Nigerian journalist and author, Chido Onumah, a frequent contributor to Pambazuka News, just turned 50. To celebrate the milestone, he reflects on his life, work and the contradictions of the Nigerian nation.
In a country where the value of human life is not worth more than that of a fly at a butcher’s shop; where misery is a constant companion and the candour of our politicians and rulers is the same candour that pimps extend to prostitutes, it is not out of place to celebrate every minute, every hour, every month, and every year. It is certainly not for nothing that “Happy new month” has become a refrain at the beginning of every month for many Nigerians on WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook. But I digress
I was born exactly 50 years ago today (April 10) in a country that, by all indications, had the prospects of being the leader of the Black race. This is my story and in a way the story of Nigeria. The year of my birth, six years after independence, was the year of the first of many military coups, a bloody event – touted by those who engineered it as an attempt to redeem the country – that would spiral out of control and precipitate an internecine civil war.
Memories of that turbulent period still reverberate across the country. Fifty years after, Nigeria remains a dream deferred. And that dream is drying up like a raisin in the sun, to paraphrase Langston Hughes. If we were happy to gain independence in 1960, we failed woefully to build a nation out of what was handed to us by the departing colonialists. If we had three countries, as ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo alluded to on January 15, 2016, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the January 15, 1966, coup and the 46th anniversary of the end of the civil war on January 15, 1970, we took it for granted such that today we can’t keep count of the number of “countries” that are tugging at the heart and soul of Nigeria.
It is ironic that the older the country gets the more challenging it is for her people to live in peace and harmony. I remember the Nigeria I grew up in with nostalgia and I wonder always what happened to that country. It was the era of oil boom and the “Cement Armada”, when the problem of the country was not money but what to do with it, as then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, was reported to have said. Maybe the prosperity soothed our differences. Whatever the reasons, the Nigeria I grew up in, the country of my childhood, was one in which the concept of Nigeria was all-embracing; it was one that our rulers should have taken a cue from, but they were too busy sharing and pocketing the money because, “Their nation,” in the eternal words of radical economist, late Prof Eskor Toyo, “is a well of mineral oil and money from the territory called Nigeria.” Building a Nigerian nation was the last thing on their mind!
Growing up in different parts of Lagos, amongst kids and friends from other parts of Nigeria, street football and table tennis were the rallying points. Nigerian Pidgin was the lingua franca. And it was spoken with relish. It was a “crime” to speak your ethnic language, even to your siblings, in the midst of friends. For many – like Nathaniel, the football star with a perpetual runny nose – without an ethnic name, nobody guessed or cared to know where they came from. It just didn’t matter. I remember, in the midst of a “set”, the three or four-a-side football game that was the staple of many streets in Lagos, our Muslim compatriots, Mohammed and his brother, Aminu, would occasionally excuse themselves and go say their prayers and we would stop the game for them to return or defer their “set” until they returned, depending on the number of people available.
Then, gradually things began to change. Because there was nothing to aspire to, the post-civil war generation went the way of their forebears. I remember a discussion I had many years ago with a Ghanaian friend of mine, a lawyer, in London. Every time we meet is an opportunity to dissect the shenanigans of Nigerian and Ghanaian politicians, among the vilest of that species of humans.
On this occasion, my friend wondered what the future held for Nigeria considering the way we treat one another. During a visit to Nigeria, he was stranded at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. In the midst of the confusion, he saw a uniformed officer who was besieged by Nigerians seeking help. He noticed the name on the officer’s nametag and asked a question seeking clarification in the language he thought the officer would understand based on his name. To his surprise, the officer abandoned the Nigerians he was attending to and took my Ghanaian friend away to solve his problem.
I have recounted this story to explain just one aspect of the Nigerian tragedy. I am sure many Nigerians have similar experiences to share. What does Nigeria really mean to Nigerians? We treat foreigners better than we treat our countrymen and women because they share our faith or we speak their language. If you go to many government agencies and academic institutions in Nigeria, the lingua franca is usually the language of the head of the agency or institution; and those who do not understand or speak that language soon discover that they are “foreigners” in their own country. How can we build a nation when we look at one another with suspicion and we don’t put Nigeria first?
