By Chris Anyokwu
One of the sources of Wole Soyinka’s enduring mystique and continuing relevance as a writer is the so-called alleged “private esotericism” and “obscurantist turgidities” of his style. He is, in a word, an “obscure” and “complex” writer whose style has continued to divide critical opinion, a hermeneutical hair-splitting which has, more fundamentally, shaped the direction of the critical discourse of contemporary African literature as a whole. Even so, as a free moral agent brim-full of agential possibilities, when Wole Soyinka, like England’s William Shakespeare, elects to speak home to his teeming base, he does do so really engagingly. Thus he was in his true element when he was composing the vitriolic comedy of manners, A Play of Giants, in which he creates an eternally memorable figure of fun and intellectual buffoonery in the character of Professor Batey. Who is Professor Batey in relation to the play’s Giants? What behaviour traits, what quirks of character or psycho-physiological features make him peculiar? And which of these anatomico-moral traits most forcefully endears him to the reader/listener? Is it his dress, gait, energy or mannerisms, which might be interpreted as indicative of craven obsequiousness and canine servility? Does Professor Batey dissolve into tears (a taboo for men in African societies!) in a bid to demonstrate beyond doubt his slavish loyalty to the Giants, who, in this instance, happen to be Africa’s men of power several seasons ago?
When Professor Batey is first introduced in A Play of Giants way into the dramatic action by no less a Falstaffian figure of bumbling but bulimic power-perversion than President-for-Life Kamini (read: Idi Amin Dada himself!), this is how Professor Batey introduces himself to the audience:
Batey: Let me save you the trouble Your Excellency, I know every one of their Excellencies, though I have not had the honour until now. Sirs, I cannot tell you … I am overwhelmed. I mean, all at once. When we tell them back in Hyacombe, no not just Hyacombe, when the entire nation gets to know this, that we were able, at one and the same time to shake hands with … I mean, to stand within the same four walls in the presence of … please, forgive me, I am a very emotional person… (He turns away, whipping out his handkerchief).
For us to properly get a hang of what is going on here, let us briefly clarify a few things. A university professor is a high-profile personality owing to his/her several decades of intense and rigorous academic research, teaching and community service. One might argue that it is only a General qua General or a Supreme Court Justice that comes close to the status of a professor. To be certain, in many instances, all it takes to land the nation’s top job as president is an uncommon access of bestiality to commit murder, yes, murder euphemistically mischaracterised as coup d’etat. This was what Blaise Campaore did to his erstwhile bosom friend and professional colleague, Thomas Sankara and toppled him in Burkina Faso. Nigeria’s chequered history of military dictatorship is no better. Transformed in a trice from a butcher of men to the President, the Giants in Soyinka’s play are literally revered and venerated as God incarnates. It is not inconceivable to imagine the illiterate dirt-poor masses fawning on these criminals-in-power. But a university professor? A person with an encyclopaedic mind who has attended many national and international learned conferences, published many peer-reviewed papers and books and produced many graduates and post-graduates including PhD holders?
What is it about power, political power specifically that reduces intellect to dust; that would make a man of stupendous knowledge caper about and grovel at the dirtied heels of temporal power? Is it for “daily bread”; the desire to share in the reflected aureole of power; to content oneself with the bling-bling of star-dust? Or is it simply down to the congenital insecurity lodged in the collective DNA of humankind as a whole? Doesn’t honour, personal integrity or self-respect come at all into the equation? We may, indeed, proliferate the Batey leitmotif to imbricate a whole menagerie of mimic-men of power, the apes and parrots of the men of the moment. They do not come bigger than Very Important Personalities (VIPs) who parade the corridors of power. They include the aides, associates, advisers to Mr Big Stuff! Ministers, Commissioners, ambassadors, chiefs of staff and other VIPs make up the glittering galaxy of mimicry. How do we know them? By their costuming, of course! Take dressing, for instance. If their principal has patented a white dress in order to mask their ghoulish character, they themselves would forswear black or any other colour of dress. Not even for their spouse’s funeral! It doesn’t matter the occasion, they would put on a white outfit complete with white footwear, white cap, white moustache and a white walking-stick! They would also mimic the leader’s scowl, his hairstyle and gait to boot. How about their principal’s speech pattern? Oh, you bet these armies of clones and cronies would commit “suicide” of a sort just to inherit their “god’s” pet phrases, wise-cracks, wittisms as well as their trademark proverb (“Nobody can clap with one hand”; “You can’t shave a man’s head in his absence” and suchlike drivel!)
