By Anote Ajeluorou
“If you look around, you see that Nigeria is a host to parasites; it will die. What we have are parasites feeding fat on the nation. Otherwise, why is it that success of individuals does not add up to the success of the country? A parasite lives off a host and the host dies”.
These were some of the strong words Arabic Language scholar and literary critic, Prof. Kole Omotoso, whose seminal work, Just Before Dawn, chronicles the hard political road Nigeria took through colonial era to the early 1980s, opened his in-house conversation with Tolu Ogunlesi as moderator at The Life house in Lagos last Saturday.
One landmark feature Nigerian rulers are known for is their infinite capacity to conjure up messages of hope and promises to herald their coming into office, with a new administration being a new dawn that would change the failures of the past into a golden era of boom. But each time, such promises from succeeding administrations, whether from the military or civilian, soon turn into disillusionment for the generality of the people. So, it’s been one long night of mirages of ‘new dawns’ with no real dawn ever breaking for Nigerians. And as Omotoso asserted, “Nigeria is a promise land where nothing happens”.
And so, Omotoso stated that the idea behind his fact cum fictional account, Just Before Dawn, was about “all we were going through as a country at the dawn of a new era. The hope was that what I was chronicling up to 1983 would be resolved so we could have a new beginning. But I knew that would be too optimistic, too simplistic”.
He gave insight into the coupe detat that unseated President Shehu Shagari, with the organisers asking Olusegun Obasanjo to come out of retirement and lead the country; but he refused. But Mahammed Buhari eventually accepted the role because he had issues with Shagari on account of a deal regarding Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
On the current security problem besetting the country on account of Boko Haram terrorist insurgents, Omotoso said he could only read the hands of the Northern hegemony into it, arguing that the current political equation was clearly not in their favour.
He said the emergence of Goodluck Jonathan as president was a direct challenge to the lopsided political equation the departing British imperialists had bequeathed to Nigeria, when they favoured the North with unfair demographic advantage over the South.
“Each time the Northern hegemony is challenged is when we have problems, like now when they don’t feed fat on the nation”, he said. “So, it’s not about Islam or Christianity. Boko Haram is just a way of flogging the country for what they (Northern hegemony) has lost” in terms of leadership control over the country.
The professor, one of many famous intellectuals and writers born in the 1940s, whose memoir, Witness to Possibilities, will soon be released, said regrettably that he was at a loss when Nigeria “lost that collective pride in denying the language or cultural aspect of our existence; what we do now is trying to fly with one wing”. He is amazed at the frenzy with which Nigerians have abandoned their traditional values for foreign religion, saying, “Today, people try to destroy traditional symbols, like the Taliban of Afghanistan, who blew up some of the incredible treasures in that country”.
Omotoso stated that Nigeria has virtually failed to respond to its many historic responsibilities in its many acts of waywardness and misgovernance. For instance, he narrated how he saw a letter from the University of Bahia in Brazil, asking former education minister, Prof. Jubril Aminu, to assist them with professors of Yoruba in their Yoruba language course since the state is home to a large population of Yoruba-speaking people. But shockingly, Aminu dismissed the request with a wave of the hand. Nigeria never responded.
Omotoso asked ruefully, “How can you have such exciting mixture of culture in one country and fail to tame it. It’s that fear of taming it (Nigeria’s cultural diversity) that is haunting us in this country”.
On his memoir, which is essentially about his childhood, Omotoso said, “There is something about childhood that is fascinating”, something akin to the age of innocence. He recalled one incident, when he was sent to buy salt for the family use with a penny and how he spent it to watch cinema in a hand-held box of pictures, showing exciting, faraway places, and the magical spell it had on him, even till these days. After his moment of watching passed, he was faced with how he was going to explain his loss of the penny; he wished a major catastrophe would happen to smash their home so no one would remember his errand. He had to break his savings to buy the salt eventually.
“That’s what childhood is all about; it fires your imagination”, he mused, a suffused smile on his face. “That experience of watching those distant places is what I’ve been trying to do all my life. Childhood is kind of crazy. That is what I am trying to do with Witness to Possibilities. I’m trying to recreate what created me, that restlessness”.
He still affirmed his commitment to the ideals of communism, stating that capitalism is all about greed and that socialism is the best way forward for Nigeria. He also called for a proper taxing system, where the rich are taxed higher than the poor. He said he decided to join the intellectual exodus that migrated out of the country in the brain drain syndrome of the 1990s “because I felt I couldn’t give my children the same kind of education that my mother gave me”.
On the pains of exile as an intellectual, Omotoso stated, “It totally excludes you. The environment of the language is lost. We pretend that our languages are not important until you go away. You can find Nigerian food and dress, but not so the language. But I make up with Yoruba music and magazine, especially Alaroye”.
Omotoso bemoaned the lack of political activism in Nigerian literature produced in recent years, saying he could not understand the lapse among young Nigerian writers. He regreted that his daughter, Yewande’s novel, Bom Boy, isn’t political, and that he couldn’t understand it. He lamented that there was no discussion about ideas, arguing that there was a need to “keep on discussing ideas. Why is everything in the papers about criticising the government? Things should be done in a cumulative process”.
Omotoso read a Yoruba prose piece in affirmation of his regret that Nigerian writers are not talking to their people in their mother tongue.