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The Nigerian condition: Perspectives from a philosopher

By Tunji Olaopa
28 November 2022   |   3:37 am
Moving towards 2023, and beyond has become a task that, I believe, must generate all sorts of analyses and preparations. While the politicians and political parties are preparing in their usual manners to take over power...

Moving towards 2023, and beyond has become a task that, I believe, must generate all sorts of analyses and preparations. While the politicians and political parties are preparing in their usual manners to take over power, others, especially the intellectuals and scholars also have the responsibilities to facilitate a deeper understanding of our situation and how it can be redressed. I consider this task even more significant because the intelligentsia is saddled with determining the pulse and direction of a nation.

“The man of action has the present,” says Oliver Wendel Holmes, the American polymath, “but the thinker controls the future.” And this is significant because intellectuals see and reflect on the big picture and how all its elements hang together. In the Representation of the Intellectual (1994), Edward Said situates the responsibility that the intellectual bears within the search for egalitarian truth and the urgency of social change. In other words, an intellectual must be committed to the society, and by association, to humanity.

The big picture that all intellectuals will agree upon is humanity. How does the human hang together in different sociopolitical and sociocultural contexts and situations? What are the elements of human flourishing that could enhance the quality of existence for humans? Wole Soyinka insists that writers and intellectuals have a fundamental duty in putting humanity at the forefront of their intellectual rumination. And, for him, “justice is the first condition of (that) humanity.” In other words, justice becomes a transcendental vision by which humanity can be saved, without any recourse to ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender or political predilection.

However, when the ideas of justice and humanity are situated within a postcolonial context, all manners of morbid symptoms, failures and possibilities begin to emerge that complicate the vision of humanity we may have, and that further heightens the responsibility of the African intellectuals. The postcolonial context is the intellectual forte of the Nigerian philosopher, Adeshina Afolayan, who teaches philosophy at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. This is not my first attempt at engaging with the uniqueness of Afolayan’s philosophical relevance.

Indeed, philosophy has remained a disciplinary fascination for me since I came in contact with Plato’s Republic as an intellectual representation of the institutional reform that providence has directed me to pursue as a professional endeavour. Philosophy seems inevitable in any rumination about the wellbeing of any society; about how to facilitate an egalitarian framework that will undermine all sorts of inequalities and injustices that intellectuals are concerned about. Most recently, the scholarship of Adeshina Afolayan has brilliantly been summed and critiqued by the Boston University scholar and public intellectual, Prof. Nimi Wariboko. He titled the critical effort, “Adeshina Afolayan and Demosophy.” And just recently, the Graduate Research Clinic, a network of intellectuals, academics and students, put together a panel to critically discuss Afolayan’s scholarship.

My fascination with philosophy, and professional articulation of institutional and governance reform, has remained embedded within my abiding desire to make explicit what efforts have been made, are being made and could be made to rehabilitate ad reconstruct the social, economic, institutional and political basis of existence for Nigeria and Nigerians. This is where my long-term relationship with Adeshina Afolayan comes to the fore.

Even though African and Nigerian intellectuals are committed to making explicit those elements of human governance that would transform human flourishing, it is always interesting for me to take a philosophical perspective seriously. Philosophy is about the critique of the intellectual basis of human existence; a critical engagement with the ideas and beliefs by which we make sense of our lives and living. And it becomes doubly interesting to inquire how a specific Nigerian philosopher reflects on the conditions that make life valuable or otherwise within a postcolonial context.

If I can sum his philosophical oeuvre, I will say it has to do with engaging with the idea of the people—of Nigerians—and the possibilities of human flourishing within the constraints and possibilities embodied by postcoloniality. Afolayan wrestles intellectually with philosophy and what philosophy makes visible and possible. Interestingly enough, Afolayan is not beholden to the pastime of many Nigerian philosophers, which is the constant defense of the philosophical enterprise. The premise of his scholarship is essentially that philosophy is relevant, period. There is no need to continue begging that question. The challenge then is that of making it more visible in the marketplace where the people conduct their existential struggle for meaning and survival.

