By DAN AMOR
In Scents of Power, a highly cerebral book of about 225 pages, a literary cum political autobiography of some sort, published in 2021, Dr. Amanze Obi, one of Africa’s most celebrated newspaper columnists, and former university don, goes to town with the story of his adult life.
It is a theoretical analysis, a boldly experimental work and a book of intellectual ideas. Its purpose is to provide responsible discourse on literary, political and economic conditions in an aesthetically palatable context.
Because the work looks very much like an autobiography, I will talk a little about the author and much more about the book itself. But because the book is about the author, I will invariably talk more about the writer himself.
In talking about the author, we must look at his background, his philosophy, his language and style, his aesthetics, and his ideological leanings. Amanze Obi, one of this century’s greatest essayists, in this book, draws on his deep knowledge and relationships with men of power and influence and on his meticulous research into previously untapped sources, to write this highly explosive literary/political autobiography.
Obi, in this slim book, portrays the substantial range and influence of his connections and achievements. Amanze, for sure, is a pivotal figure of our generation, whose fierce brilliance touches the key literary and political events that shape our era and would resonate into the future.
Upon being admitted into the prestigious University of Lagos in the 1980s, the quiet, gentle but brilliant boy from a prosperous Igbo family would cut his own path through the world of the Nigerian public school and became one of an intimate group of vivid, first rate scholars who would help elevate the philosophic construct and intellectual pedigree of his university. In this ennobling autobiography, Amanze Obi, the legendary Nigerian writer and conversationist is brought overwhelmingly to life in measured cadences.
The book is more astute, more generous and fore-bearing, yet more fundamental and perhaps more intricate than the author himself has allowed. Given his magnificent account, Obi emerges here as a startling contemporary, able even now to challenge our common assumptions with his wit and subversive insights.
Indeed, Scents of Power, reads like the third in a series, following Delicate Distress (2013) and Perspectives in International Politics (1998).
It might as easily have been part three of a single work. While it stands alone, all three participate in a common if somewhat articulated vision, with common characters and a portent continuity of situation, mood and motif.
It is a formidable vision of contemporary Nigeria, and the world at large, paradoxically related with a strong affection for the details of everyday life. Through the curiously embodied quality of his prose, Obi has created a world in actuality and yet is somehow quite separate from it, a world more akin to the folk myth than to ordinary experience and factuality. Even as he has said that there is no legend in the book, he is the legend himself.
Then, to situate Amanze Obi’s language and style in this book to the whole canons of literary theory is to embark on a delightful journey.
Written in a lively, jargon-free style, Scents of Power reveals how the ambitious cultural heritage of the author becomes a major source of his strength —how the rich traditions of the English language give enlivening power to writers such as Obi, also remarkable for their drive toward radical independence and skepticism. It is indeed striking to emphasize here that Amanze Obi is an expatriate to the English language, a writer with a profoundly unsettled cultural identity, who writes the language with remarkable verve and felicity.
In this wide-ranging work of practical criticism, Amanze examines his past, focusing on the values carried through inherited forms of language and, in particular, through common forms of speech and delivered in a vintage prose style.
Providing fresh, detailed insights into his university and journalism days, Obi illuminates the complex past knitting together his experiences and showing how these inform the most varied social, psychological and aesthetic structure and the whole corpus of his involvement in modern essay writing.
He explores his powerful reservoir as a PhD holder in English for the resources of language and attendant longings for literary freedom or poetic license associated with abstraction, system, and foreign or private language.
Throughout this book, Amanze Obi’s own critical procedures transcend restrictive polarizations, as he lucidly analyses the biases of both Anglo-Nigerian critical tradition and the challenge to that tradition in general literary theory and practice.
His insights into the relationship between language and culture create a new critical approach within which opposing impulses and pressures may be more fully recognized by critical readers of the book.
This powerful book is divided into four sections of unequal chapters. Section One: The University Years, is made up of four chapters: A Freshman on Campus; Campus Politics; Climbing the Pole, and Starting a Doctorate. Section Two, The Newspaper Years, begins with From The Guardian to ThisDay; The Interregnum; Voyage to Congo; A Revolution under Threat; Birth of BROKEN TONGUES; Bride of THE SUN; Creating THE SUN Back Page Column; Travelling for THE SUN; At Home with Mandela, and Going to America. Section Three: Government and Politics, starts with Dawn of Democracy; In the Purgatory; A Dark Horse Marches In; Age of Innocence; The HoneyMoon; The Kalu-Ohakim Wedger; The Lull Begins; The Last Straw; After The Fall; Enter the Machine God; Reality Sets In; Photo Finish; Politics Nigeriana; My Political Baptism; Practical Politics; Pioneering the Ahiajoku Institute, and A Touchstone for the Festival. Section Four: Postscript, has only one chapter: Jonathan as fall guy; Notes and References, and of course, Name and Subject indices.
Rather than going into a tree-by-branch analysis of the chapters, a summary of the heavily loaded sections, would here suffice. In his cogently pulsating comment in the foreword to the book, Dr. Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, Executive Governor of Kano State, has this to say: “Amanze Obi is a journalist that has traversed the media landscape and made his imprint in many national dailies; his opinion has found favour in the public domain, adding value to the papers’ image and economics.
He got a chance to walk his talk when he got appointed to serve as a commissioner on two occasions. His claim therefore that he only scented power is very modest, to say the least; he tasted power. The title of this book therefore should have been “Taste of Power.”
As a freshman in the University of Lagos in 1984, Amanze Obi’s impression of himself was that of a young man who had discovered himself. He was fresh and uncorrupted. But he was soon to find himself in a circle of friends whose utmost interest on campus was to discover the world of books. Within a few months of their union, Amanze was, for whatever reason, to become the most discussed student among them.
He was seen by his peer group as an intriguing personality whose lifestyle was found to be both amusing and enthralling. His ways were found to be easy-going and unobtrusive, especially his dealings with the opposite sex. They said he exhibited tendencies that bordered on the unserious. Yet, beyond that veneer of “unseriousness” lay a firm spirit and a focused personality who did not brook any nonsense. It was such a curious mix that thrilled them.
As the years went by, their impressions about him became crystallized into what was later to be christened, “The Amanze Obi Phenomenon.” Even in academic matters, a boy who was either seen as a ‘rigour major’ or a ‘layabout’ became the talk of the circle, as he was the best student in his class.
A man of extremes, Amanze Obi was ferocious and tender, intellectually violent and self-restrained, opinionated and non-judgmental, always an outsider of sorts within the exceptionally intimate, fractious, and sometimes vicious society of brilliant and exceptionally gifted students of his age.
Obi might not be his university’s saintly caretaker or her oppressor, but he was one of the most brilliant and dashing students in his circle. It was this simple beginning that shaped his adulthood and working life.
BROKEN TONGUES, Dr. Amanze Obi’s weekly column at the Back Page of Daily Sun, which now publishes every Monday, remains one of the best newspaper columns in the world. Although Scents of Power is barely 225 pages in length, it so deftly shades in the complexity of its author’s life that it seems like a major opus.
Like a dry fish, it can be expanded to a 500-page book. But the production quality of this maiden edition should be improved upon. Otherwise, the book is a blockbuster that must be in all bookshelves across the world. It is a must-read.
*Amor, critic and journalist, lives in Abuja.