Culture and Democratic Governanc


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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Culture and Democratic Governance



G.G. Darah


(Text of the 1st Segun Olusola Annual Lecture held on June 3 at the Banquet hall, National Theatre, Lagos. The lecture was organised by National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners)

AMBASSADOR Segun Olusola is one of the most important cultural and artistic icons of Africa. He has spent over 50 of his active years in the service of Africa and humanity. Chief Olusola has been involved in all that is good and beneficial in the promotion of life and civilisation. As a colossus of the arts and humanitarian work, Olusola has helped in the extension and defence of the frontiers of freedom and democracy. He has been a creative artist, actor, director, producer, dancer, singer, choreographer, museum owner and curator, diplomat, manager and mediator of conflicts, and recently, a compassionate protector and benefactor of refugees, the dispossessed and the wretched of the earth of all races, colour and creed.

By gathering here today to pay tribute to his prodigious talent and energy, we are also celebrating and honouring ourselves and those with whom he shared his dreams and work for a world that will be truly free from all that denies us our just claims to be human. Olusola has received many honours for his use of arts to renew the world. The government of Nigeria has given him national honours. Even if Nigerians had ignored to pay him tribute, he would have been contended with the accolades he has received from his "children" in Ethiopia where he served as Nigeria's ambassador. Olusola has bred and nurtured more children in the refugee camps of Sierra Leone and Liberia where his passion for saving lives has been at play for over a decade now. By his marriage to the late Elsie, alias Sisi Clara, Olusola became an in-law of Warri and the people of the Niger Delta for life and beyond life. As we say in Urhobo language, Ogo me biko; wowe k'omo omo me bevwenden (Being our in-law, you are now our child forever).

No famished road for the artist

I do not know what Olusola's biographer will say of his cultural and linguistic background. But it is safe to speculate that his being Ijebu has helped his art and his humanitarian endeavours. Although the Ijebu have now joined everyone else in creating a monarchy, they are irrepressibly republican and democratic like the Urhobo, Ijesha, Igbo, or Tiv who value their human right of the "the king in everyone" more than anything that money or power can buy.

That was one of the reasons the British imperialists employed every "weapon of mass destruction" to subdue them in the late 19th century. The year 1894 when the British finally conquered the Ijebu people was the same time they overran Urhobo and neighbouring peoples of the Niger Delta. That was the year that the British naval bombardment that lasted three months demolished Nana Olomu's fortified city-state of Ebrohimi on the Benin River and deported him to the Gold Coast, now Ghana. The conquest of Baghdad by the America-led imperial army in 1991 and 2003 has its parallel in West Africa. Having overwhelmed Nana, the British marched on in 1897 to invade Benin, dethroned Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, and deported him to Calabar where he died in 1913. Ola Rotimi was to celebrate this horror in his play in 1974.

Olusola is so quintessentially Ijebu and democratic that he churned the straight and broad ways of political "forest of a thousand demons". Had he followed that perilous path to power and riches, he would probably have ended up like Chinua Achebe's Chief Nanga (M.A. Minus Opportunity) who had to abandon all the luxury of office, wives and concubines (Ebenezar Babatope, the Ijesha chronicler of history and politics calls such women "lubricants of the revolution") and scampered into safety when ambitious soldiers threw out the epileptic civilian democracy in which Nanga was a minister. Perhaps, Olusola would have suffered a fate similar to that of Komsoon in Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born who had to escape through a pit latrine when rampaging soldiers were looking for him after overthrowing the civilian government in Ghana.

We have the Gods of Africa to thank that Olusola did not ascend the Mount Langbodo of the military route to power and corruption. Had he done so, he would probably have been one of the billionaire generals who are insisting that Nigeria will not survive unless they rotate the office of the presidency amongst themselves. As Wole Soyinka once observed, it is only the retired and "stepped aside" generals who have the money that can secure one the exalted throne of the president of oil-corrupted Nigeria. It is possible that Olusola is silently thanking his ancestors for not following this wide path to perdition, especially in the light of what happened to General Oladipo Diya in the leprous hands of General Abacha, his boss and co-liquidator of the June 12 mandate of M.K.O. Abiola.

