In praise of Ancestor Worship

So, Grace Mugabe has said that should her husband die before the next election, he should stay on the ballot as a corpse. It’s not a bad idea, and it is keeping with ancestor worship, an aspect of our culture as Africans that we have for so long neglected, albeit never abandoned. Now that Grace Mugabe has put it on the table, it is something that needs to be explored in all African countries. In fact, it is in Southern Africa where this idea first needs to be applied; in South Africa where the African National Congress is struggling to field a candidate with charisma and character to revive its electoral fortunes, the answer is obvious – Nelson Mandela needs to be on the ballot, and if the ANC really wants to recover its radical bent, it should field Chris Hani. Further west, the revolutionary presiding spirit of Angola, Eduardo dos Santos should feel no need to step down, instead, he must wait till he is transformed by death into an ancestor, and can continue to benevolently supervise the development of his country. In West Africa, where the giant of Africa has suffered the travails of death and ill health plaguing the highest office in the land – our veneration of ancestors must be brought back into the field of politics; if during the political crisis of the Jonathan-Yaradua years we had the option of fielding Yaradua as a corpse, would the constitutional crisis have been so great? I think not. As it stands we can even take the idea further and schedule elections with no living candidates at all; for one thing, it would make electoral politics much cheaper, and might even give us a better connection to our history. How wonderful it would be if we could have Nkrumah, Awolowo, and Bouteflika (oh wait, he’s still alive) contest again – alongside their corpses we can also revive moribund political ideas, or at least justifiably allow them to remain in circulation. In truth, putting our political ancestors on the ballot papers all across the continent will save us the hardwork of reconciling our need to have more youthful and dynamic leadership to match our populations – with our long held respect for age – even when such aged persons have more years than sense.

How the Obamas expanded the language of American presidency – with dance

We’re all familiar with the language of American presidential campaigns, the symbolic rituals every candidate must make – kissing babies, high fives with joe average, and sympathetic listening to his wife. Even more familiar are we with the stump speech, and the 100 megawatt smile that communicate, pick me, I’m the best one to lead. Every successful American presidential candidate has had to balance the appearance of groundedness, being relatable, while conveying the gravitas expected from a future president of the United States. In the 20th century, the benchmark has been JFK, against whom every president is measured; after him, we had to wait another twenty years for that kind of liberal glamour, which Bill Clinton conveyed, though Raegan possessed a film star quality that was not easy to dismissed, despite being followed by a cold, conservative message. The Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison famously called Bill Clinton America’s ‘first black president’ saying “he displayed almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” Albeit in a context of negativity, where Clinton’s was symbolically being lynched, Morrison also suggested this was the first president to emerge from a recognisably black cultural milieu, Clinton was cool, he played the sax. Morrison later rowed back from the precision of her statement but the point still stands. After the Clinton era, George Bush’s folksiness was a definite throwback to the era of the president as ordinary guy; Bush, you could also say expanded the language of the presidency, if only by a continuous innovation in buffoonery and inadvertent comic language. Obama’s candidacy was always going to be different – being the first viable black candidate in a country still riven by racial divides required a deft political balance; that balance was almost derailed in the first campaign with the controversy over Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s comments.

But Obama was not only the first Black presidential candidate, but also the first African-American president, equally important with an African-American spouse whose story of struggle was and is more emblematic than his. So when it came to the symbolic language of the campaign and eventually the presidency, Obama and his wife, Michelle have channelled one of the most powerful symbolic aspects of African and African-American identity – dance. Dance, throughout African-American history has been an important aspect of African American cultural expression, often serving as the only outlet for social, political and cultural expression when access to the mainstream of society was barred. Notably, cultural dances such as the cakewalk were as much about enjoying the dance as they were about mocking white slave masters, and in more recent times, dances such as the Charleston, the twist, have all signified the emergence of African-Americans as an increasingly powerful social and political force in American society. So it should be no surprise that the first African-American president and first lady would draw on this cultural tool to inform and communicate during their presidency. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be taken for granted, given the way in which black bodies and identity are frequently policed to conform in spaces predominantly occupied by white power, it was never a given that this couple would feel so free to express themselves. Drawing on the language and history of African-American cultural dance, Michelle Obama used dance to underscore a message of health, and subtly conveyed the arrival of an African-American presence into the language of power in America; we need look no further than the fact that Hillary Clinton, during her presidential campaign sought to channel this language. For Obama, dance was a signifier of his cool, one more signal that this president was ‘black enough’ thank you very much.

