INTERVIEW: What Nigeria must do to take its rightful place in Africa – Foremost Pan-Africanist Scholar

A foremost Pan Africanist, Zizwe Poe

In this second part of the interview with Zizwe Poe, the pan-Africanist speaks on his views about how Nigeria can maximise its potentials within Africa. The don also speaks on the youth and the controversy surrounding the teaching of history in Nigeria.

Excerpts:

PT: We have spoken a lot about Nkrumah and the influence he had on Pan Africanism, are there examples of such leaders in Nigeria (Paraphrase)?

Prof Poe: I will give a shout out to one governor because of my experience in Lincoln University. There was one governor that sent a group of students, 20 students, to Lincoln University which is a small university and he did it on a competitive nature and nobody in his state believed they were going to be competitive.

They thought it was going to be only the well to do that were going to get to go but in fact my wife who works in Lincoln University at our international students’ office at the time came and they were here for three weeks and they went through 4000 applications and interviews in order to come up with 20 students to send and the state paid for it completely. That was Bayelsa State and they did it and it took them a while to do all of the payment but they paid for each of these students and the majority of them I believe returned to give service back to Nigeria; so I was really impressed with Governor (Seriake) Dickson.

At the time, because you know I have known many people from Nigeria and I have known many governments and I know that Nigeria has more African billionaires than any other country and they had the opportunity to do this a long time ago but politicians seldom do that, but I was impressed at what they did.

Bayelsa State, as a relatively young state doing something like that, I thought it was an example of what all the other states could do that have resources. So I don’t want to, since I know there is a big election coming in 2019, am not trying to really blow up any specific politician or even degrade any politician. I think what is more important is the policies that are coming through that are allowing the youth to participate in politics more. I just hope that they are informed and can use their energy that the youth usually have, along with the opportunities that are available, to move Nigeria to a leader of Pan Africanism in the world.

That’s what I like to see of Nigeria and I will like to see the politicians do that. I expect that to come from the youth and I think that there are some elders that will join them at least as advisers. So I’m not going to name any others like that.

PT: But if you look at one of the criticisms Nigerian political parties face, it is that they are not ideological in anyway. And so they are not just preaching Pan Africanism or capitalism or socialism, they just exist without any clear ideology of what they represent. What will be your recommendation to young Nigerians perhaps that want a chance but have no idea how to go about it.

Prof Poe: They need to be educated and they need to be educated by those who have the education. I think that sometimes when I say they need to be educated by those who have the education, we may think just universities. I’m not talking about just universities, am talking about the cultural artist.

A lot of times, the youth have been inspired and led by the cultural artist. I am giving a presentation later and in the introduction of the presentation, I am going to tell the group that you know my little background, little details of my education, but the most important part of my education in terms of my Pan African education, comes from people like Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Boogey down productions.

People like that who were able to take, sometimes, complex information and turn them into images, to sounds, and to rhythms and they help people get back their common sense. So actually I wouldn’t agree, from what I have seen that the youth have no ideology. I think that apparently the youth in Nigeria are very strong Christians or very strong Muslims or more so, than those from pre-Christian and pre-Islamic religious basis.

I think some of the leadership should be coming from the areas for a more Pan African perspective. Now as I teach history, and I teach African history, and going back to the oldest form of African history, there was not a split between religion and politics because in order to be politically successful, you have to control the religion.

But now those who control the religion, you should evaluate them and see what are their politics and then that might help us to figure out. Later on, there is going to be a movie on Malcolm X in one of the trips am going to and Malcom X who was a Muslim, previously a Christian who then became Muslim, advised his followership that if your religion is not doing more for you today then you should dump it in the closet. Don’t try to proselytise me with it because it is not really improving your life either. It is okay for you to have it but don’t let it block our unity and formation. And I would say that this is what the youth need to do.

Now there’s some very good lessons in these religious text on how to become revolutionary, if you just didn’t allow the person who interprets it to tell you the soft part, soften you up and to make you follow blindly. So I think the youth need to be critical and here is even a more careful thing that has to happen, you know Nkrumah wrote about Neo colonialism and in my lessons I give a little bit of an explanation of imperialism and how it works from the west. So the military is busy using a hypodermic needle, if you can just imagine a hypodermic as a metaphor.

The military breaks the skin, but the real thing that convinces the population to be colonised is the serum that comes in through the syringe, and that serum reduces the cultural appetite of the imperial country, consider Africa and the popularity of American or European culture which the youth begin to take on.

So you could say that they know nothing, that they are not connected to anything but everybody wants an IPhone; sooner or later and they line up saying please just let me have a taste of Europe. And now there is a new wave, we don’t want to go to Europe but we want to bring Europe to us. And so when you have that kind of situation, you do have an ideological movement amongst the youth.