Knowing how many copses of great and brave men and women have littered the route of power in Nigeria, Olusola could have met his political "agbako" just as the poet-soldier, Mamman Vatsa did in 1986 when President-General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida ordered him shot on suspicion of masterminding a coup plot. In where "desk generals" (the phrase is Soyinka's) are not in charge of government, some of them produce literary works of inestimable value. Such is the case of General Hannibal of Carthage (Tunisia), Alexander the Great, also of black parentage like Hannibal, Wilson Churchill of England, and Augustino Neto, the former poet-president of Angola.

In the Nigerian armed forces, thinkers and poets are wasted for having the intellect that harbours dreams of a society that is free from detentions without trial, massacres, coup plotters, emergency proclamations, and more importantly the juicy morsels of looted oil wealth made sweeter because it is in dollars!

Maybe Olusola could have listened to another spiritual drummer of Ijebu ontology, that is the gift for making money from impossible circumstance, an area of competence in which they share place of honour with the Igbo who now have crowned traders and importers with beautiful titles such as "Ezego" (Monarch of Money). Those of us who live near Anambra State known a thing or two of the best political offices money can buy, to paraphrase the marketing jingle for the sale of a brand of cigarettes! If you spread the money metaphor along the rainforest belt from Ijebu to Urhobo and Igbo, you will have elegant varieties. The Urhobo noveau-riches have coined new concepts such as "igho sh'emu sua" (with money all things are possible) to proclaim their sense of arrival in the capitalist kingdom of "wealth is might and therefore right".

Had Olusola been like William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, he would have developed a formidable enough network in our era of digital capitalism to qualify as core investor in the current programme of privatisation of public companies known as liberalisation to make Nigeria investor-friendly!

Art is life, art is democracy

The drift of my story so far is that we are celebrating Olusola because he is unequivocally Ijebu and instinctively democratic and humanistic. My image of the Ijebu social anthropology comes partly from my reading of Professor Oyin Ogunba's pioneering study of their dramatic literature and the institution of "Agemo" or ancestor veneration, which has strong parallels with that of the Urhobo. More importantly, we have people whose humanistic and rebellious attributes testify to the fact that Olusola could only have accomplished all he has in the varied fields of the arts welfare because he is Ijebu.

Consider the other members of the artistic pantheon: Hubert Ogunde, Soyinka, Ogunba, Ebun Clark, Femi Osofisan, Yemi Ogunbiyi, and Wale Adenuga who picked up the aesthetic image of "ikebe" from Urhobo area during his national youth service year and has since used his Ijebu Midas touch of creative ingenuity to mint success, wealth and fame across Africa and the African Diaspora.

Democracy may be art of governance learned in the covens of power such as parliaments of military barracks. Yet it could be a genetic asset locked in the blood and veins of the individual. From generation to generation and form one historical epoch to another we clone the attributes and carry it like oxygen across the luminous thresholds of creation, birth, death and reincarnation.

You have to be a democrat by nature to be able to create with such ease grace of temper as Soyinka displays in his works in all genres. Search and visit all the literary websites of his oeuvre from The Strong Breed through A Dance of the Forest, Telephone Conversation to Madmen and Specialists and Beatification of an Area Boy, you will see this rebellious and Ajantala spirit dancing, laughing and jabbing at human foibles and frailties.

You have to be a democrat by instinct to be able to look the world with the eyes of the night as J.P. Clark does in his plays, poems and biographies as witnessed in his Night Rain, Song of a Goat, Ozidi, America. Their America, The Wives Revolt to All for Oil.

You have to be born democrat to bear the masked spirit that drives Achebe to create idiosyncratic and fiercely independent characters like Okonkwo, Ezeulu, Nanga, Odili, Obo Okonkwo, Beatrice and other vigorous portraits that populate his artistic universe of multi-verse.

