In this interview with The News Chronicle’s Jideofor Adibe, Farooq Kperogi, University Professor, newspaper columnist, political gadfly and encyclopaedic wordsmith, explains why he has been a non-apologetic critic of the Buhari government, the philosophy that drives him in his engagement with the various Nigerian governments, his views about some creative writers and public intellectuals and how he thinks the COVID-19 pandemic will affect perceptions of USA and China. He also compares race relations in the USA where he lives with ethnic relations in Nigeria under Buhari and explains why he thinks Buhari’s media aides have largely avoided attacking him frontally.

TNC: Let me start with this question:  How do you feel knowing that  you are one of the most renowned social media influencers in the country, with even a former President of the country, Olusegun Obasanjo, quoting you to buttress his argument in one of his famous (or infamous –  depending on your perceptions of him)  open letters to President Buhari?  Can you recollect how you came to build such a huge followership and how you feel you have been able to use it to sway Nigerians away from a particular trajectory?

FK: I frankly don’t think I am as renowned as your question suggests. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Nigerians have no idea who I am. I admit, though, that it was flattering that former President Obasanjo found one of my columns worthy enough to quote in his open letter to Buhari, but there are way more famous people on social media in Nigeria than I am. And this is no false modesty. I think you’re overestimating my fame and influence because, being a newspaper columnist and an academic like me, you’re probably assuming that your familiarity with my social media and newspaper interventions is shared by more people than is actually the case.

To tell you the truth, the modest following I have on social media surprises me, too. I never set out to be a public intellectual. People who know me will tell you that I am an intensely private person. Excessive attention makes me recoil. I never want to be the cynosure of all eyes for whatever reason, wherever I am. But it appears that some roles choose you instead of the other way around.

When I joined Facebook in 2005, the year it went public, my Facebook friend circle was limited to my American friends. There were hardly any Nigerians on Facebook at the time. My status updates then were personal. I didn’t share my newspaper columns. At any rate, newspapers in Nigeria barely had any online presence.

But from about 2007, Nigerians started to send me friend requests, perhaps upon discovering me on Google searches after reading my Daily Trust columns. The increase in the number of Nigerian friends caused me to start sharing my columns and periodically writing commentaries on Nigeria. And that was it.

TNC: I will like to talk about the body of work of three creative writers I am sure you are aware of, so  I can see where you think your own philosophy fits:  the first is Camilo José Cela, the Spanish novelist, poet, story writer and essayist, who won the 1989 Nobel Prize in Literature. Camilo was reputed to have said that a writer is necessarily a denunciation of the time in which he lives – which implies that a writer must necessarily be anti-establishment. There was also Dambudzo Marechera, the Zimbabwean novelist, poet and short story writer who reportedly said that he was against war and also against those who are against war – which means he was at war with everyone (and he actually did when he was alive). Then there is our own Wole Soyinka, the first Black African Nobel laureate in Literature who is often accused of raising rudeness into an art form. In your writings, you spare no punches against those you inveigh against or who stand on your way. I believe you have been critical of every government since 1999 – and also critical of those who are critical of the government you repeatedly criticize (a good example here is your last piece on Lamido Sanusi). What really drives you? Are you an apostle of Camilo José Cela, Dambudzo Marechera or Wole Soyinka or a fusion of the three?

FK: As I’ve mentioned in several past interviews, I align myself with the media philosophy that invests journalism with the ever-present responsibility of holding people in power to account. I am first a journalist before I am an academic. I see critical scrutiny of people in power as my abiding obligation. This sort of neatly dovetails with Camilo José Cela’s notion of the role of a writer.

Power, by its very nature, is dizzyingly intoxicating; it becomes dangerous when it’s unimpeded by the requirements of institutional accountability, when it doesn’t have to contend with a critical democratic citizenry. I am also inspired and persuaded by the Socratic aphorism that says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I don’t take people’s claims at face value; I examine them. Being a government critic is no reason to uncritically valorize you. I am aware that, this makes me come across as a compulsively inveterate contrarian.

