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Soyinka prize in illiteracy

On 13 July 2018, the 84th birthday of Olumo Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I honour him by revisiting a debate that is raging on the Internet over what many call my misreading of his work, especially with reference to my interpretation of his play, Death and King’s Horseman

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On 13 July 2018, the 84th birthday of Olumo Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Laureate for Literature, I honour him by revisiting a debate that is raging on the Internet over what many call my misreading of his work, especially with reference to my interpretation of his play, Death and King’s Horseman. Literary experts have been marvelling about the “Author’s Note” that accompanies Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka.

Most playwrights leave it to the directors and producers of the play to interpret it as they wish but Soyinka was worried that most experts were misreading the play. He took the unusual authoritarian step of stipulating how the play should be interpreted but the critics appear not to notice and have continued to misread the play, in my own humble opinion. Soyinka left clues that would guide readers to decode his original intention in writing the play but most literary critics miss the point and some accuse me of being the mis-reader.

The very first sentence in the author’s note may have led many critics astray by stating that the play is based on real historical “events which took place in Oyo”, which the author defined as “an ancient Yoruba city of Nigeria”. This is misleading in a number of ways that literary critics should have been able to understand. To say that the events took place in 1946 would be to localise the time and space of the dramatic events whereas in the world of theatre, events do not take place exclusively in the setting but also on every stage where the play is produced.

Soyinka expected that literary theorists would understand that the playscript is not simply an archival document or ethnographic report but the work of original creation even when based on real events.

The play was not expected to be read, as the verbatim report of a tragic case that took place once upon a time. This is true of all works of creative writing that are supposed to be inventive no matter how much resemblance there may be between fiction and reality. In fact, many writers include a disclaimer that that any resemblance to real events was unintentional. As a matter of fact, the same can be said about reality genres that are full of inventions too. Soyinka clearly stated in the first paragraph of his author’s note that he made “changes” in the narrative “in matters of detail, sequence and of course characterisation”.

He also informed the illiterate critics that he deliberately set the play back a few years “while the war was still on, for minor reasons of dramaturgy.” Here, Soyinka is guiding the would-be producer away from a simplistic historical interpretation of the play as being only relevant to the case of 1946 given that dramaturgy grants artistic license that defies the laws of historical specificity. In addition, Soyinka may have misled the interpreters of the play by saying that Oyo was an “ancient Yoruba city of Nigeria”. Here he could be challenged by historians who may point out that Oyo was an ancient Yoruba Empire and not simply a city and that by 1946, it was no longer simply a Yoruba city but a multicultural one.

Moreover, nothing “of Nigeria” can be said to be ancient because Nigeria itself is a modernist invention by colonisers. The hint about the Nigerian setting of the play should have encouraged the critics to understand that the play is not only about a Yoruba tragedy but about a Nigerian tragedy. The reference to “while the war was still on” should have massaged the memory of the critics to remind them that the play was published only five years after a tragic genocidal war in Nigeria in which Yoruba elites played a leading aggressive role along with other ethnic elites in Nigeria. This play, in my lay opinion, is better understood, as part of the soul-searching by Soyinka after he was released from solitary confinement for opposing the genocidal war against the Igbo. Why were highly educated Yoruba leaders the ones who cheered on the genocide against the Igbo in Biafra?

Also, Soyinka indicated that those who were interested only in the factual account of the case of 1946 should go and read it in the British National Archives in Kew. He also pointed out that those who wanted to read a more exact historical re-enactment of the case should consult the “fine play in Yoruba (Oba Waja) by Duro Ladipo”. In other words, Death and the King’s Horseman is not that kind of historical re-enactment nor is it the kind of “misbegotten’ German television film about the case. The play was a more urgent intervention while Soyinka was in exile following the end of the war and his release from solitary confinement for having the audacity to oppose tyranny. Unlike his other plays, he did not wait for the play to be produced before he published it. I believe that Soyinka was directly and indirectly challenging his fellow Nigerian intellectuals to account for their opportunism in supporting a genocidal war that took 3.1 million lives in 30 months.

