Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and the Rest of Us. Congregation Lecture at Igbinedion University, Okada, Nov 27 2014
Sometime in 1963—that is, three years after Nigeria gained her independence from Britain—a large delegation of villagers from the then western state hired a mammy wagon bus and headed for the country’s capital, which was then in Lagos.. They took along with them many bags of garri, baskets of yams and mangoes, some goats and rams, and even some gourds of palm wine. Their mission? To see the Prime Minister of the Federation. I don’t have to tell you the hassles they went through to get through to the Prime Minister’s office. But finally there they were before the great Tafawa Balewa himself. Whereupon they all went down on their faces.
“Prime Minister, it is now three years that you and your politicians brought Independence to us and we have come to thank you. Please accept these few tokens of our gratitude. But sir, we have been sent by our people to ask you—when will it end? Yes, sir, this independence, when will it go away?”
Today, it is more than five decades now after that episode. The nation’s capital is no longer in Lagos, but in a more expansive city called Abuja. Our leader lives now in a fortress built by the military, called Aso Rock and which is no longer as easily accessible as the Marina beach. But just suppose that a similar delegation of our people were to succeed in getting inside Aso Rock today, what question do you imagine they would put to Goodluck Jonathan? All of us can guess the question, I am sure. Like those villagers, they would almost certainly ask—This Democracy, Mr President, when will it end? When will it go away?
For some 30 years the soldiers ruled over us. They treated us like a conquered people with no rights of our own, and all our resources were like booty, which they felt free to loot with the power of their guns.
To liberate ourselves, we fought a long and bitter war. Many fell by the wayside; many were brutally suppressed. Some were made to pay a gruesome price; many were forced into cruel exile; and some sold their souls and turned traitors to survive. But in the end, the soldiers were chased away from the saddle of power.
In their place, we brought civilians to rule over us. People like us, without gun or bayonet. Our scholars looked across our borders and found in America the best example of government of the people by the people for the people. Eagerly we imported the system, installed a president whose powers would no longer be arbitrary or without control because there would be two other houses of our representatives to monitor and control his powers. Besides, there would be an independent judiciary to superintend over both. Thus planted on these three tridents, we believed our freedom was safely balanced, our progress assured.
I need not tell you now how those hopes have been broken, betrayed.
In a strange and startling manner that none of us ever foresaw, Democracy has come to become our nemesis nowadays in the post-military era. It is the new Enemy that we have to learn now to confront in our various ways and with our different weapons. Our new war is against our very own people, our erstwhile friends and comrades, those we elected as legislators, but have suddenly turned into predators.
And so it has dawned on us like a cruel joke, that what we thought was the end of our struggle may in fact just be beginning of the real war for our freedom; that the new frontline of combat is the one we thought we had left behind.
The question I want to tackle then in this lecture is, in what manner can literature help in this new desperation? What can we do, beyond merely hissing or uttering effete curses and shaking our heads in self-pitying regret, to rescue our country and our nation from our self-appointed date with Apocalypse? What lessons can one learn from the examples of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, and the rest of us?
But before this, ladies and gentlemen, please permit me to fulfil the prerequisite, customary courtesies. In our profession, the unwritten law is that no masquerade must dare dance in public without a preliminary gesture of acknowledgement to his hosts, his elders and his audience, or else he dances into disgrace. And besides, in this hall today, they are many who tower above me in precedence, and whom I revere. As a true omoluwabi, I know what I must do on such an occasion.
Let me start properly therefore by paying my homage, first and foremost, to all of you distinguished personalities who invited me here, especially you, Mr Vice Chancellor. Our friendship as you recall dates back several years, to those days in the old UI where we have both been undergraduates, and where our dreams were born.
It is mostly because of your insistence and concern that I am here today, this shortly after my many trips. And my hope is that the lecture does not disappoint you or your audience, that it proves in fact that the old ardour has not faded, that those aspirations that we nursed for our dear country have not been quenched...
Please permit me also to present my gratitude to the Governing Council, the Senate and the Principal Officers of the university, as well as the entire Management Staff, the workers, and our wonderful students whose ebullience always reminds me of the “fine-fine” days of youth. A lutta continua!
And then of course, my deepest respects to your proprietor, visionary and entrepreneur extraordinaire, the Esama of Benin, whose foresight and pioneering zeal so many years ago gave conception to the singular idea that has brought us here today. But of him and his achievements, much more later on.
I confess that it is indeed an honour to be invited to deliver this year‘s Convocation Lecture at your institution. Even more awed am I by the list of speakers who have preceded me on this platform, men of great stature all, and of undoubted sagacity, the kind that the late Mbadiwe would have referred to as „Men of Calibre and Timber.“
After such rich contributions, one cannot but wonder candidly about what, at such a late hour, one can possibly add to their accumulated wisdoms?
It was indeed a question that bothered me, till I recalled that story about Tortoise and the Calabash of Wisdom. Perhaps you remember the story?
You see, Tortoise whom we Yoruba call Ijapa, decided one day, for some reason I no longer recollect, to gather all the wisdom in the world and go and hide them in heaven.
