Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Category: Politics

Faux Storms: Niyi Osundare on Achebe, Soyinka, Biafra and fathers

Please read today’s Kabir Alabi Garba’s interview of Professor Niyi Osundare in the Guardian, (Who Begat Literature, August 9, 2013). Ugh! Just when you think that certain issues have been laid to rest, someone comes along and asks the same questions over and over again. So, Garba asks Osundare about the dust-up regarding Achebe as the Founder of African literature, Achebe’s legacy, and of course, Achebe’s controversial best-seller, There Was A Country, the last book he wrote before he passed away ( Read my thoughts on the book here).

I respect and admire Professor Osundare immensely but the interview does him a great injustice. Our newspapers have invested in mediocrity. There is a reason why the reading culture is dying in Nigeria, these newspapers are not much better than akara wrappers. This interview should have been heavily edited, grammatical challenges make this long rambling interview remarkable in its shoddiness. The responses could have used a weed whacker. I always thought Professor Osundare’s strength was in the simplicity and grace of his prose. For a while there I was sure that it was Patrick Obahiagbon venting. Let’s examine his response on the Father of Literature nonsense:

The so-called ‘debate’ rankles in its utter banality and jejuneness. It’s nothing short of an exercise in false – but mischievous – genealogy, a nauseatingly egregious time-waster. As a writer, thinker, and humanist democrat, I’m averse to all kinds of assigned, imposed hierarchies and orchestrated myths of origin… ‘Who Is the Father of African literature’?  Let us go ridiculously biblical and reframe the question: Who Begat African Literature?  Yes, it’s that ludicrous… Well if we designate somebody — whether it’s Achebe or Soyinka — as the father of African literature, who then would be the  ‘Mother of African literature’? Where, then, are the children of African literature? I think this Father designation is a manifestation of the Nigerian habit of overpraising public figures and privileging them into autocratic arrogance. This patriarchalisation is just one step short of utter deification, one of the notorious practices of Nigeria’s public life. I don’t think any author worth his/her salt would be eager to don this mantle. African literature could do without this primogenitorial distraction.” 

Why are Nigerians being berated for what they did not do? We do not stay up at night worrying about who birthed African literature. Osundare is dead wrong when he says “we have to trace the origin of this Father – designation to critics, theorists, camp followers and praise singers.” Soyinka and Osundare should take their gripe to the Nobel laureate, Professor Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, yes, South Africa, NOT Nigeria. She it was in 2007 who called Achebe the “father of modern African literature” as one of the judges to award him the Man Booker prize. Google it

The learned professors are being literal with the term ‘father.”  All over the world, Achebe is considered the father of modern African literature not because he birthed it, but because of his superhuman efforts and influence on making African literature what it is today. “Father” is a metaphor for his achievements in that field. No one has had a greater influence than Chinua Achebe on African literature, no one. No African has had a greater influence than Chinua Achebe on English literature, no one. In any case, if Osundare agrees that Achebe rejected the title, what is he protesting about? 

And this from Osundare:

“Come to think of it: Have you ever heard any Chinese talk about the ‘Father’ of Chinese literature? Any European about the ‘Father’ of European literature? Any Asian about the ‘Father’ of Asian literature?”

Well, it is news to me that we have to seek validation and approval from the West in order to deploy simple metaphors. Osundare is wrong of course. The West is the land of metaphors and grand labels. Ever heard of Virginia Woolf? Google her.

And the whole conversation about the Nobel is so embarrassing it should be beneath comment. I read contemporary literature for hours on end daily; I am in virtually all the spaces where our stories are being told. I can say that the young generation of writers does not worry itself about the Nobel or fathers and children. They are reading and writing, mostly without the support of the older generation. Many of them are writing great stuff having graduated from the broken schools the older generation bequeathed them. The best legacy that the remaining older generation can hand over to the young is to emulate what our literary father Chinua Achebe modeled all his life – a love for teaching, learning, and continuous improvement in the service of children. Who could argue with that? As an aside, I think it is interesting that Osundare does not see beyond Soyinka, Achebe, JP Clark-Bekederemo and Okigbo as “the founding quartet.” Instead he sees Flora Nwapa as a student of Achebe. Today, Africa’s female writers are giving a great middle finger to patriarchy in literature thanks to muscular prose and out of the box thinking. Writers like Chimamanda Adichie, Taiye Selasie and NoViolet Bulawayo make many of their male counterparts look like distressed typists. Good for them. To hell with patriarchy.

As for the whole Biafra business, my mother once told me, if you beat a child, you must permit the child to cry. Those who were looking for objectivity in Achebe when it comes to Biafra are guilty of not being objective. It is a shame that Osundare is just now seeing the statements regarding Awolowo. Achebe first mentioned them in 1983. Fully two-thirds of There Was A Country may be found in Achebe’s earlier works. Do the research. It was not important then perhaps because he wrote them in a Nigerian publication. Once he repeated his assertions in the (White) West it became super-important. If a truth is uttered in Nigeria, no one reads or hears it.

On Biafra and Achebe’s views, Osundare is entitled to his opinion, but let me just say I know of many writers who would like the attention There Was A Country got. They would be smiling to the bank. These are all opinions and Achebe is entitled to his. I personally believe that the roles of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Anthony Enahoro (my tribesman, yes I used the word “tribe”) in endorsing starvation as a weapon of war were despicable. And I say that with all due respect to the two great leaders. They made a mistake. Let’s acknowledge it and move on. Anything less is disingenuous.

My last word. Watch this video. It is about the Asaba massacre in which over one thousand men were systematically slaughtered by Nigerian soldiers. The man who supervised this ethnic cleansing, Murtala Muhammed is a revered Nigerian hero, our airport is named after him and Naira bills have his face on them. I am sure there are some people who call Muhammed the father of modern Nigeria. Wait, that title belongs to Chief General Olusegun Obasanjo. That is how we roll around here. SMH.

Watch and weep: The Asaba Massacre…

And in case you missed the interview in the opening paragraph, please click here…

 

 

The Oga at the Top in us

One learns something new about Nigeria every day. Apparently there is a governmental outfit called the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), it sounds like a uniformed service; I am not sure that it knows what it does, not that you could tell from its website (www.nscdc.gov.ng) but more on that later. Well, so one Mr. Obafaiye Shem, Lagos State “Commandant” of the NCSDC decided to grant an interview to Channels TV, my favorite Nigerian TV station, one that gives me hope that things might change for the better in Nigeria (witness here, the stellar work they did in shocking the world with gory visual of a dilapidated Ikeja Police College).

oga at the top1

Well, it is now part of Nigerian folklore, the interview did not go well; actually it was an epic disaster. This video clip shows Shem trying to bluster his way through a seemingly simple question: “What is your website?” Every Nigerian on earth seems to have watched the clip so I won’t ask you to watch it. It was an awful interview and Shem blew it big time. A trained professional knows to simply say “Great question, I don’t have the answer to your question but I will be happy to provide the response later.” No, not this Nigerian civil servant, he hems and haws, claims that only his “Oga at the top” can authorize release of this super-secret website address and after relentless badgering by smirking, skeptical TV hosts, he blurts out a lie on national television: www.nscdc! And he ends with a flourish, ‘Dasall!” Yep, that’s all! That’s all!

And the rest is history; the ignorance of Shem the “Commandant” remains viral on social media, Oga at the Top! T-shirts are selling like hot cakes and several musical pieces have been birthed by creative Nigerian youths. This is a hilarious time for the Nigerian community online and on the ground. Shem was the visual embodiment of the pejorative that Nigeria is fast becoming: Here comes Nigeria, our masquerade, all decked out in the colors of borrowed plumage, of the ostrich. Fingers pointing here and jabbing there, feathers rising in protest to show her yansh, Nigeria, bullshit merchant. #MyOgaAtTheTop! Yep, faced with a looming immolation by young Turks, the hapless guy decided to bluff his way past the road block in a scene reminiscent of the confrontation between the leopard and the tortoise in that hilarious fable in Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah:

Once upon a time the leopard who had been trying for a long time to catch the tortoise finally chanced upon him on a solitary road. ‘Aha,’ he said; at long last! Prepare to die.’ And the tortoise said: ’Can I ask one favour before you kill me?’ The leopard saw no harm in that and agreed. ‘Give me a few moments to prepare my mind,’ the tortoise said. Again the leopard saw no harm in that and granted it. But instead of standing still as the leopard had expected the tortoise went into strange action on the road, scratching with hands and feet and throwing sand furiously in all directions. ’ Why are you doing that?’ asked the puzzled leopard. The tortoise replied: ‘Because even after I am dead I would want anyone passing by this spot to say, yes, a fellow and his match struggled here.’” (pp. 117-118)

Let me concede that the video is quite simply hilarious. I have it on repeat and I keep watching and laughing and wondering about the chutzpah of our people. But lost in all that mirth is the unprofessional conduct of the journalists who served as hosts during the interview. What happened is just not done in respectable journalism; this was a gotcha, a high tech lynching. There is precedence for this. In 1988, George Will, the revered conservative American journalist, a bit peeved that America seemed to be taking the Reverend Jesse Jackson too seriously in his campaign for presidency decided (in my opinion and that of many) to embarrass him by asking him this technical question on television, “As president, would you support measures such as the G-7 measures of the Louvre Accords?” (The accords were technical agreements employed the previous year to stabilize exchange rates.) Of course Jesse Jackson did not know the answer and he looked pretty stupid on television. George Will suffered a backlash that endures to this day with many suggesting that his obtuse line of interviewing was racist (read one example here). The late African American journalist, William Raspberry asserted that Will seemed eager “to embarrass the candidate rather than to flesh out his policy position.”

