Monday, March 16, 2020 6:33 pm
OdiaOfeimun, poet, writer, essayist, journalist, public intellectual, playwright and polemicist is a study in commitment. He turns 70 today, 16 March. In a career that has spanned more than 50 years, he has shown not only absolute commitment to literature but also a deep love for, and belief in, his country, Nigeria. As the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Poet Lied, turned 70 on 16 March 2020, family friends, colleagues and scholars from across the globe converge on the University of Lagos to celebrate him in a two- day conference which held on 16 and 17 March, 2020. In this Interview with ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE and NEHRU ODEH (AYODELE EFUNLA snapped the photos), he speaks about his life, literature and politics.
How do you feel as a writer at 70?
I don’t feel any different from the way I felt at 60. But I can say it is a little different from when I was 50. I always wanted to be an old man. And I always treated myself as if I was an old man. That is to say in my much younger days, I never allowed myself to think like the young generation. No. And I never liked writers who played up their being of a younger generation either in order to authenticate their creativity or to accede to a lower level of strictness in literary criticism. I always believed that a writer, irrespective of the age grade or age group to which that writer belongs is necessarily to be judged by the same standards with all other writers. I mean, if I pick up a book I am not going to ask whether that writer is 80 years old or 20. So if it is about how I feel as a writer at 70, properly speaking, I don’t feel too different from the way I have always felt. I said it is a little different from when I was 50 because 50 was the first time it really hit me that I was getting older. Since then I have always felt old.
Now, given the way one’s body feels, you know one cannot cheat nature. Does your body tell you anything about your age? Because I know of some people who are just 60 but they stagger when they walk.
There is no way you get older and your body doesn’t tell you things that it never said before. I mean, my dentition has been changed by time and a little accident. I don’t have to push it too much. But every part of your body tells you a different story from what it told you at 40. There is no question about that. And you have to learn that as some of these things change you must change in the sense that you would be doing yourself harm by eating wrongly, refusing to do exercises. In fact, if you don’t do certain exercises your body tells you almost immediately that there is something the matter with you. Therefore, as you get older, there are nature’s impositions that you cannot escape.
How do you see life? Is there any difference between the way you saw life as a young man and now that you are 70?
I have been rather lucky I grew up with grandparents whose views about how to live one’s life were sure and principled enough not to allow for changes by the wind. Simply because the world around you is changing, you don’t necessarily need to change. And then the major parental push to lift you above the average and common run person begins with, “Don’t lie. Be honest. Don’t engage today in something you know you would detest tomorrow.” Now I have never had to change that way of living. I always hear my grandfather’s voice whenever I do something that I know is not right. And he was so brazenly liberal that you cannot oppose him out of just the wish to throw tantrums. Grandpa was not the kind of person against whom you threw tantrums. He was not the kind of person you rebel against. I mean, it is simply unheard of because as a child I only remember being beaten once by that old man. And that was when we were using sticks to play with hornets. They built their nests in the cement corners and loops and we were just playing with them. And then one flew out and bit somebody. That is the only time. And he just walked into the place and before he could cane you more than twice, you were already gone. My grandfather did not beat us. He was strict in a very interesting kind of way. He would call you and he could watch you just watching him without talking to you for a very long time. And then when he had to talk to you he never completed his sentences. It was like “Hmm, You!”.* Grandpa had a way of doing it so that your guilt would sink in ina way that followed you wherever you went. Because I have never had to do anything under a threat I also learnt to respect myself. Frankly, today if people threaten me in order to make me do what I am not willing to do they are in danger because I don’t respond to threats. I think that when people threaten me, they endanger themselves, not me. So that to a very large extent I have never had to change much of the way I look at the world. And I have been lucky. I don’t suffer from a groupie syndrome. I don’t ask that I belong to a group either because they are very successful or they are loud. No. They have to be right to me before I would agree to join them. And when I join them I don’t sell my conscience. Because I believe it is precisely the need for a wider ambit for the expression of my conscience that I joined the group in the first place. In the university, I did not join what they called black oyibo clubs. We used to call them black oyiboclubs largely because the more exciting organizations like the Marxists, black nationalists and such bodies gave enough thrill not to worry about those other clubs. So that if I attended the end-of-year party of my cousins’ black oyibo club I was generally doing it just, shall we say, to cork a snook at them. I thought they were merely doing the spirit of arrival. As a student I was too poor anyway to pretend to have arrived. And those who claimed they had arrived, I liked to see what new things they were adding to their way life on campus or life in general, as it were. I had been lucky in the sense that whether I joined the groups or not, I could affect them the way even members managed to do. I have always been able to express myself across groups without fear.
What was growing up like in Akure?
I did not grow up in Akure. My father was a motor mechanic in Akure. He had a very big workshop and he had many apprentices working with him. He had lorries plying Asaba, Lagos and places like that. He was initially very prosperous. And then I think he made a mistake. He mixed his mechanic workshop with a little politics. And that began a downward turn that he never recovered from. So by the time I started secondary school, my father had these two lorries that were essentially inoperable. That is to say they would perform today but tomorrow they were back in his workshop for repairs; that kind of thing. But although I never lived with him, after my 11th birthday, I spent a few holidays with him. I mean: it was fun going to Akure on holidays. At least it was far away from my Iruekpenhometown. It was good to be close to the city to see something different from the way the village looked and the way it could affect you. Because my father was economically in a period of downturn much of the stories I remember about living in Akure come from him. Most of the time I would come because I had not paid my school fees. And then I would stay longer than necessary, especially towards the end of my secondary school career, which, properly speaking, ended after the third year. It wasn’t nice just being around. There wasn’t much work to do, even if I followed some of his apprentices to his cocoa plantation in Akure. And he had about three cocoa plantations in Akure – one was in Ogbese, the others were closer to the town. Now, I never felt part of it. Actually, it would be correct to say that largely because I was at Akure mostly because my fees had not been paid, I was not a proper member of any work group, whether at home or in the farms. I worked with a lot of resentment. I couldn’t change the situation. And he too could not change the situation: we could not change the situation. I never hit it well with my father largely because we knew he would want to do it. But he couldn’t. If I look at many artisans today, I just remember my father’s story. And I think that there ought to bea way of organizing them so that they don’t go through some of those things. In a society where, for instance, every child goes to school because the government pays, that problem may not arise. But that problem arose for me because after primary school, there was no more free education.
It was because of your father’s change of fortune that made you leave school in form three. How did you then survive because I learnt that you left secondary school, that you were a factory hand.
