Both men’s lineages have Egbaland in common; Olusegun Obasanjo by paternal and Oluwole Soyinka by maternal lines. They both grew up in and around Abeokuta; Soyinka attended the Anglican-run Abeokuta Grammar School in the mid-1940s (before moving on to Government College, Ibadan), while Obasanjo attended the Baptist Boys High School in the early 1950s (by then Soyinka was at the University in Ibadan).
We know that their paths crossed again in August 1967. By their accounts, both men met one evening in Ibadan, at Soyinka’s request. What exactly they discussed has been disputed by both sides; what is not in doubt is that whatever it was it ended up playing a part in ensuring Soyinka’s 22-month solitary confinement by Gen. Yakubu Gowon during the Civil War.
A quarter of a century later, Soyinka may have had a chance to pay Obasanjo back; as one of the loudest voices amid a group of Nigerian activists who fought hard to undermine Obasanjo’s chances of a serious consideration for the United Nations Secretary Generalship, citing concerns about his human rights record as military head of state.
A few years down the line, fate somewhat united them in opposition against the Sani Abacha regime. One man fled abroad, from where he waged battle against the dictator; the other one stayed behind to endure Abacha’s gulag, only just managing to get out alive.
Soyinka would end up being as harsh a critic of the second Obasanjo government, as he was the Abacha junta. In July 2003, Soyinka issued a statement in which he accused the ruling party of harbouring “a nest of murderers”, and the Obasanjo government of working to cover up the persons who killed Bola Ige. Obasanjo replied shortly after with his own letter. Soyinka’s opposition to the Obasanjo government reached its apogee in the decision to spearhead the Pro-National Conference Organisation (PRONACO) as an alternative to Obasanjo’s Sovereign National Conference.
Following yet another tongue-lashing of the President by Soyinka, in January 2006, Femi Fani-Kayode famously responded on behalf of the President, protesting that “it is always very difficult to reason, debate or have any form of meaningful discussion or dialogue with any person that does not believe in God.”
You see, somewhere along the line, after his staunch Anglican childhood, Soyinka dispensed with the idea of a Christian God, and, in his own words, “gravitated towards a deeper knowledge of the orisha, which represents the Yoruba pantheon, very similar in many ways to the Greek pantheon.” He says he found that spiritual outlook “more honest than a kind of unicellular deity of either Christianity or Islam.”
Obasanjo on the other hand never fully left the centripetal force-field of his Baptist beginnings, even when he jettisoned its monogamistic obligations; even when he championed, in the 1980s, the use of “juju” to dislodge the apartheid system in South Africa. (It may be argued that he strayed for some time, but his 1995-1998 spell in prison marked a spiritual turning point of sorts. Since then he has published at least three Christian treatises: “Guides To Effective Prayer” (1998), “This Animal Called Man” (1998), and “Women of Virtue: Stories of Outstanding Women in the Bible”).
Now, the guns are out and blazing again. Two of Yorubaland’s – and Africa’s – most respected sons, have been feverishly loading and firing and re-loading their guns. Obasanjo, in his latest book – a three-volume set of memoirs published late in 2014 – dismissed Soyinka as being “surely a better wine connoisseur and a more successful aparo (guinea fowl) hunter than a political critic.” Ouch. In an interview that followed the publication, Obasanjo made it clear that he meant every word. “Wole Soyinka is a gifted man. I have always acknowledged that but he is a bad politician and I have also always said that; and that is my own point of view,” he said. “If I want somebody to give me the best wine, one of the people I will go to is Wole Soyinka and I know he has a taste for good wine and I said that in the book.”
Now, Soyinka has decided that it will take more than an ordinary statement to tackle the thorny matter of Olusegun Obasanjo. He has written a book that he describes as “the nastiest” he’s ever penned. With “Between Defective Memory and Public Lie, a Personal Odyssey in the Republic of Liars”, he intends to “draw blood.” The book is meant to be a broadside against “lies” and “liars”, but it might as well have been titled, ”A Personal Odyssey in The Demolition of Obasanjo.”
Both men are obsessed, not just with starring in the most compelling dramas of their time, but in writing and editing the post-script. (Each one has written multiple volumes of memoirs, which others have hotly disputed). These men will no doubt carry the fight to their graves. (Obasanjo has already promised to heartily welcome Soyinka to heaven in case Obasanjo dies first. And then he quickly threw in a Fanikayesque caveat about hoping Soyinka actually makes it to heaven).
Nigerians are eagerly watching. Some people are wondering what the whole point is, why are these statesmen choosing to turn their twilight years into something reminiscent of playground fighting. I see things differently. Let them fight, I say. I love it – and we all should too – when big men fight. Spectators like you and me can find in those battles compelling distractions in a country where one’s sanity is being perpetually tested by the standard bleakness of daily life. That’s apart from all the juicy revelations that emerge, that help us better understand the times in which we live.
Therefore, I’d like to see the sparring continue – with a generous leavening of wit and innuendo and satire and all those other “tropes” that have tormented countless generations of English Literature students. American President Woodrow Wilson, who once described Chester Arthur, one of his predecessors as “a nonentity with side-whiskers” was himself summed up by Theodore Roosevelt, another predecessor, as “a byzantine logothete” and “a dexterous thimble-rigger.” I’d like to argue that we need more verbal colour in our public squabbling; the sort of ear-catching, rib-tingling inventiveness that helped the S.L. Akintolas and Ozumba Mbadiwes stand out in their time.
In flights of fancy, I wonder if perhaps the origins of the lifelong Obasanjo-Soyinka sparring may not be found in some Queen’s College damsel with whom both men – then boys, of course – were once smitten. I even have a name for her, “Amope Eleyinjuege.” In my imagination, she’s still alive, now 77 years old, grey-haired, elegant, and retired; tending to her potted plants on a balcony somewhere on Lagos Island. She gets a copy of The PUNCH every day, and a mischievous smile plays on her lips every time she reads yet another Soyinka-Obasanjo headline. If only the world really knew. She remembers Wole, lanky, guitar-playing, poem-reciting, mischief-loving; and Segun, barefooted, chubby, volatile; the determination etched on his hungry-looking face a guarantee of the greatness lying in wait for him. Amope, please, step forward and make them stop fighting, she teases herself, laughing every time.
In my less realistic moments, I imagine an actual brawl. Obasanjo and Soyinka in a ring. The winophiliac Soyinka, gloved-up and helmeted (if the organisers can manage to find a helmet large enough to contain the hair), wearing LVMH-branded shorts; the teetotal Obasanjo, bare-fisted and helmet-less, robed in Bible-Society-of Nigeria-branded raiment. May the best man win, in this life, or the one to come.
Tolu Ogunlesi is an award-winning journalist, follow him on Twitter: @toluogunlesi