Heart of Arts

The Letterman: The Art of Letter Writing and the Heart of Gratitude

Musikilu Mojeed, The Letterman

(A Review, Part 1)




Toyin Falola



The process, methodology, and documentation of life writing will forever flourish across all ages and eras. Nowadays, content creation, documentation through social media platforms, and recording of our daily lives through reality TV shows have rapidly increased. The thirst and longing to know more about people’s lives and how we keep tabs on their everyday life through blogs, photographs, tweets, and Instagram and Facebook posts remain fascinating. In the past, posting letters and sending postcards were more popular for keeping a record of one’s life. However, this is not to dismiss or raise one above the other but to demonstrate that both traditional and digital modes are valid forms of autoethnography, with biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies having produced some very fascinating writings in various languages.

The Letterman, written by Musikilu Mojeed, brings back the thrill of reading letters through the character of a complex man Aremu Okikiola Matthew Olusegun Obasanjo, a General, President, and Chief. The collation of Obasanjo’s letters exchanged with notable people over the years has enabled Mojeed to significantly contribute to the field of Life Writing in our National Archives and helped to reveal the tensions and intentions of major political players in Nigeria, Africa, and the world at large.

Reading the last two sentences of the Preface of The Letterman—”It is left for you, the readers, to say if my efforts make some sense or otherwise. Whatever your verdict, I am grateful.”—forms the foundation of my thoughts and allows me to debunk the widespread belief that the epistolary work of art is outdated, especially in how the book has pushed the boundaries of service, national unity, nationhood, personhood, citizenship, and patriotism. By seeking objective criticism from the start of the book, Mojeed has successfully nudged the readers to dive into the journey of a complex character in Nigeria’s history by reading different letters to different people in different capacities.

Upon reading the book’s array of letters, I considered whether to adopt letter writing as a form of communication in this swift digital age. I also thought that, perhaps, there should be an annual or lifetime award for the best letter writer in the country. At that moment, I stopped fawning over the content and style of President Obasanjo’s letters to acknowledge the contributions of the journalist, lawyer, and one-time minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Tony Momoh. His consistent letters to stakeholders in the country about the economic and political spheres were later compiled as a book titled Letters to my Countrymen. In as much as Momoh’s letters were more of a service work, Obasanjo’s letters in terms of approach, message, diction, audience, tone, and mood significantly differ from the former. Also, Mojeed notes the ease and natural indulgence of Obasanjo’s love for letter writing, which he catalogues at the Presidential Library at Abeokuta. Through the letters, readers can walk on a journey into Obasanjo’s life and dive into his psychology and phenomenology.

Surprisingly, there are only a few attempts to write Obasanjo’s biography and walk through the complex mind of this enigma. Therefore, The Letterman is unique. Mojeed has consciously and unconsciously crafted a fascinating window for the public to see the famous one-time military Head of State and later a democratically-elected President of Nigeria, and in so doing, allowing the readers and, by extension, the public to funnel through the character and traits of the so-called complex man. This has excitingly opened new ways to see and study the man in many remarkable points.

Mojeed has aroused a new interest in the art of letter writing, which is so dear to Obasanjo, and the current men in service and governance can adopt this method of communication to reach a larger audience. Throughout the book, readers can decipher that letters can reveal a whole lot about the individual’s personality, and the deep and personal connection of the art of letter writing brings the element of believability to a whole new level. I believe Mojeed must have motivated other writers and biographers to take the initiative to invest in the portraiture of notable people in government administration, which makes it surprising that there is no visible attempt to publish a biography on Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. I hope Mojeed’s The Letterman will be the catalyst for documenting the enigma.

While reviewing this book, the overall plan is to survey the author and his ingenious art based on the series of letters compiled in the book, which are as complex in content and style as the writer’s character traits. Mojeed notes that these letters, by the subject, date back to Obasanjo’s life as a young adult—he even wrote to his mother on two different dates in February 1952. Based on this information and the organization of the various letters in The Letterman, readers are assured that the book will be a pleasing read and an adventurous one on the life of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, the Elder statesman, thereby opening a web on his life and experiences.