Back to the Oga at the Top interview, both sides seemed unprepared for a substantive interview. Everything on that set smelled of mimicry, from the attitude of the hosts and guests to the faux set – the West is an asymptote. The attitude brays, This is how they do it in America, to be successful we must try to do it like them. The interview came across as a Nollywood comedy with Shem the guest as the best comedy actor of the lot with the hosts playing overwrought supporting bit parts. What happened here is also a conversation about generational disconnect, the older generation still has the power but is increasingly comically disconnected and long in the tooth when it comes to accountability and technological advances; the younger generation, on the other hand, long used to being ignored, abused even, has the new knowledge base.  They see the older generation as mostly bullshit artists, conmen who are busy running the country aground. The older generation in turn sees the young as smirking upstarts too quick to try to embarrass their elders. There is mutual disdain and disrespect between the flawed generations.

In my view, the hosts were guilty of embarrassing their guest. It seems to me unusual and unethical to keep badgering a guest for information, especially when you have clearly made the point that the guest does not have the information. In any case, professional interviewers do their homework; for such an important agency, the website’s address should have been obtained beforehand and scrolled across the screen for viewers.  When it became clear the guest did not have the answer, the polite thing to do would have been to move on. You could see in the eyes of the hosts and in their body language that they were sure the man was full of shit. They saw blood and went for red meat. It bears repeating: That interview was a cringe-worthy exercise in unprofessional journalism. It was not a good moment for Channels TV.  This was a high tech lynching of a clueless Nigerian civil servant by smirking leaders of a younger generation only too happy to humiliate a visible symbol of all that they have grown up to hate.

oga at the top2And so, what is the website of the NSCDC? The man gave the wrong answer, half of the address: “www.nscdc. Dasall!” He was technically wrong. But there is a real sense in which he was right. Have you been to the NSCDC’s website? It is disgraceful; the website is awful, just awful. It should actually be pulled down until someone can come up with a professional site. Yes, the real scandal is the state of the website. The website www.nscdc.gov.ng is a riot of mediocrity loudly advertising the sad fact that Nigeria does not respect herself, does not take herself seriously. Grammatically challenged sentences jostle with each other for bragging rights in Grammar’s Hall of Shame. There is no doubt that this pretend website was built at great cost to Nigeria by a semi-literate relative of the”Oga at the top” of the NSCDC. Go over to the website and see for yourself, many of the links take you to sites that are “under construction” in addition to the occasional broken link. This is consistent with the shoddy websites of virtually every Nigerian public institution I have ever visited as I chronicled in the essay, Viewing Nigeria through a web of broken links. What is wrong with our people? A well-prepared journalist would have done the research first and confronted this guest with hard questions about the sorry state of the website. No, we like to embarrass ourselves before the world.

Like our government, the website is a lurid investment in pretend processes and structures, empty portals with no indication when, if they will ever be filled with substance. And the website is comical in its shoddiness. There are several pictures of a well-fed “officer” on “a peace-keeping mission” – in Italy of all places. Apparently, Italy is a hot bed of insurrection; he is dressed in battle fatigues posing in what looks to me like a shopping mall. Estacode! If Jon Gambrell of the AP writes a snarky story about this buffoonery, Nigerian intellectuals will come out with their sharp pens screaming racism, whine, whine, whine. If you don’t respect yourself, what do you expect foreigners to do?

Shem had no business knowing the address of the website, because like most things with the Nigerian government, it is a pretend structure, no one goes there, except to “share money”, there is nothing there for anyone who is serious about knowing whatever the NSCDC does. It is just another website aping what happens elsewhere. All the website says is that NSCDC is of questionable value to Nigeria and Nigerians. That may well be the truth. Yep, Nigeria has carved for itself a shameful reputation as a rogue nation governed by rogues and managed by rogue civil servants. Our rulers and civil servants are ruining Nigeria through management by mimicry, all sizzle and no suya.

Let me observe that there is something really perverse about ridiculing a man for mangling the address of a website in the same week that the president of our nation proudly conferred a presidential pardon on a convicted criminal wanted in pretty much every serious country outside our borders. We are not a serious people; our outrage melts into mirth because laughter is an easy medicine for managing our condition.  By the way, we should also learn to respect each other. If that guest was white, you would see all the hosts falling over themselves to ask soft-ball questions, fawning and showing all their white teeth in obsequious subservience. But then, to be fair, the white person would have come prepared to respond to soft questions. I tire sha.

oga at the top 3So why did we laugh so hard at the man’s discomfiture? Well, a few years ago, the most visual example of the caricature that Nigerian public education makes out of our beautiful children burst forth in the form of Rita, the kokolet of Koko Mansion. Rita managed to mangle every sentence that her lips uttered. Her video also went viral and the cruelty was something to behold. Many who laughed at Rita had managed to escape the gulag that was her lot in the public schools of Nigeria. Many who laughed at her were educated abroad from looted funds that were meant for the education of children in Nigeria’s public schools. Rita probably “graduated” from one of the public schools in this awful video documenting our decaying public schools, home only to the truly dispossessed.  We enjoy berating victims. As for this Oga at the Top video, we laughed because perhaps it helps us deny that the man in the mirror is us.  When we see Shem in that odious video, we see us, and like those young journalists, we recoil and shudder – with disgust and self-loathing. The cackle coming from us, the hoots of derision are for us, this is what we have become. Yes, for those of us who yell at Western journalists for only telling the single story about Africa, this is what they see, the mimicry that makes them mock us. This is what they see. We are who we are. I salute Nigeria. I salute “Commandant” Shem. I salute us.

For Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Between her America and her Nigeria

In America, all men are believed to be created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But Nigerians are brought up to believe that our society consists of higher and lesser beings. Some are born to own and enjoy, while others are born to toil and endure.

-        Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

The Nigerian writer, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is at it again. Her February 9, 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times (In Nigeria, You’re Either Somebody or Nobody) in which she referred to some Nigerian house helps as “smelly” and “feral” is living rent-free in my head. I wish it would just go away. Nwaubani’s piece, on the fate of “househelps” or “servants” in Nigeria, is a profound commentary on how the West continues to view much of Africa, with the active connivance of many African writers, who traipse the West, hawking tales of grime, gore, wars and rapes – what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story” of Africa in this riveting video. I would only add to Adichie’s profound observations that it just seems that it is mostly African writers propagating the “single story.” Imagine the New York Times publishing a piece by a white author that refers to her help as “smelly” and “feral.” Heads would roll – as they should.

adaobi-192x300Let me also observe that research would show that the vast majority of essays in Western newspapers written by African writers are narrow in range, oscillating between protest anthems and Stepin Fetchit silliness. Nwaubani’s essay is groveling Stepin Fetchit Blackface pantomime designed specifically to gain space in a Western newspaper – for pennies. It is especially tragic how she has trivialized an important subject. Our writers need to own some responsibility for how we are viewed in the West. Some of that may be changing; many writers are shunning the West and her appetite for silliness, and writing and publishing their own stories themselves. Fame is not everything. Indeed, the writer Teju Cole has distinguished himself by his thoughtful provocative pieces about his world, our world, that display a wide range of interests and anxieties. You may not always agree with Cole but you come away wishing many African writers would look out the window and write about the world as Cole writes in this intriguing piece about the African writer and US president, Barack Hussein Obama and his unmanned drones.

Okay, let me take a deep breath and start over. Generalizations aside, Nwaubani’s essay, as appalling as it is, (yes it is, folks, it is awful, let’s not pretend otherwise) does serve the purpose of depicting much of Nigeria’s middle class as crass, narcissistic and shallow apostles of materialism, mimic people, in the habit of treating “the help” as feral simians, sub-humans not to be allowed in their living rooms, except to clean them, definitely not to be allowed to use their china. Is this a fair assessment? Who knows? Nwaubani may have unwittingly started an intra-class war. On social media, depending on where you end up, she is either an unsophisticated villain according to her literary peers, or a heroine, according to the moneyed class who race to London and America for premium ice cream and return to find that the “help” has made off with their jewelry and Euros. For the latter subclass, you only have to go to Linda Ikeji’s blog (here) to read the comments. In broken sentence after broken sentence, the mostly anti-intellectual crowd (“the thing is too long jor!”) offers high praise and  unrestrained glee at every sentence in Nwaubani’s essay.

