By Kunle Ajibade
In her essay, “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison, the 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, says that they straightened out the Mississipi River in places to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. We call it flooding. But Morrison insists that it is not flooding— it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. She goes on to observe that all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. The award-winning writer of Beloved, Home, Paradise, Song of Solomon, Love, Jazz, The Bluest Eye and A Mercy, among other mind-changing and truth-telling novels, then submits: “Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what banks were like, the light that was there and the routes back to our original place.”Like a big river straightened out to make room for houses, Yemi Ogunbiyi returns with a rush of memory. He remembers the valleys, the banks, the crevices, the byways and all the routes leading back to his original place. He remembers the joys and sorrows along the way.
Right across the twelve chapters of his riveting autobiography, The Road Never Forgets, remembrances pile upon remembrances. As you wade through the sea of his stories and backstories, which sometimes flash back and flash forward, and then intertwine and unfold in parallel and multitude, you will think that this memoirist has a near-perfect memory, but he is quick to tell us in his Epilogue, that memory is forgetful; that it is “very selective in sticking to things it chooses to remember.” Still, Ogunbiyi believes that “a life of denial can be costly. He then assures us that he has not made compromises in the book with his past and the truth. He tells his stories truthfully. He refuses to fall for any seduction of exaggeration. No conceit here. Indeed, he believes that he is not the sole orchestrator of his fate; that God or what he calls divine providence was always in charge, even if in a subterranean manner, making way, over and over again, for him. He writes that “fate runs our lives in ways that are strange and unfamiliar. He also says: “For all its fickleness, fate does not care what your wishes or plans are.” And, yet again, he writes, quoting a French proverb: “You often meet your fate on the road you took to avoid it.”
In a smooth way, he strikes a balance between story-telling and his reflections on those stories. He does not allow contexts and his analyses of events to trump his narrative. He intermeshes the personal and the communal perhaps to show that, more often than not, theyare the bones and muscles of the manifest destiny of the country itself. This is part of what makes this book enormously compelling. Spiced with impressive historical details where memory alone did not suffice, Yemi Ogunbiyi vividly draws the narrative arc of his life in Kano, Ibadan, Ipara-Remo, Lagos, New York, Ile-Ife, London, Germany, North Korea, India, Libya, China, Hawaii, Israel, Pakistan, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Jamaica, Bahamas, and other places. These being his years of childhood, boyhood, adulthood, manhood and old age. Each time he encountered the tricky problems that life unavoidably presented, the values he had learnt and the nuggets of wisdom acquired, evaluated and re-evaluated, served as a compass and a veritable touchstone. In his everyday conversations, Ogunbiyi uses the word ‘lovely’ a lot. In this book, he uses the word so many times. To a large extent, the word is one of the fitting descriptions of The Road Never Forgets because of its sublime composition and arrangement.
Here we meet Yemi Ogunbiyi who did not spend his childhood bathed in wealth and privilege but who, through a combination of fate and grit, has grown to become a decent, compassionate man with a shrewd business sense; a charming liberal humanist endowed with a brilliant organisational mind; a wise and gracious cosmopolitan with polish and dash. We meet Yemi Ogunbiyi who has lived a life of struggle, diligence, kindness, loving care, loyalty, generosity, forgiveness and superb sense of duty to man and to God. Two of his old friends, Professors Biodun Jeyifo and Niyi Osundare, in the Foreword to this book validate, in prose and verse, these virtues in him. The Road Never Forgets is Ogunbiyi’s way of keeping his own score— a justification of the life he has lived so far. For me, one critical but nuanced question at the heart of the book is: What is the measure of this Nigerian original called Yemi Ogunbiyi? The robust portrait of his life and times in these retrospections are his definitive answers. Life, we all know, is a map with many routes. And, to paraphrase the Djiboutian poet, Abdourahman Waberi, those routes are, invariably, inhabited by paradise with its serpent. How has Ogunbiyi discovered his own paradise and avoided or lived with the serpent in it? How has he moved slowly and rapidly to make his life’s journeys exciting? What kind of bumpy and smooth roads has he known? What inflection points has he faced and crossed? Rendered in sparkling prose, this book answers those questions and many more. With his considerable visual descriptions, largely lubricated by the cinematic operations of his mind, Yemi Ogunbiyi delivers a terrific piece of reporting.
