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Conversation with Azu: Fagbenle: Tribute To The Pundit Emeritus


Azu Ishiekwene
We love to blame most of our miseries on the older generation – the corruption, the greed, the rot and decay, and the rise in ethnic politics; everything that has held us back.
It’s okay to beat that generation over the head with our woes, but I’ve been thinking of what my world, my professional world, would have been without these folks; that is, the good folks among them that we often lump with the bad.
I’ve told the story before of how Olatunji Dare helped to give me my first writing job and how after meeting Ray Ekpu and shaking his hand at the lying-in-state of Dele Giwa in 1986, I refused to shake anyone else for the rest of that day to preserve the fragrance and memory of that contact.
There’s yet another man from the older generation of writers that I owe more gratitude than I could repay: Egbon Tunde Fagbenle. His writings have inspired me, but knowing him has inspired me even more.
He was 70 on October 4 but is still as passionate about a Nigeria that works for all, as he was when I first met him in the 1990s.
I can’t remember what struck me the most in those early days – his writings, his personal warmth and hearty laughter or his frequent swear words. I think it must have been his writing above all – his breezy, conversational style and that ability to call a spade by its name. But for a long time, I never quite matched his face with his writings.
I don’t know what it was Fagbenle was discussing with Ademola Osinubi (who was then PUNCH General Manager) on that day. But even before I entered Osinubi’s office where I met Fagbenle for the first time, I heard the echo of his laughter like a boomerang, rocking the plywood panels of the wooden building that used to be the company’s first office in Onipetesi, Lagos.
We hit it off from that first meeting and I still remember the ease with which he switched back-and-forth from English to Pidgin English, swearing intermittently as he did so.
In the small talk that followed, I sensed the anger and frustration in his voice as we talked about the annulment of the June 12 election. The country had been brought to its knees by the refusal of the military government to hand over to the winner, MKO Abiola and Abiola was not going to take it lying down.
In the showdown that followed, it was clear that the worst was yet to come. And the military government, egged on by selfish politicians who would soon sell Abiola down the river, didn’t care if the country burned.
“Dem madness no get cure, I swear!” Fagbenle said repeatedly of the military government. Madness no get cure. And that was saying it as it is.
He was in his late forties then. His eyes twinkled fairly rapidly. Though you could see that he was not a very young man from the greying strands of his goatee, yet he joked with the conviviality of a teenager. In my relationship with him over the years – and I have come to see that that is how he truly is – he never wears his age on his sleeve.
Fagbenle gives as much as he takes. He praises effusively, rolls with the punches and, damn it, as anyone at the receiving end of his attack might agree, he strikes like a rattlesnake. Love or hate him, you can hardly deny the honesty in his writings.
If age calms rage, I’m still looking for that soothing effect in Fagbenle about two decades after he made that blistering comment about the “incurable madness” of the Babangida/Abacha military regimes.
A collection of his articles in Nigerian newspapers from 2010 to 2016, under the title, “And that’s saying it the way it is,” published to mark his 70th birthday shows that Fagbenle is still as enraged about the state of affairs in the country today as he was many years ago.
The transition from the earlier title of his articles “Damn It!” to “Saying it the way it is”, did not change the force or cutting edge of his message.
Take the article, entitled, “Time to sack the National Assembly,” for example. The article starts with four stanzas of “Crazy baldheads,” by Bob Marley. Likening the legislators to rogues who reap where they have not sown, Fagbenle calls out Representatives and Senators, who were on a combined annual salaries of N136billion – and hold on for this – after former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Professor Itse Sagay had also criticised the legislators’ pay!
“We need to chase them crazy baldheads out of Abuja,” Fagbenle said. “The impunity and recklessness with which our legislators have so far carried on allotting to themselves all sorts of allowances and funds for their so-called constituencies…it is time the people take their own fate into their own hands…and chased the crazy baldheads out of town!”
Well, that article was published nearly seven years ago but it still sounds like a soundtrack for the crazy baldheads in today’s Abuja. Fagbenle, Obasanjo and Sagay – all over 70 now – who crooned about the wasters, are still at the barricades; while the harried public can only guess what the legislators earn moons after they promised to make it public.
Also in this collection, his “Conversations with Mandela”, a purely imaginary encounter, which touched a nerve on the question of Winnie, is so real and so authentic you’ll have to read it more than once to believe it’s a work of fiction. It’s a master class in creative writing and I wonder what Mandela thought, if he ever got to read it.
Fagbenle’s life, like that of most writers, is an open book. In the six years covered by his collection, he wrestled with two major public figures – former President Goodluck Jonathan and President Muhammadu Buhari.
Choosing between the two was not easy for him. Jonathan’s “inept and incompetent” government exasperated him to the point where he asked, in one headline, “How many times would one have to forgive Mr. Jonathan?” Yet, Buhari’s “arrogance” and “narrow-mindedness” rankled him no less.
So deep was Fagbenle’s frustration with the two candidates that he endorsed Pius Adesanmi’s call for Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah to join the presidential race in 2015.
But I’m sure he knew that was wishful thinking. Nigeria is not Rome. His idealism had obviously gotten the better of him, sweeping into distant memory his own political adventure as a candidate of the National Conscience Party in Osun State and the gallant but disastrous aftermath of that odyssey!
Fagbenle has paid his dues and his candour and humanity shine brighter and brighter. If 70 is the new 60, why should he keep his pledge to go backstage and stay backstage. He should make yet another cameo appearance as “Pundit Emeritus.” I swear, just one more…
And why not? That’s saying it the way it is!
Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and board member of the Paris-based Global Editors Network

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