Opinion

UNIBEN: And A Poet Bows Out

By Suyi Ayodele

I would have loved to talk about the suspended Governor of the CBN, Godwin Emefiele, today. I changed my mind because something more ennobling than Emefiele and the pantomime of his suspension, ‘arrest’, intended investigation and his sojourn in detention, however, temporarily, happened. Occasionally, we should leave the inanities of Nigerian politics to talk about humanity. That is exactly what I am doing today.

There are people you meet in life and everything about you changes for the better. I can beat my chest and say loud and clear that I have been too privileged to meet such people. From the man who sired me from his loins, my very own father, Baba Fafunmiloni Solomon Ayodele Obajusigbe, to many others I met in my few years on mother earth, I can declare without any form of equivocation that I have come across men and women, who shaped, and are still shaping my life and world outlook, positively. One of such personalities is Professor Anthony Esijolomi Afejuku of the Department of English and Literature, University of Benin (UNIBEN). Afejuku, who turned 70 years on Sunday, June 4, 2023, officially bowed out of UNIBEN on Monday, June 5, as a teacher of teachers, lecturer of lecturers and professor of professors. He mended minds, restructured brains, planted intellectual seeds, and nurtured them in the lives of people in that university for a period of 43 years! He joined the Department in 1980, but he started his teaching career at Ahmadu Bello University, (ABU), Zaria, in 1977. Cumulatively, Afejuku has nurtured minds for a period of 46 solid years!

A warning here before I proceed. If you are not rigid and straight forward, don’t go looking for Afejuku. You will not like the man afterwards. And he doesn’t care about how many people love or hate him. Ask his SABU (Special Afejuku Brought Up) and ABU (Afejuku Brought Up) ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ in the Department about this warning and they will tell you tales about how the ramrod Itsekiri fertile mind can be friendly, jovial, and affable just now, and in the next second is on your matter like he never knew you from Adam! One thing rules his relationship with those who come across him, or he comes across (who is even doing the crossing), and you would be fine with the man a friend of ours, Taiwo Adisa and I nicknamed “Itsekiri warlord”, after our first encounter with him. Just be steadfast in your dealings. Afejuku asks for nothing more!

A man’s name tells you more about his character. At birth, his parents named him Esijolomi. The Itsekiri interpretation of the name is: “My God shall see me through all difficulties or obstacles and make me triumphant”. The Igbo equivalent reads like “My Chi (God), protects”. You need to sit down with Professor Afejuku to listen to the tales of all the battles he has fought so far in life and how God has been his refuge in all cases. Needless to say, here he also looks for some of those battles deliberately or, at times, inadvertently. He said so himself on Sunday at a function, where he asserted that during his studentship days, “I fought all my teachers, though, intellectually”. He has looked for my ‘trouble’ and of my ‘friends’, who are also his ‘friends’ a couple of times.

At his baptismal as a Catholic, Afejuku was given the name Anthony. I guessed, and correctly too, that that was after the Shakespearean noble character of Mark Anthony, who delivered the legendary ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen Speech’ at the funeral of Julius Caesar. Talk about a man who uses words to change the tides of time, talk of Mark Anthony. For students of Elizabethan Literature, that speech remains a classical example of using the power of oratory to say what is not said to achieve a desired purpose. But beyond the power of oratory, Mark Anthony comes across as a friend who never betrays his friends, even when faced with the most hostile audience. Not only does Mark Anthony call Brutus and his gang of killers by their true names without saying so, but the Roman soldier also presented Julius Caesar as he was; a man sinned against than sinning and who harboured no ambition for which the conspirators killed him. In essence, Mark Anthony stood to defend his friend at his funeral, and he did so without any fear for his own personal safety. I have seen Tony Afejuku in that mould several times and on each occasion, I always conclude that the Reverend Father who baptised him Anthony was simply futuristic!

By appellation Professor Afejuku picks his Waffi (Warri/Sapele) street lingo to depict who he is. Friends and foes alike call him ‘No Paddy for Jungle’. In a simple language, what this multisyllabic phrase means is: ‘there is no friendship in the jungle’. In one of our interactions, I asked him how he came about the appellation. He explained to me, and I will paraphrase what he said here. Afejuku said that it is not true that he does not have friends. The only issue is that only those who can stand by the truth and do the right thing always are his permanent friends. Once an associate, friend and acquaintance veers off the path of honour, decency, and truth, he drops such a fellow like a hot ember! I can also attest to the fact that Professor Afejuku has so many paddies in this jungle called world. They are those who stand by the truth, do the truthful and, again, remain steadfast with the truth. If you were his student, may the good Lord help you if you are not the diligent type. Then the import on “No Paddy for Jungle” will come home to you, live and direct!

