Kongi at 90

By Louis Odion, FNGE

Yes, take a glimpse at this photograph. You would probably imagine, momentarily, a model among the bevy paraded by, say, the popular ritzy GQ magazine.

If so, well, you just fell for a disguise.

Now, take a closer look. Strip that bucket hat and you will behold, in its luxuriant bloom, that familiar hoary mane complemented by no less immaculate goatee to which folks around the world have long grown accustomed as evocative of no other than Kongi in any gathering, anywhere.

Today, it took more than “yabis” (teasing) to extract a few seconds from Professor Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka and get him to shed his accustomed stern mien and momentarily act a model, one hand fashionably in the pocket, on a North African soil. But without the usual preening or sashaying of the runway.

That fleeting GQ moment was, by the way, captured in Fes (Morocco) in June 2023 by this writer with a camera phone as an emergency “paparazzi”, after sidestepping a bit to get a perfect angle for the lens against blinding lights by the elementary law of photography. Amid sustained volleys of “yabis” by an old disciple, Sir K (Kunle Ajibade) alongside Mrs Rakiya Dhikru-Yagboyaju and Ahmed Garba-Gombe who formed Kongi’s entourage while guests of King Mohammed VI of Morocco as part of activities to mark Morocco’s 28th Book Fair last year.

The location was the vast lounge of Nejjarine Ensemble, ornate with its Oriental mosaic and sculptures, perhaps the most remarkable among the kaleidoscope of historical monuments and buildings long classified by UNESCO as world heritage sites in Fes. Outside this sprawling palace (built in 1711 by Sultan Moulay Ismail), history cast a rather long, sepulchral shadow on the forecourt under the mild pre-summer sun.

Indeed, hours earlier in faraway Rabat, no sooner had Prof materialised in a rare white linen shirt from the elevator into a waiting party of his entourage (from Nigeria) and Moroccan officials at the lobby of the exquisite Sofitel Hotel than Sir K lobbed the first “yabis” by joking if Prof was already considering career switch from literature to modelling.
Of course, an inexhaustible bag of humour himself, Prof absorbed as much as he dispensed withering ripostes that sometimes left us breathless with tearful laughter. Sometimes, his humour was self-deprecatory. Like his recall of once being made to repeat a passage — and again — through the scanner at an international airport abroad, until a further meticulous search by apprehensive security agents revealed that the trigger of the persistently treacherous alarm bell was not more than the phial of granulated native African pepper Prof habitually carries around to spice his meals at Oyinbo restaurants.

Even more extraordinary was Kongi’s undiminished agility and razor-sharp sense of recall at such an advanced age. Eager to show off their abundant tourism treasures, the Moroccan officials had taken us to many high and low locations. Not once did Kongi, barely a month short of his 89th birthday then, appear to have missed a single breath or betray the slightest hint of weariness over an otherwise loaded itinerary.

Indeed, something seemed to have moved a day earlier in Rabat (Morocco’s political capital) when news circulated that the literary eagle had landed in Casablanca (the commercial nerve centre), straight from the U.S. (We had flown from Lagos and arrived in Rabat hours before Kongi).

For the four days we spent in Morocco, there was always a scramble by local folks to see or come near the first black Nobel laureate in Literature who, according to the Swedish Academy, “with poetic overtones, fashioned the drama of existence.” The one who, with the sheer power of the written word, had achieved world celebrity. The one whose voice forever instils mortal fear in the hearts of tyrants and bigots everywhere.

Words also reached our mercurial Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, a bosom friend of the King of Morocco, who was also in Rabat around the same time. The Nigerian ambassador to Morocco, Mansur Nuhu Bamali (now late), brought His Royal Majesty to see Kongi on arrival at Sofitel. Both had a lengthy private chat on the plum couch in the lounge.

As for the occasional bucket hat, those who know will reveal a darker story. In the 90s, it served Kongi abroad as a disguise against Abacha’s paid killers after being publicly charged with treasonable felony in Nigeria on account of his pivotal role in the pro-democracy struggle after the June 12 annulment at grave personal risk. Indeed, throughout Nigeria’s postcolonial history, only a few — if any — could be said to have been as invested in pursuing the common purpose as Kongi. (A fact now lost on some of our millennials and Gen Z utterly bereft of a sense of history and quickly recruited as online trolls for puerile graffiti).

But in the latter years, that bucket hat has evolved into a civil utility: either as a prop to sneak into a targeted tavern undetected or simply evade a never-ending stream of autograph hunters and hustlers for photo ops.
Two Mercedes limousines were provided for the journey to Fes. But before take-off, Kongi asked I “abandon Kunle and others” in the second car and keep him company in his.

For the about two-hour trip, it felt invigorating to sit next to and converse non-stop with arguably one of the world’s greatest minds in the last century, the monarch of the language himself, famously described as “the conscience of the African continent.”

Indeed, as Prof enters the nonagenarian club this week, there is no doubt that what obsesses him remains a fierce commitment to the values of tolerance, justice, good governance and compassion for the vulnerable in Nigeria and everywhere. Plus, an advocacy for youth empowerment in the political economy where gerontocrats seem reluctant to let go.

