Soyinka Prize In Iliteracy
On 13 July 2018, the 84th birthday of Olumo Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I honour him by revisiting a debate that is raging on the Internet over what many call my misreading of his work, especially with reference to my interpretation of his play, Death and King’s Horseman
On 13 July 2018, the 84th birthday of Olumo Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I honoured him by revisiting a debate that is raging on the Internet over what many call my misreading of his work, especially with reference to my interpretation of his play, Death and King’s Horseman. Literary experts have been marvelling about the “Author’s Note” that accompanies Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka.
Most playwrights leave it to the directors and producers of the play to interpret it as they wish but Soyinka was worried that most experts were misreading the play. He took the unusual authoritarian step of stipulating how the play should be interpreted but the critics appear not to notice and have continued to misread the play, in my own humble opinion. Soyinka left clues that would guide readers to decode his original intention in writing the play but most literary critics miss the point and some accuse me of being the mis-reader.
The very first sentence in the author’s note may have led many critics astray by stating that the play is based on real historical “events which took place in Oyo”, which the author defined as “an ancient Yoruba city of Nigeria”. This is misleading in a number of ways that literary critics should have been able to understand. To say that the events took place in 1946 would be to localise the time and space of the dramatic events whereas in the world of theatre, events do not take place exclusively in the setting but also on every stage where the play is produced.
Soyinka expected that literary theorists would understand that the playscript is not simply an archival document or ethnographic report but the work of original creation even when based on real events.
The play was not expected to be read, as the verbatim report of a tragic case that took place once upon a time. This is true of all works of creative writing that are supposed to be inventive no matter how much resemblance there may be between fiction and reality. In fact, many writers include a disclaimer that that any resemblance to real events was unintentional. As a matter of fact, the same can be said about reality genres that are full of inventions too. Soyinka clearly stated in the first paragraph of his author’s note that he made “changes” in the narrative “in matters of detail, sequence and of course characterisation”.
He also informed the illiterate critics that he deliberately set the play back a few years “while the war was still on, for minor reasons of dramaturgy.” Here, Soyinka is guiding the would-be producer away from a simplistic historical interpretation of the play as being only relevant to the case of 1946 given that dramaturgy grants artistic license that defies the laws of historical specificity. In addition, Soyinka may have misled the interpreters of the play by saying that Oyo was an “ancient Yoruba city of Nigeria”. Here he could be challenged by historians who may point out that Oyo was an ancient Yoruba Empire and not simply a city and that by 1946, it was no longer simply a Yoruba city but a multicultural one.
Moreover, nothing “of Nigeria” can be said to be ancient because Nigeria itself is a modernist invention by colonisers. The hint about the Nigerian setting of the play should have encouraged the critics to understand that the play is not only about a Yoruba tragedy but about a Nigerian tragedy. The reference to “while the war was still on” should have massaged the memory of the critics to remind them that the play was published only five years after a tragic genocidal war in Nigeria in which Yoruba elites played a leading aggressive role along with other ethnic elites in Nigeria. This play, in my lay opinion, is better understood, as part of the soul-searching by Soyinka after he was released from solitary confinement for opposing the genocidal war against the Igbo. Why were highly educated Yoruba leaders the ones who cheered on the genocide against the Igbo in Biafra?
Also, Soyinka indicated that those who were interested only in the factual account of the case of 1946 should go and read it in the British National Archives in Kew. He also pointed out that those who wanted to read a more exact historical re-enactment of the case should consult the “fine play in Yoruba (Oba Waja) by Duro Ladipo”. In other words, Death and the King’s Horseman is not that kind of historical re-enactment nor is it the kind of “misbegotten’ German television film about the case. The play was a more urgent intervention while Soyinka was in exile following the end of the war and his release from solitary confinement for having the audacity to oppose tyranny. Unlike his other plays, he did not wait for the play to be produced before he published it. I believe that Soyinka was directly and indirectly challenging his fellow Nigerian intellectuals to account for their opportunism in supporting a genocidal war that took 3.1 million lives in 30 months.
