Flashback/Oputa Panel: Day I confronted Wole Soyinka

Flashback/Oputa Panel: Day I confronted Wole Soyinka

Thursday, February 4, 2021 8:54 pm


Ikonne and Soyinka

 

By Ken Ikonne

One odd evening in July, 2001, my boss and learned Senior colleague in chambers, Amobi Nzelu Esq, did to me what I considered the greatest injustice on earth. He suddenly summoned me to his office on the intercom, and handed me a bulky file. To my utter astonishment, he then thundered: “Ikonne, tomorrow morning, at 9 am, you will go to Oputa Panel. You will cross examine Wole Soyinka, on a petition he filed at the Panel against Doctor Walter Ofonagoro, former Information Minister. Study the file well and good luck.” “But Sir, which Soyinka are you talking about?”, I inquired in meek protest! “Are there two Soyinkas?”, my boss fired back, and left the office for the day. I stood there in his office, momentarily transfixed, and frozen with utter dread. Professor Wole Soyinka was, and still is, the greatest literary figure to have come out of Africa, a Nobel Laureate in Literature, and a brilliant internationalist.

Less than two years earlier, I had left Lagos at the behest of my father, to undergo legal tutelage in Abuja, after a few years of trying my hands at private business. Chief Nzelu had mercifully taken me in at his flourishing Abuja law firm, and I had earnestly and zealously begun to learn the ropes, drafting processes, moving motions and watching trials, but I had never conducted a cross – examination.

But now, not only was I to conduct a cross examination, but the witness to be cross examined was a living legend, and one of the most colossal literary figures of the modern world. To make matters worse, the cross examination was to be conducted on prime time television – and before the legendary Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, Nigeria’s most accomplished jurist, a sage whose knowledge of both the law and literature was encyclopaedic.

I made up my mind at that instant to drop that file there, resign immediately and flee from impending disgrace and disaster. Forlorn and sorely distressed, I walked back to my own office and confided in my younger colleague, Nomnso Egwuagu, of both my grave predicament and my plans to avert it. Nomnso surprisingly responded with a broad smile and said, in what must rank as one of the greatest affirmations of faith in another man’s abilities: “Ken, this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and I know you can pull it off. I will go with you to that Panel tomorrow and watch you seize the moment and show everyone what you can do.” He then looked into my eyes, smiled again and called me by that name which only he calls me: “The Old World Guyman.” Thus bolstered, I left for home, filled with a strange determination and zest to confront the Literary Principality in less than 14 hours from then.

That very night, I didn’t sleep. I had met the legendary Professor once at Ife when he came to deliver a lecture on IDIOLECTS, and I had read several of his works, and had avidly followed his life both as a fearless advocate for freedom, and an incomparable champion of human rights. In fact, Soyinka was, in my eyes, a hero and a transcendental source of inspiration.

I went through his petition. His major complaint was that during his years in exile under the Abacha regime, most of which he spent as an Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the Emory University in Atlanta, United States, the Abacha regime had launched an injurious campaign against him. That campaign, according to him, was to discredit and malign him before the President of Emory University, and the entire University community. According to Professor Soyinka, the Abacha Government had sent several defamatory letters about him to the President of the University, and had similarly circulated same in the international press. But none of these letters was attached to the petition.

Despite my relative courtroom inexperience, I had spent the last one year and six months since I joined the law firm reading and researching voraciously, dedicating at least four hours daily to devouring a wide range of subjects, mostly on law. That effort was now about to pay off! The object of cross examination in law is traditionally to discredit the witness and demolish the case of the opposing party. But bearing in mind that the witness in this instance was an incredible intellectual pyrotechnic and that the theatre of the exercise was prime – time national television, I decided to divine a further objective: literary entertainment!

By the morning of D – day, I was fully prepared, and Nomnso had also arrived my residence very early, and dressed for court. Together, we drove to the National Women’s Centre, the venue of the Panel’s sittings. We took our seats on the third row of the vast amphitheatre, having arrived quite early. Thirty minutes later, Doctor Walter Offonagoro, our client, arrived with his very delectable Indian – Canadian wife. We went out to meet him, and exchanged greetings. “Where is your boss, Amobi Nzelu?”, he inquired. “He is not coming, Sir,” I responded. “Who then will interrogate Professor Soyinka? You?”, he exploded in utter indignation.

