Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Moses Ochonu: Africa in Fragments and the limits and dangers of a single literary medium

Reading Professor Moses Ochonu’s new book, Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity was not an easy task. It was no fault of the book, a well-written engaging and eminently insightful book. It simply fell victim to my newly acquired digital ADHD,  I rarely read books these days, I do read nonstop, pretty much anything I can lay my eyes on online. The book as a literary medium is in many ways a distraction from what my detractors would call an unhealthy obsession with the digital world.  Yes, as far as I am concerned, books are fast becoming a distraction in the 21st century. Thankfully, Ochonu’s book was worth my time, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and I whole-heartedly recommend it to all those who are interested in matters Nigerian and African.  It is a substantial contribution in the seemingly eternal battle to make the world see Africa’s sophisticated humanity through broader and more objective optics.

 s200_moses_ochonuWho is Ochonu? In the 21st century, it is impossible to talk about a book, without talking about the author and the sum total of his or her works and world view. Thanks to the Internet, the book is just one medium of expression deployed by the typical thinker.  Ochonu is one of the smartest and most prolific public intellectuals I have never met. Although he is less well-known than his more fiery counterparts – Pius Adesanmi, Okey Ndibe, Sonala Olumhese, etc., he is just as passionate, erudite and uncompromising in his ideals and vision for the way things should be in Nigeria. Ochonu has an uncanny, disciplined ability to hone in on an issue and spur robust, feisty conversations on the Internet, especially on the USA-Africa Dialogue forum, a list-serve and mailing list of professionals and academics who are mostly from or affiliated with Africa.  As a side note, the USA-Africa Dialogue forum is run by the world-renowned History scholar, Professor Toyin Falola, and is populated by perhaps some of the smartest and most prolific academics birthed by Africa (read my review of his awesome memoir, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt here). You should read the discussion threads on there and marvel at how much is out there that is rich and available and free to the world. It is an honor to be part of such a pantheon and there has to be a way of introducing a resource like this group to formal classroom instruction. The culture of the Internet mailing list is dying off but if I had to recommend a mailing list it would be the USA-Africa Dialogue forum; on a good evening, its many combatants could be e-seen holding forth and creating a dust storm of rigorous intellectual provocation. It is not always pretty in that pantheon of eggheads, but there is never a dull moment.

Ochonu is a fine scholar, extremely well read and it shows in the book. His ruminations in the book span a broad range of topics that all have depth. The essays are engaging in the style that I have gotten used to in mailing lists, social media and the Internet in general. This book would be an awesome addition to any curriculum resource on Nigeria and Africa, especially in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, where students are coming in from broken classrooms that do not teach history, because, the government has outlawed history from the curriculum. Ochonu is an intense intellectual, with a razor sharp intellect that is matched only by his passion for the work. As an example, Ochonu wrote the definitive take-down on Mallam Nair Ahmad el-Rufai (Dealing with the el-Rufai nuisance). It is a beautiful essay, crisp and focused on holding a former public official accountable, brimming with damning data and analysis, one that has yet to be responded to by El-Rufai since it was written. Because there is nothing to respond to. We are entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

Africa in Fragments is a well-researched book, invaluable to any student of contemporary history, thanks to its detailed notes and references; the references alone are invaluable and are worth every penny of the book’s cost. Priceless tip and shameless plug: Buy the Kindle version, it is cheaper. What specifically is the book about? Well, I came up with this brilliant idea of listing the titles of the twenty six essays in the book to give you a sense of the book. They are laid out in three sections:

Section I: How Nigeria can survive; The other problems of corruption; The case for real constitutional reform; Nigerians’ love-hate relationship with government; The “federal character” conundrum; Can Nigeria afford (literally) this democracy?; Northern elites and Northern economic backwardness; The limits of electoral reform. Section II: My Oga is better than yours; Anti-intellectualism and book people; Bongos Ikwue and Idoma cultural cosmopolitanism; Names and naming in Nigeria; Helicopter escapes and the common good; The patriotism blackmail. Section III: Africa, corruption, and moral consequence; Abuja millennium tower and the problem of explaining Africa; Arab Racism against Black Africans: Toward an understanding; Boko Haram, African Islam, and foreign Islamic Heterodoxy; African participation in the Atlantic slave trade: A deconstructionist approach; Why do Africans migrate to the West?; Immigrants, uprising, and the revenge of history; Of African immigrants and African Americans; Debt cancellation, aid, and Africa: A moral response to critics; Race, racism, and the immigrant black experience in Euro-America; Nollywood and the functional logic of mediocrity; Toward a new African renaissance.

There is so much to like about this book. The chapter, Arab Racism Against Black Africans: Toward An Understanding is a provocative and important essay. He confronts the late great Professor Ali Mazrui’s views vigorously and gleefully entertains the reader with punchy paragraphs:

Arab racism is so deep that it is inscribed in the fundamental semantic structure of the Arabic language. To this day, the generic word for a black person in the Arab-speaking world is the preface abd, which translates as “slave.” Although abd is used in reverential contexts to denote devotion, as in abd-allah (slave or servant of God), its generic usage for blacks in the Arab world is a throwback to the slave status of the ancestors of black Arabs and is clearly pejorative. This linguistic norm, among many other racially charged ones, is an expressive constant that holds true for the entire Arab-speaking world regardless of dialect and orthography.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 2405-2411). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Ochonu’s essays in this book make the case eloquently that corruption is in every cell of Nigeria’s governance. As I said earlier, Ochonu wrote the most authoritative and competent essay on the narcissism of el-rufai. You can’t link to it in the book (of course not!) but here, in Chapter 2, The Other Problems of Corruption, read, laugh, – and weep at a country on her knees from the relentless pillaging by her leaders. And Ochonu has sharp elbows; the chapter The Patriotism Blackmail is a resoundingly defiant middle finger to chants of Afropessimism leveled by alleged “patriots” against those deemed too critical of African states.

In Northern Elites and Northern Economic Backwardness, Ochonu proves that this is a rich book as he confronts Northern leadership and calls them out on their performance lapses.

[T]he ideal that underpins federal character does not square with a widely shared and expressed ideal: the preference for residency rather than ancestral origin as the supreme marker of citizenship/ indigene rights. In the wake of recent ethno -religious crises, this ideal has gained currency across the political and intellectual spectrums. Conversely, there has been widespread outrage at the practical consequences of the indigene– settler divide.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 978-981). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In Why Do Africans Migrate to the West? Ochonu provides a unique perspective that perhaps could be bolstered even more by the voices of the  new underclass coming in droves from economically sacked African nations. The essay Of African Immigrants and African Americans is perhaps the most ambitious piece I have ever read, certainly a more complex and robust intervention than Adichie’s Americanah. It is a bit controversial as he tries (unsuccessfully, in my humble opinion) to offer an alternative meaning to the pejorative term Akata. Regardless, the best narrative space for an African immigrant interested in documenting the immigrant experience is the blog, twitter and Facebook. These are breathing living spaces for breathing living stories.

In Boko Haram, African Islam, And Foreign Islamic Heterodoxy, Ochonu struts his stuff majestically; this is scholarship at its best. It is a powerful, rich essay, I highly recommend it. If you read nothing else this year, please read this one. He detaches himself from an analysis, he can be dispassionate and clinical but yet deeply engaging.

Nollywood and the Functional Logic of Mediocrity is an amusing if somewhat farcical defense of mediocrity. Nollywood mirrors the society. Many would disagree vehemently with his take on Nollywood. I also loved his compelling and robust defense of the charity work of folks like Bono and Geldof and force Africans to look inwards for their help to avoid the interventions of Western “do-gooders.”

Sometimes, Ochonu seems genuinely baffled by the bizarre levels of corruption and excess of Black Africa’s leaders. The answer is deeper than the megalomania and kleptomania that fuel virtually all of Africa’s leaders. By the way, for those interested in savagery, here are graphic pictures of Mobutu’s excesses ($100 million palace) in ruins, here; in particular watch this BBC video clip.

africaOchonuWe must ask however, especially of Nigeria’s troubles: What is the state of the environment that has spawned these dysfunctions? The book is silent on that question. Without the back and forth of online dialogue, something is sometimes lost in the translation. In my opinion, Ochonu’s book does not go far enough, it is about [the lack of] accountability, a resounding failure of leadership, and I am not just talking political leadership. The analysis should be simple: There has been no substantive restructuring of any of Nigeria’s institutions since her alleged independence from colonialism in 1960. Most of Nigeria’s structures are 19th century holdovers from the colonial days. The result is a glaring 20th century caricature nation in the 21st century. True accountability is the crux of Nigeria’s current problem. I must say to Ochonu’s credit, he gave it a great shot in the essay Can Nigeria (Literally) Afford This Democracy? It is an insightful and rigorous intervention of this subject that offers, or at least hints at, alternatives. What a refreshing concept. Here, Ochonu’s passion is almost at full throttle; still it does not match his killer performances in the digital spaces that he stalks. It is not his fault, the book as a medium does poor justice to his intellect, passion and energy. You can’t contain the Ochonus, Adesanmis and Olumhenses in a mere book. They need an infinite canvas. That would be the Internet.

Africa in Fragments offers an opportunity for me to talk about the poor job the hard copy book is doing to documented thought in the 21st century. For Ochonu’s mind and industry, the book as a medium does a poor job. Even when the book is ported to the Internet as an “e-book” it is akin to using the computer as a typewriter. Let me explain. The links in the Bibliography section are not hypertext on Kindle. You would have to copy and paste it onto a browser to use it. Traditional publishers don’t get it, they are fighting a change that came yesterday, using the Internet as if it were a typewriter. Publishers, in order to survive, have to align their vision with how people, especially the youth now live. This is not how youths of today read. Youngsters are being forced to master arcane styles of referencing using “MLA” or “ALA” format. These styles are not sustainable. I point this out because Ochonu’s book is essentially an archive of his viewpoints that were previously expressed in online forums, they are written as such and it shows. Missing is the robustness of discourse that the thoughts were part of; you would have to go to the threads online to get a feel for the tenor, content and trajectory of the discourse, because there you would see the responses to Ochonu’s ideas by other intellectuals. Here, it sometimes reads like a lecture, instead of an important part of a thread or conversation. I dream of a living breathing e-book, complete with running discussion threads embedded, hyperlinks to all the resources in the essays and opportunities for comments – almost blog-like. I would be willing to pay a modest fee to subscribe to Ochonu’s mind in such an endeavor.

Ochonu also takes time in the book to explore the role of African writers and intellectuals in perpetuating the myth of the single story. However, I howled with mirth at the MLA formatted footnote of Adichie’s Ted Talk. In the book’s bibliography this is the citation for Adichie’s video, The Dangers of a Single Story:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Dangers of a Single Story,” TED Talk, July 2009. http:// http://www.ted.com/ talks/ chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html. Accessed on February 4, 2014.

If the gatekeepers of tradition believe that readers will type all that gibberish on to a computer they are joking, That is what Google is for.

I enjoyed his academic riff on his townsman Bongos Ikwue’s music, I did find the prose sometimes stodgy – in an amusing way. Here, Patrick Obahiagbon would have been proud of him, Hear Ochonu:

 The philosophical implication of Bongos’s music is that universal values are not independent of their constitutive elements; they are instead coextensive with their divergent parts. They are empowered and substantiated by the material and abstract worlds of disparate people living in localized, sometimes remote, milieus in different corners of the world. Idomaland is one such constituent of the universal. Its quotidian realities, cosmological landscape, and incantatory messages mirror and feed into the universal axioms that we take for granted in speech and gestures, and that some of us adopt as moral instructions . Not only are universal concepts minted in European linguistic systems analogous to similar concepts in the worlds of the Idoma and other non-hegemonic cultural formations; they sometimes derive their credibility and persuasive appeal from the fact that they are ultimately rooted in the material and symbolic inventions and adaptations of peoples— like the Idoma— who are often theorized as peripheries of the world.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 1613-1619). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

That part taken from the essay, Bongos Ikwue and Idoma Cultural Cosmopolitanism reads like part of an obtuse PhD thesis. If you understood all that, you are ready to take the SAT aptitude test. My son is studying for the test. He should read the book. His world-view will expand, yeye American, and he will ace the SAT reading and writing sections, LOL!

I kept dreaming: What would a really good digital book look like? We could start with Africa in Fragments and convert it to a real book, complete with links, forums and pictures. I would pay a mint to get into Ochonu’s head that way. Yes. Imagine, back and forth dialogue, multi-layered, multi-dimensional – the emerging form of literature in the 21st century. Death to the sage-on-the-stage tyranny, welcome to the guide-by-the-side paradigm. The book makes frequent, veiled references to the richness of discourse in  the USA Africa Dialogue online forum and unwittingly makes the most eloquent demonstration of the failure of the book as a medium to replicate the joys of digital media. Again, the book was written for a digital audience, and struggles with long explanations where a hot link would explain. Resources to  What is the Marshall Plan? and Tony Blair’s debt cancellation plan should have been hot links on kindle. They are not. That is the fastest way to lose an audience. In any case, to really get into Ochonu’s fecund mind, go online, Google him and feast – for free. But first you must buy this book.

The good news is that the structural transformations going on in the world, thanks to the Internet and allied technologies are very much on Ochonu’s mind and he is at his most thoughtful when he muses on them as these quotes show:

 The second potential catalyst for Africa’s development in the twenty-first century turns on the degree to which the continent’s leaders harness and channel into productive endeavors the ideas, peoples, goods, intellectual capital, and technologies moving in and out of Africa. This effort to take advantage of new ideas and mediums to rebuild, reclaim, and revitalize Africa is as much an intellectual process as it is a political project. As thinkers on Africa’s fate and future, African intellectuals must accept that certain aspects of their analytical toolkit are now simply outmoded, rooted as they are in struggles and constructs that were relevant to sociopolitical moments that have expired. For instance, the old utopian pan-Africanist vision that sought to dissolve rather than understand intra-African difference is no longer tenable. Without explicitly intending it, some of these outmoded constructs shut off discussions on communal fissures, contentious relations between contiguous African peoples, internal hegemonies of class, race, and ethnic privilege, and the ugly underbellies of a frayed Afro– Arab relationship.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 4490-4497). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Furthermore, as the spaces for discussing, brainstorming, and troubleshooting on Africa’s slate of challenges increasingly take on informal characteristics with the popularity of social media and others organs of democratized punditry, African leaders and intellectuals have to engage with nontraditional African discursive communities nurtured on informal technologies of expression and problem solving. All of this throws up larger, more consequential questions. How can African leaders and intellectuals reckon with increasingly mobile African bodies, ideas, and objects? How can they keep up with the narratives that are animating the lives of African communities in fixed, situated locales and in shifty information landscapes such as Internet forums and social networks? How do we write African stories that are proliferating in cyberspaces into our rendering of African realities, into our descriptions of African ways of seeing and structuring the world, and, ultimately, into our prescriptions for an African renaissance? Africa’s future depends on the extent to which these ideational, human, and technological flows between Africa and the world and within Africa intersect to create new economic, political, and intellectual paradigms. The first imperative is a basic existential one of remaking the territorial, constitutional, and political contours of postcolonial African nation-states in the diverse, complex images of their constituents.

Ochonu, Moses (2014-07-23). Africa in Fragments: Essays on Nigeria, Africa, and Global Africanity (Kindle Locations 4483-4516). Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

These are profound observations that should breathe beyond Ochonu’s book; they should be enough for a week-long conference, not a book. I salute Professor Moses Ochonu for engaging me with his thoughts in his insightful book. Go get your own copy, LOL!

For Linda Ikeji: Wole Soyinka on Mukhtar Alexander Dan’Iyan (@MrAyeDee)

Those following the Linda Ikeji saga will forever remember her adversary, who goes by the Twitter handle @MrAyeDee. His real name is Mukhtar Alex Dan’Iyan. My views about the whole episode may be summed up in this interview with 9jafeminista. I promised to share on Twitter Professor Wole Soyinka’s views of him; it is rather harsh, but is very important to understand the man that Linda Ikeji was up against. I have known Mukhtar since the early 90’s, first on Naijanet where I was the towncrier, and then as members of the Association of Nigerians Abroad, where I served as Secretary General, and then as adversaries and allies inside the pro-democracy movement.  I shall have more to say about those heady, exciting and dangerous times, indeed I felt it was necessary for folks on Twitter to know his real name, it wasn’t obvious that they did. I don’t regret that outing, folks needed to know what they were up against. I shall have more to say about that someday. Let’s just say he was formidable enough to attract the attention and ire of Professor Wole Soyinka, a rage which spilled into his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Here is a direct quote from Soyinka on Mukhtar:

“One was a self-hating Igbira, a minority tribe from the Nigerian hinterland, whose yearning to be mistaken for a Fulani aristocratic scion had resulted in his changing his name from Daniyan to Dan’Iyan. Partnering him was an ambitious youth from Swarthmore College, Jude Uzowanne. The third member was a labor unionist from Edo in southern Nigeria, Tunde Okorodudu, an activist in his own right who fell under the spell of the fourth member and center of intrigue, the liaison officer for the U.S. Boston chapter, Maureen Idehen, a pharmacist who had worked closely with me and was central to the coordination of activities for much of the United States. Together, this Gang of Four—the accolade was spontaneously bestowed—succeeded in serving a timely lesson on the power lust even among a yet inchoate formation that sought to curb power at its most virulent and malignant. It was a low point in the career of the anti-Abacha movement, suddenly compelled to confront the banal distractions of trite intrigues and personal ambitions. Expelling the miscreants took its toll. The liaison officer, the Boston-based Maureen Idehen, made off with our scant funds, leaving behind a trail of bad checks.”

