By Pius Adesanmi
Professor of English and African Studies
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Professor (2013-2014)
Institute of African Studies
University of Ghana, Legon,
Nigeria @ 53 Lecture Convened by Centre for Change
Lagos, October 15, 2013
Nigeria, the country on whose account we are gathered here today for a feast of reflections, is older than me. This age gap imposes certain protocols of interaction in my culture. I cannot enter into any kind of engagement or social interaction with Nigeria without deploying modes of discourse and honorific markers that would immediately alert speakers of my language to issues of age seniority between me and my addressee. However, in this scenario of elderhood and seniority, Nigeria is not old enough to be my father. Hence, in saluting him within the context of my culture, I cannot call him Baba or Daddy like I would every adult male within my father’s generational bracket in Isanlu, my home town in Kogi state.
With Daddy or Baba Nigeria out of the question, what my culture expects of me, in saluting this elder of mine who recently turned 53, is to say, “Boda Nigeria, e ku ojo ibi o. Igba odun, odun kan ni o.” For those of you who don’t speak Yoruba, this translates roughly as “Brother Nigeria, happy birthday to you o. Many happy returns.” Unfortunately, the Yoruba greeting does not have hip hip hip hurray! If I was speaking in the presence of Nigeria’s teeming youth, those millions of restless energies under the age of thirty that one encounters on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and other social media, I would not say “Boda Nigeria.” Nigerians, 30-years-old and below, would consider me an unsophisticated village old school if I said “Boda Nigeria”. For that generation, I would have to say, “Bros Naija, how is your buffday tinz?” We are still saying the same thing. It’s just a question of generations.
Let me stress the point again that “boda Nigeria” is obligatory in my case only because our subject is older than me. Looking across this room, I see many people who cannot possibly call Nigeria “boda”. I am not saying that they are old but there is a different cultural warrant for how they would felicitate with Nigeria in my language. Such people would tell Nigeria: “Aburo, ku ojo ibi o.” I’ll leave the translation of this one to your imagination. Let’s return to my own case. Having done the right thing, the omoluabi thing, by felicitating with an elder brother on the occasion of his 53rd birthday, having said, “Boda Nigeria, e ku ojo ibi o”, my culture does not expect me to stop there.
Let me remind you that this culture is notorious for having the widest range of salutations in the widest scenarios imaginable. This is a culture that has a formulaic “e ku” greeting for everything and every activity under the sun including doing nothing. This culture even has a greeting, “e ku idita”, for an elder who farts in the presence of children. It is imagined that in the process of responding to that urgent ritual of nature by expelling gas, the elder’s behind must have suffered some discomfort. Therefore, while avoiding the rudeness of openly covering their nostrils on perception of any untoward perfume (or on ‘hearing a bad smell’), children in the vicinity of the elder’s fart must offer greetings and rites of comfort: “Baba, e ku idita o”!
When a culture takes politeness to the extreme of sympathizing with the behind of an elder who farts, you can imagine that the said culture would not expect me to say happy birthday to a 53-year-old and leave it at that. There is a whole range of “e ku” rituals that are designed to reflect the totality of the condition and life experiences of the celebrant. My culture expects me to take a long, good, hard, and thorough look at “boda Nigeria” and tailor the next set of salutations to mirror his physical and developmental condition. So, looking at the shape and condition of Nigeria today, after 53 years of postcolonial existence, my culture makes it incumbent on me to greet and sympathize with him thus, even as you supply the chorus, “ooo”, after each salutation:
Boda Nigeria, e ku ojo ibi o
E ku iroju o
E ku a mu mora o
E ku ofo o
Edumare a f’ofo r’emi o
It doesn’t end there. When all is said and done, when this culture looks at a birthday celebrant whose entire life is an encyclopedia of failed promises, stunted potentials, false starts, fake starts, non-starts, anomie, corruption, decay, and self-inflicted woes such as would make the situation of Sodom and Gomorrah look like paradise, when all there is to a life being celebrated at 53 is a syllabus of errors – Christopher Okigbo would say, “the errors of the rendering”- when there is nothing left to celebrate but the precarious existence of life, a bare, when there is nothing left to celebrate but the precarious existence of life, a bare, failed, naked, unfulfilled, and wasted life, just merely hanging on to the thread of its miserable survival, my culture even has one master stroke of a philosophical greeting for that situation for which you will supply one more ooo.
Boda Nigeria, a dupe pe emiremi o.
I will come back to this philosophical business of “emiremi” presently. I saluted Boda Nigeria first because even if, as I already stated, there are folks in this room who are much older than him, he is in a fundamental sense older than all of his citizens, being the symbolic patch of earth, the cosmic immanence to which we collectively lay claims of origin. He is that patriarchal space on whose surface we stand and proclaim: I walked to this place on my head, not on my feet. She is that matriarchal space, our piece of mother earth, whose nurture over us ensures that like the children of snakes we are able to play unmolested in the forest at night. Let the children of rats try the same moonlight games in the forest! Don’t worry about the apparent clash of pronouns. Nigeria is both our fatherland and motherland: our supreme he and she! That’s why I saluted him first on this auspicious occasion of his birthday.
