Odia Ofeimun: Biodun Jeyifo, denizen of the fourth stage

Odia Ofeimun: Biodun Jeyifo, denizen of the fourth stage

Wednesday, January 27, 2016 1:26 pm

Prof Biodun Jeyifo

Prof Biodun Jeyifo

By Odia Ofeimun

I have been challenged by Kunle Ajibade, our friend who was Jailed For Life but has lived to tell the story, to present a celebration of Biodun Jeyifo at seventy. I suddenly realize that I am not so well equipped for the job. I mean: to be good at the celebration of an individual, especially of an academic and public intellectual who has been a prime motivator of critical practice at home and abroad, and who has been a durable participant in some of the most tumultuous events in the history of the Radical Left in Nigeria, one should be fore-armed by the canard that no individual is just the sum of the work that he has done. As students of the literary arts know, there are dimensions of existence and lived experiences which ought always to be accounted for beyond the heroics of the achievement orientation. I happen to believe that a celebration should be able to scale the wall of theory, go beyond the world of ideas, and the contemplation of the fate and destinies of whole populations, to come to grips with the ‘lived experience’.

The usual concentration on achievements at birthdays and commemorations is often so unrelated to the meaning that needs to be grasped in order for a life to become the book that the rest of us must gainfully learn from. Often, in looking at the life of someone we admire, too much is taken for granted. We engage dreams and passions we can only deduce from the outside rather than from the inside; we tend to forget that there is more to a lived experience than the heroics of what that life has achieved according to our scale of values. Too often, anyway, too much happens in the secret life of any person that no one else knows anything about. We may not know how a song that a mother sang to the child at the age of seven has been the more critical factor in a person’s growth than the big ideas we talk about. We may not know how much a joke, plain frivolous laughter, between siblings or an insult taken but not returned, trains a saint or sinner or educates a hard-headed law-giver. Because of what we do not know, we make mountains of the little that we know. It supports the vain-glory of our cultural self-inflation in a society whose indifference to the individual, based on an over-indulgent recourse to a poorly defined sense of community, becomes an almost lethal disability.

IN any case, too much happens far from public view that determines what we all consider important. This is what makes every such attempt at a celebration a far cry from the rounded view that should do the job. It tends to become a case for laundering the ego whereas what is really of importance is a confrontation that puts on the carpet all the motivations in the journeys that the person has made or not made, and to take account of not just how the individual has lived, but how in general we should all live from what we know of the life. Yes, it is this imperative to learn from the life of another that makes a celebration so difficult to achieve and yet so necessary if only to try to capture the depth of the dreams and passions,. Still, as Biodun Jeyifo himself has set it, almost as a manifesto of interpretation, we must “seek to discover the truth in the lie and the lie in the truth” of a life that may not be as rounded as that of a character in a book but gives us intimations of roundedness. I suppose this is a very metaphysical problem: which does not become less problematic merely by our having found a name for it. It is this metaphysics that stands up for an interpreter who must be interpreted.

I want to provide a narrative of how he affected me when we first met before I take on the task of engaging his performance as a theorist who, I shall show set out to unriddle and secularize Soyinka’s animistic phases but has ended up providing a critical practice that may be best understood through the animistic tropes of Soyinka’s artistic productions. Hence my title Biodun Jeyifo: Denizen of the Fourth Stage.

Odia Ofeimun

Odia Ofeimun

I can only narrate what I know of Biodun Jeyifo’s practice in the field of African literature from a beginning that found him already a full grown man, a doctor of philosophy, striving very hard to look very ordinary on the campus of the University of Ibadan where I had just become a Post graduate student. I was an escapee from the Civil Service who had just realized, within a brief stint on the campus, that I had a preference for an intellectual life outside the institutional framework of the Ivory Tower. The paradox, which has taken me some time to resolve, is that I could not imagine myself with a sedentary life within the University but I was too painfully aware of the need to live within the philosophical norm which says that the uninterpreted life is not worth living. Therefore, I was generally drawn to those who were doing unusual things, novel and if you like sensational things with ideas that promised solutions to serious problems. The University was still a University in those days. Although all the fraying and stricturing that characterize today’s Academy were already obvious, knowledge had a premium in its own right. Any serious undergraduate in the University of Ibadan in those days would not be caught ignorant of or incapable of entering a caveat drawn against the existing state of society from such writings as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Kwame Nkrumah’s Africa Must Unite, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, C. Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination and Amilcar Cabral’s The Weapon of Theory.

