In 1984, Nigeria happened to Ayanyemi Atokowagbowonle. Atokowagbowonle was a musician whose style was unique, his delivery peculiar and he was the official musician of the stormy petrel of Ibadan politics, Adelabu Adegoke, a.k.a. Penkelemes, of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC). The then-new head of state, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, had just violently seized the reins of power in Nigeria. That year April, Buhari had ordered the colours of all banknotes in circulation to be changed. The currency trafficking prevalent at the time and stolen funds by politicians must be repatriated, he said. The Naira’s official exchange rate was $1.30 but was worth only 33 cents in the black market.
These destructive politicians were the same set of people he had just overthrown. Buhari had tar-brushed Umaru Dikko, Adisa Meredith Akinloye (A.M.A) and others as enemies of the people. He needed to halt them from repatriating stolen loot into the country. His propaganda army circulated to the world champagne bottles which had labels of A.M.A Akinloye’s name and photograph emblazoned on them as evidence of the ostentatious and profligate lives lived by the Second Republic politicians with our commonwealth. It was later we realised that such fancies were achieved with a farthing.
Excitement lit the firmament. Nigerians had had enough of their corrupt politicians and their ill-gotten wealth. The excitement was to later turn crimson as anguish, exploitation inside banking halls, kickbacks and deaths hallmarked this policy. Buhari granted just two weeks after the policy commencement date of April 1, 1984, for changing the old notes. The amount an individual could legally exchange was pegged. The new head of state sealed land borders and passengers leaving or coming into the country by air or sea got thoroughly frisked. The gangling general with a no-smiling face declined every entreaty for an extension of the deadline.
The harrowing experiences that followed this sudden change of Nigeria’s legal tender were palpable. Ordinary Nigerians, rather than these politicians, eventually became direct victims of the new policy. Many people died of frustration and social dislocation. Petty traders slid into humongous debts and many who were frustrated about their inability to change their money and meet their social obligations resorted to the nihilistic thought encapsulated in the quip “death is preferable to shame”. They took their own lives. The gangling general was blind to the deaths and pain. He drank his fura inside his Dodan Barracks base and planned how to crate Dikko back into the country from England.
Atokowagbowonle’s real name was Ayanyemi Ayinla and his long alias, Atokowagbowonle, literally translated, meant one who comes from the village in order to earn money in the city. He hailed from Bankole village in Ibadan and his matrilineal family home was Akinajo, very close to Arulogun village, also in Ibadan. I was told he picked up the sobriquet, Atokowagbowonle to stave off his mis-christening as Atokowabaleje – one who comes from the village to foul up the town – by musical traducers who, pissed off by how he could come from the village to Ibadan and seize the musical stratosphere, wanted to drag him down. Incidentally, that quest for the money of the city, believed to reside in urbanity, as against the purity of the life of the village, was to be the death of Atokowagbowonle. He was one of Ibadan, then Western Nigerian headquarters’ most valuable bards who sauced his poetic renditions with the symphony of an ensemble of Sekere, dundun and Iya Ilu drums. The Sekere, a group of coral beads entangled by tiny cords wrapped around a big calabash gourd provided accompanying conspiratorial melodies for the drums. Together, the drums and the Sekere produced a medley that women wagged their buttocks to at gigs.
Atokowagbowonle was unusual among musicians of his time. He communicated with his drum. He was a deft drummer whose voice was remarkably penetrating with unusual messages of war to the family compounds of “enemies” who wanted a fight and philosophy of existence laced with proverbs and aphorisms. His Sekere gourd twisters and backup vocalists surrounding him effortlessly vocalised, by way of interpretation, the messages of his drum. Scholars who study the Yoruba nonverbal channel of communication hold Atokowagbowonle’s musical model as unique for its highly specialised form of expression.
