Thursday, November 02, 2006


In the beginning is always the society with its peoples split into various activities, demographic composition and callings. Art, basically, is a comment on or a description of society. It shows how the people of the artist’s time are living, have lived, should live, should not live, have not lived or are not living. Art differs in this role from the polemical writings of the other disciplines in the humanities and from the sciences in the sense that art adds to its role aesthetics, which entails that art must also delight and entertain. Our primary thrust here is on literary art, which includes prose fiction, poetry, drama, memoirs, interviews, letters and biographies.
In this beginning therefore is the literary work, after which comes the critic, whose duty is to arbitrate on the creative writer’s (re)presentation of society in his/her work. The critic assesses how the work is aligned or alignable with the particular society’s politics, culture, economy and history, and also assesses its aesthetics. The critic’s search for the functional relevance of a given piece of art work to society explains the nexus between literary theory and the constellation of neighbouring disciplines of sociology, anthropology, linguistics, economics, psychology, history, political science, religion and communication studies, all of which have taken stands in the domain of literary theory as sociology of literature, feminism, queer theory (gay/lesbian studies), mythopoetics, linguistic stylistics, text linguistics, Marxist criticism, historical school and new historicism, hermeneutics, reader response, psychoanalytical perspective, semiotics/semiology, formalism and postcolonial studies.
Logically, literary theory and theorizing ought to be society-sensitive. That is, literary theory and theorizing ought to derive from and be based on the specific material conditions and expectations of the given society. Thus far, in spite of the peculiarities of Africa, there is yet to emerge from here a literary theory that captures our unique experiences and which is then exported to the rest of the world. As such, just as Nigeria imports almost everything, including finished petroleum products, which raw form she exports, all the literary theories governing the analyses of our texts are imported, and sometimes applied to our literary works as if the writer was expected first to consult the theory and then mould his/her work according to its specifications. Evidence of this strange expectation shows up frequently in interviews with writers, in questions such as “Can we say you’re a Marxist or an existentialist writer?” “Are you a deconstructionist?” “Looking at the graphological experimentations in your work, would we be right to describe you as a formalist?” etc. We will re-echo this “anomaly” much later in the essay. For now we return to the main course of the paper: Neo-colonialism and the eclipse of postcolonial literary discourse in Nigeria.
Because of the current suspected confusion of post-colonialism with neo-colonialism among many scholars in Nigeria, it is necessary to clarify the distinction between the two concepts. Post-coloniality suggests that colonialism once happened to a people but it is now positively over. The semantic force of the term is in its prefix, “post,” which signifies the “afterness” of the event. And, colonialism being over, the once-colonised people(s) sit(s) to work out a framework for rehabilitating and reconstructing their world. In this process the pre-colonial mores and life ways of the people are usually at the core, and are merely complemented with the beneficial experiences of the foreign masters and the global community. In such a situation the colonial encounter becomes mainly just a scar on the psyche and territory of the former colony. It is no more a fresh, bleeding wound. The characteristic combination by former colonies of the best from their colonial experiences with the best from their own pre-colonial heritage underlies the tendency in history of once-colonised nations to rise and eclipse their former masters. This is what has yielded the chain of the civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Rome, Normandy, Old Ghana, Old Mali, Songhai and British empires, for example. And in our times Britain’s former colonies such as the United States, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Ghana are either already up or are clearly on their way up from the ashes of colonisation.
In all these post-colonial societies, the starting point is a cultural rebirth followed by a conscious lopsided emphasis on education, which in turn yields advancement in technology, medicine, agriculture, communication facilities and economy. These, in turn, produce a satisfied, literate and content populace. And, of course, contentment is the manure for patriotism and national pride and it yields further sacrifice by the citizenry for the nation.