He tells us that his parents met in Sabon Gari, Kano, in 1945. His mother, Hannah, who died at 96 in Lagos in 2006, was childless for years because of infertility until she went through a very painful D & C procedure recommended by an Indian gynecologist in Kano. When Yemi Ogunbiyi was born, therefore, on 13 April 1947, to his Igbo mother from Aboh, now in Delta State, and Yoruba father from Ipara-Remo, now in Ogun State, he was more than a bundle of joy. Mother named him Ifeanyichukwu while Father gave him Oluwasegun and Opeyemi. With these names, both of them were solemnly expressing profound gratitude to God for giving them at last this handsome and healthy boy. They soon added Vincent, his baptismal name. His baby brother, Lai, now an architect, is two years younger than him. Sabon Gari, meaning Strangers’ Quarters, where they were born and bred was established in 1913 by the British colonial rulers who deliberately wanted to separate the Hausa from other tribes and even kept at arm’s length the entire natives whom they were supposed to be lording it over. Ogunbiyi explains this history and the attempts at a rigid class stratification by the colonials in the larger context of the history of Kano. And 29 Aitken Road where the Ogunbiyi lived was initially rented and later bought from the mother of Professor Akin Mabogunje, Mrs Janet Adetola. It was a well-known house in Sabon Gari because Victor Aanuolorunpo, Yemi Ogunbiyi’s father, was a socialite.
He was fondly called Father Dandy in Kano, but back home in Ipara-Remo, he was called Baba Kano. Yemi Ogunbiyi’s mother, to whom he was obviously close as a kid, was the bulwark of the home-front. Trading in Ankara and George clothing designs, she travelled constantly between Kano and Onitsha. Very industrious, Ogunbiyi recalls her fortitude, goodness and wisdom and love in this book. When Yemi Ogunbiyi was leaving Sabon Gari for the first time to the South for school, she called him to her room, prayed fervently for him in Igbo and said: “You must be careful. I have little to worry about you because we brought you up properly. But as you know too well, I, your mother, who gave birth to you, didn’t go to school. I wasn’t so privileged. But you have the chance. Use it well…” One day, Yemi fell off his bicycle and, because he got hurt, he did not want to ride the bike again, it was his mother who encouraged him to keep on riding it, counselling him to always endure in the face of difficulties. Her pieces of advice have stayed with Yemi ever since.
Tailoring was his father’s business, or more precisely, he was really an outfitter who did not do the actual sewing any more, when Yemi and Lai were boys, for in 1949, he had signed a contract with Arnold Riley & Company in England to just do all the pre-sewing work by taking accurate measurements of clients while the company’s part of the contract was to make the suits. Ogunbiyi describes the passion with which his father did his job. He had numerous highbrow customers far and wide. And he was a notable Freemason in Sabon Gari. A supremely confident man, Aanuolorunpo was very generous. His dense network of friends cut across many professional and ethnic groups not only in Sabon Gari but also in Kano city as a whole and even in Jos. Beaten by the bug of wanderlust as a young 17-year-old man living in Lagos in 1920, he and some of his co-travellers were swindled by some sailors who collected five pounds each from them for a trip on board of a ship that was supposedly going to the United States of America. To use the now very common Nigerian lingo, they wanted to japa. When the ship got to Freetown in Sierra Leone, however, the crooked sailors asked the desperate stowaways to pay more money if they really wanted to get to America. Of course, they had no money on them. They were therefore abandoned in Freetown. Victor Aanuolorunpo did not tell his brother Mr Ade Ogunbiyi, who was then the manager of CMS Bookstore, about his trip. Neither did he tell Rt Rev Oliver, his guardian at CMS Grammar School. So, the family members started searching everywhere for him. They had to declare him missing in Lagos Weekly Record. After six months, when their hope of locating him had dimmed, they organised a funeral service in his memory at St Peter’s Church in Ajele, Lagos. But the man, now 18, had joined the Royal Sierra Leone Police Force with his CMS Grammar School certificate. He was not enjoying the job and he was missing Lagos badly. As fate would have it, one day on the streets of Freetown, he ran into his former guardian, Reverend Oliver, on holiday, who persuaded him to return to Nigeria. When the ‘dead’ man eventually resurrected in Lagos in 1923, there was so much celebration.
Very restless and bold, he believed that he was a miracle child due to the circumstances of his birth which Yemi Ogunbiyi recounts in the book. He had once mistakenly led a detachment of colonial army into Ipara-Remo when he was barely fifteen. The soldiers wanted to recover weapons from demobilized soldiers who had been conscripted for World War I. They did not want the weapons to get into wrong hands, or remain in the wrong hands of the natives. As if that was not bad enough, when Aanuolorunpo saw that the community wanted to punish his father for what he had done, he ran furiously back to the soldiers and reported what was going on in the palace. The colonial authority had to force Ipara-Remo community to sign an agreement that it would not punish any member of the Ogunbiyi family on account of that incident. It was in the wake of that notoriety that he left for Lagos to attend CMS Grammar School. And then the stowaway incident occurred before he then travelled to Kano in 1939 where he spent forty years before he came back to Lagos where he died in 1986.
