A Controversial Book, Busy Retirement and a Farmhouse

Kole Omotoso,

Only rarely do authors set out to write controversial books. But if it does happen that their books become the subject of public attention for any length of time, so be it. Michael Wolff is currently enjoying such publicity with Fire and Fury. Wole Soyinka did with The Man Died in the seventies, ditto for Odia Ofeimun with The Poet Lied. Salman Rushdie is one author who has benefited or suffered the most from the law of unintended consequences that followed in the wake of controversial publications. A year before The Satanic Verses was banned and burnt in some Muslim countries, a Nigerian writer, Kole Omotoso, had faced a local but undeclared fatwa. Ever since the publication of Just Before Dawn in 1988, he has virtually been on the run from the country of his birth. On the 30th anniversary of a book that sent a former head of state storming off angrily to court, Mike Jimoh caught up with Omotoso, now fully ensconced in a farmhouse somewhere in a bush not far from Akure where he was born…

You can tell if a man in his seventies is living a contented life by the way he relates with younger acquaintances. First, they talk as if they are almost equals, even with the expected deference from the younger party. It is never forced, spontaneous, and it just kind of flows naturally. And then, there is plenty of laughter, not some kind of obligatory laughter or “counterfeited glee,” common in formal relationships with people of a wide age disparity.

Possessed of that seemingly infinite patience and superior understanding that providence has equipped only the elderly with, especially those with nothing to lose; they take life, some remarks and jokes in their stride, as if to say: We have seen it all, so, what next?

We found Professor Kole Omotoso in that mood on Monday, January 8 in his top floor office at Elizade University, Ilara Mokin, near Akure, Ondo State, where he is dean, Faculty of Humanities. A Philosophy graduate from another institution in the South-West was sitting opposite him, seeking admission to study Law at EU. She had come to the dean for guidance.

The ambience had nothing of the inquisition-like process that follows such exercise elsewhere. It was however no less formal, as such procedures go. Even then, it didn’t look any more so. When needed, Omotoso’s secretary made the relevant calls, provided information – all of that done in the spirit of family.

Half an hour or so before, I had arrived from Lagos at the Ondo Road Motor Park in the state capital; a tidy, well-organised terminus for interstate commercial vehicles plying some towns and cities in the South-West. The motor park had been built and commissioned by erstwhile governor of the State, Olusegun Mimiko.

Whether the author will get the chance to do the rewrite is hard to say now. But what much is clear is that one of the respondents to his book when it was published three decades ago has big plans for Just Before Dawn. In the coming weeks, as the countdown begins to the 30th anniversary of this unusual publication, seminars will be organised by Professor Toyin Falola, the same man who did the first one in 1988.

My mission to Akure was simple and straightforward. Omotoso has spent a greater part of the last two-and-a-half decades in South Africa, where he taught, acted, and was involved in television advertising – becoming, in the process, the face of at least two popular brands. Such was his fame with millions of South Africans that the ubiquity of his image rivalled or even surpassed that of Mandela’s – the most famous and beloved living South African at the time.

It is, indeed, a testament to his popularity that in one of Omotoso’s numerous visits to Mandela, the distinguished statesman smiled benignly at his guest, and then told him: “You are more famous than me in this country.” “It is not possible, Mr. President, it is not possible, sir,” the Nigerian replied.

Now living and working in Akure, I was to interview him about his book, Just Before Dawn, published in 1988 and serialised in Newswatch magazine for weeks. It was the most talked about book then, by a Nigerian writer, whether living or dead, including writers such as a former head of state, historians and journalists. It was published by Spectrum Books under Joop Berkhout, now of Safari Books, located in Ibadan, a city that has maintained its lead in Nigeria in the number of publishing houses it is home to.

Controversy was not the only dust that Just Before Dawn raised. For the first time, a writer took a sweeping view of Nigeria’s history from pre-colonial times to the Second Republic and rendered it as a fictional narrative. It was novel.

The literary establishment could not but take notice, more than they did some of his other novels, such as The Combat, The Edifice, The Sacrifice, Memories of our Recent Boom and Miracles and Other Stories. Omotoso has also written critical essays that have been published, like Achebe or Soyinka: A Study in Contrasts, The Form of the African Novel and The Theatrical into Theatre, not to mention a travelogue, Season of Migration to the South, and numerous journalistic reports. Just Before Dawn stands him out till this day.

Whatever its literary merit, historical accuracy or otherwise, it was just not possible to gloss over a book that elicited a wide range of responses from individuals in diverse professions in Nigeria.

