How does one maintain optimism about Nigeria? All visible signs show a country in poor shape and steadily getting worse. There is very little security of life and property, even without the Boko Haram onslaught. There is a lot of money in very few and undeserving hands. Random and systematic cruelty rules the day. The level of public debate on very important matters is so low that it is worth having only for its nuisance value, which is of no value in this circumstance. The ivory tower, the natural fount of knowledge, is a metaphoric farm in which the weeds are steadily taking over, scorching the life out of genuine, life-sustaining crops. In and out of the university, people trained to live by a judicious use of curiosity and criticism have succumbed to religious superstition of the most self-defeating varieties, and seem determined to drag everyone else down with them. Knowledgeable people, including the former ambassador of a very powerful country in Nigeria, have predicted that the country will disintegrate about two years from now.
Yet in the last few years, the poet and critic Odia Ofeimun has celebrated this country in his own unique way. In a compelling display of imaginative and political generosity, he has put up a series of dance-dramas, stage performances developed from his evocative poems. Hear the name of one of these festive dances: Nigeria the Beautiful!
A puzzling title, not because its literal meaning is untrue, but because it is uncanny. Nigeria the Beautiful is a dramatic poem, a narrative designed to highlight the twice-told and forgotten stories that combine to make the epic we have come to take as the Nigerian nation. Its concern is to reach for a reservoir of faith that one would be hard put to believe exists anywhere under the living sun, given all the visible signs surrounding the country like a bright, dense halo.
Ofeimun is not one of those profiting from the unacceptable state of things—he does not hold elective position and, as far as I know, is not a card-carrying member of a political party. Like most hard-headed realists, he has his preferences for one political tendency or another, and does not fight shy of expressing these biases in public. In doing so, he easily incurs the irritation or annoyance of those with vested interests. But this is not unusual, even for the most temperate of opinion-makers. Ofeimun is exceptional in adding to this dogged expression of his views a certain kind of unapologetic abrasiveness, one that often leaves his arguments unanswerable.
What does one make of this? Anyone who has tried to keep a steady view of things will know that every age could appear as bad as the next, or the one before. But the old is often appalled by the historical amnesia of the young; the youthful enthusiasm about a seemingly new phenomenon is treated either with amusement or with exasperation depending on the temperament of the old and the demeanor of the young. For example, a teacher who has spent years writing or teaching about Darwinism could be sorely offended if her student were to come up with an aggressive defense of “intelligence design” that also comes across as a discrediting of Darwinism.
When Ofeimun appears to be abrasive during a public debate, I think it is this kind of inability to convincingly connect the dots that riles him. And it is also because such an inability is not always an innocent lack of information. It could be a lack of rigor, but often in the context of Nigerian history it is a mark of intellectual dishonesty in the service of divisive politics.
Between this steadfast expression and defense of his personal views and the idealistic celebration of Nigeria in the dance-drama, I think, lies the importance of the ideas Ofeimun is developing, or has developed, about his time and place. It is an uncanny vision because it seeks to hold on to the promise of an idealistic future for which the present is not a reliable barometer. In fact, to go only by the present signs about Nigeria is to confront a reality certain to cripple the imagination. Dear reader, review the list of woes at the beginning of this piece and see if you won’t find it too incomplete. There is no mention of corrupt, none of barely literate assemblymen awarding themselves salaries and allowances without comparison anywhere in our known world. There is nothing about hungry millions, the reserved army of the unemployed, the whole lot.
For Ofeimun and builders like him, the point is to see through to tomorrow by gazing steadily at today. It would be salutary enough if this vision were limited to Nigeria, but dreams obey no boundaries.