“What does it mean to turn 60 in a postcolonial world threatened by Covid-19?” I recently asked Toyin Akinosho in an up-close, no holds-barred interview to mark the diamond jubilee of the birth of the cultural activist and retired petroleum explorationist.
“It means significant uncertainty because of your age,” he responded. “You are supposed to have walked beyond the more agile period of your life. You should be forgiven for feeling as uneasy as the architect- protagonist in Yewande Omotosho’s novel “The Woman Next Door”. It also means enormous opportunity if you insist on looking to the future. The period of containment allows you to look afresh at your entire portfolio, tackle some of the projects that the clutter of the ‘old lfe” did not allow you and do that one assignment.”
That is vintage Akinosho, blending a brutal understanding of the precarity of living in the postcolonial city with an artistic vision enriched by eclectic book and street knowledge. As a young man straddling a privileged professional life as an employee of a rich multinational oil and gas company in Lagos and life as a cultural activist and freelance journalist familiar with the Lagos cultural calendar as well as all the arts and entertainment hotspots, Akinosho earned a reputation as one of the most powerful cultural figures in Nigeria’s commercial capital city.
So, a corporate petroleum expert by day and an arts and culture connoisseur after office hours, Toyin accounted for the management of the double active life in these words: “The good thing is that Chevron is a well-structured organization… It’s not something they jump on you. Once you have [a] target, you face it. I mean, people jump into the bus at 4.30pm. If you are someone, who is energetic like me, there’s still a lot of time. People do enough at work and feel that they have to go home at 4.30pm. But for someone like me, that’s another six hours” (Nwanne 2017).
Served by this unusual capacity to combine his demanding day’s job with attending multiple arts and culture events in the city, it seemed inevitable that our paths would cross.
I had moved to Lagos from Ibadan after my Master’s program, and was lucky to have been instantly hired by The Guardian newspaper as a Staff Writer for the Sunday paper. TA, as Toyin was fondly called by friends, was not just a columnist for The Guardian, anchoring the popular Artsville column on the Sunday paper, he was a close ally of my colleagues on the Arts Desk. So connected was Toyin to the Arts Editor then, Ben Tomoloju, and his dependable deputy, Jahman Anikulapo, that one could have mistaken him for a full-time staff of The Guardian at the time. This was in the early 1990s. I was receiving my initiation into the Lagos cultural scene, and succumbing to a restless spirit that saw me running through multiple newsrooms that Reuben Abati would later playfully describe me in newspaper article as “ex-this, ex-that, man about town..”
Akinosho’s unmatched ability to reach any corner of Lagos to connect with any artistic friend or event ensured that he would occasionally drop by at my residence then on Haruna Street in the Ogba suburb of Lagos, and we would excavate the artistic innards of the city or “arts checkpoints,” to appropriate the title of a column that Jahman was writing for The Guardian Express, an evening newspaper subsidiary of the flagship, The Guardian. “Those who know Akinosho will easily tell you he’s proudly a Lagos boy; he wears it like a badge,” declares Nwanne (2017). “Just open a conversation on Lagos and within a short period, you will get the full gist about Lagos yesterday, today and even the future.”
Original Lagos Boy (Omo Eko Gangan)
Akinosho’s love for Lagos is traceable to his childhood days in Ebute Meta area of Lagos which he recalls nostalgically. One of his most memorable reminiscences was living close to the Cool Cats Inn, notable for being the venue where highlife great, Victor Olaiya played regularly (Allen 2013), and also for being the venue for the hosting of Liberian President William Tubman when he visited Nigeria (Chieh 2015). The performance sounds from the Cool Cats Inn and a natural flair for the arts competed with his realization that to afford the “good life,” he needed the kind of fat income that an oil and gas career could guaranty. And so, Akinosho studied geology at the University of Ife and arts and culture on the streets of Lagos. Not surprisingly, however, he took an early retirement at age 48 to rededicate himself more to his first love—arts and culture—after working at Chevron for 20 years.