Who else but a democracy-nurtured storyteller could give such imperishable anecdotes that we find in the narratives of Olurunfemi Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, Gabriel Okara, Elechi Amadi, Ken Saro-Wiwa's Laughing Anthill and Basi & Company. Chukwuemeka Ike was not just a registrar of the West African Examinations Council in the 1970s. He converted his experience there to a delectable tale in his Expo 77 that denounced examination malpractice which has since become a norm, thanks to the longevity in power of anti-democratic forces in the country.

If the poet-musician Mamman Sharta of Funtua were not a democrat from birth, how would he have used the razor of his tongue to achieve the mock-heroic and satirical expose of the excesses and cruelty of the feudal overlords who have kept Northern Nigerian from positive influences of modernisation since the Othman Dan Fodio Islamic cleric employed military might to overthrow the system of agrarian democracy run by the Habe (Hausa) states and their more robustly egalitarian neighbours wrongly called "northern minorities" who number about 300.

Zaria and its cultural environs hosted the tradition of revolutionary art known in Nigeria art history as the "Zaria Rebels". This was possible partly because the rebels such as Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, and Demas Nwoko were bred in sociologies that glorified the spirit of humanity to oppose and overshadow all that is wrong and dehumanising. Whenever you view the visuals of works by Onobrakpeya. You share in the glow of freedom and rebellion which only democracy can instigate in the artist. His uncanny capacity to reproduce a metaphysical terrorist like agbako in Fagunwa's felicitous folktale or a junketing Casanova in Cyprian Ekwensi's popular novels is a celebration of that divine gift of revolution manifested through the agency of a human being. When Delta State marked the 5th year of democratic rule last month, Onobrakpeya brought the geniuses of his art family to assure the enthralled audience that there cannot be life and art without democracy.

If democracy were not to art what water is to fish, perhaps the enfant terrible poet-journalist called Odia Ofeimun would not have attempted to chastise "Elder" J.P. Clark with his 1962 debut volume of poems provocatively titled, The Poet Lied. Consider the "indecent" assaults that Femi Osofisan hauls at oppressors, money launderers and prostitutes of the flesh and power in his 50 and more plays, yet he has not been in the hemlock like his friend in Soyinka's Kongi's Havest. Were democracy not the shield for the artist, Osofisan would long have abandoned the perilous trade of "dancing dangerously" in his works. The phrase is stolen from the title of his inaugural lecture at Ibadan a few years ago.

Every despotic ruler and murderer from the Ogiso celestial progenitors of Benin kings to the British blood-thirsty colonialists and avaricious multinational oil conglomerates like Shell have been tried, sentenced and executed by the brave imagination and errant pen/computer of Tanure Ojaide. He has done so without fear of death because Ojaide was weaned in the satire-suffused circuit of Urhobo artistic kingdom of poetry. Like egungun spiritual essences, Niyi Osundare, Olu Obafemi, Festus Iyayi, Ossie Enekwe, Abubakar Gimba and the restive members of their generation have employed the mystical beast of art of the artistic eye of the earth to uncover every hideous crime and theft committed by the military vagabonds in power, zombies or "international thief thief" as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti referred to them in his music that have the anthems of the masses in all wretched corners of the world.

In the dynamic field of theatre and drama, a pro-democracy fervour has helped our female playwrights and fiction writers to accomplish feats that no other women in Africa have attained. The waters and aquatic mysteries of the Oguta Lakes in Imo State inspired Flora Nwapa to create the women portraits in her works which remind us of the art's power to clone features that are human and divine at the same time. Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie is one of the finest poets of feminine force because she blends her idioms of peasant democracy with the images of earthly paradise prophesied in the utopian worlds of socialism and Marxism. Zulu Sofola wedded gods and mortals in her drama of tradition and change, just as Buchi Emecheta's breaking of the "double yoke of women" prepared us to enjoy the epic struggles of womenfolk in Our Women Are Coming by Tess Onwuem. Had Zainab Alkali not been socialised in the anti-feudal milieu of the "ethnic minorities" in the north of Nigeria, her female characters would not pursue freedom and emancipation so relentless as they do in her novels. Without the wind of democratic change rustling in her mind, Alkali could have written with smug indifference of Abubakar Imam who wrote serenades saluting the grandeur of emirs who rode to power and influence on the bloodied roads and heads of peasant "infidels."

