Tuesday, January 31

The Toyin Falola Interviews – A Conversation With Professor Olufemi Obafemi, Part 1

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

PART 1 – PROFESSOR OLUFEMI OBAFEMI: SHOWCASING A CREATIVE SCHOLAR

The assumption that we can control the activities around us, though understandable, can be open to both contention and interpretation because of the timeless quandary between fate and faith. With the latter, humans depend primarily on their intuitive capacity to influence activities around them, while many seek divine collaboration to unlock the potential to affect their wishes. However, with the former, the situation is nuanced. No matter how cautious and intellectually active they would later become, no one in the world has the ability to determine either the season or the timeframe when they would arrive on earth and the level-playing environment where their brilliance would be put into use.

Given that man is incapable of controlling when he would have the opportunity to taste this life, he is equally incapacitated in deciding when his life would be terminated. Even if during our limited time on earth we are able to shape what our life would be, circumstances decide the time when we would indeed be born and to what land. Our struggles and concerns are also shaped by contexts and historical circumstances.

For someone like Olufemi Obafemi, who is one of the most prolific products of his generation in literary engagements, it cannot be overly emphasized that fate had placed an assignment before him for the simple fact that he was raised under a post-colonial umbrella, with its overdose of administrative incompetency. Although one would argue that not everyone, who is physically available in the socio-politically cancerous timeline, undertakes the duties of social liberation through their intellectual engagements with ravaging issues, but then again, such assumption would be ridiculing the fact that some people invest more efforts than others in the sociological makeup. For this reason, they tend to have measurable accomplishments than the average individuals would ever achieve.

Positioned at a time when Africans had suffered extensively from the cultural and political de-articulation supervised by European imperialists, it became a natural call for Obafemi to dedicate his intellectual agility and vibrancy to challenge not only institutionalized structures but also to interrogate moral and infrastructural legacies. Not many members of his generation who undertook this social responsibility demonstrated the level of commitment as Obafemi did. His history of dedication has been a powerful rod, dividing the seas of uncertainties for him to make an impact.

Photo: University of Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria

Born on a cool breezy day of a Tuesday in April of 1950, the future Professor Obafemi was raised in an environment where the prospect of education was seen by the few prescient fellows who took the bold decision to send their wards to the academic climate for Western education. Behind every Nigerian who was educated in the colonial timeline was a suspense-filled history. After all, schools were conceived as an avenue for intellectual baptism, usually from the colonial imperialists’ perspective; yet, they were seen as a forest of identity reconstruction, whereby African cultural retrieval would be difficult.

For this reason, the reluctance of African parents to send their wards to school was evident in their outright denial of enrollment opportunity for their children and in how they engaged them in farming. However, those who had the option must show a compelling reason why their education investment was not ill-conceived. Obafemi fell into this category, and the present results of his academic brilliance are proofs of his commitment.

After his elementary education experience in the present-day Kogi State, in Nigeria, he proceeded to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he studied English. During that time, in Nigeria’s university history, there were not many such institutions, even in the whole of Africa, which offered postgraduate studies. This meant that progressing in one’s academic pursuit was dependent on merit, as this would attract to them either willing sponsors or government scholarships to continue in their intellectual quest. Therefore, it is not surprising that Obafemi continued his postgraduate education at both the University of Sheffield and the University of Leeds, where he earned his Master’s degree and Ph.D. degrees, respectively.

Having acquired these impressive academic feats, it was undebatable that Obafemi was battle-ready to enter into the African intellectual market to make maximum impact. However, it became a challenge for him to create an effect in the literary atmosphere in which Chinua Achebe, as well as Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola, and D. O. Fagunwa, as his Nigerian literary ancestors, had already decolonized. From Ibadan, for example, Soyinka had already gone to Leeds to leave his literary footprints in the Yorkshire enclave of the UK. Still, it seemed that the Obafemi’s determination was more robust than the various tensions ignited by these forerunners’ productional consistencies.

A lot more beneficial is the fact that the post-colonial Nigerian and African political infrastructures left sufficient socio-political and socio-cultural situations in pragmatically difficult conditions, allowing a site of literary exploration to emerge indiscriminately. In other words, the area of engagement is vast, and what was necessarily required was the discerning ability of writers to see these situations and, in the end, turn them into helpful information sites to negotiate social equity, cultural rejuvenation, and political freedom for the subaltern, whose voices have been irrevocably undermined. Therefore, we are not overestimating intellectual talent when we conclude that Obafemi’s body of works has changed the narratives, especially as it penetrates social activities to enrich our general understanding.