No. After I left secondary school, I stayed in my village for a while. Because I would need upkeep allowance and I did not want to harass my grandparents for that, at some point I had to tap rubber, as they say, in order to make sure that at least every market week I was able to make some money. I always wore boxers, as I still do when I am at home. It is not nice to have to plead with people to buy your boxers for you. After all, if you can afford to do some work you ought to do it. But it was work that I did not like doing. Somehow every job I did that was not related to education made me feel as If I was moving away from my life’s goal. It’s like you are moving away from what your life should be into, something else. Part of what eased it for me was that I had long developed a taste for reading that competed very strongly with whatever household chores or errands I was given. Initially, it wasn’t a very strong push. I was lucky I grew up in a house where my mother’s elder brother, who was living in Lagos and had worked with West African Pilot and was going abroad to study agronomy, brought his books home. The books included several picture books from photo magazines and things like that. He had worked in SIM Bookshop and so he knew about books. And the shelves that he brought home had a fantastic collection of books that, small as that collection was, it literally introduced you to all the things that you needed to know in order to be a writer. I look back now and I remember that the first full histories of the world that I read were H.G. Wells and then PanditNehru’s series of letters to Indira Gandhi from various prisons, which told the history of the world. And then, of course, the romantic poets- Shelley, Byron, Keats. They were a finely selected collection. And my uncle had great love for novels about air planes that fought during the world wars and things like that. Those ones never interested me. Much of what I know about military craft were acquired in my insurgency and counter insurgency class in the University of Ibadan. There was a collection of Julius Caesar’s campaigns, but I never bothered about them at that age. But the real Dickens, the early Dickens were there; not David Copperfield and the other ones that I had to read later on my own. But you know, people do not talk about Sketches By Bozand Pickwick Papers. And there were simply these old books that introduced you to areas you never heard about. For instance, Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Confessions I started reading very early. I never managed to finish it; though wherever I went, that book went with me. It went with me to Lagos. In fact, it was later that I realized the book had become something like a mascot. I just took it with me wherever I went for the sheer pleasure of being with it. And then Martin Carter, Guyanese poet, had this collection of poems from prison, which dealt with the period of the struggle for independence mainly. I look back and I can tell you Martin Carter’s collection was what first gave me this strong feeling that poetry could do a lot of fighting. And that you don’t only write about flowers. Although I could relate to Wardsworth Longellow, Burns, Keats, Shelley, especially Shelley, it was not until I read Martin Carter that I saw a dimension that I had not felt before. A year later, after I started reading that collection, I found my mates who were at school, after I had dropped out, were reading Modern Poetry from Africa, which was where, of course, I encountered Soyinka, J.P Clark, Senghor, the Diops. Although I was never taught at school, being able to relate to those poets from those collections gave me a feeling that even if I did nothing else in the world, I had to be a poet. Initially, it worked out this way. If I felt grumpy about anything, I would write out a poem about it. I mean you could write a poem to a girl you may not even have the courage to talk to. But at least, it enabled you express yourself. And I always like to say this. That I used to respond to many events by drawing – something that I picked from a classmate in primary school, one Paul Edo. I never encountered him again. Paul Edo could draw anything. And at that age- we were seven, eight- it was exciting to meet somebody who could draw. So even after he left our primary school, I got stuck with this need to draw. By the time I got to secondary school at the age of 12, as the urge to draw started receding, so to say, the more camethe urge to read and write poetry. The need to write poetry was something that a teacher in my first year in secondary school literally got me unable to run away from. He had just passed his A’ level literature and was going to the university. But he was in some kind of Sandwich programme, teaching us English. And in those Readers they used to give us, you had poems on all sorts of things. And whether he taught us or did not teach us, what he taught us was enough for us to move into other poems. It was an experience that merely repeated my last years in primary school. The Western regional government had a primary school educational system that many people were critical of, but the readers that they published for school consumption always had poems in them. For instance, I read Rime of the Ancient Mariner in primary school. And it was only later the story got stuck in my head. But at that time, just reading Rime of the Ancient Mariner was an excitement I couldn’t get out of. It’s not just that I understood what the poetry was about. It was also that you were encountering an event, literary and intellectual that you could feel was like a deliberate preparation for something you would always like to do. So that by the time I got to secondary school, I was sure that if I did nothing else in the world I would write poetry. Also by the time I got to realize that writing poetry won’t feed you, it was too late to choose. I had chosen. And what poetry could do was just enough for me. And therefore one had to think of living a life that could take care of itself. But at that stage it never mattered to me at all. That uncle of mine whose books I was reading, and who used to write letters to advise me to leave his books alone, was the one who first hit it home for me that what I was trying to do would not be able to feed me. And he was ever so sure that the only way a writer could survive was to have acquired an education that is beyond poetry. I mean, I remember those days when I went to live with him in Lagos, each time I talked about being a writer, he would look at me. “How many writers do you know who did not acquire proper formal education and then they managed to become writers?” Unfortunately, the books he left at home had taught me enough. There was one little collection they called Five Minute Biographies. And those five minute biographies told me about writers, inventors, presidents, businessmen so that I had a very good grasp of the status, you may say, of the people who became writers – how they began, what they did and the rest of it. And I could simply knock out all the names for him. There was Amos Tutuola, who was supposed to have only a primary school education. Of course, it wasn’t our kind of primary school, but it was enough to know that he had only a primary school education. Peter Abrahams traveled to Britain without a university degree. Bernard Shaw never had a university degree. Charles Dickens never did. And I could tie together all of them in one big response to my uncle. I remember him telling me on one occasion, “Will you shut up! Telling me the fact is, the fact is, as if you are in a press conference.” And the reason he used that term was because by the time I went to live with him I had worked as a reporter and a sub-editor for a year in a local newspaper. He didn’t mind engaging me in arguments, but he never liked being beaten.
Still on your education, I remember learning, during my reseach, one Igbo guy with whom you were mates. And he was the most brilliant. But unfortunately, later in life you met him in an okrika shop selling …
Yes, John Ezike. Actually it was not later in life.
Was it in primary school that you were mates?
It was in primary school. John Ezike joined us in Primary Three. Very many people east of the Niger needed to benefit from the free education on the western side of the Niger. So they all found ways of bringing their younger siblings to the western region. John Ezike was extremely brilliant. He was about a year or two older than I was. But that did not explain why he was ever so brilliant. It was as if when he was not in class that class was not in session. He was generally very good. It must have been by the time we got to Primary six that I beat him in an exam for the first time in my life. And it was not even an internal exam. It was the local entrance examination into the modern school. I won’t lie to you. When they started calling us to line up according to our marks, it was fun to see that I beat John Ezike. No, John was very good. But you see, a year later, I was driven for not paying my school fees and I just went to the local market. The natural assumption for me was that when you finish primary school, you go to secondary school. I saw John Ezike selling in the market. I scratched my head and moved to him. I said, “John, what’s the matter with you? You no go school?” He just laughed and said, “Ha Ha! Whether you go school, you no go school, na money all of us want. Sometimes so money go come.“ Look, I couldn’t beat it. The idea that the best kid in my class could not go to secondary school, or even modern school, was very painful for me. And what made itmore painful for me was that at that point in time I too was being driven for not paying my fees. It was an experience that maybe, without knowing it, pushed me into the camp of all those supporting free education at all levels. I mean, if the best kid in class could not go to school because his uncles could not pay, it is like if you collected all those kids who could not go to secondaryschool, you may just find that the best are the ones being thrown out by the school system. Perhaps today- I keep saying that –John Ezikemay have grown up attending the best schools or whatever. Actually I saw a John Ezike somewhere and I said I must go and look for how that John Ezike may be related to the John Ezike I used to know. But you see, it is enough for me to use him as my means for fighting in any public sense people who are opposed to universal education. Any time I remember John Ezike, how the brightest in class could not go to higher institution, it is just enough for me to feel bad,.
I learnt he died in the war
I cannot tell whether he died in the war. Actually that is the painful part of it. So that passing through Niger Bridge those days after the war, you see all those kids and you are wondering which one belongs to John Ezike and that kind of thing. But generally, any time I remember John Ezike, I used to hate Igbo politicians so badly, especially when they criticize Awolowo’s free education. I used to detest them. Because, you see, there was always money in Nigeria to do it. Those who were stealing money and hiding it abroad are the ones telling you that there is no money to pay for free education. I take it very personal. It is not a public issue for me. When you refuse to allow a child to go to school, as some of those loonies are doing in northern Nigeria, and are claiming the rights of cuture, of religion or whatever, oh no, they should be fought to a standstill.
I learnt that you sat for GCE, even at the A ’levels as an external candidate and then you gained admission into the university not to study the poetry that you love but to study political science. So tell us the story.
