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Faces Of The African Youth Movement For Change

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Counterterrorism, Technology, And Development In Africa

THE  TOYIN FALOLA INTERVIEWS

A

 CONVERSATION WITH ERNESTO YEBOAH, PART 1

Youth Movement For Change

By

Toyin Falola

 Despite being famous for the abundance of its natural resources, Africa has not lived up to its potential in the eyes of many. The continent has come to be synonymous with strife in contemporary times. The current situation of the continent is often blamed on the sensationalism and selectiveness of western media coverage of the region, which is underscored by a seemingly unending string of unflattering experiences—bloody coups, ethnic conflicts, electoral violence, political repression, poverty, famine, and pandemics. Other arguments seeking to explain Africa’s undesirable socio-economic condition have pointed to the great atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, which indubitably had—and continue to have—significant consequences for the region’s development but fail to exonerate Africa’s post-colonial leadership from its abysmal treatment of the continent’s most promising asset, its youth.

Faces Of The African Youth Movement For Change

Photo: Ernesto Yeboah

Around the world and throughout history, the youth have been the backbone of social changes. From ancient times, even when our ancestors scarcely lived beyond their forties, the continuance of human civilization rested on the vigour of youth; on the farm, on the battlefield, and even on the floor of industry, youth have proven an indispensable asset. During and after the colonial rule in Africa, the youth have played a crucial role in political development. The youth movements of the 1920s and 30s gave rise to the political parties that bolstered Africa’s readiness for self-government, and a bulk of Africa’s independence leaders were youths themselves, under thirty-five years old.

READ ALSO: Nigeria And The Multiplication Of Chaos

In addition, the perpetrators of Africa’s first coups were young members of the army, some of whom held on to power for considerable periods. During the dark days of military rule, the African youth maintained activism for civil rights and democracy and fought against economic and social injustice through their various student union bodies. More recently, the Arab Spring movement in northern Africa, the RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa, and the EndSARS movement in Nigeria have represented the continuation of an agelong youth struggle against social and economic injustice.

Whatever the scientific or historical reason for the systemic association of the youth with ignorance, incompetence, and irresponsibility characteristic of contemporary society, it is more a reflection of the “life history theory” than it is of any biological limitation. The “life-history theory,” built on the conclusion that teens behave differently depending on how hostile and unforgiving their environment feels to them, is a testament to youth’s malleability and not their incapacity. This theory, which is primarily based on the perception that the period up to the 1950s was much tougher and its youth was “allowed” to assume responsibilities that would socially be considered outside its purview today, applies conversely to the emasculation of today’s African youth in a period of unprecedented difficulty. Today, against the backdrop of rising unemployment and other socio-economic difficulties induced by climate change and bad leadership, the African youth is, in addition to several socio-economic deprivations, burdened with concocted and atavistic ageist perceptions.

With a little apprehension, one may argue that nowhere has the youth suffered more deprivation in the twenty-first century than in Africa. Home to the world’s second-largest youth—people under 25 years old—population after China, Africa’s leadership has done very little to harness the creative energy of this vast human resource in providing the ideal socio-political and economic conditions required for this great continent to prosper. The widespread instances of debilitating poverty, disease, famine, and near-constant political instability on the continent weigh heavily on this youthful demographic that numbers about a billion people (around sixty per cent of the entire population).

If not faced with intimidation, marginalization, or abuse, African youth have had to contend with unemployment and other challenges that come with being denied access to the kind of education and vocational training that would allow them to become productive members of society. As a result, except for the marginal percentage who have successfully risen above monumental odds to establish themselves through hard work and ingenuity, even on the global stage, many others remain trapped in a disabling environment, succumbing to social pressures and becoming tools in the hands of mischief makers and, in effect, a menace to their society.

READ ALSO: Speaking Truth To Power: Attahiru Jega, Toye Olorode, And Nigeria’s Future

As all requests from the youth quarter for political inclusion and an address of the factors impeding youth development—human rights, women’s rights, quality education, proper healthcare facilities, gainful employment opportunities, and climate change—have either fallen on deaf ears or been attended to by lip-service, the African youth have concluded that the only way they can turn their plight around for good is to take matters into their own hands. Thus, the continent has seen an increase in the number of youth activists who have formed associations and organized awareness campaigns—sometimes through protest marches—to mobilize their contemporaries to the youth cause of equity, liberty, and inclusion. Certain names/faces have emerged as symbols of the youth struggle in Africa due to this endeavour, which the technological revolution of social media has greatly facilitated.

