Dr Ropo Sekoni, a retired Professor of Comparative literature, and chair, Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Reporting, turns 70 saturday, August 10. One of the finest literary theorists, and semioticians, Sekoni, an academic, culture and political activist, and researcher, has mentored dozens of students, top academics, and researchers. In this anniversary interview he sat with former students, DAPO OLORUNYOMI, KUNLE AJIBADE, FEMI FOLORUNSO, FUNSO AROGUNDADE and IDOWU OGUNLEYE (Photos), speaking eloquently on his background, teaching career, the problem with the Nigerian education system, leadership and many other national issues
Prof. Ropo Sekoni
Could you tell us about your early life, education and challenges of growing up, now that you are 70?
Growing up was exciting. My father used to work in Lagos until when I was seven and we moved back to Ondo, our hometown. I was put in All Saints’ Primary School in Ondo, which is a very small school but full of activities. While there, I was a sprinter. I did 100 metres and relay, even throughout my secondary school. Ondo was a very small town then and everybody knew one another. There was always something to do. But what really caught my attention then, and which stays with me till today, was the beauty and glamour of Yoruba culture. I was always attracted by spectacles. I loved going out with the Egungun whenever they were out. I would go about with them round the town.
The second thing that caught my fancy in my pre-teen years and that still stays with me till 70 is the love of words. My maternal grandfather was the Chief of our neighbourhood. Every morning, the drummer would come and he was always with a boy. Don’t forget that I had just come from Lagos to that place and I didn’t have the dialect immediately. But I was always excited to see the man talk. He was not talking like our teacher who spoke from the nose. This person would talk and talk. Or when I had opportunity to witness an Ifa priest chant, I always wanted to control words the way they did. That was the beginning of the career that I chose. And afterwards, I went to Ondo Boys’ High School. It was easy in the first two years but by the third year, my father’s business collapsed and things became very tough. In spite of the challenges, I scaled through the secondary school but to pursue my higher education was another challenge. But my father said whatever it would take, I must finish my education. At some point, I had the feeling that it was becoming too much for my dad to handle, given his other responsibilities.
I was the first child and nobody was in school ahead of me, but there were other children. So, I went to him one day and said he didn’t have to put himself through all the stress. He looked at me and said, “Son, do you know why I believe you must have education? It is because my own was aborted.” So, he assured me that he would do whatever he could.
In those days, my father was an assistant to some people doing survey at that time. He was so good at his job which made the Oyinbo man he worked with to like him. The whiteman told my father that when they finished the survey work they were doing then, he would take my dad to Benin. Benin was already a big city then. He said if he continued to do well, he would take him to England. Then my father went to inform his dad, who had three boys and two girls. My grandfather was a rice farmer in the waterside. His older brother was a sickler. He was the strongest among his siblings. His father started jubilating and went to tell his friend. This friend then told my grandfather that he must be very stupid. He said his older son was always ill and he now wanted to release my father, who was the strongest of his children and always helped him on the farm. That was how he missed the opportunity. He then said since he lost that opportunity, he would not allow my own education to be aborted. After that I went for the Higher School Certificate, HSC. I did History and Government, which was called British Constitution then. On the basis of that, I would do Journalism since I had been infatuated by words.
In those days, the only university that offered a degree in Journalism was the University of Nigeria Nsukka. And the day that we were supposed to resume at Nsukka, Ojukwu’s broadcast came that they could not guarantee the safety of people of non-Eastern Region. At the time, I was pursuing my A-Levels, I was also working with then Cable and Wireless, which later became the Nigerian External Telecommunications, NET. You know we were just coming out of colonialism then and the company, Cable and Wireless had to be changed to NET and later the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, NITEL.
Where were you then?
I was back in Lagos. I had already on me my tuition fee which was around £300 plus per annum. My father had given me £100 and my mom gave me £50. I added £200 plus. But since I couldn’t resume in Nsukka that was how I ended up going to the United States.
Why did you decide to go to the United States?
Of course, those who were already in Nsukka doing all other disciplines available in other universities during that time were sent to those universities like Ibadan, Ife and Zaria. But I had nowhere to go. In fact, I had started buying beer from the money that was to be used for my admission. I had initially applied for admission to Regent School of Journalism in London but for some reasons, it didn’t work out. That was why I decided to raise money and headed to the US. Then, there was a cousin of mine who was in Harvard University. I wrote to him that I wanted to come to the U.S. and he said, No problem. That was how I got an invitation to Harvard. So, I would say life has been so exciting for me. I have been working since age 19. So when I told my students in the university that I wanted to retire four years ago, they said but I wasn’t that old. But I said to them, ‘Do you know how long I have been working?’ So, it has been wonderful. I believe that I have gotten more out of life than I deserve.
How do you mean?
Because wherever fate took me, I always warmed up to somebody that would assist me. Even in the places where I didn’t know anybody, things would just happen. For example, when I went to Maryland State University for my first degree in English, I was a private student. There, I couldn’t do journalism as the school didn’t offer journalism but English. When I took my A-Level result there, I was given a semester off. By the second semester, I barely had enough to pay for my tuition but I arranged to pay in instalment. So by the third semester, our English teacher, one Dr. Brown, called me and told me that I write well and he noticed that I was too confident. He asked if I wanted a scholarship. And all that I would do to qualify for it was that I would be helping him to proof-read his papers while he would be paying my tuition.
