You search for what has gone missing in a frantic and heedless way. In the light of this saying, is there a connection between national literary gifts and political backwardness, between poetic exuberance and national delinquency? To pose the question in another way, why do some nations produce outstanding creative geniuses only to come a sad cropper in the husbandry of human resources and visionary political engineering?
When Oscar Wilde was asked why he thought Britain never stood a chance in a war with France, the Anglo-Irish wit and hell-raiser famously declared that it was because the French wrote perfect prose. There was an element of truth in this seemingly eccentric assertion.
Compared to the literary figures and cultural icons thrown up by France at the end of the nineteenth century, the British literati appeared like hewers of wood and drawers of water.
Yet it was the dour and predictable Britons that produced the enduring human institutions. The Germans were even crueller and mercilessly supercilious in their attitude to British cultural and intellectual endeavours.
Compared to the outstanding thinkers thrown up by a unified Germany, the Kants, Hegels, the Marxes, the Feurbauchs, British philosophers of the late nineteenth century were provincial nonentities sunken by the leaden weight of intellectual timidity and the facile superficialities of Empiricist philosophy.
Yet where it mattered most the British were light years ahead. While Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, was still trying to bring the Germans together under a unified state by the middle of the nineteenth century, Britain had already achieved stable nationhood for almost two centuries.
While there were no Rousseau or Voltaire to raise the literary and philosophical stakes, Britain was ahead where it mattered most, particularly the strategic capture of Canada and the gritty elimination of French continental influence in North America as a whole.
As for an America dismissed as a primitive cultural backwater by the European haute couture, it was to become the military and economic lord of Europe by the beginning of the twentieth century.
The connection between politics and letters, between creative output and national destiny has been well documented. But not so the intriguing disconnect between vast surplus of creative genius and political and economic underdevelopment.
To pose the question concretely is to come face to face with one of those ineluctable mysteries of the nation-state paradigm.
How can the country of the Soyinkas, the Achebes and those wonderful Benin bronze masters also be associated with arrested political and economic development? A rational inquiry is mandatory.
Surveying contemporary Nigeria is thus like surveying the extant ruins of the old Roman Empire. Amidst the catacombs of self-inflicted ruination, there is evidence of grand dreaming, of Utopian longing.
Amidst the massive wreckage of hope and aborted destiny, there is evidence of great poetic exertions, of furious summons and fiery sermons when it was probably too late. As Shakespeare will put it, there is some architecture in the ruins.
If a nation’s destiny were to be determined by the verbal gifts and the rhetorical razzmatazz of its founding leadership, Nigeria ought to be a nuclear power and first class First World economy by now.
Just take a sample. From the blistering anti-colonial ripostes of an Herbert Macaulay, the magnificent magniloquence of an Nnamdi Azikiwe, the deep philosophical ruminations of an Obafemi Awolowo, the grim apocalyptic hectoring of an Anthony Enahoro, the cerebral hecklings of a Mokuwgo Okoye, the terse anti-colonial genuflections of an Adegoke Adelabu, the keen witty repartees of an SL Akintola, the dignified cadences of a Tafawa-Balewa, to the caustic excoriations of a later-day Bola Ige, Nigerian first generation leaders seemed to have had the knack for turning politics into pure poetry in motion.
But poetry is merely a passion, and one that can be put to clearly subversive use if not well-harnessed. This is probably one of the unstated reasons why Plato evicted the poet from the People’s Republic.
A nation needs more than passion to survive and to flourish. It needs great will and great strength of purpose.
The stage for this embarrassment of literary gifts was probably set by the anti-colonial struggle. It was led by the nascent, feisty and fiery Nigerian press.
Dominated by returning freed slaves and Brazilian immigrants who had seen enough of the weaknesses and failures of the metropolitan society, they were not going to be fazed by colonial viceroys.
It was a great cultural war whose thunderous echoes and brilliant ripostes resonate till date. To read some of these fierce exchanges even today is to be transported to a world of exemplary verbal ingenuity.
To be sure, not all the subsequent verbal fireworks are wrought from the imaginative reservoir of these great political dramatists. Sometimes it is the great occasion demanding great eloquence and getting it.
Such we see in Anthony Enahoro’s motion for self-governance or his famous intervention on the declaration of emergency in the old west.
We see it in the forbidding eloquence and chilling prophesy of Chief Awolowo’s allocutus before he was sentenced for treasonable felony.
It rears its fine Roman head again in Zik’s celebrated philippic against his political tormentors in the Second Republic, his earlier treatise on diarchy and his literary slugfest with Anthony Asika.
Finally we glimpse the historic nature of the occasion in M.K.O Abiola’s speech rejecting the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections.