In the third paragraph of the author’s note, Soyinka declared that the “bane of themes of this genre” is that once the text appears, “they acquire the facile tag of ‘clash of cultures’”. He rejected such a label as “prejudicial” in the sense that it is prone to “frequent misapplication” and also because the label “presupposes” a potential equality in every given situation between the cultures of the coloniser and the colonised “on the actual soil of the latter”. Soyinka went on to award “the overseas prize in illiteracy and mental conditioning” to the writer of the blurb of the American edition of his novel, Season of Anomy, for “unblushingly” stating that the novel is about the “clash between old values and new ways, between western methods and African traditions”.
Soyinka explained that it is due to “this kind of perverse mentality” that he was forced to warn future producers (and critics) of the play to avoid “a sadly familiar reductionist tendency” and instead attempt to capture the “the far more difficult and risky task of eliciting the play’s threnodic essence.” Experts on the work of Soyinka are baffled by this injunction and wonder openly what he was banging on about? What is Soyinka trying to hide? He was trying to reveal something.
I offer the original interpretation that Soyinka was referring to the genocide against the Igbo which was the theme of the novel that he referred to, Season of Anomy, in which he recounted the eye-witness account of how fellow Nigerians hunted down tens of thousands of innocent Igbo men, women and children and massacred them in a pogrom that led to the secession of the Eastern region and the intensification of the genocide. In that novel, he mocked the archaeologists for poking around in search of fossilised bones while fresh blood flowed like river in the country and they did not seem to be bothered.
He also challenged the sociologists who came with “erudite irrelevances” about marriage and divorce but refused to join him in opposing a genocidal war. The novel depicted the Marxists who were locked up in a mental asylum as phrase-mongers who failed to recognise the revolutionary situation in the country and instead rallied in support of the genocidal military dictatorship rather than turn the civil war into a liberation war. To suggest that the novel was about the clash of cultures was a strategy to condition the mentality of Nigerian intellectuals towards the acceptance of the propaganda that the Igbo who led the struggle for decolonisation were primitive tribalists perhaps because they had no chiefs while the ethnic groups that ganged up against them were more civilised because they were monarchical, according to the ideologues of colonial domination.
Walter Rodney also observed that to call the genocide against the Igbo a tribal war would be to call Shell BP a tribe (along with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) and Ikenna Nzimiro argued that the Marxists in Biafra were engaged in class struggles. The “threnodic essence” of the play refers to funeral songs in Greek tragedies and I believe that Soyinka was inviting the producers of the play to imagine a national mourning for the 3.1 million killed in Biafra that the country has refused to mourn. Agwuncha Arthur Nwankwo has been calling for a National Day of Igbo Mourning to be recognised by the Nigerian government as part of the atonement.
In the final paragraph of the author’s note, Soyinka observed that an alternative structuralist interpretation of the play is to see it as a cruel joke on the British colonial District Officer. He quickly dismissed such a reading as distasteful and added that he deliberately avoided writing dialogue or scenes that would support such a misinterpretation. He dictated that, “No attempt should be made in production to suggest it”. This sounds like an angry response to critics who choose to misread his works for ideological reasons while ignoring the concrete conditions that his works address.
A prominent Marxist literary theorist that I admire, Biodun Jeyifo, who is an expert on the work of Soyinka, was invited by the British Broadcasting Corporation to write about any work of literature that he saw as being representative of the global culture. He chose to write beautifully about Death and the King’s Horseman, as an anti-colonial play that tried to subvert the use of the Queen’s English by creating a “future” tradition of the Anglophone that was more figurative than the English language.
He invoked the work of Marxist cultural studies by Raymond Williams and by Stuart Hall to suggest that the other Englishes around the world serve to subvert the domination of the world by Standard English. I pointed out that his interpretation is too superficial for a Marxist because the “thredonic essence” of the play was not to show that Africans could speak English better than the English. I suggested that a cultural studies reading of the play would not have focused exclusively on the beautiful writing or language of the play but would have tried to see the challenge to monarchism and oppressive traditions in the play.
