THE KOLE OMOTOSO INTERVIEW:
In this interview with FESTUS ADEDAYO, held in his Oda Road forest-like home in Akure, with no electricity and no neighbour, Bankole Ajibabi Omotoso, writer and professor, also known as Kole Omotoso and in South Africa as the “Yebo Gogo man,” due principally to the advertorials he did for the telecommunications giant, Vodacom, he spoke about himself as a writer, his stay in South Africa and his growing-up years.
PROFESSOR, to begin with, what is the inspiration behind your highly celebrated 1988 historical novel about Nigeria, Just Before Dawn?
It was written at a time that I needed to explain myself on a couple of issues, because everybody was saying, why can’t you write something… All your friends and colleagues are going to America, they are going to Britain; they are going to Europe and other places.
Why did you choose to go to South Africa? The South African thing; I think there was nothing strange about it. I had been asked to come and give this year’s Sol Plaatje Annual Lecture at the University. He was the first ANC General Secretary and he was born in 1912 and his book on the Land Act of 1913, that book in your hand was published in Britain in 1916.
They had the centenary of the book in 2016 and the university named after him, the Sol Plaatje University, Kimberley, was the one that invited me to come and give the lecture named after him.
So, I am having to look at where did I begin with South Africa. One, at Oyemekun Grammar School, we had something like a weekly newsletter, which some of us used to produce. I don’t know how we came about it, whether we imposed it on ourselves or we were chosen to do it. But I put myself in charge of South Africa. And I was always listening to the Voice of South Africa, which was a radio propaganda for the apartheid government. So, I used to follow a lot of what was going on in South Africa. Two, Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, I can’t remember whether we were in Form III or Form IV, but I learnt the first page by heart and would simply read it to the class. So, I was familiar with South Africa.
Thereafter, when I was doing my postgraduate studies in Britain at the University of Edinburgh; my main supervisor was there but I had a co-supervisor in Oxford and a third supervisor in Cairo, at the American University. So I was travelling from Edinburgh to Oxford to Cairo.
And in Oxford, I got to know quite a number of people, including the Oxford-African Society, which invited me earlier this year to give the main address at their 60th anniversary. One of the things that the students wanted at that time was to get South Africans involved in the struggle and talk to them and I was very close to the ANC; especially the cultural guys.
So, I used to invite people. And then in Cairo, you would remember that the headquarters of the Liberation Movement at that time, and they were very few at the time, was in Cairo under the sponsorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt at the time. And we were all involved. We used to have a slot on the Voice of Arab from Cairo, which they gave a slot to the Liberation Movement and some of us used to broadcast on it. So, over the years, I have been involved with South Africa.
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When I was President of the Association of Nigerian Authors in 1984, in collaboration with the French Embassy, we invited South African writers to Nigeria to meet writers from other countries.
General Ibrahim Babangida was the Head of State at that time and Tony Momoh was Minister of Information. I had personal friends among the writers such that, come 1988 when Just Before Dawn was published and Obasanjo went to court to challenge the publication, the army guys said they were not going to court, but if they saw me… they don’t know how I came by some of the information contained in the book. I was in London and a South African friend of mine, a writer, Ndebele Njabulo, was then the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Lesotho and Adamu Baikie, a Nigerian, was Vice Chancellor.
So, Njabulo came to London to see me and said ‘I heard you are leaving the University of Ife, where are you going?’ I said I was not sure. I had at the time gone to Yale to give a lecture and there was a possibility I could end up going to the Yale Drama School. But Njabulo said ‘look, we want a professor of English at the University of Lesotho, why don’t you come and take the position, because the person occupying the position is on sabbatical?’ I went there but I only spent one semester. I was asked to stay but I was not particularly happy there.