It was a tour de force of heroic defiance which guarantees Abiola’s sacred place in the literature and history of rebellion against military tyranny.
To be fair, even the military that are hardly famous for their gift of the garb cannot be left out of this illustrious pedigree. Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu’s solitary broadcast is a rousing revolutionary sermon brimming with anger and Armageddon.
General Buhari’s speech to the nation on the occasion of the termination of the Second Republic remains a classic of its genre, endlessly quoted till date. So is Murtala Mohammed’s fiery put-down of western powers over their meddling in Angola.
Yet it should be clear by now that the stunning eloquence, the verbal accomplishment and the grandiloquent grandstanding of our founding fathers sit greatly at odds with the revolting shambles of a nation they seem to have bequeathed succeeding generations of Nigerians.
How can men and women with such powerful imagination beget such a miserable and squalid nuisance? And how did such a supremely gifted country end up in the slough of despair and despondency, and with the current pedestrian rabble lording it over a hapless citizenry?
When all has been said, Nigeria is not an ordinary country. Nigeria is a profound tribute to the power of the colonial imagination and its self-subversive genius.
If Nigeria did not exist in the colonial imaginary, it would have had to be created as a post-colonial necessity and as the ultimate test for the black multitude.
The only other country that resembles Nigeria is the Belgian Congo, the hobbled central African giant. But Belgian Congo is not a willed creation but an instance of primitive seizure by King Leopold of Belgium.
While assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the leading presidential contenders of the Second Republic, Stanley Macebuh had noted that if Azikiwe were to be elected, eloquence and rhetoric would flourish again.
To many, it seemed an obscene and provocative affront. Yet Macebuh might have been stalking a bigger beast. Rhetoric does not feed a nation, but people do not also live by bread alone.
It has been noted that the great Zik was not a man of details, nor was he possessed of a practical transforming mind. But with his equable, even-tempered nature, such a figure could have been preserved as the ultimate symbol of national unity, dreaming great dreams in bold rhetorical brushes while leaving the practical business of transforming the country to visionary workmen.
Forty seven years later, the needed political restructuring which will allow Nigeria to optimise the complementary gifts of its various nationalities and their elite factions continue to elude the nation.
In the event, it is their worst vices and most vicious proclivities that are on national parade as coerced cohabitation produces its toxic pathologies.
Having failed the elementary test of nation-building, having found the colonial state an insurmountable monstrosity in all its alienating rigour, the political elite have taken refuge in the political equivalent of poetic license.
Put to callous work, poetic license thrives in feverish and fiendish plots against the nation, in cynical bonhomie. When he was accused of chopping money, the late SLA famously asked whether anybody’s grandfather could ever swallow coins. He rested his case.
It is the same imagination that produced the great speeches that also produced creative carpet crossing, historic embezzlements, clinical coups, annulment, the twelve two thirds legerdemain, sharia, misapplication of funds and digitalised rigging.
The result has been one of the more memorable hellholes of humanity. The Nigerian evil genius is at war with the genius of the Nigerian nation.
In many respects, contemporary Nigeria recalls pre-revolution Russia in all its momentous contradictions. To many perceptive observers of the era, it was a great irony that a nation roiling in miseries and subhuman degradation could also throw up the greatest literary artists of the century.
The country of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and Pushkin was also a country of appalling brutalities and inhuman suffering. Engels put it to the fact that economically backward nations could also play first violin. But the obverse of the coin is equally chilling.
When a resident diplomat of the period was asked what he thought the Russians did best, he sighed in wry exasperation and then exclaimed: “They steal!”
Perhaps, then, this is as good as any other time to return to the first principles of nation-building, to the foundation of social and political justice upon which great nations are built. It is time to restructure and to recreate Nigeria in order to properly harness the creative gifts and imaginative fecundity of its people.
While Nigerians continue to enjoy and lap up the verbal resourcefulness of its errant political leadership, other apparently less gifted African countries have moved ahead, devoting their creative resources to genuine nation-building.
They may not be throwing up potential Nobel laureates in literature, but they are building great harmonious communities out of the turbulent contradictions of colonial intrusions.
Unlike the tortured fabulations of the great but alienated artist, Ghana, Botswana, South Africa and perhaps Tanzania are concrete works of art in progress.
In the end, it is perhaps pre-revolution Russia that may yet provide the golden key to the Nigerian conundrum. In a brilliant, apocalyptic forage into the future, an ordinary Russian of the twenty first century was asked for the names of the Russian pre-revolution leaders.
“Weren’t these people minor political officials during the time of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky?” the bemused national replied. It is not unlikely that the same fate will overtake Nigerian leaders of this dismal period.
( First published on this page in October, 2007 to commemorate Nigeria’s independence anniversary)