Omotayo Yusuf is my friend. The one I am proud of. Together we navigated the literary ocean at Obafemi Awolowo University. Omotayo is a storyteller with literary simplicity, the kind akin to that of the great African literary icon; Chinua Achebe. When he writes, the English language flows and slickly draws in his hand as the rainy-season okro would do in the hands of a great cook.
Today, he has many short stories to his credit—some have won him laurels; while some are still in his mail waiting edgily to be unleashed. The one that however caught my attention of recent is his winning entry in ZODML short story contest titled Hero.
Set in the Nigerian military era, Hero is the story a journalist, nicknamed Scholar, who actively uses his column to challenge the oppressive status quo; the dehumanising activities of the Nigerian Supreme Military Council. With his unrelenting effort in writing against the military government, Scholar is arrested for ‘planning a coup’ and sentenced to fifteen year imprisonment. He remains undaunted! As a ‘committed’ journalist and defender of the common masses, Scholar looks forward to heroic and ‘epochal’ welcome from his colleagues at Real News and the members of his family when he eventually finishes his jail term.
Unfortunately however, nobody seems to care about his existence, let alone his values, after fifteen years of suppression. Nobody came for him—even his colleagues at the prison, particularly Kojo who sees him as his ‘Idol’ cares less about him when he finally regains his freedom. It is a great disappointment, like that of the most popular fictional character Okonkwo (Things Fall Apart), after his return from exile. Scholar gets out to discover that things are no longer the same; there have been tremendous changes, just like the sea of changes that hit Okonkwo on his return from exile. Scholar’s family has changed; his six-year old daughter has become twenty-one. Real News, where he works has altered; the Editor, his friend is no more the old self, his (Scholar’s) exclusive page 3 column where he tackles the government has become a display of nudity— where young girls, including Scholar’s daughter displays their nakedness in the name of displaying beauty.
Scholar is ‘hit by a wave of disappointment’. His thought is that he is a hero, and should be treated as such—with heroic welcome and celebrations. Little does he know that the path of heroism, in as insane setting like Nigeria, is a lonely path, the path of the unacknowledged. ‘Be right, may your road be rough’, says the legendary Tai Solarin, but the enormity of this statement seems to elude Scholar.
Hero arrests my attention due to two foremost factors: the writer’s ingenious descriptive power and the story’s historical relevance.
The descriptive power
The strength of the story is in its apt descriptiveness. It begins on a note of a powerful suspense, the kind that compels the reader to read non-stop until the last page is turned. In addition to this is the apt use of imagery—all forms of imagery: visual, tactile, auditory, etc. are ingeniously engaged. As I read through, I couldn’t help but picture, in my mind’s eye, the ‘wave of disappointment’ that hits Scholar after his uncelebrated welcome; the page three ‘half-nude girl…hugging a pole lightly (with) her wet dress clung to her skin’; and listen with my imaginative ear to the sound of the ‘vehicles blaring their horns maniacally and swerving to overtake the other vehicles’. With powerful nifty description, Omotayo, cryptically highlighting the differences two epochs in Nigeria—the Nigerian oppressive military period with people with cherished values ready to die for even at the face of death threat and the succeeding corruption-filled civilian period characterised with people of no cherished values filled with selfish and materialistic ambitions—narrates the ordeal of a Nigerian journalist who remains negligible and uncelebrated despite his heroic selfless sacrifices to the cause of the common masses.
While reading through, the character of Scholar, the frustrated journalist brings to mind a notable and distinguished Nigerian journalist, Kunle Ajibade. Kunle Ajibade is a Nigerian journalist arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment (later changed to fifteen years due to international outcry) for his anti-establishment writings during the Abacha regime. However, he spent only three years in prison as his chief jailer, Abacha, died three years in to the jail term. Scholar shares some semblance with Kunle Ajibade. Let me briefly attempt a comparative assessment of the characters of the fictional Scholar and Kunle Ajibade:
Kunle Ajibade is a journalist and was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment just like Scholar.
Kunle was arrested for writing against the military government. Similarly, Scholar was arrested for ‘planning a coup’ through his anti-military column at The News.
Meanwhile, the two have the same mind set towards their jailers. At the 5th series of the monthly Bookjam hosted by Igoni Baret and the Silverbird lifestyle stores, Kunle Ajibade was reportedly asked about his relationship with his former jailers. His reply:
I hold no grudge against them…they worked under a system where they might have even killed their own mothers had they been ordered to. They were much a victim as I was.
Similarly, when Scholar eventually regains his freedom, he leaves the prison without any ill feelings towards his jailers:
He didn’t hate them. He saw them as emissaries who had no choice but to do the bidding of their masters.
Considering these striking similarities, one may want to conclude that Omotayo intentionally created the fictional character of Scholar after Kunle Ajibade’s personality. It is nonetheless interesting to note that this was not the case as Omotayo, as at the time of penning down this story, is not aware of the history and personality of Kunle Ajibade. It’s just a pure happenstance and a viable argument in psychoanalytical literary discourse.
Today, Kunle Ajibade is more than doing well. He is the Executive editor of The News, the newspaper publication of Independent Communications Network Limited. But, it is not a matter of doubt that ‘in a saner clime’, as Isaac Anyaogu puts it in his article ‘Kunle Ajibade: A Profile in Courage’ published on saharareporters.com, ‘Mr Kunle Ajibade ought to matter more.’
Regrettably, for journalists like Scholars, and indeed Kunle Ajibade, Dele Giwa, and others, they could not ‘matter more’ for the path they have decided to tread is a solitary path, the path of the selfless but the unsung, the path with little or no material gain; the sacrifice for fighting for the ignorant. The path abandoned by Reuben Abati and the like.
Click here to read Hero.