In the third paragraph of the author’s note, Soyinka declared that the “bane of themes of this genre” is that once the text appears, “they acquire the facile tag of ‘clash of cultures’”. He rejected such a label as “prejudicial” in the sense that it is prone to “frequent misapplication” and also because the label “presupposes” a potential equality in every given situation between the cultures of the coloniser and the colonised “on the actual soil of the latter”. Soyinka went on to award “the overseas prize in illiteracy and mental conditioning” to the writer of the blurb of the American edition of his novel, Season of Anomy, for “unblushingly” stating that the novel is about the “clash between old values and new ways, between western methods and African traditions”.

Soyinka explained that it is due to “this kind of perverse mentality” that he was forced to warn future producers (and critics) of the play to avoid “a sadly familiar reductionist tendency” and instead attempt to capture the “the far more difficult and risky task of eliciting the play’s threnodic essence.” Experts on the work of Soyinka are baffled by this injunction and wonder openly what he was banging on about? What is Soyinka trying to hide? He was trying to reveal something.

I offer the original interpretation that Soyinka was referring to the genocide against the Igbo which was the theme of the novel that he referred to, Season of Anomy, in which he recounted the eye-witness account of how fellow Nigerians hunted down tens of thousands of innocent Igbo men, women and children and massacred them in a pogrom that led to the secession of the Eastern region and the intensification of the genocide. In that novel, he mocked the archaeologists for poking around in search of fossilised bones while fresh blood flowed like river in the country and they did not seem to be bothered.

He also challenged the sociologists who came with “erudite irrelevances” about marriage and divorce but refused to join him in opposing a genocidal war. The novel depicted the Marxists who were locked up in a mental asylum as phrase-mongers who failed to recognise the revolutionary situation in the country and instead rallied in support of the genocidal military dictatorship rather than turn the civil war into a liberation war. To suggest that the novel was about the clash of cultures was a strategy to condition the mentality of Nigerian intellectuals towards the acceptance of the propaganda that the Igbo who led the struggle for decolonisation were primitive tribalists perhaps because they had no chiefs while the ethnic groups that ganged up against them were more civilised because they were monarchical, according to the ideologues of colonial domination.

Walter Rodney also observed that to call the genocide against the Igbo a tribal war would be to call Shell BP a tribe (along with the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) and Ikenna Nzimiro argued that the Marxists in Biafra were engaged in class struggles. The “threnodic essence” of the play refers to funeral songs in Greek tragedies and I believe that Soyinka was inviting the producers of the play to imagine a national mourning for the 3.1 million killed in Biafra that the country has refused to mourn. Agwuncha Arthur Nwankwo has been calling for a National Day of Igbo Mourning to be recognised by the Nigerian government as part of the atonement.

In the final paragraph of the author’s note, Soyinka observed that an alternative structuralist interpretation of the play is to see it as a cruel joke on the British colonial District Officer. He quickly dismissed such a reading as distasteful and added that he deliberately avoided writing dialogue or scenes that would support such a misinterpretation. He dictated that, “No attempt should be made in production to suggest it”. This sounds like an angry response to critics who choose to misread his works for ideological reasons while ignoring the concrete conditions that his works address.

A prominent Marxist literary theorist that I admire, Biodun Jeyifo, who is an expert on the work of Soyinka, was invited by the British Broadcasting Corporation to write about any work of literature that he saw as being representative of the global culture. He chose to write beautifully about Death and the King’s Horseman, as an anti-colonial play that tried to subvert the use of the Queen’s English by creating a “future” tradition of the Anglophone that was more figurative than the English language.

He invoked the work of Marxist cultural studies by Raymond Williams and by Stuart Hall to suggest that the other Englishes around the world serve to subvert the domination of the world by Standard English. I pointed out that his interpretation is too superficial for a Marxist because the “thredonic essence” of the play was not to show that Africans could speak English better than the English. I suggested that a cultural studies reading of the play would not have focused exclusively on the beautiful writing or language of the play but would have tried to see the challenge to monarchism and oppressive traditions in the play.

Jeyifo told me privately that I should go and read the play again because it is not against the monarchy or against ritual suicide but simply against the colonial domination of African cultures. I admitted that I could be accused of misreading the play but I called it a strategic misreading and wondered if it is possible for an expert on the work of Soyinka to misread it. Soyinka seems to think so and that is the whole point of his detailed telling off of the experts in his author’s note.

