What next for Africa? It seems rather curious that Europe has always seen in Africa what Africans themselves seem unable to see. First, despite labeling it, in the words of Conrad, the heart of darkness, it still went on to invest thousands of the precious lives of its young citizens who fought and died in wars so as to occupy this house of darkness. By conquest, despoliation and death, Europeans went on to invest rather heavily in both the enslavement of Africans and the dispossession of the continent’s resources. Despite the scorching heat in Africa, Europeans were still glad to carry this very heavy white man’s burden as Rudyard Kipling called the colonial project. This is neither the place nor the time to investigate this phase of our history. But this notion of investing in darkness and willingly going to war to carry a burden it must be a telling metaphor of the conflict between danger and opportunity in Africa. Going forward, we must ask why Africans have refused to shine their eyes and whether the future lies in continuing on this path. Why does the prospect of a good life for Africa remain only an emblem of possibilities and promise? Why does the good life remain a shifting kaleidoscope? Why is our narrative constantly a movement of possibilities never really embraced, just an endless burst of conflict of lights and shadows.
At the end of the last century, Afro pessimists and Afro optimists both contested for the best projections of the continent’s future. In March 2000, the very influential UK Economist Magazine ran a cover story titled, Africa the Hopeless Continent. Barely ten years later, precisely in December 2011, it did another cover story. This time, it made a complete turn around and captioned it: The Hopeful Continent: Africa Rising. Where exactly Africa was rising from and how long the continent had been dead, what killed it and what might a resurrected Africa look like, the magazine did not exactly say. But these conflicting signals and dominance of our narrative should worry us as Africans.
Our celebrant has committed most of his adult life exhibiting genius and making trouble by banging on the doors of African leaders. But at best, he might have been blowing a muted trumpet. Of course, at another level, we could ask why, beyond the entertainment and artistic value, what is the value of writing? Who exactly are we writing for and for what purpose? Why has writing not effected any change in our societies? What is the scope of our narratives?
We blame our politicians but in reality are they not doing much better than us? Are there no lessons we can learn from the distances they cover to sell their messages? How is it that members of political parties crisscross the country in a way and manner that writers do not? I know very little of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, but without seeking to cause offence, what do other Nigerians know about them apart from their meetings, Awards and so on? Can ANA make literature cross boundaries, cultures, region and religion? How can ANA and Nollywood recreate a new Nigerian persona, away from the villainous role we have been conscripted to play by our enemies? Most of the negativity we imbibed has remained with us and threatens to continue to define us. This must be carefully thought through and reversed. Are we going to continue to choose between ethnicities in Nollywood or will there ever be something bigger?
We hear that the works of the celebrant, those of Chinua Achebe have been translated into 50, 80 or 100 languages. Yet, how many of these works have been translated into Nigerian languages, such as Angas, Fulfulde, Nupe, Hausa, ijaw, Efik, Tiv, Igala, Idoma, Jukun, or Ikulu? (I have added the last because the ethnographers do not know we exist and this is the only chance I have to mention us!). But seriously, what is the relationship between the celebrant’s works and the works of other artists in Nigeria outside Yorubaland? The works of Amos Tutuola for example, have been taken, raw as they were and turned into an art form. How come, we have not been able to find a place for the poetry of the likes of Mudi Sipikin, or the works of Mamman Shata, Dankwairo, or Danmaraya? Where do all these fit in the national narrative?
Despite a much coveted Nobel Prize, how come that only very few Nigerians across the length and breathe of this country can speak about the celebrant? How come that young Eskimo children in schools as far as the North Pole know about Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka but young children in Nigerian schools know almost nothing?
Nigerians love to criticize their country perhaps far more than any nation I know of in the world. Yes, we have all earned the right to be cynical and even contemptible about the way we have been governed, and about how the resources of our nation have been frittered away mindlessly. I am even more amused by the criticisms of some of our brethren in the Diaspora especially those who think that simply being abroad has set them apart from their fellow countrymen and women, those who believe that those of us who are here are so because we are not good enough to be abroad.
To be sure, there are many who are struggling to see what they can contribute to building a new nation, but I often resent the condescending attitude and outright smugness of some Diaspora Nigerians who believe in their superiority simply because they have a second passport. Yet, when some of them have had the chance, they have done far worse than those of us they have left behind. However, nothing excuses the degree of self-deprecation and flagellation that one often reads in the essays and commentaries about this country. It is about time we took off the gloves and speak honestly to ourselves about our future as a country, our mistakes, our fears, anxieties and deep hope. We are not the worst people on earth nor is our country the worst piece of God’s real estate. We have to seize this narrative and re-define ourselves.
The measure of the greatness of a people or even individuals is based on how or where they stand in moments of trials and tribulations. Nigeria is going through such a phase now. Since the outbreak of the tragedy that is Boko Haram, one has seen another side of our citizens that is quite tragic. Rather than trying to stand together to rise beyond this in hope together, I find some of my fellow citizens creating more confusion and using the insurgency as weapons of politics. The President and the security agencies have become the objects of attacks and vilification and yet, there is very little that is being done to point at the way forward. I know that as day follows night, we shall pull out of this tragedy that we face as a nation. But the least we can do is to stand in the comforts of highways and homes that someone else constructed and thrown stones at ourselves and our people simply because we are living off someone else’s sweat.
What we require now are new visionaries to set higher standards. What we need now are new dreamers with the necessary imagination to summon our people to a greater tomorrow. Yes, we Set forth at dawn and are still on The Road. Yes, we have beatified many area boys. Yes, we were the running sore of a continent. Yes, we all stood by when the man died. Yes, we have lived through the Penkelemes years. Yes, we have witnessed the Trial of brother Jero, but, where are the Interpreters today?
Dr. (Rev.) Mathew Kukah is the Bishop of the Catholic diocese of Sokoto