Why Can’t They Apologize?

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with ambitions to be the most economically powerful country in it’s region, and Africa as a whole; Nigerians on the whole are quite proud of the putative power of Nigeria – and won’t hesitate to defend it’s potential to overtake South Africa, project its regional power or dominate the cultural scene; but you will rarely find any Nigerian who is an apologist for the Nigerian state or its representatives abroad. A few days ago, the reason why was spectacularly highlighted again when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported the story of a number of Nigerians caught out in Ontario when they arrived at the high commission to find that it was closed despite being issued appointments for that day.

The video makes for heartrending viewing, particularly when Kemi Ola, a Nigerian resident in London, Ontario describes the cost of her journey – she paid $300 for her ticket, more than her parents make, she said, and about the equivalent of her monthly rent.

There was allegedly no advance warning from the High Commission that it would be closed.

The story on Canadian television seems to have provoked a response from Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Canada and former Minster of Foreign Affairs, Ojo Maduekwe

Strikingly, what has provoked his ire is not the fact that some of his fellow citizens have been unduly inconvenienced and put out of pocket, in some cases by hundreds of dollars. No, the ambassador, and former minister castigates the affected individuals for ‘insulting their country of origin on international media’ – and astoundingly, not listening to explanations.

According to him, the embassy staff responsible for issuing visas were posted to Calgary on the same day as the affected individuals arrived; the high commission tried to explain this to them, Ambassador Maduekwe says, ‘but they didn’t listen to explanation.”

The entire incident begs the question: What is the ambassador smoking? He expects people who work (and in most cases probably immigrated for economic reasons) to travel by plane, train and car to arrive at an embassy to find it closed without explanation, but still willingly to listen to an explanation at the door. It’s as if the Internet revolution never happened. Tellingly, the ambassador says ‘the computer’ issued the appointments, as if his staff had no ability, and indeed responsibility for checking the appointments. Beyond the amusing incompetence of the matter, was the obvious distress for people trying to get access to somewhere and something that should ostensibly be a birthright; perhaps even more distressing was the vitriol with which one person interviewed said she would burn her Nigerian passport once she’s become Canadian. I recently spent an hour at a dinner trying to convince some family members to consider Nigeria as a viable place to live and visit; incidents like this do not help to dispel the negative perceptions many Nigerian diasporans hold.

The ambassador’s response displays the same lack of awareness of the reality of life for most Nigerians, whether at home or abroad that seems to characterise many (but by no means all) Nigerians in leadership positions; watching the video, the recurring question in my mind, and possibly most other viewers is, why can’t he apologize and ensure such an incident doesn’t happen again? Tellingly, not once did words of apology pass the ambassador’s lips. Instead, there was criticism of citizens who only exercised their rights to vent their frustrations through the media. It’s astounding that someone who has spent numerous years in government and state hasn’t developed sufficient grace to think he has to apologize, and it’s perhaps because underlying his perception of his role, is not the idea of service to Nigerian citizens (wherever they are) – but a defensiveness about some allegedly great country called Nigeria – which never makes mistakes, doesn’t have the word humility in its vocabulary and certainly must not be criticized; for even its basic failings are a state secret. Patriotism, someone smart once said, is the last refuge of the scoundrel, and it’s certainly the case in this case, that the embassy has behaved abominably, and the least it can do, is apologize, lest we find one day that this state will be bereft of citizens.

The Nazification of Nigeria – Or reflections on the meaning of bad and repressive laws

 On 7th January, the president of Nigeria’s fourth republic signed into law, a bill banning marriages between two people of the same sex; a law, in effect, banning a practice that did not in any legal sense already exist. More chilling, the law also banned the existence of any association of people presumed, or in fact, homosexual, or any organization that specifically supports Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual people at any level of society. I think with this law, we can now talk about the growing ‘nazification’ of Nigerian life. Unlike NAZI Germany, there is no explicitly articulated ideological agenda but there are striking parallels between Nigeria and Germany in the 1930s, as it moved into the dark night of the Nazi dictatorship. In both situations, there exists a political and social elite, and petit bourgeoisie that feels aggrieved by both imagined and actual humiliations by the Nation-States of the west. In Germany, it was the extremely humiliating experience of demilitarization and imposition of a war debt.

