by Abdul Mahmud
How do I begin to write about Prof Festus Iyayi in the past tense? Where do I find the strength to pen a tribute and still remain coherent amidst these searing grief and pains? How can I begin to relieve the memories of this quintessential Marxist-Leninist scholar, teacher, writer and comrade whose sun tragically dimmed two days ago?
I wasn’t prepared for the tragic news when I placed the call to my good friend, Richard Akinola. I had missed Akinola’s calls. ‘’Mahmud, Festus is dead… I wanted to confirm from you; but KK (Kayode Komolafe) just did,” Akinola informed me immediately he answered my call. ‘’Which Festus?’’, I asked him, almost screaming. ‘’Comrade, Festus Iyayi. He died in an accident in Lokoja this morning’.”
Suddenly, we were silent. We momentarily lost the power of speech. When we resumed the telephone conversation a few minutes later, it was all eulogies for our departed comrade. No sooner had I finished speaking with Akinola, Comrade Chris Akani called from Port Harcourt weeping. Nothing breaks one’s heart than this one.
I met Prof Iyayi for the very first time in December, 1990. This was shortly after my election as President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). As was the tradition, my comrades and I paid a courtesy call on him at his Centre-Point office, a shouting distance from the University of Benin. Prof Iyayi was convivial and jocular when he ushered us into his expansive office. I didn’t forget to express the other purpose of our visit when Faith Osadolor nudged me to do the needful. The needful was ‘’ragging’’. Begging, practically. You see in those days, we practically ran NANS from contributions we ‘’ragged’’ off committed comrades like Prof Iyayi. ‘”Comrade, we don’t have money to get to Lagos to address our maiden world press conference,” I said. ‘’Una and una ragging’’, Prof Iyayi quipped in his beautiful Edo pidgin. Prof Iyayi didn’t disappoint. We broke into laughter when Faith Osadolor whispered, ‘’Comrade, dis na oil money o!’’.
At that first meeting, Prof Iyayi came across as a lovely fella cast in the mould of Che Guevara (most committed Marxists are anyway), jocular, teacher and the ‘’excellent [coloured] man in my town’’ to borrow from WEB du Bois’s ‘’The Souls of Black Folks’’. He was truly engaging. He took us through discourses on power, democratisation and the youths, and occasionally punctuated the conversation with anecdotes and jokes. Having been dismissed from his teaching position at the University of Benin on account of his opposition to military dictatorship, he didn’t display any lack of interest in the struggles to rid our country of the military. If I had any fear as the newly elected President of the banned radical students’ organisation, National Association of Nigerian Students, that fear vanished after meeting Comrade Iyayi. Onward Lagos.
That first meeting began the many other encounters I had with him inside the Campaign for Democracy (CD), Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Gani Fawehinmi Solidarity Associations (GFSA) and other front organisations we belonged to. We didn’t see for a few years after I took up residence abroad in the late 1990’s. However, in 2001 I sighted him at the Lagos-Benin-Usele Roads junction in Benin-city and I immediately signalled. He pulled over to the roadside. Alighting from our cars, we embraced. We stood there for almost an hour as we interrogated yesterday. Later, we crossed the road and walked to my car where I introduced my fiancé to him.
“When are you going to say ‘yes, I do’ to this troublemaker?’’, he asked Sadat. Smiling, I gave him the invitation card to our wedding which was only three days away. He expressed his regrets and wished us the best. ‘’Take care of madam, Mahmud. Marriage nor be struggle o!’’, he advised in an authorial way. I nodded the way a student nods with approval before his teacher. Yes, in many ways, Prof Iyayi was my teacher and a teacher to many of my generation.
I met Prof Iyayi again in May 2012 at the memorial night organised by comrades in Abuja for late Olaitan Oyerinde. ‘’Mahmud, I couldn’t recognise you. You don kpoof’’, he whispered as I introduced him as the co-chair and walked him to the high table. We didn’t exchange many pleasantries during the memorial night. We had lost a vibrant comrade in the most ghastly way and that night was too sombre for anyone to catch up on the past. I asked for his telephone number as we walked into the Abuja night which he graciously gave me.
Concerned about the terrible public relations backlash ASUU was suffering in the social media; and concerned about the attacks on ASUU by certain elements in the civil society with ideological affinity to our ASUU comrades, the trenchant positions the government and ASUU had taken, l made a few telephone calls to comrades and pleaded that we impress on ASUU to return to the negotiating table. Falana and I had over twenty minutes’ conversation on the subject; and we agreed we should explore our common fraternal channels and impress on our ASUU comrades to return to negotiation. Later, I placed a call to Prof Iyayi. After three failed calls, I finally got through to him. Having exchanged pleasantries, I quickly broached the purpose of my call. We discussed at length, dwelling extensively on government’s insincerity as we skirted the many failed behind-the-scene moves to convene a presidential parley. That was a week and half ago. As I write the once vibrant comrade lies lifeless in the morgue of a Benin hospital. Life is cruel.
Sometimes when I get on the phone to a comrade, the feeling that comes through is that we would always meet after every goodbye. Unfortunately, it isn’t always the case. Yes, we don’t own our lives. But, there is always the expectation of life’s tides turning in our individual shores just as the hands of the clock turn before our very eyes. We aren’t always fortunate to watch the turning of our individual tides and times; and for those whose tides and times turn home early, and tragically too, prayer and commitment to the ideals they lived for are the debts we owe them. Prof Iyayi is gone, gone forever. The greatest tribute we can pay to his memory is to keep alive his radical vision of ridding our country of those who oppress the masses of our people. May his kind soul rest eternal.
– Follow this writer on Twitter: @AbdulMahmud1