Faces Of The African Youth Movement For Change

 

Alaa Salah

In 2018, twenty-five-year-old Alaa Salah (the “Nubian Queen”), an engineering student of the Sudan International University, gained global recognition for her role in the 2018/2019 Sudanese revolution that eventually led to Omar-al Bashar’s removal. As a Sudanese human rights activist and a member of MANSAM (Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups), Alaa and her fellow women activists decried the continued exclusion of women from leadership positions despite the significant role they have played in the struggle against social and economic injustices in the country. Alaa took the message of gender inequality in Sudan to the United Nations (UN) assembly in 2019. In her address to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Alaa called for an all-inclusive government encompassing ethnic and religious minorities, civil society, resistance groups, and a fifty-per cent parity for women in governance. In the same year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to bringing peace to her country.

Faces Of The African Youth Movement For Change

Elizabeth Wathuti

Elizabeth Wathuti is a twenty-six-year-old Kenyan environment and climate activist. She is the founder of Kenya’s Green Generation Initiative, which encourages young people to care more about nature and be environmentally conscious. Her initiative has led to the planting of 30,000 tree seedlings in Kenya, a portion of which are food trees aimed at combating hunger in Kenya. At the 2021 COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, Elizabeth delivered an impassioned speech, calling on delegates to consider the cost of their inaction on the African continent and its peoples. In her own words: “Please open your hearts…If you allow yourself to feel it the heartbreak and the injustice is hard to bear. Sub-Saharan Africans are responsible for just half a per cent of historical emissions, the children are responsible for none, but they are bearing the brunt.”

Faces Of The African Youth Movement For Change

Kilifeu, Thiat, and Malal Tala

The trio of Malal Talla, Cheik Oumar Cyrille Toure, and Bessane Seck are a group of Senegalese musicians and journalists who started the protest group Y’en a Marre (Fed Up) in 2011 to protest against rampant power cuts in Dakar. From power cuts, the group came to identify a range of problems they were fed up with in Senegalese society. Beginning with their music, some of which evolved into rallying cries, the group and its members progressed to door-to-door campaigns to encourage youths to register to vote. Enduring arrests in 2012 for their role in organizing a sit-in protest at Dakar’s Obelisk Square, the group pressed on with their campaign for political reform and were alleged to have raised over 300,000 votes, which led to the ousting of then Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade. Since then, the group has remained active, organizing meetings and shows and calling on the government to implement reform agreements, including land ownership reforms, which remain a critical issue for Senegal’s rural poor.

Faces Of The African Youth Movement For Change

Stacy Owino

Stacy Owino, a twenty-one-year-old Kenyan women’s rights campaigner, is passionate about ending the widespread female genital mutilation (FGM) practice in East Africa. At the age of eighteen, Stacy, a Computer Science and Mathematics student, co-created an app that works to save girls from FGM by linking them with authorities and life-saving services close to them. Stacy Owino also represents Africa on the Youth Sounding Board for the European Commission. Her efforts towards eradicating FGM earned her honour at the 2020 Youth Activist Summit held at the UN in Geneva.

The activists mentioned above by no means cover the breadth of youth engaged in activism in Africa. Several other young African activists scattered around the regions are actively engaged with one social, political, or economic injustice or the other. In many instances, such movements are faceless. They do not have an identified leader/leadership as a way of avoiding targeted government arrests and crackdowns that can easily break the spirit of the movement. Pitiably, this has been the common government response to such youth demands for change. Despite the brutal crackdowns that have met youth actions against social injustice—as witnessed with the EndSARS movement in Nigeria in 2020, youth action against anti-people government policies/practices is expected to persist as long as the proper measures are not taken to address these grievances.

Please join us for a conversation with Ernesto Yeboah, the renowned Radical Activist and Commander-in-Chief, Economic Fighters League.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

4:00 PM Ghana

5:00 PM Nigeria

4:00 PM GMT

11:00 AM Austin CST

Register and Watch:

https://www.tfinterviews.com/post/ernesto-yeboah

Join via Zoom:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85663555793

Watch on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/tfinterviews/live

Watch on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2lvX7A2iVndiCq0NfFcb0w/live

Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

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Interview

Monica Cheru On Rethinking African Literature

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Counterterrorism, Technology, And Development In Africa

By Toyin Falola
In an earlier piece, I traced the historiography of African literature and wrote about anticipations of how the panelists at the last edition of the Toyin Falola Interviews (in conjunction with the Pan-African Writers Association) would propose ways of rethinking African literature. Today, I will be spotlighting and extrapolating the views of Cheru, the only female panelist and the Vice President (Southern Region) of the Association. Cheru had many interesting perspectives on the questions and issues raised.

There is largely an imbalance between the financial stability of critics and writers, based mainly on the fact that a higher percentage of critics are employed at universities, thus having a stable source of income compared to literary writers. In stating her perception of this imbalance and approaches to springing up a reward system that balances the financial strength of both critics and writers, Cheru started with writers’ mentality and our perception of writing—especially as a full-time job—as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to writers’ achievement of financial stability.