I will not be overreaching by stating that The Letterman is more about understanding the subject’s psychology. Just like the glass prism experiment in Physics, I am going to trace the path of the rays of light by viewing the different colours and how they travel differently, and, as a result, view these letters revolving around different subjects and covered in 25 chapters. The 130 unpublished letters in the 462-page book will be viewed through a prism to understand the man with a coat of many colours. Thus, I will combine the elements of the timing of the letters, the range of people he wrote them to, the structure, and the historical importance of these letters as accurately assembled by Mojeed in the book.

Like every successful individual has been termed complex, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has had his fair share of criticisms from society, but with these letters, Mojeed has opened up the traits of the subject as a patriot, hero, and realist, including his flaws and shortcomings. Deluging with images written from different emotions, I will review this book by focusing on the letters Obasanjo wrote during the military regime and letters to former presidents and citizens. The focus will be on each letter’s tone, diction, purpose, and efficacy at the time they were written. This complicates the subject’s character and the lens through which the populace views him on his legacies on nationhood and Nigerian unity.

Drawing insights from the Foreword of the book, written by the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the art of letter writing is deeply embedded and stitched into the fabric of Obasanjo’s experiences and times. The readers get an idea that the letters are strictly straight to the point, unbiased, and critical to the various addressees, with the subject’s emotions brewing as we read the letters. Following this, we sense that the subject is a patriotic and passionate man with a strong-willed personality who pushes his thoughts to the letter regardless of the individual he is addressing.

Chapter One and Chapter Two of The Letterman unmask and slightly give the readers a tip of the iceberg on what to expect. The author opens up with a series of famous letters written to President Goodluck Jonathan, Ibikunle Amosun, Ayo Fayose, Bola Tinubu, and even the subject’s daughter, Iyabo Obasanjo. In doing so, the author whets our appetite for what is to come and reminds the readers about how highly critical and openly truthful Obasanjo is. The second chapter demonstrates the psyche and history of Obasanjo’s letters over his years in public service for about 50 years, which helps to corroborate this and solidify the idea that letter writing is natural to him.

Mojeed notes that Obasanjo “wrote diligently to his predecessors, contemporaries and successors in the various offices he held since 1969.” Tracing this historical catalogue, Mojeed notes that the art of letter writing is a family thing as it is ingrained in his DNA. Mojeed is observant enough to come across and read a letter to Obasanjo’s mother; however, he does not have duplicates for his family. Mojeed notes that after reading several letters by Obasanjo, he understood that Obasanjo’s life is tough, especially for a man who places his personality and image on the line by constantly speaking his mind and standing by it. Nevertheless, Mojeed still notes the flaws as Obasanjo admits his mistakes and that he has offended top personalities through his letters.

The highlight of the second chapter, which I find fascinating and phenomenal, is Mojeed’s attempt to break down Obasanjo’s persona into such categories as outspokenness, patriotism, record keeping, transparency, appreciation, and kindness. These character traits are assembled based on the series of letters that Mojeed read, and I see them as an embodiment of the communitarian spirit and the ability to see oneself in others, which the idea of service to humanity and strengthening bonds are all about and what Obasanjo seeks to achieve with his various letters. In one of his letters to General Adeyinka, he espouses these compliments and traits the author accords him in Item 3, which reads thus: “I have honour and respect for myself and I would rather be dead than sell my self-respect and honour or soil my name for a pot of porridge. I will not like to be used for self-building-up or for showing false self importance.” This paragraph is fascinating partly due to his language and effective choice of words to state his unbiased nature. Also, one of his letters, dated August 4, 1970, written as a newly appointed GOC to replace Adekunle in 1970, shows how transparent Obasanjo is: “I want to express to you my reactions to the great disappointment that I experienced from you during my last trip to Port Harcourt. It so touched me that I had to mention it to Olu Aboderin, who in turn explained to me that it was not a deliberate act.”

