Olu Ritchie Awoonor-Gordon: An Appreciation
I saw Olu just a little over two months ago when I was in Sierra Leone for the Xmas and New Year holidays. With his death, it now turns out that was the last time I was to see him. He and I hung out until I was to leave in mid January, but my mother died shockingly and suddenly just on the eve of my departure. Olu consoled me as only a grieving close friend would. He knew how devastated I was, but he put my loss into perspective for me because he too had lost his mother months back. He gave me needed support and told me to be strong. He ran my mother’s death announcement in his newspaper Peep! a couple of times and stayed in constant touch until the funeral and my departure at the end of January. (Photo: the late Olu Gordon)
But before my mother’s death, Olu and I spent the holidays talking ideas and projects— as we always did since we first met about thirty years ago. He wanted me to write articles and commentaries for Peep! as I always did when I was in Sierra Leone visiting or on research trips. As I write this, I still have my notes from our last meetings in his new George Street office at the building that fronts Pius Foray’s “Stop Press.” (He had relocated there, he told me, following the occupancy of the Eric James premises at the Savage/Hannah-Benka-Coker Streets intersection by James’s sister after Eric’s death).
Now that he’s dead, and as I read the notes, they seem almost prescient, telling his dying wishes to a friend. He spoke in a faint voice that lacked its usual energy, vibrancy, and confidence; his eyes were listless and hollow and lacked their normal penetrating and imposing glare. Yes, the Olu I saw in Freetown over two months ago was an ailing Olu, who just six months before had been in London for a surgical procedure. He was looking forward to go back in June for a follow-up, he told me, when he thought his health would have been restored. I’ll come back to those notes later.
I first met Olu in 1982, my first year as a student at FBC, where he lectured in the History Department. I never had him as a lecturer; Cleo Hanciles was my lecturer and it was Cleo who had invited me and some other students to the inaugural meeting of the Pan African Union (PANAFU) in Room 8 of Arts Building at FBC. Olu was at that meeting, so was late Saaba Tumoe. Among the students were Alhaji Foday Musa (“Qaddafi”), Ali Kabba, Ishmael Rashid, Mahdieu Savage, Abdul “Sparky” Mousa, Festus Harding (”Festy Natty”), Murphy Kargbobai, to name but a few I still remember. PANAFU trained us to think intellectually, politically, and radically. (I was not the committed member I could have been, and Olu always reminded me of that.)
Over the years and until his death Olu remained faithful to PANAFU ideals, in particular to the exhortation he had given us that night in Arts Building: that ideas be transformed into practice. To that goal, Olu staunchly supported PANAFU projects—from participating in teaching evening lessons at the Muslim Brotherhood School to mobilizing members to go do volunteer work at the PANAFU farm by Waterloo; (I remember the couple of Saturdays when Mahdieu and Olu ferreted me out to go work at the farm); from helping to organize the annual celebration of African Liberation Day (ALD) to leading “Free Mandela” protests and demonstrations against Western imperialism and Zionism and APC excesses; from tirelessly devoting his energy and resources to recruit new members to leading reflective study sessions at the then PANAFU headquarters at Dundas Street.
For me that night at FBC started a friendship that lasted almost a generation until Olu died on April 4. In those years, we exchanged books and ideas as well as bonded over our mutual love for history, literature, current events and Sierra Leone; we partook in some of our indulgences such as our usual thirst-quenchers at Sonny Marke as well as our favorite dish at Sabouya Restaurant: the salad; we argued in jest over who was a better dancer. (Olu always saw himself as one heck of a dancer and always reminded me, as recently as last December, that he was the best dancer of his generation at FBC).
Those bonds continued even after he, Cleo and Jimmy Kandeh, lecturers, were illegally (the courts of Sierra Leone ruled thus) expelled from FBC along with the students in the Ali Kabba purge. After FBC Olu traveled first to Canada and then to the USA; at the latter he was persuaded by political exiles to stay and join them. But Olu believed being in exile in the US was not potent enough for the sustained opposition that was needed against an oppressive one-party APC regime. Plus, he thought there were no meaningful structures in place and commitment to channel a resolute resistance to APC misrule. So he returned to Sierra Leone to devote his life to journalism and PANAFU, two realms he used in his life-long struggle for a better Sierra Leone.
Olu and I interacted at PANAFU events and in the world of journalism when he worked with Paul Kamara at For Di People while I was with Saaba Tumoe at Globe newspaper, a columnist for The New Breed and on my own later at Liberty Voice. Although I left Sierra Leone in 1993, Olu and I remained in touch, albeit intermittently.
