In this interview with Musikilu Mojeed and Ibanga Isine, Pius Adesanmi, a professor of English and African Studies at Carleton University, Canada, speaks about his writings, his activism, the way Nigeria is governed as well as his future political plans. Excerpts:
What is your impression of Nigerians and the challenges their country is facing at this time?
I love Nigeria and Nigerians so much because we are a bundle of contradiction. You see so much… I don’t want to call it poverty but existential challenges in every layer of society. In spite of this, everybody is still happy. People are still bubbling everywhere and I love Nigeria for that.
You are supposed to be in Canada. Why are you in Nigeria at this time?
There are a couple of reasons. Some are immediate and some are remote. The immediate is that I have some lecture events to attend. One was the NBA International Literary Colloquium which held recently in Mina. I was the keynote speaker. I also attended the 60thbirthday of Pastor Tunde Bakare of the Later Rain Assembly. It was a weeklong activity which culminated in a public lecture and a book launch in Lagos. I was invited to present the 60th Birthday Public Lecture. I had two lectures and an opportunity to come back home. It’s always good to come back home and enjoy the communion of kindred spirit.
Are you not going to stop by in your hometown in Kogi to take some palm wine because in one of your writings, you talked about how you salivate for the early-morning palm wine?
That was in a lecture I delivered two years ago titled, “Face me I book you.” I was reminiscing about that part of life in the village while growing up. My father had a palm wine tapper who would come at 5a.m. every morning. When my dad passed on about five years ago, I inherited his palm wine tapper. Only that this time around, he calls me with his blackberry phone from the top of the palm tree which shows that things have changed a lot. Fortunately, during this visit, I am not able to go all the way to Kogi which needs more surveillance visits from me. By and large, Kogi is not a state that is governed to my satisfaction and if I am complaining about any other state in my own attempt to be transcendentally federalist in my engagement of public institutions in Nigeria, I think there comes a time I should situate it a lot more in Kogi State.
What do you mean by saying Kogi is not well-governed to your satisfaction?
Looking at all the indices of underdevelopment and backwardness in this country, I think you could go back to Kogi again and again to cite examples – whether it is Millennium Development Goals, infrastructure or anything. There is little or no governance going on there as far as I am concerned and people like us who come from there need to pay attention to that. We need to let the authorities know that while we are concerned with the broader issues about Nigeria that Kogi State is also in our focus and that we have not forgotten that we have to also look closely at what is happening back at home in Kogi.
How are you copping living in Canada given your likeness of palm wine, the wine tapper and other delicacies from home?
You really don’t want me to get away with this palmwine business. But I think you are using palmwine as a metaphor for much deeper issues around dislocation, exile, displacement, nostalgia and home. You have been there and you know it’s always a struggle. You make do with what you have. On the surface, there is always a bottle of palmwine which is not the real thing but at least has the fragrance of the real thing. You make do with that. I like using one expression that as much as possible, try to photocopy Nigeria. Try to photocopy the culture and photocopy what makes Nigeria tick and reproduce it over there but always bear it in mind that photocopies and reproductions are not the real thing. So in the Diaspora, you must essentially make it a duty to always come back once in a while. I will give you an example since we are in the spheres of alcoholic metaphors. In the first half of last years, you know I recently attended a fellowship in Ghana and being based in Ghana for one year afforded me multiple opportunities to come home to Nigeria. I came once a month. At that time, everybody was almost into Alomo Bitters.
So I got into Alomo Bitters and the sub-cultural world of signification. Every alcoholic drink has a culture and subcultures surrounding it including modes of socializing, discuss engagement, banters and all that. But when I came back after a break of just three months, everybody is talking about Origin. Having gone for only three months only and hey, if you are talking Alomo Bitters, Nigerians have moved ahead. It is now Origin, Origin, Origin. I put that up for my Facebook followers and used that as a metaphor for much broader, much deeper and much significant things that you miss out when you stay away for too long. Somebody was in this country in July and came into the discourse of Alomo Bitters just to come back three months later to meet the discourse of Origin all over the place.
You were talking about nostalgia, displacement, exile and the associated problems and excitement about home. It does appear and it shows in almost all your writings that you miss home, you love Nigeria and Africa. Why can’t you come back home and invest your potentials in the country and continent?
