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*out of the mouth of babes

*the babes have grown *oh, to spray again

By Bisi Lawrence
It was one of those days that start off normally and then suddenly acquire an aberration with which they stamp their imprint on history. We had never experienced a trade dispute that led to a strike before. Anyone who had heard about it was left to only imagine it.

How could any group of people decide to disagree with constituted authority to the extent of refusing to observe stated rules of operations, or of defying statutory regulations of administration? But it came to Nigeria on that day in the year of our Lord, 1944, and landed, of all places, within the precincts of none other than a citadel of discipline – King’s College, Lagos.

I was in my second year at the CMS Grammar School, Lagos, and we took an aggressive pride in being the oldest secondary school in Nigeria. King’s College was, on the other hand, the oldest of the government secondary schools, and was chock-a-block with facilities and amenities that other schools could only dream of.

The colonial government set out to make a model of it for other schools in various ways by fashioning a tradition of excellence for the institution in academics as well as sports.

So many of the members of staff, including the principal, were expatriates from English public schools and universities, and they had total charge of the students whom they would have been expected to brainwash into being young, black Englishmen amenable to rigid discipline in a colonial setting.

However, it would appear that the liberal pattern of education in which they themselves were brought up, could not but be imparted to their wards. Up till then, a strike was what you dealt the head of a nail with a hammer, in the Nigerian linguistic context.

On that morning when the news was abroad that the King’s College boys were on strike, it all looked like a joke to those who understood what it really meant, and they weren’t many. Others merely wondered what it was all about, and pondered on what these “white” black boys would give out next. But the colonial masters and their officials who ran the college had a total grasp of the implications, and the measures they adopted showed it.

They hastened to suppress the “insurrection” by clamping down on the “ringleaders”. A number of the rebellious students were arrested and arraigned before a magistrate, though they were manifestly under age.

They were refused bail, although several prominent barristers of the day appeared for them. In the lead, as I recall, was E J.Alex-Taylor, who was known as “The Cock of the Bar”.

In the end, eight of the young boys were conscripted into the Army – the Second World War was still on –  but they were transported to Gambia rather than made to face the horrors of Burma, where the Nigerian troops were serving through most of the war. Among them was my dear cousin, Valentine Edobor Osula, of beautiful memory. A bright and gifted student, he never fully recovered from the trauma of that sharp experience.

The country was aghast at the treatment meted out to these lads. It was as much as a prison sentence  –  even worse. The military uniform was only a step away from the abyss, as far as the decent people of that period were concerned.

The colonial masters had set their game plan well to attack the psyche of the masses. No one, they were sure, would subsequently want anything to do with an action that was capable of attracting such severe measures.

But they were wrong, very wrong. Ironically, the obvious rattling that the strike action of mere young boys could inflict on the government, actually recommended the action to the populace. And so Nigeria witnessed the first general strike of civil servants in her history the following year, that is, in 1945. The rest belongs to history.

And it all started with some schoolboys revolting against the objectionable rule of unfeeling authority. As the Holy Bible puts it, “Out of the mouths of babes…”

You are acquainted, I am sure, with the popular slogan, “The youth  shall grow.” A man has it written on the wall of  his house but adds, in quaint humour perhaps, “into what?”

Every time I see that sign, I am reminded of one of Nigeria’s greatest educationists, Dr. J.O. Lucas, who once cautioned some young students about sixty years ago, that they should not glorify or become complacent in the fact that they were usually referred to as “tomorrow’s leaders”, unless they were certain of where they would be “tomorrow”.

King’s College was about forty years old as an institution of learning when it virtually instituted the strike action as a medium of protest in Nigeria.

The college was celebrating its one hundred years of existence earlier this year, but its fiftieth anniversary could have probably been more momentous and lavish. That is not to criticize the organizers of the event, or events; one only had to wonder as an interested observer if a centenary of epic contributions to the development of this country could not have been marked in a more stupendous manner than that.

Meaning no offence to (Lateef Okunnu, SAN; A. K. Amu, OFR; and Chief J.K.Randle II among) hundreds of the noble sons – and daughters – of this nation who have passed through the portals of this great college, how many of the laudable milestones installed on the highway of history were celebrated with the centenary?

How many people were reminded, on the occasion, of those young men who suffered as they established the time-honoured mode of bargaining between the employer and the employee? How many people in fact, remember them enough to remind others?

