Acclaimed poet, Odia Ofeimun, has reflected on the relationships he has with three prominent Nigerians, the late Obafemi Awolowo, Bola Ige and the Nobel laureate, Prof’ Wore Soyinka.
In an interview with ‘Saturday Punch’, the great poet, essays and critic, who has just clocked 70, notes:
I met Bola Ige much later in life. Actually, in the case of Awolowo, I always had to run into him because the first job I did in my life was with the Midwest Echo, it was a sister paper to the Nigerian Tribune. Midwest Echo was based in Benin. It was one of Awolowo’s newspapers. When I left the Midwest Echo and went to Lagos, somehow I wished to meet Awolowo but on the day I was supposed to meet him, he was engaging with the Agbekoya farmers in the forest and so he left Lagos for that purpose. We never met again until I was in the first year in university, about to drop out of school for not paying my fees. I went to the university without having a sponsor. I knew I would finish one way or the other. He was not able to do it the way I expected him to but he gave me a raise – for a student, 100 pounds was good. We never met again until I finished my youth service and I was doing a save-my-soul teaching in Kwara. It was a job I had to do in order to be a good student in Ibadan. Then I read a Candido column criticising Awolowo for jumping the gun against the ban on politics and asking for informed and committed researchers. I applied. I applied at a time when he was organising a new political party – one of the stalwarts of that party, Bola Ige, was very strong in the organisation. By the time he won the governorship ticket of the Unity Party of Nigeria, there was certainly no person, including his own teacher, Archdeacon Emmanuel Alayande, who could have taken the job of governorship from him because even Chief Awolowo agreed that Bola Ige knew the ground better than him in Oyo State. It was Bola Ige I gave my application to when the UPN was being organised. Actually, the deadline had passed but Ige helped me drop the paper – he had become my friend because while I was a student at the University of Ibadan, I was looking for people who could support me through my education. He was the man I went to meet. He still needed to be sure I was a student – he had burnt his fingers dealing with people who claimed to be students but were not. He insisted I bring a letter to him. Prof Billy Dudley, who was the Head of Department, Political Science, gave me a letter. Dudley treated me like a mate; he was a proper friend of mine. He never treated me like a small boy. He invited me into his decision making processes and had too much respect for me as a poet because as of that time, I had written enough poetry. He was Wole Soyinka’s friend and Soyinka had published this very out-of-the-ordinary anthology, in which I was also published.
My relationship with Bola Ige, properly speaking, was closer than my relationship with Awolowo. My relationship with Bola Ige was personal in the sense that he did not hide things from me. And when I say my relationship with him was personal, I never had an employer-employee relationship with him. But with Awolowo, he was always the older person, much older. Like my grandfather, Awolowo was a teetotaler and a very serious-minded person. Those two characters, Awolowo and my grandfather, were bound to make me a better person even if I did not want to be. They had the moral character of a real leader.
I will say if you want to know Nigeria very well, read Awolowo’s story. I have not quite written the Awolowo’s story the way it should be written and I think that God won’t allow me to die without writing the book.
If Soyinka did anything for me, the most important thing he did was to win me off the Christian notion that the traditional society is evil – evil in the sense that if you were not a Christian, whatever else you believe in is considered not so moral or straightforward. Everything about tradition which many people saw rather in distracted ways, Soyinka saw as a part of a very well worked out way of seeing the world and the mystic truth in Soyinka’s analysis of society enabled you to see that traditional society had a philosophical underpinning that was helpful in knowing the ways the world worked. I have my own decision on Soyinka’s position; his not allowing himself to be submerged by the grammar of Christian denunciations and the general Islamic assault on so-called paganism help me relate to my two families. My maternal grandfather was a Christian, who once they abandoned the ‘fetish ways’ of the traditional society, adopted Christianity without looking back. My father’s family, first because my father was a motor mechanic, had to be an Ogun worshipper and if you are an Ogun worshipper, you are required to observe tenets that derive powers from mythology and also indicate ways of treating your fellow human beings in a manner that helps a sense of collectivity in society. Myth making is therefore at the centre of the way Soyinka views traditional society. I have managed because I did not quite accept all the hoopla about Christianity; I learnt to see the interconnection between what was Christianity and what was supposedly traditional religion. All religions are the same – they are based on some form of worship which is to say that you have faith in what those who came before you had seen and done.
