Monday, December 15, 2014

Uniform For Journalists

There is this friend of mine, a very evil wag named Vitone, who keeps stressing that journalists must be made to wear uniforms like policemen. My friend argues that the role of journalists as societal watchdogs places them on the same pedestal as the police. He then goes ahead to drop the bombshell that journalists actually collect more bribe than policemen; whence the need for journalists to have the same make of uniform as their colleagues in bribe-taking, that is, the police!
            Given that I am the poet just moonlighting as journalist, let me play the devil’s advocate by playing up the “satanic verses” of this my “uniform-for-journalists” friend. Journalism happens to be an all-comers profession in which the existence of a common uniform for all can lend a measure of regulation to the trade and its ill-assorted practitioners. The absence of a uniform actually makes all kinds of quacks and fakes to pose as journalists. Any person wearing a journalist’s uniform as it were would thus be properly identified instead of hiding behind different coats and dresses to commit mayhem in the name of the profession.
            If journalists are made to wear uniform like policemen they would not see any further need to be asking for “brown envelopes”; they would be taking the money straight thereby saving the country the cost of the envelope! The lowly-ranked journalists would not pose to collect big money as though they were editors! These journalists of lower ranks would end up collecting N20 or N50 notes like their police mates!
            The fear though is that many fellows may end up faking the uniforms, and giving themselves all kinds of ranks. After all one living journalist who was so fond of big titles actually arrogated to himself the title of RIP (Rest in Peace) without knowing what it stood for! It may turn scandalous when journalists start addressing themselves as Supol! Mopol! DPO! IG of Journalism! Etc.  
            The uniform matter will necessitate the setting up of a special body to monitor the wearing of the uniform by journalists. The catch though is that members of the body charged with monitoring the uniform of journalists may end up posing as journalists themselves! After all such a thing happened in the award of the Nigeria Prize for Literature one unfortunate year where the judges who were members of the Academy of Letters ended up awarding the $50,000 prize money to themselves in a classic case of 419! If it can happen among the old eggheads of Nigerian academia, then the case amongst journalists and their minders is better left to the imagination…
            With well-starched uniforms journalists can then stand solid guard as paparazzi at checkpoints in the many high class hotels of Nigeria! The nuisance of seeing scruffily dressed fellows harassing guests in the name of journalists as had always been the case would stop for good.
            There is the problem though that once armed with uniform the journalists may start fighting for the right to be armed with guns like policemen! Now we shall start having “Kill and Go” journalists! The journalists can then actually “point and kill” as had been the special privilege of the police. When armed journalists confront armed policemen it will then be the forte of armed robbers to save the land! This is a very serious matter that can kill all the laughter remaining in Nigeria. This way, we may stand to lose our world title as the happiest people on God’s earth.  
            Just as the police have the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) journalists who would not want to appear in uniform can join the CID section of journalism as daredevil investigative journalists. In short, it would be a win-win story for the pen-pushers of Nigeria. Some can hide their uniforms and claim to be CID journalists when the occasion demands.
            Finally, instead of fighting for the full implementation of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, Nigerian journalists should take full charge of championing a new cause: Uniform for all Nigerian Journalists! What makes the police superior to journalists such that they are always clad in their uniform while the journalists can boast of none? The only thing better than press freedom, I daresay, is the compulsory matter of sewing the uniform for all journalists. As the legislators would say, this is a matter of urgent national importance!     

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Obasanjo’s Watch Over Anambra State

Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence.’ – Chinua Achebe to then President Olusegun Obasanjo

Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s memoirs entitled ‘My Watch’ has just been published and launched. Back in time, he had published My Command in which he won the Nigerian Civil War all by himself. Obasanjo is entitled to author whatever he calls his watch, but for me the story of the so-called nascent democracy in Nigeria cannot be fully told without a recall of the terror that reigned in Anambra State in the eight years that General Obasanjo served as the President of Nigeria. Let’s just start the peep into history with the Thursday, July 10, 2003 kidnapping of the then sitting governor of the State, Dr Chris Nwabueze Ngige by a host of federal forces led by Police AIG Ralph Ige and, of course, Chief Chris Uba. It was only Ngige’s miraculous phone call to then Vice-President Atiku Abubakar that spawned a chain reaction that restored him to power. This treasonable act was dismissed as ‘a family affair’ by Obasanjo.   
