Watching Soyinka III

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To topple the Government in 13 days

Heading into 1964, the old “One Nigeria” was reaching the limits of political settlement—unraveling at the seams. On April 27th I wrote home to my parents, “Nigeria seems to be heading toward trouble. There will be a revolution.”

And I wasn’t only alerting my parents, I was telling the U. S. State Department. John Mahr, the American consul in Ibadan was a good guy and we were friends. He and I had quietly worked together in January organizing the singer Pete Seeger’s under-the-radar tour of Nigeria. (Pete’s U. S. Passport had been returned to him after the American government finally ended decades of embarrassment, having one of its great ambassadors-of-goodwill unable to leave the continental United States because of his progressive political beliefs.)

Anyway, one day in February I marched into John’s office, sat myself down to talk with him about Nigeria, which the State Department was desperately trying to hold together as “Africa’s showcase for democracy”—we never learn. Ten minutes into a frustrating discussion, I pointed to an open newspaper clipping file on his desk. “John, you are circle-ing the same stories I am! You know where things are heading. A damn war. The Igbos have about had it, they don’t feel safe in this Confederation. And the Yorubas, they want out too. We are just making it all worse. The Nigerians need to work this out themselves, without Great Power interference.” John looked at me, “Tom, that’s enough.” The next day, my Peace Corps boss, Murray Frank, told me officially, “not to talk with Mahr again,” that John had told him that Tom Hebert was no longer welcome in his office. A former New York City labor organizer, Murray could have cared less.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, working Nigerians had troubles of their own. The CIA writes in its “World Fact Book”:

“After independence, many workers had begun to feel that the political leadership was making no effort to reduce the inequalities of the colonial wage and benefit structure. Corruption and conspicuous consumption were perceived to be widespread among politicians. An April 1963 pay raise for ministers and members of parliament further fueled labor resentment because rank-and-file civil servants had been doing without raises since 1960.”

With the central Government ignoring huge disparities in wage inequality, the labor unions—of the old school—were returning to their revolutionary British and American roots. But they too had troubles:

“. . . the period from the end of World War II to 1964 was characterized by numerous splits, regroupings, and fragmentation with factionalism rampant, dependence on foreign financial support, the thwarting of labor’s political objectives by nationalist leaders. In 1963 union members numbered only 300,000, or 1.6 percent of the labor force.”

But unfortunately for the Government, there was a strange provision in the Constitution that required that in the event of a national labor strike lasting at least 13 days, the Government was obliged to recognize that a constitutional crisis existed and then resign and call for an election. As the harassment of the labor leaders deepened, they began to organize for a national strike. The CIA:

“The five central labor organizations consequently formed the Joint Action Committee (JAC) to pressure the government to raise wages [which] provided partial impetus for a JAC-mobilized general strike of 800,000 supporters, most of them non-unionists.”

The Government, very worried about labor unrest and growing sympathies for its leaders, knew it needed to resist any conjoining of political and labor strife. Thus the union leaders—mostly Southerners—were being targeted by the police for physical threat and abuse. But they were vulnerable to more than batons. Largely untutored in the intricacies of mass movements, they were more likely to fly to platitudes than action. And only one union leader [name ?] was up to the task of revolution.

Into this gap stepped Wole Soyinka who was then teaching at the University of Ife. He knew that in the combined faculties of the University of Ibadan and the University of Ife there was sufficient consulting talent to backstop the labor leaders: helping with manifestoes, media management, national and international communications, planning and tracking things-to-get done, and simply adding encouragement and moral support to this valid effort to bring down the Government. While Americans, with their dislike of both labor leaders and academics, will find it hard to believe this, Nigeria’s outstanding academic community was a source of pride to the fledgling Nation. Labor thus welcomed the professors, pedants, and pedagogues.

