Nigeria’s Restructuring: Look to African Literature/drama … nay, the Russian revolution, for autocratic traditional masters’ & despotic enforcers’ eventual capitulation – Tátalọ̀ Àlàmú

December 5, 2017




Cyclical election rituals (as in many African countries) with unresolved agitations by restive nationalities will remain mere muscle-flexing  by Nigeria’s military & civilian despotic enforcers against battle-hardened veterans of many wars until the agitation of the many Nationalities that make up Nigeria – the National Question – is resolved.



Russia’s literary giants, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky 


AS we are discovering in Nigeria, Africa and many other Third World countries, it has never been easy transiting from one epochal order to another. The hurdles and hiccups are so monumental that you want to give up. Watching nations embroiled in the drama of self-regeneration from the ring side, one is bound to come to gloomy conclusions about the prospects.

Yet the “longer history” perspective suggests an ultimate rationality to human evolution which makes societies to get it right eventually. No man has been born who will stem the tide of history. No matter how exceptionally important an individual is to the scheme of things in his particular society, he or she will eventually have to bow to the implacable and impersonal forces of history.

Feudal and semi-feudal societies transiting to modern liberal democracy face perilous prospects indeed. Apart from the grim reality of economic inequities which makes utter nonsense of adult suffragette, there are also cultural, structural, systemic and ideological impedimenta which make societal progress not easily realizable. Often, this is due to the regnant residue of the old expiring order and their lingering political and ideological efficacy.

Of all the problems faced by democratically developing societies, none is more crippling and disempowering than the phenomenon of authoritarian master-voices. Authoritarian master-voices are the voices of the autocratic traditional masters and despotic enforcers of the subsisting order that brook no dissent or dissension, no plurality of perspectives and no multiplicity of alternative views in the way a society is structured or the manner its democratic transformation is processed.

There is a compelling and intriguing nexus between politics and letters, between the way a society is structured and its literature or “orature” for that matter. Neo-colonial literary scholarship and criticism, no matter how it is garbed either with Oxbridge institutional ballast or Ivy League metropolitan menace, often disavows this connection in order to prevent what has been called a totalising perspective which leads to an enhanced awareness of one’s historical and material circumstances.

Anybody who desires a deep understanding of how Igbo society was structured and organised at the point of contact with western colonization should look no further than Chinua Achebe’s classics: Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. And those interested in the organic tensions, the contradictions and uncertainties that played out as the Yoruba people of empire squared up to their new colonial conquerors and tormentors must watch Soyinka’s timeless Death and the King’s Horseman.

In Achebe’s novels, there is a multiplicity of voices which hints at a fierce republicanism that entertains no despotic chancers. In traditional African drama, audience participation is crucial and critical. Even while valorizing the dominant order, the Yoruba talking drum is also simultaneously panning out subversive lyrics which undermine its hegemony. All of this tends to suggest that many traditional African societies figured out how to deal with home-grown tyrants before the advent of western imperialism.

But it was in Tsarist Russia just before the Bolsheviks arrived at the feudal state banquet that we witnessed perhaps the most compelling evidence of the tension within the society being manifested and reflected in its literature. Despite its political and economic backwardness, Russia threw up the most outstanding novelists of the late nineteenth century. It led Engels to the famous observation that backward nations may play first violin in literature and philosophy.

Despite the carping from Henry James and other western critics about “loose baggy monsters”, the unwieldiness and ungainly superfluity of the Russian novel, there is a solid consensus that both Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky represent the literary apogee of Russia and are the greatest novelists the world has seen so far. From mid-nineteenth century till their death in 1910 and 1881 respectively, the duo bestrode the Russian literary world like colossi.

No two great writers could be more dissimilar in outlook and temperament. While Tolstoy, descended from a long line of Russian feudal nobility, was patrician, cool, methodical, implacably finicky and genuinely desirous of reform, Dostoyevsky was irascible, rebellious and prone to violent outbursts, often alternating between prodigious bouts of drinking and gambling and equally prodigious bouts of writing. He was as temperamentally unstable as they came, and there is hint that his land-owning father was murdered by his own serfs on the grounds of exemplary cruelty.

What concerns us here is the novelistic technique they have bequeathed to posterity. While Tolstoy is the master of the monologic dialogue in which a dominant and authoritarian master voice presides over proceedings with a no-nonsense sternness which suppresses other voices, Dostoyevsky is the avatar of dialogic or polyphonic conversations in which a multiplicity of voices and plurality of perspectives cancel out each other in a democratic Babel.

