February 26, 2021

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After Cicero

11 min read

Prologue

Twenty eight years after a significant section of the Yoruba political elite played a lead role in the national tragedy that led to the murder of MKO Abiola, politics among the children of Oduduwa has remained as bitter and as divisive as ever. From all indications, the hyenas and political vultures are warming up for dinner again.

Yoruba romanticists often contend that the race only comes into its own when it is confronted by grave external threats. In the cauldron of a multi-ethnic nation seething with grave contradictions, this is an elegiac suicide note Any modern nationality which relies on external threats for self-validation or for a reaffirmation of its core values and primal identity is an inorganic entity in the first instance.

This morning and in order to help our reflection on the matter, we are publishing unedited a piece that first appeared twenty one years ago shortly after the assassination of Chief Ajibola Ige.

 

Tatalo Alamu

 

When beggars die”, observes the immortal William Shakespeare, “there are no comets seen but the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes”. So it has been with James Ajibola Idowu Ige, our own much beloved and lamented Cicero. It was a glistening and glittering exit which would have made sitting presidents squirm in embarrassment and lapsed military Caesars wince in envy.

He did not command divisions or benefit from ambiguous mandates. But a man surely passed through this unhappy land and as Brecht has noted, unhappy indeed is the land that has no heroes.

After the historic show-stopper, what remains is to reappraise Ige and not to bury him all over again; to relate his untimely demise to the political culture that threw him up, and to locate his aborted career within the grim dynamics of the failed state that facilitated his ascendancy in the first instance.

In the end, what was said of a turbulent poet of another turbulent land also holds true for the departed political heavyweight. The mystery was not that he was murdered but that they allowed him to live for that long. Unfortunate to have been born in a land afflicted by a wasting disease, a land which must devour its most noble and illustrious children to prolong its miserable existence, the great Cicero has paid the full penalty for unfortunate circumstances of  colonial cartography.

It is not a destiny to be ashamed of, since no one can determine where and when they will be born. It is an iron jacket Ige wore with aplomb; and a murderous contraption whose gaps, absences and silences he explored and exploited with gusto.

Possessed of a warrior and swashbuckling strain passed down from ancestors and a father who enlisted for the Second World War at well over the age of fifty, Ige was a famed slayer of fools and political frauds. He was a master of the devastating metaphor and the deadly pun.

Yours sincerely recall first listening to him on state radio during 1964 Federal elections grimly admonishing those who were being returned “unopposed” by the ruling party that they were actually  going “ona posi”. (In Yoruba, the road to the coffin). It was a chilling performance and a lethal pun if ever there was one. But it was also an act of spectacular courage and heroism, his leader having been imprisoned and the party itself besieged on all fronts.

They were those, then, who, having suffered from Ige’s bristling tongue and nettling wit, would have loved to shut his mouth permanently, like they did to Cicero, his Roman primogenitor, who literally had his tongue pulled out. In the event, they went for Ige’s heart, pumping hot lead into arguably his most golden possession. It was a magnificent heart, devoid to a large extent of malice and meanness, accommodating and tolerating often to a fault, full of human warmth and affection.

It was the heart of a Bohemian poet rather than a great politician. A great politician, while working for the greater good of the greatest number, must also have a penetrating insight into the complex motivation of human actors, their often impure impulses and the festering possibilities of ancient resentments and imagined slights. Of course if he dwells too long on this, he is going to end up a villain like the rest of them. The trick is to locate the golden mean.

Unfortunately, the great man never seemed to have.  Despite his thunderous denunciations and caustic tongue, Ige was fundamentally too refined, too cultured and too evolved to contemplate snuffing life out of a fellow being. In the vicious, Hobbesian world of Nigeria’s post-colonial politics such innocence is an open cheque to murderous thugs.

If you cannot contemplate taking a life, you are not likely to imagine anybody plotting to take yours. No matter how explosively charged the atmosphere is, how violently abusive the situation has become, common sense will ultimately prevail. As pogroms succeed pogroms and assassinations compete with assassinations in contemporary Nigeria, this frame of mind represents a triumph of illusion over harsh reality.

Had Ige not become a politician of note, he would have been a formidable scholar and a distinguished professor of literature. Such was his breadth of learning, his wealth of cultural references, his cosmopolitan taste and the acuity of his literary judgement. He was intuitively perceptive and his intellectual antennae honed to precision.