The problem is that that ideological movement is usually formed by (the) outside (world) and then it makes the youth fight against their parents, not for a more revolutionary Africa where the ancestors can come back to their lives and have synergy, but a wave that throws aside everything that is African, for what they consider developed world. Look at the terms developed and under developed, can you really call a country developed where the women are not safe going out at night?

PT: A lot of young people, even those claiming some level of responsibility have no idea what the real history of our people is and it makes one wonder, for instance in Nigeria, in the secondary school system, I think history had been taken off the curriculum and brought back recently. Is this in anyway some level of carelessness or is it a deliberate attempt to make us forget where we are coming from so it is easy to get back to being led as a sheep?

Prof Poe: I think that this is interesting. First, to look at it from the relationship of imperialism with Africa and I’ll come to the local thing. Structural adjustment programme was first being hoisted unto African governments, cutting social services. They also wanted to cut education but then they realised that education is a much better tool for governing, to rule people, so now education is almost one of the requirements for world banks and IMF kind of policy, they need to see education.

They are not against education but what they (don’t) want is a curriculum where it brings back the apartheid of the west or an apartheid of the populace profit. So history by itself can be a tool for liberation or can be a tool for enslavement, because history has two parts; it has something called historicity that is just the facts but it also has the interpretation or the hermeneutics, and that interpretation determines which facts are important.

Like, for instance, I am here to speak about civil rights movement in the USA and the youth involvement so that I can encourage people, especially the youth, to have civic participation in 2019 elections. So I thought about it for a long time before I came. I said wow, the U.S. wants me to come and talk about the civil rights movement in the U.S. as an inspiration for youth in the 2019 election and I know that for U.S. business interest, this is a government ‘do good’ that wants me to do this. U.S. business interests would like me, probably not to do this because in order for U.S. business to profit in this relationship in Nigeria, they need consistent peace and calm.

The civil rights movement was not a peaceful movement at all and the youth were the least peaceful of it all, so I think in the historical presentation and history being added it would be who you want to look at. What is the curriculum? What are the ideological goals of the history that is now presented? It got taken away, maybe it had to be scrubbed up and given back.

Now, see. What is it that history is pushing for? Is that history pushing for a promotion of a strong united Africa that can be a world leader? That can compete with China on a real market? That can compete with Europe, United Europe and the United States? Is it that history? Because if it is not that history then what history is it and what is it pushing?

I don’t know what the curriculum is for Nigeria’s history, for history being taught in Nigeria, but I know a lot of students that come to the united states and come to my university, come with the first goal of being doctors and lawyers, still trying to get money, and when I try to encourage them to take Pan African studies and African history they are like ‘who is this dad talking to/ I live in Africa I don’t need that you know’. And I ask them, what other African countries have you been to? And they have been to more European countries and other places. They leave Africa and they go somewhere else and return right back, if they come back.

But there is again another group of people and authors that I think are leading a new way. I will be interested in knowing about the history curriculum, I am hoping that I can get a copy of the curriculum before I leave Nigeria. The re-inserted history curriculum. Because, what I am finding is that at university levels, it is not really being done properly.

As a matter of fact, the AU launched a project, it is supposed to be the Pan African University and they have five different states in which they have their various campuses. The one that deals with social sciences is supposed to be Yaoundé in Cameroon but when I tried to connect with them, it’s the hardest one to connect with. I think it’s the most important one. The easy ones of course, are the ones that deal with engineering, the ones that deal with sciences.

In all of this, if you have all of these scientific tools in Engineering and at the same time don’t develop your social science, how you are going to deal with each other, then really those companies would just work for outside interests, capitalist interests and what have you, we won’t figure out how to get the resources of Africa to Africans.

PT: We cannot remove, especially from a history of people who know what it feels like to not have access, the desire for gain. It is hard to say “just learn this because it will help you at some point”. So how do we sell the Pan Africanist ideology to young people?

Prof Poe: Well, first I think that again I’ll go back to the cultural agents of change. We need to get them to imagine what a world of shared resources will look like because it is hard if you are hungry, you are going to do what you have to do to eat. But at the same time while you may have to compromise and take care of some of those needs, there needs to be an element that says “this is how it could look”. For instance when I told you about what Libya looked like when I went there, the imagination just bloomed. People can imagine what Ghana was like when Nkrumah was president, their imagination can bloom. So it is a difficult situation because at the same time, you have to deal with what the daily world is but if you train people to only deal with the daily world, they will never get to the other world and they will accept that there has to be this differentiation in the masses “there are a few rich and the rest you have to be poor and get a job working for me.”

So I think that will also lead to violence. Because after a while, the poor or the not really educated will resent the possibility of having the life in which their offspring will have to be poor like that. They would do anything, any means necessary to get what they need to make ends meet and they are going to take the money from whoever has the money and then the rich are going to use the state to develop a force to protect them from those people and you begin to have large capital punishment and you begin to have large prisons full of criminals, criminals who are economic criminals, and it becomes a kind of situation where the species, the human species become dangerously close to extinction.