Cyprian Ekwensi, for instance, questioned the style of merging historical documentation with fictional narrative employed by the author. Omotoso, he insisted, ought to have written a novel and not faction: a blend of factual accounts and fiction. His compatriot and colleague, Chinua Achebe, charged that the only person presented positively in the book was Obafemi Awolowo.

Dr. Ikejiani was Nigerian ambassador to Canada in the eighties and the author had, in fact, spent a week in his house in the course of researching Just Before Dawn. “He was very kind to me, he virtually gave me all the information I wanted about Biafra and it was through him that I obtained the complete recording of the Aburi meeting,” Omotoso recalls. “But he was very disappointed when the book was published, when he said I didn’t represent the Igbos properly.”

Ikejiani was not alone in his apprehensions about JBD. Ibrahim Gambari, who was Omotoso’s junior at King’s College in Lagos, wasn’t particularly “happy about the representation of the north.” Jibril Aminu carped that there was no such thing as Niima Club aka Kaduna Mafia mentioned by Omotoso.

The most encouraging, most profound responses, according to the author, came from historians. Toyin Falola was one. He organised a seminar on the book when it came out, pointedly asking why historians have been unable to write a book on Nigeria for popular readership as Omotoso had done.

On his part, J.F. Ade Ajayi wrote “an incredibly interesting review” of the book that Omotoso considered somewhat “embarrassing.” The historian, noting that JBD was a far more comprehensive and potted history of Nigeria, so remarkably told in a narrative style, than the ponderous 13 volumes of the country’s history that a scholar like him had edited earlier. A former head of state, who would later become civilian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, took the author to court for malicious/defamatory content in the book, thus giving it more mileage in popularity and demand.

When critics disagree on a particular book, subject or work of art, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the artist is in accord with himself. It couldn’t have been otherwise for Omotoso, following the plethora of views on and responses to his book – negative and positive. It helped that so many prominent people weighed in with different impressions, thus making JBD an unforgettable publication in the mind of many Nigerians.

So, my trip to Akure to meet and speak with the author of JBD was certainly not serendipitous, at least not on the book’s 30th anniversary.

The cast of characters is simply breathtaking, more than 30 major and minor ones in as many locations; from racist, distempered and avaricious colonial officers to wily politicians forming alliances and breaking them for the best possible political positions and office. To the British colonialists, whose primary interest was economic. To the Nigerian political elite, who took over from them…

“Call me when you arrive at the park,” Omotoso had requested when I informed him of my coming on that Monday. I did. “Okay, I will send my driver to pick you up.”

The driver of a smart EU marked Toyota car came to the park, called and identified himself. He came with a lanky university hopeful and we set off at once to meet Omotoso on the main campus, half an hour away.

Driving through EU’s host community of Ilara Mokin, a lineal settlement of spaced out mud and brick buildings with cocoa beans spread out on mats in front of some of them, their branchy bearers forming leafy buffers between and behind many of the houses, we saw farmers returning from the fields, winding their way slowly through narrow paths around huge boulders and rocky hills, burdened with firewood or some produce; a hunter displayed the day’s killing – a grass cutter and close cousin of the capybara, though smaller in size – by the roadside. A freshly trapped antelope hung from a tree somewhere.

This bucolic setting contrasted sharply with that of the university, a clutch of buildings scattered here and there in monastic silence. A carpet-trimmed lawn and sentinel of acacias by the fence welcomed us as we drove into the school, eased into the parking lot of a three-floored building. “Please, take him to Oga’s office,” the driver told the University hopeful.

Preceded by the lad who bounded up several flights of stairs like an Olympic athlete, I tried to keep pace, sometimes taking the steps two at a time. My discomfort showed immediately I got to Omotoso’s office.

“Oh, Mike, how are you?” he said, offering his hand. “I am breathless,” I replied. He laughed. Apparently, he expected the customary “I am fine,” as people respond positively, even though they may just have experienced some misfortune or the other. I would have lied if I had said That I was fine at that moment. For a fifty-something-year-old who had over-indulged in all the bountiful provisions of Yuletide and the New Year, leaping up steps like the young man ahead of me was simply too much.

“I come up and go down that staircase every day,” Omotoso joked. But not likely as fast as the much younger lad, I wanted to add.

After some small talk, he asked, “would you like something to drink – coke, water?” I settled for water. The only bottled water in a Thermocool Haier refrigerator behind the dean turned out to be frozen. There was no coke. The philosopher/lawyer-to-be brought a mini plastic bottle of Fanta instead. Never has a chilled orange drink felt so refreshing.

A fellow lecturer came in, asking for professorial advice on a production he hoped to stage. Omotoso is a professor of Performing and Film Arts at EU. All through, the talk is convivial, with much laughter in between.

