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“Thinking is All I Owe Nigeria” -Pius Adesanmi

January 15, 2011

Sahara Reporter’s weekly columnist, Pius Adesanmi, is the internationally acclaimed winner of the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing (2010) in the non-fiction category with his manuscript, You’re not a Country, Africa. The book will be published by Penguin Books in June 2011. A widely cited commentator on African politics and culture, Adesanmi is a two-time Fellow of the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) and has guest-lectured widely in Universities in Africa, Europe, and North America. His firstbook, The Wayfarer and Other Poems, won the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize in 2001. He teaches Literature, French, and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, where he is also Director, Project on New African Literatures (PONAL). In this major interview published in the current print issue of the London-based magazine, African Writing, Adesanmi bares his mind on a broad range of issues affecting Nigeria and Africa. We bring you excerpts.

Sahara Reporter’s weekly columnist, Pius Adesanmi, is the internationally acclaimed winner of the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing (2010) in the non-fiction category with his manuscript, You’re not a Country, Africa. The book will be published by Penguin Books in June 2011. A widely cited commentator on African politics and culture, Adesanmi is a two-time Fellow of the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) and has guest-lectured widely in Universities in Africa, Europe, and North America. His firstbook, The Wayfarer and Other Poems, won the Association of Nigerian Authors Poetry Prize in 2001. He teaches Literature, French, and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, where he is also Director, Project on New African Literatures (PONAL). In this major interview published in the current print issue of the London-based magazine, African Writing, Adesanmi bares his mind on a broad range of issues affecting Nigeria and Africa. We bring you excerpts.

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The full interview is available at

African Writing:
In your 'day job', you teach in a Canadian University, but you are also a widely-published and quoted commentator on all things Africana. You are not a passionate believer in the need for distance in the practice of academia, then?

Pius Adesanmi: Thank you for your question. I am a public intellectual and a chronicler of Africa. I have wholly embraced that vocation with its generous hassles and miserly joys. The condition of Nigeria and Africa today are too desperate for me to find any joy or personal satisfaction in producing exclusive literary-theoretical jargons that could only be understood by colleagues and advanced doctoral students. And, no, I do not believe in the need for discursive boundaries between town and gown. My philosophy of intellection and knowledge production has been shaped over the years by a very broad range of populist (I hope one can still use that term in a non-pejorative sense today) traditions. The writer and public intellectual that I am today were shaped by all the big isms of the political and ideological Left even with all their warts. I strive constantly to hone an intellectual praxis marked by its embeddedness in the social, an underlying immersion in volk consciousness, a rootedness in the idioms of the street, and a permanent suspicion of power that cannot in anyway be cocooned in academia. I am just too restless for the epistemic isolation that is academe. And don't forget that I am also a student of the French tradition of public intellection. If you look closely at 19th and 20th century France, especially roughly from Emile Zola's "J'accuse" down to our times, the ideas that powered and inflected society did not come as a result of the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, André Breton, Raymond Aron, Louis Althusser, Pierre Fougeyrollas, Michel Foucault, Alain Finkiekrault, and Bernard-Henri Lévy merely sitting down to philosophize from the hallowed halls of the Sorbonne or the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Many of these thinkers were or are also agitators, columnists, anarchists, and animators of the public sphere. Let me remind you that public intellection is also not a new thing in Africa. The only new dimension is the increasing appropriation of the internet as a space of public intellection as we see, for instance, in the very visible listserv praxis of Nigeria’s Mobolaji Aluko, a Professor of Chemical Engineering with a public intellectual vocation underwritten by social and political justice concerns. Other than this new online dimension, the field of African public intellection has been very rich since the upsurge in continental production of discourse and knowledges in European languages began in the 20th century. In no particular order, the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Odia Ofeimun, Edwin Madunagu, Ayodele Awojobi, Bala Usman, Eskor Toyo, Niyi Osundare, Biodun Jeyifo and so many others have contributed enormously to blurring the boundaries between town and gown in terms of activism and essayistic interventions. South Africa, Kenya, Congo, Uganda, Malawi, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe have all given us the likes of Archie Mafeje, Bernard Magubane, Eski’a Mpahlele, Ali Mazrui, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Florence Wambugu, Mahmood Mamdani, Achille Mbembe, Lovemore Madhuku, John Makumbe, and Ernest Wambia dia Wambia just to limit myself to those. I like to flatter myself by believing that I am qualified to be called a devoted student of these illustrious practitioners of African public intellection.
African Writing: In Africa we have a long history of agitation by illustrious liberators who tend to be too easily satisfied by the liberation of their own wallets. You speak of a 'permanent suspicion of power' that cannot be cocooned in academia. Have African 'public intellectuals' who cross the political divide fared any better? Are our centres of intellection actually liberating minds, or generating the ideas to truly liberate their societies? Or are they just vehicles to catapult an intellectual elite into the casinos of power.

