Bishop Kukah’s recent public lecture to mark Wole Soyinka’s 80 years on earth managed to spark controversy and intense conversations – for the wrong reasons.
Entitled “Wole Soyinka: 80 Years of Genius & Prophetic Outrage”, the paper was written, according to the Bishop, to celebrate a “very complicated man of genius”. As if to warn that he was not going to follow the tradition of pouring encomiums on the celebrant, the Bishop opened the essay with a story of his first encounter with the Nobel Laureate, which, short of its nuances, was telling us about Soyinka’s rather too much indulgence with red wine. Soyinka, we were also told, does not have flattering views of people and institutions you would expect to be his ideological allies – from NADECO, to Gani Fawehinmi to Anthony Enahoro. Bishop Kukah’s very brilliant paper very tangentially mentioned the condescending attitude of SOME [emphasis, mine] Nigerians in the Diaspora to those living in Nigeria and for the lack of empathy and self-censorship in some of their writings about the Nigerian condition. For inexplicable reasons the Bishop singled out Professor Okey Ndibe for special mention as one of the worst offenders. Ndibe, replied in characteristic (or is it Soyinkarist?) manner, wrongly suggesting that the Bishop’s paper was about him rather than about Soyinka and his ‘prophetic rage’. Before you could say, ‘Ibrahim’, another brilliant writer, Sonala Olumhense, had weighed into the matter, unabashedly on the side of his friend and compatriot, Ndibe. Sonala went a step further by calling on the Bishop to offer public apologies to Okey. Let me quote the paragraph both Okey and Sonala found reprehensible: “To be sure, there are many who are struggling to see what they can contribute to building a new nation, but I often resent the condescending attitude and outright smugness of some Diaspora Nigerians who believe in their superiority simply because they have a second passport.” Part of Ndibe’s rebuttal was: “Let’s be clear: Bishop Kukah’s attempt to create a division between home-based and foreign-based Nigerians is an old trick, but it’s a tool of deception. Many Nigerians, whether they live at home or abroad, speak courageously about the shortcomings of their country. They dare to dream of a better, more humane and more just country. Enlightened Nigerians must reject Kukah’s false and dangerous dichotomy of home-based and foreign-based Nigerians.” There are several possible layers of intervention in this conversation. I will however like to limit my intervention to the Bishop’s point about the condescending attitude of some Diaspora Nigerians and the virulent manner they criticize their country. On both counts I believe the Bishop was spot on. I also believe Okey was wrong when he accused the Bishop of creating a false dichotomy between Diaspora Nigerians and the home-based ones. The truth is that the dichotomy is not only there but there is also a thinly veiled antagonism between the two groups. The perceived condescending attitude of Diaspora Nigerians mentioned by the Bishop is in fact one of the reasons for the no love lost between the two groups. Let me mention that I have some relationships with the three aforementioned public intellectuals. I have known Okey Ndibe since his days in the now rested Concord newspapers in the 1980s and still regard him as a friend – though we do not keep active contact. Again in 2009, my publishing firm, Adonis & Abbey Publishers (www.adonis-abbey.com) co-published with the Nordic Institute for African Studies, Uppsala, Sweden, a book, Writers, Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa, co-edited by Ndibe and the Zimbabwean writer, Chenjerai Hove. There is no doubt that Okey is a very brilliant writer, even if I disagree occasionally with both his arguments and his choice of words. I have never met Sonala, though I have been an avid reader of his writings. In February 2009, he wrote a rather very moving story about one Ebo Chigbo Socrates, who reportedly made First Class Honours in Philosophy from Nnamdi Azikiwe University and additionally had a Master’s degree but was unable to get a job. I made contacts with Sonala and got the Socrates’s contact details. At that time I had a bookshop in Lagos and was planning to move some of our publishing activities from London to Nigeria. I offered Socrates a job – and if I remember well – I paid him the equivalent of two months’ salary upfront and gave him about 20-30 books to start the process of setting up an office in Enugu. Socrates simply vamoosed with both money and books. He made several appointments he never kept and later stopped picking my calls. When I got tired of trying to reach him, I contacted Sonala to