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Contrary to the claim that Death and the King’s Horseman is only an anti-colonial play, Soyinka concluded his author’s note by stating that, “The Colonial Factor is an incident, a catalytic incident merely.” To him, the central “confrontation” or conflict that he tried to resolve in the play was “metaphysical” in the sense that it played out in the world of “the Yoruba mind – the world of the living, the dead and the unborn, and the numinous passages which links all: transition”.

Soyinka was puzzling about the metaphysics of the Yoruba worldview that made it possible for the best educated characters in the play to be the ones who cheered most vociferously for Elesin to abide by the tradition that expected him to kill himself in honour of a dead king. Similarly, Soyinka was wondering why the best educated Yoruba were the cheer-leaders of the genocide against the Igbo. Soyinka advised producers to try and capture this tragedy by using music to represent the macabre dance to the “music from the abyss” by the intellectuals who danced while millions were being slaughtered in Biafra.

I am not an expert in dramaturgy but I love the work of Soyinka. I cited his essay on Neo-Tarzanism in my criticism of the film, Black Panther, which I called an example of neo-Tarzanism. Following the serialisation of the criticism, I was invited by the KPFK public radio in Los Angeles to discuss the film with an Ethiopian publisher and an African American director of the Pan African Film Festival. During the discussion, the Ethiopian said that we should not condemn the presence of monarchies in Africa because there were popular emperors such as Mansa Musa and Haile Selessie who were admired by Africans and by the African diaspora.

The director of the Pan African Film Festival questioned my reference to Soyinka because he saw Death and the King’s Horseman as an indication that Soyinka was a monarchist who supported even the tradition that the horseman should commit suicide to honour the dead king. As Killmonger asked derisively in the film, I asked, this is your king? I stated that Soyinka used that play and almost every play of his to undermine the institution of the monarchy and call for democracy, which he is on record as admiring in Igbo culture. He spared the life of the Horseman in the play and his other tragedies – Kongi’s Harvest, Madmen and Specialists, King Babu; his novels, his poetry and his memoirs all support my interpretation of his anti-monarchical orientation.

Since the experts who have studied his work have focused almost exclusively on the structuralism, I propose to offer a post-structuralist or deconstruction radicalisation of his body of work to show that the tragedy of the state violence especially against the Igbo is at the centre of the conflicts that he has been trying to resolve. Just as the genocidal war was waged without a cease fire for humanitarian interventions, the author coincidentally instructs on page 8 of Death and the King’s Horseman that “The play should run without an interval.”

I agree with critics who will charge that I am misreading Soyinka here. If so, I will admit to a strategic misreading that is necessitated by placing the text within the context of a recent history of trauma that the author did not simply witness as a bystander but one in which he actively tried to stop the genocide and earned himself solitary confinement without trial. Sociologists approach the work of writers by taking into consideration, the context of the private and the public lives of the authors whereas literary theorists may concentrate exclusively on the technical, language, or structural aspects of the script as instructed by T.S. Eliot in his foundational essay, Tradition and Individual Talent.

What I am offering is a sociology of literature interpretation of Soyinka and I am certain that the rebel in him may force him to disagree with my interpretation and award me a national illiteracy prize. I am not contending that all existing interpretations of Soyinka are wrong. I am only saying that there is something missing in the community of Soyinka interpretations and I contend that what is neglected by critics is not minor but a central aspect of his work – his self-sacrificial opposition to the Igbo genocide in particular as a foundational part of his oppositional aesthetics in the face of tyranny.

Commentator: Biko Agozino.
He is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, United States of America.

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Strictly Personal

Air Peace, capitalism and national interest, By Dakuku Peterside

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Nigerian corporate influence and that of the West continue to collide. The rationale is straightforward: whereas corporate activity in Europe and America is part of their larger local and foreign policy engagement, privately owned enterprises in Nigeria or commercial interests are not part of Nigeria’s foreign policy ecosystem, neither is there a strong culture of government support for privately owned enterprises’ expansion locally and internationally.

