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Poverty, precarity and ethics of representing Nigeria, nay Africa – Part 1


Central to my thesis in this paper is the question: who or what determines the ethics and aesthetics of representing poverty and precarity in Africa? I answer this question by evaluating the role of the African writer in the present time characterised by globalisation, the impulse of migration, and what I would call, following Niyi Osundare (21), the exogenous mentality of contemporary African writers.

A crucial point here is the fate of African aesthetics, its appropriateness in describing the condition of Africa, and prospectively imagining and constructing a discourse that will assist in removing the continent from poverty and precarity. With the question of appropriateness comes the ethical role of the African writer who must decide whether she will be a writer committed to her arts alone, to the glorification of her craft, her literary personage, or see herself also as a public intellectual, a social being, concerned with the fate of her continent, willing to engage in extra-literary discourses, activities or movements aimed at confronting the concrete problems of the continent.

At the beginning of African literature in European languages, the pioneer writers cast themselves as protagonists of an imperative counter-discourse, attending to the urgent need of narrating Africa from the inside, redeeming the image of the continent from colonialist narratives. This was a great service to the continent, matched by their extra-literary spirits that led them to nationalist struggles, resulting to flag independence.

The 1950s and 1960s were marked by continent-wide nationalisms in Africa; the writers did not only draw the historicity of their imagination from acts of nationalism, but they also dedicated their lives to it as stakeholders. The generation of writers after them came with a Marxist outburst, locally rooted aesthetics and an aggression against the hypocritical discourse of messianism (in the manner of the European discourse of the ‘civilising’ mission) formed by the political heirs of the colonialists, home-grown politicians and civil servants working within what Achille Mbembe refers to as the colonialist structure of commandment (32).

These post-independence African writers had a commitment that was not only to their arts, but also to their countries, their continent. Most pioneer and post-independence writers began writing while living in their countries, Western publishers sought them out in their countries (some of the post-independence writers even rejected Western publishers), became famous in their countries, and constantly stirred great debates about literary aesthetics (Negritude, the language question, Eurocentric versus Afrocentric values, alter-native tradition, generational anxieties). They, however, also spoke passionately about the socio-political welfare and future of their countries and the continent (pan-Africanism, post-independence disillusionment, apartheid, structural adjustment programme, military dictatorship, democratisation).

The verve and energy powering these writers’ great service, literary and extra-literary, to the continent began to wane when some of them succumbed to what I would call the great exodus (migration to the West) of African writers and intellectuals in the 1990s. As it turned out, their movement to the West marked a significant decline in Africa’s literary production and, invariably, in the hitherto robust contribution of African literary aesthetics to the development of the continent. It also marked the extroversion of African literary aesthetics, its commodification in the West, and the new process of inventing Africa through a West-controlled literary imagination.

My contention is that the current practice of inventing Africa through “extroverted” narratives by writers mostly based outside Africa, or dreaming to move to literary capitals of the West, hugely attracted by Western instruments of validating and canonising African literature, has, in the end, a negative effect on any efforts made towards representing poverty and precarity in Africa. If the West determines how we represent the condition of Africa, then such representation will eventually be of no use to the continent since it becomes a commodity to be consumed by the West in their hunger for the African exotic or their propensity for turning a kind pitiful eye to Africa with the hope of rescuing the continent from itself, a gesture that continues the rather unending task of “civilising” Africa.

I am strongly of the view that contemporary African writers have to rethink their role, have to return to the past and see how to reinvent the original role exemplified in the contributions of pioneer African writers as writers, public intellectuals and, possibly, activists. But this will only be possible, I argue, if African writers resist the impulse of migration, shear themselves of the comfort the literary capitals of the West claims to offer them, and face with a deep sense of sacrifice the imperfections of the continent from within.

Africa and the Paradox of the Migration Impulse
By the paradox of the migration impulse, I refer to the tragedy, the existential fallacy, the counter-productivity and the negative impression that the continent suffers as its writers and intellectuals migrate to the West. Most people who migrate to the West do not think of their action as brain drain but as a necessary move to realise their potentials which will be consciously directed to constructive use in Africa. That is to say, migration is necessarily helpful to Africa. To problematise this, let me refer to a recent saga involving the protean Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, arguably the most towering literary figure alive in Africa today. In the wake of Donald Trump’s repugnant rhetoric, Soyinka had, in a lecture at Oxford, threatened that if Trump won and became the president of the United States of America, he would permanently leave the States. Of course, Soyinka was not the only one to pose this threat.

But unknown to Soyinka, an army of social media users in Nigeria, mostly the youth, had grabbed his threat and kept it, waiting eagerly for the outcome of the US presidential election. As soon as Trump won, they brought up Soyinka’s threat, turned it into a weapon with which they attacked him, mocking him for daring to threaten that he would tear his green card. What did Soyinka think of himself, they said, that he would so arrogantly threaten to tear the US green card, an irresistible passport to the comfort the West offers against the poverty of Africa? They then dared him to tear it. Some of their comments were to the effect that Soyinka was merely posturing since, by all means, he should know the value of the almighty US green card, how it had offered him a comfortable alternative to the dungeon that was Africa. Characteristically, Soyinka hit back at these social media critics, calling them “imbeciles and morons”, threatening to exit Nigeria, a country turned into a community of “barbarians”, in what he calls “Wolexit”. Soyinka, whether out of the intention to carry out his threat or provoked by the unnecessary attack from the army of social media critics, eventually rendered his green card invalid. Months later, the news emerged that Soyinka had taken up a visiting appointment at a university in South Africa. Soyinka had, in effect, stopped visiting universities in the US.