Adesanmi: 'Liberators' is a very huge basket into which I assume you have dumped a very broad range of actors in the continent's liberatory processes: nationalist politicians, trade unionists, student unionists, youth unionists, creative writers of the Negritudinist and cultural-nationalist dimension and, of course, academics and public intellectuals. I think you are also super-imposing the typical Nigerian scenario of cross-over intellection on the whole of Africa. It is true that more than thirty years of military rule and corrupt civilian interregnums have eventuated in a corrosion of values of which the co-optation of the intellectual by the state has been a manifest consequence in Nigeria but that is not always the case with the rest of Africa. I prefer the template of one of Democratic Republic of Congo’s foremost public intellectuals, Ernest Wambia dia Wambia. I am sure you know that he studied in the United States and wrote a formidable doctoral dissertation on Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre before settling down to an eclectic academic career that saw him eventually teach at Harvard University before moving to the University of Dar-es-Salaam. By the 1980s, he had become one of Africa’s famous and influential public intellectuals and got into trouble often with Mobutu Sese Seko. I am sure you know that he went to the trenches during the second Congo war against Laurent Kabila and became a leader of the rebel movement, Rally for Congolese Democracy. Yes, a famous African public intellectual quit the University and picked up a Kalachnikov against Laurent Kabila in the 1990s. That story is not very well known in Anglophone Africa because of the iron curtain of language but it happened and I daresay that it is far more gripping than our own narrative of a young writer who held up a radio station three decades ago while trying to defend the ethos of democratic practice in Nigeria. This is not to diminish Soyinka’s truly heroic act. Today, Ernest Wambia dia Wambia is a progressive Senator in DRC and still one of the most active and prominent names in Africanist academic and political discourse circles. That is a kind of African public intellectual trajectory that has been overshadowed by the Nigerian model of collaboration with the corrupt postcolonial state in Abuja.
African Writing: We refer to that broad clique who find themselves in power, or with access to the spoils of power.

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Adesanmi: That is true – especially in Nigeria where the state has been able to ruin the names and reputation of too many of our public intellectuals but like I just pointed out in the case of Wambia dia Wambia, collaboration with power has not been the only destiny of public intellection in Africa and Nigeria. Part of the problem here is that your question assumes, as it is often frequently done, that the work of the public intellectual must always eventuate in concrete, benchmarkable results in terms of the advancement and liberation of society.

Sometimes history dictates otherwise by interpellating them just to produce ideas and permanently disrupt the settled verities of those in power. When Octavio Paz says that thinking is the only obligation of the intelligentsia, the only obligation an intellectual owes his society, he makes a lot of sense to me. Thinking is really the only debt that the public intellectual owes his society. Thinking is all I believe I owe Nigeria and Africa.

African Writing: Do you really subscribe to Octavio Paz? Do you not see a crisis of imagination in Presidential Houses across Africa? An abundance of people with power who don't know what to do with it? Is there not a place for Think Tanks that actually bend their minds to concrete policy? Can African taxpayers afford the luxury of 'abstract thinkers'?

