•Published In The GUARIAN Newspaper Issue Of JULY 20, 2014
Nobel Laureate Professor ‘Wole Soyinka was 80 years old on Sunday July 13, this year (2014). We congratulate the literary and human rights icon, who for over six decades, has been in the forefront of campaigns for justice, freedom, creativity, and happiness for the world.
The man of letters and an accoomplished playwright, humorist, social critic, actor, hunter, and wine connoisseur has now joined the enviable circle of octogenarians. May God continue to guide and guard the Ogun Abibiman. Amen.
In 1967, while a 17-year-old from three student of African Church Grammar School, Apata-Ganga, Ibadan (the story of how I missed going to Soyinka’s alma mater, Government College, Apata-Ganga in 1964 has been told many times by me), I wrote a letter of solidarity to Professor (then Mr.) Soyinka in Kaduna Prison, where the now retired General Yakubu Gowon-led Federal Military Government had clamped him (Soyinka) in, without trial, from 1967 to 1969, for visiting the late Ikemba-Ojukwu, then a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Nigerian Army and the Military Governor of the defunct Eastern region of Nigeria who was on the verge of seceeding the Eastern region from Nigeria to be declared the Republic of Biafra.
For clamping Soyinka in prison without a formal trial, I wrote a letter of demand to the then Head of State, General Gowon, a copy of which I sent to the editor of Daily Times the Newspaper that carried the story.
Since 1969, when Professor Soyinka was released from (Prison) detention and the public got to know of my 1967 letter and his (reply) letter of appreciation to me in 1969, upon his release, I have often been asked the question:
“What motivated a 16-year old secondary school student to write a letter of solidarity to the social/political activist, Soyinka, in prison?”
My answer has always been, “the motivation between a Lion and a cub!”. If this answer has the fragrance of one of Professor Soyinka’s plays. “The Lion and the Jewel”, then I request my dead readers to savour the sweet smell. But on a serious note, and with due modesty, I make haste to say that the motivation for writing those letters in 1967 to the detainee (Soyinka and the head of state Gowon) stemmed from my progeny. In order to grasp my reason for saying so, I need to let my dear reader into my antecedent.
Permit some immodesty if one say that one’s clamour for liberty, progress, and happiness for all did not just start yesterday. I was born into a family of democracts and warriors. My great, great paternal grandfather, Subair Ajengbe, (the wizard of wars) was Ekerin Balogun of Ibadan, during the reign Olubadan Fijabi (1890-1893). Ajengbe was a valiant soldier in the Ibadan Army of the 19th century and was a signatory to the Memorandum of Peace between the British Colonial government and Ibadan (please see page 663 of the Rev. Samuel Johnson’s books – The history of the Yoruba). His pranddaughter, Asma’u Odunola, my paternal grandmother, was the woman leader of the NCNC in Ibadan land under the genius, Adegoke Adelabu alias “Penkelemesi” in the 1950s. In my primary school, I was class captain from primary two to primary four, school mail-boy in primary five, and head-boy in my final year in 1963.
One can trace the blossoming of rights awareness to 1964, when as a form one student at “Afro” Apata-Ganga, Ibadan we joined our seniors in the civil protest against the recurring dinners of “eko” (pap). At NTA Ibadan in 1980, we (journalists at the station) sued the NTA Headquarters iin Lagos for banning states station of NTA from covering tthat year’s Senate probe of the famous (or is it infamous?) missing oil money said to the worth N2.8b then! Even though the court ruled in favour of NTA, we are still proud till today that we challenged a despotic order.
What about one’s successful demand, with millions of boxing fans all over the world, for the restoration of boxing legend, Muhammed Ali’s world heavy weight boxing crown and license in 1970, after he had refused to be drafted into the US Army to fight in Vietnam.
I was counted among demoracts who campaigned and fought for “June 12, 1993”. In fact, I was the Secretary-General of the MKO Abiola Dynamic Group and also a co-ordinator of the Association for Democracy in Nigeria (ADIN) which challenged retired General Ibrahim Babangida-led Federal Military Government’s annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election result which the late Basorun MKO Abiola was the undeclared winner.
When Professor Soyinka clocked 70 years in 2004, I wrote a birthday tribute in his honour titled Letter to Mr. Soyinka. “This was published in major national newspapers (for ease of reference, the Vanguard newspaper issue of June 20, 2004). I reproduced the tribute below.