Passion is the key ingredient in the making of literary writers, which makes the bulk of writers venture into writing as a means of expressing themselves and connecting with their deep passion for literature and writing. However, it should be known that passion is not enough to build a successful writing career. The writer must step out from the mentality of writing as a second option and realize that it is a full-time career that passionate writers can pursue, thus approaching writing as a professional. This means that writers need to improve their writing skills and develop a career path that can help them turn a profit.

Monica Cheru On Rethinking African Literature

Monica Cheru

Cheru further went towards the controversial side when she stated she does not see any excuse for writers to be poor or “unable to put food on their table.” As controversial as this may seem, Cheru is not wrong because there are several opportunities out there that literary writers can tap into once they have taken writing as a professional career and not just as a hobby. Writers can earn money through the ability to market their ideas.

In reality, many African writers do not invest enough in producing, promoting, and distributing their works, which could be due to the lack of funds to invest in such. However, professionalism is required at every stage of the book creation process, from story-writing through publishing to distribution and promotion. Writers should be ready to be strategic about the stories they want to tell, the impacts they hope to make, and the people they want to engage with their stories. They should be prepared to attend events, launch their books, and promote them. They must learn to network with other writers and join the right writing communities.

Another issue relating to African literature is African writers positioning themselves for prizes, especially Western prizes. These prizes, among other things, provide writers with references and proof of their outstanding works. Some of these prizes come with substantial monetary rewards that serve as the gateway to more opportunities for several writers on a continent where success in the writing world is based largely on grit, talent, and passion, with the stark absence of access to practical writing-related degrees and writing workshops.

Notably, all the panelists at the last discussion are award-winning writers. Having won writing-related awards in the past could well have given credence to their emergence during the selection process because awards and recognition are a good means of gauging one’s impacts and qualifications across all walks of life. The question that rears its head then is: what does winning awards, or otherwise, mean for one’s career as a literary writer, African literature as a whole, and for up-and-coming writers? Prize obsession could evolve into a fast-spreading phenomenon if it has not already. Thus, is prize obsession justified, given that winning awards and prizes could contribute to a writer’s career?

READ ALSO: Rethinking African Literature

For Cheru, awards and prizes should not be the focus, and she strongly advocates against them. As she said, some of these awards and prizes have the style and pattern they look for in literary works. Only writers who pander to the box created by the awarding institutions qualify for the awards and eventually win. Cheru believes that the bulk of the awarding institutions from the West, which are incidentally the institutions with substantial monetary rewards for African writers, tend to favor negative African stories or those that portray Africa as that suffering, never-to-develop continent of people who look up to and need the salvation of the West. It may seem counter-intuitive to advocate against prize obsession, as there is a need to balance the reward system for writers and raise awareness of their financial stability.

However, having many African literary works pandering toward certain narratives with the hopes of winning prizes does not augur well for the continent. Thus, African writers need not write for prizes. This is not to say writers be anti-prize or reject nominations. Cheru’s message is that writers should write for all the reasons they want to, strive to document Africa’s history, and portray Africa as a continent rich in human and natural resources. They could very well opt for writing against the ills in African society and the poor leadership that bedevils the continent. But the primary motivating factor for writing should not be the hopes that such writing will get nominated for foreign prizes. If the prizes come in the end, then writers can celebrate.

It is also important to encourage the new generation of African writers to find their voice and write without pandering to the style and narrative awarding institutions watch out for in African literature. Success for literary writers should not necessarily be measured by how many awards they win. Success can also be defined by how well one’s literary works meet the demands of one’s audiences. In defining African literature from a gender perspective, there are questions like: Should there be a special focus on writings by African women and for African women? Should we give special attention to writing by African women? Should there be dedicated support for grooming female African writers? These are sub-forms of larger questions of gender equality, equal opportunities for all, and feminism.

READ ALSO: Alternative Paths To Ghana’s Success

Cheru does not subscribe to the idea that African literary works should be segmented across gender lines. For her, some female-related African literary works are sponsored, and the sponsors have some narratives they want to foster. This puts writers under pressure to write what fits into the narrative, thus crippling their creative freedom, as the focus is placed on highlighting issues rather than writing naturally and on the basis that there is an audience that needs to be reached with the writer’s creative thought flows. Cheru also believes that there is a generalization of Africa-related cultural beliefs and values viz-a-viz the treatment and consideration of women. Of truth, several African traditional practices are flawed in their treatment and acknowledgment of the female gender. However, Cheru believes that the roots of these issues run deeper than what sponsored gender-based African literary works currently portray and that it is a multi-perspective issue that must be addressed.

