Teju Cole is one of the big names of Nigerian literature. He practices his trade in the diaspora. Mr. Cole, who is Nigerian, is perhaps not as well-known in his fatherland, as Ms Chimamanda Adichie. Ms Adichie is, of course, something of a national sweetheart for Nigerians, literarily. But the two stars, we are told by folks who should know, shine in the same constellation.
Prof. Abiola Irele is also a big star of the Nigerian literary skies, at the criticism end. He is considered magisterial and is thus often listened to. He, too, plays in the diaspora though he made his name in Nigeria before his intellectual hegira to the United States. In a piece in The Guardian (18-12-16), The Cosmopolitan: Teju Cole and the New African Internationalism, Irele shaded Cole. He attempted to debunk Cole’s contention that Nigeria is a “hostile environment for the life of the mind.”
Irele anchored his take on Cole’s biographical work, One Day is for the Thief. For Irele, “In his memoir, One Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole remarks that Nigeria is a “hostile environment for the life of the mind.” This is a statement that I am sure will come back to haunt him.’’ Continuing Irele writes: ‘’We might observe that Teju Cole’s deprecatory view of Nigeria as a mindless and disorderly national community…. Bribery and robbery are the leading motifs of the account he offers of his visit… a background in which he was formed and which he now feels somehow obliged to disavow.’’
With all due respect to the professor, we canvass that, built on facts, it is Cole that is right and the professor wrong. Nigeria as it is is actually a hostile environment for the life of the mind and this is provable by several realities of our daily Nigerian lives. These few illustrations may help. However, let us state an axiom: For there to be a flourishing life of the mind, it is a collateral value that there must be a booming book trade and flourishing libraries to support it. And contrary to Irele, the truth doesn’t haunt artists, it is artists who must hunt and game the truth, especially the new truths.
Now, these are the reports of concerned intellectuals on the state of Nigerian bookshops and libraries. In Punch, 21-10-16, under a frightful title: Comatose Libraries and a Disappearing Nation, Prof. Ayo Olukotun writes: “At a minimum, the National Library must be saved from extinction by redeeming it from its current prostrate circumstances. All it requires is a reset of priorities in such a way that money spent on projects of doubtful value be redirected to saving the institution. Finally, as argued, there is the urgent need to re-institute a culture of library use, by revitalising the reading culture, while the libraries themselves should be recrafted by inserting them in social and economic activities that can replenish them.’’
As if the matter was not tragic enough, Martins Oloja, an editor with The Guardian, recollects on a certain visit, “I returned to my alma mater… I was impressed by the university’s physical environment I toured… But at the end… the University of Lagos Bookshop that I explored for two and half hours depressed me a great deal… I was really shocked that the Great University of Lagos bookshop couldn’t maintain more than one floor of bookshelves that no scholar anywhere could be proud of. As a collector of good books, classical and modern, I paced up and down looking for great books… I was moved to tears… In all modesty, I did not find any good books to produce leaders of tomorrow in journalism, engineering, philosophy, political science, business administration, accounting, computer science, law, education, etc.’’ The University Of Lagos Bookshop I Saw, by Martins Oloja, The Guardian, 29-10-16
And the jeremiad continued. Yet the signs of the rot are not finished. In a 10-11-16 The Nation report with yet another frightful title, A Legacy in Ruins, was this intro: “Sagging ceiling, shattered windows and defaced walls. These are the lot of the 58-year-old Enugu State Central Library. The legacy structure is in ruins. The library is battling with antiquated academic materials and decaying infrastructure that are giving users unpleasant experience.”
Now as can be ascertained, there are no libraries worth the name, no bookshops in the real sense of the word, so where is the friendly environment for intellectual reflections or artistic creations? [If the National Library is gone and a university bookshop is comatose, these are symptoms enough that all is rotten in the kingdom of thinking in Nigeria.]
Thus a point is implied, even if not explicit. If Nigerians or just any people are a thinking people, the tools of the thinkers’ trade, libraries and books, will be in good and excellent repair and will be inspirational. So, if for whatever reason they are not, it simply follows that nobody is thinking or that the environment won’t let it happen. And the two are essentially one or lead to the same things.
If the above are about the infrastructural or hardware proof, then let us take up the matter of software or cognitive evidence and proof. About 30 years ago Prof. Chinua Achebe wrote one of his many influential books, The Trouble with Nigeria. In it the venerable sage conjectured that what was holding Nigerians back were the leaders. And like wildfire, the idea raged and was burnt into our shattered hearts. Today, that assertion is perhaps the only quasi-mythical falsehood, a majority of Nigerians are united in across the geopolitical zones.
The point is simple. If for any reasons Achebe’s contention is true, a question is indicated. This is because in more than a 30-year span we have not been able to produce the so-called messiah-leader Achebe prognosticated about. Now, for a people who think, immediately any theory is tested and is not realised, specific or general questions are raised on its validity. So it was ordinarily indicated that after 30 years of wandering in the wilderness of bad leadership and finding no escape routes, the question should be asked, how do we get great or messiah leaders? Or the corollary, why have we not found one?
Now, this would have been a goldmine for any academic who had earlier argued that we are trapped in the bad leadership quagmire. Yet every single public intellectual or journalist who had canvassed the Achebe thesis kept his or her certainty and peace, happy like the ogbonis, in their dignified ignorance. For them that was the end of scholarship and the matter. It was a question of having an answer that could not be questioned. So, knowledge, for them, was clearly a quasi-religious rite, a detail in belief.
But former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who by the way is only a politician, has beaten our public intellectuals and academics to it. He reportedly questioned: If the problem is just the operators [that is leadership], how come we have failed for 50 years to produce the right people?” Vanguard, December 12, 2016.
As far as we know, it is pretty unusual to find scholars being led or blindsided by mere politicians even when they come in the guise of vice presidents like Atiku. And if you recall that politicians, due to the nature of their trade, are blockheads, the greed for power is anti-cognitive, then one may imagine our dangern as a people, as a nation. Perhaps, it is that politicians command more brain power than scholars in Nigeria?
And this is not the first time it is happening. In my latest book How and Why the Yoruba Fought and Lost the Biafra Nigeria Civil War, I wrote: “At least one courageous man amidst them, ‘a common soldier,’ is shaming [Yoruba] scholars and speaking up. General Alani Akinrinade in this may not have turned full circle, but that is a beginning. It is far better than the position and postulations of journalists and cultural ambassadors like Soyinka who wish to speak with water in their mouths.”
It is really troubling that, in matters cognitive reasoning, it is common people in the guise of leaders, politicians, soldiers, tired and retired, who are leading scholars. It is the worst form of self-obsolescence or perhaps rightsizing. The truth is that Professors Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, etc. are great souls. They are perhaps in the class of Homer. And we are their understudies. However, whenever and wherever they get things wrong, we should have courage to say so. It does not diminish them; it only promotes the truth, which is our greatest heritage. Together with the American physicist, Richard Feynman, we should rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.
The truth is that Achebe’s contention is simply wrong. And we as scholars should not be lame enough that politicians may overtake us. We should guide the nation; we should be the authors of the scripts of national and human development. The politicians at best are mere actors in our theatres. They may come but only after the fact.