TNC: How would you assess each of the above writers in terms of their social theories and praxes? Some say that extremely talented people like you derive their creativity from what the Igbo call ‘agwu’ – that borderline between madness and genius. How would you respond to that?

FK: I think I align more with Camilo José Cela’s anti-establishment impulses. Criticism of wielders of power is an existential necessity in any society that makes even the vaguest scintilla of pretense to democracy. It is what marks the distinction between democracy and autocracy. Acquiescence in the face of unaccountable governance is the food of monocracy and other absolutist regimes.

Your characterization of Dambudzo Marechera’s philosophy, which I hadn’t encountered before, strikes me as pointlessly anarchic. The object of criticism should be to correct a wrong in the interest of progress. When criticism exists for its own sake, it becomes nothing more than scorn-worthy rhetorical aggravation. In other words, criticism should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I admire Soyinka’s valor, rhetorical sophistication, and commitment to speaking out against injustice. However, I was disappointed by his uncharacteristic silence between 2015 and 2019. Molly Ivins, an American journalist, columnist, and author once said, “If you ever get to the place where injustice doesn’t bother you, you’re dead.”

It’s another iteration of Wole Soyinka’s oft-quoted dictum that says, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” Sadly, using his own logic, Soyinka died during Buhari’s first term. In the midst of Buhari’s asphyxiating tyranny, he was silent. Thankfully, he seems to be getting his voice back now.

TNC: You have been a consistent critic of the Buhari government – as you were even more of the Jonathan government. You call out Buhari and his government at any opportunity, sometimes using language that some will frown upon. Can you list a few areas where you feel the Buhari government is getting it right and some areas where you feel the Jonathan government got it right? Also do you think it is a deliberate strategy by Buhari’s media aides (who are normally intolerant of any criticism of Buhari and eagerly act as attack dogs on anyone who dares criticize their oga) to ignore your trenchant criticisms of the government? Or do you think they are afraid that picking on you may be more than they can chew, because like Obasanjo, it is believed that you do not dodge a fight (at the level of ideation), and that your counter-attack will be carried out using the most ballistic language imaginable, (which will certainly include research into their whole being, pointing out all the grammatical mistakes in their writings and letting them know how silly they have been at their jobs?)  Why do you think the government has not tried to use your huge social media followership to help mobilize Nigerians towards a given direction?

FK: I’ve tried hard and frankly haven’t found anything any of the governments you’ve mentioned have done that is worth making a song and dancing about. Perhaps because I’ve lived in a fundamentally functional society for more than a decade and a half, my bar for measuring success in governance is high. Any government that can’t fix something as basic as electricity, that can’t provide even middling healthcare for its citizens, that can’t protect lives, etc. can’t be said to have done anything right.

If I tell you I know why Buhari’s spokespeople have not personally attacked me, I would be lying to you. But there are several probable reasons. One, as I’ve pointed many times in the past, Malam Garba Shehu was my teacher at Bayero University, Kano. He was a part-time lecturer in journalism when he was Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor of the state-run Triumph Newspaper. Although I disagree with the government he serves and how he defends it, I still respect him a lot as a person. The respect, fortunately, is mutual.

When he had reason to publicly respond to one of my columns in 2016, he was measured and respectful in ways that humbled me. I reciprocated his graciousness in my response to his response.

Buhari’s other media aides probably have no need to respond to me directly because they have an entire online troll factory that is dedicated to smearing, libeling, and fabricating falsehoods against me. They are known as the Buhari Media Center (BMC). When I first exposed them in early 2017, they said I’d lied, but they’ve now embraced their existence and make no pretenses about what they do. N-Power beneficiaries have been conscripted into the group now.