How bad is Nwaubani’s essay? It is bad, really bad. Where should we start? There is the naïveté in assigning silly utopian qualities to America:

“Bigots and racists exist in America, without a doubt, but America today is a more civilized place than Nigeria. Not because of its infrastructure or schools or welfare system. But because the principle of equality was laid out way back in its Declaration of Independence.”

You wonder if she deliberately wrote a damning indictment of the Nigerian moneyed class as vacuous, unfeeling and materialistic, considering this stunning outburst which makes this reader want to scream, you are shitting me!:

My father detested it when our househelps sang. Each time a new one arrived, my siblings and I spent the first few evenings as emissaries from the living room, where our family watched TV after dinner, to the kitchen, where the househelps washed dishes or waited to be summoned.

Then there is the patronizing condescension:

“Some years ago, I made a decision to start treating domestic workers as “somebodys.” I said “please” and “thank you” and “if you don’t mind.” I smiled for no reason. But I was only confusing them; they knew how society worked. They knew that somebodys gave orders and kicked them around. Anyone who related to them as an equal was no longer deserving of respect. Thus, the vicious cycle of oppression goes on and on.”

And then there is this, and words simply fail this reader who gasps, Is Nwaubani for real?

Melancholic singing was not the only trait they had in common. They all gave off a feral scent, which never failed to tell the tale each time they abandoned the wooden stools set aside for them and relaxed on our sofas while we were out. They all displayed a bottomless hunger that could never be satisfied, no matter how much you heaped on their plates or what quantity of our leftovers they cleaned out.

childpoverty use thisSo, yes, I was appalled by what I thought was a shallow, poorly thought out essay that only served to diminish Nwaubani and all those like her that belong in that “high society” class of “the feral help stinks.” However after going through the comments in Linda Ikeji’s blog, I am beginning to think that Nwaubani may have unwittingly started a debate, even as she’s exposed her own narcissism. Everything has to have context. I have been away from Nigeria for decades and each time I visit, I am reminded of that fact. The things I witness when I visit sometimes make me shudder and the things I say as a result amuse my hosts. And their eyes go, “Dis one don loss for America!”

As Ebere Nwiro points out on ThisDay, here, child labor is a huge problem in Nigeria. Nwiro points out that what happens to the children of the poor and the dispossessed in many of those homes like those of the Nwaubani’s is unspeakable.

The Nigerian NGO’s Report reveals that a staggering 15 million children under the age of 14 are working across Nigeria. Many of these children are exposed to long hours of work in dangerous and unhealthy environments, carrying too much responsibility for their age. Working in these hazardous conditions with little food, small pay, no education and no medical care establishes a cycle of child rights violation.

Nwaubani missed an opportunity to showcase to the world the plight of poor children in Nigeria, In Nigeria, millions of children are simply born into wars that they did not ask for. In an unregulated labor market that is generally abusive of adults, children are worse off. Many are beaten, starved, yes, physically and emotionally abused by unfeeling adults. And many of them are fated to attend the schools depicted in this horrific video. Poor adults who serve as “househelps” fare slightly better. Compared to the US, where I could never afford help, labor is cheap in Nigeria. And those with the means take advantage. Drivers routinely ferry the middle class to parties and drinking joints and wait in the cars for hours on end until “oga and madam” are ready to go back home, or to the next joint. As Nwaubani points out, many of these children come from the hinterlands, places of little hope. As horrible as it sounds, for many of them, in a country like Nigeria, ruled by the unfeeling, stepping into the dangers of indentured servitude may be their best way out. Many have struck it rich by stealing from their masters and escaping into the darkness. Labor is largely unregulated in Nigeria and abusive child labor is the big gorilla in Nigeria’s living room. If this was the issue Nwaubani was trying to highlight, she chose a strange way to do so.

hausa ng_children_childlabourAgain, if the New York Times had published an essay that described an American socio-economic class as “smelly” and “feral”, heads would have rolled. This is an outrage. But I have us only to blame. Nwaubani is smirking quietly somewhere, perhaps nursing a drink prepared by a “feral smelly help”; she knows the drill. This is all noise-making; it will pass. And she will live to write another silly piece again for the gleeful West. She knows that Nigerians are long on emotional outbursts and chatter but short on enforcing laws and abiding by good structures. In the absence of unenforceable laws, the hell that the dispossessed go through in Nwaubani’s Nigeria will continue. That is how we roll.

This is not the first time Nwaubani has gotten folks baying and howling for her head. She is a darling of Western newspapers because she routinely sends them absurd howlers that exaggerate her intellectual challenges and amplify Nigeria’s woes. Here is a piece she wrote for the New York Times, titled, In Africa, The Nobel Laureate’s Curse, in which she famously pronounced, “Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style.” As if that was not bad enough, she dismissed Ngugi’s call for writers to write in indigenous languages by uttering this baffling one:

Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.

This exasperating opinion inspired vigorous rebuttals like these ones from writers and blogs: Carmen McCain, Chielozona Eze, Chuma NwokoloKinna Reads, Nana Fredua-Agyeman on ImageNations, Kola Tubosun on NigeriansTalk, and Molara Wood. An uncharacteristically angry Eze, seeming to speak for the group railed: “To me though, what began as a promising essay somehow turned into a mishmash of cowardly ideas, the core of which sought to suggest that it is separatist for a writer to write in his native language or even to claim that he is a writer from his ethnic group.”

To be fair to Nwaubani, she does think a lot about these things and she is never shy about sharing her views, as in this piece in the UK Guardian about Nigeria’s reaction to the BBC documentary on Makoko, that squalid place where some of these “househelps” come from. In responding to the yelps of racism, etc, by many Nigerian intellectuals of stature, she said this:

The Nigerian obsession with image often approaches neurotic proportions. What people think of us appears to take manic precedence over who we really are. You might imagine that the rational response to some of the infamies we are accused of across the globe would be: “Are we really like this? If we are, then let’s do something about it – quick.” Instead, we perpetually harangue and speechify to “correct” the world’s impressions of us. If it isn’t moaning about the depiction of Nigerians as criminals in the movie District 9, it is berating Hillary Clinton for daring to describe the situation in our country as heartbreaking and our leadership as a failure, or boycotting Oprah for warning against Nigerian 419 scams on her show.

When all of the dust settles, it is quite possible that Nwaubani is in her own way, an incredibly honest commentator on Nigeria’s current condition. She had to know she was indicting herself and her family in this shame that is child slave-labor. There is no excuse for what happens to thousands of children in Nigeria daily, none whatsoever. There is no excuse for what passes for democracy in today’s Nigeria, none whatsoever. There may be an explanation; which is that we are undergoing a perverse form of Darwinism, the rich eating the poor. Our ruling and moneyed class is doing to Nigerians what the colonialists would not have dared do to them. Black-on-black crime is what I call it. At some point, the rich will run out of the poor to feast on. Maybe then, like Nwaubani’s America that was “founded” by those who saw the original owners as game to be hunted down and annihilated, maybe then we will all live in peace and liberty and prosperity. For now, the beat goes on.

There was a Country: Baying at the ghost of Biafra

For our father, Corporal Ohanugo, you who never came back to the children of the barracks…

[In which I compile my  various thoughts on Professor Chinua Achebe's book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra culled from my numerous postings on Twitter, Facebook and listserves. This is intended to serve primarily as a historical archive of my views. So I (we) may not forget.]

I enjoyed reading Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Many devotees of Achebe will recognize several chapters from previous essays; however he does a good job of putting them together to tell a majestic story. It is an important book, one that should adorn every thinker’s book shelf or e-reader. What I am going to say here  is not a review or critique of the book; I don’t think that the world could stand yet another review of that book. Yes, there are some really good reviews of the book and there are many atrocious rants posing as reviews. My favorite review is by Tolu Ogunlesi whose coolly cerebral analysis puts to shame the reams of hot air from several architects of Nigeria’s ruin.  Reading the book clearly makes the profoundly sad point that many who have “reviewed” the book dispensed with the inconvenience of reading it. Too bad. Achebe’s memoir is a great, nostalgic look back at a very complex era, one that should have elicited a more coherent and respectful engagement than what we witnessed when the book was released. To be fair, Nigeria’s educational system is at best incoherent, in reality in shambles.  Not much of what Achebe had to say can be gleaned from Nigeria’s classrooms. And so, many people have reacted with pieces of dog-eared crap because Nigeria has not invested in an instructional and intellectual infrastructure that keeps her history intact. It is Nigeria’s loss, not Achebe’s.