Now read what Soyinka had to say in its entirety. I am intimately familiar with most of he issues, I lived it along with Mukhtar and many others.  Soyinka was NOT happy with “The Gang of Four.” I don’t think he should have mentioned them in his memoir and in some cases things got muddled up a bit. One day, there may be a need for a Truth Commission to unpack all of this. Oya read… Linda Ikeji never knew what hit her. Mukhtar Dan’Iyan is one of the most brilliant and tenacious fighters I have ever engaged in my life. As an adversary and as an ally, I grew to respect and in some cases fear his mind. Those were the days. Oya read…

“I HAD HARDLY recovered from that exercise when, thanks to a meeting with the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach, a former prisoner of apartheid, we found an opening through which we could advance the newly unified organization from the beginnings made at the Johannesburg/Oslo meetings. The George Soros–sponsored Goree Institute in Dakar, of which Breyten was a board member, agreed to facilitate the second meeting of the umbrella group, now going by the name of the United Democratic Front of Nigeria (UDFN). That gathering took place over strong diplomatic representations by the Abacha regime. The Senegalese government replied that it did not make a habit of intervening in “cultural” meetings, which, to the best of its knowledge, this was meant to be, since it was sponsored by the Goree Institute. It was a moment to be savored, the solidarity of the Senegalese government with the democratic cause and the coming together of twenty-seven organizations spread all over the globe, from Australia to Canada. Alas, the affliction I sought to escape in NADECO traveled with the luggage of a handful—a mere quartet, American-based—of the delegates. It served to increase my bewilderment at the craving for position and power in human disposition, one that seems especially absurd when an intervention in the fate of millions is initiated from the position of a weak challenger. It proved to be a near death at nativity; a movement that had been formed to liberate a nation from the very bane of power found itself enmeshed in a tawdry tussle for position. I had declined any formal position within the new body. This, however, signaled a contest for what the ambitious quartet read as an opportunity for self-promotion into a vacuum and the complete takeover of the organization. The plot had been hatched well in advance. It began from the moment that the liaison officer for Boston discerned, with absolute certainty, that I would not run for office and would remain content with my functions as an informal ambassador to the movement. The irony of such jostling was totally lost on the conspirators. One was a self-hating Igbira, a minority tribe from the Nigerian hinterland, whose yearning to be mistaken for a Fulani aristocratic scion had resulted in his changing his name from Daniyan to Dan’Iyan. Partnering him was an ambitious youth from Swarthmore College, Jude Uzowanne. The third member was a labor unionist from Edo in southern Nigeria, Tunde Okorodudu, an activist in his own right who fell under the spell of the fourth member and center of intrigue, the liaison officer for the U.S. Boston chapter, Maureen Idehen, a pharmacist who had worked closely with me and was central to the coordination of activities for much of the United States. Together, this Gang of Four—the accolade was spontaneously bestowed—succeeded in serving a timely lesson on the power lust even among a yet inchoate formation that sought to curb power at its most virulent and malignant. It was a low point in the career of the anti-Abacha movement, suddenly compelled to confront the banal distractions of trite intrigues and personal ambitions. Expelling the miscreants took its toll. The liaison officer, the Boston-based Maureen Idehen, made off with our scant funds, leaving behind a trail of bad checks. I should have been warned by the extralong talons, garishly decorated, that she affected in place of fingernails, but this highly efficient intriguer was the daughter of an old schoolfriend and classmate. His visits to his daughter in Boston had even served as an updating source for much of what was happening on the ground at home, and his support of the cause was quite vocal. As it turned out, he had also immersed himself in position grabbing on behalf of his daughter, even to the extent of poring through the minutes of the Dakar meeting and placing transatlantic calls to argue with my son—elected secretary-general of the UDFN—to assert the position of his daughter in the movement. To say that the entire episode constituted a personal embarrassment would be understating an experience of intense chagrin. I had the unpleasant duty of reminding the doting father that he was not a member of the movement and would he kindly keep sons and daughters outside an already draining undertaking. Ironically, it was the “vengeance” of one of the subversives that raised the profile of the opposition in the mind of the Abacha regime, far above its own ambitions or capabilities. A “confession” appeared in a Northern-based newspaper run by the brother of the inspector general of police, Alhaji Ibrahim Commassie, contributed by Jude Uzowanne. In it the writer claimed that he had been involved in the recruitment and training of a secret army, that he was in fact chief of staff of this force under my military command. In the meantime, naturally, he had had second thoughts, was now opposed to violence, had voluntarily quit the organization for this reason, and was doing his patriotic duty by revealing these terrorist plans.

Of all the fabrications put out by Abacha’s men about our activities, this was by no means the wildest. In any case, armed struggle, even from the start, was a subject that was openly introduced into discussions. This young man’s claims, self-ingratiating concoctions though they were, did have one decidedly negative effect. They had, after all, emerged from one whose earlier membership could not be denied, albeit that he was now expelled and had turned into a born-again pacifist. He had come into the UDFN through an affiliating group and been assigned the role of mobilizing the youth wing of the movement. If young Uzowanne’s claim had been true, it would have been his second conversion within a year. Revelations came tumbling in, confirming earlier rumors of his instability. He was confronted with a position paper he had sent to Sani Abacha, outlining how the dictator could turn himself into the Pinochet of Nigeria. His intellectual prowess, of which he had no modest estimation, was humbly offered to Abacha for the historic transformation. A small, ambitious Walter Mitty character, emotionally unstable, Uzowanne would indeed have been a most unusual choice for a military assignment, additionally being shortsighted, virtually blind, behind his inch-thick lenses and of such physical insubstantiality that the slightest wind from the heat of New York streets threatened to blow him right off the sidewalk and on to summary execution by the traffic. Alas, some of our supportive foreign embassies in Nigeria did swallow this “revelation” without any qualification and reported to their governments, which began to distance themselves from the opposition movement. This would have been a minor nuisance, on balance, since we were also positively served in other ways by this egregious piece of fiction. Certainly it played havoc on Abacha’s peace of mind; all reports indicated that it contributed to imbuing in him a holy terror at the very mention of W.S. or NALICON.”

Soyinka, Wole (2007-12-18). You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir (pp. 402-404). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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My mother’s cell phone

My dad, Papalolo served the colonialists in the fifties’ Lagos and was fond of telling anyone who would listen that he loved the white man’s orderliness, governance, discipline, etc. My mother is similarly contemptuous of my generation of looters (her word). She says ruefully that in the previous life black folks were in charge but they screwed things up so badly, God said never again. My mother half-jokes that the white folks know where God is but they won’t tell us, so we don’t go and kill Him.

I understand my parents’ cynicism; they and many people live in our village under appalling conditions. I reflect on my parents’ feelings a lot these days. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration must be the most reviled in the history of our nation. No one that I know of has anything good to say about him and his hapless sidekicks. However reading Nigerian writing and its anxieties through the decades, you cannot help but notice that the refrain is constant. Except for the changing dates, the story is the same; massive corruption and inept governance, no accountability. I half joke that the only civil servant that ever went to jail in Nigeria was Obi Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and that was fiction.

It is sad. Nigeria’s intellectual and political elite have used democracy to demonstrate convincingly that they are devoid of credibility and incapable of governance. It is sad but again this is not new. Chinua Achebe has raged at colonialists, postcolonial leaders, VS Naipaul, Joseph Conrad and anyone that questions our humanity as black people. I identify with his anger; a pox on the mansions of all racists. But I wonder at what point we should take personal responsibility for the circumstances we find ourselves in. What passes for democracy in today’s Nigeria, for example is a perverse mimicry of the real thing and foreigners may be forgiven for being skeptical of our progress and expressing this in condescending patronizing ways. It is important to demand respect but it must also be earned.

To be fair, globally, many assumptions about democracy and governance are changing. Orthodox economic theories are falling by the wayside because they were crafted under assumptions of demographic homogeneity and fixed physical boundaries. The world is browning, walls are falling and old assumptions about how we should live are no longer as useful as they once were. In Nigeria however, not much is changing in terms of governance. The intellectual and political elite seem genetically wired to look out only for themselves and their immediate families, the people be damned. The distinction between Nigeria’s ruling Party, the PDP and the pretend-opposition, the APC is a distinction without a difference. They are both profoundly corrupt and incompetent, with the PDP only marginally better in the sense that it lays no dishonest claims to honesty. Nigerians are still howling with laughter at Mr. Atiku Abubakar’s declaration that he will stamp out corruption in Nigeria if elected. He is stupendously wealthy and he has given feeble defenses to robust and compelling accusations that virtually all of his wealth came from state-sanctioned looting of the treasury. Get this, he is the most credible of the APC front-runners, yet he has refused to quash credible rumors that he is wanted in the United States. At least one of his associates is in jail for fraud. This is what the New York Times piece says about this embarrassment:

As for the money in the freezer, agents found it in a raid at Mr. Jefferson’s home in August 2005. Prosecutors said it was from a Kentucky businessman and was supposed to be used to bribe a high official of Nigeria, later identified as the vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who denied being part of any scheme.

Mr. Abubakar might end up being the first Nigerian president to be arrested by the law enforcement authorities of another nation. We are in a very humiliating place as Nigerians. But then Nigerians’ expectations for even a half-decent government are pretty low. It won’t happen anytime soon, especially given the shady characters on social media, former thug-rulers, now writing lofty tweets and posts about the Nigeria of our dreams. They would dearly love to return to the scene of the crime; they left a lot of unresolved loot behind in Abuja and elsewhere. We may be stuck. Our only hope perhaps is a second colonization. I see the harbinger of this coming dispensation in our willingness to mimic, and be assimilated by Western values. The West is an asymptote that even the most Pan-African of us has bought into. Nothing is original and valued unless it is from the West. Our leaders’ children do not go to our schools because they are not good enough. I don’t blame them, have you been inside any of our schools lately? In Nigeria, the children of the dispossessed are being abused in the name of education.

So, what am I saying? There is hope. Yes, stop laughing. The lowly cellphone saved Nigerians from the tyranny of state-sanctioned incompetence and corruption (NITEL!). So will Wal-Mart save us from the hell that our intellectual and political elite have put us in. America needs new markets, she is saturated with consumer goods, you can only buy so much. Black Africa is the new frontier; there are a lot of unthinking consumers waiting for Western capitalist detritus. Wal-Mart needs to reach my waiting mother. In order to do get to her, Wal-Mart would need to fix the broken roads and hire armed robbers as toll booth attendants. Our elders would be people greeters, taught by professional development experts to say in perfect American accents, “Welcome to Wal-Mart!” Just like they did the chaat wallahs of Mumbai’s bazaars. Wal-Mart will sell do-it-yourself (DIY) municipal kits aka Gofment-in-a-box. If you have the money you can use Wal-Mart’s roads, water, police and schools, all in a safe environment. As long as you pay for it. Just like in America. There is hope my people, go to church today and pray for deliverance through my prediction. In Jesus Name! Insha Allah! Ise! What has all this got to do with my mother’s cellphone? You will need to ask her, I don’t know. Goodnight.

 

 

Half of a Yellow Sun – The movie

Once upon a time, beautiful men and women rose as leaders to embrace the awesome promise of an emerging nation, Nigeria. They were poets and soldiers, intellectuals and doers who mesmerized the world with beautiful words and crisp uniforms – and proceeded to take the promise apart brick by brick with graft, incompetence and civil strife. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s epic novel Half of a Yellow Sun about Nigeria’s anxieties and the ensuing civil war spoke to the heart of that broken promise in a unique and mesmerizing way. Half of a Yellow Sun is a beautiful book that should be required reading in every classroom, so that we may never forget. Many years ago, I was so taken by it, I wrote a cringe-worthy review in which I gushed aloud my hope that the book would be turned into a movie.

My prayers were answered, there is a movie and all I can say is that Biyi Bandele the movie director, who also wrote the script, did a great job, never mind the reviews. It is not a perfect movie, but it certainly entertained me. Let me just say that it is important for those who are interested in Nigeria’s history to watch the movie. At the very least, this pretty movie is a conversation starter; you watch the movie and all these questions come rushing at you. You want answers. Nigeria is a nation that deleted history from its classrooms’ curriculum. We need movies like this in each classroom so that children can rediscover the joy of being inquisitive.

What did I like about the movie? Well, start with Bandele’s attention to detail, the period dresses, hairstyles, the music, the Cuban era cars driving on the wrong side of the road and your heart melts. Miriam Makeba starts out the movie with the haunting song, The Naughty Little Flea and Africa comes sailing back into your soul in reverse black and white. I loved the historical pieces dispersed within the narrative, of a young Queen Elizabeth visiting Nigeria in 1956, a young Ojukwu trying to lead Biafra, etc. History buffs will have a field day deconstructing this narrative. And when the ever-befuddled white writer Richard (Joseph Mawle) gets down with sultry Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) on the dance floor and proves with Rex Lawson’s rollicking highlife piece Bere Bote that white men can’t dance, you are grinning and reaching for more popcorn and beer. It is a powerful cast of powerful actors and actresses, more importantly the chemistry among them was electric.

Do not die until you have watched Thandie Newton play Olanna. And the chemistry between the twins Olanna and Kainene has to be seen to be relished, this is simply fine acting. Chiwetel Ejiofor was great as Odenigbo; he came across as hardworking, paying attention to every detail, down to the accent even. And I thought John Boyega played the role of the houseboy Ugwu magnificently. By the way, does anyone notice he looks a bit like a young Denzel Washington? However Onyeka Onwenu and Genevieve Nnaji looked like they needed acting classes, they were mechanical in their thankfully bit roles, the script did not give them the space to strut their stuff, if they had any. Onwenu’s overwrought acting was comical – and not in a good way. Again, kudos to Bandele for assembling a (mostly) star cast.

The 2014 Caine Prize: Stories in the age of social media

As the world knows, the 2014 Caine Prize shortlist is out. The shortlisted stories are: Phosphorescence by Diane Awerbuck of South Africa; Chicken by Efemia Chela of Ghana/Zambia; The Intervention by Tendai Huchu of Zimbabwe; The Gorilla’s Apprentice by Billy Kahora of Kenya; and My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor of Kenya. No Nigerian made the shortlist. Which begs the question, is it an authentic Caine Prize if no Nigerian is on the shortlist? The answer is, YES. Nigerians, get over yourselves, abeg. There is a short biography of each of the five writers here. Reading the stories wasn’t a waste of my time, but compared to the fun I am having on social media, it was a collective near-yawn. I was not overly impressed by any of the stories, well that is not entirely correct, a couple of the stories held my interest quite a bit.

What are the stories about? The theme of this year’s shortlisted stories seems to be relationships. Even as the writers explore old and familiar themes, they still manage to experiment with the exploration of all sorts of relationships, sometimes inanimate objects and animals form bonds with human beings and I must say that in each instance, the relationships are convincing and even poignant. 2014_awerbuckThese new African writers are moving away in glacial installments from the single-story pejorative that has defined and limited the works of those before them. There are some admittedly timid experiments away from traditional notions of African literature. It is not enough to stem the allure of social media but we are making progress.

So what do I think of the stories? Diane Awerbuck’s Phosphorescence  explores a relationship between a woman and her troubled granddaughter. It is an intimate love story, well done, too well done, one that features a pool, an inanimate object as a living breathing major character. A girl takes a respite from her abusive demons to go visit her grandmother. Well written. Too well written. Reading it is like driving on a too-smooth road, the eyes glaze over; you fight deep sleep all the way. It reads like a piece written by an expert in the technical arcana of fiction writing. Everything is in its place, no sloppiness here. That is its major weakness. It is clinical, edited almost to a sterile standstill. It does not excite, it assures you only that the person who wrote it went to serious fiction school where they teach these things.

I would be pleasantly surprised if Awerbuck wins the Caine Prize. She should. There is a sense actually in which Awerbuck is over-qualified for the Caine Prize, her writing towers above the others in a way that makes her an outlier. Despite itself, Phosphorescence is perhaps the only one of the five that can lay claim to being serious literature. In design and substance, it is head and shoulders above every story on the shortlist. The story is not your typical image of Africa. If you are expecting “African literature” here, you will be disappointed. You will roll your eyes at the expressions of self-absorption by the (white) wealthy. Who would relate to the anxieties of a white African teenager born of privilege? Only a black African teenager born of privilege. We don’t write about those. There are wars, rapes, filth and distended stomachs to obsess about. SMH. Phosphorescence is also different from the other stories in one important aspect: Its characters are not wretched caricatures, somehow through the banality of their lives, they retain their dignity and humanity. Also, it is not mere social commentary pimping as fiction. This writer dares to write about the banal, about life. That is writing.