In a typical postcolonial country, therefore, the wall between the crown (the government) and the gown (academic institutions) dissolves such that there is a robust flow of input in terms of funding, welfare of the staff and moral support from the crown into the educational system while, in return, there is ceaseless flow of ideas and research findings from the gown to the crown, and hence, to the town (the citizenry).
Similarly, the basic ideology of post-colonialist literary discourse is that it seeks to preserve, protect and project the culture of a former colony and to safeguard its culture and the people’s world-view from external critical stings, and defend the people’s life ways and traditions, when necessary, against misinterpretation. The postcolonial studies enterprise also encourages and promotes the evolution, growth and survival of autochthonous institutions and the progression towards autarky to have a vibrant, proud nation. Indeed, it is counter-critical of the erstwhile colonialists’ vandalization of their colonies’ literary, historical, religious and cultural heritage.
In practice as a literary discourse, postcolonial studies are more of an ideological domain than the usual narrow, prescriptive and sometimes formulaic critical method. As such, a particular post-colonial literary analysis can adopt the methods and critical tools and insights from a number of other more delicate methods of explicating texts. Such a study can, for example, adopt the subversive spirit in deconstruction in interrogating and “resisting” colonialist misrepresentations of the world of the “Other”. The critic may at the same time prefer the close reading of texts as put forward by New Criticism, text linguistics or linguistic stylistics if s/he is convinced that these approaches will serve in revealing empirically the hidden, denigrating, racist or other imperial features and images of the “Other” in the writings being studied. An African post-colonialist critic may, for example, re-examine the negative connotations associated with “Black” in the imperial language and literature – black leg, black sheep, black book, black market, etc. The critic need not overlook the (re)presentation of Satan (seen as standing for evil) characteristically with the dark colour in the scriptures, while angels (assumed to be benign) are always (re)presented as, and dressed in whites. The critic may also re-examine Darwinism and his concept of the survival of the fittest, which somewhat justifies the making of the African and his culture and natural resources and even languages cheap meat for the white race.
Post-colonial discourse has its feminist strands, which temper also assumes different dimensions. First, the question here becomes that of the relationship between the “First World” and the “Third World” woman. Does the woman in the advanced economy consider her “Third World” comrade an equal? Second, there is also often a shift of symbols from feminism to postcolonial discourse making patriarchy as symbolised by the phallus to now stand for the prostrate formerly dominated and exploited colonial territory.
And in language choice, the post-colonialist’s preferred option is the indigenous tongue, as the Malaysian professor of postcolonial studies, Zawiah Yahya, reports for, example, of her South-East Asia region: “ The cultural threat of the English literary tradition to the flourishing of native literary tradition … has not taken place in South-East Asia where … Malay/Indonesian [language] literature reaches 100 million people in a way English literature never has and never will in the region”.
Ironically, the very first reaction from the “Periphery” against colonialist misrepresentation of the “Other” was, arguably, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. On the impetus for writing the novel, Achebe himself says “At the university I read some appalling novels about Africa (including Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson) and decided that the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how gifted or well-intentioned”; thence came Things Fall Apart and the two other novels in Achebe’s trilogy to tell the story.
In addition to these creative works, both Achebe and Wole Soyinka delivered lectures, wrote essays and granted interviews in the 1960s and the early 1970s in all of which they argued for the existence of African letters, defended and projected the literature. Soyinka’s essays were later published as Myth, Literature and the African World, which came out in 1976 while Achebe’s came out in book form in 1975 as Morning Yet On Creation Day. By this time, about the only other major postcolonialist works were Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and Black skin, White Masks (1967). In Achebe’s famous essay, “The Novelist As Teacher” is indeed reflected the spirit and current of postcolonial discourse, “What we need to do is to look back and try to find out where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us”.
