Odia Ofeimun, Nigerian author, poet, polemicist and former Private Secretary to the late Premier of defunct Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, shares his life stories with SIMON UTEBOR
At 70, would you say you are satisfied with what life has offered you or have there been too many disappointments?
From as early as I remember, I knew the taste of disappointment. It was never a question of expecting a rosy future. I always had troubles, one way or the other achieving my goals. But I have also never been able to see my future without seeing myself succeeding somehow, which is to say that irrespective of the problems I was having along the way, I knew that as some point, I would get to wherever I would feel that I have done enough to show that the powers God gave me were not wasted. In most ways, I have managed to do many of the things I wanted to do. It was not easy getting to that conclusion. Until recently, I always never could view my writing career as going along the way I thought it would always be. Some people are lucky – they write one book and they are famous and rich and they are able to move on. I never expected that kind of career; I always knew I would have troubles in my career. I did not quite acquire education in a normal way – that meant that if I saw myself as an educated person, it was always part of a struggle – I doubted myself much when I was much younger.
You know, if you read a lot of books, you will have a lot of knowledge. You know the meaning of the words, but don’t know how to pronounce them. That happened to me because most of the time, I read alone, I was out of school and so I had knowledge that was not based on the way knowledge should be given.
In your lifetime, you had the privilege of enjoying close interactions with three respected national figures – Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Bola Ige and Prof Soyinka, which of them would you say had the most influence on you?
It is difficult to define influence in that sense. I mean from when I had to spend one year at home after the introduction of free education, I had something in it for Awolowo. When I returned to school, it was not only that I liked school, I always linked the ideas of school to the ‘stubbornness’ of that Premier who made sure that education was made free. I grew up in a very strong NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons) family – my grandfather was a member of the NCNC and a major pillar of the party in my village. He loved putting children at school and I loved going to school, so we had something in common there. He didn’t need to like Awolowo to like school. Once I started liking school, I found Awolowo to be a very likable person. He did what made me feel good. When I look back, I always ask myself, if I did not go to school, what would I have done? I couldn’t have been a motor mechanic like my father but once I started going to school, I wished to be an engineer, or a physicist or astrophysicist, if possible. That kind of thing does not allow you to treat a man who could give it with any reduction in respect. I liked Awolowo before I understood anything about his politics just because he gave education.
I met Bola Ige much later in life. Actually, in the case of Awolowo, I always had to run into him because the first job I did in my life was with the Midwest Echo, it was a sister paper to the Nigerian Tribune. Midwest Echo was based in Benin. It was one of Awolowo’s newspapers. When I left the Midwest Echo and went to Lagos, somehow I wished to meet Awolowo but on the day I was supposed to meet him, he was engaging with the Agbekoya farmers in the forest and so he left Lagos for that purpose. We never met again until I was in the first year in university, about to drop out of school for not paying my fees. I went to the university without having a sponsor. I knew I would finish one way or the other. He was not able to do it the way I expected him to but he gave me a raise – for a student, 100 pounds was good. We never met again until I finished my youth service and I was doing a save-my-soul teaching in Kwara. It was a job I had to do in order to be a good student in Ibadan. Then I read a Candido column criticising Awolowo for jumping the gun against the ban on politics and asking for informed and committed researchers. I applied. I applied at a time when he was organising a new political party – one of the stalwarts of that party, Bola Ige, was very strong in the organisation. By the time he won the governorship ticket of the Unity Party of Nigeria, there was certainly no person, including his own teacher, Archdeacon Emmanuel Alayande, who could have taken the job of governorship from him because even Chief Awolowo agreed that Bola Ige knew the ground better than him in Oyo State. It was Bola Ige I gave my application to when the UPN was being organised. Actually, the deadline had passed but Ige helped me drop the paper – he had become my friend because while I was a student at the University of Ibadan, I was looking for people who could support me through my education. He was the man I went to meet. He still needed to be sure I was a student – he had burnt his fingers dealing with people who claimed to be students but were not. He insisted I bring a letter to him. Prof Billy Dudley, who was the Head of Department, Political Science, gave me a letter. Dudley treated me like a mate; he was a proper friend of mine. He never treated me like a small boy. He invited me into his decision making processes and had too much respect for me as a poet because as of that time, I had written enough poetry. He was Wole Soyinka’s friend and Soyinka had published this very out-of-the-ordinary anthology, in which I was also published.