The relationship between Nigerian businesses and foreign policy is important to the national interest. When backing domestic Nigerian companies to compete on a worldwide scale, the government should see it as a lever to drive foreign policy, and national strategic interest, promote trade, enhance national security considerations, and minimize distortion in the domestic market as the foreign airlines were doing, boost GDP, create employment opportunities, and optimize corporate returns for the firms.

Admitted nations do not always interfere directly in their companies’ business and commercial dealings, and there are always exceptions. I can cite two areas of exception: military sales by companies because of their strategic implications and are, therefore, part of foreign and diplomatic policy and processes. The second is where the products or routes of a company have implications for foreign policy. Air Peace falls into the second category in the Lagos – London route.

Two events demonstrate an emerging trend that, if not checked, will disincentivize Nigerian firms from competing in the global marketplace. There are other notable examples, but I am using these two examples because they are very recent and ongoing, and they are typological representations of the need for Nigerian government backing and support for local companies that are playing in a very competitive international market dominated by big foreign companies whose governments are using all forms of foreign policies and diplomacy to support and sustain.

The first is Air Peace. It is the only Nigerian-owned aviation company playing globally and checkmating the dominance of foreign airlines. The most recent advance is the commencement of flights on the Lagos – London route. In Nigeria, foreign airlines are well-established and accustomed to a lack of rivalry, yet a free-market economy depends on the existence of competition. Nigeria has significantly larger airline profits per passenger than other comparable African nations. Insufficient competition has resulted in high ticket costs and poor service quality. It is precisely this jinx that Air Peace is attempting to break.

On March 30, 2024, Air Peace reciprocated the lopsided Bilateral Air Service Agreement, BASA, between Nigeria and the United Kingdom when the local airline began direct flight operations from Lagos to Gatwick Airport in London. This elicited several reactions from foreign airlines backed by their various sovereigns because of their strategic interest. A critical response is the commencement of a price war. Before the Air Peace entry, the price of international flight tickets on the Lagos-London route had soared to as much as N3.5 million for the  economy ticket. However, after Air Peace introduced a return economy class ticket priced at N1.2 million, foreign carriers like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Qatar Airways reduced their fares significantly to remain competitive.

In a price war, there is little the government can do. In an open-market competitive situation such as this, our government must not act in a manner that suggests it is antagonistic to foreign players and competitors. There must be an appearance of a level playing field. However, government owes Air Peace protection against foreign competitors backed by their home governments. This is in the overall interest of the Nigerian consumer of goods and services. Competition history in the airspace works where the Consumer Protection Authority in the host country is active. This is almost absent in Nigeria and it is a reason why foreign airlines have been arbitrary in pricing their tickets. Nigerian consumers are often at the mercy of these foreign firms who lack any vista of patriotism and are more inclined to protect the national interest of their governments and countries.

It would not be too much to expect Nigerian companies playing globally to benefit from the protection of the Nigerian government to limit influence peddling by foreign-owned companies. The success of Air Peace should enable a more competitive and sustainable market, allowing domestic players to grow their network and propel Nigeria to the forefront of international aviation.

The second is Proforce, a Nigerian-owned military hardware manufacturing firm active in Rwanda, Chad, Mali, Ghana, Niger, Burkina Faso, and South Sudan. Despite the growing capacity of Proforce in military hardware manufacturing, Nigeria entered two lopsided arrangements with two UAE firms to supply military equipment worth billions of dollars , respectively. Both deals are backed by the UAE government but executed by UAE firms.

These deals on a more extensive web are not unconnected with UAE’s national strategic interest. In pursuit of its strategic national interest, India is pushing Indian firms to supply military equipment to Nigeria. The Nigerian defence equipment market has seen weaker indigenous competitors driven out due to the combination of local manufacturers’ lack of competitive capacity and government patronage of Asian, European, and US firms in the defence equipment manufacturing sector. This is a misnomer and needs to be corrected.

Not only should our government be the primary customer of this firm if its products meet international standards, but it should also support and protect it from the harsh competitive realities of a challenging but strategic market directly linked to our national military procurement ecosystem. The ability to produce military hardware locally is significant to our defence strategy.

This firm and similar companies playing in this strategic defence area must be considered strategic and have a considerable place in Nigeria’s foreign policy calculations. Protecting Nigeria’s interests is the primary reason for our engagement in global diplomacy. The government must deliberately balance national interest with capacity and competence in military hardware purchases. It will not be too much to ask these foreign firms to partner with local companies so we can embed the technology transfer advantages.

