By Ogaga Ifowodo
(Who Raged Against the Darkness and the Dying of the Light!)
He was not a poet, and I doubt that he ever knew of a Welshman by the name of Dylan Thomas who famously enjoined his dying father not to “go gentle into that goodnight” but to “rage, rage against the darkness and the dying of the light.” Physics educationist by first training, lawyer after, and crusader for democracy and justice, he was inclined to think in more prosaic terms.
Still, his all-too-brief life exemplified the best form of poetry by constantly seeking to distill beauty out of the chaos and ugliness of our existence, much of that ugliness a direct product of the astonishing propensity of our so-called leaders to greed, corruption, and visionlessness.
Aturu raged against the dying of the light over Nigeria. If Thomas thought that courage alone distinguished our brief time on earth, then Aturu announced his existence to benighted Nigeria by a quintessential act of courage. The year was 1988. Picture this: A 24-year-old man at the passing-out parade of the National Youth Service Scheme, NYSC. Presiding over the occasion, rendered more military than civic, is a military governor. His name, Lawan Gwadabe, a lieutenant-colonel of the army.
His khaki starched to an arrogant stiffness, his boots polished to a perfect shine reflecting his image as he viewed the parade of young citizens about to be thrust with little more than their service uniforms into a society under the grip of military tyranny.
The colonel-governor exemplifies illegitimate and brute power, but he gives it a flimsy human face with platitudes about national service, how these young men and women testify to our credo of “unity in diversity,” and how the nation looks up to them to build the future. Something like that. And then in recognition of merit, he begins to hand out awards.
That for the best corps member in his state goes to one Bamidele Francis Aturu. In a flash, military starchiness is matched by a stony stare. Aturu, rather than be immeasurably glad for the honour and privilege of shaking the hand of his excellency, the Soldier-Governor, marches up, refuses to extend his hand and leaves the soldier’s hanging mid-air. And then he opens his mouth and says, “Sir, I cannot accept this award from you because you represent a government with which I have irreconcilable differences.” Words to that exact effect.
Let’s give the devil his due: Aturu was not marched off and tied to a firing stake, was not clamped indefinitely into a dark and airless dungeon.
But he did have his national youth service discharge certificate withheld. Still, it took exceptional courage for a young man to look in the eye of a henchman of military dictatorship, with the power and licence to do him incalculable harm— in short, to blight his future for good—and yet speak in no uncertain terms the truth that he knew; the truth that all of his fellow citizens, old and young, rich and poor, in or out of the corridors of power knew, but which many would not dare utter to public hearing.
Of the thousand and one things I could have written about to eulogise my (learned) friend, brother, and comrade, I have chosen this one and I hope the reason is clear by now. That singular act drew an indelible portrait of the young man as a revolutionary, an image that he never sullied. Till the end, Aturu walked the path of radical progressive politics.
Even in an inherently conservative profession, he viewed law and legal advocacy as a tool of social engineering, following in the footsteps of his older compatriots like Alao Aka-Bashorun, Gani Fawehinmi, Kanmi Ishola-Osobu, Femi Falana, Itse Sagay and Olisa Agbakoba, among others.
It was, I believe, his quest for a transcendental “embodiment” of his radical egalitarianism, a foundation beyond the contingent claims of mortals, that led him to God and pastoral work with an evangelical zeal that you couldn’t fail to appreciate, however much you might dispute some of its moral and eschatological premises.
Aturu’s death reminds us, yet again, of the rapid decimation of the ranks of radical humanists who have fought against military and civilian misrule, corruption and mass impoverishment of the people with their integrity intact. In just under a decade, the progressive forces in Nigeria have lost eight giants of the struggle, none of whom had reached the end of their natural days: Chima Ubani, Fawehinmi, Aka-Bashorun, Bala Usman, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Olaitan Oyerinde and Festus Iyayi, the last two assassinated by agents of the darkness that rules the land.
I bear witness to Aturu’s ceaseless raging against this darkness not only at the barricades but also during those quieter moments when, still cutting his teeth as lawyer with my former dean at the University of Benin, he would come down to my one-room apartment in the “Boy’s Quarters” of Itse Sagay & Co at the slightest opportunity, often before going to his office in the main building on a day he was not in court, for conversations on the state of the nation.
Especially, in those heady “June 12” days when that one-room apartment served as the underground secretariat of the Campaign for Democracy, CD and Ubani more or less moved in with me, and we would have daily tripartite debates on tactics and strategy in anticipation of, or reflections on, the “expanded secretariat” meetings of the time.
Wild for truth and justice as Aturu was, we may say of him that he “caught and sang the sun in flight” — the sun setting too soon on the flower of Nigeria’s youth. He may have died of complications resulting from a stealth case of leukemia, but we owe the duty of righting the many wrongs that he fought against so we may, at the very least, hope to stay the impatient hands of death too frequent a visitor among us in recent times.