All posts by Akin Adesokan

About Akin Adesokan

Professor Adesokan teaches comparative literature at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, where he is also the director of the undergraduate program.

How Do You Hide Three Hundred Girls? By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

I want to be clear from the outset: the Islamist fundamentalist group called Boko Haram is a terrorist organization and has to be treated as such, as groups of its ilk are perceived and treated, making allowance for local specificities.

And there goes the rub, in the local specificities, burrowing into the lukewarm sand of the savannah like one slithery worm become a mesh of adventitious roots, dead-looking but alive and deadly.

On the strength of the unprecedented campaigns mounted on all portals and media since April 14, there must be very few incidents in Nigeria to have so powerfully seized the world’s attention since the Age of Abacha.

There are real-time countdowns or countups on interactive Web sites, presidential tears and outbursts that will put Nollywood actors to shame (Is the expression ‘There Is Godduuuuuuuuuu o!’ belted out three times a benediction, a malediction or an exhortation?), elegant FLOTUSian placard-displaying with the BringBackOurGirls hashtags, and viral videos by a stunning array of do-gooders. Confronted with a picture of well-suited Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes and Mel Gibson, highlighted in a red-carpet crowd and each holding a ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ sign, one gets the sense of having hallucinated sleep-walking into the open-air screening of a B-movie from that long-gone time when Margaret Thatcher was queening it over Downing Street. It’s all good. Even better than bizarre.

But stay with local specificities, dead and irrelevant as they seem in the narrow scope of a droning bug making a beeline and looking to strike to the roots.

Boko Haram is at once a brand a clerical fascism beloved of Shi’a Muslims, perhaps with links to other fundamentalist, terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab, a manifestation in equal measures of terrorism in Nigeria and Nigerian terrorism, and of the reactionary tactics of the country’s political elites, North, South, Southwest, everywhere.

Taking just these three issues—there may be more—it is possible to illuminate the darkness created by the current wash of Internet limelight.

From the group’s actions and the informed analyses of scholars (for example the recent trialogue between Jibrin Ibrahim, Elnathan John and Jeremy Weate), it is doubtful that Boko Haram has the kind of well-thought-out ideas grounded in intellectual traditions of political Islam, even of Shiite strains. What were/are the objectives of its proselytism beyond an ingrained and visceral aversion to the spectacular aspects modern (read Western) culture? Ibrahim makes the telling point that in all wars, ideological clarity is quickly sacrificed to the immediate needs and outcomes of embattlement. But he could have added that there are philosophies born of struggle. Such philosophies may be less systematic than those supported by a dedicated clerisy, but they will attain material force if they are sufficiently discriminatory. This is a fact of Boko Haram, a group astute enough to use guerrilla tactics to outwit the state-supported networks of Nigeria’s military.

Concerning the second issue, we face a different set of questions.

Who, apart from its inhabitants or select bureaucrats of the education ministry in Borno State, ever heard of Chibok before April 14, 2014?

Chibok is supposedly in a remote region between Borno and Adamawa states. How can an all-girl government secondary school be so isolated that the “insurgents” or “terrorists” were able to literally take it away in four hours?

How do you hide nearly 300 girls for a month and counting?

How are they fed, clothed?

How do these teenage girls take care of the bodily functions pertaining to their biological growth?

Is the inability of the military task force stationed an hour away from Chibok to respond to the invasion of the school a result of the underfunding of the military forces or of the supposed infiltration of those forces by interests sympathetic to Boko Haram?

Who still remembers the names of any of the withering villages in Nigeria’s Southeast where kidnapping is the business of choice for the youth?

Once, in 1991, walking to the “state headquarters” of the National Republican Convention in Jalingo, I passed through a small farm in which a mother and her son were working. I couldn’t tell whether I had come upon inhabitants of the Amazon forest or compatriots expected to vote in the forthcoming elections.

Finally, it is clear that Boko Haram is exploiting the well-known reactionary politics of Nigerian elites whose sole objective is to seize and personalize the spoils of office. Those cynics who vowed to make Nigerian ungovernable for Goodluck Jonathan after the 2011 elections are the same people asking that the government negotiate with Boko Haram, or grant those in custody a general amnesty, as the late President Umaru Yar’Adua did for the Niger Delta militants.

The point is that Jonathan’s government is hardly different.

Professor Adesokan teaches comparative literature at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, where he is also the director of the undergraduate program.

“Why I Stopped Making Films”—Amaka Igwe


Foremost Nigerian filmmaker, writer, television producer, and entrepreneur, Amaka Igwe, died suddenly on Monday, April 28, 2014. She was reportedly working on location in Enugu, eastern Nigeria, when she took ill. One of the leading figures in the Nigerian film industry at the decisive moment in the early 1990s when the new cinematic form broke out, Igwe already had a track record in television as the writer and producer of the award-winning serial, Checkmate. Bold, big, clear-minded, cannily analytical and with a gift for the well-thought-out declarative, Igwe’s presence was a commanding one. Her work on film, best represented in Violated and Rattlesnake, was also unique in stylistic terms, marked by an acute sense of characterization and psychological depth. She wrote with a confident awareness of the culture she was helping to engender, and it is hard to imagine the screen personalities of Ego Boyo, Kunle Bantefa and Richard Mofe-Damijo (all characters in Violated) without thinking of Igwe having written them into public consciousness.

With directors like Lola Fani-Kayode, Tunde Kelani, Zeb Ejiro, and Tade Ogidan, she was a major pioneer of the post-1980s Nigerian film, and an influential mentor and organizer. She was also a great dreamer, saying once that the ideal Nigerian movie would be one written by her, directed by Ogidan, and filmed by Kelani! Though she had fewer completed films than these peers to her credit, she was also active as a television producer, and her TV comedy series, Fuji House of Commotion, was widely successful and generated great interest as a model of trans-generational programming. Founder of BoBTV Expo, Igwe was an institutional worker, a civically responsible and aware artist-activist who had taken a full measure of the film industry at the turn of the 2000 and come to the conclusion that enormous infrastructural work needed to be done to channel the disparate energies in the industry. This is the main focus of this conversation, excerpted from a long interview that Igwe granted Akin Adesokan on July 26, 2002 at Ikeja, Lagos.

Q:            Let’s start with your current silence as a filmmaker, the fact that you are not making films at the moment. Why is that?

A: There is no distribution in Nigeria. That is why. That is just a simple answer to that question. There is no distribution and we have to get that in place. For the type of film I make, I take my time; I spend money. And then to finish that and having to distribute it by just three main outlets, mainly Idumota, Aba and Onitsha; that brings so much difficulty. There is too much hustle from individuals because you don’t have distributors; you have wholesalers called marketers who have ventured into the production line. So, they are not actually supporting your primary aim, which is to make quality films. Then we have video, the technology we use to make these films. We have producers who can’t even find their own work, films that were released only two to three years ago. They have to depend on marketers and there is nobody in between. And we have the owners of the facilities, the venues where films could be screened. We have people who own cinema houses. We have people who own video clubs. There is nobody that’s organizing these groups and taking films from the producer like it is done anywhere in the world and taking them to the facility owners and giving returns as Pay Before Service. So, there is still much effort to make and then looking for our own market, creating that market from scratch. And this should be easier when we have viable products. So, people are actually buying some of the films in cash. Now they take your products and they are tying it down in capital form. The production they tie down their capital for are actually manufactured copies and then you have to leave it with them. So, we have heard the story of people copying the films. They use it as screening copy and give it back to you.

And again, because they are also producing, there is no contract in selling products. What they are doing is also their own which cannot be that good, but all they are doing it to sell more. So basically for me, the distribution is wrong. We have to be organized. Then I just have to be engaged in the distribution and do the marketing myself. I will not only distribute, but sell for myself. And again, the distribution channel through TV programming, though not perfect, is one way to explore. It is uncontrollable (by marketers) in the sense that the power rests with either a TV station or a multinational company or an advertising agency. Once you get somebody to buy a good film, the filmmaker and producer will collect their money. You don’t need much work to do; all you need to do is to find someone who is interested in your product and if there is somebody there to present your product, you don’t have any problem. By the time you finish them, there are people waiting for you. And when they pay your money, you will go back and start making more. It is more reliable and more straightforward and more suited for my part of work.

You seem to be saying that this lull in your productivity is not a temporary thing because I wonder how long it will take you in organizing this distribution you are talking about.

I don’t believe the way the work starts because one, I’m trying to organise distribution. And so far, there is a gain in that. I told you that I had another option. That was what I was pursuing. We are trying to get to people because it is not that they have the answer and they don’t want others to know, it’s simply that they don’t actually know how it is supposed to be. Like I said to some people, the so-called film industry in Nigeria was born wrongly. There was no plan for it. It just happened and the people driving it were not educated. What do most of them know about filmmaking? They were not educated in the art of filmmaking or film distribution just like the British people that started Hollywood. Also, they were not educated; they were selling gloves and all that. But at least they have created a system of marketing for the distribution of films which our people did not know about. They created a system, but that system unfortunately is not working. The people who created the system here were actually people who were selling articles. They were selling either videotapes or American films. So, for them they don’t understand that there is a cinema release, there is a video club release, there is a VCD release. And of course we are planning to sell to 150 million Nigerians and we are selling in one shop. The issue of demand and supply means that people will want a film because if they don’t have access to the work, they will get it somewhere.

And then there’s the added problem of ‘Do As Others Do.’ Where the typical Nigerian thinks that everybody jumps into this job when you don’t have the technical ability or knowledge, and that impacts on the quality. The people who buy films now are the people who are interested about Nigerian films because of the language barrier, or because this is closer to them, they prefer the Nigerian films. The rich people, the middle class people have long given up on Nigerian home video when the quality started dropping and the number became so high and when the sales are relegated to those few people. It’s difficult for you to tell somebody that I’ve made a film; go and buy it in Idumota. How many people will go there? These are streets that are so dirty. They need glamorous shops like the upscale supermarkets and that will drive this certain set of people to go buy. So, video clubs became the alternative and the video clubs that service the “rich people” don’t carry our home videos.

     Those are American films.

Yes, so you find these video clubs everywhere in hair dressing salon, barbing salon. Wherever there is somebody coming to do business. And people are getting them. And they are renting them because they are too costly otherwise. They can’t afford to buy in standard shops. The films are produced at a high cost, and they depend on the sale of video tapes to make returns while the actual demand is from rentals. And the people through whom you are marketing do not know that the video club is a useful outlet. By the time everybody found out that video clubs exist, they started insisting on paying rights, So, there is a whole jumble of activities which is not helped by the government. Really, they are supposed to have a list, a census, and know where the video clubs are located, how many there are, how films get to these places. According to the law which is the copyright law at the same time, not one of them has the political will to do what they are supposed to do. I mean, at the start of the industry, I know I was really on the neck of Ademola James (former director of the Censors’ Board) to try and enumerate, register and know how many video clubs that should exist, and not just stop them from what they are doing. The argument then was that he didn’t want to harm the film industry. I said that’s true, but you are not harming it by doing that; you are actually making it to grow. It will be difficult and very impossible to correct. But in Nigeria, people run away from complex situations. The situation is very complex, but it has to be done and it can be done. So, that is where we are working trying to rebuild, create a modality which will bring government and the people together. This is actually to correct the situation, to find a way to properly undertake distribution. And I think we’ve been able to agree. When I was making the top noise about 1996, 1997 that the industry was not doing what we wanted it to be doing, I was labeled all kinds of things because people were still making money. But right now, everything has come to a stop, there is no money coming in, people are tired of the films. [The interview was conducted during the so-called three-month “recess” of June-August 2002, when a majority of filmmakers ceased production entirely in order to arrest the glut in the market. Ed.] Except they resort to some trick, the use of juju or magic. Now, they are really determined to do something about it.

