T. M. Aluko’s valedictory novel is a take on the souls saving brigade
Writers never retire. For a man in his nineties in 2009, T.M. Aluko had a very alert mind, and came up with a new novel that bore benedictory testimony to his venerated craft. Our Born Again President, a 218-page novel of TM Aluko published Heinemann Educational Books Ibadan (HEBN), teems with intrigues in the affairs of state.
The book tells the compelling story of David Tanbata, who leads his country to independence and later becomes transformed in a Pentecostal manner not unlike the Biblical Saul-turned-Paul on the road to Damascus. It is crucial to stress here that Aluko suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side and he perforce learnt to write with the left hand in grand old age!
Aluko who had his early training as an engineer had a well-earned reputation as one of the legends of African writing in English, having published some six novels in the esteemed African Writers Series (AWS) of yore. Back in 1959 he published his first novel One Man, One Wife. His first title to be published in the AWS was One Man, One Matchet which hilariously satirizes the conflict between a “black white man” District Officer (DO) and the journalist-cum-politician Benjamin. His first novel was later reissued as his second title in the AWS. His third novel Kinsman and Foreman is a swipe on double-dealing civil servants in the then Western Nigeria. The next novel, Chief the Honourable Minister, lampoons the career of a Minister who started out in life as a schoolmaster. This was followed by His Worshipful Majesty, and of course Wrong Ones in the Dock in which Gilbert Bassey swings the axe that kills his mother only for Jonathan and the son to be arrested for committing the crime!
He had also published other titles such as Conduct Unbecoming, First Year at State College and his autobiography The Story of My Life.
Born in 1918 at Ilesa, Aluko was educated at the famous Government College, Ibadan. He served as the Director of Public Works for Western Nigeria after studying Civil Engineering and Town Planning in Lagos and London. An avid believer in the power of knowledge, he furthered his studies earning M.Sc. in Public Health Engineering from the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1969 and capped it all in 1976 with a Ph.D. from the University of Lagos where he would eventually retire in 1979 as Associate Professor.
Like Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, Aluko’s Our Born Again President limns the lives in power of three friends who had been schoolmates at Rivierian Boys High School, Cocotown, some 15 years before. The narrator Stephen who serves as secretary brings to bear on the lives of David Tanbata and Michael Atobatele who had been his prefects in the school an insider’s insight. After graduating from high school Tanbata and Atobatele worked briefly in the civil service before surfacing in the “United States of America where they were working as taxi-drivers during the day and were studying during the night.” Michael returned to Nigeria first, teaching Biology in his hometown school. David returned three years after him, a wealthy man whose wealth “apparently was based on drug trafficking.” He attacks the indoctrination of British education and this endears him to the idealistic students and young lecturers of the University of Riviera.
His foray into nationalistic politics brings him into antagonism with the white Scotsman Governor Sir Angus McFarlane. It was a brave new world poised on change: “Our country Rivieria was on the very last lap of the race to independence from Britain. The Commonwealth Office in London had decided that they would not repeat with us the bitter experience they had in India and Kenya and Gold Coast, since christened Ghana. They already had on their conscience enough Ghandis and Kenyattas and Nkrumahs and the y did no want to add any Rivierans to the list of political martyrs and heroes.
Tanbata who was named Premier before independence is accused of corruption by an opposition legislator and Governor McFarlane tries to force his resignation. Tanbata is accused of enriching his supposed wife Josephine only for us to later learn in the novel that he has his real wife in Debbie who had actually given birth to his heir David Tanbata Jnr. The wily Tanbata outfoxes Governor McFarlane and wins power, using the likes of his Man Friday Littleman John whom he promotes to Director of Intelligence. Tanbata would eventually meet his match in the fiery preacher Peter Bolade of the Mount Carmel Pentecostal Church.
It is in this church that Tanbata witnesses a life-changing experience and thus becomes a born-again Christian: “Before his controversial meeting with the Lord at Mount Carmel First Baptist Church, he seldom spoke of God except in a combination of swear words.” His new lease of life culminates in his reunion in holy matrimony with his estranged wife Debbie on March 12, 1974 at the Mount Carmel Church: “Also that day, David Tanbata and his son David Tanbata Jr. knew each other for the first time. There were tears of joy all round.”
Aluko’s cautionary tale is tailor-made for these days of signs and wonders. Religion tends to play a heightened role in the lives of man when one’s destination is nearer than where one is coming from. Our Born Again President is told in the Aluko fashion, shunning all affectation. He tells the truth as he sees it.
There are however some editing errors such that we do not know whether the name of the country is “Riviera” or “Rivieria”. Even so, the dead but immortal T.M. Aluko has given the world and posterity another testament that a great man passed through these shores.