The Nigerian intellectual and writer was also as conscious as his/her Southeast Asian colleague of the need to switch our creative writing from English to indigenous languages. This need was articulated as early as 1962 by the late Nigerian novelist and critic, Dr Obi Wali, who had asserted: “ … until these [African] writers and their Western midwives accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncreativity, and frustration”. And it was still in about the same period that the legendary Nigerian poet and novelist, Gabriel Okara, did his novel, The Voice, in which he experimented with Nigerianised English in the bid to escape from the exact form of the colonial master’s own tool, the Queen’s English. Nigeria, therefore, can be said to be a founding country, if not the founding country, of postcolonial discourse in our current dispensation.
But alas, this vibrant and most promising postcolonial discourse soon became a stillbirth, and a long eclipse in the discourse set in. The eclipse was occasioned by the failure of independence, which culminated in the unfortunate Civil War of 1967-1970. As such, in place of the euphoria and hope that greeted independence, corruption, nepotism, despair and despondency set in soon afterwards. This sense of hopelessness was worsened by the mutilation of human life during the War, and the succession of visionless, military-dominated political leadership that ended up producing the present hungry, angry, illiterate and crime-prone citizenry that falls to every curable ailment like leaves from a dying tree.
In the spheres of politics and economics, the leadership that emerged, military or civilian, and especially after the Civil War, has generally preferred feeding fat as slaves of the West to fashioning out a truly postcolonialist course for the nation as has been done by a few African and most Asian nations. Today, Nigerian newspapers still carry stories of the U.S. having “endorsed” candidates to Nigeria’s presidency, and these foreign-“favoured” candidates use the “endorsement” as a major campaign weapon. Similarly, the nation’s economic reforms are dictated and closely monitored by the “Third World”-forbidden international finance organizations and transnational corporations such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO. Thus, like a pupil brandishing his freshly marked exercise book before his mates when he/she has done well, Nigeria’s leaders do return periodically from Washington, D.C. radiating smiles before press men because the U.S. has endorsed the nation’s progress on economic reforms. Yet, no postcolonial nation either accepts these poisonous loans from the international finance agencies or agrees to the citizen-choking conditionalities that come with the loans. This explains why rather than strategizing towards surviving the usual strangulating effects of the current wave of imperialist globalization on the underdeveloped economies, Africa’s neo-colonialist leaders had long dressed their nations in this global prison garb and moved them to the economic prison yard to await the global economic guillotine. This, then, is neo-colonialism, not post-colonialism. Neo-colonialism simply means “New colonialism”, except that it is far worse than colonialism because of its character that it reaches its victim directly from one of its/his own kind. It is therefore more difficult to be perceived by the outside world. Way back in the 1960s, Kwame Nkrumah summed it all in his description of neo-colonialism as “… the worst form of imperialism.” He added that for “ those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.”
In the case of Nigeria, one net result of this political and economic slavery to the developed nations is our low standing on the human development index, a criterion by which the country earns its paradoxical position as among the world’s poorest nations despite her wealth in human and material resources. For instance, unemployment is infinitely high, and so are illiteracy, inflation, poverty of shelter for the citizens and a failing bureaucracy characterized by delays in payment of salaries and pensions, waste disposal system, poor power supply and of course, the giant of them all: corruption.
Again, while post-colonialist nations invest heavily in education as the key to their development, and they do reap bountifully from it, in a neo-colonialist country such as Nigeria, the crown (government) maintains a disdainful and hostile distance from the gown (tertiary institutions, especially the universities). Thus, to our neo-colonialist governments the intellectual, typically the Nigerian university teacher or the writer is a ready enemy. S/he is good enough only for the gas chamber, and hence, naturally adds to the joy of the system if s/he leaves the land. The frequent cries by ASUU and other well-meaning Nigerians over brain drain and the collapse of education are only of nuisance value to our neo-colonialist governments. In reality, the Nigerian intellectual – writer and teacher – is gradually becoming our own equivalent of the Latin American desaparecidos of the 1960s and the early 1970s. How, for instance does it disturb the government that 49 seasoned scholars have wrongfully been thrown out of the University of Ilorin? It is rather a welcome sign that the number of “NADECO-rised” lecturers is diminishing. What does it matter to the government that in the world ranking of universities late last year the best university in Nigeria was about the 6,024th. It is rather a good omen for the owners of private universities in the country as they would use this to draw parents’ and guardians’ attention to their own yet untested and unranked institutions. How does it bother any one of substance in government that education in Nigeria has collapsed when the children of any one of substance in Nigeria are safely in schools in Ghana, South Africa, Malaysia, the United States, Britain, Finland or Swaziland?
