Adekunle Fajuyi and the politics of remembrance


My participation in today’s event is prologued by a pleasant serendipity. When in March this year I received a telephone call from Engineer Francis Ojo, that wizard of nuts and bolts who also thrives as analytical thinker,passionate nationalist, political polemicist, and intrepid author of sizzling prose, I thought he had eavesdropped my conversation with a fellow Nigerian three days earlier about Lieutenant-Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the first military governor of Western Nigeria, and what a forgetful, ungrateful nation had done to the remembrance of his exceptional gallantry and inspiring integrity. But my earlier chat took place in the United States, while Mr. Ojo’s call came, three days later, from England. Therefore, there was no way our engineer could have overheard this chat across the vast Atlantic (no matter the degree of his engineering wizardry!). So I was immeasurably pleased to know thatthere were many of us in different parts of the world who just couldn’t forget this remarkable soldier-leader, and are bent on making sure that the country for which he sacrificed his life does not.

And when Mr. Ojo told me that the ubiquitous Yinka Odumakin was there with him (in faraway London) as he asked if I could deliver this year’s Fajuyi Lecture, I said to myself ‘Aaah, Yinka; there comes my July Nemesis again!’ For it was in July 2008 that Odumakin ambushed me for the MKO Abiola Lecture; four years later and in the same month(along with the irrepressible  Pastor Tunde Bakare: bless his soul!) the Save Nigeria Group (SNG) Lecture; now, after another four years, and yet another July, the Fajuyi Lecture. What shall we expect in the seventh month of year 2020; and 2024?

But this year and this month have chosen themselves as those to remember. For, this month, this day, half a century ago, Nigeria experienced its second coup de tat and first counter-coup. A batch of gun-wielding mutineers, bent on evening out the ethnic scores of the gory murders perpetrated by Nigeria’s first coup, stormed the Western Region government house, Ibadan. Their prime target/quarry?General AguiyiIronsi, the then Head of State on a visit to the Western Region capital. But AdekunleFajuyi, quintessential Omoluabi, refused either to surrender or abandon his guest.The gallant soldier went down with his Commander-in-Chief. In addition to this and several other acts of chivalry, Fajuyi’s six-month tenure as military governor marked him out as a manendowed with tremendous moral strength and exemplary leadership. What principles of Omoluabism undergirded Fajuyi’s thought and action? Why is this gallant soldier hardly ever remembered save in his ethnic base? What does this say about Nigeria’s imperfect union, the character of her values, the nature of her memory, the politics of her remembrance? These are some of the questions this lecture intends to address.


Of heroism, memory, and the crises of remembrance

In Galileo, one of his most thought-provokingplays, Bertolt Brecht, the prodigiously inventiveGerman playwright, poet, polemicist, and humanist, jolts our rational faculty withhis now famous confounding adage: ‘Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes’. Like most of his epigrammatic interventions, this one too functions like a double-edged sword, pitilessly sharp on both edges, sounding both as a settled truism and contestable verity. The more we try to unravel this saying, the more it riddles itself into further complication:

1)Why should the land be ‘unhappy’ because it is ‘in need’ of heroes? Could it be that that land has no heroes because it is so uniformly mediocre, so inveterately ordinary, so universally depraved that it is incapable of producing that caliber of persons who tower above time, place, and circumstance, whose temper constitutes the template for enviable conduct, whose significance, therefore, is deeply felt, widely acknowledged,  and vitally desirable? A land with a positive answer to this beguiling question could be said of be afflicted with what I have decided to call the Hero Deficit Complex (HDC), a land with a missing ace in its grid of values.

2) Is the land ‘in need’ of heroes because it cannot function  optimally (even minimally) without the tutelage and overarching dominance of this club of superior humans? This poser resolves itself into other questions: when does the hero transmogrify into a crutch for a disabled society; the pillar for their falling edifice? How ‘equal’ can a people be who draw their strength, sustenance, even raison detre, from those that are more equal? Can the hero really stand so tall without the genuflection of the hero-worshippers? To put it another way, the inevitability quotient of the hero invariably creates its own Hero Dependency Complex (HDC)

Let’s simplify our submission so far into two direct declarative sentences: That land is unhappy which is incapable of producing heroes; that land is also unhappy which is always or forever dependent upon heroes.

Despite these two premises – or because of them – the concept and practice of heroism persists in every human society, and countless societal institutions have collaborated in ensuring its persistence. And as Wale Adebanwi has persuasively demonstrated (Adebanwi 2008), in Yorubaland, heroism and ancestor worship are mutually reinforcing, mutually perpetuating phenomena. And in this regard, the dividing line between god and man, the celestial and the terrestrial, the sacred and the profane is remarkably thin, as most supernatural Yoruba notables migrate between the two states of beingwith existential ease: Ogun was a hunter/farmer before his elevation to the divinity in charge of iron and metallurgy; Sango moved from mortal royalty to divine ascendance; while Osun, Oya progressed from our workaday corporeal existence to goddessly transcendence. But the journey from human to divine is never a common, routine transition. It has to be earned through the achievement of monumental feats and the cultivation of superhuman accretions. And, in many cases, the extraordinary quality of the life lived must be complemented by the unique nature of the death experienced. For the person marked out fordeification  must be somebody capable of commanding both adoration and emulation (our vertical gaze) without demanding them; a Titan worth every syllable in the panegyric which extols his worth.

Living heroes are powerful; those dead are doubly so, because though dead, they are never gone. On the contrary, they are believed to have merely transited to the realm of ancestorhood, that zone of reverential omniscience and respectability, of unvarnished verities and settled wisdom, beyond the giddy hustles and petty bickerings ofsublunary existence. Which is why in an apparent mix of necromancy and cultic invocation, the present is constantly in dialogue with the past; the verbal structure of societal communication is characterized by a tense and aspect protocol that defies the logic of quotidian time.Greek memory glows with the Golden Age of Pericles; the Russians are gratefully aware that the epithet ‘great’ in ‘Peter the Great’ is trueand valid to its last letter; the English know when to invoke a Chaucer or a Churchill; hardly one day passes in Turkey without some reverential mention of Ataturk; at Rushmore, the United States hew out of a granite rock four faces of those she considered the most pivotal of its Presidents in 0ver 200 years;  the brave island of Cuba, Fidel Castro is a stanza in every song. In a most conspicuous spot in Ljubljana, the beautiful capital of Slovenia is a huge statue of France Preseren, patriot and patron saint of Slovenian verse whose lyric throbs in the air each time the Slovenian anthem is sung. And coming closer home, how can we sing Africa’s Freedom song without giving the wind the names of Nehanda, Samoure Toureh, Lumumba, Nkrumah, Mandela, Mandela, Mandela, Mandela?

Not all ancestors are heroes. Nor are all heroes ancestors. A hardly surprising observation, considering the fact that while ancestorhood is assumed/ascribed more or less like a milestone station  in a rite of passage, something akin to an inherited status, heroism is earned/achieved invariably through arduous trials and extraordinary accomplishments. But these two brands of beings are obligated to one recalcitrant phenomenon: Memory, the antidote to oblivion, that lingering resonance of the music of fame. Memory is a large meandering river; History is its fountainhead; names are its index markers; memorabilia and other icons of forget-me-nots are the boulders in its fluid and fabulous fare. Remembrance is its active and vital current. For, Memory without Remembrance is like tinder without a match; a tiger without its leap. To remember is to spring into life, to call dormant thoughts, passive ideas, somnolent sensations into active service; to bring the past to bear on the present and fling a bridge between it and the future.