Well, I think there are multiple ways to do that. First, at the political level I am not very sympathetic to the idea because you know a lot of my detractors will either try to blackmail me or try to coble me into some kind of emotional and psychological position from which some of my ideas and positions and engagements on national issues could be delegitimised. Like saying, if you love Nigeria so much, why not come back, or you are not even in a position to speak about some of these things because you are not based here. So at that political level, I am not sympathetic to their points of view and I don’t think that location ordinarily delegitimises ones mode of engagement with Nigerian especially in modes of intervention on issues of advancement. I am not sympathetic to that sort of argument. At another level, I like to think of it in terms of my fundamental attachment to Nigeria and my unimpeachable devotion to her development at the intellectual level especially – that is my constituency. In this case, my location is not mutually exclusive as an errant global cosmopolitan intellectual. I also take that identity quite seriously and this idea of being at home in the world so that the business of Nigeria and I hope you are not going to box me into a position that will make me say something that will make you remember the Yar’Adua days. I am going to say that the business of Nigeria should not necessarily be subjected to the strictures of location. You should not necessarily be here to make the intellectual business of Nigeria relevant and useful. In fact, I always tell people that I am much more useful to this country in terms of my contribution to her intellectual development than I could ever hope to if I was based here. Out there, I have more resources at my disposal to help individuals in universities and schools back home in Kogi State. I have more opportunities to throw out to colleagues over here in terms of development and grants. There are windows I am privileged to open up to my fellow Nigerians that I may not essentially have if I were here. Most of these factors make it possible for me to be there and still maintain a certain level of relevance.
You have a punishing schedule and at one point you collapsed in Frankfurt in July, maybe out of exhaustion. Why are you highly sought after?
I am almost tempted to tell you to ask those who invite me give you the reason. I don’t know. Maybe there is something they think I have and they like. Maybe there are some kinds of contributions they think I can make, not just to Nigeria because the engagements I have are mostly about issues of Africanist knowledge production and capacity building. I get invited a lot and I crisscross the continent giving lectures on the politics of generating knowledge in Africa, about Africa in the 21st century.
Does it have something to do with the fact that you are bilingual?
I think that helps a lot. People used to tell me back in the day, I don’t know whether that is true anymore because now I do a lot things in English Language. Back in the day, people used to tell me that if I stand behind a curtain speaking French, you would find it really hard to say that I wasn’t a Frenchman. I speak the Peruvian French. Yes, being bilingual means that I have one leg in Anglophone Africa and one leg in Francophone Africa and these are traditions, cultures and political issues are thrown up.
Are you also familiar with the culture of these places too?
Oh yes. My good friend and poet, Ogaga Ifowodo, who is back in the country and contesting for the Federal House of Representatives, used to grumble that I was becoming too “Frenchified” for his liking. So if you go into French studies the way I did, you know all my degrees are in French and I spent time in France. Even before going to school to study French, I was already exposed to it because of the peculiar circumstances of my upbringing back in Kogi State. I was partly raised by a French Reverend Father. If you take all that into consideration, you will see the rooted “Frenchness” I got into in this Anglophone giant (Nigeria). I have a strong French/Francophone background and didn’t only study French to acquire the language. When France colonized a part of Africa, they came with a philosophy of assimilation, “frenchification,” which means that whatever is your base culture isn’t work keeping. They brushed away everything and they pour frenchness into you. Part of that philosophy was built into the training of French graduates so they acquired the French culture and civilization along with the language.
You are a cultural icon and a respected writer but you are also a social critic which is where most of your writings are focused. You have criticized the Nigerian establishment extensively and tend not to see anything good in the country and those in power.
What do you really want?
There are two things that are being conflicted here. When the spoilers and wasters of our potentials and boundless opportunities want to delegitimise my position, they will say I don’t see anything good about and in Nigeria instead of saying that I don’t see anything good about them or the way they are ruling. And that is part of why I am dissatisfied, that is why we are struggling because you have these guys who in order to continue to rule this country the way they are ruling and when I say ruling, I am using it interchangeably with ruining. There is a distinction between ruling and leading. That’s why I call them rulers and not leaders. Therefore, if I say they are rulers, I means they are ruining the country because they are not leading the country. One of the levels of resistance one must bring up against them is the equation of their own personality and overinflated ego with Nigeria so that if you criticise them, you are criticising Nigeria. If you say that X is not a good leader, then they unleash social media attack dogs on you. There is a constant case of sly misrepresentation and I do not agree that I do not see anything good in Nigeria. That is what our detractors think. My problem is that there so many things that are fundamentally annoying about this country which cause restiveness and dissatisfaction. There is very little things about the way the state, our mechanisms, our institutions function in ways that fundamentally alienate and dehumanise the citizens. I can go into specifics.