       What form does your organization take?

It is just like a corporation, a business enterprise. But only for certain stakeholders who are business-oriented. What we are trying to do is to create that distribution by creating distributors as suppose to marketers. Distributors whose business it is to organize existing facility owners such as video clubs, video shops, and exhibitors. And even have TV stations on one side and the copyright owners on the other side. We are trying to create absolutely a good distribution network so that when you make a film all you need to do is to find a distributor who already has organized, existing network, using standard facilities, working with the owners to create a means, an outlet to exhibit the work, the collect the money and take his own percentage. So once that is organized, I necessarily may not be the distributor, but I will try to get people who will be interested to become distributors and who will give up wholesale marketing and producing and form business models backed by strong and proper structure as it is done everywhere in the world. And then, the producer will just be talking about producing. The wholesaler, retailer and marketer will talk about marketing the work. So, the person will collect and distribute, it is no longer straight to Idumota now. If there is any video club on his street, he knows when he can make the direct proper sale to the person and he buys copies for the collective money. The distributor will now determine state of the needs to exhibitors before the video club, before the market, the way it is done everywhere in the world. So, we have the VCD, DVD and the foreign rights and all that. That’s what we are trying to get people interested in.

So far, I think it is working out. Once it’s done, that particular film will attract funding from banks, that is the only initiative that can do justice to my argument. The lack of distributors is a major problem. It is the same thing with the music industry.

            They had the same problem of copyright.

Imagine that. These are people that have worked for forty years and they can’t make ends meet. It is rubbish, because you are sure that Nigerian music will sell, it is selling. But where can I go to buy an album or CD today?

            You can stop by a roadside store…

I mean, the roadside people will sell original products, but they don’t sell original products because they don’t get them. What they get is what they sell. And most of the times, they are pirated copies. And the person who has pirated copies, because he has only one copy he will manufacture from it. Nigeria doesn’t understand the concept of copyright because even in our university days, people photocopied books and sold them. I mean it is just something that Nigeria has come out with. Look at NAFDAC. Before this woman (Dora Akunyili) came in, we had 68% of the drug in our markets pirated. In a country that is this large, individuals can walk in and manufacture a drug that belongs to a British or American firm and the thing is 15% of proper ingredient of the drug? And they bring it in here, sell it and make money out of it. Most of the times, they are caught. So, the concept of copyright is still far, but I believe that if we had shops controlled by the right owners, you’ll find out that what is happening is that at least I have a place to buy the genuine thing. The hospital will write a prescription for me and tell me that I should not collect from this hospital but find a reputable pharmacy and buy from there.

There are reputable pharmacies all around and I can walk into one, certain that they have original drugs because they are reputable. Their drugs may be expensive, but they will be reputable. They will be safe and apart from being safe, that shop is registered and certified. That is the same thing I’m saying. Where is the reputable shop that sells Nigerian video and music? Or any music for that matter? We are talking about not opening only one shop here. We are talking about opening in Lagos at least twenty outlets because Lagos is large. We are talking about 15 million people and if you open twenty shops servicing this population, that’s just okay. Every street I know in England, for instance, has at least three music or video shops. For you to buy pirated copies from this kind of setup, something must be seriously wrong. And most people will rather go to the original base than go to the fake centers. That is the point. So, you can’t be talking about piracy in Nigeria when there are no distribution outlets. The system of distribution we have is organized around distributing pirated copies. Kenny’s Music has been releasing music, tell me which shop is distributing it.

The gain comes when you can find in the main building the wholesaler and retailer who has a small shop, and who, after he sells it to whomever he sells it, the person goes out and drops it and so on. I mean, you can’t control him in that state. That is the way it was, and until right owners in this country understand that concept then they don’t have distribution. Then, they should stop crying about the filmmakers. A friend of mine who is a corporate lawyer told me that he had a client in Festac. He arrested some of the business pirates and put them out of business. They were using petrol stations. They created some other pirates because when there is so much demand, the supply will be dropping. I said to my friend that he should have told them to build more filling stations so as to increase production before you shut down the place. I said you should not wage war against the pirates before the setting up of the outlets.

      Yes, because the pirates won’t stop.

That is the point. We have to set up the outlets. We don’t even have outlets. People set up outlets and then shut down the piracy. Then, there will be an alternative, or alternatives. For now, there is no alternative. The only shops that are open now belong to the pirates who don’t see anything wrong in what they are doing because I mean if you tell me this is the original copy, I will buy it, but you don’t know the original copy; you don’t have it. And how many shops will I run around as an individual producer in Lagos? I think that is where our major problem is and I’m really, really ready to meet up and make films. It is not that I don’t want to meet up. But I have about fifteen scripts. I have another ten ideas and all that, but there is none of them that will cost me less than 2 or 2½ million to make. And I can’t guarantee that money in the open market. We are going to do our best to be productive. I’m for spending two and half million but in the present situation, that doesn’t make sense. I won’t do that. I can make two hundred thousand on my two or half a million, which most people are doing. They will spend a million to make a hundred thousand? You will go and make another one with hundred thousand at the end of the year you will make 1.2 million. That is why they have to make much on two million.

I’ve watched some episodes of Fuji House of Commotion; I find it very interesting, very entertaining, but I haven’t seen any commercials announcing the new episodes. 

Probably on Monday I will see something better. The main production comes up on Sunday. On the contrary people are complaining that there are so many adverts.

Oh, really? Well, maybe it’s because I’ve not been around for long.

We carry about twelve adverts which are for a fully subscribed one. Actually, it is the most successful aspect of the production. Before we started dealing with the TV station, I didn’t know much about it.

But thus far, what’s your own assessment?

I hope to have it soon, all the episodes, so I can explore the details. The new series will probably be on in October. Like I said, that’s what I’m working on film right now. The idea is what I call a programming supermarket. So, if you come in to my office here and you say you want music, well I don’t play or make music. But this is a studio. I have the equipment; I have all of that so the jobs that I’m producing in my studio is manufactured, and it’s not always what Amaka Igwe is all about . The second thing is that this was a part of strategic training. Developing the comic aspect is the whole objective. It was pulled out from another project and recreated as its own form, just comedy. I think also that comedy is a problem in this country. People are used to slapsticks and all that. I just decided to do it the way I think it should be done. It was an experiment, but at the same time not really an experiment. It was something I have been doing for a very long time. I mean, I have written episodes of New Masquerades before and so on.

    I want to ask you a question relating to criticism. People think of you as a filmmaker, based on your work in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. You had an intention then about what you wanted to do. From what I’ve gathered now from this interview, it seems you’re involved more in the issue of distribution. And if I put two of your products side by side, for instance, Checkmate and Violated, it will be difficult to get a sense of a consistent style and say, Here’s how to look at Amaka Igwe’s work. This is a complicated process, making artistic judgment. I didn’t see all episodes of Checkmate but I remember much of the story, and Violated struck me and being more powerful as a work of art.

In Checkmate, I didn’t direct. I think you know. Neither did I produce it. I was the Executive Producer. I originated the work, but I had a director, I was an executive producer. We were actually working in partnership. The director was Bolaji Dawodu…. So, it was collaborative work. With Violated, it was different. I wrote, produced and directed that. I see myself really as the writer–director and it doesn’t matter as to the medium, whether it is television or film. I have a lot to learn about American style of filming, which for me is not an issue in Nigeria because Nigerians act differently when it comes to their story habit in shooting up and all that. You know Nigerians in terms of our storytelling. I think I did one short film like that in which many people, in fact, many fans wrote me to comment on. They didn’t quite like it. First of all it was different. Most of my films would take two tapes and their complaint was that this one was only in one part, and it was actually an hour and forty-five minutes or so. Some film critics even in my class when we went to film, my director and my classmates and all couldn’t believe anybody did that. When they call you a filmmaker they will say this thing reaches two billions. By the time I finished, they had been looking for me everywhere to give me a standing ovation. In fact, I remembered that group; they were mostly directors and very critical people who had come from all over Africa. That night, I won their respect. The criticism was little. I mean it wasn’t much.

My audience in Nigeria and the communication to Nigerian audience is something else. Would I say it’s a gift? I don’t know how it happened, but it is difficult for me to make a work of art here in Nigeria, but I wouldn’t comment because I understand the audience. So, I’m still trying to work on that short one which will suit the American system and still appeal to them. As a student of art, I’m not going to… Americans do not make films to please Nigeria and I will not make a film to please Americans. That is my style. Coming back to the question you asked. I’ve learnt to please my fans. So, most of the scripts I have are well-paced and they are action-packed. I’ve not shot them yet. Probably when I shoot that, you will understand what I’m talking about, but I’ve not done it to the detriment of the story-telling style of Nigerians. So, it still going to be fiction, that is, for my films. But for my TV programme, I will still follow the same pattern. I’m actually trying to fix two systems. I think that is what we are here for. I’m not just a filmmaker or a TV producer or whatever is it you want to call me. I’m a student of art and I’m learning, like I keep telling people. I’m an evolving film director and writer. I have to work hard because I know that I’m setting the pace for people who believe in me and not only people who believe in me but also people I respect. People like Steve Kadiri, Lola Macaulay, among others. When I do a film, I do it for them. I do wonder what they will say. I’m also doing it, wondering what the scholars and my whole group of people, who are not educated in form but are Nigerian audience, what would they say? So, it causes me to work harder to bring things together and experiment. It costs me money. I need to have the distribution organized so that my experiment will still meet that demanding part.

Professor Akin Adesokan, teaches African and Afro-American literature at the University of Indiana, in the United States.

Another Long Walk Begins (2), By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

Right now, I have before me two documents: the Bill proposed to the Nigerian parliament in 2006 to “make provisions for the prohibition of sexual relations between persons of the same sex,” and the act signed into law in January 2014 “to prohibit marriage or civil union entered between persons of same sex.”

But for minor stylistic changes (for example, the word “ceremony” in the bill has been changed to “solemnization” in the act), the two texts are essentially the same in spirit and letter. This may indicate a number of related things: that the bill was not discussed so significantly in all the six years since it was proposed as to alter its contents; that it was not discussed at all; that it was not meant to be discussed.

Were there public hearings? What were the sitting or voting patterns during the presentation and passage of the bill? Who proposed the bill? Who supported it?

These are moot questions, it seems, but it is important to ask them for the simple reason that the context for any law with such easy passage and one calculated to have such far-reaching impact on the life and liberty of citizens of Nigeria needs to be examined thoroughly.  Why would those in charge of making laws be so casual about such a consequential procedure—why would procedure matter so little?

After President Jonathan signed the bill and set a global controversy in motion, I collaborated with a number of Nigerians to issue a public statement condemning the law. In the course of deliberations over the statement, especially when we wanted to be sure how the bill became a law, the question of voting pattern came up: who voted ‘Yes’ and who ‘No’? A colleague with a sharp nose for the bizarre retorted that we were assuming that any of the parliamentarians was opposed to the bill!