There is also the need to strategically boost the visibility of African writers and African literature. All over the world, public places like airports and train stations and even hotels are good points of call for literary works; sadly, African literature is missing from the equation. There is the need to give visibility to African books in a way that shows we are ready to actively promote literature by our people. Rethinking African literature entails reforming African literary writers’ mindset, as well as the mentality toward African literature. African writers need to be more audience-aware, to better understand the trends in world literature and how to make Africa the centerpiece of those trends.

.This is the final interview report with a panel of African writers on August 7. For the transcripts: YouTube:

Facebook: https://fb.watch/eLOPycx-MF/)

 

Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

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Interview

Touching Base With Chido Onumah’s Perspectives On Nigeria’s 2023 Elections

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Counterterrorism, Technology, And Development In Africa

Touching Base with Chido Onumah's Perspectives On Nigeria's 2023 Elections

By Toyin Falola
The past few weeks’ events have made the forthcoming 2023 elections more of a reality to the average Nigerian than they were six months ago. As typical of every election period in Nigeria, there have been party defections; party primaries were rife with irregularities, reckless spending to win delegates over, and unbelievable sums of money doled out in a country touted to be the world’s poverty capital, where universities are currently shut because the academic staff union is at salary-and-allowances-inciting loggerheads with the government. Party flagbearers are emerging in all nooks and crannies of the country, and the scenes replay themselves yet again, as they always do during every election period in Nigeria.

On Sunday, May 22, 2022, we had one of the not-so-common editions of the Toyin Falola Interview Series. It was a discourse that featured veteran journalist and social commentator Dr. Chido Onumah alongside Dr. Jibrin Hussaini, Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, and Ms. Miriam Oke. It was an intellectually engaging evening that saw our guests extrapolate on some of the major issues that bedevil the Nigerian nation-state during election periods. Let us touch base with some of the points and perspectives Dr. Onumah shared.

Touching Base with Chido Onumah's Perspectives On Nigeria's 2023 Elections

The Role of Money in the 2023 Nigerian Elections
Money is the convenient and effective wheel on which many human endeavours run. Thus, we cannot rule out the need for money during elections. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) budgeted N305 billion for the 2023 General Elections, which is N70.5 billion more than the commission approved for the 2019 elections. Elections cost money — registering voters, acquiring electioneering materials and equipment, setting up registration centres and polling booths, and hiring temporary INEC workers. Spending before, during, and after the elections is necessary. Therefore, it must be a concern for a country like Nigeria if so much is spent on elections when there is little to nothing to show at the end.

Nevertheless, the nation’s election expenditure is not so much a concern compared to aspirants’ and parties’ spending on the electioneering process. As the government spends billions of naira trying to conduct “free, fair, and credible” elections, so do political aspirants and their parties spend billions of naira on winning party blocs, lobbying delegates, buying the electorate’s conscience and consciousness, among other election-winning and money-costing tactics. The recent primaries conducted within Nigeria’s two largest parties — the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — brought news on how aspirants spent money in reckless abandon, whether or not they were guaranteed their party’s ticket.

What preceded that: the cost of nomination and expression of interest forms across all parties, the highest being the APC’s N100 million demands from all presidential ticket hopefuls? This move raised questions that would ultimately lead to the conclusion that either the contestants have so deeply eaten into the public treasury — given how long many of them have been in the corridors of power — or they are hoping that buying the form would be an investment for which they would receive massive returns if they win the election or get appointed as a minister or for some other political seats.

Yet, purchasing the grossly expensive forms is a baby step the average Nigerian politician needs to take for the 2023 elections. As per calculations, the average presidential aspirant would need over N1 billion to monitor election proceedings and ensure ballots are cast on election day. Additionally, my team and I have calculated the financial costs of properly setting up an independent political party in Nigeria, with all the structures that can help a party gain grounds and win elections. Our calculations resulted in a whopping N200 billion. This shows the high amount of money that goes to electioneering in Nigeria, even when there is hardly any buzz or signs of life in these parties, especially the non-ruling ones, within the three years between every ante-election an election year in Nigeria.

The role of money in Nigerian politics is an all-important one, and Onumah had interesting points to share about the 2023 elections. He touched on how politics has become Nigeria’s major and most lucrative business, making the aftermath of the reckless spending during electioneering periods of much more concern than the actual spending. For Onumah, several Nigerian politicians are in the “business” of politics as a form of investment, knowing that political power offers them the proverbial Midas’ touch to get everything and anything they want. And that point cannot be lost on us, seeing that a position as that of an appointed Accountant-General of the country could conveniently divert billions of naira of public funds to private coffers.

