In her riveting, no-holds-barred memoirs ‘MY FATHER’S DAUGHTER’, broadcaster, singer/songwriter Onyeka Onwenu famous for the BBC/NTA Documentary ‘Nigeria: A Squandering of Riches’ has written about how the late General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s most fearsome military dictator who died in office in controversial circumstances wanted her to write a song lampooning the legendary Nelson Mandela, The Madiba, for criticizing and humiliating him publicly before the whole world—an act Abacha did not take kindly to, noting that Mandela acted disrespectfully and ungratefully considering the active role Nigeria played in the anti-apartheid struggle, resulting in Mandela being freed from jail to become the President of South Africa. According to Onyeka, she rebuffed the General and was lucky to escape punishment for her “naivety” and “audacity”. Onyeka also pays homage to some prominent Nigerians whom she encountered in the course of her career as a broadcast journalist and a singer:
You underestimate him at your peril and Nigerians did, until it was too late. General Sani Abacha was an autocrat who ruled Nigeria from 1965 until his death in 1999.
I have had the privilege of relating well with most Nigerian Heads of State. General Abacha and the First Lady, Hajiya Maryam Abacha, treated me with respect.
I have also prided myself with the ability to speak truth to power, sometimes out of naivety but I have never regretted it. I believe that was part of why I have enjoyed tremendous goodwill and accommodation from those in power. General Sani Abacha certainly saw that side of me, when he asked me for a favour I could not grant.
Amid his disagreement with Nelson Mandel in 1966, when Madiba publicly and openly criticized Nigeria for its relapse into military rule, General Abacha asked to write a song that would express his anger and disappointment with Madiba’s chastisements. I refused. I said, ‘No!’
I could understand his rage. Madiba expressed his disappointment with Nigeria in a no holds barred manner. I never saw a normally calm Abacha any angrier. He felt that it could have been delivered more respectfully, especially given the role Nigeria played in the emancipation of South Africa. But I still was not going to write a song in the diminution of a man who had spoken his mind and told the truth about my country, not even when a Head of State had so requested.
I dared to look the Head of State in the eye and let him know that not only was I not going to write such a song, but that he should have his revenge on Mandela by being the best Head of State he could be. General Abacha was shocked at the audacity of my response but I thank God that he took my words in good faith. I could have been in deep trouble if that was not the case.
At a national event, the launching of the second War Against Indiscipline (WAI)—the first one was launched by the Buhari/Idiagbon regime in 1984—inspired by the images of bad national behavior in the documentary Nigeria, A Squandering of Riches, I had mounted the stage to sing my song, ‘God Bless Nigeria’ when rain threatened to fall. I declared in the name of Jesus that the rain would not fall until I had finished performance. The rain that had started drizzling ceased. As soon as I sang the last note, everyone had to scamper and leave the open-air venue in a hurry. The heavens opened up with showers of blessing, as I called the rain. General Abacha mentioned to me years later that on that day, he marveled at the authority I wielded. I told him that it was simply the grace of God.
DELE MOMODU STOOD UP IN MY DEFENCE
Back in the days of the hostile press, when negative articles, distortion of events, outright lies and concoctions about Onyeka Onwenu were prevalent in Lagos-based newspapers, one journalist/social commentator who stood up for me was Mr. Dele Momodu. I like to think of him as an honest brother with a genuine simplicity in his ways. In journalism, he did not target individual; he did not identify with negative stories about people, rather, he loved to be on the side of truth and preferred to elevate others, not tear them down.
When he was critical of something, he did so objectively and constructively. Mr. Momodu remains the burgeoning publisher of the iconic Ovation Magazine and a politician in his own right.
I always recall that after the release of my album Onyeka in 1992, I received some of the most dubious and unmerited criticisms for what was an important body of work. The album contained songs like ‘Iyogogo’, ‘The Peace Song’, ‘In The Morning Light’ and others. These unwarranted criticism were from the usual motley crew of misfits and jealous underachievers who paraded themselves as journalists but who could only be rightly called pen-pushers and collectors of brown envelopes. It was in the thick of this period that Mr. Dele Momodu stood up in defence of my work and called for a stop to the attacks.
That was an unusual stance as many would rather sit back and enjoy the bashing of a female artiste who is presumed to be uppity. But not Dele Momodu. He stood up for me when it was inconvenient to do so. He has always treated me with respect and consideration, all of which is reciprocal.