Two days after the interment of Engineer Nathaniel Oyelola’s mortal body, Yemi Shonekan, my friend of over three decades sent me a video clip. It was a snippet of obsequies for the renowned Engineer who was one of the five founding members of what we now call the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE).
The clip had “Cap’n Blood” as Professor Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka is known in the Pyratical world and a sword bearing Cap’n leading the funeral procession. Of course, it is an open secret that Engineer Oyelola, Professor Soyinka and five others were the founding and “Original Seven” members of the Pyrates Confraternity (PC), otherwise known as the National Association of Seadogs (NAS).
Right after acknowledging receipt and thanking Shonekan for the video, my mind went back to the first one-on-one encounter I had with Professor Soyinka.
Bukola Akinyemi (as she then was) and I had gone to cover Professor Olu Akinkugbe’s 70th birthday for City People Magazine. As young reporters, we nosed around the venue, armed with pens and writing pads.
As the event rounded off, we noticed Professors Soyinka, Akinwunmi Isola and a number of others having a chat. We walked towards them and as we greeted them, I moved closer and requested Professor Soyinka ‘s autograph. Apparently bemused, he gave a kind of “and where do I sign the autograph?” look. I simply presented the programme of events (which I have kept till date). He obliged and my evening was made.
As one privileged to have seen different shades of W.S, at NAS functions, on the stage of “King Baabu” (a play he wrote after the demise of General Abacha) and other events, it is needless to state that he means different things to different people. And at 88, he is still a Kongi that hasn’t melted.
For decades, he has been the subject of discourse and age notwithstanding, Professor Soyinka has not stopped being in the news: from taking over a radio station in the 1960s to the not too recent alleged invasion of his Ijegba Forest home by unattended cows.
The naughtiness of a First Lady once led to verbal brickbats wherein the famed Professor was described as an “embarrassment to his admirers” for calling on the President to caution his wife. Typical of a wordsmith of inimitable intellectual prowess, Soyinka submitted that a hippopotamus could indeed be extracted from the swamps but “you cannot take the swamp out of the hippopotamus”.
Another that came to mind was the airplane seat issue; when a young Nigerian demanded that Professor Soyinka who had been given his seat by airline officials vacate same. The fellow got his way and while different opinions were expressed on the matter, it has only proven to be a reflection of the Nigerian society.
70 years after, Wole Soyinka is still singled out for criticism in some quarters for founding the Pyrates Confraternity and ‘turning youths to people of despicably low moral standards’. At the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission sitting over two decades ago, a lawyer asked whether any of Soyinka’s children was a member of the PC. With a smile, he answered that “my son, Olaokun is a member in Zero Meridian, that is in England”.
For decades running, NAS had had to cope with the mention of it’s ‘spiritual’ leader when violent crimes committed by cult groups across the different institutions of learning are spoken about.
Interestingly, Professor Femi Odekunle, now of blessed memory once stated on national television that “it was a thing of pride to be a member of the Pyrates Confraternity” in his days as an undergraduate. That in itself was an indication that something went wrong along the line.
The credibility built by the founders of NAS became a subject of questions when other campus brotherhoods started springing up and violence became a tool in their supremacy battles.
The effusive criticisms seem to have inadvertently overshadowed the achievements Professor Soyinka has so far recorded. The present generation may need to be reminded that back in the 1970s, he became the first African Director of the University of Ibadan School of Drama. Seeing his efforts at ensuring sanity on Oyo State roads in the “Majamaja” days when he headed the state’s Road Safety agency, the Federal Government appointed him as the pioneer Corps Marshal of the Federal Road Safety Corps.
In 1986, WS became the first black man and the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and till date, he is the only Nigerian to have done so.
With his writings and activism, he contributed to the return of Nigeria to democratic rule. He had to go on exile to escape the overtly murderous tendencies of a dictator in the dark days of the military. That however didn’t stop him from speaking the truth to power.
Many may have issues with him but the real issue is that whether misunderstood, vilified rightly or wrongly, Kongi is 88 and he is worthy of being celebrated while we have him with us.