When I was much younger, Baba, as I called my father, told me death could come in many ways. He said death could come as a messiah that could bear one’s cross of shame, as a shadow whispering terror as he blocked out the light of the sun, as familiar figures long dead, come to pay a comforting visit to an ailing old friend amidst failing bodies of men caught in the space of dead air that reeked of disinfectant and expiring flesh, as distressing doubts of not finding God in the darkness. As he said, these are the hues of death, shaded distinctly by the conditions of men. What he didn’t tell me was that death could come in the disguise of a loss of faith in man and in love.
It started with the letter that I asked my driver to deliver, affirming my stand with the new head of state in the year I became a full professor of philosophy. Before that time, a regime so profligate had plundered the country relentlessly, stowing cash away in the Cayman Islands and in Swiss bank accounts. The head of state then had been a man who had sponsored the splurges of wanton parties that tainted the dark breezy tropical nights of Sao Tomé and Príncipe with cocaine frenzy and wild girls imported from America. The aide-de-camp to that libertine head of state then had described to a friend that had been the vice-chancellor of the university over trays of caviar and champagne at the Tower, that those ecstatic nights had been topped by palm trees that swayed in deference to the ocean’s nocturnal mood. The nights had featured the bright lights of the resorts that breathed in the anxious sighs of the Atlantic. The profligate regime had carried on until a major-general, Haruna Gafar, and officers loyal to him had taken the country by a storm of violence, shooting the men that held the regime in place with the power of their intellect and with the complexity of their inventions. The man, Major General Haruna Gafar was a revolutionary in the sight of us that knew him to be an avid reader of the classics, history, literature, philosophy, economics, and science. On the night of the revolution, he had come on television in full military garb and in the splendour of the decorations of his rank, a handsome bespectacled man in his late thirties and he had given that one speech that would be remembered in time to come for its brilliant eloquence.
I had been so moved that I wrote him to congratulate him and to apprise him of my stand with his government and had sent my driver to deliver the letter. At that time, to be a professor in the humanities and in one’s mid-thirties was to be taken by the fever of revolutionary politics, especially as a don who wasn’t befuddled by the realities of being married to a woman. It was a custom of African intellects to believe in such things as violent redemption. After all Fidel Castro did it, Chè Guevara aided him and in time to come after then, progressive African heads of state. It had been one of those steamy mornings on the university campus, when I had to rush to my ethics class of opinionated students after taking a draft of my usual black, unsweetened coffee. Half an hour into my lecture, a soldier walked in and asked that he see me outside. I had been perplexed especially as I saw a sleek black Mercedes Benz with tinted windows that had the green plates of the government. The green plates spoke the authority of the government resident at the Tower. ‘His Excellency requires your presence,’ I thought the sergeant had the pretentious speaking air of a man that didn’t want to be caught faltering in the use of language. He was speaking to a professor, and he was a soldier that wanted to retain an educated dignity that could cover for whatever intimidation he felt, so he spoke with the measured calm of a man addressing a cretin. And so I asked another lecturer to take up my class as I prepared to meet the man that I had pledged my support to.
The drive to the Tower at the Government City was one that was long and winding. Along broken roads that spoke a muffled tiredness to the tires and gave off hot breaths of air that wafted hot rubber and a distant smell of spilt fuel. The Tower gazed down at us in its almost effulgent white loftiness and the burnished dome that capped it, gave off reflections that disconcerted me inexplicably. The sergeant had been silent all through the journey until we got to the gates of the Tower that had armed soldiers strutting about with assault rifles and making gestures to some other men that were in suits. They saluted the driver, and then the sergeant said to me, ‘His Excellency is a generous man. I hope you find him as much as I find him so.’ I nodded my head and saw him stare at me momentarily through the rear-view mirror. There were men all over the grounds of the Tower, armed soldiers glancing furtively over their shoulders. Baba once said that the man who snatches another’s man’s wife will always sleep with his hands closed over the hilt of a knife lest his head be taken off by the angry husband.