He was not a master of philosophical abstractions or conceptual thinking. He did not possess the analytical rigour of a Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and his writing could not be accused of the dialectical density and the granite gravitas of the old man’s distinguished disquisitions. But he more than made up for this by his feline alertness to the contradictions of the post-colonial state, and a graceful facility for self-expression.

The result was that what Chief Awolowo often arrived at after exhausting and exacting analysis, Ige  often leapfrogged to  through a more intuitively intellectual  route. And as such it was the younger man who memorably captured for posterity the more bizarre idiocies of our contemporary political affliction.

For illustrious leader and distinguished follower, it was perhaps this formidable capacity to get to the heart of the matter which allowed them, early enough, to see military rule for the thieving racket it was. Both were to devote their intellectual and political might to the struggle against military absolutism in Nigeria. In the process, both were to become exemplary casualties of military rule and its twin incubus: feudalism.

In the case of Awolowo, the deadly combination truncated and then terminated his career. As for Ige, and by a more tragically circuitous route, it terminated his career and eventually terminated his life.

In an irony worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy, it was touching to see the otherwise acutely alert Ige , at the end of his life,  in an uneasy dalliance with the same forces he had valiantly done battle with all his political life and to watch the same forces and their agents snuff out his precious life.  What went wrong?

Arguably the most intellectually gifted and mentally equipped politician of his generation, Ige was also one of its most ideologically conflicted. Within his lean and spare frame, the poet, the political pugilist, the prophet, the pan-Nigerian patriot and Yoruba patriarch jostled for contention,  at first in tense harmony but towards the end with a tragic disarticulation which made the late titan all things to all manner of men—and women.

Had these contending, and often mutually contradictory, personas been distilled to the rich tapestry of postmodernist fiction, they would have made a moveable feast indeed, but in the sharply and bitterly divided terrain of Nigerian post-military politics, they made Ige singularly vulnerable to partisans on both sides of the divide.  He was much misunderstood by friends and foes alike.

Proherbarium

Not many would remember that at the point he chose to nail his mast to Chief Awolowo’s welfarist train, he was swimming against the local tide, his people, the Ijesa, being at that time implacable partisans of the NCNC. But when he decided to ally with General Obasanjo’s political “Wehrmacht”, it was for many a bridge too far.

Popular wisdom proved superior on that particular occasion. The pilgrim never made it to the bridge. There were clear indications that he actually abandoned the quest, as he warily –and wearily —negotiated minefield and after minefield, not to talk of constant “friendly” fire. Had he not been cut down, it would have been interesting to see how that startling political adventure would have played out.

Yet Ige’s peculiar forte also has to with a single-minded pursuit of his beliefs. He was not going to be fazed by anything or anybody. Perhaps early preferment in the Action Group reinforced  his natural sense of self-worth and the self-belief  often mistaken for arrogance. His insistence on his Kaduna Boy appellation is a ringing reaffirmation of his belief in the greater destiny of Nigeria.

His sojourn and quest for higher education in the northern capital was actually abridged when the educational powers that be took a look at his father’s name and concluded that it didn’t sound too familiar. This is point that often escapes critics who accuse him of being a Yoruba hegemonist , or of  Hutu-like villainy. As usual with such people, they have forgotten the hegemonist and supremacist villainy of their own ancestors and forebears.

For a man who could arouse such extremes of passions, Ige’s contempt for personal safety was legendary. His view of life was calmly fatalistic. What will be will be.  On one occasion, we had gone for lunch with Ige at the passenger seat of my aging sports car. An impudent bus driver had attempted to run us off the road but dramatically backed off once he recognised the august personage beside the driver. Ige took it with a calm smile.

On more than one occasion during the dark days of Abacha, one would steal into his house only to find Cicero alone, smiling and extending a warm hand of fellowship. Perhaps even more than his stewardship at the governor’s mansion in the old Oyo state, this was Ige’s finest moment :when he took on succeeding military tyrants and lived to tell the story.

It is a dark irony that he should perish in a civilian dispensation in which he was also the Chief Legal officer. As life drained away from his illustrious heart, a man of Ige’s literary cast of mind would have briefly recaptured an irony worthy of Franz Kafka in his neurotic prime.