With sophisticated intelligence, Yemi Ogunbiyi carefully describes the hustle and bustle of Sabon Gari where misfits co-mingle with philosophers and hard-working people mixed with indolent ones. Tales of anger and temperance, wisdom and idiocy and their consequences flowed endlessly in this neighbourhood. In Sabon Gari, Ogunbiyi witnessed a magic gone awry. He would later witness another one that failed spectacularly at the University of Ibadan. It was at 29 Aitken Road that Yemi Ogunbiyi first met Alhaji Babatunde Jose, the then famous boss of Daily Times’ group of newspapers. His father used to treat Jose with so much reverence each time he visited Sabon Gari on his tour of duty. It could never have occurred to Yemi Ogunbiyi that he too would one day become the Managing Director of the Daily Times’ chain of newspaper. Each time he served his father’s stream of friends, which included Alhaji Aminu Kano and the Emir of Kano, their favourite drinks, good food and snacks, he eavesdropped on their conversations on politics, economy and every other thing in between. Yemi Ogunbiyi’s socialisation as a cosmopolite began in earnest here.
But as a four-year-old boy in 1951, he would have died in El Duniya Cinema house if he and his uncle Augustine had attended the late afternoon show on 13 May. The cinema had gone up in flames during the show. Ogunbiyi recalled that tragedy: “Out of its audience of 600, some 331 people perished, including a 9-year-old child. Most of the dead were crushed to death, close to the only exit door in the stampede that ensured. It was the highest number of casualties in one-day disaster in the recorded history of Kano.” For a long-time, he would not step into any cinema house as a result of the trauma of that incident. He was six when he witnessed the Kano political riot of 1953. Chief Anthony Enahoro had moved a motion of the Action Group (AG) in the House of Representatives calling for self- government in 1956. The Northern People’s Congress (NPC), fearful of Southern domination, did not support the motion. They wanted the house to replace the phrase ‘by the year 1956’ with a nebulous, non-committal phrase ‘as soon as practicable.’ Representatives of AG and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon (NCNC) then staged a walk out. And the Northerners were booed by the Lagos crowds outside. On 15 May of that year, when the AG, led by Chief Ladoke Akintola, arrived Kano to embark on a tour of Northern Nigeria, riot broke out in retaliation. Retaliation of one ethnic group against another has always been a recurring decimal in the history of Nigeria’s political crises. Shops were looted. Houses burnt down. Many people were injured. Ogunbiyi would later be reminded of that incident in Sabon Gari when the Nigeria-Biafra War broke out in 1967 after pogrom, and many of the Igbo he knew intimately had to hide in his father’s house— a risky venture which saved them from being slaughtered.
Yet Sabon Gari was more of fun than tragedy. Ogunbiyi has pleasant memories of all his great childhood friends like Salihu Ehimaekhe who would later rise to the top of their profession. During festive seasons he participated actively in different Igbo dances: Ulaga, Atilogwu, Ogene, etc., etc. He remembers, with nostalgia, the scintillating performances of the man called Yankee, the resident Highlife musician at Randezvous Hotel which was located directly opposite 29 Aitken Road. The owner of the hotel, Mr Abdul walker, a Sierra Leonian, loved Yemi Ogunbiyi to bits. When Walker died in 1978, he actually left some money for him in his Will and Testament. He remembers the pranks and rascality of Man-No-Good who, one day, led Yemi and others surreptitiously to the burial ground just to witness how the Freemasons bury their dead. When Ogunbiyi was old enough to go to primary school, he was registered in one close to their home: Ibo Union School. He does not tell us what fiction he read at home and in school as a child; he does not tell us what grades he made, but he remembers his teachers and almost all the annual events. Most importantly, he has not forgotten the Boy Scouts code of conduct which he learnt there, a credo based on service, respect, courage, loyalty, trust and meticulous planning. Sadly, Ibo Union School was burnt down during the Nigeria-Biafra war.
By the time he left Sabon Gari at 12 in 1959 for Victory School, Ibadan, to prepare for his high school education, he was basically a Kano Boy who spoke Yoruba with Hausa accent. He would soon learn to speak the language of his father properly without forgetting Igbo the language of his mother and Hausa, the language of where he was born and bred. But he kept agonising over the question of self-identity. It was as if Mr John Lipede, his father’s nephew, with whom he was staying in Ibadan knew what was going on in his mind. So, he travelled with him from Ibadan down to Ipara-Remo. As soon as he stepped into his grandfather’s house, he knew instantly that Ipara-Remo was his origin. And that origin was at once sacred and profane. It was his oriki from his grandmother that did it. The sheer lyricism of the oriki, the power of the history it recalled, enraptured Yemi Ogunbiyi, and redeemed him from his confusion about self-identity and self-perception. It was all so enlightening and clarifying. At that moment, Omo Baba Kano, as the locals called him, knew that he had truly come home. This oriki which is printed in the Road Never Forgets shows the nature and contoursofhis roots. The house that his grandfather built in 1914 was still standing, not too far from where the remains of the man were interred. Subliminally, that visit to Ipara-Remo triggered in him the necessity to seek for more knowledge of Yoruba culture and politics. Ibadan, the ever welcoming epicentre of the Western Region, became the starting point ofhis studies.
