Olu Gordon, the philosopher-king Sierra Leone and Africa never had

A Revolutionary Life, by J L Samboma

A giant has fallen with the death of Olu Gordon.  He wore many hats in his 53 years, but above all he was a revolutionary socialist, a Romeo in love with the amorphous mass of the African dispossessed.  A former University lecturer, he was a Pan-Africanist, a journalist and a philosopher.  He could not take part in social revolution and he refused to rustle one up.  But he made sure his life was a study in personal revolution -- one over which he had undisputed command.

Shakespeare says somewhere that the evil men do lives after them, while the good is often interred with them.  I may defer to the greater erudition of Shakespeare scholars if braced on this, but methinks the English bard got it wrong.   Tales of Olu Gordon’s “evil deeds” have been thin on the ground since his passing.  What we have had instead are tributes and outpourings of grief for this great comrade.  Perchance the legendary playwright fluffed his lines; or he may have been alluding to much lesser men. 

Revolutionary intellectual

Richard William Oluwaseyi Awoonor-Gordon was born in London on 31 October 1957 to a Nigerian mother and Sierra Leonean father.  He was taken ill some weeks ago in Freetown and was rushed to London for medical attention; he passed away on 4 April.  His London-based family organised a memorial service yesterday – Wednesday, 20 April 2011 – after which his body will be returned for internment to the land of the ancestors.  He is survived by Fosuah, his Pan-Africanist activist Ghanaian-born wife, by Yomi and Kemi, their teenaged son and daughter, and by his eight siblings at home and abroad.

Although you could say his future political trajectory was foretold in the circumstance of his “Pan-African” birth, we do not subscribe to omens and neither did he.  Olu Gordon – “Olu” to many – was a dialectical materialist to the core, not given to superstition or God-bothering.  Some may remark on the irony of paying our last respects to this revolutionary intellectual at London’s Walworthl Methodist Church.  But the church ceremony says more about the norms of bourgeois society than about this dear comrade of mine who will no longer sing the “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” or “Arise All Youth of Africa.”

I learnt of his death through the website of Sierra Leone’s Awareness Times newspaper on 4 April, the very day he passed.  The shock of his passing and the manner of its reporting (of which more later) delivered a double whammy which left me open-mouthed and transfixed for some time.  I shed a tear just now, after writing the last sentence of the previous paragraph.  It’s funny how the mind works.  It would appear that that the act of writing that sentence has rammed home the reality, the finality, the irrevocability of the loss that has befallen Marxists, Pan-Africanists and other leftists and progressives who also knew and loved this brother.

Engaged in struggle

I am not going to be waxing lyrical about how close Olu and I were.  That would be telling tales.  No, we did not have a “bromance” abrewing.  He lived in Freetown, I in London.  But he was my friend, my comrade, my leader.  He was my mentor when, as a central leader of the Pan-African Union (PANAFU) of Sierra Leone, my young and enquiring mind sought sustenance at the fountain of his beautiful intellect.  That was after he had been “relieved” of his lectureship in African History in 1985, when radical, anti-government students at Fourah Bay College (FBC) struck.

Along with Comrade Gordon, two other faculty members – Jimmy Kandeh and the late Cleo Hanciles – also lost their jobs.  Their crime was being seen as too friendly with the student radicals.  During this period he was universally known as Richie Gordon; “Olu” took precedence the moment he really got into Pan-Africanist mode.  What sort of man abandons his doctoral studies mid-stream because he was impatient to get back home and engage in struggle?  You only get one guess!

Olu’s activism in pursuit of Pan-Africanism took him to meetings and conferences all over Africa, Europe and North America.  A central committee member of the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party (AAPRP) of the UK, he also found time for campaigning journalism back home in Freetown, railing against restrictions on press freedom and the one-party state of General Joseph Momoh’s All Peoples Congress (APC). 

A criminal confederacy

And it is as a journalist and pro-democracy campaigner that he will be remembered by many Sierra Leoneans.  He became a thorn in the side of every regime from Momoh’s to the present APC government of Ernest Koroma.  He lambasted the military National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) for manoeuvring to overstay their welcome; Tejan Kabbah’s Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) were attacked for corruption and haranguing the independent media.  He was incarcerated on many occasions for his troubles.

The fearless spirit that was Olu Gordon is best illustrated by an episode in Sierra Leone’s recent bloody history. It is 1997, at the height of the civil war launched by the butchers of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).  After removing Kabbah’s democratically-elected government, soldiers of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) form a coalition with the RUF to administer their newly-acquired abattoir.  To “encourage” compliance with their edicts, this criminal confederacy dismember and decapitate an alleged looter and stuff his genitals into his mouth.  Press photographers are on hand and the gruesome spectacle is splashed across several papers.