So, carrying his biggest calabash, he went walking for months around the world, gathering all the pieces of wisdom he could find, till finally he had them all.
Now the only place to hide the gourd, the safest place where no human hand could reach it, was obviously up the tallest palm tree.
Ijapa chose his moment carefully therefore. Very early one morning, when no one was yet awake, no birds yet stirring, nor insects buzzing, Ijapa tiptoed to the tree. Then, tying the calabash securely to his chest, he began to climb. The first leg...the next foothold...
Ah, picture the scene my friends! Our dear tortoise, a large calabash up his chest, trying to pull himself up the trunk of a tree!
Gbagam! He tumbled down! Sh! He kept still, not daring to breathe, his ears stretched out. But he heard nothing; no one had heard or seen him. Relieved, he breathed out again. Picking himself up gingerly, he resumed the attempt to climb the tree. And it was gbagam, again! And again and again! It was becoming more tricky each time stopping the calabash from hitting the ground and smashing to pieces...
Then as he stood up again for the umpteenth time, panting and sweating, he suddenly heard a voice from a hole nearby, where a small rat had been watching:
"Mr Tortoise," called out the rat, "if I may offer a suggestion, sir, why don’t you bring down the calabash from your chest, and strap it to your back instead?"
Ijapa opened his mouth and could not close it. Such a simple idea and yet he had not thought of it himself! So, in spite of all his efforts, there was still some wisdom left in the world!?
He threw down the calabash in despair, abandoned the mission, and went away.
So the lesson is clear—the moment will never come in the world when wisdom will be totally exhausted. The more lectures we hear, the more in fact the lectures we will still have to hear!
The solution we need to solve some vital problem in our life may come from some quarter we have hitherto considered inconsequential.
That was mainly why I accepted to talk here in the end. For who knows, perhaps even after all that has been said here in previous years—perhaps my little voice may still have something to add to aid our collective quest for success and happiness in our lives.
The earlier lecturers spoke each from his area of competence. Thus the eminent social scientist, and Nigeria’s former Foreign Affairs minister, Bolaji Akinyemi, talked about governance, and specifically on ‘the social contract between the governed and the government’. Retired Lt.-General Dambazzau spoke appropriately about how to overcome Nigeria’s security challenges. And last year, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, then the Governor of the Central Bank before he became the Emir of Kano, spoke about the growth prospects for the Nigerian economy.
And so on. Well, as you have been told, I am a writer; and my province is in the creation and narration of stories.
Using different formats and in various genres, my business is to plunge into the realm of the imagination to craft out stories that I hope will be scintillating enough to capture your hearts and your minds, to give pleasure and information, joy and at times, disturbance.
Today therefore I have come with quite a handful for you, and I have told you two already. Well, here is another one, taken this time from a writer called Amos Tutuola. It is from his book, titled The Palmwine Drinkard, published in 1952, and the very first Nigerian novel to gain international acclaim...
Tutuola, who died in 1997, had very little education and his English, as you will notice, tends to be rather bizarre, to put it mildly.
So his great success did not amuse the educated Nigerians at that time, especially as they were trying to prove to our English masters that we were sophisticated and ripe enough to earn be given our independence from colonial rule. They thought Tutuola’s book was being deliberately and mischievously praised by the duplicitous British, in collusion with their agents in the British press, in order to mock our ignorance, and hence further delay the independence struggle.
Therefore it was many years afterwards before Nigerians came to read and appraise Tutuola objectively without that taint of inferiority complex, and to see finally the magic he had wrought in modernizing our traditional folklore.
The story I am going to read from the book is entitled “The Beautifully Dressed Gentleman, or The Complete Gentleman.” Some of you probably know it already. But listen now to how Tutuola recounts the appearance of the man at the market:
He was a beautiful 'complete' gentleman, he dressed with the finest and most costly clothes, all the parts of his body were completed, he was a tall man but stout. As this gentleman came to the market on that day, if he'd been an article or animal for sale, he would be sold at least for £2,000.
As this complete gentleman came to the market on that day, and at the same time that this lady saw him in the market, she did nothing more than to ask him where he was living, but this fine gentleman did not answer her or approach her at all. But when she noticed that the fine or complete gentleman did not listen to her, she left her articles and began to watch the movements of the complete gentleman about in the market and left her articles unsold.
By and by the market closed for that day then the whole people in the market were returning to their destinations, etc., and the complete gentleman was returning to his own too, but as this lady was following him about in the market all the while, she saw him when he was returning to his destination as others did, then she was following him (complete gentleman) to an unknown place. But as she was following the complete gentleman along the road, he was telling her to go back and not to follow him, but the lady did not listen to what he was telling her, and when the complete gentleman had tired of telling her not to follow him or to go back to her town, he left her to follow him.
But when they had travelled about twelve miles away from that market, they left the road on which they were travelling and started to travel inside an endless forest in which only all the terrible creatures were living.
