“John, I baptise you in the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit.” The Priest scooped water from the bucket and poured some on his head held over the font which had been moved to the bottom of the altar.
“Thank you father.” The congregation chorused.
The infant squirmed in his mother’s hands when the water touched him, and then he settled down again. His eyes were pressed closed, and that was how they remained till the end of Mass.
“Maybe we should have named him Peter,” Alagbin, his godfather, remarked as the group walked the short distance from the mission to the family house. “He couldn’t stay awake for one hour.” This drew laughter from all but his mother.
“We have a catechist in my family, and the choirmaster is also from my family; I wonder where he got this laziness from.” Adenike said, looking pointedly away from her husband as she hiked the infant higher up her back and secured the wrapper tighter across her chest. The path narrowed and they had to walk two abreast, so Samuel’s response was lost.
The sun had come out, burning up the last of the moisture in the atmosphere but doing nothing to dispel the haze that hung in the air. Its heat was welcome after the harmattan chill that penetrated clothes, skin and bone. The air which was thick with the smell of cashew – ripe, over ripe and rotting – blew lazily about. Swarms of flies, disturbed by the party, swirled and buzzed angrily before returning to settle on foliage where they had been; some clung to the backs of their clothes as they went by.
Back home, Samuel, Adenike, uncle Alagbin, uncle Rotimi the catechist, aunty Tinuke and a few other people who had been at the baptism broke their fast with tea or hot cocoa, bread and fried eggs, and then they dispersed and went about their day.
The thin wail coming from the bedroom reached Saraja’s ears and he jumped. He stopped squeezing the cap he held in both hands, drew the back of his left arm across his face and wiped the sweat away. The wail died as suddenly as it had come and Saraja resumed his pacing. He turned sharply at the sound of the door opening, his stomach lurched; the knot was back.
“Congratulations Baba Ele, your child has come and it is a boy.” The midwife announced. She looked weary.
“And Asabe?” Saraja dreaded the reply. His wife’s health had become a source of concern. She had never been big, but in the last two months she had become a shadow of herself. Besides, this labour had gone on longer than when Eleojo was born.
“She is fine, just very tired.”
It was then Saraja realised he had been holding his breath. “Can I see them?” Without waiting for a reply, he pushed the door open and walked into the dimly lit room. Seven days later, in a ceremony presided over by the local Imam, and in the presence of family and friends, Ibrahim Samsideen Ajigala was named.
“Have you found your class?” Awonke asked John. “I hope we are in the same class. I hope we sit close to each other. I have some common entrance exam past questions, would you like to see?” She continued without waiting for his answer. “The school is so big!” Her eyes grew wide as she looked around her as if trying to take in all of her surrounding in that one look.
Since primary one, Awonke was the only pupil who gave him a tough time academically and he had hated her: she alternated the 1st position with him. In primary three Awonke had come 1st overall on prize giving day and John had sulked that it was a girl that beat him until his mother reminded him that Awonke was “a human being first, and God’s child too.” That was when he decided he did not really hate her. A tenuous friendship was formed, but Awonke was too chatty and John sometimes just wanted to be left alone.
“I just arrived so no, I don’t know which class I am in. Have you found your class?”
Numbers were written with chalk on the walls of the classrooms, each room seated thirty pupils, and since his number was 15504, John calculated he should be in the sixth room. That was where he went.
“Oh, I am in the fourth class,” Awonke said. “It doesn’t matter though, at least we will see after the exams.”
He nodded as he scanned the class for his seat. Awonke stood there a moment as if she wanted to say something, but when John did not pay her any more attention, she turned and walked away.
John found his seat and set his bag down on the desk that had 504 boldly written on the right hand corner with chalk. He felt bad for his cool attitude towards Awonke, he understood that he was her only real friend since nobody wanted to be friends with a know-it-all, but he just wanted to be left alone to do some revision before the exams.