By the way, Phosphorescence is not all agnostic clinical aridity. There is good prose; sometimes it is exciting, like this:

Under Brittany’s dumb gaze Alice straightened her back in her black costume as much as she could, grateful for the coming dark. Still, her bones curved like forceps and there was only so much good posture could do. Her son Sidney, the plastic surgeon, always said that it was the skeleton you couldn’t change. Boob jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts were easy to execute, but when your patients hauled themselves up from their towels on the sand to hobble to the water, they hunched over like the old ladies they were. Plastic surgery was as much a mystery to Alice as the idea that in another century Sidney himself had emerged, smeared and screaming, from her body. She couldn’t imagine wilfully visiting radical change upon herself.

And this is really beautiful:

The two of them fell quiet. Above them the moon was swollen orange and fully risen, the rabbit scrabbling his paws to prevent his fall into mortality as the earth and sun lined up.

Efemia Chela’s Chicken starts out with the best opening lines I have read in a long time:

It was a departure of sorts, last time I saw them. Or maybe not at all. I had left sigh by sigh, breath by breath over the years. By the time my leaving party came, I was somewhere else entirely. From this place, I watched fairy lights being looped low over long tables and rose bushes being pruned. The matching china came out with the crystal glasses. The guards in our gated community were paid off to pre-empt noise complaints, as were the local police. Our racist neighbours were invited in time for them to book a night away. A credit card and a note on the fridge told me to go and buy a new dress (“At least knee-length, Kaba!!”).

But then Chicken is a story in three incoherent parts; the first part features nice disciplined sentences daring you to look away. You can’t. The other two parts are divorced from the first part. Weird. Chela should have ended the short story at Part I. She did not. Sadly. Part I is dark and beautiful. Hear Chela:

Uncle Samu, my mother’s brother had driven away his third wife with a steady rain of vomit and beatings. As the family’s best drunk he could play palm-wine sommelier. His bathtub brew was mockingly clear. Getting drunk on it felt like being mugged. And by midnight he and Mma Virginia, who according to family legend were kissing cousins in the literal and sordid sense, could always be counted on to break out ‘The Electric Slide’ to the entertainment of everyone watching.

2014_ChelaChela can sure put together sensuous pretty prose. Part I is a culinary experience, a food festival that reminds the alert reader of a certain passage in Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn. One learns quite a lot; Parson’s nose is chicken butt, a delicacy of my childhood. By the way, I absolutely love that these writers no longer italicize or go into apologetic explanations of “ethnic” words. Let the reader do the research; that is what Google is for, yes. Confidence has returned to our storytellers. When Chela described grasscutter meat, “slightly hairy with a bit of gristle dangling from it,” it was exactly as my exiled taste buds remembered them and they wept. Chela sure can write, you can imagine the scenery, touch the ambience even and almost eat the bushmeat:

A chitenge-covered desk beside the second buffet table was for the DJ. There was a stack of records and the glow of a MacBook illuminated my older brother’s face. He played eclectically, switched from computer to record player. Computer to Supermalt. Supermalt to record player. Mostly high life, with Earth, Wind and Fire, Glen Miller and Elton John. The musical liturgy of the family. Everything he knew would please. Near the bottom of the pile of records I saw a tiny snail that had escaped being stewed, creeping slowly upside down on the underside of a WITCH LP.

Chela’s story explores the familiar and the new – sexuality, alcoholism, relationships, boundaries, etc. It is the best use of prose by any of the shortlisted writers. By far. It reminded me of the joy of reading Petina Gappah’s delightful collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. But then, it bears repeating; Parts II and III were unnecessary, a narcissistic appendage tacked on from the drawers of forgotten forgettable manuscripts, the writer obediently complying with a request for filler material to stretch a beautiful story into a vacuous stretch limo. They featured the usual sin of your stereotypical African writer, supercilious, needy, self-absorbed and obnoxious, cringe-worthy self-absorption glorifying clinical depression in lovely prose. Let’s just call it creative nonfiction. In sum Chela celebrates life joyfully in Part I and loses herself in a pity party in Part II and III. Even so, there are delicious pickings of tart, juicy prose to be plucked off from under Chela’s pity party canopy. Chela is a writer to watch. I can even see her winning the Caine Prize.

2014_huchuTendai Huchu’s The Intervention may be summed up in one word: Forgettable. It features the worst opening lines of all of the stories, actually of all the stories I have read in a long time. The first sentence begins with a grammatical misunderstanding: The first thing I did when we got to Leicester was ask Precious to use the bathroom. It was not Precious that used the bathroom. It is a silly tale that goes nowhere and in a bad way. It ignores all the rules of storytelling and writing and in a bad way. Huchu’s attempt to use humor as a vehicle ensures a fiery crash landing; his jokes fall flat – each time. The Intervention is a needy story too eager to please, dropping lame jokes off-key, like a bumbling drunk. Huchu does have the potential and skills of a good writer. If you are patient enough, you will find good prose sticking out of the weeds of cheesy impossible dialogue. But then one sneezes uncontrollably from the prose pollen. Huchu would be very good at creative nonfiction. Maybe the problem is we see African writing only through the lens of fiction. Do Africans write fiction poorly? Let’s examine their essays. Huchu is an unwitting visionary though. Hear him:

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” Z apologised, “Simba is a poet.”

“A poet?” someone said.

“I’m a member of the Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights,” I said.

“What does that mean?” Precious asked. “Like, forgive my ignorance, but how can one be a poet for Human Rights. Does this mean that as a poet for Human Rights you’re not interested in love, landscapes, the stars, ordinary life?”

#GBAM

2014_kahoraBilly Kahora’s The Gorilla’s Apprentice was a nice surprise. I am not sure why it is fiction; it reads more like creative nonfiction. But I did enjoy reading it. It is about a relationship between man and ape with a lot of social issues thrown in to complete the script. I like how the gorilla is one of the main protagonists, pretty clever. Kahora employs good imagery to keep the reader connected to the story. It works:

Week after week, year after year, he listened to the screeching conversations of vervets devouring tangerines, peel and all; the responding calls of parrot, ibis, egret: the magenta, indigo and turquoise noises fluttering in their throats like angry telephones going off at the same time.

It took him away from real life. Real life was Evelyn’s College for Air Stewards and Stewardesses which he had attended for a year. Real life was the thin couch he slept on at home. Real life was his mother screaming that he needed to face Real Life. Waking up on Sunday morning and staring at the thin torn curtains of the sitting room, the stained ceiling that sagged and fell a few inches every week and smelt of rat urine, Jimmy often felt he needed to leave the house before his mother asked him to join her and her latest boyfriend for breakfast. Real life was the honey in her voice, the gospel singing in the kitchen as she played Happy Family for her new man.

It goes on and on and on like this, prose that is enthusiastic but does not overwhelm the senses. It is a dark story wrapped around an alcoholic mother, a gorilla and a man:

Jimmy had been born not far from State House where the President lived. The house he remembered smelled like the Animal Orphanage. It smelled of the giant pet tortoise that had disappeared when he was eight. After he had cried for a week his mother brought him Coxy, and the house came to smell of rotting cabbage and rabbit urine. Later, when he was older, Mum allowed him to keep pigeons, and they added to the damp animal smell of the house. It smelled of the bottom of the garden where he eventually strangled Coxy and the second rabbit, Baby, and drowned their children, overwhelmed by three squirming litters of rabbits; the piles of shit to clear. His mother found him crying at the foot of the garden and said in consolation, ‘What are rabbits anyway? Your father is a rabbit. Always up in some hole.’

 It is not exactly serious literature, but it is a nice piece, that effectively describes urban decay and squalor and kitsch. There is a certain confidence in Kahora’s language, an earned swagger.

 2014_oduorOkwiri Oduor’s My Father’s Head is a sleepy puzzling story about a father’s ghost or memory, an oedipal longing for an absent rejecting father, dark but not quite dark enough, a story that went on too long, no energy in the story, no zing. It is an experiment that fails ultimately because it is timid. Again, I do like how these writers now own their own words – with pride. New words are created everywhere every day, the English language is ours now, screw the dictionary, Google does not discriminate. Bodaboda na okada. Try it.

 Oduor speaks of dusty desolate places, of nameless faceless people who mostly lead lives puzzling only in their meaninglessness, pregnant only with the drudgery of subservience to man and his narcissistic God:

Let me tell you: one day you will renounce your exile, and you will go back home, and your mother will take out the finest china, and your father will slaughter a sprightly cockerel for you, and the neighbours will bring some potluck, and your sister will wear her navy blue PE wrapper, and your brother will eat with a spoon instead of squelching rice and soup through the spaces between his fingers.

There is prose poetry but it has little or nothing to do with the piece. It makes the piece even more incoherent and puzzling. The parts do not gel, all the ingredients revolt against the clay pot.  It does show that Oduor can write though.

Whatever the failings of these writers, the Caine Prize has little or nothing to do with it. Writers have to accept responsibility. A prize can only do so much. Ultimately, writers have to step up their game and take advantage of the incredible opportunities that these prizes offer. I have had my issues with the Caine Prize (here and here) but I have grown to really like and appreciate it. The Caine Prize is organic – it taps into the vast sea of stories online written by an army of young African writers. It is the only credible avenue I know that gives aspiring writers an opportunity at stature. And there is a long history of African writers of stature stepping out of the shadows thanks to the hard work of the organizers of the Caine Prize. I do not know of any other prize targeted at African writers that does it so effectively. And for that I salute the Caine Prize.

It bears repeating: African writers need to up their game significantly; their products are completing poorly with Twitter and Facebook. The world of traditional writers is still very 20th century. Most of them cannot fathom the world they live and breathe in; no wonder they are totally disconnected from the 21st century reader. How many young people under 30 would relate to these shortlisted stories? For them it would be a collective yawn that would send them sleepy into the arms of social media. Our writers can do better than this. Be bold. Create new frontiers. Wean yourselves off of orthodoxy and the stifling confines of the classroom. Contemporary African literature as is taught in classrooms is pathetically 20th century. The keepers of those gates tend to think of contemporary African literature in terms of the three As: Achebe, Adichie, and Abani. When pressed, they add Habila. It is pathetic, really. The bulk of our literature is on the Internet and ancient professors are still photocopying what Achebe wrote in 1958. This must stop.

Writers, I beg you, write, just write. Do not write to the test of any prize, write, just write. And experiment for heavens’ sake! These stories are neat paragraphs adorned by lame titles, same old model designed eons ago before the advent of contemporary tools. One reason these stories hardly engage is that they are too one-dimensional for the new world and the new generation. Dare to place hot links in your stories and listen to the laughter of readers as they click and travel the world through your stories. Hot links are the pictures of my childhood that took me to Hyde Park and to the bazaars of India, that connected me with the world out there. Many stories today that keep readers chuckling do not use paragraphs and stuff, they are called apps. Use today’s tools to tell today’s stories.

 And oh, I move that we simply call this prize the Caine Prize, NOT the Caine Prize for African writing. What is that? In the 21st century, it seems faintly offensive. What is “African Writing”? Please let’s call it the Caine Prize. Yes. I love the Caine Prize.

[Guest BlogPost - Professor Pius Adesanmi] #WhoOwnsTheProblem?

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

(This keynote lecture was initially delivered as part of the opening session plenary addresses at the Fourth Annual African Renaissance for Unity Conference convened by the Africa Institute of South Africa and The Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, Pretoria, South Africa, on May 22, 2014. A modified version of it was subsequently delivered as Professor Pius Adesanmi’s valedictory lecture at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, on May 29, 2014, in conclusion of his tenure as a Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Scholar.)

Your Excellency President Thabo Mbeki, organizers, sponsors and co-sponsors of this conference, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, you must forgive me for the peculiar title of this lecture. It is true that the organizers of this timely conference gave me an unambiguous mandate about what they wanted me to do: share some reflections with you on the subject of finding African solutions for African problems. Specifically, they wanted me to engage the subject from the perspective of culture. Let me state from the onset that the singular, culture, is not my making. That is how it appears in my letter of invitation. Coming from a disciplinary background where the producer of knowledge must constantly watch out for traffic cops eager to hand out tickets for the offences of monolithization and essentialism, I probably wouldn’t have dared to speak of an African culture in the singular purporting to solve African problems in the plural.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uHowever, not even the most audacious enforcers in all the humanistic and artistic disciplines with which we engage Africa would dare to hand out a traffic ticket to the scholar who drags the hashtag into the arena of serious scholarly reflection on the unending dilemmas of the African condition in the 21st century. These, indeed, are great times to be a hashtag. In my second life, I’d prefer to come back not as a bird or a flower as is the wont of nature lovers but as the world’s most recognizable symbol, the hashtag, previously only known to Americans and the English as the pound key on their phones but catapulted to planetary celebrity status in a little under a decade by Twitter. The hashtag is the only subject that can legitimately claim to be more famous than Kimye – that conjugal combination of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to describe the hashtag as the highest stage of globalization, what with its ability to go viral within seconds, crisscross geographical borders and ideological boundaries, connect cultures and peoples in defiance of difference, break down walls between causes and create a common village square for actors as far apart as gay rights activists of the global north and anti-gay cultural fundamentalists of the global south in Nigeria and Uganda, animal rights activists in Scandinavia and the whale and shark hunters of Japan, gender rights activists in the global north and the bearded guys preventing women from driving in parts of the Arab world. Every time I reflect on this singular capacity of the hashtag to unite the world’s largest community of strange bedfellows, I am almost always tempted to conclude that more than three decades of intense theorizing in the humanities and the social sciences have been reduced into a tiny symbol.

The intellection which yielded world systems theory, globalization, and everything in between, and gave us illustrious cross-disciplinary thinkers of global flows, fluxes, and linkages such as Achille Mbembe, Mahmood Mamdani, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Adebayo Olukoshi, Thandika Mkandawire, Ato Quayson, Immanuel Wallerstein, Frederic Jameson, Edward Said, Arjun Appadurai, Gloria Anzaldua, and so many usual suspects in the arena of contemporary global thought now all boils down to the performative power of just one symbol: the hashtag. For the hashtag is world system, borderlessness, and globalization on steroids.

Some of you are already probably thinking that you know the reason why a Nigerian public intellectual would start an exercise such as this by singing the praise of the hashtag. Folks, don’t blame me. My country, already a famous subject of all kinds of fair and unfair stereotyping here in Africa and the rest of the world, has seen her notoriety attain stratospheric heights courtesy of the hashtag. Doubtless some of you have already participated in what may now rightfully be termed a global hashtag movement. Perhaps some of you will take selfies in the course of this conference, brandishing a cardboard on which you would have inscribed the reigning marker of collective global activism: #BringBackOurGirls.
The phenomenal career of this particular hashtag – #BringBackOurGirls – has very obvious theoretical implications for those who have been thinking and theorizing the borderlessness of our postcolonial and postmodern world and the modes of Africa’s insertion into it in the last three decades or so. But, more importantly, this conference will have to zoom in on the possessive adjective, “our”, map its trajectory and modes of articulation, listen intently to its politics in order to determine who is speaking – or more appropriately, who has acquired the agency to speak – every time you encounter this celebrity hashtag.

In essence, this conference must ask the question: who is the “our” in #BringBackOurGirls? I don’t know the answer but how you, esteemed colleagues, answer this thorny question will have very serious implications for the aims and goals of our gathering. For when I saw the theme of our conference, “African Solutions for African Problems”, and the rider stating that more than a hundred scholars from Africa, Europe, and North America would gather here to find “African Solutions” to whatever we eventually agree – or agree to disagree – are “African Problems”, my mind immediately went to #BringBackOurGirls (and even the Joseph Kony campaign before it) and I asked: who owns the problem? Or, more appropriately, when was the last time Africa possessed the critical agency to own problems that are defined and narrativized as African? What are the possibilities of localizing the ownership of problems in the age of the hashtag? To make the inevitable allusion to Gayatri Spivak, can the subaltern own her problems?

Some of you may have noticed that no sooner had the #BringBackOurGirls handle gone viral than conflict over its origin and ownership arose, with CNN and the Wall Street Journal devoting time and space to clearing the air. And this war over ownership and narrative raged even as the girls were still in captivity. Who started it? Is it an offshoot of President Goodluck Jonathan’s bring back the book campaign? Or is it more directly linked to Wole Soyinka’s variation – with acknowledgment – on that presidential buzz with his own bring back the pupils retort? Or is it Oby Ezekwesili’s making? Or is it the making of the American woman who immediately claimed ownership of it and rushed to edit her Wikipedia biography to include ownership of #BringBackOurGirls?

In the context of the politics – for there is always politics involved – of owning problems that are defined as African, it does seem to me that the advent of the hashtag and social media has introduced the dimension of separating the localized reality of problems from their modes of articulation, representation, and, I daresay, marketing. It seems to me that Africa is being told: you may own the scrawny children with countable ribs and mucus-soaked nostrils studying under baobab trees with chalkboards donated by UNICEF, we reserve the right to adopt those malnourished children with full media fanfare and scold you if you grumble – even if you are the President of a country like Malawi; you may own the lives and limbs being blown up in Kenya, in Congo, in Mali, and in the ungoverned Boko Haram Territories of Nigeria, we own the glamour, glitz, and razzmatazz attendant upon the global dissemination and narrativization of those horrors.