We can destroy ourselves. I mean if you believe in God, God doesn’t just need human beings, I mean if God invented everything else I’ll just invent some more things you know I will get some of this species, if it doesn’t work out I mean especially if you read the old and the new testament. The Old Testament is God the Father, who would turn you to salt and flood you if necessary and of course the New Testament is God the Grandfather who is always forgiving and loving. But the Old Testament is dead.

Again, that’s why I used Bayelsa as an example. Bayelsa probably, Governor Dickson probably bought more faith in the not-as-well-to-do in Bayelsa, just by that small project. Governors inside Nigeria by now should be doing things like that because already those few who have the silver spoon in their mouth, they get whatever they want already but the majority that don’t have it, don’t see any hope of it.

At first, they didn’t believe it was going to happen in Bayelsa. I remember the press and everything, they didn’t believe it was going to happen then. I myself was a little shocked that it happened but happy to see it. So I think that those who have are going to also have to challenge their own ideological perspective and figure out how to give. But the giving has to be organised in such a way that that it teaches people to fish and not just give people fish.

A whole other generation has to be raised in the dream of something that can happen. That is the one thing civil rights movement was always about, dreams, but these dreams, once you are organised to reach these dreams, they drove a selflessness that tended to cut across economic lines. If it was young people who were well to do, they gave of their wealth to work with the poor people. If it is the poor people that are not as well to do, with the dream that we’re able to fight beyond our means to get what they wanted.

This is what I see is going to be necessary for the generations coming. I don’t think the battle for independence has been won because for me the battle for independence is a battle for interdependence because you are never really totally independent from the rest of your species, it’s just that you have to be united with those who may serve the interest of your group.

Nigeria has interesting challenges being the most populous state thrown together as a Frankenstein after the colonial movement because it has to figure out how to use its unity for the interest of Africa. And I think if it figures out how to use its unity, now I’m talking of course to the educated elite, then they can give opportunities for those who don’t have opportunities.

I did a paper a while back when Liberia was dealing with the civil war it had and some people wanted to know how could you heal young soldiers and I said you know young soldiers become young adults because they learn that the power of the authority was at the end of their gun and it is very hard to take that gun away from them and then tell them to become a tailor.

I said however, you can take a young soldier from Liberia and station them in Uganda to do some civic work, where they can mature into their adulthood by not fighting somebody who they have a vendetta with and to begin to see how their maturity and discipline from being a soldier could be used as a civil service and vice versa.

But if we don’t organise our youth, on the grand scale, am afraid we don’t have the opportunity to do these things. You need to be able to, even if they are poor, they need to be taken away from their community to another place, connected to a unity but taken to another place to see that there are others who are also struggling and they need to be given some sort of authority.

We need to do this also with elders, let me not just say youth. I think the elders of a community, the African Union should station elders in the community with a stipend in other parts of Africa so they are not just tied to making sure that there is somebody respecting them for their elder hood in their local area but that they can use their wisdom in other parts of Africa. If we can do this with the youth and elders we can actually transform Africa again to be that magnificent strong place and if you notice, I am talking outside of the state leaders like Nkrumah and all of these leaders, but people to people leadership is what is needed in order to alleviate some of the sufferings of the youth. They need to have the opportunities.

PT: Talking about Nigeria and the expectation based on its population and the leadership, a lot of people expect both in the Pan African movement and even in general African affairs, expect that that Nigeria is this single cohesive state. A lot of Nigerians within Nigeria will say Nigeria is really not a single country, that it is, as one of the former governors Nigeria described it, a geographical expression. Most Nigerians first identify themselves with their tribes or ethnic group before they identify themselves with their country. Do you think a country that has so much internal division can really take on such a role expected of it?

Prof Poe: You are talking to someone who lives in the United States where there are 50 states and within those states there blacks, browns, and all of these kinds. So, I think it could but I think the other way we could look at this question is, what happens if it doesn’t. Because yes, there could be an Igbo nation, a Yoruba nation an Hausa nation, the Fulani can do what they want, the Ijaws; everybody can do what they want but let me use the United States model for what might happen.

I don’t know if you know about the 50 states in the United States but I tell you this if Rhode Island decided to break from the United States, it will be colonised by New York because Rhode Island is nothing, it’s tiny. Yes it has a great history, it can claim all of these and what have you, but New York will just walk in and take over and as a matter of fact if New York wasn’t connected to the United States, then Canada will take over New York.

California, which has the 9th largest economy if it was a country in the world, would be nothing but the 9th largest economy if it was a country in the world. United States lost half a million people to keep the country together and it, in some way, has an illegitimate past. I mean, look, it really is a country that is organised by a group of Europeans who came and took the land from the indigenous population, who came to Africa and stole a lot of African people, brought them there to build a country that still has an imperialist past.

