When he voiced his ambition to be a standup comedian, Jewish American, Samuel Levenson’s mother was aghast. For a boy who grew up in a large Jewish immigrant family in New York’s Brooklyn, Madam Levenson’s disdain for standup comedy as a profession was understandable. “My son, you mean, you stand, you talk and people laugh?” the mother demanded incredulously, breaking her son’s queer ambition into cynical smithereens. Levenson said this much in his book of jokes entitled, You don’t have to be in Who is Who to know what is what.
Levenson had been a teacher. He however had a very noticeable talent for cracking ribs, which was becoming appreciated by the family’s Brooklyn neighbourhood. To now seek to make this second-rate comedy – something associated with indolent dregs of society – a lifelong occupation, was absolutely demeaning to Madam Levenson. Born on December 28, 1911, till his death on August 27, 1980, Levenson held the wave and rose to become one of America’s most authoritative humorists, writer, teacher, television host and journalist. That conversation young Levenson had with his mother is similar to the conversations, borne out of conservatism and ethnic pride, traded in many Nigerian homes.
Last week, Nigeria’s name reverberated all over the world again, this time not for opaque-minded leadership, corruption, banditry, Boko Haram or Fulani herdsmen’s violence. In far away Los Angeles, at the 63rd annual Grammy awards, Burna Boy, real name Damini Ogulu, won the Best Global Music Album category with his Twice as Tall traack, while Wizkid won the Best Video for his song with Beyonce. Certifying this as the path to tread by Nigeria, World Trade Organisation DG, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, commended the awardees for their music, stating that “they were an example of services we can export. We are exporting so much of our creative arts abroad and this seems to be encourag(ing).”
Nigerian streets are littered with people who, if they had followed the path of their passions, endowments and natural gifts/talents, they could have been greater assets to themselves and mankind. Predominant in the immediate period when western education began to open doors according to professions, certain acclaims, privileges and social status were ascribed to some professions ahead of others. It was thus more socially befitting to be a lawyer, judge, medical doctor, than to be a teacher, for instance. Down the ladder, same level of social ostracism abounded and still abounds. In societies which predicated statuses on hard work, some professions, occupations and preoccupations were literally anathema.
In the Yoruba pre-colonial, colonial and immediate post-colonial society, for instance, you were worse than a leper if you chose music or performing arts as a profession. Many of those musicians who later rode to the crest of acclaim, wealth and fame fought titanic battles with society, their parents and families before they gained any modicum of respect and regards. One of such was Haruna Bello Ishola, popularly known as Baba Gani Agba. Born in 1919, he became very consequential in his musical career. As one of the foremost, if not the foremost singer of the Yoruba music genre of Apala, he was awarded the national award of Member of the Order of the Niger (MON). His renown in western region social circuit was such that he carved a reputation for himself as the foremost in-demand entertainer at parties by the nouveau riche Yoruba elite of the time.
Long before his first album was produced in 1948, which he entitled Late Oba Adeboye, (Orimolusi Of Ijebu Igbo) and which was released under the label of His Masters Voice (HMV), Ishola faced the raw odium of a Yoruba society which perceived musicians as alagbe (beggars) and lazy drones. In one of his songs when fame, wealth and recognition had come in a spurious surge, Ishola rendered the battle he fought with society in one of his songs thus: “When we started long ago, colleague musicians who didn’t know this job would be a money-spinner quit and fell by the wayside…That was when singers, drummers were called lazy, indolent people…Many ran away.” It went thus in Yoruba: Nigba ti a bere lojo ojosi// Awon ti o mo pe ise ola ni ninu wa, nse ni won yeri// Igba yen ni won np’olorin l’ole, won np’onilu lole//To m’elomi sa pata.
That same musician was to later have one of the tracks in what is regarded as his titular album, named Oroki Social Clubon Decca Records. The track was an ode to popular and prestigious Osogbo, present Osun State-based club members, who gathered in a nightclub where Ishola performed concerts and entertained sold-out audiences. Oroki Social Clubbecame the most outstanding album of Ishola’s singing career, selling over five million copies, even in his lifetime. He later established his own record label called Phonodisk, after failed label partnership with IK Dairo and later with a colossus music industry investor, Nurudeen Omotayo Alowonle, with whom he established the Express Record Dealers Association in 1964. That venture later became a celebrated court case on intellectual property right. Before Ishola’s death in 1983, he was one of the first set of musicians to tour prominent places in the world, travelling to Benin Republic, United Kingdom, France, West Germany and Italy.
Ask many of those musicians, standup comedians who later rose to fame and acclaim and they will tell you the tortuous road of societal disdain and rejection they journeyed to the top. It was inconceivable to their societies that, in a world where people strove to become doctors, lawyers, engineers and pharmacists, a right-thinking person could embark on awada (comedy), footaballing, athletics, for a living or entertaining crowds and wait for dole-outs before they could get their daily bread. Many of those jokes that made standup comedians reap mega-bucks today were ones that provoked mirthless guffaws over palmwine. Such artists never rose beyond cracking the ribs of their friends at beer parlours. These A-list artists were once perceived as dregs of society. Women fled from them for fear of being recipients of the odium of society and those who associated with them took huge slices of such disregard. Their parents were not proud of them and dithered from publicly identifying with them.