On my way to Minna, I took pictures of a Federal Government road construction in progress – a 21st century road construction in progress in this country. On the surface, you could see this fine layer of bitumen or tar in a stretch of macadam which is really nice to behold. But when you look closely, you find out that the layer is very thin. With all the machines and heavy-duty equipment, the contractor has just poured the thin layer of bitumen on sand in the 21st century. You want me to tell you the layers of corruption that went into the making of that road which is going to be washed off during the next rainy season so that it will be rewarded to our friends so that we take part of our cut. That’s just one example.
Are you referring to corruption in the country?
Are you saying that nothing right is happening in the country?
That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that a lot is being done wrongly which overwhelms whatever it is they are doing right and in the 21st century; we have absolutely no basis being overwhelmed by mediocrity, by substandard and evil. By the way, I perfectly understand and what I am talking about is not just limited to those who are ruling this country. There is an overwhelming ethos and general subscription to mediocrity as a standard and it has generally been accepted in every facet of our lives and it applies to the citizenry. In fact, I am happy that you are making me talk about our leaders now. For over a year now, I have been writing about the psychology of followers which is fundamentally wrong and we have to work on it. When you come into Nigeria, one thing which amazes me is the proliferation of “Nollywood” homes – lovely residential buildings. People are building very lovely homes all over the country and you could say to some extent that there is some level of middleclass empowerment that has gone into that process when you see all these duplexes, bungalows and very nice things. You could call that development – right? Yea, that is an index of socio-economic advancement. But when you go inside those houses, something as simple as finishing is wrong in a N10 million home. You may be tempted to ask what government has got to do with toilets not flushing properly in homes that also have bad plastering and doors that are not properly fixed in a N10 million home. Years of accumulation of mediocrity, years of the accumulation of the substandard even when there are regulations. That is what Nigeria paid for. It is not that there are no rules and edicts in the books. There are always there so that by the time you are building those homes in Lekki, in Banana Island, in Maitama, in Asokoro or these other areas, you see the façade of excellence outside but when you go inside, you are forced to ask, ‘what’s going on here?’.why are we in this permanent state of rebellion against excellence? That’s the fundamental question we must answer.
You have criticised successive governments in the country and now we want you to look back and tell us which the worst government in Nigeria is?
I have come to a situation where I think that that question is no longer legitimate in the case of Nigeria – that is the transcendental comparison of the badness of successive government. Here is why I say so. Every time we face one government in its present, you thought it was the worst. Then the next government will come in and you say wait a minute, looks like we had it better in the previous administration. We thought there couldn’t be a worst government than Obasanjo’s administration. Then Yar’Adua came along and acquired the dubious distinction of being Mr. Snail who didn’t do anything but allowed the country to be dysfunctional. So we thought that quite bad and his 7-Point Agenda didn’t seem to go anywhere. I thought that was quite bad and screamed and screamed. His illness was capitalised upon by the so-called cabal and all those things that went on. Now this guy (President Jonathan) tags along. When you look back at Obasanjo and Yar’Adua, you find out that whatever was wrong with them now seems like child’s play. I have been home multiple times since President Jonathan came to power and I just don’t know or understand what he is up to. The weight of corruption has gotten so bad. In fact we are not even in position to complain about corruption because we now have bigger problems with him which makes corruption look like Boy Scout play in the field. We now live with layers of impunity that would make Sani Abacha ashamed of himself. But under Abacha, one would have the excuse that we were under a military rule. We have now democratized impunity. Under the military, there is the monopolization of impunity by the soldiers but what is going on under President Jonathan, am sorry to say is democratization of impunity at every level. Every Nigerian now exercises impunity in their little fiefdoms. I was on the road recently and somebody brought an MLS Mercedes Benz jeep and parked it facing the wrong side of the road. He just packed the car wrongly and left to attend to his own business. That Mercedes jeep suggests a number of things about the owner, assuming it was driven by the owner and not his or her driver. Ownership of that kind of car in this society suggests at least a minimum level of education, a minimum level of taste, a minimum level of culture and means to have bought it in the first place. Why did this person park in the middle of the road facing the wrong side of the traffic and goes away. That is impunity. Market women have impunity, taxi drivers have impunity, and everybody has impunity.
