Celebrating ‘Peter Pan’ At 80 By Mohammed Haruna

imageHe was not the youngest editor in the history of Nigerian journalism. His more politically famous elder brother, the late Chief Anthony Enahoro, set that yet unbroken record when he became the editor of the Ibadan-based Southern Nigerian Defender, one of the newspapers in Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s nationwide stable, at age 21 in 1944.

Peter Enahoro, aka Peter Pan, however, came a close second when he became the editor of the better printed, more influential and more enduring Sunday Times at age 23 in 1958.

As if to make up for coming only second best to his elder brother as the country’s youngest editor ever, he stuck to journalism as a career and eventually established himself as probably Nigeria’s best columnist ever and one of its best editors and newsmagazine publishers.

Peter Osajele Aizegbeobor Enahoro was born exactly 80 years ago today in Uromi, Edo State, then part of Western Nigeria. He received his secondary school education from Government College, Ughelli, between 1948 and 1953. Thus, with no more than a secondary school certificate he launched himself into one of the most successful careers in Nigerian and African journalism.

The long rested West Africa, at one time one of the most influential African newsmagazines published out of London, once described him as the “enfant terrible of Nigerian journalism for more than three decades.” This was in the introduction to a two-page interview with him, which it published in its edition of June 10, 1996.

My Oxford English Dictionary defines “enfant terrible” as “a person whose controversial attitude shocks others.” This characterisation of Peter Pan couldn’t have been more spot-on. For, he seemed to have been an iconoclast as a young man from day one, judging from the way his journalism career at Daily Times almost came to grief even before it truly got going. This was at least the testimony of no less a journalism icon than the late Alhaji Babatunde Jose, easily the most successful journalist and newspaper publisher in post-independent Nigeria.

The story of Jose’s rise from copy boy to the management of Daily Times of Nigeria Ltd and eventually his transformation of the company at one time into the biggest and possibly wealthiest in Africa – again, like Enahoro, with hardly more than secondary education to begin with – is the stuff of legends. It was from him than Enahoro took over as editor of Daily Times in 1962 after he (Enahoro) had successfully edited Sunday Times for four years from 1958.

“Before I became the Editor (of Daily Times),” Jose said of his successorin his great 1987 autobiography, Walking a Tight Rope: Power Play in Daily Times, “Peter Enahoro and Nelson Ottah, both sub-editors, had been fired by Percy Roberts for being troublesome.” Roberts was then the British expatriate in charge of Daily Times before Jose.

On taking over, he said, he pleaded with Roberts to reinstate the two and he acceded. “Both,” Jose said, “later proved excellent leader writers and columnists.” Enahoro, he said, went on to become not only an excellent columnist but “the best so far in the history of journalism in Nigeria.”

To which one of Nigeria’s best columnists and humourists, the veteran Dan Agbese, concurred 25 years later. “Enahoro,” Agbese said in his excellent 2012 book, The Columnist’s Companion: The Art and Craft of Column Writing, “was a brilliant writer and columnist. His capacity for vivid verbal pictures remains unequalled by any writer or columnist in the country.”

To back this appraisal, Agbese reproduced a column Enahoro wrote as Peter Pan, his pen name, in the Sunday Times of October 23, 1960. The title of the piece alone spoke volumes about Enahoro’s dexterity with the written word; “Take it Satch – That’s All There is in Armstrong.” Enahoro then went on to narrate the story of his close encounter in a Lagos hotel with Louis Satchmo Armstrong, the late legendary American jazz musician who was on a musical tour of Nigeria that year.

“Even without his horn,” Peter Pan began in the opening sentences of the column, “he certainly was the loudest man for a quarter of a mile – at which distance one came to the Exhibition centre.” He then went on to describe in vivid but simple figures of speech what a charming and happy-go-lucky man Armstrong was.

His concluding paragraphs couldn’t have been more rib-cracking in their humour. They could also not have been more graphic and creative in their description of the man. “I have,” he said, “been asked what my memory of Louis Armstrong is. First of course is his roaring thunder of a voice. Every time I drive on a gravel I will remember him.

“Then is his jet-stream humour, much of which I will forget early. On account of I don’t dig that kinda hep talk ma sef. Cause ah never been down to New Orleans meebe.” This was obviously a humourous dig at the man’s Afro-American slang and a reference to his native city.

