Wole Soyinka: 80 Years Of Genius & Prophetic Outrage By Matthew Hassan Kukah
The challenge now is not so much what the celebrant’s legacy should be. His place is already assured among in the pantheon of the great men and women of letters. The next generation of writers must address the questions of the relationship between life and art.
I want to thank the members of the Pyrates Confraternity for their doggedness in pursuing me all these years to speak at one of these events.
Matthew Hassan KukahHaving failed to deliver this lecture on two different occasions, I am pleased that the doggedness of Mr. Chiemeka Ozumba and his friends has paid off and I have the last laugh. I feel quite honoured to be here especially given that this is the nearest we will come to a Church celebration of this great man even if St. Jero’s Church were open. Having just presided over the funeral of the distinguished jurist, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa a week ago, I feel quite honoured to be part of this historic celebration and at this stage.
Like the rest of us, my introduction to Wole Soyinka was motivated more by the need to massage my ego and feel a sense of being educated too. I do not recall how I first heard of Professor Wole Soyinka as a great writer. However, the publication of The Man Died was my introduction to the man. One of my teachers in the Seminary spoke about the book in class and immediately after, I asked if I could read it. He said he still had the last ten pages to finish and could I remind him after supper. I did and he handed the book to me. I took it, spent most of the night reading and finished it the next day. When I returned it to my teacher, he smiled and asked how I had found the book. I think he suspected my response so, I simply said, Fine. He saw from my face that I was not exactly excited and took back the book. It was the first time I would finish a book and not be able to tell anyone exactly what the book was all about.
I was determined to read a Wole Soyinka book and so I went in search and found, one, titled, The Interpreters. I felt as if this would interprete whatever I had missed in The Man Died. I plunged into it immediately. I read the first 10, then 20 and 30 pages and made no headway. None of my mates in the Seminary was reading Wole Soyinka nor were there colleagues whom I could turn to for help. I gave up and did not finish the book. My ego was rather bruised especially as I had taken up the challenge of reading Soyinka so I could also count myself educated enough to contribute to any discussion on the man if the need arose.
After these two books, I thought I would rather abandon this and go back to reading people like Chinua Achebe. Then I went to the bookshop in Jos and tried again. This time, I asked one of the staff if he could recommend a Wole Soyinka book to me. I think you should read, The Trial of Brother Jero especially as you are in the Seminary. You will like it. I paid for it and was happy that it did not look big. I read it at one sitting, intrigued by the story line. I was even happier over the fact that I realized that perhaps I was not as uneducated as I had thought. I did not become a serious Wole Soyinka reader as such, but I became interested in his works.
Our paths did not cross and like millions of other Nigerians, I was just content with knowing that he was a famous man from my country. A first meeting took place much later in far away Ohio, in the United States. I had been invited to present a paper at a Conference on Constitutionalism. My flight had arrived a bit late and I got to the venue of the meeting around 7pm. I had barely put my bags down when my host said to me, You must meet Professor Soyinka because he will leave immediately after his keynote address. I had jumped at the thought that I would finally meet the man, but was disappointed that it was not going to be a long meeting but I was delighted to take advantage of this rare opportunity. It was my first meeting, but it was memorable because Professor Soyinka cheated me. I forgave but have not forgotten and he himself might not even remember. This was what happened.
When we got to where he was seated, he was alone with only a bottle of red wine for company. He had already drunk nearly half of it. When he offered me a glass, I was quite pleased to accept the offer. He then poured me a glass. We toasted. He finished his glass and filled it up again. I had just had my first sip. Then he filled his glass again. We drank and chatted, but he made greater progress than myself. Next, he emptied the bottle into his glass again and that was it. I could not challenge him for obvious reasons but I felt rather cheated. But that was not the end because this serial offender was soon to repeat his offence again.
The second instance was in Benin when Comrade Adams Oshiomohle invited us to the One Man, One Vote march in Benin. I arrived Government House at about 8.15am and the sitting room was full of many other colleagues of the Comrade Governor. There was Professor Soyinka sitting down with a bottle of red wine planted right in front of him. I went straight to greet him. After the pleasantries, I decided to appeal to my moral authority to denounce his action. Prof, it is barely 8am and you are already drinking wine so early? Now, come on, he said with that baritone of his as if ignoring my clerical authority: Is it not you Catholics who encourage us to have communion? That is exactly what I am doing. As if to let me know that I was wasting my time, he lifted up his half empty bottle, made no attempt to ask if I was interested and poured himself another long glass. My mind went back to Ohio, I made a mental note but I was too polite to complain. I know one day he will pay for his many sins. Today is a good a chance as any for him to redeem himself.