Indeed, it was too much to assume.

Yet this is what makes the very idea of the law so contentious, and needlessly so. When the bill first made its appearance in the National Assembly in 2006, I recall that most commentators wondered why, of all the problems facing the country and needing urgent solutions, the issue of same-sex marriage was of such singular importance to the legislators. That the bill finally made it into the law books and at such a time as now, says much about how the government of Goodluck Jonathan actually operates: this is an absurdly cynical government, its cynicism so serpentine as to defy thought.

The signing into law of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act might have been calculated to divert attention from certain issues, and it has probably achieved that short-term objective. What the government did not reckon with—and this is as a result of the intellectual resources at the disposal of the government—is the institutional complexity of the issue of sexual orientation on the global level. By making a law against same-sex marriage, the government simply made Nigeria the focus and locus of an important debate. It didn’t bargain for this debate, much less as a debate, but, sure as nightfall, it’s going to happen. Even after this absurd law has been definitively killed and buried, the country will continue to wrestle with the djinns it has let out of the bottle. It is another of the doings of the god of happy accidents.

Who can police desire? Why bother to regulate the way people love each other?

In the first essay, I compared the law against same-sex marriage to the founding of the apartheid state in racist South Africa. I want to return to that comparison by talking briefly about one of the most controversial laws under apartheid, the Immorality Act. Briefly, this law forbade sexual relations between white and black people, and stipulated stiff penalties for anyone found in default. There is a fine play about this law, titled Statements, by the South African playwright, Athol Fugard. It is an instructive story, and functionaries of the Jonathan government should be aware of it.

The question is, why should a state be interested in who loves whom? Or hates whom, as long as the emotion does not interfere with the freedom of another? One of my objectives in this series is to approach the issue of sexual orientation in such a way as to civically engage in conversations with those who defend the law. As I see it, what we need is a focused and enlightened discussion of what is at issue. For starters, it would be interesting for those who disapprove of same-sex relation to ponder this question: knowing the penalties attached to homosexuality under this law, why would anyone in his or her right senses want to risk such danger?

Another Long Walk Begins, By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

With the promulgation of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition law this past January, the Nigerian government may have initiated a process that, so far as one can see, will take a long time to unfold. Hopefully not. From the point of view of the potential victims of this law, the more quickly it is consigned to the dustbin, the better for their sanity. It is a matter of life and death.

When I think about the law and the bizarre responses it has generated, I remember the early years of the establishment, by law, of the apartheid state in South Africa. An historic moment of that era passed last December with the death of sainted Nelson Mandela, icon of anti-apartheid struggle and first president of democratic South Africa.

Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is the story of a global community told through the self-conscious life of one person. In the nearly two months since the anti-gay law went into operation in Nigeria, I’ve also thought about the dynamics between the individual and the collective in the efforts to muster a strong opposition to the government’s victimization of citizens with a different sexual preference and/or orientation.

Mandela was close to a saint. Even people on the other side, especially members of the political establishments in Western Europe and North America who made their names from supporting the apartheid system, stood to be counted on the side of this saint.

Would the phase of the anti-apartheid struggle culminating in the 1994 elections have ended much more quickly or slowly if it hadn’t the kind of personality-driven character the imprisonment of Mandela and his comrades in 1963 imposed upon it? Mandela did not walk alone. The African National Congress, ANC, the main political instrument through which his comrades and he carried out the struggle was founded six clear years before he was born. It had other histories and personalities before the coalescence of the treason trial and global politics gave it a different identity.

There is a context for the comparison that I am making here. As soon as President Goodluck Jonathan signed the act into law, a group of Nigerians and citizens of other countries came together to issue a statement condemning the law, and strongly calling for an opposition to it. The statement was widely circulated, and it definitely touched a raw nerve among Nigerians, informed and ignorant, who wrote all sorts of things mainly to attack it. Fine.

This is a new day, a new issue in a sense, and I think it is the first time in the country’s history that people are having a free discussion on a matter not directly connected to party politics. Let there be supporters as well as opponents, and let us have an opportunity to thrash out this issue which is going to impact on everyone.

However, a different trend has just as quickly made itself felt. Since most of the opinions around the anti-gay law are expressed through online portals, it is as if opposition to the law is carried out by isolated individuals. Report after report claims that the law has been popular in Nigeria, and in the same breath declares that opposition to it has come from outside and been championed by individuals. These are partial truths, of course. The popular support for the law in Nigeria is based on ignorance, superstition and obscurantism, and a lot of educational work needs to be done to destroy these ingrained habits.

The opposition to the law is not coming solely or even largely from outside. Where values are concerned, a division between “inside” and “outside” is absurd. All the signatories to statement I referred to earlier acted on the simple notion that principle is indivisible. Most of them are not even gay as far as I can tell, although the importance of that fact lies elsewhere. Support for or opposition to the law is not a matter of individuals or inside-versus-outside. Nigeria happens to be the current focus for this issue convulsing the entire continent and the world. There is no definitive agreement about it in the country, and all Nigerians do not live in one place.

I am suggesting to the scattered communities gathering on the side of the potential victims of the anti-gay law in Nigeria to think and act strategically as they take decisions that, one hopes, will lead to the defeat of the law. It is a great act of courage for the Kenya writer Binyavanga Wainana and the Nigerian-born activists Bisi Alimi and Adejoke Tugbiyele to take individual positions. They know, or should know, that they belong to communities for which their sexual orientations have made them spokespersons. World-historical movements may need iconic figures like Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Stanton and Mandela. They also need collectives.

  • Professor Adesokan of the English department of the University of Indiana in the United States, offers this as first of a series on the anti-gay law. 

Encountering Amiri Baraka On His Turf, By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

[NOTE: This essay was first published as part of a longer piece in January 2001, and has been revised in light of the passing of Amiri Baraka]

The wiry, slightly stooped man leaps on the stage, clutching a sheaf of papers. Spectacles peering beneath an Elvis Presley cap, face framed by a sparse salt-and-pepper beard and sideburns, he cuts the image of a celebrity professor, at once distracted and self-absorbed. He has a restless, somewhat enigmatic presence, and the constant cheer of the mainly African American audience swallows him as he rummages in his papers, humming and grunting out of habit.

This is Imamu Amiri Baraka, foremost playwright, polemicist, political activist and performance artist strutting on the same podium that Hunter Rawlings III, the President of Cornell University has just left. He is about to read his poems, the big masquerade bringing up the rear at the grove.

Earlier, some members of the Black Arts Movement, the historic movement which brought radical politics into African American poetry and drama in the Sixties have given performances. Haki Madhubuti, poet and publisher of the Third World Press in Chicago, is the first at the podium. He talks briefly about the enthusiasm of the BAM, referring to his own change of name: he had picked Madhubuti without knowing what it meant. But at least, it was African and it relieved him of the burden of history that his English name had heaped on him.

The occasion that brings Baraka and others to Cornell in early October 2000 is a conference marking the thirty years of the foundation of the BAM. “Blackness in Color” is a three-day carnival, complete with an exhibit, readings, a concert, panel discussions and celebrity presences, including Faith Ringgold. Many people at Cornell, myself inclusive, have looked forward to Baraka’s visit. As an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan, I’d been impressed by his work, and chosen four plays as case-study for my final year long-essay. I can no longer remember how I came by his address but I remember writing him about my thesis, and raising some questions about his work.

I had very little hope of a reply and was surprised when, a few months later, a letter arrived from the US. Baraka had painstakingly gone through my letter, written a reply and sent me materials on his current concerns. This was around May 1990. I’d tried to keep the contact open, sending him a copy of the thesis through a US-based Nigerian professor visiting Ibadan, but I am not sure it got to him.

Baraka is stalking the stage like a panther. He hasn’t started reading. Politics is the blood in his veins, so he must first politick. “I’m here to do my duty (pronounced “dooty” in that particular tone of black voice) as a progressive Communist. Please don’t vote for Nader, because if you vote for Nader you let them stupid rednecks get into power. Vote for Gore!” (It is but a month before the general elections that would be remembered for “Florida recount”, “hanging chad,” and “Bush V Gore.”) Laughter of approval rises from the audience, spiced with heckles of “Right-ons.” Baraka is restless at the podium, standing at an angle toward the audience.

His reading consists of a number of short poems. One plays on the American predilection for turning important historical figures into items of consumerism. The speaking voice talks about Lincoln, but the person the voice addresses thinks in terms of the automobile brand. Another poem is a “low-ku” (according to Baraka, an inversion of the Japanese form—haiku), and it goes like this:

Since the rich

eat the most

Is it not fair to assume

That they are most

Full of shit?

Some less-known poets come after him, and the space left for Sonia Sanchez is conspicuously vacant. Reports say her father is ill, and she has to be at his bedside. (Three weeks later, at the birthday conference for Chinua Achebe, she holds her own reading, a soul-stirring, standing-ovation-earning performance in the finest tradition of the BAM.) Baraka is the most popular of this group, because he is also a provocative playwright and an insistent speaker or race matters who often got into trouble for his views.

Earlier that evening, as he meanders among the tables and desks for a helping of wine and cheese, I approach him and introduce myself. He has troubles remembering, but is trying. Then someone comes to whisper to him, and leads him down to the hall where the readings are to take place. Knowing he would be around for three days I bide my time.

After the readings, there is a concert. Several musicians perform, but the attraction remains Baraka, who reads his longer poems to the tune of B.B. King’s “When It All Comes Down.” This is performance poetry, the real rousing stuff. In the 1970s, Baraka collaborated with some African American performance-poetry groups, especially The Last Poets, travelling round the US and performing the works of the BAM poets using jazz bands which prioritized African instruments.

Throughout this night’s performance, punctuated with quotations from Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, and others, Baraka executes stage acts typical of jazz celebrities. By turns taciturn and ebullient, he moves freely on stage, frequently backing the audience in that Miles Davis sort of way. He is playing, having fun. His Blues People is one of the most authoritative books on African American music. Except that now, music not being his forte, he is not the big masquerade, and performances continue after his exit.

The following morning, contrary to all expectations, Baraka is gone. I can only write him again, as I did eleven years ago.

Professor Akin Adesokan teaches Literary Theory and African and Afro-American Literature at the University of Indiana in the United States.


Kofi Awoonor: In Memoriam, By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

The Ghanaian poet and diplomat, Kofi Awoonor, was one of the fifty-nine people murdered last month in Nairobi by Islamist terrorists. He was attending the Storymoja Hay Festival, a literary event held annually in the Kenyan capital. During the festival, his new collection of poems, Promise of Hope, was scheduled be released in the African Poetry Book Series, an initiative directed by the Ghanaian-Jamaican poet and scholar, Kwame Dawes. The book had not been presented when the murderers stormed the venue and pumped hot lead on the crowd.

What an absurd way to go.

Much was written about Awonoor in the heat of the incident, and much that was passionate, mournful, and laudatory. Understandably, he was presented in those tributes as an elder statesman of African literature, at the solemn end of his long life, now transitioned into eternal glory. But little was said of his work, either as a writer or as a politician. It was as if people didn’t care, as if the sympathy required for speaking about the perplexing manner of his death precluded any reflection on what he accomplished.

