Opinion: A Parable Of The West – By Sam Omatseye
Few Nigerians, especially the Yoruba, know that there is a potent as well as parabolic dynamic between Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola and the great Hubert Ogunde. It is not only where art hugs life, but where politics gleans nutrients from the past. It is the intersection of history and histrionics.
The stories of the fall of the First Republic, the maelstrom of the Western Region, the nation’s collapse under the soldier’s boot and the sanguinary flow of fratricide in the civil war energise the 1960’s. But they are no more instructive than how the political biography of the premier of the Western Region weds the great bard of the west. But the bed is defiled.
The episode connecting them is not only that life confronts art, but drama plays out within drama.
Ignorance about what this essayist is about to relate reflects two things. One, we have left our study of history behind but it haunts us nonetheless. Two, our reading habits have taken an almost fatal beating. Other than tick tock, Instagram, Facebook and twitter, we are a largely illiterate breed. One author records this story more than others, and she is Professor Ebun Clark, in her book, Hubert Ogunde: The Making of the Nigerian Theatre, published in the 1970’s. She is a warrior of the arts, pioneer professor of theatre in Nigeria and wife of legendary poet and playwright J.P. Clark.
Akintola was a colourful man, beginning from his face of many marks. His tongue emitted acerbic, subversive, if inventive wit. He became premier and turned his back on his mentor and leader Awolowo. He opened a wilderness of gnomes, mongrels and beasts in Yoruba body politic. He turned against Awo’s rich and verdant field of dreams of greens and ark of robust tree barks. He invoked Mr. Quisling in Northern Europe and Vichy’s Petain in France. He pissed in the common pond when he broke away from the Action Group and set up his own party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party. The party entered into a wedding with the northern NPC. As a counterpunch to the Egbe Omo Oduduwa from which the AG sprouted, he founded a mimic wraith called the Egbe Omo Olofin. To help launch it, his party invited the Ogunde Theatre Party to dramatise a folksong, Yoruba Ronu, which incidentally was the watchword of Akintola’s new party. Clark reprints the letter inviting him inspired by Chief H.O. Davies, one of the fellow defectors with Akintola.
Ogunde obliged, and dramatised the song by relating the story of a king, Fiwajoye betrayed by his deputy Yeye-Iloba, who imprisoned him with two of his senior chiefs. The usurper tyrannised over his people who eventually killed him. Fiwajoye was released from prison and restored to the throne. The kingdom returned to its tranquil plenty.
Ogunde’s was an invocation of the Yoruba crisis of the 19th century. Field marshal Afonja had colluded with a Fulani known as Alimi, and that Fulani exploited the division among the Yoruba to launch a jihad in the west. In Ogunde’s contemporary rendition, Fiwajoye was Awolowo, who was then in prison, and Yeye-Iloba was Akintola. It prophesied Akintola’s end. Artists can be seers, just like Achebe’s A Man of The People predicted the end of the republic.
The play did not find humour with the premier. He rose in the middle of the performance with some of his associates and left. But the majority of the audience remained and thrilled to its nuances, innuendoes and projectiles. It reflected the perfidy of Akintola, and how out of sync he was with the Yoruba street.
Yoruba Ronu means Yoruba think. While Akintola meant to appropriate that phrase to rally the tribe against Awo, Ogunde launched it as a theatrical missile. It landed straight in Akintola’s traitorous heart. It was a supreme paradox. What he designed as a hook became his noose.
Still out of humour, Akintola’s government banned Ogunde’s theatre from performing in all of the Western Region. In fact, he was about to perform in Ilesa when the police stanched the effort, igniting a riot in the city. The government described Ogunde as “dangerous to the good government of Western Nigeria.” The order was signed by G.O. Ejiwunmi, secretary to the Premier and Executive Council. It urged the federal government to do same. Zik, the president, ignored him. Zik, for good measure, had collaborated immensely with Ogunde to cauterise colonial laws and thraldom. Few count Ogunde as a major nationalist, but it is another lapse of our historiography.
The media rallied to Ogunde’s cause. The Daily Times condemned it. And Zik’s West African Pilot unleashed a fiery editorial that took apart Akintola government as a byword for authoritarian impulses – my phrasing. This diatribe at Akintola’s act against his tribesman gained traction in the country. The Pilot mocked him by imagining the British government banning the rollicking rock icon of the 1960’s, The Beatles. The paper predicted: “The road to ruin is often smooth. Those who travel it pay the fare. The people at Ibadan may feel on top of the world. Let us allow ourselves the role of soothsayers. We tell them to beware and fear tomorrow! They should fear the people’s ire.”
Like Pharaoh, it hardened Akintola’s heart. He extended the ban to his music, dance, records, and he forbade them to be heard in public places as well as on radio and television. Only in Lagos could he perform. His collaborators in the centre did not stop the song. Akintola was afflicted by what I call the Okonkwo syndrome based on Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The literary critique Killam described it as insistent fatality, just like King Oedipus, who saw death and strode defiantly on the path of perdition. Hitler gave speeches about the past of wars as meaningless savagery but he ignited a world war that lighted him up in flames.
Ogunde’s fellow artistes backed him, including Kola Ogunmola and Duro Ladipo. It disembowelled his pocket and tested his integrity as an artist. But he did not falter. Rather, he dug in. He swiped back with the play, Otito koro, which means truth is bitter. He began the play with the lines: We do not kill a dog because it barks/ And we do not kill a ram because it butts…
For about two years, Ogunde cooed in the cooler. In 1966, however, the army kicked and Akintola fell. The new governor, Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, within nine days of receiving Ogunde’s plea, lifted the ban. In July 1966, he performed Yoruba Ronu at the British Council Hall in Ibadan to all and personages, one of them Chief Obafemi Awolowo. It was art as revenge. Another irony. Ogunde was in prison professionally, Awo was physically and politically gaoled. That day, in songs and dances and rhetoric and acts for the theatre, both had their victory lap. They put to the grave a chapter of infamy. A new curtain had opened in the West.