Unraveling the essential Osofisan, dramatist and humanist
His literary journey started at Government College, Ibadan, in 1963 when he won the T.M. Aluko Prize for Literature and peaked in 2014 when he was awarded Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM), the highest prize for excellence in scholarship in Nigeria. Ever since, he has never looked back as one award, fellowship or honour accompanies him in his 50 years of robust literary engagement.
This is the quintessential life of Emeritus Professor Babafemi Adeyemi Osofisan, ‘the distinguished professor, theatre practitioner and culture scholar,’ as the International Conference organized in his honour all through last week in Ibadan, described him partly to commemorate him at 70. It was held at the University of Ibadan. The conference that had scholars from Ghana, Germany, Cameroun, U.S., and the U.K. had as theme ‘Femi Osofisan: Post-Negritude Tradition and 50 Years of Literary Drama.’ The conference was convened by the quartet of Dr. Sola Adeyemi, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, Dr. Tunde Awosanmi and Dr. Olakunbi Olasope.
Although long retired from the University of Ibadan where he studied French as an undergraduate and currently tenured at Kwara State University, Malete, the Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan, Prof. Abel Idowu Olayinka alongside Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo, Professors Niyi Osundare, Remi Raji-Oyelade, Mr. Ben Tomoloju, Mr. Kolade Mosuro among others were on hand to celebrate him. Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, Prof. Adebola Ekanola, commended Osofisan’s versatility and his “distinguished career in theatre; he is a man of many parts – an actor, a novelist, poet and newspaper editor. He deserves to be celebrated for his significant achievements and contributions to humanity”.
Olayinka also praised Osofisan for his diligence and cerebral nature, adding that he is a “globally celebrated professor; he has since made his name. He is a multi-dimensional artist; he’s an iconic citizen of the world. He is our ambassador of peace”.
South Africa-based Nigerian professor of Drama, Patrick J. Ebewo of Tshwane University of technology, Pretoria, delivered the keynote titled ‘Osofisan and the Credo of the Ordinary Breed.’ In Ebewo’s delivery, he situated Osofisan’s work and literature as a whole in the service of humanity and how they both work to mitigate the challenges an environment like Nigeria faces on the socio-political, economic and cultural fronts. Indeed, Ebewo tackled the age-long question of the role of artists in society and if they make meaningful contributions that help to improve living conditions. Many critics are agreed that osofisan is a radical and revolutionary playwright and novelist, but Ebewo stated that Osofisan always plays down on these claims in his works preferring instead that he merely desires a conscientisation and transformation of society from its stagnant and degenerate position to where it ought to be.
For Ebewo, Osofisan is a “writer with a vision; a writer with a commitment,” as his works are designed to change people’s consciousness of their situation and environment so as to bring about change in society. “In his radical rhetoric,” Ebewo continued, “osofisan acts as the mouthpiece of the downtrodden in society and a committed author who employs literature as a force of freedom. A fighter against colonialism and neo-colonialism in all their configurations, he champions a cause against corruption, oppression, and forms of indignity against human rights and the perpetuator of their abuses. His political ideology finds expression in most of his stage plays which have screamed against human beings’ inhumanity towards fellow beings… In his resolve, art should feature always as an instrument of transformation of the society”.
Ebewo identified two central concerns in Osofisan’s dramatic consciousness as he tries to conscientise his countrymen and women towards transforming their society – The Peasants versus The Leaders and The People versus The People. In the first case, Ebewo argued that Osofisan’s plays centre on “inequality in society, poverty, exploitation, ignorance, bribery and corruption, oppression of the peasants by the autocrats, and poor economic systems and maldistribution of national wealth,” with the aim that Osofisan wants a change in these aspects to reflect better on the disadvantaged in society.
In Osofisan’s The Chattering and the Song, Morountodun, No More the Wasted Breed, Red is the Freedom Road, A Restless Run of Locusts and The Inspector and the hero, according to Ebewo, “all contains the revolutionary element from the class antagonistic perspective. In these plays, the perennial class struggle in a capitalist African state is assiduously unfolded. The themes of injustice and oppression are dexterously handled by the playwright. The most important message driven home is that the oppressed have refused to resign their humiliating condition to fate. The inequality in a class-divided society is challenged, fought against and dismantled”.
In this wise, Osofisan blames the leaders for amassing for themselves the wealth meant for the entire society rather than equitably distribute it to make life meaningful for the majority. He added that Osofisan encourages the people or masses to actively revolt against their oppressors and demand their just right to happiness and the good things of life.
