I passed through Thursday, December 15, 2011 with mixed feelings. The first of those feelings was that of sadness. I was sad because the day was the fifth anniversary of the death of Ayodele Curtis Joseph in Lagos at the age of 86. Of course, the sadness was not over his death as such. Living to be 86 is quite an achievement in contemporary Nigeria. And for a consistent revolutionary and radical patriot it is a feat to live up to 86 years.
I was sad because, for some reasons beyond my control, I had not been able to seriously embark on the discharge of one of his key expectations: editing and publishing some of his numerous manuscripts on history, politics, religion and philosophy. The pain was harder to bear because the sad state of the nation at the time of his death had worsened considerably. I shall return to this subject in the coming weeks and months.
From the sadness over Ayodele Curtis Joseph my mood swung to that of happiness, satisfaction and, indeed, pride, over an event which took place on the same day, December 15, 2011, in Abuja, namely, the public presentation of the book: Time to reclaim Nigeria written by Chido Onumah, a 45 year old Nigerian man.
The book is a collection of Onumah’s essays, 65 of them, written and published in various national and international media (print and online) between 2001 and 2011. Printed in red on its front cover is a proposition which I shall, in due course, examine more closely: Nigeria lies prostrate today because of the actions, and sometimes inaction, of Nigerians. I was happy over the public appearance of the book – a draft of which I had seen before publication – because the book is lucid and accessible, appropriate in time, patriotic, radical and revolutionary as attested to, in the book itself, by Biodun Jeyifo, Harry Garuba, Biko Agozino, Odia Ofeimum, Okey Ndike, Femi Falana, Kunle Ajibade, and others, whose views I respect very much.
So, I was happy over the appearance of Time to reclaim Nigeria. What of the pride I felt and still feel? My pride issues from the fact that the author, Chido Onumah, is one of those young men I claim as “my boys”, a subset of “my young persons”. I have known Onumah since he was about half his present age. I shall have to discuss the circumstances of my knowing and meeting him and the context and status of our relationship ever since because both are integral parts of what I foresee as an extended appreciation of the book before me. I decided on an extended appreciation, an appreciation that goes beyond the book, because of the special task that history has now put on the shoulders of Nigerians of the author’s generation, intellectual orientation and political choice.
The 65 essays which make up the bulk of the 312-page book are divided into eight chapters: The trouble with Nigeria (eight essays); In praise of dictatorship (11 essays); When democracy insults (17 essays); Nigeria: Corruption Incorporated (two essays); Globalisation and its victims (19 essays); Dreams deferred (five essays); Beholders of a new dawn (eight essays); and Time to reclaim Nigeria (five essays). The book ends with three Appendixes: As Jonathan plays the oil subsidy game and imperils the nation (a joint article by 20 former leaders of the National Association of Nigeria Students (NANS), including Onumah, published in November 2011; Golden Jubilee Stanzas by Chiedu Ezeanah; and Chronology (1960 – 2011), a brief introduction to Nigeria with key national events between October 1, 1960 and November 11, 2011.
Before the essays there are seven introductory pieces which I consider very important: About the author, the author’s abridged biodata: Foreword, by Harry Garuba, Associate Professor of English; Preface, by Biko Agozino, Professor of Sociology; Introduction by Kwesi Pratt (Jnr), Managing Editor, The Insight newspaper, Accra, Ghana; excerpts from “Reviews and Acclaim” of the book; Author’s Note, a description of the book by the author; and Acknowledgements. The eight chapters are divided into three untitled parts, but I am not quite sure of the basis for this division. Each chapter takes the title of one of the essays under it. Thus, the second chapter, In praise of dictatorship, has, under it, an essay of that title. The date of first publication of each essay is given, but not the medium of publication. Most of the essays appeared in 2006, followed by 2011, 2008 and 2001.
In Author’s Note, Chido Onumah says that, as a young man, he took “very active interest in Nigeria’s political evolution” and that this interest “would find expression in my active participation in the student movement under the auspices of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), and after graduation in journalism”. And, in the Preface, Biko Agozino recalls the “intellectual influences”, on himself and Onumah, of a student movement called the Movement for a Progressive Nigeria (MPN). My choice of extended appreciation dictates that I say some words on the two organisations – MPN and NANS.
The Movement for a Progressive Nigeria (MPN) was established in the University of Calabar as a student organisation in September 1977. That was about three months after I located to the city to join my spouse who had moved there a year earlier and a month after I was officially employed to teach mathematics in the institution and I employed myself to do “other things”. I did both with equal zeal. The name, MPN, was chosen, first, because it expressed, in broad historical terms, what the organisation stood for and, secondly, because it was considered a “safe” name for a group that was to be a registered organisation in a young institution under a military dictatorship (Obasanjo), and, thirdly, because it was considered strategic to adopt a name that was already in existence in some other tertiary institutions in Nigeria.
Barely seven months after the formation of MPN, the organisation had its “baptism of fire”: Completely embedded in the official students union, with its members in strategic positions in that union, the MPN played a critical role in the formulation of the April 1978 resolution of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) to embark on a nationwide protest over the worsening conditions in tertiary institutions and in the country. The protest became known as “Ali Must Go”. NUNS was banned, but resurfaced less than two years later as National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). MPN survived and played another critical role in the formation of NANS. And in December 1981, Chris Mammah, a member of MPN, became NANS President.
In its first six years of existence (1977 – 1983), the MPN was very active and effective in the collaboration between the academic staff of the University of Calabar organised under ASUU-UCB, the non-academic staff organised under NASU, and the students organised under the Students’ Union. The organisational form of this collaboration was known as the Staff-Student Consultative Committee or SSCC, whose student wing was coordinated in 1982 by Kayode Komolafe, one of the most successful and audacious presidents of MPN. Chido Onumah assumed the leadership of MPN in late 1980s and was, during the same period, the Vice President of NANS. It was in that historical context that I met the author.
I end this introductory segment of my extended appreciation of the book Time to reclaim Nigeria with excerpts from Biko Agozino’s, Biodun Jeyifo’s and Manjunath Pendakur’s reviews of the book: “The clarity of the writing will make the book accessible to the masses of the people. The courage of the author in challenging dictatorship, corruption, and incompetence, in our resource – rich country, would give hope to the youth that better days are coming”; “Without oversimplifying or idealizing things, Chido Onumah always writes with a vision of a better, more just and more humane Nigeria as the bedrock of his faith and optimism. He is an impassioned and urgent voice that we would do well to listen to”; “His goal for this book, as suggested in its title, is worthy and deserves attention by those who care to create a humane and just society in every part of the world”. These excerpts summarise my own general assessment of the book. I am therefore free to go to particulars.