My deaf daughter would have wasted away in Nigeria – Niyi Osundare

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My deaf daughter would have wasted away in Nigeria
 02.Sep.2014

Niyi Osundare is a distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of New Orleans. He is equally a celebrated poet, essayist and humanist. In this interview by KEHINDE OYETIMI and RITA OKONOBOH, he speaks on his frustrations with Nigeria, the 2015 general election, among others. Excerpts:

You live and work outside Nigeria but you keep a tab on Nigeria. You come home when you get the opportunity. Why do you do this repeatedly?

Let me begin with the obvious: Nigeria is my country and my home. I didn’t leave this country to live elsewhere until I was 50 years of age in 1997. My family and I had to go for certain reasons. The United States of America came to our rescue at a time we were desperate about the educational and health situation of our daughter. Today that young lady is taking full advantage of the generous facilities provided by the US for people with her kind of challenge. If we had kept her in Nigeria, she would have wasted away. This country cannot take care of the able-bodied, let alone those with special needs.

In the past 17 years, I have been shuttling between the United States and here. The University of New Orleans extended its hand of assistance when I needed it most by providing me a job and a conducive professional (and personal) environment. When I arrived at the university in August 1997, my colleagues made me feel at home; some of them even contributed furniture for our small apartment near the university. And ever since, they’ve shown their appreciation of my humble contributions to the growth and development of the university. Thus, about two years ago I was selected as Distinguished Professor, about the highest academic honour the university bestows.

Needless to say, the US provides a much more conducive environment for scholarship and creative work. The things you need are there: well stocked libraries and book stores; state-of-the-art laboratories, ubiquitous internet service, and uninterrupted power supply. The terrible irony about our situation in Africa is that most of the time, if you want to do authentic research about African literature, you have to go abroad. Yes, the University of Wisconsin, for example, has more research resources/archives on Nigerian writers than any of our universities in Nigeria. The developed countries of the world know that the reason they keep leading the world is because they respect ideas: the generation of ideas, the sustenance of ideas, the interrogation of ideas, and the consolidation of ideas. They know that investment in education opens the door to the future. Our society here doesn’t have such facilities or such an attitude.

Ours is a society in a process of regressive illiteracy. It is amazing. This country used to be much more literate. It used to have universities that devoted a large chunk of money to research. When I started teaching at the University of Ibadan in the 1970’s, we had research funds and these funds were allocated every year. There were also conference funds. All these things existed until the 1980’s when General Babangida introduced his Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), the Nigerian spirit was sapped and our educational system began to nosedive.

So, the US has virtually all the things you need to function as a scholar/writer. However, Nigeria provides that sense of place, that sense of home that may be difficult to feel or achieve abroad. To put it frankly, America swallows you up as an immigrant the way you are not likely to be swallowed up in a country like Nigeria. As I’ve often said, it’s good to have a place in the world where you do not have to spell your name all the time, a place where as a poet, you begin a song/proverb and your audience completes it with you. That aspect of human touch is important, that spontaneous sense of community. On another plane, I also feel more comfortable being part of the building squad rather than a lucky inheritor of a mansion already built and furnished by others.

Unfortunately, Nigeria is a country whose praise you cannot sing without sounding like a masochist. I am angry with Nigeria because we are not where we should be. I am angry with our rulers because they have not aspired to be leaders. They have no vision; they are callous; they are corrupt. They do not respect the citizens of this country. I am also becoming increasingly angry at the ruled, at the people of this country, for our endless, almost mule-like toleration of injustice, of oppression. But I also know that anger which is too overwhelming could become disabling. I belong to the school of those who profess regenerative anger, the kind that is never at peace with injustice and other assaults on human dignity. It is not just anger for its own sake. I don’t just shout at darkness. I try to light a candle. There is a lot of work to be done in our country.

Many academics, like you, left Nigeria in anger following the misrule in the country. In specific terms what can the government do to get it right?

Point of correction: I didn’t leave Nigeria as a result of anger. I left for family reasons, as I’ve said above. In a manner of speaking, I have left without leaving.