In Nigeria, the humiliations of colonialism, and the more recent impositions of structural adjustment programmes are not far from the surface in the national psyche. There is also the pressure cooker of class interests and rising equality in Nigeria today, and a visceral disagreement between progressive forces, and conservative ones eager to maintain the status quo. As in Germany, where Jews provided an easily scapegoated minority that could unify workers, the religiously conservative and the plain fearful, in Nigeria today, somebody, somewhere has identified lesbians and gays as the easy scapegoat for all the nation’s ills, being the bearers of AID, AIDs and of course, alien ‘western’ values. Of course, this parallel can be stretched too far, and I don’t want to do that. But there is a disturbing developing trend in Nigeria, and it doesn’t augur well for the country; the ideological climate of Nigeria today, what some might call the ‘Hegemonic Order’ is dominated by increasingly evangelical and fundamentalist groups and ‘groupthink’; a phenomenon that is shaping the Nigerian state in it’s image of a religious fundamentalist and theocratic state; a state that unable to provide the most basic of public goods resorts to a radical assertion of identity rooted in conservative interpretations of religious tenets, in this case, a Judeo-Christian one.

The claims of homosexuality being unbiblical (or against the Qur’an) are not very far removed from the accusation that fuelled anti-Semitism in Europe, the belief that the Jews murdered Christ; an accusation justified by scripture. While the Nigerian state and society will struggle to find a ‘final solution’ to what it considers its gay problem, not least, because science and reason point to sexuality being rooted both in genetics, and nurture, it will continue to scapegoat particular groups to maintain itself. And many people, desperate to feel they have some influence and attention from their governments, will find themselves confirmed in their prejudices.

Overwhelmingly, it is the poor, whether gay or not, who will bear the brunt of this hysteria and social madness in the Nigerian social order.

Nigeria’s same-sex marriage bill, particularly in its legislation against association is one manifestation of this developing order – and of greatest magnitude; however, the increasing constraining of public space as regards female morality as well indicates another disturbing trend, enforced by an appeal to religious doctrine and notions of fidelity to African tradition. It’s been long established that the irreligious, the atheists, and less fervent of believers in Nigeria usually have to maintain a diplomatic silence in the face of the barrage of religiosity espoused from the president downwards, yet it has never been acknowledged that this very religious bullying is part of a growing enclosure of the ‘national mental space’ – Nigeria’s groupthink is distinctly, rabidly religious, and crucially intolerant, even amongst its various conservatisms. However, they find a ready source of coalition in the existence of lesbians, gays and those who believe in the liberty of the individual.

Now, these religious and cultural positions are often articulated as the expression of the popular will, but they are more accurately the actions and ideology of the dominant group in Nigeria society; in particular, beleaguered politicians seeking public recognition by enacting ostensibly populist legislation, and evangelical leaders, be it Muslim or Christian encouraging particular views amongst their congregation in order to strengthen their economic hold on their congregation; the religious leadership of Nigerian society, particularly in it’s evangelical and fundamentalist guise is by and large, is part and parcel of the current political establishment. It blesses profligacy, theft, and inhumanity.

On top of that, given that Nigeria’s education system is so dire that the best educational institutions are in the hands of evangelical groups, and these institutions, as much as the dysfunctional state institutions of learning probably do not teach, or allow the space for any scientific teaching of ideas about sexuality, genetics and heritability. In the absence of knowledge, individuals rely upon myth, and sadly, misinformation. In this, there are obvious parallels with Germany in the 1940s; before the Jews could be killed, they were first and foremost dehumanized, just as happened closer to home in Rwanda in 1994.

