* ‘We have to re-envision the country away from what we have now’
* ‘Systems are generally innocent, but people are criminals’
* ‘A nation does disservice to itself by not paying attention to history’
By Anote Ajeluorou
THEME for this year’s Lagos Book and Art Festival 2021 ‘A Fork in the Road’ yielded multiple outcomes for both its physical and virtual audiences across the world on Friday, November 20. The two rewarding sessions that ran back-to-back – ‘A Fork in the Road’ and ‘How Did It All Go Awfully Wrong?’ – were on books that focus on the existential question Nigeria faces as a country and why attaining nationhood will continue to elude it in spite of efforts in that direction. What Nigeria and the people have so far got is to perpetually agonise over what should have been, how the country missed its high road to greatness from start and has consistently kept wandering deep into blind allays.
Activist and author of ‘Love Does Not Win Elections’, Ayisha Osori, who gave the keynote address did not mince words in castigating both the system and those who run the flawed system. Having given up on those who have currently ruined the system in the name of running it, she turned her attention to the people for whom the system is rigged and asks them the fundamental question: ‘What now? How do you get yourselves out of the horrible bind you find yourself?’ What she comes away with is a charge to the people to do what needs to be done: organise, mobilise yourselves and take ownership of the country! Osori is convinced that until the people take ownership of the country, the insignificant few will continue to oppress and suppress them using a flawed system as leverage.
According to Osori, ”We all should be involved in organising, using our stories and narration to do so. We need to mobilise and not just organise in such a way that shows the true ownership of the country by us.”
Festival celebrity for whom the festival is dedicated, Dame Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, agrees with Osori, arguing that time has come to let go of what currently obtains for a better society to emerge. For Ajai-Lycett, ”We have to let go of what we have now and out of the ashes, like the Phoenix, rise again a better society. It’s not working, what we have now. The last 60 years have enthrone the philosophy of ‘me, myself and I’ and it has not worked. Only the interests of a few ones, tribes and communities have been served and not the common man and woman. We have not started (the journey to nationhood yet). I’m not very hopefil, to be honest, but we cannot lose hope. We have to re-envision the country away from what we have now.
”We’re not galvanising, organising. We have to have mass of critical people thinking. And we need leaders in revolutions; somebody has to lead.”
A youth-based group, Transcultural Network, from the University of Lagos also made submission on Nigeria’s vexing political impasse. A member Adesokan Opeyemi Ridwan who spoke on behalf of the group expressed sadness that the youth were being marginalised in the scheme of things, as every effort they make at changing the system is rebuffed by the elders who seemed to have run out of ideas how to run the country successfully. ”Any time we make attempts to make our voices heard, they stop us,” he said. ”We just have to rebuild the system again. We have more ideas than our predecessors.”
Emeritus Professor Femi Osofisan also believes that organising rather than agonising is the best thing to do in the current circumstances, noting that Nigerians agonise more about failings in the system rather than organise to make things better. Chairman of the colloquium and Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) board member, Chief Kayode Aderinokun, wondered if Nigeria has the right systems, be they political, economic, social and cultural that should work for all, the type China has that made it possible for her to catch up with America and Europe. He stressed the need for putting in place systems that should work to energise key sectors like education, health and housing rather than the haphazard one that has obviously failed.
”We need to go back to systems that will work for us,” he said. ”Do we go the way of Okigbo who advocated that we destroy the system that we have now or allow nature to destroy it for us? We need a blend of evolution and revolution.”
But novelist and Chairman of The Nation’s Editorial Board, Mr. Sam Omatseye, radically disagreed with earlier speakers who bemoaned a lack of a better system for Nigeria’s socio-political woes. He argued that systems are generally innocent whereas the people who run them may be the actual culprits and should be held responsible for why systems fail. ”Systems are generally innocent, but people are criminals,” he said. ”There are no problems with our laws or systems but those who operate the system are the problem. There’s rationalisation about systems. The moral system in America does not support its prosperity, but America is prosperous all the same because the people who operate the system have the discipline not to corrupt the system. Who are those who canonise our system? We may not go far. So, it’s a question of who?
”How do you run a revolution like *EndSARS without leaders to negotiate with? One person and one moment saved America from President Donald Trump; that was his Vice Mike Pence. So, it’s people that shape societies, not systems.”
After the first session, the audience assisted the festival’s celebrity guest Dame Ajai-Lycett by assisting her to cut the birthday cake. She specifically requested that Prof. Clark assist her in the task to which she obliged.
So then, ‘How Did It All Go Awfully Wrong?’