I am a very religious minded person, I don’t subscribe to a sect and I was lucky I attended a primary school where the Bible was well taught so I left primary school knowing so much about the Bible. And in my first year in secondary school, that knowledge was confirmed and as I grew older, I learnt to read the Quran and I can see the distinction being made between the two religions, (which) in my view does not really matter. Muslims ought to be Christians, the Quran says so, and Christians ought to be able to abide by certain Islamic principles except that the New Testament changed a lot of things.
Awolowo was a one-woman-man and when he met Dideolu, he literally flipped; he was not capable of having any relationship with any other woman. It was as if Dideolu took him over completely and she was a member of those early churches that were generally fervent about their Christianity and Christian principles of living. Awolowo was agnostic before he met Dideolu but once he met that woman, his agnosticism started collapsing in the sense that he had to choose and that woman made it very clear that you can’t be a leader of a religious people if you doubt the existence of God. And therefore, Awolowo learnt to become a serious Christian by being a serious lover of his wife. The two went together. He never wavered until his death and he never stopped using the life of Jesus Christ as exemplary experience that all human beings should follow. Awolowo genuinely believed that even if he could not perform miracles, he had to abide by the principles that all human beings must perform miracles to save one another from the crisis of this world, which is why the PhD thesis I was writing on the UPN was called ‘Messianism as political platform’ because Awolowo believed it was possible to be very Christ-like and still run a normal political system. Christ-like in the sense that you can be honest, very protective of your people, not living by falsehood and yet have power that saves human lives.
If I am to distinguish that man from the other two, I can tell you Soyinka is not a one-woman-man, Bola Ige, although he was married to a woman he loved quite a lot, could not have been called a one-woman-man. Bola Ige loved women but he never abandoned his political principles. I have had many people talk about Ige in terms of personal flaws that made it difficult for him to follow certain political principles. The truth is that many people around Awolowo were people who necessarily did not abide by his teaching but liked the upward mobility that following Awolowo allowed them to have. Bola Ige was not like that. He became a member of Awolowo’s political family by being a critic of that family. When he was reading law in Europe, he wrote a damning critique of the stalwarts – the leaders of the Action Group did a lot of things. Because of that, when he returned to Nigeria, they did not embrace him with the fulsomeness that you expected. He actually was working as a lawyer without relating to Awolowo’s political family. But when Joseph Sarwuan Tarka was being hounded by the military establishment and sent to jail, on his own, Bola Ige went to defend Tarka. It was after Ige went to defend Tarka that the AG legal team came to join him, that was how Ige returned to the family, almost through the backdoor. After the criticism he had levelled against the AG leaders, Awolowo needed to talk to him and they thought Bola Ige would step back from that criticism but he refused. He simply restated his position and to a large extent, he earned Awolowo’s respect. He never wavered. He understood his own political predilections.
Soyinka was not a politician seeking power. That in my view almost sums it up. Like Awolowo in his younger days, Soyinka was a strong critic of the religious ways of doing things. Bola Ige had a strong commitment to religiosity. Soyinka was always a questioner and he was a questioner in a different sense from Awolowo. Awolowo’s questioning of religious principles were based on very strong philosophical grounding. Even when he accepted the Christian position, he did it with a very wide-eyed notion of what was wrong with religious worship. Soyinka actually did something out of the usual because he took traditional religion on its face value. He took a philosophy out of it which may discount certain material elements but stuck to its core and its core is that the life we live can be understood by the knowledge that has been condensed from the prehistory to the present and that if we understand them well, we could live a good life in lot of ways.
I have said it somewhere that if there was no Soyinka, it would probably have been impossible to produce a poet like me. Soyinka struggled with the necessity to break away from imperial overlord-ship, even in terms of literature, and evolve a very nationalist and very indigenous perspective.