Electronic money exchangers listing
Find Cheap Textbooks - Save on New & Used Textbooks at AbeBooks.com

Abiola Irele, Onukaba and I – Idang Alibi

Rate this item
(0 votes)
Idang Alibi Idang Alibi

When I read the news of the passing on to eternal glory, Sunday before last, of Prof Abiola Irele, one of Africa’s foremost literary critics, my mind went back to Stockholm, Sweden in 1986. That year, the Nobel Committee had found our own ‘W. S.’, Prof Wole Soyinka, worthy of being honoured as the Literature Prize winner, making him the first African Literature laureate. 

The Guardian had assigned Onukaba Adinoyi Ojo, my friend who also recently passed on and who I have been mourning to this day, and the Daily Times, me, to cover the event. The FG under military President Ibrahim Babangida had constituted a large delegation of eminent Nigerians made up of mostly those with a literary bent, to go to Sweden and do Soyinka honour and felicitate with him on behalf of the people and government of Nigeria. I remember that Abiola Irele, Audu Ogbeh, Francisca Emmanuel, Colonel Tunde Akogun and other of Nigeria’s literary and cultural notables were on that delegation.

We all met in Stockholm. In the afternoon of that award ceremony day, December 10, Onukaba and I decided to go shopping for a ‘befitting’ music system. In our days as young men, no happening young man worthy of his father’s name could afford not to possess a fashionable music system, especially of a Japanese origin. Panasonic, Aiwa, Sharp, Sony were some of the popular brands of the time. A parlour decorated with a befitting system marked you out as a promising young man on the rise. A music system was to our generation what a computer and ear piece is to today’s young people.

We went to a shop and met Abiola Irele who was already in the books section browsing for titles he will surely take away. We greeted him respectfully as expected of well brought up African children and told him of what we wanted to buy. As we made to take leave of him he called us back and in a censorious, professorial voice, he said to us: ‘’Young men, in the history of stealing and break-ins in Nigeria, have you ever heard it reported that armed robbers or other bandits broke into a certain house and carted away books, magazines and newspapers? If I were you, I will remain in this section and get books that will change your life and what no bandits will steal way’’.

Young men will be young men and must behave their age, thinking that they know what they want and what is good for them. We thanked Irele politely for his counsel and went to have our music systems. As we were out of eye and earshot of Irele, we broke into the laughter we had suppressed in his presence. I remember this incident very vividly because Irele’s warning proved prophetic. I brought my own system, a Sharp, home to my house in Ogba, Ikeja where I lived then in a two-bedroom flat in a one-storey building. Once in a while, the sound system will boom, shaking the building and announcing to neighbours that a young man, who has made it, has arrived the vicinity. As it turned out later, some people, obviously poor, envious and wicked, took notice.

For on August 27, 1987, my happiness and self- glorification came to a sad end. When I left for work then in Agidingbi and my wife went to the market to buy foodstuff, thieves whom we strongly suspected to be some young men without portfolio or visible means of income living downstairs then in the Boys Quarters of our apartment building, broke into our flat and took away the much prized sound system. About a month later, another set of thieves similarly made away with Onukaba’s own. We were both orphaned of our ‘status symbol’ item, according to the word of a knowledgeable elder we disregarded. I was distraught and my sadness led me to vow a vow that never again will I buy a fashionable music system. I kept to this vow until January 14 this year when I staged my annual thanksgiving. It was on that day that I bought a home theatre, this time around, not to be like the Joneses but mainly so that I can boom Scriptural messages to glorify God by blessing guests who will attend the event.

Following what happened to me on August 27, 1986 and a similar experience which befell Onukaba about a month later, I took to calling Irele “poet, prophet, Professor Abiola Irele’’ in honour of his prophetic insight. As a literary student, I used to admire Abiola Irele and some of our leading literary critics of the time such as Dan Izevbaye, my own Professor Ernest Emenyonu, Omolara Leslie Ogundipeo, Charles Nnolim (of the Origin of Arrow of God fame), Emeka Echeruo, Emmanuel Obiechina and of course, the trio of Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike who wrote Towards the Decolonisation of African Literature. I never used to miss any in the series of African Literature Today, the journal of literary criticism of African literature which was for three decades, edited by a man described by some as one of the most versatile literary critics of the 20th century, the Sierra Leonean-born Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones, because of the brilliance of these elucidators which shone forth in whatever they penned.

I used to wonder why God gave such prodigious critical abilities to these men and women to dissect ideas and books and to even read the minds of authors and sorrowed endlessly about why God had not seen it fit to give me such perceptive faculty to do what they were doing. At one point, I even toyed with the idea of becoming a literary critic until one day I read a quotation, I think by Seneca, to the effect that ‘’no statue is ever erected in honour of a critic’’(both literary and social!). The remark said to my spirit that I should be a creator rather than a critic, a doer rather than a dissector. That is why upon graduation, I elected to be a journalist and not a scholar in the Ivory Tower.

Abiola Irele and his tribe of literary critics made literary criticism and scholarship look glamorous. I do not know whether they have sired or mentored a younger generation to engage in the kind of dispassionate scholarship in which, for instance, a Charles Nnolim gave the late literary icon Chinua Achebe no rest over the source of his magnus opus Arrow of God. Nnolim, an Igbo, claimed that Achebe had plagiarized his (Nnolim’s) uncle in the writing of Arrow of God. If my memory serves me right, he said Arrow of God was sourced from a book The History of Umuchu written by his uncle. In the Nigeria or Africa of today, I doubt if an Igbo or any other tribesman can elect to be on the side of scholarship rather than tribal solidarity, by saying or doing anything that can even remotely embarrass an eminent member of the tribe as Nnolim did to Achebe in the 80s. He will be promptly denounced, threatened with ex-communication and have some dire predicaments pronounced against him.

Apart from his scholarship, Irele was a Nigerian par excellence. Born as Ora, one of the smallest of the smallest of the tribes in Edo State, he was raised to speak Ibo and later nurtured himself to speak and live as a Yoruba and Ora Nigerian. Mothers never seem to give birth to his likes any more. Irele reminds us of a Nigeria whose dream, in life and scholarship, seems to have been deferred.

 Idang Alibi is the Director, Press and Public Relations, Ministry of Petroleum Resources, Abuja.

Read 289 times