Our Dad Is Not, And Never Was A Typical Dad – Daughter

Our Dad Is Not, And Never Was A Typical Dad – Daughter

Thursday, July 17, 2014 1:31 am

Moremi Soyinka-Onijala, lawyer and one of the daughters of Professor Wole Soyinka, recalls the thrills and the pains of growing up as a child of the Nobel laureate as well as the personality of the renowned playwright in this interview with AYORINDE OLUOKUN

What are your fondest memories of Professor Wole Soyinka as a father?

Such memories will come from when I was a child, when he was around, when we were growing up in UI and other parts of Ibadan. You know he was in and out a lot. One thing I still remember was when my sisters and I used to plait his beard and his hair – he has always had a lot of hair. He would sit down patiently and we would take a comb and we would be weaving and practising styles and all that. And when we finished, he would say, “Now that you are done, loosen it and comb it back.” I also remember when my siblings and I used to have the opportunity to go and watch the performances at the Arts Theatre. Because we were always free viewers, my father would not let us sit on the chairs that are paid for, so we had to sit on the stairs and just enjoy the show. Those are just a few of the memories.

Moremi Soyinka-Onijala

Moremi Soyinka-Onijala

You said he was not always around when you were growing up. Was that a concern to you then?

Definitely, it was a concern and even though we are grown up, it still is a concern, not just for us the children, but also for the grandchildren. Our dad is not, and never was a typical dad; neither is he a typical grandfather at all. Right from when I was a toddler and when some of my younger siblings were born, he wasn’t around a lot. He was either away in detention, away in exile, or pursuing other career interests. He was at University of Ibadan briefly, and then resigned, I can’t remember for what reason.

Then, he got a sabbatical to England and I learnt from my mother that actually she was to go with him. But she thought that there had been so much instability for the family, so it was better for her to stay and just take care of the children. We were small but we were told, and we do have some memories. He was then sent into what we called Gowon detention. And then he was away on exile, writing and into various things. It was tough.

Though he is no longer in full time employment, as you would say, the fact still is that the very nature of his work and his interests take him around the world. Even when he is around, you may not get to see him because he is busy writing or defending the abuse of some human or civil rights somewhere, you just can’t see him.

For the grandchildren, it would have been nice that even though we didn’t have that steady parenting from him, the grandchildren could benefit more. He is all over the world. When people ask me what is his address? I say there is no address, except an e-mail address.

Was his activism a thing of concern to you and your siblings while growing up?

It really was. The truth is that even then when we were young, we had a sense that there were those who admired our dad, there were those who didn’t. I will use myself as an example. I attended Queen’s School Ibadan – 1973 to 1979; my dad was not around most of the period. He would breeze in and out occasionally. And we had teachers who admired him for what he was doing – whether he was challenging whichever government was in power, his writings or what have you, and we had those who didn’t agree with him.

And so, as human beings, they would try not to take it out on us, but they did! And the funny thing is that it was not just then; it’s even still happening now. It was a concern and is still a concern. When I was in the boarding house the visiting day was every two weeks, but my father was never a visitor. It just didn’t happen. But, of course, my mom, Olayide, doubled up; she really tried with other relatives and grandparents, aunts and uncles. But we know when they called you, “Moremi, come, go to the dining room, the visitors are here” – it was a big dining room and parents sat at a table with their children – you would see your friend’s dad there, you would not see your own. But we coped.

He had to go on exile during the General Sani Abacha dictatorship. Was there a concern in his family at that time about his life?

Yes, we were concerned for dad’s life as well as the lives of the entire family. My husband, Olutola Onijala, was a diplomat, he recently retired from the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Between 1990 and 1993, we were at post in New York. We came back in 1993. I recall that when we came back, we eventually stayed in 1004, V.I. Initially we had to stay in a family house in Ebute Metta, Lagos, because we didn’t have government quarters. When the problems started with the military regime, it was very tough. The soldiers of Abacha whose names I don’t know were looking for my father and when they couldn’t find him, they started watching the family. We were very concerned about my dad’s safety and were all relieved when he left the country.