THE second session, a symposium, had journalist and Editorial Board Chairman of ThisDay, Mr. Kayode Komolafe, moderating while the dramatist Osofisan chaired it. It had as theme ‘How Did It All Go Awfully Wrong?’ also a derivation from the festival theme ‘A Fork in the Road’ that focuses on Nigeria’s failing politics. Three books were up for review and ideas’ distillation – ‘Formation: The Making of Nigeria: From Lugard to Amalgamation,’ written by Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawhehinmi, ‘The Politics of Biafra and Future of Nigeria’, by Chudi Offodile and ‘The Riddle of the Oil Thief’, by King Bubaraye Dakolo. The books were reviewed by literary activist, Mr. Richard Mammah, lawyer and poet, Mr. Tade Ipadeola and festival manager and poet, Mr. Samuel Osaze, respectively.
In his opening, Komolafe wondered why history as a subject was being officially treated with so much contempt in the country, but took consolation in the fact that in spite of such official disdain for the subject, ”We still have Nigerians documenting, talking about Nigerian history from different perspectives. Books are still being written even if we can’t tell how much of them are being read.”
However, Osofisan expressed some discomfort about CORA’s fixation on the text rather than the authors of the books being examined, noting, ”I’m not sure how many of us have read the three books being reviewed. A lot of people are writing but how many of us are reading?” He also took a jab at the authors who he said seemed to have dwelled on the same subject that has been written about in over 50 years.
”My own problem is, is our problem a lack of conscience and consciousness in Nigeria among the ruling elite, the knowledge of what is going on? Have we really tried to build a nation? And when we complain so much about things going wrong, have we tried to examine ourselvs individually? How guilty or innocent are we? How are we doing, faring as individuals in the rut? Are we in fact dealing with the wrong expectations? When we see the country as it is, is our target not to create something in tune with our expectations?”
The retired drama teacher, who believes in individual self-examination in the face of the collective rut, argued that what the fathers planted or failed to plant is what the children are reaping now, adding, ”If you don’t plant for your children, then nothing for your children to eat. If you don’t plant, you don’t reap. Even the U.S. or Canada that you run to, the fathers of those nations built or planted them. We go to America because there is a place to run to. I think we have to stay here and build it to meet our expectations.”
In his review of ‘Formation: The Making of Nigeria: From Lugard to Amalgamation’, Mammah said it’s an interesting book set in NIgeria, but ”we have to ask which Nigeria it it set? The authors do not consider independence in 1960 or the amalgamation in 1914 as the formation period of Nigeria. They went beyond and asked what the inter-relationships were among the disparate ethnic nationalities that existed before 1914. So the book is not about the formal account of the nation that we know as Nigeria. It’s a very well researched book, a story that continues to emerge, to evolve, and that it was the alternative economics of the period to the slave trade that pushed things to the tippping point.”
Mammah argued that ”A nation does a lot of disservice to itself by not paying attention to history.”
In Ipadeola’s review of ‘The Politics of Biafra and Future of Nigeria’, he said it’s a ”wide-ranging book by a level-headed writer, almost a clinical mindset how he put the boook together. Given some level of justice, Offodile says people agitating would rather stay together (within the Nigerian union) than strike out on their own as ethnic nationalities.”
The lawyer argued that ”some of the most repressive laws in Africa are found in Nigeria. Does it mean that those at the National Assembly do not know?”, adding that this was so because Nigerian lawmakers are usually bought (aka Ghana-must-go), so repressive laws are smuggled into the law books through the backdoor. He related Offodile’s telling anecdote in the book, of Unoka, a character taken from Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, who’d gone to consult the gods regarding his yearly poor harvests even after making sacrifices of cocks. As he catelogued his strings of sacrifices that did not seem to persuade the gods to grant him biuntiful harvests, the priest stopped him and told him to be a man like his peers and go farther afield to farm virgin forests instead of farming lands close to the house wile his mates went deep into the forest to farm.
In concluding, Ipadeola said, ”We need to get out of farming in our backyards (deploying the same failed solutions to the country’s recurring problems) and go farther afield to breaking virgin forests to farm if we are to get bountiful harvests. I agree with Offodile that to some extent, we are all Biafrans.”
Osaze said while people’s complaint about apathy towards history is widespread, King Dakolo has made it his background setting for his exciting novel, ‘The Riddle of the Oil Thief’, adding that ”he makes history very interesting; it’s a heartwarming narrative with a style that stands out. History is invaluabe to the growth of nations. The history of the Niger Delta people is incomplete until you read this important book.”
But Mr. Omatseye upturned the tables when he asked a vital question regarding the thematic thrust of the symposium: How did we get it awfully wrong? Instead, he prefered that the question should actually have ben couched differently such as: Did we ever get it right? Were we willed to get it wrong? Were we willed to perpetual anarchy and never to succeed, this is particularly true in the Niger Delta where its oil wealth feeds everybody else except those who actually own the oil?” He further said Nigerians were good at expending a lot of energy that eventually amounts to nothing rather creating a rhythm t odrive development.
