|Wole Soyinka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
When you have been following social and political events as long as I have --- I date my beginning from the day I entered journalism in 1945, that is, 70 years ago --- you are always running across events that provide you with flavourful memories.
One such came in an AlJazeera programme this week about the Nigerian film industry. As part of the show, a gentleman called Ogunde recalled that even before the beginning of Nigerian films, a travelling entertainment owned, operated and performed by his father, Hubert Ogunde, was popular all over the country, but especially in the southern parts.
It took me back to the year 1966, memorable in the history of Nigeria, for sure, when a group of young army officers from the Northern Region, headed by Major Chikwuma Nzeogwu, conducted a half-successful rebellion in which they killed the first (and much-admired) President of the country, Sir Abubaker Tafewa Balewa, as well as Chief Festus Okotie Ebo, the federal finance minister, the head of the western region government Chief Samuel Akintola, as well as several other leading Nigerian politicians.
On the following morning, a Saturday, I was scheduled to be taken by a federal information officer to the University for an interview with the playwright Wole Soyinka, years later a Nobel Prize winner. When the information officer did not turn up I took a taxi, and at the University I discovered that the heads of the Nigerian state had, as it were, been chopped off, and all was confusion as to who was running the country. Later in the day in an effort to discover what had happened, I was directed to visit Hubert Ogunde, who, I was told would almost certainly know what had happened. I didn’t know his address, but simply asked a taxi driver to take me to him, which he did unhesitatingly.
My informants were right. This remarkable man, a richly comic and at the same time impressive character, who knew everybody in Nigeria and was known to everybody, naturally had all the details about what these army officers had done, how they invaded the President’s home and shot him down, and so on. I felt I could not have had a more reputable informant, and, in the absence of any other information, hurried off a dispatch to my newspaper in Montreal. Unfortunately, cable communications between Nigeria and the outside world had been suspended, so Patrick Keatley, the Guardian’s Commonwealth correspondent (and, incidentally, a Canadian), who was known to all the Nigerian politicians and officials, and myself gathered together all the dispatches that foreign correspondents had written and flew with them to neighbouring Ghana, a country in those days already sinking into a sort of paranoid authoritarianism that was not to be trifled with.
At the Accra airport on arrival we were placed to one side and told to wait. We waited and waited, and eventually realized that the room we were in gave directly on to a taxi rank. So we slipped out, took a taxi into town to the Cable and Wireless office and phoned the Canadian high commission asking them to make our excuses for us with the airport authorities.
The Cable and Wireless office had only a Sunday staff. Our dispatches would have to wait for the censor, they told us. Where was he? The censor was a Mr Newman, who was at the beach. We would just have to wait until he returned home and could be advised of the pile of news dispatches that he would be required to either veto or rubberstamp. We left the pile, with our own dispatches on top, and Mr Newman, when he appeared, was a good-looking, pleasantly spoken fellow, who hurried through the dispatches and sent them through without a word changed, no doubt taking advantage of the government’s confusion before the events in neighbouring Nigeria. We took a plane back to Nigeria at the first opportunity.
When I had met Soyinka at the university he was rather nervous as to which side had come out on top. The western region had recently re-elected Akintola, but Soyinka, an intensely political guy in those days, had marched into a radio station and broadcast an alternative version of the results from those issued officially. When I went with him the following Wednesday on a tour of the ju-ju clubs, Soyinka was greeted as a hero as we entered each club, and our table quickly was crowded with contributed bottles of beer gifted by his many admirers.
It turned out that the head of the army, Major-General Johnson Ironsi, had been warned of the coup by a phone call from a subordinate who had been killed not long after making the call. He took command of the country, suspended the constitution, thus ending the federal republic, and was himself killed by dissatisfied Northern officers six months later. Until this year, 49 years later, Nigeria has been ruled in an almost unbroken line by the military.