He watched her retreating figure as she made her way to her classroom two doors down. She was just passing the door of the next class when a boy ran out and knocked her over sideways. Her books went flying everywhere. She lay sprawled in the sand for a moment before picking herself up.
John was already weaving his way to the door when another boy came out from the other classroom and joined her and John stopped. He watched as the boy helped her pick the books up, shaking the sand from them while she dusted herself with the palms of her hands. John had never seen the boy before which did not come as a surprise; he was from a different school.
The national common entrance examination into federal and state government colleges was open to primary 5 and 6 pupils from schools all over the country, and St. Peter’s secondary school served as examination centre for five primary schools in the Igalamela/Odolu area.
John watched them through the doorway for a while before returning to his revision.
“What are you doing in my school?”
Ibrahim just stood there and stared at the girl standing in his way. She wore her hair in neat corn rows and had round glasses that made her look not unlike an owl.
“Sorry, do I know you?” He asked.
She smiled before taking off her glasses. He cocked his head and frowned. Without the glasses, she looked vaguely familiar, but he still could not place the face.
“I am not surprised you don’t recognise me. Back when we first met, actually, the only other time we met, I had short hair and didn’t wear glasses.”
He shook his head slowly, his frown deepening.
“You really don’t remember? St. Peter’s? Common entrance exams?”
His face lit up then. “That was you?”
Ibrahim’s intelligence and intuitive grasp of anything he was taught meant he was his teachers’ favourite pupil. His jovial nature made it impossible not to like him and his good looks and good manners did not hurt.
It was common to find Ibrahim surrounded by his classmates, so it was no surprise that, sitting in the classroom at St. Peter’s waiting for 9 o’clock when the common entrance examination will start, a group formed around him. One of the pupils in the group was Eneojo, son of a local businessman with shops in Idah, Ejule and Anyingba. They had been sharing a packet of Nasco cream biscuits Eneojo had brought, and Ibrahim was just reaching for the packet Eneojo held out when Ajogun, the school prankster, snatched the pack and ran. He only made it as far as the classroom door before colliding with a girl walking along the corridor. A shout went up round the classroom, and some people rushed towards the door. Ajogun regained his balance and continued his run.
Ibrahim was the first one to get to the door. He bent down and helped the girl pick her books, noticing from her uniform that she was from Polytechnic Staff School.
Ibrahim did very well at the exams and, after the interview, had gone on to Federal Government College Enugu.
“It really is you! It’s not just the hair and glasses, you also weren’t this grown.” He said looking her up and down. “Besides, that was so long ago and we are so far away from home!” He finished.
“You have grown yourself,” she said before lapsing into silence.
“How come I have never seen you around here before?” He asked after a moment.
“The reason is simple really; I just transferred here, making this my third secondary school. The Army posted my father to 82 Div in Abakpa, and as always, the family had to move too.”
“That sounds like a lot of movement. How are you finding the Coal City though?”
“I don’t mind the moving too much, it’s just that with each move, I have to adapt to new surroundings, make new friends and everything. As for Coal City, it is kinda quaint. I think of it as a civil service town. Everyone is so polite and homely, and the weather is nice as well – when the sun is not frying your brain. The red dust settles thick on everything though; I had to get Oxblood polish for my black shoes.” She made a face before continuing, “You have no idea how glad I was when I saw you standing with the teachers during assembly. I guess I should tremble before you, Head boy.”
“Please stop,” he waved his hand dismissively, “I don’t even care much for all of that.”
“I believe you,” she said with a straight face which dissolved into laughter a moment later.
“Were you making fun of me?” Ibrahim raised an eyebrow. “Do you think that is a wise thing to do? I am, after all, Head boy.”
It was not until after she had left him that he realised he did not know her name. He did not see her for another week, and when he did, the first thing he noticed was her hair. It was plaited with black rubber thread in what looked like periwinkle shells; it suited her narrow face.
Ibrahim enjoyed talking with Awonke so much that he would seek her out during break time. This annoyed Adaugo, the Head girl, who felt like the new girl had come to steal her boyfriend. By the end of term, Ibrahim and Awonke had grown almost inseparable.