Six years into his journalism career in Daily Times, Enahoro was forced to flee into exile. As Jose told it in his autobiography in question, it all started with the country’s first military coup on January 15, 1966. Enahoro, he said, appeared “very pleased” with the coup, as most of the new rulers were his friends and he reflected this pleasure in his column by often praising the coup makers.

When the tables turned following the counter-coup of late July by Northern military officers, Enahoro, naturally, felt unsafe and after a while sought and was granted permission to move to London on a six-month leave without pay by the Times management. He never returned. Instead he resigned in August 1967 and eventually settled in Germany where he took up a job as an editor and producer at Deutsche Welle, the country’s equivalent of the BBC.

It was from there that he moved in 1976 to Africa magazine published in London by the late Ralph Uwechue, as editor. From Africa he moved to New African, also published in London, as editor and director. Eventually he founded his own newsmagazine, Africa Now, in London.

Of the three, only New African is still alive. But long before the death of his own magazine, he returned home from exile in the early 90s and at different times, chaired the National Broadcasting Commission and headed his alma mater, the Daily Times of Nigeria Ltd, as its sole administrator.

With his active days as a journalist now completely behind him, it can still be safely said in agreement with both Jose and Agbese that Enahoro remains the greatest columnist in Nigerian journalism. And with only two slim books, You Gotta Cry to Laugh and How To Be A Nigerian, to his name, he can also be said to be one of Nigeria’s greatest writers.

Both books are classic satires about Nigeria and its people and are as insightful about Nigeria’s sociology and politics even today as they were when he wrote them ages ago. They are also a study in simplicity and precision in language and style.

Take, for example, his insight in the second book into the typical Nigerian’s penchant for noise making. “In the beginning,” he said in the opening paragraph of Chapter 6 on the subject which he entitled Noise from the Soul, “God created the universe; then He created the moon, the stars and the wild beasts of the forests. On the sixth day, he created the Nigerian and there was peace. But on the seventh day while God rested, the Nigerian invented noise.”

Or take for another example, his guide to Nigerian oratory in Chapter 8. The Nigerian, he said, “begins his marathon address with a familiar apology: ‘…I do not intend to waste your time.’ Then he goes to do precisely what you expect him to do – waste your time.”

Or take for a third example his own take on the subject of sex in Nigeria. “Marriage,” he said in the introductory paragraph of Chapter 16 on the subject, “they say is an institution, sex is incidental. In Nigeria, sex is an institution and marriage is an incidence.”

You rarely get to read stuff like these anymore these days.

Enahoro is, however, not only justly famous for his way with the written word – and with the spoken word as well, to which anyone who has met him will testify – he could also be too plain speaking as was the case in his interview with West Africa which I mentioned at the beginning of this piece.

Asked, for example, what he thought of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) led by his elder brother, Tony, he said: “Believe me, NADECO is a paper tiger.” The coalition, which was a thorn in the side of General Sani Abacha’s regime, he said, had after all, given the general one month to hand over power to Chief MKO Abiola, whose putative victory at the June 12, 1993 presidential election had been annulled by Abacha’s predecessor, General Ibrahim Babangida, but Abacha had called their bluff. “Two years later,” Enahoro said, “he is still in power and it is NADECO’s relevance that is in doubt.”

He was, in the interview, also very unflattering about several of the coalition’s other leaders. There were people in it like Beko Ransome-Kuti, he said, whose sincerity he acknowledged. However, others like Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi and Wole Soyinka, were, he said in effect, only dubious.

“The trouble with Fawehinmi,” he said, “is that he is encouraged to take himself too seriously.” Akinyemi, he said, was only bitter with Abacha because the general had refused to accede to his request to be re-appointed foreign minister, whereas Soyinka was “given to staging melodramas.

“Remember the toy pistol incident? The escalation from that prank is that, with the Nobel Prize in hand, he is playing out the fantasy of being a politician of weight in Nigeria. He is not.”

It was, indeed, a “No holds barred” interview, as West Africa entitled it.

Happy 80th birthday to the enfant terrible of Nigerian journalism and here’s many more returns.

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