Just like that?
Yes. That was how I paid through my undergraduate. And when I finished, I came out with Magna which is the equivalent of our Second Class Upper. Then Lagos State came with their scholarship programme. I went for the interview. In between, I had just gone for a summer programme at the School of Journalism in Nebraska and I had started bragging that I was a trained journalist. Later, Mrs. Tejumade Alakija, who was then the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education in the Western State, came to New York and they were also interviewing Western Nigerian post-graduate scholars. The same man who organised the Lagos State scholarship interview was also in charge. When he saw me, he shouted that “Are you not from Lagos?” I told him I am also from the Western State too. I did that interview and I discovered that the Western State was paying more than any other state, even than Federal Government.
And I learnt a lesson there about the commitment of people in power then to the welfare of their citizens. We were told at the interview that we had to sign a bond of one year of training and one year of service. Mrs. Alakija later told us that (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo asked them to always make provision for 20 per cent wastage. That wherever those people chose to stay, they should still make their contribution to their people. That’s the essence of the bond. She also told us a story that whenever scholarship award was to be announced, the tradition was that it should be delayed until the Eastern Nigeria released their figures. If the Eastern Nigeria released 100, Western Nigeria would release 200. It was a healthy competition. Compare that to where we are now.
Apart from the scholarship you got from Western Region, how was it like at the University of Wisconsin – Madison?
It has been an exciting life, though it has not been all smooth sailing. Of course there are some certain aspects of my life where I had come across challenges. But I have been very fortunate. I remember how I got into African-American Literature. It was during a symposium at the university. There was one professor in African-American studies who was a poet then. She is dead now. I had made some contributions while she was teaching and after the symposium, she called me and offered me a job to be her teaching assistant. I took the offer as it became double blessing. Many were even surprised when I bought a brand new car at the university then. So each time things became tough, by the time I should be agonising, doors would always open unexpectedly. That is why I said maybe I have taken more out of life than I have put it into it. I also work hard in my own way too, though.
Given your love for spectacles, words and contact with the Ifa priesthood, how did all these explain the role of religion in your upbringing?
It is a long story but I will make it short. Basically now and for a long time, I am a unitarian. A unitarian is that person who believes that all approaches to God are valid. How did I come into it? Well, it was my background and upbringing. To use the language of history, it is a remote factor. My father was Catholic while my mother was Methodist. My mother’s family brought Methodist to Ondo town. And in Ondo culture, no husband has a right to change the religion of his wife. The town believes in gender democracy. Where we lived in Lagos, the closest school was Anglican. So, I went to school there and got baptised and confirmed, and started taking communion. By the time I was close to finishing primary school, my father took a second wife, who, like him, was a Catholic. I woke up one day and my father told me that he had changed my school. He said from Monday I would no longer go to All Saints’ Primary School but St. Patrick’s Primary School. Don’t forget that I had made friends over the years. I now asked him why? He said I should not forget that he’s a Catholic and all his children would have to be raised as Catholics. Why didn’t he do all that all these years? But I understood the sudden change in him. I said okay. He gave me new uniform and when I got there, my father said I had to be baptised again.
So I got baptised and confirmed again. I later went to Ondo Boys’ High School, which was the first community secondary school in Africa. It wasn’t denominational. Over time, I became Anglican. So, which church would I be attending? My father said I should be going to a St. Mathew’s Catholic church in the morning. Of course, I had no problem going there because St. Louis Secondary School, which was in the area, had fine girls. That was the only place where you could see them!
By 7 o’clock in the morning, I would leave Ondo Boys’ High School to go there. By the time I got back from school, it would be time to go to St. Stephen’s Anglican Cathedral for evening mass. My girlfriend at that time was in St. Monica’s, which was an Anglican school. You can see that I am now a two-church person.
Also in our house, we were sandwiched by Muslims. Whenever they were having their festivals, we were always there in their uniform and we would eat everything together. Given all these experiences, when it got to a stage, I said there was nothing to choose. So when I got to the U.S., while in Washington, I was worshipping at a Unitarian church where sometimes, they would bring some Moslem or Roman Catholic to come and talk. I was one of the few blacks in the church. So, whether I have any special affiliation with any particular religion, I will say no.
Why didn’t you choose to be an atheist?
I think whoever chooses to do that has to do it very, very consciously. That means that you have doubt. You will have to have some doubts first before you make a choice like that. Mind you, I am separating religion from spirituality.
Aren’t they the same?
They are not the same. My spirituality is not tied to any particular religion. And I don’t believe it should. I believe that spirituality is more person or inter-personal, while religion is more political and institutional. Since I didn’t have doubt about the existence of power that is beyond human power, I never had doubt about that. So, I didn’t have to become an atheist. Anytime I am here in Lagos, I go to a non-denominational church. In fact, if I did have that kind of money, I would have started a Unitarian church in Nigeria, so that people can come and see the beauty of God.