As they were travelling along in this endless forest then the complete gentleman in the market that the lady was following began to return the hired parts of his body to the owners and he was paying them the rentage money. When he reached where he hired the left foot, he pulled it out, he gave it to the owner and paid him, and they kept going; when they reached the place where he hired the right foot, he pulled it out and gave it to the owner and paid for the rentage. Now both feet had returned to the owners, so he began to crawl along on the ground, by that time, that lady wanted to go back to her town or her father, but the terrible and curious creature or the complete gentleman did not allow her to return or go back to her town or her father again…
When they went furthermore, then they reached where he hired the belly, ribs, chest, etc., then he pulled them out and gave them to the owner and paid for the rentage. Now to this gentleman or terrible creature remained only the head and both arms with neck, by that time he could not crawl as before but only went jumping on as a bullfrog and now this lady was soon faint for this fearful creature whom she was following. But when the lady saw every part of this complete gentleman in the market was spared or hired and he was returning them to the owners, then she began to try all her efforts to return to her father's town, but she was not allowed by this fearful creature at all. When they reached where he hired both arms, he pulled them out and gave them to the owner, he paid for them; and they were still going on in this endless forest, they reached the place where he hired the neck, he pulled it out and gave it to the owner and paid for it as well…
When the lady saw that the gentleman became a Skull, she began to faint, but eh Skull told her if she would die she would die and she would follow him to his house. But by the time that he was saying so, he was humming with a terrible voice and also grew very wild and even if there was a person two miles away he would not have to listen before hearing him, so this lady began to run away in that forest for her life, but the Skull chased her and within a few yards, he caught her, because he was very clever and smart as he was only Skull and he could jump a mile to the second before coming down. He caught the lady in this way: so when the lady was running away for her life, he hastily ran to her front and stopped her as a log of wood.
By and by, this lady followed the Skull to his house, and the house was a hole which was under the ground…
Let us stop here. You can imagine the rest. A fantastic story, you will agree. Just another gifted author exercising his imagination; and the story has nothing at all to do with reality. But you will be wrong. Look at it again, and you will see that far from being a mere fantasy it is in fact an accurate and uncanny trope predicting the future that the novelist himself had not seen, but which we Nigerians live right now, sixty years after he wrote it. Indeed, that picture of the Complete Gentleman is an exact mirror of the present-day Nigerian.
You and me, all of us in this assembly, what else are we individually, but the assembled bricolage of spare parts borrowed or hired from different parts of the world?
If you don’t believe me, I have another story to prove it.
This is from a young Nigerian writer called Elnathan John, who is just at the beginning of his career, but who I believe will soon become famous as a contemporary Jonathan Swift.
Just a few months ago on the occasion of the Nigerian Independence anniversary, John, who writes a column for the Sunday Trust, declared himself a Presidential candidate for the coming elections.
On Sunday, 05 October 2014, he wrote the following story titled, “Gratitude in dependence”. Listen to the following excerpts:
It is another celebration of Nigeria’s independence. Speeches have been made about how great we are as an independent country.
However, as president come 2015, I know when to be thankful to all the people who make sure that Nigeria is still standing; the people without whom we would be in real trouble. I am disappointed that President Jonathan didn’t think to do this, but here goes:
Thank you English football and the UEFA Champions League. For providing a distraction for young Nigerians who would otherwise have had the time to worry about a failed country. You don’t know it yet, but English football and the Champions League has (sic) contributed to our stability as a nation, so that instead of quarrel about development, we can spend time fighting over Arsenal and Manchester United. And for this we say, God bless you.
Thank you Holland. For easing the nerves of Nigerians with our most popular brand of beer…. Thank you for helping us effectively wash our sorrows.
Thank you South Africa. For all the companies that make our lives bearable. For DSTV, without which we would be stuck with government propaganda and adverts. For Shoprite. For keeping some of our terrorists in your hygienic, safe jails. Our jails would be far too unhygienic for them.
Thank you Dubai. For keeping the wives and mistresses of our corrupt leaders busy with interesting, expensive hobbies. For providing a safe haven when our corrupt politicians are too scared to go into America or Britain.
Thank you Switzerland. For safely storing all the money stolen from our country…
Thank you Germany. For Julius Berger. Without whom in the event of an emergency, we would be in serious trouble. Thank you for all our major roads and bridges.
Thank you Ghana, Cyprus, Ukraine, Malaysia… for providing not-too-rich Nigerians an opportunity to give their children a decent education.
Thank you America, for sometimes stepping in and telling our president what to do. For that accent that our radio presenters across the country try so desperately to copy. Radio would be dead without you. We love you.
Thank you Brazil. For all your unselfish women who give up their awesome hair that our women may look beautiful. And China for making sure the women who can’t afford human Brazilian hair can at least buy artificial hair.
Thank you Benin Republic. For all the cooks who keep the expatriates in Nigeria nourished while they provide us technical expertise and foreign aid.
Thank you UK. For DFID without which most of our hospitals would crash. For the projects which provide decent employment for our consultants and PhD’s and other development hustlers. For helping us track some corrupt politicians so that we could find them and pardon them. Because if you had not caught them, how else would we have forgiven them.