It is difficult to make sense of Nigeria. Every now and again, I come across Nigerians, some well-educated, who would ask in righteous indignation: “How come your children all have Yoruba names?” As if Yoruba were some strange and distant part of the world. My standard answer is usually, “Oh, my spouse is Yoruba.” And the response? “That is not an excuse. Where do you come from?” For those I think can swallow it, my answer, an answer which I am sure will make comedians Ali Baba, AY, Basketmouth, and Klint da Drunk, green with envy is: “I came from my mother. And I have never been back there.”
As part of nation-building, perhaps government could incentivize young Nigerians who marry outside their geo-political zone or ethnic stock. As a people, we must develop a national ethos, something that binds us and which we all aspire to. For example, we could launch a national name project encouraging parents to give their children at least one name from another ethnic group. In another twenty years, we may not be able to tell who comes from where.
On this occasion, in this sometimes tortuous journey in which I found God, socialism and love, I remember my family, teachers, mentors, friends, and colleagues. I definitely would want to encounter you all if I were to live this life all over again. You have impacted and enriched my life beyond measure. Some have challenged me; others have supported me in unimaginable ways; yet, others have tolerated my “troubles” and importunity with equanimity.
My greatest gratitude, of course, goes to my immediate family, my alluring spouse, Sola, and adorable children: Femi, Mobolaji, Dotun, and Moyosore. In her I found love and with the children, a family to die for. These five persons remain the best thing to have happened to me. We have shared beautiful and unforgettable memories that could last three lifetimes. I couldn’t have done any of the things I have been able to do without their love and understanding. Sola has been an immeasurable and exceptional pillar of support and has kept the children grounded in my, sometimes, long absences from home.
There is my dad, Elder E. E. Onumaegbu, who taught me courage, honour, the virtue of hard work, and the art of cooking. He was a feminist even if that word wouldn’t have meant anything to him. There was an unwritten law in our home that whoever came back first would prepare dinner for the family. Since my dad worked in a government agency, it meant that on many occasions – except when he had to attend political or social meetings – he usually came home first and had the duty to fix dinner. And as the oldest child, I was the assistant cook. Though not an ideologue, an innocuous 14th birthday gift from my dad, a volume of the Collected Works of V.I. Lenin, leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, changed me forever and set me on a political and ideological discovery that would define my life.
My mum, my birthday mate, Comfort Adaku, taught me love, respect, humility and perseverance. Even when she had quarrels or disagreements with other people, she would always remind us that it was her battle and that, as children, we had a duty to respect even those we considered her “enemies”. I never saw my mum get angry. I still regret the one occasion I remember her raise her voice at me.
I was 17, fresh out of high school and enjoying the freedom that came with the transition from high school to university. My dad, always wanting new experience for me, had asked me to go spend my holiday with my uncles and cousins in Owerri, Imo State. Such visits also afforded me the opportunity to visit my maternal grandmother, Janet Ijeoma Durunna. She was the only one, out of my four possible grandparents that I met. She was a beautiful and lovely old woman who enjoyed telling us, her grandchildren, stories and emphasizing the moral of each story.
I had hardly arrived in Owerri when I came down with severe stomach pain. My aunty took me to her family clinic where the doctor diagnosed appendicitis. He said I had to be operated upon immediately, except that I also had malaria. That meant I had to be treated for malaria before the surgery. That gave my mum, who didn’t want me to travel in the first place, enough time to come to Owerri before the surgery. I had never seen my mum so shaken when she saw me. It was perhaps the first time I remember being hospitalized. The clinic wasn’t busy so my mum would spend time way beyond the visiting hours preparing me psychologically for my surgery.