How would you compare the relationship you had with Ige with what you had with the others?
My relationship with Bola Ige, properly speaking, was closer than my relationship with Awolowo. My relationship with Bola Ige was personal in the sense that he did not hide things from me. And when I say my relationship with him was personal, I never had an employer-employee relationship with him. But with Awolowo, he was always the older person, much older. Like my grandfather, Awolowo was a teetotaler and a very serious-minded person. Those two characters, Awolowo and my grandfather, were bound to make me a better person even if I did not want to be. They had the moral character of a real leader.
I will say if you want to know Nigeria very well, read Awolowo’s story. I have not quite written the Awolowo’s story the way it should be written and I think that God won’t allow me to die without writing the book.
If Soyinka did anything for me, the most important thing he did was to win me off the Christian notion that the traditional society is evil – evil in the sense that if you were not a Christian, whatever else you believe in is considered not so moral or straightforward. Everything about tradition which many people saw rather in distracted ways, Soyinka saw as a part of a very well worked out way of seeing the world and the mystic truth in Soyinka’s analysis of society enabled you to see that traditional society had a philosophical underpinning that was helpful in knowing the ways the world worked. I have my own decision on Soyinka’s position; his not allowing himself to be submerged by the grammar of Christian denunciations and the general Islamic assault on so-called paganism help me relate to my two families. My maternal grandfather was a Christian, who once they abandoned the ‘fetish ways’ of the traditional society, adopted Christianity without looking back. My father’s family, first because my father was a motor mechanic, had to be an Ogun worshipper and if you are an Ogun worshipper, you are required to observe tenets that derive powers from mythology and also indicate ways of treating your fellow human beings in a manner that helps a sense of collectivity in society. Myth making is therefore at the centre of the way Soyinka views traditional society. I have managed because I did not quite accept all the hoopla about Christianity; I learnt to see the interconnection between what was Christianity and what was supposedly traditional religion. All religions are the same – they are based on some form of worship which is to say that you have faith in what those who came before you had seen and done.
I am a very religious minded person, I don’t subscribe to a sect and I was lucky I attended a primary school where the Bible was well taught so I left primary school knowing so much about the Bible. And in my first year in secondary school, that knowledge was confirmed and as I grew older, I learnt to read the Quran and I can see the distinction being made between the two religions, (which) in my view does not really matter. Muslims ought to be Christians, the Quran says so, and Christians ought to be able to abide by certain Islamic principles except that the New Testament changed a lot of things.
Talking about Awolowo, Ige and Soyinka, what are the similarities and differences between them having interacted with the three of them?
Awolowo was a one-woman-man and when he met Dideolu, he literally flipped; he was not capable of having any relationship with any other woman. It was as if Dideolu took him over completely and she was a member of those early churches that were generally fervent about their Christianity and Christian principles of living. Awolowo was agnostic before he met Dideolu but once he met that woman, his agnosticism started collapsing in the sense that he had to choose and that woman made it very clear that you can’t be a leader of a religious people if you doubt the existence of God. And therefore, Awolowo learnt to become a serious Christian by being a serious lover of his wife. The two went together. He never wavered until his death and he never stopped using the life of Jesus Christ as exemplary experience that all human beings should follow. Awolowo genuinely believed that even if he could not perform miracles, he had to abide by the principles that all human beings must perform miracles to save one another from the crisis of this world, which is why the PhD thesis I was writing on the UPN was called ‘Messianism as political platform’ because Awolowo believed it was possible to be very Christ-like and still run a normal political system. Christ-like in the sense that you can be honest, very protective of your people, not living by falsehood and yet have power that saves human lives.
