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Between Macebuh and Ofeimun

March 27, 2010
What has death got to do with birthdays? That may be the question that leaps into the mind of any reader of this piece who is familiar with the news stories concerning these two great Nigerians. The one, Dr. Stanley Macebuh, one of the finest minds to ever walk the corridors of a newspaper house in Nigeria – or anywhere else, for that matter – recently passed on at 67; the other, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, the man we all call “Odia”, a poet and commanding intelligence on the literature and politics of the age, is currently celebrating his sixth decade as a citizen of the word and the world – and not just as a citizen of a racial embarrassment called Nigeria.
I find it interesting, as I ruminated over the lives (of both) and death (of one) of these cosmopolitan minds, that we could make “an important contribution to Nigeria's intellectual history”, by comparing and contrasting the lives of Macebuh and Ofeimun.

I never met the first; I am only a distant admirer and student of his journalistic and intellectual exertions. The other I can call a friend. Indeed, “oga Odia” became a mentor for many members of my generation in the arts, journalism and the ivory tower without any elaborate understanding of “how”. What we know, for sure, is “why”. We have turned his home over the years into an institute of culture with free boarding rooms! It hasn’t been a difficult conversion, I must confess, because there is no woman there! Or, let me say: because there is no woman who is always there! Professor Femi Osofisan publicly confessed his exertions on this front in The Guardian recently. I too have had the impossible task of nudging Odia toward marriage and even appointing my abject self, at a point, as an active recruiter – including in the years when I was hopelessly unsuccessful in my own personal bids for same. After several assurances to consummate the opportunities, let me just say, “the poet lied”! So, in spite of boasting in one of his poems, entitled “Love Approaching”, about going “under water” “where [the] “seaweeds” of a particular (imaginary?) lady “are the proteins of joy”; or in serenading himself in verse about “Oyin” who “breathes a quiet ardour/against a calculus of nerves”, the great poet, in “Thinking About Art (Her?)” has refused to formally let “my shedtree...go mad/bowed by fruits that it cannot disown”.
 
As for Macebuh, I will not discuss his legendary love-affair with cognac and the accompanying cigar which seemed like rhyme to the scheme of sonnets – about which those close to him have reminisced. The poet of conscience, multiple award-winning Professor Niyi Osundare, in his lyrical posthumous tribute to Macebuh whose “music of prose” had compelled the country to dance, attests to this in a poem: “You love life/(and life loved you no less)/singed the cigar, cajoled the cognac.....” Anyway, so much for the personal....

Indeed, Macebuh’s professional trajectory and public life and the particular publicised details of how he was pauperized before death, constitute an important narrative of the asphyxiating social conditions that make honour and personal decency such rare commodities in our public and private lives in Nigeria. A society where you need to command or summon the discipline and integrity reserved for the disciples of Jesus Christ to live a basic decent life is a potential danger to those who live in it as well as to itself. This is the society that a combination of forces and factors has imposed on us all: Whether we recognize it or not, from the road-blocking policeman in Kaura Namoda and Konduga and the supplicant civil servant in Akure and Awka to the perpetually requesting senator in Abuja and the contract-seeking businessman in Kaduna, we are all glorified “wetin-you-carries?” That a fine scholar with upper-class sensibilities, former managing director of The Guardian and former senior presidential adviser such as Macebuh would die virtually penniless is an apt metaphor for a totally disinherited population.

As for Odia, to flip the emphasis, that, at 60, he is yet to have any direct impact on the policy process at the federal level, despite the sheer breadth and depth of his mind and his superb understanding of the social processes for transformative politics, is a reminder of how Nigeria always manages to waste her rarest talents. Odia regularly expresses his regrets for the path that the country has refused to take; he has also exposed with verse, prose and his social engagements, the “road-blocks” that have obstructed the country from marching towards her manifest destiny. In his poem, “Wait for THE ROADBLOCKS!” the poet of social transformation sings: “this whole country, man, is one happy roadblock
Your moral opposition just another goof in the trailer
Overtaken by the trickster gods of the roadblock