There was a solid traditional knowledge base defended by such academic avatars as Billy Dudley in Political Science, Ojetunji Aboyade in Economics, Akin Mabogunje in Geography and Tamuno and Ikime in history. They had enough liberalism and self-assurance to stand up to the rather acerbic thrust of the new kids on the block, so to say, who were constantly interrogating them and seeking to entrench an alternative tradition. In the social sciences, Ola Oni and Bade Onimode, superintended over the education of a class of Nigerians who even if they deviated would never be the same again. Omafume Onoge was the first of the new voices in the Social Science Faculty who broke through the disciplinary stricture that had made literary studies the preserve of the Arts Faculty. His work was a refreshingly destabilizing factor against the moribund demarcations that had made the interdisciplinary work of Okwudiba Nnoli at Nsukka and Bala Usman and Mahmud Tukur at Ahmadu Bello University appear more than revolutionary. I was an excited fan of the flash of creativity which drew literary studies and the social sciences into a common conspiracy against old ways of handling knowledge. Or better to put it this way, that on a personal level, I found literature and the discussion of creative writing so much more fascinating than was allowed by the sometimes arcane lingo of the social sciences.

The clear indifference of the syllabus of the social sciences to the literary arts had made my education appear like a deviation from my true nature and the seamless conception of knowledge which led me to the University in the first case. Even more, I was disappointed at the absence in English Studies of sustained engagement with those seminal if trenchant ideas that I considered the wave of the future. If social science education was incomplete without literary studies, literary studies outside the impingement of the social sciences, of political philosophy and sociology amounted, in my view, to giving a very schizoid image to the University as a knowledge factory. My disappointment would have been irredeemable but for my encounter with teachers like Richard Joseph of Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria and Sam Nolutshungu who in discourses of political parties and questions of insurgency and counter insurgency brought in light that only literature in its immersion in the lived experiences of society could project. Even they like Omafume Onoge were too social science-centred to break the disciplinary bind. Thus, you can understand my excitement when I encountered the group of radical idealists, yes, that’s what they were, who were burrowing from the fringe of the dominant Ideologies in the University but were gradually chalking up territory if not taking over and shaking up the cultural climate of the campus.

Biodun Jeyifo was a prime mover in this group which was made up, in its full dress, of himself, Kole Omotoso, Femi Osofisan, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, GG Darah and from the department of Economics, John Ohiorenuan, and into which I was assimilated. The message of the group was new. They had the temerity to display, and to normalize, in the Faculty of Arts the kind of inveterate theorizing that was once associated only with the chaps in the Social Sciences. They brought ideology, politics that is, and philosophy into the reading of literary texts in ways that was becoming the norm in the global Academy but was only just scratching the lamppost beside iron gates locked against such ideas in the arts faculty. They made an open house of their commitment to Marxism whose dialectical thrust was taken as a key to praxis as the full realization of the weapon of theory. Before they became a group they were informally brought together by, I must say, their age brackets and shared educational backgrounds. As one of them Femi Osofisan would later describe them, “most of them had been born in the years of the Second World War, had come to adolescence in the so-called years of Independence and while still at school, witnessed the gradual collapse of the first post-independence civilian governments”. As compared to a preceding generation of writers, their elders, Osofisan tells us they were saddened . but not daunted, by these abortive beginnings. They had had the benefit of a much wider education and were more aware of the play of the exigencies of geopolitical forces”. Besides, “their sojourn in foreign countries , at a very impressionable period of their lives, left decisive imprints on their personalities. It opened their eyes to modernity and the wonders of a modern, industrial and technological economy. It weaned them off any inferiority complex vis-à-vis the white people, with whom they had shared the classrooms. (In fact, many of them returned with white spouses)” although it must be said that except for Yemi Ogunbiyi who returned with a native, Biodun Jeyifo and Kole Omotoso and John Ohiorenuan had returned with black but non-native spouses. GG Darah and myself were homemade graduates and bachelors. Naturally, there were differences between them in temperament, skills and general intellectual and academic orientation. John Ohiorenuan was an economist.

Kole Omotoso and Femi Osofisan were the artistes – novelist and dramatist respectively. BJ was the critic. But he was also the practitioner of the stage whose translation and adaptation of Rererun has not stopped crying for a revival. But, and this is the point I want to emphasize, the group came to be represented largely by what Biodun Jeyifo manifested in his ways as a radical intellectual. In his stripling boyishness, raggedy beards and very laconic life-style, one that could well be described today as marked by conspicuous under-consumption, he was a personification of the modal attributes that were believed to characterize the new radical. In those years before he moved from Ibadan to Ife, he had become among students at Symposia, at seminars and conferences so supremely identified with his professed ideology that it was inconceivable to see Biodun Jeyifo being referred to as someone from either a particular part of the country or with regular family relationships. It was with some feeling of grace that one discovered he came from a part of the Edo neck of the wood that simply has not be properly celebrated for producing incredible cultural philosophers, literary and art critics like Abiola Irele, Dan Izevhaye, Harry Garuba and Frank Aig-Imoukhuede. Biodun Jeyifo had the metaphoric cut of a prime-mover in his own right. He was like an itinerant principle of pure ideology whose acuity of mind and vision could be summoned only to high-minded discourses of the fate of whole populations and of the upliftment of the oppressed and repressed within it, rather than the mundane and demotic of everyday life.

