The following is an interview which originally appeared on StraightTalkWithBenneth.
A very big welcome to StraightTalkWithBenneth. So pleased to have you Dr. Damages, join me on the show. What was it about satire that made you think, this is where I belong?
Well, satire gives you certain permissions that you don’t have as an essayist. The artistic tools you can use as a satirist are enormous. And because satire promises to deliver a form of laughter, more people are willing to give you a chance that they otherwise would not. There is also the fulfillment that comes with satire when the audience is able to crack the nut- the same kind of fulfillment that comes when you crack a riddle. And one other thing- there is surreptitiousness that comes with satire. It is stingy enough to tell someone to use his tongue to count his teeth. It beats telling him to go and think about it. But if you want to really mess his brain up, you tell him to use his teeth to count his tongue. That takes it to a different level. No matter how stubborn the head may be, it will pause. And sometimes getting the head to pause, especially for Africans, is all there is to achieve a paradigm shift. The African heads are so automated that it is scary what goes on in there. And that is the ultimate goal- to challenge the assumptions, to question the oracles, to peel off the skins of the ancient rocks until there is a paradigm shift.
Is there any distinction between Rudolf Okonkwo and Dr. Njakiri Damages?
Of course. Rudolf Okonkwo is someone Fela will call a gentleman who is traditional in his approach to nation building and issues of development. But Dr. Damages is anything but traditional. He is impatient and is on a unique mission – to help create an environment where Africans are free of the shackles associated with that notion that says leaders are to be worshiped when what is needed is for them to be held accountable. Rudolf Okonkwo cannot survive a day in Dr. Damages’ garb. He can’t. But as his alter ego, Dr. Damages is a perfect outlet for him. While Dr. Damages says that New York City is the greatest city in the world, Rudolf Okonkwo calls his latest book, “This American Life Sef.”
Let’s talk about political satire in Africa, Nigeria particularly. Unfortunately, there are more than a few countries in the world where making a pointed political joke can lead to less-than-funny consequences. In light of that, what’s the state of political satire in Nigeria?
Political satire is the final state of comic relief. In Nigeria and Africa, comedy is growing. In the last 5 years, one can even say that it has exploded. My hope is that soon comedians would damn the consequences and take the ball into the 18-yard box- politics. Nothing impacts the lives of ordinary Africans like politics. It may be irritating at first. It may make some people uncomfortable. But with time, people will get it. They will stop seeing it as threatening and find a reason to laugh. There are signs that it will happen soon. What is actually delaying it is not fear but instead patronage. The comedians have lived on patronage from the political and business class. Once they realize that they can live and thrive without that patronage, the top will go off because there are a lot of materials begging to be mined. The people can also help the comedians by demanding that they stop giving the political class immunity.
In Dr. Damages Show, what would you say is your aim is your goal really just to be funny or is there something else in there?
The aim of the show is to find a fresh way to keep the conversation going, the same conversation that we have been having. If people laugh in the process, that is great. The pastors preach, the editorialists persuade, the magicians perform abracadabra, but the satirists just pick the strange-looking grain off the ground, raise it up and say, “look.” By that simple act, the satirist hopes to change the minds of men and repaint the picture of things.
Your show recently celebrated its 200th episode, in terms of general acceptance, how has the reception been?
Reception has been wonderful. From the remote parts of the world to the biggest cities there are, we have viewers- some agreeing and some disagreeing. But the people that move me so much are those in Africa who cannot afford the data to watch on YouTube but cannot wait for a new episode to come out and have someone download it as a file for them to share. It is amazing how Dr. Damages has eclipsed the once promising writer, Rudolf Okonkwo. In general, people who still have the capacity to laugh at themselves enjoy it. Those who are stuck up, those who think what they do is so important that the world will stop moving when they stop doing it are the ones irritated by Dr. Damages. What I find wonderful is that those who hate one particular episode because its content does not agree with their bias tend to like another episode where their view synchronizes with the content of the show.
I doubt you have never felt pressure or threatened because of a joke you did? Tell me about that moment.
Not really. I’m not in direct contact with subjects of the show. I do hear from their surrogates sometimes. And I only hear from the surrogates when their principal is the subject of ridicule. When they are not the subjects, everything is well and dandy. My answer to them is always, get your subject of the ridiculous news and Dr. Damages will not even notice that they are there. But as long as they are on the front pages of the newspapers, they will be the subject of ridicule.
What differentiates Dr. Damages from other satirists?