Thank you foreign journalists. For asking the questions our journalists are too underpaid to ask. For being the only ones our president will speak to. For telling us the things we would never have found…
Thank you Malala. For informing our president about the plight of the missing school girls and extracting a commitment from him. We appreciate you.
Thank you Washington Post. For those editorials that spurred our President to action. May you continue to sell.
Thank you, Western countries in general. For granting asylum to those who cannot be gay in Nigeria, both real and fake. We appreciate your patience in dealing with the flood of applications.
Thank you China. For the shinier, cheaper versions of all the things most of our people cannot afford. Ps. It would be nice if your people mixed with our people sometimes. We are Ebola free.
Thank you Israel for all the guns. For helping our leaders spy on us. For protecting our leaders from us. What would we do without you?
Thank you Harvard. For providing a space for ex government officials to soothe their consciences and (re)write the history of their time in government. We love those books.
Thank you Germany, England and India. For preserving the quality of life of our politicians and making sure they are healthy and able to rule us well. For also treating their families and providing a decent place for our wealthy to die..
There it is, the hilarious but sobering picture of our condition of alienation and dependency. We live in borrowed clothes, and revel in such mimicry, frittering away our resources like mindless puppets.
As writers, it is our business to chronicle these events of our individual and collective life, and in doing so, our writing signals on that chronicle in such a way that it turns to prophecy, to a warning in advance of coming catastrophe or crisis.
Thus for instance, all those who are complaining now of the militarization and corruption that have become the bane of our politics, must be those who never watched nor read Ola Rotimi’s Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, which was first performed in Ife in 1977.
If they did, they would remember that moment, now so tellingly prescient, when the protagonist, Retired Major Lejoka Brown, now Chairman of the National Liberation Party, lays out his campaign plans to the members of the party’s executive committee:
LEJOKA-BROWN. Gentlemen, our election campaign plans must follow a pattern of military strategy known as surprise and attack. Now, what is: surprise and attack? Surprise and attack, Gentlemen, is “to catch the enemy off-guard, and wipe out his power before he can mobilize enough forces to launch a counter-attack.” Are you there... we shall concentrate our early campaigns on the outskirts...in the villages...in the tiny fishing suburbs...and so on.... Now then. About one month before election day, we launch a sudden two-pronged drive from the small towns and villages right into the big towns and cities. Our political enemies are...SURPRISED. [Clears his throat.] Then the attack... [More ardently.] From city to city, we run over the whole State with a heavy artillery of campaign speeches. And, brothers, by the time our enemies rally together to put up a resistance...[Throws his arms up.] ...all over. We carry Ibadan...Abeokuta falls under our feet...we uproot Ilesha...Oyo trembles into our open arms...we welcome Ogbomosho..Ilorin opens the door, and we’re in the north, Gentlemen. Once there, an arm of our propaganda brigade crosses over to Jos, Jos to Oturkpo, heading south...Enugu puts up a tough fight, we hop over Enugu...march through Port Harcourt...sweep Calabar...we begin campaigning in Onitsha...cross over the bridge, dance through Asaba, shake up Benin, hop over to Warri and fullstop....”
When the other party members object to this tactics, he berates them angrily:
“What do you people know about politics–I mean hard-bone politics? Small, small boys all of you... You think politics in book is politics in real life? You lie, Book-heads! Politics means action, and action means war!...”
The play, let me again remind you, was performed in 1977, some 30 clear years before the coming of the famous “Do-Or-Die” formula of the Obasanjo era.
The Brother Jeros who have since blossomed into these rambunctious prosperity gospellers of our times; the Lejoka-Browns and Chief Nangas who are in commanding positions in our political parties; the Jagua Nanas and Segilolas who strut the streets of Lagos and Abuja and decorate the glamour pages of our new media; the Eshuoros and Arogidigbas who people our cities and our parliaments; and numerous other tropes from the pages of our books, all have incarnated into live figures now presiding over our contemporary times.
The implication from all this should, I believe, be obvious by now—namely that any nation that is truly desirous of progress, that is concerned about its future, must listen to its writers. This is not merely a self-serving piece of advertisement. Right from the time of our traditional raconteurs to the modern era of scripted narration, all our story tellers have accepted it as their burden, that their works must not only entertain and celebrate the positive aspects of our life and our culture, but also go beyond to enlighten the audience, to speak especially for the voiceless and deprived. They hone their words into weapons against injustice and exploitation, and even if unconsciously, make prospective auguries about the future, in order to forestall impending grief.
So our work is no different or less important than that of the informed economists, the bankers, soldiers, agriculturists, educationists, and so on. Like them, we writers have always been just as engaged, if not even more fully engaged in fact, in enhancing the struggle of our people for freedom and fulfilment.
That is why it is so regrettable, as JP Clark often laments, that while the nation pays preponderant attention to politicians and others, writers are given relatively scant regard. Sadly few people read our works; fewer still heed our words.
And it is the nation that loses by so wilfully condemning itself this way to nonchalance and amnesia, and consequently to a continuous cycle of tragic repetitions.
