One odd evening in July, 2001, my boss and learned senior colleague in chambers, Amobi Nzelu Esq, did to me what I considered the greatest injustice on earth. He suddenly summoned me to his office on the intercom, and handed me a bulky file. To my utter astonishment, he then thundered: “Ikonne, tomorrow morning, at 9 am, you will go to Oputa Panel. You will cross examine Wole Soyinka, on a petition he filed at the Panel against Dr Walter Ofonagoro, former Information Minister. Study the file well and, good luck.” “But Sir, which Soyinka are you talking about?,” I inquired in meek protest! “Are there two Soyinkas?,” my boss fired back, and left the office for the day. I stood there in his office, momentarily transfixed, and frozen with utter dread. Professor Wole Soyinka was, and still is, the greatest literary figure to have come out of Africa, a Nobel Laureate in Literature, and a brilliant internationalist.
Less than two years earlier, I had left Lagos at the behest of my father, to undergo legal tutelage in Abuja, after a few years of trying my hands at private business. Chief Nzelu had mercifully taken me in at his flourishing Abuja law firm, and I had earnestly and zealously begun to learn the ropes, drafting processes, moving motions and watching trials, but I had never conducted a cross – examination.
But now, not only was I to conduct a cross examination, but the witness to be cross examined was a living legend, and one of the most colossal literary figures of the modern world. To make matters worse, the cross examination was to be conducted on prime time television – and before the legendary Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, Nigeria’s most accomplished jurist, a sage whose knowledge of both the law and literature was encyclopaedic.
I made up my mind at that instant to drop that file there, resign immediately and flee from impending disgrace and disaster. Forlorn and sorely distressed, I walked back to my own office and confided in my younger colleague, Nomnso Egwuagu, of both my grave predicament and my plans to avert it. Nomnso surprisingly responded with a broad smile and said, in what must rank as one of the greatest affirmations of faith in another man’s abilities: “Ken, this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and I know you can pull it off. I will go with you to that Panel tomorrow and watch you seize the moment and show everyone what you can do.” He then looked into my eyes, smiled again and called me by that name which only he calls me: “The Old World Guyman.” Thus bolstered, I left for home, filled with a strange determination and zest to confront the Literary Principality in less than 14 hours from then.
That very night, I didn’t sleep. I had met the legendary Professor once at Ife when he came to deliver a lecture on IDIOLECTS, and I had read several of his works, and had avidly followed his life both as a fearless advocate for freedom, and an incomparable champion of human rights. Infact, Soyinka was, in my eyes, a hero and a transcendental source of inspiration.
I went through his petition. His major complaint was that during his years in exile under the Abacha regime, most of which he spent as an Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the Emory University in Atlanta, United States, the Abacha regime had launched an injurious campaign against him. That campaign, according to him, was to discredit and malign him before the President of Emory University, and the entire University community. According to Professor Soyinka, the Abacha Government had sent several defamatory letters about him to the President of the University, and had similarly circulated same in the international press. But none of these letters was attached to the petition.
Despite my relative courtroom inexperience, i had spent the last one year and six months since i joined the law firm reading and researching voraciously, dedicating at least four hours daily to devouring a wide range of subjects, mostly on law. That effort was now about to pay off! The object of cross examination in law is traditionally to discredit the witness and demolish the case of the opposing party. But bearing in mind that the witness in this instance was an incredible intellectual pyrotechnic and that the theatre of the exercise was prime – time national television, I decided to divine a further objective: literary entertainment!
By the morning of D – day, I was fully prepared, and Nomnso had also arrived my residence very early, and dressed for court. Together, we drove to the National Women’s Centre, the venue of the Panel’s sittings. We took our seats on the third row of the vast amphitheatre, having arrived quite early. Thirty minutes later, Doctor Walter Offonagoro, our client, arrived with his very delectable Indian – Canadian wife. We went out to meet him, and exchanged greetings. “Where is your boss, Amobi Nzelu?”, he inquired. “He is not coming, Sir,” I responded. “Who then will interrogate Professor Soyinka? You?”, he exploded in utter indignation.
Doctor Offonagoro then reached for his mobile phone, the one in use at the time known colloquially as Nokia 090, and began to dial Amobi Nzelu frantically. But my boss, probably anticipating Offonagoro’s reaction, had switched off his own phone.
Then once again, Doctor Offonagoro, now totally consumed with rage, turned his fiery attention to me. He sized me up from head to toe, and thundered: “Do you know the man they’ve sent you here to interrogate? And you agreed and came here? Otolo gbagbu kwegi there. C’mon give me the bloody file. I will conduct my case myself.”
Thoroughly shaken, I was almost handing over the case file to him when his very affable wife intervened, calmed Doctor Offonagoro down, and warmly apologised to both me and Nomnso. “Darling, give the young men a chance. Their boss must have seen something in them before giving them this all important task.” A strange calm suddenly came upon Doctor Offonagoro. He smiled at me, held my hand, and apologised profusely. “Do your best, your man,” he said, and followed both Nomnso and I into the vast auditorium.
Walking behind us in dainty steps, accompanied by several aides and devotees, and flocked by a galaxy of press photographers and papparazi, was the legendary figure of the white – haired god of literature, Professor Wole Soyinka.
Ken Ikonne, a lawyer, is a Public Affairs analyst. He first contributed this piece to TheNews
To be concluded