Saturday, February 28, 2015

Explaining the ‘Success’ of the White Man in Africa


By Biko Agozino

‘What do you think accounts for the white man’s success in Africa, Richard’, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Odenigbo, the ‘revolutionary’ professor in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, asked Mr. Churchill (no relations to Sir Winston). He was jealous of the white man with whom his earlier lover and later wife, Olanna, cheated on him. The twin sister, Kainene, and lover of the white man who cheated on her with her twin answered with an ironic twist on this query, ‘Perhaps you should first account for the black man’s failure to curb the white man’s mission’.

Ignoring the sexually charged retort, Odenigbo asserted that racism was the tool with which the white man made possible his conquest of Africa and he was challenged by Kainene to say if racism would also account for the conquest by African men over other Africans. Here, Adichie does what she does best in all her novels, mocking the pseudo intellectual masculinists in African universities who have invented nothing and have published nothing original enough to merit the recognition accorded to intellectuals.

While black men were busy committing genocide against millions of their own black brothers and sisters with machetes and clubs but mainly with weapons supplied by Europeans and with starvation as a weapon of war, all our ‘revolutionary’ intellectual could muster was a blame game with the only white man who stuck the war out in apparent identification with the victimized, who ran out with Kainene to save a deserting soldier who was being lynched by women, and later stayed to mourn the loss of his Kainene beyond the end of the war after she had gone in search of food for the idle men but did not return. By contrast, the so-called revolutionary intellectual, Odenigbo, engaged in no single revolutionary act or thought throughout the movie (except the offer to sponsor his house help through school which led to the young man becoming a writer after the war) - he never stopped to offer a lift in his beaten down car to any of the refugees trekking on foot despite having room to spare and he never volunteered for the army but chose to 'work' in the distribution of relief from international donors where he was sure to secure bottles of brandy for himself. That was probably why his landlord kicked him out, not because of rents because no one charged rents to refugees during that war.

From beginning to end, Dr. Odenigbo indulged in excessive consumption of alcohol with other professors on campus and under fire during the war but with no evidence that any of them was working on any research project nor even attempting to read a book. In fact, Odenigbo had no book shelf or even a single book displayed in his house and when Olanna tried to move in with her books and book shelf he complained that she was taking up his space! The only person doing any writing was the white man, Richard Churchill, who was writing a novel, ‘A Basket of Hands’. When Olanna introduced herself as a sociologist, the natural science colleague told her that hers was a voodoo science and asked why she did not major in real science as if he himself had anything to show for his ‘real’ science.

Therein lies the answer to the question of Odenigbo – the technological and scientific weakness of African intellectuals is what made the conquest of Africa by a few Europeans feasible and not the moral superiority that he claimed as an excuse by the victimized, Adichie seems to suggest. In this sense, the film and the novel failed to account for the awesome technological innovations by the scientists empowered by Biafra to fabricate weapons and refine oil for the war. Even if the focus is on literary scholar growth with Richard as worthy of emulation, Adichie owes it to her readers to include in her characterization of African intellectuals, such literary gems as nna anyi (our father) Achebe in whose former official residence she was brought up at the University of Nigeria Nsukka and who served as a peace diplomat during the war, the mythical Okigbo who died fighting to end the genocidal war, the indomitable Soyinka who languished in solitary confinement through out for opposing the war, the Amazon, Flora Nwapa, who was an activist in self-defense during the war, or even the prophetic Azikiwe, whose poem, 'Land of the Rising Sun', was adapted as the national anthem of Biafra, to mention but only Nigerian productive writers.

In the film, the women came across as decisive and strong characters who improvised classes to teach the children during the war, provided food for the men and the children, and comforted the men as if they were big babies. The men, except the inventive and resourceful adult male house 'boys', appeared feeble and lacking in any serious pursuits other than sleeping with any female under the excuse that the strong Mama figure, Onyeka Onwuenu, got her son drunk to get him to sleep with the maid and give her a grandchild. Even the father of the twins had no shame in attempting to pimp them to a corrupt politician just to secure a contract but the young ladies who were educated abroad resisted the sexual harassment.

The so-called revolutionary Odenigbo never plucked up the courage to ask his mother what indigenous knowledge system she had used to ‘make him’ rape and impregnate the maid after one attempt whereas he had been trying for a baby with Olanna but only succeeded in shooting blanks. Mama thought that Olanna must have been an evil witch out to steal her son but later found her to be devoted and begged her to marry him. Adichie is always trying to demystify superstitious beliefs.