Following the trend of the letters and the author’s categorization, it is significant to understand how gratitude and respect are portrayed. There is no gainsaying the fact that Obasanjo’s deep and intimate belief in God was majorly shaped by his times in prison. To put this into perspective, after he was released from prison, he wrote and published two books: This Animal Called Man and Women of Virtue: Stories of Outstanding Women in the Bible. These books affirmed his faith and showed that the letters he wrote while in prison were kinder in tone. Obasanjo wrote to family, friends, staff and associates, and according to Mojeed, the jail letters give us a view into “Obasanjo’s roles as a parent, boss, church lay person and friend, despite the prison experience.”

In his long letter under the chapter “Letters from Jail,” Obasanjo wrote about the African Leadership Forum, the economy, and family. The tone of the letter seems sombre and empathetic and shows how the subject was seeing to the need of others despite being in confinement. The letter’s last paragraph shows a different Obasanjo: “The plans made so far for everything should carry us through my first year of imprisonment. My greatest handicap is that I don’t know what Ayo has received and what he has done with them. For instance, I want to know if he received my letter to my bank manager in New York for Ramana’s salary. Has he also received the parcel of mosquito coil and diabinese? Let him tell me.” Notably, the diction of the letter exudes everyday language in the way it infuses pidgin and jokes, compared to the more critical and serious tone of other letters that I will review later.

Other letters in the chapter reveal that Obasanjo wrote kind and thoughtful letters to birthday celebrants among his friends and associates. For instance, in a letter dated March 3, 1998, he commended Tunji Kolapo, who later became a High Commissioner, and Onaolapo Soleye, ex-minister of finance. Chapter 15, however, contradicts the calmness and respect shown in the previous one. It showcases the explosive letter written to the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Plateau State, in which Obasanjo, in a burst of anger at a question about how he addressed the issues of the killings of Christians and Muslims in Plateau State, retorted “CAN my foot!” The harsh tone of his letters to the religious body seems controversial during his presidency, after the memorable thanksgiving organized for him at his swearing-in ceremony in May 1999. However, we cannot deny Obasanjo’s ability to respect religious bodies and the value systems of goodness that he commands and inspires.

The former president’s ideas of self-respect, gratitude, and love are well-espoused in his love letters to international celebrities: Serena Williams and Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha. The letters to these superstars allow the readers to see the compassionate, father-figure, and national leadership side of Obasanjo. The letter to Serena Williams shows Obasanjo’s respect and admiration for exemplary youth who are blazing the trail in their fields of endeavour. He writes in the opening lines of the letter thus: “The people of Nigeria have followed your progress in the game of tennis. You have brought joy to millions, especially in this country, not only by your achievements on the tennis court, but also by your exemplary good conduct on and off the court.”

In the same vein, Obasanjo’s letter to Jay-Jay Okocha, which he wrote to admonish him and persuade him not to retire from the national team, is filled with empathy, gratitude, love, and respect for the Nigerian Super Eagle’s attacking midfielder. The line in the letter to Okocha: “Together, we must re-possess Nigeria’s winning soccer dominance in Africa and beyond”, shows Obasanjo’s passion for Nigeria and his desire for the nation to succeed. As a leader, Obasanjo wrote this letter to Okocha on the latter’s birthday, which exudes intimacy and a personal relationship. The diction and tone of the letter portray class, and words such as greatest, consistent, morale, winning, rebuilding, colleague, dominance, repossess, and meaningful all point to Obasanjo’s personal and national interest, which is enlightening and a sign of patriotism at its finest. It is remarkable that after this compassionate letter, Jay Jay Okocha returned and played for the Super Eagles for a few more years. Some letters did produce positive effects!


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