In January 1961, Ibadan Boys High School admitted him into form one after his one preparatory year at Victory School at Oke-Ado. That school awakened his deep sense of responsibility to others and his commitment to public good. The school, founded in 1938 by T.C. Oyesina, was one of the earliest private schools in Nigeria. Ogunbiyi writes about this school with a clear sense of pride. J. F. Ajayi, who later became a world-famous African historian taught in the school. Chukwuka Okonjo, the father of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was once a principal in the school. This was where Yemi Ogunbiyi made friends with Biodun Jeyifo, a renown Marxist literary theorist, trade unionist and now emeritus Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Although BJ was never an obedient student, his brilliance was a huge source of inspiration to Ogunbiyi who was his junior by one year and many other students in the school. It was General Godwin Alabi-Isama, hero of the Nigeria-Biafra war, and a former student of the school, who sponsored the Citizenship and Leadership Training Course in Kurra Falls, Barkin Ladi, which Yemi Ogunbiyi attended in 1963. He was being groomed for the role of Head Prefect of the school which he eventually became in 1965. That position brought him closer to Mr Akintunde Laseinde, the school principal, who, if you recall, had expelled Biodun Jeyifo from that school for leading a student protest. He describes the impact which many of his teachers had on him. In what will remain indelible as a tribute to those teachers, Ogunbiyi writes: “It has never been difficult for me to admit that, in certain respects, Ibadan Boys High School made me; and by which I mean that some of the finest teachers I ever met, through my undergraduate and graduate years, and who, in the process, changed my life for good, were some of the teachers I met at the school. These were teachers who didn’t pamper or spoon-fed us but who constantly reminded us that our lives would only be what we worked hard to make them, that, with determination, every child can work their way up the educational totem pole. These teachers personified patience and wisdom, essential attributes of a good teacher anywhere. I could never forget them.” He was a member of the editorial board of the school’s newspaper,TheTriumph, for which he wrote articles. He was also a member of the Debating and Literary Society. Because the school was very close to Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s home in Oke-Bola, Ogunbiyi and his schoolmates felt the impact of the political upheaval in the Western Region at close range: the imprisonment of Awolowo, Operation Wetie and the tragic death of Awolowo’s lawyer-son, Segun, in a car crash.The students had to prepare for their final examinations in the midst of political tension enveloping the Western Region. Nevertheless, after five years at IBHS, Yemi Ogunbiyi passed his examinations in flying colours and then gained admissions into King’s College, Igbobi College and Loyola College for his A-levels. He eventually chose King’s College where he studied English Literature, History and Geography.
But the political crisis in the Western Region escalated. It spiraled into a national tragedy. Ogunbiyi’s set was having its first exeat of the year from the college when on 15 January 1966 the first military coup in Nigeria took place.That coup d’etat was led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Chris Anuforo, Adewale Ademoyega and HumhreyChukwuka. They killed the Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello; Premier of the Western Region, Chief S. L. Akintola; Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh; Bello’s wife, Hafsatu; his Secretary, Ahmad Ben Musa and his driver, Ahmed Pategi. They also killed Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun; Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari; Colonel Ralph Shodeinde; Colonel Kur Mohammed; Colonel Abogo Largema and Lt. Colonel James Pam. Nigeria is still being haunted by the dire consequences of that tragic turn. Following the senseless killings and the threat of reprisal attack, some of Ogunbiyi’s classmates who were Igbo, had to quickly withdraw from KC. Somehow, as time passed, some measure of peace was restored. Yemi Ogunbiyi enjoyed his stint inthe school where he made some good friends including Dr Rex Akpofure, the principal of the school, and became a rookie saxophone player. He was also made a prefect here. Again, he remembers his teachers including Dr Stanley Macebuh who taught briefly in the school. Macebuh once commented on one of Ogunbiyi’s essays: “Let clarity be your constant aim.” The clarity of his thoughts in this book shows that he took Macebuh’s comment seriously.
