Now I can give marriage a thought-Odia Ofeimun at 60

THE PUNCH Newspaper-Adeola Balogun and Abimbola Adelakun

Since your home seems to be full of books, how do you keep them out of the reach of rodents?

That is a question well worth asking because, frankly speaking, the protection of books is a major part of the business of keeping a library. This area is full of rats. Even if you kill all rats in your own house, rats will still come from the other compound. But I am a fairly lucky person. When I came to this house, there were cats in this compound, wild cats, and nobody owned them and they bred and multiplied. They reduced, in fact, on one occasion. There were nine little ones and the rain swept away five of them, but somehow they just go on breeding. I used to detest them. But I suddenly realised that when cats were raiding other compounds, they didn‘t raid this place. And when the cats left, I suffered in this house. I can‘t remember what made them leave. After a while, they came back. In the interim, what the rats did to these doors was unbelievable. But when the cats came back, they drove the rats away. Now I am obliged to feed the cats because I don‘t want a resumption of that period when the rats were the lords and masters of this place. Surprisingly, when they were everywhere, the rats did not go after my books. They ate the doors and punched holes, but they left my books alone. I cannot quite explain it. I can only put it down to luck.

How many of these books do you have to read again?

Books are not bought because you have to read all of them. They are bought because when you are in trouble, you know where to go. I think it is a mistake to imagine that it is only when you need to use a book that you must have it. From my childhood, I know that when books are around, children gravitate towards them; either to tear them or to just look at the pictures. I started by looking at the pictures, I never allowed a book to be torn. What I am doing is to make sure that whatever information I need is available in this place. Before the Internet became the vogue, having books around me was the best. Even today, the feel of holding a book has more excitement for me than surfing the Internet. I like it inside my head to put a book on the shelve and extract it when I need it. These days, I deliver a lot of public lectures. There is no topic under the sun you want me to give a lecture on that I will not handle. I will first sit down in this library, read thoroughly what they are saying, and if there is any medical term that I don‘t understand, I can then go look for it wherever it is possible to do so.

When it comes to books, somebody said you can sacrifice everything, including marriage and having children, just to avoid distraction

You are asking me a very popular question in a very tactical way. The truth is that I like books. I like the knowledge that books provide and I always like to share it. I have learned that when some people see that things are plenty, they want to have some, not because they need it. Some people see plenty of books and imagine that they can have some. When I see that attitude in anybody, my first response is to say no. And there are some people who like acquiring books, but they will not buy. You talk about distraction. The truth is that I can live and work in a market place. But you need one moment in your life when you have time to be on your own without any intervention. In such moments, I don‘t have to excuse myself for whatever, it is the only thing I do that gives me enormous pleasure. There are other things you do in the world that keep you going. But if I have to live in a world without books, honestly, I would just be a vegetable.

You have not answered the other part of the question

The question of not getting married? My not getting married, frankly, has nothing to do with books. But it has everything to do with the fact that if you must live your life well, it is always good to live it with somebody who is not at variance with your vision because you don‘t want to fight battles everyday of your life. You don‘t want to spend the whole of your life pleading with people around you to be allowed to live your life. You need to have people around you who at least see what you are doing as normal. Because if people do not see what you are doing as normal, in my view, as an artiste, if you can‘t stop them, run.

But what about making compromises and at least, sharing with somebody else?

You can make compromises in the world, but a compromise that ends what you consider the main project of your life is not worth it. Look, I don‘t know of any child of Shakespeare or wife. I don‘t care whether he was rich or poor, but when you hold a Shakespeare‘s Sonnet in your hand, you know what you are holding. People can make up their mind what they want to leave behind when they die. Having children is a great thing, not just the mere ‘go ye and multiply‘ as the Bible said. There is something about helping to bring new things into the world, including human beings. But rats and goats and cows and dogs also have children. It is not about just having them, it is about helping to create a good world for them to live in. And I believe that the compromise you need to make is actually between those two: helping to build a world they must live in and knowing that you don‘t just bring them to the world for the sheer hell of it. I don‘t think it is fair to just go on populating for the sheer hell of it, I will not do it because others have done it. I will do it because I have found somebody with whom I think it is worth doing it.

But you live with people

I have always brought up other people‘s children in my house. Everyday, people grow up in my house.

Since you bring up other people‘s children, why can‘t you have at least one of your own? I am sure you have the means to do this

Again, I insist, it is fair to have children with somebody you want to have children with or somebody you can live with. Let me be honest with you, somebody you can have children with may not care about that project you call the project of your life and may have no respect for it and you will live a life of unhappiness. I must tell you that so many artistes I know live such a life of unhappiness. They split their life into two: they give one to their family and give one to the other side. When I say other people‘s children grow up in my house, it has nothing to do with any financial consideration. It is not that I have money and I don‘t think people should get married simply because they have money. I think people should get married because they think it will make a difference.

