Why Nigeria Is Undergoing Intellectual Recession
BY virtue of his duty-post as Special Assistant on Media to Ogun State Governor Ibikunle Amosun, Mr. Soyombo Opeyemi, in the last four years of his appointment, relates more with the operatives of the Fourth Estate of the Realm. But as a writer, newspaper columnist, public affairs commentator especially on TV, Opeyemi hasn’t neglected his literary cum creative enterprise through regular engagements with the works of literary giants such as Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka and the late great novelist, Prof. Chinua Achebe.
The author of Ogun State: the Golden Years, that chronicles Amosun’s unique approach to governance in terms of service delivery, has a peculiar way of engaging literary works in order to bring out the substance for readers’ consumption.
“A lot of people have this impression that one has read hundreds of books. But no. I suppose I have read the fewest books in life! And this has to do with my attitude as a meticulous reader. Except for the impositions of school days or job, I do not just read any book. I am deliberate on that. I don’t have much time to waste.” He said, “Flipping through a few pages of a book or a mere glance over a few leaves should convince me that this is a book that will better my mind and enrich me. I then proceed not just to read the book but eat it. Whereas many may claim with glee that they read a book in one or two days, I could do so with the same book in two weeks or one month, with my dictionary beside me.”
According to him, “by the time I drop the book, I have become the book! This is my own attitude to reading. You cannot claim you read Things Fall Apart, yet you can’t quote a line from it off-hand. Or that you studied Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar without being able to use one or two passages from it in your conversation or writing. I read Soyinka’s memoir, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, about three times, so I know virtually every paragraph of the book as I speak. I also devoted time to study Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years; his childhood memoir, Ake. My review of Harmattan Haze on an African Spring was widely published in the papers. I devoted a review of The Man Died to his 80th birthday and virtually all the papers in this country ran that piece.”
He said, “there are a few others, drama, I read long time ago. I regard reading his articles or essays in the press as a must. And he writes quite often. I know Soyinka very well through his works because I literally ate those books, I didn’t just read them. Because of my style of studying rather than mere reading, I think I have only gone through a few of his works.”
It appears Opeyemi is immuned from perceived difficulty readers always encountered while reading Soyinka’s works. How is he able to cope with his writings?
“I’m not sure I can lay claim to anything in this regard. I think I have only dealt, essentially, with a category of his literature. What I do know is that there is no perfunctory reading of Soyinka,” he said. Opeyemi added that his literature is like a fortress, but not impregnable, as many often suggest. “However, you do not breach a fortress without a sweat. I devote enormous time to study him, understand both the letter and spirit of his works; enter into the recesses of his mind, so I can fully apprehend him. It is usually a laborious exercise, I must confess. I spend a lot of hours in the night reading.”
He contined, “but the result is exulting. I increase both in depth and breadth. Indeed, I find my battery of vocabulary recharged anytime I study him. I am a beneficiary of the density and immensity of Soyinka’s literature. So I describe him as my intellectual avatar.”
He will readily admit he’s not an art expert. “I can say I’m, somehow, an occasional communicant at the temple of the arts. But when I see a good work of art or literature, I value it. Stage plays have virtually disappeared; that’s unfortunate. Theatre through the tube is a mix-bag. Although, I find myself reviewing some works of art at one point or the other, I don’t know how much that qualifies me as being a literary critic. I remember CUANDO SEAS MIA (Paloma) that created mass hysteria in Nigeria in 2005. That’s not a Nigerian movie. I did review it in ThisDay. I once did a part review of the film, Oleku, in my column in the Daily Independent. I think the movie is set at the University of Ibadan, in the 60s or 70s. But I’m more at home with the literary art, especially the creative writing genre.”
The visual aspect of the arts, that is, fine and applied arts, have not caught much of his attention. “But generally speaking, you cannot divorce literature or the arts from the Nigerian palaver. No doubt, there is intellectual recession in Nigeria. I worry because the reserve of the literary gurus is heavily depleted,” he said. “You only have a few of the old brigade left. When you read a composition by a master’s degree holder or even PhD in English and related disciplines, you have some concern. ‘Half-baked’ tutors can only produce ‘half-baked’ graduates, who also become tutors after some years. So you have this deleterious cycle of substandard learning. Of course, there are outstanding exceptions; indeed there are and I hold them in high esteem.” For him, “This is why we must appreciate governments that have identified these problems and are doing a lot to remedy them. Yes, we talk of infrastructural deficit on our campuses and poor funding. But, what about management problem? Most state governments in Nigeria have enough reasons not to perform, especially because of the meagre resources from the Federation Account.” Opeyemi said, by all accounts, the governor of Ogun State, Senator Ibikunle Amosun, had shown that with paltry funds you could achieve much through prudent financial management. How are the funds allocated to our higher institutions of learning being utilised? Yes, they are not enough but how have the school administrators managed them? What about the IGR? I think this should be the beginning of finding solution to our educational problem, indeed the problem of Nigeria. “There is need for financial sanitation in our institutions. I believe the in-coming government of General Muhammadu Buhari will take this headlong. There is also the moral corruption. Sex-for-marks and bribes-for-scores. All of them have to be tackled. Then the standard of education can begin to rise and our institutions can produce many Achebes, Soyinkas, Clarks, Alukos, Ekwensis, Okigbos, Osundares, Ofeimuns, Amadis and other purists of the arts.”
How much has poor reading culture contributed to the current pathetic state of education?
He quipped, “We should equally ask how we got to the point where reading became a problem. Once you don’t get it right politically, nothing can work. Reading culture is also a function of political stability and economic prosperity. There is a lot of economic pressure in the country. The cost of living is very high in Nigeria and that creates a lot of pressure. How do you engage in intellectual pursuits when you worry about where the next meal will come from, or school fees you have to pay, house rent, et cetera?”