This recurrent “cycle of stupidity”, as Soyinka called it, plus our seeming inability to break out of it, is a powerful theme that one finds in the works of Soyinka and Achebe, and it is to these authors I will turn now for a concrete illustration of the close link I am exploring between literature and national life. The choice of the two is not fortuitous. Not only are they the most prominent among our writers—and therefore the ones whom you in this assembly are most likely to be familiar with—but they have also been the most influential on our literary tradition; because like all gifted pioneers in any field, they are the ones who more or less established the paradigms for what those of us who came after have set out to be and achieve, or, on the obverse, to contradict and refute.
Whatever our stance, there is no gainsaying the fact that their glorious achievements inspire us; and serve as catalysts in our own parturition—by their talents as well as the contradictions in their profiles.
I can list the major points of these contrasts quickly: One of them for example is the most read universally; the other the most known and perhaps the most universally un-read. One is the most popular of all our writers; but the other is without dispute the most prolific and the most profound.
Achebe’s enormous reputation is built mostly on one book; but that one book, Things Fall Apart, has sold several million copies and been translated into some fifty different languages.. But Wole Soyinka won the prestigious Nobel Prize; and it would be the exceptional critic indeed who can cite all his works, which have continued to pour out in virtually all the genres (including film and LP record), not to talk of reading them all.
For the purpose of this lecture however, the principal link between them that interests us is their ideology, that is, the prime purpose behind their writing, this ideology with which they have infected the rest of us. This is the conception of their role as spokesmen for the people and the culture, with the mission, as Achebe puts it, to explore “where the rain began to beat us.”
Much has been written about this already, so I need not strive to prove it. Certainly the good writer for them is not the one who shies away from the pressing problems of the day, and refuses to identify with the longings and aspirations of his people. He is the one who, on the contrary, chooses to be “the conscience of his people”. For both of them, one can say, “The man dies in all who choose to be silent in the face of tyranny.”
That was no doubt why, quite early in the life of the nation, Soyinka was among the first to warn—in The Dance of the Forests—against the excessive optimism bubbling all around about the independence, and to point out the dangers latent in the inherited and still-unresolved transgressions of the past.
In No Longer At Ease Achebe followed with a depiction of the moral weakness of the new intellectual class, flaws so overwhelming that this otherwise enlightened elite would rather sacrifice its principles to survive than pay the painful price needed to lead us to a new dispensation.
But it was in A Man of the People that Achebe really surpassed himself, when his warnings about the spreading corruption and ineptitude of the politicians and the possibility of their being overthrown by soldiers actually coincided with real life, when our first military coup in Nigeria occurred in the very week of the book’s publication. The writer found himself arrested on suspicion of complicity in the coup, and only escaped from persecution by sheer providence!
This is to show how dangerous it can sometimes turn out to be for the writer in the course of simply pursuing his work. With WS, as we know, this danger has virtually been a permanent companion all his adult life, at least since he chose his writing career.
In contrast to Achebe, who is more like a sage, sombre, reticent and reflective, Soyinka is the Byronic rebel, restless, fiery, and fearlessly outspoken, just like the god Ogun whom he has made his patron god. With him the passion to change the world translates into direct, physical engagement. He is not one just to talk about tyranny, he must organize resistance against it, even at the cost of his own safety; he will not just denounce and ridicule corruption, he will lead a fight against it. It is not surprising therefore that under the various regimes our country has had since our Independence from Britain, Soyinka has spent his life either in jail or in exile; and under Abacha, who hanged Saro Wiwa, Soyinka was first declared a wanted man like a criminal, then sentenced in abstentia to death, and assassin squads dispatched to eliminate him wherever he might be.
But the adage goes, the pen is always mightier than the sword. As you can see, both of these writers outlived our dictators with all their awesome powers in the end. It was a cruel irony of fate indeed that Achebe, like his creation Okonkwo, was struck down at his supreme moment of success, and had to go into exile. Unlike Okonkwo, he did not even have the choice of returning to resume his career at home and had to live the rest of his life abroad. But even there, he never ceased to add his voice to those fighting against the deprecations at home—twice he rejected the offer of the country’s highest award, because he considered the governments that offered him the honour to be corrupt and anti-people, and said so in unambiguous terms.
I think this is why our literature in the end is so weighted with sad and tragic notes. About our leaders especially, the literature has been most unsparing, if not even vitriolic. Achebe has berated this leadership again and again in his books, and so has Wole Soyinka in his many fierce satirical plays and sketches.
But what about the people; or as we like to say, the followership whom most of us like to perceive as the victims? What do our writers think of them and of their contribution to history? Are they presented as less corrupt, more heroic, more promising of redemption? Achebe answers these questions somehow towards the end of his novel, A Man of the People, when the military steps in to displace the politicians from power. The unnamed narrator, who may well be the author himself, states as follows:
No, the people had nothing to do with the fall of our Government. What happened was simply that unruly mobs and private armies having tasted blood and power during the election had got out of hand and ruined their masters and employers. And they had no public reason whatever for doing it. Let's make no mistake about that.
The rampaging bands of election thugs had caused so much unrest and dislocation that our young Army officers seized the opportunity to take over.
