Since his passing Wednesday, the profusion of eulogies from the public has largely been on the detribalized politics of Chief T. O. S. Benson, the Yoruba man who chose to queue behind Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Owelle of Onitsha.
But not to be conversant with the diary of his private life is to miss out on the totality of a nonagenarian whose enigmatic existence also gave a new meaning to the idea of geriatric romance. And how ironic: Nigeria’s poster boy of old-age voyeurism would die on the eve of Valentine Day, the festival of love.
Politically speaking, the twentieth century is thought lost by Nigeria on account of many lost historic opportunities.
Despite her abundant natural resources, the nation remains poor in relative terms. Over the ages, successive generations of Nigerians have attracted acclaim on the world stage through the expression of various talents. But this unique endowment is sharply contrasted by an enduring inability to inspire good leadership at home.
Such tragic outcome is what, therefore, partly exposes generations of Nigerians in the twentieth century to the ridicule of being called “wasted”. To an extent, Otunba Theophilus Owolabi Shobowale Benson could be said to illustrate this pattern very poignantly. In his prime, he surely represented the pride of that generation. In his latter years, he could also be said to have embodied the frustration – the word “degeneracy” would be too harsh – of same “wasted generations”.
At Independence in 1960, Benson ranked among those once described as Nigeria’s hope. At a time the average Yoruba would fly the flag of Action Group led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Benson preferred a more nationalistic path by remaining with Azikiwe’s NCNC which transmuted to NPP in the second republic as against Awo’s UPN. He was Awolowo’s classmate at the London Law School in the 40s. He was the nation’s first Information Minister.
But watching the nation’s hope at Independence gradually displaced by despondency in the later years, Benson apparently became overwhelmed himself. Alas, he had been defeated by Nigeria. He gradually gave up on that initial dream of a great nation founded on merit and true brotherhood, or so it seemed.
As national politics began to lose its ideological soul on account of the “new-breed” culture engineered by the new military lawgivers, Benson also increasingly began to retreat into himself. Henceforth, his presence would be felt more at social circuits. His voice would now be heard more on the national airwaves only when the subject centred on virility at old age. No location or occasion was ever considered indecent or inappropriate for his sense of ribaldry, his libidinous banters.
When he turned 82 (July 1999), for instance, T.O.S was invited to speak at a public gathering held in his honour. He did not disappoint. He capped his speech uniquely with a prayer that “We men, both young and old, should not only be sound ‘upstairs’ (touching the head), but also in the ‘centre’ (touching the chest) and ‘downstairs’ (touching pubic region).” And the finisher: “And may our women be up to the task.”
He would seize every opportunity to boast of “not only being sound upstairs but also downstairs”. He often attributed his coital prowess to a cocktail of ginseng (a Chinese herb) and stout drink. Once, a newspaper interviewer wanted to know the veracity of such claim by an eighty-something. In response, T.O.S simply challenged him to bring his sister to him for confirmation.
For a man with such sense of over-indulgence if not debauchery, it is perhaps one of the biggest ironies of nature that he yet attained such ripe age in a country whose life expectancy is now put at 47. But if he found peace within, it was only because T.O.S. was a man who never kept bitterness against anyone. Those close to him would tell that he was always high in spirit and had a way of always making light of heavy weather.
At the sartorial level, T.O.S surely enriched the nation’s political fashion with his own inimitable innovations. With a flambouyant swagger-stick, he could decide to appear in public with a sequined jacket on a Kaftan, not forgetting his cap announcing his titular status with a bunch of feathers as ornament, to lend him the exotic look of a Spanish matador.
For a man, one of whose chieftaincy titles is “Adekilumo”, translating as “he whose coming shakes the town”, nothing could be more apt. He had a chain of them.
Earlier on the occasion of his 80th birthday, T.O.S had surprised guests who gathered at the party when he announced that those who had lost their own fathers or mothers were now free to bring letters addressed to the departed to his residence because “I would soon be joining them also in heaven and will be too glad to help you deliver your own correspondence to your dead papas and mamas.” Many were left to laugh themselves to stupor.
Once, a favour-seeking man was ushered into his presence in the sitting-room of his Ikorodu residence in the midst of others including relations and visitors. The man, as the story goes, had whispered to T.O.S. that it was better they went in and conversed in camera.
In response, the host said loudly for everyone to hear: “You had better say what you want to say here. Otunba Benson does not talk to people in secret. T.O.S has no secrets.” The man was said to have been so embarrassed that he quietly left thereafter.
There is the other tale of endless stream of young women who came for material assistance. Not one to bite his words, T.O.S was said to have told off one who came rather too early in the morning to stop “tempting” him.
Rather, he would want her to “stay longer with your husband in the morning”.
Recalling his days with Awo at the UK law school, he would describe the man otherwise dubbed the “best president Nigeria never had” as a “stingy bush man”. He rarely ever forgot to tell how Awo shunned the art of “chasing gals” unlike he and others while in school: “He (Awo) did not engage in much of the escapades that we other Nigerian students in UK then did. He was very brilliant and bookish.”