I find the Soyinka story instructive in many ways. It shows the anxiety, the desperation of young Africans – the crop on whom the future of the continent ought to depend – in looking to the West for the comfort that Africa has failed to offer them. In spite of Soyinka’s bravado and spirited counter-attack on the youth, the saga should bring home to him, in the best dramatic way, his conviction (which he has repeatedly uttered) that his is a wasted generation; that is to say, his generation has failed the youth. The conflict between him and his social media critics is symptomatic of the rift and its attendant blame game between the older generation that witnessed the glorious moment of flag independence and the younger generation that feels politically and economically crippled by the bastardisation of that independence. I believe that both Soyinka and his critics are implicated in the same narrative of failure, fear and desperation, the effects of the paradox of the migration impulse. If Soyinka, in the first place, did not allow himself to be lured into thinking of the US as the best place to live and work (this after all is the concept of the green card), given the fact that his continent Africa needs his services more than the US, he would not have been attacked. And what figural connotation did Soyinka provoke when the green card first came to his mind while thinking of America’s misadventure into Trumpian choices? Regrettably, the green card meant to Soyinka what it meant to the youth – an instrument of escape from the failure and poverty of Africa.

It is precisely this point – that African writers, intellectuals and professionals have to seek an instrument, an opportunity, a possibility to escape to the West – that should form the central question in deconstructing the paradox of the migration impulse. If Africa finds herself, or has been made to become, a continent of poverty, do we not impoverish her the more when we migrate with the intention of living and working in other places? Are we not, in point of fact, taking what belongs to her to other places and by doing so impoverishing her? Of course, something has to push us out of Africa, something is always there to push us out of Africa; but in succumbing to the push to move out of Africa, what effects, positive or negative, does our movement have on the cultural, political and economic productivity of Africa? I will dwell on these questions, with attention to the cultural economy of the African writer’s migration to the West, publishing in Western capitals, the morality of what Graham Huggan calls the “postcolonial exotic”, of self-positioning with hyper-publicity. I am interested in asking how the totality of the strategies of making oneself a successful metropolitan writer, globe-trotting around the West, occasionally visiting Africa to possibly watch with detachment how messier she has become, add to Africa’s development index.
To say Africa is poor, suffers from the poverty of turning ideas into resources, is not wrong; but to say Africa is hopeless and to allow this conclusion propel the impulse of migration is not right. It seems to me that the conclusion that Africa is a hopeless continent, incapable of being redeemed, is the most crucial force behind the disturbing exodus of writers, intellectuals and professionals out of Africa in the late 1980s and the 1990s. The Nigerian poet and academic Femi Ojo-Ade has a somewhat confessional preface to his collection of poems, Exile at Home, in which he reveals his impulse – not quite different from those of other people – for migration. Usually mentioned alongside his contemporaries (Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide, Niyi Osundare), Ojo-Ade had had a remarkable career as an academic in Nigeria before migrating to the United States. According to him, he had initially thought that going on exile was simply “errantry”; but, in his words,

Nigeria was taking the wrong turn, drifting towards destruction. And I began to question the whole notion of commitment. And I started to see reason in running away from home. And I found that exiles and errantry met at the crossroads of struggle and sorrow and survival, of self-survival and strained, strenuous communal continuity. And I ran away and left behind family and friends and fears, all of whom and which never ceased to haunt me and inhabit the space of my dreams and desires. (viii-ix)

In his estimation, as Nigeria sank into despair he simply lost hope in the country and succumbed to the impulse to run to the West. This is the situation of most Africans who move to the West, who are still struggling to do so. Today, there is no doubt that the most celebrated of contemporary African writers live outside of Africa (Ede, Garuba).

But let us return to the question: is Africa such a hopeless continent? One other way to answer it is to properly diagnose the problems of Africa, to know, according to Chinua Achebe, when the rain started beating us. Diagnoses, you may say, have been repeatedly done. In Nigeria, for instance, Achebe has, in his The Trouble with Nigeria, stressed that it is nothing other than political failure. Many thinkers and observers of course would agree that political failure is integral to Africa’s stagnation – a place of backwardness, poverty, diseases, corruption and violence. I also believe so in spite of Africa’s democratisation process. We must be suspicious of democracy if what goes on in Africa in terms of elections (when votes are stolen, commercialised, mystified) is also called democracy; if what goes on in Africa in terms of governance (when so-called democratically elected leaders turn into merchants of votes, repeated winners, extra-terms mongers, constitution manipulators, and serial abusers of human rights). I see African leaders as people who, willingly or imperially, inflict what Rob Nixon calls slow violence on Africa.