Onumah related the issues of this fast-growing and widespread Nigerian political business to the anomalies of the Nigerian state structure. If the reward for holding political offices in Nigeria were not as huge as it currently is — in terms of salary, sitting allowances, security votes, and constituency allowance, among other huge chunks of unwarranted bonuses that Nigerian elected and appointed public office holders to enjoy — and if there were systems in place that rightly and equitably punish corrupt officials, politicians would not invest so much to get into political offices.

Another valid case that Onumah made for the huge financial resources that go into electioneering in Nigeria is that the financially popular and “open-handed” political aspirant is more likely to win elections in Nigeria. Simply put, the more you can give, your chances of winning are higher. This is not unrelated to how practically impossible it is for the citizens to benefit from the dividends of democracy, such as job-creating and economy-stabilizing policies. The people know that politicians only mingle with the masses and come around to gauge the citizens’ plights during electioneering periods; thus, citizens are willing to take whatever they can from the politicians during campaigns and elections, even if it means suffering the consequences for four years or more.

The need to satisfy citizens by reinforcing their stomach infrastructure during the electioneering process is another reason money plays an important role in elections in Nigeria. Videos and news stories from the party primaries have shown the huge amount of money politicians have spent to convince a few hundred delegates in their parties to vote for them. One can then begin to mentally project how much more they would need to convince millions of people to get them to their political destination come 2023.

Touching Base with Chido Onumah's Perspectives On Nigeria's 2023 Elections

Will 2023 Bring True Change, Or Will It Be a Waste of Time and Resources?
Undeniably, Nigerians have been scarred. After the huge failure of the Goodluck Jonathan government in several aspects, including security and the national economy, the APC ran one of the most successful PR campaigns in Nigeria, selling the citizens on the status, integrity, and identity of Muhammadu Buhari, who would bring change to the country. Seven years later, the citizens have experienced nothing short of a disturbing and devastating change. This charring, caused by the Buhari administration, led to a poor voter turnout in the 2019 presidential election compared to the 2015 election.

This time, the 2023 presidential election will be similar to the 2015 presidential election. The citizens are tired of the Buhari-led government’s baggage and are yearning for a more refreshing leadership. This would, in turn, lead to a surge in the number of voters, as there has been an increase in the clamour for voters’ registration among frustrated citizens. However, would the citizens have wasted their time and resources at the polls when they turn out for the 2023 presidential election, with hopes in hand and ballot papers inked for whom they think fit the task?

According to Dr. Onumah, to consider things in general terms, the 2023 elections would be a waste of the electorate’s time because the issues bedevilling the country are foundational, so much so that no matter how qualified the next president is, he or she would not be able to do a good job of getting the nation back on track within the constitutionally stipulated timeframe. The problems Nigeria is currently facing, including the immolation of Deborah Samuel in the North and the cold-blooded murder of a military couple in the East, indicate Nigeria is bitterly divisive. It is akin to a couple who, although not divorced, have a troubled home where they fight bitterly and hurt each other dangerously. Separated, yet not legally divorced, and still living under the same roof. Of course, this analogy only briefly compares to what is currently plaguing the Nigerian nation-state.

READ ALSO: 2023 Election: Buhari’s Opportunity To Win

Despite these divisive issues in Nigeria, there has been no pin drop in the camps of the Nigerians contesting to be the nation’s president in 2023. They are far more buried in their aspirations and the repercussion of commenting on ethnically and religiously motivated actions like Deborah’s gruesome murder and the killing of the army couple. Nigeria is faced with so many internal issues, so much so that in Onumah’s opinion, the best that could happen to Nigeria now is for its next president to serve as a transitional president who would raise discussions and make moves about the structure and nature of the country and on the amendment of the constitution, to mention a few. For Onumah, the Buhari government has worsened matters bordering on national unity and cohesion; thus, the 2023 president has to be able to act as a transition president to help us touch on those painful, deep-seated, and foundational issues that the country is seriously avoiding but which need to be resurfaced and resolved, without which we cannot progress.

But then, what is the possibility of the 2023 president acting as a transition president? History shows us that Nigerian political officeholders are too selfish. As a result, it would be practically impossible to have any of the 2023 presidential aspirants consider themselves as the forerunner of another government that will benefit from and ride on the glory of the fruits that the expected turbulence of the next four years would bring. Nigeria is in disarray, and it is more than disheartening to see that the citizens and the political class seemingly live in different worlds within the same country.

READ  ALSO: Can Peter Obi Win The Presidential Election In 2023?

While the people writhe and languish in pains brought by ethnoreligious and socio-political divisions, the political class, which is only one small class — regardless of the façade represented by political parties, religions, or ethnic groups — continues to make beneficial alignments and arrangements to further steal from the nation’s treasury and render the citizens lonely and miserable. They spend recklessly, to the point that it is difficult to believe that within the same country touted as the world’s poverty capital are political office holders who command several billions of naira and can easily afford to dole out tens of thousands of dollars per delegate to hundreds of delegates. As the 2023 elections approach, Nigerian citizens need to know that there are several issues. Despite how the political class disguised as stupid and clueless in their deeds and public appearances or bloopers, they are wise and calculating. They are the new crop of oppressors who took over from the colonisers, and if anything, history tells us that oppressors do all in their power to keep the oppressed on a leash.

Though democracy gives power to the people, what is practised in Nigeria is far from being a democratic system. Thus, as the people increasingly become politically conscious, strategize, and plan for a better tomorrow, the political class is also assiduously making moves to throw clogs in the wheel and bring the nation to a grounding halt or a non-stop retrogressive movement. May they not succeed in their mission! Amen.

. This is the second report on the interview held on May 22, 2022, on the 2023 elections in Nigeria. The views of our distinguished panelists have traveled wide and have been reported in several newspapers.
For the transcript, see:

YouTube: https://youtube.com/watch?v=VJP3CfnlC28
Facebook https://fb.watch/daf9NQxuml/

Falola is a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies. He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

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Interview

Rethinking African Literature

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The Toyin Falola Interviews

Panel Discussion On African Literature (2)

Rethinking African Literature
By Toyin Falola

Every culture has its agencies of cultural and information transmission, written, spoken or demonstrated through various means. At one point or the other, nearly all civilizations of the world have depended on the spoken medium to communicate their thoughts and ideas. The evolution of other means came with the innovation of technology, the earliest one being orthography itself. With the invention of writing, information preservation and exchanges changed radically. People now have the opportunity to preserve their knowledge and immortalize their ideas through the agency of the new technology―writing.

Notably, this revolutionary development began in many places simultaneously, but the character of writing differed from culture to culture. For example, the primordial African civilizations had an orthographic system, but that knowledge was not widespread. Only people who belonged to a particular group knew to decode information lurked in their writing then, but such an approach to information preservation was not embraced in some other societies. Rather than being secretive, some civilizations opened their orthography to their populace, and writing became an instrument of communication. Consequently, literature became redefined. Beyond the pedestrian definition of literature as a body of written works, the concept is associated with the process of documenting one’s worldview and cultural orientations and customs by adding some creative ideas to support the argument made in the works.

To this extent, literature became an instrument of cultural or political re-engineering that (re)conditions the people’s psychological domain for various purposes. In essence, reading some literary text can progressively change one’s ideological convictions. If used in this case, literature would be a veritable instrument for controlling a people’s mind. In some other cases, when literature documents people’s past experiences, arts, and culture, it is believed to have been used as a compass for history to give people the opportunity to connect with their past and make sense of their evolving present. After colonialism, many African writers entered into the business of writing literary works, banking on their cultural resources as the materials of their intellectual productions. Unlike the past oral communication system used with their audience, written literature gradually displaced oral literature with its peculiarities and sociological imports.

Rethinking African Literature

With the aggressive progression of technology in the twentieth century, the world seemed to have faced another imminent transformation of the practice of storytelling, not through writing alone this time, but through visual and virtual interaction. Technology has made it inescapable to organize the exchanges of information, cultural ideas, and intellectual creativity using the digital technology manifested in internet culture, cloud computing and technology, and ICT. Meanwhile, it is noted that African literature, which earlier on graduated from predominantly spoken form to written ones, has suffered mutilations and injuries that many scholars have sometimes suggested that some form of surgical treatment should be recommended. Some have argued that this treatment should be linguistic remodelling, where the African language would be used as the means of the interface in writing. But African languages are numerous, and using several of them would betray its political mission (to challenge the hegemon), particularly as it was a response not to the Africans but to the controlling imperialists. This phase of African literature passed, but the challenges remain—African literary writers battle with this when education moves from the physical to the virtual world. To be relevant in that evolution, their literature must shift to reflect this.

Suppose African literature continues to make meaning to the people and connect with the rising generation whose lifestyle revolves around the internet and the ICT. In that case, writers must come to terms with writing and use the available medium to transfer their information. We should not make a hasty conclusion that because global literature has evolved from what it used to be to what it is today and Africans are gradually incorporating their literary productions into these systems, the problems lurking around African literature have suddenly disappeared. More problems can be imagined; the problems have been redefined and have become deadlier than before. For example, this conclusion is triggered by the awareness that there are challenges with accurately containing the cultural traditions and expressions that people want to make and the challenge of semiotic inadequacies that literature expressed in another language would bring. These problems do not disappear; they have been recreated into the current system that humans now operate with. The gravity of their challenge in the survival of African literature would be understood when one realizes that the younger generation has no preferences other than the internet, and their access to information stored there would mean they will be re-engineered in some ways.

Consider that the cartoon field is another potent literary mine that scholars are mining in contemporary times. Meanwhile, in some ways, cartoons represent a collapse of cultural ideas built into a technological system for consumption. African children, as innocent as they are, become active foragers of the internet, and social media, among others, to seek cartoons that will provide them with relaxation and knowledge. Cartoon stories are generally similar to the Afrocentric storytelling of the pre-colonial time when aged people arranged willing audiences and began to relay important messages to them. Through stories, these children were introduced to their society’s philosophical, cultural and ideological bloodstream, where they accessed a body of information and then used it to build their intellectual system. This practice has been remodelled into the internet, and the narrator of these stories is, in most cases, not the African aged that used to dish out knowledge to their people. It is the western narrators who build narratives that will condition the minds of readers and make them Western in orientation. The children will become enablers of colonization because they were exposed predominantly to cultural ideas that were not African. To challenge this, African literature deserves a rethinking.

The benefits of moulding the African child this way are manifold. The information acquired and stored at their tender age will always be with them for a very long time. They will continue to navigate their existence with the information they have taken in during their formative years. In essence, getting them to understand African philosophical leanings, religious identities, cultural traditions, moral values, and collective virtues will help them develop a permanent ideological base that will help them when they meet different cultural perspectives in the future. There is the possibility that Africans have continued to distance themselves from the cultural inheritance in the understanding that they are weak and perhaps subordinate to others. However, the perspective will not remain the same if they are worked on earlier than imagined.

Meanwhile, the literature of a people continues to prove itself as the best instrument with which they can redesign their lives. Access to the culture through technology will have a multiplier effect on the people and their political existentialism. For instance, they will be able to develop inventions on the internet that are useful to reveal other aspects of African culture to the world while simultaneously influencing world affairs in some ways. All these are inherent advantages that underlie rethinking the literature.

Beyond the transformation of written literature into the digital one is the understanding that writers of African narratives should challenge the status quo with their works. Writers across all generations have different epistemic battles that they must engage in so that the African identity will not die. There was a time the Empire wrote back to the European imperialists to correct the erroneous notions about the African people and their cultural inclinations. During that time, the collective attention of writers was drawn to the exploration of various African civilizations and cultures for proper documentation. It appeared during the period that a chunk of the history and great efforts of the pre-colonial African people have been displaced, distorted by false narratives, or lost completely in some cases. Therefore, continuing to listen to the perspectives of the colonizers about their identity was similar to watching serial assassins subjecting one’s relatives to homicidal adventures.

Apart from the emotional problems one would get from that experience, the psychological consequences cannot be overemphasized. In essence, the period experienced the surge of literary activities that wrestled and won the freedom to existence that Africans would later enjoy. Interestingly, the contemporary generation has a different assignment. The writer in the African context is naturally saddled with the responsibility of seeking to renegotiate African identity through their works as they have suffered untold injuries and severe injustices at the hands of external visitors. Despite this glaring responsibility, the quest for economic and financial stability also cuts in the way of excellently discharging their duties to the motherland.

By dwelling essentially on the diaspora experiences, these writers sometimes find themselves in the murky water of using the West as the nucleus of their writing. This unavoidably leaves the African people, culture, concern, agitations, and cause to be left unattended or given minimum attention. Meanwhile, helpless African culture suffers from the vestiges of corruption and humanitarian atrocities perpetrated, if not exclusively by their bad leaders, but also in collaboration with foreign companies. Problems continue in their countries while writers pick topics that suit Western literary markets to satisfy the urge for capitalist culture at the detriment of the in-house Africans undergoing pestilence, poverty, pensive violence, and violation of unknown magnitude.

Here, some scholars have come up with the idea of disruptive narratives. This is an evolving concept that depicts the employment of narratives to inspire social changes and revolutions by producing works that reveal social injustices and political ineffectiveness that have fostered poverty and diseases of an unknown kind; narratives that empower the people by identifying the underlying greatness in coming together for the restoration of social justice and values; and narratives that educate people about their fundamental responsibilities and the rights that come with them. All of these are ways contemporary literary writers are considering rethinking African literature.

One can logically ask where or how African writers fit in. The layers of undemocratic challenges facing African people come first from their intellectual deficit about the histories and cultures of their forebears, which would otherwise have given them the materials with which they could structure a strong civilization. The problems facing the people are not unconnected to the fact that culturally, they are gradually becoming orphans, making them powerless to construct social bonds that can be used to repudiate all social immoralities that have plagued the continent.