Photo: Chief Hubert Ogunde, July 10, 1916 – April 4, 1990

Being a playwright, a poet, a scholar, a professional biographer, and an English professor is a mark and a marker of Obafemi’s academic brilliance and an indicator of his prolific difference. In these various fields, he has made impressive landmarks, coupled with the remarkable impact that identifies him as an exceptional character in the culture of writing. As a playwright, for example, he published Nights of a Mystical Beast (1986), The New Dawn (1986), Suicide Syndrome (1993), Naira Has No Gender (1993), The Love Twirls of Adiitu-Olodumare (2016), and Iyunade (2016). All of the foregoing materials have each addressed different socio-political conditions with mouth-watering achievements. For example, the Nights of a Mystical Beast is a canonical play, which reflects the post-colonial and post-truth decadence in which the country (Nigeria) is circumscribed. As I perused it, I found the play characterized by ambivalent insensitivity to the impending plights that were waiting to consume the protruding population, made up of those with whom power is reposed, ruled, and, above all, who managed the people with reckless abandon. I agree with its conclusions.

At the time, political insincerity was abiding and no one can doubt the playwright’s effectiveness to represent the events that continue to frustrate the efforts of the society in such clear pictures. The propensity of the post-independence era’s elite was discussed dispassionately, and how they have chosen to backstab the innocent Nigerians looking onto them for economic and social redemption. What a pity!

Most certainly, any writer who wishes to become a social emancipator must first begin by being the people’s conscience, which will involve serving as the moral inspiration for their social attitudes. Then, people would have experienced deprivation of unknown magnitude, abuse of unimaginable proportion, or economic depreciation of accelerated speed. These are all byproducts of irresponsible leadership they are beleaguered with, and they would need a moral scaffold that could support them in the occasion that they want to fall into ethical pieces.

The preceding position of support, which writers always occupy in the society, and the opportunity to serve in this position, is determined in their stand when faced with the barrage of political injustices. For Obafemi, he has demonstrated that he is worthy of winning the social regard registered for him in his literary engagements. Having produced ones that exposed the growing decadence of the society, signalled by the political impoverishment observed in the corridor of power, he released another important literary canon that was tagged in a query–Dark Dark Times Are Over? The play, an evaluation of society’s social challenges, remains one of his most vital intellectual Trojan horses, which pierces through the conscience of Africans about how the knowledge production centres are fast becoming an arid land that incubates delinquent and morally-reprehensible behaviours. Only the hiss of the highest contempt imaginable in the Yoruba speech pattern would capture such idiocy–Shio!

Like the questions posed by Antonio in the historical indictment against his person about Caesar’s death, the play places rhetorical interrogation on the society generally because of the people’s active complicity in the erosion of values in knowledge generation centres-the universities. Contrary to what the particular institution (or school) represents, the Nigerian universities have also become a ground for the production of intellectual prostitutes, religious tensions, social injustices, and pervasive cultism. This is outrageously against what the school is meant to represent. Quite the opposite, the academy–as a school–has become a space for the proliferation of divisive agenda, all of which contribute to the germination of these morally delinquent behaviours. Because the Nigerian schools have allowed their emotions to come in the way of nation-building, they have consciously imported religious crises into the education setting by their erection of religious centres in schools, which allows the continuation of the internal contradictions already ignited by religious pluralism. Due to the expanded gap that capitalism has caused in society, ladies are drawn to aggressive prostitution in their quest to get enough financial oxygen to continue with their lives. Like his predecessors, Obafemi has established the needed impression that drama and theatre can be used as socio-cultural development instruments. Play on!

Photo: Moses Olaiya (Baba Sala), May 18, 1936 – October 7, 2018

Despite the different literary successes that Obafemi has chalked in academic engagement, he equally spoke in high decibel about the country’s socio-political conditions through his scholarly publications. One significant example in this category is his “Nigerian Writers on the Nigerian Civil War” (1992). This is a meta-analysis. Here, Obafemi uses the piece to x-ray many writers’ works on the historical Civil War, which became a painful thorn in the national flesh. While doing this, he does not forget to exemplify the war’s basis and the corresponding devastating consequences that greeted its demise.

From the very ashes of the Civil War, which lasted for thirty months (between 6th July 1967 and 15th January 1970), the sociopolitical suspicion of the post-1970s gave more opportunities for xenophobia, ethnic hatred, political discordance, and other multiple divisions. In what can be comfortably underscored to persist even till the contemporary time, the writer assumes that the problems ravaging the country are congenital. But when scholars address a sociopolitical problem, it is not to add to the issues already on the ground but to find a standard solution to a collective problem. This is why he would later write about the beauty of the Nigerian culture in “Contemporary Nigerian Theatre: Cultural Heritage and Social Vision” (1996). The abiding theme of the work is that the country is rich in its cultural diversity, and the people can tap into this for collective advantage. In essence, the prolific nature of Obafemi can never be in doubt. He has convincingly proven himself as an intellectual that continually raises the bar and maintains a brilliant consistency. The man continues to break boundaries, and getting national and international accolades is a crown to his efforts.