I will like to do three things in the course of this lecture. First, I will like to briefly look at the celebrant and appreciate his exceptional gifts and expressions of his genius by way of his troublesomeness and daring rascality. Secondly, I will look at the theme of rebellion and revolt as a metaphor for prophesy and argue for its nobility in nation building. Thirdly, I will address the theme of religion in society, a theme that has often appeared in the intellectual universe of the celebrant. By way of conclusion, I will look at the future of the vision for a new form of literature in which art imitates life.
1: Wole Soyinka and the birth of a Genius:
I want to thank God for sending this great son of Africa to this great country called, Nigeria. Whatever may be Wole Soyinka’s claims as to how he got to be where he is, whether he believes God has brought him here or not, whether he wishes to celebrate or attribute his profound contributions to chance, intelligence, or Ifa divination, I am far from being concerned. All I know is that I am personally eternally grateful to God that he was born here and not there.
As usual, many people will ask, what is Bishop Kukah doing with these people? Has he joined them? I often feel quite glad and vindicated when partisans who believe they own you raise these questions feeling that you are sleeping with the enemy. Some two weeks ago, I was at a lecture in Lagos organized I think by Asiwaju Tinubu’s office. Most of the members were APC partisans and I knew that. I had quietly taken my seat when someone came to say that my friend Governor Amaechi whom I did not even know was in the hall insisted that I should come and sit beside him. I did and I had barely sat down when he said to me; I had told them that you are a PDP sympathizer. I told him that it made me feel quite glad because I had heard some of my PDP friends say that I am an APC sympathizer. In any case, I said, he had been a PDP stalwart.
Three weeks ago, I was at the mosque in Sokoto for the wedding of the Governor’s daughter. In shock, one or two of my friends asked what I had gone to do in a mosque Someone called me to ask what I was going to do at Wole Soyinka’s birthday when the man is supposed to be an unbeliever. I told my friend I was going to baptize him as part of his birthday celebration. He seemed to have believed me, but that ended our conversation. I am quite pleased that God has offered me these very rare opportunities and I do thank those individuals, groups and communities who keep opening their doors and letting me into their world. I do not take this honour lightly.
Our African cultures are not favourably disposed to the notion of protest. Obedience and compliance have always been presented as noble ideals required for forging a collective sense of family and community. At meetings, the young are supposed to be seen and not heard. Younger people can often be scolded for daring to speak while elders are speaking. Consequently, obeisance has been built into the thread of African life. A parent who concedes to a young person the right to contribute to public discussion in the presence of elders would often be considered to be encouraging irresponsibility and disobedience.
This applies to the women in African society. Men who give their wives license to speak are equally considered to be effeminate. How often for example do we hear the expression; Imagine her, men are talking and she is also talking. This is in spite of the fact that the woman in question may be a Professor and the man a driver or a cook. I make this point merely to underscore the fact that we need to thank the parents of our celebrant for coping with this young man whose troubles started too early in his life.
I am sure that perhaps more than any other work, Wole Soyinka’s Memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn offers the reader the most penetrating insight into the life of this great man. Not only do I consider it his greatest work, but I believe it should stand shoulder to shoulder with such phenomenal biographies as Mandela’s, Long Walk to Freedom. What is most interesting for me is not so much how it illuminates the man, but the fact that in the book, one sees clearly the biography of a man who had revolt in his DNA. Having ascended to such heights, only very few admirers of the man know how much has been packed into his life or the many things he tried to do in life and rebelled against himself. Sending this young man to the University of Leeds was a risk that only a man of the faith of his parents could have undertaken. Not unexpectedly, Leeds proved to be both a laboratory for his literary experiments and an incubator encasing the seeds of his genius.