    The abductors of Ngige claimed that he had resigned his office at gunpoint in a nondescript toilet! It was also revealed that the haunted governor swore to an oath of loyalty to Chris Uba at the dreaded Okija shrine. Ngige on his part stated that he played along by going to the shrine with his Bible! According to Ngige, ‘I never did resign. They forged my signature and whatever they are taunting about. If I am going to sign such a letter, I will ask my party. I have not done so.’
    Justice Egbo-Egbo gave the ruling that Ngige actually resigned. Egbo-Egbo had to quit the judiciary in disgrace. AIG Ige who led the abduction team died mysteriously. Judge Stanley Nnaji of the Enugu High Court, claiming he had powers to oust a sitting governor from another state, gave the order ousting Ngige, whereupon Obasanjo’s federal regime promptly withdrew Governor Ngige’s security details. Anambra Government House was denied police guard for months. People’s power kept Ngige in office as thousands of Anambra men, women and children kept vigil at the Government House.
    Then, at about 4 a.m on November 10, 2004 some hoodlums brought into the state in 40-odd buses burnt every building of government business and the broadcasting houses while the Nigeria police stood idly by, obeying ‘orders from above’. The mayhem lasted all of three days with the law enforcement agents of Nigeria in support of the state-sponsored terrorism.
    A prominent son of Anambra State, the novelist Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, turned down the offer of the national award, Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR), and forwarded a stinker to President Obasanjo thusly: ‘I write this letter with a very heavy heart. For some time now, I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connection in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency… Nigeria’s condition today under your watch is, however, too dangerous for silence. I must register my disappointment and protest by declining to accept the high honor awarded me in the 2004 Honors List.’  
    The then PDP chairman, Audu Ogbeh, fearing that the regime may collapse over the Anambra matter like the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in the Second Republic, courageously wrote to Obasanjo: ‘About a month ago, the nation woke up to the shocking news of a devastating attack on Anambra State resulting in the burning down of radio and television stations, hotels, assembly quarters, the residence of the state chief judge and finally, Government House, Awka. Dynamite was even applied in the exercise and all or nearly most of these in the full glare of our own police force as shown on NTA for the world to see. The operation lasted for three days. That week, in all churches and mosques, our party, and you as Head of Government and leader of this nation came under the most scathing and blistering attacks. We were singly and severally accused of connivance in action and so forth. Public anger reached its peak… I call on you to act now and bring any and all the criminals, even treasonable activity, to a halt. You and you alone have the means.’
    It was an angry Obasanjo who fired a letter to Ogbeh in reply: ‘I am amused and not surprised by your letter of December 6, 2004 because after playing hide and seek games over a period of time, you have finally, at least in writing decided to unmask, and show your true colour.’ Obasanjo then goes ahead to reveal the election-rigging antics of his party thus: ‘I got the real shock of my life when Chris Uba looked Ngige straight in the face and said, “You know you did not win the election” and Ngige answered “Yes, I know I did not win.” Chris went further to say to Ngige, “You don’t know in detail how it was done.” I was horrified and told both of them to leave my residence.’ In this obviously self-indicting exposure, Obasanjo failed to tell Nigerians why Chris Uba, who had no immunity (unlike Governor Ngige) was not arrested on his presidential orders! Adamant Ngige of course replied Obasanjo with these damning words: ‘The result of my election was written on the same table as yours!’ 
    Audu Ogbeh promptly lost his job for his effrontery in the court of the then Nigerian leader. Ogbeh was reportedly forced to resign as PDP chairman at gunpoint! 
    All weapons, no matter how ridiculous, were deployed in the Anambra war; for example, Obasanjo’s protégé in the state, Dr Jerry Ugokwe, was encouraged to take his case to the ECOWAS court when the Nigerian courts threw him out of the House of Reps! Ugokwe was then rewarded with an ambassadorial posting. In his letter to Audu Ogbeh, Obasanjo had written: ‘In the case of Anambra, if I had wanted to support anybody at all, it would have been Jerry Ugokwe because he was one man I knew…’ With the likes of Chris Uba, Jerry Ugokwe and Chuma Nzeribe doing the bidding of the emperor of democracy, Ngige was shot at in the direct view of some visiting National Assembly investigating team, and his house was bombed to no avail.