If I am to distinguish that man from the other two, I can tell you Soyinka is not a one-woman-man, Bola Ige, although he was married to a woman he loved quite a lot, could not have been called a one-woman-man. Bola Ige loved women but he never abandoned his political principles. I have had many people talk about Ige in terms of personal flaws that made it difficult for him to follow certain political principles. The truth is that many people around Awolowo were people who necessarily did not abide by his teaching but liked the upward mobility that following Awolowo allowed them to have. Bola Ige was not like that. He became a member of Awolowo’s political family by being a critic of that family. When he was reading law in Europe, he wrote a damning critique of the stalwarts – the leaders of the Action Group did a lot of things. Because of that, when he returned to Nigeria, they did not embrace him with the fulsomeness that you expected. He actually was working as a lawyer without relating to Awolowo’s political family. But when Joseph Sarwuan Tarka was being hounded by the military establishment and sent to jail, on his own, Bola Ige went to defend Tarka. It was after Ige went to defend Tarka that the AG legal team came to join him, that was how Ige returned to the family, almost through the backdoor. After the criticism he had levelled against the AG leaders, Awolowo needed to talk to him and they thought Bola Ige would step back from that criticism but he refused. He simply restated his position and to a large extent, he earned Awolowo’s respect. He never wavered. He understood his own political predilections.
Soyinka was not a politician seeking power. That in my view almost sums it up. Like Awolowo in his younger days, Soyinka was a strong critic of the religious ways of doing things. Bola Ige had a strong commitment to religiosity. Soyinka was always a questioner and he was a questioner in a different sense from Awolowo. Awolowo’s questioning of religious principles were based on very strong philosophical grounding. Even when he accepted the Christian position, he did it with a very wide-eyed notion of what was wrong with religious worship. Soyinka actually did something out of the usual because he took traditional religion on its face value. He took a philosophy out of it which may discount certain material elements but stuck to its core and its core is that the life we live can be understood by the knowledge that has been condensed from the prehistory to the present and that if we understand them well, we could live a good life in lot of ways.
When you said you were not finished as a writer because there were other things you would like to do as a writer, what were the things you felt were left?
I have not yet written the kind of poetry that I set out to do. I want to be that poet. There is a kind of poetry I want to do. Along the way, I started doing poems for dance drama and they made me see how history and literature interact and can make you see the world differently. I am somehow concerned about how what literature does and what history does are always linked, and therefore, if you wish to understand the way the world works, you do need to understand literature, history and politics.
You and Soyinka have spoken about your first encounter, what impact do you think the Nobel laureate has had on your writing?
I have said it somewhere that if there was no Soyinka, it would probably have been impossible to produce a poet like me. Soyinka struggled with the necessity to break away from imperial overlord-ship, even in terms of literature, and evolve a very nationalist and very indigenous perspective.
Apparently, you have had many disappointments in the country, including the killing of Ken Saro Wiwa, whom you wrote a poem in honour of. Where does his killing rank on the list of disappointments you have seen in your lifetime?
I met Saro Wiwa for the first time when the UPN was being organised and we hit it off fairly well. Saro Wiwa had no strong hatred for anybody. He was too jovial, too much of the artist. He was doing what most artists do in the world. When the people are oppressed, you wish to speak for them and speak strongly. Saro Wiwa did that for Ogoni people. What made it exciting was that he was not just speaking for the Ogoni people, he was speaking for the marginalised minorities and for disadvantaged majority anywhere in the country. If all the facts are placed on the table, there was no reason to have killed Saro Wiwa but he was a torn in the flesh of the military regimes and the northern echelons that believed that the oil in the Niger Delta was theirs to possess. If the Ogoni people who were sitting on the oil could not get oil blocs and you knew that oil blocs were going to people who did not have such a relationship with oil wealth, you would know it is like a case of robbery. It was stealing you dry and they were making you pay without providing any reliefs. The kind of reliefs they were providing was like the kind of reliefs you provide to slaves in order to make them to be working for you. It was not nice because if you genuinely believed in Nigeria as a country that ought to survive, you wouldn’t allow any particular ethnic group to be repressed or maltreated.
