Friday, December 11, 2015

In Class With Professor Eskor Toyo

By Biko Agozino

When I last saw Baba Eskor Toyo in June 2015 I was overcome with emotion after I saw the giant wheelchair-bound following a stroke several years earlier. I visited him with Comrade Alofoje Unuigboje and we massaged his feet and thanked the family and especially the young David and Eskor’s medical doctor son and his daughter for taking good care of him. We felt that he recognized our presence by moving his foot up and down and we hoped that he would recover but sadly he could not say a word to us. We told him that the people were waiting for him to come and offer moral and intellectual leadership and that he should get well soon. So sad to hear that he finally joined the ancestors on December 7, 2015 at the young age of 86 years. What a huge loss to the world robbed of his poetry, politics and pedagogy.

I encountered the legendary Comrade Eskor Toyo as a freshman in the University of Calabar where I heard him give one of his trademark electrifying speeches to the campus community. Later, I went into his office where he was Dean of Social Science and introduced myself. He asked how he could help me and I asked him to explain the theory of the dialectical processes of the negation of the negation to me. ‘Go away’, he thundered. ‘Go and read in the library and stop asking me lazy questions!’ I left with embarrassment and a promise to myself that I would excel in my studies so well that the great Eskor would take notice of me some day.

And it came to pass that after my compulsory national service, I was employed by the University of Calabar as a Graduate Assistant. Then I encountered Eskor again as he ran weekly literacy classes under a cashew tree in the poor sections of Calabar Municipality. Soon Bassey Ekpo Bassey nominated me to serve as the Director of Administration at the Directorate for Literacy and Eskor approved as the Chairman. Soon afterwards, Eskor appointed me as the Associate Editor of Massline, our free literacy journal which he edited. Secretaries typed the journal on manual typewriters and we cyclostyled the prints with the message that there was no copyrights protection against copying and sharing the contents. One change that I suggested to Eskor was made to the Motto of the journal from ‘The People of This Land Have Suffered Enough: Their Chains Must Fall’ to ‘We People of This Land Have Suffered Enough: Let Us Break the Chains’.

Along with Bassey Ekpo Bassey, Princewill Alozie, Akpan Ekpo, Bene Madunagu, Edwin Madunagu, Yakubu Ochefu, and Okonete Ekanem I worked with Comrade Eskor to organize public enlightenment lectures and weekly literacy classes now located in one of the branch offices of a trade union. We mounted a successful campaign to elect Bassey as the Chairman of Calabar Municipal Council but the Military Governor canceled the elections for some reason. The elections were repeated and Bassey won by a bigger margin. He entered office and immediately abolished school fees, built more classrooms, established medium-sized industries for cooperatives to run, established neighborhood councils, and abolished refuse-collection fees. Finally, the Directorate for Literacy spearheaded a National Workshop for the Nigerian Labor Conference in Calabar with now ancestral legends like Mokwugo Okoye, Festus Iyayi, Ola Oni, S.G. Ikoku, and Paschal Bafyau, among many others in attendance. An all-night meeting was held by the elders in the home of Bassey and it was agreed at that meeting to join the push for the formation of the Labour Party across the country in partnership with the NLC. However, I was reprimanded for forgetting to buy kolanuts to keep everybody awake during the all night meeting.

One senior comrade with whom I was sent across the country with two others to mobilize support for the Labor Party followed up by sending a note on ‘Clarifications’ in which he and three other signatories, including one based abroad, alleged that some people were plotting to exclude them from the Labour Party. Eskor advised us to ignore such a note because it could lead to sectarianism and splits if we pursue it. However I drafted a response that Comrades Princewill Alozie, Akpan Ekpo and myself discussed and signed as ‘Clarifications of the Clarifications’ and I took my first ever airplane flight to hand-deliver the response to the office of the comrade with the approval of Eskor and Bassey.