Our government must create an environment that enables our local companies to compete globally and ply their trades in various countries. It should be part of the government’s overall economic, strategic growth agenda to identify areas or sectors in which Nigerian companies have a competitive advantage, especially in the sub-region and across Africa and support the companies in these sectors to advance and grow to dominate in  the African region with a view to competing globally. Government support in the form of incentives such as competitive grants ,tax credit for consumers ,low-interest capital, patronage, G2G business, operational support, and diplomatic lobbying, amongst others, will alter the competitive landscape. Governments  and key government agencies in the west retain the services of lobbying firms in pursuit of its strategic interest.

Nigerian firms’ competitiveness on a global scale can only be enhanced by the support of the Nigerian government. Foreign policy interests should be a key driver of Nigerian trade agreements. How does the Nigerian government support private companies to grow and compete globally? Is it intentionally mapping out growth areas and creating opportunities for Nigerian firms to maximize their potential? Is the government at the domestic level removing bottlenecks and impediments to private company growth, allowing a level playing field for these companies to compete with international companies?

Why is the government patronising foreign firms against local firms if their products are of similar value? Why are Nigerian consumers left to the hands of international companies in some sectors without the government actively supporting the growth of local firms to compete in those sectors? These questions merit honest answers. Nigerian national interest must be the driving factor for our foreign policies, which must cover the private sector, just as is the case with most developed countries. The new global capitalism is not a product of accident or chance; the government has choreographed and shaped it by using foreign policies to support and protect local firms competing globally. Nigeria must learn to do the same to build a strong economy with more jobs.

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Strictly Personal

This is chaos, not governance, and we must stop it, By Tee Ngugi

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The following are stories that have dominated mainstream media in recent times. Fake fertiliser and attempts by powerful politicians to kill the story. A nation of bribes, government ministries and corporations where the vice is so routine that it has the semblance of policy. Irregular spending of billions in Nairobi County.

 

Billions are spent in all countries on domestic and foreign travel. Grabbing of land belonging to state corporations, was a scam reminiscent of the Kanu era when even public toilets would be grabbed. Crisis in the health and education sectors.

 

Tribalism in hiring for state jobs. Return of construction in riparian lands and natural waterways. Relocation of major businesses because of high cost of power and heavy taxation. A tax regime that is so punitive, it squeezes life out of small businesses. Etc, ad nauseam.

 

To be fair, these stories of thievery, mismanagement, negligence, incompetence and greed have been present in all administrations since independence.

 

However, instead of the cynically-named “mama mboga” government reversing this gradual slide towards state failure, it is fuelling it.

 

Alternately, it’s campaigning for 2027 or gallivanting all over the world, evoking the legend of Emperor Nero playing the violin as Rome burned.

 

A government is run based on strict adherence to policies and laws. It appoints the most competent personnel, irrespective of tribe, to run efficient departments which have clear-cut goals.

 

It aligns education to its national vision. Its strategies to achieve food security should be driven by the best brains and guided by innovative policies. It enacts policies that attract investment and incentivize building of businesses. It treats any kind of thievery or negligence as sabotage.

 

Government is not a political party. Government officials should have nothing to do with political party matters. They should be so engaged in their government duties that they literally would not have time for party issues. Government jobs should not be used to reward girlfriends and cronies.

 

Government is exhausting work undertaken because of a passion to transform lives, not for the trappings of power. Government is not endless campaigning to win the next election. To his credit, Mwai Kibaki left party matters alone until he had to run for re-election.

 

We have corrupted the meaning of government. We have parliamentarians beholden to their tribes, not to ideas.

 

We have incompetent and corrupt judges. We have a civil service where you bribe to be served. Police take bribes to allow death traps on our roads. We have urban planners who plan nothing except how to line their pockets. We have regulatory agencies that regulate nothing, including the intake of their fat stomachs.

 

We have advisers who advise on which tenders should go to whom. There is no central organising ethos at the heart of government. There is no sense of national purpose. We have flurries of national activities, policies, legislation, appointments which don’t lead to meaningful growth. We just run on the same spot.

 

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator

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