Whether at a PANAFU meeting or in his career in journalism, Olu was guided by the truism: “speaking truth to power.” In this appreciation I want to focus on two incidents, among countless many others, where I saw him put this axiom into practice.
I remember the first incident vividly. Just two days after the NPRC coup of April 29, 1992, a prominent link to the new military leaders planned a secret meeting with the coup makers and select journalists and civic organization groups deemed to be progressive. That meeting was May 1st 1992 at Kabassa Lodge, Juba Hill, which then was the military seat of government as well as the residence of its leader, Valentine Strasser. I was at the meeting as were Olu, Mahdieu, Saaba Tumoe, Martin Mondeh, (and some who will remain nameless because of their current political alignments in the country and who may not like to be identified here). Once at the Lodge, we waited briefly in a room on the second floor before a retinue of young soldiers all clad in military fatigues led by the imposing Strasser, Chairman of the NPRC and Head of State, walked in.
After the introductions, Strasser spoke to us, mostly in clichés, explaining the reason for the coup and the dawn of a “revolution” in Sierra Leone. On hearing the word revolution, Olu raised his hand and asked this question: Could Strasser explain what he meant by
revolution? Strasser was visibly surprised, probably for what he thought was either a rude or challenging question. He tried to answer Olu’s question but ended using generalizations. Olu then retorted by telling Strasser and his assembled soldiers that to him a revolution is people power, not military power. There were restrained murmurs of disapproval from some of them but Olu proceeded and asked the bombshell question of the meeting: What were the plans of the NPRC to hand back power to civilians? (As far as I could tell, Olu was the first person ever to demand of the NPRC to return the country to civilian rule just two days after the coup.)
Of course this question did not go down well with the assembled military leadership. Strasser got into a tirade about how the civilian rulers had mismanaged the country through corruption, squandered its resources, and betrayed its national security which had resulted in the on-going rebel war where poorly armed soldiers were being killed and wounded. At this point, and to the surprise of all of us present, Strasser got up from his chair and took off first his boots and then his military pants and, with his white underwear only on, showed us the lacerated part on his upper (right?) leg where a bullet from a rebel’s gun was lodged. That bullet in his body was a mark to show how soldiers, like him, were making sacrifices for the country. But Olu did not let that moment of “marking as a symbol” of the “revolution” or national sacrifice pass, and he reminded Strasser that there were civilians in that room as well as around the country and overseas who were carrying their own invincible marks just for resisting the APC. That meeting did not end acrimoniously, but we left it with an unresolved tension and suspicions.
That began the oppositional stance Olu took with the NPRC, a standpoint that was to last until the demise of that government. He persistently excoriated the anti-revolutionary tendencies of the NPRC in his column in For Di People. Had Olu wanted, he would have landed any top position that would have catapulted him to national prominence in this military government he impugned and lampooned. (In fact, just two or so days after the Lodge meeting, Olu was among a few civilians, me included, invited to join the military leaders for a top-secret overnight trip to Ghana to meet with Jerry Rawlings at Osu Castle in Accra. Rawlings had sent a plane for that trip. Olu declined. I did not go either. Two months later Olu, me, and some civilians were invited to join one of the NPRC strongmen to go meet with Qaddafi in Libya, but we declined even before that trip was canceled because of internal opposition to it by some in the NPRC.)
Indeed the NPRC, or some segments in it, made overtures to Olu to land him a position. Olu had a link to the NPRC in one of the coup makers, Tom Nyuma. Before he became a soldier, Tom was a devoted and studious PANAFU member who had been captivated by the capaciousness of Olu’s knowledge about history, radicalism, revolutions and grassroots mobilization. Tom (who I know will be utterly shocked and devastated if not traumatized by Olu’s death) has always credited Olu as one of the most important contributors to his political education and consciousness.
There was no one Tom more idolized and respected than Olu; and there was no civilian Tom more wanted to be part of the NPRC than Olu. He saw in Olu the revolutionary spirit and radical ideas that could be galvanized for the NPRC. At first, Tom wanted Olu to head a national think-tank that was to focus on grassroots mobilization, youth empowerment, etc. to support the NPRC. Olu declined. Tom, who was then the NPRC Secretary of State for the Eastern Province, next offered Olu the position of Head of the NPRC Secretariat in that province. What Tom desired most was for the Eastern Province to be the model of the NPRC “revolution,” and the one person he thought could help him accomplish this was Olu. He wanted Olu to relocate to Kenema. But Olu rebuffed this offer also. In spite of these rejections, Tom and Olu remained close friends to his dying day. This was in spite of the fact that Tom was one of the constant targets in Olu’s denouncements of NPRC excesses. (In fact Tom’s name is in my notes because Olu and I talked about him in January.)