Comrade Gordon was a columnist on the independent For Di People newspaper at the time.  He also published the image in his column, stating in his article beneath: “I wonder what was going on in the minds of the AFRC/RUF as they were chopping off the man’s body like chicken for dinner….They have done this to put fear into us.  Well, it won’t work. We will not fear them…The very symbol they have used to put fear into us is what we would use to mobilize people against them…”

This was at a time when journalists were being killed for lesser infractions.  One friend and colleague summed it up when he said: “It appeared as if Olu Gordon’s sheer temerity was suicidal, for it could have gotten him dismembered too.  But that was the essence of Olu Gordon, a relatively quiet man with a revolutionary fervour that appears to make him almost inviolable.”

Monk of Sierra Leonean journalism

In many countries journalists subsidise their incomes by sitting on stories which expose the power-mad and corrupt, or through outright blackmail.  Sometimes it is through writing public relations or puff stories about rich, beleaguered political or business personalities.  The latter practice is called “coasting” in Sierra Leone.  Olu’s forte was exposing and ridiculing the corrupt in his Peep column in For Di People (FDP) and later in his Peep satirical paper.  And the moment he discovered any of his staff were “coasters” he showed them the door.  Olu was incorruptible:  He was the devout monk of the Sierra Leonean journalism.

So what happens to a left-leaning, goody-two-shoes journalist who cannot be bought?  He is reviled by the rich and powerful, he becomes a goody-one-shoe, arousing the mistrust of many of his colleagues, the goody-many-shoes of bent and twisted journalism.   Some spoke of his “ordinariness,” others of his “modesty,” and yet others of his “simplicity.”  What they really meant was that he had not bought or built a house, that he had no chauffeur-driven Merc.  The following is a random selection of things his “peers” have said about him since his passing.

First quote:  “Consequently, he could not be rich, he could not take political jobs, and he could not blackmail big businesses for monetary gains. His mission was to disembowel the bloated cant. This was also his passion.”

Second quote:  “Making enemies did not appear to bother him; indeed, this was his strength for he cared more about Sierra Leone.”

Third quote:  “He wrote what no other Sierra Leonean writer would dare write.”

And the fourth quote (and my personal favourite):  “I fell in love with Olu’s mind but hated his extreme selfless approach to saving the country in a unique manner I would not vouch to accept; even at the pace and expense of his material comfort.”

The “Richie Gordon experience”

I first heard of the then Richie Gordon in 1984 when I entered Fourah Bay College.  He was this young, leftist lecturer in African History who, his students said, was nothing if not a genius.  My friends compared him favourably to Walter Rodney, the murdered Guyanese Marxist historian.  He could, they said, conduct hours-long lectures without consulting books or notes of any kind. 

When I saw him I immediately noted his more-than-passing resemblance to Kwame Turay, the Pan-Africanist and ex-Black Panther formerly known as Stokeley Carmichael.  (I was to learn later that the two became close over the years.)  Students who did not take African history – and even fellow lecturers – would slip into his lectures for their fix of the “Richie Gordon experience.”

I could not opt to take history – as a student in the Economics faculty, history was on another planet in the Arts faculty.  And, as I never happened to be free when Mr Gordon was taking a history class, I could not quietly slip into one of his lessons.  Meanwhile, friction was intensifying between, on the one hand, the radical Allie Kabbah-led Mass Awareness and Participation (MAP) students’ union administration and, on the other, the university authorities and central government.  The students believed themselves to be the legitimate opposition to the APC one-party state, while the authorities saw student leaders like Kabbah and a few others as agents of Gaddafy’s Libya bent on destabilising the country.

Even with hindsight, the events of those days still leave many questions unanswered.  The main ones for us are why, if the government was so suspicious of Libya, did they allow the Libyans to operate so openly in the country?  Why did the authorities permit study groups devoted to Gaddafy’s Green Book to spring up on college campuses?  And why allow students to freely make “pilgrimages” to Libya?  It was not as if the nation would have taken much notice if the government had clamped down on all things Libyan – it was a one-party dictatorship, for goodness sake!  Perhaps the Libyan petrodollar was too precious. 

The eruption, when it came, was almost over before many realised it was happening.  Many may have been sorry that principal Professor C P Foray’s car got torched, but a great many students – whether in the so-called “radical” or “baldhead” camp – were in favour of standing up to one-party autocracy.  It may have been the height of naivety to think a bunch of angry students could effect meaningful political change, but those were heady days. 