A poll, conducted by NOI, a polling organisation based in Nigeria apparentlyshows that Nigerians overwhelmingly support the passage of the same-sex marriage law – but it may be asking the wrong question. If the poll asked whether individuals were happy for the state to have the right to arrest people for any consensual sex in their homes, it is likely the answer would be no; if you asked any average citizen if Nigerians should be free to advocate for what kind of society or country they want, the answer would probably be yes. If it isn’t, and a specific group is expected to be exempt of these rights, we would know that we are dealing with a sick society, similar in its canker to the United States before the great civil rights movement, or South Africa before the end of Apartheid, or indeed the United Kingdom before women won the vote and the argument of their equality.

The chilling fact is that all groups that perpetrate oppression and its ultimate results, physical and social murder – believe themselves to be righteous. We can look to Germany, Rwanda, France, and the United States for knowledge of where that led in the past. Homosexuals are of course perceived as less of a cultural group; in the minds of many Nigerians, they are probably closer to the disabled than a minority ethnic group. Yet even in that respect, following the logic of such people, the idea of imprisoning or punishing people for a disability should seem abhorrent to all people in Nigeria. Even if you were to presume gay people could be ‘cured’ – the idea of imposing a ‘cure’ on someone who refused for an illness that harmed no one should also seem abhorrent. It was an idea attractive to the worst scientists of the 20th century, and the Nazi state; a country like Nigeria, with its pretensions to leadership should step back before it reaches that edge of the precipice, and that can only be achieved by a vocal, coordinated liberal opposition to and a legal rescinding of this law, and others like it on the statute book, for those who forget the past are – always – doomed to repeat it.

Performing Leadership: Jonathan needs a new royal language

So Goodluck Jonathan gave a presidential media chat on Sunday– judging from the response on twitter, his performance was largely judged unsatisfactory, though some commentators were ready to defend the president’s performance. Nigeria’s president is one of the most powerful of executive leaeder’s on the African continent, being head not only of civil, but also the military government. His role is akin to that of a king. Maybe it is to royal behavior that Jonathan should turn now to learn how to respond to this crisis. Indeed, his behavior as a leader may be unconsciously conditioned by older, African cultural performances of leadership. In many of our pre-colonial societies, the power and presence of the king was so sacred that he or she did not appear in public and they certainly did not speak. This is certainly so for the Asantehene of Ghana, who has a special interlocutor, and is true perhaps of a few of the kings of the Yoruba as well. The Kings of Dahomey were identified not by their person but by hybrid human-animal representations that signified their mystic and royal power. So perhaps these values of not presenting yourself is what has conditioned our president to be so absent whilst there was a ferment of emotion building up for the return of up to 234 young girls abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Or perhaps, the government has just been trying to find the girls and announce their rescue triumphantly to an accompanying haze of media glory. Whatever the case, the performance of leadership has been misjudged and portrays a leadership operating below par, as so eloquently decried by Chimamanda Adichie.

Humility is often the greatest response we wish to see in people struck by grief, and Nigeria, perhaps in spite of itself, is grieving for these poor girls. At the very least, the president’s advisors should have told him that as Head of State he needed to be the person visiting and commiserating with the families of those who had lost children, and be seen as the mourner in chief. Secondly, he should have deftly, but authoritatively spoken to Nigeria, as a nation, and the world, as an audience, about the tragedy and it’s meaning for Nigeria.

He should have clarified that the girls abducted were just like his daughter, worthy of life, and deserving of respect. He should have told us in brief but bold terms what the army and his administration were doing to rescue the girls. And he could have addressed Boko Haram itself directly – in Hausa, the language in which its leader, at least communicates; not necessarily himself, but that would be better – even if, his pronunciation would be halting, or even rehearsed. Perhaps, if this was done it would assert two things – a national resolve to crush this movement, and a reclamation of the north as part of Nigeria, and it would speak directly to many both in the north and south who somehow believe this is an insurgency happening in a different country. Lastly, the President should have made it emphatically clear that Boko Haram is not a northern problem, a Christian problem or a Muslim problem – but a Nigerian problem. And he should have done all this directly – himself, on national television.

We are used to leaders on the global stage in moments of tragedy, seizing the moment to address their nations, and provide a unifying focus for grief and purpose. It seems our leaders do not understand this – but what does not bend must break. Only a decade ago, the British monarchy received a shock to its system from the emotional response of the UK and international public to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The stiff and formal model of stoic leadership emphasized by Elizabeth II, and the house of Windsor was forced to bend to a new culture of emotion, and the performance of grief.