The surgery went well. Then one day, while I was recuperating, something bizarre happened. That evening, some youth, mostly traders from the main market in the centre of Owerri were brought to the clinic with various degrees of injuries. I would later know that the cause of their injuries was the noise that roused me from sleep a few hours before their arrival. This incident took place a few weeks to one of the most contentious elections in Nigeria’s history, the 1983 general elections, that would be won or stolen (depending on who you asked) by the notorious National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the precursor of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). With that at the back of my mind, when I heard that noise I feared it was a clash of political thugs. But I was wrong. When I looked through the window in my room, I saw a helicopter hovering in the sky and tiny pieces of paper raining down; and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people following the helicopter and running in different directions trying to grab as many of the falling papers as they could. As I would learn later, the magnanimous occupant of the helicopter was no other than the controversial politician, Francis Arthur Nzeribe, who was running for a seat as a senator. That was his own way of campaigning – showering his constituents with naira. Nzeribe would emerge on the national scene a decade later in 1993 as a foot soldier of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, the self-proclaimed evil genius, and one of the leaders of the Association for Better a Nigeria (ABN), the amorphous organisation that played an important role in the infamous annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by M.K.O. Abiola.
Two weeks after I was first hospitalized, I was discharged with the instruction not to do any heavy lifting and to come back a few days later to assess the healing process. That was the beginning of my trouble with my mum. Two days after I returned home, my cousins who had not seen me in years, and wanting to impress me, persuaded me to join them to watch a match at a local football competition. I decided to accompany them without worrying about what my mum would say, partly because I assumed we would be back before dusk. I wasn’t familiar with the terrain and didn’t know how far our destination was. And there were no cell phones those days to call or text that I was safe. By the time we trekked the almost five kilometres back, it was pitch-dark and my mum had gone in search of me.
Knowing the relationship we had, I didn’t anticipate my mum’s reaction. The moment she returned and saw me, she yelled at me, asking if I wanted to kill her by going to play football considering my condition. For the first and only time in my life, I talked back to my mum. I replied that I was 17 years and old enough to take care of myself. That further enraged her. I would apologise hours later, after refusing dinner, telling her that I only accompanied my cousins to the game. She said she was informed that I went to play football and wondered why I didn’t tell her I was just a spectator. I replied that she didn’t give me the opportunity to explain myself. We agreed that as soon as I was strong enough to travel, we would return to Lagos.
Lagos holds strong memories for me even though the chaos, noise, heavy traffic and general planlessness combine to fill me with dread each time I have to return there. As a preteen, I would sometimes skip school to tend my mother’s stall each time she had to attend the regular meetings, in central Lagos, called by Abibatu Mogaji, then President-General, Association of Nigerian Market Women and Men. Interestingly I was the only boy among the female preteens who would also stand in for their mothers. As a youngster, I insisted on working for my pocket money. So, during weekends and holidays, I would encourage my mum to buy me things to sell and I would “kiri” (a Yoruba word meaning to carry a tray filled with items on the head and sell in the neighbourhood) different items, mostly fruits – depending on the season. I made enough money to invest on newspapers and books. By the time I left high school in 1983 and had become too big to “kiri”, my mum made sure I never lacked pocket money. Much of that money went to buying The Guardian newspaper which debuted that year and would change the trajectory of Nigerian journalism.
One of the fondest memories about my mum took place in 1995. After graduation, I had moved back to Lagos in search of work as a journalist. I started contributing to The Punch during my National Youth Service and would spend some time at The Guardian as a trainee reporter after service, then Sentinel magazine, before moving to ICNL, the parent company of The News/Tempo magazines which had just started a daily newspaper called AM News. I was reporting education even though my interest was politics. This was at the height of the brutal military dictatorship of the maniacal general, Sani Abacha.
I had done a story on the secret foreign accounts of Abacha’s second-in-command, Gen. Oladipo Diya, way before #PanamaPapers would expose the underbelly of global capitalism and the illicit financial activities of companies and prominent individuals around the world, including past and present public officers in Nigeria, such as Gen. Theophilus Danjuma (rtd.), one of the ringleaders of the second military coup in Nigeria on July 29, 1966, a former Chief of Army Staff and later Minister of Defence, Gen. David mark (rtd.) ex-Senate President, and Bukola Saraki, former governor of Kwara State and current President of the Nigerian Senate.