His memoir presents the reader with literally every angle of the celebrant’s middle and adult life. You encounter the early stirrings of anger, revolt and outright defiance in his years in Leeds. The language in the poem, Telephone Conversation is dripping with veiled contempt and seething anger but it is also a warning of the lurking genius looking for an escape route. There is evidence in this poem that here was a rough diamond waiting to be polished and that if only he could stand still, sooner than later, the world would definitely stop and take notice.
His experiments with his literary talent showed a young man who was not afraid to sail so close to the wind. In 1959 he wrote a play titled, The Invention. It was supposed to climax with an explosion killing white scientists who were conducting research to determine racial types in South Africa. Strange enough, when the play was finally staged at the Royal Court Theatre, he state that the explosion refused to come on cue! Here was already a clear lesson, but WS did not learn that perhaps, contemplating wiping out white people even if in a play will not be such a good idea to be pursued. His sights were set on a project not far from the idea of the play.
For WS, white oppression, injustice, the conquest and occupation of African lands and resources was an unforgivable crime. He was determined to play a role in ridding the continent of these usurpers. He and his colleagues believed that the liberation of Africa was a project that was within their reach. In his words he believed that he and his friends:….would be the transforming auxiliaries of an inchoate substance, a yet undefined entity of space that just happened to be called Nigeria, Gold Coast, the Rhodesias, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroon, etc. The future spread itself before us, a vision of the re-assemblage of a much abused, much violated people on whose head the ultimate insult had been heaped-broken in pieces and then glued together like the shell of the tortoise in folk mythology. We were unstoppable.
While in the University, he was really in search for a platform to realize his dreams. His education was also important only to the extent that it served as a platform for learning and acquiring the skills to embark on this mission of liberation of Africa. He took a bold step in order to actualize this dream. He went on to enroll in the officer training corps of the University of Leeds in 1955, opting, in his words, for Infantry corps. He apparently had not prepared himself for the implications of his foolhardiness. For, barely a year later, he was summoned to go to fight his fellow Africans in Egypt in the Suez war in 1956. He thought he had joined the training corps to exploit the British system so as to prepare himself for the liberation of South Africa. He wrote to decline the call up, only to realize that he was liable for court martial. Getting out of this impending court martial shows the celebrant’s ultimate rascality as genius. He devised a get away plan that only his kind of mind could conjure.
First, realizing that he was bound by the oath since he had appended his signature (and that meant he had no reason not to answer his call up to go and fight in Egypt), he came up with a most bizarre plot. He convinced himself that he had actually recited the oath in Yoruba and not English and therefore, the oath had lost its potency and efficacy. Again, he reasoned, even if these words had passed his tongue, he would cleanse his tongue so as to eradicate any further feeling of guilt. He went straight into the Mess and bought a glass of sherry to wash down and cleanse his tongue. He then hid his kit somewhere and fled! Last time I checked, AWOL, desertion is still a crime. Getting off one AWOL was not enough and he was still not done with wanting to save the world.
He signed up again, this time, it was to go to Hungary to help ward off the Soviets who had invaded that country. Again, his real intentions lay elsewhere, namely, to acquire enough skills to help liberate South Africa. Again, just when it mattered, he chickened out. In his words: I could not really see how a black face could be justified in slinging Molotov cocktails in the streets of Budapest. The prospect of getting killed in such a strange land struck me as grotesque- a black festering corpse alone in a snow-clad street, all other casualties vanishing into the protective colouring of their natural environment. So, our celebrant is still on AWOL and awaiting court marshal in two different British Military Barracks. General Gowon, Chairman should take note.
This is not a book review. I have made these references just to illustrate a combination of the genius of the celebrant and his penchant for trouble. By the time he returned to Nigeria, his seeds of trouble had fully blossomed. Thus, anyone looking for the reasons why the celebrant would later emerge in Ibadan as the mystery gunman, as the founder of the Sea Dogs Confraternity and other allied organisations, a messenger for both sides in the civil war, moving between Ojukwu, Victor Banjo, Awolowo and Obasanjo and many other key actors so as to change the course of events leading to the civil war, planting a secret telephone in Obasanjo’s room, etc, are just a few snap shots into the troubles of the celebrant. Little wonder, prison and solidary confinement became merely period of meditation and reflections. His defiance did not change. Little wonder, he would admit that the Secret Service agents were his eternal chaperons.
