By Tony Iyare
I’m still in a trance, numbed into some auditory hallucination, virtually unable to reconcile myself to the fact that the curtains had indeed fallen for Yinka Odumakin and Innocent Chukwuma, two leaders of civil society who bit the dust at the dawn of Easter. For the first time, I was really restrained in heralding the Easter on the house tops when two of our most brilliant and resourceful fighting forces had taken leave in a spate of few hours.
“Can we really say Happy Easter now when Yinka and Innocent had just departed within hours from each other,” quipped leading Human Rights Lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, reinforcing the melancholy of the moment when we spoke on the phone on Easter Monday. They are simply gone like a candle in the wind.
Although both belonged to a shade younger generation of the studentary, one in which the state had grown fiercer and more desperate in its resolve to asphyxiate the students movement, they had credibly acquitted themselves and stood like the rock of Gibraltar while on campus. The enthronement of structural adjustment programme (SAP) ordained by the international finance agencies, weaned by the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in the late 80s had dictated massive crippling of democratic rights. Confronted by the rampaging state sponsored vigilante, then in its brewing stage assuming varied forms, both students leaders refused to buckle under.
Incubated from the rubric of the Ife radical tradition that has bred many revolutionary cadres, Yinka did not disappoint in speaking truth to power and was unwavering about his strand on every national discourse. He was as passionate as he marshalled critical issues germane to propel the country’s development and was unsparing in unleashing the edge of his tongue on forces that have plotted its backward drive.
What was however different in his intervention to national pathway was his mechanics. While others of his ilk chose to romanticize class analysis and the primacy of primary contradictions in explaining the crisis of the Nigerian state, he long cast lot to stoutly defend the cause of the Yoruba in a multi-ethnic Nigeria enmeshed in its resolution of the national question. He had merely enlisted on the path of avowed revolutionary cadres like Ola Oni, Baba Omojola, Edwin Madunagu and GG Darah, who not only stoked the conversation of the national question but also began to play more than a passive role in the daily struggles of their people.
“While revel in class analysis when even what remains of the semblance of a nation state is being stultified,” Yinka and others would ask rhetorically. He was never given to eclectic talk and remained resolutely committed to a Nigeria founded on federal principles in which the Yoruba imbued with immense human resources can remake a Singapore within their space.
At a time when some apparently sponsored Fulani group, brandishing assault rifles that makes the AK47 (kalash) look ordinary, took over the Yoruba and other forests and were fingered for kidnapping, killing and maiming of the people and raping its women, Yinka had galvanized the Afenifere and other southern groups to what was perceived as an ensuing affront against their people. But in spite of Yinka’s regular writings and discussions on TV programmes, not many had spared deep reflection on his thoughts.
Some of us tend to delude ourselves, unable to clearly appreciate the dimension of the crises of the Nigerian state or sometimes are particularly too condescending in dismissing what has been reduced to “ethnic struggle”.
I had tried to explain the political dynamics of the West by weaving it around the growth of the now 70 year old Yoruba socio-cultural movement, Afenifere, which had Yinka as their spokesperson for 17 years until his final breathe on Good Friday in three pieces titled, “The Cicero’s Requiem,” written in the National Interest shortly after the tragic death of then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Chief Bola Ige on the dawn of Christmas in 2001,“Not yet Afenifere’s nunc dimitis” and “The bile in Akande’s valedictory treatise,” published in my Scorpionflakes column in The Punch on Sunday, May 18, 2003 and Sunday, June 8, 2003 respectively.
While then raising the need for reform particularly on leadership renewal and regeneration in the then 50 year old organisation, I had attempted to discuss its dialection as a formidable rearguard of the development in the West. I also explained reasons for the premature requiem of other groups floated either on the spur of the moment or to respond to some immediate and opportunistic desires and how they floundered.
I also recall one of G.G Darah’s presentations, reminding us that the Ijaw, the seventh largest group in Nigeria was bigger than 50 countries that are members of the UN. What then will we say of the about 40 million Yoruba or who if we add the Yoruba in Diaspora are projected to be about 60 million? How can we opt to play chess with the affairs of a group who with their kith and kin in Diaspora if located wholly in Europe will be the 6th most populous country after Russia, Turkey, Germany, France and United Kingdom?
Most times, we tend to ape Euro-American narratives and paradigms which characterise the problems in Africa as bickering amongst tribes while presenting theirs as war between nations. Trevor Roper, a History professor at Oxford had in fact argued that Africa as a dark continent had no history. But what’s evinced in Europe is the emergence of different ethnic groups as nations. Some of them like Luxembourg, Cyprus, Andorra, Malta, Monaco, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and the Vatican are like little hamlets in Nigeria. They may not even be as big as small groups like the Bolewa, Jukun, Esan, Ngas, Idoma, Bwatiye, or the Mumuye.