Abacha would later fall out with Diya, nicknamed the “Crying General” – after a video emerged showing him on his knees, weeping and pleading for leniency on being accused of conspiring to overthrow the Abacha regime. On this occasion, before the coup allegation that condemned Diya, first to death, and later, to life imprisonment, the story on the cover of AM News had alleged that Gen. Diya maintained foreign accounts which had fallen into the hands of fraudsters. Abacha was aghast. As the mindless looting that took place under his murderous regime came to light, it became clear that his shock had to do with the fact that someone else was beating him to his game. The day after the story was published, about five operatives of the State Security Service (SSS) arrived AM News as I was preparing my story for the following day and arrested me. I was taken to the SSS headquarters at Shangisha on the outskirts of central Lagos and detained for eight days.
While the story of my arrest was widely reported, my dad and siblings made sure they kept it from my mum. I used to visit her once or twice a week, sometimes before work, and at other times after work, depending on my schedule as a reporter. As the days rolled by and I hadn’t visited, she enquired from my siblings if they had heard from me. They were able to convince her that indeed they had heard from me and that I had indicated I would visit. By the end of the week she had become very apprehensive. She had genuine reasons to be concerned. We had endless discussions about the dangers of my job. In his attempt to legitimize his regime, Abacha had declared war on journalists and human rights activists.
I went straight to the office to inform my bosses the evening I was released. I was given a day off and I went immediately to visit my mum. I imagined the different questions and scenarios that would play out the moment I saw her. Even though I had lost a few pounds from not eating the miserable food that was served once or twice a day at the detention centre, I didn’t think I was too disheveled to betray the fact that I was in detention. I barely slept while in detention, partly because there was no bed, and partly because my interrogators kept prodding me, morning, afternoon and night, to retract my story in order to facilitate my release.
The moment I appeared before my mum, she took one look at me, inquired why I did not visit her the week before and intoned that I looked like someone who had just been released from prison. I smiled and replied in a jocular way that she was right; that I had just been released from detention. I sensed a feeling of betrayal, that my siblings had managed to keep my arrest and detention away from her. Then I complimented her clairvoyance before narrating my experience in detention.
I learnt many life lessons from my mum. If ever there is one disappointment I have in life, it is that she did not live to see my family: her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. I remember on many occasions we would talk about love, family and relationships. At the end of such discussion, she would say in that tone only a doting mother would use that she would not interfere in my marriage and that she would not visit my home unless she was expressly invited by my spouse and me. She was sincere about it but she would add that she knew, considering my disposition, she could not win that battle even if she wanted to act the proverbial “mother-in-law from hell”.
I remember my sibling with whom I shared laughter, love, affection, and many childhood pranks; my childhood best friends, Ben Ogazi and Kennedy Etoroma were a constant source of inspiration. Kennedy and I would share a flat much later in Festac Town after graduation. Initially called "Festival Town" or "Festac Village", Festac Town, the magnificent housing estate along the Lagos-Badagry Expressway, was built by the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo to house participants of the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture in 1977. After the festival, the 5000 dwelling units were handed over to Nigerians who participated in a ballot. Festac Town was, as Andrew Apter noted in The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria, “intended to evoke the modern age and the promise of state-sponsored economic development fuelled by oil”.
My high school was just opposite what was known as the 2nd Gate of Festac, and my friends and I enjoyed walking to school because of the scenic view. Sometimes, on our way from school, we would sit and chat on benches with trees along the well-paved streets providing adequate protection from the sun. Anyone who wants to understand the tragic paradox called Nigeria, our knack for abuse of systems and processes, need look no further than Festac Town. Today, less than four decades after it was opened, that once serene and picturesque estate has degenerated into a slum.
One of the most interesting people I came across during high school was my principal, late Chief (Mrs.) Bolaji Aduke Awoboh-Pearse. Mrs. Pearse, as we called her, was a mother away from home. She took me and other raw preteen boys who arrived at Awori Ajeromi Grammar School in September 1978 under her tutelage and refined us in character and learning. Rather than flog us, she would cry – as a sign of disappointment – each time we pulled a prank deserving of punishment like when a few of my friends and I went to swim in a stream after school.
