Prof. Niyi Osundare, a notable poet and activist shares his experiences in this interview with ADEOLA BALOGUN culled from Punchng.com
Despite working comfortably in the US, why do you still come back home here to work?
Life in the US and Europe is, no doubt, very attractive. All the things that make life and living comfortable are there. You don’t have to battle to get anything. As you can see right now, there is power outage. It is really difficult to be a scholar, writer or even a thinker in a society like ours. Water, good road networks, good medical care are available over there. And there are things around you that show you that the governments there respect their citizens, are accountable and answerable. All those things are absent in Nigeria. I say it all the time: Nigeria is not a country. We don’t have a country yet. We don’t have leaders who respect the people. I used to talk about our leaders only in the past, but I have included the followers. Our people don’t demand respect from their rulers. It is very important, it is a two-way process. Nigerians are in a position where they could be taken for granted anytime, and we are being taken for granted. We are a set of people who just take things as they are and do not protest. You tell the Nigerian populace to jump and the question you will get is, “How high, sir?” and not “Why?” We really need to get rid of the Oba kepe, Kabiyesi (Your Excellency) syndrome. Countries like US, Britain, Japan and Korea, and to a very large extent, Malaysia, are doing well because people ask questions from their rulers. They have a stake in leadership. It is difficult comparing the two places; it takes efforts and a lot of courage to leave a comfortable life in America or Europe to come and face the hardship that we have in this part of the world. But there are also things here that we don’t get abroad – the human touch, for example. I was brought up in a modest background. My material expectations from life are very modest and limited in a way. I have never thought of a time when I will fill my garage with an assortment of cars, or when I will have a house in every important street in Nigeria, and bank accounts that will make Bill Gates envious. This is one place where if I walk on the street, I run into people who know me and we crack jokes, laugh together, and trade opinions about our problems. And you must know that I didn’t leave this country until I was 50 (in 1997) due to some family issues. My roots are here. I owe this society a lot, which is very important. Whatever America or Europe takes out of me, they are just creaming off the broth that has been prepared. I used the scholarships of this country on three occasions and whatever I am today, it is Nigeria that made me so, and I will never forget. And this is one of the reasons I want to sing with Wole Soyinka, “I love my country, I no go lie, na inside am I go live and die. When im push me so, I push am so, he push me, I push am, I no go go.” In my keynote at the Soyinka Conference last week, I cited that stanza. People started singing and they laughed. It is the most serious stanza in Unlimited Liability because Soyinka is a trepid nationalist and a patriot – trying to tell a country that has been trying to destroy him for the past five, six decades that no matter what they do to him, he would bounce back. It is a lesson for all of us. So nothing will ever drive me away from this country. As a writer, too, I know what exile does to people who use their imagination. I have had the opportunity to mention this in a number of places: when you leave your root, you are leaving so much of yourself behind. When you leave that place where people know your name, where you don’t have to spell your name all the time, you are leaving so much behind. How can I write authentically about Nigeria and Africa and don’t have physical contact? Physical contact is very important. I want to be able to feel the smell of this country. I want to be able to see the glory of the rainforest in the season of the rain. I want to hear the noise of the leaves as they crackle under your feet in the dry season. I want to feel the rainbow in the Nigerian sky. I ask myself this question all the time: the moon I see in the United States, is it the same moon in Nigeria? Well, I wouldn’t know. It is important to be part of the struggle and the development of this country. If Americans ran away from their country when it was tough, we wouldn’t have any America to run to today. If the Britons, French, or the Germans did the same thing, those countries would be as poor as we are today. I ask myself all the time: What am I even doing to contribute to America? Those countries are already developed. I know I am doing my best there and they appreciate it, but in relative terms, the little efforts I put up here show more results than what is obtained there. The two places are important to me except that here, there are too many distractions and you can hardly do much because of the challenges, but there, a few people know me, and therefore, I can hide and do many things. I usually refer to Nigeria as my laboratory and America as my hideout.
How would you compare what obtains now with what you experienced in your days as an undergraduate?