Yet they dangle their flags at the UN and compete for medals at the Olympics. Sometimes we seem to play the Russian roulette over these issues without understanding the magnitude of the crises confronting us. It is true that having a nation of co-ethnics like the case of Somalia, is not a sufficient guarantee to peace. I also concede that different groups within the Nigerian space have had blood skirmishes not only against each other but had also been engaged in a war of attrition within themselves.
The list is endless. Yoruba on Yoruba violence as depicted by the Ijaiye wars or the Ife-Modakeke bloodbath, the Igbo on Igbo that we saw in Aguleri/Umuleri, Idoma on Idoma in Agila over kingship, Tiv on Tiv in Toungo, Esan on Esan over farmlands etc. But that does not negate the argument that every group requires its space for survival and cultural expression. We really need to glean from the examples of multi-ethnic states like the UK and Switzerland and how they’ve better managed their differences.
Unlike some of our radical cadres who ascribe revolutionary developments only in the context of the Marxian and Leninist doctrines, I have in the past years tried to locate some revolutionary strides in our society by other persons not grounded in those thoughts. Many for instance now take for granted the availability of scores of historical, sociological and literary works focusing on different peoples of Nigeria and Africa forgetting that the early scholars like Kenneth Dike, Ade Ajayi and Cheikh Anta Diop who not necessarily being Marxists, vigorously challenged the prevailing Eurocentric historiography and pioneered the discourse about Africanist history.
What of early literary scholars like John Pepper Clark, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and many other writers who laid the basis for Africanist Literature? Although the works of these scholars were later reinforced by radicals like Ola Oni, Omafume Onoge and Bade Onimode, it must be clear that those who began the struggle against Eurocentric scholarship were non Marxists but what they did was revolutionary. In those days, every literary discourse was usually on William Shakespeare, Willian Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Thomas Hardy and so on and throwing up other ideas was inconceivable..
It was almost heresy to suggest a path diametrically opposed to that of the predominant White scholars who presided over affairs in Ibadan Varsity at that time. Ask what battles Oyin Ogunba, who later became a literary professor at Ife, had to confront when he opted to do a thesis on the Agemo of Ijebuland or younger academics like GG Darah who did a thesis on Udje dance, following the footsteps of John Pepper Clark’s epic work, The Ozidi saga? I’ve undertaken this recourse for many to try and appreciate the essence of Yinka’s thoughts.
The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari through its insensitive policies and appointments, has made fiddlesticks of Nigeria’s multi-ethnic status, with the Presidency and its security apparati, with the tacit consent of northern political elite, virtually looking away from the criminal activities of Fulani groups threatening local communities all over the place while embarking on vain preachment of the “indivisibility” of the nation. That the Yoruba have now joined the clamour for self determination underscore their culpability in utterly mismanaging Nigeria’s plural nature. We may be seriously indebted to the likes of Yinka if political realism dictates retreat from the present ruinous path and the different nations cobbled within Nigeria are properly wielded together on the basis of equity, fairness and justice
Now for Innocent, who pioneered the work about accountability of policing, one confined within the context of democratic rights and respect for the citizenry, I doff my heart. Innocent went about his assignment with a lot of rigour commitment and passion. He had earlier teamed up with the likes of Olisa Agbakoba, Richard Akinnola, Abdul Oroh, Clement Nwankwo and others to berth the first human rights organisation, the Civil Liberties Organusation (CLO) before setting up Cleen Foundation, specializing on work with Police and later other security outfits.
Cleen was founded to promote public safety security and acceptable justice in West Africa. Some of the security sector reforms that have taken place over the years have been a product of Cleen’s advocacy which attracted MacArthur Foundation. Innocent’s work also won him the Reebok International Human Rights award.
Until his death on account of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), Innocent, a director of the Ford Foundation West Africa office in Lagos, had thread the civil society movement like a colossus. A former convener of Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), underscoring his role in electoral reform, he presided at Ford Foundation, over the issues of democratic and accountable government, freedom of expression and sexuality and reproductive health and rights. He was also a visiting lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
With what have been thrown up as Police excesses culminating in the two week #EndSARS nationwide protests, eventually leading to the setting up judicial panels to look into these excesses, it’s clear that the campaign to bring policing to terms with democratic tenets is bearing some fruits.
Yinka & Innocent, thanks for making significant impact with your work. Their lives are also pointers that we can all make imprints on society from what we do in our little corners.
To their bereaved widows: Joe Odumakin, also a rights activist and Josephine Effah-Chukwuma, a gender activist, please be comforted that Yinka and Innocent have only stepped aside to resume higher tasks with the saints.