So, I went back to London. The same Njabulo moved to the University of Western Cape in Cape Town as Deputy Vice Chancellor and the university advertised that it wanted a professor of English on a permanent appointment. I applied. In the meantime, I had gone to South Africa because The Nation, a monthly newspaper edited by one of the…brothers had asked me to look for funding for them. So, I went to see MKO Abiola and he said I should send the statistics and everything about the newspaper and he would take a decision.
So, I went there and the South African Writers Association had in fact organized a conference of South African writers and all of us were in Johannesburg and I went to Cape Town for the university interview. Thirty minutes after the interview, I was told that I had the job. That was how I ended up in South Africa.
The basic reason was, for me, to live through what was happening in the last African country to be under foreign control as a student of African history; that was why I went there. The second thing, now I am projecting my present thinking back to that time, is that as the Yoruba saying goes that you take care of the mad man in your family because you don’t know when you are going to deal with a mad man from another family; that simply tells me that in our situation of colonial subjugation, our situation of oppression and enslavement, complete liberation and turnaround is only possible through the intervention of a mad man. And that mad man must totally be without any humaneness…
(Cuts in)I am sorry to break your line of thought, but are you by any way situating that mindset – the mad man – within the context of the Nigerian experience?
For now, I don’t want us to draw any Nigerian inference; we can do that later. But what I am saying is that as a general statement of dealing with oppression, colonization and enslavement, it is only a mad man without any humane feeling who can counter and change the absolute situation of oppression.
Won maa n so pe ayipada nbe fun omo odo, oga ni ko lo so’ra. But our humaneness does not permit us to produce such mad people. Such mad people have only occurred in two situations: Haiti in 1804. Between 1791 and 1804, the slaves in Haiti fought their enslavers; the French, as encouraged by the French Revolution taking place in France.
They were winning. Then came about 1801 when Napoleon sent his in-law, his sister and everyone with an army to go and re-conquer Saint-Dominique and re-impose slavery. But the slaves said, no way. They fought and in January 1804, they massacred every white person; men, women and children. They declared independence and changed the name of Saint-Dominique to Haiti, the place of mountains.
And that is why even 200 years after, Haiti is the first and only Slave State that fought for its independence and won it. Remember that in 1804, America was a slave-holding country in the Southern hemisphere; Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and all those places. So, it was only that madness that made it possible for Haiti to be free. The only other place where that madness existed was Israel. Second World War, 600 Jews, never again. So, they arrived in Palestine.
Today, everybody says ‘okay, you have a two-state solution.’ But they had a mad man, Netanyahu, who played along but knew that there was no place for a two-state solution and he has pursued it. It is such mad men who can fight for the total turnaround, reversal of the situation of oppression, enslavement and colonization.
What was your experience in South Africa like? Were you disappointed or did it meet up with your mind construct, since you had, over the years, been looking at South Africa from afar and then had the opportunity to engage the country?
My experience in South Africa, of course, cannot be said to have been any disappointment. On a personal level, I was able to fulfill myself as an academic, as a writer, as an actor and as a public intellectual. I was also able to look after my family. My public engagement will be the ANC, of course; it was also a major aspect, as I met quite a lot of people in government up to the old man, Nelson Mandela.
But then, at the end of it, after almost 25 years, South Africa began to look like Nigeria. I don’t know how much you follow what is going on in South Africa. Let us begin with, say, Mandela; remember I said that it is only a mad man that can change the situation where there has been enslavement, racial discrimination, colonization. To reverse it, you have to be mad; a humane person cannot do it.
But Mandela was a humane person; he wanted to liberate both the enslaver and the enslaved, the oppressor and the oppressed, the colonizer and the colonized and that won’t work. In 1913, the South African government partly under the rule of the British Colonial Government and the settlers, passed the Land Act and drove Black people off their lands and sent them to the cities to become a pool for labour in the mines.
