.