We need books, the instrument of truth
Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was the most handsome old man I have ever met. At 90, he was erect and his body was smooth like a man of 60. In 1994 I had gone to Onuiyi Haven, Nsukka, the country home of Nigeria’s greatest nationalist fighter and pioneering newspaper publisher and journalist in the company of my friend and colleague, Dele Omotunde, the deputy Editor-in-Chief of TELL. The great Zik welcomed us with enthusiasm. We spent several hours with him, discussing so many topics, including the state of journalism. One of the questions was on the fate of the famous Zik Library at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which was seriously damaged during the Civil War and was not rebuilt.
As the Premier of the defunct Eastern Region (now Anambra, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Enugu, Cross River, Rivers, Akwa-Ibom and Bayelsa states) he established the University of Nigeria which was eventually built by his successor, Dr Michael Okpara. When the Civil War broke out in 1967, Nsukka was one of the first towns to fall to Federal troops. The Zik Library was shelled. Soldiers found the tomes of books in the library very useful. They used them to make fire to cook their meals and to keep warm at night.
“What is the use of a library building when the books are gone,” Zik said mournfully when asked whether he would rebuild the library. “Many of those books are rare collections. They are irreplaceable.”
He was especially sad about a rare book he got as a gift from the late President of Egypt, Gamal Abdul Nasser, on the last black Pharaoh. He said he would have loved to write a sequel to his autobiography, My Odyssey. By the time we were visiting him, Zik was deep in the winter of life. Gone were the days when he was the colourful icon of the nationalist movement. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, first Premier of the defunct Western Region (now Lagos, Ekiti, Delta, Edo, Ondo Ogun, Oyo and Osun states), once told a story of how he had to sit on the window to savour Zik’s oratory during a public lecture at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos. Awo was then a reporter for the Daily Times.
By the time we were visiting Zik, the voice that once roared across Africa was now an echo of a distant past. His fingers, once the instrument of holy terror against British imperial agents, had been compromised by arthritis, and he barely struggled to autograph a copy of his book of poetry that I brought to him. He would have loved to write about the Civil War and its aftermath and the import of his philosophy of Surulere. Zik went to the great beyond with his stories. Luckily for us, he left a corpus of very important books including Renascent Africa and collections of his speeches.
Last year, I had visited Chief Omowale Kuye, then the Otun Olubadan, who was heir-presumptive to the Olubadan throne. He said he was playing golf in Ibadan when he had an accident, crumbling his spines. Kuye was one of the most powerful Federal civil servants in his hey days. In 1973, he along with his permanent secretary and the Federal Commissioner (now Minister) for Finance, were the three men entrusted with the crucial duty of the changing the Nigerian currency from pounds and shillings to Naira and Kobo. Later, Kuye became Director of Budget, ensuring that each year’s budget was faithfully implemented. After his retirement, he settled back in Ibadan as a central figure in the city’s traditional politics. His wife, the formidable Priscilla, was the first female President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA.
When I visited him at his private house in Lekki, his wife hovered around him like a guardian angel. Beside his bed, were many files containing documents that Kuye wanted to use for his memoir. He had already started the book before the accident laid ambush for him. I don’t know what stage the book was before his transition late last year.
Many Nigerian leaders have simply refused to write or they left writing too late, not because they don’t have a story to tell, but they simply refused to tell their own story. To encounter them in print, you have to rely on the works of others. A singular exception is Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s longest ruler, whose three-part memoir, My Watch, is only the latest in his scholarly interventions in Nigerian historiography. It is a matter of regret that none of Obasanjo predecessors and successors, (apart from Zik, speaking of the Federal level, that is), ever put a book in the market on their tour of duty. Biographical works have been done on them including the cerebral and gripping biography of Major-General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, Ironside, written by Chuks Ileogbunam, one of my old colleagues in those roaring days at Newswatch.
I understand General Yakubu Gowon is writing his autobiography. That would be a great addition to important books about Nigeria by an important participant. In one of our meetings with Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the leader of the ill-fated Republic of Biafra, he said his book, Because I am Involved, was not the book. He promised that the book was coming. We are still waiting for the release of the book!
There are uncoordinated materials here and there about Nigerian leaders, in newspapers and magazines and memoirs of participant-observers in the game of power, but those who have the privilege of leading also have the duty to share their experiences with posterity. One of the great institutions that have been chronicling the lives of the high and mighty in Nigeria has been the iconic Ovation International magazine, founded by Dele Momodu, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. I am sure, not just future historians, but also sociologist and social-anthropologists, would consider Ovation’s records good and revealing about the lifestyles of Nigerian leaders.
Nevertheless, it is the academics and the men of ideas who have continuously kept the biography genre busy in Nigeria. One of them, Oladipo Adamolekun, who became a professor at 37 in 1979, is presenting, I remember, his autobiography tomorrow at the Institute of International Affairs, Lagos. Adamolekun was a professor of public affairs before he joined international public service as a big gun at the World Bank. Now he is back home as an intellectual at the open space, ready to trade ideas for the development of our country and of mankind. Adamolekun, polyglots who speaks Yoruba, Spanish, English, French and some other languages, keeps his ideas in his many books.
Unfortunately, Africans don’t read many books. Maybe because our ancestors never wrote any and we rely more on the media of rumour. Therefore, we do not have many eyewitness accounts of great events in our history, the formation of cities and empires and the change of dynasties. None of the more than 10 million men and women who were carried away as slaves to the Americas ever wrote a book about their travails through the Middle Passage. When Alex Haley’s unforgettable book, Roots, came out in 1976, it was the first time many African-Americans were coming face to face with the reality of their own history.
Many Nigerians too are unfamiliar with their family history and many young ones cannot pronounce the names of their grandfathers correctly. We do not read books and we do not visit libraries. A big man would rather have a bar in his house than a library. Thank God, the National Library is under construction in Abuja and will hopefully be completed in the nearest future. However, how many states have befitting libraries? How many state governors have ever visited a state library? It is only in Nigeria that you visit a governor or a minister and there would be no written materials about the state or the ministry.
We need to re-occupy the library and show the importance of books in our national development. Whether the book is in hard copy or in e-edition, it has to be written first. Our leaders should show the way.
The last time I met with Chief Anthony Enahoro was at the Shagamu, Ogun State, residence of Otunba Gbenga Daniel. He wanted to write a more complete autobiography as a sequel to his earlier, The Fugitive Offender. I think this was 2009. He wanted a sort of collaboration to do this. We did not reach a conclusion and when he died December 15, 2010, I felt a pang of regret not just about the passage of a great man, but also about an opportunity lost. Therefore last year, when Chief Ayo Adebanjo, one of the most steadfast followers of Chief Awolowo, called to inform me that he was writing his memoir and asked whether I would like to copy-taste it. I was glad to be given such a privilege.
Our big men and women of today should remember that our descendants need to know the truth that only books can transmit. Oral tradition is good, but after sometimes, it would be like looking for your roots in Whydah. Says Wole Soyinka, the man who wields a mightier sword than the sword of any dictator: “Books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth.”