The noise making and intemperate dance of shame that heralded Achebe’s book are a sad commentary on how many Nigerians conduct the business of scholarship these days. Many people should be stripped of their academic degrees; they are a disgrace to scholarship. There are many things to disagree with Achebe about, but one comes away with a sad realization that we are witnessing the passing of an era, of principled hard-working writers and thinkers, well-educated and brought up to believe in intellectual rigor. I say to those who “reviewed” the book before reading it, please go and read that book before you open your mouths one more time. Talk about a hardworking scholar; the man puts together an impeccable compilation of academic sources including my favorite historian, the indefatigable Professor Toyin Falola, in order to tell a compelling story about his life and our world. And yes, There Was A Country is not all about Biafra. There are powerful passages there for instance about the burden of the writer of African extraction, profoundly moving are his thoughts on what we should be preoccupied with as writers and thinkers. Achebe is a meticulous writer, providing sources everywhere appropriate. And that’s the other thing; many Nigerian writers would not know to go to Professor Toyin Falola as a reference, not as long as there is a Western scholar babbling stuff about “Africa,” Achebe did.  The sources alone are worth the price of the book.

The truth must be told: Most people commenting on Achebe’s opinions were merely reacting to what he wrote about Chief Obafemi Awolowo in an Op-ed piece in the UK Guardian on Tuesday, October 2, 2012.

This is what Achebe said about Chief Awolowo:

“The wartime cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies. A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.

It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria-Biafra war – his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.”

It is not the most elegant critique of Pa Awolowo’s role and complicity in the genocide that was Biafra. But then, there is something offensive about expecting Achebe to be “objective” in his narrative. There was a horrific conflict and he is telling his side of the story. Readers are mature enough to understand that Achebe is coming from a certain perspective and they respect that.  As Achebe reminds us, until the lions  produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter. Facts are facts and not even the saccharine hagiographies offered by insincere architects of Nigeria’s ruin can change that. To my dying day I will always maintain that Pa Awolowo and Pa Enahoro are culpable in the genocide that wiped out millions of Nigerians. They said it themselves, garrulously and loudly. We cannot and should not run away from that.  Simply Google their names and the truth will come tumbling out of their boastful mouths.

Yes. Chief Awolowo virtually accepted responsibility in the blockade that starved millions of women children and defenseless women of Biafra. In response to Achebe’s biting words about Pa Awolowo, many exhumed a 1983 interview in which he tried to defend his role in the civil war.  It is an awful interview with patronizing and condescending opinions about the other. He says of his role:

“You won’t hear of a single lawyer, a single doctor, a single architect, who suffered from kwashiorkor? None of their children either, so they waylaid the foods, they ambush the vehicles and took the foods to their friends and to their collaborators and to their children and the masses were suffering. So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers will suffer most.”

If you do not start from a point of truth and courage, you have a broken compass. What happened in Biafra was genocide, no ifs, no buts. I have always thought that as a (contrived) people, our cowardice is primeval and savage. The criminals who did this to millions of women, children and the defenseless are still alive as “statesmen.” The evil dead are immortalized in currency notes and their evil names adorn airports. I respect Pa Awolowo but I think he was not only wrong, he and Chief Anthony Enahoro are culpable in the genocide that was Biafra. I am not Igbo, not that it should matter, but  I could tell you about what it meant to be caught in a war-zone (Benin City under the Biafran army occupation) at age 8, without your parents, tending to your six-year old brother while living in a two-room lean to of a distant relative. I could tell you that the terror lives with both of us to this day. Because war is hell.

Yes. the Nigerian civil war is infinitely more complicated than any book I have ever read can script it. My parents’ ancestral land is part of my experience but not in terms of a formal education. It is quite possible that without a free primary education powered by Pa Awolowo’s vision, I would not be here today. It is also true that many Biafran children are not with us today because Pa Awolowo denied them that which he offered me so generously; food, water and life. That is the absolute truth and Pa Awolowo confirmed it in the God awful (yes, awful) interview that many proudly brandish all over the place. It is impossible to forget Biafra, but today, Nigeria is in a very bad place, on many levels. Those that ruined our country are still strutting about handing us gobs of malu droppings. In the meantime in medieval places like Aluu, youths are slaughtered and burnt alive for allegedly stealing phones. Nigeria’s retired crooks are on social media tweeting quotes from Mahatma Gandhi. I mean, how difficult is it to say that the forced starvation of children and women was wrong?

Again, I say to these people, read the book. Despite Achebe’s anger, he devotes space in the book to reflect on the positive qualities of Pa Awolowo and he gives him due credit.

“By the time I became a young adult, Obafemi Awolowo had emerged as one of Nigeria’s dominant political figures. He was an erudite and accomplished lawyer who had been educated at the University of London. When he returned to the Nigerian political scene from England in 1947, Awolowo found the once powerful political establishment of western Nigeria in disarray— sidetracked by partisan and intra-ethnic squabbles. Chief Awolowo and close associates reunited his ancient Yoruba people with powerful glue— resuscitated ethnic pride— and created a political party, the Action Group, in 1951, from an amalgamation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association, and a few other factions….

Initially Chief Obafemi Awolowo struggled to woo support from the Ibadan-based (and other non-Ijebu) Yoruba leaders who considered him a radical and a bit of an upstart. However, despite some initial difficulty, Awolowo transformed the Action Group into a formidable, highly disciplined political machine that often outperformed the NCNC in regional elections. It did so by meticulously galvanizing political support in Yoruba land and among the riverine and minority groups in the Niger Delta who shared a similar dread of the prospects of Igbo political domination.” (Kindle Locations 784-797)

Yes, Achebe said all that about Pa Awolowo. Read the book first before reviewing it. Too many of the combatants in this shameless orgy of finger-pointing dunked the conversation in the filthy lucre of true and tired orthodoxy, to hell with a new realistic way of looking at our world. Think about it; in a certain sense, for a long time now, Western education and civilization have foisted on Black Africa, two tribes, one made up of the self-serving intellectual and political elite, and the rest, the dregs, the dispossessed. The poor are the ones that die by the millions, they are the ones that watch their children die of malnutrition, and endure abusive public education in the hands of intellectuals and politicians. They are the ones that are doubly victimized by thieving pastors. Their suffering knows no end. I ask my fellow intellectuals and professionals today: How many of us are in Nigeria? How many of us have children in Nigeria? How many of our children can speak an indigenous language? How many of our children give a hoot about any of this? It is our collective hypocrisy that even as we fight over dead leaders like Pa Obafemi Awolowo, our children are abroad at Starbucks, sipping lattes with their Spanish teachers. We will line up the poor, struggling in the dying remnants of ancient civilizations, to fight for our ideals.

What has happened to Achebe’s book is ordinarily an outrage. But it sells books and Achebe should be chuckling all the way to the bank. Ignorance sells. It bears repeating: Our intellectual and ruling elite know one fact – fiefdoms are not sustainable in the 21st century. We see this in their behavior. Their children and families are ensconced in the best communities and schools of the West, learn English, Spanish and lately Chinese, and busily acquire skills for 21st century survival while they force the dispossessed to look back in anger at their version of history. This they know: Expanding the boundaries of their world, their new ethnic enclave of middle-class living to embrace even more is anathema to their civilization. Our people are the new savages; our leaders are the new Conrads, little Naipauls shivering in the warmth of the other, dressed in ill-fitting Tweeds. The children of our pretend-tribal warlords do not speak a single “African” language, would not know a Yoruba from Siri. That is our Achilles heels, the rank hypocrisy of the intellectual and ruling class.

621486_10151539704259616_1621884748_oChinua Achebe has said his piece and we should applaud him for jumpstarting a conversation. I believe his narrative more than that of a Pa Awolowo or Pa Anthony Enahoro garrulously defiant about the need to starve to death children, just to make a deadly point. By the way, I did not need Achebe’s book to come to that point. I am also very interested in the minority narrative, something which Achebe mostly ignores in his book and which many others gloss over, as if it is a patronizing afterthought. It is what it is, those of us cursed with the minority  label daily endure the ordeal of our communal balls being squeezed by the big three groups – the Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani and Igbo. I will concede that many Igbo intellectuals have reflected deeply on the war and to their credit have been unsparing of Igbo leaders in the horror that was the Nigerian civil war.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for instance managed a certain distance from the war in her lovely book, Half of a Yellow Sun. That book, which I reviewed here, should be required reading in every classroom everywhere in the world.

