Monica Cheru On Rethinking African Literature
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.
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?
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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.
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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:
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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Touching Base With Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi’s Perspectives On Nigeria’s 2023 Elections
By Toyin Falola
Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi is a well-versed law professor, international relations activist, and commentator. It was delightful to have her join us, alongside Miriam Oke, Chido Onumah, and Jibrin Hussaini, at the last edition of the Toyin Falola Interviews, where we discussed Nigeria’s 2023 elections.
If anything, the primaries being organised in the nation’s two most influential parties, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress, are pointers to what should be expected of the 2023 Nigerian elections. As is customary, the primaries have been rife with electoral malpractices, vote-buying, and unscrupulous voting figures, and there is a shocking video posted on Twitter by Bashir Ahmad, former Personal Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on New Media, who lost his bid to secure the ticket of the APC to contest for a seat in the House of Representatives primaries in his home state of Kano. The video shows how supposed delegates are handed pre-ticked ballot boxes and are asked to put them in the ballot box without even batting an eyelid at the malpractice.
The ball is being set in motion. Atiku Abubakar is the People’s Democratic Party flag bearer for the presidential seat. The All Progressives Congress has recently screened its presidential hopefuls and will soon appoint its flagbearer. Peter Obi, who defected from the People’s Democratic Party to the Labour Party and has since been elected as the party’s flagbearer for the presidential seat, is a seeming third wheel in the routine two-dominant-party multi-party system practised in the country. The stage is set. Or is it?
This piece is not much of a sequel to the one on Chido Onumah’s perspectives on the 2023 elections because Dr Akiyode-Afolabi had her unique views on the questions asked. Nonetheless, it will follow a similar pattern, where we will examine points touched on by Dr Akiyode-Afolabi during the interview.
Electoral Violence and Nigeria’s 2023 Elections
Sad as it may seem, electoral violence is an immemorial issue rocking the Nigerian state. Throughout all its republics, Nigeria has witnessed killings and maiming during election periods — whether at the polling booths on election day or among political rivals setting targets on each other’s backs. Nigeria’s electoral process is peculiar, involving the recruitment of violent electoral mercenaries, often branded as party thugs. These thugs sign off their loyalty to a political party and wreak havoc on the party’s behalf — from ballot snatching to intimidating voters to bow to their party’s will.
In the Nigerian political scene, these party thugs sit with political kings. They are deemed crucial to the electoral process and candidates’ success. The recruitment and payment of these party thugs consume huge financial resources. However, political leaders and public officeholders fail to consider the expected uselessness of the party thugs within the governance period of three to four years that separate pre-election and election years. Having tasted ill-gotten wealth that far surpasses what they could have earned honestly, and without any honest and paying job, these party thugs resort to all sorts of vice to pay their bills and keep themselves in shape. Thus, it is not uncommon to find that party thugs become robbers, kidnappers, bandits, and street-terrorising thugs who incessantly cut holes through the state’s peace, security, and quiet.
In most cases, we would rather relate the incessant kidnappings and unrest to unknown gunmen or herdsmen-bandits rather than the true perpetrators of the evil — anarchical party thugs with weapons they were equipped with during the election period. Thus, the rivalry for power and politicians’ insatiable desire for control, regardless of the extent they go to get it, could be strongly linked to the violent crises that have rocked the country for a while now.
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For Dr Akiyode-Afolabi, violent political mercenaries in Nigeria and the political aspirants and parties who are their enablers act out of an abundant enjoyment of sheer impunity — the knowledge that they can do and undo, wreak whatever havoc they want to, without bearing the consequences. Although several of the perpetrators of this electoral violence are known, nothing is done to bring them to justice, further reinforcing the need to carry out their vice during the next election. Over the years, electoral violence has become a norm in Nigeria, and nothing is being done to curb the menace, especially in punishing the perpetrators. Thus, the electorate have joined the camp of political aspirants and political thugs who see electoral violence as part of the electioneering process in Nigeria. For members of the electorate who have difficulty processing electoral violence as a part of the electioneering process, the option of apathy kicks to the surface — especially among women and the youth who earnestly believe politics in Nigeria is a dirty game, and electoral violence is inevitable. Thus, it is not surprising that Nigeria has had a low voter turnout over the years.