This leads me to a second set of questions that must detain this conference. You may have noticed that I have been using the passive voice when talking about “African problems”. In fact, I have avoided that particular phraseology employed by the conveners of the conference. Instead, I have been talking about “problems that are defined and narrativized as African”. This mode of address is deliberate on my part. Apart from wondering whether Africa has the agency to own problems and their modes of articulation, the theme of this conference also made me wonder if we didn’t need to problematize the problems before finding African solutions for them. Perhaps my unease is further heightened by the suspicion that a certain neoliberal sleight of the hand underwrites the expression, “African Problems”. I believe the ability to smell neoliberal modes of framing, of naming, of engaging the actualities of Africa from a thousand miles come with the territory of what we do as the thinkers and writers of this continent. Hence, we must ask: what exactly are these African problems? How do problems acquire African citizenship? Who does the designation? When is an African problem?

For anybody familiar with the usual laundry list, these questions may appear to be no brainers. African problems? Oh, that’s poverty, illiteracy, disease, hunger, comatose infrastructure, tribalism, bad governance, wobbly democracy and allied problems of leadership, crises and conflict, corruption, environmental degradation, the familiar tableau of human misery associated with the girl child , human trafficking and, above all, the failures of the postcolonial state – some would say her complete demission. This is by no means an exhaustive list of problems that have acquired African citizenship in global imaginaries of discourse. Each participant in this conference could draw up his or her own list but I am sure we would have considerable overlaps. Consider, for instance, Professor Joseph Ki-Zerbo’s list and see how close it is to mine:

“raging genocides, mass movements of refugees, tortures and mutilations, random destruction of the environment and bio-diversity, hostage-taking of the young generation as cannon fodder for warlords, the decimation of whole populations by pandemics, the stranglehold of the republican army, the giving away and eradication of age-old cultures and distinct knowledge.”

Professor Ki-Zerbo’s list of the pressing challenges of the continent obviously devolves from the register of wars, conflict, and crises. It is easy to run through the said list and think of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Congo, and all the ongoing hotspots in the continent – if one wasn’t in the mood for immediate past spectres of bloodletting in Rwanda, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. However, if you leave out any geographical referents, it is also quite possible for observers in other parts of the global south to run through this generic list of problems that has acquired the tag, African, and assume that one was describing those places and spaces. What is there in my own list, for instance, that is not part of the politics of everyday life in significant parts of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Arab World?

Consider poverty. You’ll be amazed by how comparable the indicators and the statistics are if you looked at, say, the situation in Peru, Honduras, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the very black deep south of the USA, the First Nations reservations of Canada, and Cameroon. Yet, only Africa becomes a synonym for these problems. The same applies to infrastructure. I’ve been reading that decrepit infrastructure is going to be one of the major headaches of the new Indian Prime Minister. The New York Times recently framed this problem, drawing on the capacity of Indians for self-deprecating humour. Indians, the newspaper claims, have a saying that while the English drive on the left of the road, Indians drive on what’s left of the road. Booker Prize winner and activist, Arundhati Roy, also paints a grave picture of poverty and infrastructure in India in a post-election interview. Yet, that part of the register of underdevelopment that deals with dilapidated infrastructure is also almost always framed as an African problem.

These scenarios lead to some pressing questions. Do problems and human tragedies which also exist elsewhere become African because of perceived differences of spread and intensity? Do these problems become African because of imagined or real differences in the readiness of the institutions and opportunities of African modernity to rise up and solve them using critical human intelligence and innovation? Are these problems African because the websites of global actors in what I have previously theorized as the Mercy Industrial Complex (donor agencies, humanitarian organizations, aid and charity organizations, Bono, Jeffrey Sachs, career saviours of African children through adoption such as Madonna) almost always label them as African? More questions: do these problems become African because the continent is powerless against the modes of representation so powerfully captured by Binyavanga Wainaina in his classic piece, “How to Write about Africa”? There is even a latest variation of this problem of discursive and epistemological violence. I am told that there are particular ways to design the cover of the African novel, the African book, if you are a serious publisher looking for serious buyers of books about Africa in the global north.

The acknowledgement by the organizers of this conference that culture has a role to play in finding African solutions for African problems is perhaps a conscious admission on their part that despite contemporary pressures to the contrary, history has a huge role to play in solving many of the said problems. To solve a problem is to understand it in all its manifestations and ramifications and this includes its origins and modes of perpetuation. Yet, mentioning the colonial origin of many of the afflictions of the continent has become unfashionable in many of our disciplines. In my own discipline, it is taboo and could earn you a citation by the essentialism police.

As if Latin American thinkers like Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo never theorized coloniality (the persistence in our present of the fault lines and effects of colonialism), you are told that the recourse to colonial paradigms to explain the benumbing dilemmas of the African present amounts to disciplinary laziness and an attempt to excuse, rationalize, or justify the self-imposed woes and tragedies of Africa. Yet, how could Mahmood Mamdani have explained Rwanda without going back to the colonial origins of the problem? How can I explain Boko Haram, how can I propose solutions to Boko Haram, without going back to 1914 in order to understand and map the errors of the rendering that have inevitably produced this gory Nigerian present? The search for more than 200 school girls is only the latest stop in a journey programmed for tragedy and disaster by Lord Frederick Lugard in 1914. The Igbo genocide and the attendant civil war are also significant stops in that journey.

To recall Chinua Achebe, how do you begin the process of drying yourself when you are told that it is no longer fashionable to try and understand when, where, and why the rain began to beat you? How do you solve a problem when you are told that the ordained discursive procedure is to acknowledge and focus on your own contribution in making the rain that is beating you today and leave well enough alone with regard to yesterday’s rain made by foreign rainmakers? Do these two epistemological propositions have to be mutually exclusive?

If history helps us to understand the origins and trajectory of many of the problems blighting the African present, culture is what explains why the problems became African or why outsiders of the neoliberal bent have been able to attach a fixed African identity to problems that are transcendentally human, even where we make allowances for differences of intensity. Culture is the location of the original injury of modernity. Culture was the first target of the discourses and the institutions of modernity at the moment of encounter. Many of the problems that Africa still has with the orders and institutions of modernity – democracy, governance, corruption, etc – devolve from the unresolved contradictions of the original injury of modernity.

Let us not forget that modernity was imposed on the African largely through institutions of discipline and punish, to borrow from Michel Foucault. The prison, the Christian mission, and the school did not stop at inflicting corporal punishment on the “African native” while scrupulously pursuing the civilizing mission, they equally all had very specific ideas about the cultures and worldviews of the African that we do not need to repeat here. If we need any reminder about this discipline and punish approach to the introduction of the structures of modernity in Africa, we need not look beyond the workings of the said institutions in Ferdinand Oyono’s famous novel, Houseboy.

Thus, the African was culturally alienated from the institutions, protocols, and orders of modernity from the very start. This cultural alienation explains in large part the apathy to institutions, especially public institutions, in the continent. Institutions of modernity evolved as alienating structures of discipline and punish under colonialism and have retained that identity in the postcolonial phase of African life. The postcolonial state has failed woefully in detaching itself and its institutions from the colonial socius of violence that birthed it.

Hence corruption! Hence the impunity with which the public till is plundered in so many African states, especially in my own Nigeria. As Kwame Gyekye reminds us in his book, Philosophy, Culture, and Vision, the cultural relationship of the African subject to his precolonial cultural and political community conduced to a collective ownership of institutions and modes of cultural citizenship which enhanced the notion of the common good. The communal stream, communal farm lands, communal institutions of governance and public order, were not just in sync with the psychic world of the African subject, you took care of them because they commanded your loyalty and were not structures of violence and alienation.

Here then is the dilemma. Precolonial institutions, with all their warts and weaknesses, worked to a great extent and corruption was minimal – and punished adequately whenever it occurred – because those institutions acquired legitimacy and hegemony (as opposed to exercising only dominance and violence) through an historically developed sense of collective ownership. Postcolonial institutions have trouble working or functioning properly in Africa because they are orphans. Everybody steals from them; everybody leaves them to rot precisely because nobody owns them. The precolonial cultural attitudes of ownership of institutions and the collective good were never carried over because the new institutions destroyed or looked down upon the cultural values and worldviews that would have aided their insertion into the African space and psyche. These are contradictions that the modern African state is yet to resolve. She still hasn’t been able to sell herself culturally to the African.

The story is told – and it is a true story – of the late Alhaji Barkin Zuwo, a Governor of Kano state during the Second Republic in Nigeria which lasted from 1979-1983. The task of making the daily trip to the public treasury to steal money became too cumbersome for this Governor. To solve the problem, he introduced the practice of home delivery of stolen public funds into the lexicon of corruption in Nigeria. He simply had raw cash delivered to him in large quantities in his official residence which we call Government House in Nigeria. When the coup happened in 1983 and soldiers stormed Government House to arrest him, they were astounded by the quantity of raw cash they found in his bedroom. When queried, Barkin Zuwo famously quipped: “Government money in Government House, what is the problem?” This sums up the story of the African subject’s conceptualization of the institutions of the postcolonial state. Would Alhaji Barkin Zuwo have had the same attitude to public office and to public property in the precolonial Emirate of Kano? Your guess, ladies and gentlemen, is as good as mine.

Like corruption and institutions, most of the problems and challenges that postcolonial Africa has encountered in the arena of democracy and governance can be explained on the ground of our radical departure from the economic and political cultures of precolonial Africa. All over the continent today, the state and her economy are hyper-centralized because they were carried over unmodified from the hyper-centralization of the political and economic structures of the colonial state. We are all familiar with the consequences of the hyper-centralization of political and economic power at the centre all over the continent. It foreclosed the possibility of good governance and genuine democracy and facilitated the emergence of authoritarianism, supervised by the big man and his cronies.

Because the big man’s cronies are almost always from his ethnic neck of the woods, tribalism enters the picture as the handmaiden of political and economic hyper-centralization. This has particularly been the case in much of Francophone Africa’s postcolonial history, a period bloodied by the Father of the Nation and his single party monolithism. This spectre of hyper-centralized authoritarianism haunted the Francophone African novel of the 1970s and the 1980s with novelists like Alioum Fantoure, Williams Sassine, Henri Lopes, Aminata Sow Fall, and Sony Labou Tansi leading the guard in the production of dictatorship novels. Wole Soyinka would respond in Anglophone Africa with A Play of Giants.

What sort of political and economic cultures did Africa evolve before the moment of colonial truncation? The case of the Igbo in eastern Nigeria is too well known to bear repeating here. Those of you who don’t know Igbo republicanism in real life have encountered it in the political life of the six villages making up Umuaro in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. Gyekye has also explored what he describes as “consensual democracy” among the Ashanti and other ethnic groups in precolonial Ghana. I will therefore illustrate this part of my submissions with the precolonial political and economic cultures of my own people: the Okun people in the present Kogi state in Nigeria. Okun land is made up of a number of major towns around which gravitated hamlets and villages. Some of the major towns include Kabba, Mopa, Egbe, and my own Isanlu. Although the major traditional ruling stool was located in Isanlu, all the satellite villages and hamlets also had their own stools which related in a traditional confederal fashion with the central stool in Isanlu.

Complementing this political confederacy was the fact that all the villages were economically autonomous and had their own independent markets and other economic structures. Colonialism destroyed this intricately decentralized political and economic culture and replaced it with the model with which we are all familiar. The postcolonial state completed the rout of Okun political and economic confederacy. Isanlu and all the adjoining villages and hamlets now had to start looking up to the local government, the state government, and the Federal government in that order. I don’t believe that we need to rehash the consequences of the collapse of the culture of confederacy and consensual democracy in Nigeria and elsewhere around the continent.

What needs to detain us here is the price that the continent continues to pay by stubbornly holding on to the machineries and institutions of political and economic centralization inherited from the colonial state instead of retracing her steps back to the precolonial cultural template in order to adapt, modify, and modernize it for contemporary usage. The first and perhaps most significant casualty of political and economic centralization is African innovation. The contest for resources at the centre has stunted African innovation because we have evolved a culture in which an entire nation is fixated on just that one source of prebendal patronage. A rapacious political elite very often enlists the help of a confused intellectual class to think and theorize programs aimed at the consolidation of the current arrangement. For instance, Nigeria’s erstwhile military dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, was notorious for his generous use of Professors to theorize and legitimize his policies.

Yet, recent developments in the continent point to the continued relevance of culture to any idea of renaissance and innovation. It is no longer a secret that Nigeria recently rebased her economy and announced her new status as the Africa’s largest economy, a distinction which promptly earned her the hosting rights for the recently-concluded World Economic Forum Africa (WEFA). I am a man with an ear to the ground here in South Africa so I was made to understand that the news of being overtaken by Nigeria – with her pre-medieval infrastructure and epileptic power supply – was considered a huge joke in this country. I am told that you received that news like a rude slap in the face. You are not alone. Those of us who are consistent critics of the Nigerian establishment also took the same tack. However, reality is reality: Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and culture played a significant role in the attainment of that feat.
What went into Nigeria’s rebased economy were the IT revolution and the cultural innovation represented by Nollywood and the Nigerian music industry. Just two decades ago, in the 1980s and 1990s, the party scene, the dance floor scene, in this continent was dominated by American rap and R & B. On University campuses all over the continent, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, R Kelly, 112, Next, Changing Faces, Joe, and Boyz II Men reigned supreme. I particularly liked rocking in the nightclubs to the tune of 112’s “Only You”. Some of you may remember the lyrics. Sing along with me if you do:

Ohhhh I, need to know, where we stand
Do we share this special thing called love *
I know I do, what about you
I just can’t get enough of your love *
I need you in my life
Where do we go, what do I do
I can’t live without your love
Thinkin of you * makes me feel
Like I’m the only one for you

And how about this one from Boyz II Men? I am sure you still remember? Let me hear you:

Although we’ve come to the end of the road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you
Come to the End of the Road
Still I can’t let you go
It’s unnatural, you belong to me, I belong to you

These are great memories of the ancient times of the 1990s on the dance floors of Africa. Today, there has been a cultural revolution on dance floors and party halls across Africa. Whether you are in Belle Aroma night club where I unwind most weekends in Accra or you are checking out Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala, Monrovia, or Cotonou by night, the new cultural gospel is called azonto, skelewu, eminado, and dorobucci. Let me treat you to a youtube clip of dorobucci so you can have a taste of what we are talking about. Ladies and gentlemen, these Anglophone African musical styles, along with Francophone African offerings such as “couper decaler”, “mapouka”, and “sagacite”, have checkmated American musical imperialism on the African dance floor. And this cultural revolution has had such a seismic consequence in the arena of political economy that Nigeria quite almost literally danced her way to the top spot as Africa’s largest economy. I guess you can tell from my familiarity with the latest grooves from the nightclubs of the capital cities of the continent that some of us are deconstructing and funkifying the image of the Professor.

There are two lessons to be drawn from these scenarios. Culture is where Africa was written out of modernity; culture is where her development, genius, and innovative spirit were discounted. Culture is where her path to self- recovery is located. Cultural innovation is where Nigeria came into its own as Africa’s largest economy and also joined Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey in the MINT economies. Nigeria has no infrastructure fit for the 19th century, she can hardly generate a week’s supply of electricity, and corruption is stratospheric. Yet, cultural innovation intervened and saved Nigeria’s behind when it mattered most.

Secondly, you are nothing if you cannot even own and narrate your own problems. You are nothingif you are a fringe player in the global theatre of naming and ascription. Those who name your problems for you will prescribe neoliberal solutions that fly in the face of your realities. As we have seen, the instruments for a global narrativizing of what constitutes African problems are cultural: social media – that is, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linked-in, Myspace etcetera; and, of course, print and broadcast media.. Problems are essentially African and not human problems because global culture names them so. It does not mean that Africa does not have and suffer disproportionally from the said problems.
However, losing the means to own, narrativize, and engage your problems on your own terms is a double jeopardy. I am also not proposing Africa’s isolation from the arena of bilateral and multilateral solutions to problems in this age of globalization and inter-dependence. Solutions would be skewed if problems are owned, narrativized, and skewed on your behalf. It is only through a conscious ‘re-basing’ of culture, that is, a re-creation and owning of culture in the 21st century that Africa will be able to identify, name, and engage her own problems on her own terms.

[Guest BlogPost - Professor Bernth Lindfors] Chinua Achebe, a Puzzling Pioneer

Bernth Lindfors, Professor Emeritus, Department of English, University of Texas, Austin, Texas

 (Keynote speech delivered on May 3, 2014 at the 2014 Chinua Achebe Colloquium held at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island)

 “Bernth Lindfors is one of the most renowned critics and historiographers of African literature, and also one of the most prolific writers on the subject…”

   –  Chris Dunton

 The first thing that comes to mind when I reflect on the extraordinary career of Chinua Achebe is that he was a true pioneer. I suppose that could be said of many other African writers as well, not only those who preceded him but also those of his own generation who, rather unexpectedly, helped to launch vigorous literary movements throughout the continent in the middle of the last century by expressing themselves creatively in European and indigenous languages. All of them, individually and collectively, were vital contributors to the modernization of Africa, to the reconceptualization of the continent’s past, present, and future, and perhaps most importantly, to the liberation of Africa’s imaginative energies. And they did this not by waging wars or struggling to win political or economic independence for their people as some of their more famous contemporaries had, but rather simply by manipulating words in new and surprising ways. They were revolutionaries of another kind who changed their world through invention, through powers not of muscle but of mind. They worked from the inside out.

