My 50th Birthday: Reflecting On A ‘Coup’, By Adagbo Onoja



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Rafsanjani,AdagboIt is a moment I still can’t find words to describe the feelings as it unfolded in the “Happy birthday to you” song from Comrade Columbus Chilaka Anyanwu and Dr Musa Aliyu’s children Saturday, November 2, 2013 here in Coventry, Midland UK. I was actually so lost that I couldn’t sing because I couldn’t guess for whom although the conspirators left signs. First, they suggested I wore Kaftan when coming to town because they were going to don same that day. Secondly, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, Executive Director of Abuja based CISLAC who was visiting that day said something about hearing about an occasion being planned for me when he arrived my abode. What he was saying did not click because, one, October 31st which is my birthday had passed. Two, although turning 50 is a big deal, more so for me, this was happening within a time and space in which even if I did not habour reservations against such celebrations, I still couldn’t contemplate marking it in any memorable way. How could I here at the University of Warwick where I am still missing my way every other day in trying to locate one seminar room or the other, not to talk of being settled enough to think of putting together a birthday party. I am also yet to recover from the misery of the weather imposed dress code of jeans and hooded winter jackets that weigh down on my sense of self in dressing matters. Above all, the thought of my daughter weighs heavily on me. She has consistently been coming first in her class and at a time I should be providing the fatherly promptings, I am only a father by telephone.

Unknown to me, the two Nigerians had planned to surprise me. It was the outcome of their coup that made Saturday November 2nd, 2013 now symbolically unforgettable, what with the presence of the twosome, their children, their wives, an associate like Rafsanjani, the powerful birthday badge, the candle lights and the great eat that day. These two Nigerians are expanding the list of people to whom I am already over indebted. As an aide of a Nigerian foreign affairs minister, I must have travelled to or through London too many times between 1999 and 2003 because London is a transit port to almost everywhere else. But these were protected trips in which I knew nothing about queuing at immigration, taking the train or the coach or reading maps to find my bearings. If the minister wanted Nigerian food, there were people to bring it. My only role in that would be to follow them, drivers or protocol officers whom I never saw reading any maps to get anywhere and back. So, it never crossed my mind that I would have any problem going about in London when I was coming to school, this time as a private citizen. It turned out to be the exact opposite.

It all started on July 22nd, 2013. I came down from my hostel room to the reception to ask them how to get to one of the campuses of King’s College, London. I was expecting them to say, go straight on, turn right or left and so on and so forth. But they brought a map instead. I couldn’t make any sense out of what they were saying. And I only managed to get to King’s that morning because an African-American who was also attending the course from Washington DC was having the same problem as I was. She said something about the difference between London and US cities in this regard.

At the end of the introductory class that first day, I asked the lady who introduced herself as a Londoner to describe how I would get back to my hostel room from where I was. Again, she went to a desk and came back with a map. That was after she enquired and discovered disappointingly that I didn’t have “London A-Z”, the directional bible of Londoners. At the end of the day, I had to forget about the maps which was confusing me and, instead, estimate my direction since the university website said it was a 15 minutes’ walk. I was surprised to find myself in front of the hostel in 17 minutes from the school area. Was this what all the receptionists and course mates could not describe? At that point, I came to agree with what a London based Nigerian lawyer had said before: that actually, nobody knows London. And that everyone goes-by by asking the next person. I find that everyday inside the bus here.

The long and short of this background is that without Dr. Musa Aliyu and later Comrade Columbus Chilaka Anyanwu, I would have had to do a lot of miserable map reading in Coventry, a much less complex city than London but a city with its own complexity as every part of UK has near equal level of infrastructural development and urban planning. My first few weeks would have been so miserable as to adversely affect the Warwick project if not for them, not to talk of the birthday surprise they put together for me.

