Title: Nigeria Yesterday Today: An Anthology of Social Commentaries
Author: Godwin Sogolo
Reviewer: Professor Eghosa E. Osaghae, Vice Chancellor, Igbinedion University Okada
Publishers: Safari Books Ltd (Ibadan, 2012)726pp
Distributors: Booksellers Ltd, Nigeria
There is a genre of writing that Nigerians have learnt over the years to take seriously. It is one that can be described as public-minded – some would add populist – analyses in newspapers and magazines. Public-minded analyses are typically found in regular columns and features that bear the imprint of their authors after whom, it is now the fashion to say, they are branded.
Such analyses often combine elements of responsibility, enlightenment, activism, entertainment and sophistication, with some demonstrating the logic and systemization usually associated with academic journal writing.They are also quite capable of simplifying the most difficult subjects in readable, digestible and light-hearted ways, which is a major factor in their ever-growing popularity.
The effects of these writings are self-evidently tremendous, and have ranged from thought and debate provocation, to public agenda setting and devoted followership and discipleship. They also include the extensive use of the articles by scholars, researchers and students as veritable references.
However, although public-minded writings have grown in importance and have been buoyed by the regularity of essays in the branded columns, the writings have fleeting memories and a tendency to disappear into the recesses of forgetfulnessas issues analyzed change from week to week.
Only those who create archives of newspaper cuttings can manage to extend the relevance of the articles beyond the week, but even the archivists themselves would acknowledge the difficulty in keeping up with this. And yet, as social commentaries, weekly and regular essays have common threads, continuities and timeless relevance that unfortunately get diminished in scattered collections that terminate with every passing week.
This is wherethe book under review, Nigeria Yesterday Today: An Anthology of Social Commentaries, by Professor Godwin Sogolo, marks a new and welcome chapter in the annals of public-minded writing. It is a collection of 203 articles written by Sogolo and published in The Guardian, the flagship of the (liberal) press in Nigeria, between 28th July 1986 and 9th September 1991.
In possible anticipation of how to evaluate the impact of the articles in the manner of feedback and effects discussed earlier, the book also has a very thoughtful section on selected rejoinders and letters elicited bySogolo’s articles. The content of the twenty-four articles in this section and the caliber of their authors bear eloquent testimony to the seriousness with which his articles were taken by the attentive public.
While some, like Professor Godwin Emerole who corrected his postulation that garri, palm wine and groundnut were cancer-causing agents disagreed strongly with his views, most applauded his courage, insightfulness and prescriptions, though I find it remarkable that for all critical and non-sparing analysis of politics, governance and the economy, and even of the persons of the military president, governors, ministers, traditional rulers and other high ups, there were no official rejoinders, disclaimers and dismissals.
Perhaps the author has chosen to hide these from the public, thereby depriving us of a good measure of the impact of public writing on governance and politics, but if not, could it be taken as a suggestion or indication that those in government eitherdo not read these essays or if they do, that they really do not care what they say? This is an interesting point to ponder given that the country was governed by the military in the period covered by the essays.
The 203 articles in this book address virtually all the important and controversial issues that Nigeria and Nigerians had to grapple with between 1986 and 1991, including articles that reviewed the state of the nation in October celebrations of independence and in December/January reviews of the passing year and prognoses of the New Year.
The issues tackled ranged from those of the economy (remember these were the years of SAP), religion, rising violence, education, corruption, police, football (the national opium), military professionalism and rule and labour, to campus cultism, road safety, national cohesion, leadership, peacekeeping, political transition, women’s issues (including the paradigm of Margaret Thatcher), smoking, ethics and values, development, environmental remediation, and judicial integrity.
In between, and as they evolved, Sogolo also analyzed a few global issues that had bearings on Africa’s state and future development, including South Africa’s transition and the Mandela magic and Samuel Doe’s fall in Liberia.
The topicality and appropriateness of the issues are indicative of the presence of mind and acute sense of responsibility that Professor Sogolo had as a social commentator and public-minded analyst. But it was more the lucidity and self-consciousness on display in the articles that defined the Sogolo phenomenon as a Guardian writer.
They reflected the quintessential philosopher, teacher and academic analyst in Sogolo, working hard successfully to credible objectivity and general understanding amongst readers of different ilk. Unlike some social commentators who turn their fault-finding lights only on “others”, Sogolo’s incisive – and pungent attacks – did not spare his own primary constituency of the academia, as in the interrogation of non-professing professors, the crack in UNIBEN, the vice of a chancellor, and the critique of WAZOBIA balancing acts in the institution of the national merit award.
Another remarkable element in the various articles is the profound general knowledge displayed in various subjects, but most notably political economy and economics, as attested to by discussions of SAP economics, including SFEM, privatization and poverty reduction, as well as the data deficits and gaps in budgeting and economic planning.
It must truly be that philosophy is an all-encompassing discipline, which is probably why one of the rejoinders makes a case for the philosopher-king in Nigeria, never mind that Aristotle considered politics and not philosophy to be the master science!
The third characteristic of the articles in this book is that although they address disparate issues, they have points of convergence and mutual reinforcement that make them a readable whole. A major factor here is the emphasis on a few recurring or ‘frame-working’ issues, notably, police, religion, violence, education, university sector, military governance and political transition, corruption, in several articles.
The other factor is that Sogolo’s thoughts were consistent, well-rounded and interconnected, something that the arrangement of the articles in chronological order does not quite articulate. Perhaps an arrangement of the articles into sections of related articles would have brought this aspect of the book into bolder relief, but that is an editorial matter for another day.
The final attribute of the articles, which shows its great scholarly value, is the contemporariness and timelessness of (the analyses in) the different articles. Social commentaries almost by definition are time-bound and soon become dated, but this is not the case with most of the articles in this collection.
Although written over 22-26 years ago, they are as relevant and topical today as they were then, a point made by Professor Sogolo himself in the narration of the making of this book. Indeed, not only have the issues analyzed remained relevant, they seem to have come full cycle, unraveling in magnitudes that were unimaginable in the 1980s.
Take the issue of terrorism and religious violence for example. In his analysis of the Maitatsine riots in 1986, Sogolo postulated that religious mobilization even in its most extreme form was not likely to reach the levels of violence and terrorism in Pakistan, India and Northern Ireland, but was sure that except proactive measures were taken, the blessing that Nigeria enjoyed at the time could not be guaranteed.
Similarly, at the rate the military was militarizing civil society in the late 1980s, Sogolo was sure that violence was going to become more endemic in the country’s sociopolitical landscape.
How true these have turned out to be! In sum, it can be said, the continuing relevance of Sogolo’s analyses is largely to be attributed to the analytical prowess that led to valid conclusions and predictions rather than the fact that the more things have changed in Nigeria, the more they have remained the same!!
In closing, let me return to the importance of this book that I only hinted at in my introduction. It is that those who enjoyed the lucid analysis of Sogolo’sGuardian writings now have the opportunity to refresh their readings in one single volume.
This is particularly crucial for today’s leaders in the executive and legislature especially, who need to have the background to many of the problems that now set our country apart and behind. Similarly, scholars, researchers, politicians and public intellectuals now have a reference volume that liberates them from the burden of newspaper cuttings. I congratulate Professor Sogolo and the publishers for this great contribution to the consolidation of the genre of public-minded writing (I expect others to follow suit) and highly recommend it to the reading and attentive publics.