Once I dropped out of school, I had time to read my uncle’ shelf. I had a very nice arrangement. All the books were brought down from upstairs and put in a store downstairs. That store had an adjoining door that led to another room. I simply worked my way to make sure that it was allocated to me. So that all I needed to do was change the key so I could enter that store from my room and ransack that shelf anyway I liked, any time I liked. It was one of the best days of my life when it comes to just reading. I read. And I won’t lie to you. I shirked a lot of household chores In order to be able to read. And my grandfather, a very wise man, who would normally insist on everything being done right, on some occasions, he would come and open my door and discover that I was reading. It’s like saying, “This stupid boy who is not going to school, why is he reading so much?” But he seemed to have enjoyed the sight of me reading all the time, which meant that, maybe, I had an ambition beyond what a secondary school education would determine. But these were periods of very extreme poverty. I could not always go to him and ask for money in the way I could have done if I was still at school. But I got fed up and simply decided I was going to stay with my paternal uncle in Benin, who was also a motor mechanic. He was working at Amels. Uncle Jacob did not mind my coming to stay with him, but he could not deal with my habits. I would wake very early in the morning and in my bathroom slippers and my folded long sleeves shirt move from one library to the other across Benin. As far as he was concerned I was looking for a job. But to be honest with you, I never looked for a job. I was just moving from one library to the other. There was the local government library in Benin, near the John Holt. There was the American library. Then there was the British Council, which was the best in Benin-City. I mean when I say It was the best in the city, it was the best. If you wish to read for any exam, they had enough books to help you to; and the idea of doing GCE never occurred to me. I read all the books. That is, all the books I was going to encounter, I read all of them. And of course I never stopped writing poetry. An older friend of mine- Alfred Ilenre – was working as a reporter, first in The Midwest Champion and later in the Midwest Echo. He was the one who took some of my poems and published them in Midwest Echo. The editor of the paper , IkhanYakubu , was so impressed by this young man who could write poetry. As I was walking to Alfred’s office one day, he just called me and said, “If you can write this kind of poetry, you can be a reporter, my friend. Come. You’ll be our reporter.” That’s how I became a reporter. And to be honest with you, if I look back now I think those poems were very unreadable. But since he liked them, who am I to complain? (laughs). Oh I used to write all manner of things for the paper. But it was also a sister paper to the Nigerian Tribune owned by Obafemi Awolowo inIbadan. And it was just struggling. It was undermilitary rule and although Chief Awolowo was a big shot in the military administration, he did not have time for a local newspaper in Benin-City. He was more concerned about the Nigerian Tribune. And it got to a stage because that paper was very critical of Ogbemudia’s administration, they stopped giving us adverts. So we were on the road to death. To make matters worse, Ogbemudia set up the Nigerian Observer. It really wiped us out. But we didn’t immediately stop until the workers went on strike because they were not being paid. I was the one who led them on strike. I was the literate one. Then we went to the Ministry of Labour, as all workers on strike are supposed to do. The man in the Ministry of Labour was very understanding. He wanted us to tell the story, and the rest of it. He called us to this place where we were all supposed to sit and talk. When I got up to speak, he looked at me and said, “No, no, no, no. But you can’t speak.” That was the day I knew that the labour code did not cover journalists. It covered compositors. It covered the artisans, but not journalists. The NUJ had not yet become a major outfit in Nigerian public life. So I couldn’t speak for the people I once identified with. But there was an aspect to it that stuck in my head. The Executive Director of the newspaper, Mr. Obahiagbon, used to receive L.K. Jakande, who would come around because he was the one managing all the Awolowo newspapers. On that particular occasion, he came. Of course, he was interviewing me and I knew that . They realized they could probably make use of me. So they said, “Don’t worry. We are going to pay all your salaries. We are going to do this. We are going to do that. We think you are a very nice man. You appear to be very diligent.” That day they doubled my salary. Because, apart from the editor, it was just me. Mr. Agbebakun had just been taken over by the Nigerian Observer. So they needed to put me in a position that could help the newspaper. When I got back to the newspaper, I just told the people what they did. I told them we were going to continue with the strike until they paid us. Although we tried to make the newspaper work, it just wasn’t going to work. I was tired of leading a group of hungry people. You could read hunger on their faces everyday when they came to work. I was 18 years old. Although I could write articles in which I pretended to be a big man, I could write articles in reply to Obarogie Ohonbamu , the law lecturer at UNILAG who was always attacking Awolowo in those days. There was Osaheni Uzamere who used to write wonderful stuff. I think he just graduated with a degree in history. He had just left the University of Ibadan or Ife, I can’t remember which one. He was a graduate of history. And he used to write these articles for us. I did not like what I was doing. I needed to leave. It was at that point I decided I cannot abandon poetry. Difficult as life was, it was the only thing that made sense in my life, the fact that I wrote some kind of poetry. After all, it was poetry that gave me my first job. I decided I would go to a country where nobody knows me so that I could do odd day jobs in the afternoon, and at night write poetry in Wordsworthian tranquility. I took myself so seriously about it. I was supposed to be on my way to Ghana. But when I got to Lagos, I had to stay with an uncle at least for the few days before I prepared my way. I asked myself a question: If I can do odd day jobs in Ghana why can’t I do them here in Lagos? Anyway, because I couldn’t be dependent on the uncles I had, I decided to start work in a petrol station as a petrol attendant. And I got a job as a petrol attendant on Cityway, Yaba, opposite that spire, the church. It was the kind of place to learn to do odd day jobs without batting an eyelid. Because that was where all the lorries from Edo, the western region, the Eastern region, bought their petrol on their way from the hinterland. But I did not like the job. It was a job you got to in the morning and couldn’t leave until late in the evening. That meant I would not be able to read. I would not be able to write. I had to find a way to leave the job. And I was lucky. Those were days when the Ministry of Labour was still the Ministry of Labour. If you arrive in Lagos, you walk to the Ministry of Labour and register as an unemployed person. And every Thursday, you go there to check if there was a job anywhere in the city that could take somebody with your kind of qualification. For a while it didn’t look as if something would come. But by the time something came I discovered it was a job that a cousin of ours who was a Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Federal Public Service Commission had already worked out. In those days expatriate quota and things like that were serious business. And I think, one way or the other, he had made friends with some of those people in Apapa. He just gave me a note to Mr Pepper at the West African Trade Company at Apapa and I got a job as a factory labourer. It was a good job, good job because I could start at 8:30am and close at 4:30pm. The only place I could get the kind of accommodation good enough for a person of my needs was Mushin, Oshodi. I was staying with friends at Mushin. But to get a seat on the train at Mushin was very, very difficult. So I moved my domicile, so to say, to Oshodi, where I could enter the Idogo train very early in the morning, have a very good window seat and read at least for two or three hours until I got to Apapa. That was how I started reading for my A ’levels because once I got this job, what else was there to do? That was how I started reading for my A ’levels.
By that time you have passed your A ’levels?
I did both O and A. Actually I did A’ level in December and did O’ level in January. Yeah, because the time table allowed you. Once you’dchosen your subjects, most of the O’ level papers were done in January and the A’ levels were usually in December. But I wanted to do A’ ‘level and O ’level together. I did three O’ levels and two A’ l evels. I passed the two A’levels. I had two Cs in economics and government . I passed English and religious knowledge and I failed literature. The following year I had to repeat literature in A ’levels to convince myself that it was WAEC that was wrong, not me.
Why did you study political science in the university, and not English? Did you feel constrained when you were at UI?
