By Obi Nwankanma
Just last Friday, on my way back to the United States, I had called the Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, to congratulate him on certain aspects of this government’s programme to which he is associated. I had, in fact, assured him of my willingness to help further the cause of this particular project if in the future he needed volunteers.
I specifically had in mind, the programme on restoring the book and the reading habits of Nigerians. Much as I had my personal misgivings about the tenor of the event which was widely broadcast on NTA’s national network, I thought that this particular event made a fine gesture to a central but missing value in contemporary Nigerian public education: the book; the rekindling of the public imagination through the culture of reading.
Not just reading of books but exploring the vast imaginary contained in imaginative writing: this is one important missing link in the current education of the Nigerian. I took note of the fact, as Chinua Achebe has written in his essay “The Sweet Aroma of Zik’s Kitchen,” that the only Nigerian leader who has taken the literary world seriously, publicly, is the late President Nnamdi Azikiwe, the foundational president of the republic, and, of course, a philosopher-statesman, whose own background and affiliation made that possible.
Dr. Azikiwe was not only a poet spawn smack in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, he was a journalist and a man of the books.
Of course, few Nigerians also know that Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, was a first-rate novelist in the Hausa language and that President Shehu Shagari is a competent poet also in the Hausa language, and both belong to something of a canon of Modern Hausa literature, some of which, were Nigerian universities Humanities programme sophisticated and up to their paces, ought to be taught in translation.
In any case, the first true public celebration of contemporary Nigerian literature in recent years, however, limited and insular the project broadcast on national TV, is President Goodluck Jonathan’s reach- out campaign and acknowledgement of the book as a central factor in the evolution of the Nigerian mind.
He sat alongside Wole Soyinka, Odia Ofeimun, Reuben Abati and some others, on the same platform, and he, the president, read from Chinua Achebe’s Chike and the River, set in the famous city by the lordly Niger, Onitsha. I took note of that fact, even beyond the symbolism, that this is a president that reads. He ought to, of course. The mark of every educated man is the capacity to evince a culture of the mind; a reflective capacity which is made evident by a deep awareness of the literary culture of the land. Who are our greatest poets?
Who are our finest novelists and playwrights? Who are our most important artists and musicians? What is the quality – the arête of the Nigerian mind, reflecting its national culture and transmitted through its most important imagination? The book is the heart of a national culture and no nation of worth exists higher than the imaginations that conceive their highest aesthetic and moral values – their writers and artists.
It is with all that in mind that I took particular interest, beyond the gaudiness of the show-and-tell on television, and the lurid panegyric that accompanies many public events in Nigeria to the point of the farcical, that I paid some attention to this public celebration of the book by this government. I was also quite taken by the concluding statement by Maku, that this president was “a digital president” different from the past “analogue” presidents who have governed the country.
I took this to mean that President Jonathan was a new and progressive force intent on ushering in a new way of doing things, and committed to making a radical and clean break with the past. Now, I have known Maku for more than a quarter of a century. He was my contemporary at the University of Jos; in the same Humanities programme – he in History and I in English in the 1980s. We belonged to the same political cut of cloth and he was in my time a voice that we could trust as President of the University of Jos Student Union.
We also became colleagues in journalism – he in the Champion and I through many loops to the Vanguard. It was in these terms that I called him to offer him my solidarity while I was in Nigeria, but more importantly, to remind him of the dreams of our past youth, to create a new, progressive and humane nation. As I was airborne to the United States, my friend and colleague, the novelist and newspaper columnist, Okey Ndibe, was on his way, by Turkish Airline, to Lagos.
At Passport Control, Dr. Ndibe was arrested and briefly detained by the Nigerian Security Services who interrogated him, seized his passports and directed him to report at the Ikoyi office of the State Security Service. This is, of course, befuddling. Dr. Ndibe is a well-known Nigerian novelist – a writer of the literature that the current government just celebrated; he is professor at Trinity College, Connecticut and a visiting Professor of African Studies at Brown University. He is an outspoken columnist against the uses or misuses of power.
That is his prerogative as a public intellectual and a voice for rational governance. As the news broke, I called Mr. Maku again, first to register my outrage, and second to hear the government’s version regarding the arrest of Dr. Ndibe. Unfortunately our conversation was broken down by static.
I hope the Nigerian government has some good explanation for the arrest of Dr. Okey Ndibe. I hope that Mr. Maku, as Minister of Information understands the implication, being himself once a victim of the uses of the outrageous means of state power, but this under the military, to terrorise and humiliate citizens and abridge their rights to free speech, free association, and conscience. As a former journalist, he also bears a powerful and symbolic responsibility to make public the reason behind this outrage.
In a terse statement released by the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, he points to a growing evidence of a return to “this familiar path” of targeting, detaining, harassing, and attempting to squeeze journalists and any potential figure of opposition. I hope that this “digital President” does not permit the use of primitive methods against any potential opposition.
He would only mobilise a mass and critical outrage. But I will also say this, as a benefit of doubt for the Jonathan administration, that perhaps the arrest of Okey Ndibe has nothing to do with the current government, and may be the work of a fifth columnist within the Nigerian security services who understands that the arrest of a well-known journalist and writer could embarrass the Jonathan administration and cause wide, public disaffection. It is an old trick.
We must remember how this was done to Mohammadu Buhari with the fifty-three suitcases incident. If this is the case, President Jonathan and his administration must get to the roots of this snafu and make a public apology on behalf of the government to Ndibe, and to Nigerians, and above all, clean up the Nigerian Security system. This is a free advice.