Osofisan further lent his voice to the debate when he said, ”it’s a question between conscience and consciousness. If somebody doesn’t have knowledge and he does wrong, he thinks about morality. At independence, Nigerrians who were outside the country rushed back home to take up the civil service positions being vacated by the departing British colonial officers; they did not come to build a nation. That was why they rushed to occupy houses in the GRAs being vacated by the British, to exclude themselves from the people they were to serve, to replace the colonialists. And the rest of us were made to respect them as we respected the colonial masters post-independence. They became the conquerors of Nigeria who then created a class above the people and the people themselves accepted it without questioning their second class citizenship status in their own country. The slave mentality is still there – the lord/master and servant status is still there.”
Prof. Ebun Clark said Nigeria’s tragedy is as a result of the fact that two former military rulers in Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari returned as rulers in a democracy to further make a mess of things, saying, ”If your children are not being taught history in school, teach it to them; having a sense of history is very important.” She charged that history should be taken seriously and relayed the tripartite arms struggle threatening the country in Boko Haram, ISWAP and the perpetual Sunni-Shiite divide within the body of Islam as very dangerous melting point for the country.
King Dakolo, who was the only author present at the symposium, said the session was very apt and commended CORA for what it is doing for books and raising consciousness about what they contain. He said Nigeria missed the road to its highway of destiny when Yakubu Gowon took power in 1966 and changed the framework on which the country was established at indepedence. ”There was a time when Nigeria was manageable,” he stated. ”In the beginning, it was manageable. We had derivation laws and then you accounted for what you got, but by 1969, Decree 51 came into being and Gowon now said everything belonged to him; everything was now centralised.
”I had some ideas about the war as a child when my mother would take me to go sleep in the swamps to avoid the soldiers. During the war, the sessionists (Biafrans) forces occupied our land; they killed our goats and raped our women and stole our oil; then the Nigerian soldiers came and did the same thing. The Niger Delta is essentially a militarised region. Before the civil war days, there were some positive changes. Now the petroleum has killed all businesses. The elite didn’t know the children will one day grow up and begin to ask questions and then they armed soldiers to kill off every child. These unscrupulous elites that are ruining the country, if they don’t change, then there is no hope. A chapter titled ‘Elite Myopia’ argues that if you continue in that vein, things will go wrong. So I’m surprised people are surprised the way things are, because we primed ourselves for what we have now. Nation building is a process. From the civil war days, things got worst, but before then, we had an emerging nation that the war and Gowon’s wicked laws destroyed.
‘So can we wake up and do something about what’s going on now and what my book is about?”, indicating the dire implication that if things contiued the way they are currently, then it’s doomsday all the way for the country.
In summing their reviews, Osaze praised King Dakolo for his boldness in taking on the issues he canvasses in ‘The Riddle of the Oil Thief’. And he asked, ”Who is the oil thief? Is it the poor local who scoops a small oil that spilled into his compound or farmland to wad off witches or the man in Abuja in an air-conditioned office who sends his gang with oil tankers or vessels in the seas to take away oil to sell in the global market and then builds himself a string of properties from Lagos to Abuja to London and Dubai? Or the International Oil Companies’ sleuth of hand in their pernicious dealings that impoverish the local communities where they operate? Before now, it’s the story of the IOCs telling us the story of the hunter; now, Dakolo has give us the story of the hunted. It’s the story of the hunted; we’ve been having the story of the hunter, of the IOCs, the hunters and their wicked propagandas.”
Ipadeola said of Offodile’s book, ‘The Politics of Biafra and Future of Nigeria’, ”Given a more equitable Nigeia, many Nigerians (agitating for separation) will choose to stay. You have to address the fundamental issues in the polity. What we have are elites who don’t have sympathy with the land and people but extract and take away to the west where they are held in contempt and addressed as nigger.”
Mammah responded to whether ‘Formation: The Making of Nigeria: From Lugard to Amalgamation’ actually should have been the making or unmaking of Nigeria, to which he said it could be taken both ways, adding, ”Right from the earliest of times, it has always been chaos and business sitting side-by-side as the means of our unmaking. In pre-history and history, it has always been pacification of autonomous communities. Lugard and the Royal Niger Company brought violence and business at the same time to the people whom they had to subdue with violence so they could control the business. In ‘Things Fall Apart’, the lower Niger had to be pacified with violence by the white man for the business of British empire to thrive. That pacification is still happening till now (particularly in the Niger Delta).”