PUBLIC SQUARE BY MUHAMMAD AL-GHAZALI
When Onyeka Sang The Blues…
I can’t be sure of the precise year for now because time has simply sped by. But if there is one thing about music, it is in its uncanny ability to remind us of events from the different epochs of our lives. The massively successful hit single titled “One Love” by Onyeka Onwenu, who, until last week, was the Director-General of the National Center for Women Development (NCWD), belongs to that category. It was released during my sophomore year in an American university.
The song received world-wide acclaim in the Nigerian showbiz circuit and even beyond. It was played repeatedly at most of the Nigerian parties. Onyeka’s spectacular success was especially remarkable because, back then, the budding Nigerian musicians who sang in English were yet to develop their own unique identity like we see today with the likes of D-Banj, Davido and Tuface who sing in a combination of English, broken English and our indigenous languages. In a major statement of our cultural evolution, they have developed a peculiar musical genre.
But back in the 1980s, they all tried and failed to sing like the more established American acts of the time like Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Even today, I can recall the particular vain effort of a certain Felix Liberty who sang like a broken record in the vain effort to mimic Michael Jackson. But Onyeka’s rendition of “one love” had a special ring to it. It was the closest thing Nigeria produced that came closest to matching what the mega stars in Europe and America had to offer at the time.
Onyeka’s “One love” was original if you get my drift. It also had universal appeal because it preached love, unity and even compassion. And, until last week at least; the song seemingly cemented her legacy on the Nigerian social scene and popular culture. No party was ever considered complete without the serial play of the hit single.
That is why, even as I write this, I am still struggling to reconcile the public image of the Onyeka who sang the beautiful song that appealed to universal love and inclusiveness with the author of the shocking press statement to which she appended her signature so soon after her sacking as the Director-General of the NCWD last week.
But since she is yet to offer an official disclaimer, the millions of fans she cultivated across different religions and ethnic groups the world over since the 1980s, must come to the sobering conclusion that the news release reflect her thinking and personae. Given her feminist appeal, she was the sort of person I thought should have been in the vanguard of the “Bring Back our Girls” movement with the likes of Obi Ezekwesieli. But now we know better.
Only Onyeka can tell what went through her mind when she authorised the release of the statement. The profoundly flawed manner it was structured, made it possible for us to read between the lines. I was able to discern volumes from them particularly her loose allusion to senses of entitlement and deprival. And as I did so, a thousand thoughts sped through my mind in record time. None of them were pleasant or complimentary.
Her rant – it wasn’t more than that, in truth, if we take into account the profound hollowness of the ‘proof’ she proffered for her wild accusations - drove a twisted dagger straight at the heart of the rich legacy her single hit song bequeathed on her when she serenaded us with “One love!” It was deficit in substance and truth.
Stripped of all pretences, her unguarded vituperation actually mocked love and romanced hate. It appealed to anarchy and disunity. And; if truth must be told, even Nnamdi Kanu of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) could not have done a better job at it. It was the singular most pathetic egoistic balderdash I have read in a long while.
And that is because although Onyeka urged the federal government to check the menace of truancy in the public service among other things, the central theme of her statement was the hint at victimization in her sacking. She claimed the only reason why she was among the 26 Heads of federal government agencies flushed out last week was because of her – wait for it – “Igbonnes”. We must thank her for the latest contribution to the Nigerian political lexicon. Still, the last time I checked, the list contained names like Shola Omale, Yahaya Gusau and Ima Niboro in delicate mix of Nigerians from nearly all the geo-political zones in the country.
If her strategy was to deceive unsuspecting Nigerians, then the available facts cannot be her ally. And it was certainly the wrong era to play the politics of division of the time we so under the last administration. That era should be gone for good we must all hope.
How can she sing of love and unity only to turn around to peddle disharmony because of her personal loss? Undoubtedly, this singular episode has provided Nigerians with the inner workings of her mind we never suspected previously. Far from the charming and unassuming person her demeanour suggested, appeared like the typical dishonest Nigerian politician last week.
When Nigerian politicians commit the most heinous crimes imaginable under the sun, they don’t only sing incoherent and discordant tunes, they attempt to pervert the course of justice by deflecting attention from their mortal sins. They invariably invoke the ethnic card. Everyone else is to blame except themselves.
They allude to phantom conspiracies of rival ethnic groups even without the slightest proof to justify their allegations. They always get away with it because of the selective amnesia and incredible gullibility of Nigerians. Onyeka Onwenu sounded exactly like the worst of them.
She never convinced me that nepotism motivated her sacking. Her pathetic tale of her experience with the bureaucrats at the NCWD actually called into question the critical issue of her competence or what qualified her for the job in the first instance. And that is not to interrogate her leadership acumen. Like someone suggested in one of those online reactions, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps she should have stuck to her music career. In her statement, she virtually suggested as much.
Her leadership flaws stuck out like huge boulders in an expansive desert. When some bureaucrats under her watch somehow sabotaged three electricity generator sets to embarrass her as members of a Senate Committee came visiting, she plodded on as if nothing happened to maintain the peace. If her tale is to be believed, they were never sanctioned. She lacked the spine to deal with them. Was she running a kindergarten? Her naivety was palpable. It is either that or I have a strong suspicion that the aged diva threw her tantrum to create a distraction from an entirely different reason.
On July 25, 2015, the online media platform Premium Times reported that Onwenu’s Personal Assistant Mr. Chika Abazu, was arraigned before a Federal High Court on a six-count charge of bribery and gratification. He was subsequently remanded in prison custody pending trial for demanding and receiving the total of N17 million bribe from the contractor, although no direct evidence has so far linked Ms. Onwenu to the offence. The case is still pending but we all know how the Nigerian system works.
For the sake of her contribution to our cultural heritage, we must all unite and pray that her PA does not release his own hit song from the confines of Kuje prison any time soon. I would rather remain trapped in the 1980s time capsule when “One love” truly kept us together rather than for that to happen. For a musical icon who was used to playing before packed audiences, it would amount to a major fall from grace. And it will be entirely her own fault. It has nothing to do with her “Igbonness”.