The case of electoral violence and the state’s reaction to it is like several other policies in Nigeria. While the Electoral Act was proactively drafted to cover electoral violence and how to punish offenders and culprits, there has not been any action to make that part of the Act functional. It is akin to the numerous nation-improving policies whose existence has never gone beyond the paper. If we were to dig to the roots of why the aspect of the Nigerian Electoral Act that punishes electoral violence has not been enforced, we would be quick to find out that the average Nigerian politician is either directly or indirectly complicit. Thus, those at the helm and those willing to take over from them are all involved, making them reluctant to enforce the punishment for electoral violence, that is, if they consider punishing the crime at all.
Nigeria’s Three-faced Need and the Importance of a Long-term Agenda
The need for a long-term agenda should not be misconstrued as supporting the cabalistic unending Northern presidency agenda or any other agenda that does not mean well for Nigeria as a nation. Rather, it represents Dr Akiyode-Afolabi’s thoughts on what is truly needed to get Nigeria out of its current quagmire. The international relations activist considers the 2023 elections in Nigeria a big issue for the country, particularly because there are more people interested in the presidential position than we have had in quite a while. Nonetheless, most of these aspirants are people who have either held a political position or currently hold one. They are people we know so well. Given their deeds while in office, it will be difficult to convince any right-thinking Nigerian that there is hope for the country if any of the candidates being paraded were elected as president.
The double tragedy that is Buhari’s eight years in office has seen the country go from bad to worse. The country’s debts keep piling up, with no way of repaying them year after year. The people are impoverished, and the currency continually suffers a blow of worthlessness and devaluation, inflation, and the unemployment rate keeps rising. To make matters worse are the rife killings, banditry, and the near state of anarchy that the country has been thrown into. Has any of the numerous candidates aspiring for the presidential seat shown they are the visionary yet pragmatic leaders that can help Nigeria realise a remarkable positive change?
Careful consideration of the likeliest players at the 2023 polls, vis-à-vis the criterion above, would show that Nigeria is not prepared for an election. Dr Akiyode-Afolabi proposed a three-aspect strategy to help us discover a new Nigeria. These are aspects that cannot be fully realised within a four-year term. Thus, there is the need for Nigerian politicians, regardless of their differences—although there are no marked differences in Nigerian politics—to consider government as a continuum and treat it as such. This will help ensure that even if power falls to the opposition camp, the remarkable and change-focused plans that have been kicked into action by the previous government will continue to be nurtured by the new government. This is the only way we can fully realise the three-dimensional solution proposed by Dr Akiyode-Afolabi.
Dr Akiyode-Afolabi’s first proposed dimension is the need for an empowered political class. The Nigerian political field is riddled with whimsical people who are of the anything-goes breed as long as they get elected to office. That is why serial defection is nothing to them, and they can shamelessly befriend a foe today and betray a friend tomorrow. They are overly selfish lot who constantly put personal needs and gains before national needs and expected gains. The Nigerian political class needs to be empowered enough to engage the electorate in an ideological and issue-based manner. A look at the pre-campaign clamouring in the camps of the presidential aspirants will show that they think so little of Nigerians that they believe not much is needed in the way of plans and strategies to convince the people. It is also why Nyensom Wike, who lost his party’s presidential ticket, deemed it fit to incessantly chant, “give me power… power!” To him, that was enough to get him the ticket to become Nigeria’s next president.
The coming months will show us lamentable political campaigns with no depth, so shallow that every reasonable Nigerian would be too ashamed to identify with a country where such gimmicks pass as enough campaign to convince the people to vote for someone. There is a need to empower citizens and help kick structures in place to organise Nigerians and help them truly understand what they want. Nigeria has so much suffered from poor governance that asking the average electorate what they expect from the aspirants — what they look forward to hearing that could convince them to vote for an aspirant — would most likely render them stammering.
In Nigeria, constitutional reformation is of great necessity. The Nigerian Constitution has outlived its essence. What use is a constitution if it does not amply meet the state’s needs nor adequately answer its citizens’ burning questions? The systems of the constitution no longer effectively serve us as a nation, which is why there have been agitations and clamouring for secession, restructuring, regionalisation, and central policing, among other issues raised. In the end, until Nigeria intentionally kicks these three dimensions into action, and until there are successive tenures that consider the government as a continuum and reach a knowing agreement to nurture and not impede the realisation of the three-dimensional issue, a new and positive Nigeria will be anything but reality.
- *** This is the third and final 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:
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