Again, Professor Soyinka gives Obasanjo an uppercut


Habib Jaafar and Prof. Soyinka

 By Nehru Odeh

Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka does not hesitate to throw punches when occasion demands. And he always seizes every opportunity to do so, often times putting his literary expertise to use.

The distinguished writer gave former president Olusegun Obasanjo an uppercut, albeit with a sense of humour on Saturday 23 September 2023, using satire and allusion to pass his message across.

This happened at the book presentation of  “African Odyssy of a Lebanese Emigrant : an autobiography of sorts”, written by Habib Jaafar, a Nigerian-born Lebanese businessman and philanthropist.

The book presentation held at Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos and was anchored by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Dele Olojede.

The autobiography, which Soyinka commended for its literary merits, having recommended it for publishing, was published by Bookcraft Publishers.

Still, a very significant aspect of the presentation was that every guest present in the hall, which was filled to capacity, went home with an autographed  copy of the beautifully produced hardcover.

Muhammadu Sanusi 11 delivering his speech

It was indeed an afternoon of memories, tributes, nostalgia, humour and laughter. Highly distinguished guests present at the book presentation included Professor Soyinka; the Alake of Egbaland, Oba  Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo 111; the 14th Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi 11; former Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai: former Governor of Ogun State, Senator Abikunle Amosun; and former Nigeria’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, Chief Arthur Mbanefo.

As Soyinka, the Chairman of the occasion, was about to begin his speech, after observing the usual protocols, he then seized the opportunity to strike, with his characteristic sense of humour.

“My royal highnesses I wish to assure you that I am not about to bark at you ‘Stand up!’ Sit down!'” Soyinka addressed the royal fathers present , alluding to Obasanjo’s recent interaction with some Yoruba traditional rulers. And the hall roared with laughter.

Recall that Obasanjo came under attack recently over his alleged order to some traditional rulers in the Southwest to stand up and greet him. In a video that went viral Obasanjo was seem ordering the royal fathers to stand up and greet him, which they obeyed.

The incident happened at the commissioning of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, LAUTECH’s College of Agricultural Science and Renewable Natural Resources, Iseyin, on Friday, 15 September.

The former president tongue-lashed the traditional rulers from Oke-Ogun, Ibadan, Oyo and Ibarapa, and termed their ‘nonchalance’  as disrespect to ‘constituted authority’, because they failed to stand up when the governor and himself climbed the rostrum to give their addresses.

Habib Jaafar weicoming Muhammadu Sanusi

“Wherever a governor or president is sitting, traditional rulers must show them respect”, Obasanjo was seen saying.

The elder statesman’s action drew the ire of many who considered his action as not just an affront to the traditional rulers but also a desecration of the revered stools of the royal fathers.

“n his speech, Soyinka described Habib Jaafar as a writer masquerading as a businessman because of the literary merits of the book. He also said the work is a triumph of ecumenism, given the remarkable thread that runs through it.

“i stand here with a very strong sense of identification with Habib on so many fronts. First of all, you heard Dele describing Habib as a masquerader, somebody really who should have gone into the humanities but went into business. In other words an individual with a literary sensibility masquerading as a businessman.

“When I first read the draft of this work, I said immediately this is something which all Nigerians should be compelled to read. Because the similarities were really incredible, including even the experience of internal warfare.

“Above all, represented by the characters with whom Habib Jaafar interacted, it is also a triumph of ecumenism, of tolerance, of  acceptance of people as human beings first and foremost before their religion, before their ideologies, before anything else.

Mr Bankole Olayebi

“There is a remarkable thread running through this work of friendship which began right in childhood and lasted through the tribulations of a truly troubled nation like Lebanon. But its humanity came out in spite of the negativities.  Oh yes, the aggression, the quarrels, the disagreements, even the experiences of betrayal. Ultimately, it’s the human factor that really counts in the history of existence.

“And it’s a lesson to some of those extremist who believe that because they belong to this religion but not others, that those others should not breathe, should not walk the streets, should not breathe the same air that they breathe, that they are subhumans. There is something wrong, demonic about them.

“They should read this book and learn the crucial lessons which ultimately overcome all the divisions that exist in any community, and which no community is exempt from.

“So when I read the book, I said well we must do everything to bring it out. And of course I bullied my publisher immediately. He used to be my student. I told him, ‘this one must come out.’

“Also the tenacity of the main character of the book through tribulations, the capacity to overcome the seemingly insurmountable setbacks through various ways, the boldness of it.

“But ultimately also I want to express my gratitude to this individual here (Habib), who have a deep sense of philanthropy, of contributions to society. That’s the other thread that runs through it – not just what I can get from society but what can I really contribute to my environment,” Soyinka averred.