For about nine months after he finished at KC in December 1967, he worked as a library assistant at the University of Lagos. After he had gained admission to Study English, he couldn’t wait to enter the University of Ibadan in September 1968 even though a car had knocked him down and nearly claimed his life while riding a bicycle in Lagos. Biodun Jeyifo, his friend, who was already in Kuti Hall made it easier for him to settle down quickly not only in the Hall where he too was residing but also in the Department of English where he was also a student. Ogunbiyi recounts his days at the University of Ibadan in detail, remembering the courses he took and the temperament and styles of his lecturers. When BJ ran for the office of Public Relations Officer of the Students’ Union, he helped to campaign vigorously for him. BJ won. That experience prepared him for his own successful campaign for the chair of the Kuti Hall. While BJ was an active member of the Pyrates Confraternity, Ogunbiyi joined the Sigma Club the organiser of the huge and always well-attended Havana Night to which different artistes like King Sunny Ade, Sir Victor Uwaifo and Fela Ransome-Kuti were invited annually. Of course, as Hall chairman, he was very popular most especially with women. He interacted with the University authority constantly which bolstered his confidence. Dr ObaroIkime was the hall warden during his tenure. It was at his first attendance of St Valentine’s Night Dinner and Dance of Kuti Hall on 14 February 1969, that he met the love of his life, Folasade Towobola Osiberu. When Billy Amuka, the younger brother of Uncle Sam Amuka, invited him to the party, he reluctantly accepted the invitation because he was sulking over a girl he had just split with. The pretty, tall and cheerful lady was also studying English and she was a year his senior. Sade’s classmates considered her choice below par. But that did not bother the bubbly lady. This book is deservedly dedicated to his “much-loved wife, Folasade, for her unbridled love, her steadfastness, tolerance, forbearance and unwavering commitment for the past fifty-three years,” even in spite of himself. The interesting story of their first kiss, on which BJ is an impeccable authority, is not included in the book! In 1971, he witnessed the student protest at the University of Ibadan that led to the killing of Kunle Adepeju. He describes the circumstances that led to it and the mismanagement of it by the University authority.
Although he had met Wole Soyinka at the University of Lagos as a student of King’s College in 1966, meeting him again after his release from Kaduna prison in 1969 marked the beginning of what has now become an enduring teacher-student friendship. Few weeks after his release, Soyinka, 34, delivered a lecture at the Faculty of Arts auditorium. During the Q&A that followed the lecture, Ogunbiyi asked a critical question about Soyinka’s play, Kongi’s Harvest, considering it as somewhat reactionary. But Soyinka admonished him not to be doctrinaire in his approach to reading a complex work of art. After the lecture, Soyinka sought out Ogunbiyi and invited him to his office the following day. He then visited Ogunbiyi in Kuti Hall and took him to Femi Johnson’s place where he met Bola Ige, then a commissioner in Western State and then to a restaurant where, for the first time, Ogunbiyi had a taste of vintage wine. He recalls that it was on the strength of Wole Soyinka’s recommendation that he was admitted into the prestigious Graduate School of the Arts and Science of the New York University (NYU) first for a Master’s degree in Dramatic Literature in 1972 and then a PhD in the same discipline in 1976. BJ was already on that programme at NYU when Ogunbiyi got there. He, once again, became a useful guide. Ogunbiyi got married to Sade at the University of Ibadan’s Chapel of the Resurrection on 29 July 1972 shortly before they left for the United States. She too had, fortuitously, secured an International Teacher Exchange programme in the US. With the recommendation of Professor Joel Adedeji, he won a Fullbright scholarship that made the hardship of student life bearable. He recounts the rigour of the programme and the fun he had in company of Tunde Adeniran, George Obiozor, Ibrahim Gambari and others in New York as he tried to unwind. Gambari was a competent DJ. Yes, the same Professor Ibrahim Agboola Gambari! He was then a PhD student at Columbia University. Ogunbiyi writes fondly of the famous Greenwich Village and the Jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane who he watched play at the Village Gate Night Club. His wife, Sade, would soon get a master’s degree in Educational Administration at the City University of New York in Manhattan after which she worked with the United Nations. They had Tokunbo, their son on 16 July 1976.He gives instances of his encounter with racism, the Original Sin of America. Hisbest moments were the ones he shared in New York with friends and family members like Yemi and Lolade Adefulu, Tunji and Yinka Ayanlaja, among others. In their apartment at Stuyvesant Town, a New York City housing Estate, he and Sade hosted many friends.Ogunbiyi’s accounts of the dinner with Wole Soyinka, Femi Johnson and Yemi Lijadu and the one with Duro Ladipo, his wife, Abiodun, and Biodun Jeyifo, are wonderfully witty and wise. Their apartment also became a magnet to Leslie Harriman, Dele Giwa, Yomi Durotoye and several others. After his PhD, he studied film-making at the Film School of the New York University and taught briefly at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York before heading back to Nigeria.
