By Soyombo Opeyemi
That I have profound regard for Prof. Wole Soyinka is merely an understatement. In some of my public commentaries, I described him as ‘my intellectual avatar’ because I am a beneficiary of the density and immensity of his literature. As my wont, I should immediately qualify that. Unlike the Nobel Laureate, I am not a priest in the temple of the arts. I avoid altogether the visual aspect of the arts, namely fine and applied arts.
As for its non-visual arm, I choose and pick. I like the performing art but I am mostly enamoured of the literary art. And so, it is in literary art, especially the creative writing category, that I find Soyinka a jewel of inestimable value. I tend not to like fiction except the very interesting ones but could stomach faction – depending on the degree of ‘facts’.
For instance, I am not sure I did enjoy the Trial of Brother Jero when I read it many years ago; I did succeed to a large extent in enjoying Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years; but perusing You Must Set Forth At Dawn placed me on top of the world. My interest is, therefore, essentially, on the non-fiction works of Prof. Soyinka. Besides such books, his writings in newspapers are a “must read” for me.
I crave them like a deer pants after a brook. Mr Soyinka further won my respect in his memoir, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, by the manner in which he remembered his bosom friend, the late insurance broker, Femi Johnson. I quote from my review of the book in 2007. “In 1987, Femi Johnson left his heart with Wole Soyinka and took a terminal exit from the terrestrial milieu after a fervid but futile battle to hang on.
Twenty years after, that heart beats, not just in Nigeria but Africa, Europe, America, Asia – all over the world, wherever Soyinka’s memoir is perused. Even the efflux of time did not abate or mitigate the memories of a fervent relationship; the 1986 Nobel Laureate deserves a space in the hall of fame for immortalizing a friend with such affecting effusions. In a world suffused with ingrates and laden with open perfidies and opportunistic contortions of historical/demised relationships, Soyinka offers a parameter and symbol of a symbiotic and sacrificial friendship – cash and/kind.
Although not a reputed elegiac writer, the Nobel Prize winner did succeed in railroading his avid and assiduous readers to the sanctuary of empathy, ensuring we shared in his bereavement of Femi Johnson.” When you write an autobiography, it is essentially about yourself. But Soyinka seems to have portrayed his friendship with the late Femi Johnson as the reason for the memoir. He had no qualms in noting that it was the late insurance broker that gave him a cheque (not a loan) with which he began his house in Abeokuta after he suddenly realized that he could not yet access his funds in a bank.
Even as I write now, I seem to share in the pang of that loss. Notes the playwright, “I remained in thrall to this absence whose memory still haunts me, as it does so many others in varying degrees… bringing with his recollection a sense of wonder at the unimaginable plenitude that we had all shared in the sheer being of this individual (Femi Johnson).” And so when I read the criteria that won Soyinka the first ever Awolowo Prize for Leadership, I knew it was an honour well deserved. For instance, under Credibility – candidate must be a person in whom people believe and repose trust.
That triggered some recollections: You can leave your heart with Wole and travel to Hong Kong. When you come back, it would still be beating. Femi Johnson had confided that compliment “in his second wife, Folake, who passed it to mine, her name sake.” (You Must Set Forth At Dawn, page 191). What about Selflessness? – candidate must be a person who gives priority to the general interest over personal interest. She/ he should be a public spirited person.
The first Awo Laureate had returned from higher education study in England “on the wheels of a Rockefeller Fellowship on New Year’s day, 1960, to research dramatic forms.” He could have ensconced himself at the University College, Ibadan or chosen the path of the establishment but for his public spiritedness. The governor of Ogun State, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, therefore, hit the nail on the head when he put it on record that “The winner of the Nobel prize for Literature has spent his entire adult life leading the crusade for a just and united society founded on the sanctity of the rule of law and press freedom.
Prof. Soyinka is an embodiment of integrity, credibility, discipline, courage, selflessness, accountability, tenacity of purpose, among other sterling qualities that won him the most distinguished award. Soyinka has continued to use the arts as a tool of social re-engineering.” Indeed, the dramatist, through his revues and writings in the press, has, since returning from Leeds in 1960, not only continued to tilt at any execrable conduct of any political leadership but harped on the imperative of a society founded on justice, equity and fairness. I must confess, I sometimes feel for Prof. Soyinka. He’s not growing younger. Even though I have proclaimed he will attain 100 years, even such a landmark is merely two decades away.
A man that has devoted his entire life to the cause of the downtrodden masses deserves to see better days, some glimmer of hope in public affairs management. Is it fortuitous that the writer-activist’s redoubt should be here in Abeokuta? Well, the gods are not asleep. Right here in Abeokuta, in the abode of the recipient of the prestigious Obafemi Awolowo Prize for Leadership, governance by billboards is giving way to concrete governance. I’m quite sure our revered Nobel Laureate must have passed through the international standard Ibara-Totoro Road, sighted the on-going flyover bridge, the state-of-the-art footbridge under construction and imagined what a modern city centre is in the offing in the state capital…
The poet will readily admit that his life was shaped at the Government College, Ibadan (GCI). Government College, of course, is a public school. We all know what has become of public education in Nigeria, especially the fall of those citadels of learning all over the country. “We are all products of public schools,” Senator Amosun often declares, “and we must do everything possible to restore the glory of public education in Nigeria. Although it is costly, we will close our eyes and provide functional free education to our children. Once they get it right at the primary and secondary levels, they will excel at the tertiary level.” It is most likely Prof. Soyinka would have noticed our efforts in this direction.
Here, I do not speak of a flash in the pan or fleeting experiment but genuine and unwavering efforts of Governor Amosun to provide access to education to the teeming children of the state through functional free education that includes free textbooks and writing materials, payment of teachers’ salaries as and when due, rehabilitation of dilapidated school buildings, training and retraining of teachers and construction of world class model schools, among others. For an administration in the present day Nigeria to continue to devote over 20 per cent of its annual budget to education is certainly a sign of dogged commitment.
Our efforts in revamping the comatose health sector, generating direct and indirect employment through collaboration with institutions like the Bank of Industry and multilateral agencies, revival of interest in agriculture, gradual elimination of bottlenecks in the interface of the public with government offices (Ministry of Commerce and Bureau of Lands being good examples), Conditional Cash Transfers (of MDGs) – Ogun being the first state in Nigeria to use the scheme to reduce child and maternal mortality – among others, could possibly not have escaped the notice of our world renowned scholar, Prof. Soyinka. When the debt burden inherited by the administration is juxtaposed with the meagre monthly allocation from the federation account, it seems patent that the Senator Amosun administration is squeezing water out of the rock to be able to do all these things in less than two years in office. That’s a product of prudent public finance management and ingenuous way of raising the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR).
“With the single-minded commitment with which we are pursuing our Mission to Rebuild Ogun State,” notes Senator Amosun in that congratulatory message to Soyinka, “the landmark development witnessed in the old Western Region is now within our reach and attainment in our dear state.” But above all, the palpable efforts of the current state government to restore public faith in political leadership is most reassuring and should give cause for hope to such public spirited individuals like our own Wole Soyinka. Once more, I join other well-meaning Nigerians to congratulate the inimitable Soyinka on “the crème de la crème of my recognitions” –
the distinguished Obafemi Awolowo Prize for Leadership. •Soyombo, Special Assistant on Media to the governor of Ogun State, writes via email@example.com