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Fajuyi and the failure of artistic imagination


Col. Adekunle Fajuyi

Col. Adekunle Fajuyi

On July 29, 2016, 50 years to the day the former military Governor of Western Nigeria, Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, was killed in Nigeria’s second coup, the Yoruba Think-Tank held a major event in his honour at the International Conference Centre, University of Ibadan, Oyo State. As compere Dele Alake, former Lagos State Commissioner of Information, declared, “Irrespective of political persuasion, irrespective of opinion, class or religion, we want all Yorubas to be under one roof.”

Yoruba juggernauts turned up: Sir Olaniwun Ajayi; General Alani Akinrinade (Rtd); Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN; Pastor Tunde Bakare; Prof. Banji Akintoye; Prof. Ayo Bamgbose; Pa Reuben Fasoranti; Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State; Mr. Jimi Agbaje; Chief Cornelius Adebayo; Chief Supo Shonibare; Dr. Tunji Olaopa; Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila; Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu and many others.

“For valour, for virtue, for courage, we are celebrating Col. Adekunle Fajuyi,” said Rtd. Gen. Olufemi Olutoye, Fajuyi’s superior and the second graduate to enter the Nigerian Army. Now a traditional ruler (Alani of Idoani Kingdom), Olutoye was Chairman of the occasion.

It was announced that Oyo State is to establish a Fajuyi Park in the Lalupon area of Ibadan where he was killed. About time. Currently, the only park and statue in Fajuyi’s memory can be found in his native Ekiti State. A goodwill message was delivered by Brig. Gen. Otu Oviemo Ovadje (Rtd), inventor of the EAT-SET (Emergency Auto Transfusion System), who named his estate in Ikoyi, Lagos, after Fajuyi and established a foundation in his name.

But there are only pockets of remembrance. Alake read out a list of roads and structures named after Fajuyi; and with the exception of one in Abuja, all are in the South West. A pan-Nigerian icon that died on active duty is reduced to a local hero. Even the media reporting of the Ibadan event bore testimony to this anomaly; the headlines could be condensed into four words: ‘Yoruba Leaders Remember Fajuyi’. Nigeria does not remember. “There is something intrinsically wrong in our national sense of appreciation,” Alake lamented.

Poet and scholar, Prof. Niyi Osundare, delivered a lecture titled, ‘Adekunle Fajuyi and the Politics of Remembrance’. Osundare noted that Fajuyi was the “first true Nigerian to attempt that proverbial handshake across the Niger – with his own life. But so far, Nigeria has shunned that handshake… the likes of Fajuyi [should] have their statues in every state capital in the country.”

The communiqué issued at the end of the day called for the restructuring of the country, the return of History to the curriculum and for the Yoruba language to be made a compulsory subject in South West schools. History, or the lack of it, was a major theme. Many young Nigerians have never heard of Fajuyi, for example. Alake quipped that when he tried to talk to one youth about the great nationalist, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the response was: “You mean Obafemi Martins?”

Writing earlier this year on Armed Forces Remembrance Day, Uche Jack-Osimiri called for Fajuyi to be honoured: “One prominent person whom Nigerian history seems to have forgotten is the late Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi… [his] role in the military and political history of Nigeria singled him out as a star.”

The American election campaigns are ongoing, and one name that has come to prominence is that of Capt. Humayun Khan, a fallen soldier posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Not so in Nigeria. “We are short in history and memory. We deny and forget our history at will,” as Robert Obioha wrote in the Daily Sun of August 12, 2016.

“We know a country by the kind of people it chooses to remember; we also know it by the kind of people it fails, or chooses, not to remember,” Osundare said in Ibadan. And while the speakers battled for the political soul of the Yoruba nation within the Nigerian federation, some of us came for art, for its ability to bring history to life.

The lack of proper recognition for Fajuyi is also a failure of artistic imagination. There has never been a dedicated photographic retrospective or art exhibition to give new insight on the man and his ideals. No documentaries about him, no feature films. America dominates the global imagination because it has established a cultural hegemony of sorts. American lives, great and small, are historicised, especially through the medium of film. War heroes (Patton), war sceptics (Born on the Fourth of July), political scandals (All The President’s Men), court cases (The Accused), ordinary people fighting the odds (Lorenzo’s Oil) – all are projected by Hollywood as examples for humanity. One of this year’s most talked about films is The Birth of a Nation, about a slave revolt in 1831.

Many of us have cheered along to the movie, Cool Runnings, about a Jamaican bobsled team that went to the Winter Olympics. But how many have seen a film based on our sporting feats? How many Nigerian sportspersons are featured on magazine covers and celebrated as the role models they are?

One of the debacles of our 2016 Olympics campaign occurred when our U-23 football team got stranded in Atlanta – until American Delta Airlines saved the day and flew them to Rio. Delta was inspired by the story of Nigeria’s ‘Dream Team’ that won Olympic gold 20 years ago. There goes our own ‘Cool Runnings’ moment, and an example of how stories of past greatness can help change the game. But what has Nigeria done to immortalise the golden boys of Atlanta ’96? What films can we show the young about them?

Apart from a few movies like Half of a Yellow Sun, Efunsetan Aniwura’ and the upcoming 93 Days, worthy episodes from Nigerian lives and history are ignored by filmmakers. There are fascinating, decades old, glimpses of Fajuyi in Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died and Idanre and Other Poems. There are two books on Fajuyi by Akin Onigbinde and A.G.A Ladigbolu, both likely out of print. The hero is underserved by writers. Instead of biographies, Nigerians are deluged with hagiographies.

The Fajuyi family has done much to keep their father’s memory alive, but even they are not totally exempt. I have books on one of the most enigmatic characters to come out of the Nigerian Civil War, Victor Banjo – thanks to his sister and offspring. One beautiful book, A Gift of Sequins, records for posterity Banjo’s letters to his wife and children even as he was consumed by larger events. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to the man behind the much-misunderstood historical figure. The Fajuyi family could take a leaf from the Banjos – instead of allowing themselves to be gathered into a hall within Ekiti Government House for a press conference to absolve the state government of lapses in the preparation for the 50th anniversary. The family should also be mindful of the potential pitfalls of anchoring the Fajuyi legacy project to governments, whose interests are often self-serving and inconsistent, if at all.

Fajuyi’s Golden Remembrance was a memorable event, but its historicisation project fell a bit short. Displayed on two standing boards at opposite corners of the vast hall, were photos from Fajuyi’s life. Few noticed the images, which could have been showcased as audio visual display on a big screen – or curated for a photo exhibition in the entrance lobby. What passed for printed programme was an A4 cardboard of the event flow. The Yoruba Think-Tank missed an opportunity to publish a commemorative brochure for the event, with writings and other Fajuyi memorabilia – a veritable collector’s item and historical document in its own right.

Even the language with which we eulogise Fajuyi ought to be interrogated. Some speakers said he had been ‘obedient to the point of death, dying for his boss’ – with the unfortunate import of slavishness rather than the unparalleled act of valour it was.So, Nigeria could do a better job of preserving memory and erecting fitting memorials to the likes of Col. Adekunle Fajuyi. Writers, artists, filmmakers and singers are not left out. Novelist Chibundu Onuzo said on social media that Fajuyi’s story would be perfect for a stage play. It is hoped our playwrights are listening.

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