Monday, May 24, 2010

Irons In The Fire

Reminiscences, on my birthday

"People say I've got my hands in too many things...keeping time with paupers just well as kings. I tossed my head unto the silver cloud...and then I to keep my Irons In the Fire"- Teena Marie.

At the time I was born, in the mid-1960s, Nigeria was in Crisis. The technically flawed military coup of Majors Ifeajuna and Nzeogwu, both Igbos from Eastern Nigeria and their colleagues, inadvertently thrust power in the hands of Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, also from the East, in 1966. The coup left Prime Minister Tafawa Balawa, and Northern Nigeria premier Ahmadu Bello, and several others of Northern extraction dead. That ignited a Northern officers counter-coup a year later, that brought in a young Colonel Jacob (Yakubu) Gowon to power in Nigeria. These were preceded by the civilian crises in the Federal Government of Tafawa Balewa . Everywhere, in Nigeria, there was instability, with the South-west as the major theatre of chaos. The drum beats of war was sounded in the Eastern parts by Colonel Ojukwu, who opposed the new federal leadership of Colonel Gowon, and the loss of lives and properties of mainly Igbos in Northern Nigeria, during the 1967 coup that brought Gowon to power. Meanwhile, there were riots in parts of other country; especially Tivland. Yorubaland in the South-West was regarded as the "wild west", with the political imbroglio involving premier Akintola and the giant of Yoruba politics, Chief Awolowo.

The leadership of the new Nigeria was simply unable to hold the country together as a homogeneous country after all their effort to wrestle political control from the British. Between 1962 to 1965, chaos had enveloped the political system of Nigeria. In 1962, the hallowed Western House of Assembly was in disarray. This provided the opportunity to declare a state of emergency and nullify, for a period, the premiership of Chief Ladoke Akintola. At this same period, the effective leadership of the political party controlling the western region, the Action Group, were incarcerated. The federal and western regional elections of 1964 and 1965 ignited the explosion of the simmering volcano of intractable political crisis. The man at the top of the heap, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, misread the situation as tribally or regionally fuelled, and thought it was expedient to be neutral. At this time, my father, was a player in the West Africa Student's union.

Meanwhile, the young and small Nigerian army, was getting restive. The British trained senior officers, seemed to be more professional in their attitude ignored the political situation and concentrated on hobnobbing with the political leaders for favourable positioning at the very top. But the junior officers, many with university education, and a keener eye for trends and a passion for systematic application of military power were defining a more political attitude in the rank and file. The bolder ones hatched the semi-professional coup de tat. A singular event that changed Nigeria's future for ever. Since January 15, 1966, Nigerians started becoming experts at recognising how many stars made one military man a general, and another colonel. My first notable talent, as a young boy, was in fine art. I became an expert in drawing General Jacob Gowon in full military regalia by the time I was a few years old.

America was also in crisis at this time. There were cultural crises arising from the civil rights movements engaging America to correct the anomalies of racial segregation, in fact and form. Cassius Clay was on his way to becoming the most popular person in the world, as a boxer, and was preparing to jettison his Faith to become a radical, black Muslim under "Prophet Elijah Mohammed". This singular act, which saw him accepting a name given by this Elijah Muhammad Ali, would also unleash terror against him, by the same murderers of his mentor, Malcolm X. The war against Vietnam had peaked, and America was losing technically. For even though they were to wipe out 1 million Viets, their own loss off 55,000 soldiers was more than their middle-class nation could stomach. Instead, the average young American led by actress Jane Fonda, was into the new-age philosophies of self help and Asian mystical religion. It was profitable to "Make love, not war" and to have group orgies and peace rallies. John Lennon would survive the Beatles as a cultural icon. American cowboy movies were infiltrating every nation in the world, and the struggle to colonise the moon and terrestrial space was on between the Soviets and America.

In Britain, the "Great" haven been made nonsense of, Caribbean migrants had continued flooding into the hallowed streets of London. Nigerians were having the first generation of dual-citizen babies in hospitals all over England, curiously avoiding Scotland and Wales. The rest of Europe had stabilised after the manic self destruction of the 2nd European Civil War, which they had extended to other parts of the world, in an incorrigible attempt to cause worldwide chaos. Most of Asia was resolutely 3rd World, using the popular parlance. The rest of Africa was either at war, becoming sovereign nations or under white minority rule. While Elvis Presley ruled in America, the Beatles made world conquest a priority from their Liverpool factories. Yet, Indian and Hong Kong made Chinese movies entertained the rest of the world. Honda and Suzuki were competent making little motorbikes and generators that were popular in Africa. All in all, it did not appear that Armageddon was going to happen on earth, despite the pockets of armed and unarmed conflicts here and there.

In South Africa, the "Madiba", Nelson Mandela had been caught, tried spurriously, and jailed for what was to tbe 27 years. The American civil rights movement had peaked in their struggles, and the 1964 Civil Rightd Act rewarded the tenacious marches of Martin Luther King Jr and his associates. Man walked on the moon and nuclear as well as space technology became objects of strife rather than human accomplishments.

