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Opinions of Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

Letter from the North

File photo: Democracy File photo: Democracy

As you read this, many of my Nigerian friends who had gone into exile to escape from the wrath of the brutal dictator, General Sani Abacha, have either returned home, or are about to do so. Among them is Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

Soyinka’s escape from Abacha was as dramatic as a scene in one of his plays. After his passport had been seized by Abacha’s goons, he tried to leave Nigeria with a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)travel document. But this was also seized – illegally – at the airport.

Soyinka became convinced that despite his renown, Abacha was really anxious to put him away. Having returned to his home in a sullen mood, he hatched the following plot: he began to spend a lot of time in the forests around Abeokuta, hunting. He would leave at mid-morning and come back in the late afternoon, having bagged a grass- cutter, a pheasant or an antelope. His triumph would be noisily celebrated by his household and his friends.

This gave the State Security Service lookouts who followed him everywhere, something to write to their bosses about, to calm their fears about Soyinka’s propensity to carry out “rabble-rousing” among the Nigerian populace.

Then, one morning, Soyinka went into the forest as usual, and never returned. In fact, he had secretly arranged with the driver of a kabu-kabu (motorbike taxi) to meet him in the bush and, lodged precariously on the pillion seat of the tiny machine, he was ferried along esoteric bush paths, known only to the elite of Nigeria’s cigarette and alcohol smugglers, all the way across the border, into neighbouring Benin.

Soyinka contacted the Unesco office there and obtained fresh documentation. He then made a spectacular appearance in Paris, mobbing the media in his inimitable way.

A number of Abacha’s security men have never been able to smile since. Moral: when you’re a member of the literary elite, cultivate solidarity linkages to the elites of other strata of society. You never know when a hunting expedition will need to be transformed into a motocross grand prix or safari race.

The Nigerian politicians who were unable to give Abacha’s security men the slip, and subsequently spent some pretty terrible days in his prisons, include another colourful figure, the former head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo.

When he first burst on to the Nigerian scene, as General Murtala Muhammed’s chief of staff in 1975, Obasanjo distinguished himself by sporting the lowest-hung beer belly in the group photograph taken of the ruling military council. Those who have seen him since his release say he has one thing to thank Abacha for: he doesn’t ever need to worry about the size of his paunch again.

Apparently Obasanjo wants to run for the presidency in the election to be held in February next year. If Obasanjo really does run he will have a few of his own words to eat. For with his usual “reserve”, his answer, when asked what he thought of a fellow former head of state who wanted to make a comeback, was this: “What did he forget in the state house that he has only just remembered now to go back and pick up?”

Moral: never be caustic when commenting on the actions of members of your own trade union. Your sarcasm will earn interest in the check-off stakes.

Obasanjo is not the only Abacha victim who wants to run for the presidency. In West Africa, most politicians want to start with a declaration for the top post, and then work their way downwards. That way they can always “hand over” their supporters – all five of them – to a better-placed candidate. Provided the price is right.

I once made a foray into Ghana politics, which taught me what can happen when the “price is right”. Having just returned from exile, I was naive about local politics. So, when I reached the “primary” contest, I just campaigned vigorously in my constituency without bothering to go to “see” the officials at party headquarters in Accra.

On the day of the contest, I was shocked to find that the returning officer sent down from Accra was some nondescript fellow of whom I’d never heard. As soon as we were introduced, the guy turned to me and asked: “Where is your voter registration certificate?”

Strange question. I was away in the United States when registration was done! Someone had gone to Accra and “briefed” the guy.

But I thought it was of no consequence, for the requirement was that a candidate should be “qualified to be registered as a voter”, not that he should actually be registered. Ha, when I told the guy this, he pronounced with the finality of a petty dictator: “If you are not registered, then I am sorry but you are disqualified!”

I protested all the way to the party leader in Accra. The leader agreed that the guy had misinterpreted the regulations. But he said he would let the result “stand”, because there had been too many similar protests. Thus, he said, the impression was gaining ground that the party was not “united” and this could cost it the election.

The man who “defeated” me spoke only once in that Parliament. Although I was naturally interested in what he had to say, I can’t remember a word of it. The guy can always say he is a “former MP”. But I can’t, can I?

Moral: the path to democracy can be extremely undemocratic.