The story is told of a man of God, once upon a time, who used to retire to a forest to pray. Whilst there surrounded by fearsome flora and fauna, the Pastor would be swatting off swarms of mosquitoes with both hands in the heat of prayer. Curiously enough, his congregants had taken after him. Whenever they themselves were praying in church, everyone would be slapping and pummelling him/herself! Today, should you run into any Christian brother or sister in the street or on a bus or in a market, it is quite easy to divine their denomination by just listening to them or observing their mannerisms. These are mimic-men/women of their GOs and Mummy GOs. They suffer, unbeknownst to them, the erasure of personal identity in the universalising penumbra of (episcopal) power. Yet, this is not the daily self-dying that Apostle Paul recommends in his Epistles.
This brings us to the second category of mimic-men (and women) which makes power tick: these are the vast majorities of the hoi polloi, the everlasting sufferers of misrule and bad leadership. They include journalists, traders, market people, musicians and Nollywood actors and actresses. Some of them may be found among our tertiary institutions of learning such as Student Union leaders, who, for a mess of porridge, would cause commotion and disturb the peace for the Godfather. These sophomoric student leaders would go to the extent of tricking themselves out in a look-alike outfit of their leader in town, complete with their cap and lasses! Even their school-mates would hail them in the name of the Big Masquerade, and, like Achebe’s Chief Nanga, they would be lapping it all up.
When it comes to generalised mimicry, a section of the press domiciled in a certain region of the country always chooses to see no evil, say no evil or publish no evil vis-à-vis a particular political candidate who happens to hail from that region. It doesn’t matter if such candidate carries an egregiously crushing baggage or is a tissue of multiple fabrications or a past master of slush and sleaze, what you encounter, execrably, is a conspiracy of studied silence. Or, in most cases, some paid pipers and social media consultants in the politician’s pay would seek to drown out the truth by their gung-ho, equal-opportunity blitzkrieg. For these media aficionados of untruth, politics is war by other means. And, as they say, all’s fair in war and in love. It is among these media warriors that you would find the pseudo-intellectuals who are content to put his so-called intellectual armada at the service of the man of power. Hence, Niyi Osundare in his poem captioned “Returning Don”, quips: “Welcome back/from those frantic antics/ in the bedchambers of power/welcome back/to our crumbing tower” (A Nib in the Pond, p. 44)
In the light of the foregoing excursus, the practice of drafting into casualised labour university dons and professors during election periods as INEC’s Resident Electoral Commissioners, Electoral Officers, Returning Officers, Collation Officers, among others, has become worrisome.
Sequel to the final demystification and virtual emasculation of the ASUU by the federal government, it has become a matter of life and death, professionally speaking, for the ASUU to take a principled stand regarding the periodic “poaching” of its crème de la crème and the resultant collective self-defenestration. It is tragic how the Nigeria Ivory Tower has been pulverised by the gangrenous feet of the pachyderm! Time for rebuilding the House of Books is NOW! There is no gainsaying the fact that the powers-that-should-not-be have cornered ALL our wealth to themselves and with the consequent weaponisation of poverty, everyone is at their beck-and-call. Thus, power as Santa Claus or dowager of largesse dole out preferment and patronage in the form of plum jobs, contracts, connections, positions in government’s ministries, departments and agencies, in the corporate world, in the academia, the media, the diplomatic circle, inter alia. For the oceanic tide of the disinherited masses, stomach infrastructure comes to the rescue. As we speak, trailer-loads of bags of foodstuffs such as rice, beans, millet, sugar, indomie noodles and yam branded with party logos and the beaming faces of power, are being ferried around the length and breadth of the country. Hungry citizens are waiting in front of their houses with their begging-bowls in hand. They are also busy mortgaging their own and their children’s futures for the tokenist hand-outs of N10,000 or N50,000 politicians are doling out to them. Even the amoral street is not left out: agberos and area-boys (street toughs) are experiencing a good time as politicians are supplying them with hemp, strong drink, drugs, money, charms, and, in some cases, weapons! Under this arrangement, rogue elements of the street are in cahoots with goons of power and privilege to foist a “calamity” upon the people!
As the February 2023 presidential election draws closer, all the mimic-men and women of power now go for broke; all of them desperate to help their principals win the election, particularly through illegal and unlawful means. For a nation reduced through decades of absence of leadership to a colony of beggars, what would the hungry and the greedy alike not do for the dough?
• Anyokwu is Professor of English, University of Lagos