BJ was particularly vibrant. His was a Marxism of a Fanonist stripe that went beyond Fanon and made commitment to dependency theory, and an Althuserian recourse to class theory a means for the enthronement of a worker-peasant class as the basis of eventual consolidation of Africa’s liberation. Almost single-handedly, it might be said, he gave the teaching of literature from a Marxist perspective its primary foundation in the University system across Nigeria The particulars should not delay us for now but he more than any other single individual brought into strategic academic discourses the engagement with theorists of the radical stripe ranging from Herbert Marcuse, Samir Amin, George Luckacs, Louis Athussier, Jean Paul Sartre, Simon de Beavoir, Amilcar Cabral and Regis Debray into respectability as factors in the literary arts. A very catholic sampling of the literatures of the world, with African writers and the writers of the Black Diaspora given a special place, was the underside of his Marxism.

Although I was never a member of any Marxist or Black Nationalist organizations or the other ones, the Black Oyinbo clubs, on the campus for existential reasons that I need not go into here, I allowed myself with a little prompting from Kole Omotoso to gravitate towards and to be coopted into the membership of the Positive Review, the organ of the the burgeoning radical tradition that BJ so conscientiously personified. Unfortunately, the journal soon suffered from the abiku syndrome of all such journals in search of answers to questions in our society. Only a few editions emerged before it collapsed. But it was such a promise of great things. I shall not pretend to be a fair narrator of what really happened to the journal because when I became Private Secretary to Obafemi Awolowo, leader-to-be of the Unity Party of Nigeria, I no longer fitted the ideological wicket of the group. It was said but not set down, as TS Eliot would have put it. I had moved on. As I hadn’t been such a great contributor to the journal beyond a few poems, whatever agreements I had or did not have with the position-taking, if any, of the journal, was deferred to an indeterminate future.

 Professors Biodun Jeyifo and Attahiru Jega

Professors Biodun Jeyifo and Attahiru Jega

In retrospect, what I recall is that BJ who was quite a moving spirit of the journal, was faithful to the modalities of the group as a collective. He was not seen as a leader. He was always the colleague and comrade who had a fervent handle on theoretical issues. He yielded to collective purposes whenever it came to the point. His was a voice to listen to because he articulated the collective position so thoroughly and rigorously well. The common stand demanded not only that knowledge should be democratized, but that Nigeria’s and Africa’s and the Third World’s dependence on the former but still very present colonial masters should be undermined in favour of genuine independence. This went with the caveat: that our society was not free from the unresolved class struggles that afflicted more industrialized societies of the world and that more attention needed to be paid to the processes of class formation and the implied robberies that affirmed class privilege, the consequent repression and exploitation of under-privileged classes of workers and peasants and the distorted processes of policy making which offset the emergence of genuine all-round development in society. The common Marxist point was taken to heart that it was not the understanding of society that mattered but the changes that the understanding enabled organized groups to achieve. This tack, expressed in so many still very elementary but gradually maturing performances, was to provide a nucleus, one of many such that needed to be taken from various communities and fused into a mass movement capable of changing an exploitative, neo-colonial society, to give full expression to the creativity of the masses.

Determined to reduce the arrogance of the professors, whose students over-reached themselves too often by criticizing and mounting demonstrations and protests against military authorities, the military administrations forced the academics to eat humble pie. It was dated by some maverick folklorist as beginning from the day General Yakubu Gowon took the cap from the head of Oritsejolomi Thomas, fully attired in academic gown, as Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan and proceeded to use it as a begging bowl to collect donations at a convocation fund-raiser. Soon enough came the trauma of the Professors being ordered to clear out of their secure abodes on campus for daring to go on strike.

The fierce Marxist afflatus of Biodun Jeyifo’s language was not simply limited to a class room stand-up performance. Although not enamoured of the popular media in the way that Kole Omotoso, the once and future practitioner of faction was, he developed quite a studious orientation towards linking the Academy to the masses through the popular media. The goal, consistent with his ideological orientation, was towards active participation in the organization of the masses that he wrote so much about. To those who would have thought that his highly elevated embroilment in Marxism could not be toned down from the height of his high theory, in the academic study of drama and dramaturgy, BJ literally re-jigged his image when he started writing newspaper articles under the pen name Bamako Jaji in the Daily Sketch. This would become a more full blown assaying of commitment to the popular media when he began to write for the Gaurdian and the weekly African Guardian. He went the extra-mile when he took to studying, and later published the book on, Travelling Theatres The Yoruba Popular Travelling Theatre of Nigeria.

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