He sat there, papers strewn all across the reading table watching his mother sew by the light of the Butterfly lantern. She seemed to have aged more since the death of her husband. True, Samuel had been ill a long time battling tuberculosis, and tending to him had taken its toll on her, still, his death had been particularly hard on her; he had been her lord and protector.
Before John’s eyes Adenike had shrunk so much, even uncles Alagbin and Rotimi had been alarmed. They believed that the only thing tethering her to this life was her son, and he believed it too. Filling out his PolyJamb registration form, he reached a decision: he could not move too far away.
When the results came out, he was not surprised to find he passed, nor was he surprised that he had been accepted at the Polytechnic. There was no jubilation, no elation, nothing. Just the satisfaction that his choice meant he could go to school from home, and the hope that his presence at home meant a lot to his mother.
He faced his education with a steady purpose. His grades were very good, his performance was enough to bring him to the notice of some of his lecturers, but he did not pursue a friendship with them like some of his mates did; he was cordial enough though. Adenike made sure his tuition was paid on time and the basics were taken care of, it was the other things she did not always have money for. For extra cash, John made posters and greeting cards. His finishing was neat – attention to detail was important to him – so his work became sought after.
Without courting it, he became quite popular among the students. That he shied away from the limelight seemed to have thrown it squarely on him. When he returned for his higher national diploma, he was nominated Pick-A-Brain Student of the year, Artist of the year and Gentleman of the year. He was not going to attend the awards ceremony, but Yemi, his best friend, prevailed upon him to do so; the recognition was good for business, he opined.
Going through the list of nominees, John noticed a name appeared in two out of the three categories he was nominated in and he was a little curious. As the evening progressed, John saw that this person had actually been nominated in five categories.
Dark and tall with an athletic build, and wearing a navy blue blazer with tee-shirt over jeans and sneakers, he walked with a measured, self-assured gait. His low cut hair was wavy and well oiled, and the lights bounced off it. “Dandy,” John muttered as he walked up to accept his first award of the night.
He carted away four awards from the five he was nominated for. John won artist of the year, lost gentleman of the year to him, and they shared student of the year – for the first time in the history of the awards. By the time the night was done, Ibrahim Ajigala was no longer just a name to John.
“Excuse me, you are John, right?”
John had been in conversation with Yemi, they were both leaning against Mrs Nwokocha’s blue Peugeot 504 saloon car and did not see him until he was standing in front of them.
“Yes,” John replied.
“Ibrahim Ajigala, I know who you are.”
“I hoped you’d remember me. I came to ask for your support in the forthcoming SUG elections. You see, I am interested in the Student Judicial Council. I have been speaking with other students and I was asked to speak with you too since you seem to have some…” He broke off when he saw the smile that formed on Yemi’s lips. “Is everything alright? Did I say something funny?” He asked.
“Please forgive him, do continue.” John said.
“So, I have come to you because I hear you have some pull among students in your department, and since we are both in School of Technology, every support I can garner here is important.” He finished.
John stood there, his head bowed. Ibrahim looked from him to Yemi and back to him.
“I feel flattered that you should come and have this talk with me, and I assure you, I have heard everything you said. The thing is, I also intend to seek a seat on the council.
Since there are eight judges, two from each school, one ND and one HND, there is little
I can do to help. Why don’t you go for an executive or legislative position?”
The frown that quickly passed across Ibrahim’s face told John this was not the response he had expected.
“Look,” Ibrahim said, “I have already been speaking with students and your name did not come up as a likely candidate, an indication that nobody knows of this your dream. I am happy to get you all the support you may need if you agree to contest any other office. Failing that, I will force a pre-election in School of Tech, and I assure you I have Maths & Stat, Computer Science, Tourism, Science Lab tech and Food tech on my side. I am also sure I can split your department’s votes with you. Surely, you can’t hope to win on the Hot & Cat votes you have left. Please be reasonable.”