On the other hand, Ebewo also argued that in The People versus The People, “Not content with the leaders being seen as the only culprits against development in society, Osofisan presents a balanced picture which portrays the peasants also as part of the problem”. Rather than the people waiting endlessly for the leaders to save them, Ebewo asserted that Osofisan actually wants them to be solution-providers and not always be complaining about their problems which the leaders would always ignore.
“It is the masses in unison that will take control of the country,” Ebewo stated. “Osofisan believes in the people, the power of the people. What we need is radical transformation. It is only a functional literacy for the people that can bring about radical transformation”.
Ebewo said he shared Osofisan’s view that the people are constantly oppressing each other in their daily dealings rather than uniting in a common front to confront the leadership and demand for their rights. In fact, Ebewo was strongly of the view that the people, the followers, have largely let themselves down by their tolerant attitude to the excesses of leadership that would be tolerated in developed societies that they so admire and point. Ebewo narrated how, when he first arrived there, he was always irritated by the way South Africans would march and protest every slight they deemed the government to have committed. But on hindsight, he said he now sees the value of such protests as it forced the leaders to do what is right, not voluntarily, but through active coercion from the people who would not take half measures the way Nigerians now do, and sometimes, even giving excuses for the failure of their leaders.
“In line with Osofisan,” he said, “I have faith in the people to transform the society. Many critics see nothing but polarities in Osofisan’s plays – war between the upper and lower classes in Nigeria. This is not altogether the case. As seen in many of the plays, Osofisan is not only disturbed by the attitude of the hawk but is also worried about the behaviour of the chicks. The Nigerian problem is very complex and must not only be conveniently pushed only to the doorsteps of the politicians. Politicians have been blamed all the time for the country’s woes; though they are not innocent. They are not alone in contributing to our ‘penklemess’ – peculiar mess.
“The government gives the people what they deserve. If the people sell their votes, if they continue to lick the leaders’ boots, if they indulge in fighting over bags of rice or salt, they deserve no respect. If the people continue to hail leaders who return home with bags of Ghana-must-go stuffed with crisp currency and throw stones at those who frown at such things, then they are forever doomed… From where I’m standing, leadership is a huge challenge in the Nigerian polity but I see the worse challenge in the attitude of Nigerians towards their welfare. The importance of leadership should not be overlooked but I see ‘followership’ as equally a problem, if not a bigger challenge than leadership”.
Ebewo also co-opted the Christian religious faith into the fight against injustice and oppression of the ‘ordinary breed’ and described Christ as a revolutionary, saying Christ lived under the repressive regime of the Roman Empire of his day. He maintained that Osofisan laid a “solid theoretical foundation” through the people could come to terms with their conditions and take actions to liberate themselves from whatever oppressive regimes they faced.
Also, Banjo relived his longstanding relationship with Osofisan, saying he knew longer than anyone in the audience, including his wife, also the first female professor of Computer Science in Africa, Adenike Osofisan. Banjo added, “For me, it is his practical literary criticism that is of greater value”.
Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo of Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State, read a moving poem she wrote celebrating Osofisan at 70. Also short pieces from Osofisan’s plays were read by various performers. Ebika Anthony two of his poems – ‘A Memory of Yesterday’ and ‘A Plea for Pardon’ taken from Launko Blues. Excerpts from Many Colours Make the Thunder-King were read by Dr. Ekua Ekuman of University of Ghana, Legon, Dr. Adeniran Ademiju-Bepo of University of Jos and Adebisi Ademakinwa of University of Lagos, Akoka.
Another play reading taken from No More the Wasted Breed and co-ordinated by Dr. Rueben Abati, highlighted the existential theme in Osofisan’s play and how he urges the people to take their destiny in their own hands and not allow it to be controlled by others or even resign to fate, but to constantly challenge the status quo or received wisdom that often goes against rationality. Abati urged the audience to note the way the play ends, saying, “it ends on a note of change, awakening, hope, revolution that resonates with us today”.
The evening of the first day ended with the performance of one of Osofisan’s well-received plays, Altine’s Wrath.
At CORA Arthouse Forum the next day, a participant from Ghana gave her perspective on the internationalization of Osofisan’s themes. In fact, she stated that it was through the strength of Osofisan’s play Nkwuma- Ni… Africa Ni! that she and fellow Ghanaians came to understand better that mythical figure and pan-Africanist who piloted Ghanaian independence.
According to her, “We met Osofisan in 1994. As Ghanaians we realized we had little knowledge and information about Kwame Nkrumah. Ghana vandalized almost everything about him. No one had written extensively about him. We were amazed someone in Nigeria had written so much about Nkrumah. Osofisan really inducted us i0nto his work. He enlightened us on our own Nkrumah. About 90 per cent of what I know about Nkrumah is from Osofisan. He is a very liberal director; that is why I fell in love with him”.