I don’t know. I haven’t looked for differences. I hope everyone does his or her own bit. That is all that is asked of us. I do mine as honestly as I can. I have my biases- just like everyone else. I start my permutations by siding with the small man against the big man, even though I know there are few cases where the big man is right and the small man is wrong. Even though I may come across in few places as insulting, I do understand that some of the people at the receiving end of my jabs did the best they could or the best that their exposure, education, and passion could allow them. I have an attraction to stupid criminals. And if you look across Africa, most of our political actors are stupid criminals. You don’t need the FBI to go after them if they were operating in America. Village police department will catch them and send them to jail for decades.
Nigeria is like a wrapped gift. It has been tossed around, kicked and battered. Some of the wrappings have been torn at some points, but the actual gift is still in the box, untouched. The other way that I have defined Nigeria is that it is a failed nation that works for the very people who failed it. At other places, I’ve said that the ideals of Nigeria have not been tried and found wanting, instead, they have been found difficult and as such left untried. But the ultimate definition of Nigeria is the one that The Economist of London gave it- that Nigeria is the only country in the world where the best is impossible and the worst never happens. For better or for worse, Dr. Damages is in the business of changing that Economist’s definition.
Let’s talk politics briefly. How do you see the conduct of the 2015 Presidential elections?
It was terrible. We were just lucky that Buhari won the perception contest before the election. That made it impossible to rig him out or rig Jonathan in, whichever way you prefer to put it. The flaws in the system are so terrible that it would have been war in a closely contested election. There is no doubt that the integrity of the election was compromised from the North to the South. But in the end, the candidate with the perception advantage gets to take power.
Describe your perception of the present political atmosphere since the new government took over.
Over eight months after, Nigerians are losing hope. Things are not improving, especially on the economic front. They may be partly as a result of global economic turndown but the masses do not care about that. They want the change that was promised delivered today. I don’t blame them. By the time Buhari’s team realized that they were promising too much, it was too late to scale back. The initial lopsided appointments in an ethnically diverse country like Nigeria did not help matters, either. And then, the fight against corruption raised so much dust- the most potent of which is the one raised by the upper middle class who were benefiting from the ‘everything goes’ era that is being questioned by the fight against corruption. When members of the upper middle class of any society are threatened, they have a way of agitating that drags most of the masses with them. Remember they are the ones who hire most drivers, cooks, gardeners, security guards etc. They are the ones who pay most school fees of relations who cannot. They are the ones who pay hospital bills for these same friends and family. So when anything threatens that class, it threatens the majority of the people indirectly. We have been subjugated for so long that it is hard for people to understand that what the top one percent steals from our commonwealth actually belongs to us. They have made us all believe that they are taking our own share and that if we serve them well during our apprenticeship we will one day get our own chance to steal more than they are stealing today.
Who is your Nigeria’s greatest leader?
The greatest leader is not yet born. Leaders are flawed everywhere in the world but Nigerian leaders are particularly flawed. There are two kinds of leaders in Nigeria: there are those who used the first part of their lives to destroy the last and those who used the last part of their lives to destroy the first. We have not had those who transcended their beginning, their era, their generation, and transported themselves into the future. That was what the founding fathers of America did. Our founding fathers failed to articulate that for us and we have continued to flounder. And until we do that the very foundation of our nation will continue to be shaky.
I would like to relate some of our lawmakers with the concept of your show. Having this in mind, who do you think are the funniest Nigerian lawmakers right now? And who are your favorite African Presidents?
Hands down, it is Dino- Dino Melaye is one of the characters that we love. He is consistently entertaining and an epitome of all that is wrong with Nigeria. His hypocrisy is unsurpassed. And that has always been the story of the Nigerian ruling class. They bamboozle the poor masses with one single intention- to protect and preserve their personal interests for their generations yet unborn.
Before we wrap up if you become the President of Nigeria, what are the four major things you’d change?.
If I become the president of Nigeria the first thing you should do is to splash water on your face because you were dreaming. If after doing that you still find out that it is true, then run. Go to any country that will take you because you have just asked a danfo driver to be your Boeing 747 pilot. Seriously the problem is not that our leaders do not know what to do. The real problem is that they have no will-power to do it. And do you know why they have no such will power? It is because they are involved in the iniquities that got us to this stinking place that we are. And it is for that reason that every election cycle they make sure that power goes to people like them- stained, damaged and compromised people who they can manipulate at will.