By Patrick-Jude Oteh
It is the end of another era in Nigerian history. We won’t discuss his politics as it has never been a problem in our friendship, I would rather describe Alhaji BOT as a writer and an artist.
Our paths connected in 2015 when, in the heady days of our performances in Abuja, one of our ardent supporters and supporters, Alhaji Bilya Bala, whom I had always known, asked us to meet Alhaji Bashir Tofa. It was kind of an invitation.
Let me state for the record and for this tribute to a good and worthy friend that early in the history of our company we worked extensively at the British Council, Kano, located along Emir’s Palace Road. Many of our previous artists have loved Kano, including CNN’s award-winning African travel journalist Pelu Awofeso. The British Council at Emir’s Palace Road was kind of a performance and exhibition mecca and we met a lot of really interesting people and got a lot of creativity in there too. The amphitheater has been a performance delight at all times, especially with the creation of Our House, Chinua Achebe’s performance of Things Fall Apart adapted for the stage by Biyi Bandele, the initial creative exploration of works from the novel d ‘Adam Zameenzad, My Friend Matt and Hena the Whore and later Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman performance. It was also the scene of performances by Benjamin Zephaniah, poet, writer, singer and rights activist, who gave a thunderous performance with JRT in the audience as guests.
Alhaji BOT’s invitation was quite simple. The invitation came from Alhaji Bilya Bala who, in reality, was all in one with Alhaji BOT – a friend with whom Alhaji BOT formed many political discussions and advisory groups, did a lot of charity work and engaged in intellectual activities as well as mutual love. for the arts and hobbies! Alhaji BOT’s father was an influential and titled man. He was the Zannan Kano who made sure his son was well read by studying in Sudan, Egypt and the UK. This made Alhaji BOT a very courteous, cosmopolitan and well-travelled man who was at home in any part of the world. It was Alhaji Bilya Bala who told me that Alhaji BOT was also an accomplished playwright and novelist. Now that ticked me off.
Alhaji Bashir Tofa, novelist and playwright? I found that strange.
Appointments were made and we left for Kano. But before we made the trip, a drama happened which opened a view into the vast mind of Alhaji BOT. We discussed the upcoming trip on the phone and he was always very welcoming, friendly and good-natured and I always found that odd as he was always described in the press as ‘taciturn and very hard to reach’! He was always warm and very polite to us and our efforts. That day there was a confusion in the dates and I received a call from him one evening that he was expecting us in Kano the next day. I was a bit confused and said “Sir, we are not expected in Kano until next week”. He said “No, my appointment book tells me you are due tomorrow”. I asked him to please double check as all of our plans had been made for the following week. I was not traveling alone, rather I had a team during this first visit and there were six of us.
Early the next morning I got another call from Alhaji BOT who asked me if we had left and I said no and the next day I found out he started apologizing abundantly. He was sorry for the confusion and he had a trip for the following week but he was going to wait until after our visit! I was surprised by this kind of humility and being so candid with someone you hadn’t met before. The following week, we were leaving for Kano. We arrived at the vast Ruqayya house and he was already seated. It was the meeting where I saw the very bright mind of a man who had been relegated to the role of a career politician.
It is interesting to note that in our time, when you are thrown into the role of a politician and of such a profile, you are almost in the mold of a “deal-man”, illiterate and ignorant of so many facts. In the case of Alhaji BOT, it was a misclassification. We encountered a witty mind, a sharp intellect and who laughed very easily. He was at home with us and enlightened us on his writing styles, vast knowledge of literature, and vast knowledge of the works of William Shakespeare. It was cross-variance in what was out there in the open market of ideas.
We met an astute and quick-witted, poet, novelist and playwright who could write in English and then either translated his works into Hausa or wrote correctly in Hausa. Later I was to ask him about it and he was to explain that he had decided very early in his writing career that he wanted to write for the common man because he had discovered as a teacher that his people had little or no access to extensive reading materials. Also, much of the material available was inaccessible to millions of them and he wanted to rectify that. There was also the question of language where he approached with great fluidity and enthusiasm the works of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the possibility of using writing to decolonize the mind and attitudes.
On a tour of the sprawling Ruqayya House, he took us to the heart of what was the sprawling headquarters of the now defunct Republican National Convention (NRC) from where he continued his campaign against the Social Democratic Party (SDP) MKO Abiola in the run-up to the annulled election of General Ibrahim Babangida on June 12, 1993. Jokingly, he asked me “Patrick, where were you in 1993?” And he started laughing and I said “Sir, interestingly, I was already in Jos finishing my postgraduate studies.” He simply replied “Oh”. Then we entered the vast media space of his campaign headquarters. Or rather the remains of it. He was very sad when he told us the story of the media headquarters. He had commissioned Peter Igho of the NTA era to set it up and he had received clear instructions. Alhaji BOT requested that the media headquarters be updated with modern and state-of-the-art facilities! They had the best in terms of sophistication and they had OB Vans. He told us that the idea then was to produce whatever mass messaging they could as soon as possible. Unfortunately, after the elections and the consequences of the cancellation, much of the material was not returned. He said he felt bad about it and eventually one of the OB Vans was located somewhere down South. Then he burst out laughing again and he never told us why he was laughing.
Turning to me he then said that he then opened up the studios to the clubbing Kannywood film industry when they first started and they had a schedule. You book and use one of the facilities at no cost, but again, according to him, “human beings will always be human beings”. This was abused and some of the material was not returned, so he closed the media headquarters. He told us he hadn’t been there for about two years and what he wanted us to do was strip the whole studio – take it all and said jokingly even if you can strip the walls! We were in a dilemma and very confused. There was studio equipment, keyboards, editing rooms, sound cards and it was simply inexhaustible. The look on my face was one of incomprehension – he repeated, take it all! This is how Alhaji BOT gifted our organization nearly 10 million naira worth of equipment in the blink of an eye! We came to Kano that day with one vehicle, left with three vehicles, and the following week another truck came back to pick up the remaining items.
By then he had left us and returned to the office. By the time part of the team returned to the office, he had prepared a gift box for us of almost all of his writings. It was a calligraphy of all thoughts – stories of love, of human personality, tales of the unexpected and even of astrology and the effects of the stars on our destinies. Years later, the idea was to transform these stories into scenarios for which we would both agree on the logistics of the representation and the translation which was very dear to him, in particular Gajerun Labarai. Sadly, that didn’t happen until he passed away on January 3, 2022. He was just 74 years old. He gave us eight books, but at last count he had written twelve different books on different subjects! As he had proclaimed in one of our discussions, he wanted to use his retirement for a nobler cause. I know he found a lot of relief in writing and I commented on this because his personal office at Ruquayya House was a kind of writing paradise. He had converted part of it into a rich library comparable only to the Nobles. There were books of all shades and tints and he spoke of them with fervor and eloquence. It was what has now become our last discussion that I reminded him of the fact that I felt politics had done him a terrible disservice. Maybe he needed to talk more or engage in literary pursuits. In all humility, he simply replied, “Patrick, I did my part. Your generation should take what is left”
I always told him he needed to change the narrative of being typecast as a politician who lost to MKO Abiola because I felt he had a more interesting story and trajectory as a literary person, but his answer was always very simple – Patrick, What can I do? It’s their opinion but it doesn’t change who I am.
May your noble soul find rest with the Almighty. And may your family, friends and colleagues find comfort in the worthy and magnanimous legacy you have left behind.
Oteh is the artistic director of the Jos Repertory Theater