You are going to make me cry. It is a terrible situation. I feel like crying each time I think of how Nigeria was. At times I wonder the tyranny of memory, maybe I should not think about what obtained in the 1960s and 1970s and even to the end of the 1980s and what obtains today. Of all the countries in the world, this is one that I know where the barometer of progress and development drops every year. It is amazing. I think I was discussing this with someone on our way to the Soyinka conference in Lagos last week. We are no longer able to do the things we used to do. For instance, our educational system has collapsed. During the Fagunwa conference last year, I made a point that Nigeria could not have been able to produce a Fagunwa right now. Also in Abeokuta last week, I said Nigeria could not have produced a Soyinka. Soyinka wrote the ‘Dance of the forest,’ one of the most complex plays I have ever seen at 26. Chinua Achebe wrote ‘Things fall apart’ when he was 26. Can the educational system of Nigeria really equip us with enough facilities and competence to be able to do such great works now? I was asking myself, D.O. Fagunwa, the genius never went beyond St. Andrews College, formally – what we used to call Grade 2 in those days, but look at the depth and breadth of that man as reflected in his works, the essays that he wrote and the critical works he did. He was proficient both in Yoruba and in English and I said something that many people might have considered controversial in the conference that we held in Akure last year. I said the educational prowess of Fagunwa after he left St Andrews College in many ways surpasses the academic and professional competence of many people today with doctorate degrees and it is really true because when you look at the kind of students we are producing – MBA, BA, MSc – the quality is dropping every year. It is not as if people are not good, but it is the environment that makes a person. There are things I teach my students in the US and I tell them that look, the bulk of what I am teaching you now, I was taught in my secondary school in a little village in the Western part of Nigeria, and they would laugh, but it is true. That was at Amoye Grammar School in Ikere-Ekiti. When I entered that school in 1961, our principal was the only graduate whereas our teachers had Grade 2 qualifications or just finished Higher School Certificates and just getting ready to go to the university, but look at the foundation they laid. Up till today, I still rely on the foundation they laid. In my lifetime, I saw Nigeria at its peak, and then I watched it gradually declines. Now, Nigeria is a nonsensical country. It is a country that cannot get its acts together. It is a country that cannot even protect its own citizens, a country of absolutely corrupt leaders and dishonest businessmen and women. In those days, you could be driving and be stopped by a police officer or a Vehicle Inspection Officer in mufti. They would ask for your papers and that was when there was regulation and sanity. Today, Nigeria is absolutely lawless. Look at the police today, with just N50 or N100, you would be allowed to go even if you were carrying human head in your boot. I really do not blame the police. Look at how they look in their uniform, ask them how much they are paid; the way the society treats them is the way they are treating it back. This is a society that is dismantling itself every time. I hope it is not just possible for a country to destroy itself and disappear from the surface of the earth. Nigeria is not producing anything. Forget about the rebasing of the economy they were shouting recently.
Those people behind it should be brought out and flogged for deceiving the Nigerian people and the world. All of a sudden, you are telling us that the Nigerian economy is bigger and better than South African. Who are they telling this? Have they ever been to Jo’burg, Pretoria, Cape Town or Durban? Do they see the industrial base in those places? They say our telecoms sector is growing, where do MTN and Airtel come from? We forget that for every naira we spend on recharge card and other telcom services, at least 65 per cent leaves this country. They are telling us we are going to have a Nigerian car. We had cars assembled in Nigeria before – Volkswagen and Peugeot were assembled in Badagry and Kaduna. The brains that created these are in France and Germany. Our own brains are not even good enough to know we need good roads to drive the cars. Who are these people deceiving? We don’t even have an iron and steel industry, yet they say “Made in Nigeria” cars. How can you create cars when we don’t have these? We do not even have steady supply of electricity. Nigeria was more industrialised in the 1970s and 1980s. Babangida and his men introduced International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Programmes in the Nigerian economy. Within a year or two, most of our industries closed down. Most of our hospitals became mere consulting clinics. Our universities started nose-diving. The moment the Nigerian Naira was devalued, the Nigerian life was devalued along with it. This is a country that produces nothing, but consumes everything.
On the rebasing of our economy, mind you that those behind it are technocrats from the Diaspora, for example Dr. Okonjo Iweala. Are you saying those responsible for it are not competent?