A man that appeared like he had been waiting for us all his life, dressed in the green service uniform of the army, rushed to the car with his arms outstretched and his pleasant face clenched upon a plastic smile. ‘I am Captain Faisal Waziri. His Excellency can’t wait to meet you, your letter really has inspired him.’ In my mind I tried to navigate the complex maze of effusion and particularity that marked the general expression toward me. I could not find an answer to it, and then, I resolved upon the cleverest thing to do: to proceed with caution. The windows according to him were polycarbonate glass and the doors in their well-made, soundproof solidness, could resist even machine gun bullets, and that to me seemed like an overgrown boy showing off his toys, ‘This regime will show this country to the next phase.’ At that point, I merely nodded. Inside the Tower, silence met the solitude of a great space in the coolness of unease. The feeling of danger, even without cause, crept over me, as I looked at the varnished wood of great furniture that shone like glass and the fierceness of its gold fittings. Our steps were muffled by the red-carpeted expanse. The captain talked a lot, and his hands always seemed to want to brush over the butt of the service pistol he kept in a holster by his side. By my reckoning, he seemed nervous and he was trying to conceal it. There were men who saluted at every door we entered and it was beginning to appear that the trappings of power brought me nothing but thoughts of its vain expression. ‘Sit here, he’ll be with you in some minutes.’ The captain pointed to a sofa at the lounge that was expressed in a largeness that coughed authority.
And he appeared at the top of the staircase, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, dressed in a sharp-looking black kaftan, and a musilimi fila hat. He waved at me even when he could have walked over to shake my hand. ‘Professor Mide Fadairo, welcome to the grandeur of the Tower.’ Something seemed profane about him and I imagined it was in the way he gestured while talking and in the posturing of his gait. ‘I would like that you have dinner with me tonight and let’s see what you can do for us as evidence of your unwavering allegiance.’ That night, the conversation was like a litany of problems spewed out in the realisation of bitterness. The chandelier shimmered a million reflections of golden light and the hall hummed in its contrived coolness. Silence ate at the humming minutes of the moment when I told him that my congratulating him meant not that I wouldn’t be his greatest critic if he should lose sight of restoring the country. It didn’t take long for him to recover from the shock of my forthrightness. ‘Of course, professor, I love the support of intellectuals.’ I feared that power was not a stable thing, it loved contention, and the complexity of it might be the destruction of him and all he thought he stood for. He didn’t call me to become a part of his government, to take up an appointment in a fancy advisory role. He would have bared his weakness to me, and he desperately needed to be the revolutionary hero we all believed he was.
One cloudless day at the university, his letter arrived in my office: I was invited to a cocktail party the general was hosting for the benefit of the oil men from Holland who had come to see how the oil of the deep south would do for their dollars. At the party, the man didn’t show the arrogance that suggests that being absent from one’s own event was the way to assert the right of being a powerful host. He was present in a white kaftan, showing me around. At some point he had to disappear to see to the business of the oil men and he left me with Captain Waziri. Meanwhile from a part of the Tower, a telephone’s jangling broke continuously through the smoothness of classical music and tempered laughter that refused to bounce off the white walls of the hall.
Through the wash of soft lights that glinted off the chandelier, I saw her. ‘That’s Viola.’ The captain said. Viola was a sylph in glasses, cradling her glass of wine with both hands and laughing at the jokes of a boisterous male friend. She was one in the crowd of men and women clad in the luxury of power that wafted in the expensive fragrances from Paris and New York and that was now trapped in the coolness of the cavernous enclosure. ‘Did you know that she is a senior business correspondent with the national television? A young woman who has achieved so much with the deft brilliance and thoroughness of her reports. She is an Oxford alumna.’ The captain had gazed at her with a slight frown of reflective concentration, like one close to unravelling a perplexity. I made my way across the room with voices sailing through the music, past couples clung together in a necessary mix of tuxedoes and satin-wraps. The boisterous friend had burned out his vigilance on the heady luxury of champagne and snifters of brandy and balloon glasses of cognac on the rocks. Apparently, boisterous friend knew nothing about treating these kinds of wines with the respect of not getting drunk on them at cocktail parties. My greeting had frozen in time as she looked at me, a searching look on her face as she struggled to find a familiar feature that she could match with memory. She found none. ‘I guess you think you know me? You don’t actually. I am Mide Fadairo, professor of philosophy at the Federal University. Indulge me the pleasure of making your acquaintance.’ Then she had beamed her smile at me, and it had seemed like the majestic splendour of the sun climbing over the ice-capped top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
The talk had started from the complexities of her job and how she needed to meet industrialists, bankers and stockbrokers, ‘It’s a hard life for a woman. They all want to devour you in proving to themselves that after all, you are a woman, even though you’re successful. They want to mess with you to prove that women belong to the bedroom. But I have taken my stand, I shall not be trodden on.’ There was a darkness that shrouded her eyes within the glasses as the recollections tied to these statements flitted before her mind.