What about the traditional religion?
Of course, I believe in letting all the flowers bloom. Don’t forget that I got a grant from the University of Ife to study Ifa. The idea was to see how Ifa can be used to explain Yoruba semiotics. Don’t forget I was the first semiotician in this country. I did a book titled Ifa: The Basis of Yoruba Semiotics. I had two plays that I wrote. One of them was on Taagba. Taagba was Ondo equivalent of Efunsetan Aniwura. I have always been fascinated by gender equality. Because growing up in Ondo, if you kept your eyes open, you could not but be gender conscious.
I did that. I have two volumes of poems as I was doing poetry with (Niyi) Osundare and Isidore Okpewho. There was no computer then. In 1989, I was going to the US to start a professorship job at Lincoln University and I was travelling through the Nigeria Airways and was taking along a nephew of mine whose parents were there. On getting to the airport, I was afraid I was going to miss the appointment, so I had to change my ticket and that of my nephew to First Class. And that was all I saw. When I got to New York, I had no luggage. All those manuscripts that I planned to type once I got to the US were in that luggage. I kept coming back to the airport in New York with the hope that they would soon bring them, but they never came. That was how I lost all those huge manuscripts. Those are part of frustrations that I experienced. I later got to know that someone who saw me changing our tickets to First Class here in Lagos thought I must have had a lot of money and stole my luggage.
They didn’t know that I had no money on me. Even the money that was used to pay for the change to First Class was the money given to me by the parents of my nephew in case we ran into trouble. It is just now that I am putting things together to see if I can still get those books together. But I have even lost my mastery of the verse. It’s been so many years now but I am still keen on doing something on Ifa as the model of Yoruba communication.
What do you make of those who have doubt about the existence of God and maybe choose not to be religious, as well as those fanatics in all religions?
Let me say this clearly, I have nothing against those who choose to be atheist. And I don’t think because of that choice they are inferior to those who choose to be religious. But I also believe that they too do not have any right to say those who are religious are wrong. Because religiousity is constructed. We have to accept that. Those who choose to say they don’t want to belong to those structures are not necessarily better. But talking of those who are fanatical, I remember having a cousin who used to refuse to take medication because his religion forbids that. I have another one who belongs to a church where they just cry. So I have a problem with those people who are fanatical. I believe they have been taken advantage of by those who manage the religious enterprise. That’s the way I see it.
I have a feeling that all of us human have our point of weakness or vulnerability. A fanatic could have been exploited at his or her own point of vulnerability, which could be intellectual, psychological or emotional. But I seriously think that those who are managing the enterprise have overdone it. There should be nothing in our relationship with God that will make people lose all of rationality. Let me again go back to my beginning. There was a woman whose house was directly opposite ours in Ondo. She was a Sango devotee.
Of course, anytime she was doing festival we would be there. This woman, a very pretty woman, once in trance, she was on fire like a real Sango! But whenever she was out of that, she was one of the most pleasant beings with the highest sense of humour. She would even criticise religion. I heard from her then that any God that you cannot laugh at is not worth worshipping. If at that level the woman, who was basically illiterate, could have such level of understanding and responded to religion, then something tragic would have happened that we now have some people who would have headache and say their church doesn’t believe in medication. Or some who would say they are not supposed to put on earrings, yet they are wearing gold wristwatch? Something is wrong somewhere. There is a great disconnect. But I wouldn’t want to put the disconnection basically on hypocrisy. I believe it is taking advantage of one at our weakest point. Those who lead us at the realm of religious and spirituality sometimes overdo it.
Can you expatiate further on the difference between spirituality and religion?
My relationship with my God should be personal, personal and personal. I should be able to talk directly with my God. That is the level of spirituality. I believe I don’t have to have a mediator, which religiousity does of course, by creating structure and institutions, empowering some individuals and then they become brokers between me and my God. For example, let me say I have planned to travel and I wake up and something tells me: ‘Don’t make that trip.’ I won’t. The point is that, if we give every individual an opportunity to develop a relationship with his or her God, each of us has the capacity to do that without being dragged. One of my favourite books in my senior citizen years is called God Is Not One. I still have the book in my room. In it, I read about Buddhism, Taoism, Rosicrucian, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The only African religion in the book is the Orisa tradition. The book is written by Stephen Prothero.
Do you think one can truly say atheism is logical?
In whatever aspect, will it be logical whether you are for or against? That is the question. I believe whatever serves the purpose of human beings must be acceptable. If I believe that if I get down in the morning and pray, and believe that whatever I want I will get it, if I have done it and it has served me well, fine. I know many people who profess to be atheists but who are hypocritical. I got to know these people when I was studying Ifa. The kind of people that I met with the Araba of Ife, they are people you will not want to know. People who say in the public that they have nothing to do with religion or spirituality but you see them around there. Of course, that is also part of religion and spirituality in its own way. So, I don’t know how many serious atheists we have around us. Atheists in the Oyinbo context, yes, but in our area where you grow up in the world of animism and animist sensibilities, no. Maybe now that we have become super urban, where people are raised in Lagos and other urban cities and have little to do with rituals and that stuff. But growing up in the rain forest of Nigeria, you must have been fed on the diet of animism directly or indirectly. So, the animist is not an atheist. If there are animists who claim they are atheists, they are deceiving themselves. That is another lie because you are saying that everything has a spiritual force. How does that makes one atheist? You may say you don’t accept Jesus Christ or you don’t believe in Prophet Mohammed, we accept that but you cannot claim to be an atheist.