Again, he would claim that Awo owed him 2 British pounds while they were in U.K “and I still hope to collect it from him when we finally meet in heaven.”
As a social commentator, T.O.S. surely excelled as a rabid conservative who defended any government in power. To him, perhaps, harmony needed to be preserved in the socio-political space so that all the revelry and jollity could continue.
Years back, he had sent an article to Eniola Bello, then editor of THISDAY. Weeks later, the piece still had not been used. Ever full of mischief, T.O.S hatched a plot. He rang up Eni B, hiding his identity.
Adopting a mournful intonation, he introduced himself as T.O.S’ relation and was only calling to tip off the THISDAY editor that his big uncle just died. Of course, he knew how the mind of the editor works. He allowed some moments to pass (when he calculated the editor would have dissipated much energy on getting an obituary written by subordinates) before calling back.
This time, he said: “Hello, this is Otunba T.O.S Benson, the dead man whose obituary you have just written. You see yourself now, I had laboured to write an article which you have refused to publish. Now, I decided to call and lie to you that T.O.S is dead and you are in a hurry to write my obituary. Is that fair?”
Out of amusement than embarrassment, Eni B gave order and the pending article was published the following day.
Similarly, judicial reporters who covered the legal tussle that followed the detention of popular Lagos lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi, in 1991 over treason charges, would also not forget T.O.S. In one of the court hearings in Lagos before Justice Fred Anyaregbulem, the then septuagenarian Benson had arrived to meet the court premises literally bursting at the seams with humans. Many had to stand outside the gate with heavily armed security men freely applying horse-whips on anyone who overstepped the line.
Determined to enter, T.O.S decided to call one of the security operatives and casually instructed him: “Go and tell Fred to provide me a seat inside the court.”
More angered than embarrassed that an unnamed lawyer – a diminutive one at that! – was sounding so pompous, the guard asked disdainfully: “Which Fred? I say no more entrance, the place is full.”
At this point, the daring if not imperial spirit in T.O.S had been provoked: “I say go and meet Fred, the judge presiding over this case and tell him that I, Otunba T.O.S Benson, am around and want to sit down.”
Concluding that the man before him must be very important indeed to have so casually called a whole judge by his first name, the burly officer did not turn away again. He quickly cleared the road for T.O.S and proceeded to conjure a frontline seat for him inside the court.
In the early 90s, T.O.S had similarly caused a stir at the main auditorium of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs (NIIA). The occasion was a lecture. After the paper, the MC had invited questions. T.O.S, seething with rage by now, was first to raise a finger in the front row. When called, “Adekilumo” left the presentation to unleash venom on the organizers of the occasion for not considering him fit for the podium.
Short of dismissing those at the high table as nobodies, he said he was far more accomplished than anyone there “as pioneer federal Information Minister, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Member of Body of Benchers. When we were fighting for Nigeria’s independence, where were all these people you put at the high table then?”
Flustered, the MC thereafter tendered an apology, blaming oversight. Still standing, T.O.S fired back: “Don’t sorry me. Do what is right.”
Instantly, the MC was left with no choice than call “Adekilumo” to the podium.
“That’s better,” T.O.S replied. To lengthen the drama, the old man then took time to fish out his walking stick, gather the folds of his Agbada properly before walking to the dais in a swagger amid a thunder of laughter from the audience.
Later when accosted by Mr. Tunji Bello (then Group Political editor of Concord Press) outside the hall, T.O.S laughed mischievously and said “Ah, omo mi, ma dawon loun. Mo fi agba han won ni” (My son, don’t mind them. I only showed them the power of an elder).
Even more dramatic was the public “face-off” between T.O.S and a popular female SAN years later over “refund of dowry”. Precisely in April 1999, he took out a full page advert in a national daily to “felicitate with” the lady in question on the occasion of her 67th birthday. The duo had been engaged in a love-scented controversy over the former’s sensational claim that he had paid her dowry before the latter dumped him fifty-one years ago in London for a “younger man”.
Splashed on the said page was a stage-managed photograph showing T.O.S with the respected woman at another public function few years earlier. It shows the two in a sitting position with the latter taking an embarrassed look away. On the same page was a reproduced copy of a letter purportedly written by her father “endorsing” T.O.S as the “bonafide” husband.
The controversial picture had been taken at the same NIIA auditorium amid high drama. Apparently, he had asked the photographer to swing into action following his cue. T.O.S had arrived the occasion uninvited and unannounced.
Aware that the respected lady SAN would be invited to the high table, he waited patiently behind the curtains. After she was invited and seated on the dais, T.O.S “bulldozed” his way there and planted himself next to her, to the utter embarrassment of not only the S.A.N herself but many others present. And there “Adekilumo” sat, making mockery of the woman as a “runaway wife”.
Surely, with Benson’s passing Wednesday, another momentous page has turned in the nation’s chequered history book
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