The Poetry and Drama of Dates

Since the topic of the lecture implicates the burning issues of democracy and governance, we may well start by examining a little drama with the symbolism of dates. This festival of life for one of us is taking place on the 3rd of June. History, we are told, is a bundle of accidents. If we had tarried for a day, the event would have coincided with the anniversary of the assassination of Kudirat Abiola who was martyred for her intransigent fight for the restoration of the democratic mandate Nigerians gave to her husbands, Moshood K.O. Abiola, on June 12, 1993.

In many respects, Kudirat was 20th century incarnate of Cleopatra, Egypt's last black pharaoh before General Julius Caesar conquered Africa's premier dynasty in 44 B.C. Kudirat's career was also analogous to that Corazon Aquino whose husband was murdered by a fascist military regime in the Philippines. Corazon became President when the coalition of pro-democracy forces compelled the dictatorial junta of Marcos to resign in 1986. But because Nigeria is a country where reactionary forces always wins in politics, "Cleopatra" Kudiraat neigher aspired to nor got near being president as a reparation for her gaoled, later dead, husband.

There is another June 4 in recent African history which has salience for the issues we are concerned with presently. That was the day in 1979 when the Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana led a coup against the elected government of Busia. Unlike in Nigeria, Rawlings did not waste tonnes of words on preachments about anti-corruption, transparency, and accountability. All past leaders suspected of the crime were tied to stakes and shot dead without due process of trials, pleas and counter-pleas. Rawlings became an instant hero in African countries where corruption and power-drunkenness were reversing the gains of independence made in the 1960s.

The coalition of theatre arts professionals who organised this lecture could easily have played a little more dangerously in the words of Professor Femi Osofisan, by choosing June 12 for our gathering of the tribes of the arts. That, in fact, could have been misconstrued to mean a surreptitious attempt to use the platform of culture to ventilate the hidden agenda of the "Coalition of Nigerian Political Parties" which is so dreaded these days that they are not even allowed to hold open rallies five years since the retreat of the military to the barracks. As we hope to show later in the discussion, June 12 marks the turning and tearing point of Nigerian history of nation-building and bulldozing.

The metaphorical radiance of the date for this lecture draws attention to other kindered dates and events that have relevance for the political Siamese twins of culture and democratic governance.

Perhaps, the most memorable and globalised of the June dates in Africa was the 16th July 1976 when the regime in South Africa massacred protesting students in Soweto suburbs of Johannesburg. The universal outrage against this holocaust was such that the racist regime ended up producing its own grave diggers as Karl Marx predicted of the emergence of trade unions in capitalist Europe of the mid 19th century. The tempo of the liberation struggle intensified, Nigeria poured in material and financial support, the Organisation of Africa Unity, the Commonwealth and the United Nations co-operated, Fidel Castro's Cuba sent internationalist forces to save Angola from imminent South African invasion whose ultimate destination was Nigeria.

Arms and fighters were important; diplomacy and international relations played a crucial role, but what got emblazoned in our collective memory were the songs of Miriam Makeba, the poems of Dennis Brutus, Oswald Mtsali, Masizi Kunene, the novels and stories of Peter Abraham and Alex La Guma, the plays of Athol Fugard, etc. A completely new genre of anti-apartheid popular music developed in Nigeria and it mobilised the masses of urban poor, youths and children to commit themselves to the liberation of southern Africa. The election of President Nelson Mandela in 1994 was atriumphal terminus of that phase of the struggle. Another heroic June date came up on the June 2, 1945, the day Comrade Michael Athkhomien Ominibus Imoudu was released from three-year jail by the British colonial regime. Imoudu was then the president of the Nigerian labour movement which was in the vanguard of the anti-colonial uprising. Nineteen days after Imoudu returned to Lagos, he led the longest workers' strike in Nigeria that paralysed social and economic life for 52 days.