Is your unitarianism really a critique of monotheistic religion?
No, it cannot be a critique. Don’t forget that all religions are either. My unitarianism says every approach to God is valid. Even sometimes when I visit some churches and they sing this popular song, “Olorun Daada l’Olorun Temi”, I get pissed off. I don’t like that kind of song. Praise your God to high heaven, but don’t demonise others. This to me is that you are now trying to politicise religion.
Can you tell us a bit of your sweet story as a young rascal and as a lecturer at the university?
I have always been very adventurous and hedonistic. I was always interested in playing. In my first year in primary school, I was in the school band. During Awolowo’s administration, my father was part of those building primary schools around Ekiti and other areas. So I had enough time to play around. Each time boys were doing something around town, I would be there. I would just tell my mom that we have plays, though she always queried me why it was that we had plays all the time. So when I got to Ondo Boys’ High School in 1958, I started a group called Seven Red Devils. There were only two of us in Class One, the rest were in Class Two. And all of us are still alive today. So, what did seven of us do? We normally organised to beat some seniors who were oppressive. Or we stole out of the boarding house to go out and meet girls. Our chapel was outside of the school and we would sit at the back row so that when it was time for benediction and everybody had closed their eyes, we would disappear.
One day, this Fasehun (Dr. Fredrick), the Oodua People’s Congress, OPC, leader, was my senior brother, and we were caught. So they took us to him, that they saw us at the other side of the fence. One of us now said, We didn’t steal out but I said, No, we did and everybody must face the consequence of his action. We steal out and we would still steal out. He (Fasehun) then punished us by asking us to wash dishes instead of going for prep every night. After that, everybody thought out of the seven, I was the problem because they wanted to lie their way out and I said no. I told them that these people will not respect us if we tell them lies. I was now being bullied.
My name, Sekoni, is the only family name that is not like Ondo. Apparently, we might have migrated from a far, far place. Our principal was an Egba woman and she thought I was an Abeokuta person. I went to her and explained everything that happened to her. That was how we got ourselves out of the trouble. But a month later, I was in the Literary and Dramatic Society, and we went to Gboluji Grammar School in Ile-Oluji on a cultural excursion to act plays. While there, some people stole out from campus and I was not there. But when they discovered and caught them, they now added my name.
When I got back and went to my room, the Room Prefect told me that I was on suspension because we stole out and all of us that were caught had been suspended. I begged him because it was too late as I came in at around 8 p.m. The following morning, I went to the senior tutor and explained everything to him. He now said if I was around, I would have been one of them. So, I was on suspension. I was furious. And do you know what I did?
I went straight to the principal’s office. As I was going, the senior tutor was running after me. I barged into the principal’s office. When he saw me, he removed his glasses and looked at me. The man was revered like a deity then. Immediately I entered and explained everything to him, he said who gave me permission to come into his office. I said nobody but I came because I was a victim of injustice. Then he just rang a bell by his table and the senior tutor came in. I was standing in the hallway when he came out and asked me to go back to the dormitory. The truth is that I was rascally and always there when there was trouble. I also remember a time when we had a woman from UI who came to do a vacation job. Then we didn’t have this kind of calendar as the university had the long vacation and the undergraduate took the long vacation to go and teach. This woman, a very pretty and smashing woman, came to teach us. So, anytime she tried to bend down, we would all be craning to see her chest.
How old were you then?
I was 14. One day, the woman caught some of us and went to report. Culturally, nobody could tell us what we had done. She reported us to the senior tutor and he brought out the cane to beat us. I now challenged him to know why they were beating us. The man just told me that he hoped my mouth would not put me in bigger problem. We knew what we did but actually wanted her to tell us what we did. But culturally, she could not. When we got back to the classroom, the woman called me as I was the shortest and I was the one taking her books to the staff room whenever she was through. When we were going, she asked me, “Did you see anything?” and I said, No. She later counseled me and by the next class, I didn’t sit with the guys. But by and large, I played so many pranks but nothing criminal.
Prof. Ropo Sekoni
You were so enamoured with Awolowo. Tell us about the Awo attraction.
The courage that the man deployed throughout as a young man motivated me a lot. For a man like Awo, there was nothing like failure. Until Awo brought free education to the region, my middle sister did not go to school. I am the only boy of my mother, and each time I was coming from school, my sister would come and welcome me and help me get my books. She was fascinated about my education. So one day in 1954, I came home and saw my mother dancing. I said to her: “What happened?” And she said to me, “Please, thank your father as he has bought uniform for Morounmubo, your sister.” I went straight to my dad’s room and he was sleeping. Immediately he woke up, I prostrated and said, “Thank you, Daddy, I heard you bought uniform for Mubo and that she would be going to school.” He said, “No, you have to thank Awo. He has brought free education and everybody in this house will go to school.” You can see the impression responsive politics played on the minds of young children?