Having saluted motherland and fatherland because he is older than all of us, if I continued this lecture beyond this point without other salutations, I’d risk the fate of the goat which entered the homestead without saluting the assembly of elders; I’d risk the fate of the ram which entered the homestead and did not acknowledge the elders in council. A tight leash around their necks was the last thing the insolent goat and the rude ram saw before they joined their ancestors in the bellies of the elders. I must therefore crave your indulgence to perform a ritual of obeisance and salutation with which you are already familiar if you honored us with your presence during my last public lecture in this country on the platform of the Save Nigeria Group. Your chorus this time is “Iba”!
To Pastor Tunde Bakare and Mr. Yinka Odumakin who invited me today – iba!
To Professor Itse Sagay, Chairman of this occasion – iba!
To the board of Trustees, Centre for Change – iba!
To the esteemed members of the high table – iba!
To you, the audience, whose ears are here in this hall to drink my words – iba!
I pray you all,
Let my mouth sway words in this lecture
Like efufulele, the furious wind which
Sways the forest’s crown of foliage
Wherever its heart desires.
I did say that we would come back to the business of emiremi: salutation to a life encountered at its most denuded, most abject, most prostrate. Salutation to a life deep in existential ennui. Acknowledgement that the said life is still somehow, strangely, oddly there. Just there as “gb’aiye lasan” – which is exactly what Nigeria is doing. But even as we acknowledge these sobering and dreary aspects of Nigeria’s “emi” on the occasion of her 53rd birthday, we are reminded by the language whose resources we have been mining for this lecture that “emi” connotes more than life and its materiality. We are reminded that a hint of the immaterial, of the transcendental, of that nebulous core beyond consciousness that we call “spirit” lurks within the semantic recesses of “emi”.
By throwing the emiremi salutation in the direction of Nigeria at 53, we thereby acknowledge that Nigeria has a spirit. This brings up very significant questions. We have already attributed a physical body and a material essence to Nigeria which, for our purposes here, shall be reduced to her fifteenth-century infrastructure and other symbologies of measurable but chronic underdevelopment. Now, we are also attributing a spirit to her. What then becomes of the third member of that triad: the soul? I am talking about the trinity of body, spirit, and soul. In essence, beyond our traffic in metaphors and personification thus far in this exercise, does a country really have a body, a spirit, and, most importantly for us here today, a soul? Does a country in good health and good shape have a soul, let alone a country in ruins? What could this soul possibly be like, feel like? How do we apprehend and engage it? If it exists, what role or roles does the soul of a country play in the life of such a country? Above all, where a country is physically and spiritually in ruins as is the case with Boda Nigeria, our celebrant today, is it even possible to recover and retool its soul?
As some of you already know, I prefer anecdotal ports of entry into these kinds of benumbing inquiries. My most remarkable encounter with the soul of a nation, the soul of a country, happened in faraway Ottawa where I live and work. Although Ottawa is the capital city of Canada, the soul I encountered on this particular day was not Canadian. Before moving to Ottawa in 2006, I had been an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University in the United States. I was there for five years during which that great American University kindly filed for my permanent residency in America. Within one year of my stay in America, I became a proud owner of something most Nigerians love more than Nigeria: an American green card.
Although I subsequently got the Canadian permanent residency card on moving to Ottawa in 2006 and was soon on the track to becoming a Canadian citizen, I was reluctant to part with my US green card. So I did wuruwuru to the answer and pretended not to know that you are not supposed to hold on to that card if you are not living in the US and paying American taxes. For two years, nothing happened; I went in and out of the US frequently, using that card, even though I was now resident in Canada. I persuaded myself that I was still technically employed in the US, after all Penn State had kept on to me as a non-salaried Adjunct Professor. However, after two years, my green card began to be flagged at US ports of entry. US Customs and Immigration officials would swipe the card and ask me why I was holding on to it when I was clearly no longer living in the US. I would mumble inaudible and incoherent replies. And they would let me in, advising me to make up my mind: come back to live and work in the US in order to keep this card.
Naturally, I would ignore their advice. Things got to a head when I was going to Johannesburg to accept the Penguin Prize for African Writing in 2010 and my flight from Ottawa was routed through New York. I nearly missed the flight to Johannesburg because of the wahala generated by that green card. Once again, I got away with a warning to make up my mind. I knew then that once I returned from Johannesburg, I had to go to the American embassy in Ottawa to give up the green card. I didn’t need it anymore anyway; I was going to become a Canadian citizen that same month. You’d think that giving up an American green card would be a simple process, just walk into an embassy and toss Uncle Sam’s property back at him, not so? Well, my friends, if that’s what you think, you have another think coming!