The Arts Journalist, Advocate
The occasion of his 50th birthday provided an opportunity for friends and associates in the arts community to celebrate the contributions of the cultural landscapist and maestro to the development of the arts in Nigeria. A terse email by lawyer and journalist Deji Toye on behalf of “Friends of Toyin” summarily invited me to participate in an Arthouse discussion on the theme “Art Journalism & Art Advocacy in the Last Two Decades in Nigeria.” The email further clarified that “The Arthouse Forum is being organized as part of the programme of events to mark the 50th birthday anniversary of Mr. Toyin Akinosho… on Wednesday 12 May, 2010 at 4.00 p.m. prompt at Terra Kulture, Tiamiyu Savage Street, Victoria Island, Lagos.” The subject of the forum was “Art Advocacy and Art Journalism – Developments in the last two decades,” and I had been nominated as a facilitator because the organizers believed that I “had straddled those two elements — journalism and advocacy — in the decades under consideration.”
Ten years after that celebration, history is happily repeating itself as I received another invitation to contribute to a special publication in celebration of Akinosho at 60. I use the adverb “happily” deliberately to underscore the joy of maturing in the context of the funeral orchard that has claimed many young artists and intellectuals from our homeland. Beyond the honour and recognition signaled by the two invitations, I am touched by the creative strategy of Friends of Toyin Akinosho who, like their principal, are acutely aware of the challenges of pulling off cultural events in a country that often runs in an ad-hoc manner, and so have perfected a ‘stampede’ format to succeed against the odds. And over time, they have so tattooed their existence into international consciousness under the auspices of the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) that they won the prestigious Prince Claus Awards in 2006 — the award and a symbolic cheque of 25,000 Euro was presented on December 14, 2006 to CORA, succinctly described by the Dutch organization as “a unique Nigerian organization that creates spaces to engage the public in debate on cultural issues.”
Watchers of the activities of CORA ably and selflessly piloted by Akinosho and Anikulapo saw the international recognition coming. I was one of those who not only attended the first CORA Art Stampede (the signature programme of the Committee) in Festac Town, Lagos on June 2, 1991, but also jokingly encouraged them by often reminding them that an international award was on its way if they persevered. Not as if they set their sights on any awards or recognition. For Toyin and Jahman and the CORA crew, art advocacy is their life and working in the cultural vineyard a labour of love.
Embracing his diamond years, Akinosho continues to bestride the Nigerian cultural landscape. Dating back to his mutation from a journalist in the 1980s as a reporter with The Guardian newspaper and ThisWeek magazine into an oil and gas professional and a cultural activist, Akinosho has, to borrow from the promotional literature for 50th birthday celebration, demonstrated that the “two key factors which have sustained the centrality of Art and Culture in the public space have been the growth of Art Journalism into full desks in the print media… and the proliferation of advocacy efforts – from trade guilds to practitioner associations, patrons’ foundations and ordinary citizens’ initiatives.”
Akinosho was shortlisted for, and won the Business category of the CNN Journalist of the Year, and has earned a reputation as perhaps the longest-running arts columnist in Nigeria. Understandably, then, the key recurring questions in Akinosho’s quest for cultural renaissance in Nigeria include: “What have been the success and failure of Art Journalism and Advocacy? How can the energy generated by these be harnessed for national development in the next two?”
Perhaps no one else is better positioned to answer the questions than Akinosho himself. Thrust in a rather awkward position today of being at the receiving end of the cultural menu he is better at serving others as chief host; he has become a guest at the kind of show, an endless list of those he (and Jahman) have organized include “Nduka Otiono at 40” at O’Jez restaurant, Surulere, Lagos, in 2004. Between well-nurtured self effacement and an uncanny capacity for friendship and selfless service, Akinosho is a cultural colossus, an enigma of sorts who combines popular culture with high tastes and high life — not the musical genre. He switches effortlessly from the high-profile privileges of an oil and gas exec familiar with the scents of “oil money” or petrodollar to the Bolekaja street life of the chattering masses.