I believe that your people must have put pressure on you to get married

The truth is that I have never been able to live like that. In fact, there are ways in which some families do it. They will just bring a woman and dump her in your house. The truth is, nobody could have done that with me. They obviously knew it won‘t work. Putting pressure on me had to stop after some time because people realised that I didn‘t care a hoot what the pressure was. The point is, it is not the case that a 60-year-old person does not know what he wants. He knows what he wants and what I want is not against marriage because I have reached the point in which I can only do it by choice, not because others want it; not because it is the way of the world, but because it is something that matches my spirit. When people talk about selfishness, what they should add is that there are many goals a human being has in the world and you can choose when to have some. I made up my mind when I was 40 that I would do certain things when I turn 60. I am happy about something: all the things I said I would do when I turn 60, somehow, without really working out a plan; just started falling in place. Maybe who knows, marriage may just be one of those things. I told myself that when I turn 60, I would do one, two, or three of those things, and they are falling in place in a very interesting way. I wanted to do a book on Nigeria and the book just came as if I had planned it. It is true that if you keep something on your mind and you keep saying it often, it becomes a prayer. And that prayer propels you towards the achievement of the goals because you constantly remind yourself. Let us say I never planned it, yet it happened. It is not that I made up my mind that I won‘t marry. There were moments that I almost did, but if the moment when you almost did passes, it is like you have to rewind the clock all over again. Probably because I never miss things that I lose, I don‘t have attachment to things in a way that makes me feel that if I lost that thing, the whole world would come to an end. But I have complete, undivided attachment to certain things I have told myself I will do. I never saw marriage as something that I am setting out to do, it was something that would happen. It was not something that I believe I have to work for. Perhaps it is a good thing because I had very many personal problems along the way. For instance, I had to get education the hard way and I always felt that no, that one can wait. Once you develop the habit of that one can wait, frankly it begins to wait. When you pray to God, it is the things you tell your God you want to do that tend to happen because your mind is inclined to that direction. So if you never told your God that you are looking for a wife, I am sure your God is not likely to make it happen. But when you do tell yourself that you want that wife, I think it will come. I have so many things I always wanted to do, but, I must be honest with you, marriage has not been a top of the chart thing, which is to say no woman convinced me to get married. There are women I liked so much that I almost married. For one reason or the other, it did not happen.

Is it correct to say that you have two role models in Wole Soyinka and Obafemi Awolowo?

To be very honest, those two are one person to me. There is a book I wanted to publish on my 60th birthday, but I changed my mind about it. Obviously it will come later in the year. There is an essay in that book, which I delivered when Soyinka was 70 at Ife. It is an attempt to compare and contrast Soyinka and Awolowo and to show the commonality of their approaches to social morality in general. I can assure you, the way those people entered my life was similar. In the case of Soyinka, reading his poetry freed me of a problem that was very central to my childhood. I come from a family that is divided into two. My father‘s side was made up of Ogun worshippers and animists. On my mother‘s side where I grew up, they were Christians. And the conflict between the two positions was quite central to the way I looked at the world as a child. It was precisely what prepared me for not being either a Christian or an animist. I had to question both sides. But when I started reading Soyinka, the kind of withdrawal I was made to have towards animism or idol worship as it was called by Christians actually changed. It was interesting for me to find out the difference between the two and I can tell you there is no difference between the Ogun worship that my father adhered to and what I saw in Christianity. Encountering Soyinka solved that for me. And reading Awolowo and discovering that in his early life, he was an agnostic because he had to ask himself such questions, too, as almost all human beings tend to do. But there was something about his own case. He did not move over to the Soyinka side. Awolowo had a very scientific turn of mind so that while he questioned Christianity and some of the stories in the Bible, he saw the need for social cohesion, the need to move people together. Nothing moves people together the way religion can do it. And therefore realising that the cohesion in the society and the sense of community that enables people to enjoy wholesome psychology is what this world about, he decided to vote for his wife. Because it was HID, his wife who made Awolowo return to Christianity. And I think Awolowo took the decision as a pragmatic thing. It was not a philosophical decision. Now, when I say those two became one for me, they were people who questioned things. But when it comes to their attitude towards their fellow human beings, they also have a common attitude. In many ways, Soyinka‘s temperament appears more vociferous. But when you take it calmly, you will discover that both of them never liked trouble. They didn‘t want to see people in trouble. And when you have that kind of nature, you are torn between the need for people to enjoy themselves and the fear that somebody can disrupt that. Therefore, talking about a model, I don‘t have one. I have a bridging of different personalities. Some people who know me say I take this from Awolowo, I take that from Soyinka. Today, I don‘t drink, I don‘t smoke and I don‘t eat kolanuts. Things that excite people, I don‘t do them. But Soyinka drinks aplenty. As he explained himself, he tried to make me a wine drinker, he has not succeeded. The truth is that my grandfather was not a drinker nor a smoker and he never ate kolanuts, but he never missed his snuff and he was very good with women. Interestingly, although everybody likes to say so, Awolowo was very good with women until when he met Dideolu. Dideolu was the angel who smashed all those things. And of course, Awolowo had a very resolute mind, once he met that woman. As far as he was concerned, that problem in his life was solved. Maybe that was what I did not have. I did not have that solution early so it became something that had to wait. Awolowo had that solution very early and he solved it and simply took it for granted. He never had to worry about women thereafter. But if it becomes the case that if you have to worry about women, then it means you may not have that single minded pursuit of your goals.