As I found out, giving up an American green card can even be tougher than obtaining one! For starters, there are no consular appointments for those wishing to give up a green card so I had to apply for a US visa that I wouldn’t need as a Canadian citizen. A visa appointment was the only way to gain access to the reinforced bunker called the US embassy in Ottawa. On the appointed day, I was ushered into the visa area after clearing security. Everything was what you would expect. The regular throng of coloured humanity – Africans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Arabs, all the usual suspects with their cacophony of accents – were there, each waiting for his or her turn to be summoned to little window screens by imperious American visa officers scarcely out of college. Then came my turn. Everything went very smoothly and a ten-year multiple entry visa was promptly approved for me. “Oh, there is something else,” I told the friendly visa officer (friendly only because he had determined that I am a Professor. Being a University Professor still comes with enormous social privileges and respect over there), “I want to give up this green card, how do I go about it?” I concluded, tossing my green card at him.
His face and countenance changed. “Oh, you have a green card? Why did you come for a visa? And, wait a minute, you want to give up your green card?”, he asked, starring incredulously at me from behind his thick bulletproof cubicle. I answered in the affirmative. “Sir, you want to give up your American privileges?”, he asked again, his bewilderment making him forget to close his wide open jaws. “Yes”, I answered again, coolly. He examined the card for a long time, disbelief and consternation etching patches of sweat on his forehead. He looked at me again, mouth still wide open, shock foreclosing the possibility of speech. My mind began to do the talking for him, racing through a checklist of unsayables that were probably scalding his tongue, wishing they could defy political correctness and burst out of his mouth in gusts of immigrant profiling.
He is er…er… bl…bla…black (✓)
He is er…er…Af…Afri…African (✓)
He speaks English…er…er…with a thick accent (✓)
Yeah, there is a check mark in every identity box! Something ain’t adding up! People like me don’t give up American privileges. We are from the country of Africa. We are hungry. We are poor. We die of AIDS. We die of malaria if mosquito nets donated by Jeffrey Sachs, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Bono do not get to us in good time. We fight tribal and religious wars. Those of us who are lucky not to be killed by disease or wild animals forge travel documents to escape to America where we contract fraudulent marriages with innocent white girls just to keep our piece of the American dream. That is what the manual says. This African who wants to return Uncle Sam’s green card is not in the manual. That was obviously me trying to put into words what I imagined was going on in the mind of the visa officer.
I told him the full story of why I needed to give up the card. I was soon to become a Canadian citizen and would no longer need an entry visa or the green card to enter the United States. The card had become an embarrassment, causing me problems at airports bla bla bla. Nothing doing. He wasn’t listening to me.
“Are you sure about giving up your American privileges?”
“Yes, I am becoming a Ca-na-di-an citizen next month. Caa-naa-diaan.”
“You understand that if you change your mind, you will have to apply all over again if you ever want to return to the United States? You cannot restore this green card once you sign off on it.”
I nodded, hoping that the wahala over rendering unto Uncle Sam what is Uncle Sam’s was finally over. I was sorely mistaken for he soon summoned a colleague of his in a neighbouring cubicle. They whisper. The new man went through the same routine of asking me questions, trying to ascertain that I did not need a shrink; that I was not out of my mind to want to opt out of America the beautiful. I smiled and gave the same explanations all over again. At last, they began the paperwork. They handed over a form for my signature. The form bore a title: “US Department of Justice. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Abandonment of Lawful Permanent Resident Status”. In the form, the consular officer had scribbled:
“Mr. Adesanmi fully understands the consequences of abandoning his permanent resident card and the American privileges thereof.”
Privileges? Privileges! Consequences! Ladies and gentlemen, that was my moment of epiphany. As they say in America, I got it. I understood what was going on. I am going to draw very heavy conclusions from this story which all have a direct bearing on the reason we are assembled here today: to determine whether Nigeria, a country that has ruined itself continuously and uninterruptedly for 53 years, has a soul and if there are any chances of recovering and reinventing that soul, no matter how battered, for the collective benefit of all in this wasteland of ours. But you will have to tarry a while and bear with me before we get on with that aspect of our reflections for there is one more anecdote from my pool of experiences that would serve as a useful contrast to what you just heard.
Fast forward to November 2012. I flew to Nigeria to deliver two major lectures: the keynote lecture at the annual convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors which held in Uyo and, two days later, the second state-of-the nation lecture of the Save Nigeria Group which held here in Lagos. Remember that at that point, I had become a dual citizen of Nigeria and Canada, carrying the passports of both countries and using them as appropriate in the destinations to which I travel. Needless to say, on arrival at Murtala Mohammed International airport, I presented my Nigerian passport at immigration.