How do you mean?
Actually, if you believe in Nigeria as a country, you ought to see the freedom of any ethnic group as part of what you were brought into this world to defend. Because if you deny any particular ethnic group the freedom to be themselves, you are actually destroying their capacity to make other Nigerians free people. We need to be able to relate to one another as free people. It is not ethnicity that has a problem, it is those who respond to ethnicity by making it look as if to be from one group or another is a crime rather than the actual behaviour of people. After Awolowo, Saro Wiwa was the biggest pursuer of a federal Nigeria in terms of the way he fought for it. The difference between Saro Wiwa and Awolowo is that the welfarist dimension that Awolowo added to federalism was not strong in Saro Wiwa’s case. Awolowo believed that every ethnic group should be self-governing; he also believed that all children born to a Nigerian man or woman must be allowed to go to school in the same terms. To have free education, free health services and when you leave school, full employment. Saro Wiwa did not bring in that welfarist dimension because the core issue for him was that a whole people were about to be wiped out by those who simply needed access to oil wealth. He could talk about how to develop Ogoni land but he didn’t because of what he was fighting for, he did not see the need to play up the factor of a welfare dimension. He talked about it but not in the rigorous way Awolowo did it.
In your poem, ‘Sink their ship’, you said ‘if they hang your ship, kill their cow’ and so on. Some people believe you were trying to instigate people against perceived/alleged injustice committed by the government in the Niger Delta…
If a balance of power stops being of any value because nobody observes the tenets of terms, then it is a time for a balance of terror. I genuinely believe that. When the other side knows you have the capacity to respond, they will not be as bullish in their impunity. If you must stop impunity, you must have a capacity for a balance of terror. If you don’t have it, we will be where we are today, where someone with a cutlass walks into your house and says your land or your life. When it gets to the point when people tell you your land or your life, which is to say, I will ruin your economy, unless you give me your economy, at that point, you know that it is no longer a joking matter. It is the time for a balance of terror. The balance of terror is to ensure that the other side won’t move against you because they know that your response can be just as equally devastating. It is good for a country to reach a point where we put all our wares on the table and decide that mine should not be hurt, yours should not be hurt, in which case, there should self respect between both of us.
What do you think about the governance style and current regime of retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari?
I don’t want to talk about a governance style in a vacuum. We have a constitution that has been consistently banalised. From its inception, the constitution has always been based on the unstated philosophy of ethnic criminalisation. They criminalise ethnic groups, pretend that unity is only possible by discounting them so that you end up with a situation where those who are actually acting on the basis of ethnic principles are allowed to continue doing it so long that they are the ones in power. If that is the kind of the society in which some people think they want to live good lives, it is like we are preparing for a good life that is under the thumb of leaders who do not lead but who claim off all the largesse.
It is important we recognise that there are ways of running a society and one of those ways is first of all to give respect to every individual that lives in that society, so by knowing that we are all equals, no one will try to be an overlord and all will try to obey the principles of common citizenship.
There is so much insecurity in the land, from banditry to terrorism, kidnapping and police brutality, how would you assess the situation?
We always had a situation where as in the old North, local government police served the system and they warded off people with a different language or religion. The peasants were thoroughly oppressed. They were heavily taxed, beyond what they could earn, but as we grew, the monies that were being made from oil were used to cushion off for the lower classes in the North – the very oppressive situation in which they had to live. While the people started enjoying the largesse from the operation in Niger Delta, many of them reversed their views and began to support ways of living which made it possible for all the people in the area to continue having part of the largesse.