It is interesting you are asking that question. Everybody wants to know. Because it is generally assumed that I did political science out of some queer sense of vocation. The truth is that I had this ego about being a literary man and I had read most of the books that they were going to read in the University. I may not have understood them the way students in the university understand. But I had read most of the books that I would do if I went for English. So English was not attractive for me at all. It was a case of what would I be doing that I had not already done. I will still be reading all these books. I had read works of criticism that even though I didn’t understand them well, I had read them. And I did not think it was a fair deal for myself going to reread those books. I wanted to do something new and it excited me more to do that. Although I had worked as newspapers sub-editor and writing all manner of articles including responding to the critics of Awolowo’s People’s Republic, I had not read a textbook of government by the time I decided to read for A levels. So that reading A ’level for me was doing something really new. I had to read economics and government as a fresh dimension in my self- development. And because I passed the two A ’level subjects and I managed t get a B in literature, many people thought what I should have done at Ibadan was simply walk to the English department and change my course. And then I started insisting that I was going to do poetry as a subsidiary. It was not allowed in the syllabus. I insisted that I wanted to do poetry. And I actually did romantic poetry and failed it. I won’t go into why I failed it yet. But the point is I had made up my mind I was going to read political science because it brought me closer to the discussion of government than reading Jean Jacques Rousseau, reading Pandit Nehru’s History of the World and the rest of them. It made me feel like this is the intellectual line to follow. They eventually allowed me to take poetry as an elective. The reason I did not take that course seriously – I did not go to class – I always assumed it that I knew what it was all about, which was why while my mates were preparing for William Wadsworth, I was preparing for Wordsworth Longfellow. In fact, until recently, I still confused the two. I simply did the wrong poetry and went to the classroom (laughs). So I wasbound to fail. Well, by the standards of Ibadan at that time, my failure was exportable. You could call it a pass, if anybody has 40 or whatever. But to be honest with you, I never allowed myself to repeat a course if I failed. I failed two courses in my university education. One was that romantic poetry, the other was Marxist Political Economy. Part of the reason I could not have passed Marxist Political Economy was that I liked arguing with my teacher. Ola Oni was our teacher. And honestly, he took a hard way to get me to accept some of his arguments. When I look back now I ask myself what was it all about. But honestly I did not take those two courses seriously. I was bound to fail them. And I wasn’t going to repeat any course in my university career. It was one oath I swore that I never broke, that I would not repeat a course. If I failed a course it was dead. Luckily for me, I never failed a compulsory course. So I managed to scale through. So that by the time I got a 2.1 it was as if God just wanted to be kind to me. Normally, I never read the course of study I went to the university for. I mean, I looked at that many storey library when I got to the university and I told myself, “Odia, you must raze this library to the ground,” which was a way of saying I wanted to make sure that from top to bottom of that library, that I would read every section so that by the time I was leaving the university, I would be grounded in as many areas as possible. And I used to read all those journals that would come. They were not for my level of education. What’s level of education got to do with knowing whatever is knowable in the world. But you see, it wasn’t the kind of university that we were soon going to have. This was a very different kind of university, a university where you interacted with lecturers who genuinely believed in education. I have told the story somewhere about how students in my class, in the department of political science used to really go after lecturers. That is to say a lecturer is teaching and makes a mistake, somebody would raise his hand and say, “Excuse me, sir, I have read that book (laughs). And say that there is a different opinion and express it. On one occasion, I remember, Bolaji Akinyemi was so angered by the way some of the boys in the class were responding to something he had said, he just walked out of the class. He was one of those young lecturers whom you enjoyed listening to also because he was close to your age and he had a very posh understanding of whatever he taught. He was good.
You also trained under Billy Dudley?
Well, Dudley was the baba. For anybody in Political Science, Dudley was the last word in anything. Billy Dudley was a mathematician. He studied philosophy then became a political scientist. So that if Dudley was teaching, the examples he gave you were from every angle of the compass. You got to know one thing because Dudley would take you around other things that dealt with that one thing. Billy Dudley was not just a teacher. He was just good company as you walked the road towards any kind of knowledge. He did nothing else in the world, it was just about knowledge and how to make it work. And then, of course, he had written wonderful books by the time we got to the university. His book on politics in Northern Nigeria is still a classic any day. And then his book, Instability and Political Order on the Nigerian Civil War, there is hardly another book like it anywhere. We did not know then that he was ill. It was because of his illness that he had to arrange to go abroad to become, I think, boss of the first National Universities Commission in London and then we just heard he died. Luckily for us students of political science, by the time Dudley died he had written that wonderful little book, Introduction to Nigerian Politics. That was the kind of environment in which one had to operate. They were generally very knowledgeable people who also were big men in their areas, like Oyediran. Oyediran was in administration. And in Nigeria he was in a very special place as a teacher of administration. The teacher who taught us Insurgency and Counter Insurgency was a South African, Sam Nolutshungu. I never fail to say that it was San Nolutshungu who read my poem, The Poet Who Lied and said since this poem has something to do with Soyinka’s The Man Died why not remove the “who” so that it can rhyme with The Man Died? That is how I got the title, The Poet Lied. It was a poem I wrote in my second year in the university. I was a very indigent student, but that year I wrote more poems than I think I wrote in so many of the other years of my university life.
How did you meet Awolowo? How did you become his private secretary?
After I arrived in Lagos and became a factory labourer. I wrote a letter to him. He was Federal Commissioner for Finance. I told him I wanted to meet him and he gave me a date, 10 October, 1969. And I was looking forward to seeing him. Although, looking back now, I cannot tell what there was for a 19 year old dropout from secondary school writing some incomprehensible poetry, what he would be discussing with the Commissioner for Finance of the federation. But luckily for me, when I got to the Ministry of Finance, Chief Awolowo did not come to work on that day. That was the day he had to go meet TafaAdeoye and the Agbekoya farmers. That was the day he had to go into the forest to meet them. That was why the first time we would have met, we never met. But by the time I decided to see him again I was in my first year in the university. After paying for the first term I didn’t have any money to pay for the rest of the year. And honestly I was in genuine trouble. I can’t go through that story. There are stories you tell much more later, when you can tell the stories well. I went to meet him and he was just returning from a journey. He said, “Well, as you can see I am just coming from a journey but I will do something.” He gave me a hundred pounds. I remember that very well, which you can tell, will tag an indigent student over some patches. But we never interacted again until I have left the university, while I was serving as Assistant Divisional Officer at Kankiya, in Katsina. That was where I did my youth service. The place was 58 kilometres to Katsina and 113 to Kano. Those days I used to drink. And I remember going on a weekend to Katsina just to be able to get a bottle of cold beer, which I couldn’t get in my place of prinmary assignment. But (to return to the Awolowo story), FESTAC 77 was in full preparation. And there was this debate when Awolowo said the money was just being wasted, that the money they were wasting on FESTAC should be devoted to scientific research and all sorts of things, and should be put into education and the rest of it. And then Ola Rotimi replied that he was shocked to find that a man who is reputed to have such closeness to the traditional culture can afford to speak so disparagingly about a festival that was supposed to bring us to some kind of a better life. Well I wrote a reply to Ola Rotimi, claiming that Awolowo’s position was more correct. And I gave my reasons. Somehow the old man filed it away. So that by the time I graduated, I went back to the university and was teaching at Oro. Part time teaching it was called, but if you have to teach at Oro from the University of Ibadan, that’s full time. We did an arrangement such that most of the courses were at the end of the week. So that I returned to Ibadan every Thursday for my lectures. But I lived in Oro for much of the time. You know Raheem Adedoyn. They were two of them who became journalists in Lagos I taught them at Oro. If you were teaching in Oro you had to walk quite a distance to get to the main town of Oro, a very well built town those days, better built than any other town in Nigeria and yet the people who built those houses, if you see the little houses they lived in in Lagos while building big, big houses across the city and in their own home town, it was something to talk and write about.
Anyway, I came to town to buy newspapers and I opened The New Nigerian and the Candidocolumn was criticizing Awolowo. It said Awolowowas jumping the gun again because the ban on politics had not yet been lifted, and he was asking for involved and committed researchers to work with him in the next stage of his political career. Well, I never saw the original advert. I simply used the New Nigerian as my peg and I wrote anapplication, to be the involved and committed researcher. Somehow I came to Ibadan that weekend for my lectures and I met Bola Ige. I missed out the Bola Ige one deliberately. I met Bola Ige in those early years at Ibadan, when I had no school fees and I was looking for anybody who could help me out. I went to meet him. After all, he was one of the Awolowo disciples. I went to meet him and he looked at me. He said, “Yes, I know you as a student activist and all that, but I have to be sure you are actually a student in that department. He said, “Go and bring a letter from your head of department.” Once I brought a letter from Billy Dudley, that was it. That was how myself and Bola Ige had this unbreakable tie. He was much older than me but he treated me like an equal in a way that I still can’t understand up till today. But we hit it so well together. He was the one I gave my letter to. It was handwritten. I couldn’t get even a photocopy of that letter. But I can give you that story offhand. The main part of that letter simply said, “You have asked for involved and committed researchers. If, by involved and committed, you do not imply that I cannot disagree with my employer when I feel strongly about something, I would take the job.” I was already late. The deadline had passed. And I was giving my employer some kind of conditionality. I look back now and I can’t explain how it got into me. But that was exactly the way I felt. I I was going to do a job like this, I wanted it to be a job in which I wouldl be free to express myself, in which I would make a commitment that I don’t have to break because it is my own commitment. When Bola Ige got to Chief Awolowo, after his return, he said, “Why did you send me on this fool’s errand? I thought I was going to lobby for you. But I got there and the old man said he knows you very well.” And properly speaking, he did actually know me very well. We hadn’t met more than that once that I mentioned, but he never forgot. He talked about Ola Rotimiand the FESTAC episode. Somehow when I applied for that job, from the day I wrote that application I was sure I would get the job. That’s why I could give a condition. Because I was so cocksure that I would get the job. Whether I was late or not late, I have never been surer of a job in my life. I got it. Getting that job changed my attitude towards my PhD. I no longer wanted to get a PhD.
