EMMANUEL UCHENNA UGWU
Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s greatest literary icon, is a global citizen. He is welcome and celebrated everywhere. But he is currently under an ironic xenophobic attack in his own country.
The precursor of the assault? The Nobel Laureate accepted Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s invitation to serve as the co-Chairman of the organizing committee for the Lagos@50 celebration. The event, scheduled to hold on May 27, 2017, is billed to be an occasion to mark the golden jubilee anniversary of the creation of Lagos State, a time to parade the ‘’cultural heritage, the language, arts, sights and sounds’’ of Lagos, and to glory in its ascendance to ‘’the fastest growing megacity in the world.’
His acceptance mobilized a sample of Lagos natives against his person. While they managed the grudging acknowledgment that Soyinka is a nonpareil in theatre, they charged, most paradoxically, that he was ineligible for the task. He ‘‘has no family house or compound in the geographical conglomeration of the state’’ and ‘‘he does not speak any of the dialects of the indigenous peoples and cannot with their sights and sounds.’’
They rued Soyinka’s ‘appointment’ as an ‘’insult to the indigenes’’ and a communal loss. The appointment was their due. It wasn’t supposed to go to an alien from Ogun state. Lagos is the patrimony of Eko aborigines: They were supposed to have exclusive charge of the big show.
To understate by a stretch, this is omo nile bullying, impressing with its intoxicated exuberance!
Omo nile is a construct that entitles Lagos natives to make capital out of the practice of territoriality. Its most common manifestation takes the form of a siege. An army of ‘sons of the soil’ invades your landed property, occupies it, and declares the suspension of your building… until you pay them off!
You are the legitimate owner of the land. You have purchased the title deed. But they are the indigenes –your landlords. They may make the point of breaking the heads of your construction workers!
In this case, though, the issue is not a real estate or an edifice. It’s an event. A transient ceremony. Yet, the omo nile vanguard is persuaded that the stakes are high. They must shoo away Soyinka, ‘the stranger’. They must bar the foreigner from organizing that occasion. They must reclaim their birthright.
Now Soyinka is not the sole head of the Lagos@50 planning committee. He co-chairs it with Rasheed Gbadamosi, a Lagos indigene. But the defenders of the homeland are repulsed by the optics of that synergy. They are apoplectic that a foreigner is sharing leadership equality with an Eko indigene. They want a committee that is free of the infection of a foreign body!
To be sure, Soyinka cannot be trivialized. The man has transcended into a myth. The people who imagine themselves pitted against him cannot successfully reduce him to the size of their pettiness.
The irredentists are only embarrassing themselves. Their anti-Soyinka struggle cannot inflict any damage on their target. Rather, their xenophobic pet project serves to advertize their own appalling worldview.
The language of their outrage shows they are animated by a misapprehension. The indigenes’ indignation is premised on the notion that Soyinka’s ‘appointment’ impoverished them. It denied them the opportunity for self aggrandizement. The scarcity mentality dictated by this misconception is what is driving their efforts at ‘repatriating’ the job!
If they had rightly interpreted the ‘appointment’ as a call to service, they would have seen no rationale to protest the fall of the lot on Soyinka, a person who is undoubtedly as competent as they come. It is misconstruing the ‘appointment’ as a rare piece of patronage, one with a promise of fortune, that provoked their jealousy, antipathy, and choler.
The truth is that Soyinka’s embrace of the Lagos@50 celebration duty translates to a huge sacrifice of personal convenience. He has one of the busiest itineraries for his octogenarian age bracket. He is in high demand on the lecture circuit. He is sold to the exploration of the vast terrain of the discourse on the human condition. And he maintains the pulse of his writing verve.
He is not a discontented retiree, trapped in a lethargic rut. He doesn’t need a job to survive. He doesn’t need the ‘appointment’ of a Nigerian governor to feel a sense of significance. He has already earned the ultimate global honor any writer can aspire to.