Looking at the commitment of those leaders like Awo, can you really explain the difference between the leaders then and the present crop we have now?
You must note that Awo was an enlightenment man. He believed in enlightenment. And anybody who believed in enlightenment will have no problem recognising the role of knowledge in politics in the society in whatever they do. Awo and his generation believed that enlightenment makes the difference. I think over the years, despite the sound bites of wanting to improve the quality of education, you will still see the disconnect between knowledge and our culture today. Our leaders don’t respect knowledge.
Our leaders are anti-intellectual. But I don’t know what brought the disconnect. Maybe the oil boom and the easy money that came after the oil boom. The corruption that it induced, and the crass materialism and hedonism that it engendered. The thing is that it is our responsibility to choose the leader that will respect knowledge. In the traditional culture, it was clear. This is the Oba of the town, this is the Balogun or his minister of defence, and this is the Babalawo, who is the intellectual. We grew up in the culture that respects knowledge and knows that there is nothing you can do without knowledge. And Awo was part of that tradition. But now those who lead us now, I don’t know what they believe in. In fact, many of them don’t believe in anything.
But I was at the launch of Opon Imo scheme in Osun State recently and was enthused and highly stimulated by that project. To me, maybe we are beginning to choose our own digital revolution. I see what the Osun State government is doing as trying to do what Awo did then to make learning attractive. For example, when Redifussion, the one station device, first came, it became a major contributor to the Yoruba culture. Before, if you were in Ijebu, you would only speak Ijebu dialect or an Ondo person would only speak the dialect, but it was Awo’s Redifussion that taught people real Yoruba. On that medium, we were being read D.O Fagunwa. There were oral traditional programmes on the Redifussion. When television came, which was the first in Africa, they also used it to teach us Physics and Chemistry at 4 o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
So, that respect for knowledge appears to be coming back with that Opon Imo scheme but it must not be limited to one state. It must be globalised. Of course money is good but if you have no knowledge, you have nothing.
Talking about loss of values and lack of commitment on the part of the leaders, what would you say is responsible for all these disconnects?
That will take me back to my first subject: Federalism. The loss of federalism is part of our problem. I was born into a colonial Nigeria. I was born a few years after the amalgamation. And I was already in Class 3 in 1960 when we got independence. All of the things that Awo did then, were done when the region had self-government in every sense of the word. But what do we have over the years now? We have had a situation where states don’t even generate revenue. The money is given to them as donation from the federation account. So, the kind of relationship that should be between the citizen and his or her government has disappeared.
A governor goes to Abuja to bring money; you may or may not know how much he brings. The average citizen cannot genuinely get angry to the point that he or she will demand his or her right. You are not contributing to the way your government is being run. Oil money is coming from wherever it is coming from and the governor spends it for you the way he likes. It is different from when you pay your taxes and want to hold your representatives responsible. For example, in Ondo before the first coup, there was a councilor at the local government who was believed to have stolen a used Caterpillar. This man was chased out of Ondo because the citizens believed it was theirs. But not any longer. So, the so-called Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Committee is a ruse to disempower Nigerians and empty them of their citizenship. So the loss of values can be traced to this over-centrality.
What is your take on the pauperisation of the masses by the leaders?
I accept the analysis that our nouveaux riches now believe that they have arrived, to use the vocabulary of the streets. They believe that they are now the kings of the communities so why would they want to have rivals or competitors. But we have to trace that back to the military days, too. The military were part of it. When the (General Ibrahim) Babangida people came, I think that was the beginning of where we are now. His so-called new breed political culture which sidelined genuine people and propped up the hedonists caused this problem. It is obvious that the hedonists have taken over the entire place now.
What is your view of the assumption that Awolowo was part of those who made this forced marriage of Nigeria happen?
I don’t like getting involved in that kind of discussion but I still remember what Awo said then. He said, ‘By act of commission or omission, if the East left, that the West would follow suit. In other words, the circumstance that allowed the East to go might also push the West out.’ But that statement can be interpreted to mean, ‘Look, let us make sure that they don’t go.’ But if that is what they now meant by saying Awo pulled us together, so? But we haven’t looked at the alternative of fragmentation.
The alternative may be scarier than what we have now. But my own point is that the choice is not between unitary system that we have now and the fragmentation. It doesn’t have to be so.
In 1946, we ran a unitary system because we were a colony. The colonialists themselves said they thought it would be better to move away from unitary to federalism. Of course, they had learnt from Awo. Awo is magisterial on this. Nobody else or political scientist could put it better than the way he put it in his book, Path To Nigeria Freedom. From 1952, we were running a federal system until 1966. And it was within those 20 years that Awo did all those things he did.
He created these in his 10 years as the leader in the Western Region, including Edo and Delta states we have today. So, for people who argue that the issue is disintegration, that is not the issue. The issue is, why are we not using the same federalism that was used then that allowed each section to develop? And we even had more peace then than what we have now. We respected each other then than we do now. My own take on this is that the future is not going to be very good unless we do restructuring.