Doctor Offonagoro then reached for his mobile phone, the one in use at the time known colloquially as Nokia 090, and began to dial Amobi Nzelu frantically. But my boss, probably anticipating Offonagoro’s reaction, had switched off his own phone.

Then once again, Doctor Offonagoro, now totally consumed with rage, turned his fiery attention to me. He sized me up from head to toe, and thundered: “Do you know the man they’ve sent you here to interrogate? And you agreed and came here? Otolo gbagbu kwegi there. C’mon give me the bloody file. I will conduct my case myself.”

Thoroughly shaken, I was almost handing over the case file to him when his very affable wife intervened, calmed Doctor Offonagoro down, and warmly apologised to both me and Nomnso. “Darling, give the young men a chance. Their boss must have seen something in them before giving them this all important task.” A strange calm suddenly came upon Doctor Offonagoro. He smiled at me, held my hand, and apologised profusely. “Do your best, young man,” he said, and followed both Nomnso and I into the vast auditorium.

Walking behind us in dainty steps, accompanied by several aides and devotees, and flocked by a galaxy of press photographers and papparazi, was the legendary figure of the white – haired god of literature, Professor Wole Soyinka.

By the time Professor Soyinka and his entourage entered the auditorium, it was filled up with petitioners, lawyers, journalists and spectators. His arrival drew instant applause from the distinguished audience. He quickly took his seat, looking extremely ruddy, and exuding infectious bonhomie. He waved at Doctor Offonagoro and wife, both of whom waved back.

Soon afterwards, Professor Soyinka’s legal team walked in, led by the rugged old warhorse, Chief Ayanlaja, SAN. He walked over to Professor Soyinka, discussed briefly with him, and took his seat in the very front row of the auditorium. Soon, television cameras arrived, and were quickly set up. I threw a furtive glance backwards to where Doctor Offonagoro sat and caught him looking at me with pity.

At exactly 15 minutes past nine, the Secretary of the Tribunal indicated that the Panel was about to enter the auditorium, with the traditional bang and shout of “courrrrrt”. The packed audience reverently rose to its feet, and the Panel, consisting of Justice Oputa, retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Bishop Matthew Kukah, Mrs Pam, and another gentleman who was later to become deputy governor, and governor of Adamawa State, came in and took their seats.

Chief Ayanlaja, being the most Senior of the Senior Advocates present, indicated his interest, and our petition was then called by the Secretary out of turn. Chief Ayanlaja stood up and indicated to Professor Soyinka to proceed to the witness box. He then announced appearance for the professor, introducing a phalanx of distinguished advocates. The Tribunal Counsel, a lady, also announced appearance. I then rose to my feet, took the microphone, took a deep breath, and introduced myself and Nomnso Egwuagu , as appearing for Walter Offonagoro. I spoke slowly, but in a modulated tone.

Chief Ayanlaja then made a brief introductory speech, and then began to lead Professor Soyinka in evidence. He began by asking the Professor his name, address and what he did for a living. He then made Soyinka speak briefly to the petition, before finally tendering the petition in evidence. As Soyinka spoke, Nomnso was taking notes. Chief Ayanlaja then cast what appeared to be a derisory glance at me, before announcing to the Tribunal: “My Lords, that is all for the witness. I now tender him for cross – examination.”

The microphone was brought to my direction, and I rose to receive it. I cleared my throat, standing, and looking the legendary witness straight in the eyes. At that moment, a wolf had begun to rise in my heart, and all my fears had dissolved, and were now replaced by a resolve to rise and conquer. Anyone who has been a public speaker, either as a student debater, an advocate or preacher, would be familiar with that inscrutable gush of adrenaline which a large audience inspires, banishing all fears and stutters. The speaker then rises to the occasion, or mars it, depending on how skillfully he adapts to it. To successfully seize the moment, the speaker must begin slowly, in modulated tones, and at all times maintaining eye contact with his quarry, voice – pitch rising gradually to a flourish, then descending and rising again, with deliberate pauses for effect, as the need arises. I bore all these secrets in mind, as I confronted this most formidable of witnesses.

