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The city of London and the globalisation of the Nigerian popular imagination -Part 1

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Introduction
London is loaded deep into the Nigerian subconscious, and its vast array of symbolisms occupies a large expanse in the sub-consciousness of the giant West African country. London was for many years the supreme political headquarters of Nigeria in the era of the imperial project, and by virtue of this, commanded enormous influence in the socio-political, economic and cultural construction of an emergent modern Nigeria, especially prior to independence in 1960. An inevitable outcome of the above was that the city dominated the Nigerian perception of the outside world. Issues of grave importance in the colonial agenda were often referred to London—whether it was to protest a constitutional adjustment 1 or to force a review of palm oil trade policies.2

London and its appurtenances understandably became the very measure of civilization and enlightenment for the colonial Nigerian public imagination. Such instruments of colonialism as the school and the Church helped to project the English royalty, of course domiciled in London, to mythical proportions, and at a point the image of an Almighty Queen, acting on God’s behalf, to rescue the colonial subject from abject ignorance and backwardness commanded both mental and physical allegiance. Ashley Jackson writes in his The British Empire about how imperialism “critiqued, challenged, and in significant ways, changed people’s cultures.” He also, quite instructively, comments about how such manipulation placed a demand of an adjusted psychology on the colonized peoples, which meant that “indigenous people were energetic participants in the innumerable projects of identity construction and transformation…” (The British Empire 36-37).

An illustration of this identity construction propensity of British colonialism can be found in the work of Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s pre-eminent novelist and arch cultural nationalist. In such novels as Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, both set at the beginning of the imperial project in Igboland, Achebe profiles the spirited attempt at a systematic substitution of native Nigerian cultures with European, particularly British, models. It is however in No Longer at Ease, another novel set on the brink of Nigeria’s political independence from Britain that he really articulates the real achievement of the identity transformation process. The narrative is about Obi Okonkwo who has just returned from England, where he has earned a Bachelor’s in English from the University of London. His educational attainment would not have been possible if not for the comprehensive support of his Umuofia kinsmen, who taxed themselves heavily to enable their brilliant son unravel the full breadth of his academic potential.

That the people of Umuofia, who had just a few decades earlier, guarded their traditions and customs so fiercely in the wake of the colonial cultural invasion, and had fought bitter battles in the protection of their cultural dignity, could now summon even greater communal might to obtain a London education for one of their own is one instructive indication of the success of the identity construction enterprise. Ironically, Obi Okonkwo the beneficiary of this communal gesture is a grandson to Okonkwo (of Things Fall Apart) the anti-colonial czar—protagonist who pays the ultimate price in the defence of the sanctity of his traditional universe.

This is not all there is to the ‘identity construction/reconstruction’ significance of Obi Okonkwo and his London sojourn. The Umuofia Development Union organizes an elaborate reception for him on his return, where members expect to see ample evidence that he had obtained a superior, more sophisticated culture than the one he left behind in Nigeria. But Obi’s performance was utterly disappointing, so disappointing that he is even considered some kind of failure. He does not dress “properly” for the occasion, appearing only in his “shirtsleeves because of the heat” even though ‘everybody expected a young man from England to be impressively turned out” (No Longer, 26). Again, his rather simplistic English of “is” and “was” fell well below par, as the expectation was a necessary grandiloquence.

The above summarizes the Nigerian perception of London which still persists today. Nigerians who have been in any form of contact with London are expected to exhibit certain superior mannerisms, certain imminent traits of the cultured, and the Nigerian public imagination seems to have a reliable inventory of these. Added to this is the civilizing reputation of British education, which had, besides Obi’s London University, the legendary Oxford and Cambridge as formidable bastions. It was therefore not surprising at all that when Nigeria thought about its own university in 1948 at Ibadan, it was designed to “award and enjoy the reputation of London University degrees” (Tamuno, “The Formative Years” 29). So, the first set of Nigerian-trained educated elite, including Chinua Achebe himself, whose high school education at Government College Umuahia was also modelled after the London exclusive public variety, was bred strictly on British social standards.

Over time, particularly owing to postcolonial disruptions of the modern African state, London began to assume new dimensions in the Nigerian consciousness. First it figured as a parent/big brother nation, supervising the evolution of a new nation, that went as far as combating the threat of disintegration, which occasioned a bloody civil war. Secondly, it played the role of a political refuge providing embattled Nigerian political figureheads short and long term periods of relief from an ever heated polity. General Gowon, Nigeria’s civil war leader had to beat a hasty retreat to London when his government was toppled in 1975.4 There was also the sensational case of Alhaji Umaru Dikko who fled to London at the fall of the Shehu Shagari government in 1983, whose attempted kidnap represents one of the enduring legends of modern Nigerian politics.