2: Prophesy, Vision and Nation building.
In the little book titled, Night, Elie Wiesel the hero of the Holocaust narratives and memorials, tells a very powerful story of a woman, Mrs. Schachter who, along with Jews in her neighbourhood had been rounded up and thrown into a train to a destination they did not know. As those journeys to unknown destinations are wont to be, they all travelled in silence. Midway through a voice pierced the silence with shouts of; Fire! I see a Fire, I see a Fire! The startled passengers looked at her and, in the words of Wiesel, she looked like a withered tree in a field of wheat. She continued howling: Look! Look at this fire! This terrible fire! Have mercy on me! Frustrated and unable to calm her down, her fellow passenger rained heavy blows to her head and body.
Gradually, since no one had seen any fire, other passengers began to move away from her, believing that she was out of her mind. Her ten-year-old son with no choice, stuck with her in confusion since he too had seen no fire. Through the journey, she remained mute, absent, and alone. Then again, she suddenly stirred and began the shouts: The fire, over there! This time, she was pointing at somewhere in the distance. But no one felt like beating her anymore. Even the passengers had become tired of beating her. Mr. Wiesel stated that the heat, the thirst and the stench were nothing compared to the screams of Mrs. Schachter which psychologically tore the group apart. A few days later, with all passengers hungry and tired their train pulled up at a station. Everyone peered out in curiosity and anxiety. There, before them was written boldly, the name of the station:Auschwitz!
What does this tell us about prophets and prophesy? It is important to interrogate the notion of prophecy, expressed through protest as a vocation. I will argue that indeed, protesters or rebels have often been the prophets every society requires to grow. They are often despised and vilified in their societies. Very often, for they suffer, harassment, imprisonment, banishment/exile, torture and even gruesome death is often their lot. They are often considered enemies of state, traitors of a cause, turncoats, villains, or saboteurs. Most prophets often die in ignominy and often, the fruits of their prophecy ripen years or even centuries after they are gone. Damned is the society that neglects the voice of the prophet or does not possess the capacity to discern the seeds of prophesy. Prophets sail against the wind. Lofty as we may sound, not everyone who stands against the order of the day is necessarily a prophet. By their deeds, we will know them. As we know, like everything else in life, it is also the domain of scoundrels.
What this says to us is that prophets often see what those around them do not see. Writing or other forms of artistic expressions, songs, music, dance, sculpture and so on are merely outlets for this gift. As with Mrs. Schachter, the challenge is not so much that of the prophet, but whether those who listen can discern what is being said. Whatever their weaknesses, the world today would be different without the vision of prophets.
I use the word prophet for want of a better word and it is important to state that religious prophets are not necessarily cast in the same mould with other forms of secular prophesy to which I refer. Here, I speak of many prophets to the extent that they like Mrs. Schacthter point at fires that we do not see. In various ways, people like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevera, Fidel Castro, Solinitsyin, Sharansky, Vaclav Havel, Malcolm X, Chris Hani, Lech Walesa, Rosa Parks, Steve Biko, Ruth First, would be classified as prophets in their protests against injustice though they applied non religious means of fighting for their society. Our celebrant would fall within this category of those who used their skills and lend their voices to the quest for a better society. The likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul 11, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero or Helder Camara would be prophets based on a theological platform different and distinct from that used by what I call secular prophets because they derived their inspiration from the material conditions of their people while the second set of prophets drew from divine sources of inspiration. There is of course a convergence in their quest for justice, equity and the quest for a new order. There might be differences in orientation, goals and visions of what a just order might be, but that is not really the issue here. These terms are imprecise but they are important in our appreciation of the works of our celebrant in this light.
3: Religion and the Trial of Brother Jero:
Perhaps one area that stands out in the works of our celebrant has been his views about religion and its place, if any, in society. The Trial of Brother Jero is a timeless and priceless piece of writing and perhaps it really highlighted our celebrant’s deep insights into religion and the power of manipulation. If we are looking for evidence of the author’s genius right from the beginning, it is hard to surpass this piece of work given the time of its writing, fifty years ago. Perhaps what is most significant is the fact that the work itself was prophetic in a sense. However, beyond that, we must address the issues of the resilience of religion, given how Brother Jeroboam has re-invented himself and almost literally now taunts his creator today.
