Akogun Tola Adeniyi: Celebrating The Septuagenarian Pen General
“True, This! — Beneath the rule of men entirely great The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! — But taking sorcery from the master-hand To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword — States can be saved without it!” – Edwards Bulwer-Lytton in Richelieu His appearance was not much different from the photographs of him I saw on the Internet a day earlier. Akogun Tola Adeniyi aka Aba Saheed is a tall dark man. Notwithstanding, the man that appeared, when I first paid him a visit at his Oregun house in Lagos after the March 28 presidential election, looked a bit more ordinary than I imagined. Dressed in black trousers and check shirt, his steps were slow, but steady. It was the walk of a man who has run many miles on the sand of time. Could this man be the one who, like a prickle in the flesh, goaded Gowon government beyond endurance, and others after him? The enfant terrible, who suffered no fool gladly in his weekly columns. I did not have to wait long to dismiss my doubt. Akogun Adeniyi, a prolific writer, caustic columnist, veteran journalist, actor, dancer and dramatist, is indeed a raging spirit. His exterior did little to hide his rage, and while stressing a point, his moustache and beard appeared to converge closely to form an imperfect circle around his mouth. Intermittently, his face became toughened as he spoke about the visionlessness that characterises Nigerian leadership in decades. And from his mouth came forth sharp sarcasm signature only to Aba Saheed. By the time the interview ended, he had left nothing to imagination about his elocution, intellection, sophistication, humanity and the agitation that powers his pen. Our second meeting was at the instance of his 70th birthday. During our conversation, Akogun Adeniyi gave account of how Ago Iwoye, his place of birth, shaped his childhood experience, and of his journey to becoming one of the most influential newspapermen of our time. AJIBOLA AMZAT writes.
AT 70, Akogun Tola Adeniyi remains a feisty warrior in the battle of redeeming Nigeria and its people from further slide into moral abyss and blissful ignorance. With pen as his weapon, Chief Adeniyi has paralysed the antics of the ruling class, who appear to be on a mission to bring the country to ruin at all costs.
From Gowon to Obasanjo and Shagari, and much later, Jonathan, they have all suffered hard hit from the literary missiles of Akogun. Back in the 70s, Adeniyi was like a northern star in the Nigerian media firmament, shining brighter amidst a constellation of other influential writers such as Labanji Bolaji, Areoye Oyebola, Gbolabo Ogusanwo, Haroun Adamu, David Attah, Abidina Koomasi, Doyin Aboaba, Peggy Cole, Banji Kuroloja and a host of others. But among these star writers, Adeniyi remains the last man standing, still writing and taking a dig at the power class that is yet to wean itself of its self-indulgence and malefaction.
Throughout his career as a newsman, Adeniyi remained one of Nigeria’s most controversial and colourful columnists, combining literary genius with activism.
“All my writings have been geared towards protecting the weak and the oppressed, the depressed and the deprived in the society,” he reminisces.
That he became an outstanding man of letter is not by accident. He had honed his skill right from his days as a column writer in his secondary school in Ago Iwoye, Ogun State, where he was the editor of The Spartan, the school magazine. He continued in Ijebu Ode Muslim College and became the Editor-in-Chief of The Scientia.
At the University of Ibadan, he founded the Writers’ Club in 1966, which had Prof. Femi Osofisan as a member. Before then, the young Adeniyi had established himself as a local poet in his little village of Ago-Iwoye. His published poetry, Aye Ode Oni earned him enough to pay his fees through university.
He was also the first person to adapt Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for stage and television. The play was performed in all major cities of Nigeria in 1966. That feat earned him the friendship of the master storyteller, Achebe.
He and his wife would later spend their honeymoon in Achebe’s house in Nsukka. As a columnist in the defunct Daily Times, Sketch and Tribune, Chief Adeniyi wrote with candour under different pseudonyms such as Aba Saheed, Nguwen Tol Nae, Tola Nee, and Ticha Bento. His career climaxed when he started writing about 16 articles a week.
He also contributed columns to Uche Chukwumerije’s Afriscope, Tunji Oseni’s Sunday Sketch and Sam Amuka’s Sunday Times. In one of his critical articles, Soldiers, Stones and Sanity, Adeniyi lampooned the military for their misconduct in the public. The Civil War had just ended, and Nigerians were settling down to peaceful living in the country again.