Particularly in southern Nigeria, where a life of dependency on dole-outs was an anathema, anyone associated with entertainment and arts was seldom respected. In fact, they believed such life was a precursor to becoming a thief. In an interview in December last year, centenarian Mrs. Morenike Owomoyela, mother of Kennery music boss, Oladipupo Owomoyela,Orlando Owoh, said she was furious when her son abandoned school for the dancehall. She said: “Initially, I was very furious. I asked him why he would take such a decision because I could not understand why he would abandon school and be singing about. But later, people came to appeal to me to let him pursue his dreams, that he could also make it in life through music. After much thought, I stopped discouraging and I allowed him.”
Yet, music constitutes the fabric of the African’s way of life. As I wrote in my book, Ayinla Omowura: Life and Times of an Apala Legend(page 19):“Music forms a major aspect of the typical life of an African. Indeed, it cannot be divorced from the core constitution of the fabric of the African. From wake-up at dawn to retiring to his bed at dusk, the African interfaces with music in virtually all segments of his existence. The interface is so sweeping that it would be difficult to describe the African life without amply stating the minutest details of how he is shaped by a life of music… music is actually central to the three phases of his existence, which are joy, sadness and relaxation. At those crucial moments, music acts as a consul, a companion, with which he is able to explain or live through those critical moments of his existence.”
Today, however, perceptions are changing and the Nigerian society is moving at a supersonic speed with the rest of the world. All around the globe, entertainers are given kudos for their works as entrepreneurs who performed their civically-minded, problem-solving roles in society, as well as acting as agents for social change. Artists, for instance, play huge roles in community change, development and placemaking. They earn multiple of millions of dollars for their acts and have their fames reverberating all over the world. It is same for artists in Nigeria. Take for example one of the most influential artistes in Africa, 28-year old Nigerian-American singer, songwriter and record producer, David Adedeji Adeleke, who is better known as Davido. Though son of billionaire Deji Adeleke, at such young age, Davido duds the wealth and fame of his father, personally making mega fame, acclaim and wealth from creative arts. He is estimated to have a net worth of $16 million, coasting home as the richest musician in Nigeria. He has garnered wealth from music and endorsement projects, chief among which is the $78,296 (N30 million) MTN endorsement deal, Guinness Nigeria, and Infinix mobile. He was said to have bought a Bentley for his father a couple of years ago.
Now, the province of creative art is being rudely barged into by children brought up with silver spoons. First daughter of billionaire Femi Otedola, Olawunmi Christy, better known as Tolani, born on April 21, 1986, has also joined the league by becoming one of Nigeria’s singers and songwriters. In tow is Folarin, stage name Falz, another popular Nigerian rapper, singer, online comedian and actor and lawyer son of activist, Femi Falana.
This is a wakeup call on those parents who criminalise and demonise the arts, whose children must be doctors, lawyers, engineers or nothing else. They should painstakingly identify their wards’ endowments, talents and prod them up with proper education. On a lighter note, why should it be that, when law, engineering, medicine, pharmacy etc. were the vogue of professions, the elite and nouveau riche children were quick to be found in that theatre and now that creative arts has taken over, same set of people must be the controllers!
James Ibori, Lagos/Ibadan Expressway and FG’s Tortoise Wisdom
The Lagos/Ibadan expressway, Nigeria’s first multi-lane express route, has over the years, become a paradox in the hands of successive Nigerian governments. Paradox, in the sense that many of the narratives associated with this expressway are weird, inconsistent with what obtains elsewhere and symbolize a wisdom which only Nigerian runners of government have access to. A 127.6-kilometre-long (79.3 mi) expressway which connects Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State and Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and major artery into the northern, southern and eastern parts of Nigeria, it is the oldest expressway in Nigeria.
Awarded to Julius Berger Nigeria and Reynolds Construction Company Limited at an initial cost of 167 billion Nigerian Naira or $838,986,290, the construction was divided into two sections for the two companies to handle. While Berger handles a 43.6-kilometre stretch of the road, to wit the Lagos to Shagamu portion, RCC is saddled with the rest, which is Sagamu to Ibadan. Commissioned in August, 1978 by then Major General Olusegun Obasanjo, the expressway has conveniently morphed into a bottomless pit for consumption of cash, a potential cesspit of political corruption if a klieg is peered into it and a wisdom gourd which only runners of Nigeria have access to.
This wisdom gourd reminds me of a famous Yoruba folktale. By the way, in folkloric tales of Yorubaland which seem to have died the moment modernity meandered into the world, Tortoise and Snail play very central roles and representations. While Tortoise represents trickery, craftiness and greed, Snail represents smartness, alertness and native wisdom. On occasions where Tortoise and Snail spar in exhibition of wisdom, while Tortoise meets its waterloo, Snail excels. In their denotations, Yoruba preach the wisdom of the Snail and abhor the Tortoise signifier. Indeed, in one of their proverbs, they say that no matter how Tortoise thinks he is clever, he is outshone by the Snail, rendered as gbigbon ti ahun gbon, ehin l’o nto’gbin.