Up till tomorrow, it is still a major issue in South Africa. Right now, Cyril Ramaphosa, the present president, is talking about changing the constitution to make land appropriation without compensation unconstitutional. And because of the “save the oppressor and the oppressed policy” of Mandela, South Africa is in a situation where nothing was done. It has to be a complete thing, but it is not there. What we have in South Africa is…
You have to go to people like Julius Malema, the leader of the FFF, to begin to hear what I call the arrival of the mad man. Towards the end of his stay in Zimbabwe, Mugabe almost became that mad man with his Land Act. But then, he was taking the lands from the white people and giving it to members of his family and members of his party. But that was not it.
Of course, he also disappointed his followers and they decided to take him out. Right now, the present president, Emmerson Mnangagwa is already saying white people could come and have their lands back; we are back to the same situation of save the oppressor and save the oppressed.
It is not possible. It is not possible because the oppressor has already accumulated a lot of material comfort that makes it easy for him to exist; things that the oppressed have to aspire to. So, how do you satisfy the oppressed and the oppressor unless you go for broke?
At a point, you became almost more popular than the South African president through the Vodacom endorsement deal. Did you by any means get some kind of thumb-up from the Nigerian government or your people back at home?
I asked that question because at a time, one got to South Africa and the picture one saw was that of a Nigerian. People came from all over the world to South Africa and the picture they saw at the airport was that of a Nigerian man, as your billboard photograph was all over South Africa. In a way, it rubbed off on Nigeria positively, because it happened at a time that Nigeria was being cited as a good example of what a country should not be. How did you come about it?
What happened was this: you remember that even when I was in Nigeria as Head of the Department of Dramatic Arts at Ife, I was the director of the acting company and we had a television station on campus where we recorded plays and sold to local television stations outside. At that time, the local content was emphasized, at least about 50 to 60 per cent and television stations were investing and I used to act.
I acted on television and, in fact, I remember that the first television play I did, I acted the role of a blind fisherman whose catch was being stolen and he needed to find out how to deal with it. It was an interesting experience, because you play blind by opening your eyes and not blinking and in-between takes, I would go and rest my eyes. So, I was already involved in acting.
At the University of Ibadan as an undergraduate, I took part in Danda, the stage adaptation of Nkem Nwankwo’s novel. I was already at UI when I played the role of Brother Jero by Wole Soyinka, directed by Bayo Oduneye. So, I was already acting.
What happened was that, one day my late wife said she wanted to find an agent so that she could do some acting and voice-over. So, I took her to an agent and I sat in the car while she went to talk to the person. Then she came back and said ‘listen, the woman is a French woman; come and talk to her. She speaks French.’ I went upstairs to meet the woman and we started talking; I introduced myself and all that.
Instead of my wife, I became the one who got the agency, though my wife also got some things. But she then offered to represent me. This was 1993 in South Africa; the apartheid government was still in power. The first job I got was for a NISSAN pickup advert. It was about an elderly man who was repairing the roof of a house on a piece of land he owns, which he wants to pass to his children. At the end of the day, he carries his tools; put them in the pickup and gets into the pickup and drove into the sunset. It was shot in one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa.
Fantastic photography; everything. But a week after it was on television, it was taken off. So, the guys in Cape Town called me and said ‘we are sorry, the advert was taken off because the Afrikaans objected to having a Black man talking about handing land to his children’. I just said no problem; since I was paid for the job. Hakuna matata…It was that advert that Vodacom saw that made them call my agent to ask if I would be interested in looking at a script. She asked me and I said let me see the script and it was very interesting. It was about an elderly man sitting on the road selling toys; iron toys, windmills, cars and so on.
And then this white man comes and says ‘hello, come here, grandmother.’ He is a grandfather, so for the white man to call him grandmother meant that he mixed up the man’s sex. The white man then buys all the toys and then went back to his car only to find out that he has locked his key in the car. How would he call the person to open the car door and to repair? I had a phone and I lent him the phone, which he used to call the person.