You worked with Awolowo for many years, but there was this controversy over a certain document

The truth is that I stopped working as Chief Awolowo‘s private secretary because I was accused of leaking a document I never saw. The letter that was leaked was a letter that Zik had generally written to all the people who participated in the 12 governors‘ meeting. When Awolowo received the letter, he sent me on an errand to see Bola Ige. So I had read Bola Ige‘s copy because he was my real buddy and there was no decision he took that he could not talk to me about. Immediately the letter came, he read it, he showed it to me and we laughed over it. But Chief Awolowo did not know that that letter had been written to everybody. So he wrote a reply before he knew that Azikiwe actually wrote the same letter to everybody, because immediately he got the letter, he quickly wrote a reply. So when I returned from Bola Ige, I was told that Papa received the letter and when I asked for it, I was told he had taken it away, which means that he didn‘t want me to see it because there was nothing I did not see in the place. Actually, I didn‘t have to see the letter because when they told me what was in the letter, I said ha ha, that is the same letter that was written to Bola Ige now. But you see, Awolowo was already under pressure to yank me out of Park Lane and the pressure on him was based on the struggle within the party and for whom to succeed him. I tried very hard to make him see the picture, but he didn‘t see it. That struggle was very stiff. And so when I never hid my opinion about anything, it was clear that I was going to get hit. Some people believed I was Bola Ige‘s nemesis in the place. When I was first told that, I looked the old man in the face and I told him the truth. I let him know what he didn‘t know before then, that Bola Ige partly took me through my university education, and I said I had nothing against him. He thought I had something against Bola Ige because I was asked to investigate something that Bola Ige did and I wrote a report, which showed that Bola Ige actually did what he was accused of.

What was it?

No, I won‘t tell you. So I had to sit the old man down and said you know Bola Ige is my friend, it‘s simply that he did it. It wasn‘t Bola Ige who did it, but the people working with him. And Bola Ige knew that they did it. But then, the other people on the other side did not know that. They kept piling on pressure on Awolowo to get me out. I did not know I could be accused the way I was accused and in fact, that was what annoyed me because the letter that was leaked was actually leaked by somebody who was working for the other side. And it was Chief Awolowo himself who gave the person the letter. The person read it, went to the next room, and quickly made a photocopy. I saw it happen. I wasn‘t in any doubt, so that on the day I was accused, I simply told Awolowo to come and ask whoever did it. The reason I am not mentioning the name is that I don‘t want to spoil the telling of this story because I want to tell it my own way when I am ready. It pained me, not because I was sacked; but because of the reason I was sacked. I never saw Chief Awolowo‘s copy. But what was strange about it was that I saw his own reply to Zik for the first time when it was published by the National Concord. And after I was sacked, in the process of investigating why I was sacked, I met Chief MKO Abiola and immediately I saw him, voluble man that he was, he just started telling the story. As I entered the room, he started telling me about the people who brought the document to him. I was supposed to interview him just before I went to live in Britain for four years and he said I should not worry, that one day he would come down there and we would have a good interview over the Atlantic. But he started running for presidency.

Is it true that during the Nigerian Civil War that Awolowo visited Ojukwu and told him that if the East should secede, then the West would go, too, and that Awolowo betrayed him?

It is a lie, it never happened. The transcript of Awolowo‘s meeting with Ojukwu is published. All that talk about an agreement between Awolowo and Ojukwu never took place. Readers of Soyinka‘s book titled ‘You Must Set forth At Dawn will hear of Awolowo‘s story as he narrated it to Soyinka. But I was the one who helped to make public the transcript of Ojukwu‘s meeting and Awolowo. I have written it in one of the books that I am talking about. It is true that Awolowo did not want the war to happen and he told Ojukwu that, but on the condition that states should be created, and a union of the south and the minorities in the north be allowed to come together and present the other Arewa people with a case for governing Nigeria in a different way. Ojukwu did not want states created. Basically, that was why that union flopped. And in any case, Awolowo said, militarily, he believed Ojukwu was not prepared for that war, that he was jumping the gun. And Ojukwu‘s generals, as Njoku wrote in his book, warned him that they were not prepared for the war. If Nigeria had fought the war normally, the war would have ended in a very short period because Nigerian generals, as Obasanjo has explained, were fooling around with the war efforts because they didn‘t want it to end quickly. And Awolowo was for a quick end of the war.

