Satire is a necessary and vital part of free speech, says Anenih
Ose Anenih is a hotelier and design consultant who also writes political commentary on the state of the Nigerian nation on his blog, Abuja Politics. He has a Degree in Mathematics from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria as well as two Masters Degrees in International Business Management and International Hotel Management from University of Surrey, England. A firm believer in the Nigerian project, Ose advocates for civic engagement between citizens and the government and also promotes meaningful and productive conversations between citizens irrespective of gender, political affiliations and social backgrounds. This passion is why he teamed up with Yemi Adesanya; a Lagos Risk Manager who advocates social change, to co-found The Arts and Civic Table (TACT) – the organisation convening Nigeria’s first Satire Festival (NSF).
Did this idea bring you and Yemi together or do you share any history at all?
Yemi Adesanya and I met on Twitter maybe late in 2015. I think I was looking for conversation that wasn’t anchored around politics and elections. Our shared interests in the arts, logical arguments and banter basically brought us together. We worked on my successful online campaign to become the Convener of the #TrollCabal, an online group of Nigerians committed to the use of sarcasm and wit as primary debate devices. Founded by Ikenna Okonkwo, the #TrollCabal is basically an irreverent parody of the Nigerian state. It’s a bit of light-hearted fun, but we do try to engage in serious political and social debates devoid of hatred and rancour. It was primarily our interest and involvement in that space that led to the discovery of our areas of common interest.
How did your romance with satire start and when did you begin to moot the idea of a satire festival?
My first conscious encounters with satire both involved animals, curiously enough: Richard Adams’ fantasy epic about rabbits, Watership Down, and the timeless George Orwell classic, Animal Farm. Lord of the Flies gets an honourable mention as another similarly satirical allegory of human community relations and the leadership conundrum. The story highlights the constant struggle with leadership, followership, sycophancy, activism, division, violence, corruption etc.
Away from my personal experiences, I think the average Nigerian has always been surrounded by satire in various forms. Once you understand that satire is much more than comedy; that it exists in our parables and moonlit tales, allegorical stories passed down from parents to children, you come to realise that the life of the average Nigerian is steeped in satire.
To the birth of the Satire Festival itself, it was born out of the belief Yemi and I shared that we – and by we, I mean Nigerians – needed to have ‘safe spaces’ within which we could let off steam, or discuss typically uncomfortable subjects without provoking or inciting people. Satire is political, there’s no getting around that fact. To be effective satire must be political, as it is basically the use of humour, sarcasm, irony, and vehicles like drama, poetry, plays, literature, etc to highlight the flaws and failings of the system.
Tell us about The Arts and Civics Table. What role does it play in society?
Compared to other CSOs doing great work in the civil society space, we’re babies. We were formally registered this year – not just to promote satire – but mainly to encourage and help develop a civic engagement culture and participation in the our social, cultural and political processes. We hope to promote increased awareness of political, personal, and civic rights and responsibilities by identifying and discussing issues of public concern.
What should people expect from the Nigerian Satire Festival?
We’re having panel discussions on issues that should have been settled decades ago – the role of youth and gender in society; national identity, political participation, and press freedoms versus privacy rights.
Dike Chukwumeirjie is performing his amazing stage play Made in Nigeria. It’s truly spectacular, almost a religious experience but he converts you to a Nigerian at the end of his 2-hour journey through Nigeria’s past, present and future. It’s an inspired piece of dramatic poetry – I think that’s what he calls it – and I sincerely encourage you to see if you haven’t already.
Through the two-day festival, we’re holding a satirical art exhibition featuring talented cartoonists Mike Asukwo, Mustapha Bulama and this truly special young man, Justin Irabor. It was fun curating their work – Mike is almost militantly anti-government, but he manages not to cross too many red lines; Mustapha is the exact opposite, I think the government will love him because his pen is more sympathetic towards them; Justin manages to create the illusion of being totally apolitical as he focuses on the human perspective, capturing not government’s policies, but the reflected effect on the average Nigerian.