    By fighting Ngige so furiously without success, Obasanjo paradoxically created arguably the most popular, if not notorious, politician of his era. For instance, when Ngige showed up at Obasanjo’s wife Stella’s funeral in Ogun State the crowd could not be controlled in their excitement while hailing the diminutive man. A voice with Northern accent was heard over the hubbub saying: ‘Haba, this man na touch and die!’
    Having failed in his bid to find reasons to declare a state of emergency in Anambra State, Obasanjo had to reluctantly bow to the wishes of Anambra people and the rule of law by letting Ngige be removed by the election tribunal, thus paving the way for the coming to power of the man who the people originally voted for: Peter Obi. Even so, the siege on Anambra continued with Governor Obi being unconstitutionally impeached in an unholy hour by a handful of legislators holed up in the hotel room of a neighbouring state. Governor Obi’s deputy, Dame Virgy Etiaba, was sworn in as governor and had to be led to Aso Villa to pledge her loyalty to Obasanjo by Obasanjo’s factotum, Andy Uba, whom he had openly in a campaign rally promised to hand over the state for his dutiful service!  
    As ever, Peter Obi went back to court to win back his mandate. Then in the 2007 gubernatorial election in Anambra, Obi was excluded from the ballot by INEC on ‘orders from above’. Andy Uba, who had supplanted his hapless pretender brother, Chris, as the grand ‘godfather’ of Anambra State politics, was declared the winner of the election with a number greater than the list of registered voters in the state! In the results declared initially by INEC, Andy Uba scored 1,930,004 votes. The number had to be changed after the announcement of the result to read 1,093,004. The ‘0’ in the middle of the figures of the first result had to be brought forward to fix things up!
    The irrepressible Peter Obi was back at the Supreme Court, asking for the determination of his actual tenure. Poor Andy Uba served only 16 days as ‘governor’ before the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling, sent him packing. As his mentor Obasanjo was no longer in power, Andy Uba had to quickly flee from Government House, Awka, with his tail between his legs. President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who had taken over said that unlike his predecessor Obasanjo he would respect the rule of law, and Anambra State has known no trouble ever since. The besieged state that missed an entire academic session under Obasanjo’s watch now tops the other states of Nigeria year after year in the WASC and NECO examinations.    
    In his last book, There Was A Country: A Personal History Of Biafra, Chinua Achebe put out these words on the Anambra matter: ‘For any clear-headed observer such a scenario would be unimaginable – that the head of state, or his government or his office, should be encouraging crime in one of the federation’s constituent states, encouraging anarchy in a part of the country, Nigeria. That state, of course, as you might know, is also my home state. It’s also part of Igbo land, which has had a peculiar history in Nigeria, some of which involves this particular former president of Nigeria – his attitude to this part of Nigeria, which he and some like him consider responsible for the troubles of the Nigerian civil war. And so it just seemed to me totally irresponsible for the leadership to be involved, to be promoting chaos instead of preventing it. It was in a sense the very end of government itself, where government leaps beyond the precipice, dismisses itself, and joins ranks with crime.’  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Soyinka My Teacher At 80

Wole Soyinka threw a party for my class on graduation, declaring us the best class he has ever taught. Of course everybody knows that praise from Soyinka does not come easily. His word is his sword!  
This does not at any rate qualify me as an exemplary student. Back then at the University of Ife, I was with my Dramatic Arts classmates in Soyinka’s house for practical lessons on television production based on Edith Uche Enem’s play. I did not care a kobo about the lesson. I told Soyinka’s steward, the Ghanaian lad Francis, to get me a cool Star lager beer from the refrigerator. I was nursing my beer gloriously while Soyinka taught my classmates. Then he saw me drinking the beer. He didn’t get mad at me. He asked why I was drinking beer and I promptly told him: “Prof, sir, that’s how I get my inspiration.” Soyinka just cast a fatherly benign look at me in the manner of “some fathers do have them” and continued with his teaching.
            After my degree exams, I was totally out of cash. I needed money badly, and I ran to the godfather in his office. I told him I had no money to go home. He gave me all the money he had. In a show of bravado I told him I would pay him back his money when I came for convocation. Soyinka had a healthy laugh and said: “How am I sure you will not run through the money and come back with another sob story?”