But the soldiers were everywhere, causing public nuisance and panic without any control from the authorities. As the fresh experience of the war had made Nigerians timid, no one, including the public intellectuals, dared caution the khaki boys. Fear was very palpable.
Yet, that was the time the daredevil Adeniyi wrote his caustic article. Of course, he got a rough treatment from the soldiers, but he still lives to tell the story.
At another time, the police authorities were at the receiving end of his irreverence. In Kabukabu, he derided the police for using their official vehicles as commercial transportation. Though that practice was a public knowledge, the authorities were thoroughly embarrassed that a journalist could make a caricature of it.
Adeniyi eventually got arrested on the order of Kam Salem, the then Inspector General of Police. But the Ijebu man is a glutton for punishment. If the harassment by the police unnerved him, it never deterred him. When his employer, Alhaji Babatunde Jose realised that his young reporter would never stay out of trouble, he advised that he wrote under pseudonyms. ‘Blacky, what is your Muslim name?’ Jose inquired. ‘Saheed,’ he replied.
‘Since your initials are ABA (Adetola Babatunde Atanda), why not use Abba Saheed as your byline so that people would think you are a Northerner?’ And that was how the name Aba Saheed came to be.
Though the propriety of a journalist using pseudonyms has been a subject of debate in media scholarship, but true to Jose’s advice, the name offered Adeniyi protection.
Yet, the name still stirred the hornet’s nest in the corridor of power. “For about a whole year after I started using Aba Saheed as my byline, the Gowon government was lenient, thinking I was a Northerner,” he says. Notwithstanding, few Nigerian journalists have demonstrated a fatalist stance in their writing like Aba Saheed. The man predicted the fall of Gowon government in Let Me Fall (Daily Times 1974).
In We Are All Damned Stupid, he described Obasanjo and Yar’adua as “twin devils” (sic) that impoverished the rank and file of the Nigerian army.
Shagari government was typified as being grossly corrupt in Let Me Steal (Tribune 1980). Decades after his audacious exploit, one would have thought that the pen general would be battle-weary, stay quietly in Canada, where he has been sojourning for more than 20 years and continue to sip hot tea till his last day, but that is not in the nature of Aba Saheed.
In the Sun newspaper to which he now regularly contributes, he described Jonathan administration as “the worst in living memory” (January 2015). In Jonathan Agonizare, he drew the parallel between President Jonathan’s qualification as a doctorate degree holder and his performance as head of state.
Hear him: “It is incredible that someone who claims to have a PhD degree would demonstrate the kind of kindergarten administration Jonathan exposed Nigerians to these past years and would want to depart the chair he had sat on for six years with smelly faeces.
Jonathan and his stealing team simply chose to inflict pain on Nigerians and they did so in a very big way.” However, not many people approve of Adeniyi’s style of writing. Some of his critics think his writings are too pungent and the tone, offensive. “Many times, Tola Adeniyi was too angry to clothe his messages.
And God help whoever is at the receiving end of his rage,” Professor Wale Adebanwi wrote in Aba Saheed: A literary Portrait of Tola Adeniyi by late Eddie Ayo-Ojo. But Adeniyi is never apologetic for his style. He told The Guardian that Agitational Journalism, which drives his penmanship, is key in the rescue of democracy from the hands of power mongers. “ABA Saheed nursed not the intent to appease anybody. Rather he writes to pull down the ‘Berlin Walls’ of Oppression,” he was quoted in his biography.
The making of the newspaperman For a man that used to write about 16 articles a week for different newspapers, it is no exaggeration describing Akogun Adeniyi as being prolific.
He straddled the line between commentary and reportage as a correspondent and columnist. “Writing comes to me easily,” he says. And when he writes, he hardly does a re-write. The first draft is as good as publishable. He was like Meyer Berger, the New York Times’s prolific reporter, who once interviewed 50 people in a day, returned to the office and wrote a story of 4,000 words in two and a half hours with not one word of it changed.
But it was not Berger that inspired Aba Saheed. Rather, it was D.O Fagunwa, one of the most imaginative writers of Yoruba ancestry. “At 14, I travelled in a lorry to Ibadan barefoot to see Fagunwa,” he recalls.
