By Anote Ajeluorou
ONE of Africa’s foremost thinkers of the 21st century, the Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka, even at age 77, has continued to play the role of an elder in the house who would not allow the goat suffer birth pangs in tethers. And so the eminent African patriot and global intellectual has continued to point out the way for his wayward continent men and women, who appear perpetually lost in the woods of world civilization.
His latest critical book of essays, Harmattan Haze on an African Spring, gives insight into the man’s pains when he looks at his beloved continent that has been a subject of all sorts of appellations from outsiders simply because those running the continent have consistently failed to do the needful to change its colour from dark to light.
Essentially, the book offers a new reading and rendering of the continent, the choices made or not made, the road taken or not taken and new visions for the future. And at the presentation on Tuesday at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos, Soyinka in company of some leading intellectuals from divergent fields of business, political economy, education, the arts, public service and journalism, sat down to examine a contentious continent lying prostrate and stagnant in the sun, seemingly refusing to yield to every entreaty to stand up and stride along like the others.
The interrogarors of contents of the book and state of Africa were former Minister of Education and World Bank senior official, Dr. Obi Ezekwesili, Dr. Kanyiolu Ajayi, who moderated the session, Director, Lagos Business School, Prof. Pat Utomi and, former Group MD of UBA Africa, and now president of HEIRS Foundation, Mr. Tony Elumelu.
Their role was to examine the book in the light of Africa’s poor development index and respond to some of the issues Soyinka raised concerning the continent’s retarded growth in spite of its huge material and human resources.
Indeed, the book also speaks to the outsider looking at Africa from certain jaundiced, racist views; questioning why such perception still persists after many years of independence from colonial rule.
SOYINKA's latest work also examines Africa’s spirituality; holding it up as a fresh ground yet to be explored and exploited to solve Africa’s many intractable problems, especially religious conflicts that are foreign imports to the continent.
Soyinka categorically argues that in African religions lies the alternative balm needed to heal a continent with many festering wounds.
While using scientific interplay of the ideas of gravity and motion and their impact on human societies and where Africa fits in relation to its many complexities, Soyinka pointed out two observable obstacles to the contradictions that characterise the continent and its lack of development namely, the twin evils of slavery and colonialism, which he said constitute obstacles to overcome for the continent to move forward. “Africa needs to contend with those two in terms of resistance with the poor leadership, corruption, irredentism,” he said. “These are two monumental obstacles to which African leaders have failed to respond; two obstacles to organic development. African leaders have failed to overcome these two evils.”
He cited the failed attempts at Nigeria’s elections and census enumeration since independence as colonial legacies the country was yet overcome, saying, “This country is the most notorious in falsifying elections and census results, because it’s a surrogate country of the British, with the residual effects and control of the two obstacles”. He, however, argued that overtime the country ought to have overcome these twin evils if there had been visionary leaders. He asked rhetorically, “Is it not about time we transcended these two by visionary leadership?”
For the iconic literary artist, “Africa’s unexplored geographical resources are capable of propelling society forward, but a total, atavistic, retrogression has overtaken us, with the path not taken has continued to plague us to this day”. He said the Japanese and Chinese, “By hanging onto their traditional beliefs, clinging to their traditional core, and refusing to be alienated from their philosophies and ways of life, have managed to bring about development. Cling to what was indigenous to their societies is what has transformed their societies”.
Prof. Soyinka wondered how people from the miserable, frozen wasteland called Britain managed to hold vast kingdoms all over the world and render them ungovernable several years after they left and planted surrogate nation-states, like Nigeria, India, with her vast architectural grandeur as seen in the Tajmahal!
He expressed his abiding faith in the ability of Nigerians to accomplish great things that are capable of causing phenomenal transformation, as evidences of the people's immense abilities, which abound all over the world, but that such need to be harnessed -- and that's the only missing ingredient.
“Nigerians can create a Silicon Valley in Nigeria,” he enthused ruefully, “but it’s about the leadership. Nigeria has got the brainpower. The possibilities have always been there. Perhaps, we should take the example of China and draw the bamboo curtain and shut ourselves up from the rest of the world and also go by Mbonu Ojike’s ‘boycott all the bycottables’ and then see what we can do by ourselves!”
In the event where drawing the curtain is not possible, he called for regionalism as solution to Nigeria’s problems of development, noting, “I have been pushing for a recognition of a rapid, competitive development of regional governments in Nigeria” to solve our developmental problems.
On his invocation of the abiku, Soyinka said it should only be taken metaphorically, saying pouring libation as stated in the book meant regeneration, continuity, as there is a need to recollect where a people were coming from, just as Africa’s recognition of the existence of the dead, the living and the unborn in a continuum.
The abiku, he said represents everything about existence, from living to death and as a possible way of coping and that what comes out of the future should be about advancement.
Soyinka also called for a revisit of local religions as balm to the distrust and disruptions foreign religions have brought to Africa. He labelled the twin foreign religions Christianity and Islam as having been turned into weapons of mass destruction. He noted that all religions are man’s creation and asked “Christians and Muslims to go to the Orishas and be wise!”
WHILE congratulating Soyinka for writing the book, Ezekwesili said Harmattan Haze on an African Spring offers insight into the choices, especially economic individuals that have been made and how those choices have impacted on the collective on the continent. She said while the book looks at why Africa still remained undeveloped, the question that had to be asked is, “What is the essence of the human being? Is there a process of development for Africa that we missed as originally conceived? Who determines the success or successionisaton of their views of development to be so difficult? And who is that person that defines the context for that development?”
