Renowned author, columnist and essayist, Prof. Okey Ndibe, pulls no punches when addressing critical national issues in his writings and popular weekly newspaper column. In this exclusive interview with Sam Umukoro in London, Ndibe talks about President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, resource control, federalism and Nigeria’s unity, and why he thinks the ruling All Progressives Congress and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party are Siamese twins. Ndibe, the author of ‘Arrows of Rain’ and ‘Foreign Gods, Inc.’, also discusses his new book – Never Look an American in the Eye, his relationship with the late Prof. Chinua Achebe and Achebe’s influence on his writing, and other national issues.
In your book, you talked about the misconceptions you had about the United States of America when you first arrived there. What misconceptions do most Americans have about Africa?
I think the most common misconception is that Africa is a wild kingdom of animals. I think a lot of Americans see Africa as a place where you find lions, elephants, snakes and the likes. This is changing because of the Internet and other factors, but previously, many Americans believed Africa had a small human population, so you would almost know everyone from the African continent.
But most of them didn’t realise that Africa was a continent of 54 countries. Then, there are conceptions of Africa as a location of poverty and wars which, to some degree, is founded because there is poverty, disease and there are wars. But, Africa is not deducible from those problems.
How do you respond to these misconceptions when confronted with them?
One’s burden is to engage in education, on all kinds of levels as a teacher, through the selection of texts set in Africa to open people’s minds to the complexities, variety and richness of Africa. Also, in one’s lectures around the US, one engages in the same form of education. So, education is central and as a writer, what I do is to create characters who have dimensionality and richness in them and who come from different backgrounds, so that any reader who encounters my work will have a sense of Africa’s humanity.
Talking about background, would you say your memoir – Never Look an American in the Eye – is a reflection of the experiences of the average African immigrant?
When you encounter any culture, you view it with some measure of, shall I say, inadequate knowledge. In the same way when you arrive at a different culture, they don’t have full knowledge of who you are. So, there is a mutual incomprehension which goes both ways. Part of the immigrant experience is that slow process of mastering one’s new environment, to lose some of your prejudices and fears; and also for the inhabitants of your new environment to get to know you and recognise the richness of your history and story.
In your book you mentioned being a victim of police arrest. What’s your view on the issue of police brutality, especially on black people in the US?
Whenever I hear reports that an American police officer has shot someone unjustly, it reminds me of my own experience, so it brings that tragedy home to me again, because my encounter with an officer who mistook me for an armed robber easily could have gone wrong.
One of the options I considered at a point in the conversation with the officer when I found out he wanted to take me in was to run because I was scared. Had I run, perhaps he would have shot me from behind. So, every time I read stories of police shootings of people of colour, it resonates with me and I can only hope to see fewer instances of this sort of tragedy.
Your relationship with the late Prof. Chinua Achebe is well documented. What is the fondest memory you have of him?
My fondest memory of Chinua Achebe is actually one of my earliest. It was the day I ran into him at a filling station in Enugu, Nigeria. I went to him and said, “Good afternoon, sir”, and he returned my greeting. I ran off to tell my friends I had met the great Achebe in person and we talked. So, I served a notice to my friends that I wasn’t going to talk to them for weeks. There are other fond memories that are just as salient; one of them was the first time I went to Achebe’s house in Ogidi.
I remember the cookies and Coca-Cola drink he gave me and also my interview with him, which almost became a fiasco when my recorder malfunctioned and picked nothing up. I also recollect the fondness of that moment when Achebe generously granted me an opportunity to redo the interview so I would not return to the newspaper I worked for empty-handed.
How did your relationship with Achebe influence you as a writer?
Achebe is one of the most important formative influences on my writing. I recognised early a quality in Achebe’s writing, which is one I still strain to achieve; Achebe was a man who had such deep respect for languages that he never wasted a word. He was a man of great economy of expression and yet, within that economy was profundity and depth. So, every day, I am trying to achieve that – writing with that kind of clarity, economy and depth.
You used humour a lot in ‘Never Look an American in the Eye’. Was that a coping mechanism for you to deal with your immigrant experience?
Humour is really just central to everything I do because I like to joke a lot and appreciate those who joke in their stories. It is in my DNA, something I cultivated from a young age as I listened to elders, who are great storytellers, and found out that even when they told tragic stories, they shaped them in a way that made you laugh.
So, I wanted to be able to infuse that into my own writing. Whenever I do any form of writing, I am drawn to the humorous and witty dimensions of experience. I think that, in a lot of ways, when you are a sojourner in a new space, humour serves you. In encountering America, I had to use humour, but essentially it came from my particular disposition, which is like cultural equipment that nudges me to use humour in all my writings.
You once described yourself as a proud Nigerian-American. How have your experiences from both countries influenced your work as a writer?
I was an adult in Nigeria before I left for America, so my Nigerian identity was fully formed. When I got to America and continued my engagement with American history, particularly with the heroic struggle of African-Americans to achieve their full humanity within the American space.
That struggle continues and is a narrative that moves me in a lot of ways. I am a student of both African-Americans and the Nigerian drama of becoming. I’m looking at two spaces where my experience and participation are marked by dynamism and striving for a fuller realisation of one’s humanity and purpose.
From your experiences and observation, do you think there is any hope of young Nigerians taking the mantle of leadership in the future?