Probably they thought that he would come and see us or we would be able to lead them to him, whenever we visited him. We had been warned to be careful and so on. But how careful can you be? You have to live your life. I had had all my three children then and they were in school in Ikoyi when, one day, I got a call from the headmistress of my children’s primary school that their security people were concerned because they had seen people that were in the State Security Service.

And some of the parents who were in the secret service also told us. Specifically, I remember somebody who will remain nameless, but a family friend and colleague of my husband. who actually came to meet us and warned us about the evil plans of some people in authority. I don’t know whether my younger brother Ilemakin, left in late 1995 or early 1996, but in the summer of 1996, we also had to leave – all of us, with the exception of my late sister Yetade

My husband stayed behind as he was working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and opted to watch the home front. Indeed, he was persecuted in various ways for being the son-in-law of Wole Soyinka and was ‘marked’ along with others as ‘NADECO’. Some of the persecutors are now top politicians. I was working with the National Insurance Corporation of Nigeria as a lawyer then, so I took leave of absence initially, with the understanding of my boss then, but eventually I had to retire when it looked like coming back was not going to be very soon. It was tough, in fact, terrible. We were always watching our back even when we fled; we ran away just like that: we just took the children and left, but we kept the house.

We did not have money, some friends, especially two people who should remain nameless, gave us substantial sums of money so that we could buy tickets and have a little extra for the initial cost of settling down. They know themselves and God knows them, and I am sure He will surely reward them. I think they (the military) thought we were going on vacation and that was how we left.

But it was tough because we had to leave my husband behind and my mom couldn’t go because she was working as the University Librarian at the then Ogun State University. My immediate younger sister, who is now late, opted to stay behind with our mom. We became refugees in another country; these are some memories that I don’t like to recall.

Even outside the country, we were always worried about dad, knowing that various attempts were even made to harm him while abroad and also, we were worrying about the members of our family that were left behind and still worrying about how we would settle down in a strange land. One of my husband’s very close friends who is sadly now late, Joseph Ade Adefolalu, took us into his home initially at very great cost to himself and his career, as he was a diplomat representing the government that we were running away from in the United States of America. How can we ever pay such a family back for their goodness and sacrifice?

You’ve mentioned some of the pains of being a daughter to such a world renowned Professor and activist. But what are the pleasures of being sired by such a person adored by many all over the world?

The pains and the pleasures are continuous. Those periods that I recalled were periods of acute pains. But some still continue because, as I told you, the world is always divided into two or even more – some for, some against, some neutral. And even at this stage – most of us are married, our children are married – there is still a lot of hostility and at the same time that becomes counter-balanced with pleasures or what I will call some neutralising effects.

For example, you are travelling, you are going through the airport and you meet some officials – whether it is Immigration or Customs. For whatever reasons, they see the names and they say, ‘Haa, Baba nko? (How is your father?) They usually want to give you that courtesy. In the course of life generally, even at work, at play, church, for those who know, I would say, by and large, more people are happy to associate with you, more people are willing to bend over backwards to do something kind because of what they feel are his (dad’s) own sacrifices. Some highly placed people in society, politically and in the private sector, have also been very kind to us when the occasion calls for it.

They too shall remain anonymous but God knows them and will bless them for their concern. But professionally and career wise, it has been tough for all of us, I must say. Four of my father’s children were compelled to be in exile, thus dislocating our careers and families. When we came back into the country, it was not just easy to pick up the pieces from where we had dropped them. Our mates and colleagues had progressed smoothly, when we got back it was problematic knowing where to start from or even finding employment.