In Nigeria, the streets of Lagos were beautiful and the Marina was quite picturesque. The real estate high rises were not yet there in the 1960s. The weather patterns were nicer, because the ozone was not so depleted. In the interior of the country, many towns lived in the shadow of Lagos but closer to nature and greatly enhanced by the rich culture and traditions of our peoples. The average Nigerian was not touched by the political instability at the regional and national levels, and took solace and strength from the traditional institutions. The Sultan of Sokoto had more power than any Prime Minister, as did the Obas of Lagos, Ife, Benin, Ijebu and Oyo. The people would listen first to their Kings before they did political leaders.

My infancy was not threatened by the contagious madness of the political world. I was a precocious child. The first male offspring of my parents. My education was sheer complexity; from lowly public schools to expensive foreign education, more than 20 institutions in all. I have thus been enriched by a multitude of cultures, religions, peoples and attitudes and this has given me insights and experiences beyond my years, and consequently, a quite complex personality modulated only by the steady hands of my maternal grandmother. A mystery within an enigma. At once a Tom Sawyer and David Copperfield. Aloof, reserved, sometimes snobbish, and yet adventurous, amorous and humanistic. I soon got tired of explaining my nuances to the continuous melee of strangers that came into my life, preferring the mystery to the exposition. I had the love of my family, and that seemed enough. I spent most of my childhood away from home, in the dreary loneliness of several boarding schools. Today, my reluctance to form attachments and the need for independence is borne from these childhood experiences.

I was born sandwiched between two royal families in Ijebuland. It happened that we were often referred to as 'children of the one armed King'. A direct reference to the immediate past Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Adesanya, a maternal great grandparent. As it were, the succeeding King, Oba Adetona is my maternal grandmother's nephew. The royal family immediately to follow Adetona's family in order of precedence to the throne, would be the Subomi-Balogun dynasty. This family came from Princess Ashiru-Balogun - my father's cousin. Thus, from both parents, and across three of the four royal households in Ijebuland, I and my sisters were directly connected. As a child, I spent weekends an holidays in the Awujale's Palace in Ijebu Ode, and came to be really fond of Oba Adetona. From this connection I came to learn and understand first hand, Ijebu history and traditions. My research would confirm that, it is no empty declaration that the Ijebus as part of Yoruba stock, were of the ancient Nubian race - the last, black Pharaohs of lower Egypt. No mean feat that Awujale has a palace in Cairo today. Going even further, they, as part of the black race, were from the Canaanites - Noah's descendants.

Awujale Adetona is not reputed to love the rigidities of ancient traditions. During my adolescence he lived in a simple palace. I loved to visit his household and play around with his second child, Princess Tutu. She was quite maternal, and would come visit me at the boarding school that I then attended and feed me with Pronto and other sweet confectioneries. The Oba himself, was, and is still very accommodating. His principled stand on many issues date back from his youth. My grandmother told us of the times that he had stood against the traditional high chiefs and priests over aspects of his individual interpretation of tradition. Considering my many close encounters with him, I was not surprised that many, many years later, he would grace my wedding as the very first individual to arrive at the Church premises. Nowadays, he tells me every time we meet, to recover his personal expenses on me from my absent father. I have had precious few things to ask of him, but he has never refused any request. And he has never forgotten my grandmother's fostering care so many decades before before his coronation as King.

Despite all these royal connections, I experienced a normal childhood. I witnessed my parents struggle to establish themselves in life. I learned to hunt and fish, and to sell bread and provisions to passers-by around my family home. While living with my maternal grandmother in Lagos, I learned to sell bottled cold water and retail alcohol. I learned to lift cartons of beer and soft drinks and to go on sales trips around Lagos. Indeed, I was being prepared for financial independence and business success. I grew up accepting that sometimes I had to use a pit latrine, and enjoy the company of large green flies. I got accustomed to going to the bushes to 'spend a penny' by using itchy leaves to wipe my backside. I walked long distances to school, and got used to the continued absence of my parents while I moved from one boarding school to another.

I grew up to see my father buy his first car, a Volkswagen beetle, which he could not drive. I saw first hand, everything my parents had to do to make a living. I was not born with a silver-spoon in my mouth, I had to learn to use a breakable aluminium spoon to feed. I saw my parents battle one economic and spiritual war after another. I witnessed my father waltz his way into a prison experience, because of some problems where he worked. I saw the agony of my mother, taking his food to meet him, me in tow. And at that young age, I saw guns being brandished at hardened criminals. I remember vividly seeing one of my younger sisters, at age three, falling down from a first floor balcony to a cold hard concrete floor some twelve feet below. She survived without a scratch. It is amazing the things young minds can record and recollect. I can remember events happening in my life since the age of three with astonishing accuracy. I am extremely happy for the experiences of my youth. I feel qualified to tell my story. I thank my God for being alive today...and raising my children...and doing God's work...and caring about my nation. I've got to keep my Irons in The Fire.

(c) George H Ashiru
Month of Perfection

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