Adagbo birthday 2It has been a long, long way to age 50, a road paved with so many turning points that the question I have never stopped asking is how I even survived the numerous existential boundedness inherent in immediate post-colonial societies. I wonder how I got education at all, becoming a journalist cum activist of the student, human rights, gender and pro-democracy movement. Activism is a glorious life time privilege because it means speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves through no fault of theirs. Then the experience of being in government for nine years, spanning the federal and state levels, again, another glorious life time experience because it was not just being in government but in the service of a cause. Warts and all, the Lamido regime in Jigawa State since 2007 has the image of an off-shoot of the radical tradition in the North symbolized by the People’s Redemption Party, (PRP) in the Second Republic. Secondly, it was being in government outside my state of origin and even geo-political zone, making it more unique experience by the ordinary standards of judgment in Nigerian politics. Thirdly, it was being in government in which my designation had nothing to do with the powers I had or didn’t have but essentially on a completely personal political relationship and footing with the governor who felt secure enough with me to have never asked me to swear to any oath of secrecy or oath of loyalty or to beg him or be sycophantic on the job or to observe any access protocols. Furthermore, each appointment, first as Personal Assistant on Media Affairs from July 1999 to May 2003 when he was Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and second, as Special Adviser on Media Affairs on June 4th, 2007 when he became governor of Jigawa State gave me opportunity to, among others, confirm a lot of my training in Political Science; put my journalistic skills to the service of Nigeria; observe at some closer range how government actually functions, especially the consuming reality conceptualized as governmentality by the social theorist, Michel Foucault; learn the protocols of power; benefit from the educational and other imports of travelling around the world as media aide of a Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister; mix politically outside of my area of identity or origin; test myself in resistance to the many temptations of power/proximity to power without claiming to be an angel; to give a lie to the theory that governments don’t do certain things because there is no money. This is because the government I was part of for 5 years in Jigawa State did a number of fundamentally radical programmes which it could have conveniently said there was not enough money to do and, golden opportunities to make inputs into government and see them come alive.

It is for these reasons that, in spite of having to depart unceremoniously from his government in June 2012, I still list Alhaji Sule Lamido among the twenty or so individuals who made my 50 possible. It is in the nature of the political relationship I had with the governor for us to part company dramatically because it packed along a number of contradictions.

But the contradictions did not include the theory spread by a vicious cabal that I left Lamido to work for Senate President David Mark or because Lamido got a Jigawa friend of mine appointed as a minister instead of me. It couldn’t be true because the last time I saw David Mark was June 2007 and it was as a member of Lamido’s delegation. It was at that courtesy call on the newly sworn-in Senate President where Lamido made everyone clapped for both of us when he came to my turn while introducing members of his delegation and said, “Mr. Senate President, this one is your own but today, he is my own. His name is Adagbo Onoja and he is my SA on Media Affairs. We have been together since I was Minister of Foreign Affairs”. All the senators and other officials clapped in obvious endorsement of his carrying a non-indigene along. At the end of the visit, Mark tapped me at the back, I responded by invoking the ancestral Idoma courtesies and that was it. So, I don’t know how I could have gone to work for Mark whom I had not seen again since then.

Two, to work for Mark in 2012 would most probably have been to become his SA, Media, a position (was) being occupied by a non-native of Benue. To topple a non-indigene and take his job is the last thing I would do even for the best job in the world. So, there was no Mark to my exit.

The appointment of Dr Nura Mohammed as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs has been so fulfilling a thing for me that it cannot be a reason for my departure from Jigawa too. One, it annulled a major criticism that Lamido was hostile to having educated elements around him. Two, it translated to Lamido reproducing himself in foreign policy, the ministry he was its minister. As Lamido’s image maker, I worried about these two criticisms and if, for any reasons, he set about correcting them, then my job was to clap along, more so that in doing so, he selected someone that many people, rightly or wrongly, traced his ascendancy to me. It was not surprising that on the day Dr Nura was sworn-in, I wrote and published a piece comparing Lamido’s action to Julius Nyerere, ex-Tanzanian president’s praxis of picking brilliant youthful raw materials and asking them to ready themselves for state responsibilities, the classical example being the case of Salim Ahmed Salim, veteran of the Organisation of African Unity, (OAU) now the African Union, (AU).

As a PRP man imbued with the “naki” (I hope I got this Hausa language right) mentality, Lamido can be trusted to create a crease even when and where most unnecessary. Predictably, he created one between myself and Dr Nura Mohammed at some point but the seeds of the reasons which culminated in my sudden departure had already germinated a long time before Dr. Nura ever came on the scene. Moreover, how could appointment of anyone from Jigawa for the state’s slot in the federal cabinet be an issue for me, especially in 2011 when I could not have haboured the thought of being a minister or anything at the centre. My attitude to the circumstances surrounding the 2011 elections was such that on the Election Day, Lamido asked me in the presence of journalists and his aides who I voted for. I said I voted for Jonathan because I did not want to be thrown out by him, (Lamido). He jokingly said he didn’t trust me on that and everyone laughed because everyone knew where I stood. It was not against Jonathan as a person but against a party which was consciously burying itself deeper than six inches by being unfaithful to its own core principle. Today, the mistake of 2011 is playing out before us all as the party is in tatters. Two, who would have sent my name as a ministerial nominee since the governor of Benue State himself didn’t nominate anyone in 2011? Thee, even if Lamido had wanted me to be a minister, that could not be before he finished his governorship tenure and either negotiated a space for me or he himself returned to Abuja. Four, how could I leave a secure position in a Government House in which I was a very symbolic signifier to go to Abuja and start learning how to work with a new boss? Fifth, my post Jigawa plan was going to school, not taking any other government appointment immediately.