Many things I don’t understand, but perhaps, Africa is where bad ideas go to die. And yes, my point is this: Chinua Achebe’s book, There Was a Country, has fueled the bile of ancients, flag barriers of ethnic prejudices, shaking gnarled fists at the truth of Nigeria’s shame. There was a country indeed. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but nations and physical boundaries are so 20th century. Nations as we know them are dying, and not just because the great teacher, Chinua Achebe says so. Even as thriving nations are helped along to the new paradigm shift by their intellectuals, there is no end to the finger-pointing and recriminations among Nigeria’s narcissistic, navel gazing, and in many instances, thieving intellectuals. My generation of intellectuals and rulers (I would not call them leaders) has proven eloquently that we have lost the plot when it comes to Nigeria’s desired future. Many of us have taken to open looting, and virtually all of us have become defensive and perhaps abusive when it comes to getting feedback. Follow our intellectual and political elite and their buffoonery and Biafra seems so far away:

Our intellectuals are asleep at the wheel of divination. That is a shame. It is time for us to face some honest truths. Today, for many intellectuals, Biafra is an academic exercise for the most part and a dishonest one for that matter. Any notion that Biafra would have been a nirvana is easily dispelled by the state of Eastern states today. Corruption has eroded the people’s sense of self; the struggle continues, to use the cliché. There is not a single credible museum dedicated to the war effort anywhere in Nigeria. There are pretend-museums, but nothing like you would expect in honor of millions dead. In Anambra State, children of the traumatized and dispossessed are “educated” in hovels as this appalling video shows.

Back to Achebe’s book. Achebe needs no one to defend him and I am sure he expected some reaction to the book because he makes many statements in there that are controversial. There is plenty to disagree with in the book, for example, Achebe says:

“I have written in my small book entitled The Trouble with Nigeria that Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo. The origin of the national resentment of the Igbo is as old as Nigeria and quite as complicated. But it can be summarized thus: The Igbo culture, being receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society. Unlike the Hausa/ Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies. This kind of creature, fearing no god or man, was custom-made to grasp the opportunities, such as they were, of the white man’s dispensations. And the Igbo did so with both hands. Although the Yoruba had a huge historical and geographical head start, the Igbo wiped out their handicap in one fantastic burst of energy in the twenty years between 1930 and 1950.”

Achebe, Chinua (2012-10-11). There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Kindle Locations 1226-1233). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Achebe lost me here. My own people do not resent the Igbo. Achebe lost me there, yes. But I certainly understand why he would say that. The Igbo have suffered pogroms, massacres, genocide, economic and political marginalization and a man can be forgiven for those feelings.  Everything has context. These words that I excerpted above were first written in that great little book of his that roared, The Trouble With Nigeria. Indeed, it is the case that many thoughts in There Was A Country are previously articulated in several other essays as Achebe meticulously documents in the various sources in the book. It is not a hagiography of the war; He is harsh in his assessment, not only of the Nigerian experiment, but on the Biafra leadership. Achebe is harsh on Biafran leader Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and provides credible sources who are severe critics of Ojukwu. He is harsh on the January 15, 1966 coup plotters and he ridicules Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the masterminds of the coup.

What I find surprising is how little of Achebe’s works have been read even by many of Nigeria’s intellectuals. Very little of it in this book is new that Achebe has not previously said. I will say however that the beauty of the book is how it tells a story as if it is all new. Achebe is a master story teller. If children can now ask elders questions about Biafra because of Achebe’s book, then he has been successful beyond my wildest imagination. What Achebe’s new book has told me is that there is hunger in our land – for stories; that Nigerian youngsters pine for history, for the written word; that perhaps, writers must reflect on their role in creating a culture of people actively engaged in their writing.

Decades of decadent irresponsible governance have robbed millions of Nigerian youths of their birthright – a good education, safety and security. Add to that a future that is certain only in the sense that there is probably none. Again, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a good book for those who want to read something contemporary,  engaging and evocative regarding Biafra There are many contentious issues that Adichie brings up – and there is no shortage of robust debate about them. That is what a book should do. Dan Obi Auduche also has a helpful bibliography of eighty books on the Biafran war here. Adichie’s book has a reference list of thirty books. My favorite essay on Biafra by the way is My Biafran Eyes by Okey Ndibe. You may feast on it freely on Guernica here. Achebe has achieved what many intellectuals like him have attempted and failed – which is to write an engaging story of that period of our history when the world watched as children’s tummies swelled from hunger, not from food. Achebe, the eagle chuckles atop the Iroko. I salute you, Professor Chinua Achebe.

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Guest Blog: Yemisi Ogbe on Nigeria and a culture of disrespect

A CULTURE OF DISRESPECT – Yemisi Ogbe

“…A governor in Lagos, is a governor in Sokoto, is a governor in Ebonyi and anywhere in Nigeria. He is entitled to the same courtesies and respect. Convoys are here with us for good or ill and reasonable people yield the way for a second to allow convoys and sirened vehicle right of way.” – Steve Osuji, Press Secretary to the Imo State governor.

IN 1935, an ambitious young man went to work for the Bata Shoe Company as an accounting clerk. It was a prestigious job. He had a head for figures, and was in fact quite precocious. He would work for Bata for some years, but he always had far-reaching plans, none of which, of course, included a slow climb in a Czechoslovakian company that was opening branches of shoe retail stores in Nigeria.

For many of his contemporaries, it might have been enough if one day they made Chief Clerk in Bata, or even Regional Manager. But times were changing. Nigerian Nationalism was gaining strength and as it did so, it was creating exciting possibilities for the Nigerian capitalist.

In 1948, he was sent on a training programme to Czechoslovakia. In 1949, Nnamdi Azikiwe gave a landmark speech on anti-colonial independence in Washington D.C. Owning the Bata shoe was a near-religious experience. It was a well-made shoe, not stylish, reliable, exclusive, sold in a store where the smell of leather and organised display, and professional sales-person gave the concrete impression of owning something very special.

The reality was that very few Nigerians could afford Bata shoes or the Bata experience, and this was especially clear to the enterprising young man who recognised his opportunity in the sale of second-hand shoes. It is alleged that it was through one major shipment of second hand shoes that his wealth was made, or shall we say, established.

Allegedly, once this shipment of second hand shoes had been successfully introduced to the Nigerian market, he gained the ability to reinvent his identity; an opportunity that only having the means could afford.

Choosing a public persona that made an impression was key. Like the monarch, the masquerade, the minister of the Roman Catholic or Anglican Church, he had not only to dress the part, but also harness the supernatural, to create the idea of something bigger than just a man, bigger than just a Mr. somebody.

He recreated his past, changed his last name; bought association to royalty; acquired titles and added appendages to his changed name. He married a White woman. He discarded the White woman, organised a rambling household with many superfluous servants and beautiful light skinned women.

He fathered many children. He promoted the image of the autonomous Nigerian; the New Nationalist, albeit a particularly flamboyant one, thumbing his nose at multi-national corporations and other small enterprises that were owned by foreigners, and had dominated the Black African economy for many years, and of course colonialism…a particularly aggressive Nigerian entrepreneur, able to define his own frontiers, rule his own people, choose his own moral boundaries. His timing seemed impeccable.

His wealth, his charisma, and his ambitions were employed at exactly the right time. He became a member of the first Nigerian National party, the NCNC. His contemporaries were Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mallam Aminu Kano, Herbert Macaulay, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Margaret Ekpo.

Basil Davidson notes that Nigerian Nationalists were not perfect. It is a superfluous observation. The critical thing was the body of ideas about self-governance and the future of a Nigeria that seemed held together by very loose threads.

So, this man was not perfect, but his flaws began to manifest themselves in the most dramatic ways, especially in the way that he dressed himself. His wrappers were 30 feet of cloth.

His hats were adorned with extravagant plumage. He wore black English bowler hats brushed till there was not a lint in sight; priceless corals and gold, and the ultimate finishing touch to the man of means wardrobe; the walking cane.

IT was problematic that he was a confirmed member of a political ruling class that had from the start been accused of elitism, and condescension, of thinking itself intellectually superior to the Nigerian people.

And now, here was this man with a god complex, a new nationalist, new royalty, whatever, with his wrapper tied around the commoner’s neck. What had changed? It was not what Nigerians had hoped for in their projections about the end of colonial rule, the indigenisation of foreign trading and manufacturing, the growth of home grown enterprise, and the emergence of the Nigerian capitalist.

As the promise of Nigerians governing Nigerians frayed, never mind if the expectations may have been overestimated, he began to look out of place, so much so that when 1966 came with all its violent disillusionment and strong tribal separations and the consequent coup d’etat, he was the only Minister murdered during the coup.

Again, it was alleged that he was bound up and put in a giant ant-hill in the evening of one day, and brought out dead the next morning. It was a particularly cruel and long-winded process of dying, and his screams were said to have been heard all night and into the early hours of the morning.

There are no official records of these allegations. The records show simply that he was shot. He died with foreign bank accounts bulging with money, rumours suggesting amounts far and above one hundred thousand pounds sterling in one account in the UK, and to this day, Nigerians express all the paradoxes of that time, and the life and myth of the man.

We say he died with “our” money in “his” bank account, that he was the only minister killed during that coup because he was greedy, and obscene in his flamboyance and in his elitism. Yet we never fully trusted these thoughts to the records. Our formal history of his life are ambiguous, his condescension is concrete only in our oral stories. It is as if we are still trying to decide for him, but we can’t completely fool ourselves.

