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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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UK-Rwanda relocation plan for asylum seekers is a hot potato by Charles Onyango-Obbo

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In 2019, Rwanda agreed to take in hundreds of African immigrants held in horrid conditions in detention centres in Libya under an agreement with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the African Union.

There was applause.

In August 2021, as America’s 20-year-old military and state-building campaign in Afghanistan unravelled into chaos, in Africa —Rwanda and Uganda — agreed to take in Afghanistan refugees.

Among the Afghans who relocated to Rwanda, escaping the Taliban’s well-known hostility toward education for women, were all 250 students of the famed Afghanistan Leadership School (SOLA), Afghanistan’s only boarding school for girls.

There were cheers and extravagant praise for Rwanda and Uganda. Today, Rwanda hosts nearly 140,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Uganda, on the other hand, hosts 1.5 million refugees, making it the top refugee-hosting country in Africa.

In April this year, hell broke loose. The UK announced that it had a plan to send illegal asylum seekers to Rwanda, where they would either stay or move on to other countries.

The Boris Johnson government insists the programme is aimed at disrupting people-smuggling networks and deterring migrants from making the dangerous sea journey across the English Channel to England from France.

Critics have come out swinging with fury, calling the plan immoral, racist, and several arguing it is risky because several of the human rights found in liberal democracies are absent in Rwanda. This new “democracy test” for resettlement, has opened up a tricky window into the protection business.

The UK asylum affair, meanwhile, has muscled its way into the headlines about the Commonwealth Heads of Government (Chogm) meeting being held in Kigali.

The high emotions the UK-Rwanda asylum plan has kicked up, are a pointer to how complicated, immigration and refugee have come. There are several contradictory things that are both true at the same time.

If Donald Trump’s election victory in the US in 2016, and his turbulent racist-fuelled term tell us anything, it is that the western world has reached “peak” migration.

Uncomfortable to confront, but it is probably no longer sustainable for, especially, people from the south to continue emigrating and fleeing to the West in large numbers. Domestically, the fear of people of colour “replacing” white communities is reaching a fever pitch, and fuelling extreme right-wing politics.

We’ve to grant it. The demographic make-up of the West is changing, and by the end of this century, white people will be minorities in nearly all the major European countries. Not too many people will take their disappearance with great fortitude.

For the western left and progressives, migration and the diverse nations it makes possible is where they see the future of their play in politics. For businesses, migrants provide a new pool of cheap labour, ensuring their profit in a world where China is eating their lunch. Things like the UK-Rwandan plan, do have long-term political and economic consequences.

Yet, that doesn’t explain why the resettlements of immigrants from Libya and Afghanistan in Africa weren’t attacked. The difference could be because Libya’s and Afghanistan’s crises are partly outcomes of western — NATO and the US — interventions that went horribly wrong. The repatriations are a much-needed clean-up of the mess — and there is some consensus of the western left and right on that.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3

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Tanko Muhammad, Ekweremadu and health of Nigeria by Suyi Ayodele

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What happened to the Nigerian judiciary under the now retired Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, is a symptom of an ailing nation. We must all come to admit that Nigeria is a country that needs moral transplant. Who will be the donor is what we don’t know. That the aeroplane-driving CJN retired after his “brother justices” accused him of misconduct is never news to celebrate. The resignation itself is never a part of the diagnosis of what ails the country. And I sincerely do hope that the General Muhammadu Buhari administration will not because of the belated retirement  roll out the drums to celebrate his tough stance on the fight against corruption!  The judiciary is expected to be the healthiest of the three arms of government. Its chronic illness under Tanko is a pointer to the general well being of the government in power. The undertakers should not be far away as their services may be required soon.