Awoonor belonged to the generation of writers identified with the modernity of African letters. The list also includes Ahmadou Hampate Bâ, Chinua Achebe, Assia Djebbar, Wole Soyinka, Bessie Head, Mongo Beti, Mariama Bâ, Pepetela, Leopold Senghor, Lilia Momple, Camara Laye, and many others. The history of this literature is such that while some works may be representative of certain moments in history, one cannot fully appreciate the literature without an understanding of the role of writers as intellectual figures.

This is what made Awoonor an interesting figure. He was primarily a poet and wrote several volumes, among which are Rediscovery (1964), his first book, and The House by the Sea (1978), published after his imprisonment at the Usher’s Fort in the 1970s. He also authored the novel This Earth, My Brother (1971), besides Guardians of the Sacred Word (1974), a study of indigenous poetic traditions of the Ewe, and Breast of the Earth (1972), a study of the impact of traditional African cultures on contemporary arts and letters.

His clear-voiced poetry was earthy, elegiac, warm. It spoke of his reverence before the accomplished Ewe poets whose work enriched his, and whom he celebrated in the masterful study of his native poetic resources.

The poem “At the Gates” (Night of My Blood) gives an idea of this debt:

“Don’t cry for me

my daughter, death called her

it is an offering of my heart

the ram has not come to stay

three days and it has gone…”

These poets were not anonymous. Awoonor named them in poem after poem as practitioners of a living art.

I remember him from the picture on the cover of his novel, dressed in a white safari suit. But another picture of him also struggles with that innocent one in my mind: a portly, dark man in a sharp navy-blue suit, hands in pockets, a pair of designer sunglasses hiding his face from the glare of the Lagos sun.

In October 1994, Awoonor was in Lagos to give a lecture at the Center for Black and African Arts and Civilization, CBAAC. As a reporter, I went to cover the event. I no longer remember the lecture’s title, but I recall that he spoke passionately about the destruction that slavery had brought upon Africa, how endogenous knowledge of medicine and technology had been ruined by that long night of human hemorrhage. He got a standing ovation, of course, and perhaps even caused a few people to shed tears.

I was not impressed. In October 1994, US President Bill Clinton had invaded Haiti to reinstate the democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The democratically-elected but undeclared president of Nigeria, Chief MKO Abiola, was in jail. To me, an impassioned speech about the evils of slavery sounded misplaced, at best, or escapist, at worst. I wanted to challenge him, but there was no opportunity for questions.

However, I asked for an interview and he obliged. But it would have to be early the following day, at the residence of the Ghanaian ambassador. He had a plane to catch.

Fine. With my colleagues Waziri Adio and Gbemisola Adeoti, I was at the venue on Oyinka Abayomi Crescent at 8am. Imagine what it must have taken three reporters to leave Ojodu, Ikeja and Ketu and be at Ikoyi that early on a working day. But the poet refused to give an interview. He simply refused to honor his word, and he didn’t care to give a reason. In fact, he was so cavalier about it. He could not be bothered.

And there we were, all excited to hold the diplomat to the moral principle of the poet that we knew him to be. Hard to forget that.

Akin Adesokan, professor of comparative literature at the University of Indiana, United States of America, writes a monthly column for Premium Times

What is Boko Haram? By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

[NOTE: This column was written before the author became aware of last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, in which 59 people were killed and many wounded. Such was the nature of the event in which the killings occurred that the author himself could have been there, a victim as well. This therefore is no plea for fundamentalists who murder innocents—they will have no peace, and they will be defeated. The aim of this piece is to call attention to a Nigerian problem that the war against Boko Haram has simply deepened: the state-sponsored waste of the lives of Nigerian citizens.]

What is this confounding subject in Nigerian society called Boko Haram?

Is it of the kind of clerical fascism that took root in Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979?

Does that kind of religious rule of the Ayatollah, which seeks to bring a modern state under the sway of the tenets of  a particular cultural strain in Islam, Shi’a, have the sympathy of the sects that periodically launch Nigeria into senseless killings—Maitatsine, Al-Zakzaky, etc?

Is there a connection between this “culture” of Northern Nigeria and the explosion of what we now call Boko Haram in 2008?

Translated idiomatically, Boko Haram means “Western education is sacrilege”: are the teachings of Islam not already shaped by the Prophet Mohammed’s familiarity with the books that came before him?

Are there connections between the appearance of Shari’a laws (or pretensions to them) after 1999 and the resurgence of religious extremism that the Nigerian state now confronts?

Can these connections, if any exist, be understood in terms of the reactionary tactics of the country’s political elites? There is a general belief within Nigeria that certain interest groups in sections of the country bring out instruments of violence the moment power equation changes to their disadvantage.

Is the current heedlessness of what we call Boko Haram owed to its links to other fundamentalist, terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab or to the repressive tactics of the Nigerian state?

In 2001, as the world reacted to the harrowing events of September 11 in New York City, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk published an essay in which he argued that, religious fanaticism apart, the grievances of the foot-soldiers of fundamentalist Islam ought to be understood as the grievances of people who experience images and narratives of freedom as unrelieved nightmares.

Is what we call Boko Haram a phenomenon not just of terrorism in Nigeria but also, as the political commentator Edwin Madunagu argues some time ago, of Nigerian terrorism?

Recall the coldblooded murders of leaders of the then-underground group in 2008/2009, captured on videos that circulated widely.

Watching any of the videos, the viewer experiences a chilling sense of déjà vu, having once seen President Samuel Doe of Liberia begging for mercy on his knees.  But when the agents of a state—the army, the police—publicly kill persons who have not been tried in a court of law, or tried in a convincing, transparent manner, any witness with an acute sense of history hears the gunshots as echoes from the gallows where Nigeria murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and his comrades in 1995.

How does one understand the ongoing scorched-earth operations in different parts of Northern Nigeria separate from the unrelieved suffering that passes for life for the wretched of the earth of this country, with or without punitive military operations?

What becomes of Nigerian citizens caught in the obsessive grip of these operations, citizens who are just struggling to enter the twenty-first century of technological innovations but are daily bombed into the dusts of pre-industrial “Hausaland” because the state must destroy the communication capacities of the terrorists?

Do the fates of these citizens matter, or, as the language of neoliberal market fundamentalism puts it, they are to be understood as part of “collateral damage”?

Aren’t there Nigerian citizens who are alienated not so much from religious freedom as from freedom as such, who cannot know what it means to be “free,” much less to be a “citizen”?

If the one imaginary that appeals to these citizens is the nihilistic one of religious fundamentalism, should they be hunted down like the beasts of the savannah, the way the Joint Task Force does routinely in the North?

Knowing the Nigeria state and its way with nebulous categories and phrases, might the now-standard phrase “suspected Boko Haram members” used by the JTF and parroted by the media just be the rhetoric of a negligent system at lazy ease with the brutal killing of defenseless citizens?

I remember visiting a prison in Yola, as a reporter in the entourage of a Minister of Internal Affairs in 1991, and seeing a group of detainees recently arrested after a disturbance in Takum, in what was then Gongola State. Among the detainees was an elderly man who appeared to be in his late seventies. White-haired, sick from a nasty cough, his remaining teeth seeming to fall from his mouth each time he spat, this man did not strike me as someone who could hold a pebble with a steady hand.

Might the police action by which those men were taken prisoners be just a less violent form of the procedure the JTF now uses routinely in fighting Boko Haram?

Has Boko Haram become an excuse for killing innocent Nigerians without having to answer for it?

Professor Adesokan, a novelist, essayist, and former newspaper reporter, teaches comparative literature at the University of Indiana, in the United States.

Come, Watch the Swamp Dwellers Dance! By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

In the euphoric days following the end of military rule, with Olusegun Obasanjo settled into his job as Nigeria’s President and the specter of Shari’a law still in the northern horizon, I was asked to review a new, non-commercial magazine published by the Nigerian chapter of a non-governmental organization interested in environmental issues.

Folks at this NGO probably expected me to provide a formal analysis of the magazine, commenting on the layout, design, the content of the occasional political opinion, and suchlike. They also invited a friendly political activist and lawyer to chair the event, and I knew right away what was afoot—with “a literary person” you didn’t want to leave things to chance.

They got the obligatory review, of course, but the context of my commentary was larger. After the general elections in February of 1999, I had come to the conclusion that the popular struggle for democratic change which began in earnest in the late 1980s and peaked during the regime of General Sani Abacha had been taken over by precisely the same people it had meant to drive out. Political struggle in the Niger Delta had been prosecuted on the highest level of personal sacrifice—witness the judicial murders of the Ogoni Nine.

Yet the global scale of the struggle also ensured that issues of life-and-death faced by the ordinary people in the Niger Delta were now to be consigned to the administrative side of things.

I said this much in my review: that the language of political struggle had changed to that of bureaucracy, symbolized by NGOs, but that realities in the delta region ought not to be subsumed to the logic of bureaucracy. In his closing remarks, the chair of the occasion essentially debunked all my claims, and with a touch of bad taste (or good, depending on how one sees it), commented on the cologne on my shirt as proof of my political outlook.  I was more amused than offended.

Perhaps there was an inevitability to the bureaucratization of the struggle for environmental rights in Nigeria.  In Western Europe and North America, environmentalism was a routine part of political life, and much of the material support that Nigerian activists received was meant to reinforce the liberal view that all politics was about negotiations, contracts, and who got what.

Did the tenor of that non-governmental patronage anticipate the militancy of the mid- to late-2000s, the hostage-takings by the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, and other groups? What were/are the links between the militias and the political elites that have come to and gone out of power in the South-South in the past decade and a half?

The current travails of MEND’s Henry Okah, the near-complete rehabilitation of DSP Alamesigha, the extremely complicated political feuding in Bayelsa and Rivers states all come across as politics-as-usual, without the narrative of victimhood that ruled the 1990s, from the anguished cry that was the Gideon Orkar-led coup to the judicial murders of the Ogoni activists.

Again, it is political naiveté to expect denizens of the Delta, the swamp dwellers, to forever hymn the wreck that had been their reality since the find at Oloibiri. Afterall, power blocs rise and are consolidated from the resources that have impoverished the Niger Delta, the same blocs using the power thus gained to make the impoverishment a fact of life. If they wanted to live like that forever, there would be no point in struggling against the pervasively oppressive system to begin with.

Yet, yet. A close attention to the power games being played throughout the year between the allies of President Goodluck Jonathan and those of Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, and against the background of the history of the Niger Delta after 1990, may reveal several things. One coming to mind, for sure, will relate to the famed dictum about history repeating itself as farce.

Why are those who have suffered so much due to the primitive exploitation of oil resources from the Delta so eager to continue with things as they are? Why do they want to best the records of immiseration that spurred the struggles from which they now benefit? Is it asking too much to expect that, with the balance of power in favor of the once-marginalized, greater concern for ethics will carry the day?

There is something of the clown about the wife of the president, Dame Patience Jonathan. Barely literate but tremendously articulate, she is ready to do battle with anyone perceived to stand in her way. She would invoke her identity as an Okrika woman into the bargain. A clown she may be, but she has a spectacular starring role in an exquisite tragedy, the tragic dance of the swamp dwellers.