Did he progress through hard work and shrewdness? Was he a true nationalist? Capitalist? Or was he just an opportunist? If we can agree on those questions, then the issue of the beautiful girl around whose neck his wrapper was tied may become irrelevant or be an indulgence we would readily forgive.

Where did I get my more interesting twists on this man’s history? Well, they were a gift from a septuagenarian living in Somerton, in 1999. He handed me a handful of Onini and with it, the story. We argued, and finally agreed to disagree. And it was right that I should be suspicious of him. He was a White man akin to White men whose land were seized in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

The times of which he spoke were unique; right and wrong had been successfully muddied. He was working for UAC Nigeria in the time of the new nationalists and so his history could not be impartial. If the story were true, the end of his ownership of Nigeria along with his kind had been heralded by the importation of second hand shoes. He was disdainful, a little too adamant about the genuineness of his twists.

The reader must decide for himself what he believes. I remain enduringly fascinated with the 30-foot train attached to the neck of a beautiful girl, and what the beautiful girl imagined her position in the world to be. Yoruba kings of antiquity were deified in the most extraordinary ways. The Yoruba king was required to keep a positional distance from his people in order to reinforce his authority and divinity.

It was the Yoruba kings who were accused of owning human spittoons. Reverend Samuel Johnson in The History of The Yorubas meticulously describes the institution of force necessary to give the Yoruba King’s authority a superlative quality: The human spittoon’s role was simple, yet profound. A king was too eminent to spit in an inanimate container, so the human spittoon was given a designated place in the kings court, daily, awaiting the king’s urge to spit.

Not only was the king not allowed to spit in any other container apart from the human container, he was also not allowed to purse his lips in preparation for spitting. So, the human spittoon would be informed that the king wished to spit, and then, he would be required to assist the king in pursing his lips, and then he would open his mouth to receive the king’s spittle. This role was one of honour.

The relevance of this historical accusation still referred to in present-day Yoruba adage… “O’n yo ayo fami l’ete tuto” might be that the girl tied to the end of a train of a man of great importance is important because he is important. The king’s spittle makes the commoner special.

I once saw the wife of a governor flick a complimentary card that she had been offered by someone, at his head. He picked up the card from the ground and walked away as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I wondered whether having a card rebound off his head was more acceptable than being ignored.

One of my first thoughts on a culture of disrespect was that all communities of the world own their own versions, and it may be taken for granted that wherever one finds anything elitist, it is built on the self-esteem of someone somewhere considered less important, less intelligent, less deserving of some exclusive toy.

AND so perhaps the Nigerian culture of disrespect is not remarkable. Yet, the stories that mark our peculiar culture are unique and fascinating.

They suggest that the Nigerian is daily, excruciatingly demeaned on all levels in Nigeria, but somehow also, remains forever optimistic that his lot in life will change, things will improve; his psyche is rarely ever completely demeaned. It will be criminal of me not to note that a betterment of lot means that one day, one will also find someone to demean as a necessary accessory of becoming elevated.

The environment itself is peculiar. Everything, including all opportunities for advancement, seem to be touched with some measure of illegality or compromise of the person, or fluidity of values.

It is better not to be too virtuous in Nigeria, some people say. The man who is paid N10,000 by his employer for keeping a garden, who sometimes sells some diesel taken from his employer’s house does so with the highest sense of justification. His employer is a rich man, he can afford the loss of 50 litres of diesel every other week.

And really, he knows that his employer knows that no one can really live on just N10,000 a month. His employer knows he is stealing his diesel, but looks the other way.

The mentality is that everyone steals in Nigeria, so the aim is to hire the most considerate of thieves; the one that steals from you with the greatest “show” of modesty and skill, and always pay a salary that takes theft into consideration. The things that are left unsaid in this relationship are the most important.

Why doesn’t the employer pay the employee well? The question seems almost too relative. So maybe the employer is also paying his employee’s children’s tuition fees and providing a roof over his head, but those things cannot be taken for granted, and for that reason, they give the employer a sense of paternity, and the employee, one of the wayward child.

There is nothing nearing equality in their relationship; also rarely is there a real sense of pride in the employee and in carrying out his work. If the employee’s work were valued highly, then his pay should indicate that value… in an ideal world. Sometimes, the employee’s self esteem is boosted by stealing from his employer. When he comes in the morning, he greets his employer by bowing himself to the floor.

He adds “sir” to the end of every sentence, never looks his employer in the eye, and doesn’t speak unless he is spoken to. Sometimes, he endures berating or verbal abuses from his employer, as if he were a child, but if he can steal from him, then he has somehow outwitted him, and this employer is not so smart after all or so elevated.

Nigerians love the rungs of the ladder. Love the fact that people are compelled to know their place, compelled to earn their place by whatever means to suit the context.

The equality of all Nigerians would be a hard sell on any level in Nigeria. If we were all equal, then something very valuable would be lost. The rungs need to be kept intact so that the top can remain as excruciatingly enjoyable as possible. If anyone can use the same crockery as I use, then my fork becomes completely functional, and I will lose the enjoyment of its curves and its reflection of light, and craftsmanship.

A Nigerian diplomat in the ’80s visited a Nigerian monarch’s house in London. The monarch’s wife had recently died, and a delegation had been sent to commiserate with him. The diplomat’s first observation, or confusion on entering the house arose from the pictures on the wall.

They were mostly of the revered political leader, Obafemi Awolowo and his wife. The diplomat wondered why a person would adorn the totality of his walls with pictures of another man and his wife.

This was odd enough, but then they were showed into a living room in which the monarch was receiving guests, and there at the feet of the monarch, playing with his toes, was a former governor of a South-Western state in Nigeria. It seemed also, to be the most natural thing that these monarch’s toes were being massaged by this man.

The incongruity of the whole picture was lost in the fact that no one seemed uncomfortable in the room. The man playing with the monarch’s toes had not only been a former state governor, he was a professional man. He was at that time, managing director of a Nigerian newspaper.

He sat on the floor in his suit and shoes, and it was the most natural thing in the world. And there were the levels, the deference of the monarch to the man on his walls, and the deference of the man sitting on the floor to the one on the throne. All the progressive Nigerians in that room on that day understood perfectly the political connotations of the setting.

The Nigerian mentality is not so straightforward. If every Nigerian knows his place, and understands when to get on and massage a monarch’s toes, why is it that so many Nigerians scramble for the top? Why are we not more laid back, as we say, like the Ghanaians or Cameroonians? Why don’t we let the elites alone and not try to be one of them.

Why are there so many Nigerian big men? In the 1980s, the British government was compelled to make up its own list of which Nigerians were truly worthy of diplomatic recognition, and this was necessitated by the fact that they were inundated with calls from Nigeria requesting that Honourable So and So be picked up from the airport and looked after for the duration of his visit. Nigerians were said to have the longest list ever of VIPs.

The issue is that in order for the elite in society to truly survive, a large group of people must agree to be otherwise. In Nigeria, there is some serious crowding at the top, and the result is the creation of a nation of posers. In a country where wealth is so ostentatiously paraded, where the poor are doubly demeaned, it perhaps makes sense that everyone wants to be rich in Nigeria, as a guarantee against our scorching kind of disrespect.

Everyone needs must have a title of some sort in Nigeria. One’s name is either prefixed with one’s choice of career such as “Engineer” or “Architect” or by one’s religious beliefs; “Elder” in the church or “JP” for Jerusalem Pilgrim. Married women are compelled to insist on their complimentary cards that they are Mrs. Sombody.

The titles Nigerians adopt border on the ridiculous, and the theatrical; titles like Honourable, Excellency… The peculiarities do not end there. I once worked at a pre-school as an administrator. Parents were encouraged to send in gifts one day in the year to appreciate their teachers.

The parents called a meeting the previous year on doing something special for teachers, like getting them manicures or taking them out to lunch. One parent registered her surprise at the suggestion by saying it was analogous to giving a manicure to her maid!

THE statement was bottomless: What was wrong with her maid getting a manicure? How demeaned is the role of a house maid? In comparison to that, how demeaned is that of a school teacher? How can one of the most important jobs in the world be even demeaned at all?

The job of teaching in Nigeria is undeniably one of the least esteemed. That of a maid or housegirl is not even worthy of discussion. Children are shushed if they even breathe the idea of becoming teachers when they grow up and choose a career path.

The gap between the rich and poor is eroding quickly and gnawing at people’s feet, so our response is always one of desperation. I went to that part of Lagos reverentially termed “Old Ikoyi” and stood in a penthouse apartment, looking down into manicured lawns, tennis courts, shimmering swimming pools and the lagoon. I was told that I was standing in rented premises, and that the rent had just been paid for two years: N34,000,000.