Growing under Nigeria’s sociopolitical conditions opens him to understand the expanding gap between the privileged in the political circle and the unlucky masses. The latter’s fortune is perpetually tied to the apron strings of the former. Sadly, the occupants of the positions in the former’s category are unapologetic about their financial deprivation of the defenceless masses. Inequity continues to grow comprehensive, and class stratification becomes so pronounced that the future has a bleak outlook.

Even when the subaltern understands the source of their political and economic decapitation, they are eternally disallowed from airing their grievances. When they do, these agitations make minimal or no social significance. The horrible situation, which confronted them, notwithstanding, individuals–who serve as their conscience–do not cease to represent them at given opportunities. One of them is Olufemi Obafemi. In what he has conceded to in recent time, the source of his intellectual and literary motivation was the gross class stratification imposed in the Nigerian and African societies by the political elites. He notes that the outrageous effects of their excessive greed on society cannot be undermined because personal ambitions could blind the individuals who benefit from this arrangement. To construct a morally upright society lies in the conscious sacrifice of personal industry and sentiment for collective goals.

Photo: Chinua Achebe, November 16, 1930 – March 21, 2013

It was in this thinking, therefore, that he decides to take the side of the subaltern in his writings and engagement. He believes that even when the individuals benefitting from the rot refuse to reconsider the appropriation of better social and political philosophy, the nature of tyranny would perhaps change the course of events to everyone’s disadvantage. When a financial distribution is difficult to achieve, the overstretched system would soon explode with consequences that may not be easy to contain. Hence, his works are considered constant reminders to the few privileged ones in society. He believed they would inevitably be led into trepidation with the political system they have employed. Also, his works are a message of hope to the helpless.

In essence, Obafemi can comfortably be described as a committed activist writer who challenges the political domination of the privileged class with its patronage network. Although the beneficiaries would believe that they are being blessed by providence to be in the position where they can accrue commonwealth and accumulate collective properties for their selfish interest, they would have nowhere to run to when the system is excessively compromised, courtesy of their political and leadership deficit. He is a celebrated writer whose engagement of the political representatives that encouraged this social condition is not motivated by vindictive or bitter ambition against them. Instead, he continues to challenge them for the need to build a just society in which everyone would benefit.

The tentacle of Obafemi’s academic ingenuity spreads to the international community, too, as he made several appearances in the Black diaspora, where he gave notable contributions to biting social issues. In one of the international conferences that he attended of late, he was generally evaluative and particularly scientific in his diagnosis of the world’s current security situation, and he suggested different ways to forge a path out of the doldrums. Nigeria is recently immersed in the cancer of internal violence that has birthed ethnic panic and suspicion. Insecurities in the country have become a hydra-headed challenge that threatens the country’s stability and frustrates all efforts at social rebuilding. This is not minding that the emergence of a novel coronavirus challenges the global security and safety architecture. Apart from the growing concerns that this has ignited in the hearts of many, it has equally ridiculed the knowledge and research infrastructure of the intellectual elite whose years of knowledge production and research engagement did little to mitigate the damage of the novel coronavirus. The devastating effects on nations like Nigeria can only be imagined.

With poor security architecture as well as dwindling economic system, decelerating social infrastructure, blighted moral values, and haunted philosophy, Nigeria–and maybe other African countries–find the emergence of a novel virus, which is very difficult to manage, not only because they have no assurance of scaling through the hurdle it had brought, but also because it comes as an additional burden to what the people had already been facing. Merged with the problems from COVID-19-induced sources, the security incompetency of Nigeria’s security chiefs become magnified.

Meanwhile, when the security system is overly stretched, and the leadership demonstrates no signs of control, agitations for self-determination, the creation of alternative security networks, and the erection of suspicions are all potential consequences that have the probability of wrecking the system. The poverty that the lopsided system has engendered has combined to frustrate the system and demolish every national image that sustains its unity. To successfully combat this situation means that the government must create an enabling atmosphere for dialogue, where proper recognition would be given to the country’s multi-ethnic colours for progress.

In this narrative of limited words, it is practically challenging to summarize all that Obafemi has done to improve society. Even when we have been able to discuss some of his intellectual values, which he has added to the polity in the course of his literary engagement and development, there is a firm conviction that we have not exhausted the expansive academic additions that he has made to humanity.

Of course, we are aware that the man, Obafemi, continues to provide fresh perspectives to the country’s issue, and his revolutionary dispositions cannot be undermined. Through his efforts, people have added their mental resources and redefined the simple gift embedded in them. As the Chairman of the vibrant Kwara State Chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), he has encouraged writing on a pervasive scale. In 2018, the Governing Board of the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA) considered him worthy of being honoured with the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM), in the Humanities’ category. The award was one of the many others that he has attained. His nationalist posture, above all, reinforces his commitment to his field, his nation, his people, and the world-at-large.

Photo: Professor Olufemi Obafemi and his wife, Mrs Grace Obafemi, with President Buhari during the presentation of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NMOM) award in 2018
Share.