So, Wole’s Strike Action Committee went into action. The goal? Keep the five labor leaders pressed to the 13-day deadline, keep them advancing. The problem? Several were weak men and were known to be vulnerable to bribery. They could be bought off. But if the Strike Action Committee could help the leaders keep a high profile, isolating them from corrupt Government men, then the precariously honest Prime Minister Balewa might, in fact, call for new elections which might mean a redistribution of regional power at the center. Two mights are better than none.

Coincidentally, in May of 1964, I was both nearing the end of my two-year Peace Corps tour and becoming increasingly suspicious of American foreign policy in both Nigeria and Vietnam. In my heart I was moving on. So what the hell did I care what anyone thought?

As noted above, I was Business Manager of the University of Ibadan’s School of Drama. Which meant I could access useful resources. Like an office, telephone, a vehicle, supplies and equipment, and a prized office copy machine, a British Gestetner which was a kind of mimeograph machine based on typing stencils, lots of ink, a roller, and drum which could crank out readable copies by the box-load. If you didn’t mind dirty fingers, it was a publishing miracle. What else could a concerned citizen and diligent Peace Corps Volunteer do but put the Gestetner to the use of the Strike Action Committee? The first product, and the only one I now remember, was a flyer for a really big Strike Support Rally in Ibadan which earned a lot of good press and fed the flames of academic/opinion/labor unity.

On June 15, in the midst of all this, my Peace Corps Service ended and I was free to return to America and was surely encouraged by Peace Corps to do so. I didn’t. I quietly stayed on in Ibadan doing odd scut work—thrashing the Gestetner—for Wole’s Committee and just listening in on strategy meetings. I mean there are limits!

Anyway, as the strike days moved towards the magical Thirteen, fierce pressure on the labor leaders to settle the strike began to mount. We could feel it, we could read it in the papers. Touch and go. Finally, Wole called a team meeting with the JAC. Of course I asked to go and once again Soyinka had to tell me no, as in, “Tom, your machines have been useful, but an American can’t go to a meeting where the goal is to bring down the federal government of Nigeria!” Well, darn, double darn.

The CIA: “Although the strike, which lasted twelve days, demonstrated the government's fragility, the JAC could not translate its victory into permanent political strength; labor unity disintegrated in the face of overtures by political parties to segments of organized labor as the federal elections of December 1964 neared.”

Here the CIA doth trim. There was no JAC victory: On the twelfth day of the strike, the key union leader was finally brought to heel by cold cash and the strike collapsed. But had it gone a day longer, the history of Nigeria and thus Africa itself, would have been different, possibly felicitous. In any case, America’s cherished One Nigeria and the Showcase of Democracy was finally finished. Along with American expectations of anything good for Africa.

Out of the Peace Corps and with Nigeria dead-in-the-water, within in days I bused to Calabar—a favorite haunt of mine on the old Slave Coast—and on July 4th, 1964 I exited Nigeria by old steamer to the Spanish island of Fernando Po, in the “Bloody Bight of Benin, where few come out where many went in.” From there to Paris and the rest of my life. But the me that went into that Bight of Benin was a much different bloke than came out.

And the Soyinka-led effort to lawfully help the trade unionists scuttle the national government of Tafawa Balewa, began the work which led to Wole’s eventual imprisonment and death sentence. And world recognition beyond imagining.

Obatala, Mother of the Gods

Obatala, Mother of the Gods

I was beautiful
Laying out on an orange spread
All morning reading
Intelligently dying
Very clean, slack, and forgiving.
My hosts gone
I began to wander
Padding room to room
In my feet
Stepping over and around
Secrets and laundry.
While the Goddess was
Holding her breasts
With a great comb
In her hair and me alone
With this Goddess I owned.
They said she would hold them
For years until someone took them.
I had not the energy.
I was tired from being heated
To an incandescent
And again,
I was beautiful
Laying out on an orange spread
All morning reading
Intelligently dying
Very clean, slack, and forgiving.
Tom Hebert
June, 1964
Calabar, Nigeria

SRO on Spanish Air

Apparently, Nigeria and I will never be finished. In late October 1978, Wole and I had an odd chance encounter on a Spanish Air Boeing jet on the Lagos tarmac during some political trouble. He had already published in 1972 the magnificent “The Man Died—Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka” and was already being mentioned as a Nobel-level writer.