The Renaissance Man
It is not accidental that he and the cofounders of CORA— including Yomi Layinka, Jossy Ogbuanor, Tunde Lanipekun and Chika Okeke, joined later by Anikulapo — conceived the Art Stampede as an open parliament reminiscent of the classical public sphere of African tradition and ancient Greece. I have shared with Toyin, in one breath, the suffocating coziness of some of Lagos’s best pubs, and the vibrating rowdiness of many “watering holes” in the inner city. We have made long journeys inside the city by the Lagoon, from Festac Town to Ogba in search of artistic and other adventures. In all, Toyin has proven to be a Renaissance man—melding an intimidating knowledge of the arts and a reputation as cultural icon with his specialist profile as one of the respected voices in the Oil & Gas sector in the continent. Besides being the Secretary General of CORA, he served as the Secretary of the National Association of Petroleum Explorationists (NAPE). What an enviable combination! In that capacity, he organized and facilitated events on the state of the industry in different parts of the world and has been publishing the African Oil & Gas Report, AOGR, a bi-monthly magazine under the umbrella of Journoblues Company, publishers of his unusual Festac News medium.
Restless by nature, somewhat curious about marital commitment, Akinosho’s interests and forays read like a list from a man under the influence of creative steroids. This is evident in the tasks that he as an individual and CORA as a corporate entity have tackled in the past 30 years.
We shall get to them presently, but first here is a profile of CORA I found on the Prince Claus website: His Festac News Agency is the publisher of the bi-monthly African Oil + Gas Report, Festac – the Primer on African Affairs and the curator of Artsville, the authoritative arts commentary column in the Guardian on Sunday. He is also the proprietor of Festac Books, which has published books ranging from fiction, to non-fiction works on the oil and gas industry as well as works of children literature. Mars House, his private residence has been home to some of the most revolutionary ideas that have gone ahead to transform the Art scene in Nigeria in the last one and a half decade, CORA, with its secretariat located on that premises, being just one of these.
Since then, however, CORA’s secretariat moved to a commodious location in Surulere, Lagos, and Akinosho moved home to Lekki, an affluent community in Lagos Island. Now to return to the tasks, amongst others, the group has tackled the following broad spectrum of cultural initiatives:
The Art Stampede: This is a quarterly parliamentary event in which artists, art critics, art journalists and art connoisseurs gather to discuss hot burner issues in the arts and its 57th edition was part of the Cape Town Book Fair in South Africa in June, 2006.
The Annual Lagos Book & Art Festival: Dubbed “The biggest Culture Picnic on the Continent”, LABAF is an art festival with a heavy book content and is a testament to the commitment of CORA that the only way to translate the ‘teeming’ population of Nigeria into a true human resource is to develop their mind. It is an international event with participants drawn from scholars, writers, artists and journalists from all over the world.
Lagos – The City Arts Guide (LCAG): This is a quarterly publication on the cultural life of the city of Lagos, arguably Nigeria’s culture capital and the entry port into the nation’s business and commercial industries. In its short time of existence, LCAG was already beginning to force itself on the consciousness of the practitioners in the culture setting of the city, the culture of disciplined schedule and calendar which is the hallmark of all advanced tourist countries of the world.
The Great Highlife Party: Held in conjunction with the management of O’Jez Nightclub, Surulere, Lagos, this monthly programme set out as a Highlife music revival forum and has additionally emerged as a forum for the celebration of landmark achievements of the best in the Nigerian cultural scene.
The Arthouse Forum: This is a monthly session of exploration into fast-breaking development in the arts and culture sector of Nigeria. It is set up as an agenda-setting forum for those who administer culture in Nigeria. From the Forum they could test the pulse of the arts and culture community. It is usually arranged around landmark events in the life and career of personalities in the culture sector. It is organized on the platform of the Friends of the Arts, Lagos (FOAL), a CORA initiative.
Lagos Circle of Critics (LCC): Periodic meeting of journalists, art critics, art commentators, and practitioners with bias for criticisms and historical developments around the arts.
Culture WorkingCommittee: passes developmental ideas regularly to civil servants in charge of culture administration in the country.
