Trends In African Literature
The Toyin Falola Interviews
A PANEL DISCUSSION ON AFRICAN LITERATURE, PART 1
By Toyin Falola
I eagerly await the conversation with prominent members of the Pan-African Writers Association under the leadership of the prominent and visible writer, Dr. Wale Okediran. This first piece is to set the historical background to the conversation. The relationship between literature as a human endeavor and society is symbiotic, where the influence flows both ways, and one is shaped by the other. It is an interesting relationship to study, especially when one considers how literature changes form and intent over time, depending on society’s state of decay or otherwise, and also how society changes over time, sometimes due to the fierceness and unrelenting clamoring of literary figures and the body of work they have produced. It is not certain which has more influence on the other; however, it is established that literature, being the mirror of life and human societies, draws the inspiration for its content from societal happenings. Notwithstanding, literature acts as society’s conscience, bringing to light the ills in the darkest parts of society, critiquing, acting as a medium for the call to change, and bringing about the needed revolution.
In African literature, society has a rich timeline and has enjoyed many defining moments that we cannot possibly fully expound. For Africans, literature has been a significant part of our societies for longer than the western world represented in their earliest literature of Africa. Long before the colonial and the pseudo-civilization eras, Africa had its proper literature, although this form of literature was not always documented in the written form. In some communities, pre-colonial African literature was preserved by griots, praise-singers, poets, drummers, and priests, who were the custodians of our collective literature. This was passed down through their family, from father to child.
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Literature was a means for several endeavors then. It served as a way of orally preserving the histories of clans, villages, cities and their peoples and guarding the societal norms and beliefs that were the fibers holding the cultures of several African societies together. Beyond this, literature was also a means of interpreting the mystic and divine and showing reverence to the divine. The creation story and the existence of the divine are native to several African cultures and languages.
Furthermore, literature served as a medium for acculturation and enculturation, helping the new members of society to understand the modus operandi and what they needed to know to develop into acceptable members of society. In Africa oral literature was didactic. No matter how entertaining the story or how intriguing the ballad is, regular pieces contain some lessons between their lines and statements. Many of the written literature by African writers during the colonial and early post-colonial era was targeted at correcting the erroneous narratives that non-African writers and explorers had written about Africans.
With the encounter with the West, Africans had begun to receive standardized and formalized education, which meant that many Africans had become skilled at writing. As a result of the continent’s colonization, several regions had their newly acquired languages elevated to the positions of official languages like English, French, Arabic, and some other European languages. Thus, the emerging African and Caribbean writers largely wrote in their country and region’s official languages for some reasons. First, to reach more people than they could with their local language and to unify their audience. Second, to ensure that their writings reached the colonizers, who had misrepresented African cultures and traditions, and to correct the anomalies in the stories they told of Africa.
Consequently, African writers of this era were tasked with finding their voice, discovering their identity, and what the identity of African literature should be, revisiting falsely told stories of Africa, and orchestrating a literary rebellion to support the fight against colonialism and for independence across African regions. Ahmadou Kourouma and some other francophone authors led the charge for the Africanization of French through written literature during this period. Chinua Achebe of Nigeria also had his novel, Things Fall Apart, to depict civilized African societies before colonization and the real effects of and reason for colonization. This was also a period when African authors joined forces with political movements and other organizations and associations across the continent to push for the independence of African states.
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The role of African literature in the struggle for independence cannot be sidelined, as movements like the Negritude of Sedar Senghor, Leon Damas, and Aime Cesaire contributed to the earliest early political consciousness among Africans, and Sedar Senghor went on to become the first elected president of independent Senegal. Independence came for Africa, heralding a turn in the trend for African literature. This was not so much different from what writers were tasked with during the colonial era. The earliest period of the post-colonial era jolted African writers to the reality that freedom from colonialism and European rule was not necessarily freedom.
Several African leaders who had championed their countries’ independence and were also writers who contributed literature to speak out against colonialists’ oppression soon became what they fought against. The leaders who took over the reins became subjected to neo-colonialism, selfishness, and greed, all at the expense of their country’s development. Thus, writers became tasked with representing this oppressive and regressive turn of events for several African countries — albeit now independent — through literature. Some of the writers tasked with this work, using prose, poetry and drama, include Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro Wiwa, Remi Raji, Niyi Osundare, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Femi Osofisan, Nadine Gordimer, and Abdulrazak Gurnah. It did not help matters that civil wars and intermittent military takeovers rocked some of these newly independent African countries. There were cases of gross violation of human rights, corruption, and a heart-rending lack of direction. Many of these writers braced incarceration, and some had to relocate to other countries. They were fierce and held the fort to make literature one of the few things the world respected Africa for during the early to mid-post-colonial era.
Africa’s case is so peculiar that the problems of decades ago, which served as the subject of many a literary work, largely remain the problems of the contemporary African continent. Among other things, contemporary African writers are tasked with writing about the issues their literary ancestors and mentors addressed. Much of contemporary African literature still centers on political ills, the underdevelopment of several African countries, and neo-colonialism, and it circles back to the identity of the African person in a dynamic and fiercely conscious world that is more conscious and sensitive than it has ever been.
Contemporary African writers, from Kwame Dawes to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Assia Djebar, and Sello Duiker, among others, write about identity, feminism, and the backward cultural and religious practices that marginalize some African women, especially in Northern Africa. One trend that has stood the test of time among African writers is that they do not stop at writing. They grant interviews, speak at events, and hold discourses all channeled at bringing about some development and improvement to the African continent and the lives of the African people. It was the same with the earliest African writers of the colonial and early post-colonial era, which is how it is with contemporary writers.
Technology and the digitization of literature is another trend worth noting in the African literature space. This has increased the number of self-published authors, making writing a profession easier to venture into. In a period where writers do not need to depend on publishing houses and elaborate marketing and book promotion strategies, the freedom to express and influence is becoming more accessible. There is also the embalming of literature in the digital footprints of the metaverse using non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The questions for ardent followers, critics, lovers, stakeholders, and enthusiasts of African literature are: What is next for literature in Africa? What needs to be done? How are writers being made? What should be rethought?
On Sunday, August 7, 2022, the Pan-African Writers Association, in collaboration with the Toyin Falola Interviews, will hold a discourse on “Rethinking African Literature.” The goal is to extrapolate issues and arrive at progressive solutions. Join us.
Sunday, August 7, 2022
4:00 PM GMT
5:00 PM Nigeria
11:00AM Austin CST
6:00 PM SAT
7:00 PM EAT
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Interview With Beautiful Nubia
Please join us for a conversation with the renowned Nigerian Songwriter, Music Composer, and Band Leader, Olusegun Akinlolu (Beautiful Nubia).
Sunday, March 19, 2023
5:00 PM Nigeria // 4:00 PM GMT // 11:00 AM Austin CST
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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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