Our response was simply that we saw the Labour Party as the mass party advocated by Eskor in The Third Republic and the Working Class, with room for all those committed to democratically seeking power for the progressive transformation of the country. In my naivety, I believed that the matter was closed but a meeting was later called by the comrade in which I was accused of being the one trying to exclude him from the new party. I was stunned because the reason why I washed my hands and took a lump of food when I found the host eating with some of our guests was because I felt like I was among family and did not need an invitation to the table even though I was not hungry. I was always the one defending the ideas of the person who now suspected me of plotting to exclude him from the party. How could anyone suspect me, a lowly Assistant Secretary of the Cross River State branch of the party, of having that much power to exclude anyone from the party? Perhaps I had more power than I realized but I was not interested in witch-hunts. Eskor backed me at the meeting and urged all to focus on the coming national launching of the party for which he and Bassey had been teaching us new party songs, some of which I now realize were borrowed from the Civil Rights Movement in the US.

One of the greatest lessons that I learned from Eskor Toyo is that politics is learned in practice and not from textbooks as he made clear in his ‘Open Letter to the Nigerian Left’ in the Review of African Political Economy urging support for the Peoples Redemption Party of which he was a national leader during the second republic, rather than remain arm-chair theorists comfortable enough to criticize a hero like Bala Mohammed who was murdered on the streets by what the police called a ‘cooperative mob’, according to Bala Usman, while mobilizing the peasantry and poor workers but without any arrests.

Another important lesson was his emphasis of class analysis in a country like Nigeria. Contrary to the commonsensical assumption that ethnicity and religious identity were the greatest problems hindering the development of any country, Professor Eskor Toyo once gave a talk to the Directorate for Literacy in which he argued that class oppression is the gravest problem facing Nigeria, not sectarianism nor tribalism (serious as these may be). A few weeks later, workers in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, invited him to come and address them on a similar theme but he could not go and he sent me to go and represent him.

When I got there, the workers did not waste time before challenging me to explain what Eskor meant when he said that ethnicity was less important than class identity in Nigeria. I started sweating because I had not reflected clearly on the Toyo thesis. Then I answered by using the problem-posing learning style of Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed: I asked the workers if they were all of the Ibibio ethnic identity. They nodded. I asked them if they were all Christians and most of them nodded. Then I asked if they shared their religious and ethnic identities with the Obong of Uyo or chief of the city and again they affirmed. So I asked them if the Obong has ever invited them to dinner at his palace and they said, never. Well, I concluded, Moshood Abiola identified with the Yoruba ethnicity and with the Muslim religion but the Obong of Uyo who was Ibibibio and Christian invited Abiola as a class ally, feted him at the palace, gave him free land allocation and gave him a traditional chieftaincy title - Ada Idaha ke Brutu (or one of those outstanding in the land). The workers roared with laughter and told me that the people called that title by a different name - Ana Inaha ke Brutu. When I failed to laugh along, they translated that it roughly means, those who sleep around on the land!

One question that I would like to ask Eskor, especially now that mass demonstrations for Biafra are being reported, is a clarification of his stance in apparent support of the genocidal federal government during the Nigerian - Biafra conflict as he made clear in his 1967 book, The Working Class and the Nigerian Crisis, in which he rejected the appeals to ethnicity by the regional ruling class elements, questioned the warning by Ojukwu to foreign investors to avoid the country,  and rejected the coup and the counter coup that entrenched reactionary militarism in the country. Later, in 1970, he published an article in the Journal of African Marxists on the struggle against Portuguese invasion of independent Guinea under the influence of imperialism and those that Eskor called the ‘Ojukwus of Guinea’ who were bent on breaking up their country in the interest of neocolonialism but without any evidence of a pogrom in Guinea similar to the one that led to the civil war in Nigeria.

Throughout his life, I am not sure that Eskor spoke or wrote to condemn the genocide that was targeted at the Igbo in Nigeria the way he condemned the murder of Bala Muhamed, perhaps because he correctly believed that the Biafra conflict was class-based and not tribal or ethnic the same way that Walter Rodney did in How Europe Underdeveleped Africa, pages 228-229. Edwin Madunagu and Wole Soyinka have been calling on the Nigerian Left to address the opportunism of many leftists during the civil war and it would have been great to hear Eskor call for reparative justice from his principled position that we should not let the few rich destroy the poor masses, as Hebert Ekwe-Ekwe, another giant who taught us at Calabar, has been clamoring in books like Biafra Revisited and Readings from Reading or as Achebe did in There Was A Country. Perhaps, the great Eskor Toyo fell into the pitfalls of national consciousness that Frantz Fanon warned against or else he would not have seen the struggle for freedom as separate struggles within the boundaries of colonized African states instead of engaging in a mobilization of the African masses for the Peoples Republic of Africa as advocated by Kwame Nkrumah and many others to allow Africans to move and settle wherever they choose for a brighter tomorrow.