Jeyifo told me privately that I should go and read the play again because it is not against the monarchy or against ritual suicide but simply against the colonial domination of African cultures. I admitted that I could be accused of misreading the play but I called it a strategic misreading and wondered if it is possible for an expert on the work of Soyinka to misread it. Soyinka seems to think so and that is the whole point of his detailed telling off of the experts in his author’s note.
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Contrary to the claim that Death and the King’s Horseman is only an anti-colonial play, Soyinka concluded his author’s note by stating that, “The Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely.” To him, the central “confrontation” or conflict that he tried to resolve in the play was “metaphysical” in the sense that it played out in the world of “the Yoruba mind – the world of the living, the dead and the unborn, and the numinous passages which links all: transition”.
Soyinka was puzzling about the metaphysics of the Yoruba worldview that made it possible for the best educated characters in the play to be the ones who cheered most vociferously for Elesin to abide by the tradition that expected him to kill himself in honour of a dead king. Similarly, Soyinka was wondering why the best educated Yoruba were the cheer-leaders of the genocide against the Igbo. Soyinka advised producers to try and capture this tragedy by using music to represent the macabre dance to the “music from the abyss” by the intellectuals who danced while millions were being slaughtered in Biafra.
I am not an expert in dramaturgy but I love the work of Soyinka. I cited his essay on Neo-Tarzanism in my criticism of the film, Black Panther, which I called an example of neo-Tarzanism. Following the serialisation of the criticism, I was invited by the KPFK public radio in Los Angeles to discuss the film with an Ethiopian publisher and an African American director of the Pan African Film Festival. During the discussion, the Ethiopian said that we should not condemn the presence of monarchies in Africa because there were popular emperors such as Mansa Musa and Haile Selessie who were admired by Africans and by the African diaspora.
The director of the Pan African Film Festival questioned my reference to Soyinka because he saw Death and the King’s Horseman as an indication that Soyinka was a monarchist who supported even the tradition that the horseman should commit suicide to honour the dead king. As Killmonger asked derisively in the film, I asked, this is your king? I stated that Soyinka used that play and almost every play of his to undermine the institution of the monarchy and call for democracy, which he is on record as admiring in Igbo culture. He spared the life of the Horseman in the play and his other tragedies – Kongi’s Harvest, Madmen and Specialists, King Babu; his novels, his poetry and his memoirs all support my interpretation of his anti-monarchical orientation.
Since the experts who have studied his work have focused almost exclusively on the structuralism, I propose to offer a post-structuralist or deconstruction radicalisation of his body of work to show that the tragedy of the state violence especially against the Igbo is at the centre of the conflicts that he has been trying to resolve. Just as the genocidal war was waged without a cease fire for humanitarian interventions, the author coincidentally instructs on page 8 of Death and the King’s Horseman that “The play should run without an interval.”
I agree with critics who will charge that I am misreading Soyinka here. If so, I will admit to a strategic misreading that is necessitated by placing the text within the context of a recent history of trauma that the author did not simply witness as a bystander but one in which he actively tried to stop the genocide and earned himself solitary confinement without trial. Sociologists approach the work of writers by taking into consideration, the context of the private and the public lives of the authors whereas literary theorists may concentrate exclusively on the technical, language, or structural aspects of the script as instructed by T.S. Eliot in his foundational essay, Tradition and Individual Talent.
What I am offering is a sociology of literature interpretation of Soyinka and I am certain that the rebel in him may force him to disagree with my interpretation and award me a national illiteracy prize. I am not contending that all existing interpretations of Soyinka are wrong. I am only saying that there is something missing in the community of Soyinka interpretations and I contend that what is neglected by critics is not minor but a central aspect of his work – his self-sacrificial opposition to the Igbo genocide in particular as a foundational part of his oppositional aesthetics in the face of tyranny.
Commentator: Biko Agozino.
He is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, United States of America.