Adesanmi: Octavio Paz was not just talking about abstract thought. He was talking about intellection tout court. That said, abstract thought and concrete policy intellection are not mutually exclusive. Those producing policy papers in American thinktanks do not operate ex nihilo. They are coming from the abstract thought that has either framed philosophies of the Left or the Right depending on their respective political persuasions. In the USA, all the lunatic rightwing public policy papers and recommendations churned out by equally lunatic rightwing thinktanks in Washington, and which served as the springboard for so many policies of the Bush-Cheney junta, are traceable to the abstract thought of the Chicago School of economics and the towering artifice of its singular messiah, the late Milton Friedman. That is the man whose abstract thought and vision informs the worldview of the racists in the American right – those crazy neocons and tea partyers. In essence, there is no such thing as policy intellection shorn of philosophical roots in abstraction. There are in fact two immediate dangers in the perspective of your question. One is the danger associated with the oft-repeated fallacy that the situation in Africa is too dire for abstraction. When that mode of reflection is translated into the lingo of the street in, say, Nigeria, it eventuates in certain national attitudes to intellection. Hence, politicians and even the general public begin to dismiss any sustained and rigorous intellection as dogon turenchi or big English. The rise of illiteracy in Nigeria and the generalized hostility to knowledge is remotely linked to the hostility to abstract thought. Otherwise informed Nigerians then go online to make thoroughly illiterate statements asking for more action and less grammar. The second danger lies in the fact that apathy towards abstract intellection and ideas all over Africa means that the intellectuals who tend to coalesce around the islets of power to produce the concrete policy papers you are talking about would be coming from ideological backgrounds that are inimical to the interests of the African/Nigerian people. Do you think that Olusegun Aganga, Charles Soludo, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Yayi Boni,  Alassane Ouattara, and others in their Bretton Woods ilk come from a concrete policy background shorn of abstract thought rooted in specific ideologies? Of course not. They are all products of all kinds of neo-liberal imperialist abstractions acquired in the context of American thinktanks and institutions. What we need more in Africa is precisely the sort of rigorous primary abstract thought that could be at the base of the ideological impulses of the second layer of policy intellection that susbsequently lands at the table of the minister or the president.

African Writing: Do you see any signs that this Ideological Thinking Rooted in African interests and realities is going on?  Or is Africanist Thought still client to SinoEuroAmerica. Won't you admit that much of our intellection amounts to intellectual masturbation where our so-called intellectual elite fail to apply their abilities to actual solutions?

Adesanmi: Sure, you do have a point about the preponderance of intellectual masturbation and the evident failure of intellection in the area of concrete solutions. But I see that as a symptom of much deeper problems in Nigeria associated with the corrosive effects of the prolonged years of democratic stagnation on national values. I have been to conferences - academic conferences - in Africa where the government would send ministers to attend sessions and take notes and mingle with intellectuals and even invite those intellectuals to their respective ministries for post-conference dialogue with their staff. This happens a lot in Southern Africa. Now, can you imagine a minister in Nigeria attending an academic conference as an ordinary participant who is going to attend every session and take notes? Unless you invite him to come and disturb the opening ceremony with his flamboyant convoy and sirens two or three hours late, he won't attend. This, over the years, has led to a devaluation of intellectual production in Nigeria. There are also African countries where I have noticed that governments give specific developmental briefs to Universities and ask them to produce thought. That adds value to intellectual labour and creates an outlet for thought to be translated into beneficial societal products. That does not happen in Nigeria because the government is still fighting the war that the military declared on the University even more than a decade after the restoration of democracy. That explains why Governor Bukola Saraki of Kwara State and his colleagues in the Nigerian Governors’ Forum instinctively opted for Harvard University when they dreamt up a project of capacity training for Nigerian governors. It was unimaginable for them to team up with a Nigerian University. But I see signs of change, especially in southwestern Nigeria with the Yoruba Academy trying to serve as a bridge between intellectuals and state governments in that part of the country. New generation intellectuals like Diipo Famakinwa, Wale Adebanwi, Yinka Odumakin, and Sola Olorunyomi are all gearing up to ensure a connection between intellect and governance in southwestern Nigeria on the platform of the Yoruba Academy.

African Writing: Your language skills include French and English, which equips you to negotiate your way through most African cities. Is this the most Pan-African step our educational systems can take? Or is it more beneficial for African pupils to learn to write and speak an indigenous African language in addition to their great European language?