            The truth of course is that I only came to Ife because Soyinka was there. I did not care for university education. I came to Ife in 1978, with Soyinka as my Head of Department. Then there was Okot p’Bitek, the inimitable Ugandan poet of Song of Lawino fame, in the literature department. Soyinka was always travelling all over the world while Okot was an ever-present company. Soyinka’s Ghanaian boy Francis was of course around to attend to my needs in Soyinka’s gods-festooned home. Soyinka’s sister, Folabo Ajayi, was also around always wondering at my age on account of my multiform high jinks whilst we were rehearsing Akinwunmi Isola’s play Madam Tinubu, directed by Femi Euba, which we took on tour to Ibadan and Lagos.   
            Our first experience of Soyinka as a teacher was, yes, very dramatic. He was to teach us Shakespeare’s King Lear. We had all come from secondary schools where Shakespeare was read line-by-line and explained by the class teacher. In Soyinka’s case, we were all seated in the Pit Theatre at Ife when he casually strolled in. He distributed sheets of cyclostyled paper in which a speech taken out of King Lear was printed. Soyinka asked us to pick out the unnatural word in the speech. None of us could understand this kind of teaching. He then said we ought to have still been in high school. The West Indian lady Dr Carroll Dawes had to come to our rescue by teaching us King Lear line after line at Oduduwa Hall for weeks and months on end.  
            In the course of our studies, we had to read up all the plays of Bertolt Brecht as our Special Author. We found to our chagrin that Brecht was a rival of Shakespeare in the large number of classic plays written. My classmates and I had to confront Soyinka with the charge that he was making us read for a Ph.D when we only applied to earn a bachelor’s degree! Soyinka asked us to arrest Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi as the culprit who gave us more books to read than doctoral candidates.
            Soyinka took us on a course in Humanism. It was class war all the way because most of us in the class were Marxists. We asked Soyinka to join us in the bush of guerrilla struggle instead of being an arm-chair humanist! He was never angry with our youthful ebullition, only advising us that we would get to understand society further as we grew in life. Soyinka has of course been borne out by the turncoats all over the place. Interestingly, Soyinka asked a Polish lady who barely spoke English to take us in the course of Aesthetics in his place!  
            Soyinka’s professionalism and devotion became manifest to me whilst watching him acting and directing Biko’s Inquest, a play on the South African martyr Steve Biko, which he took to the United States. In further demonstration of his largeness, he allowed the student actors to revel in their own interpretations while directing his play Camwood on the Leaves.
            His intervention on road safety happened before our very eyes whilst at Ife. He had no stomach whatsoever for dangerous drivers. He would bring his friend Femi Johnson’s jeeps into the campus and we were even quite used to Bola Ige’s vehicles as the Governor of then Oyo State. For Soyinka, a vehicle was just a vehicle.
            After leaving school, I tried my hands at peasant theatre. I sent the play I wrote then, A Play of Ghosts, to Soyinka and it was only much later that I got to know that he forwarded the play to the American director Chuck Mike for production. Soyinka does all these favours without asking for any attention whatsoever.
            Much later, when I ran into Soyinka at poet Odia Ofeimun’s birthday party he wondered aloud where I had been all these years. I replied him that I had all along been in Nigeria “doing a great battle with Nigerian poverty”. Many of my friends were surprised that Soyinka “knew” me and asked why I had not gone to the man to ask for favours. I told them that Soyinka had done enough for me such that it was now incumbent on me to at least repay a small part of the favours.
            When the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) was celebrating a birthday of Steve Rhodes, I was nursing my beer at OJEZ bar in National Stadium Surulere only to suddenly look up and behold Soyinka. Surprised, I told him that I had just been told he was in Germany. “That was ages ago,” he said. “I have been to other places since then, but I can’t find where they are doing this thing for Steve Rhodes.” I abandoned my beer and led him to Steve Rhodes inside the main bar.
            At the time Soyinka published his memoirs, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, I learnt from Okey Ndibe in the heart of Victoria Island, Lagos that Soyinka was to do a reading for an organization ran by white ladies. When Okey and I got to the venue Soyinka asked me to select the passage that he would read. I told him I did not have a copy of the book ready to hand. He off-handedly told me that his publisher, Bankole Olayebi, was my friend in which case I would not have much trouble getting a free copy!