Professors On INEC’s Will (4)
By Tony Afejuku
These past three weeks have been three supreme weeks of supreme value to all of us who have been gluing ourselves to this column for the right reasons: No room for lying; no room for deceits; no room for propaganda; no room for vanity. No room, no room, no room for what should not be here. Thoughts of the streams, thoughts of the spheres, music of the streams, music of the spheres enhance the column in diverse ways.
Our debaters for the past three weeks have demonstrated this. Each of the professors (all of them, in fact) has demonstrated this in the geometry of their presentations, in the minds of their geo-biographies, in the arithmetic of their convictions and persuasions. They in varying degrees did not support the will of INEC in the presidential election, even though the INEC chair is one of them, a fellow professor in the sphere of the humanities. In going over the longitude and latitude of the flow of our professors, of our debating professors, in their authentic and responsible sphere of spheres the clarity and precision of the geo-biography and nature of patience moved towards me. This may not be the right way of putting it, but I found and still find each debater to be a patient debater. Goodness! How a patiently patient listener and presider over the debate Professor Olu Obafemi was/is! The rhetoric of his ears or of his eyes or of his tongue was/is the rhetoric of the sage. If I imagined this, I imagined it well. His rhetoric was/is not the creation of this recorder, but it is the rhetoric of the music of the shaping of the debate and the words of the debaters who like him are fellow writers and creators.
Now I present to our readers the summation of Professor Olu Obafemi who presided over the reported affairs of the literati:
“This debate has gone on very well and quite enlightening. I have learnt quite a lot from the various positions eloquently proffered here. I like to chip in this bit: (1) there will not be much ideological departure from PMB to BAT. We will still operate a neoliberal economy, fraught largely with parasitism and consumerism. It is very likely, from his experience in investment, creative commercialism/commodity consciousness and cosmopolitanism in governance, Tinubu will be a lot more distribution-prone, more productive, and more people friendly than his predecessor; (2) having operated in comprador praxis in the US, Tinubu will engage globalization with discretionary envisioning (these are loaded, unconventional concepts that may require greater elucidation in future; (3) having not operated unitarist governance strategy that we have had since Ironsi till date, and with his governance experience in Lagos, including standing up to OBJ to run a well-structured State in Lagos, BAT will be more of his own man who will surround himself with talent rather than a cabalistic instinct (I am talking here about power delegation as opposed to power relegation); (4) we have good reason to believe that Tinubu will not go for a winner-take-all, conclave-prone governance and will strive to deliver goods and services— democracy dividends more generously/humanely. May the future be better and more tolerable for our people and all of us in this country, and all our fellows and compatriots in foreign lands, that is, the diaspora.”
But the pastor-spirit as well as the track of traditional culture in him elicited from Professor Ademola Da Sylva what amounted to a kind of vote of thanks to Professor Olu Obafemi and the co-debaters in the literati.
“Many thanks, Baba O.O., for your thoughtful, clinical and lucid interventions; and IBK’s, (and others’) too! So palpable and infectious are the feelings of hope, and delight of the innocent, that you have demonstrated in your concluding postings, and my silent response was a loud A-m-e-n! Then I turned to God the Almighty, and said, “Baba-God, these genuine feelings expressed by these great minds, aggregate what is uppermost in the mind of the Nigerian people at this point of our history. Can you, please, do this one last favour for the masses of this country? I believe it is not beyond what you as the Almighty can do for an otherwise potentially great country like Nigeria! Simply protect BAT, from the powers that have constituted themselves into human principalities in the corridor of power; completely and permanently seal the mouths of those demonic lions labelled as Cabals in Aso Rock that have, thus far, truncated Nigeria’s destiny! AMEN!” Perhaps we should remind ourselves that our hope was this high when many Nigerian voters, including yours truly, trouped out to vote in Buhari as President! Now, I remember, “demonic forces” written about by Reuben Abati during the Presidency of GEJ, unfortunately, like some nameless hydra monsters they always rear their ugly heads with every new administration, these Aso Rock principalities. PMB has his good share of them in the Abakyaris, and very familiar ones, for obvious reasons, like the Ngiges, et al, never for once did they allow PMB to be! They took advantage of his visibly infirm state, to take over the reins of governance in what could be described as a “civilian coup” and ran-over the ship of the country crashing against the Aso rock! The reason we are where we are, right now! BAT like PMB, also has a visibly infirm visage/characteristic unless we pretend to not acknowledge it, a new set of cabalistic demons would join forces with the existing ones, after all, it is still the same Political Party, to take advantage of BAT’s current clinical status! BAT of 20 or 10 years ago, isn’t the same BAT today on account of age and health. Yes, unless God Almighty does something about these principalities through His human agents, they might yet soon take over the affairs of Nigeria under BAT too, to do what they know best: to steal, to kill and to destroy, and ensure that the status quo remains as it has always been, in the spirit of Ted Hughe’s very famous poem, ‘The Eagle’!”