As is usual with the Siamese nature of riddles and folklores, riddles are always appetizers for the central folklore stories. Thus, this particular storyteller begins by asking, “Who can tell me the two tiny birds which effortlessly climb two hundred trees simultaneously?” When one of the children listeners, apparently the most brilliant one among them, replies that it is the eyes, then the storytelling begins.
Here it goes: Upon waking up one certain morning, centuries ago, Tortoise was consumed with the bother about how he could outwit the rest of the world. He then agreed with himself that he needed to acquire the whole of the wisdom existing in the whole world, so that no living being would be as wise as he was. To achieve this, Tortoise then began the process of acquisition of global knowledge. He walked all over the place to seek it. Holding a clay pot in his hands, his plan was that, whenever he found a shell of wisdom, he would drop it inside the clay pot. By the end of the week, Tortoise had succeeded in acquiring the total wisdom of the world. He was excited and celebrated this immensely. Then, wary of someone else appropriating this knowledge from him, he thought of where to warehouse the huge corpus of wisdom, away from access to other human beings.
Then, the tallest palm tree in the village came to his mind. With the clay pot tied to his chest, off he began to climb the tree. As he was about getting to the mouth of the tree, his legs slipped and the pot came crashing down. Totally downcast, he repeated the process thrice, with same result. As he did the third time, a villager watched him and counseled that his backside, rather than his chest, was where to tie the clay pot containing global wisdom. Persuaded to climb the tree again, Tortoise was almost at the top of the tree when he angrily threw the pot away. The moral intended by the framers of this folklore is that wisdom is communal and social which should not be restricted to personal usage.
No one can contest the fact that the Lagos/Ibadan expressway boasts of the hugest traffic in Nigeria. As the busiest inter-state route in the country with over 250,000 Passenger Car Unit (PCU) the largest of such in Africa, its construction was with an eye on it withstanding heavy volume of vehicle traffic, especially vehicles with high axle loads. Contract for its reconstruction was begun by former President Goodluck Jonathan in July, 2013 and the aim of its reconstruction was to shrink the time of travel for millions of commuters who travel on it daily. Since then, the road has witnessed several stasis and hiccups. Again, the Federal Executive Council approved an additional N80bn for the purpose of rehabilitating Section II of the Expressway which fell on the Sagamu to Ibadan axis. On several occasions, work had stalled embarrassingly on a number of occasions on the construction due largely to funding discrepancies.
Funding of the project initially became an issue. Concessioned to Bi-Courtney of Wale Babalakin, it was eventually terminated in a messy separation. The concession was initially for 25 years, for construction and maintenance of 105-kilometre expressway. A private finance initiative, it was expected that this would see the reconstruction through, providing 70 per cent of the funds needed, with the Federal Government providing the rehabilitation of 30% of the cost. In 2016, the Infrastructure Bank Plc and Motorways Asset Limited was said to havesecured the sum of N170 billion funding for the reconstruction of the expressway, through public-private partnership. This caused uproar in the parliament as its desirability became a subject of discussion.
In 2017, the year of its initial scheduled completion, before its postponement, while President Muhammadu Buhari was on medical vacation to the UK, his government, represented by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, requested a virement of the sum of N135.6bn into what it called “other pressing sub-heads” in the 2017 budget. Lawmakers subsequently reduced allocation to the road construction from N31billion to N10billion. This necessitated the two contractors suspending work on the road, even as they cited mounting unpaid debts to them by the Federal Government.
As it is now, the Federal Government seems to appropriate and approximate all the wisdom of the world in one single pouch in the funding of the road construction. Earlier, it had announced that a #321million it recovered from late former Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, would be spent on the same project. Recently, it again announced that it was going to deploy the £4.2m loot recovered from James Ibori, former governor of Delta state, to fund three infrastructural projects, the Lagos–Ibadan, Abuja–Kano expressway and the second Niger bridge. The loot was seized from Ibori in 2012 after his conviction for fraud and money laundering by a UK court.
Many have argued that government should return the loot to the purse from where it was initially filched. The House of Representatives also recently directed government to stop its plan to spend the Ibori loot on the road, kicking against FG keeping the money. Dilemma in argument arose when such line of argument was reminded that Delta had, during the pendency of Ibori’s trial, claimed that no money was stolen from its purse.
Rather than manifesting, exhibiting and walking on the road of this Tortoise-wisdom-of-the-world, FG should let Nigerians know how much has been expended thus far, since 2013, on the Lagos/Ibadan expressway and how much is still needed. This nebulous voting of looted funds into the road construction, which leaves the actual figures spent shrouded in mystery and the fact that the true spending so far on the expressway exists solely in the mind of government, bears acute resemblance to Tortoise’s wily attempt to make the wisdom of the world resident solely in his head.
Festus Adedayo is an Ibadan-based journalist.
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