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Jonathan Should Be More Forthright

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Niyi Osundare, a professor of English and social commentator, speaks to Newswatch editors on the removal of fuel subsidy, religion,  and his recently published book on Hurricane Katrina in which he almost lost his life. Excerpts:

Newswatch: Could you give us an overview of your book Hurricane Katrina?

Osundare: As the title clearly states…This is a body of poems narrating my experience with Katrina – that terrible storm that took place in the US some six years ago. I was right in the eye of that storm. It nearly took my wife and me. For two days, we were hanging in our attic with our legs gangling in the water. We had nine feet of water in our bedroom. But for the fortuitous intervention of a neigbour, the two of us would have perished because by the time the neigbour came the second day, we were tired. Having not eaten, had anything to drink for two days, energy had been sapped. The second day of the hurricane - that was on the 30th of August, there was no air in the attic because it was so hot. We couldn’t breathe well. If we didn’t drop in the flood, we probably would have been chocked by lack of oxygen. It was at that point when I thought death was really here that Lasido Sabbali, the Cuban-American, who was our neighbour, came with his boat. I will never forget that moment. Incidentally, one of the longest poems in the book is dedicated to Lasido Saballi. Well, I’m looking at the tragedy from personal angle,   but of course, it was a national tragedy. I am also looking at it from the point of so many others. The ones who died and had nobody to speak for them, they have voices in this book. The ones who survived but have become the living dead, they have something also in this book. The ones who are just hanging there, they also have a voice in this book. The ones who survived robustly and life is for them even better than it used to be before Katrina, they also have one or two words in the book.  So I’m looking at a spectrum of experiences. How Katrina has touched every one of us and also as Shakespeare says: “Fits are the uses of adversity which ugly and venomous like the toad where’s yet the precious jewel on its head.” No matter how terrible a situation is, no matter how dark is the cloud, there are always silver linings. Katrina took everything we had away but it also left something with us - the lesson from Katrina. What does it mean to possess so much?  What do our possessions do for us? Is it possible to possess and not being possessed? For about two weeks, we had no access to our bank accounts. My wife and I left our houses in shorts. She had a blouse and I had a shirt – no shoes. For about a week, we were roaming all over the place without any identity, nothing to even tell the world that we were who we were. We couldn’t even get food stamps because we had no identity. It was a teaching moment, real teaching moment as Americans will say and a very Shakespearean moment because you were brought down from that royal pedestal and then taken down to the very grassroots. This is what life is for hundreds and even millions of people.  One of the starkest irony of the situation was when I became an evacuee of the University of New Orleans campus.   We were there for three days. There I was amongst hundreds of other people without food, without water. We were desperate. I could see my office in the distance.  Nobody recognised that you are a professor. You couldn’t even move near that office.  Reversal of status! And then, the unquenchable fire of the human spirit. The way we survived, the way other people survived, the generosity and kindness and compassion we received from different people of the world. I didn’t know I had so many friends from India, from Malaysia, from UK, from Eastern Europe and, of course, the United States and from Nigeria here. Those who sent us money, those who sent us clothes, because we had nothing to put on our backs and equally important, those who sent us kind words. Those words were so important. So this is the lesson of Katrina. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to tell this story. As a section of the poems says – it’s more or less like saying “Katrina will not have the last word.” Another stroke that became very useful to me is the Yoruba saying that eniyan laso mi: Katrina took my clothes away, human beings became my clothes. 


Newswatch: At that near death situation, what was going on in your mind?