Eskor may have answered some of the above questions when he asked us to write chapters on the Political Manipulation of Religion: Case Studies which he edited and published for the Mass Mobilization Agency of the military government as a warning to Nigeria in the 1980s but without mentioning Nigeria. He also edited a collection of our essays on Political Practice in Nigeria. He truly believed that only lethargy was keeping our intellectuals from fulfilling the historic tasks of mobilizing the people to change the country for the better. Thank you Baba Toyo for exemplary leadership: Forward ever, backward never! Organize! Do not agonize

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

What Is My Name?

By Biko Agozino

When James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe met, Baldwin said that it was a miracle because when our ancestors were kidnapped and shipped away through the ‘Door of No Return’, we were never expected to survive and meet again as survivors of the slave raids and survivors of the genocidal middle passage, plantations and Jim Crow. I have just had a similar miraculous experience of speaking with a large African American family named Holland who traced their ancestry to a royal family in Cameroon. They gathered to honor their great-grandfather, Cecil Holland, after the racist Sons of the Confederacy placed a marker at his gravesite in 2002 to falsely claim that he served in the Confederate Army as a teamster hauling supplies for those who fought to keep him enslaved. The family repudiated the claim, removed the Confederate marker and replaced it with gravestones before holding an African mourning ceremony to honor him properly. The Confederacy supporters allegedly threatened to remove the gravestones and replace it with their Confederate marker in disrespect to the family.

Emphasizing the importance of self-naming, Chinua Achebe tells the Igbo folktale about Mbe, the tortoise, who begged to accompany the birds that had been invited to a feast by the king of the sky. The birds lent some of their feathers to Mbe to help him fly with them to the sky feast. But before their departure, Mbe told them that they should give themselves new names to appear more respectable at the court of the sky king. The birds agreed and named themselves things like Sun, Moon, Thunder, Lightning, etc. Mbe said that his new name was All Of You. When they were served at the feast, Mbe would ask whom the food and drinks were meant for and the servants told them that everything was for All Of You. So Mbe ate and drank everything while the birds starved. When it was time for them to return, the birds were angry with Mr. All Of You and asked everyone to take back his or her feather, forcing Mbe to fall from the sky and crash his shell which was patched with uneven surface remaining to remind all that there is enough for our needs but not for our greed.

The Holland family gathered from far and wide, with many wearing African garments, to sit in front of the family log cabin house. The sitting arrangement was in a semi-circle that is similar to the indigenous town planning design common in Africa. The African garments some of them wore and even the walking stick they gave to me as a gift were all adorned with the scaled, recursive, self-similar, infinite, fractional, and interconnected designs known as African Fractals, as documented by Ron Eglash and theorized by Abdul Bangura.

After a traditional prayer and the pouring of libations, William Holland, Cecil’s great-grand son, shared how he researched the family roots for years until he got conclusive proof that they originated from Cameroon. He and his brother wore traditional gowns that were given to them when they visited the area of Cameroon where they originated. William read out the family tree on his late father’s side and then on his living mother’s side. A medical doctor from Atlanta, Georgia, made a short presentation on how genetic traces of ancestry could be found in the mother’s line and in the father’s line. He cautioned that DNA results are still open to interpretation like any scientific data and that the more tests an individual does, the more specific the ancestry could be narrowed to a particular place where comparable DNA can be found.

Then it was my turn to talk about the importance of naming ceremonies in African culture. I started by making reference to the work of Kimani Nehusi who was initially named after a notorious slave trader, Francis Drake, because a white doctor in Guyana convinced his father that the brigand was a great man. He eventually recovered his African name and has authored a book manuscript on the meanings of African names in which he argues that the earliest known tradition of origin was that of ancient Kemet or Egypt where it was believed that the creator, Ra, spoke the names of every creature to bring the creature into being. Thus every creature has a name and anything without a name is considered a nonentity. Cheikh Anta Diop earlier made a general point in The Cultural Unity of Black Africa about the ‘disturbing’ similarities between certain African root words such as Barbarian, Gen or Gente that mean exactly the same in Indo-European languages to show ancient linkages among the people of the world who originated in Africa to such an extent that linguists consider it foolish to attempt to prove that there is no linkage between one language and any others in the world.

