Concluding the Prof Chimalum Nwankwo interview is this installment, the first installment of which ran under the header: “The More Unstable Nigeria is, the Better for the West – Prof Chimalum Nwankwo. If the first part was provocatively accusatory, this part is what crisis managers would call an Early Warning. That is Early Warning served on religious leaders, the power elite and thinkers across Africa on the existential implications of the eschatological divide in the African world outlook in the face of not just ‘Western metaphysics’ but also of rising China. In all, the totality of the interview fits the label of what those uncomfortable with what is different would like to call controversial although a more appropriate word would be ‘contentious’. Controversial or contentious would all seem fitting and applicable to Prof Nwankwo. He has been used to asserting himself on principles.
The interview was over before Intervention came by this particular story and it was thus out of it asking Prof Nwankwo if it happened. However, Intervention was authoritatively told that Prof Nwankwo once got Chairs of departments and Deans of the North Carolina A & T University at Greensboro where he was teaching in the United State to drop a decision to invite General Colin Powel, former US Secretary of State under George Walker Bush. The different academic heads of the university had endorsed Powel’s nomination as Convocation Speaker at a meeting attended by all Chairs and Deans. Then Chimalum raised his hands to speak, a voice everyone was eager to listen to: what is a black academic going to say on a top black state official. Anyway, the only dissenter was obliged the floor only to say that the former black Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff from the Caribbean was unfit to be allowed the privilege of a platform at a historically black university. Chimalum’s argument is that Powel offended everything that somebody of his background could offend by accepting and carrying out official instruction to walk out of the session on ‘Racism in the United States’ at the 2001 World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa to which Powel led the US delegation as the then Secretary of State. It is understood there was dead silence in the hall. At the end of the day, Prof Nwankwo had wrecked the planned invitation as the university rescinded the decision to invite Powel, the same fate that befell Condoleezza Rice in another circumstance on the same subject matter.
In the United States public sphere, the spirit of Nwankwo’s critical attitude is well understood and neither Powel nor any other objects of such attacks is going to go about alleging any hidden agenda. In Nigeria, however, Prof Chimalum would hardly escape charges of hatred or jealousy or some such nonsense.
Contentious as he might be though, very few would see him as anything else but a real scholar and a vicar of the mandate of knowledge. This is though not to be taken for granted. For, as a Professor of Literature in a first generation Nigerian university asked after reading the first installment, “will the Nigerian intelligentsia understand him?
You have identified and illustrated instrumental reasoning with some recent excesses of the West in what was done to Gaddafi, for example. You can be said to be in agreement with what the Frankfurt Scholars first and later, the French 7 have been saying. Don’t we have an answer to Western instrumental reasoning in what these scholars are saying? That’s what I had in mind when I mentioned Derrida earlier on.
Yes, you have mentioned Derrida before but when Derrida inflicted Deconstruction on the French academy, it didn’t just go like that. A French president, (if I check carefully, I will get his name) threatened to ban philosophy in the same way they do it in ‘Third World’ countries. And the theory had to be adjusted to fit into the understanding of culture and development in France. The proponents adjusted the theory. Deconstruction is almost anarchistic if you want to follow it the way it was classically presented. You can deconstruct ad infinitum in which case you no longer have values or no values will endure. We know that from the old Hegelian paradigm of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. We know that there is a way you follow life and it becomes anarchistic. And Deconstruction tended towards that. So, when they knew the Government was watching, they adjusted the theory to make it more pragmatic in order to save departments of Philosophy. Now, let me give you an example of what I am talking about. When you deconstruct an Igbo proverb, what do you have?
You unveil the hidden power relations in the narrative because Deconstruction would be more interested in whose proverb it is than in what the proverb might be all about.
You see! You deconstruct a proverb, you make the wisdom from it useless. The wisdom from the proverb!
The assumption is that the wisdom that has been deconstructed and exposed represents the wisdom of a particular interest.
Yes, if it does not represent a particular interest, so what do we have as a replacement?
What we have is a new narrative and, by implication, a new power relationship.
But if you say this proverb is blemished because of the interest it represents, you are suggesting that a new interest may emerge.
Yes, a new interest emerging is the goal. That is why, without deconstruction, the world might as well still be grappling with the ‘Devine right of kings’ or some after snuff wisdom of some elders
The new interest is nihilistic.