Ezekwesili also stated that in parts of the West, there is the pervasive view that Africa is lacking all the essential ingredients for development, with the likelihood that the future would continue to be bleak, as development would never happen. She also noted there are yet others who were paternalistic about Africa’s problems and couch their expressions the faintest optimism that Africa would somehow crawl from its prostrate position and somehow arrive at its own Eldorado some day in terms of the developmental attainments that all the other continents have attained but which seem a mirage for Africa at the moment.
The former Education Minister stated that Soyinka’s book is such that will force readers to re-examine the continent’s developmental issues again, whether the lack of development is as a result of alienation of the individual from his African roots.
Ezekwesili also argued that development essentially takes the individualistic curve and the choices the individual makes. She cited the Singapore example as a people who had a certain mindset at independence to prove to the 'whiteman' that there was no reason for the whiteman to have governed them in the first place since they were capable of doing it themselves. And so they worked at it and today, Singapore is a model country for development.
She reasoned that what happened after Nigeria’s independence was that while places like Singapore had a developmental model in mind, Nigeria had a replacement strategy. All the leaders were concerned with was to replace the departing British with all the exploitativeness of colonisers without a vision for future.
She also argued that what Africa was exploiting and exploring in terms of its vast natural resources was a tiny bit of what lie beneath the landmass of the continent. She said the peoples have failed to really dig deep to unearth the resources their lands harb our.
According to her, only 16 African countries have attained full school enrolment while many others have not been able to transcend the barest level, adding, “Development in Africa is a great opportunity. There are so many possibilities that lie within. Inability to fully exploit these opportunities carries the seeds of implosion. A steady state of failures causes people to find alternative ways of survival otherwise, the spiral down the slope.
Also, Ezekwesili debunked the abiku myth as worth looking at, and said Africa accounted for 500 infant deaths out of 1000 births. She noted that such grim statistics made mockery of any inspiration derivable from the abiku metaphor because Africa’s growth lies in its virile population, which such monumental deaths imperil.
Ezekwesili then concluded, “A single description of Africa is intellectual slothfulness” the West has perpetuated against the continent, a proposition Soyinka disproves in his book.
ON Africa’s spirituality as encapsulated in Soyinka’s famous poem ‘Abiku’ (the spirit child that is born and dies to be reborn again and again to torment the parents) as fitting metaphor for examining the recurring retrogression plaguing most part of Africa, Prof. Utomi, founder of the Lagos Business School and the Pan African University, said although Africa’s spirituality is dynamic, it is easy to link the colonial experience and how things were done in Nigeria. He said Nigeria’s woes stemmed from inability to deal with the consequences of individual actions, saying, “The problem of living in Nigeria is that of living with bad consequences”.
He argued that while Africa’s young population has deep technology penetration, the problem is how to harness that penetration to give momentum for real development. He noted that 2012 has been a bit of a paradox, and added that his “fears had been how to pluck failure from the jaws of progress. We are still managing ourselves poorly and we may not be able to derive much from the Africa Rising momentum that is gathering. He cited the instance of Rwanda that has managed to raise itself from the dust of a tragic war as a place Nigeria should emulate. He said after the tragic war, there was a consciousness of ‘never again’ attitude and Rwanda was the better for it today, as the country is steadily making giant strides in development, managing its resources prudently for the benefit of its people.
For Utomi, while Nigeria’s problems are traceable to leadership, there are other indicators to watch out for as impediments to growth namely, value problem, collapse of culture and institutions. He said there is nothing Singapore did that Nigeria hasn’t done, yet the gap between the two is still wide because the discipline to ensure values, culture and institutions work has been lacking.
For astute banker Elumelu, Nigeria is full of critics, who ceaselessly bash the country senseless without lifting a hand to help. He urged Nigerians to begin cultivating the healing habit of saying good things about their country. “We criticise ourselves too much,” he said. “How do we say good things about ourselves to the rest of the world? If all we see and say about ourselves is the bad, how do we want others to say about us? We must begin to use our human capital to propel development.”
WHILE contributing from the floor, poet and social critic Odia Ofeimun brought an ominous dimension to the debate, when he said Africa is exactly where it was when the slavers from Arab and Europe came calling from the north and south centuries ago, with several acrimonies and internal wrangling going on all over the continent. He said the implication is that Africa will not be able to defend itself again a second time and fall prey to the superior powers of others who are more organised and developed. He said the continent is still plagued with distrust.
Ofeimun lamented, “Today, we are not building factories and farms for the people to work on. Our problem is about not building factories. We should begin to demand from those asking for our votes, which imported goods they will stop when they get to office so that our factories can begin to work again for the people to be engaged and idle hands put to proper use and not otherwise”.
Art collector Yemisi Shyllon argued that until African societies go back to their traditional cultures to rediscover themselves and what is innate to them as proposed by Soyinka, the continent would not experience growth.
Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi wondered why Soyinka has suddenly turned essayist as against the fine satirist he was known for in his many plays and poems, wondering also whether fiction didn’t quite solve the problems his society posed and whether it was a submission that fiction -- the arts -- has failed him as a tool to confront society.
To this Soyinka responded that art has not failed the society, rather it has helped to contnualy propel the society towars self-examination and the quest for renewal and revalidation.
Other contributors included Prof. Bimpe Aboyade, eminent librarian and, wife of the late famous economist and economic theorist, Prof. Ojetunde Aboyade, who is reputed to have written one of the economic blueprints that the Malaysians adopted to change the fortune of the country. Prof. Aboyade advised that Africans, even as they embraced forewign religions, must indeed go back and recover some of the positive values of their culture and deploy such to help in their march to greatness, especially in the context of globalisation.
THE night was also suffused with musical entertainment by the young poet, dancer and singer, Aduke and her friends; and generous wining and snacking. The literary feasting continued well into the night with an informal reception in the restaurant of the Terra Kulture.