PANAFU, the Leninist vehicle

Yes, they were crazy days – you can judge just how crazy when you learn that some of the 41 students who were subsequently expelled for their parts in the disturbance were so-called “baldheads” who got drunk on the febrile atmosphere of a pseudo-revolution.  I recall a bright, devoutly-religious fellow you could never imagine shouting even if his eternal life depended on it.  But on that day he was energetically punching the air and screaming, “Power to the People.” Unfortunately, this spontaneous conversion was also witnessed by a faculty member.  But I digress!

Banished from his beloved academia, Olu plunged headlong into organising and mobilising youths, low waged workers, the unemployed and college students and graduates into PANAFU.  He taught me that African Socialism was a rightwing concoction.  His Pan-Africanism was grounded in the materialist dialectics of Marx and Engels.  He loved Nkrumah, Lumumba, Cabral and Babu.  He believed that Pan-Africanism had to be built from below – through class struggle, not armed struggle.  PANAFU was the Leninist vehicle to our ideal of a Union of Socialist Africa.

It was under his tutelage that I got my “fifteen minutes” when, during our celebration of African Liberation Day on 25 May, he picked me – Oui, moi! – to give the keynote address at Freetown’s Victoria Park.  The event was covered by the SLBS and – get this – my family and friends got to hear my name on the radio.  Oh, to be a young revolutionary on the cusp of changing the world!

Some of Olu’s detractors have said he should shoulder some of the blame for the bloody civil war, given that a handful of in the RUF had been members of PANAFU.  This is disingenuous. Olu is on record as warning many misguided former comrades that a bush war was not the answer to the country’s many ills.  And it was precisely on this question that the movement split:  the majority backed Olu’s position, while the minority of less than ten went into the bush and mushroomed into the murderous mob which subsequently rent the country asunder.

PANAFU had many angry idealistic and disadvantaged youths who wanted to overhaul a corrupt bureaucratic- and petty- bourgeois-dominated neo-colonial society.  It would have been remarkable if even a handful of the RUF butchers had not come from its dissident ranks, from those who felt “empty talking and organising” should give precedence to “decisive action.”  Olu did not create the conditions which spawned and nourished our disaffection.  He should be lauded for saving many from the path of destruction and iniquity by his resolute and inspired leadership.  And everyone knows the RUF had no greater foe than Comrade Richie Olu Gordon.

Direct Action

A story I heard some years ago shows another side to this champion of the people and scourge of the corrupt.  It took place in the late 1970s, on the heels of the 1977 “No College, No School” nationwide student demonstrations against Shaka Stevens’ imposition of the one-party state.  Olu was in his penultimate or final year at FBC, and a fellow named Max Kanga was the student’s union president.  A jittery APC government had spies on all the campuses and FBC radicals believed that Kanga was one of their number.  This was because he played tennis regularly with then Army Commander Brigadier Momoh.

The radicals hated Kanga but decided there was nothing they could do about the APC canary.  This stuck in Olu’s craw; as far he was concerned it was a cop-out.  He decided to take direct action.  One dinnertime he quietly walked up to Max Kanga and launched a surprise attack on the fellow, landing several serious slaps on his plump chops.  Friends of both parties subsequently jumped in.  Like his foolhardy challenge to the RUF almost twenty years later, this incident shows that, in Olu’s world, no personal sacrifice was too high as long as it was in pursuance of a laudable cause:  Kanga was a hefty fellow, while Olu was lean; also, Olu was risking disciplinary action by the authorities.  Incidentally, like his former tennis partner, Kanga went on to serve as Army Commander under the APC rule.

It was with the same selfless determination that he campaigned for the killers of journalist Harry Yansaneh to be brought to book.  Yansaneh, a former editor of For Di People, was beaten up in 2005 by the sons of one Fatmata Hassan, after he wrote a story criticising the former MP of the then ruling SPLPP.  Almost six years after Yansaneh’s death, Olu was still on the case.  That’s the kind of man he was: noble, loyal, upright and incorruptible, a veritable man of the people.  He was one hound dog you wouldn’t want on your sorry tail – if you were in possession of one!

When in 1989 the Momoh regime jailed Lansana Fofana, a PANAFU colleague with whom I had worked on The Chronicle, it was our hero who came riding to the rescue.  Fofana writes:  “[Olu] teamed up with other brothers in the struggle like Ishmail Rashid and Kelvin Lewis to mount a campaign to get us [Chronicle editor K Roy Stevens was also inside] both out of jail. They took over the paper and used it as a platform to bombard Momoh’s government and its then ruthless police chief Bambay Kamara. The result: I was freed by Mr Momoh on a Presidential pardon.”