Did the celebrant imagine that the descendants of Brother Jero would go beyond Bar Beach and take over most of our express high ways across the nation as they do today? Did the writer imagine that the descendants of Brother Jero would be the centre of political gravity around which all office holders from top to bottom would hover and grovel in search of blessings and anointing? Did he imagine that the descendants of Brother Jero would own choice private jets, choice real estates, banks, business and so on. Did he imagine that their empires would stretch from state to state, coast to coast and sea to sea? This is the dilemma of those who studied religion purely and simply in materialistic terms, believing that believers were the subject of mere manipulation and craft. Clearly, Brother Jero has done far better than the Confraternities which set out to denounce them. Surely, Brother Jero has spiraled while the Confraternities have descended from the ignominy of cultism to mere whispers in the scheme of things.
Cast your mind back and recall Brother Jero on Bar beach very early in the morning. He has actually set forth at dawn to face his business of the day. He says to himself: I am glad I got here before any customers- I mean worshipers…l always get a feeling every morning that I am a shopkeeper waiting for customers. He justifies his ministry’s strategy, saying: I keep my followers dissatisfied because if they are satisfied, they won’t come again. And, boy, have they come back over, and over and over, in all colours, shapes, classes, genders, faiths, all with single intentions of arm-twisting God to their cause. They include politicians troubled by impending election losses, Presidents, Governors, Ministers, Chief Executives of Banks and corporations, ex convicts, Chief Executives fleeing the long arm of the law, those seeking public offices, businessmen facing ruination and so on. So, is this religion or are we faced with evidence of a state in the throes of renal failure? This is the place to look, not religion.
We are therefore compelled to address a more fundamental question as to what the role and place of religion are in shaping society. For us in Africa, the popular thinking among popular social theorists is that religion has become the problem in Africa. Nowhere is this more visibly demonstrated than in our dear country Nigeria. Those who hold these views cite the endless spates of violence, upsurge of intolerance and divisiveness in the name of religion. They blame religion for sheltering criminals and corrupt people as if the Church or the mosque is a replacement for the Police and the Courts. Rather than examine more closely the real role of religion in society, African social theorists have caricatured and uncritically applied Karl Marx’s rather weak materialistic tools of analysis and concluded that first, religion is the opium of the people and the preoccupation of the poor and ignorant. Now, religion has come back with a vengeance to taunt and discount these shallow claims. Indeed, as Napoleon said, rather than blaming Religion, we should be thankful because, It is religion that stops the poor from killing the rich!
Across the universities, various kinds of Student movements and associations emerged to fill what their teachers claimed was a moral vacuum. The stories of the emergence of a deluge of Fraternities such as the Pirates, Sea Dogs, Buccaneers, Skulls and Bones, Palm Wine Drinkers and among many others are well known. The celebrant’s role in this phase of our history is well known. The counter narratives have not wiped away the perception. It was interesting that when the Pirates came to invite me in 1996 or so to deliver the inaugural lecture, they dangled their Catholic credentials as a means of convincing me that they were not cultists. Whatever the case, the point I am making here is that perhaps with hindsight, I hope that the critics of religion are now better informed and disposed to conversion. Perhaps that is why I am here, who knows?
The critics of religion often do not have problems with religion per se. Often their problems lie in the perceived manipulation by those they see as the oppressors. Yet, in the end, what we have come to see is that from Latin America (Liberation Theology), the anti apartheid movement, Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran to the collapse of the Berlin wall and the end of Communism, prophetic religion has always been deployed to rescue a society weighed down by injustice.
It is often tempting to think that what we need to struggle against is the removal of the structures of power such. Religious leaders are often summoned to speak out, to speak truth to power. Often the Opposition wants to court the religious leaders and they believe that the good religious leader is the one who is on their side, the one in opposition to the government of the day. So, they see religion and religious leaders as players on the reserve bench who can be called upon to change the course of the game to their own advantage. This is where religion and religious leaders need wisdom and counsel. This is where we must realize that religion has an overarching reach beyond the confines of other fault lines in the society. Indeed, this is at the heart of why the Catholic Church in her wisdom insists that her clergy can be political, but not politicians. I am often accused of being a politician, but I ask the same people to tell me why my liking music has not made me a musician!