this whole country, man, is one swarming roadblock
for wetin you carry an’ wetin you no carry, you pay
while princes of loot pass overhead in private jets.”
A comparison of the two great minds, Macebuh and Ofeimun, who, incidentally, worked together at The Guardian, is interesting: the deceased was a liberal intellectual, the living is a radical (or, say progressive) intellectual. Beyond that, and most important of all, they are both celebrated as good souls. There is much that we can learn about our society by looking at the lives of both men. Also, we can study Macebuh’s engaging prose and Odia’s belligerent prose and visionary poetry and then come up with a particular narrative about our country. While Macebuh would pass for a political liberal-conservative, Odia would insist on radical-progressive politics. Macebuh was, and Ofeimun is, very austere in the pursuit of personal financial comfort, if at all, but they shared a vision of an egalitarian society where the greatest number finds decent life affordable. Macebuh was an idealistic thinker, Ofeimun is a pragmatic visionary. However, both are united in their conviction that no civilized life is conceivable without the human mind as the fundamental bedrock on which such life is anchored. As great reflections of postcolonial poverty of ideas and the idea of postcolonial poverty, one just died in glorified destitution, while the other lives on, destitute of basic capital. In a country without foundation, there are no foundations for the protection and nurturing of great minds - where Macebuh and Ofeimun would have found long-term moorings, without every currency playing pranks with them.

Macebuh wanted to live in a decent society and wrote about building one; Odia wants to actively construct a decent society and writes about the struggle for such. Between the two, there is a great representation of how fine minds, from perhaps two near-ends of the intellectual spectrum, can leverage the process of national salvation. Unfortunately, even though one eventually rotated around power, not as a palace intellectual, but as an intellectual at the palace (but one whose presence only humoured those in power), the other is distanced from power by his very vision of the egalitarian uses of power. In the end, Nigeria has wasted one and is wasting the other. An historic scandal – almost inexpressible!

I was struck by Macebuh's conclusion that Dr. Olatunji Dare’s tribute to him a couple of years ago came across as an "obituary" - as the latter revealed in his Nation column last week. It is as if Macebuh suspected that he had been “killed” by postcolonial forces even before he gave up the ghost. Is Dare’s “anticipatory obituary" yet another affirmation of the writer as an unwitting futurist?

As for Odia, I suspect that he would not care about an obituary when he eventually joins the ancestors. What the poet would desire is the eulogy that poetry would register in the transformation of his country into a land with “freedom for all, and life more abundant” - as in the words of Nigeria’s methodical political mind whose egalitarian vision and programmatic principles Odia unapologetically re-articulates and popularizes.

That should not be a surprise. Much of Odia’s public life has been about making claims. Although, in recent years, through the constant harassment of his younger friends, he seems to have robbed himself of his favourite first sentence in any disposition, “The truth of the matter is ....”, Odia still sleeps and wakes by many “truths” which he holds to be self-evident. He has watched so many lies triumph in Nigeria, including such lies as Nigeria being a “federal republic” and the 1999 constitution claiming in its opening paragraph that it is the sovereign resolve of “We, the people....” After witnessing and being forced to live with such grand fabrications, Odia is disposed towards perpetually reminding people about the (elusive) “truth of the matter”.

Even as we, as a political community, are seized by the awkward cravings for a differentiation where there is no difference, asking that we be rescued from a raging fire on the condition that we will be thrown into the deep oceans to peacefully drown; and, as we move from “go-slow” to “good luck”, we should remember what Macebuh (gently) and Ofeimun (loudly) say to us: it is not only great minds that are impoverished and imperiled by the dominance of brawn over brain and the perpetual triumph, in our polity, of the incompetent over the capable. As we found out in the first, second and third Republics and are finding out now in the fourth, where our collective destiny is publicly violated with relish; as Chief Olusegun Obasanjo discovered under his lecherous come-raid-in-(H)arms, General Sani Abacha, who seized his freedom and destroyed his businesses; and, as Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua realized in the dark cell where he was cruelly deprived of his fundamental right to life through lethal injection, while his hands were tied behind his back: even if the powerful keep their spare-keys to the Central Bank and their sentries at the door of our national transformation, without the triumph of what the likes of Macebuh and Ofeimun represent in our polity, both the poor and the rich, the powerless and the powerful - at least within the confines of our fatherland - will never live and die in a good society.

The great mind is dead; long live the great mind! Good night, Dr. Macebuh; happy birthday, oga Odia.
•    Adebanwi teaches in the African American and African Studies Program at the University of California-Davis.

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