“Since you have it all figured out,” John enunciated each word, “then you have nothing to worry about.”
Ibrahim turned then and walked away.
“You have to tell me how you do that.” Yemi told John when Ibrahim was out of earshot.
“Zone out and zone back in at will.” Yemi said. “I noticed you tuned out when he mentioned elections.”
“Was I that obvious?” John asked.
“I wouldn’t have known if we weren’t so close. One of the good things about being your best friend is that I can say I know you fairly well. So John, what do you plan to do?” He asked.
“To be honest, I haven’t given it much thought. I was going to pledge him my support, but did you hear all that talk about who and who he had on his side?” John wrapped his hands around his neck as if he was choking himself and made a face. “Now I have some thinking to do.”
One week later John got summoned by his uncle Rotimi who was the chaplaincy catechist and a staff of the polytechnic. He dropped everything and rushed off to his office, fearing the worst.
Over the years, his mother’s health had improved, though she never fully regained her vitality. There was always a shadow lurking behind her eyes; they say she missed her Samuel.
In his final year John had moved onto the campus, though he tried to visit Adenike every other weekend; he was not due to visit till Friday.
His uncle had never sent for him in all his time at the polytechnic so this had to be something serious. His mind kept going to his mother, and each time it did, he said a prayer. After the pleasantries, Catechist asked him if there was any truth to the rumours about John and school politics. When John answered yes, Catechist told him how pleased he was that John had taken an interest politics, and then asked him if he must contest a seat on the SJC though.
“Ibrahim has friends, John, and he had made it clear as early as the first semester that he wanted to be the Chief Justice. I am not asking you to run from what you want, all I am asking is that you think about this and see how this can be resolved.”
Hiding his feelings, John said he would give it some though, thanked Catechist and returned to his hostel. He was not sure whether to be angry with uncle Rotimi, or be thankful that his mother was fine. One thing he knew for sure was that there was now no way he was backing out of this race anymore.
It had been purely by accident that Ibrahim had found out about John’s relationship with Catechist. He was out drinking with some friends when one of them had called him CJ.
“I am not home and dry o, my brother.” He had said, and then went on to explain the situation with John.
“Why not get his uncle to talk to him?” Adokie had grown up in Idah with John, and both families lived on the same street at Sabon Gari.
That was how Ibrahim came to learn that John was the much revered Catechist’s nephew. He took the matter to Catechist who told him to come back the next day.
Two days after his talk with Catechist, Ibrahim went to see John in his hostel. John was alone, hunched over a book. He looked up when the door creaked open, and his features froze.
“May I come in?” Ibrahim asked.
“Will you go back out if I say no?”
Ibrahim shook his head.
“Then by all means make yourself comfortable.”
Ibrahim perched on the edge of the bed and asked John if he had given the matter any thought. The visit turned out to be a short one: John planned to go ahead and put his name forward once registration started.
“So I guess that’s it then.” Ibrahim said. “May the best man win.”
The erstwhile student union governing body was dissolved at midnight on Friday two weeks later and a caretaker committee was set up to run the affairs and conduct the next round of elections.
As early as 9 O’ clock on Monday Ibrahim purchased his registration form which he promptly completed and submitted, then went home to prepare for the intra-school election John had but promised him.
When by Friday morning, the final day for registration, he had not been summoned by the Electoral Commission, he began to relax, especially after he learnt that the second School of Tech form had been picked up by a boy in ND1. Now, with the Student Judicial Council, there were no campaigns, no manifesto, and no public elections. All eight judges met at the courthouse and elected the CJ and Registrar among themselves. This meeting and election was usually held before the general elections. Traditionally, the CJ was a HND position, and the Registrar position was reserved for an ND student.
The meeting of the judges was fixed for 11am on Saturday. Ibrahim arrived fifteen minutes before 11 O’ clock. He went from judge to judge; there were six of them present. He shared a joke here and patted a shoulder there, pumping hands and whispering in ears; he was after all the new Chief Justice. At two minutes to 11 O’ clock, the door opened and the last judge joined them.
