Change beyond the text: Appraising the Nigerian writer


The thrust of this essay is to examine the role of the writer in the society with regard to Nigeria. Indeed, there are varied opinions on this subject from writers and critics as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo,J.P Clark, Kolawole Ogungbesan and others in Nigeria and elsewhere. However, since some of the expressed opinions miss the point and even those correct have done little or nothing to convince many writers to practically bring about the change result needed in the ever worsening situation of the Nigerian society, discussion on this subject is not yet closed, hence the need for this essay.

During the emergence of modern African Literature, prominent among the discussions that prevailed amongst African writers in defining this body of writing were the following on the writer and the society: Does the writer have a role to play in the society? If so, what is his or her role? If a writer engages in political activism to bring about change in the society, should such a role still be seen as the writer’s?

Expressing his view on this in an essay, ´The Modern Writer and Commitment’ by way of  berating Chinua Achebe for his literary stance in a lecture in 1965, Kolawole Ogungbesan says ´it is a betrayal of art for the writer to put his writing at the service of a cause, even if it is such a laudable and uncontroversial cause as the ´´education´´ of the people’(7).Prior to this in the article,he says: ´there will always be many issues which threaten to turn the writer away from a complete commitment to art’(6).But lest he be thought advocating the doctrine of art for art’s sake, Ogungbesan goes on to say ´this is not to say that it is the duty of the writer to ignore the social and political issues of the day’(6).Despite the carefulness of his argument, it is all too clear not only in the part quoted here but in the entire essay that Ogungbesan persuades writers to embrace the idea of art for art’s sake, as he thinks that writers’ prime concern should be with their art and not with social and political issues. In fact, in another essay, ´Literature and Society in West Africa’, Ogungbesan is even more assertive when he warns: ´writers who link their worlds too closely with the contemporary social and political milieu run the risk of being outdated’ (30). However, it is instructive to note that, as with a great many human undertaking, every peoples’ artistic engagement especially African has usefulness, however marginal. Even if a poem merely celebrates the moon or a painting on canvass only extols a pastoral idyll but succeeds in eliciting feelings of happiness from the reader especially when he/she is sad, the utility of art and literature is thus evident. In other words, literature exists to serve human needs—both of pleasure and of education. For as Chinua Achebe, one of the excellent minds of the 20th Century literary establishment, known for his incisive dissemination of information, asserts in his essay, ´Africa and her Writers’:

Our ancestors created their myths and legends and told their stories for a human purpose(including, no doubt, the excitation of wonder and pure delight);they made their sculptures in wood and terracotta, stone and bronze to serve the needs of their times. Their artists lived and moved and had their being in society, and created their works for the good of that society(19).

Literature, then, absolutely has social and political impact and writers

who link their worlds very closely with the contemporary social and political milieu do not run the risk of being outdated! For there is the energetic Wole Soyinka, whose entire oeuvre is steeped in the social and political issues of Nigeria since 1960.And, even from ‘his alleged seizure of the tape of a speech by the Akintola Government and substituting it with one he called ´´the voice of the people´´ asking Akintola to´´get out´´(13);from having ´suffered incarceration and military confinement in  various Nigerian gaols for more than two years (1967-1969)´(9)when he tried to stop the Nigerian Civil war in 1967 ´on allegations that he tried to help Biafrans in their rebellion against the Federation´(9),as Olu Obafemi informs, to being involved in protest marches against one form of anomaly or other in the national polity, Soyinka has remained to this day a literary force to reckon with in Nigerian, African and world letters. He has also shown through his political activism that writers have conscience, witness to truth, live by their convictions, desperately seek to right a wrong, that literature should be harnessed in practical and concrete ways to better society and that writers, through leading by example, can show that literature is capable of transforming individuals to effect change in the society.

But Soyinka’s stance does not go unchallenged by some of his contemporaries, one of whom is the Ghanaian, Kofi Awoonor, who contends that

Wole is taking a militant position on politics now and he is                                                                                                                                 coming off with a lot of deliriously committed political statements. He sees the artist and therefore sees himself, as a man who leads the army of the revolution into the promised land. I would argue that I have a right to refuse to lead my people anywhere, because I don’t even know my people except as everyman in that artistic sense. Well, we will seize our radio stations and we will defy the systems of law in the courts and be tried for treason, etc. These actions cannot be confused with art. They will not be a substitute for artistic creation itself (qtd in Apronti,80-81).

Oddly enough, a writer who lacks the vision and passion to make a change, who, in fact, has set a limit for himself, disagrees with another expressing antithetical liberty as him! But, again, Awoonor is not alone in thinking so as J.P Clark argues similarly:

…it seems to me that people are creating for the writer an almost superstitious role which I find unbearable, as if he were a special kind of human being who has certain duties, functions, privileges mystically set apart from other human beings. I don’t at all assume that kind of romantic position. I’m not impressed with the social or political life a poet leads outside of his profession if he doesn’t produce poems. He is a poet because he composes poetry; he is a playwright because he writes plays, not because he is out killing people or getting himself killed. That is a different role entirely, one for another type of citizen, I mean a soldier (qtd in Asein,109).

