In a nobler time social criticism required more than just the ability to string words on paper. In that gilded age, social criticism was not only rooted in verbiage and media activism. It was not a career choice, or a meal ticket. The positions that public commentators took were driven by deep ideological beliefs, and their activism was not an act, it was a life style. Their devotion to their cause was one of total immersion. They were prepared to die for their beliefs, to suffer prison and privation.
Why is our social criticism lacking for titans like Funmilayo Kuti, Michael Imoudu, Hassan Sunmonu, Mokwugo Okoye, Tai Solarin, Gani Fawehinmi, Chima Ubani, Fela Kuti, Claude Ake, Ken Saro Wiwa. Why have we been plagued lately, by charlatans and stage actors who manage to fool us with their highfaluting words and their polished sophistry? Many have bemoaned the radical reverse metamorphosis that Reuben Abati has undergone. How did this multi-colored butterfly that once dazzled with its iridescent wings regress back to being a belly crawling caterpillar, so quickly and so completely? But Abati is not alone. Before him, there was Segun Adeniyi. And before Segun, there was a long list of writers, activists – social critics all – that have turned their pens and keyboards to the service of a system that they once assailed.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when social criticism went beyond the mere ability to write and speak. It is easy to write anything that one wishes to under a civilian democracy. Under the military, social critics and activists risked jail and death. Activism in that period in our history was not a career, it was a death sentence. Student activists risked rustication, jail and even death. Labor activists risked jail and their careers. Social critics risked prison and death. Those who ventured into social criticism in those hey days were men and women who had given their lives over completely to the struggle for freedom. They were prepared to die for their beliefs.
It is therefore not surprising that those who chose to walk this perilous path did not see a separation between their careers and their struggles. They were not just verbal advocates for a better society, but they spent their lives working to build the utopia that they were advocating for.
Tai Solarin was a dogged social critic. He began writing a column in the Daily Times in 1958, two years after establishing Mayflower School in Ikenne in 1956. The school and the way it was run was modeled after Solarin’s views of society. Students were not only taught their literary and scientific lessons, but they were also taught about hard-work and service. As a secular humanist, Tai railed against the religious hypocrisy that he saw all around him, and that was one of the reasons why he established Mayflower School. Tai publicly advocated for national self-reliance, and in his little utopia in Ikenne, his students grew their own food and sometimes built their own dormitories.
It does not matter which of the social critics one focuses on from that era, there were no inconsistencies between the public lives that these men and women projected and their private conduct in their careers or in public service. Tai Solarin died in 1994, serving as Chairman of the now defunct People’s Bank during the Babangida regime. His service at People’s Bank was selfless and he died with his integrity intact.
Gani Fawehinmi was a titan for the cause of democracy. He was a consummate advocate for the rule of law. Many of us who were in the students struggle owe Gani a world of gratitude for being able to graduate from school and being extricated from the torture cells of military dictators. Gani was as fiery in the defense of students whom he served at no charge, as he was in his many legal battles with the military and in the service of his paying clients. Gani Fawehinmi was also the publisher of the most authoritative law reports publication in Nigeria. Gani also famously took on Bola Tinubu during the Chicago State University certificate saga, demonstrating his complete devotion to the cause of absolute truth and justice.
Claude Ake was another veritable giant in his day. His contributions were cut short by his untimely death in the ADC plane crash of 1996. Professor Ake was a remarkably effective social critic. He established the Centre for Advanced Social Science in Port Harcourt, a think-tank that was the leading institution for socio-political research in Nigeria. When the Abacha government judicially murdered Ken Saro Wiwa in 1995, Claude Ake resigned from the Royal Dutch Shell Commission to study the Ecological problems in the Niger Delta in protest.
There are no annals that we can turn to that chronicles the sufferings that many of these men and women went through in their service as Social Critics, but suffer they did. Their integrity and conduct elevated social criticism and made the space a rarefied one. The tyrannical and dictatorial tendencies of military rule helped to sift the wheat from the chaff. Those who spoke and wrote about social conditions in those times were men, women and youth with backbones of steel.
Today, the likelihood that a social critic will be picked up for his or her views and locked away for years in prison is close to zero. The probability that a hit squad will arrive at the door of a critic, put a bullet though his head and burn his home to the ground is also next to zero. Thanks to democracy, the space of social criticism has now been opened up. New voices have emerged and in many ways, Nigeria has benefitted from this expansion in the space for critical social discourse.
But herein is the problem. While we could rely on the fear of arrest, detention, rustication, firing and death to keep charlatans away from the market place of social criticism during dictatorial rule, such deterrents are no longer in place.
Most Nigerians are closet critics. We are an opinionated people, and whether we are gathered at bus stops, social gatherings or Beer Parlors, our conversations are often steered to matters of a political bent. The social critic as defined in this context is that person who believes his or her views about society are worthy of amplification. The facts are that deserving or not, these social critics become embodiments of the alternatives that they advocate for. As the public face of our collective struggle, such commentators must bear reciprocal responsibilities.