The deconstructive exercise illuminates the power relations hidden in every wisdom or proverb and research has shown that all such power relations are against the underclass, women, so-called slaves and the Global South and so on. So, every deconstructive exercise is, somehow, a destabilising move. It may be nihilistic but in a profoundly democratic sense
I understand the democracy in that because to deconstruct a proverb, you have to identify who constructed or produced the proverb. But, there is a problem. Now, if it is a woman’s proverb and you fault the proverb, there is a problem because the woman or women will suspect that you are deconstructing because it is not a man. If it is a man’s proverb you deconstruct, you are creating a problem for the woman. That’s what the French cultural argument was. Where does Deconstruction stop? You deconstruct ad infinitum. That is a crisis in its own. Look at what I quoted for you from what the Existentialists are saying: if A is null and void, then Z is also null and void. So, where are we? We are in the modern and the modern has a new set of values, again now dependent on the Master.
Ok, would you be ready to dismiss the main criticism Deconstruction levels against modernism? That is the argument that the notion of man as definer of all things based on modernist thinking and its logic of reason, facts, science and progress has brought all the crises of imperialism, colonialism, world wars, mass atrocities such as the Holocaust and even the disaster that befell Socialism because Marxism could not escape the limits of modernist rationalism.
I answered this question in my seminar paper. I said I am invoking Weber, Marx Weber who projected the possibility of a de-charismatised world. How can you de-charismatise the world without giving people an alternative to the fear of death, for example? I am afraid of dying, being put in a box and put in the ground. The more I think of God, the more hopeful and surer I am. Life is sweeter with the hope of Heaven! Can you imagine that? You tell me to leave God alone and to hold onto to what?
So, I said that Max Weber got it wrong there as the effort to remove God from the affairs of man has not worked. Weber is wrong there but, having said that, is it not important for Africa to start reflecting on other things that are happening in the world? In fact, I am predicting that when the conquest of space gets to a certain level, the world will become, by compulsion, de-charismatised. If people know they can travel to Mars or Pluto and stay there, I think they will be thinking of that. Who knows whether people do not die there, probably because of the air? You then won’t believe anymore that if you are possessed and you go to TB Joshua, his visions will save you. Instead, you will be thinking like, if I can make something like 200 or 300 Thousand Naira and follow those going to Mars or Pluto, I would have no problems. So, you concentrate on raising that amount. That’s my prediction of what would happen after the on-going conquest of space reaches a reasonable level.
It seems we are coming back to the question of whether there isn’t an inbuilt ‘Clash of Civilisations’ after all between Africa and the other different civilisations?
The whole thing you have to look at carefully, again relates to what I said earlier. As some of my friends in Philosophy say, the West is anthropocentric. They don’t share Africa’s pan-psychic characterisation of the world we live in. That pan-psychic premise creates for us or generates in our consciousness an expansive eschatology for human destiny. That is, the end of things does not exist for the traditional African. Whether they say there is Judgment Day or no Judgment Day does not concern the traditional African. Traditional African believes in going somewhere, in joining the ancestors somewhere. No matter how you try to convince the village man who believes in all these, you are wasting your time. He is concerned about going to the ancestral home. They have debunked that notion of a Heavenly place where we shall meet and part no more as you say at these funerals. There is no such thing for them, meaning that there is a division between the traditional Africans and the African elites.
If you recognise competing African narratives of the mystery of God, why would you not accept Deconstruction theory and technique?
No! No!! No!!! I am talking about Deconstruction in pragmatic terms where it is flawed in terms of acceptability. That’s what I am talking about. I am not saying that Derrida is crazy. No, I am not saying that. I am saying that Derrida, like Max Weber, forgets certain things. In the case of Weber, he forgets that we are afraid of dying. If you de-charismatise the world, what is the alternative to that fear? We don’t have that alternative yet. That’s why I told you that it is only when space is conquered reasonably, or when we can go to another planet and say hey, here is a new home, then something will give. Look at Elon Musk who is projecting the next space adventure in terms of hundreds of planes going to form a colony or colonies up there and saying, hey, forget about insurance because you may not come back. Somebody is saying you may not come back. The implication is very clear to everyone. If you may not come back, it suggests that there may be something there which might be preferable to this place
Not that they will all die there
No. Not that they will all die there. The white man is always, eh, sometimes I look at myself as an African and say, may be these guys are right in what they are thinking. If they can project that kind of future for humanity, who knows, they may just be right? What if they get there and say nobody else should come in, then you start accusing them of racism, imperialism. If they get there and find a planet or make it habitable, you start accusing them: they are racist, they don’t want others to share. What are you doing yourself? What are you doing?