It is possible that Omotoso is one of the most senior teachers in the faculty, probably with the most experience, which explains his deanship. Before EU, which he joined last October, he was at Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba in the same State, where he taught on and off for five years. Much has been said for and against the private institutions of higher learning now mushrooming across Nigeria. Still, they have their uses for people like Omotoso, retired dons from regular government-owned schools who are still busy imparting their knowledge to younger people in retirement.

For a man who has been in academia more than half of his life (Omotoso will be 74 this April), nothing seemed better than to continue to shape and mould students under his tutelage, especially academically.

The brightness of the sun coming through his office window was dimming and time was running out fast. The interview would have to hold in his house. We set off once again, stopping over at Shoprite Mall, somewhere in the Alagbaka GRA.

JBD is as much the history of Nigeria, as it is the story of the first political rulers, namely, Ahmadu Bello, Awolowo and Azikiwe, who tried to shape it. The author avails the reader with relevant information about their early years, their hardscrabble existence, travails and successes. Omotoso also exhumes from the ashes of history, minor characters whose heroic exploits matched, if not surpassed, those of the founding fathers.

“What will you drink?” I told him. He picked a six-pack of Star beer and two bottles of South African red wine. Omotoso holds dual citizenship of Nigeria and South Africa. With his purchase, it is obvious the SA itch is hard to get rid of, even in his natal country.

Like bees attracted to honey and like other Shoprite outlets in Nigeria, the mall in Akure draws customers by the thousands every day of the week; old and young, men and women, boys and girls, even babies in prams. A young girl helped herself to a Selfie near one of the chillers, posing this way and that, angling her camera phone correspondingly.

I called the professor’s attention to her. He smiled indulgently, and said casually that South Africans of a certain class look beyond Shoprite for their daily needs. In SA, the supermarket so beloved by Nigerians is beneath them, since there are more elite chains like Woolworth and Checkers, stocked with goods and products of higher quality.

We arrived home minutes later, a gated and fenced expanse of land with three modest but attractive structures – all of them bungalows, all of them designed by his daughter, Yewande, an architect and writer with a remarkable portfolio of work, including the novels, Bomboy and The Woman Next Door.

All around are banana plants, paw-paw trees bearing yellow-ripe fruits; elsewhere, mulched, wet mounds with yam seedlings take up a sizeable patch; verdant maize crops fringe the heaps; nearby are tomato plants, their tender stems budding with yellow flowers.

As we sat down for the interview on the foyer of the main and bigger building, I said: “This is a farmhouse.”

“Yes, it is,” my host replied, somewhat proudly. “We harvested 300 tubers of yams not too long ago,” he added. That plant there, he pointed, is Moringa, a medicinal plant swaying and dancing in the mild harmattan breeze.

There seemed to be every common local crop or plant you could think of: Cassava, okra and pepper; there are tobacco plants, here and there, to scare off adventurous and prowling reptiles like snakes. A species of plantain in the garden produce twin bunches from the same arm, he volunteered.

The only thing missing is a livestock farm, I observed. He quickly corrected me, pointing to one corner of the fence where he and his wife, Bukky, raise poultry. “We collect two dozen eggs every day,” he continued, before neighbours came during the festive period and bought all the birds.

I imagined my visit should have been earlier. Without doubt, two clucking birds would have accompanied me to Lagos to be slaughtered, de-feathered and readied for the Christmas or New Year pot. No matter. A diet of how JBD was inspired, researched, the ruckus it caused and general acceptance among the literati and lay readers alike, would suffice for now.

A law undergraduate, Tosin, now on forced vacation because of the SSANU strike came, curtsied and greeted us, while taking the professor’s bag, books, Kindle and iPad into the house. She came later for the beer and wine, leaving two lagers on the table. “Put the beer in the freezer,” he instructed her. She left and we settled down.

Dressed the same way I met him at work – ash-coloured jacket over a red-checkered shirt tucked in black pants with matching shoes – Omotoso began by telling me how, before ever putting pen to paper, he read a book Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique La Pierre, on the partition and independence of India and Pakistan.

Much of the story in JBD is well known to Nigerians of a certain generation but the air of suspense the author weaves around it gives the book a fictive appeal, even though the author has said that, “I wanted the reality to be the central issue of the book, the freshness, the life and blood. I wanted somebody to be able to see what happened in Nigeria and how it happened and how if there was no change, we will never get anywhere.”