complain that the obvious character flaws in Socrates were probably among the reasons why he was unable to get job. Like many Nigerians, I have known Bishop Kukah’s works as a public intellectual for years. In the last couple of months, however, I have also become a bit closer to him through my involvement with his Kukah Centre in Abuja. The Bishop probably trusts me enough to ask me to present a paper on his behalf during the government sponsored inter-party conference on June 12 this year. Let me also mention that I feel qualified to speak both as a Diaspora Nigerian and a home-based one. I lived in Europe for 23 years and acquired citizenship in two countries (Denmark and United Kingdom). Since March 2011, I have been living and working in Nigeria. In the over three years since I returned, I have experienced and been privy to conversations about the way home-based Nigerians see Diaspora Nigerians. I have also witnessed severally the nauseating arrogant conceit of some Diaspora Nigerians. The perception by many Nigerians is that even cab drivers and dishwashers in the Diaspora return home to pretend that they are embodiments of excellence and professionalism while everyone else does things the wrong way. One of the consequences is a thinly veiled animosity by the locals against Diaspora Nigerians. Anyone who doubts the existence of thinly veiled antagonism between Diaspora Nigerians and home-based Nigerians should get in touch with the Nigeria Diaspora Alumni Network, NIDAN (www.nidangroup.org). This is an association of Nigerians who had lived in the Diaspora and have now either returned fully or are planning to relocate back to the country. NIDAN helps returning Diasporans to settle down and also embarks on a number of social responsibility projects in a bid to give something back to the society. Its recent projects include capacitating a school for the blind in Abuja and organising a security summit to help in finding solutions to the current security challenges in the country. The point is that though some Diasporans are guilty of haughtiness as charged, there are also those who have a different attitude and who recognize the need to work collaboratively with home-based Nigerians. The other limb of my intervention is on the angry and virulent Diaspora Nigerian critics. Obviously some Nigerians abroad write in anger because they unconsciously blame their country for their condition of self-imposed exile and whatever indignities and inconveniences they feel they go through. There are however also writers in which anger is part of their oeuvre. Angry writing is an art form – just like certain forms of music are associated with expletives and cursing. In fact, growing up I connected more with the works of such angry writers as Dambudzo Marechera, James Baldwin, Wole Soyinka, Naiwu Osahon, Dilibe Onyeama and Obi Egbuna than the works of Chinua Achebe. I believe that it is perhaps the Bishop’s non-recognition that angry writing is an art-form with its own constituency of readers, that made him single out Okey for special mention. In fact, a number of creative writers, who comment on public issues (especially those who exhibit ‘artistic temperament’), tend to be extremely cynical, critical and difficult to deal with. This was perhaps the reason why Camilo Cela, the late Spanish novelist and 1989 Nobel Laureate in literature, told us that a writer “is necessarily a denunciation of the times in which he lives”. And the late Zimbabwean novelist Dambudzo Marechera also told us that he was against wars and against those who were against wars. Most creative writers who are public intellectuals tend also to have a simplistic view of society partly because they do not really have the necessary tools for proper analysis of most of the topics they comment on. Their notion of society is therefore often a simplistic binary of ‘the good guys versus the bad guys’. Their one dimensional, often predictable commentaries, also seem to follow this mantra: “we reject the institutions that govern us, let us tear them down.” For such writers, the imagery of tearing down and rebuilding is a ‘revolutionary’ act on its own. In fact, if you remove anger from their writing – and their skills with language – you de-robe them and kill their art and even interest in commenting in public affairs. This is not to suggest that angry writers do not make useful contributions to public discourses. The point is that I read writers for a variety of reasons – some because of their analytical skills, others because of their sense of history or new perspective they bring to a debate, some because of their gift of language and yet others because of their courage or rascality in telling truth to power.