Neo Africanus: In Teju Cole’s World, By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan
Of the many encounters in which Julius, the protagonist of Open City, Teju Cole’s elegantly disarming novel, finds himself, two strike me as constituting the pulse of the subtle cultural politics animating the novel.
In the first, the young psychiatrist is about to post a letter when the post office clerk, Terry, struck by his choice of stamp, says, “Say, brother, where are you from? ’Cause, see, I could tell you were from the Motherland. And you brothers have something that is vital, you understand me. You have something that is vital for the health of those of us raised on this side of the ocean. Let me tell you something: I am raising my daughters as Africans.”
The man then goes on to importune the narrator to listen to the declamation of a Spoken-Word poem titled “The Unconquered.” Walking away from what must have been an ordeal for him, Julius says, “I made a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.”
In the second encounter, several pages later, he is telling a patient, Mr. F., about his medications when the man, suffering from depression, says: “Doctor, I just want to tell you how proud I am to come here, and see a young black man like yourself in that white coat, because things haven’t ever been easy for us, and no one has ever given us anything without a struggle.” Julius does not comment on this statement, which ends that particular chapter.
These two moments are important, I think, because they say much about Julius, and more pointedly about the attitude of his creator toward belonging.  Julius is biracial, born of a German mother and a Nigerian father, and he does not, cannot, hide the fact that his poised, aestheticized, yet pernickety lifestyle is intended to guard against unresolved family problems.
Imagine the novel as an opera, and episodes from Julius’s childhood and family life in Nigeria would be indispensable arias oddly bereft of the kind of consequence one expects from the accompaniment to the here-and-now story of a New York flâneur. Given his predisposition up till this moment, it is not a puzzle that Julius swears never to go again in the direction of the Terry’s post office. If a man so well-informed about what James Baldwin once called “the white centuries” (Gustav Mahler, El Greco, Gaston Bachelard, Brussels, the “city of monuments”), feels so much unease about race-based identity claims, what does he expect us to make of Mr. F’s untroubled observation?
Teju Cole apparently did not consider this question seriously enough: the problem of racial identity is complicated, divisive, and like most things that matter, ultimately insoluble. Giving the protagonist of the serious, erudite, emotionally nimble novel a biracial identity owed to a union between a Nigerian and a German allows Cole to chart a cultural genealogy free of the racial politics of the United States, and of the vast archive of the movement called Pan-Africanism. In one of the novel’s many remarkable insights into the hidden histories of New York, Julius considers the effacement of an old cemetery specifically designed for black slaves at a time when “negro” was the word. But a biracial person is black (the word Mr. F uses), especially in the United States, and to pointedly refuse to take Terry’s (and a taxi-driver’s) more aggressive claims seriously is to undermine the graceful wisdom of Mr. F’s observation.
This point should not be overlooked. I think it holds a key to a productive engagement with the novel, indeed with Cole’s work, and I shall devote more time later to a variation of the cultural politics it signifies.
One unarguable quality of this novel is its deftness. Cole characterizes Julius with such precision that his choices, encounters, observations, questions, and desires give the novel its aura.
Character is the attainment of a moral position in relation to an environment, but in Open City, Julius comes about his ethics through an uncanny understanding of the idea of individuality. It is as if this character has resolved a given moral issue before it is presented to him, and so does not need to arrive at his conclusions in the crucible of visceral or rational experience. Blackness is only one of the character’s several identities, and the one whose importance the author clearly, though unsuccessfully, minimizes. The part of Julius that is given greater purchase in the novel is his work as a psychiatrist.
Any number of modern professions can provide insight into human nature, but psychiatry is perhaps unique in this respect in that it is concerned with the fundamental questions of how the human mind works, and more crucially about the consequences of those questions, the categorization of humans in terms of their conduct in a social space. What Julius professes is, all told, the result of an extremely sophisticated calculus, “the potent neurotransmitter, the analytical trick, the surgical intervention,” as he declares in a revealing moment of self-analysis a third of the way into the novel.
Julius is mostly attentive when dealing with remote, remarkably intelligent, worldly, but understated people—Professor Saito, a survivor of the US government’s historic internment of Japanese-Americans; Dr. Maillotte, a retired physician who numbered musician Cannonball Adderley among her famous patients. But captious people forged in grievance, such as Farouq, the Moroccan immigrant he befriends in Brussels, and Moji Kasali, a hurt-bearing Nigerian acquaintance who becomes his girlfriend after a chance re-encounter (in a long monologue one dawn, she accuses him of having raped her in Lagos), get on his nerves in ways he’s too self-conceited to show. His ability to display this kind of sensibility is as much a result of the severe repressions that pass for his psychiatric tutelage as of his other education—the accretions of the arts, family memory, and monumentalized history he calibrates so carefully the better to impress his own sanity upon the reader. It’s a complex, the superiority type.
On the face of them, Julius’s walks around New York City can be seen as an opportunity to advance a view of the city in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the city without the shadow cast by the two towers. But this is only on the surface, and in novels, especially of the kind that Open City proposes to be, depth matters. Or, better still, surfaces conceal. In this city lives not only Professor Saito, but another of Julius’s patients, V, a Native American whose life and death (by suicide), like the bones of dead black slaves, is part of the invisible detritus of the city. The three—Saito, V, black slaves—were the scars of the wound within, but Cole is too clever to come across as proposing these as some sort of “Invisible, Everyday 9/11.”
One of the best-achieved set-pieces in this novel (actually, the best, in my opinion) is Julius’s account of viewing the work of John Brewster at the American Folk Art Museum, occurring early in the novel. From looking at this special exhibit and reflecting on Brewster’s personal circumstances and social milieu (mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century America), Julius is able to articulate the perspective he himself would affect in the novel: “a sealed-away world, visible from without, but impossible to enter.”
This series of small stories is showcased as counterpoint to the protagonist’s fascination with the miniature accounts of the lives of bed bugs and migratory birds, although again Cole does this in an unobtrusive manner. Setting the encounter with Farouq in Europe seems to me to follow the same pattern. In a way, the debate Julius has with Farouq and his friend Khalil about fundamentalist Islam, and particularly the role this phenomenon plays in the thorny issue of the relationship between Israel and Arab/Islamic countries, is better presented outside of the controversial context of anti-Semitism in the US.
Open City is described and marketed as Cole’s first novel. This is inaccurate. Sometime in 2005, around the time of his return to Nigeria, the country of his childhood, after a long absence, Cole created a weblog called “Modal Minority,” and the dominant entries in this blog were the lengthy accounts of his experience during that visit. From these blog posts Cole developed an unusual manuscript published as Every Day Is For the Thief (2008) by Cassava Republic Press, a resourceful publishing company based in Abuja, Nigeria.
This 128-page book is explicitly characterized as a novel in an Author’s Note, although to my mind it should have been called a memoir, if a category was so important to the author and the publishers.  The point is that Every Day Is For the Thief occupies a generic no-man’s-land. The brisk, free-flowing, yet reflexive prose text is interspersed with poetically poignant images. The chapters are short and in some cases are just vignettes of Lagos, some of which are fictionalized out of sheer poetic license.  The unnamed narrator “is similar to me in certain ways,” Cole notes, “and different in some other ways.”
The book is set in Lagos, the cultural and commercial capital of Nigeria which has in the past fifteen years become the focus of interest among journalists, policymakers, architects, urban planners, and the like, on the account of its status as a “megacity.” Lagos, a city of extremes and paradox, has always been that way, but the recent global focus on cities, plus Nigeria’s storied identity as a political conundrum, have ensured that anyone with a sense of proportion (or of the absurd) would look at Lagos not once, not twice, but more, and be compelled to write about this microcosm of the society. What’s more, Cole lived in this city until 1992, and what the book does is to use his perspective as a worldly man of letters to think through the present state of things.
The unnamed “I” narrator gives very little away that could be used to figure out personal circumstances, until more than three-quarters into the book. Here, we are told of the sudden decision to leave the country following the death of his father and the widening of the chasm between him and his mother.
The young man was in the final year of secondary education at a military school in Zaria. He bid his time until the holidays, and without informing any family members (except the one person who lent him money), he made his way out of the country to the United States, resolved to start life “on my own terms.” This biographical outline (the death in the family, the tensions with the white mother, the military school in the north, the flight to the US) is exactly the same as Julius’s, and in the opening paragraph there’s a mention of a hospital as a place of work. In institutional and aesthetic terms, this is the book that helped Cole to write Open City.
The end of a fifteen-year military rule in 1999, and the attendant liberalizations of the economy and the polity are some of the immediate reasons for the intensive focus on Lagos, and by extension, Nigeria. There is optimism in the air, there is money, though in very few and undeserved hands, there is imagination in small matters, and there is a self-assured spirit, as anyone walking around Lagos in the latter half of 1999 often heard, of “Never-Again!” But the narrator ofEvery Day Is For the Thief is far from impressed. Corruption, superstition, inefficiency, empty religiosity, and random cruelty are so ingrained in the society as to make the spectacular changes in communication, transportation, and urban renewal less of an opening-up and more of the same old. 
The problem with this perspective, however, is that the young man who returns to Lagos lacks the kind of context that can enable him to experience the Lagos of the present in terms of what he used to know. There is an enormous lot by way of high-minded critique of the present order of things. Visiting the National Museum, he muses over the profligacy of a former head of state gifting a controversial artifact to the Queen of England. Sitting in an Internet café he reflects on the phenomenon of e-mail scammers (“419,” “Yahoo! Boys”).
A band of “Area Boys,” street-hustlers, tries to intimidate his relatives as they take delivery of a consignment of goods arriving from the port. In everyday life, as indeed in the formal organization of society, things proceeds on the basis of “all we need is a general idea or concept.” And so on. But this critique, necessary and well-appointed, does not stand on a solid ground. The narrator is conflicted; engaged but disinterested.
Nonetheless, the book is a remarkable achievement. The blend of acute observations and essayistic reflections on Lagos and what inhabit it, the self-conscious deployment of literary and artistic references to declare the narrator’s personal taste, all posit something quite novel. There are fine historical and sociological studies of Lagos, and there are good novels about Lagos, but none of these has the kind of worldliness and sass that Cole turns into style in this book. While these stylistic choices raise questions about the degree to which Every Day Is For the Thief is about Lagos, they give it its unique character. One learns to understand its flaws. This is not so much because the perspective of the person who left is not as sharp as that of the one who returns—I don’t think Cole wants that conclusion drawn. It is because this is a novel, an utterance as a set of questions rather than as answers. It would be bad form, after all, to point out errors of fact in a work that does not pretend to be historical fiction.
Yet confronted with a book wishing to convey the idea that Lagos is a habited paradox, would the engaged reader be wrong to imagine a connection between the elitism of the Musical Society of Nigeria, which impresses the narrator, and the decrepitude of the National Museum across the road? Calling this book a novel, then, is a sleight-of-hand which gives the author the license he needs to avoid the many potholes in the road he has chosen to travel. Furthermore, the private domain is a hotbed of complicated emotions and he constantly turns to it in impressive, lightly-touched, vignettes guaranteed to lure the reader away from argumentation around the seemingly insoluble problems of Lagos.