Removing and putting on his Castro-like cap randomly and sipping now and then from his can, Omotoso admitted that, Freedom “was the most immediate book I read and it is about India. The book is so intense about the description of what led to the August 1947 independence of India from the British and the partition of India and Pakistan. What impressed me about that book was that the greatest promoter of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was suffering from terminal cancer that only his daughter and doctor knew about. Churchill was to say later that if he knew, he would have delayed the partition.”

More important, the details in the book wowed him; “the things that affect the life of a nation.” He read other books, too, especially those historical/fiction tomes, Hawaii, Cheasapeake, by James Michener, an American author, and Rushdie’s Shame, Isaac Adaka Boro’s Little Book. Combined with his research in Nigeria, the Americas and Europe for two years, he would distill all of those influences in stitching together the vast tapestry that became JBD.

There is no denying the author’s meticulous research, even though someone like Olusegun Obasanjo (OBJ) felt otherwise, like when his lawyers argued persuasively before a judge that their client was never in Port Harcourt where, as Omotoso wrote, the coup to overthrow Shagari was planned. The offending passage has since been excised from subsequent editions. Even so, Omotoso’s seminal work remains a formidable force in literary publishing in Nigeria.

The cast of characters is simply breathtaking, more than 30 major and minor ones in as many locations; from racist, distempered and avaricious colonial officers to wily politicians forming alliances and breaking them for the best possible political positions and office. To the British colonialists, whose primary interest was economic. To the Nigerian political elite, who took over from them, holding sway in their respective domains, all acting in different manners leading to the fragmentation of what one of them called “a mere geographical expression” and not a country united by any common interest.

Nor was the military bound by a common cause. The spate of coups within a short period was evidence of the internal instability within the Armed forces, from the very first putsch in January 15, 1966 to the reprisal attack six months later, down to Dimka’s February 13, 1976 assassination of Murtala Muhammed. Omotoso draws a doomed portrait of Dimka, on the run from himself, with security forces on his trail before he was caught in a hotel premises in Abakaliki with a prostitute.

Much of the story in JBD is well known to Nigerians of a certain generation but the air of suspense the author weaves around it gives the book a fictive appeal, even though the author has said that, “I wanted the reality to be the central issue of the book, the freshness, the life and blood. I wanted somebody to be able to see what happened in Nigeria and how it happened and how if there was no change, we will never get anywhere.”

JBD is as much the history of Nigeria, as it is the story of the first political rulers, namely, Ahmadu Bello, Awolowo and Azikiwe, who tried to shape it. The author avails the reader with relevant information about their early years, their hardscrabble existence, travails and successes. Omotoso also exhumes from the ashes of history, minor characters whose heroic exploits matched, if not surpassed, those of the founding fathers.

One of them was Private Chukwuemeka Heelas Ugokwu, a demobilised soldier-turned post office clerk under colonial employ. He had fought for the British during World War II, fought in Burma and elsewhere the British took him as a colonial subject that was fighting for the king and the dominion. He it was, who tried but failed to assassinate a British colonial officer because of the injustices meted out to Nigerians.

In the celebrated court trial that followed, Ugokwu became an instant celebrity, a modern day revolutionary who sought to right the wrongs of society by his solo effort. Before his attempt, miners in Enugu had been shot in cold blood by the police under direct instructions from the British. For Ugokwu, killing the British subject amounted to taking a pound of flesh, for which he was sentenced to 25 years – by an African judge!

Omotoso sees Ugokwu’s action as resulting from “rediscovered pride” and the “question of satisfaction under colonial rule.” The surprise about Ugokwu is he was never imagined by the author, he was a real historical figure who declared in court that he regretted not killing the British officer on his first attempt, vowing that given another chance, he would repeat his action, and with better result.

Some of the characters in JBD were invented by the author, one of whom was modelled on his experience in Akure in 1983, in the months leading to the presidential election. JBD was five years away but Omotoso was already a living witness to some of the incidents mentioned in the book.

The publisher Fagbemigbe was one of the casualties of the crisis that rocked Ondo state in the eighties. He was also Omotoso’s maternal uncle. “In the heat of the crisis, I went to appeal to him to concentrate on his publishing. He refused and was stuck in politics until he was consumed by it,” the professor recalls.

One of the perplexities readers encounter in JBD is the difficulty in distinguishing fiction from reality. The author himself acknowledges that much, insisting “everything that is written in that book has happened. In some cases, it happened to people who we can historically recognise. In other cases, it happened to characters I had to invent to be part of the book. They were minor characters. I didn’t want to write fiction, not even historical fiction because it wasn’t a story with a beginning, middle and an end. The story of Nigeria is a continuous repetition of stupidity, of criminality…”

What did the author feel like after writing such an ambitious book as JBD? Did he feel the exhaustion alluded to by Rushdie after completing The Satanic Verses, who said he felt he had tackled a beast and wrestled it to the ground?