“Professor Soyinka”, I began, ” when in 1987, the French Ambassador to Nigeria at the time, Jean Christophe – Mitterrand, son of former French President Mitterrand, decided to confer upon you with the insignia of the Legion d’honour, France’s highest national honour, he said, and I quote: ‘a speech is expected of me, but I would much prefer to remain silent, and hand over to you the insignia of this new honour. For how do I dare raise my voice, even in praise, against this master of the language? How do I raise my voice against that booming overpowering voice which has sounded with resonance all over the world?”

I then paused, shifted my glance towards Justice Oputa, saw both encouragement and a distinct smile on his sage – like face, and resumed: “But, Professor, today, unlike the French Ambassador, I must raise my voice.” The urbane Professor regarded me with palpable incredulity, shifted his gaze to Justice Oputa who maintained a poker face. Soyinka then returned the gaze to me, and allowed a benign smile, revealing well shaped professorial teeth.

I resumed: “Professor, at the time you were receiving the insignia of the Legion d’honour from the French Ambassador, Camerounian gendarmes, with the active support of France, were over – running Nigeria’s Bakassi Peninsula. Why, Professor, did you not decline this award?” At that point, an enraged Chief Ayanlaja SAN, sprang to his feet, shouting “objection, my Lords, objection.”

But Justice Oputa quickly overruled the objection, holding that since it was a fact – finding proceeding, the witness was bound to answer the question.” At that point, I cast a quick glance at our client, Dr Offonagoro, who responded with a thumbs – up sign. My colleague, Nomnso, still sitting, clutched my lower right leg in glee, silently muttering, “Old World Guyman, Old World Gee.”

Justice Oputa then spoke directly to the distinguished witness, and asked him to answer the question. The Professor responded that the award was in recognition of literary accomplishments, and his tremendous service to humanity.

I then followed up by reminding him that the petition served on Doctor Offonagoro did not contain a copy of any of the letters allegedly sent to Emory University in disparagement of his reputation. He agreed and said that it must have been the fault of his lawyers. I looked across to Chief Ayanlaja and noticed some sweat on his brow. He was desperately foraging for the letters in a massive file, succeeding in finding only one. He then sought the leave of the Panel to tender it from across the bar to which I vehemently objected, on the ground that he had closed the Professor’s case, and that the belated tendering was a veritable ambush, calculated to take me by surprise. After a few heated exchanges between me and the Chief, Justice Oputa overruled my objection, holding that since the proceeding was for fact – finding, the Tribunal was minded to admit it in evidence. He ruled that to avoid surprises, the newly admitted document be given to me for perusal, and that if I needed time to study it, the Tribunal would adjourn and give me time, in the interest of justice.

However, I quickly read the document, and finding that it was neither authored by Doctor Offonagoro nor by any officer of the Federal Ministry of Information which Offonagoro had headed in the Abacha regime, I quickly indicated to Justice Oputa that we were prepared to continue, and that we did not need an adjournment. As a matter of fact, the letter in question had been authored by a certain Chief Opadokun, who held no office during the Abacha interregnum. Meanwhile, Chief Ayanlaja was nudging me to seek for adjournment to enable me study the letter properly, promising not to oppose my application. But I sensed what the wily Chief was up to. He had forgotten the really damning letters back in his office in Lagos, and was only bidding for time to produce and tender them at the next adjourned date.

Justice Oputa indicated that I continue the cross – examination. I motioned to the Secretary of the Tribunal to give to Professor the just admitted exhibit. “Professor”, I resumed, “take a proper look at the exhibit you are holding, and kindly show the Panel Doctor Offonagoro’s name on the letter”. The Professor took one perfunctory look at the exhibit and responded in that booming voice of his: “Offonagoro’s name is not there”. “Who then signed the letter”, I pressed further. “Chief Opadokun”, he responded. “Would you know, Professor, whether Chief Opadokun held any position in the Abacha regime?” “To the best of my knowledge, he held none, but we all knew the face behind the mask”, he quipped.

I continued: “Professor, did you ever know a man by the name, Christopher Okigbo?” The Professor said he knew him, and that Christopher Okigbo of blessed memory was his bosom friend and colleague at the University of Ibadan. “Sir, just like you, the late Christopher Okigbo was a precocious writer, and a quintessential poet.” He agreed. He then asked me whether I had read any of Okigbo’s works, to which I reminded him very courteously that I was the one to ask the questions – not him.