We wanted to ask that question. We learnt that you just left.
I didn’t need it. Knowing very many of my teachers, I didn’t feel I needed it. Up till today I still don’t feel I needed it because I did not go back to the University because I wanted a PhD.
The Masters came with an exam that led to a PhD so that I passed my exam very well. And honestly if I had asked them to give me my M.Phil., they would have given me my M. Phil before I moved on to the PhD. But the M. Phil pass allowed you to do a PhD. But honestly I didn’t want a certificate. That was not my business. I used to tell people that I didn’t want to go to the university because to be poet is enough. But when I passed my A’ levels, my uncle (that same uncle) asked me what next? And I said I would just go on working, as I was doing. He said, “Why don’t you go to a university?” He was the one who put it in my head that I should go to a university.
Have you ever regretted your decision to go to the university?
It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I tell you why I say this, first because it was like going to the house of books. UI excited me so much because you were not only going to meet a place of books, you were going to meet people of books. And what was exciting for me was that I had read so many books and the way I could pronounce many of the words in the English Language were not as proper as they normally should be. Because I had encountered much of English literature in books, I had never heard many of the words spoken in any way that could help my spoken English. So that they were words I could use very knowledgeably but I could not pronounce in the way they are normally supposed to be pronounced. University education does provide you with a certain facility. You know what you are talking about and you talk about it with a knowledgeability that is not available to the man on the street. Even if that fellow had read the same books that you read, he never approached knowledge the way you did. Because what university education gives you is a certain confident approach to knowledge acquisition and dissemination, which nothing else can give you.Because the interaction you get within a university is actually more important than the books you have read. The fact is that others, who also know, interact with you. Apart from just boosting your sense of self, it makes it easy for you to confront situations that are not very easy but you have already mastered. You did not just acquire the knowledge , you argued and debated with other people who have also acquired knowledge. It makes a lot of difference to the way we look at the world. You meet a lot of good people who did not go to the university but they can’t speak with the kind of confidence that university people do. You then meet a lot of young people who have the confidence that university education provides like that but they are no longer quite allowing the knowledge acquired in the university to pass through them. So you have those two situations:where people acquire the confidence. they acquire and disseminate knowledge. They have acquired the confidence but they no longer have that knowledge truly passing through them. It is one of the most dangerous things happening in the Nigerian society today – brash young people who do not have any inkling about the way the world works.
You are a public intellectual and you have a great passion for the good health of Nigeria, in spite of what is happening. What actually gives you that optimism, that Nigeria can be better?
As a young person growing up under an Illiterate grandfather, who was ever so positive about the way the world works and who always believed that if you worked hard you could get the best out of it, I never look at problems as insoluble. Even when I had to drop out of school, the reality of my life enabled me to see knowledge as always within my reach. Those books were always there to save me from living like a peasant. And although my grandfather was not literate, he had a can-do approach to everything in the world. He was a very smart cocoa farmer. He was a trader, a wonderful one. He built a storey building .Anybody passing through my home town and knows it was built the year I was born would know that whoever built it meant to build that house. As I said, he had this can-do spirit which every child who passed through that house would be affected by, one way or the other. But then, it’s more than that.
The primay school I attended was not just a primary school. It was Awolowo’s free primary school education. My grandfather sent me there when I was four. When I was in primary two, they asked us to do this weed-away test – touch your left ear with your right hand. I couldn’t do it and I was sent home. Look, that being sent home did something to me that never left me. I would have wished that they gave us a test- if you fail you go home. But that rotten business of asking you to touch your right ear was a real knock out. It knoccked many of us out. Now, of course If they did that for you they believed the age you declared was wonky, wasn’t quite okay. But being at home, and waiting for my playmates to return from school at the end of the day, elongated my throat, as it may be said. It gave me a sense of an ambition to reach out and get something out of this world. No matter how it would come, it didn’t matter. I just had to go back to school. And when I went back, I was lucky. I never had to read to pass exams. Except that I could never do well in Arithmetic, but I would manage to pass to the next class very well, it was enough. I’ll tell you something. The spirit that was unleashed in the Western region by free education is hardly talked about today. When you read the literatures of those years, even the biographies, you don’t get the picture as correctly as it really was. It was a period of very heady optimism. Awolowo made you feel that this is a world that is ours to change. In recent years I have simply put it into a formula. It was simply a case of put all the knowledge in the English language into the indigenous languages and put all the knowledge in the indigenous languages into English. Equalize the relationship between all the ethnic groups across Nigeria, equalize the relationship between Nigeria and the colonizer and have a wonderful competition that would set the world literarily on fire. That spirit went with the buoyant economy that cocoa was responsible for. I come from a family of cocoa farmers so that we were part of that optimism. And it was great to be part of it. Even when you were poor and didn’t manage to get certain things right, you never lost hope because there was always that thing that made you feel that it was doable. I managed at any time to believe that nothing would stop me from becoming a writer. Once I made up my mind to become a writer I knew in my heart of hearts that nothing could stop me. In my home town or Benin, or wherever I went, anything that appeared to be cutting off my capacity to move, I cut off whatever it was. The idea of wanting to go to Ghana arose from there. If I can’t do it here because I was too shy to do dirty jobs among my relations and people who knew me I was prepared to go to Ghana. And then it occurred to me. Damn the hell. If I could do it in Ghana, why not here? You can say that I never had too difficult a life In relation to my ambitions. I did my A ’levels. for the first time, I passed two As and two Os. Life did not hit me so badly thatall the things I needed to do had to pass through too much travails. Money was always a problem. But money had nothing to do with my insights. And whatever I tried to do I knew I could do. My ambitions were not a case of exhorbitation. I wasn’t asking for too much. I asked for what was possible and I worked for it. I have never had unbridled ambitions. I always knew what I wanted to do, and if I had to change it, I would have a better reason for doing so.
As for Nigeria, let me just put it this way. First of all, as a nation of nationalities, which is the way I have always looked at Nigeria, I never imagined all the other people as being outside my frame of reference. I grew up in a family where the sons and daughters of the family could marry Yoruba or Igbo or live with them. Of course the Igbo population in my village was quite some number. I have never been able to think of Nigeria only in terms of one nationality. It has always been a case of the more the merrier. We are many but we can always do things together. The English language and pidgin were helpful. The fact that you have a language which could reach across several ethnic groups was very, very helpful. And maybe that precisely was what spoilt me. I was never good at language learning. I never could speak Igbo, Yoruba or any of the other languages but I never had to learn the English language. The English I speak today simply comes from all the books I have been reading. From my second year in primary school, I could read any book. So Nigeria has never been for me a task in that sense. And then I was lucky, because of free education I had this boundless faith In Awolowo’s capacity to do things. When I couldn’t go to school, I used to sit down and ask myself, “What would have happened if Awolowo was not in jail while I was struggling to pay my school fees? Maybe he would have brought free education to cover secondary schools. And when you have that kind of faith in a national leader, there is a sense in which it also conditions your attitude to things. Because I read his biography, a biography that was not too different from mine, I knew he had problems getting an education. If Awolowo could have problems and survive, why can’t I? For me, it was a very simple equation. This man had a lot of problems but he survived it. Oh, why can’t I survive it. So that, for me, the closeness of success to a man who struggles honestly, has never been problematic for me. I believe that if you work hard and you struggle honestly, whatever you wish for will come your way. But more than that is that I started reading about other countries early enough to know that simply because a country has a problem does not mean that it can never achieve whatever it wishes to achieve. Anybody reading Pandit Nehru’s History of the World – those letters written to Indira from various prisons – will tell you about how people who suffer overcome all the problems that they face. By the way, I was not enamoured of Gandhi. I never liked Gandhi much. Nehru was my man all the way through.