Olu has been variously described as “weird” (because he refused “presents”), a “guru,” a “high priest,” “the greatest philosopher in Sierra Leone,” “Sierra Leone’s Herodotus.”  One fellow called him “the last man standing.”  I loved that.  He was the last man standing because many of us left for other shores; we “fell.”  He was the last man standing because many of us succumbed to the curse of presents and brown envelopes; we “fell.”  Yes, he was the last man standing.  He only fell because he died.  We fell while still alive.

His signature dashiki and shoulder bag

And he walked alone.  I have this image of Olu as Caine, the David Carradine character in “Kung Fu,” you know, the one where he walks – he’s always walking – from Wild West town to Wild West town, Karate-chopping the bad guys in order to save the little guys.  For Chinese garb and the bag slung across Caine’s shoulders, scope Olu’s signature dashiki and shoulder-strapped raffia bag; for Caine’s kung fu bag of tricks, take Olu’s sharp pen and sharper intellect.  And, like the horse-less Caine, the car-less comrade always walked or used public carriage.  And how they both walloped the big guys, being applauded all the while by the little guys!

He talked the talk.  And he walked the walk.  A bit of all of us died with this fearless African warrior; and a bit of him breathes in us, the comrades he inspired and has now left behind.  He waged bold struggle, this people’s champion, eschewing vulgar materialism for the greater good.  And he has left his mark, giant footprints on the landscape of resistance and the private spheres of our consciousness.

In some ways, Olu was our Gandhi.  He sacrificed a comfortable life with his family in London and the material trappings of “success” so he could struggle in Africa.  Was he a saint?  Hell, no!  He was as mortal, and therefore as fallible, as the next person.  He made his fair share of mistakes, but mine is not the task of enumerating them.  I will say one thing, however, in that regard and it is this:  the weight of the good will blast the other stuff into orbit.

There have been claims that the comrade was becoming “soft” on President Ernest Koroma’s government.  Olu’s appointment as an advisor to the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and Koroma’s alleged role in arranging for the editor to be airlifted to London are proffered as corroboration.  The implication is that he was somehow “compromised.”

I was not a fly on the wall of Olu Gordon’s life; am not particularly interested in his so-called “friendship” with the head of state. And neither am I the keeper of his “good name.”  But I will say the following:

There is nothing strange in the fact of a noted anti-corruption campaigner accepting an appointment to the ACC.  We should be more concerned about their performance in the role.  On the issue of the London airlift, did the necessary funds come from the president’s personal stash?  I should think not.  In fact, if the story is true, every Sierra Leonean who needs medical treatment abroad should camp outside State House until the President arranges for them to be also flown to London.  If nothing else, it would teach the government to keep our national health service in tip-top condition so that the sick don’t have to seek treatment overseas.

And, as those who know Olu Gordon “good good fashin” will say, when has a so-called friendship ever stopped him answering the call of the popular masses he idolised?  The people were his friends, not the powerful.  Why, only a few weeks ago he was warning the APC government and its police agents to keep their noses out of FBC student politics! 

“Et tu, Jules?”

I saw Olu for the last time when I went home in 2008.  He looked okay but I noticed he was smoking cigars.  (I hear he quit them over a year ago but the damage had already set in.) He noticed I didn’t smoke any cigarettes during our times together.  I told him I quit.  What about the other stuff? he asked, meaning weed.  I said I planned to give that up too, but that I would have one final fling with Mary Jane in Freetown, and then pack it in for good on my return to London.

We talked about the struggle, such as it was.  Among other things, he and some comrades were looking into the possibility of setting up a socialist party.  I brought up the matter of his duels – fought on newspaper pages – with “the two doctors,” as I called them.  These were Dr Sama S Banya, political columnist and former SLPP cabinet minister, and Dr Sylvia Blyden, publisher of Awareness Times newspaper.

Banya, he said, was a worthy adversary he enjoyed sparring with; Blyden, on the other hand, was a “dangerous fraud who has fooled a lot of people” into thinking she was a “progressive journalist.”  “I hope you’re not one of those people,” he said.  I smiled but said nothing, whereupon the comrade began laughing and pointing at me.  “Et tu, Jules?” he said in a mock French accent.  Oh, yes, that twinkle-eyed laugh of his, so mischievous, so infectious!