I am not questioning their capabilities but I am appreciating the professional pedigree of our Minister of Finance. She brought her experience from the World Bank. The World Bank, the IMF and the developed economies in the world are not our friends. We know we can never be friends. Look at the oil subsidy issue, three years ago, that was President Jonathan’s new year gift to the people of Nigeria. It is pathetic we have rulers who don’t think of their people. Look at the consequence of the action, the economy was shut down for more than a week. The IMF and the World Bank are controlled by America and the big countries of the world. When you go to all these countries, you will see that they enjoy subsidies. Farmers in the US enjoy subsidies, for instance. Most countries in Europe have Social Security welfare programmes. The UK has one of the oldest and well-run National Health Service in the world. If all those services are good for the people there, why do they say they are not good for us? I remember when I was an active member of ASUU in the University of Ibadan, the World Bank came with a report that Nigeria should not lay much emphasis on tertiary education, particularly university education, and we asked them how they could have made so much progress in their own economies if they didn’t pay attention to their tertiary education. It is one thing for these people to come all the way from their country and dictate policies to us; it is our duty as Nigerians to say no to them. Unfortunately, our leaders could not say ‘no.’ Why? Because they are all compromised in one way or the other. When they steal our money, they put it in banks overseas. The Europeans and Americans know their secrets, so they are completely compromised. Nigerians are orphans. Those who rule over us do not really have our interests in their hearts. There is no country in the world where the IMF has introduced all its policies that is not experiencing economic turmoil. The IMF is a doctor that heals its patients by killing them first. So Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala is doing her job because this is the kind of training and orientation she has had. But what has this done for the Nigerian economy?
To be a poet, is it about learning to become it or poets are born.
Often times people say poets are born, not made. I will say it is through the two ways. It is 50-50. Take our creative DNA, they all have their distinctive characteristics. We all have our talents. When I was in high school, for example, I was horrible in Mathematics, I loved Geometry, I was average in Algebra, I was hopeless in Arithmetic, but anything having to do with words, I was on top of the class. So I don’t know if it was the front cortex of my brain. We are shaped in different areas. I had friends who could draw, paint and do sculpture, Moyo Ogundipe is one of them. We were classmates. I had another one, Segun Adeyemi, who could solve Mathematics even in his dreams. I had interests in anything that had to do with acting, metaphor, etc. I come from a family where my father was a drummer, actor, etc. So we all have our different talents. If I am angry at Nigeria, it is because we don’t develop our talents. We have so many hidden talents. If I had not grown and developed my talents at the time when our educational system was good, I would not become what I am today.
In those days, parents used to pray that their children would become teachers. A teacher was an icon, an emblem of intellectual development and the society respected them. I remember my teachers in elementary school that did not have to buy food. Every Saturday, parents would deposit food items at their doors because they appreciated the works they were doing and our schools were well run. I was lucky. I started writing my first script when I was in the grammar school. Before I left Amoye Grammar School, I had already made up my mind that I would become a writer because the teachers had identified this talent in me. In 1958 when I was in Primary 5 and we had a dictation test, I will never forget my teacher. While he was distributing other pupils’ books to them, he held on to mine. He said, “Osundare my boy, professor.” I had never heard the word professor in my life. I didn’t know what he meant, neither did my friends. But somehow I knew what he was telling me was to encourage me. It sharpened my focus and also boosted my ambition. Teachers took their jobs very seriously. I will not forget my principal, too. Even though he was generous with cane, he was good to us. Every week, he would make sure we accounted for a book we read. We had a chart where our names were listed, where we had the number of books we had read in a week against our names. After that, we would do the summary, find new words that we had learnt and go to the dictionary to get their meanings. This was how I built my vocabulary. In 1967, our results were out and my principal told me I had one of the best results in West Africa. I knew it was not my making, but that of my teachers and my parents who wouldn’t take anything for granted. So yes, talent is important but discipline is very important. People believe I am strict but that is the way I was brought up. Discipline is very important. Today, our value system is upside down. When people got to your office in those days, they would look at your books first, but today it is the car you are driving. In those days, we used to read books, these days, we are counting money.
How does the inspiration come to write poems?