It’s a very complex question. On one hand, the question of youths is important, but it is not essential. We could have an older set of leaders who have a vision and commitment. But the particular tragedy of Nigeria is that you find a tyranny of old men who have absolutely no idea, sense or vision of how to transform society beyond how to exploit it and act as parasites.
We have been so unfortunate that those who have run Nigeria have no vision. In an era of Justin Trudeau (the Prime Minister) of Canada and (former president Barack) Obama of the US, two of the most important countries in the world, I think it’s tragic that we are stuck with the sort of leaders we find in Nigeria and Africa; leaders who have very little, if any, vision of how to transform the society and don’t even know what time it is in the world.
However, I blame our youths because they have, unfortunately, acquired this complex that they can continue to drink their beer and pepper soup, and stay plugged online, with all its distractions, while they wait for someone to solve their problems. The youth are the majority of Nigeria’s population, so what they need to do is articulate a sense of where they want to go, what they want their country to become, and, within their ranks, present themselves for positions of leadership and reject that gerontocratic idea in Africa saying it is the elders who must have a say because they have the best ideas and wisdom to run a place.
Young people in today’s digital world should take the lead in running Nigeria and other African countries. I hope our young people will mobilise themselves before the next elections because our country is in a critical place and if we don’t get it right in 2019, it may be too late for us.
Are you saying Nigeria did not get it right in 2015?
Absolutely, we didn’t. What did we do in 2015? We removed the Peoples Democratic Party, which was a disastrous political party; and Jonathan, who was a disastrous president, and we voted in the All Progressives Congress which, in my opinion, is indistinguishable from the PDP. In fact, I call APC the Siamese twin of PDP.
Then, we elect a President Muhammadu Buhari who, even if he might have some measure of personal integrity, simply does not have the ideas to propel a country like Nigeria into where it needs to be. We took an analogue man in Buhari and put him in a digital challenge; he is bound to fail and is failing. So, we are living through the consequences of the disastrous choice we made in 2015. It was a very poor choice. It was right to reject the PDP, but we should not have hired the APC because they are a continuation of the same disorder and ineptitude.
What is Nigeria’s biggest problem and how do you think it can be solved?
Our biggest problem is our allergy to thinking. We let all kinds of impediments get in our way of making rational choices. If there is a race and an Igbo and a Yoruba are contesting, while the Igbo person is the better candidate for the position, somehow instinctively, the Yorubas will vote against him and vote for their man and vice-versa.
So, we would rather vote an incompetent tribesman over a competent person. This same issue spills over into religion with Muslim versus Christian candidates. Religion, ethnicity and intolerance do not put food on the table; so most Nigerians have to find ways at a critical level to make the rational choice of voting the best candidate in spite of religious or ethnic differences because this candidate will serve them best.
The fact that we haven’t found a way to think around our little, silly schisms is the biggest impediment. I also think we have spawned religion into an instrument of enslavement. So, once someone steals public funds, all this person needs to say is, “God has blessed me.” and Nigerians will, “Yes, it is God who has blessed him.”
We forget that God will not participate in fraud and looting of public funds. It is the same way during an election when someone who was rigged into power says, “It is God who gives power”, and people will applaud that. We must reject such ignorance and say God does not vote in elections.
An atheist could indeed win an election against a religious person. It should be the voice of the people who vote; God has nothing to do with elections. And to the extent that God gives power, he does so by putting it in the hands of the people to vote for a particular candidate.
If there is rigging, you cannot tell me it is God who has given power to the candidate who rigged an election; to say so is to humanise God and render him as fallible, broken and fraudulent as humans have proven to be. We must reject such logic.
Nigeria’s federalism seems to be fundamentally flawed when compared with those practised in other countries. Do you think restructuring Nigeria will address these primordial interests you highlighted as part of the problem?
I have no doubt that Nigeria needs restructuring, which has become a sort of popular phrase. We must define what we mean by restructuring. Part of what it must mean is that we must abandon the idea that Nigeria is a sacred space and is invaluable. We must recognise that Nigeria could break up, but I also recognise that Nigeria could also increase; that Cameroon could ask, tomorrow, to become a part of Nigeria.
I recognise that a national entity is susceptible to growth and contraction. So, you can’t keep a nation together artificially. Justice is central to the sustenance of any nation state. In the spirit of true federalism, any national resource found in a territory should belong to the people of that state. For example, if oil is in Bayelsa and Rivers states, they should keep that oil exclusively. Of course, they should make contributions to the federal budget, but resources in a state should belong to the inhabitants of the state. We actually have to wholly rethink our idea of states.
A situation where over 20 states cannot pay salaries tells me that we have many unviable states that should not exist. However, I also believe that every state can pay salaries if they had the right candidate. We should have a small centre focused on the things a centre does, like defence and foreign affairs, but the other sectors should be properly handled by the state.
I also think that once we begin to move in that direction, the mutual suspicions we have across ethnic and religious groups would have less faults. In the end, as I have argued many times, I am interested in the ethnicity of values and not ethnicity of language. If I find a Northerner, a Yoruba or an Efik person who shares my values, this person belongs in my ethnicity. If you are Igbo, like me, but we don’t share the same values, it means nothing to me that we speak the same language. Values should become the fulcrum of articulation of new alliances in Nigeria and I hope that happens sooner rather than later.