By Owei Lakemfa
IT was in 1979. Words went round the University in Ife that students of Ijaw nationality should gather at the Post Graduate Hall to listen to an emissary. Then walked in a tall, slim man. He talked about the neglect of the Niger Delta, its exploitation and the need for us to resist.
Tony Engurube was a self-assured man who had lived in Sweden before being thrown out for trying to guide its youths towards revolution. I am not sure the contribution I made, but he told me to wait for further discussions.
Then he asked me to accompany him on a visit to a friend at the staff quarters. They were similarly built: Engurube and our host, Dr Biodun Jeyifo. As I watched these strange men embrace and talk excitedly about an idyllic past and future, seemingly oblivious of my presence, I realised they had been in some underground movement in the recent past. That was when the name, Seinde Arigbede, dropped.
As the months went by and I joined the radical students movement, the name loomed over. The person seemed mysterious, like some fairy tale. Essentially, it was about a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine who in furtherance of his resolve to build an-exploitation-free society, not only left his highly prestigious and good paying job, but also abandoned the comfort of campus life for an uncertain and rustic one in a rural village.
More intriguing was that his wife, Dunni, a nurse, had also taken the same decision. This was a strange phenomenon in a country where the flow of life is from the abandoned rural areas, to the glittering cities with their supermarkets and super highways, clubs and hotels where the middle and upper classes dazzle and float.
The debate went on in our circles whether this ‘class suicide’ was a correct step to take. But this was more of an ideological debate. There was an assumption that in relocating to the rural areas and living amongst farmers, the Arigdedes believed that the Nigerian revolution would be led by the peasantry rather than workers which was the main Marxist-Leninist line. So were they some Maoists?
When eventually, I met Dr Arigbede, he was to dispel all those stories. He was so well read that I felt like an illiterate. He recommended various books and seemed forever trying to learn from my colleague, Adeolu Ademoyo and I. His interests included current events in Ife and campuses across the country. How do we hope to mobilise students and youths for the liberation of the country?
He threw me off balance when in realising that we were from the Drama Department, he switched to discussing not just the arts but drama. We discovered that he was quite familiar with our Head of Department, Professor Wole Soyinka and had actually been part of the latter’s early 1970s film, ‘Kongi’s Harvest’, though he had professional disagreements with the future Nobel Laureate over the use of his dance steps in the film. So the medical doctor was also a professional dancer? It was at that point I became conscious of Dr Arigbede’s beautiful command of English language with an arresting, booming voice which seemed naturally made for broadcasting or the theatre.
But more shocks were to come when I learnt that he was a song writer, composer, vocalist and guitarist who had performed before audiences. His wife, Comrade Dunni Arigbede, was comparatively reserved but was a full revolutionary who made us feel welcome to their home in Ode Omu, in today’s Osun State. Sometimes, we simply sat with her to learn at her feet.
We had long discussions and debates and were constantly reviewing tactics and strategies.
Once, Adeolu and I got information that there were some villagers in Ife who wanted to learn how to read and write in English language. We informed the Arigbedes who took us through some tutelage on how to mobilise the peasantry. Together, we designed a literacy programme. That was the beginning of an adult education programme in the villages of Abagboro and Oke Ake which Adeolu and I ran on Sunday afternoons.
We developed peasant cells in those places with potentials of developing more, but we had no party to harvest them. Besides, we were also involved in many other things such as the Ife Students Union, helping to run and popularise the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, which was in its infancy, running the radical Alliance of Progressive Students, ALPS, and being part of Left organisations on campus and nationally. Yet, we were students who needed to attend lectures and pass examinations! It was a grooming like no other.
The Arigbedes had developed and fabricated agricultural equipment that could revolutionise farming in the country. This had come to the notice of the Ondo State Government. Governor Adekunle Ajasin whose Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, had rural development as a cardinal programme, invited them to put their knowledge and invention to practice. This was in the early 1980s.
Then, there were the 1983 gubernatorial elections and people poured out into the streets to stop the opposition National Party of Nigeria, NPN, from stealing the vote.
The NPN which was the ruling party at the centre, sent in armed military and security forces to subdue the populace in what turned out to be a quite bloody ‘war’ in which many were killed. The invading forces believed that Dr. Arigbede must have been one of those who mobilised the mass resistance. They ‘captured’ him as a prisoner of war.
Professor Soyinka in the 1988 preface to his famous book The Man Died. narrated what happened next: “ Seinde Arigbede did not die…(he) was taken to an empty cell, where he was hung up by the wrists and left dangling, his feet away from the ground, from specially fixed ceiling hooks.
Between beatings and other forms of torture the question was incessantly put: Where is the training camp? …His wife, Aduni, moved with desperation in every possible direction and, through intervention from higher police quarters, Seinde’s ordeal was ended after a week.”
This was one of the ordeals the unique couple underwent in their unshakable resolve to build a better Nigeria. Their sacrifice, commitment and contribution to the emancipation of the oppressed and repressed, are unquantifiable. However, these are not the type of people given national honours.
The legendary warrior of the working class, Dr Makanjuola Olaseinde Arigbede, on Friday, November 4, 2022 marched on. He left Comrade Dunni the task of leading their children, Rotimi and Irawo and others in interring his earthly remains on December 16, 2020. The story of Dunni and Seinde Arigbede, the couple who live for tomorrow, is yet untold.