‘Baby’ was soon abandoned by the maid and by the grandmother for being a baby girl, forcing Olanna to insist that she and Odenigbo should keep and raise her as their own instead of sending her to an orphanage as he had intended. Odenigbo’s revolutionary credentials were questioned when he cowardly left his mother to die at the hands of the approaching enemy troops only for him to attempt the suicidal stunt to go and bury her corpse behind enemy lines.

Biyi Bandele, the director, must have paid a lot for the archival footage of the war news but the children all looked far too well fed and the women and men too well-dressed to come close to the nightmarish experience of kwashiorkor kids and adults in rags perhaps because the focus of both the film and the novel was on the perspective of the elites who obviously did not suffer as much deprivation as the average Igbo family during the war.  On the other hand, the more garish footage may have been censored by the Nigerian censors board that initially refused to license the release without cuts.

The special effects brought back the scare of the air raids from which we ran as children during the war and the pogrom scenes on the streets of Kano and in the airport remind us of the continuing slaughter of fellow Nigerians by terrorists and by uniformed officers. The provocative newsreels from the BBC in the film raised questions about the ethical responsibility of journalists who stoke up ethnic hatred and thereby facilitate genocide in Africa. But the overall responsibility lies with Africans who have themselves to blame for abandoning our vital philosophy of non-violence under the seductions of militarism, the film seems to moralize.

Thanks to the Black Graduate Students Association, the Black Students Association and the African Students Association at Virginia Tech for organizing an Africana Studies Film Festival during Black History Month and for screening this film along with Tsotsie on February 28, free of charge in the Lyric  film theatre in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Buhari's Chatham House Silences

By Biko Agozino

'Let me assure you that if I am elected president, the world will have no cause to worry about Nigeria as it has had to recently; that Nigeria will return to its stabilising role in West Africa; and that no inch of Nigerian territory will ever be lost to the enemy because we will pay special attention to the welfare of our soldiers in and out of service, we will give them adequate and modern arms and ammunitions to work with, we will improve intelligence gathering and border controls to choke Boko Haram’s financial and equipment channels, we will be tough on terrorism and tough on its root causes by initiating a comprehensive economic development plan promoting infrastructural development, job creation, agriculture and industry in the affected areas. We will always act on time and not allow problems to irresponsibly fester, and I, Muhammadu Buhari, will always lead from the front and return Nigeria to its leadership role in regional and international efforts to combat terrorism.'…/full-text-of-buhari-speech-at-chatha…/
This sounds like a speech written by Tony Blair with emphasis on militarism as the solution to insecurity and to its 'causes', without acknowledging that militarism is a big part of the problem. Nowhere in Buhari's Chatham House speech today is there a single recognition of the importance of education even though Boko Haram poses its challenge primarily as an educational one! This contrasts with the speech of Azikiwe, Nigeria's first president, to the colonial Legislative Council sitting in Kaduna in 1948 in which he disagreed with those who spoke out against education on the assumption that educated children tend to be disobedient. And by education, is not meant only text-book education, important as that is in a country with mass illiteracy, 80% failure in high school exams and no university ranked among the top 1000 in the world. Buhari also said that Nigeria has never been as insecure as it is today except during the civil war. So the question arises, which candidate for president has the courage in leadership to apologize to Nigerians for the atrocities committed by the Nigerian state during the civil war and commit to pay reparations to the survivors of the war that cost us 3.1 million of some of our most industrious, creative and intellectual youth in 30 months of carnage supported by Britain and the Soviet Union and led by soldiers like Buhari? Without admitting the wrongs done against the Igbo and making amends, Nigeria will continue to send the message to groups like Boko Haram that the mass killing of our people and mass abduction of our young girls are heroic acts to be rewarded with ill-gotten gains. Making atonement and allowing the history to be taught in schools, building monuments to the victimized, allowing the flag of Biafra to be flown on private property without the risk of extra judicial killings that go on with impunity unabated, authorization of commemorative car license plates and holding re-enactments of the war to re-educate the people and to attract tourists (one of the things that Buhari promises to stimulate), will be part of the necessary political education to emphasize to Nigerians that never again will any government wake up and slap the buttocks of soldiers, then send them into a genocidal rampage against fellow Nigerians. The cooperation of the neighboring countries' armies in fighting Boko Haram should also have been acknowledged by Buhari and a visionary leadership should seek to rebuild the larger polity that Nnamdi Azikiwe attempted to build with his National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons.
Despite controversy over his health, the All Progressives Congress flag bearer, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari was at Chatham House on Thursday morning where h

