A wassail for the wayfarer: Biodun Jeyifo at 71 – Part 2
We talk like others do about politics, the state of the world and of our country; of mutual friends and our families; of treasured moments retrieved from the past and others we regret; of ongoing projects and future plans; and so on. We listen to music, visit the shops (when necessary, for BJ detests shopping), share ideas and laughter. Mostly however, what we share is silence. Golden moments when only the occasional birdsong outside the window, or the rustle of leaves, brushes the air, and each of us is shut up within himself (I in the company of a Mozart or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky).…
From his own account, his lust for travelling showed quite early in his life. In one of the weekly columns that he writes for The Nation newspaper, [ which is now included in the massive compilation of all his articles written between 2007 and 2013, and collectively published this year in the US under the title, Against the Predator’s Republic (APR)], BJ describes how, as a young teenage boy, he used to watch one of his peers disappear regularly from home without warning to anybody. Without any particular destination, without a kobo in his pocket, the boy would just jump on board a train and go off, until he was discovered by some responsible adult or official, and escorted back h ome. Only to start off again after some indefinite interval, and despite the profuse sacrifices and ritual supplications by his distraught parents and relations. For BJ, however, the boy was a hero, and he was secretly fascinated by his escapades. But of course, he dared not even consider following the boy’s example, and any fancy he entertained in that direction had to be swiftly aborted. His father’s stern discipline ensured that he stayed home to finish his education.
Now that he can travel as he wants, it is as if he is trying to make up for lost time. A virtual globe-trotter, BJ will easily win the contest as an officer of the international jet-set (without, however, the famed business card or shopping bag). But you have to be really close to him to fathom that this compulsive peripatetic drive comes from an innate disposition to hoard his private self. It is what has spun his life into a dense web of itineraries, and a tapestry of textured introspection, meditation, and of course, erudition.
It would seem anomalous then, at first sight, that, with all this penchant for solitude and meditation, BJ has not ended up a narcissist or secluded hermit. But the reason is simply that his heart is too large for that. His primary strength (or, weakness, depending on how you view it) is his capacious humaneness, a heart of gold so tender that it is almost a weakness. We his friends have finally concluded now, after years of intimate observation, that he is one of those gifted with inexhaustible compassion, a personal store of generosity so abundant that he must compulsively seek out, and respond to, anyone in need of help. BJ is one of the kind that cannot encounter misery and turn their back; or witness injustice and remain silent, feigning to be blind. The orphan, the widow, the jobless and the wounded—whoever turns up with tears and a begging bowl—is an immediate beneficiary, including the smart charlatan in camouflage.
Unfortunately however, on our continent, such persons who are so acutely sensitive to the suffering of others are doomed to have a busy wailing time. Because the authors of our people’s misery are powerful, and in positions of power, these caring philanthropists will sooner or later find themselves condemned to a career of conflict and unending agitation. If they are stubborn and not easily daunted, these self-elected saviours of the legion of the poor will become vulnerable targets before our vicious leaders and their armed, conniving agents.
It will be tedious to begin to catalogue again here all the tragedies that the bulk of our people experience daily, since they have been abundantly written about. We can just summarize the story by saying that, ever since the birth of our country in the early 20th century under British colonialism, and especially even more severely since our gaining political independence in 1960, our people have not experienced any prolonged period of bliss. Every year, whether under military or civilian rulers, the few rich have continued to get richer, through brazen stealing and expropriation, and the poor grow more wretched.
BJ was one of those who realized early in his career that if this exploitation of our people by their own leaders is to stop, then the people must be mobilized. Boldly he accepted to play an active role in this needed work of mobilization. And the first step naturally was to reconcile his own inner differences.
The truth is that a potentially shattering antinomy lies between, on the one hand, a volition to escape into the shelter of open spaces— into the anonymity of road and sea and skies—culling from them an inebriating treasury of self-replenishing energies; and, on the other, a no less compulsive empathy for the plight of the downtrodden, plus the courage to take corrective action to mend it.
To resolve the contradiction, BJ took a cue from the fabled visionaries of myth and history—the long line of heroes that stretch from Ogun and Orunmila to Awo and Zik, Nkrumah and Cabral, Lenin and Mao and Castro, and others of their ilk, etc. He decided to align his wanderlust with political activism, linking traveling bug with, as he himself puts it, “the great tasks of building a humane, just and egalitarian community in our country and our world” [APR: 546].
It was towards the actualization of this vision that BJ became a trade unionist. And in a sense, it was a measure of the success of this altruistic mission that his last birthday was not only an intriguing gathering of dreamers and activists, (plus the random anarchist), but also that the celebration turned to be a festive masque between the living and the dead, between ghosts with dirges on their tongues, and others with resurgent anthems.
BJ’s most glorious moment, it is safe to conclude, must therefore be traced back to those days in the early 1980s when he headed the Academic Staff Union of the Universities (ASUU), the now famous (or notorious?) union of teachers in the tertiary institutions.
