Ayo Olukotun: Between The Narrator And The Seer, By Toyin Falola
In his award-wining weekly column for Punch newspaper, Ayo Olukotun, Dean of Social Sciences, Lead City University, Ibadan relentlessly unleashes the main beast on his readers: Ebola-level affliction of mis-governance. His chief concern is to relate the lives of Nigerians to those of their leaders in their multiple layers, and in their complicated as well as tortured relationships. Most certainly, the beast of mis-governance is everywhere, so ubiquitous that Olukotun presents its suffocating power in various dimensions and in a storm of words.
Nigeria is gripped by despondency and failure, but Olukotun stands back and reflects on all of its various dimensions, the peace that is constantly interrupted by spasms of violence from the northeast corner to the nights of darkness in the southwest, to the flames and clouds of flared gas in the Niger Delta, and to the lethal moments in Abuja where a bomb can be planted in the bus that one is about to board.
Poor Nigerians, Olukotun laments in one essay after another, manifest a human-inhuman relationship with those who govern them, a status quo that represents man’s inhumanity to man! There is the anthropology of suffering; the philosophy of endurance; the literary imagination of hope; the sociology of suffering; the religion of redemption; and, above all, the geography of poverty.
Thus, our placement in society is predicated upon our access to the beast of power; our human affect is configured by access to diesel-based generators; our cultural landscape is shaped by disorder; our domesticity is infused by conflicts externally induced by overarching stifling political networks; while our sexuality is damaged by the strong odor supplied to our body by the heat inside and, sadly, by the garbage next to the main door.
In one week, Olukotun would flesh out the genealogies of human brutality; in the week that follows, he portrays the wildness of human characters; he mellows in the third week to look at the tameness of one or two among us, the rare face of humanity; and then he can close the monthly cycle with the exotic, such as a conference where some elevating ideas had been generated. He invokes events and ideas from all over the world. He makes enlightened guesses but occasionally resorts to projections, sometimes predictions. He makes connections between words and actions.
When it is necessary, he uses his data for modeling, as well as drawing from his discipline of political science, but he is not opposed to analytical contingencies. He takes wise words from conferences and public lectures, juxtaposing them with those of anger, frustration, and disappointment that are transparently expressed in the streets and in alleys without hope. In juxtaposing wisdom with anger, he stands on a pedestal of higher moral authority, creating a critical balance of opinions. He connects us to the tumult both in print and digitally, linking us by proximity to events; by ideology to politics; and by profession to a body of ideas. Indeed, Olukotun is seen by his admirers from all segments of Nigerian society as a modern-day Tai Solarin of Mayflower College fame, whose “Thinking With You” column in Daily Times and Sunday Times newspapers of Kakawa Street in Lagos also screamed against societal decay, corruption and indiscipline! What a perfect reincarnation!
Olukotun’s Juma’at is a secular parallel to the Islamic congregational prayers. For indeed, there is already an Ummah, a community of readers, and a large army of worshippers. His Friday is preceded by the equivalent of obligatory prayers, the preceding six days of observations and panic. Then on the eve of Friday, the Ummah awaits the Friday obligatory Juma’at The Juma’at must never change, as we are told in the Holy Quran:
“O ye who believe, when the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday (the day of assembly), hasten earnestly to the remembrance of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) and leave off business (and traffic). That is best for you if ye but knew.” (Qur’an 62:9).
Just as the Juma’at is not optional but obligatory, so must we listen to Olukotun on Friday. Were we not told, in the passage that I just cited, that:
They (people) will have to stop neglecting the Friday prayer or otherwise, Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) will seal their hearts and they will be counted among the negligent.
Our negligence, in avoiding to read Olukotun’s biting and acerbic columns, amounts to a “sin,” and to missing the “respected sayings” of a prophet. We violate the divine Wajib; we disaffirm our citizenship. Having abandoned our “worldly duties” to devote fifteen minutes to Olukotun’s sermon, we begin to note the similarities with what the Imam is doing in the mosque on the same Friday afternoon. Olukotun and the Imam must, respectively, give a sermon, a social commentary that must highlight our daily problems, reflect on our social order, and motivate us.