Gandhi was too nativistic. And because he was nativistic, he accepted many injustices and papered them over. And there was no way he could be like Nehru who was very clinical and scientific in his approach to problem solution. But the relationship between the two did something for the independence struggle in India. It whipped up the masses but somebody had to direct affairs. If there was no Nehru, Gandhi wouldn’t have been a success at all. It was Nehru that made Gandhi possible. Although many people will argue it the other way, that Gandhi made Nehru possible. No. It was Nehru that made Gandhi possible. Independence would have been a pyrrhic affair but for the fact that there was a man who was clear and did not allow himself to be swayed by petty nationalism, the kind that would waffle over the untouchable problem. No. Now If India was a good example of people who struggled and survived, what was exciting about Nigeria was the fact that in spite of the manifold issues of ethnicity and the rest of it, Nigeria was a very happy country. You couldn’t meet an Igbo community without feeling that something was possible. They were generally activists in pursuit of something and you could see that they meant to achieve it. You couldn’t listen to the music of Yoruba land in the 50s and 60s and feel like an unhappy person. We were a happy society. And in spite of all the talk about the mistake of 1914 and the rest of it, there was a good-humoured way of treating northerners as fellow citizens. You never imagined them to be people out of the pale of civility as we now do. They were a people who did not have much education but who would have it. There was that feeling that they don’t have it but they would have it. Nigeria started going really bad because the independence arrangement had no room for fairness. It began with an attempt by two out of three regions and two out of three political parties to finish one of the political parties in order to have higher payoffs, whether in terms of contracts, employment or whatever. Once the NCNC and the NPC reached that agreement in 1958 to make NnamdiAzikiwe a Governor General without executive powers, that was it, Zik did not quite know that he didn’t have as much powers as he later discovered. Although he was a very well educated man, he was a thoroughly illiterate man politically. He was so easily outsmarted by the British and by Northern politicians. And sometimes you sit down and ask yourself, Howdid he manage it? It is true that in 1959 the British were hanging a Foster-Sutton sword of Damocles over Nnamdi Azikiwe’s head. If he refused to play according to their rules, they would send him to jail. According to the Foster-Sutton probe. Zikwas prepared to play according to the British rule so that by the time the results of the election were announced, Zik would have been Prime Minister. But by 1958 he had already sold off his prime ministership, sold it off in my view to accept a pure pig in the poke. The Governor- General thing was an annoying thing for the great Zik of Africa. No. It wasn’t what many people expected. But worse than that was that they had to find a way of explaining it away. He did not want to form an alliance with the Action Group because Awolowodeceived him once. That was not part of the reason. The other one was that he wanted a united country and therefore he needed an arrangement that would make it possible for the north to feel part of it. That is also not part of it. NnamdiAzikiwe was already in coalition with the Northern Elements Progressive Union, NEPU, Aminu Kano’ party. Awolowo said I am prepared to serve under you as a Minister of Finance. The United Middle Belt Congress. UMBC, wanted to join that coalition. The minorities of the East were in coalition with Awolowo. The Bornu Youth Movement was well disposed towards this coalition. So properly speaking, virtually all parts of the country would have been represented by the coalition that was proposed. But because Zik did not have the – well, I don’t know whether to call it the stamina or courage or whatever, he allowed it to flag. And he accepted an arrangement which said, “Look the Yoruba are too educated, they are as educated as you Igbo people. You will be fighting so much for jobs and contracts. That is not a good coalition for you. The position that Zikthen accepted was the one that said since the north does not have any educated people to take over most of the jobs that the oyibo man will be leaving, the East can hold most of those jobs. And life would go on extremely well. NnamdiAzikiweactually believed that that was a genuinely good position but it was a good position that required the knocking aside of the Action Group. So that the idea of the Action Group/NCNC coalition wasn’t there for him. But it was there for majority of the Igbo stalwarts in the NCNC. They wanted a coalition with the Action Group and those other people against the NPC. But their leader was a very well respected leader. They followed their leader. And so what did they get? They got all the strategic jobs in the federal public service, whether it was education, railways, Port Authority, just name it. They took over the jobs,.In my response to Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country, I say that was what made it possible for Chinua Achebe, just fresh from the university, getting a job as Director of External Broadcasting. That was what gave very many of the young people fantastic big jobs like that. But this was what happened after. Four years later, in 1964, the NCNC and the Igbo echelon who took most of those jobs discovered that, one, although the Igbo dominated the railway, all the railways extensions were in the north. All the military installations were in the north. Kainji Dam, for electricity, was in the north. Then the iron and steel industry, which an external consortium had said should go somewhere near Onitsha, was also knocked aside because Balewa set up another International consortium which said it should go to the north. It was at that point that an election took place in 1964 and NnamdiAzikiwe refused to call Balewato form a government because he said the election had been rigged. It was an election in which 86 candidates returned unopposed in the north for the NPC. So that to prove rigging wouldn’t have been difficult. But there was nothing in the Nigerian constitution which said that the President of Nigeria has the powers to refuse to call the Prime Minister to form a government if he believed there was rigging. There was nothing in the constitution that said he could. Because one way or the other, he could take decisions, no question. But Balewa and Azikiwe immediately sought legal opinions from across the Commonwealth and they all told NnamdiAzikiwethat there was only one man in Nigeria the army could obey. The Prime Minister. But in our kind of parliamentary system, the army could not respond to the crown. It is the Prime Minister who commands the army. I am sure the day Zikdiscovered that thing was the day he realized that when he accepted the job of Governor- General he had thrown away something very valuable. That was the day that Zik discovered it. He started the day by making a very big speech in which he refused to call Balewa to form a government. And the speech was published in the West African Pilot of that day. Later in the day, after they had all sort of crash opinions, NnamdiAzikiwe discovered that the situation was very, very different. First,Balewa sent soldiers to surround the State House, putting him in protective custody. Then somebody leaked the information that only two medical opinions were required to prove that Zikwas not in the right frame of mind to take a decision. Actually Billy Dudley puts that in a footnote in Instability and Political Order. But it is a powerful footnote. Because Zik realized howthat could actually happen. To do it was just to get the opinion of two medical doctors and to get two medical doctors in Lagos for that purpose was very easy – he decided to give up opposing the Prime Minister’s reinstatement. And he wrote another speech. If you go to the newspaper library – if it is a good one – you will have Zik’s first speech saying “I won’t call the Prime Minister to form a government (first edition), then you will have another one calling the Prime Minister to form a government” because we need unity and the rest of it. Now, when you take Nigeria’s story from that point on, You would have to agree that by the time Zik was forced to change his mind, a coup had taken place. A coup is a change of government that does not follow the rules. And so, properly speaking, that was the first coup in Nigeria’s history. Since that had happened, Zikwas looking for a place to spend a holiday. Papa Doc Duvalier of Haiti was the one who gave him an holiday cruise (laughs). But by this time it was clear all hell had broken loose in Nigeria. Because, you see, every political party was training people either to stop others from harming them or in order to harm others. The NEPU looked like a very small party, but it was the party that was helping to ferry revolutionaries against the Cameroonian government to Eastern Europe for training. They too were training their own people to resist NPC’s thugs who were called Dan Mahaukata, sons of madmen. We were just heading towards war, as if we had no sense. The following year, of course, the Western region election was rigged in the same way, but it exploded. From that moment until 1966, all you had in Nigeria was just a waiting for something to happen. The NPC leader, Ahmadu Bello had planned his own coup in order to deal with all these characters in Shagamu who were causing troubles for his people. The night before the January 15th coup, Akintola, who was generallycarrying a machine gun around for the purpose, went to visit Ahmadu Bello. That night of 15 January, C.B.D. Gomwalk, a Permanent Secretary, who would later become the General Secretary of the Unity Party of Nigeria, had gone to the Premier to say he was travelling for a family purpose in Lagos. And that one being his generous self, just said, “But you can travel with the Premier. He is going to Ibadan. So you can fly to Ibadan with him and then go to Lagos from there.” As they were entering the plane, AhmaduBello told Akintola that his men will be there on the 17th and they will raze every goat and chicken and whatever moved in that place. C.B.D. Gomwalk, when he got to Ibadan, started rushing to go to Ikenne, to plead with MrsAwolowo to take her people away, that they were coming to destroy Shagamu and its environs. On the way to Ikenne, he put on the car radio and they heard that there was a coup and that Ahmdu Bello had been killed. He said when the radio was telling the story, it was as if he was going mad. How can AhmaduBello die? But you see that coup was anticipated by the January 15 boys. They got to know that the coup was going to take place. So they moved their own coup back to 15th to preempt the January 17th coup that could have been Ahmadu Bello’s coup. You can say that many of the ill-fitting things that happened in the January 15th coup began with that moving back to preempy the 17th. Because, obviously, so many things could not be fitted together properly. Anytime you are discussing Nigeria, it is always good to remember those little, little things that stood in the way. The truth is that by the time January 15 happened, all the political parties were actually preparing for war. As we are in 2020.