As fate would have it, Professor Ojetunji Aboyade who just resumed as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ife had asked his friend, Wole Soyinka, then Professor of Comparative Literature, to head the newly created Department of Dramatic Arts. Yemi Ogunbiyi was one of the foundation lecturers of the new department. Before the creation of that department, Ola Rotimi was the head of the drama unit of the institute of African Studies which also had music, etc., etc.,as separate units. Rotimi, who had a very vibrant theatre, Oriolokun Theatre Company, located in the heart of Ife town,felt shortchanged, and had to leave for the University of Port Harcourt in anger. At the end of 1976, Ogunbiyi, Sade and their son, Tokunbo, arrived Nigeria en route Jamaica and the German City, Munich. At the Munich Stadium where they had gone to watch a game, the German kids mistook him for the African-American actor, Richard Roundtree popularly known as Shaft.He truly looked very much like Shaft in the late seventies. It was an American, who had to convince those excitable kids that he was not Roundtree. When he resumed work at Ife, however, in September 1977, his students who did not know what transpired in Munich also started calling him Shaft. Till today, some of them still call him by that name even though he is now a high chief of Ife,Ipara-Remo, Remoland and Anglican Church. This was Ife in its prime phase: the seventies and early eighties. He is very proud of the work he did in the place and the students like Bankole Olayebi (the owner of Bookcraft, the publisher of this book) Gbenro Adegbola, Ahmed Yerima, Tejumola Olaniyan, AwamAnkpa, Niyi Coker, Kemi Ilori, Maxim Uzoatu, Folake Dotherty (now Folake Wole-Soyinka), Owei Lakemfa, Edmond Enaibe, Mahamud Alli-Balogun, Funsho Alabi, etc., etc., who challenged and inspired him. He absolutely loved his membership of the Editorial Collective of Positive Review journal comprising Biodun Jeyifo, Kole Omotoso, Femi Osofisan, Eddie Madunagu, John Ohiorhenuan, Odia Ofeimun and Jakie Scott. He was a Marxist-inclined scholar and theorist who wasn’t sure whether he was a Marxist or not. He felt awkward ideologically in the company of unrepentant Marxists like Jeyifo, yet he believed in progressive interpretations of realities and products of imagination. He showed this in his review of Wole Soyinka’s Opera Wonyosi, a convocation play performed at the University of Ife on 16 December 1977. Soyinka filed away Ogunbiyi’s biting criticism. He only responded to him and others when he delivered his inaugural lecture at the University of Ife in 1980. After that well-attended lecture titled: The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy and Other Mythologies, the two of them met over a bottle of wine and Soyinka did not mention anything about his public rebuttal of Ogunbiyi’s criticism of his play.In 1978, when Ngugi wa Thiongo was imprisoned at the Maximum-Security Prison in Nairobi because of his criticism of Jomo Kenyatta, it was Yemi Ogunbiyi that Soyinka, who was then the Secretary-General of the Union of Writers of the African Peoples, sent to Kenya on a solidarity mission.Ogunbiyi recalls that he had a clandestine meeting with Micere Mugo who took him to Ngugi’s wife. Shortly after that encounter, Mugo herself had to go on exile. In 1981, Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book which Ogunbiyi edited was published to critical acclaim. He was obviously enjoying his work and his stay at Ife. He was close to Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, the Vice-Chancellor.Dele Giwa and his friends constantly came from Lagos to Ife. Ogunbiyi had plans to publish other books and write for journals. He was spending a lot of his hard-earned money on art-works because for him,“collecting Art-works is more than a transaction. It’s an emotionally personal thing.” He became Acting Head of the Department. One of his low moments at Ife was the wrong accusation by Chief Michael Omisade that he was holding secret meetings in his campus home with the Modakeke people who were constantly at war with the Ife people. It was clear in court that the man was misinformed as Omisade lost the case.
He was planning to go on Sabbatical in 1983 when Dr Stanley Macebuh mounted pressure on him to join The Guardian as one of the foundation staff. He wanted him to join “a dream team to help establish a high-quality newspaper that would be committed to the best traditions and ideals of republican democracy, a paper that would owe no allegiance to any political party, ethnic group, religious group or other interest groups, but rather one that would be committed to the promotion of the best interest of Nigeria.” Ogunbiyi describes how he gave in to Macebuh’s pressure after he had made several trips to Ile-Ife. He was 36 when he accepted to spend a year of sabbatical leave in The Guardian. But before his departure to Lagos, he and his wife went to visit Oba Okunade Sijuwade, the Olubuse II, the Ooni of Ife, with whom he had developed a warm relationship. All pleasantries over, the Ooni looked him in the eye and said: “My son, good luck on your trip to Lagos. But we know you’re not going to come back here again to teach. You will be back next year after your leave. I heard you! But what we have been told inside the temple is different. We have been told that you’re not coming back here to teach! You see, even The Guardian job is not your destination. You’ll be going to a much bigger place after The Guardian. That’s what we’ve been told. When and how, I don’t know. But you’ll see, and then, you’ll remember what I am saying to you now.” That vision has come to pass, for Ogunbiyi actually returned to Ife as Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council of the University on 6 January 2017 long after he had served in other capacities. He describes how Adamu Adamu, the Minister of Education, from whom he wanted a contract to print text books, gave him the job. But the prediction of Mr. Osunyejo, one of his teachers at Ibadan Boys High School, that he would become an Ambassador of Nigeria to the United Nations, is yet to come to pass.