Osundare: So many things. Incidentally, our country, Nigeria, came to my mind straight away. Because I kept on asking, if Nigeria were a country what would I be doing here because what took us to America in the first instance came to mind.  We have a deaf daughter which this country was wasting. She couldn’t go to any school. She is very intelligent. I hope the siblings will not be angry if I say that she is the most intelligent of my children. We went all over the place; there was no school for her. She became very unco-operative. All of a sudden, it hit us that we had to move. I left this country in a hurry. We took her with us. She was the one we were taking care of in the US. If I were in Nigeria, I know Nigeria is full of bunkers of danger anyway. But it is not likely that I will have 10 feet of water in my bedroom like this.  So, it was on my mind. What can we do about Nigeria so that this country is going to stop wasting us? Why does the country throw away its best? Why does the country feel comfortable when people are leaving its shores? I was angry with my country. I was also angry at America. A country that has sent men and women to the moon couldn’t secure us – poor us on earth because what happened in New Orleans with Katrina was not a totally natural disaster. We got that much of water because about five houses from us… the levee that was to protect us from the lake broke. The lake and the sea poured their waters into the city. I kept on asking and I am asking in this book too, why should a country treat human beings with such levity?  Since Katrina, the levees are being shored up. My university is right on the bank of Lake Pontchartrain which is a huge lake. Now it’s been secured. Every time I move around, I hear gbagan gbogo – the noise of instruments being driven to the earth. I looked at the water and said fine! Why didn’t they do these a hundred years ago?


Newswatch: You talked of factors that led to Katrina. Would you say as people often infer that it was caused by racism?

Osundare: Interesting point you made. Before Katrina, New Orleans was between 60 and 64 percent black. The percentage has gone drastically down. Katrina has relocated blacks. It has redrawn the demographic map and the racial map of New Orleans.  That is one side to it and it is a very important side indeed. Hurricanes are race blind and colour blind. They don’t say oh I want to hit Jamaica because Jamaica is 100 percent black. What about Cuba, what about north-east England that is predominantly white. But the prevention of hurricanes could have racial or class dimensions. I kept on asking myself and I still ask, if New Orleans were one of the wealthy towns, would it be exposed to the kind of dangers that it was exposed to. That’s number one. Two: if New Orleans were not that kind of city, wouldn’t there have been that kind of contingency plans made to rescue people?


Newswatch: Nigerians used to turn prayer warriors when faced with difficult situations. Did you at that point of near death situation become a prayer warrior?

Osundare: To become a prayer warrior at that moment would have been an insult to God and an insult to religion itself because I then would become a conditioner or opportunistic Christian. No! In fact, if there is anything that puts me off in this country, it is the way our people practise religion. I remember very well…I was attacked by armed people and I nearly died in 1987. As I was recovering in the hospital, the moment I gained consciousness, I saw so many people coming to me to read portions of the bible and trying to smuggle tracts under my sheets. Well, I couldn’t even walk at that time and I was regaining my senses a little at a time. Eventually people would come “It was God that saved you.” I don’t believe in that kind of thing. If we have any problems in Nigeria, that problem has come to us through religion. The way we take religion in this country is sickening and self destructive. What we have is not religion but religiosity. That is, believing so foolishly and so illogically. And that is what has turned our country into a pre-scientific country. For example…Let us vote. “No no I’m not voting now because we are waiting for the second coming of our God.” And who is that God, that’s Jesus Christ! If Jesus Christ were alive today, I would vote for him. I don’t swear by his name. But he was a philosopher, self-schooled, autodidact, he was a radical of a kind. He stood against the state which was one of the reasons he was crucified. He was always on the side of the poor. He had nothing except the people. When he was entering into Jerusalem, he didn’t even have a horse. They had to commandeer a donkey. Humility. He was riding on a donkey but people on horse back were falling for him and saying Hosanna. That is Jesus that is the model. What about his disciples today. With their private jets and all these captive laity we have all over the place. The prosperity gospel we are preaching in this country is a virus. If you don’t have a job it is because of your sin not because somebody over there has stolen money that should be packed into the economy so as to generate employment. Our religious people in this country shield the criminals. Every criminal in this country who is in power… the cleric will go to him or her and say: “we’ve fortified you. Whoever attacks you is attacking God because God has put you on this pedestal.” Somebody we knew rigged election! This has put many many rational people off religion in this country. When Katrina was there, it wasn’t God I was thinking about at all. I was thinking about human beings. I was thinking about my friends, my students, of course my children and parents and the little that I thought I could still do for the world. But before I leave this, a student sent me an email about two months after Katrina and said “we are happy that you are alive sir. But do you know what I heard yesterday? Some people said when you gave your valedictory lecture, (I gave my valedictory lecture late July and Katrina happened late August, you didn’t acknowledge God, you didn’t thank him.” I thanked people who helped and so on. I deliberately didn’t say what God has used me to do. All these pretentiousness. It’s sheer hypocrisy. I’m a rationalist. I didn’t do that. I wrote back to him and said Ori elegan fo, let this malicious thinkers go to hell. It is not how many times we call God. Nigeria must have one of the highest populations to church or temple ratio in the world. Every street has one or two churches or a mosque, the two together. We have so many churches, we have so many prayer warriors but we are losing the battle against corruption. We are losing the battle against maladministration. Why is our country so corrupt and so evil when we have so many people in the churches and the mosques? This is one contradiction we really have to resolve. Finally, I read something in the papers about a pastor, who said he was on a journey and that he discovered that his fuel finished up and they checked the tank and saw that the tank was actually empty. Then he prayed and did over 200 miles, on an empty tank. I said yeah! I think that is so pre-scientific. They say it’s a matter of faith but this is not the kind of faith that will take us to the 19th century. We are not in the 20 century yet. Forget the 21st century. Two plus two is still equal to four. Those who rule the world don’t think that way. Those who put men and women on the moon don’t think that way. Those who invented this simple mechanism on our wrists called wristwatch didn’t think that way. For goodness sake! How can you run a petrol fuel car on an empty tank? 