It is no gainsaying who commanded the greater respect and adulation from the Bolshevik revolutionists. While the new masters of Russia treated Tolstoy with reverence and adoration as a master of controlled explosion, a visionary, worthy reformer and icon of the revolution, Dostoyevsky was accorded a grumpy admiration and stony respect; a master of subversive literature, his polyphonic voices regarded as an invitation to chaos and anarchy which had no place in the new society.

Playing out in both novelists of genius were the contradictions of a rigid feudal society in an advanced state of moral, economic and political decay. It was no surprise that one of the first things the triumphant Russian revolutionaries did was to banish what they considered to be counter-revolutionary literature, particularly the type that induces revolutionary paralysis and religious mystification. Dostoyevsky would have been a candidate for Siberian Gulag.

There is a lot about contemporary Nigeria which reminds one of Tsarist Russia, except that the contradictions are deeper and more perplexing. Unlike Tsarist Russia which was ethnically homogeneous and culturally monolithic, contemporary Nigeria is a roiling coliseum in which a dominant feudal order perpetually collides with a semi-feudal order buoyed up by the gains of aborted modernity even as other societies in various stages of radical ferment are bent on putting the regnant nuisance to economic and political sword. It is a game without rules or etiquette of engagements.

Superintending and forcibly imposing themselves on this classic tapestry of chaos and disorder are pan-Nigerian master-voices perpetually hectoring the populace about discipline and patriotism even as many of them loot and re-loot the nation to a state of stupor. As long as their version of the country lasts, as long as their hegemony prevails, the authoritarian master-voices will never allow countervailing voices to come to the fore or for alternative visions of a more plural society to gain traction in Nigeria.

Yet for their version of reality to continue to prevail over a wrecked nation without a further erosion of freedom and the democratic regression of the polity into a real feudal fiefdom where only coercive repression matters, it needs a jab in the arm of fresh political initiatives or an intellectual magician who will explain to the world how a notion of human domination rooted in an ancient epoch of history and whose material, economic and political basis has been supplanted everywhere else can still be relevant for nation-building in the twenty first century.

Here lies, and paradoxically too, the window of opportunity for the salvation and emancipation of the country. As the debate on restructuring has so far demonstrated, authoritarian master-voices in Nigeria are so historically enervated, so intellectually famished, so psychologically demotivated that they can only come up with tragic shibboleths such as the unity of the country being non-negotiable or the nonsense that the forcible union of Nigerian nationalities is a marriage contracted in heaven when confronted with the implacable evidence of the need and imperative to modernize and energize the outworn political and economic structure of the nation.

As we have hinted in this column in the past, rather than make a dent on the political and economic misconfiguration that hobbles the nation, the authoritarian master-voices that control and modulate the Nigerian narrative will stall and stonewall before suddenly unleashing the anodyne of electoralism on the poor nation all over again. This is what has played out this past week as subtle campaigns for a distant presidential sweepstakes miraculously assumed an unworthy centrality in the national political discourse.

But let us restate for the umpteenth time that electoralism, or an obsession with mere elections in the face of daunting national challenges, is a phantom medication for a real and pressing national ailment. Elections do not resolve an urgent National Question. Often, they merely exacerbate it because they are no more than ethnic censuses designed to reaffirm and revalidate the hegemonic domination of master-voices. As we have seen in Kenya, Burundi, Liberia, Gambia and many other African countries, elections in the face unresolved agitations by restive nationalities can only lead a nation to a historical cul de sac. Nigeria cannot be any different.

Let us in ending return to Count Leo Tolstoy, the Russian avatar of controlled explosion and authoritarian master-voice. It is obvious that the authoritarian master-voices in control of the Nigerian narrative are afraid of opening up a Pandora Box that leads to anarchy and chaos. They have our sympathies. But two failed national conferences deliberately rigged with precision-timed explosives suggest that they are afraid of their own shadows.

The real problem is that Nigerian master-voices failed to factor into the game the rise of counter-hegemonic knowledge in Nigeria whose intellectual sophistication and superior political nous about how to make a troubled multi-ethnic nation work cannot be lightly discounted. As battle-hardened veterans of the many wars against military and civilian despotism who have earned their spurs and epaulettes are joined by fresh converts, they are not likely to be fazed or daunted by mere state muscle flexing. They will continue to howl and shriek and subject the polity to fierce intellectual bombardment until they get a fair hearing.

Essay first published as Authoritarian mastervoices and Nigerian democracy  by Tátalọ̀ Àlàmú in [Nigeria] The Nation on Sunday on December 3, 2017.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2017. 3:08 P.M. [GMT]


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