To stay close to this analogy, Olukotun creates a humanitarian posture, that is, his writings, like sermons, are meant to elevate our minds, prick our conscience, support the poor and the innocent, and criticize the powerful for their shameful and unflattering treatment of the powerless. He combines expertise with empathy, without disregarding sympathy when it is necessary to do so. But unlike the Imam, he does a neutral analysis, thus editing out spiritual compassion to analyze data in relation to specific issues and concerns. Because of the asymmetry of power between state and civil society, the condemnatory stress is on the powerful, although he does not exculpate the citizens when they go wrong, as in their complicity with corruption.
We live in a modern-day zoo, proclaims the hidden text of Olukotun’s Friday sermons. The monkeys, lions, and tigers are displayed before us, not encaged to be looked at from outside of the barbed wires, as they are ready to pounce on us if we do not take cover. We hide, and then Olukotun provides the enlightenment to tame the animals. We are united in words that restore our social order. As he closes, we begin to see ourselves as part of a brotherhood. Nigeria must not fail, Olukotun reminds us, performing his duty as preacher of unity and critic of evil in his columns.
In Olukotun’s bipolar analysis of state-society relations, his cogent analysis also falls into a bipolar mindset: the hostility between the governors and their subjects on the one hand; with the occasional friendship and rapport between both, on the other. Both must interact, as Olukotun is forever reminding us, and the very vibrancy of these contacts and institutional relations gets painted in words. He gives so much power to the state agents, sometimes as if to suggest that most problems could be solved by those who wield power.
In the case of Nigeria, the location of power is not treated in its Foucauldian conception of diffused power, but in its concentration in a few hands that control the apparati of state power. In this conception, if a city is dirty, it is the government that is to blame; and if the school does not run well, it is the government that is responsible. He hits those who manage the state with a heavy hammer, seeing those in power as a problem, as well as the problem, defacto and dejure. But he also sees those who want to replace them as being no better.
The conception of power and governance, in Olukotun’s architectural frame, can be over-deterministic. Why can’t neighbourhood associations, recognizing the failure of government, clean their own environments? Can they not, on their own without compulsion, run an efficient school system? As I ask these questions, my aim is to reach one conclusion: that, indeed, the quest for modernity cannot just be contracted to the state and the politicians who abysmally run it.
Since power must always fail him, Olukotun retreats into the closets of Amos’ angst and attack on the rich for trampling on the poor and to Job’s muses of anguish. Limited in songs of liberation and hope, sometimes Olukotun transmogrifies into Moses with his cane disappearing into the wilderness of no return until he reaches the proverbial burning bush. His words, transmuted into prophecy, create the chaos that we see in our zoo: something of a paradox emerges such that the conflict and friendship between state and society begin to feed one another. Both recognize that they must co-exist in an uncomfortable tension, but the tolerance of one another is very deceptive and corrosive.
We gossip about the agents of the state, as Olukotun exposes our private discussions of resentment and hate on Fridays just as the Imam does in his mosque on the same day. With its police (with whom Olukotun once sympathized given their appalling conditions of work), the state warns us that it could, without notice, unleash violence on us or even declare a state of emergency at will in order to take matters into its own hands. Remember, the beast of mis-governance! The beast visits the real beasts of burden, always members of the underclass and poor of our society, whose plight amounts to what Paulo Freire of Brazil saw as the pedagogy of the oppressed. But that verbal and physical violence that we have come to accept as a rite of passage brings only a temporary truce. Olukotun reports, in good faith, what he sees politically and otherwise as our entanglements with the state.
The multidimensionality of our everyday life provides the food for Olukotun’s mental table, for without our difficulties, our indigestions, the ink in his pen would dry out. So he engages in our micro-history, from the mismanagement of our cities to the refuse dumps that litter our streets. Then the macro-history comes into it, as he compares our local universities and other tertiary institutions of higher learning with global ones; as he reviews the state of our hospitals while we take flights to India for medical salvation; and as he evaluates the totality of our institutions of governance.