ACHEBE Chinua Achebe was one of the best of these—indeed, possibly the very best among his immediate peers—at performing such marvels of enlightenment. He has been called the father of the African novel, a title he modestly declined to accept. Perhaps the real problem with such an appellation is that it is too restrictively sexist, for it could also be cogently argued that he was the midwife of the African novel, having brought into being by his own exertions and example the healthy offspring of many other pregnant scribblers. He must be credited with having achieved an impressive birthrate in his role as a supportive ancestral hermaphrodite, being both father and surrogate mother of this increasingly fertile brood. Through his ministrations a number of spanking new national literatures were born. James Currey, who edited Heinemann’s African Literature Series for many years, has been quoted as saying that Achebe, by working for years as Heinemann’s advisor, “more than anyone else reshaped the literary map of Africa.”[i] For this reason one could claim that Achebe deserves yet another honorific title—Chief Cartographer of African Literature.

 But certainly Achebe’s greatest claim to fame resides in the fact that his first novel, Things Fall Apart, published two years before Nigeria ceased to be a British colony, was clearly the best of its kind ever produced in Anglophone areas of tropical Africa. It was not just a compelling tale of a flawed individual in a traditional society that was undergoing profound change. It was also a story that offered a fresh perspective on Africa’s colonial history. In much of the literature hitherto written about Africa by outsiders, the coming of Europe to Africa was seen as a blessing, an intervention that yielded enormous benefits for the local population. A typical example of this kind of mythologizing can be found in a book entitled In Defense of Colonies, written by Sir Alan Burns, a former Governor-General of the Gold Coast, and published in 1957, the very year that the Gold Coast became independent Ghana, and only a year before Achebe published Things Fall Apart. According to Burns, in Africa

 in the bad old days under tyrannical indigenous rulers the unfortunate peasants had no chance to cultivate their land properly and little opportunity to reap for their own benefit what they had sown….Free men also suffered from the cruelty and rapacity of indigenous rulers. They were liable, at the whim of a chief or through the instigation of a fetish-priest, to indescribable tortures and brutal punishments. Trade was hampered by bad communications and the depredations of robbers and pirates who plundered and murdered peaceful traders. Tribal warfare caused much loss of life and destruction of property.

But into this dystopian jungle, Burns informs us, British rule was introduced, and

We have put a stop to slavery and human sacrifice, we have checked the cruelty and corruption of indigenous rulers, we have stamped out certain diseases and reduced the incidence of others, we have brought a measure of education to people who were generally illiterate. We have developed backward countries by the construction of roads and railways, we have opened up mines and improved on the primitive culture of the past. We have allowed trade to develop under the protection of a firm administration.[ii]

This was the heroic narrative of Western imperialism, as told by one of its knighted functionaries.

 Achebe told a very different story. His novel is set in a peaceful rural village governed democratically by a group of prominent citizens obedient to their gods and observant of traditions and taboos handed down by their ancestors. Into this well-regulated society foreign missionaries and colonial governing officials intrude, winning over some villagers to a different system of beliefs and practices antithetical to those of their neighbors. As a consequence, the community is divided, things fall apart, and chaos is loosed upon their world. British colonialism has not been a blessing but a curse, causing havoc in what had once been a pacific haven, intelligently governed and guided by the wisdom of the past. Achebe’s novel was in essence a rebuttal of colonial historiography, and it came at precisely that moment when young Africans, on the eve of political independence, were beginning to question what they had gained and lost from their contact with an alien civilization that had attempted to rule them.

achebeHowever, Things Fall Apart was not entirely a one-sided story. Achebe also depicted some of the problems in traditional African society. He chose as his protagonist Okonkwo, an ambitious individual whose achievements as an athlete, farmer, and warrior had quickly earned him a prominent place in his community but who also had a number of personal flaws—a hot temper, a contempt for less successful men, a tendency to treat his wives and children harshly. Above all, he relentlessly sought to prove himself a manly man, not a weakling like his father. These negative, antisocial traits put him on a collision course not only with the new religion and the colonial governing authority but also ultimately with his own community, a conflict that led inexorably to his demise. His death symbolized both the damage Europe had inflicted on Africa and also the self-destruction caused by Africa’s inherent vulnerability to social discombobulation. It was a tragedy in which both Europe and Africa were at fault.

That this was a deliberate strategy on Achebe’s part we know from his essay on “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation,” in which he argued that

The credibility of the world [the writer] is attempting to recreate will be called to question and he will defeat his own purpose if he is suspected of glossing over inconvenient facts. We cannot pretend that our past was one long, technicolour idyll. We have to admit that like other people’s past ours had its good as well as its bad sides….I maintain that any serious African writer who wants to plead the cause of the past must not only be God’s advocate; he must also do duty for the devil.[iii]

This was the kind of heavenly and hellish objectivity that made Achebe’s recreation of the African past not just honest and credible but powerfully persuasive.

In addition to proving an important historical point in his depiction of colonial Africa, Achebe made another signal contribution by writing in a style that had never been seen before in African fiction. He literally Africanized the English language by having his characters speak in a simulation of native discourse in an African language, replete with characteristic images, metaphors, proverbs, and rhetorical strategies employed in daily conversation. He employed the same devices in his own prose. He explained his technique in another famous essay on “The English Language and the African Writer,” noting that

The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience….It is largely a matter of instinct, but judgment comes into it too.[iv]

Instinct and judgment. How did these qualities emerge in such refinement in a young man still in his twenties who had had little experience in writing fiction, no encouragement from teachers at school or university to try his hand at storytelling on paper, no models of indigenous creativity in print from which he could draw inspiration, no mentors who could guide him toward representing truthfully the sophisticated verbal culture of a traditional society, no friends, colleagues, confidants or peers who had already set out in the creative direction he was about to explore in such depth and map with such profound understanding?

Where, given this void in his background, did his originality as an artist come from? How did he happen to become a true, trend-setting pioneer? How do we explain his sudden emergence as a fully mature wordsmith who virtually single-handedly changed the course of African literary history? How do we solve this riddle, this enigma of his unexpected and unprecedented excellence? Were instinct and judgment enough to shape his virtuosity and vision as a deep-thinking creative artist?

True, he had been exposed at the University of Ibadan to a few superb examples of bad writing about Africa, the classic cases being the novels of Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad. He apparently also had become sufficiently acquainted with texts containing tainted colonial historiography of the Alan Burns variety to reject their interpretations of Africa as well. To this register of negative influences we could no doubt add Hollywood films set in the jungles and goldmines of the Dark Continent, especially those featuring Tarzan, Allan Quatermain, and other European adventurers in interaction with stupid, superstitious, malevolent, and unusually inarticulate savages. Western popular culture has been for centuries full of derogatory depictions of Africans. These racist narratives and images could have served as motivation for a writer who wanted to tell a more truthful story of his people and place in the world. But could countering such negativity necessarily account for the kind of artistic triumph we see in Things Fall Apart?

For that, I think we need to look more closely at the environment in which Achebe was raised. He has often spoken of growing up at the crossroads of culture, with one foot in the modern Christianized ambience of his home, and the other in the pagan traditional atmosphere in which some of his neighbors lived. He was a child of two words but comfortable in both, though the differences between these environments grew as he progressed further in his formal education. Yet he never forgot the lessons he learned when listening to his kinfolk on both sides of the divide speak. When accepting one of the prestigious international awards he won—the German Peace Prize awarded by the German Book Trade in 2002—he said

The Africa I write about is not inhabited by people without speech. I grew up hearing sometimes magnificent and always efficient, language in my community. I did not hear the grunts and the screeches that savages were supposed to use instead of speech. So I wrote what I did hear, in a translation that accorded equal respect to the two languages I have.[v]

So the simple but subtle act of effectively translating traditional eloquence gave him a distinctive voice that had never been heard before in African literature. And it transformed the way African speech was rendered by other authors in the years that followed. This was first most noticeable in the works by fellow Igbo novelists who also wrote in English—Flora Nwapa, John Munonye, Chukwuemeka Ike, and especially Obiora Nzekwu. Nzekwu’s first two novels published in the early 1960s had been written in stiff, orthodox English, but by the time he composed his third, Highlife for Lizards, published in 1965, he had abandoned standard English and converted to Achebe’s manner of representing African vernacular expression. Two of these novelists—Ike and Munonye—had been Achebe’s classmates at the University of Ibadan, and Nwapa graduated there a few years after he had left. All of them were good friends of his and freely acknowledged having been inspired by his writings.

Having had this powerful influence on his peers by writing four path-breaking novels in eight short years, fictions set in present times as well as in the past, each reflecting the dominant concerns of his day, we are left to explain a subsequent enigma: the long gap before the production of his fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah, which was not published until 1987, twenty-one years after A Man of the People. What threw him off-track for a full generation?

The standard answer was that it was the trauma and turmoil of the Nigerian Civil War that made it impossible to him to continue the pattern of life and work he had earlier set for himself. In 1969, while the war in its final stages was still raging in the Igbo homeland of Biafra, he said,

I started a novel just before the war which seemed to me at the time terribly important—I already had the idea for it as far back as ’66—but I finally gave it up because it later seemed to me completely unimportant.

I think there is a myth about creativity being something apart from life, but this is only a half truth. I can create, but of course not the kind of thing I created when I was at ease. I can’t write a novel now; I wouldn’t want to. And even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. So that particular artistic form is out for me at the moment. I can write poetry—something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood. I can write essays. I can even lecture. All of this is creating in the context of our struggle. At home I do a lot of writing, but not fiction, something more concrete, more directly related to what’s going on. What I’m saying is that there are forms of creativity which suit different moments. I wouldn’t consider writing a poem on daffodils particularly creative in my situation now. It would be foolish; I couldn’t do it.

But these are not normal times, not for me. These are not normal times at all.[vi]

Twenty-one years is a very long time. Did any sort of normality ever really return for him? Yes, he created a number of other works, and university duties as well as community commitments absorbed much of his energy after the war, but were there other matters too that left him feeling disinclined to resume writing fiction? Of course, in 1990 he suffered a tragic paralyzing injury in an auto accident, and being confined to a wheelchair thereafter limited the range of his activities still further. Yet it would be interesting to know more about his state of mind and struggles during all these difficult years, if only to gain a fuller appreciation of what he was able to accomplish despite all these personal and professional setbacks.

What I am suggesting is that we need to know Achebe better, not just as a creative artist but also as a human being who lived partly in perilous times and survived adversities with his spirit largely intact and his pen still active. He continued to contribute ideas frankly and forthrightly to causes he had long championed, especially the task of reeducating his own people. His last book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra was yet another bold attempt to reinterpret his nation’s past. It generated a great deal of controversy in Nigeria, but Achebe was doing nothing more than telling the story from his own experience of having lived through the troubled times he describes. In Anthills of the Savannah he had his chief character Beatrice ask, “What does one do to appease an embittered history?”[vii] His own answer to that question in There Was a Country appears to have been to tell the story truthfully and creatively, relying on your own perception of what happened and offering your own opinion of why it happened that way.

The controversy over Achebe’s final statement on Nigeria is likely to continue until we have a more complete understanding of the man who excited it. Ezenwa-Ohaeto has given us a fine biography of Achebe that puts on record a good many of the formative experiences of his career, placing them in chronological order and relating them to the books he produced during that span of time. But his account was published sixteen years before Achebe died. The final chapter has yet to be written, and it may require investigative research of a kind that has not yet been done. Indeed, even Achebe’s early years need to be more thoroughly documented not only with relevant written records but also with oral testimony from people who knew him well at some stage in his life. A greater abundance of such pieces, strategically assembled, may enable us to put together a clearer picture of the life and career of Chinua Achebe that is for more detailed and far less puzzling than currently exists. One hopes we will grow to know him better in the years to come.

Notes

[i] Quoted in Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Chinua Achebe: A Biography (Oxford: James Currey, 1997), 280.

[ii] Sir Alan Burns, In Defense of Colonies (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957), 23, 63, 67.

[iii] Chinua Achebe, “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation,” Nigeria Magazine 81 (1964): 158.

[iv] Chinua Achebe, “The English Language and the African Writer,” Moderna Språk 58 (1964): 444-45.

[v] Quoted in Tijan M. Sallah, “An Entire Star Has Left Us: Chinua Achebe, In Memoriam,” in Chinua Achebe: Tributes and Reflections, ed. Nana Ayebia Clarke and James Currey (Oxford: Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited, 2014), 287.

[vi] “Interview with Chinua Achebe,” in Palaver: Interviews with Five African Authors in Texas, ed. Bernth Lindfors, Ian Munro, Richard Priebe, and Reinhard Sander (Austin: African and Afro-American Research Institute, University of Texas at Austin, 1972), 12.

[vii] Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1988), 114.

[Guest BlogPost -Wandia Njoya] When we remember, we believe

Address at Rwanda Genocide Commemoration “Kwibuka 20”

Mount Kenya University, Thika

on 14th March 2014

by

Wandia Njoya,

njoyaWandia Njoya teaches Literature and French at Daystar University in Kenya, where she also serves as the Head of Department of Language and Performing Arts. Wandia received her PhD in French from the Pennsylvania State University, and has taught in Kenya, US and France. She has published articles and has presented conference papers in Rwanda, Kenya and the United States on the African literature, culture and politics. She tweets @wmnjoya.

Your Excellency, Yamina Karitanyi, the Rwandan High Commissioner to Kenya,

Hon. Ezekiel Mutua, Ministry of Information

Your Excellencies, High Commissioners, Ambassadors and Representatives of Countries represented here,

Students and teachers, and our generous host, Prof Stanley Waudo, Vice-Chancellor of Mount Kenya University

Fellow East Africans,

I am always humbled to talk about the horror that visited our Rwandan brothers and sisters in April 1994, when families were tortured and wiped out because of the ethnic tag “Tutsi.” No matter how much I read and listen to the testimony of victims of the genocide against the Tutsi, I can never imagine even half the horror they must have felt to see their fellow Rwandans, emptied of their humanity, turn against their neighbors, friends and relatives and deny the humanity of others.

We must honor the memory of the victims. We must pray for the survivors who lived through the horror, and pledge to support them and Rwandans in their recovery, in whatever small way we can. And what is our support?

We in the universities may have no millions stashed away to open a school for people who need education. We may have no medical training to heal those still traumatized. All we have is our intellectual training. Frantz Fanon, the writer of the classic The Wretched of the Earth, when speaking of the anti-colonial wars in Africa in the 1950s, said that while the contribution of politicians is on the military battlefield, the contribution of intellectuals to the war for freedom is on the battleground of history. So my remarks here today are my small contribution to the journey of Rwandans as they “Remember, unite and renew.”

But while this commemoration is about Rwandans, I must address the reality that right here and now, I am speaking mostly to Kenyans. And standing here, I am requesting Kenyans, boundaries away from Rwanda, though in the same East African community, to remember what happened in Rwanda, to unite with Rwandans, and to walk with Rwandans as they renew their commitment to humanity, to living together in peace and dignity, and to prosperity.

But why must Kenyans remember the genocide against the Tutsi?

For me, the answer has always been this simple: what happened in Rwanda, and what was continues to happen to Rwanda, happens because Rwandans are Africans. Rwandans’ fate and tragedy – but also triumph and recovery – are an integral part of the African story. Even though the Rwandan people are unique, with their own culture, history and identity, the political circumstances that incubated the genocide against Tutsis were to be found in many places in the continent. Including here in Kenya.

Like many Africans, Rwandans suffered the brutality of colonial rule, first at the hands of the Germans, then at the hands of the Belgians under King Leopold whose ghost continues to haunt Congo. Rwandan men were forced to migrate to countries like Tanzania and Uganda to sell their labor in order to earn money pay hut taxes. Under Belgian rule, Rwandans had to take part in forced labor, often under the humiliation of being whipped like slaves. In a country where land use was already stretched, the Catholic church and colonial government voraciously appropriated land for colonial institutions.

And when it came to culture and education, the Belgian government did the unforgiveable: it destroyed the ties within the Rwandan community as its tactic of divide and rule. It then baptized three socio- economic classes, races or ethnic groups, and started to teach Rwandans that they were three different tribes, even though they were one people who spoke one language, believed in one God Imana, and were from the same families and clans.

Besides condemning Rwandan culture as barbarian and unchristian, colonialism incorporated the Tutsi elite in implementing the humiliating forced labor and appropriation of land. Worse, given that the Belgians considered labor Rwanda’s only resource, Belgians made little effort in educating the people, and the few education opportunities available were used to favor a few and discriminate against the majority. The very few schools that were ever built were built by mainly by a very conservative Catholic order whose goal was to convert; not to broaden the minds of the African students. Meanwhile, the government’s only interest was in training collaborators from among the Tutsi elite. And then when the wind of change blew across Africa in the late 1950s, the Belgians switched sides, sponsored an ill-thought “revolution” in 1959 that saw the first purge of Tutsis. At independence, Belgium left Rwanda with an ill-educated population, a crowded country with barely any land to live on, with a paranoid and ignorant Hutu regime, poor infrastructure, surrounded by refugees humiliated in Uganda and Congo, basically fermenting in the hatred and poverty that would explode in waves of genocidal violence in 1973, 1990, and eventually 1994.

