Nnamdi Azikiwe was a poet, journalist and publisher before he became ceremonial head of state of Nigeria in the First Republic. His compatriot, Dennis Osadebay, was a poet and premier of Mid-Western Region at the same time. One of the pioneers of modern Nigerian literature, Chinua Achebe had a spell with politics, serving as vice chairman to Aminu Kano who was chairman of the Peoples Redemption Party during the Second Republic. With the exception of Wale Okediran, a writer and member of House of Representatives for four years from 2003, Nigerian writers seem to have become expiring species in the ever widening political space. THEWILL wonders why. Michael Jimoh reports…
It is easy to see writing and politics as parallel professions. Nothing, you’d think, connects them in any way. But a closer look shows some similarities between both professions – if politics can be called a profession. Writers and politicians address large audiences with the latter having an advantage in terms of reach and size.
Both also seek to change the society in which they live though in quite different ways. Politicians go on the campaign trail to court and woo voters while writers remain in monkish seclusion when the muse visits. And yet, there are instances of writers becoming politicians and even making it to the presidency.
John F Kennedy is one notable example. His Profiles in Courage won the Pulitzer in 1956. Four years later, he moved to the Whitehouse after narrowly defeating Richard Nixon in the 1960 American presidential election. There is Vaclav Havel, poet, playwright and human rights activist, who also became president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 – 1992 and then of the Czech Republic from 1993 – 2003.
Though the First and Second Republics had three prominent writers who were also politicians, nothing suggests now that writers in Nigeria will take up the dual role of glad-handing voters at public squares and autographing novels in out of the way libraries. Except for Wale Okediran, a medical doctor and writer who was a member of House of Representatives for four years from 2003, no other writer in Nigeria has made it that far since this civilian dispensation began in 1999.
Now with the general elections scheduled for February 2023, it is doubtful if any member of Association of Nigerian Authors or any Nigerian writer, for that matter, will be vying for political office – either as members of state houses of assemblies or the lower and upper chambers.
So, why are Nigerian writers un-keen on making a stab at political office? Are writers closing the door against themselves in Nigeria’s political space? Or is it that they simply lack the administrative skill and organizational ability indispensable to good governance?
To answer these questions, we’ll begin with the last showing that writers are, indeed, some of the best administrators around here.
For four years Wole Soyinka was Corp Marshal of Federal Road Safety Corps from 1988 to 1992, automobile accidents dropped to its lowest level on Nigerian roads and highways. Having first recorded the same feat in Oyo state when Bola Ige was governor years before, military president Ibrahim Babangida summoned Soyinka to Dodan Barracks Lagos to do the same thing for the entire country. Soyinka obliged him.
As governor of one of the states with the largest landmass then, Ige would have been briefed and seen firsthand the chaotic traffic situation in his domain – of road users needlessly killing themselves, threat to others either by overloading, over-speeding, driving against traffic, driving vehicles not road worthy or, worse still, driving under the influence.
His close friend and intellectual companion Soyinka was teaching at nearby University of Ife then. There would have been frequent drive-overs from State House Ibadan to Ife and vice versa. The governor would have asked, over one of their numerous lunches and dinners, what could be done to make motorists and their machines better users of roads and highways under his care in the state. In short, what can be done to reduce accidents and traffic offences to a minimal and tolerable level?
Thus was Oyo State Road Safety Corp born and Soyinka as the driving force and pioneer head. With dedicated staff in place, OSRSC became a smashing success in no time, cutting down road accidents in and around the state by more than seventy to eighty percent – the least of all the 19 states at the time.
With that impressive score sheet, IBB mandated Soyinka to perform the Oyo state miracle on a national scale. He did. How Soyinka did it is now very well known – through the highly disciplined pioneer staff he initiated as FRSC. Soyinka didn’t have to look too far for trusted and committed staff of FRSC. The story goes that he called upon and recruited some of his fellow Pyrates Confraternity to help put sanity back on Nigerian roads. They duly responded and, till date, FRSC has earned the respect of road users in Nigeria and even the military that set it up.