Well, well said, O debaters. But let the columnist-terminator and terminator-columnist have the last word. The time won’t be long to ask INEC this simple question: Did INEC lavish allegedly over three hundred billion naira to register the paltry figure or number of voters for the 2023 elections? Did the very small number (below ninety or so million) match the more than very huge sum of money that INEC got for registration of voters and for other election related matters, duties and responsibilities? How much money in millions upon millions did not allegedly go under and distributed to “principalities” and “demonic forces” hovering over Aso Rock and the Presidency of the presidencynologists? Any clear or unclear answers to these questions cannot or may not but tell us that the presidential election in particular was INEC’s will. Our debating Professors will not say on oath that they did not know. Did the presidential and other elections meet the expectations, wishes and will of the people generally? INEC has the answer. And our debating professors will bluntly tell the chairman of INEC this.
Because our professors are fellow writers, I must terminate the discourse by drawing their attention to the following poem “For the Consideration of Poets” by Haki R. Madhubuti (original name Don Luther Lee), the 81 years old African-American poet, author and publisher, and a native of Little Rock, Arkansas:
where is the poetry of resistance,
the poetry of honorable defiance
unafraid of lies from career
politicians and business men,
not respectful of journalists who write
official speak void of educated thought
without double search or sub surface questions
that war talk demands?
where is the poetry of doubt and suspicion
not in the service of the state, bishops
not in the service of beautiful people
and late night promises,
not in the service of influence,
incompetence and academic
The above lines speak volumes. Let them stay glued to our memories day by day. And may INEC’s chairman become the poet and historian of resistance after finding time to read this!
Terminated for now.
Afejuku can be reached via 08055213059.
Iwuanyanwu And The ‘Political Rascals’ Rhetoric
By Promise Adiele
Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot avails itself of multiple interpretative tools with a compelling grip on the moral imagination of the audience. As a timeless drama, it thrives on the hopelessness of the human condition dramatized by two vagabonds, Estragon and Vladimir who waited for a mysterious, titular Godot that never came. One of the features of the absurdist literary tradition portrayed in the play is the failure of language in the verbal context as a means of communication. The verbal exchange between the two vagabonds is evident of misinterpretation. One says one thing, the other interprets it differently. Thus, it calls to question the potency of language in the verbal medium as a means of communication. The preceding analogy reminds me of Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and his purported insult to the good people of the Yoruba ethnic group. Perhaps, misinterpretation currently manifests as an inexorable content of Nigeria’s absurd credentials.
Last week, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, philanthropist, accomplished businessman, the Balogun Babaguwan of Yorubaland, Ahaejiejemba of Igboland and elder-statesman, while reacting to events that happened in Lagos during the last election when many Igbo people were bloodied and harassed, assured the world that “the Igbo and Yoruba are not at war”. On the heels of that statement came another one “they are Yoruba political rascals”. A syntactic analysis of the two sentences affirms that the Chief never meant to insult the entire Yoruba ethnic group. Rather, he was referring to rascals in Lagos who maimed, killed, and vanquished Igbos, non-Yorubas, and even some Yorubas with Igbo semblance, stopping them from exercising their voting rights during the election. He also said “we know them and we will deal with them”. Language scholars know that Chief Iwuanyanwu did not mean to insult the Yoruba. Sadly, some social nitwits, victims of acute cognitive impairment, went on a rampage to misinterpret and manipulate his statement to suit their treacherous, mischievous purposes. It is absurd.