And that was it. Within a week of that advert, it went viral all over the country and, in fact, the word ‘Yebo’ went into the English dictionary as the South African word for yes. That was in 1994. We thought it was going to be a one-off but it lasted for 20 years.
The other part of the story was that I am a South African citizen. This came about because when my Nigerian passport expired, I applied for a renewal and I was told I had to come to Abuja to get a new passport. Already, I was involved with NADECO; I was trying to coordinate stuff from South Africa with Soyinka, Dr. Kayode Fayemi and others. We were going to have a meeting of NADECO in South Africa and I was like, no way, I would not come back to Nigeria. So, I told the guy, why don’t you write a letter and tell them I must go to Nigeria to be able to get a new passport. He wrote it and took it to the Minister of Internal Affairs in South Africa and the minister said ‘my brother, forget about this. We can give you a passport.’
He was the leader of the IFP; he was part of the national government at that time. That was how I got my first temporary South African passport. When that passport expired, the man said ‘you have lived in this country for more than five years, you can apply for citizenship…’ So, what you are seeing as a Nigerian, for most South Africans, I am a South African.
You must have made a lot of money from the Vodacom deal!
I made money definitely. But remember, I had to keep my job in the university, so I didn’t negotiate as someone who didn’t have other means and that influenced whatever I was paid. But I had a decent earning from it. Later on, my oldest son, Akin, got into the industry. He is one of the major actors and film makers in South Africa today. So, yes, I made a comfortable earning. But what was important was the status it brought; it was very embarrassing. Most people who were close to me know that I am rather withdrawn.
I learnt that at some point, the great Madiba said you were more popular in South Africa than him!
It was the old man, Nelson Mandela. He said I was more famous than himself but I said ‘Mr President, that is impossible.’
What reactions did you get from Nigeria?
You mean officially?
Did you get officially?
Most Nigerians were very happy about it. But the Nigerian government; none, even at a point where South Africa considered me a national treasure to the country.
We would get back to your relationship with Soyinka. But when you chose Arabic as your course of study, did you get any sort of societal disdain? First, you were brought up a Christian and second, the Akure society where you grew up, I am sure, had less Muslims?
Oyemekun had possibly one of the best libraries a school could have and of course, King’s College also had a great library. When I was admitted to Oyemekun in 1957, I came from a boyhood of simply reading; if I was reading my mother would not send me on errand, so I could be sure that I would be allowed to read. I had started buying my own books, because I had money. So, when I got to Oyemekun, I was very sickly.
The other day, some naughty persons were trying to remember that they used to call me mosquito because I was so tiny! In fact, I had a medical report that told the school that I should not be subjected to rigorous work, so I was transferred to the library. Then, my friend, Ladi Adamolekun who was my senior by a year, was the librarian for his class while I was Form I librarian. That was where we became very close friends till tomorrow. The late Professor Omolade Adejuyigbe was the library prefect and he made it compulsory for me to read a book a week and write a report for him. So, by the time I got to UI, admitted to study English, I went to the department and looked at what they were going to do in first year, second year…I kind of loafed around.
At that time, Mbari at Adamasingba was already in existence, so I used to go there and that was how I met people like Chris Okigbo, Soyinka, Ulli Baier and… When I was in primary school, I used to go from Arakale to Sacred Heart School; that was where I went to primary school. On the way, there was this mosque where my mother had a store, so I would stop there. On the way going and coming, there were kids learning Arabic and the Mallam would be harassing them with his cane.
I would just watch and watch and the sounds were nice to me; I really liked them. Then, in one of the houses in the compound, one of my uncles had a tenant who was a Muslim from Ilorin. He was a cobbler and he had a son called Lasisi; so whenever he called the son, he would answer, ‘naam,’ which in Arabic means ‘yes’ and I liked the sound.
So, when one day, at Mbari Club, one young white man came to meet me while having a beer and he asked me ‘you, what are you doing?’ I said I was not sure what I was doing; that I was admitted to do English but I don’t want to do English and he said ‘why don’t you come and do Arabic?’ I had a federal scholarship to go to UI.
