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.