History shone like a headlight. It did not happen alone in Lagos, where the life of Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh, swam under searchlights. Samuel Akintola of the acerbic wit also roared from the grave. In the North, the Sardauna of Sokoto, swaggered for attention.
The triumph was for history. In a nation doomed from generating a new generation of historians for banishing history from the academic curriculum! Never mind that in those events you find only those who studied history or witnessed it.
At the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, I moderated a colloquium on Okotie-Eboh, and the speakers were mainly witnesses of the life and doings of the colourful Nigerian politician. The speakers included Dara Mbazulike Amaechi, a surviving First Republic minister; Alhaji Ahmed Joda, Chief Philip Asiodu, Senator Ben Obi and Chief Brown Mene.
If last week marked 50 years of Okotie-Eboh’s death, it was five decades since five majors popped our political cherry. The soldiers stepped over the lion’s piss, played Samson to the head of the pride, shaved off the mane and raped the lioness. The offspring was a hybrid political system that gave us neither the sophistication of man nor the ferocious dignity of a cat.
Okotie-Eboh, known as Omimi Ejo, was glamour as politician. Yet all we remember of this man was that he shepherded First Republic finances and was slaughtered savagely as well as Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa. The panelists showed that the Omimi Ejo’s narrative had been skewed by the false heroism of the majors, especially Kaduna Nzeogwu’s 10 per cent speech.
So, if he was finance minister, he was the chief 10 percenter. As Amaechi noted, no one had evidence about these allegations. He said all NCNC office holders were obliged to pay 10 per cent of their incomes to the political party.
The inimitable orator, Alhaji Maitama Sule, also his colleague, gave the keynote and rambled along elegantly about the virtues and humour of the man, his cosmopolitan virtues, his commercial acumen, his gregarious wit, his fierce nationalism, a man who was born Urhobo and died not only Itsekiri but also a Nigerian. The panelists reminded us that he gave us the Central Bank and the mint company, set up the financial infrastructure of Nigeria at independence.
On wealth, they said he was richer than his political party before he became a party wheel horse or minister, that it was the great Zik who chose him to represent the NCNC in the cabinet against the ambitions of men like Sir Ojukwu, incidentally one of Zik’s close friends. They implied he was too wealthy for the corrupting wiles of office. He had built schools and other institutions.
Some of these narratives shine in a book edited by Professor Jide Osuntokun titled Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh: In Time and Space. What the colloquium achieved was to excavate the man from history. It beckoned us to look again at the man’s tale beyond the long, interminable, serpentine textile tail. We should examine him not as part of the vast sweep of that event alone but also as an individual, a visioner, patriot, bureaucrat, technocrat, parliamentarian, business mogul, cosmopolitan, etc.
We know that the Nzeogwu coup came with a mixed bag. The young men wanted to save the country in their own light. They left it misshapen for half a century. No man can call them heroes in my book. They even knew nothing about organising a putsch. They ethnicised it, killed the Yoruba, killed the Hausa Fulani, left the Igbo unhurt, including Aguiyi-Ironsi.
No one is sure who the leader was. Nzeogwu would not bow to Ifeajuna, while Ifeajuna bellyached that Nzeogwu would not acknowledge him as the sovereign of the conspiracy. They slaughtered Akintola and Sardauna, and that reflected their naivety.
The shedding of blood never healed any society in history. Nzeogwu studied history amiss. Blood begets blood. Check all the revolutions. English. French. Soviet. Chinese. The turning points of Europe in mid-19th century. Napoleon’s bloodlust. Bismarck’s iron dream. Metternich’s nationalist fury.
The Nigerian majors stepped onto the lion’s piss, shaved the beast and expected the raping of the lioness to achieve the weariness of all flesh. But the nation has paid with its pound of flesh year after year. Coup after coup. Corruption scandal after scandal. The topsy-turvy of its political elite. The friction over consensus. And the consequential slide in every facet of our lives.
They exploited the frustration of the average Nigerian to satiate a lust of power. They claimed they wanted Awo to hold the fort. That sounds beautiful, but history is not about what might have been. If they bungled the coup itself, killed those who they should not and ignored those who they were supposed to kill, what else guaranteed that the Awo narrative was not part of a face-saving pastiche, a gimmick to salvage a flawed heroism? Or that after the quarry is quiet, they would not turn the hunting gun at each other. Just like Nzeogwu versus Ifeajuna, woeful losers with empty gunpowder.
That is why today an Akintola can get a renaissance as well as the Sardauna. The southern elite defended theirs while the northern ones dangled swords for their icon. So, there. In spite of the spirit of contagion of coups in Africa, the base behaviour of our elite did not justify the mass slaughter. It ignited the rage that precipitated the pogrom of the Igbo that precipitated the civil war, a 30-month absurdity that bloodied the nation’s map.
I noted at the colloquium that the phrase ‘a man of the people’ popularised by Achebe’s novel of that title had problematised the concept and conceit of a popular politician. Chief Nanga, with Achebe deft hand, turned out to be a man for himself. The Scandinavian playwright Ibsen wrote a play titled Enemy of the People, and it turned out that the so-called enemy was the friend of the people.
That is why, for me, the beauty of this season is to wake up our study of history. It is clear we have not analysed our past enough. Because we have not researched enough, we make cartoons of our past. A man is either a villain or hero, depending on who subverts the narrative.
When Okotie-Eboh’s daughter and former permanent secretary, Dr. Dere Awosika, put together the NIIA event, I recalled Winston Churchill’s words about what history would say about him. “History will be kind to me for I will write it,” he noted. He controlled his narrative, although that might be an exaggeration.
Dr. Awosika and her family certainly gave the family patriarch the beginning of a make-over. The event was not an ethnic one, but a sweep of Nigeria’s ethnic physiognomy. Obj chaired it, and a broad spectrum of Nigerians from East, West and North were happy to be there, including the Emir of Kano, Sanusi 11, former Delta State governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, Chief Segun Osoba.
If last week was a triumph for history, it was an episodic one. A few days later, we will be back to our default amnesia. The last time we had a feast like this was when General Alabi Isama released his epic account of the civil war, The Tragedy of History.
How many schools study that book, or will study Osuntokun’s book on Okotie-Eboh? Triple-in-one minister Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN, who was represented at the event, hit the bulls’ eye when he mused on the absence of historical consciousness among our young.
They know American history, and that’s because they schooled abroad. But they will have to learn our history. Was it not here that a student in Ikenne knew Obafemi the footballer and Obafemi the political genius? If they don’t know the story of the Sokoto Caliphate or the Niger Delta city states or the Yoruba wars of the 19th century or the so-called Benin massacre, what of a recent event like the civil war? Not many have ever heard of Gowon.
In Journalism, I met some students who know nothing about Ray Ekpu or Dan Agbese. That’s why we have no fitting memorials for any period of time. We have memories. But memory without documentation or authentication is like oral history. We pass facts and parse them. We are left with biases, pastiches, myths and outright lies.
Our amnesia reminds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, where a man spends all his life waiting for the husband of the love of his life to die. By the time it happens, he is wrinkly, withered fuddy-duddy and the woman also an expired fig. They marry with no juice, a romantic desert. So, they go around in circles on a ship with no anchor but only a chorus of encores.
If we don’t study our history, we will be, as the historian asserted, “a rudderless craft in the uncharted sea of time.”