From that 1996 that we went into exile, for example, I was blessed to come back into the country in 2003, at the invitation of then President Olusegun Obasanjo who saw the work I was doing in the US and invited me to come and do something like that in his administration. I must mention that I remain eternally grateful to Baba Obasanjo for that opportunity. It was a time of learning and serving those in need as my portfolio covered legal matters, humanitarian issues, refugee issues, youth and related stuff. Moreover, it was because of the exposure I had during Obasanjo’s time that I was also appointed to continue in a similar capacity under the Yar’Adua and Jonathan administration and later, the Jonathan/Sambo administration. But you find that while working in government even at that high level, there are people who don’t just want to see you and who are very resentful. You will recall that throughout President Obasanjo’s administration, my dad didn’t give him a break even though I was working there as a Special Assistant.

So, you had people – my colleagues – who understood you don’t have to visit the sins of the father on the children. But there were those who were belligerent, antagonistic, wondering what you were doing there. They said things like, “Why is Baba Obasanjo appointing the daughter of WS?” Nasty articles were written in the papers by people who did not know me and had never met me. In fact, somebody who would remain nameless, a person very, very highly placed in the political system who came to the Presidential Villa and I was introduced to by the then Deputy Chief of Staff, raised his eyes and said, ‘Hen hen, Wole pikin dey here.’ And the Deputy Chief of Staff said, “Yes, she is very good at her job” and so on, but the guest said, “Him papa dey abuse us and his pikin dey here dey chop”.

I had to smile, and greeted him, “You are welcome sir, it’s nice meeting you.” But I pondered over it for a long time and I concluded that this was really how so many people feel. Because of his age, his position and his experience, he felt free to say it, but many won’t say it out but they would act it out.

You will just find obstacles and challenges where they shouldn’t be. During President Obasanjo’s time, towards the tail end of his second term, when all the rumours of whether there was going to be a third term agenda were flying around – though we were in the villa, we were not operating at the level of those who really knew the facts behind the rumours – I had death threats severally because my father was speaking against the alleged third term agenda, among other policies of the administration that he disagreed with. Those threatening me went to the extent of saying, “We know where you live.” And with regard to my last daughter who I had brought back from the US to live with us, these faceless people said, “We know where she is schooling, warn your father” and things like that. So, there were people that felt I got the appointment because of my father’s connection and so on. They didn’t know my professional background, where I may have worked and the experience that I had.

But that opinion may have been prevalent due to the fact that if you study the administration of President Obasanjo, he definitely had some of the children of high-placed or highly regarded people in the society but I don’t think that any of them was unqualified; in fact, most were overqualified. That may have been a political strategy or may have just been his way of offering recompense for certain pains that your family had unjustly suffered or for sacrifices that some families had made even as far back as during the civil war. Well, the President probably recognised that and wanted some members of such families to come and work for him, and contribute to nation building.

But some people don’t just believe that you actually, by virtue of your field of study or expertise, merit such positions; there is nothing that you do that would satisfy them. But on the whole, I still want to thank God for the fact that Wole Soyinka is my dad and I believe that my siblings will agree. Internationally, there is that recognition. Within the nation, there is that recognition, but sometimes, you just want to go incognito, not to be singled out for special attention.

I will tell you something: Even when we had to go into exile and we had to go through all sorts of immigration procedures in the respective countries that gave us safe harbour, the fact that we are his children helped a lot to ensure that we got the papers that we needed to stay, nothing more than that – the Canadian government, the British government, the American government were not feeding us or anything. You were on your own, you had to suffer like everybody else, you had to do menial jobs to cater for yourself and family till you could find a niche in society.

But it was just a coincidence in the US that the people interviewing us were those who knew what was happening in Nigeria. So all they needed was proof that you are his children and we thank God for that. We learnt from childhood that our dad was a different dad. I think our mother did a very good job of shielding us from pain and a sense of loss as children [but] we still felt the pain. We were acutely aware that there was a gaping hole. Dad was not there for any graduation ceremony and all those important landmarks we went through in life. He was not there even for marriage; he was in exile. So we got used to those things.

But even while he was away, did he take active interest in the choices his children were making, like in terms of academics, marriage and so on?