But first, Hail Biafra! In 1969, then a UNICEF refugee officer working on Biafra food supplies, I was named a “mass murder of children,” and quickly expelled by Portuguese authorities from the island of Sao Tomé on a night arms flight to Lisbon. This was done at the behest of the European church groups who ran the Biafra refugee relief operation. My sins were protesting the racist relief structure we worked in, and then, finally, coming to realize—and saying out loud—that what the Biafrans really needed was not so much food as guns to fight the Nigerians. Oh, boy!

In 1976, again, Nigeria: This time I became a trafficker in students. As a contract employee of the U. S. State Department, for over two years I worked in the Nigerian Mid-Level Manpower Training Program, or the Crash Technical Program as it was known in Nigeria.

Funded by Nigerian oil revenues, our team selected young graduates of secondary technical schools in Nigeria and sent them packing to American community colleges and technical schools for two years of study. These were not university-bound Nigerian students. These were young bush kids who had luckily happened upon some technical education in their home states and were thought to have some hope in life. As the program evolved, I became the lead guy at the Nigerian end of the student pipeline. In this role, during four trips to West Africa between 1976 and 1978, I managed the movement of several hundred students to the U.S: negotiated the training agreements, scheduled the airplanes, cleared the students at the airport, and worked as the principal liaison with the Federal Military Government (FMG) of Nigeria. Great fun and adventure. Reason for my success for which I received official commendation? I wasn’t put off by the chaos of 1970s Nigeria. Unlike most expatriates then, I didn’t hate the place. I remembered the old Nigeria and was able, in my mind, to hold the whole thing together, then and now.

Traveling a circuit of Nigeria state capitals, with the assistance of local education officials, we would pluck some animist kid from some village just south of the Sahara and jam him or her down in a large technical or community college somewhere in America. And they got B averages, including their very first semester of American education! They would also graduate at higher rates, with better scores, than American kids. As always, Nigerians are healthy in the head. (Because of tight immigration controls managed by both the US and Nigerian governments, most students returned to Nigeria at the end of their schooling, although a few escaped into four-year colleges.)

So, in 1978 Wole and I met again on a strange Spanish Air flight from Lagos to Madrid. While I was merely rotating home after another tour for the Crash Program—filling Douglas DC-10 wide-body planes with students, even compiling myself their Nigerian passports—the military holdfasts of power were stirring in the land, looking for new protein. Wole, who had been invited home from exile, was on this Spanish Airways flight shrewdly trying to escape the country while he could.

The plane, with even the long aisle jam-packed with frightened foreigners awaiting some sort of FMG security clearance, sat on the tarmac for several hours. But with my U.S. government passport I was happily reading a book, wondering if the Nigerian Police would ever release the plane for take off. Then, suddenly jostled, I looked up and Wole Soyinka [emphasis added] was actually standing in the aisle next to my seat—like a subway strap-hanger—probably contemplating his prospects if he was yanked from the plane.

Having not met for 15 years, we exchanged vague pleasantries and after the plane touched down in Madrid, Soyinka went on to his eventual Nobel while I, a Quixote, continued my Travels in La Mancha—to this day.

What I just left out was this: As Soyinka and I were talking, my name was loudly called by the cabin attendant; I expected to be bumped off the plane. But no, for some Godly reason I was being upgraded, with champagne and toast, to First Class. Wole Soyinka got my narrow seat.

In a few minutes we were wheels up. Wole had been cleared for take-off.

Looking back, if Wole Soyinka had been one of those eventually ordered by the Police off that plane, would I would have jumped up, offering this man my seat?

Moving along….

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