Together, Toyin and his cultural Siamese twin, Jahman Anikulapo, Programme Chair of CORA, and Editor of The Guardian on Sunday and The Guardian LIFE, have guided CORA in collaborating with other local and international organizations such as UNESCO, Commonwealth Foundation, British Council, The Goethe Institut, the Public Affairs Department of the American Embassy, The Netherlands Embassy, the Russian Embassy, the Japanese Embassy etc, on cultural projects including:
• The BOBTV annual Film and TV Festival, Abuja, of which, starting from the 2006 edition, CORA is reportedly a collaborator and resource facilitators for the colloquium.
• The Lagos Comic Carnival: the first edition was incubated by CORA in the Festival in 2004, and delivered by three CORA members in collaboration with the other group of young men and women creating the silent revolution in the newly developing area of comic publications and animation (they are so enthused they’ve started referring to it as an industry) in Nigeria.
• National Festival of Arts and Culture – the annual celebration of the diverse artistic and cultural expression of the peoples of Nigeria, organised by the Federal Government.
As the Profile of CORA states, “at the very least, CORA organizes over twenty events annually, some of them, such as the Lagos Book & Art Festival, are hosted over many days in different venues with participants drawn from both within and outside the country. Also, various publications, including journals, magazines, news releases and fliers go out to the public in fulfillment of some of our mandates.” There is also more recently, CORA’s promotion of Spoken Word poetry through the Lagos Word Slam, a passion that I share with Jahman.
But how does Toyin and company generate the funds for these events in a country where art sponsorship is not the priority of government, rich corporations and citizens? “For all these, sponsorship of our program and projects are drawn mainly from the resources of the core CORA team” states the group. “For the Festival for example, outside sponsorship is only enough to pay about a sixth of our total bill, although it is a cheap festival; no more than five of six million Nigerian naira. But all the payments, including advert payments, never reach one million naira in a year. The rest we have to come up with, as individuals.”
A largely modest team player not given to self-promotion and self-advertisement, much of the money may have come from Toyin’s pocket. His generosity as an art patron in a country where the basic necessities of life often command attention even for the richest citizen is astonishing. Besides throwing open his house to artists short of shelter in Lagos, he has sponsored many artists and arts projects. These include Uche Nduka, whose collection of poems, Second Act was published in 1994 under Akinoshos’s Journoblues, Lagos, imprint. As Akinosho recalls in a most revealing interview he granted Azuka Ogujiuba of Thisday in 2004,
“That was even published almost without my consent. Uche Nduka was working for me as the editor of my community newspaper, FESTAC News. He was one of the important poets in the country then. He wanted to publish, and he did. It wasn’t like I saw the collections of poems and said hey! I wanted to do this. He got some money from Uzor Maxim (Uzoatu), which I’m not sure I’ve paid yet, to publish the book…”
Akinosho was later to support the publication of Akin Adesokan’s award-winning novel, Roots in the Sky, under Festac Books imprint, the successor to Journoblues, Lagos. With CORA, he has been able to extend his passion for the arts, and to support a long list of artist(e)s, and cultural projects. Aware that the future belongs to the youth, he has helped shape the focus of CORA to the younger generation, making them central to the group’s unfolding programs. The yet to be realised CORA Library Projects is a key part of this vision. As CORA’s mission statement makes clear,
CORA plans to establish a project under which libraries will be established in major cities of Nigeria, especially the under-served areas of the cities. The library is where we would articulate all our ideas about the imperatives of reading, book, and literature for national development. This is why we support Book Clubs as part of the extension service outposts in dissemination of the ideas in books. We however take the view that libraries and book clubs should go beyond the upper middle-class clientele.
Given his vast experience over the years, and a shared vote of no confidence in a philistine ruling class in Nigeria, Akinosho would rather not think of Nigerian government in relation to the development of the arts even if he tirelessly works to make the state accountable through his unparalleled advocacy. “I do not even think we should be talking about government. Let’s look at ourselves, what have we contributed?” he rhetorically told Ogujiuba in the press interview referred to above. “We are working on the first library in mainland Lagos, next year. The idea is to have the size and space of the British Council and have the kind of hype that British Council has. Let us build infrastructure ourselves, look at the guys who built MUSON Centre, they don’t have ten heads each. We should go and work and stop hoping on government to help us uplift our arts.”