Like many other European and American cities, London’s image as a site of economic survival has reigned supreme in the imagination of Nigerians. This has especially been the case from the 1980s, as the oil-rich country’s economic woes assumed alarming dimensions. The devastation of socio-economic and political structures triggered an exodus, mainly among youthful Nigerians, to relocate to more enabling environments. Children growing up in the 1990s and the early 2000s held strongly to the belief that their economic destinies lied elsewhere, and London was one of these charming paradises. London, thus, engraved itself in the psychology of the Nigerian public as synonymous with success.

Americanah, a 2013 novel by Chimamanda Adichie, one of Nigeria’s great new writers captures succinctly, these scenarios where the failure of the Nigerian state has sparked off a massive cloud of disillusionment among its youthful population, and has left few options other than economic immigration. Obinze, a major character in the story, has exhausted all possibilities of gainful employment within Nigeria and now has to endure a psychologically traumatizing relocation to London, made even more regrettable by his own mother’s involvement. Obinze’s mother, a righteous, upright university teacher whose optimism about Nigeria was one of the last to be subdued in those very trying moments of Nigeria’s national life, has to violate her own lifelong principles to smuggle him in the guise of her research assistant in order to acquire for him a six-month visa. “It went against everything she had taught him, yet he knew that truth had indeed, in their circumstance, become a luxury. She lied for him” (Americanah, 290)

The account of Obinze’s trying experiences as he sets about establishing a legal foothold on London, and the intensity of his failures in that respect, leading to his deportation, constitute another public narrative of London, this time as a brutal stiffler of dreams. This converse reputation, in addition to the growing standing of British immigration security and intelligence, has helped in checking the prediction for illegal immigration.

The Domain of the Nigerian Public Imagination
Nigeria has a thriving cultural industry, particularly with regard to the performance arts and the other popular culture categories. Even for a country notorious for a serial failure in the utilization of its enormous potentials, it is hardly surprising that Nigerian popular culture/entertainment is as explosive as it has grown to become, especially in the 21st century.

When the British Prime Minister, sometime in May 2014, addressed a Nigerian audience on the quite momentous occasion of Nigeria’s elevation as Africa’s biggest economy, he made glowing references to a clan of West Africans who had demonstrated their astonishing creative energy to the conscious admiration of the world. Mr Cameron had declared: “I have known for a long time about the tremendous energy and ingenuity of the Nigerian people. From the civil activism of the churches of South London to the contribution of Nigerians to British business, law, medicine, sport and music, I have seen the passion and enterprise of Nigerians changing my country for the better” (African Business 80-81).

The above submission by the British leader is one of the many validations from across the world about Nigeria’s ranking as a country of astonishingly talented people. For a community of such gifted individuals to be artistically and culturally vibrant should not be so surprising. The surprise element is that culture, and especially of the popular kind, thrives under impossibly repressive circumstances, leaving us to grapple with the unbelievable paradox of a collapsing nation of robust art and entertainment, or a dying nation of happy people. Nigeria, as a matter of fact, is a study in many contradictions. British author Richard Dowdan provides an image of Nigeria with the explosive example of Lagos, its most representative city:

Vast, ugly, sweaty, traffic-jammed, smog-chocked, Lagos is a cauldron of superlatives all fighting each other, a frenzy of hustling humanity scrabbling for survival… Impenetrable, incomprehensible to outsiders, Lagos survives, it pulsates. It grows, it works… So does Nigeria. By any law of political or social science it should have collapsed or disintegrated years ago. In deed it has been described as a failed state that works… (Africa, 440-441)

John Campbell, a former American ambassador to Nigeria has similarly written: “in the meantime, Nigerians have mastered the art of dancing on the precipice without falling over…” (Nigeria xxi). The socio-political and economic situation in the black world’s most populous country appear designed to shatter to pieces the human creative spirit, but all it actually does is to provide an incredible forge for outstanding imaginative enterprise. The evidence of such creative productivity blows all over the place—Nigerian music, film, television, comedy, etc dominates Africa, and are on the final stages of entrenchment on the global entertainment scheme.

It is therefore highly probable that Nigeria is one noteworthy case in which a situation of anomie has gone ahead to activate the artistic aptitudes of individuals. Lucienn Goldman, famous French philosopher, once stated: “periods of crisis… are particularly favourable to the birth of great works of art and of literature because of the multiplicity of problems and experiences that they bring to men and of the great widening of affective and intellectual horizons that they provoke” (“Dialectical Materialism,” 50). Thus, instead of repressing imaginative alertness, Nigeria’s protracted social and political problems, as towering as they appear to be, actually trigger it. For Richard Dowden, Nigeria has proven that “superheated society throws up brighter, hotter human beings than anywhere else” (pg 441).