Don’t forget that Lenin said nation-state has not always been and will never be. He said the nation-state that we talked about is just less than 300 years old. We already have nations within the elaborate states that we are having now. Those nations are in Nigeria. But what value do we have now together as Nigeria? The only thing you would say that we have in common that can be described as Nigerian value is democracy. So, do we have it? What I am saying is that you don’t want to create a plastic person when you have organic culture. We have organic culture that can produce values that can lead to justice and development. And we want to throw that away under the guise of unitarism.
Nuhu Ribadu said in the lecture he gave some weeks ago at the Ahmadu Bello University that Nigeria was like a stretch of land and that there were no people and no nation there. He said we are just trying to build a nation now. We need to build a nation-state. We already have nations. The point I am trying to make is not between our political structure now and disintegration.
There is a middle point that the people in Switzerland have used since 1854 by putting 26 cantons together in a federal system. And they are doing 10 times better than we are. As bad as Spain is under EU, it is federally and 100 per cent better than we are. Canada is running a federal system, we are begging them to come and invest. Ethiopia in 1995 decided after 100 years of unitary system to go federal. They even included provision for secession and nobody has seceded. Ethiopia Airlines runs and our own does not. So what exactly do we have to offer?
Look at our citadels of learning. Can you say they still remain citadels of learning in the real sense of the word?
In the citadels, so many changes have happened. One, the commitment of the professors in our generation is different from the commitment you see today. I established camaraderie with my students, as I saw the whole thing as a community of learners. All of us were learners. It was a community of learners and I was primus inter pares. I shared my books with them and made learning environment-friendly.
I still remember myself and my tutorials. I would buy peanuts and put it on the table and everybody would be eating peanuts. After some time, the students started bringing peanuts too. We were creating a community. It was that communism and the commitment of students at that time. People came to school to get transferred knowledge, not to acquire credentials. Now people go to school to acquire credentials and their teachers dispense credentials.
So, is the Ibadan of my time and Ife of my time what we have today? I would say no. The degree of commitment is no longer there. Even talking about the investment that the university makes, don’t forget that Professor (Hezekiah) Oluwasanmi invested in stocks and shares for the university to have something to give to people for sabbaticals. Some other vice-chancellors came, took the money out and put it in a finance house. So, you can see the decline. The likes of Oluwasanmi were trying to make sure that Ife rivalled Ibadan, so that there would be no journal then that you would open around the world that you would not see an Ife person there. The students were also ready to learn and that made the job easier.
I still remember what brought Femi Folorunso to become my friend. I was teaching metacriticism and I lent him a book. The class was Tuesday and Thursday. I told him to come and do a report on Thursday. He looked at me, and I remember he didn’t comb his hair. I said to him, ‘What’s your problem?’ He replied that tomorrow was the only day he had. I said, ‘Hello, go ahead and read from now till Thursday and come and do the report. And when you come back, make sure you comb your hair.’ He looked at me and we started joking. That’s how we became friends. But now, there is too much gap between the teachers and the students. And that has affected learning. The respect that you needed to get from your students will always be there.
In fact, it will be enriched when you were friendly than when you were hostile. If you were hostile, then they will fear you. But that doesn’t mean they respect you. But if you want them to learn, create a conducive condition and improve your own comportment as a teacher. So, dedication from both the teachers and the learners is no longer what it used to be, while institutionally, we have underfunded education.
What would you say motivated your interest in orature and literature?
Don’t forget that I started this interview by saying that as a young boy, I was enraptured by the spectacles and the users of words and language. But in 1959, I was in Class Two then when our teachers took us to the University of Ibadan on excursion. There was no Theatre Arts then but English Department. The students were staging a play then titled “The Madness Of King Lear”. I was the secretary of our school’s Literary and Debating Society, so I was always opportuned to be part of the trip. So when I saw these young Nigerians on stage, I was mesmerised. That Shakespeare experience was the culmination of my own exposure to all forms of oracy.
That brings us to the story you once told of how you left Ife at a point. Why and how did you finally leave the University of Ife?
Yes, I actually went on economic exile in the beginning and it became political when Abacha came. While I was at Ife, here was I with a Ph.D and my father came to live with me because he was terminally ill. Because I used to visit him, he did not know how materially weak I was. He was in my place so that I could take care of him. The doctor always recommended expensive drugs and I would have to squeeze myself to get those drugs. But I didn’t know that he knew that I was struggling. Of course, our monthly salary would not buy you a tyre.
So one day, he was on his sick bed and I got a fellowship to be a full time scholar at the University of Florida. I was now thinking of how I was going to handle that, but fortunately he saw the letter with me and asked for it. He read it and then asked me what would I do next. I told him that I did’t want to leave. That was when he now told me that he had been looking at my budget and knew that I spent more than I earned every month. He said maybe my wife and my kids, but my salary should not be used to take care of him. He then told me to go or else I was going to end up like him. He said to me that he knew I was waiting for a revolution. But what if revolution doesn’t come? Then he said in joking manner, ‘Revolution can wait for one year and you were supposed to go for one year. Go on and come back after one year and pick up your socialism.’