Today, many people are pretending, but everybody knows that there is a war in the offing. And that unless care is taken, it will happen. That was the way it was in January 1966 before the coup took place.
Despite the hard start you had in life, is it deliberate on your part not to acquire wealth, considering the act that you have friends in high places?
I have never seen myself in that way. I never set out at any time in my life to be rich. It has never entered my line of vision. The pursuit of wealth has never been part of it. The idea that I would be a writer overshadowed almost every other ambition I had. And when politics interested me, the kind o politics that interested me was Awolowo’s kind of missionary politics. Which is to say you set out believing that there is no problem you cannot solve ,and you go out and solve the problem. I still believe that the sense of principle one applies in such situations is more important than what you get when the pursuit of wealth and comfort is central to your life. Somehow I never was in the company of people who wished just to make money. And whenever I am with people who wish to make money like that, the first thing I ask myself is what are the things I am likely to do in order to make a success of it? And whenever I look at the things I would do in order to make a success of money making , I find they would distract me enormously from what I consider the pursuit of things of the mind, which have always been at the back of whatever I have been able to do. When people talk about my having big friends and the rest of it, I am a bit coy about it. Even when I know that somebody will give me big money, I measure it against what I want to do. What do I really want to do in this situation? Money can lift you up but it can also bring you down. And the way that money is able to lift people has always interested me because, One, I don’t have a capacity for envy. I don’t envy people because they have done things I have not done. And part of the reason is that it is not what they want to do that I want to do. The things I want to do are different from what I see them doing. I don’t have to like what people are doing for themselves when I know that there is something that I want to do for myself that I have not done well. I would prefer to stick at what I am doing and do it as well as I can. Put it this way, I am not naïve at all. I know that wealth eases the achievement of goals. I know that there are many goals I could have achieved but which would have led me astray and ruined my capacity to think. I don’t want to be a writer who makes money but whose books are useless. There are many writers I know who I will never like to be like in terms of the work they have done. No. It is better to be poor, insignificant and unknown than to write rubbish and then carry your big weight all over the place and pretend that that is the way the world is supposed to be. Na lie o. I don’t want to be that kind of writer. What I have found very admirable about Soyinka is the total commitment to his literature, irrespective of the distractions there are in the world. The man has made a commitment to the written world. And he has not deviated. If there was somebody in the world to envy and admire, that was one man, a man who took himself seriously so that all the other things are the incidentals, not his literature. I have not always been able to do it in the way that I would have loved to. But I can assure you it is better to be a poor poet than a rich man poet. I must tell you this. The only people I envied were scientists. Let me tell you why. When I was a kid, my father was a motor mechanic. And he could put two platforms on the ground. And by the next day, either a car or a lorry would be standing there. He could turn everything to pieces and put them together rightfully and right side up. I always wished to be such a maker of things. If my father could only repair what other people made, I wanted to be the one who made the things that other people repair. I wanted it so badly but my secondary school education was a ditch. I was never able to think through what came next. Thank God, I ran into poetry early and therefore I never wanted too much in any other direction. When I was trying to read A levels for myself, the only obstacle I had was that my mathematics was hopeless. I wanted to be a chemical engineer. I received admission brochures from Northwestern university, places like that, where they did chemical engineering and whatever, but I couldn’t pull it off in any serious way because science was not it. Normally, in secondary school, they would drive me away for school fees. I would spend three months out of nine months at school but I managed to be first in physics and the sciences that you did at that level. If there was anything I really wanted to do I would have loved to be an astrophysicist. The very thought of it excited me. But I couldn’t be an astrophysicist. Being a poet is a probably above that, if you ask me (laughs).
What is happening to the much- awaited Awo’s book?
Who is awaiting it? (laughs).
Nigerians. Who is awaiting it?. The truth is that I am writing the Awolowo books and I am actually publishing them. It’s just that the core narrative is not part of what I have done. I have worked very seriously on the Awolowo story but not the way people want it. I mean when you read When Does a Civil War Come to an End. I am actually writingAwolowo’s story. People do not see it that way. I am happy. Because the one that I will truly regard as the Awolowo book is the narrative that begins from before he was born till after he died. Wale Adebamwi has done a very interesting theoretical work on Chief Obafemi Awolowo. I am not a theoretician when I am dealing with the Awolowostory. I am just a plain storyteller. And there are three other stories like that that I hope I will be able to pull off well. Awolowo, my grandfather (he has a wonderful story that is out of this world). People have told me to stop talking about the books I want to write. But I am not afraid orsuperstitious. I am old enough now to deal with my demons. The truth is, I have a Bola Ige story that I stopped writing for a reason I will never explain until I am able to put that book on the table. I have not written my own stories. I have my own personal Awolowo story, Hiding in the Open. I can tell you this. Awolowo’s story is not just the story of one man. Awolowo’s story is the story of how Nigeria was prevented from rising to its form not only by Nigerians but by non- Nigerians. And now we are entering a period in which those who once abused him for being an ethnicist and tribalist, have reinvented ethnicity as the means and the only basis for running a country. What it is going to lead us to, I don’t know. But I can assure you those who prevented Nigerian children from going to school, and turned them into uneducable ruffians on the streets and in the forests are the ones who must take responsibility for whatever is about to happen.
The truth is that Nigeria has enough money tohave taken care of those children. Fulani, Hausa, Kanuri or Gbagyi. We have the means to keep all those 15 million and another 10 million, if youlike, who did not go to school. We have the means to make them literate, make them properly educable, get them properly educated , skilled and able to function in a modern or post-moderneconomy. We have the means. We also have the manpower to make it happen. We have a very bright but completely unprogrammatic rulingclass. All the knowledge they have is based on enacting deceit , dissolving programmatic thinking of any kind not so that things will get better but to make sure they get their pinch of snuff along the lines of just pure self- aggrandizement. You would want to say they don’t have a choice in the matter. But you know you can’t properly say so in Nigeria. They don’t have a choice in the matter? You can say that in the competition for loot, those who do not jump into the loot bracket will get knocked out. It is true. If you are in an organization in Nigeria and you don’t join in the looting, they will all join together and crack you. But if you allow yourself to be cracked, the future you throw away is too big. WE cant continue to see ourselves as normal people until we shall have done whatever it takesto change things.