How did I come in contact with this enigma of a brilliant mind? It happened in 2001. I was the state correspondent for the Nigerian Tribune in Edo State. A fight broke out in Warri, Delta State, between the Izon (Ijaw) and the Itsekiri. Taiwo Adisa was The Punch Newspapers’ correspondent. Though Warri was not our beat, we decided that we should contribute to the debates on the happenings in the oil-rich city. We decided we should speak to leaders from the two camps, and Adisa suggested we should look out for Afejuku. This is how he described the man: “Okunrin onijogbon kan wa ni UNIBEN, je ka wa lo” (There is one troublesome man in UNIBEN, let us go and look for him). We got to the university and located Afejuku in his office. After the exchange of pleasantries, we introduced our mission. He laughed. He told us that there was no crisis in Warri yet. “What is happening in Warri right now is not a crisis. The mother of all fights that will stop all fighting in Warri will soon happen unless the government acts. When that is about to happen, I will call you and then I will grant you an interview,” he told us. We discussed other issues, which we adequately reported in our papers and kept our fingers crossed on the Warri crisis.

About two months later, a call came from Afejuku. He asked that the two of us should come over. We got to the university, and he granted us the interview. His closing lines were like, ‘mark my words; after this fight, nobody will ever fight in Warri again’. Three days later, another round of fighting broke out in the city. The two ethnic groups visited unimaginable calamities on each other. Properties in their billions were destroyed. Lives were lost. Human beings were maimed, and then peace was restored. Needless to say, that ever since, nobody has ever recorded any crisis between Izon and Itsekiri in that region. There was a balance of terror, and it has become, ever since, what my people call: “ki tanganra jina si okuta, ki okuta na jina si tanganran” (Let the glassware be wary of the stone and let the stone also be wary of the glassware). The poet is a prophet. Afejuku is a poet!

I have maintained my contact with Afejuku ever since. It has been mutually beneficial. I recall here again, another incident when, after I left the employ of the Nigerian Tribune for a corporate assignment, two senior editorial staff of the oldest newspaper, Dr Omotayo Lewis and Wole Efunnuga, came to Benin to interview a personality. Unfortunately for the duo, something else took their target out of Benin City, unexpectedly. Determined not to go back to Ibadan without content, Dr Lewis contacted me and asked if I could suggest a high networth individual they could interview. I asked for the focus and when she mentioned it, the only man I knew could address such a national issue was Afejuku. I, however, warned Lewis and Efunnuga that the man I would be introducing to them “is an onijogbon o”, such that he would not take it lightly if his words, thoughts, and ideas after the interview were edited. We agreed in principle, and I put a call across to Afejuku. The late evening interview took place in the open field of the Senior Staff Club. It was comprehensively published, and everyone was happy. Weeks later, a call came from Dr Lewis asking if I could get Afejuku to write a column for the Nigerian Tribune. I discussed it with him, and he agreed and that was how he started writing one of the most acerbic columns, “In & Out” for the paper. How and why did he drop the column? Just check for the meaning of ‘No Paddy for Jungle’; I say no more on that.

To underscore that indeed, No-Paddy-for-Jungle has many paddies, his friends, under the aegis of Friends of Afejuku (FAJ), came together on Sunday, June 11, 2023, and organised a retirement reception for him. The beauty of the programme lies in the fact that while majority of the organisers were from the UNIBEN Department of English Language and Literature, many who were never students at the university joined in making Afejuku’s retirement a memorable one. Tony Osauzor of The Sun newspapers, Adibe Emeyonu (ThisDay) and Michael Egbejule (Guardian) were present to honour a man who is more than a friend. With Dr. Abigail Eruaga as the coordinator, the event which was held at the Banquet Hall of the university was an evening of tributes for the man, who in life has moulded human beings. I was moved by the testimonies of lecturers (who themselves are professors), declaring that Afejuku brought them to the Department as lecturers. That is what humanity is all about; live and let others live. Nothing more to life than that! The Tribune family was adequately represented at the event. Lasisi Olagunju, Omotayo Lewis, Biodun Awolaja, and yours sincerely were fully involved in sending the erudite scholar to a well-deserved retirement.

Professor Felix Ogoanah, who gave the opening remarks, told the story of how his Ph.D. supervisor forgot to inform him that the Department was recruiting, and he got to know after the interview had been concluded. Ogoanah said he ran to Afejuku for help and the Itsekiri essayist assured him that he would help. When the opportunity came, Ogoanah narrated that Afejuku personally called him and penned one of the most wonderful recommendations ever, to the Vice Chancellor of the university. Dr Eruaga, an associate professor also told her story of “Abigail, where are you?” call from Afejuku which eventually fetched her the teaching job at the Department. The Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Professor Ledzemo Constantine Yuka, a Cameroonian, told the assemblage of how years back, he walked pass, inadvertently, the no-nonsense Afejuku without exchanging compliments, and how the professor “ran after me, pulled me from the back, and told me that he is a senior person in the Faculty that I cannot walk pass without greeting him. I have since then learnt to always greet him.”