His weekly essays provide us with the means to historicize our desire, our subjectivity, even the instantiations of our conditions. We have accepted our poor “conditions” as a state of being, something permanent, something static, as in the condition of the tattered roads as death traps; the condition of NEPA; the condition of death, the great leveler; indeed, the condition of hunger; even the condition of hell. Let me stress that it is the conditionality of hell, which is what allows Pentecostalism to flourish, for the “Lord is my Shepherd” to be heard loudly, the veritable line that greets you when you call most cell phones before the owner answers. For that hell is both represented on our earth with witches and sorcerers (as well as the diviners who locate them in revival churches along Ibadan-Lagos road) and indeed above the sky in heaven while hell is manifested by raging fire, sorrow, and suffering.
Olukotun can be jealous in his protection of Nigeria, objecting not only to the violation of its sovereignty, but the integrity of its people. He is critical of Western scholars who adulate Western heroes, while criticizing or ignoring the African heroes. He does not suggest making enemies of others, but rather seeing one’s country as the center of the universe. He is not part of an intellectual community that sees the fragmentation of Nigeria as a solution. He does not dispute the integrity of Nigeria as a nation.
Neither is he a member of the Pentecostalist corps that sees Islam as a threat, which denies the humanity of Muslims, portraying innocent people as terrorists, and aggregating the traditional thinkers as a bunch of idolatrous nonentities. There is no equivalent in his writings that equates an idea to the level of a religious sacrilege. There are no extremist declarations of nihilism or belligerence, but more of a commitment to the power of ideas, to rationality, and to solid arguments.
Even in his critiques of leadership, he does not see politics as a zero-sum game between radicals and conservatives, left and right. Surely, he seems to distance himself from the PDP, the party that controls the federal government, as in his endorsement of Kayode Fayemi instead of Ayo Fayose in Ekiti State, or of Rauf Aregbesola instead of Iyiola Omisore in Osun State, but he is neither anti-compromise nor opposed to the toleration of the candidate who wins. Thus, his column is bereft of hateful speeches, of nihilist positions, even if his main tactics of resistance are guns loaded with words. No parochial views, no extremist views, no fundamentalist religious views, no glorification of violence, no self-aggrandizement.
Olukotun is such an acute reader of our “conditions”: his cataloguing is close to being complete; his emphasis on each aspect is, to say the least, detailed and compelling. What is now missing from his work is the charter of our freedom. As we draw from his Juma’at, the Ummah can speak back and demand the following: we want peace and harmony; we want development; we want accountability; we want development. Nigeria belongs to all of us, the government must run on the will of all of us; we have been denied the right to live a good life; we have not been well served.
As I tease more from Olukotun’s principled writings, I am further impressed by how they are grounded in history, drawing from our distant and recent past, sometimes as references, as allusions, as evidence, and even as echoes. One sees multiple genealogies, which are then combined with the sociology of words. This sociology of words, delivered in its own careful aesthetic norm of language, generates Olukotun’s self-conscious conventions to present our condition and visualize our desire. His writings cannot be divorced from us, as subjects, venerated not as objects, but analyzed as strands, a combination of referents.
As subjects of analysis, Olukotun’s paradigms are visible, if not always stated. There is a bifurcation between state and society where the meeting point is about progress. Both have to reform themselves. The meeting point is shaped by the credentials of modernization—the need for better schools, better hospitals, better roads, more jobs, much more freedom of speech, etc.
To deliver that modernization, the political framework has to be based on democracy, which may explain his emphasis on anti-democratic authoritarianism. Democracy, he argues, requires the domestic assimilation of key democratic institutions, otherwise democracy symbolizes nothing tangible, especially when beast is crazy! As a Yoruba-Nigerian, he is not unaware of ethnicity and ethnic politics but he is stridently opposed to ethnic disenfranchisement. There is, therefore, no Yoruba-centric tone in his voice. Of course, he sees excessive centralization as stifling, which is a call for regional autonomies, a desirable thing in a federal system. His own university where he works, as he has shown, is a victim of the exercise of excessive centralization whereby the National University Commission (NUC) uses its seemingly limitless power of regulation to punish its enemies and critics. His opposition to that authoritarian centralization is not to be equated with a Yoruba-centric analysis.