Chloe Anthony Wofford. Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes Basoalto. Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Eric Blair. These names never graced the covers of books, but they were names attached from birth to those who would become famous authors. The reasons that those writers opted for names other than the ones their parents gave them could be varied, but they came down to one thing: the imaginative freedom to choose what one wants to be. In some settings, the writer Teju Cole would be known as Obayemi Onafuwa. Besides his wide perspectives on the world (he knows and has written quite perceptively on music, cinema, art, philosophy and literature from a variety of aesthetic and national traditions), he is also familiar with a culture which says, “Abroad, one is free to answer to a name of one’s fancy.”  And, come to think of it, what is adulthood if not the freedom to stop doing the biddings of one’s parents?
I bring up this issue for two main reasons. First, the rhetoric of Cole’s fictions is more discursive than narrative, and thus opens up a vast field of interpretations. Having made ideas the warp and the woof of his writing, blending the essay, reportage, criticism, and social analysis with fiction, and running the mix through the mill of the subjective I, the author has thrown down a juicy bone of contention. When you have the flâneur, rather than the raconteur, as the guide in a narrative undertaking, you can be sure of greater propensities for reflection along that Walter Benjamin one-way street. On this street, the most fleeting of observations contains multitudes. This also means that both Julius and Cole are fictions and open to interpretation.
Second, I imagine that as Cole’s unique imagination brings him deserved recognition in the coming years, some readers will try to link the kinds of work he produces and the identity he’s adopted, and are likely to come to trivializing conclusions. They will be wrong, but they will be justified because Cole has made deliberate choices against the background of a long and ongoing history of cultural difference and unequal exchange. Better to make those choices, make them the basis of debate, I think, and enrich our understanding of how values are created in a world where they count for much. For those familiar with the history of modern Nigeria, the name Cole (like Williams, Doherty, Leigh, Coker, Jones, Rhodes, Thomas, Haastrup, Simpson, etc.) immediately calls up associations with the elite of Victorian Lagos. These were the families of westernizing worthies either descended from freed slaves or patronized by the clerical and commercial establishments at a time the city was redefining its ambiguous past. For them, bearing names attached to African institutions, especially religious ones, was in many cases a sign of social or cultural backwardness. True, there were also those who in that very context deliberately brought back old and spectacular African names, but English-sounding names came with a great deal of cultural capital for those who bore them. Now when a writer with one such name, Cole, lives abroad in New York, produces work which consciously foregrounds departure, heterogeneity and difference, adopts biracialism as an ontological premise to the extent of fashioning subjectivities that assume Euro-American culture as patrimony, while at the same time shading in African institutions and settings as the repositories of questionable folkloric authenticity, well, there is going to be a debate, if not the sort of quarrel Baldwin once feared between himself and Leopold Senghor, whom he imagined as having equal access to both civilization and barbarism.
Without defending or condemning Cole’s choices as an individual or foreclosing this hypothetical debate, I think that our writer is fully aware of this question, one of the most contentious topics in postcolonial thought. One should expect nothing less from the owner-blogger of “Modal Minority” who once went by the pen-name Ibn Battuta. Indeed, in Open City, he causes Julius to deliberate on an aspect of this dilemma during one of his exchanges with Farouq in Brussels.  The opinionated immigrant is trying to offer his views on the work of two Moroccan writers—Mohamed Choukri and Tahar Ben Jelloun—in terms of which was more authentic, and charges the Paris-based Ben Jelloun with affecting “a certainpoeticity…in the eyes of the West.” It is the old compulsion to divide and choose, of course: between an Ariel and a Caliban, between a Martin Luther King and a Malcolm X, between a Borges and a Neruda, between a Derek Walcott and a Kamau Brathwaite. The unchanging assumption behind this division is that the first is the agreeable “cosmopolitan” and the other the problematic “nativist”. The first is the integrationist, while the other is the nationalist. Somewhere between or above them hovers the presence of The Man. If they exist in real life, and I think they do, the two pigeonholes are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but rhetoric requires them to be.
Julius’s response to this issue is quite instructive, and the novel’s originality lays partly in how it attempts to avoid this divisiveness. What it does is to change the joke, as it were. Since the division works through the formulation of class issues as racial ones (the “refinements” of class passed off as a function of racial background), Cole gives us a protagonist who is “divided to the bone,” as Walcott once puts it in an emblematic poem, and often proceeds from very abstract premises—the surface, the residue, the examination of the quality of the mind. Some of the best writers of the twentieth century (C.L.R. James, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, George Lamming) battled this deep-seated prejudice: they were not seen as just good writers, but as good black writers. Others like Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, Édouard Glissant and Alice Walker wrote to embrace it. Cole stands on the shoulders of these eminent writers, and assumes the privilege of speaking as a legatee of the world’s heritage located in Europe, but without being saddled with the conundrums of color. He gets Julius to reflect on the ideology of difference that operates between Arabs and Jews, and from the angle of the window thus opened on the world, invites comparisons not just with the V.S. Naipaul of The Enigma of Arrival but also with the likes of W.G. Sebald, John Berger and Thomas Bernhard whose works stand as complex reflections on European intellectual and artistic heritages. He writes about New York City as few contemporary writers have done. Above all, he gives us a thoughtful black psychiatrist without inducing thoughts of Frantz Fanon. We are no longer in the heavily politicized terrains of race and class, and so-called “white centuries” are no longer anything of the sort.
Once upon a time in colonial society, whether in Fort-de-France, New Orleans, or in Lourenço Marques, to be biracial was to be viewed as a traitor. This is what gave rise to the figure of the tragic mulatto, who thought himself white, but was distrusted by black and white. That certainly provided a good argument for Aimé Césaire in Une Tempête, where Ariel returns as the mulatto and obstruction to the anti-colonial effort. But a lot has happened between 1959 and 2009 and as Zadie Smith, writing about Barack Obama not too long ago says, being biracial can also be a matter of learning to speak in tongues! She should know. Its presumed tragicness thus entirely reinterpreted in light of new realities, biracialism no longer needs to view itself as a form of otherness, especially not in relation to Africa or America.  The division was artificial right from the start.
Part of Cole’s strategy in his writings, it seems to me, is to try to recapture that moment before the slave trade when, according to Berger in his controversial Booker Prize acceptance speech of 1972, “black and white approached each other with the amazement of potential equals.” Or to imagine it as our common future. And he wants to do this not on the terms of contemporary understandings of race and culture but on the terms of writing as the mode of fashioning individual sensibilities. This option is not to be construed as avoiding politics, but as conceiving of the political on terms that put the individual first. Thus, his literary references are not so much the post-slavery black writers, but those of a different clime and orientation, such as Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, and al-Wazzan who wrote about Africa within the context of worldly travels. As the historian Natalie Zemon Davis notes in Trickster Travels, her highly imaginative account of the life of al-Wazzan (better known as Leo Africanus), what is important about this kind of literary orientation is “how a man moved between different polities, made use of different cultural and social resources, and entangled or separated them so as to survive, discover, write, make relationships, and think about society and himself.” When travel and the writing which chronicles it are conceived as the modes of creating sensibilities, the author embodies a world of imaginaries, creating stories that can find home in the imaginaries of others, a world unfettered by artificial divisions.
The problem, though, is that artificial divisions crumble hard. They sooner acquire material force, become real and hard to transcend. They have an archive, leave a mark on institutions. People kill and are killed for them. The most powerful man in a very powerful country is relentlessly maligned by his citizens simply on account of the color of his skin. This is why, to return to where I started, Julius’s encounters with Terry and Mr. F in New York are important in grasping the cultural politics at work in Cole’s novels. For him, Leo Africanus might be a less ideological literary progenitor than Edward Blyden, but it is the latter who offers a more persuasive argument to writers of Cole’s temperament about how to approach creativity in an adversarial context. That biracial identity could be a viable option for a worldly character is itself a result of the ethical exertions of writers across generations, black and white—but they took up the challenge so that a Cole doesn’t have to.  Julius had earlier promised to be in solidarity with a jailed Liberian asylum-seeker, but never kept his promise. (In The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul writes about the letters he received from Angela, a certain young woman he’d roomed with in a hostel upon arriving in England, and about his simple resolve not to reply to any of them. Angela was in the past and no longer mattered.) He had been irritated into sullenness by the friendly chatter of an African taxi-driver trying to “lay claims on him.” It is therefore not a puzzle that he will make a point of avoiding Terry’s post office. The puzzle is that a cultural-nationalist like Terry can tell that biracial Julius is from the African continent. How can anyone conclude from merely seeing a biracial person that he is from Africa? That would be true of Cole, not of fictional Julius who, like the narrator of Everyday Is For the Thief, is “different [from the author] in some other ways.” It would be interesting to speculate if Terry’s insufferable poetry, rather than his simplistic view of African culture, is what puts Julius off.
Thinking of a conclusion, I am reminded of two seemingly incompatible writers, the Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji and the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.  “Who could refuse Mudimbe anything?” Hountondji wonders at some point in his book, The Struggle for Meaning, the question an attempt to underscore the substantial cultural capital associated with his colleague from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Success has many friends, and although some may be critical of the choices the successful make to advance self-determined goals, most will come to terms with the reality of it.
Hountondji goes further to regret that Mudimbe’s career evinces “a certain type of apolitical position, of disengagement from Africa,” but he is also of the opinion that Mudimbe’s work expands the field of knowledge about the continent. I won’t go so far as to assert that Cole adopts an apolitical position as a writer—there is evidence to the contrary in the columns he published in the now-defunct NEXT newspaper published in Lagos, and in some of his recent interventions elsewhere. I will state categorically that he has started off his career through a strategic act of disidentification.
Such an act is not limited to the rhetoric of his novels, as witness the facts of the disagreement between him and his Nigerian publishers. Yet as Borges contends in “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” responding to the criticism that his writing lacked national characteristics, anything that an Argentine writer can do with success stands to enrich the tradition on which she appears to be turning her back.
Cole is sending signals that being African does not, should not, commit a writer to engaging with African themes. I was disappointed to see him present his personal story as an American one in a short video following the publication of Open City, but quickly realized that that was his story, after all. I can deal with that because I imagine that he knows what he is doing. He (or Julius?) is in New York. He knows Irewolede Denge as well as he knows Tomas Tranströmer. He is a scholar of Netherlandish art, but he must be aware of the itinerant Yoruba artist, Are Lagbayi who, as contexts go, was better traveled than Delft-bound Johannes Vermeer and produced his work in ex-ile, a maker of art as a gesture of perpetual departures.
Adesokan, a former newsman, is the author of Roots in the Sky, a novel, and Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. He is now a professor of comparative literature at the University of Indiana in the United States.