Everything was going well. The usual tired, irritable, and dour immigration officers who gave you a feeling they’d rather be anywhere else but at work. As this particular officer flipped through the pages of my Nigerian passport, looking for where to place her stamp and append her signature, she asked me the regular questions. As I made to bend over a little bit to engage her, my Canadian passport, which was in the outer breast pocket of my long sleeve shirt, fell out onto her counter. As her eyes fell on that foreign passport, her countenance changed. The moodiness vanished, replaced by a glint of excitement in her face. She grabbed the Canadian passport, examined it preciously like she was handling pure diamond, and exclaimed:
“Ah, Oga, you get this one too?”, she asked, waving the Canadian passport.
“Yes o, Madam, na dual citizen I be”, I replied.
“Wetin you come still dey take dis one do?”, she asked, ignoring my remark about dual citizenship and waving my Nigerian passport in the air before tossing it at me like something that had suddenly acquired the capacity to contaminate her hands with leprosy. Needless to say, when handing over the Canadian passport to me, she treated it with elegance and delicacy. As she waved me on, I couldn’t help thinking that she considered me an idiot who had a cap but no head to deck it on, she being the sage who had a head but no cap to deck on it.
Mind you, we are talking about an experienced immigration officer who, apart from being obviously aware of the reality of dual citizenship for many Nigerians in the diaspora, must have stamped thousands of British, American, French, Irish, German, Australian, Japanese, South African, Ghanaian, Afghan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Iraqi passports presented to her by Nigerians with dual citizenship of those countries. So, what happened to her when she beheld my Canadian passport? I’ll tell you. It was one unguarded, unselfconscious moment in which professional carapace collapses and a window is unintentionally opened into the soul of a uniformed Nigerian citizen. And when we look into the soul of this uniformed citizen, through the window afforded us by her outburst and facial expression as she queried the wisdom of hanging on to one of the most important symbols of Nigerian citizenship (of which, ironically, her department is custodian), what do we see mirrored in her soul about Nigeria?
Some of you may be inclined to conclude that the behavior of this immigration officer is just one hilarious example – among millions of daily examples – of the mutual contempt which defines the relationship between Nigeria and the Nigerian, at least most Nigerians for if you are not hissing in contempt, despair, and frustration every time you hear Nigeria, you are probably eating with the one percent. You’d only be partially right if you reached this conclusion. For me, the immigration officer’s diss of the Nigerian passport represents that solemn moment of psychic disconnection, that moment of dehiscence when the soul of the citizen opens up and reaches for a life-giving connection to the soul of the nation and is met with darkness, void, yawning emptiness. Where the soul of a nation ought to be, feeding a hundred and sixty million souls through arteries of patriotism and psychic connection, there is nothing but a gap. And a question mark.
To better understand the anchorage that this officer’s soul fails to find, that connecting point to the essence of her nation, to understand the void, the emptiness which greets her at the rendezvous between her soul and the absent soul of her own nation, we need to go back to our friend at the American embassy in Ottawa, Canada, and try to understand what exactly his own American soul plugged into, connected with, at that improbable moment of encounter with an accented African’s rejection of America. “You are giving up your American privileges!” he had screamed, unable to believe what was happening.
The keyword is “privileges”. That is the foundation of the American soul. The soul of a nation is an imaginary. It is an ideal. It is an idea. In the case of America, it is that which stitches together some three hundred million individual identities and differences, hundreds of ethnic differences, bitter racial polarities and prejudices, unbridgeable political differences between Left and Right, bitter schisms between various versions and factions of Christian evangelical fundamentalism, gender warfare, and the obligatory gulf between a perpetually capitalizing rich and a perpetually socializing poor. Stitching together these differences is only the beginning of the process. A national soul, the soul of a nation, does not emerge just because there is a rendezvous of individual and group differences within a given nation-space. Other things need to happen as I will show presently.
Among the many lessons we take away from Ernest Renan, the famous 19th century French philosopher who wrote one of the most significant treatises on the idea of the nation is that the soul of a nation emerges, takes shape, and comes to define that nation only to the extent that there has been a rendezvous of differences during which there is a voluntary process of relinquishing and remembering by all the constituent identities present at the rendezvous. Part Three of his great essay, What is a Nation?, is of particular relevance to us here. Says Renan:
“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present- day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. Man, Gentlemen, does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice, and devotion. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past, great men, glory (by which I understand genuine glory), this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea. To have common glories in the past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more-these are the essential conditions for being a people. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices to which one has consented, and in proportion to the ills that one has suffered. One loves the house that one has built and that one has handed down. The Spartan song-“We are what you were; we will be what you are” — is, in its simplicity, the abridged hymn of every patrie.”
Notice the recurrence of the word, consent, in Renan’s definition of the soul or the spiritual principle that is a nation. Consent and will are what make it possible for the differences participating in the great historical rendezvous of nationhood to voluntarily determine that which they will forget for the greater good (forgetting, Renan reminds us, is a serious a business as remembering in project nationhood), that which must be remembered for the emotional and psychic anchorage of the constituent parts. That which will be forgotten and that which will be remembered are never fixed. They are to be constantly negotiated, renegotiated, and revisited. This is why Renan defines a nation and her soul as a “daily plebiscite”.