If you are just like every other person, you would not achieve anything. In art, if you could not innovate and research, you will not be able to surpass what your predecessors had done. Personally, it means sacrificing my social life to write. You cannot find me at owambe parties because weekends are useful to me. If you want to become a writer, shun frivolities and cultivate the act of solitude. Then think deep. Ideas don’t just come, you have to search for them. And that is where concentration and discipline come in. At times, you tend to forget the people around you when you are involved in thinking. At times, my wife and daughter would not bother to talk to me once they see me trying to tidy things up because they know I would not listen to them at that point in time. They abandon me at such moments and I think that is what Wole Soyinka’s wife, Folake, complained about at a particular time. You would lock yourself in a study for hours. If all those great scientists had engaged in frivolities, they would not have invented anything. There is something about creativity that involves discipline. Planning is involved in creativity. At times you would have to induce inspiration to come because it doesn’t come all the time. Another thing to know is to know yourself. When I listen to good music, I get inspired. At times it could be when I am alone or when I pick up a good prose or poem and I read the first two lines.
But some people get inspiration when they take drugs that make them high.
The body is a temple and it is important to respect it. Some artists tend to reach their highs when they do all that, but not me, due to my upbringing. I prefer to reach my high on my own. All those things have side effects.
Why do people say Ekiti people are proud?
I hope you know in terms of material affluence, we are not there. We are a people that depend on our efforts to eat. My father was a farmer but he was content and proud to be so. My American friends used to ask me what books my parents read to me when I was young and I would laugh because I had no books when I was growing up because I was a farmer’s son. We would come back from the school and go to the farm, but my parents always insisted I had to do my homework, and that was when our educational system was very good. Every Friday, we used to take our report cards home to let our parents know how we were faring. I remember in 1967 when I came top in my exams, I became a hero. The educated ones were celebrated as heroes.
Why do you think the Ekiti people voted out Fayemi, who is more seen as an elite?
That is the striking irony of our lands. That relates to what I said before that things have turned upside down. The educated ones are not being celebrated again, but I saw it coming. In those days, you would never see young people roaming about the streets, doing nothing. That is what we see there today. It used to be work before success in those days, but now almost everyone expects little labour, more wealth. What we need now is education and enlightenment. It appears not many people think far back to how we used to be these days. The Federal Government was too much interested in that election and committed so much ‘atrocity’ too as we all saw in the way the election was run. Was that how to run an election in a democratic society? That is a bad omen for the Nigerian democracy at large, not just Ekiti. Whoever is close to President Jonathan should tell him to stop playing with fire. We all fought the soldiers to get this democracy and he should stop doing the things that would draw us back to where we came from. We have to avoid anything that could lead to something worse. The spate of impeachment rocking the country right now is dangerous and it makes me wonder whether our politicians think at all. How could you run a democratic society without an opposition? Tell President Jonathan to slow down because I have never seen Nigeria stooped so low. The Ekiti election really made me sad because I don’t know whether we are the Fountain of Knowledge again. We should go back to our roots. We should start to put in place leaders who have our interests at heart, who want to improve our lifestyle and do much more for us. Nigeria is passing through a stage of illiteracy despite that we have a PhD person as a president. The politicians should stop deceiving people. It is really a sad situation.
Don’t you think you might have insulted Ekiti people when you wrote in your recent poem that they voted for their stomach?
No, that is a misunderstanding. As you know, I am a very proud son of Ekiti and it is my love for Ekiti that made me write that poem. Even before the election, I heard people complain about the test being proposed by the governor for teachers in the state. A teacher who can not spell the names of his pupils is unheard of and no country survives with that. Teachers should be competent and disciplined. These are the things I had while I was growing up and are responsible for the little I have been able to achieve. This is what Ekiti is noted for, not eating booli by the road side or telling people don’t worry, you will all pass. Miracle centres suddenly becoming the order of the day. Where will that lead a state or a country? What you saw in Ekiti was part of the stage of illiteracy our country is passing through; where people mock excellence. And it is spreading. The PDP candidate in Osun, I saw in the papers where he was holding two cobs of roast corn at a campaign train. Is that the way to the future? Before people misunderstand me, I am from a humble background, I don’t look down on people. Populism is a dangerous game and we should not deceive people. What they are doing now is a gimmick. The person who says he wants to eat booli with Ekiti people still has explanation to make about how over N400m of the people’s money disappeared. I’m so shocked that we are still witnessing this in 2014 and I am doubly shocked that this is happening in a supposedly Fountain of Knowledge.
All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.
http://www.punchng.com/feature/life-tim ... -osundare/