A former Nigerian leader whose name I decline to mention because the subject of this piece does likewise, is given to addressing Peter Enahoro, who turned 80 recently, as the “Black Englishman.” If you have been to England, or have lived among its people, there are certain characteristics of theirs that strike you right off the bat. They love to look prim and proper, and queuing is second nature to them. The typical Englishman is charmingly witty, disarmingly diplomatic, and of course his love of tea is so strong as to be nearly eccentric. But there is the other side also; as, for example, soccer hooliganism among the youthful soccer fans, or the tendency by some of its youths to be unruly on the way home from pubs after a long night of copious beer-guzzling.
However, by calling Enahoro such a name, this gentleman means it not in jest as some might be inexorably led to think, but rather in admiration — even adulation — of the man’s uncanny mastery of the English language in both its written and spoken forms. If you have encountered him in print, you know what I’m saying here. Among his own generation of Nigerian journalists, Enahoro, who assumed the moniker of “Peter Pan” when he began his journalistic career at the Daily Times of Nigeria (DTN) at the young age of 23, commanded the field, and breathtakingly, too. Even his most carping critics to date are nearly compelled to bow in unfeigned adoration of his astonishingly brilliant style of writing.
I can’t say these things any better than what known authoritative figures in Nigerian journalism have said. For example, in his seminal book, The Columnist Companion: The Art and Craft of Column Writing, Dan Agbese, a brilliant stylist himself and the pontifex maximus of modern Nigerian satire, scores a spectacular homerun when he describes Enahoro as “a brilliant writer and columnist.” He writes further: “His capacity for vivid verbal pictures remains unequalled by any other writer or columnist in the country. As Peter Pan, his novelistic technique of reporting created suspense.” Alhaji Babatunde Jose, Enahoro’s mentor at the Daily Times, describes his protégé as “the best so far in the history of journalism in Nigeria.”
So much for Enahoro the writer. But it is Enahoro the speaker that I find even more thrilling. For, to listen to him, is to invest one’s time in a productive activity whose outcome is worth its weight in gold. Of the so many Nigerians I have had conversations with, or heard speak on television or at events, big and small, Enahoro remains in the foremost ranks, assuming no place behind anyone. His pronunciation, his mots justes, and his overall ability to string them together in sometimes short, sometimes long, and at all times grammatically superb, sentences are so smooth and effortless you could have been listening to a song.
Enahoro didn’t play a direct role in my decision to seek a career in journalism. I’d become one already by the time I met him as a news source. But his decision to pull me closer into his orbit out of a personal likeness for me, enhanced my career tremendously. He always wrote excellent references for me. He was, and has since remained, something of a father figure. Besides his social friends like Chinweizu, Professor John Pepper Clark, Sam Amuka-Pemu and others to whom he introduced me then, I also came to know many of his golfing friends at the Ikoyi golf club. This continued while both of us were in England.
Because of my closeness to him in the late 1990s, I was tapped by the editorial board of Newswatch magazine to facilitate his coming to the magazine’s “Summit” to answer some tough questions. At the time, Enahoro was the sole administer of the DTN, having left London at the invitation of then General Sani Abacha to help reverse the dwindling fortunes of the organization. Hosted by the excellent team of Agbese, Ray Ekpu and Yakubu Mohammed, all doyens of modern Nigerian journalism, and joined by all the editors, Enahoro, without prepared notes, and with only a glass of water sitting on the conference table in front of him, fielded questions for several hours on a catholic range of subjects. I had the distinct privilege of being asked by Agbese to join the interviewing team on account of my sustained reporting on the DTN. And on display throughout the session, was Enahoro the raconteur, the man with the remarkable gift of language who can talk an owl out of a tree. At the end of the summit, Joseph Ode, who was then the general editor of the magazine, said to me as he nodded approvingly, “He’s something else. His thoughts flow like a river.”
As one pays tribute to this man at 80, it is important, indeed necessary, to go to great lengths to highlight these qualities that have led to his greatness even though all he had was a secondary school education at Government College, Ughelli. I have equally done all that as a signpost to other unique attributes that have combined to accelerate his career along a steeply upward trajectory. One such quality is his keen, penetrating memory, a fact which Agbese alluded to earlier. Enahoro’s memory is as sharp as they come, a camera obscura that instantly dredges up events of childhood and bygone times with digital clarity. At that Newswatch summit, I recall several editors marveled at his ability to recall even the minutiae of long forgotten events as if they were just occurring during the interview.
On other occasions at his Ikoyi residence where I often spent many hours with him at his study alone, or in company of his other friends in the living room, Enahoro brought not just this remarkable side of him, but also his sharp intellect into bold relief. He was always the one you wanted to listen to for the most time, making some of his friends, many of whom had great erudition, looking almost clearly overmatched.