He said I should see him in his office and he was then the Acting Head of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies. So, the following day, I went to see him and that was it. I then had to write to the Federal Ministry of Education that I was changing from English to Arabic Studies, which of course they approved. But in my second year, I had to abandon the federal scholarship because I got a college scholarship from the university. When I finished my first degree, because of the problems I had in the department, of issues about teaching… I could have continued as a postgraduate student but I decided not to. I left to teach for one year at Ikare. Following that period, I got a Commonwealth Scholarship to go and do my Ph.D.
Any negative response to a Christian Akure boy studying Arabic?
I didn’t get any negative response; not while I was studying. And of course, if you are doing languages in UI, you had to spend a year in a country where the language is spoken. But the year we were to go there was the Middle East War, so we could not go. So, I didn’t go to any Arab-speaking country until after I graduated, which was very funny because we were doing Classical Arabic and nobody speaks Classical Arabic anywhere in the world. Of course, it is used in the newspapers, in books and spoken at official gatherings but everywhere, it is the colloquial Arabic that people use.
And this was demonstrated to me very dramatically on my first night in a hotel in Cairo. I needed water and I called the steward and I said in my best Classical Arabic that I needed water and he looked at me and said, ‘what nonsense are you saying?’ He went and called his boss and I repeated the same thing to the boss. The boss laughed and told me that nobody says that; that if I wanted water, I should just say it in colloquial Arabic. So, because I was working on theatre and cinema, I had to go and learn colloquial Arabic.
It is over 50 years since you have been relating with Soyinka as one of his ‘boys’. One was told the story of your hunting expeditions and all that. As someone close to him, what exactly do you think is the basis of the conflict between Soyinka and Obasanjo?
Let me start with my reading of Soyinka’s work. I have read virtually everything he has written and reread them. I was fascinated by this man and by his use of words: ‘The pot that will eat fat, its bottom must scorch.’ You have to be Yoruba to appreciate that. His writings, whether you are talking about Kongi’s Harvest, Madman and Specialists, his prison memoirs and then the plays…What is interesting is that Soyinka’s writing has hardly influenced what I write in the way that you would say a writer’s stylistics would affect you. I think my writing has been more influenced by the languages that I read and write than by one particular writer. During the civil war, we were very worried; you know the occasion of his holding up a radio station and when he was arrested and kept in police custody in Agodi. I told you that Christopher Okigbo would come to pick me at Kuti Hall and we would go out, visit restaurants, go visit girlfriends and then end up at the station to visit Soyinka.
Your choice of building this house, literally built in a forest; was it patterned after Soyinka’s house in Abeokuta?
I don’t know. To some extent, yes; that is true except that I didn’t design this house. Soyinka designed his house but my daughter who is an architect designed this. It was an annoying story, because I wanted something bigger but this is what I could get. I remember drawing a house in the middle of a forest in one of my exercise books and saying, this is where I will live. And one of my classmates at King’s College said, who is going to live with you in that kind of forest? I have always liked the idea of a building that is not just a house; that is a factory, a place of performance and people live around it. That was my idea. Soyinka’s choice of living in the forest has to do with his own hunting activities; I can’t claim that.
Why did you leave South Africa and why did you choose to come back to Akure, why not Lagos, Ibadan or anywhere else?
I could not live in Lagos. This is very crazy, but I relate to those places as places I went to; I went to Lagos, I went to… But if I would have to come back to Nigeria, it was going to have to be Akure. There is no discussion about it. Of course, the Akure I would return to is not the same Akure I used to know, as I wrote in my soon-to-be-published autobiography that Akure, for me, was two streets: Arakale and Bourdillon Road, which is now Oba Adesida Road and the connecting streets. It is still the same basics, only that the town has gone into all sorts of place, Ondo Road and all that. Before, it was Arakale all the way to Ondo Road and there used to be a pool where we used to go and swim. Then you would leave school and go swimming for the day. There are some places I cannot identify anymore. Yesterday, I was thinking I needed to go to Iworokogbasa and try and trace Iro, all the way to Apostolic Church; my mother used to take me to one CAC in the area that became Hospital Road.