The best writers are wordsmiths – imbued with the ability to take a seemingly riotous collection of alphabets and forge them into a self-consistent whole. The same set of words can be used to draw tears from the driest eye, or to evince love and pangs of compassion from the hardest heart. Words can turn sheep to lions and wolves. But words are also cheap, and they are even cheaper still when there are no consequences that follow from their use. It is no wonder that when some of these new age critics, who have no ideological grounding, are pulled into government to actualize the utopias about which they write and speak, they are found out to be vacuous beings with no moral or philosophical foundation. They realize, as they are buffeted by the demands of office and tempted by the trappings of power, that they lack the conviction to stare down the challenges they face. Like chaff, they are sifted by the winds of adversity.
Nations need their critics. But just as we require service and performance of our leaders, so too must we begin to demand performance and service of those whom we rely on for the criticism of those leaders. We must develop new demands and responsibilities of those whose work we elevate to be representative of our struggle. Should we fail to do this, the character flaws and the vacuous nature of these men and women will come to define our struggle. Unless this is done, we will continue to be plagued by shape shifters like Reuben Abati, Segun Adeniyi and the countless others who have used mere words as a Passover ticket.
Five years ago, no one would have believed that strident voices for progress like Abati’s or Adeniyi’s could ever be compromised. No one would have believed that a champion for the downtrodden like Abati could be coopted in the vocation of sycophancy. No one would have thought that a voice that powerful, that strident, could be turned into a groveling Nightingale’s high pitched cacophony.
But perhaps if we had looked deeper, if we had asked more questions of the man, we would have found reason to be cautious. We would have discovered that at the height of the Babangida and Abacha dictatorships, when Chima Ubani, Ogaga Ifowodo, Sowore Omoyele, Beko Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi, Bamidele Aturu, Femi Falana and Dele Giwa were staring down the barrels of guns, being hounded out of their campuses and jobs, being locked up at Gashua and KiriKiri, or in Dele Giwa’s case, dying for the cause, Mr Abati was busy writing romance stories at Hints, Chanelle and Hearts. He was in the business of theater and literature, but he was not in the theater of struggle. His skills were deployed towards furthering his own career and creating pleasurable fiction. Nigeria’s leadership problem did not start with Obasanjo, and it will not end with Jonathan. There were leadership problems under Buhari, Abacha and Babangida. Curiously, Abati’s voice was silent in those years of his youth. Clearly, in Abati’s case, he simply changed careers. He is in many ways still a writer of romantic fiction, and these days, he writes of his love affair with a system that he once lampooned.
We must demand more than just words or the ability to write or speak. There was a time when we could take for granted the fact that those who spoke in the public square were men and women of conviction. Those days are long gone. Now, we must demand to know what our public commentators are actually doing to change the system. Tai Solarin fought for change at the national level using platforms such as Daily Times, The Tribune and Public engagements. But he also brought about change one student at a time at his school in Ikenne. Claude Ake wrote opinion pieces in Newspapers and battled the governments of the day, but he also churned out world class policy work from his center in Port Harcourt. Gani Fawehinmi personified social criticism and activism, and he was engaged in the battle for Nigeria’s soul as a Senior Advocate of the Masses, and as a Philanthropist offering succor to indigent students. Fela Kuti was perhaps the fieriest of critics. But he did more than sing songs of struggle. He took his vision for society one step further than most, establishing his own Kalakuta Republic. Whatever we might think of the paths and actions that these men took, there is no denying that they brought credibility to their cause by their records of active participation and engagement. They lived the struggle.
We are fast losing credibility. Our words increasingly mean nothing. The public has seen enough of us fail to live up to our lofty rhetoric that their conclusions that all those who speak out are in it only for what they too can get, is becoming harder to refute. It is becoming increasingly difficult to counter these charges. If we are not careful, those of us who have elected to speak truth to power will no longer be taken seriously. We will be like the boy who cried Wolf in jest, only to be met with studied indifference when the real threat emerged. Too many jesters have entered the market place of social criticism.
There are also dire political ramifications. When you engage Nigerians and ask them why they vote for rogues who openly buy their way into office, they will tell you that they have no faith in those who claim the high ground: “Bros, all dat one na story. When dem enter government now na different tori dem go dey yarn. All of dem be thief. At least, dis one no try take big big English cover himself.”
Each betrayal hurts Nigeria and makes our path forward more challenging. Each critic and activist whose actions in government are contrary to the rhetoric voiced in their public criticism confirms the belief that many Nigerians now hold, that those who engage in activism do so only to further their own interests. So next time you read that critical article or opinion piece from a writer who is over thirty five years of age, ask the writer to tell you where they were and what they were doing when Obasanjo, Buhari, Abacha and Babangida were ravaging the land. And for all social critics, regardless of their age, we must ask to know what they have done lately to try to improve the lives of their countrymen and women.