Trayvon, Thy Skin Is Thy Sin! By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

Late one evening in mid-February 1999, I stood at a train station in Oakland, California, waiting for a Bay Area Rapid Transit ride to the Oakland airport. I was returning home to Los Angeles after giving a lecture at San Francisco State University. Nearby was a group of very loud young black men, teenagers all, smoking different things and feeling generally boisterous. They were heady and heedless, their laughter was shattering, their movements changed from swagger to dancing to menacing infringement on the perimeter where I stood, the only other black person in sight. I sensed that they were making a sneaky but steady drive toward me, and that if I remained at that spot for the next minute, I would be attacked.

I did not know what to do, and could move no further on that platform than three meters, and such a move, I felt, was likely to be perceived as aggressive or fearful, neither an acceptable emotion in the circumstance. As I stood staring at the ground and contemplating if I would be attacked and how I could defend myself, knowing that I couldn’t, I noticed a police car suddenly pull into the station from a back alley. Several things happened at once. The rising bar of my anxiety came down, relief washing over me indescribably, the gregarious, crashing laughter of the youngsters deflated just as suddenly, and although the white policeman did not come out of his car or make any move, I now felt totally safe. I watched the hitherto sneaky-but-steady move in my direction reconfiguring itself as so many disorderly retreats.

The train came. The ride to the airport afforded me time for self-analysis.

It was likely that the black men had not noticed, much less desired to attack me. Even if any one of them had noticed me, what proof was there of a connection between such an observation and his, not to talk of their, own reality at the moment?

But I needed no proof, having subconsciously accepted as truth the falsehood that a black man on the move in a public place was a clear and present danger, a loaded gun looking for where to go off. It didn’t matter that, objectively speaking, I was more dark-skinned than any of those men, and that if a row had broken out just before the cop’s arrival, I could be arrested along with them. Shame mingled with frustration as I thought about that false encounter, moreso because the whole thing had occurred in the imaginary but fecund world of blackness as a negative social sign, a code for menace to safe society.

George Zimmerman, the former Florida neighborhood-watch volunteer recently acquitted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of the black teenager Trayvon Martin might be a good man, without ill-will toward blacks. But in February 2012 he was, like me that distant February in Oakland, an unselfconscious consumer of mediated ideas about black criminality. He had a gun, he had a semi-official duty to protect his neighborhood, and a black boy with a hood looked like a threat. If I’d a gun that evening, I would probably prime it for self-defense. I didn’t need to be aware of what self-defense laws existed or didn’t in California. I faced black menace and would act according to my instincts, shaped in the imaginary but fecund and so quite real world which sees young black men as walking dangers.

Without questions, Zimmerman aggravated things by ignoring the instruction from the police dispatcher not to follow Trayvon. Had he heeded that counsel, he would (or might) not have ended up murdering the black teenager, and the world would be spared the agony the matter has engendered in the past year and a half. But he was emboldened to ignore the instruction because, on balance, the imaginary threat of blackness was more powerful than the commonsensical rule of walking away from a potential confrontation. As a law expert recently said, the trial unfolded as if the defense was the prosecution.

No less a figure than President Barack Obama has put his finger on what motivated Zimmerman. Without calling the verdict into question, Obama says clearly that black men in America live in constant fear of being followed, the presumed criminal lurking in white neighborhoods. He speaks of himself as Trayvon thirty-five years ago. Actually, he states the facts in the guise of a metaphor. The facts say that every day, the most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world is himself being followed, and would be taken down if the racists had their way. The president as “an Arab,” “a socialist,” “not born in the US” is daily prosecuted in the court of Racial McCarthyism.

 Akin Adesokan, a published novelist and professor of comparative literature at the University of Indiana, writes a monthly column for Premium Times.

What It Means To Be Roger Federer, By Akin Adesokan

Akin Adesokan

With his second-round loss to an unknown Ukrainian player in this year’s Wimbledon, tennis great Roger Federer has missed reaching the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam event for the first time since the 2004 French Open. Federer fell to Sergiy Stakhovsky 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 6-7 on Wednesday June 26, at the famed tennis Championship which he has won seven times, and of which he is the defending champion.

It was a stunner. Here was the one and only Roger Federer, arguably the greatest male player of all time, winner of 17 Grand Slam and 79 tournaments total, with the highest number of weeks at No. 1 in the ATP ranking and many more distinctions, being routed by a 116th-ranked journeyman. The event quickly overshadowed the upset of the previous day, when Rafael Nadal crashed out in the early rounds for the second straight year. One other ominous sign of Federer’s fate: until the previous week when he won the Halle tournament in Germany, he had not reached the finals of any tennis event all year.

It is beginning to look like the twilight of the god.

Until Roger broke into the tennis world with his triumph over Mark Philipoussis at Wimbledon ten years ago, I never cared much for the career of a single tennis superstar. I liked Boris Becker in his prime, but viewed him as distant and ancient. I admired the Williams sisters and liked to see either or both of them win.  When they played each other, I often rooted for Venus, who had more grace on-court. There was something insincerely infantile in the way Andre Agassi broke into tears and piled his hands on his head after every win. Martina Hingis came across as a mean-spirited sore loser. It was enough to know that Pete Sampras was a Florida Republican for him not to have my sympathies, win or lose.

For Roger, it is different. I am happy each time he wins a match, and I am sad each time he loses. The two emotions, of equal depth and degree, are, I have found, more for myself than for the player. Once he is eliminated from any event, my interest wanes. I would still watch the remaining matches, but there is no one left to root for. Watching Roger play has been described as a ‘religious experience,’ by none other than the late American writer David Foster Wallace, himself a tennis player. In analyzing my feelings, I have often wondered if my secular devotion to Roger’s fortunes is a way of making up for the lack of religious devotion in my normal life.

And it helps to know that Roger’s grace and beauty are not limited to his prowess as a tennis player. He is a dedicated philanthropist, a good part of his wealth going to his Roger Federer Foundation’s work which builds educational and medical facilities in a number of African countries, including Malawi, South Africa, and Ethiopia. I was intrigued to learn that his mother, Lynette, was born in South Africa which, as he says in an advertorial, makes it natural that he would care about the quality of life of African children.

A true class act, Roger plays fair, and rarely challenges court calls that go against him. He is known to have picked up an opponent (Nadal) from the airport before a schedule of charity matches.

Yet Nadal remains his greatest rival, the player who dethroned him at the finals of 2008 Wimbledon, ending his five-year reign at the All-England Club. Since that harrowing defeat in “the greatest tennis match ever played,” Roger has won only five Grand Slams (US Open, 2008; French Open, 2009; Wimbledon 2009, 2012; Australian Open, 2010). He has been beaten at major events by virtually all the top-ranked players, with the exception of David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet.

Not only is he not invincible anymore, he now comes across as very vulnerable, losing matches he should have won, like the quarter-final duel with Jo-Wilfred Tsonga at the 2011 Wimbledon, and playing as if he means to lose. I can never understand why on crucial points he goes for the backhand slice against a power player like Nadal, who is also faster and can hit a ferocious forehand from anywhere in his own side of the seventy-eight-by-twenty-seven-foot rectangle.

But Roger is not done. Losing to Stakhovsky, he admits that some losses hurt more than others, but that he will continue to compete, a statement reminiscent of his 2010 declaration to The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins: “I’d like to stay in the game as long as I can… The moment I feel I can’t do it anymore, I’ll stop, but I hope that’s a long time off.”

I hope so too.

How Hugo Chavez Spent His Oil Money, By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

The death last week of the President of Venezuela, Commandante Hugo Chavez, caught me by surprise, although I was aware of his hospitalization in Cuba. I held the optimistic belief that Chavez, a tough survivor, would triumph over his illness as Fidel Castro, his acclaimed mentor, triumphed over his. No, the Grim Reaper took away the fiery, down-to-earth leader at the unripe age of 58.

(I have decided to interrupt the current series on the work of Odia Ofeimun to pay homage to Chavez, champion of the wretched of his earth, negro e indio. Interrupt is the word, for it is possible to speak of Ofeimun and Chavez in the same sentence: if he had the chance, Ofeimun will readily produce a monograph-length opinion about the leader of the country that has given him enough inspiration to fructify into a volume of poems, titled A Boiling Caracas.)

Commentaries about Chavez’s life have been as much about his remarkable achievement as a leader as about his sense of drama—theater is the word often used by commentators. He was a populist who liked to do things for the camera, so goes the argument: working the crowds, kissing children, personally answering letters addressed to him by the teeming poor of his country, and most dramatic of all, playing guitar on national television and singing the sonorous llaneras from the southern plains of his origins.

Why applaud a political figure known to be doing good for his country and also affecting the image of an anti-imperialist (think of Robert Mugabe)? Why not try, if possible, to know from trusted sources within the given country? In his public statements, Chavez had a penchant for praising leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad., who reportedly visited Chavez’s mother days after his demise.

Two things seem to mark Chavez as a unique politician: his attitude to the US leadership as he demonstrated through book endorsements, and his use of Venezuela’s oil wealth to change his country for the better. The latter was proof enough of his genuineness as a social democrat, but the theater attached to the second is too captivating to ignore.

During the 2006 UN General Assembly, he used the podium famously to disparage the US president George W. Bush: “The devil came here yesterday,” he began, “and it still smells of sulfur today, at this table where I’m standing now.” He then went on to speak more directly, saying that the “gentleman to whom I refer as the devil…spoke as if he owned the world.”

Calling Bush “the devil” right in his own country was a sign of defiance, a tad unpresidential if you were about decorum, but Chavez was deliberate in the act. In fact, at the beginning of the speech, he had endorsed Noam Chomsky’s book, Hegemony of Survival, “an excellent book that helps us to understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century.” In short, he honored one American and dishonored another in one fell swoop, but the comment about Bush is the one most people remember.

Also, during the Organization of American States summit in Trinidad in 2009, he did something dramatic: he rose from his seat, walked across the room and held out a book to another US president, this time the newly-elected Barack Obama. The title was The Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano’s famous historical work from the 1970s. The gesture was classic Chavez: common touch with a certain boyish charm. Both men later posed for a picture in formal presentation, and Obama joked that he thought he was being given one of Chavez’s books.

Many believed that the failed attempt to overthrow him in 2002 (eagerly supported by Bush’s White House) was motivated by greed for Venezuela’s oil deposit, said to be larger than Saudi Arabia’s. It is also the case that the government was attempting something unprecedented in Latin America in recent history: a social welfare state that catered primarily to the needs of the poor, negro e indio—blacks and Indians. Welfare programs headlined Chavez’s reign. Land previous held by the rich few was systematically redistributed; comatose industries received a new lease on life so long as they stood to reduce poverty. Most of these programs were criticized for being used as membership drives for the ruling party, but the fact is that the poor had never had such a deal before.

What if Nigeria had a leader half this visionary? The closest Nigeria got to having a Chavez was General Murtala Mohammed, back in the last century. Imagine how far a sensible use of oil money would take the country, how much saner we would feel as a society. Chavez was not perfect, but on the strength of his welfare programs, he is worthy of emulation in a country as wasteful as ours.

Akin Adesokan, an award wining author and former newspaper reporter, is now a professor of Literature at the University of Indiana in the United States.

Dreams that Obey No Boundaries, By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

If you want to know what a serious thinker considers the idea closest to his heart, pay attention to what he says in more than one place, what he repeats, what he restates, irrespective of time or place. In most cases, allowing for the unpredictable, the outlier in the nature of things, any such idea hardly ever stands alone, nor is it ever as discrete as something to be grasped as a single thought.

A few examples from among my favorite authors will be useful.  The French essayist Michel Montaigne regards the sensual experiencing of the physical world as the best gauge of the good life, although he’s also the first to deny the presence of a system in his thoughts. For the Caribbean/Black British political thinker, C.L.R. James, the central idea is the understanding of an era or a social system through the full representation of a personality. It may well be that the notion of a thinker having a single, central idea applies more to sociological analysis than to the imaginative process at work in creativity, but I think this is erroneous. So long as it is expressed in writing, any idea, complex or simple, requires analysis to register its coherence.