For instance, one major reference to the Nigerian national problematic is the often acrimonious relationships across its vast multi-ethnic landscape. But this also has turned out to indefatigable cultural strength, producing an intriguing mosaic of peoples and attitudes impossible to replicate elsewhere. One highlight of the exploitation of the unity in the diversity of Nigeria’s peoples especially as it pertains to popular culture is hybridization, “the fusing together of elements from separate cultural traditions” (Fedorac, Pop Culture, 4). In the particular case of Nigeria, ethnic cultural loyalties are subsumed in an encompassing ‘Nigerianness,’ that presents a convincing national genre. American writer Karl Maier describes the powerful interethnic consciousness that has remained emblematic of the Nigeria-popular imagination: “… although Nigeria shares this explosion of animosity with other states, it remains unique, it provides the storyline for one of the great epics of the late twentieth century. The landscape for the unfolding human drama is a giant, heaving, multi-ethnic symbol of the archetypal third world basket case…” (This House Has Fallen, xxi).

The Nigerian situation is an interesting indication that popular culture or the popular imagination transcends entertainment, and accommodates aspects of social life whose definite description as art is difficult. But a proper definition of the people’s culture should involve, as Bob C. White has pointed, out should include “oral-based forms of cultural expression (rumours, sayings, language, jokes, prayers), public forms of festivity and competition…” (Rumba Rules, 13-14). For White, these should be in addition to the performing arts (dance, theatre, music, storytelling, comedy) the visual arts (painting, sculpture, handicrafts, cartoons, music videos) and “certain forms of decoration,” (including graffiti, houses, taxes, etc) which constitute the more conventional easily recognizable forms of the public imagination.

The Nigerian public consciousness has the outstanding capacity to drill sensationalism from almost all aspects of national life. The average Nigerian possesses a hyper-curious, analytical mind, and an extraordinary inclination to myth-making, the aggregate of which ranks the country among the most intense of world nations. The Nigerian public space therefore manifests the capability to erect a momentousness around nearly everything—ranging from an ex-president’s ugliness, to an ex-president’s wife grammatical notorious grammatical infelicities or even a public officers incongruous defence of his agency in the wake of allegations of recruitment irregularities.

Nigeria’s reputation as possessing all of the good, the bad and the ugly has also informed the manner in which the country’s popular imagination is being constructed. About three months ago, the British Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, made the sensational comment about Nigeria (and Afghanistan) are fantastically corrupt. To many Nigerians, the English leader had said nothing particularly novel, but the manner in which he said it, the emphatic nuancing of fantastically drove them berserk in the frenzy of the arrival of yet another celebrated annotation on the public consciousness. Within Nigerian publics, you could now hear expressions like: “I am fantastically broke”; I hate him, very fantastically; she made me a fantastically delicious soup” etc.

The informal Nigerian English lexicon was thus expanded to make space for a hot new word from London!
Just last month, the Nigerian president announced that he would be taking a brief ten-day leave to London during which time he would take time out to seek medical care for some ear trouble. This sounded routine and understandable, but it still possessed an infectious spark, sufficient to ignite the Nigerian public sensibilities. The idea of the president on leave was subjected, not to serious state re-assessment, but to a resounding comical battering in the court of public opinion, complete with its multi-dimensional implications. The aggregate of the Nigerian public opinion on this matter of considerable national importance is probably captured by the actor and comedian, Ime Bishop:

When more than 160 million Nigerians will be complaining at the same time… Inside one ear, how won’t that ear have ear-block? Boko Haram dey there, dey throw bomb; Niger Delta dey there dey bomb pipeline; Fulani Herdsmen dey there, e dey kill person; everywhere na trouble, trouble, trouble, dem dey complain fuel prize; dem dey say strike o, tomato e don go up, dollar don go down, e don go up again, all inside one ear, and you think that ear will not have ear block.

… Let’s pray for Mr President, or the thing fit do two ear.
In fidelity to the famed Nigerian public’s attitude of converting matters of varying degrees of national importance, Ime Bishop responds to a very critical time in Nigerian socio-political life the way most Nigerians would: Laugh in it, laugh about it, laugh at it.
• Onyerionwu, a leading new generation Nigerian critic, teaches in the Department of Languages and Communication, Abia State Polytechnic, Aba.


In this article:
Chinua Achebe

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