Rwanda was suffering because she was colonized, and she was colonized because she was African. But when each cycle of violence broke out, the world forgot the colonial part of the equation and only remembered that Rwanda was in Africa. So as Rwandan women were brutally raped and spears inserted through one end of their body to the other, while men were castrated and left to die a slow death on trees, while dogs fed on the insides of people cut open but who were still breathing, while the rivers were full of rotting bodies, while Ugandans near the shared water bodies with Rwanda found human body parts in the fish they caught, the international community just looked on and said “that’s Africa.” French president François Mitterand even remarked that “in places like that, genocide is not a big deal.”

kwibukaflameuseBut finally, Rwanda emerged from the ashes of genocide and began to reconstruct itself. And all of a sudden, the very community that looked away as one million people were killed, now wanted to dictate how Rwanda was going to be rebuilt. The Western powers now wanted to offer a blanket amnesty with no trials of the criminals, wanted NGOs to dictate Rwanda’s development agenda, and assigned themselves the role of approving Rwandans’ political choices. But Rwandans have proved resilient and determined to push back, on their own terms, the deliberate underdevelopment of colonial times, and this they have done through universal literacy, health care, a new constitution and a progressive political culture.

But Rwanda has gotten this far because she committed herself to remember. By remembering where she came from, the injustice that created the horror of the genocide, Rwandans are able to unite and forge ahead, believing that even though humanity has repeatedly failed to honor the promise “Never again,” a world without genocide is still possible.

And we too, as Kenyans, and as human beings, can share that belief, because we too remember. We remember how the Africans were transported into slavery from Fort Jesus, we remember the squatters at the Coast, the kipande system, the hut tax, the colonial jails and the villages during the emergency, and the IDPs of 1992 and 2007. We remember Mekatili wa Menza, Elijah Masinde, Koitalel arap Samoei, Mary Nyanjiru, Syokimau, the Mau Mau movement from Tanzania all the way to Maralal and even with supporters in the United States. When we believed that Wanjiku could get a new constitution, it is because we remembered our brave warriors who fought before us in the 19th century and beyond. We remembered and we believed in a better Kenya. And if there’s anything amazing about our country, it is in the midst of the corruption, inefficiency and selfish leadership, we Kenyans strongly believe that a better Kenya is possible. We believe, because we remember.

And that’s what the song by Sweet Honey in the Rock, that inspires my speech, is about. The song is about the memory of Africans taken to the Americas by the horror of slavery. We all know that in the sweltering heat of the plantations, slaves knew that the story of Exodus, of going through the wilderness to the promised land, to freedom, was about them. For almost two hundred and fifty years of slavery, Africans in the Americas believed freedom was coming, because they remembered who they were and where they’d been. And so we understand the words of Beatrice Johnson Reagon

I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down

I don’t know how my father stood his ground

I don’t know how my people survived slavery

I do remember, that’s why I believe.

Like the song says, we may not understand everything that has happened to us. We may not fully grasp what happened in Rwanda in those dark 100 days of 1994. We can only imagine the pain of Rwandans who lost their families, and the shame of Rwandans who were manipulated to wipe them out. But Rwanda makes us believe that recovery, unity and prosperity are possible for Rwandans, for Africa, and for the world, because it has committed itself to remember through the events such as these, of #Kwibuka20. And when we remember, we believe.

Thank you.

[Guest BlogPost - Professor Pius Adesanmi] Caribbean Self, African Selfie

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

(Keynote lecture delivered at the inauguration of the Connections Week of the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, March 10, 2014)

I bring you warm greetings from Accra, Ghana, where I am currently based. I understand that winter has been particularly brutal this year. You could use some of the warmth I brought from Africa in my hand luggage. I am told by the organizers of this event – to whom I owe immense debts of gratitude for inviting me to deliver this keynote lecture – that “loud and proud” is the theme of your Caribbean-Africa Connections week this year. In other words, the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia has decided to scream the cultures of Africa and the Caribbean from the rooftops this week. You want to proudly highlight what connects Africa and the Caribbean in the arena of culture – and in defiance of the Atlantic Ocean. You want to inscribe your so-called otherness loudly and proudly on this beautiful campus of UBC. When I thought about your theme on receiving the invitation for this lecture, it evoked a sense of drama. How do you proclaim Caribbean and African connections “loud and proud” without being dramatic? I have therefore taken the unusual route of plotting this lecture as a one act play in five scenes. At any rate, on my way here from Accra, I did get into some drama in London…

ACT ONE, SCENE ONE

Date: March 6, 2014. Location: Terminal Three, London Heathrow airport. Mission: awaiting an Air Canada connecting flight to Ottawa en route Vancouver for this lecture. I was coming from back to back keynote lectures in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Accra, and Lagos. Although I was jetlagged and tired, I already had a draft of this lecture in the bag. Nevertheless, there was something I wasn’t quite satisfied about. I was trying to look at the Caribbean-African thing beyond the routine of memory. Must the ties that bind always be about memory? I wasn’t sure that what I had in the first draft had satisfactorily answered that question. I had seven hours to kill at Heathrow. I decided to shell out sixty pounds to rent a room and shower cubicle for three hours in one of the “capitalist” lounges of the airport. I needed that space and time to continue my reflection on what lies – or what ought to lie – beyond the horizon of memory-making and memory-reliving whenever Africa and the Caribbean actuate a handshake across the Atlantic.

In essence, I did not need anything or anybody to remind me of how memory ties the Caribbean and other parts of the black Diaspora to Africa. I wanted to move conceptually beyond that paradigm. As I moved wearily through the familiar mass of fatigued bodies dragging a cornucopia of hand luggage through the malls of Heathrow, making my way to the F Lounge, I bumped into just the one thing I wanted to avoid: memory. It came in the exact body shape, height, skin tone, facial features, and even dressing style of Professor Ato Quayson. I am sure you all know Professor Quayson? If you don’t know him, you have a very urgent problem that only google can help you resolve.

In the engaging business of theorizing Africa and her diaspora in academe, Professor Quayson has been one of my formidable mentors in the last decade and a half. I had not seen him since the African Literature Association’s meeting in Dallas in 2012. I’d been to his University of Toronto base to deliver lectures on occasion but he’d always been out of town. And there he was before me, like an apparition, in a crowded airport lounge in London. I screamed and grabbed him in a hug that certainly wasn’t a bear hug. Loads of back patting. Deft feet movement and shuffling that you could call some kind of esoteric dance. Strings of jazzed up sentences delivered in a mishmash of English, Pidgin, and West African slang intrusions. These happened in seconds.

In other words, I was performing, right there in the open in London, an unscripted and impromptu reunion ritual which I somehow expected Ato Quayson or any other African brother to connect with and respond to appropriately. “I’m not Ato”, screamed the bemused figure in my arms, struggling to set himself free from my black hug while laughing in bemused acknowledgement of the accompanying semi-dance rituals. Remember, all this was happening within seconds, a succession of quick-paced actions and events. I realized to my utter embarrassment that I had grabbed the wrong man! The guy I grabbed and held in such a warm embrace was not Ato Quayson, just his Siamese look-alike!

I was going to start apologizing profusely when my “victim”, very friendly but obviously relieved to be released from my grip, assured me that no apology was necessary. In fact, he was very intrigued by my enactments of recognition and the effusive ritual of warmth I enacted when I thought he was Ato Quayson. According to him, everything about that instinctive, unplanned, impromptu but ritualized performance was also native to him. He would have done exactly the same thing in my shoes, he reassured me.

“And where are you from?” I asked. “Trinidad”, came his swift response. At this point, ladies and gentlemen, I knew I had to offer the brother a beer. I mean, here was my Nigerian self thinking it was engaging Ato Quayson’s Ghanaian self in ritualized modes of African warmth and connection only for those cultural enactments to be claimed by a Trinidadian also seeing himself, his people, his culture, his story, and his memory in those moves. On my way to an airport lounge to think beyond culture and memory in terms of how best to reconceptualize African and Caribbean modes of engagement, culture and memory beckon, saying, “Ogbeni Pius, we’re not done yet!”

 

 

ACT ONE, SCENE TWO

Maybe I should have known that memory and culture wouldn’t lend themselves to the easy glossing over I was going to do at that airport lounge before I received a Trinidadian jolt of reality. After all, another place, another time, memory and culture had served me notice of their power of persistence in any evocation of the linkages between the Caribbean and Africa. That other place is none other than this lovely city of Vancouver in this beautiful Canadian province of British Columbia. That other time was the 1990s when I pursued my doctoral degree right here in this very University.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uBack in those hectic days of doctoral work, some of us needed the occasional escape from the cast of French poststructuralist thinkers who, in the hands of North American academics, had turned postcolonial and postmodernist theory into an obscurantist terror machine. In a good week, your migraine was limited to struggling to blend the impenetrable prose of Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha into a deconstructive paradigm for the novels and cultures of Africa and the Caribbean. In a bad week, you had to add Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and so many other usual and unusual French suspects to that mix.

To reinforce that overdose of high theory, you were required on occasion to rent a few names from the Frankfurt school of theory. You completed this theoretical cocktail, which left African and Caribbean novels struggling for oxygen, with Antonio Gramsci and a necessary throwback at Karl Marx. In preparing one’s theoretical paradigm for African and Caribbean fiction, one often felt like Getafix the druid preparing the magic potion for Asterix and Obelix. We threw so many names into the pot of that theoretical magic potion. Trust me, ladies and gentlemen, when you have spent a week trying to foist Foucault’s power/knowledge combo on Chinua Achebe and Mariama Ba or attempting a Derridean deconstruction of Edwige Danticat and Patrick Chamoiseau via différance-speak, you needed to unwind desperately. Ah, the good old days of graduate school!

For those of us in the African and Caribbean communities, unwinding twice a week happened ritually in one watering hole: the Anza Club, close to Main and Broadway here in Vancouver. That night club was not just the place where we went to booze and do all the wild and unmentionable things that students do in their riotous twenties, just before other realities of life set in, it was also for us some sort of pilgrimage to a location of culture and memory. The Anza was the only night club in Vancouver at the time dedicated to African and Caribbean music. We went there to swing to reggae, calypso, zouk, soukouss, makossa, and soca. We went there to subject our waists to rhythms of high life, afrobeat, juju, and the kora and balafon offerings of the sub-Saharan African sahel.

Whatever we danced to, the cut was in how we all danced and what we all recognized. Recognition of source and of origins. When the Caribbean students danced, we, their African cousins, would marvel in recognition of rhythms, styles, and movements that took us all the way back to our respective villages in Africa. And when we, Africans, danced, our Caribbean folks remembered. They just remembered. Like the Trinidadian reacting to my reunion rituals at Heathrow, Caribbean students of my day at UBC watched us, Africans, dance at the Anza club and remembered their respective homes in the black Atlantic. “Ah, we have this dance in Saint Lucia!”, you would hear somebody exclaim if I was enacting variations on the “elele kure” shoulder dance of the Okun people in Kogi state, Nigeria.

Whether it’s in the passenger mall of an international airport or on the dance floor of a Vancouver night club, the Africa-Caribbean nexus, spelt out in terms of encounters between continental Africans and their cousins in the Black Atlantic, has spawned imaginaries of the self rooted in memory and culture since the historical moment of separation. If you are from the continent, you frame narratives of source-culturehood around these issues. If you belong in the black diaspora, you weave imaginaries of cultural survivorhood around the same issues. What lived, what survived, and how you produced newness from the old become, for you, the loom of identity-making in the present. But, mostly, you remember in order to re-member.

ACT ONE, SCENE THREE

The literature and discourses of both sides are rich in constructions of the self rooted in the politics and memory of remembering. For the Caribbean self, return narratives are crucial to the architecture of remembering and re-membering. The business of remembering and re-membering sometimes involves, among other gestures of reconnection, symbolic voyages to Africa to visit the sites of memory. Those voyages to the Atlantic slave coast of Africa, those emotional narratives about returnee sons and daughters breaking down in tears in Gorée, Elmina, Cape Coast, and Badagry, are all part of a multilayered ritual of reconnection. For the Caribbean self and other black diasporic selves, the return narrative, especially its 20th century enactments, was one way of trying to answer the query in Countee Cullen’s famous poem, “Heritage”. The poem speaks for itself and we need not remind ourselves more than its first stanza here:

What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,

 Jungle star or jungle track,

Strong bronzed men, or regal black

Women from whose loins I sprang

When the birds of Eden sang?

 One three centuries removed

From the scenes his fathers loved,

 Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,

 What is Africa to me?

 

Not all return narratives romanticize Africa like Countee Cullen and our friends in the Negritude movement did. Some, like Henry Louis Gates, belong in the dirty linen school of return narratives. They return to Africa to see the faces of the descendants of the greedy ancestors who sold them to slavery. Their problem is not with the white slaver but with my ancestors who sold their ancestors. One model of return narratives romanticizes Africa and demands reparations from the descendants of the white slaver, another criminalizes Africa and demands an apology from me for the sins of my ancestors who sold their ancestors. However, both models meet at the crossroads of meaning. They share a desire to make Africa mean. The question thus arises: what exactly feeds the impulse of these return narratives on the part of the black Diaspora and their modes of actuation? Why were return narratives so crucial to the making of the Caribbean self in the 20th century?

ACT ONE, SCENE FOUR

The answers are myriad and complex but I think we should focus here on one possible reason why the 20th century offered us the return narrative as one of the major routes to identity-making by the Caribbean self. Despite disagreements on modes of engaging the continent as source-culture – were we stolen by white slavers or were we sold by our heartless African cousins? – there can be no denying the fact that, before the mourning after independence set in,  the 20th century was the moment of Africa’s heroism and African heroism. It was the century which saw Africa successfully challenge, undermine, and overcome some five hundred years of truth claims by modernity; five hundred years of placing a question mark on the humanity of Africans and black people elsewhere. It was the century of political and cultural nationalism, of decolonization, of the anti-apartheid struggle, of coming into peoplehood, of coming into postcolonial statehood.

Indeed, the 20th century was an extremely auspicious time for black people all over the world to plug into this African spectre of global heroism. Your source-culture was heroic. What is more, the making of this grand narrative of heroism – that is, the challenge to and dismantling of colonialism – was not an isolated enterprise undertaken by continental Africans behind the back of their cousins in the black Diaspora. In fact, the intellectual, cultural, and political bases of these forms of African heroism were mostly born in the Diaspora and devolved from an organic collaboration between Africa’s emergent political, nationalist, and intellectual class and their counterparts from the black Diaspora.

Pan-Africanism and Negritude are two good examples of the collective contributions of continental Africans and the Black Diaspora to the making of Africa’s 20th century anti-imperialist heroism. A great deal of the intellectual energy that later went into African nationalism was honed in London and Paris in collaborations between the nascent African nationalist class and their counterparts from the Caribbean and black America. So formidable and far-reaching were these collaborations and joint efforts that two of the most famous theorizers and chroniclers of Africa’s 20th century heroism were from the black Diaspora. I am thinking here of the Frantz Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth and the Walter Rodney of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

If the pervading sense of having participated in the heroic self-recovery effort of the mother continent was a contributory factor to the flourishing of the return narrative, the principal mode of African heroism in the 20th century greatly enhanced it. The struggle for cultural and political freedom yielded the persona of the nationalist-statesman as a towering African hero. He was that colourful and charismatic character, that brilliant and powerful orator who became a transcendental African moral and ethical figure (before tragically becoming other unmentionable things in a good number of cases). The magic of this figure made association with Africa as home, memory, and source-culture very appealing to the continent’s sons and daughters in the Diaspora.

Think of the magnetic charisma of Kwame Nkrumah and how many Diasporic Africans made their first pilgrimage to Ghana largely or partly because of him – the Ghanaian trajectory of W.E.B du Bois can hardly be discussed outside of the politics, appeal, and charisma of Kwame Nkrumah. Think of the beehive of black diaspora activism that was the Conakry of Sekou Toure. Stokely Carmichael and Harry Belafonte stoked the fires of black cultural and musical internationalism with Mariam Makeba and Hugh Masekela when they were all in Conakry. Think of Leopold Sedar Senghor, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Patrice Lumumba and so many others in their league whose leadership and praxis of heroism made Africa such an appealing proposition to her children in the Diaspora in the 20th century.

This model of African heroism, I believe, found its culmination in the praxis and brand that was Madiba Nelson Mandela. This global icon made return narratives very compelling and irresistible for the black Diasporic self. Ladies and gentlemen, please don’t tell me that you do not know that Oprah Winfrey’s emergency discovery of her Zulu ancestry back in 2006 had a great deal to do with the Mandela magic and appeal. Ms. Winfrey was not alone. We need not run through the list of African American celebrities who discovered their South African ancestry because of Nelson Mandela.

If you look at things closely, the discovery of African ancestry tended to move to wherever the star of a great, transcendental African nationalist hero and statesman was shining. All roads of ancestry discovery once led to Accra before the fall of Kwame Nkrumah; then the roads made a detour and led to Conakry before Sekou Toure became what he became; then the roads migrated to South Africa because of Madiba. If, tomorrow, Nigeria gets her act together and produces a towering global leader of impeccable ethical stock, I wager that many Diasporans will discover their Yoruba, Igbo, or Hausa-Fulani ancestry.