“My lords, sorry for my lateness, I had to sort out some last minute hiccups.” John gave a much exaggerated bow and a mischievous grin. “If it pleases my lords, may we begin?”
If he lived to be a hundred, John doubted he would forget the expression on Ibrahim’s face when he walked in. Ibrahim looked like he had swallowed a wasp.
“Sorry, excuse me, but you do realise that this is a closed session and only judges may attend. I do not want to be rude, but I have to ask that you excuse us.” Ibrahim finally spoke.
“One, two, three, four…” John counted, pointing to each member present as he counted. “…five, six, seven, and eight.” He held up his left hand in which he held a slip of paper. “I do think we are all accounted for, don’t you?”
All the other judges sat quietly, watching the exchange between them.
“But… I mean…” Ibrahim stuttered.
“Raymond Acheneje? Sadly, he failed the screening and so was disqualified. A good thing I was around the Commission’s office and heard about it. I simply picked up the last form.” John explained. “We don’t want the SJC short one judge now, do we?” He was thoroughly enjoying himself.
The Convocation Square was packed full; the rains did not deter the students. Michael Ugwu, the SUG president-elect stood resplendent in his native isi agu attire and wrapper, worn over black shoes polished to a high sheen. This was his big moment, though, if the truth be told, he knew that most of the students who had turned out today came because of the Chief Justice who stood in front of him waiting to administer the oath of office.
“You will please repeat after me.” The Chief Justice looked at Michael who looked back and nodded almost imperceptibly.
“I, say your name…”
John, uncertain of victory against Ibrahim if they went head to head in open election, had carefully chosen Ray Acheneje, an ND student in his department, to pick up the second School of Tech form. He had chosen Ray because of the GPA requirement for all aspiring office holders; Ray’s GPA was 0.53 points short and John knew he would be disqualified on that ground. He had Ray submit his completed form at precisely 2:30pm on Friday, leaving the screening committee 1hour 30minutes to complete their investigations and find a replacement. So, he was on hand to pick up the form which suddenly became available. John had also, through Yemi, found out who the other aspiring judges were from the other schools. Yemi sounded them out and decided who could be approached with a deal: two of them where happy for their forms to be paid for, one, an ND Electrical Electronics Engineering student wanted to be Registrar and he was promised John’s support. With three votes in his favour, he was tied with Ibrahim on paper, but there was no accounting for the dynamics of human beings. He made a back-up plan, and even then it was touch and go.
That day, with all eight judges present, John had nominated Gabriel Igbuku for Registrar. Nobody else seemed to want it, so it was unanimously supported. Then it came to the one everybody was waiting for, the office of the Chief Justice. The tension in the room was thick enough to cut. When it was time to nominate candidates for the position, Salihu Eneche proposed Ibrahim. His nomination was seconded by Onipe Julius.
Gabriel nominated John and this was seconded by Ibrahim. Confused looks were exchanged all around the room. John wondered what Ibrahim was playing at, and then it hit him: he was playing his gallantry card. Because nominees did not vote, the votes were shared down the middle and this will necessitate another round of voting, but with Ibrahim supporting John’s nomination, it may sway one of John’s three to cast their votes for Ibrahim; after all he had just shown himself to be fair. John smiled, impressed by Ibrahim’s tactics. He knew he had to do something to shift things once again in his favour.
“For the office of Chief Justice, I, John Badamosi do nominate Justice Salihu Eneche.”A collective gasp went round the room.
Salihu was Ibrahim’s strongest supporter, and what John had done in effect by nominating him was to split Ibrahim’s remaining two votes since Onipe Julius was from School of Business, same as Salihu. Even if the votes were not split, John’s three votes were intact, and three votes trumped two.
With his right palm on the bible, and his left held up, the President-elect repeated: “I, Michael Ugwu,”
“Solemnly swear,” John, Chief Justice of the federal polytechnic Idah, continued.