The second incident where I witnessed Olu “speaking truth to power” happened in 2008, and it related to President Ernest Koroma. In February 2008 (I was spending half of my 2007-2008 Sabbatical Leave in Sierra Leone), a former college friend leaked to me a confidential World Bank Report about the Koroma government’s contract with two Independent Power Producers, the infamous of the two being Income Electrix Ltd. The Report stated in unequivocal terms that the deal was corrupt and counterproductive to the economic sustainability of the country. Simply, it undermined the two claims Koroma had based his new government on: first, that he’s going to run the country “like a business” and, second, there are “no sacred cows” (when it comes to dealing with corruption) in his government. I shared the report with Olu, who urged me to write an opinion piece on it, which I did, entitled “Ernest Koroma’s Voodoo Economics: No Way to Run a Business.” Olu published the piece on the front page of the February 20, 2008 edition of Peep!, coincidentally that was the first day IMF, ADB and World Bank
officials began a week-long visit to the country to evaluate Koroma’s economic policies. Peep! was a best seller (it always is) that day even attracting the attention of the foreign visitors.
When I stopped that day at Olu’s office he asked me to guess who had called him that morning. I guessed but could not come with the right one. To humor him I said “Jesus!” He let out that cynical Olu laugh, looked at me, and said: “Bo na Ernest.” He said President Koroma called to tell him he had the article and was going to address the issues it raised. He explained to me the constructive conversation about corruption and other matters he and Ernest had that day. Feeling elated, Olu ended by saying, “Now Ernest done begin listen.”
In both instances examples, Olu avoided calling attention to himself, but focused on issues instead. Moreover, he refused to compromise on matters he believed were fundamental to national progress; he also didn’t kowtow.
Olu had a reputation for being a quick, efficient, smart, independent, and mesmerizing thinker. Because of his background in history, political activism, and journalism, he was an impeccable analyst. He combined the observational skills of a journalist and the inquisitiveness of the satirist, the perspectives of the historian and the objectivity of the scholar to offer complex, and not superficial, analyses of our national predicaments. Olu was an engaging polemicist. His intellectual mien was enviable and he demonstrated that in the two areas he devoted his life to the most: history and journalism
Those who knew and worked with Olu cannot fail to appreciate his affinity with history, particularly the dynamics of African history. He was unwavering in his approach to African solutions to African problems. His historical range was broad and wide; he saw in history the workable paradigms that can lead to change in society. Olu was a visionary who used lessons of the minuses and pluses from the past to identify the needs of our present and lay the foundation for our future.
He was a journalist’s journalist who believed in the medium as the weapon to fight oppression, corruption, exploitation, violence, and social, economic, political, gender and class injustices and inequities. Thoughtful and eloquent, he was also a sophisticated, terrific and fearless writer. He used journalism in his crusading call to transform the country into a more egalitarian place. He was a forceful and stalwart advocate and defender of peoples’ rights. His beliefs in and fight for the oppressed and the subaltern were truly his passions. Because he considered himself oppressed and a subaltern, he believed their fight was his battle. For this reason, he demonstrated in his journalism career courage and resilience in the face of persecutions and jail times.
He gave his life to the profession, in fact literally I think. Although Olu was sick, and I advised him throughout my stay to go back to London for a check-up before the June appointment, he was adamant and insistent in telling me he was feeling better. His concern was for the fate of the paper if he left it in the hands of others. He told me how he came back from his earlier London trip only to meet the paper in shambles. I reminded him that the paper could always wait and that his health was my concern. But he shrugged me off by asking “leh den go buy stout for you?”
Peep! is (Olu is dead; hopefully the paper will not) a feisty paper that employs an informative mix of satire and hard news, insightful analyses, and probing commentaries. Peep! has its own sense of penetrating humor, but behind the humor was Olu the combative and hard-hitting journalist willing to posit radical views as well as stoke controversial positions. His lampoons were all about his beloved Sierra Leone, a country he wrote about satirically with wry or sardonic humor. Peep! envisions a Sierra Leone that exudes possibilities as well as integrity. As the voice of the discontent, at times its tone sounds like a mad man raging against a culture of excesses and unbridled corruption.