I had bought a cheap camcorder on my way to Sierra Leone, hoping to explore documentary filmmaking.  My subject: attacks on press freedom by the APC government.  Blyden and FDP’s Paul Kamara – who, incidentally, were also in a bitter feud – were the only two journalists who declined my interview requests.  (I subsequently got to interview Blyden in London after the Koroma government turned up the heat on her for an article she wrote about an alleged friend of the president’s.  We agreed to collaborate on another film project, but nothing came of that.)

In the fifth paragraph of this piece I mentioned being shocked by the manner in which Olu’s death was reported on the Awareness Times website.  Had I not read that item, this brief appreciation of the life of my comrade and mentor would have been wrapped up at this point.  But, alas, I must continue, if for no other reason than to explain the reason for my “shock.”

Here is the item as it appeared on the website:

"Olu Gordon of Sierra Leone's Peep! Newspaper is dead
By DR. SYLVIA OLAYINKA BLYDEN (Officer of the Order of the Rokel)
Apr 4, 2011, 18:32



Mr. Richie Olu Awoonor-Gordon, Editor of Peep! Newspaper has died. Gordon recently suffered a stroke in the middle of a sustained media bout he had with two determined journalists of SENATOR NEWSPAPER following which, Gordon had to be flown out in a wheelchair to London where he reportedly passed away today, April 4th 2011.

May his soul rest in perfect peace. Amen.

This Obituary Announcement is written by one of Sierra Leone's leading Journalists, Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, OOR(Officer of the Order of the Rokel), an upstanding and proud citizen of the Republic of Sierra Leone."

In audiovisual terms, this is the equivalent of Blyden performing a jig on the grave of Olu Gordon, all the while pointing at her chest and screaming, “It was me. I did it.”  I shall rephrase that, given that it was written on the very day the comrade passed.  It is tantamount to Blyden dancing on Olu Gordon’s still-warm corpse.  This is an unedifying spectacle; it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The said Senator newspaper began life in the offices of Blyden’s Awareness Times and sources say is wholly owned by her.  Over the last couple of months she has used the paper as proxy in her war against Olu Gordon.  As the saying goes, all’s fair in love and war.  But her target is now gone – vanquished, as she would have us believe, by her valiant pen.  This gloating is in severe bad taste, no matter what the man may or may not have done.

Blyden’s macabre death-dance

Sister Fosuah tells me it was cancer which killed her husband.  But Dr Blyden the intrepid diagnostician alludes that a Blyden-engineered stroke killed the brother.  What do wives know anyway!  The good doctor knows all.  I also learnt that Comrade Awoonor-Gordon died just four hours before the good doctor commenced her macabre death-dance.  This tells me that she had her ears (or stethoscope) close to the ground, waiting vulture-fashion for the last breath to be drawn.

Compare Blyden’s offering to that of Dr Sama “Puawei” Banya’s in a recent column titled, “So Our Olu Is Gone!”  After saying he could not see the funny side of Olu sending up the visually-impaired Professor Eldred Jones, Banya wrote:  “Other than that I had never borne any personal grudge or malice towards the late young man. By his death Sierra Leone journalism and SLAJ have lost one of their most brilliant members. For all his faults he was loved and admired. As for me I won’t pretend that I will not miss our banters.”   

Dr Banya’s is a class act.  You have to take your hat off to such reflexive decency and professionalism, especially as they were on opposite ends of the ideological divide.  As for the very good and extremely honourable Dr Blyden – the self-described “one of Sierra Leone’s leading Journalists” – I have sat by and watched her banish journalistic ethics to the doghouse as she hounded people through her media organs, saying nothing, rationalising that I was too busy book-writing.  Perhaps I was afraid she would turn her withering wit and formidable forensic flair on my delicate sensibilities.  Such speculation is now merely academic.

We only have a few words of helpful advice for this lady:  Please move nicely along and leave the brother alone now that he’s gone.  For everyone's sake. 

Re your prayer for him to rest in perfect peace; my dear lady, we are Marxists; when we die that is exactly what we expect to do – to rest in perfect peace.  As the late great Michael Jackson might have said, “That is it!”  We aren’t going anywhere after that, are we?    But if there is a God, S/he must be a Capitalist and I trust Olu to give Her Hell for the suffering He’s sanctioned on the Wretched of the Earth.

So what's his legacy?  Simple.  His life, his example, his incorruptibility and unalloyed devotion to the masses of the African people.

Comrade Oluwaseyi Awoonor, cadre of the African Revolution, my brother, my leader, my friend, I salute you.