Ironies he could deal with but obviously not political malevolence and ill-will. He was remarkably intolerant of intolerance. Unlike the church-goers of orthodox Awoism, he related to his leader with intellectual aplomb, venerating without canonizing him. This, I believe, often generated some tension and unease between leader and follower which Ige sometimes put a diplomatic sheen on.

When I asked him what he thought of Chief Awolowo’s relentless documentation of what he considered to be an Egba perfidy towards his career, Ige replied that his leader could sometimes be guilty of extreme formulation. “What about good Egbas like Adebo, Ejiwumi and so on?” he retorted. In such matters, Ige was arguably to the liberal right of his leader, and it almost led to his political defenestration in the infamous night of the long life in Yola in 1983.

If he was such a man of joyous spontaneity, with wide contacts and without bile or bitterness, what was he still looking for in politics? I once asked him this question, particularly in view of the fact that the Yoruba stakes in Nigerian politics appeared to have been sewn around Abiola and the struggle to validate June 12. It was on the night Chief Ajasin pulled back the Yoruba political delegation to the northern leadership. As a member of the advance party, I had been  recalled from the airport.

Ige was saddened  and disconsolate by this development. He fingered some of his colleagues who had always regarded him as a liberal softie and potential sell-out. When he wanted to go to the Constitutional conference, they outgunned him. And now this?

When I reminded him that he had not answered my original question, he fixed me with a quizzical frown. In order to avoid the grief of his leader, he noted with a sad expression,  he had also disavowed the political fixation on a particular office, but he believed that  if he continued to play the game the way he was, there was no way his country would not need him in the nearest future.

These were the words ringing in one’s ear after the D’Rovans Hotel fiasco and its now obviously tragic fall-out. Was Ige true to his own words, or did the Gadarene rush of frustrated ambition intervene between him and the clairvoyant clarity of his declaration?  Panicked by advancing age and disappearing opportunities, did he suddenly feel that that was his best and last chance at the golden lottery?

The fiasco could have been avoided if the entire group had kept faith and adopted the nominal leader of the opposition against military rule, Chief Anthony Enahoro , as its candidate. This would have left Afenifere with its cohesion. On the other hand, Ige could have put his foot down that that if he was not acceptable to all in the group, then there was no point contesting with a hierarchical junior.

Contrary to popular perception and the subsequent demonisation of the men of D’Rovans, there were indeed differences of political temperament among Chief Awolowo’s main followers, apart from the personal rivalries. But if Ige’s handling of matters was less than sportsmanlike, the Afenifere hierarchs, in perceived victory , also degenerated into a graceless headhunting.

Ige’s response to this was to embark on the most costly and complex political game of his career. No one knows what the ultimate benefit would have been. He was playing with hard people with entrenched interests, fundamentalist views of the nation and a marble mind-set. They never saw him as a friend, or a potential ally.

As they crowded him in, Ige virtually sacrificed his triple knights: secularity of the state, national conference and resource control for no strategic respite, thus endangering the greater national interest and the very balance of mutual terror that has held Nigeria precariously together. In the end, an isolated Ige could not even count on his own ethnic stock and former ideological colleagues in the cabinet who saw him as an interloper who came to join an already prepared meal.

Let those who have ears now listen, and let the greatly deluded be consumed by their arrogant folly. There is absolutely nothing in the unstructured and ad-hoc events of the past three years to remotely suggest that the injustices the Yoruba fought against in 1963, 1983 and 1993 have been put behind the nation. Indeed, the historic wager is that if the game continues, and given the logic of their current insertion in the Nigerian power calculus, the Yoruba will continue to suffer and sacrifice illustrious son after illustrious son until the hour of judgment.

Rather than a naïve and suicidal fixation on the son of the soil fallacy, they may cut their losses and enter into a strategic alliance with those non-Yoruba genuinely interested in domesticating the barbaric monstrosity that is the Nigerian state. In the fetid stagnation of a harshly unitary setting, anybody who believes that the problem of the Yoruba lies in the redistribution of Federal appointments and the allocation of plum posts to its elite is a political fool and a danger to both nationality and nation.

Our Cicero may be a good man, but in the jungle of Nigerian politics that is a violent oxymoron. The only befitting tribute that can be paid to him is for the people he served so meritoriously to come together to terminate the grand chicanery that consumed him.

  • First published in Africa Today, February, 2002.