Reuben Abati was more critical of government than you are but today, he is on the other side. When people criticise government, it is difficult to know what they want. If you are given a job in government or a contract, would you still speak the way you are speaking now?
That question always assumes just like when I was reading the defence of my friend during the latest attempt by the Jonathan government to smear him. It is wrong to think that one is screaming because you want to draw attention to yourself or because you are waiting for your turn. I don’t know what motivated Reuben Abati to do what he did. But I am going to take a step at it and I hope it will be an indirect way of answering your question.
Reuben badly, tragically, and sadly underestimated the institution he had become. He misread the icon he had become. He misjudged the fact that there is no service he could ever offer to Nigeria that would be superior to what he was doing in the past. Reuben is a first-class brain. That brain, that intellect, that power. May all of that not fail us at the most critical moment of our lives. That is what I see when I always think of Reuben Abati. I hope that a time will not come when I am going to underestimate my own self because, considering what I have been doing, the activism, the writing, effort, the energy, are all thankless jobs that sway me from the legitimate job that puts food on my table. I am only extremely privileged to have the kind of employer which identifies with what I do. They like my service to the community, service to humanity and that’s why I haven’t run into problems. I strongly hope that a time will not arise when I will make two mistakes implicit in your question by underestimating the value of what I currently do, which I consider to be a contribution to my fatherland.
Secondly, and this is the most important part, people mistake service in government as the only way to serve Nigeria. They tell me, Prof, you are making noise now because you have not been called upon to serve or to come and eat and I asked them, who told you I have not been called upon to serve and how can that be possible in today’s Nigeria that I will be doing the sort of thing am doing and at the level at which am doing them, the audiences I have not only in Nigeria and I will not be approached? That is not possible. It is not thinkable because I know places I have messed up these guys very badly. It is not every time you go public that you go and beat your chest in terms of the impact that you have. Knowing that you will be asking for specifics; let me tell you something. I am in the capital of a major Western power which increasingly is becoming a very attractive destination for Nigerian government officials. They have messed up and everybody knows them in London and they are not taken seriously officially. They have also messed up very badly in the United States of America and nobody takes them seriously in the official US. They are seen as clowns. Now they come to Canada with all kinds of intergovernmental, multilateral, bilateral this and that. There are always delegations coming. I am also well-known to the Canadian authorities. Do you how many times the Canadian will phone me and ask questions about visiting Nigerian delegations? They will tell me they are hosting a delegation of Nigeria and ask what my take is. I always tell people who have the kind of opportunity I have; like when a foreign government is seeking your opinion not about your country and about certain people who are coming and why they are coming, that is another opportunity to serve Nigeria.
Sometimes I look at the names and say these people are wonderful Nigerians; fantastic representatives of the Nigerian people and the interest of our country. Most times when I see the names and why they are coming, I tell the Canadians the people are not serious. For example, there was a time some of these clowns in the Senate came. I think they were doing constitutional review and it has been going on forever. So I got an email from the Canadians saying they were going to host a delegation of Nigerian senators. They said the Nigerian lawmakers were coming to study the Canadian Federalism. They told me that an entire Senate Committee was coming to study federalism in Canada in preparation for the process of restructuring Nigeria and ask whether I would like to attend their presentation. I thought within myself how Nigerian senators would come to understudy Canadian federalism. Of course I saw the name of Smart Adeyemi, the senator representing me, on the list and I laughed. I asked the Canadians who were going to host them what they know about Nigeria that these jokers should come here to study what Nigeria has been practicing right from the 60s. We had true federalism when we had the regions then and that is what the Canadian government is practicing. Ottawa has very little say in the affairs and economy of each of the province. They own what they produce. Ottawa is in charge foreign affairs, military and a few other sectors. I insisted that they didn’t need to come there and should be made to stay back home to find out how true federalism was implemented in Nigeria in the 60s. And those were some of the things I have the power to do out there.
You keep on complaining about mediocrity while people like you keep distancing yourself from government. Are you saying that if the Jonathan administration invites you to come and serve you will decline?
I find a little bit of blackmail in that question when people ask. If I reject an offer from the Jonathan government, it means I don’t want to serve under the administration and that should not be equated with not wanting to serve Nigeria.