He admitted, everything rises and falls with the economy. To make matters worse, our society has become obsessed with materialism, so children read only to pass. When we talk of poor reading culture, we should try to situate it within the context of our situation in Nigeria. And that is why governments across the country must invest in welfarist schemes such as free education and free health; ensure regular payment of workers’ salaries, pension and gratuity. They must create an environment conductive to industrialization to enable our teeming youths to get gainful employment; revive agriculture and make it attractive to young graduates. These will bring about economic relief. It will give ample time for people to better their minds through reading and engage in further intellectual exercises such as writing and research.”
“I also observe that many books published in this clime nowadays contain too many errors. ‘Too many errors,’ I said. You give them to children to read. What exactly is the work of the publishers of such books? You recall that the slapdash work of some of these publishers drew plenty of censure from Prof. Ayo Banjo while lamenting why no entry won the NLNG Prize for Literature in 2009. In summary, we need to seek first the kingdom of political stability where everyone worships at the temple of the rule of law and every other thing shall be added unto us.”
As someone who has a flair for writing, what advice do you have for young writers?
“I am a young writer myself, still learning; although I have been writing for about a quarter of a century. Even when I had a brief stint in another industry, that is, marketing, I never stopped writing. This idea of somebody saying I have flair or talent for writing doesn’t really sit well with me. The fact is, writing is a difficult enterprise,” Opeyemi revealed. “I labour to produce any literary work. Yes, everybody is born with one talent or the other and every child needs the right environment to manifest such. Imagine someone like Soyinka or Achebe being born by poor parents in the Nigeria of today.”
Except they come from Ogun or a few other states that run free education, what do you think will become of them and their talents? The environment is important, but much more important is personal development. It is personal development that defines what you become in life.
“You cannot sleep throughout the night and become any outstanding success in life. I didn’t really study humanities in school, but personal development has turned me more or less into a worshipper at the temple of the arts. Of course, the media is the melting-pot of all professions. I am also an educationist. Both media and education draw from the same fountain of knowledge. And sometimes you see me holding a strong perspective on constitutional matter.
“There was a time the respectable Chief Mike Ahamba (SAN) took me up on my position in a law publication that assent of the President is not needed on any constitutional amendment exercise. But I stuck to my view in a subsequent write-up. I remember Professor Mike Ikhariale, who is a visiting Professor of Law at Harvard, in an article said my position clarified the needless debate on presidential assent. Now, the birds have come home to roost.” He recalled, “I wouldn’t know which constitutional provision the National Assembly will now rely on to override the veto by the President, because this is not an ordinary legislation that begins and can end with the National Assembly in case of any veto by the President. Are they going to revert to the states in order to override the veto? You know from the period of colonisation till 1966, we ran a British parliamentary system. But when we changed to presidential democracy of the American model in 1979, we refused to drop some of the parliamentary stuff.” He noted, “This gets our students of government confused. The contention is not about the desirability or otherwise of the items in the amendment exercise but the constitutionality of the President having to assent to the final document. We often don’t differentiate between a constitutional law and ordinary legislation or statute.”
Sometimes, he turns to one or two friends for help when he is in doubt when he is wrting sometimes, he suspends a whole article just because he is looking for a particular word, which probably eludes him. For example, there was a time in 2012 or early 2013 that he wanted to do a piece on free education. “I needed to understand certain aspects of Awo’s free education. I made futile requests for some books on the subject in some bookshops. Eventually, I had to go to Ikenne, the home of the sage, where I bought a set of books since no one in particular treats the subject. I had to rummage through them for many nights before I got what I wanted. But you may ask, why the pain? Just to do an article in the press! But that’s the kind of attitude that makes your work outstanding. Nothing good comes easy, as we say. You can appreciate my earlier comment when people talk about flair or talent. Writing is really a strenuous job because a lot of preparation goes into it. But the result or output is always delectable,” he said.
“I believe you can become anything you wish through the munificence grace of God and personal development. When people talk about the outstanding achievements of my governor in less than three and a half years in office, some say it is because he is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. Yes, but the secret is that the man is a workaholic; he hardly sleeps at night; he reads a lot and has time to reflect while others are sleeping. This was also the life of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The man only slept for four hours at night, as I can recall.”
How much reward is really available for artists and writers in this clime? They aren’t the richest people around, are they?
“I agree with you. But they aren’t the poorest either. Yes, artists and artistes can also become millionaires or multi-millionaires if things change in Nigeria. A few of the practitioners have actually made a lot of money. Piracy is a huge problem. A movie is released today; you see thousands of pirated copies the next day.”
Opeyemi confessed “I bought The Man Died in a reputable bookshop, but when I began to read, I wondered if it was not a pirated copy. When you juxtapose that with the kind of publishing we now have, sometimes it becomes a conundrum. You get away with a lot of things in Nigeria. We must have respect for intellectual property and people that laboured over a work should reap the fruits. That brings us back to strengthening our institutions. Without getting it right politically, progress on any front, except on corruption, becomes difficult.”
Opeyemi retorted, “By and large, a writer’s solace should be in the fact that you can mirror and influence your society, indeed generations, through your works. Given the current socio-political and economic situation in our country, except you are like Soyinka, Clark, etc., I do not think any writer should rely solely on his works to earn income. But above all, one should continue to work hard and trust in God. He is the only one that can lift up a man.”
What project he is working on?
“I’m always engaged. There’s always work-in-progress. You know that must be the case by virtue of my job. But at present, I am reading There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe. Studying is the right word since, as usual, that may lead me to some review later. I actually don’t read; I study!” he noted.