As history has shown us, the mere removal of structures of corruption or injustice do not by itself (whether through elections, coup or protests) justify and end to oppression or corruption. We are seeing all of this across the world but especially in Africa and the developing world. More often than not, the same human beings replicate the same contradictions and re-enact the same injustices and corruption, merely using the same weapons of torture, only with a splash of new brushes, paint and actors. This is what the Catholic Church experienced in most parts of Latin America where Liberation theology had served as a mobilizing tool, the same problems it had to face in Poland or the Philippines, etc. It is also the same battle that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has had to wage with the upper crust of the ANC who have almost so quickly forgotten their history. His near isolation by the ANC in the burial of Mandela was the telling lesson.
4: What Next Africa, What Next After WS?
What next for Africa? It seems rather curious that Europe has always seen in Africa what Africans themselves seem unable to see. First, despite labeling it, in the words of Conrad, the heart of darkness, it still went on to invest thousands of the precious lives of its young citizens who fought and died in wars so as to occupy this house of darkness. By conquest, despoliation and death, Europeans went on to invest rather heavily in both the enslavement of Africans and the dispossession of the continent’s resources. Despite the scorching heat in Africa, Europeans were still glad to carry this very heavy white man’s burden as Rudyard Kipling called the colonial project. This is neither the place nor the time to investigate this phase of our history. But this notion of investing in darkness and willingly going to war to carry a burden it must be a telling metaphor of the conflict between danger and opportunity in Africa. Going forward, we must ask why Africans have refused to shine their eyes and whether the future lies in continuing on this path. Why does the prospect of a good life for Africa remain only an emblem of possibilities and promise? Why does the good life remain a shifting kaleidoscope? Why is our narrative constantly a movement of possibilities never really embraced, just an endless burst of conflict of lights and shadows.
At the end of the last century, Afro pessimists and Afro optimists both contested for the best projections of the continent’s future. In March 2000, the very influential UK Economist Magazine ran a cover story titled, Africa the Hopeless Continent. Barely ten years later, precisely in December 2011, it did another cover story. This time, it made a complete turn around and captioned it: The Hopeful Continent: Africa Rising. Where exactly Africa was rising from and how long the continent had been dead, what killed it and what might a resurrected Africa look like, the magazine did not exactly say. But these conflicting signals and dominance of our narrative should worry us as Africans.
Our celebrant has committed most of his adult life exhibiting genius and making trouble by banging on the doors of African leaders. But at best, he might have been blowing a muted trumpet. Of course, at another level, we could ask why, beyond the entertainment and artistic value, what is the value of writing? Who exactly are we writing for and for what purpose? Why has writing not effected any change in our societies? What is the scope of our narratives?
We blame our politicians but in reality are they not doing much better than us? Are there no lessons we can learn from the distances they cover to sell their messages? How is it that members of political parties crisscross the country in a way and manner that writers do not? I know very little of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, but without seeking to cause offence, what do other Nigerians know about them apart from their meetings, Awards and so on? Can ANA make literature cross boundaries, cultures, region and religion? How can ANA and Nollywood recreate a new Nigerian persona, away from the villainous role we have been conscripted to play by our enemies? Most of the negativity we imbibed has remained with us and threatens to continue to define us. This must be carefully thought through and reversed. Are we going to continue to choose between ethnicities in Nollywood or will there ever be something bigger?
We hear that the works of the celebrant, those of Chinua Achebe have been translated into 50, 80 or 100 languages. Yet, how many of these works have been translated into Nigerian languages, such as Angas, Fulfulde, Nupe, Hausa, ijaw, Efik, Tiv, Igala, Idoma, Jukun, or Ikulu? (I have added the last because the ethnographers do not know we exist and this is the only chance I have to mention us!). But seriously, what is the relationship between the celebrant’s works and the works of other artists in Nigeria outside Yorubaland? The works of Amos Tutuola for example, have been taken, raw as they were and turned into an art form. How come, we have not been able to find a place for the poetry of the likes of Mudi Sipikin, or the works of Mamman Shata, Dankwairo, or Danmaraya? Where do all these fit in the national narrative?
Despite a much coveted Nobel Prize, how come that only very few Nigerians across the length and breathe of this country can speak about the celebrant? How come that young Eskimo children in schools as far as the North Pole know about Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka but young children in Nigerian schools know almost nothing?