Adesanmi: I assume that by our educational systems you are talking exclusively about the continent. Language is not the most pan-African step our educational systems in Africa can or should take. It should begin by enhancing processes of African co-presence in University classrooms throughout the continent. African Universities have more exchange agreements with European and North American Universities than they have with fellow African Universities. My school, Carleton University, alone has agreements with Universities in Ghana, Tanzania, Botswana, and South Africa, and we are casting our net wider in the continent. The inflatus for this is obvious: the sentiment that such agreements open up opportunities for those African Universities to benefit from the superior resources of Western Universities. What does this translate to? Western African studies classrooms have become considerably more holistically pan-African than any classroom could ever hope to be in the continent. Let me give you an example. I teach one of our core introduction to African studies courses at the undergraduate level. Enrolment is always between 100-160 students every semester. The first time I taught that class, about eighty of those kids were from more than 30 African countries as I later found out. That is a single Canadian University assembling students from more than half of the continent in just one classroom. No University in the continent, not even South African Universities, is currently in the position to do that. African Universities need to constantly work on how to enhance continental capacity for such mutual co-presence in the class room. That must, of course work, in tandem with the need to constantly break down the iron curtain of language. I have for instance constantly written about the impact of the language barrier on African literary discourse. The other day, Olu Oguibe was complaining on Facebook that the younger generation of Nigerian literati didn't know who Mario Vargas Llosa was after the 2010 Nobel was announced. That is a small problem compared with the appalling knowledge of the francophonic half of the African literary process in Nigerian discussions. There is so much Anglophonic provincialism going on in places like Krazitivity, Ederi, and other outlets of Nigerian literary discourse. People jump up in those places and make authoritative and sweeping statements about African writing: statements that are not valid once you cross the border to Cotonou from Lagos. You would think that the likes of Calixthe Beyala, Alain Mabackou, Kossi Effoui, Bessora, Fatou Diome, Marie Ndiaye, Nathalie Etoke, Leonora Miano, Alain Patrice Nganang, Yodi Karone, Simon Njami, Gaston-Paul Effa, J.R. Essomba, and my very good friend, Abdourahman Ali Waberi, never wrote anything in African literature. Of course, the francophone clan is also guilty of this provincialism. As far as I know, only the likes of Waberi and Alain Patrice Nganang regularly display any awareness of the fact that they have counterparts in Uwem Akpan, Chris Abani, Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie, Lola Shoneyin, Chika Unigwe, Unoma Azuah, Ogaga Ifowodo, Amatoristero Ede, and Remi Raji. If you ask me, the situation was not like this with the Soyinka-Achebe-J.P. Clark generation.

T.S. Eliot's poem, The Journey of the Magi, has these lines, that have also inspired the title of one of Chinua Achebe's novels: 'We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,/ But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/ With an alien people clutching their gods/ I should be glad of another death'. Is religious zealotry becoming more of a life and death question on the continent? What options?

Adesanmi: For Africa, the poem should read autochthonous people clutching alien gods. I have been a very close observer of the wind of Pentecostalism blowing over the continent. Commentators always reach for the easy Marxian cliché of religion being the opium of the people but I prefer to see religion in a much specific political frame: it is the exutory that has come to replace everything that political independence promised the people and failed to deliver on. If you return to the narratives of independence as framed by the nationalist generation in the 40s down to the 60s, you will see that it was framed in terms of concrete deliverables to the people that contemporary pulpit performance by the continents flamboyant pastors and Islamic clerics seem to be mimicking. Take all the biblical quotations away from the pulpit oratory of Chris Oyakhilome or Enoch Adeboye and you may very well end up with Nnamdi Azikiwe's galvanizing nationalist oratory. And precisely because Africa's/Nigeria's new religious zealotry of the of the Pentecostal variety no longer frames faith and salvation in terms of the hereafter but more specifically in terms of material comfort deliverable by a God who isn't a God of poverty, religion has become the second great euphoria after the first euphoria of independence
But there is a cross-over between the political and the religious, is there not? In Uganda political uprising was retooled to murderous effect with the quasi-religious edge of the LRA. In Nigeria, Pastor Tunde Bakare  is for instance in the vanguard of political resistance.  Do you see the political profile of religion growing or waning.

Adesanmi: If we define the political in very generous, broad terms, yes there is always an intermesh between the religious and the political. Don't forget that Christianity's entrance into Africa was intensely political insofar as the missionarization of the continent was the precursive event to formal colonization. But if we zero in on an instrumental definition of the political in terms of structural praxes that could enhance and expand the space of human agency, such as we see in the case of Pastor Tunde Bakare in Nigeria, then the political profile of religion is waning. We must separate religion as positive political praxis - as we have with Tunde Bakare - from the more generalized instance of religion as a feature of postcolonial rot as evidenced in the collaboration of flamboyant pastors with the rotten postcolonial state in a place like Nigeria. The Bakares are easily crowded out by the recidivists among the clergy

Now onto football! At a FIFA session recently, Russia trumped England as hosts to the 2018 world cup. It seems the consensus that a couple of highly publicised media reports on FIFA corruption by The Times Newspaper and the BBC Panorama programme may have scuppered England's chances by predisposing FIFA's committee to vote vindictively. Is this media self-interest or principle above nationalism? Should national media look at national interests before going to press? (Consider for instance, the role of the American mass media in the run up to the Middle-Eastern wars)

Adesanmi:  I am perhaps the worst person to have to handle this sort of question because of my own permanent hostility to England in football matters. I can't stand English noisemaking and sense of entitlement. I'm a fanatical watcher of the Premiership like every good Nigerian but I can't stand the English media and football establishment. I was glad when they got trounced in South Africa. I am glad they were trounced by Russia. The English media is an insufferable cry baby in football matters. As an intellectual on the Left, my opinion of the American media is even worse - unless you are talking about The Nation and, maybe, MSNBC. The rest is just ignorant teapartyism masquerading as media in America

But by purveying national jingoism from warfront to football arena, surely the media is doing the world a service? Surely the very real human emotion released every four years at the World War - sorry World Cup - is best bled on the pitch!