Now to your question: what can be done? Indeed, a very large question to which I can only give a short answer here: BRING BACK OUR COUNTRY by giving education the priority it deserves. Fund it adequately and consistently from elementary to tertiary level. Improve the quality of teachers through teacher-training and staff development programmes. Give the teacher back her/his sense of pride and self-worth by paying them the kind of wages that will give them a decent life. Make the learning environment human-friendly by refurbishing dilapidated school buildings and putting learning tools in place. Put an end to the proliferation of universities which are mere ‘Miracle Centres’ for the spread of illiteracy. Re-order our value system. Make education matter once again by ensuring high standards and providing employment for products of the school system. Eliminate MEDIOCRITY. Bring back the old virtues of thoroughness and assiduity. Improve the work ethic: demolish the ise-kekere-owo-nlanla (little-work-big-money) mentality. Ensure the provision of reliable power supply, water, healthcare, decent housing, safe transportation….. And, above all, adequate security.

In case you consider all this a pipe dream, let me tell you that there was a time Nigeria enjoyed something very, very close to these ideals. That was in the 1940’s and 1950’s and 1960’s and early 1970’s – those golden years that produced the kind of education that made it possible for Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka to write Things Fall Apart and A Dance of the Forests, respectively, in their mid-twenties!   Above all – and most important – overhaul Nigeria’s socio-economic and political systems. Kill corruption which concentrates the nation’s resources in the wrong hands for the wrong purpose. Insist on the right kind of leaders – cultivated women and men deep in learning and humanism, with adequate control over the appetites, people who know the true value of education as a sine qua non in national development. Leaders who combine the best of Nkrumah, Awolowo, and Mandela whose vision and action are a blessing to humanity.

With the state of terrorism and insecurity in the country, don’t you think development would be difficult in other areas of Nigeria’s national life?

What happens when you live in a country whose government cannot protect you? Our government here is telling us ‘terrorism is everywhere in the world; so don’t blame me.’ No. We know terrorism is a global scourge but different governments have different ways of responding to it. Who could have believed that anybody in the world could get Osama Bin Laden? America got him. It hasn’t stopped the spate of terrorism against America but you know that as a terrorist today if you do anything to an American citizen there would be a consequence. Again, I say, Nigerians are orphans. We have nobody to protect us. This is what has always happened. Those who rule us are only interested in their own personal welfare: money, power and how to abuse them. We, the Nigerian people, are the last on their priority list. They don’t even remember us during elections. All they are interested in are the ballot boxes and how to rig the polls. They are not interested in the voters; they are only interested in the votes. We live in a country where rulers have not the tiniest bit of respect for the ruled.

The Chibok episode has really exposed the weak underbelly of the Nigerian government. It has made us so ridiculous. I love this country but I decry its fatal flaws, its murderous weaknesses. I am embarrassed as a citizen of this country that the Chibok kidnap caught us so sheepishly, so unawares. My heart bleeds every day as I remember what is happening to those over 200 students who were taken away almost 120 days ago. I have never stopped feeling as if I were their parents… For the first two weeks, the Nigerian government was in a state of denial, and all kinds of conspiracy theories were being bandied all over the place. But foreign governments were not deceived. The people of the world were not deceived. Their BRING BACK OUR GIRLS Harsh-Tag campaign stung the Nigerian government into action. America got interested. So did the UK. And France. Even China.

Let’s be humble enough to learn from our adversaries. What has emerged in the last two years or so is that Boko Haram is more organised, more focused, more committed than the Nigerian army. There are certain virtues in Boko Haram that the larger Nigerian government lacks: Loyalty. Accountability. Answerability. There is a fatal affliction of the Nigerian nation whose symptoms have not bedevilled Boko Haram yet: corruption. Corruption is at the root of the Boko Haram problem. Boko Haram understands this country. It knows that many of those who control the fate of Nigeria are as buyable as merchandise on the open market. I suspect this weakness is no secret to the foreign governments either. I don’t know how willing some of the foreign experts are to share their intelligence findings with their Nigerian counterparts.   The Nigerian security system is extremely porous, unreliable, and untrustable. It is a victim of innumerable vulnerabilities.

