By Anote Ajeluorou
Like most intellectuals of his day in the 1980s and the 1990s in Nigerian universities, who were fiercely radical and marxist in thinking, Omotoso had had to relocate when the scorching heat of the military era drew too close for comfort. This was quite apart from the Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP) that had begun to turn to shreds every vestige of academic prestige Nigerian universities previously enjoyed.
Early in the 1980s, he wrote the only book in which Nigeria is the central character, Just Before Dawn, which got him into trouble with the establishment, with characters like Olusegun Obasanjo heading to the courts to stop the publication and other Northern elements, who protested against the books in its fact-fictive narrative that cut too close to those to whom truth was a dangerous inconvenience.
So, Prof. Kole Omotoso relocated to South Africa, according to him, since he couldn’t quite dislocate the terrible system that had firmly taken root in his native country, with the military’s reluctance to return to the barracks for democracy to flourish.
In the question and answer session at Government House in his hometown, Akure a fortnight ago and as part of the celebration of his 70th birthday, Omotoso gave insight into some of the things that shaped his artistic and political life and how much the two, together with the religious element, have affinity in his formative years in Akure. Omotoso stated categorically that when an individual couldn’t dislocate current stiffling system that breeds social anomaly, the right option would be for him to relocate to where he could engagingly make contributions.
He said, “When you can’t dislocate, relocate; do not get used to nonsense. If the resources you have cannot dislocate what is an inconvenience then relocate. It wasn’t easy to go. My problem was that of national identity, which nobody was ready to solve. Nigerians are ready to accommodate anything – mediocrity, lack of service, including constant power outages.
“Never make a habit of emergency measures. No way will I live in a house with a generator even if it means not coming back to Nigeria. In Nigeria, through mediocrity and absence of integrity, governance has become impossible. In South Africa, people don’t keep quiet when things don’t work; they keep talking and protesting about them. We’re being boiled progressively and we don’t complain. We must not leave issues of governance to government alone; there must be alternatives to governance.”
Now that he is 70 and Ondo State Government is prevailing on him to return home, it is hard to see how much his abhorrence for the systemic failures back home will serve as deterrence to remain away. With Chinua Achebe’s death at 82 in exile still raw in the nerves of the literary community, it would be a wonder if Omotoso wouldn’t do a volte-face in his exile years. This is in spite of previously making a will to have his remains and that of his late wife cremated when he couldn’t return to get a new passport whene it expired during the dreaded days of Gen Sanni Abacha.
OMOTOSO’s formative years could best be described as romantically idyllic. As a child he had his fill of the thrill of oral tradition swamping him from all sides and he almost got sucked into its irresistible vortex of intermingling of traditional music, drumming, storytelling but particularly that of becoming an Alagbe, an itinerant street musician who performs for money. That was how much allure oral performance and street theatre had on the young Omotoso.
He recalled fondly, “I was cut out to be an alagbe! There were some music I’d hear in Akure and I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to go to school; it was one parental imposition I hated. I was attracted very much to the street theatre. I’d hide my books in the bush and wander after performers, but parents have the best intention for their children”.
On his growing up years in Akure, Omotoso also nostalgically recalled, “I grew up on the streets of Akure at former Bourdillon Road. I grew up in a place where there was interface between oral culture and literary culture. The other was the performance, which was a critical part of the daily life. It was a congregation of the politics, where no two people belonged to one political party or religion in one house yet there was no friction or acrimony.
“It was easy for me to combine the political in an artistic purpose, and to blend the two. I always talk about the need to link the political and artistic purpose”.
But, indeed, imagine Nigeria’s art community without an Omotoso! Such a sad loss it would have been if he had followed his passion for alagbe, street theatre performer! Although he missed out on it, Omotoso was to make up for it in his seemingly quaint choice of study – Arabic literature and theatre! He’d been admitted to study English at University of Ibadan, but he didn’t see any challenge in that course of study having read virtually all the literary works available at the time. He needed a challenge and Arabic came handy.
Omotoso had been fascinated by a mate’s Arabic name and the chanting of Arabic letters and figures as he passed by a mosque and just couldn’t get over the sheer charm of that language. When the opportunity presented itself after he decided against English, he promptly enrolled for Arabic and became one of the first non-Moslems to study that course. But it came with a price when he began to teach; some zealot in the Arabic Department at University of Ibadan rose against him as a non-Moslem teaching; for them, it was sacrilegious. He was forced to relocate to Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, then University of Ife.
According to him, “Arabic is a fascinating culture. I was fascinated by Arabic; that was why I studied it. But by wearing an Islamic dress, I was accused of defaming Islam”.
EARLIER, Ondo State Governor, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko was conducted round ‘The Kole Omotoso Exhibition — Akure to Jo’burg’, a photograph exhibition mounted by Omotoso birthday organisers, the Odia Ofeimun-led Hornbill House of the Arts at Akure Cultural Centre. In the photographs could be seen Omotoso right from his formative years through adult life and some of the milestone events that shaped both his artistic and political vision as a cultural producer.
It provided a fascination both for Mimiko and other guests for whom the photographs afforded a certain cultural-historical trajectory as seen through the life of Omotoso as an artist and humanist. Ofeimun said the photographs would be donated to any cultural organisation in Akure that has the capacity to exhibit them as educational materials that would inspire young ones and the public alike about the life of Omotoso.