No, not in any way, Omotoso said. “I had a feeling of anger, anger because of what I had learnt in the process of writing the book, anger because of what I thought shouldn’t be. What kept going through my mind was Soyinka’s apt phrase about the recurrent cycle of human stupidity. It was something that I borrowed and what I found to be the recurrent cycle of Nigerian stupidity.”

The greatest example of that stupidity in JBD, Omotoso insists, is the similarity of the coup speeches, right from the first to the last. “If you pick up all the speeches of the coup makers, down to the very last one, you begin to see that repetition of stupidity.” Abacha, he reckons, “holds the record of making three speeches, of repeating the same thing against the previous governments.”

JBD not only added something new to Nigerian literature, it changed the author’s life forever. Fearing that “soldiers in their amorphous kind of image threatened that if they see me, they will kill me because they didn’t know how I got some of the information in the book,” Omotoso left Nigeria, first, to England and, then, SA. Besides, he was disillusioned with the university system in the country or, in his case, University of Ife, where he taught and was later HOD of Dramatic Arts.

A case in point was Soyinka’s departure from the school in 1984. Why deny students such a fecund mind as Soyinka’s? In Omotoso’s telling, he made overtures to the vice chancellor of the institution then, Wande Abimbola, to retain the drama professor in his chair and allow him access to his home. Abimbola refused, telling Omotoso in Yoruba, “ko’mo lo”; meaning Soyinka should leave. But then the Nobel Prize came two years later. The VC made a dramatic about-turn, insisting that Omotoso must ensure Soyinka is brought back.

“If he had listened to me, the glory would have come to the university.” The rest of the world would have followed right to the doorstep of the head of the institution. In a way, the VC’s refusal smacked of “the recurrent cycle of stupidity” Omotoso found on a national scale. Nothing could be more hypocritical, in Omotoso’s view, as the VC’s action.

By the time his book was published two years later, with all the acrimony, litigation and threat to his life, Omotoso decided he had enough. “I was tired. I was just tired,” he now recalls of those years of upheaval.

If anything, JBD is confirmation that Omotoso had always done things differently, gone against the grain, writing a book that had never before been attempted by any Nigerian author. Moreover, in recall: He was to study English in his undergraduate years at UI. But by the time he browsed the prescribed texts in the department, he had read most of them at Kings College. Studying English, therefore, could only result in “the expected boredom of reading the same books.”

He was yet to make up his mind about what to study when he met a young lecturer from England, John Hunwick, who cajoled him to take on Arabic. That was it! Omotoso found himself studying a course nobody was particularly keen on, and as if relishing his uncommon choice, he studied it up to the PhD level.

One of the perplexities readers encounter in JBD is the difficulty in distinguishing fiction from reality. The author himself acknowledges that much, insisting “everything that is written in that book has happened. In some cases, it happened to people who we can historically recognise. In other cases, it happened to characters I had to invent to be part of the book. They were minor characters. I didn’t want to write fiction, not even historical fiction because it wasn’t a story with a beginning, middle and an end. The story of Nigeria is a continuous repetition of stupidity, of criminality. The colonial officers started it, they rigged the census figures to support the idea that the north was bigger and had more people and, therefore, half of the representatives must come from the north and the remaining from the south. And all they had to do is to convince one part of the south to join them and that’s what they did, a story of repeated failure.”

If he had a chance, would he rewrite part of the book or change anything in it, as some writers say wistfully of their works? Not exactly, apart from OBJ’s challenge which has been rectified. Even so, the professor admits that, on the strength of current evidence, there is more knowledge of what really happened in history.

One of them is about the night of July 29, 1966 at Ibadan when Aguiyi Ironsi and Adekunle Fajuyi were arrested by Danjuma. The romantic view that Fajuyi asked to be killed along with his guest is pure fallacy. “He was never given a chance. Danjuma told them why they were being arrested, handed them over to the soldiers that came with him and left,” Omotoso told me. “Those are the kind of details one will want to add.”

Whether the author will get the chance to do the rewrite is hard to say now. But what much is clear is that one of the respondents to his book when it was published three decades ago has big plans for Just Before Dawn. In the coming weeks, as the countdown begins to the 30th anniversary of this unusual publication, seminars will be organised by Professor Toyin Falola, the same man who did the first one in 1988. The venue could be in Lagos or Akure where Omotoso currently teaches and lives in his farmhouse, in modest contentment, not wanting any more or less from what life has offered so far.

Mike Jimoh, arts journalist and critic, writes from Lagos.

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