He has a strong commitment to quality education, not just because he is an educator, but also primarily because he sees it as crucial agent of change. He is assertive about reforming the educational system for all and sundry, particularly the universities. The transmission of knowledge and skills allows empowerment and enables one generation to feed the next. Without that knowledge, constantly updated and applicable, a people can be left behind and the country can become irrelevant or paralyzed or find itself in a state of coma.
In a piece devoted to the importance of knowledge [“Are We Falling Off the Knowledge Map,” Punch, August, 2014], he calls for the creation of a “knowledge society” whereby aspects of the culture of the past will be catalogued as well as preserved and put to good use.
The creation of that knowledge society, Olukotun links to “visionary political leadership” that will put policies in place and not devalue scholarship. After praising his alma mater, Obafemi Awolowo University, he called for a new orientation in the following wise words:
The challenges for the future include re-situating the university on the world map in an age of declining federal grants, restoring the sanctity of the academic calendar too often broken by unionist assertions, upgrading the quality of graduates as well as recapturing the intellectual audacity of a bygone era in an age of increasing philistinism both nationally and within the university communities. Daunting agenda no doubt but Ife must somehow find the nerves to pursue that ennobling vision in order to matter in a knowledge-driven global marketplace [“Great Ife at 50, Glancing Back, Looking Ahead,” Punch, No. 8, 2012]
But that knowledge itself must be tied to a society that functions and creates a motivational reward system that would provide true heroes and heroines as models. The national honors system, he argues, has been badly managed, if not damaged, by office holders and politically influential people such that rather than recognize those who distinguish themselves, the honors reward those with connections to political parties and those in power. As with his previous stands, he links the abuses to the state itself:
From the point of view of a political system that does not aspire to excellence, new departures or indeed seek to inaugurate new, edifying values, the awards may not cause much offence. Rather, they reflect the worldview of the current political culture, its dominant values, its over-politicisation and its definition of the nation from the point of view of the advantages of its current managers. [“Wanted: An Alternative National Honors System,” Punch, Thursday, September 13, 2012]
Olukotun, the leader of our Juma’at, leads our Umma towards a positive destination, towards our rejection of alienation, as well as our overcoming the legacies of colonialism and domination, and our collective oppression. His support for peasants does not create an ideology of class exclusivity. His anger at political leaders does not appeal to our raw emotions, but to our rationality and logic. We may be in distress but we can still shout halleluiah.
Our oppressors, Olukotun assures us, are not our terminators, as long as we are men and women of ideas and actions. They cannot destroy us, but we should not fold our arms and do nothing. Our tactics can lie in using the ballot papers for change, to throw out bad leaders. We may even engage in strategic responses as in organizing strikes, conference deliberations, and political mobilization. He enjoins us to make conscious choices while we retain our moral high ground. There is no need for the Igbo and Yoruba to resent one another or for the Tiv to sow the seed of enmity with the Kanuri. His visceral responses to our “condition” reflect our collective disappointment, the betrayal of our hope.
In his paradigm of modernization and democratic institutions, Olukotun sees change as imperative and constant in the bigger project of modernity. While I have not seen a theory of the impact of change on identity in his writings, I do not think that he sees modernity as necessarily rupturing the identities of Hausaness or Tivness, but as those identities responding in order to protect their integrity. Nothing has to be preordained, as in the theological arguments of the Imam and fundamentalist pastors.
Our subjectivity, in Olukotun’s pen, becomes an image full of colors, a frame with overlapping inferences that we must interpret as we gaze upon it. His voice, which he controls with the power of language, is an agent of self-substantiation, but in the service of the collective. There is a quest—to see transformational changes— but there is also the problematic negation of that desire whereby the quest that is sometimes expressed as the pursuit of a chimera. The reclamation of the past is not possible, in spite of gestures in that direction, and the road to the future is undefined. A deterministic state-centric analysis is important but it should not foreclose other possibilities. The conventional wisdom of linking development to the state has to be modified in search of a paradigm that links development to people, combative people who reject bad leadership, who support accountability, who fight.