The tragedy of the Chibok Girls, and the rage that has produced #BringBackOurGirls is also a demand for a leadership that publicly performs its connection to the public that ostensibly elected it. That is what Goodluck Jonathan missed in his Presidential media chat – he may have said sensible things, but his performance was three weeks too late, and billions of light years away from the mood of the nation.


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“Ben Okri is wrong about European and African literature’s greatness (and its relationship to form and subject”)

There’s much to chew on, but little to agree with in Ben Okri’s recent essay on greatness (or lack there of) in African and Black writing – much of the problems already eloquently addressed by Sofia Samatar in her rebuttal, but I wanted to drop my two pence into the debate, so here goes. Okri commits a fallacy when he suggests that work like the Iliad, the metamorphoses, and Shakespeare’s stories were not caught up in the themes and politics of their time. Shakespeare, we know, was an arch propagandist for the tudor court, giving us our until recently, altogether unsavoury impression of Richard the III. Similarly, metamorphoses are greek myths, taking place in a world of gods that would have been very real to the first people to hear of them; these were not necessarily (at least, not only) metaphorical interpretations of the world, but literally true ones as well. Europe, and the classical world that it seems Okri would like African writers to reside in does not get to escape the ever present artistic tension between representation and transcendence.

Of course, Okri’s suggestion is that it is a particular audience that refuses to let African writers transcend their subjects.That trap has only ever been in the minds of those unable to admit the full humanity of the African experience. This category sadly includes many Africans, as well as non-Africans. I have experienced the sublime in the writings of many a black and African writer including Toni Morrison, Bessie Head, and Ama Ata Aidoo; all their writings delve into suffering, but with the insight and transcendence of great writing. All great writing is obsessed with subject – the writing that transcends its immediate subject to tell us something about our common humanity is what all great literature is about, creating a false division between African writers and other writers is a disservice to all literature. Toni Morrison’s novels, Paradise, Sula and Song of Solomon, are exquisite novels not because of their subject, but because of their sublime language, the experimentation with the form of the novel.

That these works capture the experiences of black people neither makes them parochial nor time-limited. Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, one of the most beautifully written epistolary novels in history cannot be read purely for its subject, but for its invitation into the intimate world of women, it is a novel in which subject acts upon form, and form on subject. If its sensationalism that Okri objects to, this is hardly an original sin of African literature, we can think of the recent works of Martin Amis, Hillary Mantel amongst other writers, to see how grasping sensationalism may seize the hour but rarely carry the long day of literary memory. When Okri concedes that sometimes a great and enduring work may have an important subject, we come to the nub of the issue – the question of what will endure. The great subjects and dilemmas of our age and time are reflected as much in the pages of black and African writers, as much as others; which of these works will survive the judgement of time, is as Deng Xiaoping said when asked about the effects of the French revolution on China in 1979 – it is much too soon to tell.

Okri is deeply disingenuous to suggest any of the works he mentions have no rootedness in their time – Pushkin reflects the ennui of a bloated aristocracy; Tolstoy’s War and Peace, an exploration of the Napoleonic Wars, at the time, the defining experience of pan-European identity; Sophocles may write about a great king’s culpability, but it makes sense of Greek history. The point is that history is never separate from the mind of great and good writers, but form and language are the tools for making an enduring monument from temporal material.

The question is who reads black and African writers only for their subject? Here, Okri has a point – the writer in and of Africa has too often been in a shackle of perception; recently I was privy to a conversation where a certain up and coming American-Nigerian novelist who writes for The New Yorker, was told by a Nigerian reader of his, that he writes “like a white writer for a white audience”. His experimentation with form, language – and indeed, subject – had been zoned by his Nigerian reader into the realm of “whiteness” – there certainly was no space for the consideration that the complexity of the work could be an African perspective. Ultimately, Okri’s point is about the gaze that is set upon African literature, and that gaze is predominantly white and western. Perhaps as the importance and dominance of the “white and/or western gaze” diminishes, African writers will be celebrated for their formal and transcendent qualities as well as their subjects. When that happens, I suspect a few of Okri’s ‘enduring’ works may very well be toppled from their venerated spots, being too pre-occupied with the subject of European experience.