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


By Biko Agozino

In Trinidad and Tobago, I witnessed what many locals tell me is the ‘true’ carnival unlike the version in the Notting Hill Carnival of London where I first saw this phenomenon in the 1990s. The one in Trinidad and Tobago was not as huge as the London ones that I have seen given the fact that the population of London is more than three times the population of the whole country and that the carnival in TT takes place all over the country and not just in one city like London. But as in most things in life, size is not everything since the Trinidad and Tobago carnival still serves as the model for most other carnivals. I heard that delegates were sent from Cross River state to study this carnival and take back lessons for a better organization of the Amazing Grace Carnival that has since taken off in Nigeria. Typical of Nigerian ethnic rivalry, the result was that there are separate carnivals in Abuja, Calabar, Lagos and Port Harcourt on different days instead of having one weekend when there will be a national holiday to allow the people to 'play a little mas' in different towns at the same time as they do in Trinidad and Tobago to make for a bigger international tourist attraction. Here are a few tips for the cultural industries in Africa from my own observation of the events in Trinidad and Tobago:

The carnival starts months in advance as the Pan Yards get busy with rehearsals for the panorama competition. This is a key element of the carnival and it is based around the steel drum or ‘pan’ which was invented by poor Africans of Trinidad and refined to the extent that it has been adopted as the national instrument of the country, shown on the symbol for the highest national awards. Does any African country have a national instrument and if they do, is there an annual competition in which young and old play together to keep the national folk music alive while trying to win huge sums of money for their efforts? South Africa is probably the exception not only with the vuvuzeela that annoyed some World Cup commentators but also with contests in gospel music but I doubt if it is a national contest sponsored by the government rather than by civil society.

In addition to the panorama in which most orchestras use the magical steel drums to play all modern instruments and also ‘sing’ songs instrumentally, there was also the ‘Calypso Monarch’ competition in which singers go through quarter finals, semi finals and finals in front of judges to determine who would wear the crown as calypso king or queen for the year. Even prisoners had their own monarch competition and many government departments and educational institutions organized fetes in which people bought tickets for food, drinks and music as fund-raising efforts. Every weekend from early January till carnival weekend, there are multiple fetes (with top local bands) to choose, from the high priced all inclusive fetes favoured by the middle classes to mass gatherings like the Fire Fete (hosted by fire fighters) where there were once fights with axes and knives one year.

I know that many African countries are proud of the musical genres that they invented just as Trinidad and Tobago is proud of calypso, soca and rapso music that African people invented therein addition to chutney music invented by the East Indians in Trinidad but how many of African countries are organizing competitions in which children will vie for, e.g., Afrobeat, Juju or Highlife Monarch of the year to keep the talents growing? On the contrary, it was left to the children of the Afrobeat king, Fela Kuti, to organize the annual Felabration events in remembrance of their father who was repeatedly jailed and nearly killed by military dictators in Nigeria for his patriotic lyrics.

I was amazed to hear that many of the Calypsonians were serving police officers or teachers and yet they had the courage to ‘yab’ or abuse their government in their songs without losing their jobs. One police officer actually went to court to say that the reason why he was not selected as one of the semi finalists was because his song was critical of the Prime Minister and the court actually agreed that he should be allowed to sing in the semi finals where he again failed to impress the judges even though he already won in some other competitions, beating some of the monarch finalists. How many African countries would proudly promote music with political and social commentary as part of the culture of the people?Bob Marley was ambushed and shot with his wife while Peter Tosh was brutalized by the police and later executed by unknown assailants for rebellious lyrics in Jamaica.

There were also competitions in Soca music or the dancehall version of calypso and the Soca monarch one year surprisingly was a singer from Barbados. The Mighty Sparrow made this link clear in his 1978 soca hit song titled, ‘Dudu Yemi - Natasha From Nigeria’. I am aware that many African musicians sing versions of soca but how many of them would be sponsored by their countries or by businesses in their countries to participate in the annual soca competitions in Trinidad and Tobago where this genre originated among the urban poor Africans (they call themselves Africans officially) or host such contests in Africa to help promote the talents of the youth?