Anyone who knows Chief Iwuaynanwu’s antecedent will never ascribe offensive rhetoric to him. He is soft-spoken, conciliatory and peace-loving. Like every sensible person around the world, not just the Igbo, he was aghast with lurid photos and video evidence of harm against the Igbo in Lagos during the last election. Unfortunately, people who ordinarily frolic in the whirlwind of ethnic hate have seized the opportunity to insult the Igbo ethnic group while using acerbic words on the revered Chief. These people, in their degenerate and diseased mentality, are trying to install a wall of hate between the Igbo and Yoruba. Let me state categorically that the Yorubas are wonderful people whose spirit of brotherliness, conviviality, and tolerance speaks volumes across the world. I have maintained over time that the Igbo and Yoruba share a cordial, interwoven relationship in marriage, business, friendship, association and neighbourliness. The two ethnic groups can never be involved in a conflict. Many Yoruba people have helped many Igbo people to their destinies and many Igbo people have helped many Yoruba people to their destinies too. An attempt for one ethnic group to harm the other will result in serious harm for the two. It is as implicating as that.
Since the presidential elections, keenly contested by different candidates from different ethnic groups in Nigeria, some people have desperately sought to reduce the entire development to an ethnic affair. It is myopic and at once condescending. Does Peter Obi represent the Igbo? Does Bola Tinubu represent the Yoruba? Does Atiku Abubakar represent the Hausa/Fulani? These candidates all have supporters across the country. Of course, they will have a preponderance of support from their ethnic base. That is the way of politics. Unfortunately, ethnic jingoists have, in the inerrancy of their bleak convictions, reduced the entire political discourse to an ethnic affair especially Yoruba vs Igbo. These people, stranded in the realm of ethnic hate and communal intolerance, have done everything within their powers to inflame ethnic tension to crucible dimensions. It is wrong for anyone to insult a whole ethnic group in whatever guise. In Chief Iwuanyanwu’s case, he has put the records straight by clarifying what he meant, insisting that he was quoted out of context. But the morbid and decadent will not hear of it. They insist that Iwuanyanwu and all Igbo should be roasted alive. As far as these simpletons are concerned, the Chief spoke the mind of all Igbos. How idiotic and harebrained can anybody be?
Recently, some people have also indulged in ethnic slurs. Unlike Chief Iwuanyanwu that clarified himself, Bayo Onanuga offered no apology and insisted on standing by his words. Onanuga spoke for himself and couldn’t have insulted the Igbo on behalf of the Yoruba. MC Oluomo, while registering his socio-political disorientation, spoke for himself when he threatened the Igbo on an election day and went on to make good his threat which the police shamelessly called a joke. FFK has also made inflammatory remarks which were his personal opinion and not the opinion of Yoruba. It is therefore, a function of disabled, primitive awareness for anyone to insult an ethnic group based on the comment of one person. Such insults and abuses expose the quiddity of phenomenal foolishness which, hitherto, was concealed in some people by the façade of education. No, these hate mongers belong to the stone age. Nobody should be deceived by their pretentious liberalism.
The question is, are there political rascals in Nigeria? Definitely yes! These are the particular people Chief Iwuanyanwu referred to concerning what happened in Lagos during the last elections. Of course, all parts of the country have their share of political rascals. It is not peculiar to one ethnicity. Political rascals are those who walk the streets, snatch ballot boxes, stab people due to their ethnic origin and prevent them from exercising their civic rights. They are not educated. They are thugs, street urchins and never-do-wells employed by politicians to advance nefarious objectives. There are also some educated political rascals. They don’t walk the streets, but demonstrate humane deficiency of unimaginable proportions using social media and sundry news outlets. They spread hate, provoke enmity and fan the embers of war. They incite the uneducated, urging them to bay for the blood of ordinary citizens. Their social media handles are replete with expletives and insults. Abusive engagement allows them to flourish. Another category of political rascals populate government establishments like INEC, the Police and different security agencies. These people compromise the electoral process in exchange for financial inducement and material gains. They are unconscionable, desperate and invidious. Are these people from another planet? No, they are among us. We know them.