            Of course I am very proud of my teacher, the very first black man to win the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. Back in time, my crystal ball did not hide anything when it revealed to me that Soyinka would win the Nobel, a first for Africa, in the year 1985. I told not a few friends that the Nobel was definitely coming that year, and it was such a shocker when the prize went instead to the French novelist Claude Simon. Well, it is remarkable that Claude Simon’s first novel bears the very unfunny title, The Cheat. Little wonder the obscure French writer cheated us out of the Nobel Prize in 1985!
There was no denying Soyinka the very next year, 1986, when the Nobel Prize for Literature landed in our shores. Soyinka had just made the flight from Cornell University, New York where he was then teaching to the International Theatre Institute (ITI) in Paris to attend the executive meeting of the world body which he headed. His plan was to spend quiet time at the apartment of his cousin Yemi Lijadu. He found his cousin giddy with joy: “The news just broke that Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka had won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, thus becoming the first African to win the coveted award.”
            Even in the anonymity of his cousin’s apartment Soyinka could not hide away from the invasion of the world press. He therefore made quick plans to return immediately to Nigeria. He wanted his entry into Nigeria as quiet and uneventful as possible, but his friends were quick to sniff out that he was on his way back home. His bosom friend, the insurance magnate Femi Johnson sent a car and driver to ferry him from the airport. Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi and other close circle of friends ensured that the goldfish had no hiding place.
            The government of Babangida provided a presidential jet for the ferrying of Nigerians to the Nobel award ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden, even as the government was under strong suspicion of being behind the killing of ace journalist and friend of Soyinka, Dele Giwa,  through a parcel bomb delivered to his home days earlier.
Soyinka’s Nobel lecture entitled “This Past Must Address Its Present” was dedicated to the then still imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Soyinka noted that George Bernard Shaw had said that he would readily forgive Alfred Nobel his invention of the evil dynamite but not the diabolical Nobel Prize for Literature. The aura of the prize overwhelmed Soyinka soon after the award such that he could do no other work. He hoped that the din of the Nobel would end after the crowning of the next winner only to be reminded in Cuba by novelist and 1982 Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, that “It never ends, my friend. It never ends.”
For reasons no one can really explain, the name “Kongi” has stuck with Soyinka amongst his students and colleagues even though the character in question in the eponymous play is highly detestable. Behind Soyinka’s back, some of us call him “Langage”, pronounced as “Longage”, taken from his Inaugural Lecture at Ife entitled The Critic And Society: Barthes, Leftocracy And Other Mythologies.
             Soyinka’s latest collection of poetry, Samarkand and Other Markets I have Known, was published by Crucible Publishers Limited, Lagos, in 2002 and was launched at the National Theatre under a tree that is now known as the Samarkand Tree. Soyinka autographed my copy of the book right under that famous tree. The long poem “Elegy for a Nation” dedicated to Chinua Achebe at Seventy is quite striking. Soyinka had wanted to read the poem at “An Evening With WS” sponsored by Globacom, but there was too much noise at the Golden Gate, Ikoyi venue such that it did not provide the right mood for the Nobel Laureate to pay homage to his great compatriot. It was at that event that I asked Soyinka the question why he was not a born-again Christian. He duly replied me that he had his own religion; thank you!  
            Soyinka was a notable presence at Bard College, New York, in 2000 where Achebe celebrated his 70th birthday. Both writers shared the stage at the celebration of the Christopher Okigbo Festival in September, 2007 at Harvard University, USA.
            It is a matter of great joy that Soyinka still continues in the onerous task of supporting younger writers. I have just received a hardback copy of The Second Genesis: An Anthology Of Contemporary World Poetry which features some of my poems alongside those of my teacher Soyinka and my dear compatriots Ikeogu Oke and Obari Gomba. The book which features poets of 60 countries from Albania to the United States is indeed a heavy feast of comparative humanity, a cause to which Soyinka has dedicated his venerated life.
            Beyond all the seriousness associated with the man, the Soyinka I know is at heart a jovial soul. From teaching the art of wine to a young Italian girl to setting a trap for wine-stealers in his then Ife home, Soyinka is the master of his universe. Humour is never lacking in his forte. For instance, an Igbo classmate of mine with a thick Igbo accent asked Soyinka a question in class only for Soyinka to reply thusly: “Are you an Ibadan man?”