Why did I leave South Africa? I told you that at some point, especially under the third president, Jacob Zuma, South Africa began to look like Nigeria. The level of corruption was different; Nigeria’s corruption was individualistic, opportunistic and one-off but the South African corruption that emerged under Zuma was industrialized; it was like a gift that keeps giving. You capture a parastatal and choose who is the CEO and the financial head; all their contracts come to you. For instance, the railways in South Africa, for every coach bought, let’s say it is 100 million, 10 million rand goes to the person who contributes the CEO and financial head. There is an enquiry going on…
Are you sure of the percentage? Because that is minimal compared to what is going on in Nigeria
But it is not a one-off. If you are going to buy 50 coaches at 100 million each and someone is getting 10 million for each coach and the coaches are bought years after year; that is industrialized corruption. And it is very difficult to deal with or investigate. Right now, that enquiry into what is called state capture is going on in South Africa. I became disenchanted with what was going on. I had been close enough to some of these guys. In fact, last year, I was part of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture in South Africa; it is a committee put together to organize the African Month every year. The OAU/AU had given that responsibility to different countries but South Africa was the only one that picked it up. So, I was part of that committee and every year we organize the Africa Month in May. In fact, I tried to link the Minister in South Africa with the Minister in Nigeria to talk about this thing; but that is a different matter altogether. Last year, Jacob Zuma, who was still the president then, was going to host the members of the committee to a lunch and my kids were asking me ‘are you sure you want to go there and shake hands with this man?’ And I said I am a member of the committee, I cannot be absent. I have been very close to some of those in government; some of the ministers were my friends but they got close more and more to this corruption thing and it was disenchanting. It was then I could then critically look at, say anybody who is going to liberate a slave, an oppressed, a colonized, has to be totally mad and Mandela was too humane. He wanted to save the enslaved and the enslaver.
You are now back in Nigeria; one is sure that you are happy, as you would have met the Nigeria of your dreams where things are going on well…?
What has been your experience?
What has been my experience is that it is great to be back in Akure; to be here to see what has happened when I was away. I can only say it in the words of a guy I met in [Olusegun] Mimiko’s sitting room one day; he said that ‘Nigeria gba oun laaye, okan oun de bale,” (Nigeria gives him space and he is comforted). Maybe there is a sense in which you are your own boss. Yes, I don’t have electricity; I am not dependent on water from somewhere; there is no public transportation and I have to set up my own security, yet I would rather be here than be in South Africa. There is a sense in which you can say we are here; whatever happens, we face it together. You learn the stories but you know the ultimate thing. Yesterday and the day before that, people were at INEC to get their Permanent Voter Cards but we heard that some politicians are already buying the PVCs and giving money. But the point is that, it will not always be like this. There will be change.
So, you are optimistic about Nigeria?
Very optimistic. There will be change; it cannot go on like this. It is not possible. We cannot have a total situation of lawlessness.
Is there a reference in history where people get to this deplorable state and still got salvation?
Then you don’t know the story of the United States of America and their politics and that of Britain in the 1830s. Did you read Charles Dickens? It was only in 1832 that the government of Britain, out of the representation that Dickens provided in Oliver Twist, set up the Education Act. They began to look at children education. But then, that is a situation where people read and from what they read, they can do something. Right now, those of us writing are doing so for an illiterate society and we are writing in a language that how many people can read? But then, the good thing about the writer is that he provides the evidence. In 2016 when Platje’s book’s 100th anniversary was celebrated, a different edition was published. It is still relevant today until the land issue is settled in South Africa.