Yet, in the days when Achebe, Soyinka, Wali, Okara and other patriots practised post-colonialist discourse in Nigeria, Nigerian universities turned out scientists about whom Emeka Odumegwu – Ojukwu testifies: “ .. in the year 1968 indigenous Biafran rockets were able to strike their target six and half miles away”. Yes, this was postcolonial Nigeria, before its present eclipse, when our young must be trained only abroad. And, of course, the same drain goes for our writers who must either reach us from abroad or be killed, imprisoned, censored or made to give up writing altogether should they choose to remain. But the question remains, how do we expect our great writers and intellectuals to pursue a truly post-colonialist (dis)course when the object of their counter-criticism is still the man in whose land s/he has found refuge from what is supposed to be his own land of birth? If such an exile were from another land and living in Nigeria, and constantly fighting Nigeria in the interest of his home land, would Nigerians and their governments tolerate him/her, let alone be happy with him? Where are Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Abiola Irele, Niyi Osundare, Biodun Jeyifo, Ernest Emenyonu, Tanure Ojaide, Harry Garuba, Ben Okri, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe, Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah and the whole clan of Nigerian writers and scholars, who should be here to steer the nation through a truly post-colonialist (dis)course? How else are we to be told that for neo-colonial Nigeria, only the worst is good enough for the country if chasing out our writers and intellectuals is not loud and clear enough?
The mental make-up of Nigerians is also still generally neo-colonial. We make good shoes, bags and wear at Aba, but if the indigenous craftsman in Aba is to earn the wages for his labour, he must put the label of a foreign country on his product. Similarly, the producers of the Nigerian home video are a wonderfully creative coterie, and they are most firmly on the postcolonialist course as had been begun by Achebe and others in the 1950s and 1960s. Their works show us our past, criticize that past where necessary, praise virtue and condemn vice in the present, and project us to the outside world most robustly. Still, their case has been like that of the proverbial prisoners, who dug a tunnel for their escape only to discover that the tunnel surfaced in the very courtroom in which they were convicted, and it surfaced while the court was in session. Thus, these creative young men and women, after having done much to project Nigeria’s culture, ended up looking abroad for a name for their Nigerian enterprise. And so they came upon one which is only a capital letter “N” away from America’s “Hollywood”, to result in the nauseating “Nollywood” giving the impression that they must stand this close in name to some advanced economy to enhance their recognition. The prayer should be that the Niger Republic or the Netherlands should also not look for this degree of closeness in name to Hollywood or there would be much contest for the hybrid name, “Nollywood”. And, may India and Indonesia not go the way of our Nigerian brothers and sisters or it would be hard to settle among them who should take “Indollywood”. Similarly, Malaysia and Madagascar should be ready to hustle for Mollywood, and Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and the Gambia might reach the International Court at The Hague over Gollywood. Thus, in trying to fight colonialism, our great artists’ naming of their enterprise has returned them to that obliteration of cultural and economic identity that the West-tailored globalization portends, and which favours the advanced economies exclusively. How wonderful would it be if they chose a tourist centre in Nigeria as name, and this they could advertise wherever their productions go.
In the visions of the leadership in politics, economics, education, culture and patriotism do the differences between post-colonialism and neo-colonialism manifest. Neo-colonialism, as Nkrumah has noted, therefore remains the worst form of imperialism, a position that Fanon presents thus, “During the colonial period the people are called upon to fight against oppression; after national liberation, they are called upon to fight against poverty, illiteracy and under-development”.