Yea but critics would say that they stole our capacity to modernise and to compete
That is part of the animal kingdom thing which I mentioned. Where are we in the ladder of the animal kingdom and what are you doing? I went to a conference somewhere and one white man was standing behind us. It was one of those radical conferences in Pennsylvania in 1994. Text and Context was the subject of the conference. We were discussing Africa in the light of imperialism and colonialism. And there was a break and the white man said, I have been listening to you with great interest and I wonder if I could ask you a question. What is it that makes people susceptible to intimidation and colonisation? It is an entrapping question. It turned out that that was the president of the university curious about what we were discussing. Look, you are not the owner of this house but you kicked the door open and pull a gun and said, if I do not behave the way you want throughout the time you will stay here, you will kill me and I agree, to save my life and then you to take over. Who is to blame in the end? Who is to blame? I blame you or blame myself? A guy watching the drama from outside would say this guy is an idiot. Can’t he at least watch the intruder so that when he is sleeping, break his head, retake the gun and recover your house? So, the blame is on the guy who lost out too easily. That’s what the man was suggesting. Why did you allow it to happen? That’s the question. Why did you allow yourself to be colonised and now you are speaking grammar all over the place, alleging racism and colonialism? And that is what we are still allowing to happen today.
But many would say that Achebe has answered that question through Obierika, the philosopher in Things Fall Apart who talked about how the white man was so clever by interrupting Africa through divide and rule. In reporting developments at home to exiled Okonkwo, Obierika said the white man had put a knife to the things that united the community and turned their own against them and they could no longer fight.
Where were you? Where were you?
When they were putting the knife? The natives thought they were foolish, that their gods would fight for them
It now turned out that we were the foolish one. What they were doing was witch hunting. But we were the fools, not the colonizers.
Yes, it turned out so
That is the problem which we have to solve today and tomorrow. Oh, the white man is controlling Buhari and his friends, but what are you doing about that? What are you doing if you make that kind of argument?
But you have responded to that already. They will produce discourses, use what we call the power of words in International Relations –label whoever is seen to stand on the way of hegemonic agenda in a way that sounds believable. Talking to an average Nigerian, you will learn they believe Gaddafi was a mad man who deserved to be killed
That’s right. It is the same attitude which you referred to in Obierika. I said I went into a conversation with a Professor of Political Science at the University of … (name withheld). I can’t remember what we were discussing and he said, oh, Gaddafi was a mad man. I said, based on what? He said, Chimalum, leave that thing, he was a mad man. I said he is a mad man? Have you read about the Jamahiriya, he said no. Have you read the Green Book, he said no. Then on what bases did you come to the conclusion that he was a mad man if you don’t know the texts of his ideology and politics? Nothing and you are a Professor of Political Science!
Few would disagree that social theory and methodology have crashed in the social sciences in Nigerian universities. Many of us are still talking of dependent and independent variables and things like that in contrast to Prof John Mearsheimer going to the University of Aberystwyth in 2016 and saying he could count positivists in Europe on his finger tips. The question is how might we restore the pre-SAP era Nigerian universities?
I don’t have any solution for it unless people begin to revisit some of the reasons these things happen. Some of the very good ones out of the graduates we produce in Nigeria can melt into the system outside the country and fit in there. A large number of them here melt with the status quo. They do not think of innovation. They just fall in line with what is happening which is quite sad and culturally dangerous.
But you cannot really throw your hands up. Human society is dynamic and things change in subtle fashion, rarely in fell swoop fashion. When I was a young PhD at the University of Nigeria, (UNN), I was predicting it is possible to have something like Nollywood. I was also teaching Dramatic Arts. I said this around 1984. They thought it was impossible. Then I left. I came back much, much later in the 1990s and Nollywood is a reality. It is just to learn to tap into your cultural system and evolve something that is either different or comparative. You may not get it right immediately or have it straight away at the intellectual level but the old saying prevails. But it is possible to gradually develop into to a certain level of capability. As I said, it is bad and culturally dangerous not to have the foundation. That is why sometimes, friends complain that what I do is too radical. I said no, if you shake things up, you get results. If you push people u a bit, they rise better to the challenges.
What would China bring to this clash between Africa and its others, especially with the commotion in Africa going out of control?
China’s competitors in Africa, especially the United States are worried about China because it is a counterweight against whatever they are planning about Africa. They are challenging Chinese presence. My American friends ask me: what is China seeking in Africa? And I say to them that what they were doing is what China is doing. But they are frightened by Chinese style. Chinese don’t come to Africa as masters and superiors. They come as business people. In business, you sell yourself.