Nevertheless, I don’t respond to the smears of barely literate, mercenary nonentities. It’d be like killing ants with a gun. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, and an indefensible waste of my time and energy. You’re right that if someone with an official title or name recognition attacks me, I’ll be sure to set the records straight using all the rhetorical arsenal at my disposal.

You asked why government hasn’t reached out to me to “mobilize Nigerians towards a given direction.” Your question assumes that the government has any direction it wants to move to. It doesn’t. This is an unprecedentedly unprepared government that has no goals and no reason to exist other than to pilfer the public till.

TNC: Let’s talk a bit about race relations. You have been living and working in the USA for a while now. In 2009 or thereabout you wrote about ‘culinary racism’ where you talked about watermelons and fried chicken as innuendos used to describe race markers. What is the state of race relations in the USA under Donald Trump and how will you compare it to ethnic/religious relations under Buhari?  

The state of race relations in the US has suffered tremendous stress under Donald Trump. Trump’s presidency has been a boon to white supremacy and right-wing domestic terrorism. This has been documented by many non-partisan organizations. Trump himself, as anyone who has followed his politics knows, is an incorrigible, dyed-in-the-wool racist scumbag.

Racism and ethnic/religious bigotry share a lot in common. They are both animated by maximalist politics and by the impulse to exclude “the other.” Nonetheless, because of the years of struggles against racism in the United States, there are legal protections against its most visible forms. Sadly, in Nigeria, people who are victims of racial and religious bigotry have no legal recourse to redress it. But both Trump and Buhari, through their conscious narrow-mindedness, preside over visibly fissiparous polities.

TNC: How you think COVID-19 will impact on perceptions of the West and China? And how do you think the pandemic will cascade through the various aspects of Nigeria’s national life, including the jostling and permutations for 2023?

FK: Africa used to be stereotyped in the global popular media and in the global popular imaginary as the diseased continent, as the birthplace of inscrutable pestilences. With Africa being one of the least affected continents during this COVID-19 pandemic—at least for now—the stereotype is being reversed or at least challenged. China is now emerging in global consciousness as the springboard of pandemics, as the unsanitary, devious country that endangers the whole world. Whether this stereotype is justified is left for history to judge. Similarly, the symbolic and cultural capital the West used to enjoy in the world is being diminished. Of course, the passage of time might reverse my observations.

I don’t see how COVID-19 would affect Nigeria’s 2023 election. Well, unless a major political player dies from it. If Abba Kyari were to die from COVID-19, for instance, the permutations for the presidency would certainly change dramatically. The presidency might become a shoo-in for Tinubu. But I’ve heard that Kyari has fully recovered, so I don’t think the virus will have any effect on the calculations for the 2023 election.

TNC: Let me conclude this interview with a question about the man behind the angry keyboard – if you do not mind the expression. How will you describe Farooq Kperogi? How does he relax when he is not engaged in artistic pugilism? What puts smiles on his face?

FK: Farooq Kperogi is a mild-mannered, self-possessed, even-tempered, and somewhat introverted person. I know this self-characterization is at variance with my public persona. But this is true of most human beings. There is always a disjunction between people’s public persona and who they really are.

I can’t tell you the number of times people who have met me after reading me for years say they’re taken aback by what they call my humility; they imagined that I was an arrogant, fire-spitting radical who would passionately disagree with them and stop them mid-sentence. They thought I was a cantankerous, venomous-tongued conversationalist who would not allow his interlocutors to get a word in edgeways, who would correct their grammar, and insist on being right all the time. In reality, I am mellow, gracious, a bit shy, and allow extroverted people to dominate conversations. I am talkative only when I meet overly introverted people because I hate the awkwardness of dull moments.

I mostly relax at home with my family when I am not working. I find immense joy and comfort in the company of my wife and children. I don’t party. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t womanize. I am a boring person. My family is my biggest source of joy.

I also enjoy yard work and landscaping—mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, mulching, edging the driveway, curbs, and sidewalks, etc. I put a lot of pressure on my neighbors to keep their lawns clean and healthy.