But there is this story that Awolowo quickened the end of the war by starving the Igbo

We needed to end the war quickly. When

you talk of starving the Igbo, people forget that government is not about personal animosity, no matter the personal interest you have in it. The decision was not taken by Awolowo, the decision was taken by the Nigerian soldiers during the war. It is true that Awolowo was the vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council , but for God‘s sake, when people want to accuse Awolowo of that decision, they ought to do what the Jews did after the end of the Second World War, by making sure that they investigated every story and apportioned responsibility.

But it has been going on for a long time

The reason it has been going on is that some people love thriving in rumours. Many people tell you ugly stories. Awolowo voted for Ernest Ikoli who was an Ijaw against the Odemo of Ishara who was a Remo like him, and they said he was a tribalist. A newspaper that managed to turn a simple case of ideological differences into an ethnic war is doing a different job from what a newspaper should do. Let me tell you this, the fight between Awolowo and Zik was just a fight between an elderly person who was already dominant before a younger person enters the stage and the older person simply could not take the angle that the younger person was taking. Awolowo was a very methodical person, Zik was not. People cannot say that truth and Zik himself could not face it that this methodical man had programmes and was very pragmatic. So, there was one way to rubbish Awolowo, put a tag of tribalism on him and consistently repeat it. There was the other case where they said Awolowo was negotiating with Zik and he was negotiating with the NPC. It is a lie. By 1958, the British had already got Zik and Ahmadu Bello to agree that when independence came, they would work together and the British made sure they rigged the election in the Western region so that the NCNC in the West would team up with the NPC in the North. Zik had a divided party. The Igbo wanted Awolowo. Don‘t let anybody deceive you about it that the Igbo hierarchy in the NCNC did not want Awolowo. It was Zik alone who did not want him because he saw him as a threat. It was like what they did to him in 1964 after the election was rigged. Azikiwe wrote a speech which was published in the first edition of West African Pilot, saying, I will not call Balewa to form a government because they rigged the election. Welby Everard who was the British head of the Nigerian Army sent soldiers to surround Zik‘s state house and so Zik was held hostage and then he was very nicely told that it required only two medical opinions for him to be declared unfit to make a decision. Zik capitulated and called Balewa to form a government. That was the first coup in Nigeria history. It wasn‘t the January 15, 1966 military coup.

It is amazing that you could speak so nicely about someone who sacked you in a controversial manner

My relationship with Awolowo was very neat. When I applied for the job, I didn‘t see the advert in the papers. It was in a Candido‘s column in the New Nigerian that I read, criticising Awolowo for jumping the gun and starting politics too early, and asking for a involved and committed researchers. I just wrote him a letter, saying to him ‘You say you want involved and committed researchers. If, by involved and committed, you do not imply that I cannot disagree with my employer if I feel strongly about anything, I will work for you’. That is not an application for a job. But when I was invited for the interview, I knew I would get the job. I had never been surer of a job in my life. Jakande and Sogbesan who did the first part of the interview asked me questions and when I got to the larger part, which involved Bisi Onabanjo and Awolowo and the others, it was Onabanjo who asked me why I wanted to work with Awolowo and if I could disagree with him. I told them my opinion and frankly, that old man worked with me on the basis of absolute confidence. I could enter his room, open his files, do anything. I never had restraints, which was why when those documents were leaked, he said there is only one person who is intelligent enough to do it because I always solved problems.

Before he died, did you make him realise your innocence?

No, I didn‘t have to make him realise that. I wrote him letters, which angered him when I told him he was the one who gave the documents to the man who leaked it. He was very angry. But when he calmed down, they sacked some of them. He then started sending people to meet me that he wanted to see me. I told Rasheed Gbadamosi, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Lade Bonuola that I would not see him until he apologised to me in public.

Did he?

Well, the last journalists to go ask him was Sonala Olumhese and his team in what used to be This Week magazine. They met him, I think on a Thursday and he invited them to see him on a Monday and he died on a Saturday. My friend said Awolowo did not apologise to other people. It is not true that Awolowo did not apologise to people. He apologised to so many people in Nigerian politics. But, honestly, they maltreated Chief Awolowo.

Somebody said he built a nice bungalow for you before he died

For me? No way. I took nothing out of being Chief Awolowo‘s private secretary. There was a car I had. If you worked for Awolowo, after two years, you took your car away. The car that I would have taken away had an accident and it was parked in my house. I had a new car bought for me by the party. It was the first thing I dropped when I was leaving. When I was sacked, I had less than N4 in my pocket. I was broke.


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