ACT ONE, SCENE FIVE

The passing of Madiba Nelson Mandela to a glorious African ancestorhood has a special significance for our purposes here today. Mandela’s death effectively signals the end of the era of the modes of personal, transcendental nationalist heroism and statesmanship which his generation had held out to Africa and the black Diasporic world. His exit effectively closes the era of those who gave Africa and the black world such affirmative praxes as “African personality”, “black pride”, cultural nationalism, and political nationalism. These were the people who were so instrumental in providing the justification for the Caribbean self to seek psychic and cultural anchorage in a matricial idea of 20th century African heroism. When Countee Cullen and 20th Century black Diasporans asked, “what is Africa to me?”, Africa’s nationalists and statesmen and women provided answers in their words and actions, especially during the era of the anti-colonial struggle. You saw Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere and you had a pretty good idea of what Africa was to you.

But Mandela’s death also came on the cusp of a very significant moment for Africa and the rest of the world. Mandela made his exit at a time when what has been described as “the selfie generation” was taking over the commanding heights of global culture through the formidable power of social media. Charles Blow of the New York Times has appropriately defined the selfie generation as folks between the ages of eighteen and thirty-three. In other words, the selfie generation comprises young people. I am assuming that the members of the Caribbean and African Association of the University of British Columbia who invited me here to deliver this lecture today are all generation selfie. Ladies and gentlemen, is this true? Ok, Mr. Blow asserts, also correctly, that one defining characteristic of the selfie generation is that you are the first generation that has not had to adapt to the internet, to social media and allied technologies. In essence, you are citizens of the internet by birth. You are the original owners of what I suggest we call ‘appsland.’

If you are tempted to think that Mr. Blow is stretching things a bit by saying that members of the selfie generation are the only authentic natives of the internet who have not had to adapt to anything, just think of what happens to you when you are not a member of that generation and you try to do things like them without first learning the rules of engagement. Let’s say your name is Barack Obama. You go and take a selfie with the beautiful Prime Minister of a European country and you get into a load of trouble.

But taking selfies is not all they do in the selfie generation. Members of the generation are driving global culture and agendas in significant new ways. They are asking questions and raising issues. With them, the revolution is televised live in your living room. You saw them in Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world. You saw them in Turkey and Brazil. You saw them all over the streets of America in the Occupy Movement. You saw them live in Ukraine during the orange revolution and more recently. I live in Ottawa. I see them carrying placards in front of Parliament all the time. I saw them in my own country in Occupy Nigeria. One foolish aide of the Nigerian President who has tragically fallen into the wrong column of history even described them as “the collective children of anger.” All over the world, the selfie generation is the new cool.

I think it is unfortunate that the rise of this generation coincides with the collapse of that particular mode heroism that is tied to the praxis of genuine nationalists and statesmen and women in Africa. What is Africa to me? For the Caribbean self in the 20th century, that question was answered significantly by the quality of leadership that the continent had to offer especially in the context of political nationalism and the struggle for freedom. If the selfie generation in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the black Diaspora asked the same question today – what is Africa to me? – what sort of answer would they get? Just what is Africa offering them?

This is a question that has detained me since I delivered the keynote lecture at the International Leadership Platform Conference of the University of Johannesburg and the Africa Institute of South Africa a few weeks ago. Among the many issues raised by the brilliant and generous discussant of my lecture, Professor Peter Vale of the University of Johannesburg, was the question of leadership and role modelship for the youth of Africa after the demise of the continent’s nationalist and statesmen and women generation symbolized by the passing of Mandela. “Where are the leaders and role models that Africa is offering these young people?”, Professor Vale had queried. We kept citing dead African statesmen and women…

As a teacher in the classrooms of North America, I encounter variations on this question all the time from Nigerian students of the selfie generation. These are undergraduate kids born in Canada or the United States. They’ve never been home. When they pronounce their Yoruba or Igbo or Ijaw or Edo names, those names end up looking like mangled victims of a terrorist attack. They are Nigerian kids of the new Diaspora. And they stop you after class and ask: “Professor, tell me, why should I have a stake in Nigeria? Why should I visit Nigeria? What’s in Nigeria for me?” There are selfie generation kids from the fifty-three other countries in Africa torturing their Professors in Canada and the United States with such questions. There are African American and Caribbean kids of the selfie generation asking these questions. Whether they are Africa kids of the old or new Black Diaspora, the selfie generation is not asking – what is Africa to me? – for that is so old school, so Countee Cullen and his generation. Rather, these kids are now asking: what’s in Africa for me?

In essence, the selfie generation of the old and the new African Diaspora asks questions that cannot be answered easily. The nationalist, the statesman, the orator, the charismatic leader, the philosopher king – all that ended with Nelson Mandela. Today, the leadership landscape in Africa is so abysmal that you dare not tell the selfie generation to look up to the current crop of heads of state and heads of government across Africa as credible role models and heroes. To the Caribbean and black Diaspora self, Africa is currently offering a selfie of abysmal, uninspiring, and disgraceful leadership.

You only need to look at the current leadership of the two major states in Africa – Nigeria and South Africa – to appreciate the full extent of the tragedy. In South Africa, the current President is a certified clown, a huge joke. In Nigeria, aides of the current President consider an extraordinary achievement the rare moments in which he successfully places one incoherent sentence after another incoherent sentence in scripted or unscripted speeches. He is a dour, uninspiring, and corruption-friendly man.

Elsewhere, the news is not any better. Omar Bashir of Sudan and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya are customers of the International Court of Justice; Faure Gnassingbe of Togo and Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon are scions of Presidents for life who may continue that continental tradition; Yayi Boni of Benin and Alassane Ouattara of Cote-d’Ivoire are offsprings of the financial philosophy of Bretton Woods. And we have not even mentioned the Paul Biyas, the Teodoro Obiangs, and the Blaise Compaores of Africa. There is just no leadership worthy of our attention at the moment in Africa. Among the current crop of African Heads of State, I’m afraid there are no transcendental statesmen and role models worthy of recommendation to the youth of Africa and the black Diaspora as worthy role models. Luckily, there are stateswomen in the ranks but their inspirational stories are the rare exception and not the rule.

In essence, in the absence of the Mandelas, Nkrumahs, Senghors, and Nyereres of this world, the selfie generation in Africa and the black diaspora is the first generation to stand in real danger of having to accept Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and even George Zimmerman as heroes as Africa fails to offer them credible heroes and genuine role models in the public sphere. The selfie generation is growing up in a celebrity culture powered by American TV. Yesterday, as I prepared to fly here from Ottawa, George Zimmerman was on CNN signing autographs at a gun show somewhere in America. Occasionally, Africa has the good fortune of being able to ward off the danger posed to the selfie generation of Africa and the Caribbean by the globalized reckless celebrity culture of America. Africa tells those kids: don’t look at George Zimmerman, look at Lupita Nyong’o. But, like the female Presidents, these luminous examples don’t come in nearly enough numbers.

What’s in Africa for me? Perhaps the search for an answer is what has led Africans of the new Diaspora in the selfie generation (born in Europe and North America post-1980s) to Afropolitanism, the new cultural fad on the block. This is not the place for me to go into the debate on Afropolitanism. Google it. Beyond Achille Mbembe’s philosophic-discursive take on Afropolitanism, pay attention to what Taiye Selasie and her followers say it is. Pay attention to why Binyavanga Wainaina says he isn’t an Afropolitan. That is your google assignment.

What is of interest to me here is that Afropolitanism seems to be the last refuge of a new African Diasporan selfie generation in search of ways to log on to a continent that is offering very sparse cultural wifi access in terms of credible role models in the public sphere. But at least they’ve got Afropolitanism, those selfies of the new African Diaspora. What about the kids of the old Diaspora in black America and the Caribbean who cannot describe themselves as Afropolitans and who do not belong in the generation of those going to weep at doors of no return in Cape Coast, Goree, and Badagry? What’s in Africa for them?

Perhaps they and their Afropolitan peers ought to look in the direction of the collective cultural heroism of their peers in Africa. Out of nothing, their peers in Africa invented and developed Nollywood into the world’s second largest movie industry. Nollywood to a great extent has broken the monopoly of Western modes of representing Africa for the black diaspora. And out of Ghana, Africa and the black Diaspora is swaying to the rhythm of Azonto. Transcendental nationalism heroism and statesmanship of the Mandela type may be dead in Africa, Nollywood and Azonto, with all their warts, are powerful selfies of cultural heroism that Africa is offering the world as a window into the regenerative power of what Kwame Nkrumah once famously referred to as “the African genius”. The genius of the selfie generation is also taking over the African street and making very loud statements. I know that the Anza nightclub is still open in Vancouver. I know that it is still the place where Africa goes to meet the Caribbean on the dance floor twice a week. Perhaps, after listening to this lecture, some of you are going to make your way there this weekend to sway your hips to Azonto. I expect to see your selfies on Instagram!

I thank you for your time.

[Guest Blog Post - Professor Pius Adesanmi] Igbo Re, Ona Re: The Nigerian Constitution and the Awo Road not Taken

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor, University of Ghana, Legon

(Keynote lecture delivered at the Obafemi Awolowo Birthday Anniversary Symposium Convened by the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation. Lagos, March 4, 2014)

I was not a very happy man during my last appearance on a national lecture podium in this country back in October 2013. Pastor TundeBakare, and my good friend, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, had given me the unenviable task of ruining an unsuccessful man’s birthday celebrationby inviting me to deliver a public lecture marking the occasion. What do you tell such a man? How do you celebrate the birthday of a man still wearing diapers in his fifties without telling him to his face that his life has been a colossal failure and an irredeemable calamity?

At the risk of being labelled a spoiler and a party pooper, I knew I had a job to do. So I came to Lagos to rob the nose of that particular birthday celebrant against the cold iron of reality. I told the celebrant that if you are still bedwetting in your fifties, what you need is a sober reflection party and not a birthday party. The celebrant in question, I’m sure you all know by now, is an elder brother of mine whose name I arrived at through a play of metaphors and personification. He is none other than Boda Nigeria.

Today, Dr. MrsOlatokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu and the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation have given me the task of commemorating another birthday, albeit posthumously, with a lecture. But this time around, the face being the abode of discourse (oju l’oro wa), you should be able to tell just by looking at my face and the cap that I am wearing, that today’s task is one in which I am infinitely well pleased. My pleasure, obviously, derives from the fact that we are gathered here on account of a celebrant of a decidedly different hue.

We are gathered to celebrate and reflect on the momentous passage of our celebrant and his ideas and ideals through the life of this country at extremely significant moments of its history. In other words, we are gathered here on account of a masquerade who, for everyday it pleased his maker to grant him among us between March 6, 1909 and May 9, 1987, danced exceedingly well. Danced well for himself. Danced well for his wife and children. Danced well for his people. Danced well for his country. Danced well for Africa. Danced well for humanity. And when your masquerade dances well, that Yoruba proverb authorizes you to indulge in self-congratulatory chest beating.

Because the masquerade for whom we are gathered here today danced well, we are not going to sing dirges like we did the last time, we are going to celebrate even as we reflect critically and regretfully on “could have beens” and “had we knowns”.  Last time, we did the body count for the celebrant, we looked at the mountains of corpses, a tragic consequence of wholly avoidable errors of the rendering, and we marked that birthday by singing, “oro nla le da”. Today, when we think of the man whose ideas we are here to engage and celebrate, when we think of his dance, and how he danced so well to help us avoid the path of self-destruction onto which we pigheadedly launched ourselves anyway, we are in order if we flagged off these events leading to the 6th of March 2014 by singing: “Happy birthday Papa Awo, Happy birthday to you”.

Now that we have paid our dues to the celebrant, now that we have cleared the path before us by saluting that great and illustrious ancestor of ours, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, if I continued this lecture beyond this point without other salutations, I risk the fate of the goat which entered the homestead without saluting the assembly of elders; I risk the fate of the ram which entered the homestead and did not acknowledge the elders in council. A tight leash around their necks was the last thing the insolent goat and the rude ram saw before they joined their ancestors in the bellies of the elders. I must therefore crave your indulgence to perform a ritual of salutation with which you are already familiar if you have ever attended any of my public lectures in this country:

To Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu  – iba!
To the ObafemiAwolowo Foundation. – iba!

To Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, Chairman of this occasion – iba!

To Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, Osun State Goveror, present here with us – iba!

To all the Kabiyesis and Chiefs present in this hall – Iba!

To the esteemed discussants of this lecture – Iba!

To you, the audience, whose ears are here in this hall to drink my words – iba!
I pray you all,
Unbind me!

Unleash me!
Let my mouth sway words in this lecture

Like efufulele, the furious wind which

Sways the forest’s crown of foliage

Wherever its heart desires.

Dr. Dosunmu, members of the high table, distinguished audience, having saluted the homestead and the farmstead, do I now have the authority to proceed with this lecture? We should be thankful to the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation for placing the theme of our assignment today within the philosophical purview of paths, of roads, of journeys through space and time, and ultimately, of choices made or not made in the unavoidable human destiny of movement. But to each culture, to each civilization its particulars of framing the philosophy of roads and paths; of framing the cultural underpinnings of choice – the choice which places your feet as an individual or as a people on this road and not that road. Furthermore, whether you must set forth at dawn or not and how you go about propitiatory interventions to avoidending up in the ravenous jaws of the famished road fall within the province of cultural predilections.

padesanmi_large-carleton-uDifferent cultures, different approaches. Thus it was that in 1916, seven years after Chief Obafemi Awolowo was born, a certain culture that is conventionally associated with individuality – call it the imperialism of the singular subject – gave us one of the most famous poems of all times (as far as I’m concerned) in the English language. Almost a hundred years after its publication in 1916, philosophers, philologists, writers and artists, literary critics, and even, cultural dilettantes are still debating and trying to interpret its meaning and intent, with some even claiming that it is the most misread, most misinterpreted, and most misunderstood poem in the history of English poesy. That great poem, ladies and gentlemen, is entitled, “The Road not Taken”, authored by the famous American poet, Robert Frost. Please forgive me one more indulgence. That poem must be read entirely if only to highlightthe particularity of Chief ObafemiAwolowo’s nation-buidling roads and constitution-making paths within the Nigerian equation. Writes Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

This poem gives us the title of today’s proceedings. It is also the unsung and always unreferenced origin of the use of that phrase – the road not taken – in much of our national discourse. Perhaps, the deciders of the theme of this symposium weren’t even aware of the fact that they were drawing a straight line all the way back to this poem. However, for our purposes today, what I want you to pay attention to is the overwhelming evidence of individuality in this poem. There is only one isolated subject speaking of individual choice, destiny, and consequences in this business of taking or not taking a particular road. Notice that thiswayfaring Western persona in the poem describes himself as “one traveler” and treats us to a generous deployment of “I” in three of the four stanzas of the poem.

If only the speaking subject in Frost’s poem had been an African of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s ethnic stock! He would have been faced with an entirely different, and I daresay, more auspicious proposition. For one, he would not have been alone, for in this business of forked or bifurcated roads, the Yoruba worldview allows for the presupposition of the presence and guidance of either those who have gone before and have therefore acquired the requisite experience to guide he or those who “follow behind”, to borrow a popular Naija-speak; or the presence of those who, even if still here among us, possess such superior intellect and vision as could be deployed for the collective benefit of a people at the critical moment of choice – the choice of roads and paths.

In essence, to the aloneness, singularity, and individualityof Frost’s confused fictional character who stands at that critical bifurcation, saying, “me, myself, and I” must decide which of the two diverging roads to take, the Yoruba world responds with a co-presence which banishes aloneness, a voice of wisdom, prescience, vision, and experience; a superior intellect saying to the lonely traveler: “You are not alone. Igbo re, ona re”. This voice, we must insist, is not an intrusion into the private recesses of individual agency at the moment of choice. Rather, it is evidence of a communalist telos designed to deny the validity of lazy alibis and excuses in the event of sad and stubborn wrong choices and decisions. For the remainder of this lecture, whenever I scream “Igbo re”, your chorus shall be “Ona re”. For none Yoruba speakers, “igbo” is bush, signifying here the wrong way, full of thorns, serpents, and wild animals. “Ona” is way, road or path, signifying here the right way. When a Yoruba elder tells you “igbo re, ona re”, he is saying “here is the bush and here is the road, the choice of which to take is yours”!

Make the appropriate substitutions and that singularly forlorn persona in Frost’s poem, standing splendidly alone at the point of divergence of two roads becomes Nigeria at the parturition point of project nationhood in the first half of the 20th century. But Nigeria was never going to be alone in that long march to the choice of a road to national destiny. The she-goat was never going to be left alone to suffer the pains of parturition. Project Nationhood, that new space of civic and psychic belonging that was going to be forged out of the inchoate desires of different ethnic nationalities yoked together by colonialism, was singularly blessed by the presence of a stellar cast of nationalist heroes and sheroes, of statesmen and women, some destined for demiurgic roles, some destined for vatic roles, some destined to combine both and even more roles as they screamed at that emergent nation at the crossroads: igbo re, ona re!