The national confab has come to a close. Do you think that its recommendations should be subject to a referendum or an overhauling of the existing constitution?

The confab boasted some of our best brains. Let us give them their due. Many of them went there to serve their country and contribute their own quota – as the saying goes. Many of the participants are there for patriotic reasons. But what I really have problems with is the intent of the government.

As far as I’m concerned, the highlights were the debate about the nature of Nigerian federalism, the issue of state police, revenue derivation and revenue sharing, and the matter of part-time parliamentary representation. (Those clamouring for the creation of additional states at this time are merely trying to muddy up the water, as many of the existing states are on financial life support!)

Should the mode of our parliamentary representation be full time or part time? That is crucial. At the moment, our lawmakers whether they like it or not constitute the most irresponsible drain on the resources of this country. They know it. We don’t even know how many millions they take home in a month, or what they do with their excessive Constituent Allowances. All I know is that the money we have in this country is finite. If care is not taken, Nigeria is going to get bankrupt from the excesses at Asokoro. What laws are the law makers making? How have they impacted the lives of the Nigerian people? The profligacy at Asokoro is replicated down the legislative pecking order involving the state assemblies and the local governments

Those members of the confab that recommended part time legislation did this country a lot of good. I have always stressed the need to de-monetise our political system. At the moment, majority of our politicians are in politics for the money not because they want to serve. If things go on at the present rate, maintenance of our law makers will bankrupt Nigeria. It is in the interest of both parties that something be done about the present prodigal practice. Too much money chasing too little substance.. . . . . . I think it will be a little untidy to go through a referendum because we are dealing with so many issues at the same time. Referenda are best when they deal with one or two issues. We are still a proto-literate society. Even many of our legislators are not literate enough to handle sophisticated bills. I’m not sure a referendum would work. Doing something about the constitution is a credible alternative. Right now we don’t have a constitution made by the Nigerian people. It was the military that concocted the present constitution and they made sure that they injected the constitution with their own interest. The Nigerian constitution as we have it now is not workable. It cannot produce a just and egalitarian society that we have been talking about. A new constitution is necessary and it is not going to be a constitution that will be framed and constructed in Abuja and foisted upon all of us. It will have to go from the bottom up. Not from the top down .. . . . So I cast my lot with the constitution overhaul option.

You live in the United States of America where gay relations have been largely legalised. But the US is threatening to sanction Nigeria following the latter’s enactment of anti-gay laws. As an African, how do you confront this in such climes?

Not just as an African but as a human being. People come to this world without having had   the power to choose who to be, or who to be not; what kind of preference to embrace, and which to shun. I have a deaf daughter. Did she choose to be born deaf? No. I know people who have no sense of smell. Did they choose to come that way? No. We have to admit that there are so many people who do not have control over their biology. It is not just the liberal way of looking at the issue; it is also the logical way.

In some countries in Africa, to be gay is to carry a permanent , ubiquitous death sentence. It doesn’t have to be so. A just and humanitarian society must be prepared to take care of the interests of ALL its people and protect all their human rights. Let’s stop all this noise about people’s sexual preference, for it reeks of intolerance and hypocrisy. Many of the people who shout about the evil of being gay are the treasury –looters and election riggers – those who have mortgaged the future of this country . What did the Nigerian government think it was going to gain by its anti-gay legislation? What difference has this law made in the lives of Nigerian people? The anti-gay hullaballoo is nothing short of a self-inflicted wound that has made Nigeria more notorious. Is it really the prime preoccupation of our legislators to legislate the DNA; to nose around for what fellow citizens do behind closed doors? The gay person is not the enemy of the Nigerian people. The real enemies are the people who steal our votes and plunder our treasury – those who have turned Nigeria into the proverbial ‘big-for-nothing’ country.


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