Jonathan and Sam: Two Books, One Message


Before The Human Flow was published, Jonathan, one of Europe’s most accomplished foreign affairs columnists and journalists, had talked with excitement about the book. It was his first novel. Like a woman who became pregnant when she thought she was past child-bearing, Jonathan, 82, couldn’t wait to make Mary Wesley look like a child prodigy.

Sam Omatseye’s book, Beating All the Odds: Diaries and Essays on How Tinubu Became President, on the other hand, is part diary, part essay. The diary would have been difficult to script even if a fiction writer had tried to imagine the outcome of events in the months leading up to the 2023 general elections in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

The thing about diaries is that you never know. When the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), a legacy member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) was compiling A Witness to History, for example, the party could not have imagined that it was writing the final chapters of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government that had lost its way for good.

This gift of the unknown is also exemplified in The Diary of a Young Girl, the story of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl caught up in the turmoil of the Second World War, but who in spite of it produced a diary that has become both a record of history and also a work of moral philosophy.

Damned either way
From the first part of Sam’s 349-page book, it’s improbable that he knew exactly which way the wind would blow when he started journaling ahead of the February 2023 presidential election, two months after the APC presidential primary in 2022.

Unlike former military president General Ibrahim Babangida who famously said he didn’t know who would succeed him but he knew those who wouldn’t, President Muhammadu Buhari appeared confused about both. His body language, which became a metaphor for his government’s malaise, suggested that the front-runner, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the subject of Sam’s book, was not his preferred candidate.

Even though Tinubu had picked the APC’s presidential ticket when Sam started his diary and decency required that Buhari would rally the party behind its candidate, the party became Tinubu’s worst enemy. It wasn’t just the usual horse-trading, feather-ruffling, and back-stabbing that come with internal party politics. It was a betrayal of Judas-like proportions, plotted to swallow Tinubu alive.

“I have looked at the whole situation,” Tinubu tells Sam, “I told myself, if I didn’t run, I’m damned. If I ran, they may want to damn me. So, I had to run, anyway.”

Inside Ota lair
Sam’s diary opens with an entry on August 19, 2022, about Tinubu’s pilgrimage to the Ota, the lair of one of Nigeria’s political gods, President Olusegun Obasanjo. Whatever the sacrifice Tinubu offered at the Ota shrine on that visit, his token may have fallen short.

In spite of the photo-ops and pretensions of ethnic solidarity, Obasanjo whom Sam describes as “the old fox of Nigeria’s politics,” later cast his lot with the Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi, reopening old memories of mutual distrust between Obasanjo and Tinubu.

Three main issues dominate the diary: One, the conspiracies within the APC, right up to the Presidency, to subvert Tinubu’s ambition; two, the division within the PDP, which split the party into at least three irreconcilable factions, the Nyesom Wike faction being the most potent; and three, the bitter pushback by anti-Tinubu groups – masquerading sometimes as the religious police, sometimes as ethnic tin-gods, and yet at other times as the youth avantgarde – all sparing neither mud nor kitchen sink in their desperate attempts to stop him.

“It seems obvious,” Sam says in his February 17, 2023 entry, “that the worries that Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu expressed about efforts to scuttle his path to victory have never been better revealed than when the President (Buhari) went on national television and defied the Supreme Court ruling (on the currency crisis) …the president gave ammunition to the other contestants.”

The Atiku Syndrome
The bulk of the entries however centres on the Atiku Syndrome, a condition that makes the sufferer utterly unable to see or seize an opportunity even if beaten on the head with it; and the unrestrained bitterness of “Obidients” towards the Tinubu campaign.

Sam, whose diary makes no pretence of his support for Tinubu, not only highlights the misery that the division between Atiku and Wike’s G-5 brought upon the PDP, he also invokes the worst of Atiku’s politics, and takes no prisoners amongst “Obidients” who wanted his head on a platter, especially after his controversial article, “Obi-tuary”.

Even though the opposition’s divided house set the ducks of Tinubu’s victory on a row, Sam had his anxious moments not a few. At one point, he asks Tinubu if there is a Plan B, because, he says, “I knew Buhari did not want him and the vampires around him did not want him.”

The rest is history, enriched by the second part of his book – a careful curation of a decade’s worth of some of his most engaging weekly columns in The Nation.

Love story
In The Human Flow, Jonathan took a different tack away from – but enriched by – his commentary on foreign affairs published for decades on many platforms across the world. The novel is a love story expressed as a tragedy of our modern existence: the trafficking of West African migrants.

In some ways, the book reminded me of Sina Odugbemi’s Japa,a slim but horrific personal account of the author’s search for greener pastures through the Sahara Desert, complete with tales of his Maghreb nightmares.

Or perhaps Olusegun Adeniyi’s From Frying Pan to Fire, a searing account of the human tragedies experienced in the elusive chase for a better life in Europe by thousands of African migrants who are consumed by the unforgiving desert or trafficked as slaves long before they can achieve their dreams.

The difference, perhaps, is that while Odugbemi’s and Adeniyi’s accounts are based on real-life stories, The Human Flow is a narrative prose fiction of the life of a Tanzanian-based white British journalist, Jon, whose quest to expose the evils of human trafficking led him into an odyssey of a complicated romance, adventure and tragedy.

Complicated affair
The main characters in the book are Jon, and his Tanzanian girlfriend, Agnes. In their pursuit for truth, they fall in love. Their affair is deepened by Agnes’s brief kidnapping and the search for her that led Jon into romantic entanglement with a married Spanish journalist, Ana.

The quest also reveals a web of human traffickers comprising religious leaders, local chiefs, border police, hustlers and deadly gangs. These forces sometimes work for or against each other, but unfailingly prey on the desperation of their victims for that basic human instinct of a better life.

In the end, Jon and Agnes are captured by a deadly guerilla movement in Morocco and murdered in Libya.

In the former world, European migrants to Africa were impeded by geography and tropical diseases but they overcame by guile and gunpowder. In today’s reverse migration, hope and dinghies are the main vessels for African migrants.

Conclusion of the matter
Unfortunately, as we see from The Human Flow the brutal realities confronting African migrants range from human traffickers to deadly gangs and compromised or hostile border police, leaving the migrants with forlorn hopes and broken dreams, if they survive.

There’s a place where Sam’s poetic prose and Jonathan’s enthralling story-telling meet: leadership. The failure of leadership is responsible for the booby traps and chaos thrown on Tinubu’s path in the runup to the 2023 election on Buhari’s watch. It also explains why African youths are risking everything to escape the continent.

Both diary and novel meet at the crossroads of Africa’s biggest problem: leadership.

Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP