Cliff ‘little Joe’ Ogiugo at 75
The pen is mightier than the sword – Edward Bulwer-Lytton, English playwright.
Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than 1,000 bayonetes – Napoleon Bonaparte, French military leader.
You don’t need to time-travel far back to the 18th or 19th century to grasp the truth in these sentiments of a writer and a soldier. You get it right here in Nigeria with the story of Pa Cliff Ogiugo, the creator of the famous Little Joe cartoon strips in 1964 in the defunct Sunday Post Newspaper on Malu Road, Apapa, Lagos. We may also refer to the Charlie Hebdo affair in France to support Napoleon Bonaparte and Bulwer Lytton.
As a resident consultant with Daily Independent a decade ago, Ogiugo initiated a living history cartoon series he called Once upon a time. Meant to feature artistic portrayal of such Nigerian heroes as Nnamdi Azikwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello and MKO Abiola, the project told the story of those great men in colourful strokes to rhyme with their charismatic lives. He got generous space and cooperation for the work from the management of the newspaper headed by Doyin Mahmoud.
The reading public also embraced this radical mode of writing history in cartoons (cartoonography?) as it related to the lives and times of our nationalists. It had never been done before. Ogiugo successfully concluded work on Zik, earning him acclaim nationwide and a personal appreciation from the son of the great Zik.
But when he started the illustrations on Ahmadu Bello, he began to receive phone calls warning him to stay off the late premier of the North. He did not. Afterall, he had done it with Zik. And by the way why would something as innocuous as sheer artwork by the pen scare anybody? Ogiugo underestimated the power of the pen. He ignored the threat until two men wielding pistols attacked him as he made to drive into the offices of Daily Independent one morning.
He was lucky. He escaped as the security men at the gate and passersby raised the alarm that stopped the gun men. Later, Ogiugo received a message: “You have been treading on people’s toes, now you’ll tread on hot coals.” Next he got a letter from a lawyer who told him to stop the Ahmadu Bello sketches because Islam forbids cartoons on Muslim leaders. Ogiugo immediately ceased work on the late premier. He was also forced to abort a similar plan on M.K.O Abiola, another leading Muslim politician whose victory in the 1993 Presidential poll in Nigeria had been nullified.
Much earlier, in the 60s when Cliff Ogiugo was sketching the strips Bunmi in the Seventh Commandment which dealt with extra-marital life, the artist’s brush again had a brush with death. A couple with the same names as the chief characters in the drawings invited Ogiugo to their home ostensibly to celebrate him on his skill. The night turned sour as the man of the house suspected that Ogiugo had been writing about him and his wife in the cartoon strip. He went to fetch a weapon to use on the artist. While he was away, the hostess saved the cartoonist from attack: she created a way of escape for him.
Cliff Ogiugo narated his experience to Babatunde Jose, then Chairman of Daily Times Group who advised him to change the title of his illustration to Things That Women do. That was when Ogiugo began work on a full time basis at Daily Times. He had also run Little Joe on a freelance basis at Sunday Times under the editorship of Sam Amuka, now publisher of Vanguard Newspapers and his assistant Tony Momoh, who later became the editor of Daily Times.
The trail blazzer in cartoon strips was born on April 5, 1941 in Benin, Edo State. His father, an officer in the colonial police force, was a disciplinarian who discouraged Cliff from making his left hand the active limb. The wet ground after rainfall was where little Cliff learnt to draw.
The early droodling has spiralled over the generations to transform into a passion and profession. This skill got the necessary academic honing cloak when Cliff Ogiugo was admitted into Yaba Technical Institute, now Yaba College of Technology, Akoka,Lagos, where he graduated in 1962. He was weak in Mathematics and that nearly knocked him out in the entrance examination. But the invigilator, a white man, saw Cliff struggling to make out a bicycle wheel during the geometrical drawing test. Instead, Cliff produced the visual of a man riding a bicycle. The bearded white man was impressed with the drawing and right there he gave Cliff admission forms to fill.
Cliff Ogiugo worked at the Niger Pools Company following inspiring cartoons on lottery coupons. Pool stakers flocked his home for tips in his illustrations to aid them in their stakes. The artist has plied his trade at the Morning Post, NBC-TV (now NTA), Daily Times, The Observer, The Guardian, This Day, Daily Independent, etc.
Recently he produced a landmark book illustrating the life history of Professor Wole Soyinka.
When I met Cliff Ogiugo recently, he spoke of plans to embark on projects that would see him dedicate the rest of his life to “executing only spiritual books to honour Jesus Christ.” Cliff Ogiugo’s characters exude life, etching unforgettable emotions that linger in the memory almost for life. This has stood him out from the crowd. Living modestly with his family at Denro in Ogun State, Cliff Ogiugo still recalls the harmless exploits of his creature, Little Joe along with those other characters that led him into a close shave with death a couple of times in the past.
We must all wonder though how his harmless pen(cil) came to be so dreaded as to whip up murderous intentions!
• Ojewale is a writer and journalist in Ota, Ogun State.