The said linen shirt he “premiered” in Morocco was, in fact, a gift from a young Nigerian fashion designer. He chose to “launch” it before a foreign audience to help promote Nigerian talent.

To the far younger ones like yours sincerely, Prof’s father-figure stature naturally makes him a guardian. But despite the vast age difference, Kongi also relates to you as a friend with uncommon solidarity and loyalty.

That spirit was on display when this writer turned 50 in March 2023. He was not in the country when “OPEC President” (Tunji Bello) hosted a dinner in my honour in Lagos, attended by the likes of Aremo Segun Osoba, Pa Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi and several media heavyweights.

On returning to Nigeria two weeks later, Kongi chose to host a lavish luncheon for his younger disciple at one exclusive “hideout” in Ikeja GRA. T.B. was excused because of Muslim Ramadan. But the “gang” (Sam Omatseye, Kayode Komolafe, Azu Ishiekwene and Andrew Odion) had a swell time feasting. Of course, wine flowed freely.

Azu won the additional lottery of a bottle of vintage wine as a “takeaway” from Kongi’s famous cellar for a tribute he wrote earlier on me which Prof found interesting.
Eventually, when the waiter brought the invoice, I tried to play smart.

In the hoary years, the mammal, according to African wisecrack, should suckle her brood instead by a reversed law of nature. I thought being hosted by a Nobel laureate alone was already a significant honour and, as a cultured Bini man, I should not allow that to leave a hole in the old man’s pocket.

But on sighting my ATM card and conspiratorial whisper to the waiter on the side, Kongi preempted me. With a vehemence, he insisted on picking up the bill himself and thrust forward his credit card. Overwhelmed, I knelt in gratitude, to which he frowned, jocularly waving me to stand up “And stop embarrassing me in the public.”

That’s the essential Prof.

On his 80th birthday in 2014, I wrote a tribute for Kongi. Ten years later, nothing has changed to persuade me to rethink or regret my words. I crave readers’ indulgence to bring the following extracts from that essay:
“What truly makes Soyinka great is not so much for the monumentality of a talent that spews pithy poetry, gripping prose and transcendental drama. His greatness lies more in the courage and character he brings to bear on creativity. At an age when no territory seems restricted any more, when many of yesterday’s heroes and heroines have been exposed to be counterfeits, and when more and more of the surviving statesmen would instead trade away their honour for temporary gains, Kongi remains an exemplar.

“His fiery pen and caustic tongue notwithstanding, Kongi remains tender at heart, one who may disagree with you in principle but never holds back in the fellowship of humanity or be detained by bitterness over the past. Only that could explain the complicated relationship he has had over the years with his relative, ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo. Feisty OBJ had decided to veer from the political turf as sitting president in 2005 to engage Soyinka in an epistolary joust. In a signed statement, he took a swipe at Kongi for criticising his policies.

“But discerning observers who read the open letter could not but raise their hands in panic immediately, fearful of the approaching literary wrath on the proverbial errant native doctor who carries his ritual offering past a mosque. While it was readily conceded that OBJ was fussy by nature, many had expected that his fabled native intelligence would have served him well by dissuading him from venturing into a square rope against Kongi in a literary duel.

“Their worst fears were soon proved right. Soyinka’s response was an atomic bomb. OBJ’s presidential garment was torn beyond recognition by the time the smoke cleared. For once, the Ota chicken farmer became tongue-tied. Months later, the hatred that open ‘roforofo’ (dirty fight) had generated would not prevent Kongi from showing up at the funeral of OBJ’s spouse, Stella, who died suddenly following complications arising from a medical procedure in Spain.

“When OBJ finally met with Kongi face to face on the aisle outside the funeral parlour, the story is told of how the president exploded in a playful rage, ‘Wole, iwo! (Wole, you!)’, raising an arm in mock threat. Defiant Kongi fired back, “Segun, Ori e!” thumping his head in a supreme Yoruba gesture of contempt. More embarrassed than amused by such audacity, the guards around the President cleverly looked away.

“Again, when Chief Emeka Ojukwu qualified the victory he achieved in the sham elections arranged by the Abacha junta to select delegates for the 1994 Constitutional Conference as conferring on him a mandate ‘superior to June 12’, vintage Soyinka gave expression to popular thinking in the country then by simply dismissing the ex-Biafran secessionist as ‘an expired warlord’. That critical riposte would not prevent Kongi from attending Ojukwu’s burial (in 2012) to pay last respects to a personal friend.

“The same generosity of spirit is evident in his warm relationship with General Yakubu Gowon today. At the presentation of a memoir by the Oba of Benin early (in 2014), Soyinka continually poked good-natured jokes at Gowon while giving a keynote address to the audience’s admiration. It was hard to believe that it was the same Gowon who had clamped him into the gulag during the Nigerian Civil War. His 28-month solitary confinement birthed the book, ‘The Man Died’.

“When it was his turn to speak, the former head of state threw the crowd into a fresh bout of laughter by cautioning Kongi to watch his tongue: ‘You should remember that it was because of the same sharp tongue of yours that I sent you to prison in the 60s.’

“Being the first black man to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Soyinka’s life sends an enduring message: the infinite possibilities of the black race.”

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