My mouth dropped to the floor, and I thought of our staff at home, who sometimes needed a loan to pay a yearly rent of N120,000. It was a shock to the system. How could one not help defining people by such discrepancies in rented accommodation?

There is the story of two women, friends, who would go for walks in the estate referred to as Lekki Peninsula phase I, along the Lagoon. One woman began to excuse herself from going on those walks. The other woman was puzzled but didn’t dwell on it.

She went on the walks by herself. Another friend later confided in the friend who still went on her walks, that the other lady had lost interest because she was a Northern aristocrat and did not like the way her friend greeted everyone they encountered on their walks; security guards, hawkers, building site workers, just any human being really…one had to show some restraint after all, some class consciousness, for God’s sake.

In Lagos especially, that model nucleus of posers, the elites are a pretty close set, and one is either in or out by virtue of such things as having a name, being a member of a family with old money, having one’s own money, having charisma and money and beautiful things, speaking well, living in the right place, owning prime property, etc. The fundamental requirement is having money and some taste and driving and dressing the part.

The layers of snobbery ensure that having money alone can never be enough, one has to speak the lingo, understand the passing of the trends, learn to both wave, and backup by pretending that one is swatting a fly. In 2007, when the elite in Lagos grew tired of being robbed of their watches, they declared swatch watches of necessity, fashionable.

Elizabeth Udoudo was on her way to church on a Sunday morning. Her sons were in the back of the car. It was 9:30 a.m. and the roads were clear of traffic. The Imo State governor’s convoy came up behind her car as she drove up the Falomo Bridge.

The convoy of cars might have driven behind her car for a few minutes and then deciding that she wasn’t moving fast enough, the driver of the lead car motioned for her to get off the road. In response, she said she changed lanes to make way for the cars. They were descending the bridge and coming up to the turning off Kingsway Road, known as Rumens Road.

The lead car of the convoy made as if to overtake hers, drove beside her, the window came down, and a gun came out motioning for her to either stop or get off the road. By this point, the process was confused and she was sandwiched between the lead car, slightly ahead, and the rest of the convoy. The second car, an SUV was a hair breath away from her, nudging her off the road.

A third car ran into her rear passenger side. She swerved sharply and ran clean into the side of another car in the convoy. Everyone, of necessity came to a stop. She attempted to get out her seat-belt. A man in a face cap, grey pants and a white shirt was the first to step out of one of the cars. He came out with his hand on the gun holder on his side.

He drew out his pistol and came towards Elizabeth’s car. Before he got to her, one of the other men was already by her side, and as she was stepping out of the car, and at the same time attempting to ask why she was being harassed, the man slapped her across the face.

She stood between her door and the driver’s seat. There was a saloon car in the convoy that had about four men in the backseat. About six to seven men in total had disembarked from the cars in the convoy. The man that slapped her, slammed her car door against her as she was attempting to step out from behind it. Her sons watched from the back of the car.

One of the mobile policemen kicked in the passenger door on the other side of the car. Another mobile policeman standing behind the man who slapped her, brought down the butt of his gun on her side mirror. The governor’s car drove parallel to hers.

She described it as owning tinted windows and a Nigerian flag. The back window came down momentarily, and she saw a head-rest with a cloth embroidered with the Nigerian coat of arms. She attempted to direct her protest at someone sitting with his back to that headrest, but the window went up quickly after the man addressed the men standing around.

The man’s words seemed to be an order that the men return to their cars. They got back into their cars and continued their journey.

I asked Elizabeth what it felt like to be slapped across the face; if she was humiliated? What was the anatomy of the slap? How much force was used?

The most concrete answer I received was that she was grateful that it was just “a” slap. It is common for people to be beaten, whipped and physically injured by men protecting dignitaries riding in convoys. She felt she had got off lightly by being slapped just once. She believed that if she were a man, it would have fared much worse for her.

Most people go home and nurse their bruises. Elizabeth sent an account of her experience to the Guardian Newspaper. It was written with the help of a friend, and they both thought it judicious to write the account under the name of a “Lateef Gbadamosi”.

The article was titled “Imo State convoy of death”. Then came the most interesting part of the whole affair: the Imo State Governor’s Press Secretary’s response to the Guardian article.

The Press Secretary reference to the incidence began:

“…We are surprised because the incident under reference which happened on the morning of Sunday February 10, 2008 along Alfred Rewane Road, Ikoyi between the convoy of His Excellency, Governor Ikedi Ohakim of Imo State and an unknown woman is better left unrecounted and out of the public arena because it paints a shameful picture of motherhood; of womanhood.”

He described the affair as a security breach, and then went on to clarify the motives of those men who had slapped Elizabeth, and vandalized her car:

“It was indeed a case of a woman feeling too big and couldn’t give a damn whether it was a governor or a god who was going in a convoy and raising all hoopla”.The thing that seemed to have brought out the worst in the men against a five foot two security breach was the fact that she felt too big to get out of the way of the governor’s convoy. She didn’t know her place.

This letter has become one of the most incredible admissions of guilt in recent years. Elizabeth’s incidence as well as others, brought up the necessity of drawing up a code of conduct for “Nigerian big men’s” convoys.

THE code of conduct might have to be extended to all kinds of arena of Nigerian life. It might have to be a code of conduct on how to treat anything that resembles a human being.

It is interesting that a culture of disrespect might be confused for one of respect. One might hear Nigerians making general comparisons with other cultures on how our children are taught to kneel down and greet elders, or how we defer to those older than us by referring to them with titles, how we consider a person’s name so sacred, that only those close to him, or equal to him can mention his name; how we say “Good morning” instead of “Hello”.

How icons of authority remain sacrosanct in our society; how age is highly esteemed. In England, Gordon Brown is Gordon Brown, is at the most elevated Mr. Gordon Brown.

Here, he would be His Excellency. True comparisons perhaps, side by side, with the culture of determining a person’s value by how much money they own, what they drive, how they speak, what sort of mobile phone they own, side by side with the culture of jumping queues and jumping red-lights and moving out of the way of convoys.

Again, the unexpressed things are the most profound. There are homes in which there are special drinking glasses for when the driver requests for a glass of water. The driver knows the glass is special, the lord of the home knows it, and the children know it.

In Calabar in 2007, Tahalia Barrett, a volunteer Business Development Advisor with the Cross River State government looked into the possibility of creating a Nigerian perspective on transatlantic slavery. The Calabar Slavery Museum was the perfect medium. It already owned a building, wax works depicting in oversimplified terms the journey of the slave from his home in Nigeria to the plantation in North America, and then on to emancipation.

The Calabar Slavery Museum in order to offer something more than all the thousands of slavery museums all over the world must have an original voice. Tahalia as an African-American, noted that the story of transatlantic slavery was one that was told and retold in her culture.

If she was standing on Nigerian soil, she could take it for granted that she would hear something new. The issue of reparations remain one of the hottest offshoots of discussions on transatlantic slavery. At the anti-racism conference in 2001, in Durban, then Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo declared that Nigeria

“…stood firmly behind the demand for an explicit apology. The wider international community has consistently failed to appreciate the reality that is particularly painful for us Africans…Apology must be extended by states which practiced and benefited from slavery, the slave trade or colonialism…For us in Africa, an apology is a deep feeling of remorse, expressed with the commitment that never again will such acts be practised”.

Grand words that were somewhat shabbied by Abdoulaye Wade’s declaration that his ancestors owned slaves. In creating an original script for the Calabar museum, word was put out to discover anyone who had ancestors carried away as slaves, but more importantly, anyone who had ancestors who had protested slavery, or died in protest or just stood up in protest.

The first batch of responses came back, and no one in the latter categories could be found. Instead it was offered that most of the old prestigious families in Calabar had traded in slaves.

It was a profound discovery, and one that was sure to create problems. Could one effectively run a museum from a city where one was alleging that its oldest most elevated members were slave traders or children of slave traders? What would be one’s contribution to the dialogue on reparations and our demands for apologies?

One could argue that, yes Africans owned slaves from antiquity, but that we were always humane to them, but would the argument have integrity, especially in the light of our modern environment?

Again, the issue of the anatomy of the slap. For me it was important that Elizabeth Udoudo define what her feelings were in the clearest of terms. It had been months since the incident and there had been many commentaries on the internet and in newspapers about it; what did she hope to gain from keeping it alive in the press and talking about it? Did she want some form of financial compensation? Did she want her car repaired?

Why had she paid a lawyer to come up with formal terms of reference on the incident? What was the value of the apology if it were forced? I wanted to really understand what her motives were? Somehow I believed, possibly erroneously, that if money were the issue, then there was some loss of integrity.

I pushed Elizabeth, and she was clear that the physical slap meant little, but to term her an unknown woman…In her own words, it meant: “I don’t have any value. I am not important. If we were to put it in the most accurate of terms, I don’t exist. I am irrelevant”.