And yet, he’s modest about his gifts. For example, I once asked him one evening in his study over whisky, as I’d become used to, what intellectual and social values shaped his journalism. Promptly, he isolated the word “intellectual” in the question and came down thus: “You see, I always shy away from the word ‘intellectual.’ Because if my image of an intellectual is correct, I am not an intellectual.” What, then, was his image of an intellectual? Enahoro: “Well, I think an intellectual is a very brainy fellow who sees things slightly in abstract terms, and then is able to crystalize them in slightly abstract words, which then you are now supposed to sit down, think and think until you yourself arrive at some slightly abstract conclusion.” In that interview published in Newswatch of October 11, 1999, Enahoro went on: “I am just a guy who has been lucky to have a certain facility with words, and who spent a great deal of his time studying the ills of his surroundings and feels strongly about certain issues that he puts his thoughts down on paper as truthfully as he sees them, risking, offending people, and saying to himself: ‘I have no choice.’ That is how I feel. I am a journalist who feels strongly about issues.”
Enahoro did indeed feel strongly about some sensitive issues in the country at the time, not the least of which was his support of the annulment by the military government of Ibrahim Babangida of the June 12 presidential election which MKO Abiola was widely believed to have won. In a piece for the Sunday Times, Enahoro not only endorsed the cancellation, he subjected Abiola to blistering criticism also. But like hawks with talons unsheathed, his critics came at him in equally searing responses. Enahoro was unfazed. Nor did his critics forgive him when he took US Ambassador Walter Carrington to the woodshed for being — in Enahoro’s words — such “a bad and incompetent diplomat.” He wasn’t perturbed or regretful of his action either.
But he also knows how to respond to his critics, and although he was 64 when we had our sustained interaction at the time, Enahoro remained his old pugnacious self. One day, I went over to his place armed with a statement made by Wole Soyinka during a Tell magazine interview. I was sure he hadn’t seen it. Eager to have his response as he dropped a tiny sweetener into his cup of tea that evening in his living room, I quoted Wole Soyinka thus: “… there are several kinds of journalists, there are the safe journalists. You find many of them at the Daily Times firing from both guns on behalf of Abacha. But once upon a time, they were risk takers; now see what’s happened to them.” I then asked Enahoro: “Is he referring to you or what?”
Enahoro relished the moment. Smiling, he came at once like a man fully loaded for bear but ready to fire at the sight of a rabbit: “Perhaps, Wole Soyinka should be asked. They say whom the cap fits. I will not wear this cap because it doesn’t fit me. Well, there are risk takers in all professions, and non-risk takers. Not only in journalism, nor is it only at the Daily Times… there are mature men who are not mature. There are famous people who have not yet grown out of being eternal students. Are they risk takers. Or are they non-risk takers?” he asked, going on, “There is recklessness. I didn’t invent that word. And there is maturity. Again, such people exist. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize winner in literature, is quite capable of expanding and identifying those he says are firing blanks from double barrel guns or not firing at all.” He continued: “I can say nobody, underline nobody, can lecture me on taking risks or not taking risks. I am not being immodest, but I have my credentials. Indeed, if I were asked to produce witnesses, I would not be too far wrong if I invited Soyinka to speak on my behalf, because when I was in Germany he was my guests on more than that one occasion. And I am sure he will recall that I was not working for any government or firing blanks.”
Enahoro’s mission to put the DTN back on its once esteemed pedestal didn’t succeed even though he went about it with monastic dedication. He couldn’t get NICON to recapitalize it as they were not convinced that the ministry of information and culture was keeping its distance from the affairs of the conglomerate as agreed. The failure handed his critics ammunition to chip away at his king-size reputation. While such criticisms didn’t disturb Enahoro either, the fact that he couldn’t get NICON to make financial infusion in the company did give him regrets about not entertaining second thoughts before accepting the offer of appointment.
But it’s rational to contend that, having accepted the offer, his reputation was enhanced, not diminished, by his subsequent actions. For the younger generations of Nigerians to whom the Peter Pan glory of old had become stuff of lore, Enahoro demonstrated his legendary capacity to issue sharp rebuke to authority figures. Countless times, and unmindful of the potential consequences of his combativeness, he challenged his supervising minister, Dr. Walter Ofonagoro, asking him to beat a retreat from the affairs of the DTN. It was unprecedented, and certainly as audacious as Darwin’s assault upon the Garden of Eden. At other times and under similar circumstances, such an act of courage could have earned him instant sack, just as considerably benign circumstances had terminated his predecessors’ careers at the hands of the supervising minister. That was courage at its best, and it’s a thing to remember alongside his other unique qualities as we celebrate the “Black Englishman” at 80. Happy birthday, oga.