Opinion: Two Kinsmen – By Sam Omatseye
One was a tycoon, the other a titan of an octopus. One was a friend of soldiers who stung back like a nemesis. The other was a lackey who ended up a tool. One was an extrovert who stuttered with bonhomie and humour. He laughed often, backslapped often, goofed lovably. The other, slow of manner, was never wedded to public cheer. The one had a big heart that channelled a large philanthropic purse. One wanted to be president. The other consecrated his betrayal. His only quote to memory was uttered with morose dignity on television. It was to the effect that he did not want to spoil anyone’s fun. Such a cavalier putdown.
For paradox, Chief Moshood Abiola and Chief Ernest Shonekan were kinsmen, but they were not keen on each other. Shonekan, lauded in the past few weeks by many after his recent passing, was a Yoruba man who became a puppeteer to pop the dream of his fellow Egba man. The consequence was that, if he did not want to spoil anyone’s fun, the spoils went to another Egba man who was regarded as a spoiled former soldier and opportunist, rejected by his own people. The Owu chief, too, as a soldier had anointed a mathematical thieving of a presidency in the 1970’s. The former was twelve two-third. The latter was June 12. They were both 12 nights, a la Shakespeare.
The narrative of the duo, Abiola and Shonekan, should be a cautionary story for the Yoruba in this season. It was the fight for the presidency of 1993. Abiola, not a flawless hero, but human enough to be loved, won a presidential race. A soldier annulled it. Many regarded him as an imperialist front-liner and a dispenser of cynical cash. But heroes are no saints. As Bertolt Brecht wrote, “No one’s virtue is complete/ the great Galileo loved to eat.” Christ made Paul, the murderer who wasted his church, an apostle and hero. The Old Testament sanctified David, who cuckolded his fighting man. Churchill never abandoned his alcohol. Jefferson, who immortalised the line “all men are created equal” spirited away with a slave girl. Shaka the Zulu loved Noliwe to death.
The story of Shonekan is not just a biography of an ethnic weakling, but one who could not see he was mobilised to puncture his people’s ego. When he was appointed to head the interim government by IBB, he thought he had a big job. But it made his people look small. His people, however, would not go down. First they mocked him and called him head of Ijoba fidi he. They kept a dry powder and fiery spirit. The fight for Abiola’s legitimacy was an onslaught for the Southwest, if a legitimate campaign for fairness and democracy in the country. The wheel horses in the dust and duel were his kinsmen. Many died. Some fled abroad. There were others from the East, the North, and the South-south. Outside the West were men like Ebitu Ukiwe, and of course, the martyr Alfred Rewane, who volunteered his means against the mean soldiers.
Shonekan was drafted to pacify his people. He accepted against the grain of a republican verve and nerve in the land. What we know today as NADECO rose from the moral failure of men like him. They picked him to delegitimise the right of his own people. That is his legacy, not his towering image as the head of UAC, or the perennial bard of military budgets.
He was like General Petain, who led the infamous Vichy government that signed away the French ego in an armistice with Nazi Germany. Those who did not cohabit with the army and Shonekan were like Charles de Gaulle, another general, also flawed. But he left Paris to England to fight to restore the dignity of France, or what he called “a certain idea of France.” Those who rejected Shonekan wanted a certain idea of Nigeria, but beginning with a certain idea of Yorubaland. Such a fight did not start with June 12. History embedded it at the Battle of Osogbo in the 19th century. But even that battle was not without its quislings and moral failures. The race triumphed at a cost.
There was no platform to serenade a traitor as head of Yorubaland. Again, the battlefield was too ill-defined as well as the race. It was not even named then as Yoruba as we know them today.
The 20th century is a different ball game. We saw that with Awolowo, perhaps the greatest Yoruba man since Oduduwa, the Churchill of Agodi When unproven charges led him to court, and even to gaol, it was the goal of his persecutors to invent Shonekan’s ancestor. That time it was not business man. History is never so open and shut. It was a jurist, the man Sodeinde Sowemimo. In his verdict, he confessed “my hands are tied.” Awo delivered an allocutus without circumlocution, a statement for posterity.
It was clear in both cases. Someone inside was a tool to cow his own people. There is a familiar proverb that the ant that eats up the herb resides inside. That is also the story of empires that decay. The rot starts within. Even in wars, it is never easy to conquer even a small army with cohesion and vigour. It is hard to say, as Bisi Akande posits in his My Participations, if and when Yorubaland could have fallen had they united against the British. Akande’s view may be a fancy of patriotism, but he is on to something. The intrepid Nana of Itsekiriland stunned British to a standstill with a cohesive force. The white men had to return to the island for a special force because they could not break the blockade.
When Abraham Lincoln answered questions about the longevity of the American system, he did not fear the outside force. He warned against division with the political elite. American democracy palpitates daily with Lincoln’s prophetic fears.
While many praise Shonekan today, they should not forget that his doings happened a generation after the treachery against Awo and the tribe. And about a decade after Obj brooked Akinjide and another Southwest justice, Atanda Fatai Williams, to certify a fraud. Both Sowemimo and Shonekan, both Egba men, both with great intellectual mind, opened their hearts and minds while the race’s torchbearers fell into a dark night. So was Williams, a Lagosian. They did not remember Chinua Achebe’s proverb, “A kinsman in trouble had to be saved, not blamed; anger against a brother was felt in the flesh, not in the bone.”
As we enter a third generation, and 2023, we from outside the Southwest watch again, and hope that the tribe does not collapse for the third time under the undercurrent of forces of oedipal rebellion. We hope anger against a brother this time will not go deep into the marrow.
– Omatseye is a respected columnist with The Nation