Technology is a great addition to the world, but Africans’ addiction to it brings cultural entrapment. And then we ask, in all of these, what is the role of a critic, or in a more defined form, what makes the writer different from the critic? Writers are the gifted individuals who gather resources together, process and transform them into abstract products ready for intellectual consumption. They refine these resources by sifting out the ones considered harmful for consumption by the people. However, there has been a surge of African writers as there are limitless cultural and ideological resources from which they can draw for their creative enterprise. They have continued to forage into the past African epistemological terrain, ontological reality and moral principles as the base of their works.

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To that extent, some African writers fit into the definition of creative writers whose works are inspired by the almost unending histories of their forebears and the great exploits that usually stand them out, among others. Their contemporary stories are tailored along the foundational ideals, principles, and knowledge handed down with a semiotic intelligence. Thus, one can take African fictional work and begin to draw out interpretations irrespective of the generation in question. Writers are seen as intelligent creators who have the vision of their community imposed as surveillance on their creativity, guiding them in the process of their artful engagement. However, the critic at the end of the rope interprets the work of arts using theoretical understanding and suppositions as the compass for interpretative engagements. These theories are an accumulation of ideas or sets of them that explain observed facts or situations. Although the professional assignment of the critic and the writer differs in this context, both of them appear to indulge in deep intellectual gymnastics. A critic’s interpretation is thus different from a layman’s reading, underscored by the fact that they use different interrogation techniques from other people.

In African literature, there has been controversy about the importance of a critic using Western theoretical understanding and knowledge to interpret African literature. The argument is that if theories are a set of ideas that explain a phenomenon, how can European facts or phenomena that differ in character and approach to African experience be adequate in interpreting the African narrative and, by implication, the African world? To understand the beauty of this argument, one cannot but look at the composition, the thematic, the epistemic, and the soul of African literature and see how glaringly different they are from their Western counterparts.

In addition, the critic, as opposed to the writer, has the opportunity to get rewarded even in schools and institutions. In many universities, they are employed as faculty members who take students through academic engagements to increase their intellectual values. It, therefore, opens the writers to the destructive hands of politics. Apart from the possibility of insufficient reinforcement for producing intellectually stimulating narratives, the writer may not attract much attention to be employed in corporate organizations for their skills. The logic in that situation is denied its voice as people find nothing bad in having writers relegated to the background as opposed to the critics who use their works. Therefore, when we talk about rethinking literature, we must accommodate thoughts and conversations that address these issues. For instance, some have argued that the writers place themselves at a vulnerable point when they fail to capitalize on their skills as their income sources. They can deliberately withhold their intellectual property if the necessary bodies do not recognize them. The underlying problems in this thinking are numerous, including the fact that the writer is a writer because they are motivated by the action of writing. In other words, they choose that trajectory to fulfil their potential. Critics perform differently as they give meaning to works already perfected by the writers.

Rethinking African Literature

At a grand level, rethinking African literature without reconsidering the language of expression would amount to a fruitless engagement frustrated by the unwillingness to address critical issues. Language is central to the propagation of literature. Apart from being the instrument through which writers send information to their audience, it facilitates understanding of what is being transferred from writers to the world. Notably, the current global community has seen the brutal hands of globalization occasioned by the imperialists’ continued determination to promote and enhance capitalism. Extending one’s economic and political domination to others a few centuries ago led to the large-scale imposition of colonial languages to the world, where colonies were forced to embrace respective language reservations. They continued in the assimilation of the Western languages and their culture, which brought about the postcolonial extension of this extant domination.

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African languages have been subjected to the pressure of every kind. Apart from being considered inadequate and unwanted in handing down the information and knowledge of its epistemic environment, they are also derided based on their international acceptability. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the African writers have been compelled to write in the language of their colonizers for one reason or the other. So, if we are considering rethinking African literature, the place of language deserves respect in that conversation. In the distant and proximal history, African scholars have engaged in this controversial debate where leading African creative writers hold an opposing side of the intellectual debate. Some concede that colonial languages can be domesticated and, in some situations, redacted. The ones in this category believe they are themselves products of postcolonial knot and were exposed to only the colonial languages in their development process. It would, therefore, be as counter-productive as it is impractical to use a language for which one lacks the necessary professionalism to pass across their messages.

Furthermore, their ambition to correct the erroneous impression of the West would be immediately frustrated when they wrote in a language their targets do not understand. In other words, the West would be barely convinced (although I am confused as to understand the logic in convincing the West in the first place) of the intellectual capacity of the African people. Those on the other side argue that writing in the colonial language alienates the people from the resources from which writing is drawn. It begs the question if the focus that compelled the African people to write back to the West is still the dominant focus of their texts today.

.This is the interview report with a panel of African writers on August 7. For the transcripts: YouTube:

Facebook: https://fb.watch/eLOPycx-MF/)

 

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