What emerges from this rendezvous of differences, this daily plebiscite on that which we choose to forget and remember for the sake of the nation, is the ideal or the idea which transcends all the differences and defines us all only for the simple reason that we collectively forged it together. For the American, that ideal is the unshakable belief that America is a privilege. A privilege gifted to the world. A privilege gifted to every American. Once every American subscribes to the notion that America is the one privilege you neither relinquish nor give up on, that singularity crystallizes into everything America and Americans are about.
It becomes the one essence that transcends every difference, the ideal which feeds and propels patriotism. The idea of America as privilege is where Donald Trump, capitalist royalty, Bill Clinton (political royalty), and Ms. Meshawnqua Shaniqua (poverty royalty) meet. Whether ancestors were English pilgrims who sailed to, New England, America aboard the Mayflower in the 17th century or they were Kunta Kinte’s kinsmen who made the journey to America chained to the belly of slave ships, today, your hands reach out across a gulf of differences and bitterness to seal the unquestioned and unquestionable idea of America as a privilege. No matter your station in life, you bask in the privilege that is American-ness, the exceptionality that is American citizenship.
Because it is an omnipresent ideal, whatever a nation stabilizes as her soul comes to brand everything she is or she produces. Whatever America is, does, or produces is marked irrevocably by the ideal of privilege. She may give this privilege other names – American exceptionalism, the American dream – but we know it when we see it in her science and technology, her music, fashion, food, sports, infrastructure, everything. We see it in the totality of the American aesthetic. This is the same thing you see and feel when the German soul is expressed in the expression we all commonly throw around as German efficiency or the German machine.
American privilege, German efficiency. These spiritualities derive their performative power and appeal precisely because of their ability to mobilize the citizenry. Patriotism is not what mobilizes the citizen. Patriotism is merely the outward, gestural expression of a collectively imagined ideal, the higher essence we have agreed to graft onto our perspectivizations of the nation with a view to letting it define us collectively. Patriotism is the outward cloth worn by the real thing: the soul of the nation. And when the soul of the nation summons, it summons collectively, beyond the actuations of individual and collective differences. It doesn’t matter whether it is Ernest Renan describing the soul of nations or it is W.E.B du Bois mapping the souls of black folk in his great book of the same title, what is constant is that the soul of nations speaks only one language: the language of the collective good. The soul of a nation is therefore Pentecost and not Babel. Where a nation has forged a credible soul, no matter the language of enunciation, every citizen hears only one message: the collective good.
As souls of the nations which articulate them as collective identities, American privilege, German efficiency, and indeed every other emanation of the soul of a nation in the Western tradition devolve from this language of the collective good. The 20th century French philosopher, Michel Foucault, has given us a good account of how the notion of the collective good became coterminous with the souls of nations in the Western tradition. Foucault’s essay, appropriately entitled “The Technologies of the Self”, is a magisterial account of the various traditions of self-portraiture from the Greeks and the Romans down to the modern claimants of their heritage in Euro-America. Foucault delineates two tradition of the self in in the Greco-Roman world. The first tradition “epimelesthai sautou” captures the domain of “taking care of oneself” or being “concerned with yourself”. The second tradition, “gnothi sauton”, captures the domain of “knowing oneself”.
The first practice of the self in Greco-Roman, “take care of yourself” or be “concerned with yourself” is of immediate relevance to our discussions. I am persuaded by Foucault’s reading of this tradition while being mindful of other contending readings in Western philosophical tradition. Here is how Foucault defines it: “the precept “to be concerned with oneself” was, for the Greeks, one of the main principles of cities, one of the main rules for social and personal conduct and for the art of life.” In other words, you are concerned with yourself; you are taking care of yourself in order to be able to take care of the city. Concern with yourself is the foundation of being able to participate in the collective good. This is the foundation of the soul of nations going back to the Greeks and the Romans. This is what is at play when you hear the leaders of America talk about the American dream and the necessity of guaranteeing a fair shot for every citizen. This is the content of the privilege that is the soul of that nation.
It should be clear from the foregoing that I have adopted the strategy of illustrating what happens when the life-world of a country, of a nation, is powered by a higher, spiritual ideal, forged in the cauldron of collective struggles and memory in order to make very clear what happens when a country empties itself of a soul and presents only a wobbling and fumbling, underdeveloped carcass to the world. A country fashions her soul around the privilege of belonging and ingrains this in the individual souls of her citizens. When a citizen of such a country encounters the surreal scene in which the passport or the permanent residency card of such a country is being relinquished, such a citizen is plunged into the anguish of disbelief: no, this cannot happen! No one gives up American privileges. That was not an American citizen talking to me in Ottawa. That was the soul of America gyrating (apologies to our kegite friends) very loudly in that Embassy. On the contrary, the Nigerian immigration officer who thought I was crazy to hold on to my Nigerian passport is a uniform, just a uniform in search of that central, unifying ideal that would have been the soul of the Nigerian nation.