He found the atmosphere at The Guardian very liberating. The fact that the place bustled with promise and a generous dose of spirit of public good excited him. He not only wrote editorials and columns, he also worked as Director of marketing and Public Affairs from 1985 when he was elevated to that position. In this capacity, he coordinated the sales, marketing, and advert departments. He was also in charge of the annual lecture series of The Guardian which some international figures like Micheal Manley were invited to deliver. The Guardian Literary Series, now collected in two volumes as Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, was one of the high-points of his career. The other, Encounter with History, now in the works, is a collection of the interviews he and his colleagues at The Guardian had with thirteen major world leaders. He gives credit in The Road Never Forgets, to all his colleagues in The Guardian: Stanley Macebuh, Femi Osofisan, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Sonala Olumbense, Eddy Madunagu, Odia Ofeimun, Sully Abu, Olatunji Dare, etc, etc. It was a galaxy of highly gifted writers complemented by Lade Bonuola, Femi Kusa and many others who effectively took charge of the high-energy newsroom of The Guardian.
One of his great moments in The Guardian was when Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. He, whose other sobriquet is Mr Fit It, became the organiser of the Nigerian delegation to the award ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. It was the first time that a black African would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ogunbiyi, in his fascinating account, captures the significance of the event at which Soyinka delivered his Nobel Lecture, This Past Must Address Its Present, which he dedicated to Nelson Mandela who was still in prison. Unfortunately, that same year, Dele Giwa, one of his bosom friends, who had been a pall-bearer at his father’s funeral, earlier in the year, was assassinated by people suspected to be in IBB’s government. Ogunbiyi writes in the book that “when Dele Giwa died, a part of me died with him.” He explains how the imprisonment of Tunde Thompson and Nduka was a very difficult time for The Guardian. It dimmed the light of the paper because, on account of Chief Rotimi Williams, The Guardian lawyer, the newspaper dropped its Simply Mr policy. This stirred a well of anger in thousands of its readers and, looking back, Ogunbiyi admits that it was a big mistake. When he and Macebuh were sacked from The Guardian by Mr Alex Ibru on account of a baseless allegation that they were into Sugar business, Ogunbiyi had just arrived London from Pakistan where he had gone to interview Benazir Bhutto with Amma Ogan, the editor of The Guardian on Sunday. To Macebuh, that sack was beyond betrayal; it was execution. Ogunbiyi doesn’t quite put it that way in the book, but Macebuh, a critical, sensitive conscience, an urbane public intellectual, one of the first major scholars on James Baldwin, the feisty African American novelist, went quietly into the night, badly affected by that sack which led to his untimely death.
Luckily for Yemi Ogunbiyi, President Babangida made him Managing Director of Daily Times within one week of his sack at The Guardian. He had met IBB for the first time in Kano in 1976 at a nightclub owned by a mutual friend, Kura Muhammed. Ogunbiyi was then a graduate student at NYU rounding off his studies while Babangida was a colonel in the Army. They renewed their friendship when Ogunbiyi became a star at The Guardian. As you would read in the book, Babangida, in and out of power, has remained very close to Yemi Ogunbiyi and his family. When his girlfriend Wunmi, for instance, was seven months pregnant for Ogunbiyi and he did not have the courage to tell Sade, President Babangida drove himself to their house to pacify Sade and doused the flame of a domestic problem. Yemi and Wunmi have since gone their separate ways, but their liaison has produced two great kids, Anu and Ore. This must be one of the major reasons he praises Sade’s tolerance and forbearance not just in the book but at every given opportunity.