The Dogon of Mali have an ancient tradition of origin according to which the earliest created being was Nommo, an amphibious four-legged creature that was believed to have arrived on earth from the star, Sirius, which appears every 50 years to coincide with the Dogon celebration of the Totemic Nommo. Some European writers have disputed this astronomical knowledge of the Dogon and suggest that knowledge of the Sirius must have been revealed to them by visiting Europeans. But the Dogon insist that they have always known about Sirius and another smaller star that they call the White Dwarf that appears with Sirius.

The Igbo, my own ethnic group, believe that we are the children of Chineke, the procreator, whose wife gave birth to our ancestors. Thus we are the children of Mr. and Mrs. God whereas the Abrahamic religions appear to see God as a Bachelor who made human beings from clay. The very name, Ndi Igbo, literally means – early people or Ndi Gboo. The late Catherine Acholonu applied her linguistics skills to suggest that since human life originated in Africa, it is most likely that the language of creation was an African language with surprising correspondence between words like Adam (meaning literally, I have fallen, in Igbo) and places like Adamawa in Nigeria and Cameroon and in Ethiopia. Acholonu suggested that human beings evolved from dwarfs, our distant ancestors whose existence predates the time-line of the creation narratives in the scriptures of Abrahamic religions. Thus, according to her, Africans and the Igbo in particular, were the ancestors of Adam.

Mohamed Ali dramatized the significance of self-naming when he dropped his slave name, Cassius Clay. But his opponent, Ernie Terrell insisted on calling him by the slave name. Ali taunted him as Uncle Tom and threatened to beat him senseless in the ring to teach him to call him by his real name. Terrell said that his team thought that the name was a touchy issue with which to make Ali mad in the ring and thereby beat him. But it proved to be a bad strategy because if someone is out to whoop your behind, the last thing you want to do is to make the person mad at you. So Ali jabbed away at Terrell and asked him with every jab, ‘What is my name?’ If Terrell was wiser, he could have jabbed him right back with the retort, ‘What do you mean, what’s your name?’ Jab-jab. ‘Go ask your mama!’ Jab. Vivien Gordon argues that self-naming is an essential form of freedom and personal autonomy that must be respected by all.

Human beings are not the only ones who sign their names to differentiate them from other individuals – plants also have signs of their nature or signatures and it is from plants that we derive our own ‘doctrine’ of signatures. Human beings recognize this affinity with nature indirectly by naming their children after plants, animals, mountains, the sun, moon, the sea, the sky, especially in Africa. But Europeans tend to see it as their duty to name others – nigger, negro, kaffir, fella, colored, black, coolly, jap, con, and when others return the favor with names like redneck, cracker or hunkey, it does not stick, according to Randall Kennedy. African Americans have finally chosen to name themselves as people of African decent but some entertainers like Smokey Robinson say that they love being called Black Americans, Raven Symone does not identify as African American while many rappers prefer being called Nigga and Bill Cosby said that African names may make it difficult to get jobs as we battle with the ‘warring’ double consciousness of W.E.B. Du Bois.

The theft of the original names of Africans forced the Jamaican poet, Mutabaruka, to wail about the pain he feels every time he hears the sound that is not his name…. The New York Metropolitan Museum exhibited sculptures from a Nigerian community called Mbembe (suggesting the Mbe of Mbe, trickster of tricksters, in Igbo) and categorized the sculptures as representing male ‘killers’ and female ‘nurturers’ without realizing that Mbembe communities can also be found across the border in Cameroon, that men are not simply killers and not nurturers and that women are not simply nurturers and not also warriors in Africa. Naming African men as killers may be an ideological justification for the genocidal killing of Africans by Europeans and their African agents for a long time in history and naming the women nurturers simply justifies the history of wet nursing and the forced breeding of children for sale during the great destruction or Maafa slavery.