In one of his songs, Ayanyemi went the route of his usual philosophising. The shrew, that species of rat which the Yoruba call asin, in the words of Atokowagbowonle, was not a rat of mean or ordinary pedigree. “Yepere k’eku asin o,” he began and compared asin’s motherly qualities with that of witches who he said nurse their own children as well as children of unknown townfolk – “Aje ni wo’mo re, ti wo’mo olomo, yepere k’eku asin”. Moving forward in the track, Atokowagbowonle called on these witches to help him attain wealth and stardom, which he drummed as, “Bamise o, iya mi agba, ba mi se, ipa mi o da se, ba mi se o…” And as if foretelling his imminent death, he drummed, “Eni o ku, t’oluwa re lo gbe” (struggle not to die as, if you do, you dissolve into emptiness). Then weaving the panegyrics of his parents to the need for him to maintain the family name and pedigree, he drummed, “Ilu o gbodo ya lowo Ayanyemi” – literally, the drum must not burst in my hands because he is the correct descendant of his father – Ayanyemi baba mi lo bi mi. Inaolaji baba mi lo bi mi, being a correct replica of his parents – B’omode o jo sokoto, yi o jo kijipa, Baba mi lo bi mi; Mo dupe mo jo’ya mi, b’omode o jo sokoto, yio jo kijipa…
Yet, in Yorubaland, Atokowagbowonle’s unique communicative style was not unexampled. The drummer held same importance as the musician. Drummers hold their audiences spellbound even more than the singers. Though only people who “have the ear of the drum” and those who hail from drummers’ ancestry can penetrate the messages of these drums, the rhythm of the drum is enough admiration for non-initiates. Adewole Oniluola, the lead drummer of the late Apala music lord, Ayinla Omowura, had told me in an interview in 2019 that he owned the band which later transmuted into a global brand and only invited Omowura to be the lead singer. Ibadan’s Amuda Agboluaje’s musical group was also formed and led by Amuda, the talking drummer whose band bore his name. Even among other Yoruba musicians like Sikiru Ayinde Barrister and Kollington Ayinla, drummers carved out remarkable renown for themselves. So, you had drummers like Ojubanire for the late Apala prodigy, Haruna Ishola, Ayansola for Barrister, Adio Olalere for Dauda Epo Akara and Orikanbodi and Ayelegan for Kollington Ayinla.
A very potent story surrounded Atokowagbowonle’s eventual passage at age 65. On May 4, 1984, at the University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan, the bard died. Though his son, who is also a musician of the hue of his late father, told me in an interview that he could not confirm the story, not having been in Ibadan at the time of his father’s passage, he claimed that his father had “a mere fever” when he was taken to the UCH. As said earlier, a month before Atokowagbowonle’s death, Nigeria’s General Buhari had frozen the old notes and redesigned new Naira notes. The story that gained currency was that the musician had also queued to have his old notes changed to Buhari’s new Naira. So this day, so goes the story, as Ayanyemi Atokowagbowonle joined the queue for an exchange of his Naira notes for the new currency, armed policemen, who were the insignia of the authoritarian military rule of the time, came in their beastly best to rally the rowdy crowd to order. Their baton reportedly landed on Atokowagbowonle which immobilized the old man. Ayanyemi, it was said, never recovered from this.
I spoke to Agba Akin Olubadan of Ibadanland and cultural ambassador of the National Museum, Ile-Ife, Oloye Lekan Alabi who met Atokowagbowonle in 1971 while he was a teacher at St. John’s Primary School, Akinajo. On his impression of the bard, he said he was a lover of the countryside and deeply intelligent. He recollected how the musician attempted to lure him from his pastime of going to Ibadan city at weekends with a musical gig he invited him to in the village. This event eventually became one of the most enjoyable and memorable local parties he ever attended. As Atokowagbowonle was Adelabu’s official musician, Ilorin Dadakuwada exponent, Odolaye Aremu, was Ladoke Akintola’s and Hubert Ogunde was Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s.