“Now that the committee for “the Soyinka Festival” has made public its series of programmes to commemorate the 70th birthday of the Nobel Laureate, Professor ‘Wole Soyinka, who clocks 70 on July 13, I am thrilled to pen this early morning tribute, as I remember my letters to the renowned playwright and social crusader in 1967 and 1975, when he was simply Mr. ‘Wole Soyinka.
“Today, our dear Professor has become a household brand, at home and abroad for literature, arts, music, social justice, vitality, and excellence. He is celebrated and we bask in the pride and joy that God has given us a genius in his person. I wish the laureate a happy birthday, as they say, in advance. May he see many seasons of joy, good healh and victories. Amen.
“I pray, as the religious organisation (Nigeria Prays) he now leads does, that retired General Yakubu Gowon, Ph.D. former Head of State, reads this piece, because he and his government were the nexus for first letter (in 1967) and the second one in 1975 to Mr. ‘Wole Soyinka. Moreover, a recent royal engagement compered by me in Ibadan brought me face-to-face with the affiable gentleman officer, statesman, and former military head of state of Nigeria.
“I shall start from the very beginning. My late paternal grandmother, Mama Asma’u Odunola Alabi of Ekerin Ajengbe Clan in Ibadan SWI, was the leader of the women wing of the NCNC under the irresistible Adegoke Adelabu alias “Penkelemesi” in Ibadan in the 1950s.
“Needless to say, Mama was visible in the city’s political circle. As an 11-year old primary IV school boy in 1961, I would leaf through a special independence book commissioned by the Shell Oil Company, I hope I am right, with Mama dictating what article or picture to be read or explained to her by me.
“In that book, Mr. ‘Wole Soyinka, who would later become Africa’s first Nobel Laureate, was featured as the winner of an independence play competition. Mr. Soyinka, in his picture in the book, wore what will pass for an ‘Afro” hairstyle. As a result, whenever Mama felt that my hair was going “Afro” like Soyinka in the independence book”, off, I was sent to Owoiya Barbing Salon at Born Photo, Isale-Osi area of Ibadan. As a result of this yardstick or was it “hairstick”. Mr. Soyinka’s face and name were etched in the mind of a teenager.
“Passing out of primary school, I inadvertently, missed going to Government College, Apapa-Ganga, Ibadan, despite having entered the school as my first choice in the Western Region Common Entrance Examination in 1963. The person who made me miss GCI, my primary school headmistress, Mrs. Esther Ola, placated my parents by obtaining the Entrance Form of African Church Grammar School (Afrograms’), also in Apata-Ganga, Ibadan” an equally good school that shares boundary with GCI, even though just four years old”, according to the headmistress.
“I thus went to “Afrograms’ with GCI on my mind, apology to the jazz genius, Ray Charles, who passed on recently. At “Afrograms” we had a private current affairs group comprising Allan Olabode, now a chief and Managing Director of an advertising agency in Lagos, myself, and two junior students, who were the best English language students in their classes. Our group was the one to be consulted for the latest developments in current affairs, be it local or foreign – thank to ‘performance-enhancing’ tools such as my transistor radio set and daily issues of Daily Times newspaper purchased from our pocket money.
“In 1967, when the civil war broke out, our group was on lecture ‘circuits’ to formal classes and interested groups in the school, updating them on the immediate and remote causes of the war, and our projection of its impacts on Nigeria.
“Now, to the General Gowon connection which I mentioned earlier. One weekend in 1967, our school went on recess (mid-term break) and being a boarder, I went home like others. While reading the Daily Times newspaper one morning at home, I was taken aback by a story credited to the head of state, General Gowon that ‘Wole Soyinka’, who has been arrested by the government for visiting the (breakaway) Eastern region of Nigeria, will remain in detention as long as the civil war lasts”.
“I thought to myself that the detainee (Soyinka) should face trial rather than be clamped into indefinite detention. I, therefore, wrote a protest letter to the government and copied the editor of the Daily Times, and a solidarity letter to the detainee, Mr. Soyinka, in care of the Chief Warder of the Kaduna Prison, hoping and praying that if and when my letter got to their destinations, they would effect the desired results.
“As they as, whatever will be, will be, I posted the protest letters to Dodan Barracks, Lagos and the Daily Times at Kakawa Street, Lagos but forgot the one to Mr. Soyinka on my mother’s cupboard at home. Thank God for great mercies, she saw the letter after I had returned to school, and instructed my younger sister, Ronke (now Mrs. Oyelese, wife of retired Colonel Lekan Oyelese), to post same at the Mapo Post Office, Oja’Ba.
A recapture of my letter to Soyinka reads:
“Dear sir, I am a student of Africa Church Grammar School, Apata-Ganga, Ibadan, I have read a newspaper report where the Head of State vowed that you would remain in prison as long as the war lasts. I don’t think this is fair. We will continue to pray for you and know that one day, you will regain your freedom”.
“You can imagine my joy and pride, when shortly after his release from prison detention in 1969, Professor Soyinka’s letter of appreciation landed on my table! In it, Professor Soyinka said my letter, among others, was handed over to him on his release from prison. He appreciated my concern and support and said I should feel free to see him at his University of Ibadan’s School of Drama office.
“The day I chose to visit him, at the University, it was his secretary who received me, as the Professor was said to be out of town. I nevertheless left a note with the secretary. The whole school, naturally, got to hear about the letter and I became a hero of sorts both in the school and at home. Soyinka’s reply boosted my group’s popularity.
“In 1969 or 1970, I saw an advertisement in the Sunday Times inviting actors, actresses, and interested members of the public wishing to take part in the proposed film-Kongi’s Harvest”. I then wrote immediately to Professor Soyinka that I would want to take part in the film. In his reply, he directed me to see his lady secretary who would arrange for an audition.
“I attended the audition conducted by him, international Nigerian actor, Orlando Martins and others whose names I cannot readily remember now at the Mbari Club (later to become Kongi Club) Adamasingba, Ibadan. Rather, than approach Prof. Soyinka directly to tell him I was the young school boy who dared to write him while in prison, I kept my position on the queue, suppressing all temptations to be selected on the platform of lobbying.
“Regrettably, I did not make the final (cast) selection for the film, but I was among the first set of Nigerians who watched the premiere of the film – ‘Kongi’s Harvest” at Obisesan Hall in Ibadan in 1970 or was it 1971?
“In 1974, I again wrote Professor Soyinka that I wanted to quit my job as a Reporter Writer/Reader with the Sketch Publishing Company Limited, Ibadan to join a magazine “Transition”, which he was editing in Accra, Ghana.
My reason? The then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, had told the nation that his goverment’s promised hand-over date in 1975 would no long be feasible. I then thought it would be best for me to leave the country.
In his reply to me, Professor Soyinka explained that “Transition” was a small project, which could not afford to hire me. He, nevertheless, was optimistic that the situation in Nigeria was not going to last forever, and as such, I should not lose hope.
“My fourth letter to Professor Soyinka was in 1982 when I, as the presenter producer of NTA, Ibadan’s current affairs programme, “Speak Out”, invited him as my guest on the interview programme in his capacity as Chairman of the old Oyo State Road Safety Corps.
He accepted the officer, and the recording was done in his University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) office. I gave a copy of that recording to him in Esa-Oke in 1986 when his bosom friend, the late Chief’ Bola Ige, my boss and mentor, hosted him on his winning the Nobel award for Literature.
“This fifth letter was written by me in 1986, while a press secretary in old Oyo State, to congratulate him on winning the Nobel prize for Literature, while the sixth letter to him was an invitation to the launch of my book, “For Public Good in 1994.
“This article, Letters to Mr. Soyinka, can be regarded as the seventh letter to the Nobel Laureate, even though it is an extract from my modest contribution to a special publication on Professor Soyinka’s 70th birthday celebration. As I wrote earlier, this ‘Owuro Kutu’ (early morning) tribute springs from the same force that started 37 years ago to propel a cub to the lion. Happy birthday sir, in advance.
With all modesty and respect, may I say that since the ‘Lion King’ (Professor Soyinka) is now 80 years old, the 1967 cub has also grown manes, and is giving the revered octogenarian 80 roars. We wish our dear wordsmith a happy 80 birthday and pray that he celebrates many more years in good health, joy, and honour. Amen.