The European way of naming is hierarchical and divisive, always in search for evidence of the superiority of Europeans over all others but they have failed to find any evidence of white superiority unchallenged. They finally settled on the naming of literacy as something that Europeans have while Africans, being ‘headless people’ without chiefs, supposedly only have oral traditions. This was challenged by Jacques Derrida who was born in Africa and who had his French citizenship stripped from him because the Nazis said that he looked too dark and too Jewish to be French at the age of 12. He said that such a trauma of having his identity stolen laid the foundation of his philosophy and a lifelong effort to deconstruct all systems of white-supremacy to expose the fact that, for example, writing in general is found not only in Europe but in every culture that has the ability to name itself, not to mention the fact that Africans invented writing as a pharmakon to be used with care for healing the world, according to Plato.

The African tradition of naming is consistently that of recognizing that we are all members of the human nature known as Ubuntu or the bundle of humanity, according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This philosophy of naming is recognized by African Americans with the saying, I am because we are. On the contrary, the European will to conquer, kill and plunder all others is justified with the Cartesian dogma, I think therefore I am, a suspect individualism that is even uncertain of itself (I think, not really sure). Ubuntu is expressed in my Igbo culture as Mbari, a miniature house that the whole community gathers to build with clay and with figurines representing every race, gender, class and generation to be left to the elements until dust returns to dust and the community gathers again to rebuild the Mbari. Martin Luther King Jr, recognized this wisdom of community with the analogy of a family that inherited a World House from their ancestor and have to share the house or fight and kill each other and burn it down. He gave the same speech three times with reference to segregation in America during his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, apartheid South Africa, and the Vietnam War to emphasize that we all should share as brothers and sisters.

What is my name? According to Alex Haley, it was the father of Kunta Kinte who held him high under the full moon and named him. But in my Igbo culture, a father does not perform masculinity in the naming of sons in isolation. Rather, it is the whole community that gathers for a naming ceremony with up to ten names being given to one child and I have my many names from which I chose the most common one, Onwubiko or ‘Death Please’ spare this one, since my mother lost many babies in infancy. My own family name, Agozino, means “I Bless The Enemy”. Such a name would be strange to cultures that perceive enemies as people to be wiped out with genocide but the name makes sense to those who understand the core teaching of Jesus Christ that we should love our enemies. That message must have been confusing to the Jews who believed that Jehovah was exclusively their own tribal God. But Jesus was taken to Egypt as a baby and he was educated there before returning to Palestine as a 12 year old with the message of ancient Egyptians that there is only one God for all. The ancient Egyptians arrived at this revelation by observing that the sun that shines for them also shines for their enemies, it shines for men and for women, for whites and for blacks, for the rich and for the poor, and so we should love all and hate no one as Rasatafarians preach with One Love.

People of African descent appear to be the ones who have practiced the love of the enemy more than any other group of people. Only people of African descent name their children after their enemies and since naming of children is a supreme form of honor and love for the ancestors, the naming ironies of Africans with European names symbolize the love of the enemy brothers and sisters, perhaps to win them over and help to end racial, gender and class hatred. However, those people of African descent who have recovered their stolen African names are not haters of others but lovers of their own ancestors too.

We may need to go beyond personal names and wonder why it remains difficult to accept that some of the place names in America came from people of African descent who must have named a few places after living here for hundreds of years. One such place is Kanawa in West Virginia which simply means, Let Us Go Home, exactly like Calabar in Nigeria. Next door to Kanawa is Shenandoah, a place where the Virginia Frontier Museum established an Igbo village to acknowledge that the majority of enslaved Africans in Virginia were people of Igbo descent, according to Douglas Chambers, author of Murder in Montpellier: The Igbo of Virginia. Coincidentally, the name Shenandoah literally means, ‘Say Sorry To This Land’ in Igbo language. If you are wondering why anyone would name a place that as the young people building the Igbo village museum asked me, I ended my talk by performing my poem in Igbo and English urging the audience to say sorry to the land because there was bloodshed on the land, tear drops on the land, sweat drops on the land, rape on the land, warfare on the land, slavery on the land, sorry land.