With Onyema Ugochukwu as his right-hand man at Daily Times, he tried very hard to make a success of his job although he did not have unfettered freedom to do it. In his words: “I had arrived at Daily Times determined that under my watch the paper would not practice what the famous editor of The Sunday Times and later editor of The Times of London, Harold Evans, once described as ‘invertebrate journalism,’ one that merely recycled speeches and statements and delivered stylish opinions on routine public officers, I had come with high hopes, perhaps naively as ‘a government’ newspaper, we would hold power to account, that we could occasionally attempt to undertake serious scrutiny of institutions and activities which affect the lives and safety and happiness of millions of peoples.” He managed to replicate in many ways the editorial structure of The Guardian in Daily Times. He had on its editorial board Dr Chidi Amuta, Dr G.G. Darah, Dr Ayo Olukotun, Idang Alibi, Dr Ngozi Anyaegbunam, Dr IyorchaAyu, Omar Farouk, among others. Dr Stanley Macebuh, Professor Femi Osofisan, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Sonala Olumhense, Muhammed Haruna, Ndaeyo Uko, Dr Kayode Soremekun, Amma Ogan, Dr Onwuchekwa Jemie,Donu Kogbara, Gloria Ogunbadejo and others wrote for the paper. He quickly refurbished Times Press and Nigerpak, computerised the production unit and completed all the spade work on the plan to build Kakawa Tower in Ikoyi. He also refurbished the staff housing estate. As MD of Daily Times, he was on the campaign team that worked to get Chief Emeka Anyaoku elected as the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. He was also on the team that helped to write the eloquent speech that President Babangida gave at the United Nations General Assembly. He equally went on a trip to North Korea with Chief Alex Akinyele, the Minister of Information who replaced Prince Tony Momoh. Although Akinyele had been told by Gbenga Ashiru, the Nigerian Ambassador to that country, that people were forbidden from using the word God in North Korea by the Eternal Great Leader of that country, President Kim 11-Sung, but Akinyele kept mentioning God to the utter consternation of the Koreans and the embarrassment of Nigerian embassy officials. The same Akinyele would later gloat over the sack of Ogunbiyi. Daily Times under Ogunbiyi was a profitable venture and the board and shareholders were very happy with him. But the security apparatchik and some ambitious elements within the government of Babangida, people like General Sani Abacha, who is portrayed in The Road Never Forgets as a piece of dogshit, were hell-bent to get rid of Ogunbiyi who dared to run what they considered a government-owned newspaper that was critical of IBB’s Structural Adjustment Programme and the annulment of June 12 elections which Chief M.K.O. Abiola had won fair and squire. When he was sacked, the job was given to Chief Tola Adeniyi who did their bidding.
Yemi Ogunbiyi writes about the last time he saw M.K.O.Abiola alive. He was in detention with his legs slightly swollen when a high Egba Chief, obviously sent by the military, was pressurising him to give up his mandate. He pays tribute to Abiola for his unflagging courage in the face of military tyranny, his kindness and generosity to him and millions of others. Ogunbiyi tells the story of how, during the crisis that followed the annulment of June 12 elections, he was invited to Abuja by a top snooper, then a general in the Army. The man, who had some publishers and journalists at his beck and call, told him that President Babangida would like him to travel to Europe and America to tell the foreign media why the annulment of June 12 presidential elections was necessary. The regime was then on the ropes. He listened intently to all the insipid drivel. The funding allocated to the image laundering project was huge, but Yemi Ogunbiyi, who still possessed reserves of courage and will, said no. He turned down the offer and the money. He then left Abuja quickly on the next available flight to Lagos. But a well-known publisher in Lagos, a shameless reprobate, collected the money and went abroad, not only to spread the big lie that Abiola did not win the June 12 elections, he also went around damaging the reputation of an innocent man in jail. Taken together the stories of his nine years at The Guardian and Daily Times are also aspects of the history of the print media of that period and the history of the arrogance of power by the military exemplified by Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha and Abdulsalami Abubakar.
When he was sacked at Daily Times in 1991, President Babangida offered him an ambassadorial position which he turned down. The same way that General Abdulsalami Abubakar would later made a ministerial offer to him which he also politely rejected because he had sworn never to work for anyone again. He was 45 at the time. Since then, he has been pumping his energy into and using his talent for his own company TANUS Communications which now publishes secondary school text books, handles public relations, plus other jobs. In the book, he describes his interesting encounter with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in the course of using him for one of his corporate jobs. Donald Duke, Rotimi Amaechi, Seriake Dickson, Godswill Akpabio, Laolu Akinkugbe and several corporate organisations are on the list of his past clients. The company has its modest beginning in one of his mother’s block of flats in Ikeja, Lagos.
Finally, this is autobiography as regeneration. In 1986, after the well-attended funeral church service at the Vinning Memorial Church in Lagosfor Ogunbiyi’s father which Chief Obafemi Awolowo and H.I.D. his wife, patiently sat through, Chief Awolowo gave Ogunbiyi an envelope containing a substantial amount of money and then whispered to him: “Although I did not know your father, I am glad that Mama and I came for his funeral service because we know that only a good three brings forth a good fruit.” Awolowo was hinting at the importance of nurturing new generations and how one well-tendered generation can yield bountiful harvest of others. It is remarkable that one of the reasons for writing The Road Never Forgets was that Feranmi, the first granddaughter of Yemi Ogunbiyi, asked for it. Now that she and her siblings and the rest of the younger Ogunbiyis know their roots, we hope that they would all prove worthy of the labour of their ancestors and that they will seek new strengths and possibilities under a brighter sky. The inter-generational baton is now passed. Let the race continue.
- Kunle Ajibade is Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS/P.M.NEWS