Now I am not clairvoyant or anything, but the configuration of Nigeria’s ethnicity, when you put together all the ethnic groups in Nigeria, the first thing you get to know is that we are all the sameand would tend always to be one people. We behave exactly the same way. Don’t let anybody deceive you because some people misuse power almost ritually. The linguists among us have told us that the Igbo, the Yoruba and the Fulani and so many other nationalities in the country belong to the same language family. They have always belonged to the same language family. The migrations from the Middle East all came from identifiable geographical areas with linguistic codes that relate to one another. Centuries of slave trade trashed the relationships. So that, whoever came down and joined whoever was already here, was part of a common cultural stock needing only a common morality to knot things together. True, wherever the Fulani went to, they were driven, driven because of the incompatibility of the life they wished to live with the lives that other people were living. Slave trading for instance cannot be a basis for siblinghood. But always, they held on to their cattle rearing binge. And to be honest with you, there isn’t anything wrong with being cattle people. But in the 21st century there is something wrong with being nomads who lay claim to what others own and have held for eons. First because it is not as productive as many people imagine it could be. It is disruptive of the life other people live. You cannot continue to earn a living on the grounds that you can always destroy the advantages that others have in their own homeland. To consistently do that and expect peace is an unnatural thing. You cannot consistently live on the destruction of other people’s goodness, advantages and harmony andexpect that you will be left unscathed. No. It can’t happen. And what has happened in the Nigerian situation is that those who refuse to acquire education, those who refuse to acquire the skills that would enable them function normally have left behind a virtual army of uneducable people. Now they are pouring all that vast population of unskilled, uneducated people into other ethnic homelands. Initially they did not talk about ethnic homelands. Now they talk about ethnic homelands not from the standpoint of how they will develop their own but how they will dissolveother people’s homelands. And it is being done openly. There is no secrecy in the matter. MiyetiAllah is not a secret body; it is in open operation. Surely, there is enough money in the land to toupgrade the lives that the Fulani live. It takes planning. They will lead better lives if, one, the people learn that modernization is possible and within their reach. Two, that they will live better lives if they consider the improvement of their own lives in line with the improvement that other people have and wish for. But you can’t go asking other people, “Your land or your life” and expect that good living will be possible and assured. It cannot happen. Pouring populations into Southern Nigerian forests and urban jungles and awaiting the clarion call of the grim reaper is a 14thcentury pitch that wont work. With a notionally Fulani person as president of Nigeria, what you would expect is a redrawing of the map of our movement into the future . The Fulani could be helped to live more normal lives if they approximate cattle rearing cultures in the worldthat are doing much better, and showing how to do it better. If you think that the only way to continue to do cattle farming is to destroy other people’s homelands and means of living, then you are declaring a permanent war. Worse is to pump unskilled and uneducated people without cultural empathy into where they can only grate against and despoil other people’s lives. A Head of State who allows himself to be at the heart of such a movement is not just a demon. I mean even people on the loony fringe of any culture wouldnot allow it to happen around them. Those who love their people will not let them suffer theindignity that it involves. They will plan, keepthem where they have cultural empathy and planfor them. But to be Head of State and allow such a thing to happen, is to deliberately create societiesof chaos in which anytime you disagree with people on the streets, they come to your house and burn it down. It is a society in which law cannot be given a chance. To create or induce such a society and claim to be a a leader of men is classic fraudulence. It cant work.
Given what you set out to achieve as a writer, would you say you are fulfilled as a writer?
I never used to feel good about it until recently. Iset out to write individual poems. I never had what looked like a girdle to tie them together until lately. If I had set out with such a girdle I would probably not have done them as well as I have. But they happened as, if you like, happenstance. I look back and I ask myself, even if you set out to plot a grand scheme, it may not have worked out better. True, when I was returning from Britain I was forty two and diffident about the work I had done and was doing as a poet. It used to worry me a lot. I stopped travelling. I used to go out for poetry readings across the world, going to Venezuela, Italy, Germany wherever I was invited to read poetry, I simply had no faith in my capacity to pull it off. But somehow, without struggling for it, a coherence was emerging. I found that I had written the kind of poetry I wanted to. Now I like to joke about it by saying I have finished with the rough work. Time to write deathless poetry and deathless prose. But it has truly come together. Luckily for me, because I have always been interested in politics, and I have always been interested in how politics interlinks with the aesthetic values in society, the seeming distraction of one against the other pulled a coming together what was wished but not pursued. I managed to write a lot of things in journalism, in literature, in politics of a common thrust from different angles. Well in the end, I had to put to use the politics I learnt in theUniversity of Ibadan. And I find that even If I had wanted to remain a teacher of political science, I probably would not have done much better than I have done so far in my political essays. Especially now that I know other things I want to do whichpertain to the things I have already done. No. I have every reason to feel that I have not wastedmy time. And I happen to think, and I am seeing that in spite hard and testy times, there is a build up of little things that will make change, big and real change inexorable.
Despite the manner of leaving Awolowo as his private secretary, you still hold him in high esteem. You have never spoken ill of the man. Could you speak on this?
I was very well brought up, I can tell you this. I lived with my grandparents, and as I told you, they did not rough handle us. We were very privileged children. We were treated well. And so we needed to have self- respect and we respected ourselves. I sit these days with my cousin, Isaac. Even when we were fighting, we fought like normal children, not with the viciousness we sometimes saw on the streets. And then there is something about having people ahead of you who were truly exemplars, who behaved well. My grandfather was doing well. He lived a very normal life. One thing I know he did: he liked good people. In his house of many wives, he kept order of the kind that looking back, it was a marvel how he managed it between truly tough women. Even in his old age, he was very good at it. He was good at it in a very normal, traditional, cultured way. Non drinker, or smoker, he was a very sane man, no recklessness.
Polygyny was the banner under which he ran the household. The children of the house ate from door to door under his aegis until they were grown up. We grew up in an environment that always had something to do with building for the community. He was always a man who wanted the community to make good. He became the Oniha, the chief of the town (it’s a hereditary title).He became the Baba Egbe of the church. And he became the oldest man in my village. He took all the titles in stride in the sense in which he tried to do everything correctly. He would look at people and say, “That one. He is not an honest man.” One big man who was taking over lands that belonged to some other in the community and came to him. Everybody appeared to have agreed with him. But when he came to my grandfather, he looked at him and said,”We answer the same name. But let me advise you. That land does not belong to you. That man is the owner of the land.” Now, in many societies you won’t find a man who will stop you from going to court by simply coming to you to say, “For God’s sake your case is not good. Even if you win it, it’s an immoral victory.” My grandfather was that kind of man who would look you in the eye and tell you the hard bitter truth and walk away without listening to rumours. Now, it is important that when you have exemplars who do things right, you learn as much as possible about the best things in them. My grandfather would have hated my guts if because of something that happened to me in person I denied values and good things that I hadalways supported. What is a man’s life worth that he should use recrimination to deal with clear matters requiring conscience and civility? To come to it, there used to be a virtual culture of people saying I am not in Awolowo’s camp, because if you say you are in Awolowo’s camp, the northerners who ran governments will give you benefices or contracts that are not due to you. Now, I did not want to find myself having to deny good things I believed in simply because I was offended by people with whom I had worked. No. I would not be able to look myself in the face. If I found myself abusing things I always believed in, things I acquired before I became Awolowo’sprivate secretary, things I believed human beings should do, to start running those things down because I quarreled with my boss, with my employer. No way. I wasn’t going to let myself livelike that. And one reason I cannot live like that is that I have very strong faith in the future. I am never afraid of the future. No matter the difficulties, I see and look for where human will can triumph. I have strong views about the save-ability of my environment, of my country. I have never doubted it that Nigeria could be saved. I have always believed that Nigeria is eminently saveable. And all that it requires is for people, to be right-minded and no matter how few, to agree between themselves on a solution that will make things work. If they agree between themselves and they are consistent in their pursuit, they will achieve it. Nigeria happens to be a leader-centredsociety. If you are successful, and people see you succeeding by pursuing some goodness, they come to you. Even those who hated Awolowo’s guts, when there was a crisis, they all moved to Awolowo’s side because they knew he wasn’t going to be changing on an everyday basis. His correctness set a tradition that even his enemies openly admired but didnt concede due to the politics of loot-hunting.