Awolowo’s theory was never too different from that. He genuinely believed that if we were going to be one country, the way we share money in our federal system should make it possible to put every child at school so that between Calabar, Sokoto, Maiduguri and Lagos, Edo or Bauchi, it will be possible for people to go to school normally, share a common ethic in the educational, health and employment sector such that the antagonism built into the relationship would be less vicious. If every ethnic group had been allowed to stay free and far from oppression, there would have been very little need for us to build the kind of large army that we have because the army in our country is not for fighting foreign wars, the army in our country is for killing fellow Nigerians. Nigeria has been constructed to make sure that some ethnic groups will not revolt against the oppressive financial arrangement which take from a minority to feed the majority. What really went wrong was that the North was constructed as non-ethnic bastion which did not need, for instance, to have a redrawing of boundaries to make ethnic groups free. So, you could have the Gbagi of Nigeria scattered between six different states. It is wicked; people who speak the same language ought to be allowed to stay together but the Gbagi of Central Nigeria have been so battered that some have come to accept it as the normal way the world works. And that normal way the world has been working in Nigeria is such that instead of allowing people to exercise a common morality and a shared ethic of self-governance, you impose on them the values of other communities. It is not just the values of other communities, you find that in one sense, only a particular ethnic group could dominate a whole region. In the case of the East, the Igbo were the majority; in the case of the West, the Yoruba were the majority; in the case of the North, people talked about the Hausa/Fulani, but it did not register that way. The Fulani people were the overlords and they were overlords in a very definitive sense – they happened to speak the language of the majority such that many Fulani people did not speak Fulfude or Fulbe but they spoke Hausa, but no Fulani would agree that the Hausa and the Fulani were one people.
Do you think the way the government is fighting terrorism is the best way?
Government is not fighting terrorism. They have just found a way of controlling the system which does not really require them to fight terrorism. Much of what the Federal Government is now doing is to see how they can accommodate the terrorists. If it is a question of how do we accommodate the terrorists, it leaves the angle of problem-solving. All those children who are or could be on the streets are being carried in trailers like cattle and being dumped in the forest in Nigeria. It has been done in such a mindless way – other people’s children being turned into animals and treated like animals; they are creating a situation where the only solution is burst of violence. Those children who are not being treated like human beings, if they can find guns, what do you think they would do? They would take care of those whom they think are responsible for their problems.
You once said that Awolowo had scientific solutions to even current issues, what do you think would have been Awolowo’s solution to the division along religious and tribal lines in the country, considering alleged marginalisation and lop-sided appointments by the Federal Government?
Awolowo’s position was always clear: every ethnic group can be self-governing within the Nigerian situation but all of them must be criss-crossed by common welfare policy. If you do that, you will move Nigeria from being a geographic expression to a cultural express because even where the languages are different, we will come to share common values that are not easily dispensable. Unfortunately, those who claimed to be opposed to Awolowo did not provide the alternatives that would deal with that. Those who are opposed to restructuring are trying very hard to make sure that the two are never brought together – the welfare package and the restructuring package.
Awolowo wrote a book, ‘The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria’, in which he provided exemplary formulae for ensuring that if we must live in the same country, we must have a sense of common morality and a sense of shared ways of doing things – the basis of a genuine cultural expression. Unfortunately, the Nigerians who do not want us to be close to one another are very many and yet some of them claim to be fighting for unity. They are always talking about unity but ensuring that whatever can bring unity is thrown away.
You’re 70 years old now and in many cultures in Nigeria, people believe it is important to have a wife or husband. Do you think you will miss that in this old age?
It is an irrelevant question. I always knew I would do most things in my life later. The amount of knowledge I needed in order to live the kind of life I wanted to live was difficult for me to acquire. I therefore did not really trust relationships that tended in any way to detract from my capacity to function as I wished to. I was bound to wait until I was no longer afraid that somebody would stop me from achieving the goals I wanted to. I so dreaded the possibility of not being able to do the things I wanted to do in the world, whether with a general relationship or with women. I ensured that whatever could tamper with my dreams was quenched. I have never apologised for it and I will never do that because as good as the people you relate to might be, they may just not understand your dreams and if they don’t understand your dreams and you want to spend your life fighting, you have actually destroyed the basis for realising those dreams. Once I knew what I wanted in the world, I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way. I have not quite become the writer I want to be but I assume that the labour I have put into trying to be a writer is enough to get me where I want to be.