And this battle against disease, poverty illiteracy and underdevelopment is what the immediate heirs to the Achebe and Soyinka and Wali generation have been fighting till date. This is the generation of writers and critics that began flourishing during or after the Civil War, and it is represented by such names as Ken Saro-Wiwa, Niyi Osundare, Biodun Jeyifo, Catherine Acholonu, Odia Ofeimun, Harry Garuba and Tanure Ojaide. What this group tended to be guided by are Ngugi wa Thiong’O and Micere Mugo’s question, “Must we let songs of a patriotic past betray the needy present?” The group and the next generation following had to re-direct their creative and critical afflatus from post-colonialist discourse to neo-colonialist writing and criticism in the bid to confront the harsh realities of life in our villages and in the streets of our urban centres and cities. In a way, this explains the lingering popularity of Marxist literary discourse in Nigeria, since the material conditions which this theory best confronted during the colonial days are still much with us.
Remembering that in the beginning is always the society, followed by its artists and then its critics, it follows that these neo-colonialist material conditions of Nigeria would produce neo-colonialist writing and criticism, and nothing else. Our pioneering postcolinialist literary discourse having lapsed prematurely into an eclipse, what we ought to be brandishing as our dominant literary theory is neo-colonial literary criticism, which represents the bulk of our creative output since the late 1970s. The various experiences of our intellectuals either as academics, creative writers, critics or film producers, especially their deaths, imprisonment, exile, forced attainment of menopause, etc, ought to constitute our literary theory, for example, as we now have prison writing as a unique African literary genre. But we have not tended to realize this or to be confident about pursuing this theory, again possibly because it is yet to have a foreign label as a literary/critical theory.
But in this atmosphere of a “needy present,” our academic conferences, long essay topics and even doctoral theses have in recent times been featuring “post-colonialist” themes. And quite curiously, this phase of “post-colonial” discourse traces its origin to the late Jerusalem-born, American-based literary critic and theorist, Professor Edward Said, in particular to his text, Orientalism, which is regarded as post-colonial theory’s founding text, though it came some twenty years after Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, three years after Achebe’s Morning Yet on Creation Day, and two years after Soyinka’s Myth, Literature and the African World. This is by no means intended to diminish the late Professor Said’s great contributions to post-colonial discourse, nor to reduce the great significance of his great book, Orientalism. If anything, it is only intended to give these developments their correct chronological perspective as well as show what prize a nation pays when it submits itself for foreign re-colonization. And, perhaps, we should also acknowledge the continued reflection of these pioneering works of these Nigerians in some world anthologies on post-colonial theory, notably the volumes jointly edited by Ashcroft, Griffith and Tiffen. But, as characteristic of neo-colonial societies, this theory which has now re-arrived from outside with the desired foreign label, and hence, seemingly fresh, must be adopted and applied here, like our taste for foreign material goods and foreign rule, whether these fit our being or not.
The question, however, remains, “Can post-colonial literary discourse thrive in neo-colonialist Nigeria?” Yes, in the sense that there is enough in our culture to project and there is enough foreign humiliation and misrepresentation to fight or correct. What with the lingering misrepresentations and over-orchestration of our vices in the Western media as if these were endemic to Nigeria? And, what with the continued enclitic attachment of our peoples to foreign cultural productions even where these are hybrids of African art and culture? Post-colonial discourse can thrive here in the sense that we have these and more to fight. But it can also hardly thrive here in the sense that our present is too needy to be overlooked so as to fight a physically absent enemy, especially an “enemy” on whom we have been made to believe our survival depends. Whether the eclipse of true post-colonial literary discourse in Nigeria will end or not will depend on what changes the political leadership will bring about in the concrete world of this country, Nigeria.

Dr. Joseph A. Ushie
Department of English
University of Uyo.


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