The only possible reason why he consented to participate in the program is that the ever questing artist in him –his predominant persona which can never be saved from its vulnerability to an artistic challenge –snatched at the chance to invest himself toward the invocation of a grand spectacle.
Soyinka, might be moved by compassion, to abandon the assignment. Those who have appointed themselves his traducers are acting as hostages. They have been holding news conferences and buying ad space in newspapers. Being the empathetic man, he may decide to rid them of an excuse to choke on their own rage. He may release them to search for another ‘cause’ to attach their anger to by withdrawing from the event.
His resignation won’t yield him any tangible loss. It’s the proposed ceremony that is sure to be impoverished by his forced boycott: At least, for the simple reason that there is no Soyinka clone, either within the mob or elsewhere on this planet, that can as much as sketch a spectacle as engaging as he would have hatched.
The snag is that Soyinka’s withdrawal will not mollify the mob. Their grievance is not the presumptive loss of a role in a single event. They believe that the indigenous people of Lagos are suffering state-sanctioned marginalization. Soyinka’s ‘appointment’ provided them a favorable context to launch their specious marginalization storyline.
While rationalizing their remonstration, they remarked that Soyinka’s appointment was the umpteenth instance of aliens ‘’taking the appointment meant for us.’’ They have not been given one prominent appointment for the past two decades. They were fighting because ‘’there appears to be no future for the indigenes of this state and the generations yet unborn.’’
The soi-disant protesters buttressed their point by citing the fact that aliens clinched elective positions in Eko heartland during the last polls. The seats were not ‘appointments.’ They were contested for and won in an open democratic process. But the agitators called the outcome a robbery because the winners are not of Eko ancestry.
One worrisome part of this sordid affair is that this unabashed xenophobic campaign is not led by a crude illiterate or mentally-challenged politician. It is shepherded by a Professor of Law!
His profile (I decline to honor his tomfoolery by mentioning his name) shows some travels and exposure. He has even worked at the University of London –a place that would have shut him out if its appointments were traditionally ceded to London indigenes!
It’s a tragedy that a person who has attained his level of enlightenment and scholarship is the champion of this xenophobic advocacy. But his engagement in this anachronistic crusade foregrounds Nigeria’s broader nativism problem.
Lagos, like all proper megacities, is enriched by tributaries of diverse cultures, colors and competences. It owes its present state to its reception of and hospitality to wayfaring talents. And its history as an extended family of Eko communities will remain a relevant introduction of its progress.
Yet, Lagos has been redefined by the course of urban developmental revolution. Modern Lagos is a melting pot of countless arrivals. It is now an organic multi-village space. A tryst of complex human traffic.
Individuating the make-up of Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, and campaigning for the surrender of Lagos to its indigenous people, is to waste time in futility. Lagos cannot be reversed to its pre-cosmopolitan age. It has grown past taming.
The indigenes must reconcile themselves to this truth: A megacity is a sports field. They won’t win a trophy by crying for affirmative action. They must compete on the turf. They must leverage their home advantage.
Lagos deported some beggars to the East recently. They were said to be sickening sights and liabilities. A man of Soyinka’s genius should not be confronted with that threat. He should not be a persona non grata in Lagos.
Soyinka, by any stretch of the imagination, is not a parasite. He doesn’t live on anybody’s charity. He earns his own daily bread. He has skills that Lagos need.
He maintains an office at Freedom Park, Lagos. That makes him a proper resident. But assuming that does not suffice to make him less an alien, the proximity of his home state to Lagos should bestow on him the status of a ‘neighbor.’ Ogun borders Lagos.
It’s a pity that the nativists announced their bid to take over Lagos on the eve of the celebration of the success story of Lagos. They and their inelastic minds are incapable of seizing and managing a twenty first century megacity. They can only fantasize about returning Eko to its defunct incarnation and engendering its age-long dreaded spoilage!
Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu
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