By John Otim, novelist and journalist

Student ReadingThe dalliance with the Strongman was bound to backfire.  Soon Ali Mani found himself on the run. For a while he taught at the University of Illinois. He worked hard. Churned out publications like crazy. Became a popular and a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit. Soon he moved on to an Ivy League college as head of the Institute of Globality. Ali Mani had arrived. But now he was on his way back to Africa.

He came to deliver a series of well-crafted lectures on three Nigerian campuses. The series was meant to introduce him to the country as the preeminent African voice in international affairs. Dr Aziz, a lecturer at the Ahmed Barak, arranged the show. Aziz had been a student of Ali Mani at the prestigious Great Lakes University. Ali Mani was at first reluctant to come. And said no. But Aziz convinced him.

“Man! It is fifteen years since you been gone. Fifteen years is a long-time man!” Aziz wrote in an email. “You need the tender caress of Mother Africa!” Aziz wrote. “You need to eat okra and pounded yam again.” Aziz wrote. “You need to renew your African credentials!” Aziz wrote. “Nigeria is just the place to begin.” Mani agreed to come.

Ali Mani was not a shy man. At first encounter, he would let you know how good he was. How different he was. Not a rank and file professor. He was not yet the intellectual super star he would soon become. But a super star he did become. ‘Seek and ye shall find!’ Ali Mani was a seeker.

The Marxist campus at the Ahmed Barak knew about Ali Mani and prepared for him. Two weeks before his arrival, the library put up a show of Ali Mani’s publications. Impressive. Scholarly texts. Learned articles in learned journals. A fake novel about the Nigerian civil war. A poetry anthology. A couple of plays about the African condition.

“Show me one social scientist in the field today who can range like I do!” (Ali Mani had boasted). The collection included pictorials of Ali Mani at international venues. And a magazine article Ali Mani wrote on Kwame Nkrumah. He lambasted the great man. The piece provoked international outrage, but it was well received in some quarters. It was the outcome Ali Mani wanted. Now his name was out there. The journey to stardom had begun. He was only 26.

It was not clear whether Dr. Aziz, a man who held Nkrumah in great esteem, was now setting up his old teacher so that others may have a go at him. Ali Mani made enemies. It was all in the game. It grabbed attention. It made news. Ali Mani loved that.

Today, Professor Mani’s theme was Africa and the World. He loved grandiose themes. Once on stage, the one place Mani loved to be, Mani rejected the use of the microphone they offered him. His booming voice was a huge part of his charm, and he knew it.

Mani wasted no time. He knew he was on a Marxist campus. He liked that. He loved to bait Marxists. Years ago, a visiting Marxist scholar bested him on his own turf before his own crowd. He felt humiliated. But his sense of humor saw him through. Now he was going to use it.

Oh, mother oh mother why was I born black?

It was Mani’s opening line. He meant to provoke. He threw everything into the works. His robust frame, his ragged good looks, his golden voice, his quick wit. He was going to squeeze the last drop of juice out of those words the poet wrote. Yes, they were borrowed words. 

The poet, an African, a man of great sarcasm, had used the line in pretended self-mockery. His purpose was to shame African youth into abandoning the aping of all things white in preference to things African. Ali Mani borrowed the words, but he cut out the irony. He brought in the seriousness and the sternness of one who meant every word he spoke.

The tantrum! It amounted to a tantrum. The tantrum paid off. His audience expected the flow of narratives. He gave them this!

“What we need,” Ali Mani offered, “is a recolonization of the continent. Self-government has failed.”

“Recolonization!” “Does he mean it?” “Is he pulling our legs?” They did not know. It was the result Ali Mani wanted. Get them dazed. Get them crazed. And then strike! A clean swift blow that decapitated the head at once.

From where he sat in the big hall, Aziz had this smile upon his face. He knew his campus colleagues.  He knew their mind. He knew Ali Mani (his old teacher). He knew what was coming. In that split second, Ali Mani launched himself.

“Are we Africans fated to be our own grave diggers? Look at the mess we have made of Africa.

“Are we about to settle for another round of humiliation?” Ali Mani appeared to contradict himself.

“Slavery, colonization, and now neo-colonialism! Are these not enough?” he asked.

“Why must we go on about how Europe underdeveloped Africa? We have had time to turn things around. Haven’t we?

“Look at the indolence! Look at the inefficiency! Look at the corruption and the theft of public funds! “We have turned the most habitable of continents into the most hostile environment on earth.” Harsh words! But they were true.

Hearing him speak, a professor of history, a respected academic, wanted so badly to challenge him. There and then. She opened her mouth. But no words would come. It was as though someone had stripped her of words altogether. Ali Mani thundered on.

“Comrades!” The Leninist word was a slap on the face of his Marxist opponents. “Comrades!” he repeated, “not all is lost!” he was blowing hot and cold.

“Comrades!” another slap. “You must stop crying foul! Stop mistaking every shadow. Every falling twig. For a nonexistent enemy.” He was now flogging them on the butts. Mani enjoyed combat. “Let us change tact! And all shall be well. Africa is blessed.

“Look at me!” When you thought he was done, Ali Mani had another thing coming.

 “Look at me! I am among the many Africans now working in the West in positions of great visibility.” Visibility, habitability, he just loved those sounds.

“Let us use this opportunity”, Ali Mani pressed on, “to bombard the West with our own message. The West has penetrated Africa for far too long. Let us counter penetrate the West!”

Scholars assembled in the great hall of learning on this great African campus, looked at their man. They heard his big roar.

Aziz surveyed the audience. He knew what was happening. He had seen this before. Aziz pulled out his old camera and began shooting. He wanted to capture the pure sense of amazement now prevalent in the hall.

“Let us!” Ali Mani spotted Aziz moving in the crowd with his camera. For a milli-second their eyes locked. “Let us”, he continued, let us bombard the West with our own message. Let us counter-penetrate the West.” The image of Ali Mani and his gang of counter-penetrators in the heat of action, was something else.

“Bombard the West! You say? Sir, what with?” A new voice in the hall. The woman had found her voice.

“What, Sir!” The woman continued. She was in breach of protocol. But what did it matter?

“What” she demanded, “are you going to penetrate the West with?”

All eyes were now upon her. She stood there dark and tall in the middle of the hall. She gazed directly at the guest speaker.

“Poetry, drama, even melodrama. All have their place.” She continued. “Words have power” she said. “None of us would be here if it weren’t so. We deal in words. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that, it takes more than words to dislodge entrenched interests! Professor Ali Mani, knows this”

She deplored Ali Mani’s sexist views. “Your fixation, Sir, on penetration and counter-penetration in a venue like this one, is unfortunate.” She called into question, his intentions. She said the tone and substance of his speech were misleading.  She seemed now to address the man directly.

“Out there,” she said “There are dangers. Real dangers.” She said. “Not mere shadows or twigs” she said. “Only in acknowledging the dangers that we as a people face together”, she said. “Only in doing our best to understand these dangers”, she said. “Only then will we find a way to deal with them. We may want to. But we cannot wish them away.”

Her intervention caused an uproar. It breached the spiders’ net that Ali Mani had so skillfully woven around the audience. Soon Dr. Aziz, the image of civility, beaming and standing beside the now inscrutable Ali Mani. Soon Dr. Aziz was proposing a vote of thanks to what he called “this great son of Africa”.

(Excerpts from a forthcoming novel, STRONGMAN, by John Otim. The image shows an All Saints University Student reading a preview copy).