One of them indeed lost his life during the conscription. I remember that, but cannot remember his name. My cousin Val’s name, as a matter of fact, is the only one I remember now. I feel somehow deprived of a possession that should be mine to cherish, a sense of pride in the sacrifice made by others for me to be a Nigerian, and in those who made it for me and others, and the inspiration that I might have derived from what they had to endure.

That is all there is to patriotism, when you come to think of it. That is where it starts and ends – a fund of appreciation of what your country had done for you, to make you ask what you can do in return. And we are not talking about government here, but about the institutions that do eventually shape the kind of rulers we saddle on ourselves. And that also means that King’s College is only of a metaphoric significance in this context.

Permit me to repeat that there is no offence meant, but if one is taken then this page is open for airing it.

I went to one of those outlandish shops on Victoria Island the other day, and was laden with a change made of coins after paying for the stuff I bought.

There were one-naira coins, and five-naira coins, and ten-naira coins, and twenty-naira coins – and a queue of other shoppers behind me who were impatiently waiting for their turn at the cash register. For a moment, I felt like turning round and “spraying” them with the change.

Can you imagine being lumbered with such stuff which could hardly be worth its weight in pebbles? 1 had not come across the unattractive object for years, and could not help wondering where it had all come from.

I was certain that it was not going to be accepted by any self-respecting trader outside V.I., though I wondered how many even would do that in that “Nigeria away from Nigeria.”

(Two of my children actually live there, and I wonder how they can. They each possess SUV’s that are four-wheel model, since they have to traverse a miniature Sahara in and out of their rambling abodes. How could I really face that? Anyway, not to digress…)

And I was right. Everyone rejected it. Some even thought I was trying to be funny. I was not. I only wanted value back for my money. No one would cooperate; not the pepper-seller in the market, not the fish-vendor on the street, not even my barber who actually laughed as others around laughed with him.

I wasn’t exactly in a quandary, really, because I knew some steps I could take. For instance, I could haul the coins to the bank and deposit them in my account.

But I had been the butt of enough jokes already. And I also knew why the coins were, so to say, so unmovable”. It was because they were in denominations at which the naira had become practically without value.

I recall that a one-kobo loaf of bread was enough breakfast for me when I was young; that a two-kobo bus ride took you from Lagos across the Carter Bridge to Ebute Metta; and that a three-kobo piece gained you an admission into a “Saka Jojo” cinema-house to watch an epic Western thriller or a “Tarzan” adventure. And to crown it all, I also remember that young women almost dislocated their waists whilst dancing at parties for the joy of being appreciated with a ten-kobo piece.

The coin was gently stamped on each upraised forehead and it stayed there from the moisture created by the exertions to earn it. I would indeed have created a stampede in those days if I had acted out my first reaction to “spray” that change of unwanted coins when I received it.

But that would hardly raise the slightest breeze these days. To “spray” these days, you even need a sack full of currency notes. That has weaned several “socialites” (like me!) of  the habit. But, oh, to be able to “spray”: again!

The truth is that we do need these coins in our commercial life. They last much longer than currency notes and are so adaptable because they can be slotted for sundry services. We really need to increase their value, and there is nothing stopping us. Professor Emeka Soludo, the ex-mandarin of the CBN, had the idea of doing something that would have brought that about.

Now, Dr. Lamido Sanusi, the new Moghul who is into printing anyway (even if only as a legacy) only needs to effectuate the displacement of those “double-zeroes” and we would be home and dry. In fact, maybe he is thinking of that already and will soon launch out in his theatrical manner, now that the “tsunami” on the banks has subsided.

The young are indeed growing, and in some cases, towards a noble life.

I have had the pleasant experience of meeting some groups of young men and women who quietly strive to make a difference for the better, not only in their own lives, but also in the existence of their community.

One of them, The Students’ Organization of Harmony, held a rally to mark the recent Independence Day celebrations.

They seem more concerned about what they know is good for the nation in which they are going to live, than in the ills they see festering around them. We, the grown-up ones. should strive to set good examples for these young ones or, at least, give them our cooperation.

If they can approach life with such a positive vision, we can do no less than show that we believe in the future of their dreams. Get involved in such a group today. That is patriotism.
Time out.


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