Review of Olu Ojedokun’s ‘I Found My Voice’

At a time when the act of reading books as a recreative pursuit is increasingly becoming a dying art amongst the Nigerian public, a much regrettable occurrence, which is matched and exacerbated in its worrisomeness by the fact that the act of writing books too, is fast becoming a diminishing art amongst Nigerians. So it is against this discouraging background that this literary offering ‘I Found My Voice’ by Dr Olu Ojedokun is a welcome addition to the lean corpus of books authored by Nigerians in recent times.

‘I Found My Voice’ portrays as well as paints a portrait of a complex protagonist who at different times is passionate, provocative, pro-active, precocious, presumptuous, paranoid, pensive, pedantic, persuasive, punctilious, puritanical, plucky, pugnacious, persistent, principled, populist, politically minded, power-driven and possessed of a seemingly unquenchable desire to immerse himself in student political activity in order to achieve political relevance and agitate for improvements in the lot of the student constituencies he represents at the different educational institutions he attends. In pursuing such objectives, he comes into conflict with different authority figures, who he sees, through his youthful eyes as forces of conservatism resistant to reform and interested only in maintaining and sustaining the status quo. In his not too infrequent brushes with these figures he succeeds in provoking their chagrin causing them much irritation and discomfort.             

But as conflictual and controversial as some of his causes are, he is almost always careful to ensure that the ground upon which he stands and fights his various battles, is always firm. He never raises his head above the parapet without first of all ensuring that his actions and pronouncements accord with the letter and spirit of the documentary instruments from which he derives his legitimacy to agitate for change. This masterful ploy, which he often employs and deploys to wrong foot his antagonists, who, on account of his youth are minded to underestimate the depth of his acuity and his state of preparedness. This fact alone, serves to rescue him on the occasions, when he is thought by these authority figures to have overreached himself.   

In acting as he does, he reveals an intrepid side to his personality which not only endears him to those on whose behalf he agitates, but also ensures his enduring popularity in their collective estimation. Such that, every so often, he feels confident enough to approach them with new political propositions which require their endorsement, and which he often obtains.     

As admirable as the numerous causes and agitations he pursues and undertakes are, it is not immediately evident from the narrative, what it is, in his personality or psychological make-up that propels, impels and even compels him to set upon the path of seeming restlessness in pursuit of what he considers to be right. Could the reason(s) lie in his proximity, at a young age, to radical individuals within the University of Lagos Students’ Union? Or could it be due to the abrupt and cruel transformation in his family’s fortunes, at a tender age, which saw his family displaced from their comfortable lodgings and surroundings to much less salubrious environs? Or could it be his conversion to Christianity in 1979? My guess, is that the answer lies in a combination of all these factors, which coalesced within him to produce the young socio-politico and religious agitator and reformer we read about on the pages of this book.

In contemplating the varied patchwork into which he weaves the threads of his numerous and often hilarious experiences, it is the stitch of one thread that stands out above all others in this interesting tapestry of a narrative.  His love for, and seemingly irresistible attraction to politics, political expression and political office. Right from the days of his mock election as the ‘child president’ of Sadiku Lane, Lagos to his sophisticated and strategically run political campaigns at King’s College, Lagos and the University of Ife, he comes across as one utterly consumed by politics; a full bloodied political animal, equipped with all the necessary instincts to survive and thrive in a political jungle.

But as apparent as this may seem to anyone who reads the book, one cannot help but deduce an underlying tension between his political activism and his Christian ideals. This tension is never fully or satisfactorily resolved. In fact, it seems to wittingly or unwittingly circumscribe the protagonist’s ability to function simultaneously with efficacy in both realms. Thus, the impression is conveyed, perhaps unintentionally, that the ideal of Christianity and idea of politics are somewhat mutually exclusive and cannot be practiced effectively in tandem. Active participation in one, somehow dilutes or precludes the spirited participation in the other.

Should this, however, be so? I think not. In my view, this tension should merely create and present, a dialectical conundrum and nothing more. One which, with proper contemplation and reflection should give rise to a satisfactory synthesis which encompasses the nobler aspects of these seemingly discordant material and metaphysical (spiritual) ideologies. Such a synthesis would naturally foster a fusion of ideas, potent enough, to dispel the kind of political confusion so prevalent, at present, in Nigeria. I expect that such a fusion of ideas would not be too dissimilar in output and effect, say, to the Liberation Theologies formulated by Christian philosophical thinkers to advance the cause of social justice in parts of the Americas. In truth, however, I suspect that our protagonist at some level – subconscious or conscious - is only too aware of this tension, and rather cleverly, walks this tightrope using his philosophy of ‘Panafism’ as a balancing rod to traverse the space between both ends without explicitly saying, or appearing to do, so.   

