The TRUE AFRICA 100 is our list of innovators, opinion-formers, game-changers, pioneers, dreamers and mavericks who we feel are shaping the Africa of today.
Chigozie Obioma is a writer from Nigeria. Currently living in the United States, he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year and won the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Award for Fiction.
Which cultural movements coming out of Africa are you most excited by at the moment?
I’d love to think more in terms of life development, rather than culture. Too many people are struggling to survive across Africa. In Nigeria, for instance, I know way too many people who have wasted their time going to school for two decades or more and now are doing nothing. Nothing.
So, I’m much more excited because of the financial markets that seem to be rising. A few banks in Nigeria are becoming more and more competitive on the international stage, providing more varied services and employment to people. But we desperately need more! This is what excites me most.
Fiction has a way of refining people, of birthing empathy within the souls of those who engage in it.
Second, of course, is the writing. Good writing is coming out of Africa and I think this will get the people interested in reading for pleasure again. Fiction has a way of refining people, of birthingempathy within the souls of those who engage in it.
I strongly believe that the more people read, the more they engage with books, the less their inclination to cheat another person would be and the less potent the damaging corruption that continues to spout its retrogressive ink on nations will be.
You have talked about Nigeria as a ‘country that has failed’ and that is ‘unsustainable’. What do you mean by this and what can be done about it?
One of the tragedies of colonial states is that they do not know how much their provenance has impacted their sustainability. Nigeria’s troubles can be traced to its provenance. Political scientist Mostafa Rajai and other theorists have long held that a country must form a national identity before forming political authority.
This was the case with most European nations after the Second World War. The French became the French people first, then, the Republic of France. But for Nigeria, this happened in reverse: the country was formed first, and then the people became its citizens.
Amongst Nigerians, tribal allegiances (or what Nigerians refer to as their ‘actual nations’) still remain significantly stronger than allegiance to the nation.
Once the British thrust sovereign political authority into the hands of the early politicians, they made efforts to build a national identity. But it was too late. Tribal identities quickly sprang to the fore, stoking up distrust, and within six years of independence from Britain, the national unity fostered by the British gave way to ethnic strife. Amongst Nigerians, tribal allegiances (or what Nigerians refer to as their ‘actual nations’) still remain significantly stronger than allegiance to the nation.
But this is not solely the problem of the Nigerian; it is an Africa-wide thing. The idea of nation-states is foreign to the African. The Westerner thinks of himself first as an American before Nebraskan. Or, both are inseparably fixed in his mind. But it is not so with the typical African. He sees himself first as an Igbo or Tutsi before anything else. It is why these structures, these very Western structures are so fragile in Africa, while in the West they are firm.
I’m convinced we need something that is authentically African, blended into something modern.
The result is that African states will not be sustainable across the continent for many, many years to come. Too many variables will be needed to engineer the change. And this is just one element of things that I think makes Nigeria unsustainable. There are so many other elements, but mostly, it all comes down to Africans trying to imbibe something that is wholly and completely foreign and be sustained by it. This will require very much to do. I don’t even know what to compare this transformation to: a perennial hedonist becoming a chaste catholic priest, maybe.
But a more drastic solution would be to find a way to restructure African states in such a way that we can understand it and that it can work for us. It might sound like the middle ages, but I can tell you that if, for instance, we scrape state governments in Nigeria, and rule the provinces in say, Yoruba land, by Obas, things will be better. The people, believing this is the voice of their ancestors and in the shamanic powers that back him, will live by his prescribed principles much more than they would someone whose powers do not rest on something they revere. This is just an example.
Across Africa, the Western nation-state system and democracies have been unsustainable.
And in the north, around Sokoto where the Sultan is seen as the voice of both the tradition and the religion, vested state powers would be much more effective. On the whole, I’m convinced we need something that is authentically African, blended into something modern to form a unique way of life that we can understand and actually practice. Across Africa, the Western nation-state system and democracies have been unsustainable.
Who’s your African of the year?
Goodluck Jonathan. I was saying it long before it happened that compared to all those Nigeria has had in the past, Mr Jonathan was an angel. Most of our past leaders were heinously corrupt. They ransacked the country, some of them. While this man too may have been corrupt, and undeniably weak in terms of his handling of the military, and uncharismatic in his capacity as a leader.
He was nonetheless much more selfless than many African leaders and lacking the domineering spirit that is often characteristic of them. This played out in his being the first person to concede defeat in an election in Nigeria’s history.
It is rare that this happens, so rare that even local government elections often end in court cases. But this guy conceded defeat in a presidential election. It just doesn’t happen in a place where people hardly see electoral offices as positions of service, but rather, as personal offices.
Follow Chigozie Obioma on Twitter @ChigozieObioma
Find out more about Chigozie on chigozieobioma.com
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