So, what is the likely future of China in Africa?
They want friendship based on what the West has ever got from the continent but they are not looking at you condescendingly. In fact, they look at you as equal partners. Look at what they are trying to do in “Dance Africa” – getting their film industry to learn from our film industry and vice-versa. That is the kind of thing we want as against the dependency the West encourages and promotes, preferring you to go to them cap in hand. And then they send you experts and the experts know they don’t even understand the culture. The Chinese are closer to the culture in Africa culturally because they have the same cultural setting.
So, is it that those fearful of stronger racist attitude from the Chinese have got it all wrong?
Racism is what it is everywhere. If you go to America and you get into Nollywood and you are a billionaire, nobody cares where you come from. Go and ask the people in Performing Arts, Entertainment and so on. Look, let’s face it. When a villager walks into your private room, would you honestly say you are not worried? You cannot say so. Rather, you are worried because the way you treat your property is not the way a villager will treat your property whose value s/he doesn’t know. Let me see if I can make this clearer.
When my daughter was working in Lagos, she was chosen by one of these TV houses to receive American celebrities – Jay-Z, Beyoncé and, what’s that girl that play Piano and others. My daughter was exposed to them in America because, at a time, they all went to Paris for a film festival before she came to work for Reddington Hospital. Reddington made her the nurse in charge of foreign patients, exploiting her American accent. But while there, she started writing for ThisDay on health and style. Ijeoma Nwankwo. She is my daughter. What I am trying to illustrate is that, at that point, she could see people in the world which a village girl cannot relate to. It is just like when some of your secondary school mates see you, they feel uncomfortable if they don’t have the same level of education with you. They are worried. If you are not careful, they stay away stay away from you because there is a gap.
There is this undeclared debate about which, between Literature and Political Science, has done more for the African cause. Where would you stand on that debate?
You see, the whole thing is that Literature is more contextual in its presentation. I can tell a young student to read Things Fall Apart but you can’t tell a young person in Political Science to go and read Karl Marx. Literature has greater immediacy in impact. Here is my best example I use to give. We had an outreach program when I was a Professor at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh. I went to teach at a Middle School, the equivalent of our JSS in Nigeria. I had finished teaching Things Fall Apart and one student jumped up and said, Dr. Chima, I don’t understand you Africans. You Africans must be stupid. You see, the white man came to Africa and seized all the properties, land and everything and you let him go. You should have helped Okonkwo to cut off the heads of the colonial intruders. That’s what white people do all over the world, they go all over the place stealing people’s wealth and property. Very strong words from a student in a class in which the average age is 14. The teacher was shouting shut up! Shut up, shut up!!!
If you go to such a class and teach Marx, they won’t understand you that quickly. The most basic you can go is to say Marx is projecting a conflict between the haves and the have-nots. And many students will be openly or silently be thinking, well, my dad is rich and I don’t know what you are talking about.
Ok, there was even an undergraduate class I taught a Marxist text or a novel which could be classified as Marxist in orientation. And I start my class asking. Somebody asks me: can you explain to the class your basic understanding of communism? Is it that bad system where people take money from the rich and give to the poor?
That’s their interpretation
Yes. In the class, they are already seeing you as a bad guy bringing that thing to the class. Literature is more innocuous. And you don’t know what Literature is doing. It does it quietly and more successfully and is more accepted in that than some of the other disciplines you are talking about. That’s my sense of it.
One more question and we are done at last. How much promise can you see in popular culture and the liberation of Africa? Nollywood is all over the place. We have just mentioned Literature. The media is something else. All these make popular culture a seemingly formidable force.
That’s a very, very good question which I have responded to in other places. I even tell my friends these areas are more effective in the case of African liberation. But the problem which we have is that those who control the industry are not as intellectually sophisticated as they should be. I will give you an example. In many of the films you watch, whenever there is a conflict of culture, Holy Ghost fire prevails over the native doctor. It is simplistic and dangerous because there is a propaganda there in favour of the non-African values. The native doctor is seen as devilish, without any efficacy. So, the film makers are saying that Africa’s others are better. That’s my response to that.
That compels me to ask one more question and that is to go back to what we already talked about – the quality of the departments of Dramatic or Theatre Arts from which the producers come, meaning that we are back to the crisis of a decrepit national university system
Yes, you can ask me any questions. Yes, the universities were producing more intellectually sound graduates. There is no doubt about that. Now, there is a drop in the quality of graduates. Very simple! That’s what is going on.
Thanks very much, Prof. It has been a long interview
It is a pleasure talking to you!