As the pioneer president, you can imagine that BJ had a tremendous challenge before him to mobilize his colleagues dispersed all over the vast nation in various towns, and at a period too when the digital telephony was at its infancy, and the cell phone had only recently been invented.
The only option available to the fledgling Union then was to acquire a vehicle and send its officers by road to these various institutions. These would have to be dispatched from its secretariat at Ibadan to destinations as far away and scattered as Sokoto, Zaira and Maiduguri in the north, and Nsukka, Calabar and Port Harcourt in the south. It was, as you can well imagine, a most ambitious and hazardous undertaking, given the vast distances that had to be covered, and the fact that our roads, as attested to by innumerable fatal accidents, were virtual death traps.
For BJ, the challenge was not even as straightforward however. In retrospect, I think the way it worked out in his mind was that it was more akin to the situation of our traditional societies in the distant past, when the people faced a dire crisis, and were rescued from desperation only through the intervention of a ritual scapegoat.
To everyone’s surprise, therefore, BJ announced, like the sacred carrier of old, that he would be the Union’s lone emissary. Furthermore, he would drive himself on these journeys, and not take along the official driver that the Union had hired for the purpose. And finally, he would not allow the Union to purchase any other car to take him on the mission than a Volkswagen Beetle! A death wish, or a singular act of chivalry?
Against all opposition, BJ stood his ground, thus reviving for us the ancient code of leadership as a pledge of honour, valour and self-sacrifice, the morality code that has sadly long been jettisoned. BJ not only survived, but succeeded too in welding the teachers into a formidable army against the rampaging soldiers that had taken power over the country. ASUU became more or less like a Party of Opposition, the only contrary voice that the military, despite its brutal and awesome powers, found it hard to completely suppress.
BJ survived, but it was also on those perilous roads that he found contentment. For the first time, he could marry his lust for travel with his inclination for political engagement, on a mission that was dangerous all right, but which put his capacity for stealth and cunning, as well as his organizational skill, to the maximum test.
Many years afterwards, as he recaptures the experience, one can still catch the thrill of the adventure in his voice: “I drove myself everywhere in the country without the driver by my side… I went on short and very long trips endlessly, week after week, month after month. The call of the road, which is elemental, and seems like a force of nature, fused with the great tasks of political and ideological mobilization, themselves often volcanic and transcendental in their impulses and energies….” (APR: 544)
And he continues, instructively: “My love of travelling, my deep, subliminal response to the call of the road was thoroughly mediated by accountability to communities and interests much bigger than myself.” (APR: 546).
This is BJ for you. He plunged with all his soul into this struggle to free and feed the masses, and to reverse their long history of exploitation. It is a pity that thus far, for obvious reasons, the full story of that struggle has not been written, nor of BJ’s involvement with other radical groups. One day, hopefully, all will be revealed, and due homage paid. For as he repeatedly asserts in his Talakawa Liberation Couriers, “The traveller, if he or she is lucky, always returns home.”
BJ’s most astute move, in my opinion, was to have led ASUU into a strategic alliance with the national labour movement, the NLC. He had read the situation correctly and seen that, without such affiliation a partisan organization like ASUU stood little chance against the formidable arsenal of the military establishment. Similarly, the labour organization too would continue to be frail and vulnerable unless it strengthened its intellectual capability in an alliance with the academic union.
As we all proudly recollect, this alliance did come about under BJ’s leadership, though, regrettably, it did not last long after him. But it is on the nation’s record that he is thus far the only ASUU official who has sat as a full member on the NLC’s Central Working Committee.
Sadly, ASUU’s triumphant days ended rather quickly. They could not have lasted anyway. Inevitably the military had its way in the end, and conquered the universities, effectively deploying the twin weapons of pauperization and humiliation. The vocal intellectuals among us who opposed them and would not be silent, as well as the vulnerable ones, were forced into exile to save their lives; BJ among them.
Away from the homeland, not surprisingly, the contradictions which have dogged our steps all along escalated. My friend, being among the best in his calling, rose to the pinnacle of the profession, and became a professor at the prestigious Harvard university, an appointment that is the envy of scholars all over the world. But what an irony for a self-proclaimed Marxist! Can he be comfortable there, in Cambridge, faced every minute with the danger of being co-opted and compromised? Again, with Harvard famously known as one of the redoubtable bastions of white culture, and of capitalist triumphalism in the age of globalization, how will a stalwart, renowned Africanist fit in with other Faculty, except by sitting on one buttock? BJ conspicuously rejects the customary cultural choices of his peers—that is, the westernized elite—in his manner of dressing, and opts instead, in place of expensive suits and agbadas and galabiyas, for simple shirts and bubas of khaki or adire cloth, often in fact worn and threadbare. But is this just taste, or meekness, or a symbolic preference meant to demonstrate an unwavering identification with the poor and to pledge eternal loyalty to their cause? Or is it a kind of vicarious penance, an outward sign of the guilt BJ seems to carry in his heart for being successful among so many failures, for being fortunate where others have fallen abjectly, in spite of themselves, by the wayside? Sometimes, as I tell him in light rebuke, it is almost as if he is ashamed of his achievements.