Apart from the musical competitions, there were costume design competitions, big band, small band, mini band and all sorts of different contests that started well in advance of the carnival itself. Then on the morning of the first day of Carnival, Jouvert morning, people went out as early as 4:00AM to roll in the mud and paint their faces blue or red and party on the streets until sunrise. This is part of the ritual of letting go of inhibitions and being free to explore your fantasies as part of the carnival culture. Although I have not played Jouvert, I saw many faces with mud and paints when I went to see the carnival processions in the afternoon of Monday but I did not see any of the fights that used to characterize the rivalry between the big bands in years gone by. To get a better literary description of all these, just read Earl Lovelace’s novel, The Dragon Can’t Dance.

Scantily-clad beautiful women and men file past in costumes that cost them thousands of the local dollars to buy. They dance and ‘wine’ their waists seductively with smiles of pleasure. Some of the costumes depicted dessert scenes with snakes and camels, some ‘masqueraders’ wear skimpy soldier costumes, some played ‘Old Mas’ as pirates, some as sailors, some as kings and queens, some as black Indians, some as African Tribes, while others present a coffin for some industrialization policies they did not like and the huge sound systems boomed from truck after truck to see which musical composition would be played most frequently and therefore be awarded the road march prize. Notice that men and women are encouraged to play mas or wear masks whereas the enthronement of patriarchy in Africa by colonialism now means that only men are allowed to play masquerades (including female masks like Agbonma or Gelede, played by cross-dressing Igbo and Yoruba men, respectively) as Nwando Achebe indirectly documented in her book, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria with the case of the woman who brought out her own masquerade only for the men to seize it with the support of the Colonial administration.

Among the revelers were many tourists and many of the spectators too were foreign in appearance. You guessed right, the costume business and the income from tourism, not to mention the many street traders hawking the winning tunes, food, drinks, memorabilia and allegedly pirated popular copies of Nigerian films must be adding a lot to the country’s economy annually. Trinidadians could also learn filmmaking from Nollywood.

The second day of the carnival is often more enchanting and is characterized by ‘pretty mas’. The costumes appeared more elaborate, the dancers appeared more daring as they would sometimes leave their troupe to wine on a spectator. The wining seemed to follow a rule that women were in control of the wining and the men were not allowed to touch the women wining in front of them except with their equally wining waists. Many of the women were playing ‘mas’ with their husbands or boy friends and any touching could result in a fight, I was told. Yet, I discovered that the no touch rule was also aesthetic because grabbing the waists of 'winers' could cramp their styles.

There were more female masqueraders than male ones and so I also found many women wining on each other. Most European couples wined together but a few of those black men that the Mighty Sparrow called ‘Congo Boys’ wined with European women; East Indian couples also wined together mostly in band sections all by themselves and African couples also wined together as if there was an informal rule that segregated the masqueraders by race and ethnicity. I was later told that people signed up for bands in groups of friends and family members and tended to dance together not as a result of discrimination but just as people who planned to party together.

Overall, the carnival is fun to watch and I am told that it is even more fun to participate in by playing mas or masquerading. There were rumours that some people were leaving the country out of fear that crime would be on the rise during the carnival but carnival was remarkably safe according to official reports. How many African countries could boast of such incident-free street carnivals that would attract tourists under the watchful eyes of security officials who were not distracted by the greed for kolanuts or bribes from spectators and performers alike?  Yes, some police officers have been charged with involvement in kidnapping for ransom but it was unbelievable to watch a soldier or police officer stand at attention while a woman was wining provocatively in front of his waist.

I am fully aware that Africa is rich in culture but we may have to learn from the African Diaspora, better ways of maximizing the returns from the culture industry. The African Trinidadians would be quick to tell you that their ancestors brought many of the cultural icons with them from Africa and so we should not be shy to study how they have evolved them into major industries with the support of public policy.

The key to the marketing is to open the doors to all who wished to participate instead of continuing with exclusionary practices that suggest that only men or natives could play masquerades with whips to chase women and children and intimidate them along the streets or fight each other physically or remotely without a cause. Yes, I was told that in previous years, there were fights between carnival bands but these days, such fights are merely symbolic in the sense that the sound systems clashed to see whose sound would be heard and loved by more dancers. Let us learn from their successes in sustaining a multi-racial democracy of Africans and East Indians, Europeans and Amerindians and avoid any mistakes they may have made.

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