If you look closely at things, it wasn’t always this way with us. It shouldn’t ever have had to be this way. Really, Nigeria has no business being an atrophied, decaying giant, groping blindly in the dark in search of a soul at 53. No, we have no business being where we find ourselves today. If you look at the broad outlines of the soul of nations that I have sketched out above, from the Greco-Roman tradition, down to the submissions of Ernest Renan, Michel Foucault and other 19th and 20th century Western philosophers, you will admit that there is nothing that these guys are saying that are not junior to the antecedence of our own traditions and epistemologies of the self and society.
In fact, at the time Ernest Renan first delivered his famous lecture – What is a Nation? – in 1882; at the time Renan was pontificating on the definition and content of the soul of a nation, his own nation was preparing to go to Berlin, two years later, to set in motion, along with other European powers, a chain of events that would radically undermine the fledgling souls of Africa’s ethnic nationalities by yoking an alien political concept onto arbitrary geographies decided behind the backs of those who, as from the 1960s, would be saddled with the task of injecting life, meaning, and soul into formations imposed on them.
Furthermore, if you look at Foucault’s account of the concept of taking care of the self as a precondition for taking care of the city in the interest of the collective good in classical antiquity, you will see that the cultures of Africa boast philosophical antecedence in that department. For instance, in my own culture, the philosophy of ‘omoluabi’ is nothing more than a syllabus of individual comportment fashioned for the enhancement of the collective good. Among its many philosophical postulations, ‘omoluabi’ posits that “itelorun ni baba iwa” (contentment is the father of good behavior). This is the foundation of the self, the basis on which the self submits to the supremacy of the collective good. For where you have contentment, you will not steal 100% of the budget meant to provide roads and hospitals for the people 100% of the time. Omoluabi is therefore to the Yoruba nation what ‘privilege’ is to the American nation. Omoluabi is the soul of this particular ethnic nationality. Think of your own respective nations within the Nigerian project and you’ll find ancestral organizing ideals of the collective good which translate to the soul of your ethnic nationality.
So, our ethnic nations had souls from which a distinct Nigerian soul could have been forged. After 53 years, our report card of national soul-making still boasts a very loud F9. What happened? How and why did we fail? Why is it so difficult to think of one central ideal around which the Nigerian nation is organized? Before we answer these questions, let us quickly get something out of the way. Nigeria is what she is today – the open sore of the Black race – because of the absence of a transcendental national ideal which at once collectively defines us, is deemed sacrosanct, and bigger than any and all of us. In the part of the world where I earn my daily bread, it is common for public officials to sacrifice personal ambition, renounce the claim to public office or even resign whenever personal ambition and gain are deemed to be in the way of the collective ideal which defines the nation.
Because Nigeria lacks this ideal, it is easy for her politicians and civil servants to loot her blind without betraying anything. Where a nation has no soul, you are not really betraying anything by hurting her. You could wreck her infrastructure through corruption, destroy her refineries, wreck her national airlines, destroy her national shipping lines, restore her railway to Second World War Locomotive standards in the 21st century, destroy her Universities, spend $16 billion dollars to import darkness, and all you’ll get are people complaining that they have been marginalized from the theatre of wrecking and destruction. No damage is unimaginable or too crude to be inflicted on a nation which has no soul. Take for instance what Nigeria does to that fragment of her population thirty years and below. Historically, that demographic has been the power house of the soul of all nations.
We do not need to go into any philosophical disquisition on the role of the youth in inventing the present and the future of nations. Yet, this is the specific demographic that Nigeria has been so relentless in decimating, generation after generation. Let’s be clear: obtaining a University degree in ten years because of strikes and spending another ten years crawling the streets for non-existent jobs after graduation are the most merciful and the most humane part of the treatment which Nigeria reserves for her youth. Whenever we feel that we are suffering from youth congestion, truncated education and unemployment become luxuries we cannot afford to provide for the youth of Nigeria and so we simply allow the grim reaper to solve the problem for us. We don’t even bother to count the bodies anymore. Sometimes, when they are famous, we remember them for a week before moving on: MC Loph, CD John, Dagrin, Goldie, Bisi Komolafe. We may also remember them for a week if they are consumed as a group by our national madnesses: Apo six, Aluu four. Beyond these modes of ephemeral remembrance, thousands perish weekly and do not even make a blip on the national radar. Indeed, in a country without a soul, the fate of the youth is even inferior to that of the baby bird in this dirge:
Oro nla le da (eee)
Oro nla le da (2X)
Eyin te gb’omo eiye t’ee je o d’agba
Oro nla le da
Back to our question: why did we not forge a national soul and how can we begin to address this problem? Our first error was to go for the material where other countries forge transcendental ideals in the quest for national self-inscription. Perhaps because modern statehood was foisted on us, we did not appreciate the fact that the new political structure, like our pre-existing ethnic nationalities, is “a soul and a spiritual principle”, to repeat the words of Ernest Renan. We did not understand this aspect of statehood and blindly began to replicate what Britain did with the colonial state. Because the colonial state was an instrument of economic exploitation for the colonizer, it was not in his place to invest it with a soul like he did for his own state back home in Europe. After the revolution of 1789, the French may have spent the next 200 years working to make the ideal of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity the soul of the French nation; it was not in the nature of things to take those ideals to colonial Mali or Cote d’Ivoire. What the coloniser therefore bequeathed to us on October 1, 1960 was a predatory instrument of greed and exploitation masquerading as a state. We took this soulless, predatory structure and organized it around the materiality of the national cake. From the Civil War to Coups to Boko Haram via kidnapping, armed robbery, and militancy, we have been paying the price of this foundational error of the rendering in body counts.
Whereas other countries define themselves nationally around a set of transcendental ideas and ideals, we insist on coming together only to carve out our respective portions of the national cake. Well, as far as nations go, you cannot eat your cake and have a soul o. And we don’t even have table manners when gorging on this national cake. Just take a look at these irritating guys in Abuja, from Aso Rock to the National Assembly, and you are reminded of the unruliness of a pride of lions gorging on a wildebeest in the Serengeti. My apologies to the Serengeti lions for this demeaning comparison of their table manners with those of Nigeria’s leaders.
The second impediment to the emergence of a national soul in Nigeria is much more serious than the first. We have a stubborn, foolish, and fundamental misunderstanding of the role of difference in the forging of a national soul. We have spent the better part of our postcolonial existence struggling to suppress difference, especially when it is expressed as ethnic nationalism and religious affirmation. So great is our fear of difference that we have transformed its most sophisticated political expression – genuine federalism – into a bogeyman to be avoided at all costs! It is as if we are even afraid to remember how much better we all fared during our brief experience of true federalism under the regional structure of the 1960s.
Ever since we dismantled an arrangement that would have facilitated the creative and useable conjugation of our differences for the collective national good, our nation-space has become a watering hole Pharisees hawking “no-go areas” in national discourse and Sadducees selling ill-conceived notions of national unity. Arrogantly, they strut their stuff, telling us that so-and-so is not negotiable; the corporate existence of Nigeria is not a matter up for discussion. We must ask them: where in the history books did they encounter the idea of the finished nation? No matter their ideological differences, all the philosophers of the Western nations who brought the nation-state to Africa agree that the said political structure is by its very nature an unfinished business, to be permanently discussed and re-discussed, negotiated and renegotiated by citizens.
That is why Renan calls a nation “daily plebiscite”; that is why Homi Bhabha calls a nation a narration which is subject to perpetual retellings (you cannot therefore claim that a final version of the story of a nation has been told permanently); that is why Benedict Anderson calls a nation an “imagined political community” subject to perpetual re-imaginings. In short, nobody in the Western tradition from which we got modern statehood, has ever been as audacious as the Nigerian elite in proclaiming the non-negotiability of the structure of greed and corruption rigged and handed over to them by the corrupt British colonizers. This is why the recent embrace of the idea of a national dialogue by President Goodluck Jonathan must be cautiously encouraged. I say cautiously for all the reasons you know – we’ve been taking down this road before.
When we allow a thousand flowers to bloom, when we embrace the idea of a nation as a perpetual plebiscite, we open up a critical space of negotiation in which our differences would gain a space in the sun and stop being a source of repressed frustration. Just imagine for a second an America in which to articulate your tribal identity as Irish-American, Jewish American, Italian-American, African American, etc, became a valid ground for your exclusion from the purview of American privileges! That is unthinkable, isn’t it? It is unthinkable because Western nations have come to understand that it is the state that must constantly accommodate and work with differences, not criminalize them. The Canadian state is in a permanent state of negotiation with native Indians (First Nations in Canadian-speak) and the very culturally-conscious and permanently agitating French Canadians of Quebec.
If the state constantly negotiates with and makes space for difference in the West, she must do so even more urgently in Africa and in Nigeria in particular. After all, “Oba no dey go transfer” as we say. Igbirra, Ogoni, Tiv, Idoma, Jukun, Nupe, Birom, Edo, Ijaw, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa-Fulani and some 200 other ethnicities were here jeje before Nigeria came and rammed national borders and a collective national identity down their throats. They were here before she came. They are not going anywhere and Nigeria had better wake up and smell the coffee. A national soul can only be forged by creatively harnessing and engaging these differences, not by intimidating, denying, suppressing or preventing them from achieving self-determination within a genuine federal structure.
