BIG-CITY JOURNALISM: PART VI
I suppose the most exciting event I ever had to cover was something that happened while I was asleep, that is, the overnight murder in 1966 of the Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Nigeria, and the recently elected Premiers of two regional governments. For a week or so I had been covering a Commonwealth conference, and had decided to stay on in Lagos for a few days to write some stuff about Nigerian politics.
On a Saturday morning I had arranged that a government information officer would pick me up and take me out to the University for an interview with Wole Soyinka, the well-known (later Nobel Prize winning) playwright. The man did not arrive when he was expected at 9 a.m, so I settled down to wait. The lights in the hotel appeared not to be working, but I just said to myself, “Ho hum, so things don’t work so well here. What else is new?” I was getting restive by 10 o’clock, and at 11 o’clock I decided to grab a taxi and go out there myself. As he pulled away, the taxi driver said, “We just killed our Prime Minister last night, did you know that?”
“Ho hum,” I told myself again, “very fanciful these Africans.”
“You don’t believe me?” asked the driver.
“Were the lights working in your hotel this morning?”
“No, they weren’t.”
“You begin to believe me little-little?”
Little-little is right. When I reached Soyinka I found him in a state of great anxiety. He knew something drastic had happened, but he had no idea whether his side or some other was now in power. And it was important for him to find out. He had become a man of political substance when, during the recent election of the government of the Yoruba region, he had seized the microphone at a radio station and broadcast what he said were the real, as distinct from the invented, results, which showed that the incumbent, Samuel Akintola, had been defeated, although claiming victory.
I returned to the city, and decided to go look for another man I had on my list to interview, Hubert Ogunde, a man who ran a theatre group that was famous throughout West Africa, and whom I was assured knew everything that was going on.
To find him, I simply had to give his name to the taxi-driver, who took me to him without further ado. He greeted me with great fanfare, and immediately began to tell me the details of what had happened overnight. He said a group of young Army majors in the Northern part of the state had murdered the Prime Minister, Abubaker Tafawa Balewa, but also the most powerful man in the Northern region, Ahmedu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, as well as the federal Finance Minister Chief Festus, who was famous for his corruption, and the recently re-elected premier of the Western Region, the afore-mentioned Samuel Akintola, along with 18 other functionaries. Ogunde was able to describe to me how the majors had broken into the houses of these political leaders and shot them dead as the preliminary act in a plot designed to take over the government and clean out the corruption, looting of public funds and flamboyant living that had taken root in their country.
A mistake was made by the plotters in that they did not ensure takeover of the army in Lagos, the capital, and by the afternoon it was reported by the wife of one resident British correspondent, who went horseback riding every day, and had been told something about what was happening, that the chief of the Army, General Ironsi, had taken command of the situation and established a military government. The chief plotter was a major called Patrick Chukwunma Nzeogwu, a 30-year-old who had often irritated his superiors. He was arrested within three days, and later joined the Biafra side in the civil war, and within 18 months was killed by federal troops in an ambush.
Although there was no verification of Ogunde’s tale, I decided to file a story outlining the story he told me (which later proved to be true in every detail). The next day, Patrick Keatley, a Canadian who worked for The Guardian and I decided to take everyone’s copy to Ghana, since in Nigeria all communication with the outside world was suspended. We were detained at the airport in Accra and told to wait in a room, but outside we could see taxis pulling up, and since we were not locked up, we decided to sneak out and take one of them to the cable office. There a friendly operator told us all the copy we had handed in would have to be cleared by Mr. Newman, the censor, before it could be dispatched. Where was Mr. Newman? “He is at the beach.”
We urged they bring him back post-haste, and after an hour or so, this very pleasant young man turned up and began to read through the copy and send it off. We had strategically placed our own copy on the top of the pile, to ensure it beat everyone else’s. Then we flew back to Lagos on the next plane.
A few days later I met Wole Soyinka over dinner. Afterwards we made a tour of the remarkable ju-ju clubs of Lagos --- arched, low-lying vaults unlike anything I had ever seen, with frenetic, intoxicating drumming and chanting, and sensuous dancing by the “mammies” of Lagos, fat old women with huge bottoms who shook their booties to extraordinary effect. Wole was greeted as a hero in every club we entered, and we had no sooner sat down than the table in front of us was filled with bottles of beer that had been sent over by his admirers.
I had plenty to write about in addition to the tale of the failed coup. Hubert Ogunde turned out to be one-of-a-kind, the type you meet only once in a lifetime, an old-time theatre manager, entrepreneur, actor, playwright with a following that it would be hard to imagine being duplicated in any Western country. He had ten wives, and all of them worked in his theatre company, most of them as actresses, as did many of his veritable army of children.
Ogunde had written, at the time I met him, 33 plays that he had performed up and down the West coast of Africa, a number that rose to 50 before he was finished. Later in life he became a star of the first Nigerian films. Ogunde’s father was a Baptist preacher, and his maternal grandfather, in whose house he was raised, was a priest of African traditional religions, so he was well placed to give expression to the ethos of his society. He was a policeman at first, got his start in the theatre under the sponsorship of the Christian church, but after writing some plays with religious themes, he resigned from the police and set up the first professional theatre in the country. He changed his subject matter to themes of national or contemporary political interest, incorporating realism, dancing and singing --- his works were a sort of folk opera.
My research into what might have caused this failed coup revealed the extremely sloppy way in which British politicians decided to hand power to the inhabitants whose fortunes they had controlled for so many decades, as if they were almost hysterical in their urgent desire to get rid of their fabled Empire. I remember the Colonial Secretary in 1960, Iain Macleod, telling us that independence was given to Tanganyika “entirely because of Julius Nyerere.” He had been educated at Edinburgh University, and was essentially regarded as a “sound chap”. He may have been his country’s only university graduate, but to him was granted the impossible task of running a new nation totally unequipped to run itself.
Similarly in Nigeria: I had always thought the British gave most power to the northern region because the Sardauna of Sokoto had gone to Eton, and played fives there whenever he returned to Britain. But I had the story slightly wrong. Apparently, he was educated not at Eton, but at Katsina College in Nigeria, established by Lord Lugard to have all the attributes of a British public (i.e. private) school, and he emerged from that education as a convinced anglophile. He loved cricket, but his favorite game was fives, which he recommended as an excellent source of exercise for any adult. “The Sardauna was particularly honoured,” wrote Kwasi Kwateng in a book on The Ghosts of Empire, “when he was invited to play fives at Eton during one of his visits to Britain.”
Thus, I think it could be said that the British decided to give major power in Nigeria to the Northern Region under an impossible constitution, that inevitably could not last, because the Sardauna of Sokoto, the north’s top personality, was a sound chap who played fives at Eton. Incredible, but true.
Perhaps not quite so incredible was that all this haste to quit troublesome Africa was part of Britain’s overall scheme to abandon the Commonwealth and join the EEC. That they bequeathed to African nations borders that were drawn up by colonial civil servants without reference to any local reality --- a decision with tragic consequences reverberating in Africa and the Middle East until this very day --- was apparently of little concern to the British leaders.