This was the issue. If she were a nobody, then anything could be done to her without fear of repercussions. She had to show her children that you just didn’t walk up to a woman, slap her in the face, and get away with it.

The apology would be landmark. It would mean that nobody has rights, and in turn no one has the right to whip people out of the way, even if he is the president of Nigeria. I was glad that I had met Elizabeth, unlike how the papers portrayed her, she was not a victim. She was clear that she had not acquiesced to carrying the end of anyone’s wrapper.

NOTE: Yemisi Ogbe, a former columnist at Next Newspapers and one of Nigeria’s finest writers maintains her own blog, a delectable offering appropriately called The Longthroat Memoirs that will make you hungry for authentic Nigerian cuisine – and her lovely prose poetry. She is on Twitter as herself @yemisiogbe. Follow her. Google her; you will be smitten.

On the renaming of UNILAG: Kongi roars…: Goodluck Jonathan’s Gift Horse By Wole Soyinka

Hear Professor Wole Soyinka on this unnecessary penkelemesi:

“This is one gift horse which, contrary to traditional saying, must be inspected thoroughly in the mouth.
Primary from all of us must be a plea to the MKO Abiola family not to misconstrue the protests against the naming of the University of Lagos after their heroic patriarch. Issues must be separated and understood in their appropriate contexts.  The family will acknowledge that, among the loudest opposing voices to Jonathan’s gift horse, are those who have clamoured tirelessly that MKO Abiola, the Nigerian nation’s president-elect, be honoured nationally, and in a befitting manner.

Next is my confession to considerable shock that President Goodluck Jonathan did not even think it fit to consult or inform the administrators of the university, including Council and Senate, of his intention to re-name their university for any reason, however laudable. This arbitrariness, this act of disrespect, was a barely tolerated aberration of military governance. It is totally deplorable in what is supposed to be a civilian order.”

Read the rest here…

Olusegun Adeniyi: Power, politics, and the killing of a nation

I so badly wanted to read Olusegun Adeniyi’s book, Power, Politics and Death detailing his alleged reflections on his days as a spokesman to Nigeria’s late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua, a man whose wholly ineffective tenure has now being glorified and lionized by the chic incompetence and buffoonery of the present occupant of Aso Rock, “President” Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.  I was fascinated; here was a man who had front row seats in those days when Nigeria was listing and drifting in the morbid hands of a dying or dead man (depending on who you were listening to in those tragicomic times). I badly wanted Adeniyi’s book. He was Yar’Adua’s press aide and I could be forgiven for believing that he saw and knew a lot of stuff and that he recorded them down as all good journalists do who find themselves caught in the grip of history. So my excitement was understandable. Getting books from Nigeria is becoming easier by the day thanks to the tenacity of technology and the resourcefulness of some Nigerian writers and publishers. Some folks are using the Internet to the maximum and I applaud all that. Still, the book was hard to come by but I ended up buying a copy from Abuja for over N5,000 and also acquiring an electronic copy which is my preferred mode of reading these days, for practical reasons.

Well, I managed to finish reading the book, an irresponsible act I will regret to my dying day. It was easy to read the book; there is nothing there, nothing, zero, zilch. Adeniyi’s book is innocent of substance; that is the most generous thing I can say about that placebo of a book. There is an enigmatic preface in there somewhere by the equally enigmatic Dele Olojede who manages to write a non-preface that avoids what he says between the lines; “there is nothing here to talk about but Adeniyi is my friend and if I keep writing long obtuse oblique sentences he will go away.” But then, I wholeheartedly recommend it. Every Nigerian thinker should own a copy. It is an important book that says a whole lot about what it does not say. It communicates volumes about the lack of vision, perfidy and collusion of our intellectual elite in the ongoing looting and pillage of Nigeria for their own and their families’ profits. It is only the lust for money and prestige that will make formerly decent people like Adeniyi, Dr. Reuben Abati and Mallam Nuhu Ribadu to work for odium and the scum of the earth. Shame on our intellectuals.

What we surmise from reading Adeniyi’s book is that he is perhaps a lazy idle civilian who spent most of his time drinking peppersoup and wallowing in denial about the massive corruption and ineptitude that was and remains  the hallmark of democratic governance in today’s Nigeria. At the end of his tenure, he escapes Aso Rock with reams of poorly written dog-eared memos and he proceeds to punish us with them. Mimicry is going to be the end of us. In the West, press aides write memoirs, so Nigeria’s “press aides” must write theirs, even if it kills us. American presidents have libraries for their papers, so former “president” Olusegun Obasanjo, “Father of modern Nigeria” must have one for his “papers.” Tell me, what has Obasanjo contributed intellectually and morally to our nation that cannot fit between the pages of a ten naira exercise book? Someone is mistaking moin-moin wraps for papers. By the way, the carcass of the “library” is now being used by our ever resourceful dispossessed to dry aso ebi dresses and egusi seeds.

You must read this book because I am telling you, misery loves company, let it not be that I am the only one who lost money buying this money waster of a book. Add the opportunity cost of the time it took me off my busy schedule, I should sue his sorry behind. There is absolutely zilch, zero, nothing that I read in this wretched book that I had not gleaned from reams of stuff freely available on the Internet, nothing, I repeat nothing. It was like reading typed minutes of the mind of Sahara Republic’s Omoyele Sowore. I did not need to go to Adeniyi to read Sowore’s mind, I have his cell phone number on Amebo my Blackberry. How is it possible that you are the press secretary of a nation’s president and at the end of your tenure you have nothing new to say that improves upon the silence? How is that possible? It is very possible because these characters are accountable to no one but themselves.

This book makes you really angry; you come to the sad realization that the past decade of “democracy” was wasted. This democracy has been worse in my honest opinion than even the dark days of that deadly buffoon, “General” Sani Abacha. I honestly do not wish the military back, a pox on their houses. But for the avoidance of doubt, just to be clear, I am 100 percent against what passes for “democracy” in Nigeria today. It is a plague on us. And yes, If I had to choose between the late “General” Sani Abacha and “President” Goodluck Jonathan, it would be a no contest; I would kiss Abacha on both evil striped cheeks and welcome him back to Aso Rock. I repeat: This democracy is the worst thing that ever happened to Nigeria – after the new Christianity of course. I said it. Sue me.

The prodemocracy war was between Abacha and the fools now ruining us, more specifically the leaders of the prodemocracy movement and their NADECO thugs in agbada. The ordinary people had no dog in the fight. Abacha never bothered my parents in the village. He only went after those who wanted what he had. Under Abacha, my father never saw the hell that he is enduring under “democracy.” My mother danced under starry skies and did not worry about safety and security. Today, my dad’s pension is unpaid, he is afraid of his shadow and some times when I send him money, it is like I am sending it to armed robbers. His grand children are trapped in bad schools and endure life without a communal municipality. We are in denial, folks. I will never ever fight for democracy again, never. This democracy is a plague on our country.

Yes, some very powerful and good people were murdered by Abacha and his goons. But then for every one of those murdered, hundreds have died in the hands of the incompetence and mimicry we now call democracy. If we are going to be miserable, we better have a good excuse. These thieving civilians in Aso Rock and NASS are worse than Abacha in every way. And of course, Adeniyi, Abati, Ribadu and Mallam el-Rufai make it abundantly clear that our intellectual elite are deeply unprincipled and irresponsible. Let us be honest with ourselves; these vagabonds in power are stealing Nigeria to the ground. At this rate nothing will be left. And they are incompetent to boot.

It is easy for us to say that things were dark in the Abacha days. But we were duped into this Animal Farm that they call democracy. Our political and intellectual elite are taking care of themselves and their families in Europe and America and telling Nigerians to go eat eba without meat. Where is the outrage? An entire generation of youths has been miseducated because the funds have been looted. It is summer time here in America, our political leaders and their thieving civil servants are all here celebrating the graduation of their children from choice Western schools and thanking “God” for his mercies, whatever. After ten years of this, education in Nigeria’s public schools is not fit for human consumption. I know because I pay the fees and I read the “sentences” of my grateful wards.  We are all sitting around pretending that all is well, watching other people’s children being mistreated by semi-illiterate teachers in pigsties and we say this is better than the military. Not by much, I say. I have nothing but contempt for what is going on in Nigeria today. That we have learnt to live without a government does not make it right.

The Nigerian military raised my generation and gave us a world class education. Left to these bloody civilians I’d be on an okada motorcycle to nowhere. What frightens and saddens me the most is the abuse of this generation of children in the name of education. We have teachers that cannot teach, lawyers that cannot write simple sentences, doctors that are glorified butchers and “poets” that write incomprehensible books and sell them to “universities” as required text. The cycle is vicious and unsustainable.

For Nigeria, the first order of business on the road to empowerment is to reject this pyramid scheme or “democracy.” Nigeria is Animal Farm. Oh yes, the book, Adeniyi’s book, buy the book, it is a good book! KMT.

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