Olukotun, the writer, is also a teacher, as well as a researcher. It is the particularity of these eclectic skills that defines both the brilliance and eccentricity of the methodology, the density of the thought processes, and the rationale for the recommendations that he proposes: Olukotun’s writings must make it to the classrooms to teach the art of writing, the art of reasoning and logic. And of course to discuss the content, as some of us already do via the USA-Africa Dialogue. Let me make a case for this insertion into the curriculum. As we all know about the journalistic mode, the topic must connect. But he also inquires; he interviews; he talks to people. Two of his pieces emerged from a private dialogue that we had. I was struck on one occasion when I pointed his attention to the traffic of the sick and ill to India early in the week, that it became his principal message on Friday. I have disagreed with him on a few pieces, privately expressed, and we had a polite discourse. Dialogue and the intelligent responses to disagreement show the capacity for intellectual courage, the avoidance of reckless statements and conclusions that are not based on facts and reason, and a very delicate balance between rigidity and flaccidity.
In our private dialogues, and the very method of conducting them, Olukotun opens up the civil face that is not always in the make up of many Nigerians. The ability to accept alternative opinions and modify them subsequently means, in part, that Olukotun is not just a name but also a brand. He is a reliable brand who shows us the value of public trust and intellectual integrity. His fountain never dries, and the water in it is wholesome. The students will be rewarded and enriched even if the price is a psychic burden as they get further exposed to a leadership that is always failing them, the analysis of angst, and some answers. Perhaps, the turmoil they read about and their experience will convert them into law-abiding protesters.
Sadly, there is an absence of trust between the citizens and their leaders, a subject that should occupy the attention of tutorial leaders. That distrust manifests itself in the management of campuses as well where authorities dominate students rather than respect them. Olukotun offers a weekly reminder, a national outcry, but we have refused to mobilize for action. It is as if we just accept that yesterday must swallow the event it produced and today should erase it from our memory. When we fail to act, when we allow the leviathan to swallow our calamities, we betray Olukotun, turning his warnings and suggestions into no more than intestinal irritation to our current affairs. Olukotun is our ally, one that we must recruit not just as a teacher but also as a foot-soldier. This is not a call to take arms, to take to violence as our nuclear option, as this would distract from our message and objectives, but a call to protest, protests all over the country that will unite people of all ethnicities and religions to carry large banners with the inscription of “Enough!” and “Never Again!”: Enough of the beast, and never again should another beast be born!
Olukotun gives us a mental challenge, as great philosophers do, showing us the way to cool-headed logic and rationality, loyalty to the nation, and commitment to justice. He, indeed, teaches curiosity, which is what a new generation must develop but one that should be grounded in learning and reading. He is a symbol of generosity, sharing his words and thoughts, giving credit to others, invoking great minds, and acknowledging talents. He is guided by evidence, and never a slave to opinions. With so many religious messiahs, all threatening doom, violence, death or all three, at least we have a redeemer: the secular messiah who supplies us with the panacea of peace and progress.
I have found Olukotun’s words to kill and to heal, a double heritage of sorts: the latter for the powerless conscience, the former for the conscienceless power. My prayer is for the dawn of a new day when Nigeria will be either lucky or blessed enough to birth the likes of this indefatigable and indomitable writer. Let us reproduce more Ayo Olukotuns so that we can expand our ecumenical senses, our progressive credentials, our manifest destiny, and enrich our humanistic values. We must build strong communities, live in harmony, and create cooperation and interdependence among groups and citizens, irrespective of our religions and ethnicity. In the end, we will have perfect rest so that, as the psalmist intoned, we can scream aloud, as inscribed on Dr. Martin Luther King ’s tomb, we are free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last!
Professor Toyin Falola, is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin. He made these remarks at the 2014 Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Alumni Banquet Dinner and Award Gala Event, in Dallas, Texas, USA, recently.