It is often said that school days are the best days of one’s life. And nowhere is the truth of this sentiment more evident than on the pages of this book. The author regales the reader with anecdote after anecdote of his numerous adventures, encounters, and brushes with authorities within King’s College. If ever the term ‘Alma Mater’ conveyed the true import of its Latin meaning (i.e. a nourishing mother) it is never truer, than in the instance of the protagonist in this book. This institution seems to have enriched his life and thinking and actions more than any other.

It is, therefore, no real surprise when he reveals in his narrative, that he spent more time than he should have at King’s College. Always preoccupied it seems, with more interesting and rewarding extra-curricular activities, than with his primary academic objectives. To the extent, that when the opportunity presents itself to him to sever links with King’s College, he wrestles with himself, contemplating whether to take a place in the lower sixth form or proceed to University to read for a degree. In the event, however, the presence of his younger brother, who at this time had joined King’s College and the academic progress made by his beloved twin at the University of Ife, spur him to unlatch himself from his Alma Mater’s teat and head off to the University of Ife.

Once at the University of Ife, almost without pause, he immerses himself into the thick of student political activity. But unlike the ‘paddling pool’, that was King’s College student politics, he quickly discovers that at Ife, he is now swimming in a much deeper and wider political sea. One which is awash with skilful, calculating, conniving and populist ideologues, all adept at swimming with, and against, the tide. At this point, one is forced to ask some questions of the protagonist. Is his attraction to politics driven by a call to service or a desire to fill political office? Or is it a bit of both? Can he serve without leading or does he need to lead in order to feel able to serve? In partial respect, he is brutally honest in this regard, and confesses that on certain occasions his motivation for office is driven by a desire for power, in and of itself. Such candid self-awareness is commendable.

In any event, at the University of Ife, he enjoys more electoral successes. And even succeeds in carving out a memorable political persona for himself. One based on his unique stylistic dress sense, his moral probity and the effectiveness with which he discharges the duties of his different elective offices. Ironically, this memorable persona unwittingly robs him of the most prized position in campus student politics; presidency of the union. It turns out that many of his supporters identify him by his political persona alone and not his real name; thus on polling day they are unable to identify him on the ballot in the crucial presidential election. So rather paradoxically, he fails to win because of the success of his political branding.                                

One seeming contradiction which bears pointing out from the book, has to do with the issue of power and his approach to it. On the one hand, he appears to be most comfortable and at his most effective when confronting and speaking truth to power. But on the other hand, rather quizzically, he appears to be at ease in the company of the powerful, many with whom he forms and enjoys collaborative and productive friendships. This seems somewhat baffling. But then, when one remembers that our protagonist is a product and beneficiary of elitist schools and, therefore, himself, an elite of Nigerian society. It is perhaps only to be expected that he would naturally feel comfortable in such company. Perhaps, the real surprise then, is that given his elitist background, the protagonist is possessed of a social conscience at all. And one that he not only listens to, but on whose leadings and leanings he frequently acts.                     

In all, this is an immensely enjoyable book with many funny anecdotes, two of which, bear brief mention here. When faced with the prospect of joining either the rigorous King’s College Army Cadet Unit or the less demanding Boy Scouts Movement, our protagonist elects to join the latter and conveys the impression to readers that his choice is a virtuous one! And only he, it seems, could have secreted himself at night at a secluded scene, in order to prevent an act of sexual congress from taking place between two hormonally charged consenting students of the opposite sex. He punctures their passion by shouting out anti-fornication admonitions; pricking their conscience, deflating their desire, dissipating their lust and spoiling the mood! And as no good deed goes unpunished, he earns himself, in short order, a thorough thrashing from his sexually frustrated and disappointed hormonal schoolmate, whose best laid plans he thwarts through his religious zealotry.

Having read this wonderful autobiographical account of this high minded, yet mischievous youngster, who sets about changing his immediate world through socio-political and religious fervour; it is easy to look upon the protagonist as the undoubted hero of the book. But in reviewing this telling retelling of memories of youth past, the real hero to me is not the protagonist, but his mother. She flits in and out of the narrative at different points, displaying quiet strength, discipline and resourcefulness, as she strives with industry, diligence and dignity to provide for her children, as she deals stoically with the difficult hand that fate has dealt her. She does so admirably and shines brightly in the background of this narrative.                       

Dr. Olu Ojedokun has written a thoroughly riveting book. It is my hope that its finds its place on the bookshelves of homes, and school libraries across Nigeria as well as on portable electronic tablet devices. This book has something for everyone, but in particular it will inspire and entertain the young and the middle aged. Young Nigerians can take away from it the fact that it is never too early to engage in the practise of principled political activity in order to effect positive change in their immediate environment. And for the middle aged, it is a beautiful reminder of those halcyon days of – spent and misspent – youth, now long gone.

I highly recommend ‘I Found My Voice’ to a general readership.