The New Gong Magazine

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REMINISCENCES  by Isidore Emeka Uzoatu

REMEMBERING BEKO - A REGULAR
KUTI.

As the first anniversary of the death of Beko, the last of the three
Kutis brothers – Olikoye and Fela being the others – I could not help
regurgitating my close encounter with him sometime in the third
quarter of the year1990. First I had ambled into his hospital
somewhere in Mushin in mainland Lagos asking that I interview him
for Crown Prince magazine. Then he was President of the 3,000-
man strong Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), he
was head over heals in the fight to sanitise the IBB regime that had
his eldest brother as a minister. He did not feel anyhow about the
proposal, I can still recall, only hinting in an aside that it appeared
we journalists had little to write about these days.
We ended up fixing an appointment no doubt for on the appointed
day here I was – tape and all – at his Anthony Village residence.
Used only to talking to my subjects in their offices then, it was a
downcast me that met the twiggy workaholic on his way out for a
chain of appointments in the island. Perhaps he noticed my
countenance or something and promptly suggested that I join him in
his car and perhaps do the interview as we cruised along.
It proved an apt baptism.
The interview was billed for the 20 Questions slot of the magazine –
a kind of second choice to the main interview that took as many
questions as was possible. In the lofty ideals on which the magazine
was then found – with nude pictures of Bianca Onoh supposedly in
the kitty of the publishers – my subject was considered not important
enough for the big one. It was mostly reserved for captains of
industry and their ilk – crown princes as it were – who could be easy
links for adverts and stuff that really made magazines stay afloat.
What else should I have guessed?
Fresh from the warfronts of rural employment then, I could not raise
a voice in the defence of my subject. At least not when the captains
of an industry I was only given a privilege to join on a tenuous
recommendation by an editorial board member were preaching!
More so when a pry into the letter – remember Uriah the Israelite –
revealed a warning to the addressee that the bearer though more
than capable for the job comes from a family of avid consumers of
any tipple of their capricious choice. In turn, this was redolent of my
principal’s remark in my testimonial. After accessing me as
academically above average, he hinted that I needed to learn to
adhere to boarding house norms.           
However, it did not make me confront Beko Ransome-Kuti with
numerated questions. I decided – in the spirit of my headhunting
forefathers, perhaps – to do the interview fully and put it to whatever
use they wanted. After all, I did not leave the provinces to keep to
untested rules.
The ride got off to a good start and I promptly brought out my tape.
“O, you brought a tape?” he asked me casting a sideways glance,
hands on the steering wheel.
“Yes, sir,” I stammered thinking perhaps I had bungled the chance of
a lifetime. “To avoid –” was all I could say before he took over again.
“No problem,” he continued apparently seeing through my
undisguised discomfiture yet again. “But before you start, I would
want to know your first question because I normally take my time you
know.”
Cast back asea, I was lost for a split second before the reality of my
commitment for the interview – what else – saved the day and me!
“I’m surprised you don’t have a driver,” I heard myself say. “Why so?”
First the dying embers of a suppressed smile escaped his pursing
lips. Then he explained in a nutshell that he did not believe in two
drivers being in the same car at the same time just for the fun of it.
By then we had left Ikorodu – sorry Funsho Williams – Road and
were making our way towards the Third Mainland Bridge. Of course,
by then he had lit the first in a long chain of John Player’s Gold Leaf
that he would puff and exhale for as long as the journey lasted.
Asked about the dangerous habit which he was supposed to have
quit he explained it had to suffer a relapse ever since a recent
escapade of his with supposed agents of the State Security Service
that had appeared as if it were stage managed to some critics at the
time. Said he: “I’d rather I harmed myself before someone else
inflicted it on me.”
If that little bit of serendipitous cleverness about driving and being
driven served to thaw our ices, the repartee that ensued did not
come alive till much later on the journey – many sticks of cigarette
later. By then we had joined the latest wing of the ultramodern
bridge, inching closer to his – our – destination. By then also he had
delved with my prompting into the activities of the CDHR, and why
the then military president was unfit to decide for Nigerians how
there country was to be run. As regards his brother the Health
Minister he pointed out that he did not see what he was still doing in
the government.
“He thinks he is still doing some good. I don’t think so. Everything is
built on corruption; immediately he leaves, everything will just revert
to what it was before…”
Then, I had wanted to know what his views about alternative
medicine were since he felt that there was a dearth of technology
that could be called local in the area of traditional medicine, for
instance.
“That’s not technology,” he replied, “that’s superstition.”
“But aspects of it are provable,” I insisted.
“Then prove it first. If you say there are aspects that are proven, it is
a different matter.”
“Are you by any chance in the group clamouring that traditional
cures should be integrated…”
“An evolutionist, rather…you cannot reinvent the wheel. Where we
are now the western nations were there in the 14th century.”
“Is there no good in it at all?”
“Things don’t work that way,” he enthused and added, “you know I
am an atheist…”
In my introduction to the interview that ended up the main interview
piece of the November, 1990 edition of the magazine I had stated as
follows:
“True to earlier accounts of him, Dr Kuti takes his time with
questions. He would think and brood before attacking each one. And
when the words start rolling, they come in a very disciplined queue.
But not always – in trying to prove or disprove a point, his speech
can outrace bullets in their rush to escape from the heat of his heart’
s conviction.”
Now, seventeen years later, give and take a few stretchers to please
my editor, I still hold this conclusion true as my mind’s eye recollects
the rest of the interview.
“I’m not against traditional medicine,” he went on. “But anybody who
wants to do it should not make claims that cannot be demonstrated,
that’s all.”
On his belief proper, he explained how he had transmuted from a
Christian apologist to an atheist following endless arguments with his
colleagues at Manchester University where he had trained.
“Can’t somebody accuse you of propounding another belief
system?” I asked at the end of his train of invective at organised
religion.
“It is not a belief,” he posited his voice back to its normal timbre.
“There are only two of us in this car, for instance. If you tell me there
are three, I don’t need to believe you. But if you are still with me on
the way back, I’ll stop at Yaba (Psychiatric Hospital) and ask that
they examine you. If you make a statement about something that
happened in my absence, I shall take certain steps if I want to know
whether it is true. But belief is the easy way out.”
“Who made you then?” I asked from the vanishing remains of my
Catholic catechism.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t now who built this house (motions
to the house we were driving past) but it does not mean it was built
by God. If you don’t know something you just don’t attribute it to
something and give it different powers that are not even rational. I
mean there are billions of people and there is one person who is
looking at all of them. He’s a layabout, why didn’t he find something
more productive to do?”
At the end of the marathon, I chose to drop off at his first port of call.
“You can still come with me o. I’m still going to one or two places
when I finish here. Or you can check out where you like?”
“Who knows,” I replied, “may be at Yaba!”
I was to sit next to him at a function at NIIA months later. I introduced
myself when recognition did not register on his face at my
perfunctory greeting. He said he never saw the interview and asked
if I could make it possible to him. I promised that I’d do it soonest but
left adding it to the long list of things said and left undone which –
that our forefathers agree – were in deed as numerous as sand on
the seashore.