By Lasisi Olagunju
(Published in MaTaZ ArIsInG on Monday, 11 October, 2021)
Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week has a very interesting definition of honour. He says it means “respect yourself (so that) others will come to respect you.” That is from his ‘Paradise’ – a ‘narrative reversal’ of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’ Every piece of writing – or speech – is a potential engenderer of reactions. I got calls and text messages throughout last week asking if I had seen the ‘rejoinder’ to my September 27, 2021 article from the spokesman of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed. I wished he read Gurnar’s definitions of respect and honour before writing that response. One person asked: “Will it be fire-for-fire?” I laughed. Where is the fire in what Baba-Ahmed wrote? Why should I reply an older man with fire? And, why should I bother to reply at all?
This is not a reply or rejoinder to Baba-Ahmed’s ‘rejoinder’; it is an examination of what he wrote about. I read the northern elder’s piece minutes after he clicked the ‘send’ button. We published it as he requested and on the page he wanted, unedited. I read it with a lot of interest – searching for veins of remorse. I saw none. He confirmed or avoided virtually everything I said. He confirmed that his roots belong in the soil of the Talaba Clan in Mauritania. But he didn’t like it that I said so.I thought he should be very proud of it. He confirmed the failure of the northern elite and the hunger and anger on the street of northern Nigeria. He affirmed that northerners “agonise under crushing poverty and run from marauding bandits and kidnappers and ethnic and religious militias.” Yet he boasted that “northerners keep a level head and refuse to behave like cows they (southerners) are familiar with.” What kind of elder keeps “a level head” while “crushing poverty” and raging banditry render his home desolate?
In the piece he entitled ‘a rejoinder’, Baba-Ahmed described southern leaders as “bitter elders” who pushed their young “to become criminals…” What exactly did he mean by “bitter elders”? And “bitter” over what? Baba-Ahmed said the south suffers “a bleeding exodus and alienation” of its youths. True, but is that not the fruit of the malformed tree of Nigeria and why we insistently cry for the country’s rebirth and the pruning of its toxic outgrowths? Baba-Ahmed repeated his claim of superiority of the north over the south. He said “there are a lot more northern voters” than columnists (from the south) who criticise the flawed structure. He said so much about his space and why all heads must bow before his throne. I noted his lexis and structure, his use of English – warts and all. He properly defined himself with his choice of words and expressions – and for this, I read many people online becoming his former fans. The piece shows him upping his ante as a champion of northern regional hegemony even more than he was in the outrageous viral video that inspired my engaging him. And he is a retired ‘federal’ permanent secretary. He was even in charge of our INEC and the conduct of cross-cultural elections.
Where I come from, we met our ancestors’ words that we must never be begged into slavery or be lullabied into bondage. If our hands become too heavy to swing, we were told to fold them on our heads. And you know what that means. I could see that Baba-Ahmed left the stars of my points and pursued the moon of his imagination. He introduced new issues and poured his vitriol into their false bottoms. A friend told me that the NEF spokesman simply erected “a straw man and then proceeded to demolish it.” My friend explained that the man “invented an argument that you didn’t make and proceeded to attack it to make him look smart. He conveniently avoided what you said.” I agree. What he wrote is not a rejoinder to my piece, it is a transcription of anger long-looking for expression. My piece and his are available online; check the points.
Words are eggs, they drop from a height and become a mess (eyin l’òrò; b’ó bá ba’lẹ̀, fífọ́ ní ńfọ́). And what do you do with the mess if someone drops it at your doorstep? You ‘treat’ it. Dr. Baba-Ahmed said something in his piece about our political history that interests me. It merits a ‘treatment.’ He said “the northerner has a long memory and a tendency towards informed flexibility.” That one is not my problem but he added rather darkly that “some (northerners) still hear stories of insults thrown at their leaders by people who bear uncanny resemblance to Lasisi’s progenitors when the north and south disagreed on major issues on the journey to independence…” The “progenitors” which Baba-Ahmed referred to here were the nationalists of the Action Group party and their loyalists. And you all know them. Authentic heroes; genuine patriots. And “the stories” Baba-Ahmed talked about, what are they? He didn’t tell us. Why won’t he tell us if the descendants of that incident are very proud of it? Fortunately, we all know the story. Roman statesman, Marcus Cicero said the causes of events are ever more interesting than the events themselves. I will narrate what the NEF spokesman extraordinaire described as “stories of insults” but which he couldn’t tell:
On July 22, 1953, thirty-year-old Chief Anthony Enohoro rose slowly from his seat in the chambers of Nigeria’s House of Representatives in Lagos and roused the world with the following words: “Mr. President, sir, I rise to move the motion standing in my name, that this House accept as a primary political objective the attainment of self-government for Nigeria in the year 1956.” Enahoro was from the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group party; his constituency was Ishan of the then Western Region. Self-government in three years’ time after almost a century of foreign rule should ordinarily excite all. But that didn’t happen on that day in Lagos. House members from the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) kicked against Enahoro’s motion of freedom. They moved a counter-motion. They said their region was not ready for freedom from foreign rule. They said Enahoro’s motion should read “as soon as practicable” – and not “in the year 1956.” They were insistent – and to buy time, they forced an adjournment.
