A literature review exercise for an essay brought the tribe to memory. They were, indeed, a tribe, a tribe of intellectual hostage taking but in a critical and Afrocentric sense of that. They constituted a spectacle in the camp of their highest concentration – The Guardian of then or, if you like, Rutam House of yore.
The three were the marksmen but Dele Cole, Stanley Macebuh and Yemi Ogunbiyi were their more ‘mature’ co-conspirators or even guardian angels. It is difficult to decide who, between Dele Cole and Macebuh, the godfather was. Perhaps reading Macebuh’s tribute to Dele Giwa at the death of the latter may help sorting that out. It is debatable but it would be a hard to win debate if Macebuh unfolded as a philosopher better in any other of his newspaper level writing. Perhaps, The Guardian could help reprint the piece, not to wake up memories but to help a beleaguered society to reflect on itself through textual re-engagement.
But it was all in those years. These men are but all gone, not necessarily in the physical sense. Dele Cole still writes. The tragedy is that he doesn’t have a back page to himself where one could turn for a regular, consistent dose of his wager – structured interventions. How that could be the case at a time nearly everyone else is given a back page column is intriguing. Is it possible Dr Cole doesn’t want to tie himself down to a predictable outing, perhaps because age is no longer on his side? But his interventions at a very difficult time as Nigeria is passing through now are highly required. Until a retired ambassador forwarded one of his outings recently, one even thought he has quit writing.
Of course, Stanley Macebuh has gone to meet his ancestors and no one can reach him anymore. Those who need his healing touch can go back to the ancient Daily Times and his The Guardian years to fill up.
That leaves us with searching for the three left: Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Madubuike. Onwuchekwa Jemie wrote so much in those days but one’s first and the most unforgettable piece is the one on Thurgood Marshall upon Marshal’s nomination to the US Supreme Court. One was a student-reader then. He put the African-American judge in perspective in a manner that has stuck.
Madubuike was not in the newspaper world. He was known through his joint authorship of the book in the cover of this story. He must be on the quiet side of life because each time he was minister in 1979 and 1995, under Shagari and Abacha respectively, he managed to stay away from any major controversy, except if memories are failing now.
Of the three, Chinweizu was the most controversial. First of all, he bore no surname. It goes against the norm. Secondly, he made a career of shooting at Soyinka’s literary practice. That was within tradition of critical critique – subjecting any and everything that exists to further scrutiny. In Nigeria, however, tribe trumps criticism of any and everything. He alone didn’t seem to mind that an Igboman criticizing a Soyinka is an effort that would not be understood in the spirit in which he must have been doing that. He was simply relentless. Many of the series he ran were particularly vicious. In particular, the six installments on “What the Nobel is Not”. This ran from January 25th to the end of February 1987 in Vanguard. He had previously ran another series titled “Pan-Africanism and the Nobel Prize” in The Guardian. “The assassin as critic – Reply to Chinweizu (April 13th -27th 1987) was about the only major reply he got. It came from Femi Osofisan. The rest of the literati looked on as he tore the establishment into pieces in a roaring series: “Reflections on Nigerian literary culture” from Feb 16th to March 23rd, 1986 under the column, ‘From the Observatory’ in The Guardian.
It is not surprising the label Chinweiture was invented to capture his approach to matters literary. But it was not just Soyinka he irritated. He also irritated the members of the defunct Women-In-Nigeria, (WIN) who, among many others, thought he had no more than a superficial sense of the gender question as articulated in his book, Anatomy of Female Power.
The twist to this is the fact that, except Chinweizu, these people are all very much around. Wikipedia tells us that Ihechukwu Madubuike has metamorphosed into a traditional ruler back in his home state. And Onwuchekwa Jemie is with Lagos based BusinessDay. Chinweizu is certainly not dead but perhaps not as active as he used to be.
They might not have, individually and collectively, excited everyone with what they were doing but they were an exciting feature of the Nigerian intellectual space in those days. What happened that no such group appear to exist today or might exist but without that intellectual force to compel the nation to attention to their own voice? Is it the decline of intellectuals or the intellectual decline of Nigeria?
How did it happen that a generation of superbly educated elements who, individually and otherwise, raised the bar in every sphere of national life – from the arts to university life to political engineering, foreign policy, institution building – ended up consumed by a system no one can name? Chinweizu went to MIT, Jemie to Columbia University and Madubuike to Harvard or one of such status schools.
We are here talking of a troika in the arts, particularly fiction but they were all over the places. Fantastic civil servants typified by people who went to Oxford, (Ayida, Asiodu) or the University of Edinburgh, (Monguno); fantastic Vice-Chancellors, (Tamuno, Ade Ajayi, Oluwasanmi, Iya Abubakar), first class foreign policy operatives; the trade unionists; the professional associations such as the Nigerian Economic Society, radical activists (such as every president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities ever since), assertive Imams and priests radical, even traditional rulers and, of course, the media. So, what happened? Did they take things for granted?
Reading Asiodu’s biography suggests that that generation of well heeled civil servants did not take much for granted. They fought and asserted themselves as is clear in the language of the 2nd National Development Plan which they superintended. But it is their defeat, first in 1976 when they encountered ‘the purge’ and again in 1986 when they encountered neoliberalism we are gnashing our teeth over today. It has now been compounded by the reality of a central government in Nigeria that, however, has only a locational view of Nigeria. If you call it nepotism, na you sabi!
In the context of the search for a grand new beginning, questions about what might have happened are not borne out of ignorance but out of the need for another look at the past if such would yield new evidence!
In case you run into Chinweiture, sorry, Chinweizu or Jemie or Igwe Madubuike, let them know they are being missed. To expect a new edition of Towards the Decolonisation of African Literature in the current atmosphere in Nigeria might be to expect too much but how great would something like that have been for an Afrocentric discursive adventure in the wake of the de-colonial, multi-culturalism, cosmopolitanism, media globalisation and the ‘Clash of Civilisations’!