The power of letters By Gbenga Omotoso

IT is easily our most exciting season. The weather may be a bit nasty- cold, dry and dusty, clogging our nostrils and impairing visibility. The travel chaos. The shopping spree and the upsurge in crime. Never mind them all. Consider the revelries. Rejoice.

Carols. Streets festooned with flowers. Blinking lights from giant Christmas trees. And those colourful greeting cards with moving words. The messages are sometimes lyrical, expressing deep emotions. Other times, they come in simple, everyday language, signed by the sender and tucked in bright envelopes that we are tempted to keep rather than trash. How I love reading those soothing messages. At the end of it all, I sometimes ask myself if the emotions expressed in those cards are actually reflective of the senders’ true feelings.

But I haven’t got many cards this year. Could this be a function of the troubled economy? Are people tired of expressing love amid so much hate in the land? Are cards more expensive than they used to be? Are people tired of weaving together those refreshing words? Are they hamstrung by the vicissitudes of fortune? Is sending greeting cards dying? I really don’t know. It is neither here nor there. After all, did we not think the beautiful art of letter writing was facing extinction, until recently when it suddenly barged into our consciousness?

Letter writing was great fun. I recall sitting on the wooden chair, neck bent down and eyes stamped on the A4 paper on the little all-purpose table that hosted my mum’s meals and served as my study desk, writing as she dictated in Yoruba. All those letters that began with “My dearest son” and ended with a tinge of sentimentalism, such as “ I am your mum in truth and in deed” or simply “ Your worthy mother”.

Or consider those ones written by love-struck – or lustful, if you like -youngsters, the type in which a youth displays his poetic skills and shows off his vocabulary acquisition. “My dear paramour,” he begins. “You know that you’re the sugar in my tea, my sunshine and the owner of my gentle heart,” he goes on and ends it all with a catchy phrase, such as “your sweetie” or simply “yours in the ocean of love”.

No more. Love letters are dead. Today’s youths use the short message service (sms), shortening words and crippling English language in a manner that will make the original owners of the language weep. No idioms. No proverbs. No language elements that smoothen communication. No elegance. No grammatical puritanism. Words are mangled. Consider this that I got recently: “Good morning sir. Ow ws ur nit and ows d family? Jez tort of checking to remind you sir of wot we tlkd about. Fenk you sir.” Teachers are helpless.

But, this is not to say that letter writing, assailed by the brevity of the new media and the ubiquity of the mobile telephone, has lost it all. No. It has been fighting back. Lawyers, instigated by landlords, still write letters to tenants, asking them to “give up the apartment and all its appurtenances”. They also write to editors, saying “we have instructions and we have been briefed by” a certain Mr, Chief or General, “hereinafter referred to as our client that an article that appeared on page 46 of your widely circulated newspaper contained words that portrayed him in the eyes of right thinking individuals as a corrupt and unworthy fellow, a common thief who is not fit to hold the office of a minister or any public office.”

“You will agree with me that this is not true. Our client is the Bobajiro of Jandukuland, the Ogbologbo of Jibitiland, a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and a renowned philanthropist. We demand an apology on the front page within seven days of the receipt of this letter. If you fail to act or neglect this demand, we shall have no other option than to institute a N25billion action to reclaim our client’s hard earned reputation, which you have damaged. Take note, a word is enough for the wise.”

Those who contend that letter writing may have fallen on hard times are, obviously, referring to the use of this elegant art as a political weapon of sort. Prince Tony Momoh’s “Letter to my countrymen” evoked some measure of excitement. Momoh, journalist, lawyer, politician and former Information Minister, used his letters to engage the citizenry in debates on the workings of the government.

The late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, wrote former President Shehu Shagari, warning that the ship of state was heading for the rocks. Shagari fired back, painting the picture of a rosy economy. He later introduced the much maligned austerity measures to save the situation.

A veteran in the game, then Head of State Gen Olusegun Obasanjo once engaged the critic Arthur Nwankwo in exchange of epistolary fire. Former Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chair Audu Ogbeh wrote Obasanjo, telling him that Nigerians were suffering.

That was then. That era has become part of our history. Not many of such letters that tear open a dam of public reactions have been written since then. But letter writing has staged a comeback, with former President Obasanjo’s epistle to President Goodluck Jonathan. Since October 1, 2010 when the first bomb went off in Abuja, the Jonathan presidency has not been this rattled. It is as if a missile was launched into the seat of power.

Dr Jonathan was enraged. He railed at people who think Nigeria is their bedroom. People were asking why the President was troubled. They soon found out as the venomous 18-page Obasanjo letter became a public document. See how some words set on pieces of paper could provoke presidential rage and public anxiety? Some commentators said any time Obasanjo wrote a letter, dire consequences manifested. They cited some scary examples.

The letter contained monumental allegations. The President was accused of training snipers, having 1,000 people on a watch list, celebrating a former murder accused and embracing corruption, among many other allegations that are as weighty as the stature of the writer.

For days, Jonathan held his fire. He did not reply the letter. Then the questions started flying. Could it be true that Jonathan is training snipers? Is he going the Abacha way? Who are those on the list? Will Obasanjo write if he did not have the facts and figures? All this because of 2015?

Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi also wrote the President, saying $48.9billion oil cash was unaccounted for. A reconciliation revealed last week that $10.8billion was actually yet to be accounted for. Whether it is $49billion or $10billion: should there be any loose end?

Enter “the Iyabo letter”. As the nation waited anxiously for Jonathan’s reply, another letter suddenly leapt onto the scene. Purportedly written by a former first daughter, it was acidic as it was acerbic. It took Obasanjo to the cleaners. Many refused to believe that Iyabo, no matter the depth of her resentment at being unfairly treated by her dad, could pen such a diatribe against him.

It was doubtful she did. If she must write such a letter, why now? Why would she be the one to man the opponent’s corner in a fight against her dad? Is this her language? Where is her signature? Was there really any issue between dad and daughter? If so, is it strange? Was it a case of using a disease to fight its effects?

As the “Iyabo letter” went through forensic tests of authenticity, the newspaper that broke the story was battling to justify its verity. It hurled in a former governor’s chance meeting with Iyabo in the United States and launched into interviews with people who knew nothing about the letter, asking if they would intervene and claiming to have spoken to Iyabo, who reportedly proclaimed the letter her own. Why not check with Obasanjo? The paper called the former President, who called the reporter “a bloody idiot” who should be waiting for Iyabo’s lawyers.

Before the brouhaha could subside, the President released his much awaited reply. Somehow sober and temperate – some insist timid – the letter touched on all the points raised by Obasanjo. Perhaps in an attempt to match the Obasanjo epistolary in length, it listed 10 points why the letter deserved to be replied. Any need?

It is fine that some of the allegations are to be probed. This should be without delay. Besides the report should be made public.

There is a redeeming feature in the sumo wrestling – letter writing has reestablished its place as a lethal weapon in politics. Now, people threaten to write one another letters. See how a once moribund art has been propelled to national prominence in a matter of days by the ingenuity of our leaders?

So sad Obasanjo has said he will not comment on Jonathan’s reply. So whence cometh another letter?

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In the beginning...Let there be Light

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