Commenting on FRSC’s 30th anniversary in The Guardian of February 21, 2018, IBB himself proudly declared thusly: “Our administration summoned Prof Soyinka to higher national service as the founding Corp Marshal of the FRSC. I am proud to say that the basic foundation of discipline, firmness and commitment to humanitarian service was laid at this period.”
For the four years under Soyinka as Corp Marshal of FRSC, sanity returned to Nigerian roads and highways: drivers drove within a certain speed limit because that FRSC official in a maroon safari hat or beret might just be around the corner; they knew better not to offer bribes because they will turn it down and even hand you over to the police for prosecution along with the initial traffic offence; drivers and their passengers began compulsorily strapping on seatbelts; interstate motorists didn’t dare put vehicles with worn tyres, malfunctioning break lights or faulty headlights on the road.
Without the itchy fingers of VIOs or their equivalent in the police ever ready to shake down motorists, FRSC officials in their smart uniforms stood poles apart from them. Of course, they were more professional, always polite to drivers but firm in instructing them on what to do and how not to break traffic laws while on the way. And then, there was the ambulance crew – complete with medics – ready to apply first-aid treatment at the scene of accident or ferry victims to hospitals.
No wonder fatalities on Nigerian roads and highways reduced drastically at the time. And such was the turnaround in road carnage that staff in emergency units in some orthopaedic hospitals joked that some of them waited in vain for weeks without seeing casualties as they used to. The reason for that success was not so much because of the Soyinka persona but the “foundation of discipline, firmness and humanitarian service” that was the standard of the agency under him.
Now, the point here is not about the success of FRSC but the man who was at the very top at the very beginning. With the “foundation of discipline, firmness and commitment to humanitarian service” engrained into FRSC officials then, Soyinka – though a writer by profession – demonstrated his administrative savvy and organisational ability in running a public outfit and making it work, perhaps, more than any politician ever could.
Could that sense of “discipline, firmness and humanitarian service” be replicated in other government institutions or ministries? It is open to debate. But what is certain is that armed with those three qualities – moral rectitude, a steely resolve and determination to genuinely serve the public – politicians anywhere in the world can make a whole lot of difference in governance.
So, to go back to our first question or to rephrase it: why is Soyinka, or writers like him, those who have the gift of the imagination with far-seeing solutions to immediate problems, not involved in politics?
The immediate answer is money. “It takes three things to win elections,” Dave Powers, a Kennedy associate, famously said. “The first is money, the second is money and the third is money.”
Prior to the party primaries last May and June in Nigeria, for instance, candidates of some political parties paid as much as N100m just to obtain registration forms into elective positions. As is now very well known, some even shelled more cash – in foreign currencies – during the primaries making it seem like an important budgetary allocation for a federal or state project. As is also very well known, candidates who spent more dollars defeated their opponents hands down.
Not many Nigerian writers can afford those humongous sums either to purchase the forms, bribe delegates or even the electorate, thus conveniently shutting them out of the race for elective posts now or in future elections. For writers who depend solely on paltry royalties from publishers, where are they going to find such huge sums to start off the wheel of their electoral machines?
There is also the matter of principle. Like most committed writers, many in Nigeria consider politics and writing poles apart, especially in this part of the world. For one, writers sometime become critical of government policies or those in government themselves. It follows that there is no way a writer can be part of a government he serially denounces/ criticises.
Even so, THEWILL could not resist asking one or two writers why some of them are turned off from politics. Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is an outstanding Nigerian journalist, novelist and poet. In his view, “there has been a longstanding controversy over writers and politics. Some purists from Europe would argue that politics compromise art, but man happens to be a political animal.”
In that sense, Nigerian writers have not been quite apolitical as we imagine. “Nigerian writers,” Maxim maintains, “have from time been in politics. Zik was a poet. Dennis Osadebay was equally a poet. Chinua Achebe was vice chairman of Aminu Kano’s Peoples Redemption Party (PRP).”
