Chapter 1: Jude
I met Alex at a cocktail party at the British High Commission. One of those the parties where tickets are sold out well in advance and senior Nigerian government officials paid homage to British officials in exchange for horrible food and condescending remarks like:
“Well, I guess we should be happy NEPA provided power for an hour today. Surely, that’s a milestone for your people, isn’t it?”
The Nigerian officials would grin stupidly and bob their heads like excited zombies.
Alex was introduced as a progressive journalist who was “passively campaigning against the government in power” as my British host, Mrs. Chambery, assured me with no small hint of high intrigue. What exactly was a passive campaigner? In any case, despite my reputation as a government news spinner, he smiled warmly when introduced. I had to wonder why he was wearing aviator sunglasses indoors. Later, I would appreciate the cunning brain behind the jovial countenance and dark shades.
“Are you the same Jude Ezeala who turned a small consulting outfit into Abacha’s spin room?”
“I see my reputation precedes me. As does yours, or aren’t you the same Alex Odutaye who specializes in getting the scoop on which government official purchased a mansion or a sports car and other such important news?”
He laughed where others may have taken offence. We struck a fast friendship.
Naturally, our first few meetings were slightly contentious.
Me, trying to paint a rosy image of the regime. Alex, berating me for propping up the government’s propaganda. He tried to obtain insider information on whether General Abacha was planning to shed his uniform and contest the presidential elections as a civilian in ‘98. I stuck to the official line that the good general was going to retire to his family home in Kano and leave Nigeria under a democratically elected government. I could tell from his disbelieving looks he wasn’t buying any of it. Certainly, I was not, either.
Alex was separated from his wife and I was single, so we spent a great deal of time playing tennis or squash at the Ikoyi Club. Having resolved to get more active, I was glad to have a regular partner to play with. Afterwards, we would enjoy suya and chapman, a tasty cocktail made with angostura bitters, orange soft drinks, blackcurrant juice and slices of lemon or cucumber for garnish. We’d watch the women at the bar, pick the best looking one and make bets on which of us could get a date.
Outside of that, we discussed a variety of topics. Pan-Africanism. Reparations for victims of civil war in Africa. And what Alex liked to call the “stifled polygamous nature of the African man,” his absolute favourite topic. I don’t think his wife shared his justifications, which could explain his impending divorce.
From day one, I was convinced that our meeting was not entirely coincidental. It did not take long for Alex to reveal his hand. We were by the swimming pool bar at the Le Meridien Eko Hotel when he decided to come clean.
“You know, Jude, if you want to do something about this despotic government, you’re not alone.”
I stopped in the middle of singing praises of the government’s public relations campaign to eradicate cerebral meningitis. Alex continued blowing cigarette smoke and sipping his 33 Export beer nonchalantly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Oh come on, Jude. You believe that bullshit you’re spitting out as much as I believe that Abacha plans to retire next year. How did you get into this PR business, anyway?”
“This is Nigeria.” I shrugged. “A fellow has to make a living. The gift of gab coupled with a buried conscience.”
“Indeed,” he laughed. “I have heard about your student activism at Legon. How you marched on campus with posters denouncing the governing council. Vitriolic letters written to university administrators demanding tuition freezes. You know, stuff that sounds radical and fancy but means nothing once you graduate and need to find a job.”
“It was a little nobler than that, Alex,” I demurred.
“Be that as it may, I’m talking about real action here. You and I know that the biggest obstacle to Abacha’s selfish ambition is a free press. Coupled with a vocal political opposition, we can ensure that enough pressure is put on Abacha to leave office and allow democracy to flourish in the country.”
I was silent, looking intently at my drink.
He continued with increasing vigour. “The group I’m with is made up of people in our age group. We’re looking to provide a haven of escape for journalists, politicians, pro-democracy activists, basically anyone with principles whose life is in danger at the hands of government agents. Shall I continue or are you about to call State Security and report me?”
“Come on, man,” I retorted, “surely you know me better than that. Besides, you haven’t told me anything about this haven of escape of yours.”
“What’s your gut feel about being involved in this project? It’s certainly anti-government and it flirts with the Abacha government definition of treason.”
My heart was pounding in my chest, and a feeling of inevitability was creeping upon me. It was almost as if the door I had been knocking on was finally opening. I had to be sure of Alex, though.
FriesenPress | 2014 | 978-1-4602-4495-1