On Friday, as I walked around the Nigerian city of my domicile, I remembered Atokowagbowonle. Nigerians looked like war refugees queuing to collect their rations. For those who were old enough to witness what happened immediately after the “no victor, no vanquished” Biafran-Nigerian war, that was how the crowd queued to exchange their Biafran currency for Nigeria’s. The crowd coiled for upwards of two kilometres around banks to access amounts as paltry as N2,000. They were like conquered people. You could see frustration lacing their visors. If you stopped by their midst, insurrection was their lingua franca. They freely pelted Muhammadu Buhari and Godwin Emefiele with stones with their incendiary tongues. When these incandescent conversations reached their zenith, one of them suddenly comes forward – still on the queue – to thaw the ice with rib-cracking jokes which momentarily sends the crowd laughing like hyenas, in spite of themselves. At that moment, the crowd, for a moment, forgets its lamentable suffering in the hands of the Nigerian state. The same atmosphere is replicable at fuel queues.
As Ayanyemi Atokowagbowonle reportedly met his death in the hands of Buhari in 1984, so many others have met theirs since the duo of Buhari and Emefiele began their currency redesign roulette. Were we a statistical country, we would have graphically seen how some people’s fancy has landed their countrymen and women weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. So many people have died unsung due to the inability to access cash to buy essential drugs while patients in hospitals, unable to pay their bills, are disconnected from treatment. Hunger of the status of war is wracking the bellies of many Nigerians because of this haphazardly thought-through policy. Psychologists and psychoanalysts would need to help examine what lies inside the orifice of Buhari’s mind. I tend to think he enjoys inflicting pain on people.
Being a country where every systemic loophole is a cash cow for a tiny few, many must be profiting from this policy doom of currency redesign. Nigeria is a country which mirrors that shrill aquatic reality of fishes devouring their mates for supper. My people render this as “eja l’eja nje”. Eddie Iroh painted its canvass as the thematic preoccupation of his The Toads of War where soldiers developed big fat bellies from the Nigerian civil war. As their accounts swelled, cadavers bloated on Biafran streets, men and women killed by merciless soldiers’ bullets had their hapless bodies wheeled in sacks to their sepulchres.
The same happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. As wailings erupted in homes, children were orphaned and homes lost their breadwinners to the alien killer disease, many Nigerians exploited the weakness and failures of their system, squeezing huge blood money into their famished purses. The same must be taking place now with the Emefiele doomed policy. Yet, the Buhari government is too remiss, too laid back to intervene on the side of the people who are in pain. To worsen it all, you cannot find empathy from the seat of power. The so-called leaders strut about in their inconsiderately turgid and stiff babanriga, as if nothing is amiss.
The gale of court cases against Buhari and Emefiele speaks volumes of the general consensus of the policy’s wicked undertone. How do you conceive a policy that has no human face as this? Of all of them so far, the joinder of the Ondo state government to an earlier suit by Zamfara, Kaduna and Kogi states at the Supreme Court to stop these two men from implementing the reduction of daily cash withdrawal limits by banks is, to me, the most profound. In its averment, Ondo said the policy had totally paralysed and brought the state to a standstill, adversely affecting economic and commercial activities as citizens spend precious hours at banks’ ATMs.
In the midst of this chaos, Buhari, last week announced a transition council to brainstorm on his vacation of office. To me, this bears all the imprimaturs of escapism. Announcing the president’s departure at this time appears a very wicked thing to do. You can compare it to a general deserting the war front at the apogee of war. Or a genocide accused of committing suicide in the midst of the accusation. The president’s seven-day demand from Nigerians so that he could bring order into national anarchy which he and Emefiele caused has expired, yet Nigerians are still wailing and weeping.
While it is a bold relief that Buhari is leaving at last, this last-minute CBN killer policy of his reminds me of the wisecrack of Yoruba’s b’oyinbo o lo, yi o su s’aga of Nigeria’s immediate post-colony. Literally translated, it means that when the white man is about to exit, he defecates on his seat. It was coined to reflect the post-office mess that the colonisers left upon their departure from Nigeria. Buhari is leaving a similar huge odious smell, compared only to the smell usually puffed out to foul the atmosphere by Atokowagbowonle’s asin rat, the shrew.