Adesanmi: Of course national jingoism in the media has its uses. An intellectual like me would have little to scream about if the British and American media suddenly became less nationalistic! This is where you have to give it to the Nigerian media though. Despite the general perception that they have been bought - except the rising online news media like Sahara Reporters and Nigerian Village Square - there is very little nationalistic jingoism. Some of the worst headlines that the world sees about Nigeria are very often lifted from the headlines of Nigerian newspapers

How fundamental is Wikileaks to ruler/ruled dynamics? Is this relevant to Africa? Does information have the same subversive effect in Africa as it does elsewhere? Can information about a secret wife for an African head of state have the same undermining power as a mistress of a European head of state?

Adesanmi: Wikileaks can only be revolutionary here in the West because of the nature of their society. You know, our mutual friend, Nduka Otiono, has been working for a very long time on the nature and uses of rumour and street narratives in Africa - with emphasis on Nigeria. I have followed his scholarship with keen interest as it teases out the intermesh between rumour, civic agency, and politics in Nigeria. In our preponderantly oral culture where transactions between ruler and ruled depend considerably on rumour, many of the things that wikileaks normally reveals would have been rumoured and discoursed in free newspaper reading parliaments, in Molue buses, in beer parlours and in such other spaces of public disquisition. By the time official versions come out, the rumour-version of such events would have settled in public consciousness. Rumour is always precursive and attenuates the impact of revelation. Of course there are cultural differences that would shape attitudes to the shock value of revelations about secret wives. Don't forget that a secret wife may shock perhaps in Britain but I am not sure it would shock anybody in France if the President had a secret wife. After all, they have the deuxième bureau concubinage system in their culture even if western arrogance and conceit make them pretend that those things exist only in Africa.

If we challenged you for a single transformative idea, policy or change that could bring the most beneficial change across the continent, what would it be?

Adesanmi: Strengthen civics as a subject in every primary school on the continent. Design and implement a pan-African civics syllabus under the aegis of the African Union. The continent is paying a very huge price for the absence of early exposure to civics. The other day in my neighbourhood, I saw kids - like seven year olds - wearing police tags and watching passing cars. They had notebooks and other stuff. I was curious. That was their police responsibility day at school. The police department puts them in specific locations. When they notice suspicious behaviour on the part of drivers, they write down your plate numbers etc. They are already being taught that in the elementary school
You were the inaugural winner of the Penguin Prize for African Writing, for your book, You are Not a Country, Africa. It is due on the bookshelves soon. What can your readers expect in the book.

If they have read Angela’s Ashes or the Soyinka of Ibadan and You must Set Forth at Dawn, they will easily understand what I try to do. I have described that book as a cultural memoir of the African continent. The essays are in the creative non-fiction mode, starting with specific events and experiences that cover the last thirty years of my life. The essays then use such anecdotal vignettes to move into a more sustained reflection on issues of politics and culture across the continent. The title comes from a line in Abioseh Nicol’s famous poem, “The Meaning of Africa”. The Sierra Leonian poet was writing in the fervent of Anglophone African cultural nationalist poetry in the build up to political independence and he says: “You are not a country, Africa/you are a concept/fashioned in our minds/each to each/to hide our separate fears”. Can you think of a better definition of Africa?

Do you see yourself playing a more direct role in politics in future years?
The thought always crosses one’s mind. Like most Nigerians in the diaspora, a great deal of my time is spent agonizing and developing high blood pressure over the monumental mess and disappointment that is Nigeria. And if the conditions are not there for you to pull a Wambia dia Wambia and pick up your Kalachnikov against the forces of evil ruling Nigeria in Abuja, if you know that accepting an appointment from them almost always comes with the Faustian precondition of selling your soul and relinquishing your voice and joining all that corruption, you sometime think that maybe you should go and stand for election in some capacity or the other. Anything to try and make a change. But then you remember that the so-called society we are looking for will continue to need dreamers, thinkers, and those whose jobs it is to narrate her!

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