I am not saying this to say United States is a model but I will like to think that there are some problems with the ethics of the United States in terms of how it is constructed. You want to talk about Nigeria as a Frankenstein, the United States is a stronger Frankenstein but it is a self-conscious Frankenstein. It decided that it needed unity to compete with its parent which was Europe and now today the population of the United States outnumber the European descendants but so culturally enriched is the history of the United States but it is still predominately Eurocentric kind of coaching.

Okay now to Nigeria. When the imperialist left Africa, when they finally went out, if you look at the history of imperialism in Africa from the Europeans, they were really eight administrators of all of Africa but when they left they made sure that some counties were small like Djibouti, how is Djibouti a country?

Hopefully I don’t have to go there soon but imperialists divided some into small entities that they had to stay connected to European economy, others were put together because it was going to be a contentious putting together. But we survived those things and used those things to build something else, I think that will strengthen us.

Nigeria has the potential to be the strongest country in Africa only though, if its resources are used in Africa to build Africa. Because if its resources are used only for Nigeria, I don’t think we are going to be able to avoid this question about who gets the oil, how do you share the oil, these few years it’s your leadership now it’s our leadership time.

That worked for a while but after a while all the folks say why are we giving them the resources, so the whole unity of Nigeria has to be something that happens at the cultural level and I think it’s the youth that can lead it because of the fact that you have a serious history of war and Biafra war can’t be forgotten just like the United States’ civil war can’t be forgotten. There is a lot of anguish and pain and rightfully so, because in war everybody loses and the vendetta goes on for a very long time. The only way you can get out of it is if something larger than it to go for.

That’s why I think the Pan African thrust is the hope for the youth of Nigeria and also for better treatment for Nigerians when they go places. I mean look at how Nigerians have become the Mexicans of Africa. I mean Trump is talking about building walls so Mexicans can’t come in their own country because it was too long ago that lots of states in the United States belonged to those people who call themselves Mexicans.

So, I think in order for Nigerians to have better treatment in South Africa, in East Africa not only that but also to deal with this kind of negative propaganda that even comedians on the world stage push, when they want to talk about somebody getting a conned “oh that’s sound like you got something from a Nigerian prince” and everybody laughs or even when they talk about us in almost all the movies that the West puts out, if you are talking about helping the poor, you’re talking about going to Africa; this is a bunch of nonsense that we have to get out of the minds of people. But places like Nigeria who have opportunities have to figure out how to get these opportunities to be linked with the needs of Africans all over the world.

PT: You spoke a lot about cultural icons and the role they can play in mobilising the youth and you mentioned Fela Kuti for example, (and) Bob Marley. Pop culture now in Nigeria is very huge, modelled largely after the western culture. You hardly see some of these ideologies among the young generation of artists so there really isn’t anybody to encourage young Nigerians who want to be ideological. Everybody still has to turn back to Fela who died long ago. What will be your suggestions on making some of these pop artists in Nigeria who have huge followership become more ideological?

Also what is the role of the media in all of this?

Prof Poe: The fourth estate they call it. Media can either serve this revolutionary movement or it can serve status quo. Media likes excitement, media has become entertainment so it can serve status quo and also keep the people excited and report about who got caught doing this who got caught doing that or it can use the new technology that it has mastered to put out, to publicise the new ideological icons.

You asked why people go back to Fela, Bob Marley, you are right but you have to understand that both Fela and Marley and James brown and all these others are connected to social movement. So there is a social movement bubbling now, some of our well-to-do scholars and self-conscious people that are interested in pushing this forward, need to actually sponsor some of these artists, to promote them because there are some artists out there that have great messages but they don’t have the money to promote themselves.

It’s the artist with the misogynistic and violent message who gets promoted. And so who is promoting them? Business interests are promoting them, so if we can find some, it doesn’t have to be a lot, I mean for a country that has a lot of Christians I would say Jesus only had 12 disciples and now everybody is claiming to be a disciple.

They are enough. If they link with the icons and sponsor the good ones and they have a media outlet then you will see changes coming that you never expected. Like this movie the Black Panther that is coming, this is going to be a very serious phenomenon, am afraid it will be co-opted by capitalist interests but right now they are even amazed at how people are coming together. And what is it they are coming together for? This movie is saying in it that there is a new avenger and a new CGI and all that but it’s the society supposedly that this person comes from that is driving this.

There is a real desire for a proud African past to be known, that African people want a proud African past to be known because for a proud African past to be known then they are trying to get the youth to come to these movies. Then they believe there would be a new youth that is focused on reconquering the past and will now be able to promote a more positive future, and that is what we are looking for. We need more of those. This is an exceptional one but needs not to be an exception, it needs to be the rule so that’s what I think both media, entertainment and those with money can do.


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