A portrait of the artist as a seer
Some seven years ago, as Honourable Farouk Lawan of the House of Representatives received a $600,000 cash in bribe from the popular oil magnate Femi Otedola, little did the lawmaker know that he was being set up and inadvertently made to fulfil a prophecy of ignominy made by a set of vibrant middle-aged Nigerian musicians.
As Chairman of the House Ad hoc Committee of Investigation into the fuel subsidy regime in 2012, Lawan had been entrusted with the responsibility of fishing out members of the so-called oil and gas cabal, who had allegedly defrauded the nation of trillions of naira by receiving,from the Federal Government, subsidy payments that never reflected in their pricing. Being an oil-rich private businessman in a period of mass disillusionment with the management of the country’s oil wealth, Otedola had been one of the prime suspects (or― dare I say? ―targets) of this hunt.
The tables were to turn, however, as Otedola the suspect became a detective of sorts, working to expose a corrupt and self-seeking politician who apparently had kept both eyes out for personal gratification in the course of a solemn national duty. Crisp, marked dollar notes were given to Lawan as he was being secretly videotaped, cap and all, by a supposed object of his investigation. The hunter, in other words, had become the hunted, and the hunted the hunter.
This queer incident of role reversal, which dealt a significant blow to the integrity of the investigations and marked the beginning of its technical death, had been effectively predicted in a 2011 song by Sound Sultan and Innocent “Tuface” Idibia, titled “Bushmeat,” in which the duo had repeatedly declared that “one day Bushmeat go catch the hunter.” Sound Sultan and Tuface had looked into the society in which they lived, diagnosed the replete nature of its corruption disease, and then gone ahead to prophesy a gloomy future for that society which had refused to check itself.
Rendered in the more generally accessible medium of Pidgin English, that prophecy was one of a deadly state of affairs in which it would be difficult to differentiate between angels and demons, criminals and their pursuers, because the designated angels would have become neck-deep in the commission of demonic acts. It was of a future, therefore, in which clever and/or proactive suspects could turn suddenly around to nab their seekers by the wrist, screaming “Thief! Thief!! Thief!!!”
Were we a nation of listeners and heeders, “Lawan-gate” would probably not have happened, and the season of utter anomie that was ushered in by that unfortunate spectacle would have been avoided by an ailing democratic country. But such is the terrible fate of a people that refuse to take the messages of their artistic sages― musicians, poets, writers, film makers, and even comedians. By dismissing the warnings of these creatives, a society squanders the chance to steer itself away from paths of irreversible damage, learning from painful hindsight the wisdoms it could have garnered without the risk of disaster. A few more examples may help to further highlight the sometimes prophetic character of theartist.
The Invention is a one-act play written in 1959 by the young Wole Soyinka. The play is, however, set in the winter of 1976―seventeen years into the future, that is―in the city of Johannesburg, and comically depicts the disintegration of the South African regime of racial segregation known as Apartheid.
Instructively, the fall of the Apartheid regime which Soyinka had taken for granted in the play started to really happen in 1976, particularly with the crystallization of black resistance after the Soweto uprising. As the South African scholar Zodwa Motsa was to reflect many years later: “With the advantage of hindsight, it now seems prophetic that a 23-year-old Nigerian [dramatist] saw so far into the future as to ‘know’ that in the winter of 1976 the apartheid system would begin to crumble.”
Much as it may seem wholly magical―and yes, there certainly does appear to be a hint of inspiration to it―the grounding of artistic prophecies in actual human reality is not very difficult to explain. Creative minds, very much like philosophers, must take their material from the social conditions within which they exist. It is by reflecting on, and imaginatively recreating, aspects of these conditions that the works of these artists are produced.
Many times, however, these artistic reflections lead their engagers to transcend past and present manifestations, prompting them to envision a future of consequences that is based, nevertheless, on the realities of the present. It is in this transcendence, this leap into things that may come, that the prophetic essence of artist(e) lies.
Nations must, therefore, learn to listen to their serious-minded creative individuals. Indeed, artistic visions may sometimes be found more reliable than the courses charted by political leaders. Armed with the weapons of metaphor, symbolism, and an ideal lack of affiliation to political interests, the artist is often at a greater liberty to divulge truths and warnings that the tongue-tied politician may never dare. And many more nations have been led astray by the demagoguery of politicians than the clear-eyed detections of its creative sages.
Permit me now to sound somewhat political. In The Lion and the Jewel, another socio-political satire written by Wole Soyinka (also in 1959!), I find a striking prognostication of the current political predicaments of Nigeria, inflicted on the country via the ascension to power of a band of generally unconscionable politicians. In trying to win his comely target, Sidi, to his side in a sexual-ideological rivalry with Lakunle, the baale of Ilujinle, Baroka, speaks ominously of “the reckless broom that will be wielded in these years to come.”
Completely out of context this may seem, but who can deny the current administration’s abuse of power under the all too hackneyed guise of sanitation? Who can gainsay the openly fascist methods deployed by the All Progressives Congress in order to simply stay in power, almost suggesting that the ruling party has adopted that very idea―recklessness―as a veritable ideology? And then would the wielded broom (the symbol of the APC) not pass for qualification as being a reckless one?
It is on record that Soyinka did give at least a veiled support to Buhari’s election as president. This does not, however, invalidate what I have chosen to regard as his long-time prophecy. For apart from the fact that, in Nigeria, the support for a candidate does not necessarily translate to support for his political party, we must also remember that, in the end, the artist may be the mere vessel through which celestial warnings are issued. Moreover the wielded broom can only hold sufficient appeal in a time of filth. And Soyinka’s circuitous support for Buhari’s candidacy came at a time during which a different kind of filth was rampant on the country’s political scene. His prophecy might not have told us to be careful of the broom in a time of filth, but we should have been careful nonetheless.
I end with another prophecy; one that is, alas, just beginning on its ruthless course to fulfilment and therefore, with hard work and a great deal of luck, may still be averted. It is the prophecy of the soul singer, Asa, and a message to Nigeria and to the world at large: “One day the river will overflow, and there’ll be nowhere for us to go, and we will run, run, wishing we had put out the fire.” Asa’s warning, let it be noted, is directed at an “us.” Thus it is as much for a citizenry that refuses to take action as it is for irresponsible leadership.
Somebody, from somewhere, just has to put out this fire.
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