And it was not all. Listen as he continues:
....What I found distasteful however was the sudden, unashamed change of front among the very people who had stood by and watched him die.
Overnight everyone began to shake their heads at the excesses of the last regime, at its graft, oppression and corrupt government: newspapers, the radio, the hitherto silent intellectuals and civil servants - everybody said what a terrible lot; and it became public opinion the next morning. And these were the same people that only the other day had owned a thousand names of adulation, whom praise-singers followed with song and talking-drum wherever they went. Chief Koko in particular became a thief and a murderer, while the people who had led him on - in my opinion the real culprits - took the legendary bath of the Hornbill and donned innocence.
The followership then, in Achebe’s judgment, ate the real culprits, the ones who egg on their thieving leaders. With him therefore, this failure to find a redeeming possibility even among the people cannot but produce a deep pessimism, and hence, a tragic view of life.
Repeatedly therefore in his books, you will find proverbs that state that the strong perish, while the meek and the weak survive: “It is from the compound of the coward that we point to the ruins of house of the brave.”
Thus Okonkwo, icon of the old traditional ideal of honour, dies tragically in Things Fall Apart, and in such an undignified manner that he cannot even be respectably buried, while by contrast the rational, pragmatic Obierika survives him; Akuebue the sensible down-to-earth friend is the necessary foil to Ezeulu’s zealousness in Arrow of God; and Ikem the visionary dreamer is the one who dies senselessly at the end of Anthillsof the Savannah.
Indeed, it is not far-fetched to argue that it is Achebe giving us his philosophy of life when in the same Anthills... he makes the wise Old Man of Abazon tell us, as follows:
‘To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come. To others He gives the eagerness to rise when they hear the call...and go to the boundary of their town to engage the invading enemy boldly in battle. And then there are those others whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story.
‘The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards—each is important in its own way. I tell you there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story. Do you hear me? Now, when I was younger, if you had asked me the same question I would have replied without a pause: the battle. But age gives to a man some things with the right hand even as it takes away others with the left......
‘So why do I say the story is chief among his fellows? The same reason I think that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters—Recalling-Is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives that sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters....The story is our escort; without it, we are blind...
That is Achebe. But the surprise is that Soyinka, so quick to action and so uncaring of his own personal safety in the cause of freedom, is in fact no less a pessimist than his late friend. (Perhaps it was no surprise in fact that both joined the PRP of Mallam Aminu Kano in their only reported case of political party activity—it was, frankly, a party doomed right from the start to failure, on account of its quixotic aims but practically limited means...)
Like Achebe, this vision of the tragic haunts almost all of Soyinka’s works. And I believe it is for the same reason—that is, the failure to find a reliable ally either among the leadership or the followership. Soyinka remorselessly satirizes the former, but his contempt for the submissiveness of the rule is no less mortifying. The educated class in particular he sees as conniving and cowardly, and so complicit in the misrule of the country. The evidence is there in the caricatured portrait of Lakunle in The Lion and the Jewel, of the Faseyis in the Interpreters; or the fawning members of the so-called Reformed Aweri Fraternity in Kongi’s Harvest.
“You’ve been bribed,” shouts Kongi’s Organizing Secretary at them when they seem to corner him. But it is Basha Bash’s wife who best expresses Soyinka’s anger when she turns on the audience at the end to accuse them of complicity.
For all such people then, who seem content or are too cowed to protest their enslavement, there can be no sympathy from the writer’s pen. When such abject surrender is widespread, as it seems among us, one can understand that a fighting spirit like Soyinka’s will be plunged from time to time into despair and despondency, as we see in his major plays. In Madmen and Specialists, which is perhaps his most pessimistic play so far, this despair is even developed into a powerful trope named “AS”, the expression of an immutable and implacable terror from which man will never escape.
This is the summary then of our literature so far, a chronicle, almost unbroken, of woe and horror, a constant parade of madmen and specialists, with no enduring heroes. As some have said, it can be a heartbreaking experience indeed reading many Nigerian or African authors in succession.
In book after book, play after play, poem after poem, most of what you read is about unedifying things, corrupt leaders, both civilian and military, and a hapless citizenship not just in perpetual torment but also pitiably incapable of saving itself.
Almost unrelentingly—at least until the current crop of authors who seem to have decamped from local issues to focus their gaze on the vicissitudes of exile—the characters featured in our works are invariably the tyrants and tormentors of our people, the murderers and robbers, the fake messiahs, all the negative people and their victims. The positive dreamers suffer a quick and brutal end; the idealists quickly come to grief. Poverty and suffering, disease and disaster are the commonest ingredients. After one book, you could predict the next. Anomy is everywhere, on every page.
But then, ladies and gentlemen, I have not finished with my tales. Please listen to the following:
...During the course of his duty, [my grandfather] had to discipline a local beauty called Ajayi. Ajayi was the daughter of the then Ogboni of Esa Oke, second in rank to the Owamiran, the Oba of Esa-Oke. Her parents wanted her to marry someone, but she did not fancy him. Now, in those days, that was a most heinous crime. In Ajayi’s case, it was as if she was cocking a snook (sic) at Esa-Oke authority....
