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30 years since just before dawn

By Kole Omotoso
08 July 2018   |   3:24 am
This weekend marks 30 years of the launch of JUST BEFORE DAWN. The title is still the most optimistic aspect of the book. The darkest hours are just before dawn.

This weekend marks 30 years of the launch of JUST BEFORE DAWN. The title is still the most optimistic aspect of the book. The darkest hours are just before dawn. Dark clouds gathered over the country. Military coup makers were repeating themselves promising again and again to wipe out corruption from the Nigerian body politics – whatever that was supposed to mean. But it was an optimistic title given to the book in spite of the dark clouds over the country.

The working title had been OUR HANDS ARE TIED echoing the judge who tried Chief Obafemi Awolowo for treasonable felony those years past. Were his hands tied by the political games of those times? Or were his hands tied by the circumstantial evidence the prosecuting Irish policeman had assembled together, even from Awolowo’s book of dreams? Can one or should one be condemned by one’s dreams.

In spite of the fact that the hands of Nigeria were tied behind its back by corruption such a title carried an everlasting inevitability that says this one will never amount to anything. And one did not wish to give such an impression of the country. Whatever the difficulties, we would overcome and proclaim our readiness to go forth into glory when the dawn breaks. 30 years after, where are we?

One of the off shoots of this book is a pamphlet entitled FELLOW NIGERIANS: The First Statements of Nigerian Coup Makers. The star performer in that pamphlet is the late General Sani Abacha. He made three or four “Fellow Nigerians” speeches. He repeated the same statement each time about the drift of the country, the lack of consultation in leadership and the corruption in the body politic. Time after time after time. We should have realised by then that we were in big trouble.

Why faction? This has been one of the many questions about the book. In continuous discussions about the idea of the book with the late Dele Giwa I came to the conclusion that the overall effect would be worth achieving through a style far from the so-called objective historical narrative. Dele Giwa made the case for prose style that affected the reader internally. This should not be a history book. It should be a historic book. I had hoped that he would live to approve of it.

What about a sequel? I did attempt a sequel entitled DAYBREAK! The dark clouds had gone and all Nigerians woke up to go to work: the weaver went to his or her weaving machine. The clerk bathes and takes his biro pen and paper and on to the office. The doctor takes his bag and bedside manners and off to the hospital she goes. And so on. But I have no idea where that manuscript is.

It is obvious that a sequel in the same manner of detailed narrative of wrong decisions and wrong options although aplenty would be boring to write. It would also be difficult to read. Once, in this case, is enough. How things changed for the better would have been the natural sequel to the book. And since nothing has changed for the better there is no sequel to write. Or is there?

There is need here to mention two men and their effect on the book and its author. Chief Joop Berkhout, of Safari Books, then of Spectrum Books, suggested the idea for the book. He had just been in India and had read a book FREEDOM AT MIDNIGHT, which chronicles the process that led to the independence of India and the partition that led to Pakistan. The authors are Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. It was first published in 1975. I read it and my own writing took off. But not before realising the crucial role of politically delicate information in such an enterprise. If Nehru and Gandhi knew that Muhammad Ali Jinnah was dying of cancer all they would have done was wait for a few months and the history of the Indian sub-continent could have been different. But only Ali Jinnah’s daughter and doctor knew.

The other person is late Professor Ade Ajayi of the History Department of the University of Ibadan. Professor Ade Ajayi wrote a review of Just Before Dawn in which he said that the book gave one a greater feel of what happened in Nigeria compared to the 13-volume history of Nigeria commissioned by the Obasanjo government and edited by Professor Tekena Tamuno. Naturally Professor Tamuno fired back wondering how his erstwhile colleague could compare faction and history?

In the process of writing the book and came across so much material – written, recorded or photographed – about Nigeria and Nigerians. Minutes of meetings of tribal organisations, recordings of all the meetings of the Nigerian military at Aburi Ghana, speeches, both delivered and on delivered by coup makers, far more material that could have gone into the book. Most of these materials are to be found outside the country, in public libraries in Germany, in France, in Britain and in the United States of America. Some of these materials are also in private hands in these countries as well as in the hands of Nigerians outside of Nigeria.

Some activities had been suggested to mark the occasion but none has materialised. The one that seems to be on course to happen is a translation of the book to Yoruba language. Most of the translating has been done. I have read a few pages of the first chapter. I am trying to feel how it sounds, to hear how it feels. Is it because the translation had no working Yoruba title? What title could it carry in Yoruba? A literary translation of the English title would never do. KILO KOTO MO ! Or LAFO MO JUMOỌ both indicating before dawn without the understanding of the darkest hours being just before dawn. Further thinking on the story of Nigeria produced the idea that in spite of bad leadership Nigeria will still survive and thrive. But this is a bad idea, a bad thought as Ken Saro Wiwa would laugh! He would laugh aloud as to how your country can survive and thrive without striving! You strive, then you thrive and survive. Do you think English is a joke? In spite of his mirth I have settled on TO NI BOGI LOJU! IGI NIJERIA A RUWE! Let those beware who cut down Nigeria with their various negativities whether they wish it or not Nigeria’s leaves will be nourished to flourish again, Ken!