I saw both of them as fellow students of the Obafemi Awolowo University. We never spoke. We were not even acquaintances. Far away from my ken but in the boil of campus politics, Femi Falana was unmistakable as a stormy young man and nemesis of the university authorities. Kunle Ajibade I saw around and remembered as a youth of chiselled and parsimonious build, the lean and hungry look of a poet. He did not seem as ominous as the other guy, whose thunderous rebellion made you forget how small he really was. On campus, I thought Falana was just a young man in a fickle dalliance with Karl Marx because it gave his Napoleonic stature a desperate audience. I thought he was more vain than vexed.
I was to build friendships with both of them outside the provenance of school. I did not even know it was the fellow with little flesh around his bones that was Ajibade when he and another with a potential for corpulence known as Dele Momodu took on a mainstay of the profession over plagiarism charges. He was introduced to me by Momodu in our African Concord days, and my first impression did not go beyond his ready affability and good humour. Subsequently, I saw he did not go to school just to pass literature exams. He was the real deal. But it was those early days when boys were trying to chart their ways in the world. We were in our 20’s. I did not know Kunle had a few years over me. I did not see him for a while until I attended an event at the NIIA, and Ajibade materialised in a white shirt and what Americans called Chicago tie. His tie flew, in obedience to a tepid wind, over his shoulder and back.
As if anticipating my query, he chuckled, “Sammy, you see what they have forced me to wear. I don’t feel comfortable in this attire.” I chuckled in reply. Ajibade had landed a reluctant job as a copy writer in an advertising company. He was like an eagle trying to swim.
Falana also got introduced to me by now Senator Femi Ojudu in my African Concord days, although we had met casually when he was a lawyer in the law chambers of the debonair Alao Aka-Basorun. He was still a lawyer trying to find his voice. He was also writing a column. My opinion of him as a fair-weather radical was undergoing a surgery then.
This month, Falana and Ajibade turned 60, and they are no longer small in anyone’s mind, even if in height Falana remains close to the earth and Ajibade has forsworn fatness. They are two men who have exemplified two powerful forces in the battle against misanthropic society: the word and the law. Falana has fought with the law. Ajibade with the word. Both of them have collided with authority. Both spent time behind bars. Both did not allow themselves to be carried away by the scent of lucre, the languor of luxury, the seduction of power and the Mephistophelean opportunism of the upper class.
A major event that demonstrated their principle was the watershed crisis of their generation: June 12. IBB was the villain of the age, and followed by the butcher Sani Abacha who Buhari, in a seizure of gratuitous gratitude, is eulogising. I may even say eulogising because Buhari will be the first leader in Aso Rock to praise that demon of our history as a hero. It was because of the fortitude of men like Falana and Ajibade that we have democracy of which Buhari is a beneficiary without fighting for it. Buhari was quiet when men died and others fled to exile. He never raised a finger against Abacha’s butchery and barbaric impulses as long as his foe, IBB, was stepped aside.
It was hard to meet with Ajibade in those days of the June 12 crisis when he, along with Bayo Onanuga, Dapo Olorunyomi, (who turned 60 last year) Femi Ojudu, et al, locked themselves in mud wrestling with Abacha and his men. They did not stay at home. They lived in the suitcase, the SSS a step behind them. Ajibade was held and deposited in Abacha’s gulag. They threw the key away and no one could reach him. We feared for his life. I recall reading an interview in a newspaper granted by his beloved wife, and how she said when she missed him, she took shelter in his library. So, we get it. He was a man of words. The words that twitted power, that wrinkled a highbrow army, that blossomed with yearnings of the people. He left jail and survived the barbarous scandal of that era, and he has remained in the bosom of progressive thinking up till today.
Falana, of course, was in the forefront of the struggle. We got closer when I was the secretary general of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights and his fraternal shadow over me in those days was of great value, as well that of the president, the late Beko Ransome-Kuti. The work of CDHR was a dress rehearsal for the role Falana played in rattling the Abacha government. Of course, he was picked up with Beko. I recall attending one of the court proceedings in Abuja and I had a short chat with them before the Black vehicle took them away. I followed them, sneakily, until a vehicle blocked me and a man in suit wagged a finger at me as though wordlessly warning me I might join the ride as a co-passenger with the detainees.
Abiola’s confidante and my predecessor, Olu Akerele, was to alert me a few days later that two vehicles were following me about town and my naïve soul woke up to the possibility that my life was in danger. I left town, also sneakily.
Falana post-June 12 has boosted his profile as Gani’s successor. Except that Falana is still a confessed socialist but he has turned the resources of law to the services of justice. While some of his SAN colleagues have looked at law as only a meal ticket, Falana has become an exponent of law for the popular will. He does not see technicality. He sees justice. He knows in the words of civil rights icon Thoreau “that the law never made anyone a whit more just.” He does not believe in law for law’s sake. Hence he is an avenging angel of technicality, turning the strict construction of law for the liberation of the oppressed. I call him the best of his generation, just like Gani and, of course, his former mentor, Aka-Bashorun.
When I look back at the corporate spectacle of Ajibade at NIIA, I muse about how his life might have turned had he not changed course. Imagine him today, a CEO of a leviathan firm, suffocated in a Manhattan suite, his visage grave like that of Shonekan, his language about profit and loss, his temperament of the mercantilist sobriety of the masters of the universe. In the air, in a private jet. On earth, in a Rolls Royce. At home, a palace lord. It is hard to imagine him not at peace with banter and ideas, with Death and The King’s Horse man or Things Fall Apart, or squaring off against Odia Ofeimun or waking me up in the morning about who won the year’s Nobel prize. Or in my private struggle when I rankled a certain political family, he was the only journalist and friend who consistently rang into my ears that I should stick to my principle. His inner chronometer was not made for the showy grandeur of the upper crust. He found his calling. He found his voice.
For both men, there is still a lot of gold to mine at 60. In Shakespeare’s words, “the world is your oyster.”
As the APC takes its congresses away from the state, the party titans are looking towards the national convention. It was a hubbub of rancour and parallel congresses exposing a maelstrom in Nigeria’s ruling party. But only a few states had it together, and one of such is Plateau State. Before the congresses there were candidates who were expected to raise parallel dusts. Thanks to the mollifying hands of Governor Simon Lalong, it turned out to be an event of harmony.
Candidates agreed to work together within the party. It is with this sort of pacific skill Lalong has brought to his state a relative tranquility while the region bows to the killings and depredations of herdsmen.