One man sat comfortably on his airplane seat. Another man came and commanded the old man to stand up because that seat was his. He brought out a partly torn boarding pass “certificate of occupancy” to prove ownership of the disputed seat, his little land, his temporary kingdom in the plane. The old man whose whole life has been a life of drama—literally and metaphorically—finds himself in another drama of the absurd. Knowing that the young man is right, he complies and drags up his 85-year-old body to take another seat in this combined error of comedy and tragedy called tragicomedy.
Another man watching the surreal drama tries to take it all in but he finds it difficult to understand, wondering: How can young men of today behave like this to an old man? Doesn’t this guy know Prof. Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel Literature Prizewinner and Nigeria’s most famous brand? The man watching is the son of a journalist. He has learnt enough from his father to know that absurdity is the real definition of news—what the eyes cannot believe. Surreptitiously, he takes a picture of the incident and posts it on social media in an age where everyone with a mobile phone is automatically a crack reporter and an ace photographer. In a twinkling of an eye, the picture of Soyinka sitting, reading, next to the recalcitrant young man had gone viral, triggering, a national debate about right and wrong. Kudos to Tonye Cole, son of an eminent journalist Dr. Patrick Dele Cole, the man who discovered my late editor and mentor Dele Giwa and brought him back home from America where he was working with the New York Times as a news assistant to join the Daily Times. For his scoop, I will nominate Tonye Cole for a journalism prize. I will also offer him a copy of my 5O WORLD EDITORS, a book of conversations with newspaper editors and news media gurus around the world—editors from prestigious newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, The Times of London, CNN, the Financial Times plus news media icons in Nigeria including Segun Osoba, John Mommoh of Channels TV and Nduka Obaigbena who was 60 on Sunday, all sharing their stories of adventures in journalism. I had earlier interviewed Tonye Cole, an oil magnate from the Sahara Group and featured him in my new book 50 NIGERIA’S BOARDROOM LEADERS—Lessons On Corporate Governance and Strategy where he shared his interesting boardroom learning curve in a chapter titled: From Atlas Mara to Sahara With Boardroom Wisdom. But this is a story for another day.
Today, I have two things on my mind: 50th anniversary of man on the moon and Soyinka at 85. It all started with a visionary American President John F. Kennedy’s decision to be the first to launch his nation into “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” thereby beating the Soviets who were ahead in the space race. He made his moon speech on May 25, 1961. And on 16 July 1969, Apollo II took off from earth and landed on the moon on July 20, 1969 with that famous speech by Neil Armstrong: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Today is exactly the 50th anniversary of the day man first stepped on the moon and broke the virginity of the Luna goddess and all the myths of the moon as ancient as time.
In the book Moon Sense—you can Google it—another Soyinka by name Soyinka Ogunbusola (no relation of Wole Soyinka) takes us back to the era before moon landing when from time immemorial the moon influenced the affairs of man and life on earth in general. Soyinka Ogunbusola wrote in Moon Sense: “Man, mineral, plant, bodies of water; the moon has her undeniable affect over it. In West Africa our ancestors the Fon people of Togo knew when to plant seeds in the earth by considering the moon phases, the ancient Yoruba of Nigeria knew when to perform certain initiations according to the phases of the moon. Those seafaring ancestors in Mali knew the strength of the tides varied greatly with the lunar phases.”
As at the time of the moon landing, our literary giant Wole Soyinka was a young radical of 35 and a prisoner of conscience accused of collaborating with the Biafrans by travelling secretly to meet with Gen. Ojukwu in the bid to stop the spilling of blood. An act that should have won him a Nobel Peace Prize long, long ago. But they kept him in prison, in solitude. “Solitary confinement is not a very pleasant experience, especially prolonged solitary confinement,” Soyinka says in a conversation with Christopher Bigsby. “I stayed in a little hut, in a little compound, all by myself, with depersonalized guards looking in from time to time, who were scared they would be shot if they were caught talking to me, because the war was still on and I was supposed to be a dangerous war criminal. So it was a little bit rough. But I evolved certain mental exercises, to which I adhered religiously. I did physical exercises and set myself problems. I tried to reinvent mathematics, for instance. That was fun, great fun. I loathed mathematics in school, loathed it, but now I became fascinated by many problems. I think I even discovered the law of combinations all on my own in that prison.”
In prison, it was Soyinka’s ex-wife Laide who first broke the news of the moon landing to him. “Wole was being held in solitary confinement,” she told us in the debut story that launched Weekend Concord, the first paper I edited in 1989—some thirty good years ago. “He got the directorship of the School of Drama in Ibadan and so we moved to Ibadan in 1967. That was when the Gowon incident happened. I think by August he was already being looked for. He therefore wasn’t able to take over fully at the School of Drama. He was in custody, being transferred from prison to prison. I was able to see him in Lagos. I remember the fuss of the security personnel who took me to him, how the man was going round and round to confuse me so that I wouldn’t know the way. I saw him once again when he was in Kaduna. I told him the Americans had made it to the moon. He was so excited. It was quite a worrying time for us. Since I grew up as a radical myself, I could appreciate what he was doing: these are the people who really change the society for the better. Wole’s detention was very destabilizing for the family. As lovers it would have been okay, but with the kids, the family needed some stability. I then had to play both father and mother at the formative period of the kids and I also had to attend to my job. Somebody had to warm the home front.
“I remember writing an article at the time to deny Tony Enahoro’s claim (as the mouthpiece of government) that Wole had tried to escape. It was that time they transferred him to Kaduna. I said this might be a ruse to try and eliminate him. The papers were afraid to publish my rejoinder, especially the Daily Times and Morning Post. They were attacking Wole on all sides to destroy his reputation with people, since he was so popular. It was surprisingly the New Nigerian that was able to carry almost full length my open letter to Gowon. It was unexpected of a northern paper. I was very surprised.
“Radio Biafra carried it at a time that Wole was dead in prison custody. Achebe was said to have read the obituary on Radio Biafra. I didn’t hear it but people said that they heard it and they were worried because they said if Achebe could read that kind of obituary, Wole must have died. I insisted on seeing him. He was able to smuggle out messages now and again from prison.”
All this happened 50 years ago and I needed to recapture these stories to remind some of our youths today who never knew Soyinka and what he stood for. And to Soyinka, let me end with a quote from I Samuel 20 v 5: “Tomorrow is the new moon.” May your seat not be empty, sir. And like Moses who was a hundred and twenty years, may your eyes not dim. Nigeria still needs you. Happy birthday Prof! Wishing you more years ahead in good health.