Nigerians love to criticize their country perhaps far more than any nation I know of in the world. Yes, we have all earned the right to be cynical and even contemptible about the way we have been governed, and about how the resources of our nation have been frittered away mindlessly. I am even more amused by the criticisms of some of our brethren in the Diaspora especially those who think that simply being abroad has set them apart from their fellow countrymen and women, those who believe that those of us who are here are so because we are not good enough to be abroad.
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. Yet, when some of them have had the chance, they have done far worse than those of us they have left behind. However, nothing excuses the degree of self-deprecation and flagellation that one often reads in the essays and commentaries about this country. It is about time we took off the gloves and speak honestly to ourselves about our future as a country, our mistakes, our fears, anxieties and deep hope. We are not the worst people on earth nor is our country the worst piece of God’s real estate. We have to seize this narrative and re-define ourselves.
The measure of the greatness of a people or even individuals is based on how or where they stand in moments of trials and tribulations. Nigeria is going through such a phase now. Since the outbreak of the tragedy that is Boko Haram, one has seen another side of our citizens that is quite tragic. Rather than trying to stand together to rise beyond this in hope together, I find some of my fellow citizens creating more confusion and using the insurgency as weapons of politics. The President and the security agencies have become the objects of attacks and vilification and yet, there is very little that is being done to point at the way forward. I know that as day follows night, we shall pull out of this tragedy that we face as a nation. But the least we can do is to stand in the comforts of highways and homes that someone else constructed and thrown stones at ourselves and our people simply because we are living off someone else’s sweat.
In a recent piece, Okey Ndibe literally overreaches himself and engages in what is at best a verbal overkill in his Naija pessimism. He says he regrets writing and calling Nigerians chickens. Now, he realizes that chickens are better off than Nigerians. Rather, he says, Nigeria has become the federal republic of ants. Does Ndibe now imagine that he has ceased to be an ant because he resides in the comforts of the United States, a country that was constructed on the back of the same ants hundreds of years ago? This is most pathetic, despicable and grotesque to say the least.
Can anyone in all honesty call a nation of 170 million people, doing their best despite the difficulties, a nation which has produced and parades some of the most brilliant and gifted people in the world, a nation with perhaps the most vibrant and informed media outlets in the developing world a nation of ants? If Ndibe were a Ugandan, Rwandan, Zimbabwean or indeed, from most African countries, would he write this and still come back to his country? Indeed, the answer is that there is hardly any other African that can write this rubbish about their own country, even if they had no family in the country. How much further can you overstretch logic and common sense? Do ants win Nobel Prizes or has Mr. Ndibe lost his own anthood by sojourning in America? This is my dilemma, how to recreate our new narrative.
What we require now are new visionaries to set higher standards. What we need now are new dreamers with the necessary imagination to summon our people to a greater tomorrow. Yes, we Set forth at dawn and are still on The Road. Yes, we have beatified many area boys. Yes, we were the running sore of a continent. Yes, we all stood by when the man died. Yes, we have lived through the Penkelemes years. Yes, we have witnessed the Trial of brother Jero, but, where are the Interpreters today?
Finally, the challenge now is not so much what the celebrant’s legacy should be. His place is already assured among in the pantheon of the great men and women of letters. The next generation of writers must address the questions of the relationship between Life and Art. Perhaps we are can argue that the writings of the celebrant have attempted to useart to imitate life, drawing inspiration from the realities of the society, warts and all. What we now need is new generations of Nigerian artists who will make Life imitate Art. By doing this, they can hold before us a world that is not here, but is possible. They can offer us a vision of a society that is not here yet but one to which we can align our politics, religion and culture as a people. They can summon to bear our burden with joy, to conquer our darkness with courage. That is the only spirit that can summon us to say,Yes, we can and Yes, we Must. It is the only spirit that can bend the arc of justice in our direction.
This is the spirit that rallied the Chinese to undertake the long trek. It is the spirit that summoned the Mau Mau to defend their land. It is the spirit that flowed in the veins of Nelson Mandela. Let me illustrate with the late President John F Kennedy.