“Do you also know the great Kenyan writer, Professor Ali Mazrui?”, I asked further. Professor Soyinka then reminded me that Mazrui was principally a political scientist. But I shot back and put it to him that Mazrui had also done some notable work in Literature, to which he conceded. “In fact, sir, one of those works is the TRIAL OF CHRISTOPHER OKIGBO, who died fighting in the Biafran war. Am I correct, Sir?” Soyinka agreed. “In that book, Sir, the angels gathered in heaven to try Christopher Okigbo, and found him guilty of fighting for a cause not worthy of poem.” I could see both Justice Oputa and Bishop Kukah both roiling in their seats, beaming with smiles.

On Professor Soyinka’s face however was a quizzical look, as I pressed ahead. “Professor, I am sure you know Doctor Walter Offonagoro very well?”. He said he knew him, and threw a jibe: “I have known him right from his days of Verdict 83”, a subtle reference to the days when it was Offonagoro’s infamous role to announce the results on NTA of the massively rigged elections of 1983.

“That is not the point, Sir,” I countered. “What then is the point?”, the now slightly enraged professor thundered. “The point, Sir, is that just like both you and Christopher Okigbo, Doctor Offonagoro is an accomplished man of letters. The last time you had a literary fallout with your friend Chinweizu, both of you resolved it by treating the world to a literary feast, exchanging to our eternal gratitude, a staccato of literary gunfire.” The literary sage responded with a huge smile, waved a friendly finger at me, regarding me with great pleasantness, and looked in the direction of Justice Oputa, who, together with Bishop Kukah and the other members of the Panel were now rocking on their seats, guffawing.

What I said next drew the ire of the distinguished Professor who yanked his reading glasses off his face, eyes blazing. “I put it to you, Sir, that by not adopting the literary solution in whatever Doctor Offonagoro may have done to you, you, like your friend Christopher Okigbo, are also guilty of fighting a cause not worthy of poem!”

There was pin – drop silence as a visibly enraged Professor Soyinka began to answer the question. “Look here, young man! Walter Offonagoro is a historian, and I doubt that he is a man of literature. Do you expect me to start bandying words with him on the pages of newspapers, instead of dragging him before a municipal tribunal established to redress human rights abuses? The regime which he served was a monster, and Nigerians expect a divulgence of the misdeeds of that infamous era. If you expect me to bandy words with Offonagoro, you are going to wait forever”.

The time keeper was indicating to me that my time was up, but Justice Oputa said I should continue if I wasn’t through. I applied to be given a copy of the Professor’s petition, and it was handed to me. I took a quick look at paragraph 3 where Soyinka had alleged that the defamatory letters were also circulated to “the Nigerian Embassy at the United Nations.” I applied that the letter be given to the witness. I then drew his attention to paragraph 3, and asked him to kindly read it out. He did. “I put it to you, Prof,” I probed, “that a county’s representation at the United Nations is known in diplomatic lexicon as a “Permanent Mission”, and never as “an Embassy.” He agreed. I then continued:
“I further put it to you, Professor, that by employing the terms interchangeably, you have done tremendous violence to both diplomatese and the technology of grammar.” The flustered literary giant looked at me, and looked at the paper again, amid pin – drop silence. Then he looked at me again and answered in that rich baritone voice of his: “Young man, I accept the correction in the educative spirit in which you have offered it.” The audience erupted in thunderous applause, to which the bench also joined.

When the applause subsided, I sought leave of the Panel to conclude: “My Lords, I will not conclude this cross examination without paying tribute to Professor Wole Soyinka, a man I admire most fervently – Nobel Laureate, essayist and pamphleteer, foremost dramatist, erstwhile commander of the Federal Road Safety Commission, the defender of human rights, the conscious citizen of a growing new nation, heir to the great Yoruba tradition, the Akogun of Isara, the hunter, the wine lover. The many facets of your polyvalent personality have astounded many of your contemporaries, even, I am told, to the point of exasperation! But who has not fallen to your binding spell? Sir, I am no exception.” Amid thunderous applause, the now beaming deity of literature bowed as I reeled out each of his many facets.

As we exited the raucous hall, a still beaming Professor Soyinka approached me and gave me a massive hug – a hug to savour for a lifetime.

-Ikonne is lawyer and public affairs analyst

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