Afolayan’s scholarship can be located within a subaltern context that listens to the groans and convivial articulation of the people, of Nigerians. However, and unlike other scholars who have taken the demos as a democratic given, Afolayan takes the idea of the people so seriously as to be as critical of its failures as much as its possibilities. Thus, for instance, the idea of leadership plays a critical role in his political philosophy as much as that of citizenship. In a study of patriotism and the informal sector, Afolayan makes a critical argument that undermines even my own understanding of, and fascination with, elite nationalism.

According to him, elite patriotism dies and is buried in the informal sector when Nigerians are driven, willy-nilly, because of the failure of leadership represented by the elite. The current japa, or brain drain, phenomenon in Nigeria is a similar dimension that bears out Afolayan’s critical skepticism about patriotism. While japa insists on running away, the informal sector is a mean of staying and not being available. No amount of patriotic rhetoric will make a Nigerian, whose life has been made existentially difficult, believe that Nigeria is the place for her. But then, Afolayan asks, how is democracy consolidated if its critical element, the demos always makes a decision with its feet touching the back of its head? Thus, within the context of democratic possibilities, the demos must insist on its own relevance while abjuring all lethargic arm-wringing that blames leadership for democratic failure.

Afolayan’s attempt at deploying philosophy to the task of revealing the conditions necessary for making life more qualitative for Nigerians led to his beaming the searchlight of philosophical understanding on Yoruba philosophy and popular culture. While the latter serves as a framework for revealing how Nigerians are adapting to postcolonial dynamics, the former is Afolayan’s attempt at ransacking his cultural heritage for ideas and insights that could enable Nigerians understand their existence the more. I am not surprised that Afolayan eventually returned to popular culture. He is a scion of the legendary Adeyemi Afolayan (Ade Love) whose cinematic production was a significant dimension of African cinema, and a precursor to Nollywood.

For those who avidly consume Nollywood, there is no doubt about how filmmakers cinematically portray visions of Nigeria’s postcolonial dynamics and predicament. Now imagine a philosopher engaging with Nollywood, with Afro-pop and with other cultural production as a mean of understanding the philosophical depth of human survival and flourishing. In fact, Afolayan argues that philosophy in Nigeria will remain an attempt by academic philosophers to deal with the problems of the professors of philosophy unless and until it becomes political and popular. It is by taking the popular turn that Nigerian philosophy can become truly an attempt to understand the philosophical biases and assumptions of Nigerians.

With his interest in African cultural studies, Afolayan takes seriously his Yoruba cultural heritage as a framework for adapting the past to the present. In “Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary Nigerian Realities,” a 2018 special edition of Yoruba Studies Review he guest-edited, Afolayan brought together an array of Nigerian philosophers to reflect on how the Yoruba heritage could be critically mined to search for solutions to population growth, democratic participation, disability, educational practice, inter-ethnic conflicts, public morality, etc. Afolayan takes seriously the late Alaafin Lamidi Adeyemi’s statement about the capacity of the Yoruba culture to not only solve existential problems but to also advance human civilization, and tasks philosophical reflection to adapt that culture to Nigerian postcolonial predicaments.

This special edition of the Yoruba Studies Review again demonstrates Afolayan’s capacity for double critique. Here, he not only projects the capacity of Yoruba culture to answer Nigeria’s predicament, he also critiques that capacity. This was exactly what he also did in his essay, “Tunde Kelani and the Art of Being Yoruba” (2020). Tunde Kelani, the foremost Nigerian filmmaker is a Yoruba nationalist. Afolayan critiqued the capacity of his Yoruba culturally inflected cinema to adequately answer the Nigerian predicament without selling out to Yoruba jingoism.

Why is Adeshina Afolayan important as a Nigerian philosopher? For me, it is simply because of his continuing effort to make Nigeria a place for philosophical reflection. We cannot do philosophy out of place. Nigeria’s postcolonial predicaments require philosophical attention. In other words, we need to understand what philosophy can do for the understanding of Nigeria and her postcolonial dynamics. And in the process, we must also understand the changing dynamics of philosophy itself.

When a philosopher critically takes to task philosophy’s capacity to answer postcolonial existential questions that enhance human flourishing, I think such a philosopher also deserves critical attention.

Olaopa, is retired Federal Permanent Secretary and Professor, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Plateau State. tolaopa2003@gmail.com