John Kennedy’s Presidency was short but historic for due to his application of an incredible vision and imagination of possibilities. When he promised Americans that they would land a man on the moon, it sounded like madness. We now know better. He imagined the creation of a non-racial and equal society. In a national broadcast on June 3, 1963, he proposed legislation to end discrimination and hasten integration and equality. Five months later, he was dead, but the project was irreversible. On July 3, 1964, his successor, Lyndon Johnson saw to it by signing the Civil Rights Act into Law. Lofty as this idea was, law by itself is not self-actualizing or self enforcing. While the struggle went on by other means, Hollywood stepped in. Hollywood chose the theme of inter-racial marriage to make the point.
The aspirations, ideals and visions encapsulated in the Civil Rights Act found expression in the historic film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which was made in 1967. In an unforgettable performance, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier combine with Catherine Hepburn and Catherine Houghton to offer the life changing performance of a lifetime. Cecil Kellaway’s brilliant performance cast him as Catholic priest, Msgr Ryan, Tracy’s Golf mate and friend who served as a mediator and moderator on his friend’s excesses. That film had tremendous impact on the world.
Even as an outsider, it had a great impact on me. Think for example if some Nigerian dreamer, artist, writer, film maker had the imagination to craft such a powerful story in this our thoroughly divided society where in some parts of Nigeria, as the one I come from, some Muslims believe it is haram for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim! Human beings, as we see from childhood and through life, live by imitation. Imagine what so many young people dream of becoming in life. This is what I mean by life imitating art.
There are as different views, opinions, and perceptions of the celebrant as there are Nigerians. This is how it should be. Fame breeds controversy. Unfortunately, I personally do wish I had known him more and that his works had been more accessible even in our Seminaries. What impact or what influence has the celebrant had on Nigerians? This is hard to gauge and I am not so sure whether it matters. However, it does seem clearly that as we have tried to show, controversy and trouble have been his middle names.
Whereas most Nigerians knew his vile hatred for Abacha, few including myself believed that he did not get on with some of the people or institutions we thought he was close to. For example, he found Abacha so detestable and disgusting that he did not wish to be buried in Nigeria as long the General was Head of State. His note or warning to his friends: Let no well meaning relation even think of bringing my body home as long as that monstrosity holds power over a portion of earth that I consider my own. Even in exile one would have thought he was the brain box of NADECO. Here, again the reader is shocked because of NADECO, he said: I was temperamentally ill suited to that company.
The celebrant and Tony Enahoro were the only twosome who opted out of the Obasanjo Political Reform Conference with fanfare. Like millions of Nigerians, I believed that both of them were birds of the same feather and that they were busy working out a new Constitution for the country based on their radical ideological convictions. But, no, for, on Tony Enahoro, he said: He thrived in endless meetings, corpious minutes, points of order, standing orders and moving and seconding motions….he galvanized the already simmering rivalries within the movement, causing them to burst open.
More interesting is his comment on Gani Fawehinmi. Of him, he said: Nearly every colleague, collaborator or beneficiary of Gani, virtually without exception, has gone through a phase of temporary derangement when they wondered whether it would not be much better, for the sake of the very cause that he advocated, if Gani were to be heavily sedated, kidnapped and hidden away, then revived and released only when the challenge had been resolved.
My intention has not been to assess the celebrant and his works. Professor Abiola Irele who knows him and his works will be doing that on Sunday. My job has been to use the platform I have been offered to celebrate a very complicated man of genius. My view is to see him as an extra ordinarily talented man whom God has endowed with incredible gifts of dreams and imagination and equipped him with the tools to express himself. As for his politics, his abilities to play football or tennis, his place of worship and so on, I have no idea. I have simply come to celebrate one of the greatest writers to come out of our country and continent.
One last word: Prof, had you listened to your mother, life would have been easier for you. Remember she warned you: Wole, Itirayi ni gbobo nkan. Perhaps it is just as well that you did not believe in merely trying for then, you would not have had a Nobel Prize. For a failed trader, failed farmer, a soldier on AWOL, you did well by choosing Literature and Art. Unless the British come to arrest you for court martial, I wish you many more years of good health, joy and peace. As you walk towards the sunset, turn to the Lord and may He let His face shine upon you and bless you. Thank you very much for the rare opportunity to be here. God bless you. God bless our dear country.