Olu was a part of the defining moments of our generation. As a journalist and an activist he was a recorder of as well as a participant in the defining moments of that generation, which came of age in the 1977 students’ strike. He was also the conscience of our generation. His concerns and beliefs—resistance through radicalism; political change through the reorganization of knowledge; eradicate corruption, injustice and inequality in Sierra Leone; civic engagement; build a coalition and empower the disenfranchised through collective action to transform the country and achieve its democratic promise, etc.—were those of that generation as well. He had no patience with conventions; in fact he defied them and saw in them the causes for our paralyses. Olu also lacked respect for unquestioned authority because he saw it as the making of a dictator. His radical instincts and dispositions always made him suspicious of authority and conventions. Olu was an iconoclast; for most of his life he was the outspoken maverick who was a constant irritant to the ruling class.
What motivated Olu? His struggle to see a more egalitarian Sierra Leone is a more obvious response. But the complexity of that motivation could perhaps be gleaned from the title of his paper, Peep! (note the exclamation point). Olu had used “Peep” and “City Peep” as rubrics for his For Di People columns. In general, peep can mean to cry, or to pry. As the former, Peep! was Olu’s short, soft, high-pitched raging cry against the politics and culture that exploited and dehumanized Sierra Leoneans. As a pry, Peep! was Olu’s furtive peek and glance, quick and secret (for peeping always involves restrictions and dangers), into the inequities and injustices of his corrupt country. Olu took on those restrictions and dangers fearlessly. In addition, to Peep is an act of emerging from a hiding place or becoming partly visible. Peep! was therefore Olu’s bold statement that we must emerge from hiding to fight the battles for Sierra Leone as well as be visible to stake our positions in that struggle.
Peep is the act of unmasking and revealing. In that sense, to peep is to transgress, break the law or to cross or redraw boundaries Peep! was Olu’s perception of journalism as transgression. For him, the journalist must peep in order to dismantle barriers, prohibitions and restrictions and disrupt the enforced silence of the status quo. It is in that sense that peeping is a subversion and violation of the dominant, oppressive ideology. For Olu as long as peeping is in the interest of the majority, it must be deployed to sabotage that ideology. Olu saw the transgression and subversion of peeping as redeeming and transcending qualities against the prohibitions and restrictions in his oppressive society.
Now to those notes. Our last times seemed to show that Olu was extraordinarily prescient; here are the three projects he and I agreed on to do:
- Write reflective and critical series on the 50th Independence anniversary celebrations. The series would reproduce articles from past and present newspapers to contextualize and illustrate how and why those 50 years were a lost opportunity. Olu believed that there was nothing to celebrate about; instead we should reflect on our paralyses and backwardness.
- Write the definitive paper or monograph on NPRC rule. He believed that moment in Sierra Leone history should not pass without documentation by some of us who witnessed it at close range. He was of the opinion that he and I possessed vital information about the regime we could collate and produce as a historical report. Olu and I had started to talk about this since 2004, but there was an extreme urgency that we complete this project this year when we talked about it in January. Tom Nyuma should be a resource person for this project and Olu would interview him before my next trip to Sierra Leone in the summer. (Olu always pointed me to a file in his office that he told me contained his notes on the NPRC. I hope that folder be preserved by the family.)
- This project is the most clairvoyant, I believe. Olu told me he was concerned about his collection of Peep! stored in his office. He had been preserving a master-copy of every edition of the paper since the first publication, but was worried that their manner of storage was unsatisfactory and wanted to preserve them for future generations in some other format. I suggested we scan and digitalize them so that we could eventually download them on the paper’s website. He liked this idea very much. I promised him I would undertake the project during my next Sierra Leone visit which would have coincided with his return from his medical check-up in June. This project was close to Olu’s heart, and I plan to carry on with my promise with the permission and agreement with his surviving family. For those of us who knew this man and respected him, I think the best way we could memorialize Olu, and I believe the best way he would want to be remembered, is to preserve what he gave his life for: Peep! But first we have to preserve the papers. If you have information how we could start this contact me at email@example.com
For those of us who knew Olu, we are forever richer that we did; that we were drawn to the sharpness of his mind, his ambiguities, moodiness, and the high price he paid for his integrity as well as his principles. May Olu’s soul rest in peace.
By Patrick S. Bernard: Patrick is Associate Professor & Chair, Department of English, Franklin & Marshall College. Lancaster, PA, USA.)
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