The ethnic hate narrative is a device enunciated by the political class to keep the people divided, breaking their rank and file to unite and fight a common enemy. The opposition LP and PDP are convinced that the election was marred by sharp, underhand practices and therefore have gone to court. Is going to court to challenge the outcome of an election a legitimate practice? If it is, why can’t detractors of equitable process allow the law to run smoothly? The call by some decidedly frustrated fellows in search of relevance and pecuniary patronage for the arrest of the opposition presidential candidates is from the pit of purgatory. The propaganda that there is a plan to disrupt the handover ceremony is a bundle of falsehood from the depths of Hades. Although many Nigerians regard the judiciary with a pinch of salt, people of goodwill should advocate for a peaceful resolution of Nigeria’s political challenges. Ethnic rhetoric should stop immediately. People should sheath their swords. Let us all close the road to Rwanda.
Adiele, PhD, writes from Mountain Top University.
Olaopa: The Self As A Patriotic Reformer – The Tales Of A Memoirist
By Adeshina Afolayan
Autobiographies and memoirs are very difficult to write. One of the reasons is that they place the autobiographers and the memoirist in a very difficult position that draws the attention, and even the ire, of the public. Once the volume is written and presented before the public, the writer can no longer control its reception. And some or even all of her certainties and verities are shredded by those who must approach the book from different perceptions. But there is an even more daunting challenge. Writing an autobiography or a memoir dances at the very edge of hubris and vanity. This is what Michel de Montaigne thinks. His understanding of the human self is dark and gloomy. According to him, “If others were to look attentively into themselves as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of emptiness and tomfoolery…. Our self is an object full of dissatisfaction: we can see nothing there but wretchedness and vanity.”Now, imagine an act of self-portrait emerging from such a dark view of the self.
In The Essays, Montaigne pens a paradoxical opening statement addressed to the readers of the volume who are not supposed to read it because it is a work of vanity: “Reader, I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on a topic so frivolous and so vain. Therefore, Farewell.” If the self is locus of emptiness and wretchedness, then any attempt at a self-portrait is doomed already; the autobiographer or memoirist thinks more highly of herself than she should. And yet, Montaigne subtly invites the reader to peruse the volume through a strategy of dissuasion.
In The Unending Quest for Reform, Tunji Olaopa faces the charge of hubris head-on , and persuades us to plunge into a narrative that connects the self with a larger space of meaning, struggle and fulfilment. This is an even more difficult endeavor since it goes beyond the self-portrait that embroils the self in its own dynamics of maturation. On the contrary, a memoir like the The Unending Quest for Reform, like Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, connects the self to nonself, or to its Other. The autobiographer or the memoirist then invites the reader to weigh the significance of the self in relation to its other. Only those who have a strong sense of inner worth and significance can ever achieve such a courageous level of self-ascription.
I think a reformer deserves his memoir or autobiography. I have read the late Professor Akinlawon Mabogunje’s autobiography — A Measure of Grace. It details not only birth, historical trajectories and intellectual maturation, but also the agonies of a public servant eager to see some of his best ideas and insights inserted into the policy architecture of the Nigerian state. He met brick walls at every turn. In The Unending Quest for Reform, Olaopa typifies a more enduring courage to serve and confront the dysfunction of a system that had been rigged to be inefficient since independence.
The public service is not just another vocation. It embodies a double imperative. First, it is a service that transcends any consideration of self-interest. Within the service and its accountability dynamics, the self cannot be placed in contradistinction to what is required of it. The service is therefore a
selfless one that demands that the servant serves. Second public service is a service to public, the public. It therefore requires a different kind of spirit—public-spiritedness—that insists that the public servant must bow to certain logic of service that bend the will of the public servant to the will of the citizens. The task of a public servant therefore becomes a very arduous one: she must bend the self to serve the others. However, serving others becomes very onerous when the system that enables the service is inefficient and dysfunctional. When Olaopa first confronted this dysfunctional system, his first human instinct was to flee. But he did not. This was where his scholarly instinct—to learn, to reflect, to research, to rethink, to reorganize—kicked in. And he had a background in Plato and a mentoring acquaintance in Professor Ojetunji Aboyade to trim his fears and fuel his reform thinking.