Culture hero deserving of honour
In a country where optimism is in short supply, Akinosho’s big dreams and optimism about taking Nigeria to a cultural Eldorado is not only contagious, it is worth celebration. As we celebrate him on this golden jubilee of his fortuitous birth as a Nigeria, I believe it is morning yet on his march to greater heights. It is time the Nigerian government recognized such unsung everyday heroes as Toyin Akinosho and awards them the highest honors of our land as a way of redirecting misguided, materialistic youths to the kind of role models urgently needed to build a respectable country that recognizes and rewards excellence.
Akinosho has shown an uncommon vision and commitment to Nigeria’s cultural development that in some other clime, he would have been awarded one of the highest honors of the land, say OFR in Nigeria’s context. Indeed, the British equivalent of this award, member of the Order of the British Empire, OBE, has been awarded to distinguished cultural icons such as the novelist Ben Okri and the dancer, Peter Badejo. But in Nigeria national awards are sometimes given to rogue politicians and their business-class collaborators. Not surprisingly then, both the venerable Chinua Achebe and Gani Fawehinmi have had to dissociate themselves from the awards in the past by rejecting them.
“I have gone back to some of my old ladies to reconsider me…”
To mark the diamond jubilee of Akinosho’s birth, I sought an up-close, no holds-barred interview with him on April 14, 2020. Rather than report it as part of this article, I decided to reproduce it verbatim. Excerpts:
Otiono: What is the significance of turning 60 and how do you feel about the professional mission and vision that have driven you so far?
Akinosho: When you’re 50 in Nigeria, you’re older than most people around you. When you’re 10 years older than that, you’re not allowed to discountenance the fact. It is so stark; both empowering and surreal. The social architecture is constructed to accord you enormous respect as “the old guy”, especially if you still manage to be middle class. The policeman waves your car away quicker once he sees your facial outline, the bank executive stoops lower than the standard courtesy, on your routine walking exercise, even in the most upmarket suburbs in an anonymous city like Lagos, people frequently step up to say: ‘Good morning’. That last is the one thing I have noticed over and over again. As for my professional mission, I am thankful to the Almighty, of course, but I think I have wasted enormous time and I need to get some urgent things done…
Otiono: How do you negotiate the challenge of funding, especially since retiring from Chevron?
Akinosho: Working for Chevron for the 20 years between ages 28 and 48 meant that I was shielded from the enormous economic difficulties that most Nigerians went through in that time frame (1988, two years after the painful structural adjustment was introduced and 2008, the date of the crash of the Lehman Brothers and the spawn of the last Global recession). But I didn’t appreciate it until I left. I came out of the Fortune 100 company imagining I could simply turn my passion into profit: sketching out the stories of the oil industry in a trade journal. But things weren’t as smooth sailing as I had assumed. I hadn’t really constructed a proper business before I dropped the lucrative job of petroleum geologist. What was most painful was that my diminished allowance prevented me from sponsoring certain aspects of the Nigerian cultural scene the way I loved to. But three things had happened while I was still at Chevron, which made things relatively easy to navigate after I left. The most important is the friendship with Jahman Anikulapo, editor of The Guardian on Sunday at the time. Jahman had become the pilot of the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), the vehicle through which we had made the little investment we’ve made in the cultural life of Nigeria. And he is a thorough friend and loyalist to a fault. He will defend you with his own life, even if you were the worst human being on the planet. I am also grateful for the support of many young people who have assumed the best of us, who see in us what we don’t see in ourselves.
The two other things are the awards; CORA being the first entity to have won the Prince Claus Prize in Nigeria gave us significant brand equity and made it possible to open doors.
For the Africa Oil+Gas Report, winning the CNN Africa Journalist Award when the journal had hardly even found its feet, before I ventured out of Chevron to face it full time, made enormous difference. The impact of these two prizes on the two pillars of my life indicate that certain types of awards are important. AOGR is now the market leader for insight into the hydrocarbon industry on the continent. 12 years after leaving Chevron, it is faithfully paying the bills.