Among these achievements are the sterling essays he has written about our African authors, especially Chinua Achebe, J.-P. Clark, and Wole Soyinka. His unique insights, his lucidity and command of language (which we refer to laughingly as “igilango geesi”), and his scintillating powers of exegesis, have established BJ as perhaps the most informed and most distinguished figure now among the giants of our literary firmament. And it is why, until he has read a new work of mine and given his pass mark, I am never sure of its merit.
But still, in spite of the amazing brilliance of these works that established his reputation, his latest publication, Against the Predator’s Republic, which I have referred to above, may well turn out to be his magnum opus. Assembled from what were originally newspaper columns, and hence targeted at a popular audience, the collected articles are so varied and broad-ranging, so rich in assorted information, so diverse in style and content and commentary, that one cannot take them all in one reading. It is certainly a massive volume, with over 600 pages of close print, and so passionate in its missionary purpose is it that you can dip in at random, and pluck from any page a different treasure of knowledge and delight. Moving from plain prose to poetry, from dream to didactic analysis, from music to meditation to plain ratiocination, the author’s omniscient assurance reminds you of the best of Franz Fanon, in parts, and Walter Benjamin in others. Or of the book that Karl Marx, in collaboration with Jean-Paul Sartre, would have written if they lived together in our time. An encyclopedia of sorts on the biography of our nation—covering history, sociology, economics, philosophy, and much more—it should be required reading and made a primary test of literacy for every educated citizen. But all the same the irony of all this is that the essays can only be said to be in the interest of the Talakawa, and not for their direct consumption. The register of discourse is pitched much above that of the common street level; the rhetoric is of a sophistication foreign to the simple grammar of popular exchange. It is in fact, perhaps to the author’s own disappointment, a work of profound intellection, requiring not just a sympathy with social causes but also a certain level of consciousness to fully appreciate. The “dear compatriot” that the author continually addresses will unfortunately not be, I am afraid, the common man on the street.
And there are still other paradoxes. When you think of BJ and several others like him that were forced into exile, and you take account of the luminous careers that they have forged there outside, you become even more bitter about the wastage of the military years. What kind of profligate country would have been content to lose to others the contributions of people like Abiola Irele, Toyin Falola, Michael Echeruo, Molara Ogundipe, Kole Omotoso, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Akin Adesokan, Tejumola Olaniyan, Chika Onuigwe, Sefi Atta, Chimamanda Adiche, Teju Cole, and so on, and so on? Did I hear you exclaim? But these are just in the area of Literature alone. Now add the shining stars we hear about in the fields of Medicine, Business, Architecture, Aeronautics, Space Engineering, Computer Science, Information Technology, Fine Arts, etc.—when, in the homeland, and after squandering millions of dollars, we have not been able to develop enough capacity to feed ourselves, or generate electricity, or even fabricate toothpicks! Nor have we, after numerous wars and blood-shedding, been able to produce a political leadership of sufficiently stirring vision to shun venality, mediocrity, and corruption, and launch us forward to greatness.
For these reasons alone, biographies such as BJ’s are of signal import, for they stand as exemplary narratives for all of us, and in particular the young. They demonstrate for us not only how our past was sabotaged, but also, how our future can be salvaged. They show us the way to recuperating our lives from despair, and our children from hopelessness and defeatist nonchalance. It is probably too late now to lure our exiles to return, but we can at least persuade them not to turn their back completely on us. For they can help end the nightmare of history which seems to have condemned us to a fate of continuous anomy. They can join in the challenge of producing a new progressive elite, that will help give birth out of all our contradictions to a new and thriving nation.
I salute you, BJ, activist intellectual and insatiable wanderer, on your coming to another milestone. As you so perspicaciously put it yourself , “The conditions on our roads mirror the conditions of the poverty, insecurity and despair that shape the lives of the great majority of our peoples everywhere in the land. For most Nigerians, the journey through our roads and highways is exactly like the journey they are compelled to make through life as they live out their allotted time on this earth…” (APR: 546)
The traveller, you assert, BJ, always returns home. But only if he or she is lucky. You and I, and our close friends, have been among the most fortunate on our journeys on the planet. It is not over yet. But let me re-assure you that, even if the victory has not been won, and may not be in our lifetime, the fight has been well worth it. But one last word, for time is running out fast against us—but if you put your mind to it, applying the same zeal with which you follow the tennis tournaments, you might just come to be a better cook after all! My free advice.
A happy birthday, my brother, my friend!
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