Ajayi said the person she would marry was from Ila, Adesina. The immigrants from Ila were just being integrated into Esa-Oke society although they were quite numerous and good cocoa-farmers and therefore prosperous. But they did not belong to Esa-Oke aristocracy which occupied Oke-Esa. Adesina was of good Ila lineage, true, but an Ila was Ila. Ajayi stuck to her guns.
So it was the duty of my paternal grandfather to prosecute and punish her... As was the custom, Ajayi was summoned to the King’s Court (and) asked whether she was ready to marry the man her parents chose for her. She said no. They told her that her refusal would earn public disgrace. She was unyielding. So, she was led to the market-place where, before a concourse of people, she was stripped to her waist and told to begin her ordeal. It was to pound water which had been poured into a mortar—and not a drop of the water must spill out of the mortar while she pounded! As she pounded, and water spilled, she was whipped. It was thought that, as many before her had done, she would change her decision during the torture. She cried and wept, as she was meticulously thrashed, but refused to yield her ground. At the end of the day, to the utter discomfiture of her father, she was of her own opinion still, [and in the end] she was free to marry Adesina. Ajayi was my grandmother...
This is a different story, isn’t it, tone, from the ones I have been talking about? It is from Bola Ige’s Kaduna Boy, published in 1991. The story speaks of suffering, but also of triumph. It talks of love, and the awful penalty it sometimes has to pay to be fulfilled. It is uplifting; it celebrates the capacious possibilities of the human will, the triumph of courage over adversity. Obviously we have moved away from the dark territory of the Soyinkas and Achebes.
Let us try another one:
On my 10th day in the ward, the doctors having noted that I had stopped vomiting and stooling and was no longer running a fever, decided it was time to take my blood sample to test if the (Ebola) virus had cleared from my system. They took the sample and told me that I shouldn’t be worried if it comes out positive as the virus takes a while before it is cleared completely. I prayed that I didn’t want any more samples collected from me. I wanted that to be the first and last sample to be tested for the absence of the virus in my system. I called my pastor. He encouraged me and we prayed again about the test.
On the evening of the day Justina passed on, we were moved to the new isolation centre. We felt like we were leaving hell and going to heaven.
We were conveyed to the new place in an ambulance. It was just behind the old building. Time would not permit me to recount the drama involved with the dynamics of our relocation. It was like a script from a science fiction movie. The new building was cleaner and much better than the old building. Towels and nightwear were provided on each bed. The environment was serene.
The following night, Dr. Adadevoh was moved to our isolation ward from her private room where she had previously been receiving treatment. She had also tested positive for Ebola and was now in a coma... It was so difficult seeing her in that state. I could not bear it. She was my consultant, my boss, my teacher and my mentor. She was the imperial lady of First Consultants, full of passion, energy and competence. I imagined she would wake up soon and see that she was surrounded by her First Consultants family but sadly it was not to be.
I continued listening to my healing messages. They gave me life. I literarily played them hours on end. Two days later, on Saturday the 16th of August, the W.H.O doctors came with some papers. I was informed that the result of my blood test was negative for Ebola virus. If I could somersault, I would have but my joints were still slightly painful. I was free to go home after being in isolation for exactly 14 days....
I went for a chlorine bath, which was necessary to disinfect my skin from my head to my toes. It felt like I was being baptized into a new life...
I was led out of the bathroom and straight to the lawn to be united with my family, but first I had to cut the red ribbon that served as a barrier. It was a symbolic expression of my freedom. Everyone cheered and clapped. It was a little but very important ceremony for me. I was free from Ebola! I hugged my family as one who had been liberated after many years of incarceration. I was like someone who had fought death face to face and come back to the land of the living.
We had to pass through several stations of disinfection before we reached the car. Bleach and chlorinated water were sprayed on everyone’s legs at each station. As we made our way to the car, we walked past the old isolation building. I could hardly recognize it. I could not believe I slept in that building for 10 days. I was free! Free of Ebola. Free to live again. Free to interact with humanity again. Free from the sentence of death.
The happiness in this story is so palpable you can almost pull it into your arms. Like the one before it, its tone is totally different from the usual fare we find in Nigerian literature. But still the important difference you may not have noticed is this—namely that they are all true stories. The first set are from fiction and drama; these are biographies recounting the experiences of actual living men and women in our society, one from long ago, the other from, as it seems, yesterday.
The stories they tell are heart-warming, no doubt because what they reveal are examples of astounding courage and resilience, such as we all want to identify with. No one can read them and not come to the conclusion that our creative writers have been somewhat partial in their accounts. Yes, the failures and calamities they write about are all true as we know. But still, those failures are not the only truth about our lives.
Elsewhere, away from the corridors of power and the circle of power mongers, our people are also living heroic lives.
One must not be blind of course to the fact that biographies and autobiographies are not exact mirrors of reality, or of the personalities they seek to sell. Inevitably they exaggerate and embellish, sometimes even to an embarrassingly implausible extent. But all the same, these accounts are irresistible, and it should always be possible for an active imagination to sift the grain from the chaff. The result when the experiment succeeds is what we refer to as ‘faction’...