L -R Nasir el-Rufai, Muhammadu Sanusi and Chief Arthur Mbanefo

However, Mr. Bankole Olayebi, the publisher of the book, who described Habib as a remarkable storyteller, had already set the tone for the book presentation when he took the august gathering through all that went into publishing the autobiography.

“I believe  that this book is the happy result of a confluence of serendipitous circumstances,” Olayebi said. “I first had the good fortune of meeting Habib Jaafar through Honourable Chief Arthur Mbanefo whose autobiography, “A fulfilled Life of Service” we just published. I was immediately struck by Habib’s warmth, restless energy and infectious enthusiasm. Subsequently, we met again, this time in the company of Professor Wole Soyinka. So you can see that Habib certainly knows how to choose his friends.

“But I suppose I will be stating the obvious if I say that my interactions with Professor Soyinka since I became his publisher in this part of the world about two decades ago has been one of the most important and productive of my publishing career. But how was I to know that my life would take this turn when I first met Prof Soyinka as one of his students in Ife 46 years ago. But that’s a story for another day.

“As you can well imagine , being the prominent figure in works Literature that he is, Professor Soyinka does receive quite a large number of manuscripts from every part of the world, from aspiring authors of all ages, cultures and backgrounds; with the hope obviously that some of that Nobel stardust will perhaps rub off on an average manuscript and transform it magically into a bestseller.

“But every now and again Professor Soyinka will share with me some of these manuscripts for publishing consideration. However, he will graciously add the caveat that I was not to feel obliged to publish if it was not something worth my while. In order words, he was loathe to put his thumb on the scale, as it were, believing of course that every manuscript was to be judged on its own merit.

“And so when he passed on Habib’s manuscript, Professor Soyinka said to me, ‘take a look and see what you can do.’ But I am happy to report that from the very first encounter with Habib’s manuscript, I found it extremely engaging. And as I said to him, when we finally sat down to discuss publication, this is a book that I would be happy to add to my library, whether or not I was the publisher.

“Habib is quite a remarkable storyteller. And from the get-go I found his narrative quite  compelling. It is not only full of wisdom but also marked by a certain robust energy, enthusiasm and earnestness. But what comes across in the book for me is Habib’s abiding humanity,” Olayebi maintained.

Muhammadu Sanusi, the 14th Emir of Kano, for his part, extolled Habib’s loyalty and sense of friendship. He said he first met Habib in Kano 1987 when he was  introduced  to him by the late banker and technocrat Tayo Aderinokun. “Kano at that time was robust and we built friendship,” Sanusi noted.

The audience

And in order to buttress Habib’s sense of friendship, Sanusi narrated how when he was working as a credit officer in a syndicated loan facility, Habib presented a wrapped gift to him after his loan had been approved.

“After he left I opened  this envelope and saw that it was a lot of money.Of course  as a banker I am not allowed to take that. I went back to him and said ‘I can’t take this money.’ And he was very upset. I said no I don’t mean any offence. But i can’t just take it.  But then I did something to him. I said if you want to give me something you can buy me some books.

“He said oh yes it is a pleasure. And I gave him a list of books that probably cost five or ten times the amount of money.  And he had to bring them in cartons. He probably spent much more and had to pay excess baggage. He came back and said,’ you’re a crazy man.’ And that was I think the beginning of our friendship,” Sanusi reminisced and the hall again erupted with laughter.

Sanusi also noted that “Habib has many lessons for us in his book, on relationships, on philanthropy,on business, on identity, on a sense of history and value.”

Olojede maintained that “this room substantially reflects the central theme I think of Habib Jaafar’s life, which is an act of friendship. And if you have read the book, or are about to read it, this would strike you as the one singular thread that tied the story of his life together.

“I was honoured to be asked by him to do the Foreword. Some of you may already have read it but part of what I saw in reading the story if his life as told by himself is that this actually is a literary cultured man masquerading as a businessman.

In his speech, Habib expressed his appreciation to everyone who went out of his or her way to grace the occasion. He was particularly grateful for the opportunity to establish lifelong friendships with some of the distinguished guests presents which included Soyinka, Sanusi and Olojede. He also spoke about how he came in contact with Soyinka for the first time through his prison memoir, “The Man Died” and how humbled he was to have the Nobel Laureate as a friend.

“Finally when I decided to write the book, I had three reasons in mind. The first was in memory of my father whom I owe a big debt. And second, posterity, with the hope that my children, my colleagues my friends will find something of interest in the book.

“But the reason I wanted to write this book is to say thank you to this great country, to this great people of Nigeria, to this great people of Africa for their kindness, humility, generosity. And the way they embraced not only me, but everybody regardless of skin, of religion, of race; and then not only embraced us  but also instilled in us values of  family, of kindness, of generosity which the world is in dire need of,” Habib maintained.