I thank God immensely that I have ended up in school in the post Jigawa period. I recognize the reservations of many who think I love being in school for its own sake. The truth though is that, for very serious reasons, schooling is still an unfinished business for me. It has thus been an intensely fulfilling moment to have opportunity to be in school, not to build a career but to reflect on a career and also tidy up my entire scraps of knowledge into the level of expertise or is it specialization. It is great to have time to devote to acada without worrying at all about work pressure, office politics, newsroom deadlines or anything of that sort. I am confident of coming out of Warwick absolutely well made in social theory, that being the core missing link in my knowledge pursuit that I am prepared to risk the financial, logistic and social stresses to bridge quickly before it becomes absolutely ridiculous for me to be a formal student.

The initial hassles flowing from an accommodation strategy error notwithstanding, the University of Warwick is turning out to be the correct choice for this gap filling mission, a project which started with admission to an Australian ‘Sandstone’ university last February but which the geographical distance between Nigeria and Australia as well as immigration logistics made impossible for me to go. Then the turn to UK basically because the American universities would want me to satisfy their GRE requirements while the Canadians will take eternity to grant me visa. A Nigerian is in trouble as far as visa to almost any other major western country is concerned even if he is as clean as anyone can be. In the case of Australia, they administer the process from South Africa and the applicant bears the freight cost.

Several UK universities to which I applied admitted me though with some of them insisting on fulfilling English Language proficiency requirement even when I had all my education in universities where English is the language of instruction, come from a Commonwealth country where English is the language from birth to death, has been an editor and then media aide of a Nigerian foreign affairs minister, a job in which I couldn’t have been writing or speaking any other language but English. And the fact that I have a credit in Ordinary Level English Language which is what everyone, with almost no exception, must have to enter a Nigerian university. At some point, I wondered if this was system integrity or a subtle reminder that it is not yet the post-colonial moment. It was both funny and embarrassing.

In July 2013, I took advantage of being in London to visit those universities that had admitted me, beginning with the ones inside London before travelling to the University of Warwick where I found a well-appointed forest that reminded me powerfully of the rural idyllic and communal grandeur in which I grew up. The campus seemed to be saying, this is the right place for you. At the end of the day after going to the Departmental office of the Politics and International Studies and taking a good look at the modules and the reading list, I was to discover one particular module that made the decision for me that Warwick is the place to go. I am absolutely happy that I am offering the module today. I have never seen a single module encapsulating virtually all of Political Science, providing me another opportunity to have another go at some of the things I did as an undergraduate nearly two decades ago in Nigeria.

Adagbo's birthday 1This is the story of how my 50th birthday anniversary was spent in the classroom in a UK university, although that didn’t abort reflections on how I made it to 50 and of which this essay is an outcome. It is written in response to my conclusion that I survived simply and squarely on a vast network of charity by actors, each of whom took me out of one crisis or the other in a way that was a turning point for me. And each and every one of them did so either on hypodermic instructions from God or from just being good. My argument is that it is fit and proper to use my 50th birthday anniversary to recognize and pay homage to these individuals. Attributing my survival to charity implies privileging individuals over and above the system. I pledge guilty to that charge. It is my belief that in our post-colonial context, the goodness of individuals and/or the dynamism of the informal economy have been more sensitive, responsive, reliable and crucial redistributive mechanisms than anything called the modern society. That’s why I pay homage to the individuals below, arranged here in time sequence rather than alphabetical order.

That naturally means beginning with Ikponya ‘Akaka’ (but call her Ikponya Abba because it is only three who call her Akaka, that being her late father’s special name for her) my mother who never went beyond Sunday School/Catechism classes but made so much sacrifices for my education; Gabriel Ochigbo aka Gappfiller; primary school teacher who pushed all final year pupils to write common entrance exam, brushing aside our argument that our families didn’t have that kind of money to pay secondary school fees for five years; Mr. Attayi Eje, the man who suggested I contacted Edemoga District Head to sponsor my secondary school education; Adokwu Abah, the man who drafted the letter which got Chief Daniel Adulugba so ecstatic about sponsoring my secondary school education unless he did not live till September 1976. He lived and did so and remained my bulwark in the community till his sudden demise in 2010; Col Liman Adulugba (rtd) for pulling me out of Benue in 1981 originally to seek admission into the School of Basic Studies of Ahmadu Bello University before I meandered to Kaduna when the admission failed; Uncle Obagwu Abba for his critical material intervention in my last years in the school; Okpani Francis Adah for a transformative hosting gesture in Kaduna between 1982 and 1985.