In Africa’s worldview, a healthy man is a wealthy man. The saying, “health is wealth,” underscores the importance human beings attach to sound health. Without sound health, man becomes useless. This is why sane countries of the world don’t play with their healthcare delivery. But it is not so in Nigeria, a country which prides itself as the “Giant of Africa”. By that sobriquet, one would expect that Nigeria would tower above other African countries in all ramifications of life. If you are wondering why we are this low in all aspects of life as a nation, just take a look at our health care delivery system. If Nigeria’s health is failing, or has failed, the citizenry cannot be healthy. For those who care to know, Nigeria is not just ill, it is terminally ill.

Some two years ago or so, I had the misfortune of rushing an ailing church member to the University of Benin Teaching Hospital, UBTH. At the close of service that fateful Sunday, a friend and I had planned to go out with our spouses. We drove out of the church premises and saw the ailing woman being aided to the road to get a taxi to the hospital. We picked her up in my friend’s car while I joined him and asked the women to use my own car. By Ehaekpen Road, the woman gave up the ghost in the car. But we continued the journey to the UBTH. At the Accident and Emergency section of the hospital, she was confirmed as BID (Brought In Dead). That was where our ordeal began. The relation in the car contacted other family members and agreed that the remains of the woman be deposited at the hospital’s morgue. To our utter embarrassment, UBTH had no BID form to take the woman’s profile and have her corpse deposited in the morgue. For over two hours, the corpse was left in our car. I had to ask one of the hospital attendants in charge to copy the information of a used BID form at the back of another used form and fill in for the dead woman. I knew then that we had bigger problems than anyone could imagine. If a teaching hospital, as big as the UBTH, had no ordinary BID form, one can imagine the state of the General Hospital at Afrikpo, or Balewa Village or at Itawure!

This is why, at the slightest discomfort of headache, the locust masquerading as our leaders jet out of Nigeria to seek medical help abroad. From personnel to equipment, infrastructure to medications, hospitals in Nigeria are killing fields. In his 2017 article titled: ‘Africa’s presidents keep going abroad for medical treatment rather than fixing healthcare at home,’ published in Qartz Africa, an online publication, Yomi Kazeem has this to say: “The preference for an international doctor’s appointment is steeped in irony as these leaders often make promises about improving local healthcare a central part of their campaigns while seeking office. But by looking beyond the continent for medical solutions, African leaders maintain a vicious cycle which keeps faith in public healthcare low while channeling substantial state resources to hospitals abroad rather than plug local healthcare gaps. In many African countries, this reality is all too apparent. According to the World Health Organisation estimates, with a shortage of 4.2 million health workers, Africa is the region with the world’s second-worst health worker shortage”. Zeroing down on Nigeria, Kazeem  quoted WHO as saying that: “In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the shortage  will be less severe if the health system could call on the services of the up to 15,000 Nigerian doctors estimated to be working outside the country. But there’s little motivation for doctors practising abroad to return home with crumbling infrastructure, lack of drugs and poor compensation.” If in 2017, we had 15,000 Nigerian medical doctors working outside the shores of the country, your guess is as good as mine on what the figure will be now.

Nothing, in recent time speaks to the parlous state of our healthcare delivery system more than last Thursday’s arrest of Senator Ike Ekweremadu and his wife, Beatrice, by the Metropolitan Police in far away United Kingdom. According to the reports of the arrest, the former deputy senate president was accused of trafficking a child to the UK for organ harvest and slavery. A statement issued by the Met police says “Beatrice Nwanneka Ekweremadu, 55 (10.9.66) of Nigeria is charged with conspiracy to arrange/facilitate travel of another person with a view to exploitation, namely organ harvesting. Ike Ekweremadu, 60 (12.05.62) of Nigeria is charged with conspiracy to arrange/facilitate travel of another person with a view to exploitation, namely organ harvesting. They have both been remanded in custody and will appear at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court later today. A child has been safeguarded and we are working closely with partners on continued support. As criminal proceedings are now under way we will not be providing further details”. Ever since, the senator’s team has responded to state that the alleged “organ harvest victim” is not a 15-year-old street lad, but a 22-year old adult who volunteered to donate one of his organs for Ekweremadu’s daughter, Sonia, who is having challenges with her kidney. My thrust here is not to probe into the veracity or otherwise of the claims that the supposed organ donor, David Nwamini Ukpo, was shipped to the UK legally. I would also not bother to interrogate whether Ukpo is on his own an opportunist, who, according to claims, when he realised that he would be shipped back to Nigeria after his organ failed to match that of Sonia,  decided to raise false alarms of abuse and what have you. No, my focus is why, in the first instance, Ekweremadu had to depend on a UK hospital for an organ transplant operation for his darling daughter.