Late Pa Alfred Poopola Jaiyesimi adopted me as one of his sons and opened a vista of interest in politics, history, and the struggle for independence. Dr. Lambert Onumaegbu was my earliest encounter with the world of intellectualism. My cousin, Chief Ibem Onumaegbulam, the older brother I never had, saw me through university.
I salute my comrades – the cadres of the Movement for a Progressive Nigeria (MPN) – at the University of Calabar (UNICAL) where I mastered the art of insurrection and agitation. Regrettably, it was not until I arrived at UNICAL that I first became aware of the role of ethnic consciousness (even amongst intellectuals) in the stymieing of the Nigerian dream. As part of the rites of passage for fresh students, we were entreated to join, depending on where you claimed to come from, one of the many “Parapo” or ethnic associations on campus that served no meaningful purpose other than to magnify our fault lines as a nation.
We fought many battles against this parochialism. Our other exploits, including the planned takeover of a radio station in Calabar, during the Orkar coup of April 22, 1990, could have cost us our lives. The “canon of the movement”, Austin “Canoways” Emaduku, rallied Malabites (male students of UNICAL) to rescue me when I was abducted by reactionary forces one early morning in those turbulent days. How can I forget my roommate for four years, Victor Oruche? Though we never knew each other before we met at UNICAL on our first day of school and our politics was polar opposite, our bond was beyond that of blood brothers.
I pay respect to Comrade Edwin Madunagu who, through his writings and many interactions, has provided directions and answers to many ideological questions in the last three decades; to the wordsmith, Dapo Olorunyomi, who has opened many doors for me, including the one that led me into professional journalism. I remember Comrade Prof. Bene Madunagu and her colleagues in the Academic Staff Union of universities (ASUU) whose dogged support ensured that I left UNICAL with a degree.
In the radical pan-Africanist and editor of The Insight newspaper, Accra, Ghana, Kwesi Pratt Jnr. and his wife, Marian Baaba, I found a family away from Nigeria during the horrid days of the Abacha dictatorship. Dr. Rosaline Okosun, President of the Association Against Women Export (ASWE) facilitated my relocation to Canada and played the role of a big sister in helping me settle in.
World War II veteran, Roy Taylor, his wife, Mae, Charlene and Clayton Root, and Westview Baptist Church, London, Ontario, Canada, were magnanimous hosts when I arrived in Canada in the summer of 2000. Dr. Dascha and Alex Paylor welcomed me warmly into their family without hesitation and supported me through graduate school. I thank my dean at the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University, London, Ontario, Canada, Prof. Majunath Pendakur, who believed in me and gave me career-enhancing opportunities as well as Prof José Manuel Pérez Tornero, Director of the Doctorate in Journalism and Communication Sciences at the Faculty of Communication Sciences, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain, who encouraged me three years ago to embark on a doctoral research on the digital transition of the newspaper press in Nigeria and South Africa.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge two individuals, my colleague and friend, Lewis Asubiojo, with whom I set up the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) many years ago, and my friend, and collaborator, Godwin Onyeacholem, who has been my editorial support and guide through three books in the last five years.
Moyosoreoluwa! I thank God for life and His mercies. On this occasion of the golden jubilee of my birth, I rededicate myself to the destruction of that system, no matter what its purveyors call it, that seeks to enslave the workers of the world; to “the categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which the human being is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned, and despised!”
I pledge to Nigeria; however, not Nigeria in its extremely dysfunctional state. I commit to a new, progressive, and egalitarian Nigeria where citizens will be defined not by their name, language, faith, or ethnicity; where citizens will find fulfillment no matter which part of the country they come from; above all, a Nigeria where every Nigerian can live in peace, go to school, work, raise a family and run for office wherever they choose. I believe that Nigeria is possible!
* Chido Onumah is Coordinator of the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL). He is the author of two books: Time to Reclaim Nigeria (2011) and Nigeria is Negotiable (2013). His forthcoming book is titled: We are all Biafrans: A Participant-Observer’s Interventions in a Country Sleepwalking to Disaster. [email protected]; Twitter: @conumah
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