Otiono: Bachelorhood man at 60 — is marriage and commitment to the arts more important than traditional family life?
Akinosho: I have gotten terribly used to my aloneness that now I know there is a problem. Now I need sustained, productive company and I have gone back to communicating with some of those ladies who had earlier dismissed me for my selfishness. I am asking them to reconsider me. I just might be the ideal candidate.
Conclusion: “Who on earth is Toyin Akinosho?”
A chilling experience underlines Akinosho’s deep, sometimes humorous reflections on his six decades of existence in one of the fastest growing cities in the world and Africa’s largest city as well as its economic capital with a total population of around 21 million people (World Atlas). On March 20, 2015, five suspected assassins accosted his personal chauffeur Mumuni on Ajose Adeogun Street in Victoria Island Lagos and asked him, ‘Where is Toyin Akinosho?’ In the account of the incident ironically compared to a “Nollywood flick with the title Your Oga or Your Life or The Lucky Escape or the like” and published in Africa Oil + Gas Report magazine of April 15, 2015, Mumuni recalls the triple encounter within one night. He rightly invokes a telling line from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger to underscore the serious threat to his boss’s life that the encounters portended: “Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago. ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”
Having been a victim of gun violence in Lagos in what appeared as “enemy action,” I understand why milestones such as Akinosho’s 60th birthday calls for celebration. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated lockdown of Nigeria’s megacity, cultural hub, and Akinosho’s hometown, the celebration would nevertheless proceed. This time, like life under Covid-19, the celebration is being held online with bouquets of tributes that includes this one. It’s also time to refocus attention to TA’s transformative and energy wisdom which he has harnessed into his newest thriving project: BookArtVille.com, a publishing imprint of Festac News Press Limited which covers Literature, Culture and Media.
Happy birthday O peppy TA!
Allen, Tony, and Michael E. Veal. Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of
Afrobeat. Durham, NC.: Duke University Press, 2013.
Chieh, Ambassador David D. The Spectacular Rise and Catastrophic Fall of Three Liberian
Presidents. West Bow Press, Bloomington, IN., 2015.
Nwanne, Chuks. “Akinosho…Geologist in Love with the Arts.” The Guardian, 15 January 2017. https://guardian.ng/art/akinosho-geologist-in-love-with-the-arts/
“Who on earth is Toyin Akinosho? Epic encounter by Africa Oil + Gas publisher’s driver with
suspected assassins.” Lagos: Africa Oil + Gas, April 21, 2015. https://africaoilgasreport.com/2015/04/petroleum-people/who-on-earth-is-toyin-akinosho/
Ogujiuba, Azuka. Interview. Lagos: Thisday newspaper, 2004. [Original document missing]
Nduka Otiono is an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Supervisor at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University. Prior to turning to academia, he was for many years a journalist in Nigeria. His works have appeared in Journal of Folklore Research, African Literature Today, Journal of African Cinema, Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies, Wasafiri, etc. His co-edited volume of essays, Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature was recently published under the imprint of Palgrave Macmillan Studies in Music and Literature Series. Otiono is winner of a Capital Educator’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, a Carleton University Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Early Career Award for Research Excellence, twice winner of the Carnegie Africa Diaspora Fellowship, and a 2018 Black History Ottawa Community Builder Award. Also a writer, he is the author of The Night Hides with a Knife (short stories), which won the ANA/Spectrum Prize; Voices in the Rainbow (Poems), a finalist for the ANA/Cadbury Poetry Prize; Love in a Time of Nightmares (Poems) for which he was awarded the James Patrick Folinsbee Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing. He has co-edited We-Men: An Anthology of Men Writing on Women (1998), and Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria (2006).
Essay excerpted with the kind permission of the author from “Poblishaaa…The Man, His Arts, The Myth: Dissecting the interventions of Alfred Oluwatoyin Akinosho in the enterprise of Culture Production, Art Advocacy & Criticisms”