The strike by students of Kings College had taken place the previous year and it was quelled with repressive measures. Some of the ringleaders were conscripted into the colonial army to fight in the Second World War then in progress. The Nigerian educated elite in Lagos and the provinces were infuriated by the measures and clubbed together to found the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon (NCNC) to campaign for independence. With the Imoudu-led strike, the British knew the death knell of their imperial rule had sounded. They hurried arranged a transition programme starting with the Richards constitution of 1946, the regional governments in 1954 and final granting of independence in 1960.

In all the struggles that culminated in the independence, proletarians, intellectual workers (artists, journalists, cultural associations) were involved. As we shall show later, Hubert Ogunde, the doyen of modern Nigerian theatre, made his debut in 1945 with the "Bread and Bullet" play don3e in tribute to the revolutionary effort of the workers and allies in all the cultural fronts. M.C.K. Ajaluchukwu was the play-wright and chief propagandist of the Zikist Movement from 1946 to 51, a season of radical political mobilisation that Mokwugo Okoye described as the "roaring forties." One of the most articulate and ornate voices of the period was Anthony Enahoro who became an editor of a newspaper at 21. Chief Enahoro was t the barricades a month ago to protest the strangulation of democratic space by the federal government. This means that he has spent 50 years of life searching for democratic governance. Most people in his generation have either given up or died on account of cruel existential conditions.

If the sponsors of this event were a bit more cynical, they could have settled for May 29 which is now made a public holiday and caronised as "democracy day." What most people know is that the last military junta headed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar handed over power to a civilian dispensation on that day. What most Nigerians do not know or not allowed to know is that May 29 is the day that the former Northern Region of Nigeria grudgingly agreed to move gradually into self-government in 1959. The West and the East has done so in 1957. The conservative northern elite resisted the freedom of self-government. In 1947, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa expressed the opinion of the elite when he warned that if the British went ahead to grant independence to Nigeria, then the North would have no option than to carry the mission of the Islamic Jihad (holy war of conquest) to the Atlantic coast of the south. The northern oligarchs had to be persuaded and given assurances by the British to accept to join the rest of the country on the march to flag independence as Frantz Fanon was to characterise the neo-colonial process years later. The Northern Region chose May 29 for entering the drama of self-government.

But what appeared like a skirmish of the jihad predicted by Balewa occurred in 1962 when the Federal Government declared a state of emergency in the Western Region then embroiled in political turmoil. That eclipse for democracy in western Nigeria happened on May 29. You may call it a coincidence, but it does have symbolic significance for our re-evaluation of the past as it affects the present and future of Nigeria. Coincidences do play a role in the unravelling of tragic drama. The eclipse of the emergency that started in the west later enveloped the entire landscape leading to the January 1966 coup, the massacres of southerners in the North, the revenge coup of July 1966, the death of General Aguyi-Ironsi and pogrom against the Igbo, the declaration of the breakaway Biafra Republic, the 1967-70 Civil War, the loss of one million souls, more coups and counter-coups and a long chain of turbulence that cascaded into the valley of deaths in the June 12 drama, the resurgence of military terrorism under General Sani Abacha, the death squads and gulags, the hurried "army arrangement" of the 1999 transition under General Abdulsalami Abubakar and on to the current continuity for uncertainty with the May 2004 declaration of emergency in Plateau State.

If we recall what Wole Soyinka wrote in his The man Died, Kole Omotoso's Just Before Dawn, Ken Saro-Wiwa's On A Darkling Plain, and even Olusegun Obasanjo's Not My Will, we will be unfair to ourselves to insist that the canonisation of May 29 in the country's calendar is a mere coincidence. Soyinka's lecture on the travails of democracy delivered a few years ago bore the troubling title of "When a Nation

bullet" We can squeeze more metaphoric nectar from it by asking the question: "Whose nation does May 29 celebrates".




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