The problem with the Enugu-born senator is the problem with all our political leaders in Nigeria. Like the saying goes: “all are thieves but he who is caught is the barawo”. For crying out loud, Ekweremadu has been in the corridors of power since the time lizards were few. He is a confirmed “omo ijoba” (government child). Two years before the advent of the current political disaster we call democratic governance, he was elected chairman of Aniri Local Government Area of Enugu State on the platform of the defunct United Nigeria Congress Party, UNCP. He was elected into the Senate in 2003 and was deputy Senate president for 12 years, beginning with the era of David Mark, through to Bukola Saraki. In his 19-year stay in the Senate, like his other political leeches feeding fat on our patrimony without a whim of concern for the common good, Ekweremadu did not see any reason why Nigeria should have well -equipped hospitals where ailments like organ failure of any shade could be treated. Unfortunately, Ekweremadu is not the only culprit in the league of Nigerian leaders engaged in medical tourism. The league, as we all know, is led by General Muhammadu Buhari, who holds the life trophy of spending 104 days at a stretch on a London hospital bed at our expense, with the presidential jet parked at Heathrow Airport, accumulating demurrage! When we add the BTA of his personal aides who accompanied him to the UK, Buhari will go down in history as the man who spent what could have built for the nation a decent hospital for the use of the people on a single medical trip abroad. So, when news of the arrest of Ike and Beatrice Ekweremadu filtered in, what easily came to my mind is the saying that when the head is rotten, the tail will be home for maggots! Cumulatively, an August 5, 2021 report by the Premium Times of Nigeria, puts the number of days General Buhari had spent on medical tourism to the UK at 200. You may wish to ask: did Buhari not talk about the parlous state of the nation’s health institution while seeking our votes in 2014? Did he not assure us that he would not go abroad for medical attention? Kazeem, quoted earlier, answers the posers.

That done, as humans, we may also wish to look at the desperation of the father-figure Ekweremadu presents as he seeks a medical solution to his ailing daughter’s health. There is a deep prayer among my people which says: “ki Oluwa ma fi ina omo jo wa” (May God not allow us to be scorched by the death of our child). This is where I believe that our thoughts should be with Miss Ekweremadu as she battles for survival at this critical moment. It is even more important for us to spare a moment of prayer for Sonia, now that the most important caregivers of her life, the parents, are in detention. The thought that her parents are locked up in cells in the UK because of her is devastating enough for the poor girl. While we have the assurance that, unlike what we have in Nigeria, the UK Government would not allow Sonia to be left unattended to, we cannot overemphasise the importance of the presence of her parents at this crucial  time. Again, that the Ekweremadus were picked up on their way to Turkey is an indication of how desperate they were to bring their daughter back to sound health. We may frown at the method employed to achieve that. We may interrogate why the replacement for the failing organ was not sourced within the family circles. In all that, we must have it at the back of our minds that every mother hen uses her back to shield her chicks from the ravenous hawk. We therefore call on the Almighty God, our Healer, to stretch His healing hands on Sonia and make this storm to pass. We pray that she surmounts this mountain before her and becomes useful to Nigerian society and humanity in general. We also pray that after this, every Ekweremadu in leadership in Nigeria will see the need to build up our health institutions and other decayed infrastructure in the country as doing so is also in their own interest. May Sonia live!

 

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