But that was the beginning of the decline that we are in now. When your professors have to be struggling for water and other basic necessities, how much of good teaching can he deliver? I was not surprised that things got to the point where our colleagues are beginning to print handouts. People were looking for other quick ways to raise money to solve their problems until the thing now swarmed us.
Looking at this systemic collapse, what do you make of the future of literature?
We have to accept that your literature has to be affected by the general culture. I don’t think it was an accident that we have the likes of Professors Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe at the time that we have them. They came in an era when the atmosphere was conducive for thinking and for experimentation. But when we take the crop of Bode Sowande, Femi Osofisan and their generation out, what do we have? Now you can tell. All you need to do is to visit our bookshops and books that you see on the shelves are books on How To Be A Millionaire.
Go to any bookshop. Go to U.I and Ife, all you see are books on prosperity gospel. The culture is no longer as conducive to creativity as it was 20-30 years ago. But we still have a few adventurous people still breaking through. I know that we have a crop of young, good writers now like Chimamanda Adichie.
Let us understand why you and other members of the positive group in Ife were critically too harsh on Wole Soyinka?
In all seriousness, looking back now, I think we were probably too harsh on the man. Even 30, 40 years later, he seems to be the only one that has helped us to move everything forward politically. I can’t speak for others but I think we would have wanted him to be one of us rather than see him for what he was. He probably would have helped our cause. I still remember the role of Dance of The Forest and I did an article for an American journal then. I was struggling for Marxian penetration.
Let’s talk about your exile years.
That was five years of my life basically. It happened that I came to Nigeria on a visit after the election. In fact, I was here the day Abiola was arrested. So I got back to Washington. When I was an undergraduate in Washington, first, I was Secretary of Yoruba Students, then later Secretary of Nigerian students. But when I got back there in 1990, there was no Yoruba community. But Pofessor Gbadegesin was already there, and I was in Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, I was about two hours away. So, one Nigerian Diaspora woman came to me. Her name is Mrs. Akinboni, she ended up being a councilor in Washington. She said that there was a Yoruba organisation that they had just started in Washington. I was in Pennsylvania then. So I asked if the organisation was going to talk about the annulment. She said she didn’t know but I should come. We were living in Delaware.
Then the woman told me that they were going to elect their officers but I told her that I won’t come on the day they were going to elect their officers. She asked why? And I told her because I don’t want to be an officer but only come around and contribute as an ordinary member. At their first meeting, she called me and I went there. When I got there, I discovered that Gbadegesin was their President. He was 30 days old as President. Don’t forget that I was coming from the tradition of socialist struggle and I was full of energy to struggle. Then they said we were going to form committees. But I told them that the first committee that we would need to form was the political and strategic committee. They accepted it and then said I should be the chair of that committee. That was how it all began. The charge was to make recommendations on how the Egbe would respond to the annulment.
So, we started making recommendations. And then Soyinka started the United Democratic Front of Nigeria, UDFN, and he wanted organisations to come and join. But the person he sent to us said they didn’t want an ethnic organisation. But as an ethnic organisation, it will give the impression that it was a Yoruba struggle as some people were already saying at home. At our meeting, I was asked of my response to the invitation. I told them that we were going to join Soyinka’s organisation because he (Soyinka) has the name that was going to move the struggle forward and I was not interested in a tribal organisation that all the members of the organisation were also members of Action Group for Democracy. We then applied to the UDFN for membership. And of course, as soon as Soyinka saw my name on the AGFD list he approved it. And we started.
Of course, the NADECO had not come then. Most of the people were still here in Nigeria either in jail or planning their exit. The coup thing hadn’t come then. Later, Soyinka said he was going to move from UDFN to NALICON and said he wanted me to be the Washington coordinator. That is a long story I wouldn’t even want to tell. I was almost jailed for that. Prof. was brimming with ideas. At that time, Soyinka was still trying to hide the source of funding to us but we were on that when the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, people started arriving. At first, they didn’t come to Washington, they were just visiting. I think it was Bolaji Akinyemi that first visited.
They were in London for some time…
Yes. And after that, Chief Anthony Enahoro came. As the coordinator of the National Liberation Council of Nigeria, NALICON, in Washington, I was supposed to be his host. So I went to meet him at the airport and he asked me what we were doing, which I told him. He then asked if we were going to participate in NADECO. I said we were already participating informally because Bola Tinubu was in England; he would come and we would discuss. We would organise demonstrations. Remember at some point we took over the Nigerian Embassy in Washington. Then Enahoro said we should work together.
That was how everything now dissolved into NADECO. And it was almost like a full time job. In fact, if you have to ask about the impact of that on my scholarship, it was negative. Dapo (Olorunyomi) was there, it was a job by itself. But I couldn’t let people in my university know that I was doing all these things. But I was always lucky getting grants to go to places where I could go and do sensitisation. I was visiting West African countries, European countries. So I would ask for grants to study multicultural aesthetics and stuff like that to take me out. So, it was so tough to cope during those five years of the struggle but we did. But it is so funny that nobody really bothers about the Diaspora people apart from (Dr. Kayode) Fayemi and (Olusola) Adeyeye who became a senator.
