Wednesday, December 31, 2014 9:52 am
By Femi Osofisan
Sometime in 1963—that is, three years after Nigeria gained her independence from Britain—a large delegation of villagers from the then western state hired a mammy wagon bus and headed for the country’s capital, which was then in Lagos.. They took along with them many bags of garri, baskets of yams and mangoes, some goats and rams, and even some gourds of palm wine. Their mission? To see the Prime Minister of the Federation. I don’t have to tell you the hassles they went through to get through to the Prime Minister’s office. But finally there they were before the great Tafawa Balewa himself. Whereupon they all went down on their faces.
“Prime Minister, it is now three years that you and your politicians brought Independence to us and we have come to thank you. Please accept these few tokens of our gratitude. But sir, we have been sent by our people to ask you—when will it end? Yes, sir, this independence, when will it go away?”
Today, it is more than five decades now after that episode. The nation’s capital is no longer in Lagos, but in a more expansive city called Abuja. Our leader lives now in a fortress built by the military, called Aso Rock and which is no longer as easily accessible as the Marina beach. But just suppose that a similar delegation of our people were to succeed in getting inside Aso Rock today, what question do you imagine they would put to Goodluck Jonathan? All of us can guess the question, I am sure. Like those villagers, they would almost certainly ask—This Democracy, Mr President, when will it end? When will it go away?
For some 30 years the soldiers ruled over us. They treated us like a conquered people with no rights of our own, and all our resources were like booty, which they felt free to loot with the power of their guns.
To liberate ourselves, we fought a long and bitter war. Many fell by the wayside; many were brutally suppressed. Some were made to pay a gruesome price; many were forced into cruel exile; and some sold their souls and turned traitors to survive. But in the end, the soldiers were chased away from the saddle of power.
In their place, we brought civilians to rule over us. People like us, without gun or bayonet. Our scholars looked across our borders and found in America the best example of government of the people by the people for the people. Eagerly we imported the system, installed a president whose powers would no longer be arbitrary or without control because there would be two other houses of our representatives to monitor and control his powers. Besides, there would be an independent judiciary to superintend over both. Thus planted on these three tridents, we believed our freedom was safely balanced, our progress assured.
I need not tell you now how those hopes have been broken, betrayed.
In a strange and startling manner that none of us ever foresaw, Democracy has come to become our nemesis nowadays in the post-military era. It is the new Enemy that we have to learn now to confront in our various ways and with our different weapons. Our new war is against our very own people, our erstwhile friends and comrades, those we elected as legislators, but have suddenly turned into predators.
And so it has dawned on us like a cruel joke, that what we thought was the end of our struggle may in fact just be beginning of the real war for our freedom; that the new frontline of combat is the one we thought we had left behind.
The question I want to tackle then in this lecture is, in what manner can literature help in this new desperation? What can we do, beyond merely hissing or uttering effete curses and shaking our heads in self-pitying regret, to rescue our country and our nation from our self-appointed date with Apocalypse? What lessons can one learn from the examples of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, and the rest of us?
But before this, ladies and gentlemen, please permit me to fulfil the prerequisite, customary courtesies. In our profession, the unwritten law is that no masquerade must dare dance in public without a preliminary gesture of acknowledgement to his hosts, his elders and his audience, or else he dances into disgrace. And besides, in this hall today, they are many who tower above me in precedence, and whom I revere. As a true omoluwabi, I know what I must do on such an occasion.
Let me start properly therefore by paying my homage, first and foremost, to all of you distinguished personalities who invited me here, especially you, Mr Vice Chancellor. Our friendship as you recall dates back several years, to those days in the old UI where we have both been undergraduates, and where our dreams were born.
It is mostly because of your insistence and concern that I am here today, this shortly after my many trips. And my hope is that the lecture does not disappoint you or your audience, that it proves in fact that the old ardour has not faded, that those aspirations that we nursed for our dear country have not been quenched…
Please permit me also to present my gratitude to the Governing Council, the Senate and the Principal Officers of the university, as well as the entire Management Staff, the workers, and our wonderful students whose ebullience always reminds me of the “fine-fine” days of youth. A lutta continua!
And then of course, my deepest respects to your proprietor, visionary and entrepreneur extraordinaire, the Esama of Benin, whose foresight and pioneering zeal so many years ago gave conception to the singular idea that has brought us here today. But of him and his achievements, much more later on.
I confess that it is indeed an honour to be invited to deliver this year‘s Convocation Lecture at your institution. Even more awed am I by the list of speakers who have preceded me on this platform, men of great stature all, and of undoubted sagacity, the kind that the late Mbadiwe would have referred to as ”Men of Calibre and Timber.”
After such rich contributions, one cannot but wonder candidly about what, at such a late hour, one can possibly add to their accumulated wisdoms?