It wasn’t a long-distance thing; the Federal University and the National Television were in the same city of Lagos. We talked on the phone and I sent her long letters written in pain-staking cursive, not because I needed to write letters, but there was a need to communicate a sense of romance. At first, she was elusive as women are wont, especially when starting out, but with her there was a little bit of divergence premised on her customary lack of trust. Several months passed, and with their passing was a wearing down of her suspicions, and she soon warmed to the idea of a love affair. We started seeing each other, and a year passed. One cold night, I had asked her to come to dinner at my apartment and she had joyously agreed. I drove to pick her up at her place downtown. Seeing her made my heart skip a beat in the radiance of her elegance: high heels and an African print dress, light-skin glowing in the late afternoon sun, she was a city goddess in the sophistication of her manners. That night, memorable with the excited smiles on our faces, African American blues pouring out of the stereo in its forlorn softness, her hand in mine, I had asked her to marry me, and she had nodded, large, soft brown eyes beaming with joy.
Another year after, the newspapers reported soldiers tearing through the houses of some journalists who had written about the secret deal between some oil men from America and the government. At that moment, I knew that power had started to take over the man at the Tower and was pulling the strings of the marionette. People started to talk about the government of General Haruna Gafar going the way of the overthrown regime. I argued with my colleagues that there was hope for redemption. I just wanted to convince myself I had not made a mistake by thinking General Haruna Gafar was a different man from the former.
After days of mulling on the thought, I decided to write a polemic against the government over its viciousness toward the men who had been doing their duty, in one of the most widely read newspapers. Sometimes, even our future plans guarantee no prescience over the state of affairs that would eventually govern the direction of our lives. I came to find this very much so, in the reaction the polemic generated from the people and the foreign media. And so, on quiet nights after Viola would have gone to sleep; I would be hunched over my typewriter, electric lamp burning bright in the darkness of my small study, a smouldering cigarette dangling from my mouth in the character of concentration while I wrote consistently against the tactless brutishness of the government. As my voice was echoed by the people, the man at the Tower heard it, and with a habitual promptitude, he sent his soldiers to pick me up for a chat with him.
The man at the Tower had evolved into a hideous character from the revolutionary hero that I wrote, who promised that our country was in the right hands because a man, guided by the justice of his reason was in control. I remembered that day as he warned me, his body postured as the essence of a god on the great sofa, while the gold fittings gleamed in their fierceness.
‘If you keep writing the way you have been, you might not last long my friend.’
Every day, I watched Viola grow cold toward me. And then the parcels started coming, secret parcels that I must not ask about. The newspapers never missed my voice that continued in its strength from the electric lamp-lit enclosure of my study. The silence grew louder and the hours counted through the days like the sure steps of a wayfarer.
If you keep writing the way you have been, you might not last long my friend.
The shadows began to creep out into the open when some men made the call at my office. Not finding me there, they had sought me out in an epistemology class. Startled students had watched as their professor was led out manacled, and in the company of armed soldiers.
‘You have been found to incite the people against their government.’
My cell at the prison in Capital City, with its foul, lingering smell of unwashed bodies and scampering rats and its single window with metal bars, was a cynical pandering to my thoughts of him as a gentleman governed by a certain degree of reasonableness. And the letter that came on the fifth day of my arrest, written in a hand I would never guess right, telling of Viola sharing solitude with the man at the Tower in his room, and generally taking up the duties of a wife at the Tower.’
‘Do not be dismayed,’ the letter had written, ‘She has been seeing him since the second year of your marriage…’
Every day of the two years in that cell, I had dreamt of shallow, unmarked graves. The news had started as a rumour, in fact I had admonished the prison guard with no small gravity when he repeated it to the men within the walls, ‘If you keep saying what you have been, you might not last long my friend.’ He had turned to me with the relish of knowing more than I did at the time, ‘It’s true that the government has been toppled. The head of state had his car bombed this morning, and he had died with his mistress. Colonel Faisal Waziri orchestrated the coup and he will be heading the transitional government that he promised would organise an election soon.’
As the prison guards led me out of the cell, the sounds of heavy iron doors, squeaking and groaning as it shut, cutting through the desolation of the noise of the men that were within the walls, I thought for the last time about Viola, about the man at the Tower, shut in the solitary darkness of his sins forever, and of Faisal Waziri, who had ordered me to be released in the knowledge that I was a prisoner of conscience.
Death could come in the disguise of a loss of faith in man and in love.
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay (modified)