No. I cannot even deny it. That was left for mom. He is probably the most liberal dad that I know. If you bring somebody from the moon and you say this is your husband, this is your wife, that’s okay. He was not the kind of father that would say, “Whose child do you want to marry? Let’s go and find out.” He left that to mom to do. For example, when we started applying for common entrance and JAMB in those days, you would just come and tell him wherever he was at that time that “I have been accepted to this and that”. Maybe with the exception of one of my sisters who wanted to go to Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University) to study International Relations. There was some politics – even though my father was at Ife. You know how academics have camps – his own camp was different from that of the Dean of that Faculty at that time and my sister did exceptionally well, she was a distinction student and so on.

Maybe because of that the Dean did not want to give her admission. So my mother, who was at UI, sent to my father in Ife and said, “This child did very well, talk to Professor So, So and So.” But he (my dad) said, “No, you know Prof XX and I are not on best of terms” or something like that. My mother said, “Eh hen, on this altar of academic nonsense, you will not come and ruin my child’s life.” So she had to physically drive to Ife with my sister and went to meet the Dean, the Professor and all that. She also called on her cousins who were also Professors in Ife to intervene. She really stood in the gap, but left to my father, because of his principles, my sister Peyi would have stayed at home or sat in the house for another year.

And my sister was bent on going to Ife – her school certificate result, her JAMB result, everything was excellent. So, in that case, I think he was compelled very, very grudgingly at the end to intervene and even till tomorrow, my sister still remembers the drama surrounding her admission to Unife. And now, she has made a career of that very field, reaching the very pinnacle as a tenured Professor of Political Science.

I don’t think he knew when any of us was doing school certificate examination or common entrance or how we chose the schools we wanted to go to and so on. He would just be told that you were there. But again, my mum, who understood my dad’s ways, made sure that he was fully informed about how well we were doing in school and so on. And then, if it was a time when he was in Nigeria, we would go and visit and in that way, we would update him. If he was out of the country, turn by turn we would go and visit him whether he was in UK, Ghana and so on.

Then we got that opportunity to bond or build a relationship. But better opportunities at bonding with him came later in life for those of us who were in the university for the brief time he was at Ife. Though we were in the hostels, you could go and visit him anytime you wanted because he was there. Or even much later in life as we settled down to build our own families and made time to visit and be with him.

Do you read his books?

A few, because while I love reading, my daddy’s books are not my type of books. It is just a matter of taste. I read a lot. I love legal thrillers, I love autobiographies of some sort, I love political drama, things like that, maybe because I studied law. I don’t know how I developed that interest – anything that has to do with law, court room, KGB, CIA things like that. I have piles of books beside my bed. My daddy’s books, the ones I have read that I can recall now, I liked Ake and Ibadan, because they were easy to relate with, the themes resonated with me, many of the characters were people I later knew. I enjoyed reading about his childhood and beyond and how he related with his parents, whom we grandchildren knew. But you won’t find me reading a play for leisure, that is not just me, maybe some of my siblings. And poetry, I am not into that, I would rather watch it being performed. You know when we were in school, when we had to do one or two of his books, the literature teachers would send me to him to ask him what this play or poem meant and I would tell my father when I saw him and he would tell me that, “Tell your teacher that if he or she can take me back to the time and place where I wrote that particular book, I would be able to explain.” It was only then that they gave me rest, because they did not understand. If my teacher didn’t understand, how would I understand?

Finally, how did your family receive the news of the award of his 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature?

You should have been there! Although we saw it coming, still its announcement was received with much jubilation. I recall that we all gathered in his sister’s house in Lagos. It was during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd.) and he was so proud that he provided a plane to fly the delegation accompanying my dad to receive the award. My brother was able to represent all the children and my mother was also able to attend the ceremony. That award really propelled my father unto the world stage in a very different and more prominent manner. We all basked in that glow. I will tell you a joke: a few of my maternal aunts, whenever they see me at family gatherings, still refer to me as “Nobeeeelll”, drawing out the pronunciation of the word. And funny enough, so do some of my childhood classmates.


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