“I saw him at the then radio broadcasting station. In fact, I dedicated my first poetry to him.” Another inspiration was Tai Solarin, one of the fearless human spirits that ever lived, and Mr. Adeyemi, his drama teacher in primary school. “He would write a synopsis and we would rehearse it,” he says.
The influence of these men shaped Adeniyi’s values and worldview. That he became a fearless writer was also not by accident. As a native of Ago-Iwoye, a town reputed for its great courage and fearlessness, it is only expected that Adeniyi should demonstrate courage a notch higher than normal.
Reminiscing on the old time, he spoke of the mighty men of Ago Iwoye who, like King David’s men in the Bible, demonstrated gallantry and grit in the face of adversity. These include Dauda Odumuyiwa, alias Dauda Tinko, the chief personal security commander of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and his successor Oroyinyin, who were like Elizar the son of Dodo—men who gave their all in defence of their principals.
“Ogberegede and the man known as Ejonto, a corruption of AG-ON-TOP were both stalwarts of Ago Iwoye origin. These were men who would defend whatever cause they strongly believed in, even with their lives. The beauty in these individuals’ doggedness was that an average Ago-Iwoye indigene would defend whatever need be defended and not on the basis of pecuniary considerations.
They were highly principled people, who would go extra mile in defence of justice, fairness and equity,” he explains. One other virtue that singles out Adeniyi is hard work. As an adolescent, he was a poet on radio, a contract drummer boy with local musicians performing at social functions, a helping hand at construction site, a rancher, as well as a sales boy. “By the time I finished secondary school, I had already published two books: ‘Teenagers Must Repent,’ and ‘Aye Ode Oni,” he says.
“I marketed these books going from school to school. I would read from the books to a gathering of pupils and encouraged them to buy them.” His industry paid off, as he was able to take care of himself and his siblings at the time his mates still depended on handouts from parents and other family members.
In spite of his early accomplishment earned through a dint of hard work, Adeniyi attributes his success to divine assistance and guidance. “At 14, I described the moon as ‘bright as the day with gentle fire like water in a pot, the only one eye that illuminates heaven and earth.’ He had used divine inspiration to capture spiritual essence with such clarity.
“I am grateful to my Creator because, to me, everything has been defined and designed by that Supreme Being called Adiitu by Yoruba,” he says. In his tribute to Akogun Adeniyi, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, aka Ebinotopsy, had referred to his friend as a ‘Lucky Star.’ It is a nickname suggestive of Adeniyi’s successful beginning.
In the primary school, he was always leading the class. He got double promotions twice, so instead of spending eight years, he spent five. In secondary school, he always excelled in debates. “I was also playing lead roles in drama and always representing the school at the Festivals of Arts in the then Western Region.
I was in primary six, when I acted The God of Ewa,” he recalls. His streak of luck prompted him into adopting the nickname, ‘Lucky star,’ when his friends were answering to ‘Jacko Dodo,’ ‘Shemi’ ‘Penny,’ and such other funny names. “I started imagining myself at that age of becoming a star.
And that nickname stuck to my university days. I remember in 1960, when Professor Shodipo was doing a vacation job at Ago Iwoye Secondary School. He asked us what we wanted to be in life and I told him I wanted to pursue a degree in English Language, as well as own a printing press and publish my own newspapers.”
That dream eventually came true, as he later graduated with B.A English from the University of Ibadan. He also bagged an MA Theatre Studies from the University of Lancaster in UK. He crowned it with a diploma in Mass communication. Today, he is the Chairman/CEO of Toronto-based Canada College and Canada University Press.
He had published The Stamp and Naked World newspapers. And the man still writes. His writings are yet to lose the venom of the days gone by. How does he want to be remembered when he dies? “I will not die, I will only transform,” he responds.
But that is another subject that Akogun Adeniyi has dealt with in his coming oeuvre, which encapsulates everything about his faith, called Mareism. In August, his treatise on Nigeria, a Nation of Idiots, will be launched. That is a book he hopes many Nigerians would read.
But that is one book many Nigerians may not want to read, except for those seeking the truth about how a promising nation ended up being the illustration of poverty and disease.
After the interview that lasted for about two hours, Akogun brought out a bottle of red wine, and we drank to his health. From my observation, the man is a better bibber. Well, that is the way of most Gemini. They love good food, fine wine and…. 70 pen salutes to Akogun Adeniyi, the Pen General.
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