Much as it sounds cliché, we must trace this violence to colonialism and, by doing so, I do not imply that these acts of violence are insurmountable. The structure of violence inherited from colonialism is what political leaders deploy and rely on to inflict violence on Africa. One of the elements crucial to this structure is commandment as a concept and as a practice, very well theorised by Achille Mbembe in On the Postcolony. Mbembe points out that “throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, governing in a colony meant first and foremost having commandment over the native…. Power was reduced to the right to demand, to force, to ban, to compel, to authorize, to punish, to reward, to be obeyed – in short, to enjoy and to direct” (32). This commandment has come to characterise the bureaucratisation and stratification of socio-political roles and power handed down by the colonial masters to Africans who, upon assuming governance, in mimicking their predecessors, bring to it the theatrical sense of overdoing what those before them had done. It is part of the colonially acquired structure and taste – albeit in an exaggerated, melodramatic manner – that political leaders in Africa today ascribe to themselves incredible perks of political office, accumulating wealth and stashing it outside of Africa. They are also known for their inordinate display of power, intolerance of opposition, dehumanisation of citizens, among others.

The concept and practice of commandment is central to the systems operating in Africa and along with other discourses and practices, largely the result of the European “civilising” mission, have a powerful effect in the ways that democracy is perceived and practised in Africa today. In other words, Africa has yet to move away from the colonial structure; in fact, it has demonstrated a lack of will to do so (Eghosa Osaghae). Consequently, I would like to argue that the real problem of Africa is not that we have bad people in positions of political power; rather, it is that we have failed to critically examine and alter or modify the structure of governance, based on commandment structure and other colonial philosophies, inherited from colonialism. This implies that should anyone of us – politician, musician, artist, athlete, name it – find herself in the position of power today, within the same commandment structure, they will hardly turn out a better leader, would only become another home-grown colonialist, which is what I believe our political leaders are today, or are programmed to be through our received “democracy”. To be a leader in Africa is to become a product of that received structure of governance; it is, therefore, not so much about changing our mentality as it is about challenging and changing the received structure.

African Literary Production and the “Extroverted” Narrative
I borrow the idea of extroversion from Eileen Julien who, in her piece “The Extroverted African Novel”, brilliantly argues and demonstrates the dependence of contemporary African writing (aesthetics, cultural narrative, canonicity) on, and its appeal to, Western aesthetics, patronage and authorisation. In Julien’s words, extroversion is the “condition of being turned outwards to target a metropolitan audience” (681). Since Huggan’s Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, scholars of African studies within and outside the continent have expressed the worry, especially beginning from the late 1990s, that African literature in European languages have increasingly turned towards Western literary capitals, drawn by alluring literary prizes, fantastic packages of conventional publishing (hard-currency book contract, publicity, impactful review, reading tour), and the fame that comes with them. Reasons, excuses abound in Africa for any writer, young or old, to turn to the West: the terrible decline in reading culture, the incredible death of conventional publishing (with the exception of South Africa), the perilous and precarious condition of life writers face, Africa’s dictatorships’ general neglect of the cultural sphere of life. But questions have to be asked, are being asked, concerning the extroversion of Africa’s narrative and aesthetics. What values, we may ask, does extroversion add to Africa’s literary heritage? How has the Western way of doing it “better” for us impacted on our aesthetics, productivity and cultural wealth? In what ways, let us wonder, do our Westernised, globalised and multicultural writers contribute to the Africa they have left behind, not the Africa they have imagined for themselves in Western capitals through emerging discourses such as Afropolitanism?

To attempt some of the questions above, let us reflect the fate of our extroverted narrative in the West. In moments of angst and Freudian slip, some African writers burst out with the anxieties of living and writing in the West, of contesting the protocols of satisfying Western taste, of having to circumvent their tales begging to be told. In “Women Writers’ Roundtable” published in Research in African Literatures, the Nigerian fiction writer Sefi Atta could not help blurting out:

It is amazing to me how the publishing world here [in the West] encourages African women writers to speak out about the oppression that we face. They can’t get enough of those stories and yet they refuse to hear what we have to say about their own racism and sexism…. I win a prize every time I have a protagonist who is some sort of a victim. That is the reality. I have stories of Nigerians in everyday situations that no one wants to publish. (Azuah 110)
Atta’s personal experience here illustrates what has become a culture of extroverting the African story, or of inventing Africa for the West, earlier described by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in “How to Write about Africa”. Wainaina presents the narrative strategies and West-invented protocols for producing an extroverted narrative to satisfy the longing of an existing audience. Wainaina’s pungent essay remains a formula that writers living in and having to publish in the West struggle to circumvent but ending up not able to do so. For instance, Atta, like some of her contemporaries, has had a good package that comes with conventional publishing in Western literary capitals, and in spite of her rather serious complaint she still lives and writes in the West. How then can we say the extroverted narrative that Atta and others are compelled to tell, the tales that must keep them famous in the West, that would make them the best voices of African writing, is of any use to Africa?
• Egya is a professor of African Literature and Cultural Studies at IBB University, Lapai, Niger State.

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