Those of the First and Second republics even had successors, Maxim contends. “Wale Okediran won election into the House of representatives in 2003. (Okediran is a doctor, writer and onetime president of the Association of Nigerian Authors.) Reuben Abati was a gubernatorial running mate to PDP candidate Buruji Kashamu in the Ogun state contest in 2019.” Younger writers, he continues, “are throwing their hats into the political ring.”
It is true that younger writers are making a stab at politics these days. But they are hardly known beyond their council areas therefore lacking the national appeal to win crucial votes for electoral positions. Poet and bookseller Dagga Tola, is a card-carrying member of National Conscience Party. Headed by the late Gani Fawehinmi when it was founded as a political party, Dagga Tola saw NCP as the right party to be in. For him, the party’s leader represented something close to the conscience of the nation, given his human rights record, his intolerance of corruption – reason for NCP’s motto: “Shine your eyes.”
But without the national spread of the dominant parties, NCP could not even secure a councilorship electoral victory in any of the 774 local governments in Nigeria during the 2015 election and subsequent ones. Ask any eligible voter in Nigeria today who the presidential candidates of the two major parties are and he will tell you off the cuff. Ask the same person who the presidential candidate of NCP is and you’ll probably draw a blank.
Still speaking on writers who were once politicians, Maxim reminded the newspaper that venerable poet, Odia Ofeimun, was a politician during the Second Republic. “Odia was a card-carrying member of the Unity Party of Nigeria under Obafemi Awolowo,” Maxim told THEWILL. “Not only that, he was Private Secretary (Political) to Awo at the time.”
The poet himself had hoped to revive his political career after a dry spell since the mid-eighties, after the military government of Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon terminated the Second republic mid-sentence in 1983. A First Class graduate of Political Science from UI in its halcyon days, Ofeimun literarily surprised some of his colleagues when he announced in 2016 or thereabout he was going to contest as governor in his natal Edo state. He followed it up with grand ideas of what he would focus on as governor even while the election was years away. One of them was to link up all the headquarters and major towns in the state by a modern rail line.
So connected from Benin the state capital like arteries from the heart to the rest of the body in a state with the comforting motto: Heartbeat of the Nation, anyone could see the immediate and incredible advantages of Ofeimun’s dream project. It was the imagination of the writer at work but one without requisite political power or base to see it through.
To contest, he must join a party. The two major parties then and now are not to his taste, for obvious reasons. The only one he found more congenial, Labour Party, lacked the state presence by way of numbers and resources to shoo out either an APC or PDP government in Benin. The poet’s quest ended almost as abruptly as it began.
When the newspaper spoke with Ofeimun recently, he proposed another reason writers are not generally keen on politics. They prefer spending time “writing short witty poems three or so nights” to the life of a politician who must glad-hand or back-pat potential voters out there.
At the same time, the poet and past president of the Association of Nigerian Authors went on, “the politician will still be raising money, carrying people from one part of the country to the other and things of that nature. In a country where politics has become thoroughly monetised, most professionals can’t get into it. That is why there are godfathers everywhere, those who have made a little money, even illiterates, become the godfathers of professors. One of the reasons the best ideas don’t come around politics is that you have to pass the so-called good ideas through people who do not care for the ideas in the first place.”
But how come some democracies had writers who were also politicians, bearing in mind the US, for instance, where as a politician JFK wrote, won the Pulitzer and was resident of the Whitehouse?
“The American case is not a good example,” Ofeimun corrected THEWILL. “America started as a very intellectual establishment. All the makers of the American system were scholars, they were intellectuals who wrote books – whether on the liberal or conservative side – they were writers. They had a sounder beginning than we had.”
On his ambition to contest as governor of Edo state, Ofeimun insists he never wanted to run in that very election. “I wanted to use that election to prepare for the one that came after. But the choice of party that I made – I couldn’t join any of those other parties – the Labour Party that I picked, they do not have the resources to support a candidate who was also not well-to-do. A candidate who is not well-to-do who joins a party that is not well-to-do is asking for trouble.”