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

My Publication Makes High Impact On European Immigration Policy

By Biko Agozino

I am not on an ego trip when I suspect that my 2006 publication in the African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies which I edit for the African Criminology and Justice Association may have tipped members of the European Community to adopt some of my urgent recommendations in response to the current immigration crisis (Photo, my participation in a May Day Rally for refugees in Glasgow, Scotland, 1992, while a graduate student in Edinburgh University).

I forwarded the paper to the European Commission on September 3 and they acknowledged receipt the same day and stated that the paper had been forwarded to their services as the following correspondence shows:

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Date: Thursday, 03/09/2015 19:08:13
From: "Biko Agozino" <>
Subject: [Case_ID: 1093134 / 6543762] Mass Deaths at Fortress Europe
As we watch the tragedy of mass death among immigrants determined to enter fortress Europe, here are some ideas for possible solution from my personal experience and from social theory:

Two days later, on Saturday, September 5, Germany and Austria dramatically altered their policies by opening their borders with Hungary and letting in thousands of immigrants. France, which had been following the Fortress Europe policy of securing the borders, dramatically changed and offered to accept tens of thousands of immigrants. The UK which is not even part of the open borders policy joined by promising to take in 20,000 immigrants in 5 years. The EU President announced plans on September 9 to share 160,000 immigrants among the members of the EU but the foreign ministers are yet to agree on the formula for sharing the immigrants. The US came out with a pledge to resettle 8,000 more asylum seekers in the next year compared to 1,500 so far. One week after I sent the paper to the EU, the European Commissioner for Immigration, Dimitri Avramopulos, finally echoed my conclusion that the US policy on immigration is a good model for Europe to replicate:

“Everybody in Europe were caught by surprise. We could never imagine some years ago that we would be confronted with this crisis, and our systems were not well prepared. That's why I told you before that even the European Union did not have a comprehensive migration policy. Now we have it, and I can tell you that one of the models we would like to adopt in the future is the American immigration system. For me, it is one of the best in the world.”

I doubt that this is a coincidence given that the time-line for EU policies indicate a correlation (not necessarily a causation) between the timing of my forwarded paper and the dramatic tipping point in EU policies as shown in a statement from the EU president on September 14:

“The European Commission has been consistently and continuously working for a coordinated European response on the refugees and migration front:
“On 23 April 2014, in Malta, Jean-Claude Juncker presented a five point plan on immigration, calling for more solidarity in the EU's migration policy as part of his campaign to become European Commission President.
“Based on a proposal by the European Commission, in a European Council statement of 23 April 2015, Member States committed to taking rapid action to save lives and to step up EU action in the field of migration. A European Parliament Resolution followed a few days later.
“On 13 May 2015, the European Commission presented its European Agenda on Migration, setting out a comprehensive approach for improving the management of migration in all its aspects.
“On 27 May 2015, the European Commission already came forward with a first package of implementing measures of the European Agenda on Migration, including relocation and resettlement proposals, and an EU Action plan against migrant smugglers.
“On 25-26 June 2015, the European Council agreed to move forward on the proposals made by the European Commission in the European Agenda on Migration, focusing on relocation and resettlement, returns and cooperation with countries of origin and transit.
“On 20 July 2015, the Justice and Home Affairs Council agreed to implement the measures as proposed in the European Agenda on Migration, notably to relocate people in clear need of international protection from Italy and Greece over the next two years, starting with 32,256 in a first step, and to resettle 22,504 displaced persons in clear need of international protection from outside the EU.
“On 9 September 2015, the Commission proposed a new set of measures, including an emergency relocation mechanism for 120,000 refugees, as well as concrete tools to assist Member States in processing applications, returning economic migrants, and tackling the root causes of the refugee crisis.
“At today's Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council, the Commission was represented by First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, in charge of Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship. The High Representative Federica Mogherini also attended the meeting.”

It may all be a coincidence but I am not bragging when I say that I hope that my publication has helped to produce this dramatic impact on policy. If so, I hope that African states, Europe and the United States will follow up by addressing the other policy recommendations in my paper. This may contribute to the validation of the scholar-activism paradigm privileged in Africana Studies and in Liberation Sociology.

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech