•His Private Secretary, ODIA OFEIMUN Reveals A Lot
Late Yoruba Leader, Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo was a great man in his lifetime. But many don’t know the kind of man he was. All they know is that by virtue of all the capacities he occupied in Public life, as Premier and at the centre, he positively affected millions of life. One of those who worked closely with him was popular poet, writer & author Odia Ofeimun. He worked as his Private Secretary. Odia Ofeimun was born in Iruekpen-Ekpoma, Edo State, Nigeria, in 1950. He worked as a news reporter, factory labourer and Civil Servant before studying Political Science at the University of Ibadan, where his poetry won first prize in the University Competition of 1975. That year his work appeared in the anthology Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka.
Ofeimun also worked as an Administrative Officer in the Federal Public Service Commission, as a Teacher, as Private (Political) Secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria, and as a Member of the Editorial board of The Guardian Newspapers in Lagos. He studied at Oxford University on a Commonwealth fellowship. Returning to Nigeria at the annulment of the 1993 election, he wrote columns for The Guardian On Sunday, the Nigerian Tribune, as well as contributing to many other newspapers. He was Chairman of the Editorial board of the defunct daily, A.M. News, as well as The News and Tempo magazines.
Ofeimun was Publicity Secretary (1982–84), General Secretary (1984–88) and President (1993–97) of the Association of Nigerian Authors. He was also designated advisor to PEN Nigeria Centre and is a founding member of the Pan African Writers’ Association.
Ofeimun is the author of more than 40 works. His published collections of poetry include The Poet Lied (1980), A Handle for The Flutist (1986), Dreams At Work and London Letter and Other Poems (2000). His poems for dance drama, Under African Skies (1990) and Siye Goli – A Feast of Return (1992), were commissioned and performed across the UK and Western Europe by Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble in the early 1990s, and his most recent poem for dance drama, Nigeria The Beautiful, has been staged through major Nigerian cities to wide acclaim
A few weeks back, Odia Ofeimun celebrated his 70th birthday and he spoke to City People about turning 70, his life as a Poet, and his stint as Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Private Secretary among other issues.
How did you find working with late Awo in the late 70s as P.A?
You know Chief Awolowo was a very organised person. If he gave you a series of assignments, he would write it down in his own notebook and the next day he would tick those you have done & finished and he will re-assign those that have not been properly finished. So, that at any time Tee he will give you the job and leave you to go and do it your own way. But he monitors you with a consistency that makes it difficult for things to go amiss.
Since you are working with a man who believes all problems are solvable, there is a tendency in which you have to work in that frame of mind, that you can answer all questions. And I must confess, I had a way of making him see that I can answer all questions. And I must confess, I had a way of making him see that I can answer all questions because no matter how difficult the question is, I must have read about it somewhere. And if I have read about a problem, I manage to know how to vary it to suit any existing one. Working with Awolowo made me believe that the education I was acquiring was the right one and that there is no Nigerian problem that is solvable. I have never doubted the capacity of Nigerians to solve the problems that abound. I have always feared people who used either Ethnicity, Religion or Seeming grudges to disrupt the capacity to bring people together to think well.
Why was Awo so particular about Free Education?
It had to do with his own educational career. Awolowo never had a free ride in his own educational career. He suffered to acquire an education. And I think it meant a lot to him been a reader of Labour, Politics & Economics to realise that it is not because they are whites that they are better than us, it is because we have refused to do the right thing. And when he became a man in public life, what he demanded I have reduced it to a formula which simply says: Put all the knowledge in the English language into indigenous languages and put all the knowledge in the indigenous languages into English, equalise the relationship between all ethnic groups and equalise the relationship between the colonised and the coloniser and let the world compete on that bases. In my view, No strategies have beaten it. And if we put all our resources (both human and material) to the test, I believe no country can beat Nigeria. Awolowo happened never to believe that we would not be able to stand up to the West, especially in the running of the Civil Service in the West.
He made all the Oyinbo people who worked with him to believe that Africans were better, and frankly Africans were usually better educated than many of the Oyinbos who worked with him. And so they were forced to have to rise up to British standards and beat that standard. One of the reasons I think the colonisers and the West, in general, did not like Awolowo was that he was a very arrogant believer in the capacity of the African to beat the white man any game. You know nobody likes a bragged. And Awolowo I must tell you was a super braggart and he bragged and followed up on whatever he said. The idea that the World Bank will come here and tell us that our Free Education will not work was annoying to him and the people who surrounded him. Many of them had first class from Oxford and Cambridge and top universities in Europe. And then you start wanting to teach them like kids. They showed the Oyinbo people who worked with them that they were better and they proved it to the world bank that irrespective of what they thought of our plan to make Education and our Health Free for a certain age grade, we would do it against all their presumptions or presuppositions and my God, they succeeded.
Talking about his personality if he had become President would he have survived it, going by his principled stance in Nigeria’s crooked politics.
Awolowo always says that if he became the Head of State, all those abusing him will eat from his palms. You know why I believed him? If Awolowo told you he was going to built a road through your village he will build it. One of the best photographs I have of Awolowo is where he was pressing the tap in Ekpoma and Water came out. When he was campaigning to become Premier, he held a bottle of Pond water which was what our people were drinking. They will put alum and make it less reddish. But he promised them that when he became Premier, I will bring you tap water in this place. He did. He held the photo of the Pond water, he showed them on one hand and he pressed the tap for clean water to come out. I have those photographs. I went looking for those photographs at the secretariat in Ibadan and I like to tell that story. There was no photograph I asked for about Awolowo’s premiership that they didn’t have. The man who was protecting and guarding these photographs were oldish looking men, who did not look quite efficient, but when you talk about efficiency they were a very efficient lot.