Rethinking African Literature
The Toyin Falola Interviews
Panel Discussion On African Literature (2)
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.
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.
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:
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Toyin Falola Interviews Holds Conversation With Kunle Afolayan
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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