But why won’t you want to serve under Jonathan government?
Why will I want to serve under a government that is dysfunctional in everything? I would be a hypocrite. It would take a change in the DNA of the Jonathan government to make me agree to associate myself with that government.
If Nigeria is handed over to you and you are asked to change two things about the country. What would those things be?
It is leadership by personal example. I have been speaking about it. It has disappeared completely from this country but it makes it so easy for good followership. A followership is as corrupt as the Nigerian followership has become and which is the biggest problem this country has. A country can survive corrupt rulers but no country can survive a corrupt followership where everybody in their own little corners have ethos of cutting corners in everything. What legitimises cutting of corners for the followership is because those who are in charge of things are doing it. All it takes is one day in the life of a president where a clear message would be sent through symbolic and evident-based action that impunity is no longer tolerated, it will reverberate throughout the country. It would create a miracle. The followers cannot do anything outside the personal example of their leaders. It will take only one day for a leader to make his life an example to the followers for things to change. It will take the renunciation of the present government ethos which has corrupted everybody. There is no level in our lives that has not been corrupted. Even kids now have the mentality of getting things quick by cutting corners and every time people cut corners, they cheating the country. it is important to point out that the act is not as important as the mentality that says such action is right and the legitimacy comes from people in government.
From your informal conversations, you seem to like Ghana a lot. Why it this so?
That’s where the example comes in. Don’t forget that Ghana also has problems of corruption and a very sharp North and South divide and strong tribal flashpoints. Ghana has all that but they have that layer which makes you as a Nigerian very uncomfortable. To some extent, they have power, water and other basic things to some extent. And you begin to wonder why we couldn’t do better as Nigerians. For example, we were celebrating the 50th Anniversary of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. It was a long week event with international conferences and dignitaries coming from every part of the world. It was Kwama Nkruma’s pet project and they were celebrating it as a national event. The event was rounded off with a banquet and the President of Ghana, John Mahama was going to chair it. The event was going to start at 9pm and I asked a Ghanaian colleague to pick my Nigerian friend and I on the way. When the guy picked us we got there at about 9.10pm and we found people milling around, chatting and about two people were already seated on the high table including the chairman of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, UNECA. I was looking at my time and it was almost 9.20pm and I turned and told my Ghanaian colleague that I thought their country was different and concluded that their president also comes to events late. He looked at me and said Prof what are you talking about? I said is it not President Mahama we are expecting? He pointed to the high table and said, that’s him sitting there. Of course I had seen the picture of the president a thousand times and not that I didn’t know him. Mr. Mahama was there on the high table and chatting just like any other person in the hall. I didn’t recognise him because of the ease of our access to the hall. I found out that the president was already seated before we arrived and had been sitting there all the time we were moving around and even passing in front of him.
Are you saying there were no security operatives near the president?
My brother there was no sign that a president was in the room and the two of us who were Nigerians were shocked. The Ghanaians didn’t understand why we reacted that way. I tried to tell my Ghanaian friend that if Nigeria’s First Lady, Patience Jonathan was coming to the campus, about 12 kilometers to the venue could have been sealed a day earlier. But here was a president sitting inside and we walked in without being checked by any security operative. It was shortly after that the master of ceremony announced that the programme was about to begin. But the president was just bouncing back and forth and mingling with people showing the demystification of power. If I heard siren in Ghana in a year, it was an ambulance or the police. So look at that? If power is seen as ordinary and that is taken as a philosophy from which a leader operates, he will understand the importance of showing example to his followers.
Your last book was “You Are Not a Country Africa.” When are we expecting another work?
I have three books in the works now. Two of them will come out soon and one of them is for my primary constituency, that’s the academia and the second is a sequel to “You Are Not a Country Africa,’ which involves the collection of my satires on Nigeria. I don’t know who will publish that. I heard from the grapevines that PREMIUM TIMES in collaboration with Richard Ali’s outfit will be publishing that book.
You seem to be doing a lot of your writings these days on Facebook and you seem to be reflective. Why do you do that?
I have realised the power of social media and that’s part of my beat as a scholar of culture. Fundamentally, I do literary and cultural studies and that is my professional designation. We try to study what we call the location of culture, the demography that I study to impact on are there. I have to locate my knowledge generation there and so I take what I do on the social media very seriously because my goal is to educate beyond the classroom.
You write on a da