AS AFEJUKU WRITES NIGERIA’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY
By UBAKA OKOFU
The name, Professor Tony Afejuku does not only ring out loud in the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Benin, it also resonates with deep respect even as it exudes non-intimidating fear in that department. This fine Professor of literature is neither a sadist nor is he fiendish in his approach. But, he is dreaded by his students because he believes there is no ‘paddy in the jungle’ where ‘every man is for himself and God for all.’ To get along with the man who is known, and is still being associated with the sobriquet, ‘no Paddy for Jungle’, you will ‘read and read until you nearly die’.
In spite of wide spread criticism against Professor Afejuku as a result of his hardline stance on the imperative of hard work, he is unfazed and not deterred by the paintings done on his personality with an obloquy brush. Notwithstanding the name calling, he is still a big source of inspiration to a number of mentees who hold his above expressed tenets to be true and self-evident. And incidentally, they are the few that had survived his literary fire and sulphur without sustaining any bruise during their stay in the great University of Benin.
All of this was a far cry from what was witnessed on the 10th of June when the erudite Professor of Literature with bias in poetry and literary criticism mounted the dais to deliver his inaugural lecture, the 245th in the series to be so held in the University since its inception in 1970. Let me quickly add here that the unprecedented turn out at the event spoke volumes of the uncommon esteem to which the literary public hold this great Professor of African Literature.
Authoritatively, an inaugural lecture could be described as one of the legacies of the global university system. It does not only feed and sustain scholarship in the highest citadel of learning, it puts the university community on notice of where knowledge or research is, in the present. Therefore, inaugural lectures offer Professors the opportunity to put their immediate university milieu in the know of what research he or she has carried out over the years. Hence, it’s touted that inaugural lectures represent milestones achieved in research.
Expectedly also, inaugural lectures must contribute to existing knowledge or risk being worthless. In addition, such lectures must also be delivered in a fairly accessible manner, such that individuals who do not belong to the same field with the delivering Professor or scholar will understand what the lecturer has come to say.
Professor Afejuku’s lecture did not fall short of all these expectations. However, and if I must be candid here: what had led very many to Akin Deko Auditorium, venue of the lecture was the unusual bent and audacity suggested by the title of the Inaugural Lecture. The curiosity to meet with this persona known to be Nigeria who has written about herself was irresistible. The Autobiography of Nigeria sounds so much like a tale about ‘this Nigeria’ who has chosen to tell her story in the most unusual way.
But, it turned out that there was no such persona known or called Nigeria that has written her autobiography which the convener of the lecture is to review through Professor Afejuku. But, the fellow claiming to be Nigeria, and has actually penned down her story was not misleading after all. Those whose autobiographical stories have formed the bases for the inaugural lecture were Nigerians, demised and living notwithstanding.
Professor Afejuku was euphemistic in his presentation. The autobiography of Nigeria is by extension every other autobiography written by prominent Nigerians since the country was birthed in 1914 by Lord Fredrick Lugard (1858-1945). These autobiographies are all driven by individual idiosyncrasies and perceptions. Yet, these individual perceptions which were also fuelled by cultural and historical diversity reflect the story of the contraption known as Nigeria.
In a sense, their stories did not outrightly propagate ethnic tapestry and religious bigotry. Their diverse experiences were to be considered as templates for solving the simmering ethnic and religious equations should the need arise. 60 years down this road, we are still struggling with ethnocentric and religious related problems. It remains to be seen whether there is a glimmer of hope in a country still buried in suspicions that are fuelled by ethnic hate.
Among these great nationalists who wrote autobiographies in Nigeria, Azikiwe was more cosmopolitan and less conservative in his presentation. He was not sentimental in engaging facts and illusions. Embellish expressions were also played down so as not to mislead his audience. His mission seemed to be expository and informative. He never conceived any ethnic group to be a dot in the circle of the country, let alone treat minority ethnic groups with contempt. Like his contemporaries, he believed that the involuntary match making of the various ethnic groups in the country can only get better with time. But, they were wrong.
Instructively, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello and Obafemi Awolowo’s attempts at writing their autobiographies were in a sense attempts at writing the autobiography of Nigeria. Their respective stories are by extension the story of Nigeria. Perhaps, this is the reason this erudite Professor has alluded to the ‘chicken and egg’ question. The exact point when and how autobiography became a sub genre is arguable. But, this is not relevant to the Nigeria’s specie or story. What is however certain is that early Nigerian autobiographers never conceived their writings as fictional or imaginative. The question of whether autobiographies qualify as a sub genre of literature might have been put to rest. However, It calls to mind that autobiographies, even as the Professor has already admitted make use of the ‘nostalgic past’ as a sole ingredient. Another thing worthy of mentioning is that autobiographies ‘says it as it is and steer far away from the use of embellished expressions.’ It is therefore imperative to say that this rather unpopular sub genre of fiction tilts more to the side of historical memoir than it does with imaginative memoir. In the far past, autobiography was viewed as an offshoot of historical memoir and history per se. Great men did elaborate memoirs of their exploits. They were motivated to document pulsating experiences by chance and vagaries of life.
We have seen a poor yield of very good autobiographies after the demise of these front line and nationalist writers. Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood which was also mentioned by the lecturer the same way he mentioned Ayo Adebanjors Telling It As It Is: The Autobiography of Ayo Adebanjo and Mbonu Ojike’s My Africa. All these autobiographies enunciate a different perspective of the Nigeria’s story which contrasts with those by early nationalists. However personal and innocent the story of Ake may be perceived, it stretches itself to tell the story of the contributions of the pristine and radical Egba people to the making of Nigeria. Indeed, the women of Egba have to up the agitation for better Nigeria from the very point where their husbands could not steam beyond. Clergy husbands must not be seen to have abused their collars. So, they acted as coaches to their wives who have no British overlord to be afraid of during the day.
One may quickly add here that things never get better with the nation after the demise of these nationalists. They were leaders par excellence who had a vision for a united, indivisible and prosperous Nigeria Rather than what we have with today’s herdsmen, IPOB, GWAMA, ASAWANA, Jelekpo, Egbesu, Bello Boys etc, their mission was to make people whether from the north, east, west or south genuine, authentic and impermeable Nigerians. Indeed, ‘there was a country.’
Prof. Tony Afejuku