Thus, both Awoonor and Clark are agreed that by engaging in political activism, writers do what they should not do. Even, they deride their fellows for this. But how these two fail so completely to see that a writer is first of all a human being as others who, though frail, has passion for truth, justice, beauty, has self-worth and so must not be discouraged if he or she seeks to make the society in which he lives habitable outside of artistic expression remains a wonder! Happily, while Awoonor may be unrepentant about his expressed view, or Clark peacefully changed course (as will be seen later), it is interesting to find that the eminent Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, who had expressed a similar view when he said: ´the writer in Africa doesn’t have any function. …I have no function as a writer’(105), moved so far away from this position that during the Nigerian/Biafran war he enlisted in the army fighting on the side of Biafra against Nigeria and was killed. In fact, it is fascinating how Ezechi Onyerionwu, a vibrant new Nigerian critic, enthused about Okigbo:

If the world thought that Okigbo’s romanticizing had come to a head when he divorced his wife over the telephone(in obvious pursuit of a poet’s vision of life!),it was stunned cold when he went ahead to drop the pen for the gun during the Nigerian/Biafran war, and paid the supreme price in the bid to put flesh on the framework of his poetry(227).

True, not every writer naturally has a bent for changing society in the violent manner of  Okigbo or of  rugged Soyinka. But all Nigerian writers can and should engage in as much practical ways as match their temperaments to bring about change in Nigeria. For example, Nigerian writers can come together and make efforts to relieve poverty from among the poor that have been very much a subject of their literary discourse. Nigerian writers can also come together especially now that the country is under the stranglehold of jihadist terrorists called Boko Haram and, being highly noble and imaginative, persuade as well as proffer solutions to the Federal Government that would bring an end to this social malaise. For one of the benefits of literature is as Terry Eagleton conceived it, saying:

[What] it means to be a better person, then, must be concrete and practical–that is to say, concerned with people’s political situations as a whole—rather than narrowly abstract, concerned only with the immediately interpersonal relations which can be abstracted from this concrete whole. It must be a question of political and not only of ´moral’ argument: this is to say, it must be genuine moral  argument, which sees the relations between individual qualities and values and our whole material conditions of existence(qtd in Ile, 100).

In an article in a national daily, Saturday Sun, entitled ´Literature and Conflict Resolution in Nigeria’, a proponent of the ideological posturing of conflict resolution and how literature can be made to become practically useful, James Ileh (sic), from Nigerian Turkish Nile University, Abuja, fully subscribes to this idea when he states that

[…] since the information in Nigerian texts is a carrier of knowledge, the scholar/critic should also be able to appropriate the information in them and transform them into knowledge—knowledge of the Nigerian condition, the corruption, injustice and ethnic conflicts—and then transform that knowledge into action; for example the resolution of the ethnic conflicts. Trying to resolve the Nigerian ethnic conflicts is an effort to make a change. Therefore, the scholar/critic should be able to manage the change (38).

Contemporary Nigerian writers are also scholars/critics. Unfortunately, the change they seek to make has not had impact beyond the text as only a few of them have actually transformed their knowledge into action. In fact, this is most representative in the way Nigerian writers under the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) have carried on with their affairs. If one has at least attended two ANA conventions then one knows exactly what is implicit in the foregoing—ANA convention is just an annual ceremony when writers exchange pleasantries, theorize about the problems of society, buy books, win awards and contest elections at the close of an administration of the association!

What this means is that Nigerian writers have been selfishly occupied nursing their writing career thereby disregarding the plight of Nigeria about which they pay lip-service. There is strength in number and oneness. So if ANA and other Nigerian writers under different guilds such as Abuja Literary Society (including, no doubt, student-writers associations across our universities like Writers’ League in Benue State University) come together and take practical actions in deciding the fate of their country as has already been thrown into sharp relief, change must be experienced in Nigeria. Nigerian writers must stop being selfishly concerned with pursuing their career. They must realize that identifying selflessly with the problems of their society would rather make them successful writers as the history of literary production in Nigeria has shown that the most accomplished Nigerian writers are those who have genuinely hated the imbalance in the national polity and have sought to correct it, even outside the artistic domain. Even JP Clark,whose  already quoted view is diametrically opposed to the foregoing, once sought change outside of art. For Soyinka details in his very lengthy, revealing and qualitative memoirs, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, that when General Mamman Vatsa, the poet-soldier and bosom friend of General Ibrahim Babangida, then Head of State , was accused of masterminding his friend’s overthrow, found guilty and was to die by firing squad, it was JP Clark who introduced the idea of going to see Babangida at Dodan Barracks and plead for Mamman Vatsa to Soyinka and Achebe and the three responded(288-90).And although their intervention did not alter the situation, it serves as an excellent example of what writers can and should do.

Thus, both Achebe and Soyinka are correct when the former thinks that the role of the writer is to ´act rather than to react’ (qtd in Ogungbesan,87) while the latter declares: ´When the writer in his own society can no longer function as the conscience, he must recognize that his choice lies between denying himself totally or withdrawing to the position of chronicler and post-mortem surgeon’(qtd in Apronti,80).

Nigerian writers should realize that they must participate in building Nigeria, not only through writing but, what is more, by being directly involved in the socio-political situation of the country.


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