IT was problematic that he was a confirmed member of a political ruling class that had from the start been accused of elitism, and condescension, of thinking itself intellectually superior to the Nigerian people.
And now, here was this man with a god complex, a new nationalist, new royalty, whatever, with his wrapper tied around the commoner’s neck. What had changed? It was not what Nigerians had hoped for in their projections about the end of colonial rule, the indigenisation of foreign trading and manufacturing, the growth of home grown enterprise, and the emergence of the Nigerian capitalist.
As the promise of Nigerians governing Nigerians frayed, never mind if the expectations may have been overestimated, he began to look out of place, so much so that when 1966 came with all its violent disillusionment and strong tribal separations and the consequent coup d’etat, he was the only Minister murdered during the coup.
Again, it was alleged that he was bound up and put in a giant ant-hill in the evening of one day, and brought out dead the next morning. It was a particularly cruel and long-winded process of dying, and his screams were said to have been heard all night and into the early hours of the morning.
There are no official records of these allegations. The records show simply that he was shot. He died with foreign bank accounts bulging with money, rumours suggesting amounts far and above one hundred thousand pounds sterling in one account in the UK, and to this day, Nigerians express all the paradoxes of that time, and the life and myth of the man.
We say he died with “our” money in “his” bank account, that he was the only minister killed during that coup because he was greedy, and obscene in his flamboyance and in his elitism. Yet we never fully trusted these thoughts to the records. Our formal history of his life are ambiguous, his condescension is concrete only in our oral stories. It is as if we are still trying to decide for him, but we can’t completely fool ourselves.
Did he progress through hard work and shrewdness? Was he a true nationalist? Capitalist? Or was he just an opportunist? If we can agree on those questions, then the issue of the beautiful girl around whose neck his wrapper was tied may become irrelevant or be an indulgence we would readily forgive.
Where did I get my more interesting twists on this man’s history? Well, they were a gift from a septuagenarian living in Somerton, in 1999. He handed me a handful of Onini and with it, the story. We argued, and finally agreed to disagree. And it was right that I should be suspicious of him. He was a White man akin to White men whose land were seized in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
The times of which he spoke were unique; right and wrong had been successfully muddied. He was working for UAC Nigeria in the time of the new nationalists and so his history could not be impartial. If the story were true, the end of his ownership of Nigeria along with his kind had been heralded by the importation of second hand shoes. He was disdainful, a little too adamant about the genuineness of his twists.
The reader must decide for himself what he believes. I remain enduringly fascinated with the 30-foot train attached to the neck of a beautiful girl, and what the beautiful girl imagined her position in the world to be. Yoruba kings of antiquity were deified in the most extraordinary ways. The Yoruba king was required to keep a positional distance from his people in order to reinforce his authority and divinity.
It was the Yoruba kings who were accused of owning human spittoons. Reverend Samuel Johnson in The History of The Yorubas meticulously describes the institution of force necessary to give the Yoruba King’s authority a superlative quality: The human spittoon’s role was simple, yet profound. A king was too eminent to spit in an inanimate container, so the human spittoon was given a designated place in the kings court, daily, awaiting the king’s urge to spit.
Not only was the king not allowed to spit in any other container apart from the human container, he was also not allowed to purse his lips in preparation for spitting. So, the human spittoon would be informed that the king wished to spit, and then, he would be required to assist the king in pursing his lips, and then he would open his mouth to receive the king’s spittle. This role was one of honour.
The relevance of this historical accusation still referred to in present-day Yoruba adage… “O’n yo ayo fami l’ete tuto” might be that the girl tied to the end of a train of a man of great importance is important because he is important. The king’s spittle makes the commoner special.
I once saw the wife of a governor flick a complimentary card that she had been offered by someone, at his head. He picked up the card from the ground and walked away as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I wondered whether having a card rebound off his head was more acceptable than being ignored.
One of my first thoughts on a culture of disrespect was that all communities of the world own their own versions, and it may be taken for granted that wherever one finds anything elitist, it is built on the self-esteem of someone somewhere considered less important, less intelligent, less deserving of some exclusive toy.
Ms. YEMISI OGBE, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Lagos.