Others are late James Audu and Alhaji Mohammed Suleiman for employing me just like that (no connections, no letters of recommendation, no long waiting) into the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, Kaduna in April 1982, making concrete my secondary school journalistic experimentations which earned me the nickname The Reporter; Abba Dabo for ferrying me across the big gulf created by the waning of the FRCN job by getting me employed in Triumph Publishing Company in late 1985 when he became the MD and for the occasional strategic interventions thereafter as I moved up, especially in the Jigawa years; Mohammed Sani Zorro for the turning point in my movement to Concord Press of Nigeria after the ‘comrades’ of which he was the head got dispersed from Triumph in the aftermath of Abba Dabo; Chidi Ngangah/Yakubu AliyuAminu Aliyu: each for social analysis briefings long before hand; Y. Z. Y’au for networking me into the Bayero University, Kano community aside from the facility of his house which made me escape the hassles of hostel life as a mature undergraduate; Auwal Musa aka Rafsanjani/Reuben Ziri, two different sources of inspiration, Rafsanjani for his capability for improvisation and dynamism and Reuben Ziri for his legendary History skills such that there is no time one would not be missing him; Prof Okello Oculi for always reminding me what is primary at every point; Sule Lamido whom I already discussed above.

The list equally includes Comrade Kayode Komolafe, the dialectical backbone of my ‘governmentality’; Comrade John Odah, the most comprehensive intervener in me and the ultimate in solidarity, stretching from getting me off the high horse to re-write Ordinary level English Language without which I couldn’t have gotten further education, mobilizing the comrades to my wedding in 2001 and cooking so much pounded yam, (a special food in Idoma land) for them and similar many other interventions. The climax must be his last act of solidarity by way of a trip to Jigawa to see Governor Sule Lamido after I packed up from Jigawa. When he entered Lamido’s office that day, the governor asked why he is so concerned about me as to make the trip. His answer was that we were the two birds of same ideological feathers from our area and whatever happened to me was his concern. I was opposed to the trip and dissuaded him a lot because it would have weighed too much on my conscience if anything nasty had happened to him on the road to or from Jigawa on my cause. Thank God, it went well; Dr. Chijioke Uwasomba [email protected] discursive, discourse, generational and social (Staff Club) compatibility made me cope with graduate studies at the University of Ibadan in 2003. It was such that I lived at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife from where I drove to Ibadan; Hajiya Zainab Okino: How would I have had the presence of mind to think of and eventually commence putting up a building in Abuja city if not on the promptings and manoeuvres of Hajiya? Apart from Steve Nwosu, no one else has been as harassed as Hajiya in my governmentality career; Engineer Mohammed Abba Gana, a great source of soul lifting critical and normative cannons, whether it is on rising China or varieties of capitalism or global energy analysis underground transport network engineering, the perils of market forces, leadership recruitment as panacea to Nigeria’s instability and even on literature, particularly Shakespeare; Cheers here to Abba (aka Abbyjjak whom I don’t know who gave him the permission to be taller than me already), Ene and Ada, my children and Ene J. Ogboji, their mother; And, finally, Joe Akatu and Ada Atama, the two Idoma language lyricists whose creativity is the most edifying source of Idoma self-understanding for me, particularly of the alime essentialism. Unaffected by Christian influence or western education, the late Joe Akatu’s repertoire of the Idoma imaginary is unsurpassable. Listening to them is a permanent must for me, not necessarily as a contestation of the CNNisation and Cocacolanisation of modernity.

Looking at this rather long list, two things stare me in the face. One is how, like the Olufia in Idoma mythology which learnt and spoke the language of every kindred in the bird kingdom in appreciation for being brought up by all, I must master and speak the language of diversity. Two is the challenge of putting something that enables me as an individual to respond to privations in our system even while we step up the struggle to build that society in which no child anywhere in Nigeria would need any particular individual to be what s/he would like to make of his or her life. How best I can develop this capacity must task even the best theorists of ‘economy of affection’


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