I believe that the time is long overdue for our writers to begin to de-emphasize the importance we give to crooks and malfeasants, in order to highlight the contributions of the positive figures and forces among us.
By writing repeatedly of crooks, we tend unfortunately to give to our readers the erroneous impression that our society is composed exclusively of crooks. By unceasingly showing rectitude in deficit, and the honourable being always defeated or disgraced, we inadvertently suggest to our readers that such virtues do not pay, that they only lead to inevitable defeat and despair, and that our people are doomed to anomy.
The kind of stories that will inspire those who read us, especially the children, and make them aspire too to lofty dreams will be those in this second category of creativity.
It is these stories of hope that will motivate our readers to believe in themselves; these stories that reflect their struggle, their probity, their stubborn refusal to surrender to anguish.
Let us show that, while there are many people trapped in the mire of our national life, there are also others, perhaps just a few, but who in spite of adversity, or even perhaps because of it, have challenged themselves to soar to remarkable heights through daring, and compassion.
I can think of numerous figures and incidents that can form the subject of such stories, and they come from all sectors of our national life.
We know of astounding acts that have been reported about farmers, soldiers, scientists, doctors, house wives, market women, students, and even down to poorly paid carpenters and taxi drivers.
Along with the focus on kidnappers, what of the long parade of martyrs that we have in Tai Solarin, Ayodele Awojobi, Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana, and so on?
What of the young female athlete, Courtney Duke, who only recently voluntarily gave up the substantial monetary offer from the government, saying that serving her nation was sufficient glory for her?
When, oh when, shall we have stories celebrating the fifty intrepid girls who dared to break out of the shackles of Boko Haram?
In fact the examples are already there—and paradoxically even in Soyinka’s works too. When he turns away from fiction to faction, remember, as he does in his wonderful memoirs, the tone is always upbeat, always celebratory of victories. These heroes who are his alter ego are captivating because of their humour, their fearlessness their candour and their eloquence.
Another memorable instance is in Ola Rotimi’s play, Hopes of the Living Dead. Dealing here with actual history rather than myth or folklore, and based on the life of Harcourt White, Rotimi presents this moving drama of lepers in revolt against the authorities who have ordered their evacuation from the shelter they had been enjoying, without any alternative place by the authorities.
Let us have more of such accounts in our libraries.
Neither the present nor the future, in my opinion, can lift out of despair unless we as writers find and discover the tropes that will serve as encouraging beacons, as elixirs of inspiration, for those we claim to be writing for. “Find the good,” said Alex Hailey sometime before his death, “and praise it!”. It is the best way I believe that we as writers can help in the battle for our nation’s future, that is, by looking for the good and praising it.
So I am going to stop now by bringing you my last story. It will illustrate for you the kind of elevating virtues that some of our compatriots possess –the qualities of vision, intrepidity, tenacity, and faith.
I have made it the last story, because it concerns you directly, as you will see. I have doctored it deliberately for my own reasons, but I will make no further comments on it. Here we go:
From the 1980s, public universities in Nigeria were confronted with the malaise of frequent strikes and disruption of academic calendars. As a concerned citizen and committed parent, the Chief observed that these distractions could lead to the compromise of academic standards and the vulnerability of Nigeria’s academic environment with (sic) worthless certificates. During this period, the British Universities were no longer accepting Nigerian degrees either for postgraduate programmes or employment. The British wondered how Nigerian Universities would embark on strikes for six or more months and still award degrees to the students. At the same time, Nigerians had challenges with foreign exchange and so many parents could not get school fees across to their children in England....
[The Chief] deliberated with his wife, ... and resolved that a private University must be established....But the journey to the establishment of the University was not an easy ride. Apart from the financial requirement, the process of getting the nod for its establishment by the Federal government took several years of patience and consistent pressure... But the chief worked assiduously and tenaciously, and finally, Certificate No. 001 was presented to him by the Minister of Education, Mr Olaiya Oni, at a colourful ceremony at Abuja on Monday, 10th May, 1999. This was how Igbinedion University became a reality, the first private university in the country...
This alone, you will agree, could form the subject of an epic. As his biographers say,
“Chief Igbinedion has often said that he has no money but the capacity to borrow! He succeeds in reversing the theoretical sequence of commercial venturing and works incessantly to see it through. Once he decides to pursue an idea, he moves with lightening (sic) speed....When Chief Igbinedion pursues an idea, he does it with his might. He puts his whole soul into it (and)stamps it with his own personality... he eventually succeeds...He is not a University graduate, but today he has graduates, professors and [has] produced people in what he himself lacked...”
I rest my case. I am glad to have this opportunity to offer my own special congratulations to the man whose vision and generosity brought us here today. I salute the numerous others like him throughout the breadth of this country who are struggling and winning, unseen. Some day soon, I have no doubt, you will see a novel or a play celebrating your exemplary contributions to the progress of our country, some work by one of our gifted writers that will fire others to take after your footsteps.....
I thank you all for listening to me.