Respecting these differences and facilitating their right to a space under a true federal sun actually liberates their energies and potentials and puts them in a position to voluntarily determine what to shed and what to keep in the process of forging the transcendental ideal that would become the soul of a given nation. And we are very lucky indeed in Nigeria. Despite all the gloom, despite all our fault lines, despite corruption, despite decay, despite so much death in the land, despite despondency, despite the “emiremi” material condition of Boda Nigeria at 53, the same youth, those kids 30 years-old and below, who have been so badly betrayed by a country that has denied them everything – jobs, security, education, credible role models, even life – these are the same people, the same demographic who are all over social media, all over the spaces of popular culture, unknowingly articulating something that could become the transcendental ideal, the soul of Nigeria.
Listen to these young citizens in situations of banter and socializing. Whenever a Nigerian excels in something negative or mischievous, whether it’s yahoo-yahoo or a 20 year-old boy marrying a sixty-year-old white grandma for “pali” purposes, you are likely to hear young Nigerians exclaim amidst laughter: “chei, Naija no dey carry last!” Let me hear you repeat that: “Naija no dey carry last”. That, right there, ladies and gentlemen, is the seed of an idea that could become an ideal, our defining national soul. All we need do is relocate it from the sites of mischief and self-deprecating humour and turn it to something as serious as America and her privileges for the American or something as serious, as solemn as Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity for the French.
Retrieving an existing slogan from popular culture and sending it on more serious errands of national identity-making is of course not enough to event a soul for a country in ruins. If we limited ourselves to just that, we would merely be reinventing Dora Akunyili’s wobbling wheels of rebranding, a top-down money-grubbing fancy of the elite, which, like Ibrahim Babangida’s MAMSER before it, stood no chance of even remotely being able to mobilize the people. MAMSER and rebranding did not work because the youth did not really sign on to them. What makes young people sign on to an ideal? Take a look at Barack Obama in 2008. He had two things which made millions of youths sign on to what he was selling in 2008. He had a simple and sexy message: change. Secondly, he had the symbolic personal capital to power the message.
Message and personal capital must work together. MAMSER and rebranding failed because they were messages being sold in the absence of personal capital. In the case of Dora Akunyili, she was not really the one lacking personal capital; it was the political class to which she belonged. Collectively, that class cannot mobilize Nigerians to hire ideals. They lack credibility. In essence, the process of national rebirth that would hopefully begin with the emergence of a national soul would have to happen beyond the agency of Nigeria’s discredited political class. Either for selfish or altruistic reasons, members of this class may stumble on a reason to provide us with structure as is the case with the President who is now providing a framework for national discussions. Such opportunities could be cautiously embraced while being mindful of the fact that a pardoner of corruption cannot provide the inspiration for the emergence of the Nigerian soul.
We must credit the youth with the creativity and resourcefulness to recalibrate the message of Naija no dey carry last. All we need is for that message to suffuse our national space and create a new zeal for excellence in our national life. We could redefine and re-inscribe ourselves as those who no dey carry last in the sphere of excellence. That message should define our style, our arts, our science, our technology, our approach to maintaining our infrastructure, even our bureaucracy. If the Nigerian civil servant becomes imbued with that new mentality, almost half our problems would be solved for the civil service is one of the most corrupt institutions of our national life. If you don’t want us to carry last, you’d shine the light in your own little corner in the Ministry where you work.
Only the youth could find it within themselves to recalibrate that message. Don’t underestimate them. They built Nollywood out of nothing and in Nigeria’s harsh climate; they reinvented music and made American gangsta rap and R & B totally irrelevant in our party halls; they won the nations cup despite the oasis of disorganization and inefficiency that is the Nigerian football Federation; everywhere you turn, the youth of Nigeria are excelling despite Nigeria, despite all the odds stacked against them. All they really need to become the catalysts for the invention of a Nigerian soul are a few good role models who don’t have to come from government but who understand the need to inject their enormous personal and symbolic capital into our public life by being there in the public eye as role models for our youths. Such personalities could be socially conscious and socially responsive activist Pastors who are completely tired of and disillusioned with politics and politicians but whose personal capital and credibility are public property because they could mobilize our youth and inspire them to hire ideals the way nobody in public office could; or they could be female human rights and civil rights activists who have been photographed in Washington in the company of John Kerry and Michelle Obama.
They don’t even have to be famous. They could be you, you, you, and you, out there, encouraging and mobilizing our youth in your respective stations in life. You could take that message away from this lecture hall and let our youth understand that the one of the really urgent tasks of the moment is a recalibration of the message contained in something they utter in jest everyday: Naija no dey carry last! It is only when this message I allowed to transcend our differences in a rejuvenated and redesigned Federal structure – itself another level of struggle – that we shall all be able to rise, united by the immense power of our differences and diversity, and sing that song of ours in its real and true dimension:
Winner ooo winner
Winner ooo winner
Nigeria you don win o winner
Patapata you go win forever winner!
I thank you for your time.