For Odia Ofeimun, at least in my growing understanding of his work, this idea can be found in the cluster of notions around building horizontally across West Africa. What are to be built include political parties, industrial estates, and/or railways, especially railways. In this cluster, the common phrase, “nation-building,” struggles for pride of place with another, non-mutually-exclusive phrase, “master-builder,” the working title of his still-uncompleted biography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

In the run-up to the fraudulent Constitutional Conference mounted by Sani Abacha and his political henchmen in 1994/95, Ofeimun, incredible dreamer that he is, often proposed the idea of a political party as feasible in Nigeria as in other parts of West Africa. When he writes or comments on eminent West African figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Amílcar Cabral, Mamadou Dia, or Cheik Anta Diop, he thinks of them as nodal points in a continuing line of progressive politics that ultimately observes no boundary as far as building a humane society is concerned.

This idea shows up in the most unlikely places; so deep are its roots in the untilled soil of a political society struggling to be born. In his commentary on the biography of Chief Bisi Akande, former governor of Osun State, published in A House of Many Mansions, his latest book of essays, Ofeimun restates this idea, in a slightly different register.

He writes, “Given the manner in which [Akande] was running Osun State, with prudence, transparency, and a dogged indifference to distraction, I actually wished I could remove him from being Governor and turn him into a builder of railways. I still always managed in my mind’s eye to see his future in railways, even after he was removed from office…What I can say in response to Akande’s exit from the seat of power in Osun State, together with all the surrounds across the Nigerian electoral system, compelled me to add an insurgent handle to my dream of a railway across Nigeria and West Africa.”

The relevant point here is not whether Ofeimun’s assessment of the former’s governor’s tenure is correct or incorrect—he is a partisan of Akande’s political community—but that he is able to establish a connection between his oft-stated ideals for humanizing life in his clime and the career of a politician in a corner of Nigeria. Who is Bisi Akande, you might wonder, to stand next to Nkrumah or Dia? But the answer to that question, if ever proffered, is not likely to be as illuminating as the one that sees Ofeimun as the processor of the thought that the qualities of prudence and transparency are natives of no land.

Ofeimun is primarily a poet, a toiler in language and imagery. Although until recently he made more impact in Nigeria largely as a commentator on political issues, his political and cultural criticisms are an extension, a broadening, of his vision as a poet.

West Africa is an artificial community, bounded and historical. It was not always in existence, and it does not extend beyond Nigeria in the east and Cape Verde in the west. The notion of boundary which this historical, geographically limited community suggests is, however, not helpful if seen in terms of physical geography. It is more useful if the best ideas that such a community is called upon to serve (think of Nkrumah’s idealism, Cabral’s humanity, Funmilayo-Kuti’s forthrightness) are seen as the building blocks of our common future. The best way to dream of this future without boundaries is to start where you stand. Ofeimun starts from Lagos, Nigeria.

Nigeria the Beautiful? Thinking with Odia Ofeimun, By Akin Adesokan

Prof Akin Adesokan

How does one maintain optimism about Nigeria? All visible signs show a country in poor shape and steadily getting worse. There is very little security of life and property, even without the Boko Haram onslaught. There is a lot of money in very few and undeserving hands. Random and systematic cruelty rules the day. The level of public debate on very important matters is so low that it is worth having only for its nuisance value, which is of no value in this circumstance. The ivory tower, the natural fount of knowledge, is a metaphoric farm in which the weeds are steadily taking over, scorching the life out of genuine, life-sustaining crops. In and out of the university, people trained to live by a judicious use of curiosity and criticism have succumbed to religious superstition of the most self-defeating varieties, and seem determined to drag everyone else down with them. Knowledgeable people, including the former ambassador of a very powerful country in Nigeria, have predicted that the country will disintegrate about two years from now.

Yet in the last few years, the poet and critic Odia Ofeimun has celebrated this country in his own unique way. In a compelling display of imaginative and political generosity, he has put up a series of dance-dramas, stage performances developed from his evocative poems. Hear the name of one of these festive dances: Nigeria the Beautiful!

A puzzling title, not because its literal meaning is untrue, but because it is uncanny. Nigeria the Beautiful is a dramatic poem, a narrative designed to highlight the twice-told and forgotten stories that combine to make the epic we have come to take as the Nigerian nation. Its concern is to reach for a reservoir of faith that one would be hard put to believe exists anywhere under the living sun, given all the visible signs surrounding the country like a bright, dense halo.

Ofeimun is not one of those profiting from the unacceptable state of things—he does not hold elective position and, as far as I know, is not a card-carrying member of a political party. Like most hard-headed realists, he has his preferences for one political tendency or another, and does not fight shy of expressing these biases in public. In doing so, he easily incurs the irritation or annoyance of those with vested interests. But this is not unusual, even for the most temperate of opinion-makers. Ofeimun is exceptional in adding to this dogged expression of his views a certain kind of unapologetic abrasiveness, one that often leaves his arguments unanswerable.

What does one make of this? Anyone who has tried to keep a steady view of things will know that every age could appear as bad as the next, or the one before. But the old is often appalled by the historical amnesia of the young; the youthful enthusiasm about a seemingly new phenomenon is treated either with amusement or with exasperation depending on the temperament of the old and the demeanor of the young. For example, a teacher who has spent years writing or teaching about Darwinism could be sorely offended if her student were to come up with an aggressive defense of “intelligence design” that also comes across as a discrediting of Darwinism.

When Ofeimun appears to be abrasive during a public debate, I think it is this kind of inability to convincingly connect the dots that riles him. And it is also because such an inability is not always an innocent lack of information. It could be a lack of rigor, but often in the context of Nigerian history it is a mark of intellectual dishonesty in the service of divisive politics.

Between this steadfast expression and defense of his personal views and the idealistic celebration of Nigeria in the dance-drama, I think, lies the importance of the ideas Ofeimun is developing, or has developed, about his time and place. It is an uncanny vision because it seeks to hold on to the promise of an idealistic future for which the present is not a reliable barometer. In fact, to go only by the present signs about Nigeria is to confront a reality certain to cripple the imagination. Dear reader, review the list of woes at the beginning of this piece and see if you won’t find it too incomplete. There is no mention of corrupt, none of barely literate assemblymen awarding themselves salaries and allowances without comparison anywhere in our known world. There is nothing about hungry millions, the reserved army of the unemployed, the whole lot.

For Ofeimun and builders like him, the point is to see through to tomorrow by gazing steadily at today.  It would be salutary enough if this vision were limited to Nigeria, but dreams obey no boundaries.

Akin Adesokan is an Associate Proffessor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. He writes a monthly column for PREMIUM TIMES

Celebrating Martin Banham, great scholar and intimate outsider, @ 80, By Akin Adesokan

Akin Adesokan
Akin Adesokan celebrates Martin Banham, a great British drama scholar, who has fond memories about Nigeria and its unique theater climate
Akin Adesokan celebrates Martin Banham, a great British drama scholar, who has fond memories about Nigeria and its unique theater climate

Martin Banham, the retired drama scholar at Leeds University in Britain, turned eighty on December 8, 2012. I have never met Banham, nor even had a formal contact with him, either by phone or in writing. Maybe I have seen a picture of him, a black-and-white image of a plain-looking academic, in a denim or khaki shirt, caught staring at the routine duty of a camera clicking for official use.  If, in spite of a lack of personal connection, I choose to write a birthday tribute, it is because of what I think he represents for the intellectual vibrancy of modern Africa.

Given my background in theater studies, I’ve had to know Banham intimately, through his work. The University of Ibadan’s theater arts department began as the School of Drama. This was where he started in 1956, before the requirements of higher education in Britain led him, upon return to Leeds, to develop programs in Workshop Theater. In a heartfelt email to friends and colleagues acknowledging their tributes, Banham wrote: “My going to Ibadan in 1956 [meant] a discovery, for me, of an exciting and vibrant theater culture that…made much contemporary Western theater look positively anemic.” Indeed, he is one of those largely unsung heroes of Nigeria’s liberal arts, including Geoffrey Axworthy, David Cook, Brian Crow, Michael Etherton, Carole Dawes, Karin Barber, Dexter Lindersay, Chris Dunton,  and, of course, James Gibbs.

Prof Martin Banham
Prof Martin Banham

These writers and administrators are a departure from the standard image of the “white man/woman in Africa” as an oppressive presence—explorer, freebooter, missionary, soldier, and colonial mandarin. They were associated with the more liberal phase of Britain’s historic involvement in Africa and, working through the university, were able to relate to their new contexts with empathy. They treated Nigerians as equals. This might have been because even as teachers they were barely older than their students who would soon become their colleagues, or superiors in some cases, but there are other factors involved.

First, there is a sense in which, unlike the colonial administrators of the half-century prior, these figures were themselves strangers to privilege. Emerging from the working classes of the Midlands we know from the writings of Allan Sillitoe, Raymond Williams, and E.P. Thompson, and at a time the glorious sun of Empire was fast receding into a dim haze on the tropical horizon, they could not really be cultural snobs.

Second, they were teachers in the humane letters, in which the meaning of a work between teacher and student is, if ever certain, a result of thoughts in dialogue; and in theater, which is premised on expressive socialization and finding out about things as you go on looking at and thinking about them.

Finally, there is the matter of the United States of America. Britain was Nigeria’s colonial overlord, but I think that Nigeria’s genuine intellectual orientation is toward the United States. Even during colonial rule, the US always made its presence felt in many African countries, through commerce, science, missionary work, and education. Generous America, land of endless vistas is viewed as a more approachable partner than parsimonious Britain.

Yet America’s generosity often carries a price tag. The land of endless vistas is also an assembly-line operation where many things, including the work of scholars in the humanities, are tabulated and dutifully recorded in annual reports. Thus, a young American scholar arriving at Legon or Makerere is not only looking for kindred spirits in this incipient journey of self-discovery, but also stepping out the door for another day at the office.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but experience has shown that British scholars in African universities tend to exhibit greater attitude of intimacy than their North American colleagues.

This is why intellectuals of Banham’s generation and background deserve a special recognition; the importance of their dedicated contribution to African and postcolonial arts and letters should be carefully understood.

Banham is distinguished in this respect. He wrote insightful essays about dramatists like Soyinka and Clark-Bekederemo at the beginning of their careers. Recently, he has worked with younger colleagues such as the dramatist Femi Osofisan, James Gibbs and Jane Plastow, as co-editors of the journal African Theater. In an engaging recent essay, he cleared the air on Soyinka’s famous “tigritude” retort. What the young writer actually said was, “A duiker does not have to paint ‘duikeritude’ on its elegant rump; you know it by the quality of its leaps.” Everyone has come to regard “a tiger does not have to proclaim his tigritude, etc., etc.” as having a Delphic accuracy.

The kind of archaeological work evident here is definitive of that generation and remains alive. In the work of younger writers like the journalist Jeremy Harding (and in the tradition of the historian Basil Davidson), one observes a contemporary example of this dedicated spirit of the intimate, sympathetic outsider.

Akin Adesokan is an Associate Proffessor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. He writes a monthly column for PREMIUM TIMES