GUEST COLUMNIST By TUNJI OLAOPA
In an earlier essay, we made the critical point that the capacity to unlock the possibility of the national project and make it a viable governance framework depends to a large extent, and amongst other variables, on rethinking the generational deficit in the national scheme of things. A reading of Nigeria’s historical evolution along this line will reveal that much good and much harm have been done to the national project by an evolving generational dynamics which unleash various and varied inconsistent variables into the national development calculus. Wole Soyinka’s infamous remark about the ‘wasted generation’ sums up the angst about the elite input into Nigeria’s possibility of greatness.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once remarked: “There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected.” Within the Nigerian context, some generation were given much in terms of endowment and intellectual capital; and from some, much was expected in terms of patriotic commitment. Yet, Nigeria is still what it is today. In the mix of the two sets, we have those—lone trees in the tangled forest—who continually toiled to extend the frontiers of development in Nigeria. Some have died…trying. Some are still hard at it in patriotic frenzy and often at gross cost to their own existence as individuals who could simply have clamped up on their gift and move on and beyond Nigeria. We have been celebrating those people in the national intellectual heroes/role models series.
In this essay, we extend FDR’s quote: To some generations much is given; of other generations much is expected. Of some others much is given and demanded. With the third statement, I referenced a new generation of elite which unwittingly have been saddled with the burden of re-viewing and rethinking the Nigerian condition. This generation is not bereft, contrary to Scott Fitzgerald disillusioned remark about a generation that grows up to find ‘all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.’ Rather, it is confronted with the mistakes of the past, the efforts of the present, possibilities of the future and the many unexplored and possible paths. It is a generation existing right in the midst of a civilisational transition into a digital era, and hence presented with the vastness of technological capacities and possibilities.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jite Okoloko and Bukola Elemide (popularly known as Asa) represent the younger faces of the old national warhorses still in the arduous business of extending Nigeria’s possibilities. These three equally illustrate three neglected endeavours which could inscribe firmness and redirection into the Nigerian national project—the universe of the imagination, the abandoned riches of the earth and the often despised rhythm of the heart. Unlike the older generation, the younger is not limited in its willing boldness to challenge national orthodoxy and complacency as well as lingering contradictions and misalignments.
Take Okoloko, for instance. This young agricultural entrepreneur took his career path from his acute dissatisfaction with the country’s continual reliance on imported agricultural produce, and eventually with our unreasonable and detrimental disregard for agriculture. The lure of a stint in the Ivy League societies of Europe which a Harvard Business School affords couldn’t keep him from honouring a conviction of national responsibility.
His return to Nigeria was to spearhead several initiatives in the agro industry. This is rare in a context where farming has successfully been downgraded as a respectable and viable source of income, and replaced by several white collar employments. Okoloko passionately insists that ‘a young determined fellow coming out of school on five hectares of land, using best practices in terms of the right use of fertilisers, seeds, education will generate more income than any entry level position in corporate Nigeria.’ And he is right. Okoloko, present Director of Notore Chemical Industries, insists that Nigeria must reach into its huge agricultural potentials to feed its masses. It is the same professional stamina and erudite business skills Okoloko has found useful in other sectors where he has worked.
If Okoloko crusades in a particular crucial sector of the Nigerian economy, Asa is most fondly recognised as a rare custodian of social conscience. By constantly interrogating the Nigerian condition in her many award-winning musical texts, this highly talented and celebrated musician represents a tradition of socially conscious music in Nigeria that addresses the obvious national ills and rampant degeneration. Aptly named after a bird, Asa, the insights and eagle-eyed vision of the young bard are reminiscent of the works and influences of such other notable musicians as the late Afrobeat king, Fela Anikulapo, Bob Marley, and the like who mobilise art for ideological purposes.
The committed art of these artistes is distanced from mere songs that contribute to societal rot. The imaginative uniqueness of ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ ‘Jailer,’ ‘3600,’ ‘Why Can’t We,’ etc. speak authentic but scathing melodies to Nigeria’s internal contradictions. Amiri Baraka once said: “Knowing how to play an instrument is the barest superficiality if one is thinking of becoming a musician. It is the ideas that one utilises instinctively that determine the degree of profundity any artist reaches.”
That instinctive profundity also marks the literary genius of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In Half of a Yellow Sun, for instance, she confronted, in a unique manner, the Nigerian story of Biafra with its horror as well as the enormous magnitude in human and emotional terms. Biafra is a constant challenge to the Nigerian national project. And Adichie has proven that she possesses the imaginative wherewithal to enable us rethink that event in the light of a larger national and racial picture, as Americanah, her latest novel demonstrates.
This last effort has been praised for its graphic and gripping representations of race, identity and love; thematic undercurrents spread across three continents. Whether she writes of the shackles of children or the agonies of oppressed women during war times, Adiche brings a creative effervescent to the novel form, reminiscent of the notable exploits of many older Nigerian writers—Soyinka, Clark-Bekederemo, Okara, Ekwensi, Emecheta, Osofisan, Osundare, Nwapa, etc —who have consistently and passionately confronted the national predicament.
When asked how he came to be a writer of fiction, Lu Xun, the Chinese writer said: “My motive is to expose the illness in order to induce people to pay attention to its cure.” Adichie has equally and consistently been warning, with her talks and fiction, us about what she calls “the danger of a single story”; or, of a unilinear interpretation of the national project along ethnic, religious, linguistic lines. A story is beautiful if it interconnects other stories in a matrix within which any of the stories would not become a default, and hence de facto, story.
The Nigerian story is a multiplex; a beautiful tapestry of what is possible rather than negativities; a wonderful exchange between the old and the new generation that Asa, Okoloko and Adichie represents. When next you think of Nigeria in terms of what is wrong, impossible and confusing; in terms of corruption, terrorism, administrative decline and poverty, you may just be caught within the grip of a single, unchanging story about a country where many other positive things are possible.
It was Frantz Fanon who observed that “each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.” The significance of this new generation of visionary youths, for me, lies in their evolving capacities to force an alternative idea of the Nigerian story down the throats of congealed understanding. It is time for the older generation to learn a few lessons in avant-garde patriotism.