The Lighthouse Family singer Tunde Baiyewu was born in London but was taken to Nigeria when he was four by his mum, after the death of his father. He talks about the disorientation of the move and his extraordinary stepfather.
Strictly speaking, one does not look at Tunde Baiyewu, once the singer of the Lighthouse Family, and think: here stands an artist whose family must have suffered unimaginable hardship and genuine peril, frequent assassination attempts, incarceration and torture. No, one mostly thinks of his services to the easy listening genre, a man whose biggest hits, Lifted and Ocean Drive, were suggestive only of someone enviably carefree. When he sang, he did so with a perpetual smile on his face.
Nevertheless, while the Lighthouse Family were one of the country’s biggest pop acts in the mid-1990s, Tunde’s extended family in Nigeria was in the grip of a horror that few would be able to bounce back from. His stepfather was Olusegun Obasanjo, once the military leader of his country, who later fell foul of Nigeria’s then dictator Sani Abacha.
When Obasanjo accused him of human-rights abuse, Abacha had him arrested, beaten and sentenced to life in prison. Tunde’s mother, Obasanjo’s wife, was grief stricken. “Not just her, but the others as well,” he says. “There must have been 10 wives at least, maybe more.”
Obasanjo, Tunde explains, wasn’t Muslim, but Christian. “Yes, but on that side of his life, the personal, well … he lived like one. It’s not uncommon in Nigeria.” Tunde, by then a popstar, was reluctant to return to Nigeria, fearful for his own safety. “Abacha was tyrannical, and unpredictable.” Besides, he reasons now, “my mother had a lot of support there: her parents, my sister, my stepsister, all my other stepsiblings, and of course the other wives. We prayed. We prayed nightly.”
Tunde was born in Willesden Green, north-west London, in 1968. His father had arrived in the UK a decade before to study structural engineering, and later sent for his wife when he felt sufficiently established in his subsequent career. Their son was born a British citizen whose life in England would end abruptly before the completion of his first term at school. “I have very few memories of my biological father now,” Tunde tells me on a cold January day on the South Bank in London.
“I remember the whiskers on his chin, how scratchy they were when he kissed me. And I remember him hitting me one time with an umbrella. Presumably, I’d done something wrong. But that’s it, because suddenly he wasn’t there any more. He was away, back home, trying to get better.”
But his father, who had cancer, didn’t get better. “I can’t recall how many months went by, but I do remember vividly coming home one afternoon on my bike to find my mum at the kitchen table, reading a letter and crying hysterically, completely inconsolable. She refused to tell me what the matter was, and it was only later I pieced together that it must have been news from home telling her that my father’s battle against cancer had failed. He was 42.”
Craving a support network she didn’t have in London, Tunde’s mother returned to Nigeria, taking her four-year-old son and his toddler sister with her. The move disoriented Tunde, and not only because he now had to learn a new language, Yoruba. The school system he found frustratingly backward. “At the age of five, I was being taught the alphabet. I already knew the alphabet.” Things didn’t improve, and he grew increasingly withdrawn, “daydreaming myself out of the classroom, and just feeling stifled. I became,” he adds, allowing a grin, “a bit of a terror after that.”
He was eventually expelled, and his mother sent him to boarding school, five hours from Lagos. Boarding school in Nigeria doesn’t have quite the same connotations as here, and Tunde found himself in a basic wooden shack in the middle of nowhere, with no electricity or running water. He did his homework by kerosene lamplight, pining for his father and missing England. “My mother had kept the house in Willesden and we’d return every summer in the school holidays. It was very difficult, afterwards, to return to Africa.”
When Tunde was in his early teens, his mother married a man she had known as a child, Olusegun Obasanjo.
By now, Obasanjo was a household name in Nigeria, the head of the military who had ruled the country after a botched coup in the late 1970s. Tunde, who by now had learned to internalise his emotions – to, in his words, “not over-analyse, just accept things” – was nevertheless wary of him. “Oh, I was very standoffish at first, and pretty unforthcoming. I was used to having just a mother – and a mother, I felt, was all I needed.”
Obasanjo, he says, was quite the disciplinarian. “He has a great many children, more than 20, and every one of them, I think, has either a degree or a master’s. He kept on about the importance of education, so the last thing I was ever going to tell him was that I wanted to become a singer. That wouldn’t have gone down well at all.”
Was he afraid of him? “No, no. He may have been strict, but he was charming too, and charismatic. He also accepted me as one of his own.”
The family setup was an unusual one for western sensibilities perhaps, but, Tunde suggests, not so at home. Obasanjo, like all husbands with multiple wives, had one main wife who lived with him. The others, Tunde’s mother among them, he would see intermittently, perhaps once a month.
“There was a lot of competition between the wives,” Tunde says, “a lot of rivalry.” And the wives behaved with discretion – no press profiles, no attendant VIP lifestyle – so much so that Tunde’s life didn’t really change at all after the marriage. He didn’t even tell his friends at school. “So when Obasanjo turned up to visit me from time to time, bringing with him all these security men … well, it was awkward.”
In the late 1980s, Tunde moved back to the UK to study accountancy. He wasn’t much taken with the course, but it earned him an important commodity – his parents’ pride. It was here that he met the musician Paul Tucker, with whom he formed the Lighthouse Family. Success came quickly, and it was just as the band reached their commercial peak that his stepfather was thrown into prison.
These days, Tunde lives in north London and is married to Tope Adeshina, a British Nigerian. They have two daughters, aged four and two, and they regularly return to Lagos, where introducing their girls to the extended family can take several days, if not weeks.
In the flesh, Tunde is a sweet, talkative, gentle man. He clearly isn’t now, and never was, a polemicist, a protest singer. It never occurred to him, he says, to write songs about his family’s situation or take a public stand. “I was never much of a rebel, to be honest. I was always more spiritual.”
The family’s prayers were answered in 1998 with the sudden death of Abacha. Obasanjo was duly released, and within a year was democratically elected Nigeria’s leader for the second time. “I kept meaning to go back, to visit, to play concerts,” he says. “But for all sorts of reasons, I never did.”
His bandmate was reluctant to go, and their promotional treadmill was relentless. “But my mother would come to London a lot, and we spoke often on the phone.”
When Tunde eventually did return to Nigeria, in 2000, it was for his mother’s funeral.His stepfather is now in his mid-70s and, though retired from political life, still regularly travels the world in a diplomatic, ambassadorial capacity.
Obasanjo was last in London just a few weeks ago. “He took me to a very fancy function full of dignitaries, and spent most of the evening introducing me to everybody as his famous popstar son, a Nigerian hero.”
Tunde’s smile is part bashful, part prideful. “I’ll admit it, that was nice.”
Nick Duerden/The Guardian