But most of the things that were done in the U.S. and Canada, it was us. We couldn’t come home because my friends in the intelligence would tell me that they had my name on the watch list. To the extent that after Abacha died and my wife first came home, they stopped and arrested her at the airport. This was because before we got an office, we were holding NADECO meetings in her shop in Washington. There was one Hausa boy––I have forgotten his name––who used to work for the Voice of America, VOA. He was always coming to her shop to buy things but we didn’t know that he was spying.
Because of that, we decided to use the West African stretch. That’s where the likes of Baba Omojola came to meet us for meetings in Cote d’Ivoire and Benin Republic. But it was a good experience because the struggle made me to read extensively on federalism as a mode of governance. It allowed me to visit many countries. Out of the 26 countries that practice federalism in the world, I must have visited about 15 in the process. So, I didn’t lose but gained more in that respect. I was more interested in writing communiqué in those five years than writing an article.
Do you think your struggle was not in vain?
I think that it was as if we have not struggled. That is the way it appears to me. We thought we would have democracy but we haven’t got that. Even 14 years into post-military governance, our governors cannot conduct an election. The 36 governors who have conducted election got controversial results. That tells us you it is as if we have not struggled. Has the struggle been in vain? Yes, to a large extent. I was one of few people, including General Alani Akinrinade at that time, who said we were not ready to participate in an election of General Abdulsalami Abubakar.
We said we should move it until we got to the Sovereign National Conference, SNC, and then have an election. We said that election was like a booby trap. But we lost the argument because it was a democracy, a game of numbers, as many people said yes, we should participate and that they didn’t want (Lamidi) Adedibu to be speaking for them. But he ended up speaking for us. (Olu) Falae, Cicero (Late Chief Bola Ige) and Baba Adesanya came to appeal to us that we should get through the election and then pick up the struggle for true federalism after that. That was it. Till now, it has not happened. People got to power, some became governors, legislators and what have you, and then felt comfortable with that. So I have a feeling that another struggle is going to come.
Yes, if we are not careful, another struggle is going to come. This is because the contradictions will blow up the country again, maybe before 2015 or by 2015. We have not addressed the fundamentals of our politics. As I said earlier, breaking of Nigeria is not going to pay anybody. As a Yoruba man who loves his people, I am clear in my mind that a good Nigeria will be good for Yoruba. We will reap bountifully from a good Nigeria, but we will suffer more than any other group when Nigeria is bad because of our head start and our bulging middle class that has been destroyed. We would suffer more. The way we would do it is not to peg our destiny on the possibility of the emergence of the superman. I would prefer benevolent structure to benevolent leaders.
Who are you assuming as the superman?
This is based on the recent discourse that what Nigeria needs is a good leader. That once we get a good leader, all our problems will be solved. But if we have not been able to produce the good leader in almost 60 years, then, it is oversanguine to peg our development on the possibility of one coming up. I think we should arrange our system so that an average person can run it well rather than waiting for a superman or woman to come and run it.
This is what brings me back to my pet subject, which is federalism. This is what I insisted that our participation in NADECO, NALICON or whatever must not just to get Abiola’s mandate for him, but it was to put a structure in place that was to prevent and make it impossible to happen again. But we have basically ignored that. Tinubu often does that by insisting on fiscal federalism, but most of our governors don’t want to touch that subject. They only want to govern. But they are not looking at the fundamentals that even make the things difficult for them to govern properly.
Can you tell us about your relationship with your wife as both of you still relate like young lovers?
That is also part of my personality. I am an intense person. With my wife, our relationship can be explained in the sense that we started as platonic friends. We were friends, close friends and platonic. Then circumstances came and we later became lovers. So, it is our friendship that is still there rather than our marriage. People say we don’t get tired of each other and I say to them, we were good friends.
How would you like to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as a person that cared for the underprivileged. I have always been involved in community development. I helped over 200 persons to the U.S. Many are my colleagues, many are my juniors. You know we grew up in the colonial era when British sold to us an impression that British education is superior to American. I discovered that it was a ploy for us not to see the other side of them. So, when I got to America I saw the opportunities and let others know. Many people said they wanted to come. The first person that I helped, I went to Alitalia to buy him a ticket and I didn’t know anything about credit. So, when I was told the price, which I think was around $300 or $400, I paid and he got his ticket and visa, and he came. He paid me back the money. Another person also said he wanted to come, I took the money back to Alitalia, bought the ticket and the person came.
When I went the third time, remember I was recycling the $400, the woman attending to me at the Alitalia office called me aside and told me that I don’t need to be paying at once. She said they would give me ticket on credit and I would be paying instalmentally. That was how I wrote everybody that I knew if they wanted to come to America, I have a ticket. And I can count 200. So I always say to myself that I contributed to the middle class in Ondo town significantly. Because once they came, they brought their wives. Not necessarily only people from Ondo but there are some that I met at NITEL and other places. Once they showed interest and said they didn’t have money, I asked them to come and I arranged their tickets.
They didn’t know how I was doing it. But once they arrived, I told them to be paying $50 every month. So, I want to be remembered for caring and believing that the other person who may not have opportunity, you may not be better than that person. If he has that opportunity, he may end up contributing to humanity more than you. And then we would all gain.
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