We end with a Dinner and Roast in the style of the White House Correspondents Dinner. It’ll be fun. And funny. And probably deeply uncomfortable for a few attendees. We plan to unveil the first recipient of our LOL Governorship award, an award voted for by the public that recognises out least impressive performing Governor. Hopefully the award will encourage the eventual winner to do better next year. It’ll be a fun evening. Assuming of course we don’t get arrested by some over-enthusiastic government agency for breaching the peace or something similarly ridiculous.
In a country where we have seen a man arrested because he named his dog, Buhari, and people getting picked up for ‘crossing red lines’ on social media, many will argue that Nigeria’s political landscape, as constituted, is not tolerant of satire. Do you agree?
First off, I need to state that constitutional freedoms outrank perceived political landscapes. I don’t think we should be promoting the enforcement of silence as the remedy for an intolerant society. Satire is clever; it’s witty, it can be subtle. Calling a dog Buhari, isn’t clever, or witty, or subtle. But I do very reluctantly concede the point that our political space is very charged. It’s why we won’t be discussing issues around religion at this iteration of the event, because we’re conscious of the fact that society might not yet be quite ready to poke fun at religion.
But this is where I expect leadership to lead. We’re holding the event on the 16th and 17th very deliberately. The 16th is the UN International Day for Tolerance. I’d be beyond proud if representatives of the President – or even the President himself – subjected themselves to a couple of hours of good-natured, totally constructive yabbing. But we will get there. These are baby steps, admittedly, but we’re moving towards a more tolerant society.
How do we grow satire as an art into our culture? How does it become acceptable?
I think we need to recognise that satire is a necessary and vital part of free speech. A few countries actually have constitutional protection for satire. Germany and Italy, I believe. And like every foreign tradition that has become a part of our Nigerian identity – football, Christmas, Keke NAPEPs, even jollof rice, continued celebration of these values sinks their roots deeper into society’s fabric.
It might not be mainstream yet, but satire has always been a part of Nigerian society. Akintola Lasekan, one of the pioneer Nigerian satirists, used satirical cartoons in the print media, just like Mike Asukwo does today, to criticise the government of his day. Covert and overt, actual or potential censorship has always threatened satire. It may be obviously worse under autocratic regimes, but it exists in various forms under many democratic governments as well, not just in Nigeria. Satirists by their very nature must keep pushing boundaries. Although everyone must respect the rights of others, violence is never the answer; tolerance must be imbibed by all. We need to appreciate the value that satirists bring to society and continue to encourage them.
How to make it acceptable? Find great satirists and The Other News support their work. We all know John Stewart and his South African successor Trevor Noah; back home we have our own Okey Bakassi and his show; years before that – and this might surprise some – we had Charley Boy with his ahead-of-its-time This Is Not The News show. We have the acerbic Dr. Damages, the genius that is Elnathan John, Okechukwu Ofili, Gordons, Ikenna Azuike, Mike Asukwo, Justin Irabor, Frank D Don, Mc Tagwaye, Omoawe, even our brilliant performance poet Dike Chukwumerijie. And most of these artists will be at the Nigerian Satire Festival.
I don’t want to jinx it, but fingers-crossed and God-willing the Nigerian Satire Festival will put Nigerian satire firmly on the international map. Hopefully the Minister of Information can list it in next year’s Tourism Attractions almanac.
Why is NSF holding in Abuja and not Lagos, as one would expect of a major event?
Great question. For me Abuja represents Nigeria’s seat of power, and the symbolism of holding this event in Abuja is profound, for Nigerians and for the rest of the world. I think it also helps put paid to the lie that Nigerians cannot express themselves freely. At least I hope it buries that fear. My truly Nigerian co-founder, Yemi Adesanya, disagrees, and would like to see the Festival tour Nigeria to make it more inclusive. We’ll probably end up taking a public vote, or drawing straws. We’re very democratic at TACT.