The Unending Quest for Reform details the long trajectory that took an Aáwé boy to the Presidency and then the very height of public service status as a permanent secretary. But in each of the fifteen chapters that make up the memoir, you are compelled to encounter and reflect on how ideas and insights emerged from Olaopa’s interaction and engagement with intellectual and administrative forebears, and how both
the forebears and the ideas molded his own original philosophy of reform—with a huge dose of providential intervention.
While Plato’s Republic maps the boundaries of the ancient Athenian city-state and its utopic possibilities, Olaopa’s
The Unending Quest for Reform delineates the circumferences of a
dysfunctional public service, and how it could be rehabilitated within a comprehensive institutional and governance reform blueprint that took years to design, and even many more years to attempt mounting for the benefit of making Nigeria work better. This is where he joins the community of suffering that Mabogunje, and many others, once belonged. At every turn, the system itself frustrated all his well-being intentions and yearning.
Olaopa carries the burden of a man driven by God’s purpose. Or how else does one understand the passion that
drove and still drives him to dedicate his research and professional life to a system that seems too dense to allow self-examination? As an expert-insider, he had to face the fundamental significance of whether the public service can reform itself. That query, for Olaopa, could not have been just an academic exercise; he must have had to face the suspicions and stubborn resistance of those who could have considered him “too know” and obnoxious. There are ways by which a
debilitated system punishes those who would claim diagnostic knowledge. There are several means by which those who benefit from the status quo impede the progress of a reformer. And yet, Olaopa kept at this onerous task, even after retirement,with a single-mindedness that belies any logical understanding.
It was not just Plato and philosophy that gave him inspiration. All through The Unending Quest for Reform, one sees him holding onto a deep understanding of the place and role of the divine in human understanding and trajectories. If God could save him from blindness, as he narrated, then he would dedicate his life to service, spiritual and institutional;
he would commit his expertise to Nigeria and her quest for a world class public service that will be able to transform the quality of life of Nigerians. He has not faltered in that commitment.
But we need to highlight the role of philosophy in Olaopa’s professional and intellectual maturation. Right from discovering Plato and the capacity of philosophy to reconstruct, Olaopa had
remained fixated on the potential of philosophy to both enlighten and enable. He had taken Plato’s Republic far more seriously than I have seen anywhere. The Republic gave him the basis
from which to reenact the possibility of reflecting on dysfunction and reconstructing the parameters for
utopia. While Plato’s Republic was entirely a thought experiment about what could have been, Olaopa’s philosophical, intellectual and administrative exertions were right within the context of an actually existing Nigerian state that combines what he calls “bureau-pathologies” and possibilities for greatness.
The Unending Quest for Reform is therefore not only a paean to the existential exertions and Sisyphean achievements of the self, but also a testament to what reform can make possible for the transformation of the
Nigerian administrative entity. With the memoir, Olaopa is reaching out to
Nigerians, and especially fellow public servants and aspiring institutional and governance reformers,with a manual for technocratic action. The memoir bristles with pain and optimism about the ascent of a self from the obscurity of a small town in Oyo State to the convoluted
bureaucratic spaces of the Presidency, from a struggle to master political science and political theory at the University of Ibadan to the urgency of deploying a range of ideas and ideologies to the understanding and operational optimality of the public service system. In The Unending Quest for Reform, the self and the nation merge in a struggle for realization. And the denouement of that titanic struggle is a finale that is yet to happen. And we will know it when
it happens because that would be the end the reformer has been waiting for. With the new administration, may we not arrive at a tragedy to the high drama of hope and possibilities Olaopa’s memoir has treated us to.
Prof. Afolayan is the Head of Department of Philosophy, University of Ibadan
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