Friday, 30 August 2013

Work in progress 2

I first met Prince when he introduced himself to me as I was walking past a bungalow in the close. I had allowed him to catch my eye because I had just then embarked on the 1999 election handbook and had noticed a party flag and some posters on the front wall but the place was always deserted. It turned out that he was the campaign manager for one of the state gubernatorial candidates, although it didn’t appear that his man was overly serious about his political ambitions, perhaps because the eventual winner was already known (internal democracy being considered a foreign endearment, as I was discovering in my researches) and was simply positioning himself for his own slice of the national cake baked in the swampy heat of the oil-producing Niger Delta that had caused Saro-Wiwa to be hanged. There was a chair, a table and an outdated newspaper in one of the three bedrooms that passed for his office. The rest of the flat was bare.
Moreover, since it soon transpired that his aspirant never actually paid him for his services (a common enough practice with many Nigerian employers, as I came to understand), and there wasn’t in any case very much for him to do, he was forever on the lookout for other means of getting by. As it also happened, I needed someone to visit all the registered party offices to collect whatever literature they had that I could use. Moving around Lagos was difficult enough, then as now - too many vehicles, too few roads, no alternatives despite the city’s extensive waterways - and there were twenty-six of them altogether, although they were eventually whittled down to three in order to satisfy so-called national spread, meaning that they had to have a presence in two-thirds of the thirty-six states, plus the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, where they were also to have their head office. In a country with too many languages, too many ethnicities and too many religions this meant, in effect, that the minorities and special interest groups who between them comprise half the total population were excluded from representation by the so-called Big Three, much to Prince’s approval. ‘The minorities will have their say but the majorities will have their way,’ was how he put it and laughed when I muttered something about fascism. Prince was nothing if not reactionary, in politics as in everything else.
Prince is dead now. It seems he had a heart attack in the middle of the night and it took too long to get him to the hospital. I wasn’t surprised when I heard. He would have been about sixty then, the same age I am now, and I hadn’t seen him since he had become a nuisance in his own turn but it was perhaps a wonder that he lived as long as he did. He was just above middle height, with the physique of an athlete - he told me he had been an amateur boxer in his youth - but for his stomach, which was the biggest I have ever seen on anybody. Whenever he exerted himself - and he wasn’t one to do things by half: ‘What is worth doing at all is worth doing well,’ was one of his popular refrains - his laboured breathing pointed to the problem which killed him. Not that he was disturbed by what some might have considered a self-inflicted deformity. On the contrary, he lolled about bare-chested whenever he was indoors and I never had the impression that he thought it a sexual turn-off, if only because he regarded the women he openly salivated over - which is to say, almost any woman who crossed his path - as sex objects and nothing more.
‘Look at that, the devil walking on hind legs,’ he once said with sudden fierceness when a comely woman strolled by as we sat drinking beer on the front balcony where Ngozi had once kept her generator that she refused to move. His vehemence took even him by surprise because he suddenly giggled and said something to the effect that he hadn’t had a screw in ages, although he needn’t have worried on my score.
Prince was also reliable, if expensive. He liked nothing better than a clear brief, although a good number of the party offices he visited when he embarked on the first of the many assignments I gave him over the years that we were together turned out to be either bogus - a rented room where nobody ever turned up after the registration exercise and the landlord looking for the balance of his rent - or were reluctant to part with their manifestos (assuming they had one) because Oga was not ‘on seat’. At the end of each day, he would fetch the beers from the woman down the road - ‘You can send an old man a message but don’t tell him to run,’ he would invariably quip - before settling down to read all six newspapers I bought every day as I worked away on the balcony overlooking the school in the adjoining compound where the young male teacher took erotic delight in spanking the bottoms of his adolescent female charges. By and by, I felt confident enough to entrust him with extending my Nigerian passport.
‘They thought you were a Lebanese,’ he said when he returned some hours later and told me how he had found someone in the office who spoke his language and all was sorted. It also happened to coincide with the day Ngozi was supposed to have been evicted and he could see that I was agitated so I brought him up to speed. He was shocked when I told him that the Alhaji was also a tenant.
‘The Alhaji!’ he exclaimed. ‘But I thought he was the owner of the building. That is what he has been telling people.’
‘Which people?’
‘Everybody,’ he said. ‘He is a big man, you know. He used to be a socialite. Whenever he went to a party he would spray more than anyone else, although they didn’t know he was using condemned money from his office that should have been destroyed but which he packed into his house in beer cartons. Chief Ebenezer Obey even wrote a song about him. I have the cassette; I’ll bring it for you to listen.’ He shook his head. ‘He is a big man,’ he continued. ‘Whenever he threw a party in those days he would block the entire close and nobody could complain. He has many houses. I know of at least one in A_.’ He mentioned a place where the gutters overflowed whenever it rained because the state government was tardy about clearing the canals, which invariably filled up quickly with the household rubbish which the state government was equally tardy about collecting, although it should also be said that Lagosians, many of them from other states come to make money in one of the world’s fastest growing cities, were careless of their surroundings, careless about littering the already dirty environment.
‘So he can move into it whenever he wants,’ I said.
He shook his head emphatically. ‘Alhaji can’t go and live there,’ he said, making a face. ‘The place is too far and there are too many armed robbers. He is only renting it.’ He laughed. ‘Anyway, the building has no bathroom or toilet. He wanted to save money. The tenants have to go and shit in the bush behind.’ He paused. ‘And now he’s gone and fallen on bad luck,’ he added dramatically.
‘Haven’t you noticed that he no longer has his official car?’ I had noticed – one vehicle less was cause for celebration – but hadn’t thought anything of it.
‘They sacked him,’ he added.
‘They said he tried to embezzle five million.’
‘Just before you returned from England.’ He shook his head. ‘He was due for retirement soon. Now he has lost everything – gratuity, pension, everything. He should have got at least one million handshake after all his years of service. They say he is going up and down to Abuja begging them to turn his dismissal into retirement but they will never do that. Government doesn’t change its mind. I should know; I was in the system for nineteen years.’
© Adewale Maja-Pearce
Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,
and Dream Chasers.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's page:

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