Another of his students, a poet too, Professor Kola Eke, put up a collection of poems titled: “1914 And Other Poems”, to commemorate Afejuku’s retirement. One of the poems in the collection is “Tony Afejuku”, which was read at the event by Dr Edafe Mukoro”. In the poem, the retired university don is described as “A radar detector of linguistic infelicities. A chopper that goes round rudiments of language”, whose “Scud missiles move quickly…dropping bombs of Criticism…” Those and many more were the testimonies of those who were once Afejuku’s students or colleagues at the university.

But two other testimonies are of great value to me here. They came from two members of the ‘Tribune Family’, who could not attend the event physically, and who were never students of Afejuku. The duo sent their comments to the WhatsApp platform created for the retirement reception. First is Dr Omotayo Lewis, who had this to say: “Even though I had no physical experience or certification bearing UNIBEN, Afej read and marked EVERY PAGE on my thesis even though I worked on Salman Rushdie.” Here is how Lasisi Olagunju describes Afejuku: “I have not met Prof Afejuku in person, but we’ve been friends since 2011. He calls me Dr. LAS. He is a mentor to me and a critic at the same time. I also found him to be a generous person. He once read my column abroad, saw a quote in it and bought the book for me. “I know you’ll need it,” he told me. That gesture is difficult to forget. I look forward to meeting him in person one day to say thank you the proper Oyo-Yoruba way. I wish Prof a very happy, healthy life in retirement.” I ask this: Is Afejuku indeed a No Paddy for Jungle?

I can write a whole book on Afejuku, his philosophies, his ideas, and ideals and what gives him joy and what irritates him. This piece will be part of my future engagement, God willing. He is a man that is ‘difficult’ to understand and at the same time easy to persuade. We debated the issue of his inaugural lecture several times. He told me he would not do it. l almost gave up. Then one day, he called. “Suyi, get me ‘My Odyssey’ by Nnamdi Azikiwe,” he said. What would he be needing it for, I asked. “I have decided to write my inaugural lecture”, he responded. “Hurray! What is the topic, Prof,” I asked. “You will know when you will know”, he answered, and I probed no further. On June 10, 2021, Afejuku delivered the UNIBEN 245th Inaugural Lecture titled: “The Autobiography of Nigeria”. That lecture and the earlier one, a Convocation Lecture, titled: “Anticipating The Birth-Day Boy: Options And Possibilities For A Besieged Nation At Sixty”, delivered at the Federal University of Oye-Ekiti (FUOYE), on Thursday, August 29, 2019, are two of Afejuku’s collections you cannot find in my library shelves. They are securely secured in a box, with a combination key code only known to me. I don’t want stories that touch the heart!

Professor Afejuku is a man of many parts. He is a teacher of teachers. He is a poet. His passion for Literary Criticism, a branch of the English Language is legendary. He is equally an essayist, a consummate polemicist, and a columnist of no mean repute. His pen can be friendly and at the same time poisonous. He can be acerbic, but very constructive. I am far too young to say Professor Afejuku can also be stubborn! I won’t say that. All I am allowed by tradition to say to a 70-year-old man is that Afejuku is tenaciously tenacious. Don’t mind the line; I couldn’t have known the poet for over two decades without being poetic myself.

On June 5, 2023, Professor Anthony Esijolomi Afejuku, bowed out of UNIBEN, where he taught Literature in English for over four decades. The royal blood, the great-grandson of Prince Numa of Uwala lineage of Warri Kingdom, has played his parts in shaping and reshaping humanity. It is an assignment he has done creditably well. He deserves the retirement, though I know his types don’t retire easily. What Afejuku owes the whole world now is to continue to affect humanity in the most positive ways anyone can imagine. He cannot do otherwise, though. As the “Itsekiri Warlord” retires to tend other assignments, I know that he will be greatly missed by the Department, UNIBEN, the academia generally, and those of us who draw from his milk of literacy. Our consolation is that we have a man who stands by what he believes in, no matter the circumstances. Prof, I know the way to your house, and I look forward to more engaging debates that Mama, your wife, Mummy Alero Augusta (imagine the combo) will always leave us to have. By the way, you still owe me what you called “the original Itsekiri popo gaari and edible worms”. When will you deliver them the Afejuku way? Happy retirement, Big Brother!

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Tuesday, June 13, 2023)

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