The south was aghast. When is freedom not desirable and practicable? There was a walk-out; the atmosphere outside the chambers was rowdy – and hostile to those who rejected freedom. The north was angry; they said they were insulted by the Lagos crowd. An “Eight Point Programme” followed from the Northern regional parliament. The eight points were portents and threats of secession. A southern delegation of the Action Group and Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NCNC was despatched to the north to speak to the people there on the benefits of freedom from colonialism. Because of this, there were riots in Kano – 46 people, from both sides, died; 200 were injured. The leaders, north and south with the colonial government, soon calmed the firestorm. Nigeria was back on its troubled track. The living buried the dead; life continued. This unfortunate (and shameful) event, a classical contest between freedom and imperialism, was what Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed listed as “stories of insults”, an unforgivable sin of the “progenitors” of the south and one of the sacrifices the north paid to sustain Nigeria’s unity.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the first Prime Minister of independent India. On the eve of his country’s independence, he was full of joy, life and zest. He described that moment as one of awakening to life; the moment of freedom, a step out from the old to the new when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. What Nehru described here should be the goal of any people in bondage. It was the ideal that spurred the horse of that demand in Lagos for self-rule in 1953. It was the wind behind the sail of subsequent demands until the song of freedom rent the Nigerian air in 1960. The “progenitors” that Baba-Ahmed threw a broadside at were the real heroes of Nigeria’s freedom. He owes them gold bars of appreciation. They deserve his eternal reverence.
My people say ‘isoro ni’gbesi’- a direct translation of this is difficult but it means ‘you say it and I give you back.’ Every proposition should be an engenderer of reactions. It is a flaccid, eunuch effort if nothing flinches. And every response potentially provokes a further rejoinder. Back and forth riposte, retort or reply, is a writer’s affliction, or blessing, or both. Joseph Conrad wrote his novella, Heart of Darkness, in 1902. How many years ago was that? But it has, along that long distance, not stopped attracting critical reviews and reactions. From Albert Guerard (1958) to Chinua Achebe (1977) down to Edward W. Said (1993) and Julian Wolfreys (1998) etc, the critical discourse on Conrad has been a running water on the pebbles and rocks of his ‘racist’ themes. It is the nature of spoken words, written words and engagements. But in the rising and ebbing current of reaction and response, what matters is respect for yourself – the writer, and for the other side, the reading side. The spokesman of the northern elders needs to calm down and not agonise so much about the Mauritania story I told. All he needs to do going forward is a recommitment to the mutuality of respect across politics, people and places.
On December 19, 2019, The Washington Post published a photo of a group of 15 black medical students at a former slave plantation in Louisiana, United States. With the photo is this tweet written by one of the students: “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. In the background, an original slave quarter. In the foreground, original descendants of slaves” who are now medical students. Baba-Ahmed loves so much the founding fathers of northern Nigeria. But loving them is not enough. He and his cohort of supremacists should listen more to their progenitors and be their dreams in the ‘wildest’ way possible. From Uthman Dan Fodio to Ahmadu Bello and to Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, there are enough useful words that may heal the land of its affliction. For instance, shouldn’t we insist that the north be cured of what the NEF spokesman called its “crushing poverty” and its people’s “flight from marauding bandits and kidnappers and ethnic and religious militias”? It is bad and sad – and the very sad story is not anywhere near its denouement. At the core of the problem is leadership failure, elite greed and inequality. Dan Fodio warned over two hundred years ago that “one of the swiftest ways of destroying a kingdom is to give preference to one particular tribe over another or show favour to one group of people rather than another. And to draw near those who should be kept away and keep away those who should be drawn near.” Is someone listening? And Tafawa Balewa added his own voice in September 1957: “The future of this vast country of Nigeria must depend in the main on the efforts of ourselves to help ourselves.” And how will “ourselves” help “ourselves” when the system we run in 2021 is that of eight masquerades, six bean cakes and a chief priest without any commitment to equity?
I started with Abdulrazak Gurnah, today’s most beautiful news about Africa after a very long while. Gurnah writes so strongly about Africa, the “wreckage” and “crumbling houses,” its ways and its chosen ruinous path. In his ‘The Last Gift,’ the novelist, with very heavy heart, notes that “for millions of people…moving is a moment of ruin and failure, a defeat that is no longer avoidable, a desperate flight, going from bad to worse, from home to homelessness, from citizen to refugee, from living a tolerable or even contented life to vile horror.” Does that not read like a book on Nigeria and its journey to this valley of darkness? Go back to one of the paragraphs above, Baba-Ahmed’s unabashed, graphic re-tell of the Hobbesian north, its poverty and insecurity – and his snide comment on youth hopelessness in the south. One word for all these is catastrophe. Things are very bad – and may even go worse; and if they will go worse, what are we doing about them? The south where I come from is saying the current structure kills and must be killed for the field to be green again. The feudal, conservative north says no. But what exactly is the formula of that north, its elders forum and its peacock mouthpiece for the redemption of Nigeria? Will insults and claims of regional superiority educate the north’s millions on the street, feed Nigeria’s very hungry poor and save the hopelessly insecure? These are the questions I asked Baba-Ahmed. He has not answered.
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