It is my contention that as far as the constitutional history and trajectory of Nigeria is concerned, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was at once demiurgic (creator, originator) and vatic (visionary) and that, for me, is what makes his own voice the loudest in the assembly of founding fathers who tried to tell Nigeria: igbo re, ona re!But let us pause to probe this “igbo re, ona re” business further before we begin to unpack how Chief Obafemi Awolowo specifically applied it scrupulously to Nigeria’s process of constitutionally becoming and what we may learn from his proposals as we march yet again Abuja for a national dialogue.

The privilege of not being alone at the crossroads, the privilege of enjoying the guidance and co-presence of that cautionary voice of wisdom, does not in any way conduce to intellectual laziness and ethical demission at the moment of choice. The role of that voice is purely advisory. The exercise of choice is still your responsibility. In essence, nothing in the Yoruba world compels that patriarch, that matriarch, that visionary voice which stands beside you at the fork in the road to do more than point out which is the road and which is the deceptive option which hides thorns and thistles, potholes and gullies after the very first sharp bend.

In essence, if Chief Obafemi Awolowo had done nothing more than stand with Nigeria at that critical fork in the road to constitution-making in the 20th century; if he had done nothing more than show her the choices and possibilities, saying, “Nigeria, igbo re, ona re,” before turning his back to return to the warm embrace of his wife and children in Ikenne; if he had done nothing more than this, he would still have more than largely satisfied the imperatives of his culture. He would have done his bit. He would have done his best. Nothing in that culture compels him to tarry perpetually, to linger permanently in the company of a wilfully blind and voluntarily deaf customer like Nigeria, hanging on to the feet of this customer, and trying to place them on the right road.

In other words, as far as the philosophy of “igbo re ona re” is concerned, any gesture, any action beyond the utterance of that caution is an extraordinary privilege enjoyed by the person or entity being advised. It is jara, it is supplementary. No sage is compelled to go that far. Ladies and gentlemen, that is precisely why Chief Obafemi Awolowo stands out in terms of his decades-long commitment to Nigeria’s constitutional development in particular and to the overall envisioning of the country’s destiny in general.

Decade after decade after decade; in book after book after book; in essay after essay after essay; in speech after speech after speech; in action after action after action, what we confront in Chief Awolowo’s extraordinary output, especially with regard to constitution-making, is precisely that extra mile, that extra gesture, that jara after the solemn and repeated utterance of “igbo re,ona re”. I would therefore want us to consider his expansive body of work, an intellectual tour de force, as fulfilling the dual function of showing Nigeria the difference between the right way and the wrong way to constitutional bliss and also going the extra length of painstakingly mapping out strategies for travelling on the right way.

The theme of this symposium, we must remind ourselves, insists that there is an Awo road to the Nigerian constitution that was not taken. The temptation is great to begin any analysis of the nature, character, and prescriptions of that road and why we refused to do any mileage on it by focusing on the statesman’s 1966 book, Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, because its title bears the most direct resonance not just to our objectives today but also, and perhaps more importantly, to Nigeria’s ongoing quest for constitutional direction at fifty-three. Doing this would be starting the story in medias res for the said book is but a significant culmination of a long maturational process of intellectual rigour and prescience with regard to the articulation of a constitutional path for Nigeria.

A clear hint of the incipience and long evolution of Chief Awolowo’s thought on Nigerian constitutional issues can be found in Awo, his 1960 autobiography. Chapter twelve of the autobiography is entitled “evolution of a federalist”. Here, the thinker declares: “In 1951 when the controversy on the form of Nigeria’s constitution began, I had already been for more than eighteen years a convinced federalist.” The path to this conviction, Chief Awolowo informs us, started as early as 1928 when he encountered the thought and work of Indian nationalists and the the Indian National Congress. And we are informed in the preface to Thought on Nigerian Constitution that our thinker has played “a leading role in the work of constitution-making in Nigeria since 1949.” What these temporal milestones in the origin and evolution of Chief Awolowo’s thought on constitutional federalism confirm is the fact that almost 30 years to independence in 1960 – again, I’m thinking of the hint that the seeds of his convictions on the necessity of constitutional federalism for Nigeria were sown as far back as 1928 – a visionary mind was already rigorously applying itself to the constitutional destiny of this country. From the very womb of the colonial incubus, Chief Awolowo was already telling Nigeria, igbo re, ona re!

When one looks at Chief Awolowo’s extensive oeuvre, one is struck by the recurrence of certain registers, themes, and concepts. He has hardly a book in which a chapter is not dedicated to reiterating the importance of getting Nigeria’s constitutional framework right. We already cited Chapter 12 of his autobiography. The 1947 book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, written in 1945, contains a Chapter, “Towards Federal Union”, which, as usual, makes the case for a federal constitution. In 1968, The People’s Republic, offers two significant constitutional chapters. Chapter 5 is entitled “constitutional basis” and Chapter 10 is entitled “suitable constitution.”

And this is not counting the volume of essays and speeches in which these keywords and registers appear. Indeed, wherever the word, “constitution” appears in the Awolowo opus, you can almost always count on encountering the qualifiers, “suitable”, or, even more frequently, “federal”, which the thinker always poses in a binary opposition to unitary. Wherever or whenever that binary opposition occurs in his work, he resolves the argument, always unambiguously, in favour of federalism, recommending it forcefully and repeatedly to Nigeria as “ona” and always pointing atunitarianism as what – “igbo”. Igbo re, ona re!

We must hasten to point out that Chief Awolowo’s use of the word “federal” or the expression “federal constitution” bears no resemblance with the blasphemous use of that word in Nigeria’s contemporary political discourse and practice. In a reversal of semantics possible only in Nigeria, what we in fact call federalism today is what Awolowo consistently critiques and decries as unitarianism in his work. Not content with launching us onto the path of this asphyxiating unitarianism, the direct heirs of the unitarianscritiqued in Chief Awolowo’s work are in fact those claiming to be the Federalists of our own day, criminalizing dialogue, imposing no-go areas on national discourse, and mouthing constipated clichés about national unity, corporate existence, and indivisibility of nationhood. They take the dog of unitarianism and go to town to present it to the people as the monkey of federalism.

Unlike the political jokers ruling Nigeria today, Chief Awolowo was no victim of conceptual confusion. He was no trafficker in semantic jibiti. Hence, in making true federalism the foundation and the essence of the Awo road to Nigerian constitution and nationhood, he applied himself to a rigorous methodology of definition, explication, exploration, and analysis. This much is evident in Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, by far his most extended reflection on the subject. What should detain anybody willing to find answers to the contemporary dilemmas and discontents of project nationhood in this book is, however, neither the rigour with which the author identifies some thirty-three accusations leveled against the constitution of the First Republic after it was suspended nor the unimpeachable brio with which he delivers his submissions in favour of a genuine federalist constitution.

After all, given the condition of Nigeria today, given our report card after fifty-three years of this experiment, it should by now be visible to the blind and audible to the deaf (apologies to my good friend, Patrick Obahiagbon) that the author of Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution was right on the money about the factors he identified as weighing heavily in favour of true federalism. Those factors are: ethnic divergence, geographical separateness and diversity, different economic visions and divergent resources, religious differences and, above all, linguistic differences. Identifying these factors which compel federalism is the easy part. How the author arrives at hisunshakable conclusion that any nation in which these factors are assembled but which insists on foraging in constitutional pastures other than federalism is doomed is an entirely different proposition. Let’s hear Chief Obafemi Awolowo in subsection three of Chapter Two of the book under consideration. This is the part where he declares federalism a necessity for Nigeria – and not the unitary beast we currently misname federalism:

“Our own stand in this matter is well known. We belong to the federalist school. Nevertheless, we have elected to adopt a completely objective and scientific approach to our present search and are prepared to abandon our stand if we sound reason for doing so. Accordingly, we have made a much more careful study of the constitutional evolution of all nations of the world with a view to discovering whether any, and if so what, principles and laws govern such evolution. We have found that some countries have satisfactorily solved their constitutional problems, whilst others have so far not. In consequence of our analysis of the two set of countries, we are able to deduce principles or laws which we venture to regard as sound and of universal application… there are altogether six continents in the world… we will take the continents one by one…”

I do hope that the central claim of this passage has not escaped any of you. To arrive at his scientific conclusions about an appropriate constitutional path for Nigeria, the author assures us that he undertook a study of the constitutional evolution of all the nations of the world, of every country in every continent. And if you are tempted to think that he couldn’t possibly have done that, he assures you thus: “we certainly cannot and should not be expected to give full details of our investigation in this discourse. But we can and certainly will state, as briefly as possible,the facts from which the principles or laws are deduced”. And what, we may ask, is the most significant deduction that our thinker makes from this empirical methodology? Hear him:

“…in any country where there are divergences of language and of nationality – particularly of language – a unitary constitution is always a source of bitterness and hostility on the part of linguistic or national minority groups. On the other hand, as soon as a federal constitution is introduced in which each linguistic or national group is recognized and accorded regional autonomy, any bitterness and hostility against the constitutional arrangements as such disappear. If the linguistic or national group concerned are backward or too weak vis-à-vis the majority group or groups, their bitterness or hostility may be dormant or suppressed. But as soon as they become enlightened and politically conscious, and/or courageous leadership emerges amongst them, the bitterness and hostility come into the open, and remain sustained with all possible venom and rancour, until home rule is achieved.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I have questions for you. Does the scenario above sound familiar? If between 1928 – when the seeds of these ideas were sown – and 1966 when Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution was published, the cripple named Nigeria was given repeated forewarnings of war and doom, does this particular cripple have any excuse for being caught up in wars and rumours of war in 2014? What do you call a cripple who gets caught in war even after receiving the benefit of repeated forewarnings and foreknowledge of the impending war? Do you believe that a man who puts decades into a systematic study of the constitutional experiments of every nation in the world, drawing valuable experience, lessons,deductions, and insights therefrom has earned the right to be listened to by his own country when he tells her igbo re, ona re?

Igbo re, ona re. Apart from true federalism and its associated advantages, the minority question constitutes another significant signpost on the Awo road to constitution-making. Indeed, he treats this question with so much empirical minutiae that a detailed outline of his breakdowns and permutations would have to wait until the discussion part of our proceedings. Suffice it to say that he warns that a federal constitution must at all times be sensitive to minorities and sufficiently malleable to take care of their legitimate fears of domination whenever the need arises. Says Chief Awolowo of ethnic minority groups:

“We must not group them or any of them with any of the larger and self-sufficient linguistic groups. If we did, we would be placing the small linguistic group or groups concerned in a state of comparative political and social disability. A minority problem would thereby be created which would demand solution… with great respect, we do not think that it is possible to charm the minorities and their problems out of existence… the truth is that minorities do and will always exist in Nigeria… Vis-a-vis the majorities, these minorities, these minorities have their fears –real or imaginary – which can only be allayed by unequivocal and entrenched constitutional arrangements.”

The minority question can only be handled with unequivocal and entrenched constitutional arrangements! Igbo re, ona re! Ladies and gentlemen, what do you think has been Nigeria’s answer to this particular aspect of the Awo road? You need not look beyond this podium for Nigeria’s answer. Given “igbo re ona re” and other cultural deployments in this lecture, some of you can be forgiven if by now you’ve concluded that I am Yoruba. Well, Nigeria disagrees with you. Nigeria says I’m a northerner. In fact, technically, Nigeria would rather have me silence my Okun-Yoruba identity and blend into some northern lapland in which the beneficence of an umbrella Hausa-Fulani identity would take care of all my problems in the Nigerian family.

Constitutional guarantees of the financial viability of the constituent parts of the federating unit is a key feature of the Awo road. This need not detain us beyond the observation that we have done the exact opposite of this requirement.And I believe that other key areas of Chief Awolowo’s thought such as the importance of separation of powers, secularity of the Nigerian state, and the need for local government autonomy (p.149) can be examined in fuller detail during our discussions.

What I propose to do for the rest of the time that I have is to examine a number of issues which, Chief Awolowo himself admits, may strike the average person as trivia and unworthy of discussion in the context of constitutional considerations. However, the significance of these false trivia can only be measured by the heavy price Nigeria pays today for failing to pay adequate constitutional attention to them. Perhaps the attention that Chief Awolowo pays to such issues as would appear to the ordinary man as trivia is also because he understands that they can combine to vitiate what he calls the social objectives of a federal constitution. It is under these social objectives that he addresses a wide range of issues in consonance with his socialist persuasion, such as education, health, human capital development, employment, poverty. If you are tempted to think that a constitution is not a party manifesto and should not be dabbling into social objectives, Chief Awolowo already anticipates your train of thought and pre-empts you in this passage:

“It may be objected that all we have been saying has nothing to do with constitution-making. Our emphatic answer is that it has a mighty lot to do with it. Our experience during the past six years has shown… that though we are ostensibly free as a nation, yet as a people we remain tightly shackled in the chains of ignorance, disease, want, and native tyranny. It is a duty which we owe to ourselves, and to future generations of Nigerians, to ensure, as far as human ingenuity can contrive it, that the demons which held us in thrall under the old constitution are fought and destroyed under the new constitution.”

Igbo re, ona re! What then are the false trivia that could stand in the way of a constitution achieving its stated social objectives? How many of you in this hall have ever given a thought to the fact that the convoys of our government officials could stand in the way of the constitution and national progress? If you’d never made a connection between the constitution and the convoys which always drive you, Nigerian citizens, off the road whenever an Oga at the Top is passing, here is what Chief Awolowo has to say in making that critical connection:

“In the fourth place, some people may wonder whether it is necessary to make provision in the constitution forbidding the Prime Minister and Premier and their ministers to make use of the services of police orderlies and outriders, and to inspect a guard of honour. The unfortunate thing, however, is that these little and trivial-looking things had contributed in no small measure to tenacity of office on the part of those who held these offices under the First Republic. They had imagined that their individual ego would be deflated almost to the point of political extinction if they were deprived of these empty and vain trappings. They had, therefore, been driven to practise all kinds of chicanery and vice in order to remain in office. We must not allow our public men to develop this type of warped sense of value in the future.”

Poor Chief Awolowo! How could this phenomenal thinker have known that aalmostthree decades after his death, these public men would even allow their constitutionally unrecognized wives to develop a warped sense of value, shut down Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt whenever they come to town, harass elected state governors, and dip their hands into our national treasury at will to fund ephemeral monuments to their ego that the next First Lady will erase entirely! If Chief Awolowo had imagined that the degree of travesty we witness today in the name of First Ladyship would happen even in a million years, my wager is he would have proffered constitutional checks which we would have ignored anyway! Those going to Abuja may want to think seriously about this First Lady business. Chief Awolowo would not have remained constitutionally indifferent to such unspeakable travesty.

There are other issues the discussants may also want to take a look at in the light of Chief Awolowo’s exhortation to his readers to assess is views and proposals with “constructive objectivity”. Chief Awolowo, for instance, was in favour of a bi-cameral federal legislature. Perhaps, the circumstances of his times dictated this conviction. Given the fact that to describe our National Assembly in Abuja today as corrupt and indolent is to be nice to it, do we still need two chambers today and should our lawmakers be working full time?

There is also the question of independent candidacy in elections. Chief Awolowo views this very negatively and proposes its non-recognition in the constitution. Do our circumstances today support this stance? Given the climate of ideological poverty in our contemporary party politics where the two leading parties in the country are currently trading migrating herds of corrupt and ethically-challenged politicians, is it not time to start giving serious constitutional considerations to the question of independent candidacy?

A suitable constitution, Chief Awolowo, declares again and again in Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution, is the bedrock of political stability. But he also recognizes the fact that even the best and most suitable constitution is useless if a country is hostage to corrupt and visionless leadership. And because he is convinced that “the only alternative to Federalism for Nigeria is the wide road to national impotence and ruin”, he presses the question of leadership, qualitative leadership in the service of a suitable constitution. For him, the constitution must somehow find a way to guarantee qualitative leadership and weed off moneychangers from the temple before they get a chance to turn it to a den of robbers. Luckily for those currently ruling Nigeria, they hardly read books! Imagine if they read books and stumbled on Chief Awolowo’s idea of a good leader that could deliver on the promises of a suitable constitution:

“Good leadership involves self-conquest; and self-conquest is attainable only by cultivating, as a first major step, what some applied psychologists have termed ‘the regime of mental magnitude’. In plain language, the regime of mental magnitude is cultivated when we are sexually continent, abstemious in food, abstain totally from alcoholic beverage and tobacco, and completely vanquish the emotions of greed and fear”.

You think this is too severe? Papa Awolowo is not done yet. Listen to this:

“There are those who would regard these prescriptions for leadership to be too stringent. They are welcome to their view; but for the good of the fatherland, such people should steer clear of the affairs of State, and confine their activities to those spheres where their excessive self-indulgence cannot incommode the entire nation, to the point of threatening its very life”.

Igbo re, ona re! Well, much to our misfortune, such people did not listen to Chief Obafemi Awolowo. They did not steer clear of the affairs of state. On the contrary, they dragged the state and her affairs towards “igbo” where Awolowo had prescribed “ona”. When a musician saw the tragic consequences of their preference for “igbo” and hatred for “ona” and began to sing “Nigeria jagajaga, everything scatter scatter, poor man dey suffer suffer”, they clobbered that musician, abused him, said that it was his father and mother who are jaga-jaga, and subsequently went to Abuja to receive Centenary honours in recognition of their illustrious contribution to fifty-three years of national bedwetting and diaper-wearing. Nigeria jaga-jaga…

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