Newswatch: You don’t believe in miracles?

Osundare: Are there miracles? Oh no. I don’t believe in any miracles. I tell students at the University of Ibadan, work very very hard if you want to pass my course. I read everything you write including your punctuation marks. If you go to priests to pray that he should change my marks to turn B to A, you are wasting your time.  We are too superstitious. This is not a country ruled by science yet. This is not a country ruled by rationality. No. It is a country ruled by superstition. Last year, when our present president was still dilly dallying, should I run, should I not run? And people were saying run and some were saying don’t run, I went to the newsstand one Sunday and four newspapers carried this front page: a penitent Goodluck Jonathan, very very penitent and oblivious of everything in this world with Rev Adeboye, placing his hand on top of his head. There is no picture that could be more iconic, more symbolic about the situation in this country. It is also very political and very calculated. When he did that, of course, he won the hearts of Christians. “This is a religious man! This is great man and so on.” Now is this what you need to lead a country? Is this what you need to really galvanise the intellectual capital of a country? What will this kind of thing do to our country, our laboratories, and our classrooms? This is where countries make progress. Now, do I have anything against religion? Absolutely nothing. Christianity is beautiful if it is practised well. Shintoism, Hinduism and Orunmilaism, Chukwuism, Islam, it depends upon the way you practise it. Korea is a very religious country. I was there a couple of months ago. That is the same country that brought us Samsung, Kia and LG. They don’t spend all their time in the temples, saying God will do it.


Newswatch: The Katrina episode could be related to Ocean surge and Climate Change.  What lesson do you think that Lagos, being a coastal city, can learn from that? 

Osundare: Two things. There is a long poem here called Katrina will not have the last word. This is a praise poem for many of the people who helped us including Soji Akinrinade and Olumese. Unknown to me, Soji Akinrinade was co-ordinating relief effort. He was in England and Olumese was in the US and the two of them were co-ordinating and trying to get people to do something for us. This poem is a tribute to all those people who reached out. My friend in Slovenia organised what they call Osundare Relief Concert and sent me their autographed book, sent some money and sent a lot of goodwill. Chinua Achebe! He sent me his book which had just been released then – his collected poems. Many people don’t know that Achebe writes poetry. And incidentally, he flattered me by dedicating one of the poems to me. He sent it with pride and I was reading it. I had his book and Soyinka’s. When Achebe got to know, he sent a cheque, sent another copy of the book and his autograph this time was that what the storms took away, friendship will restore. 

Our own Katrina is not far at all. I have always been concerned about nature. The way we treat nature, nature will fight back through Tsunamis, through hurricanes. Winters are getting hot, summers are getting cold. The desert is encroaching. It used to take two hours, 15 minutes to fly over the desert, now it takes three hours, 45 minutes. And by the time you get to the coast, you just see a green strip, and that is what is left of the ocean and the desert is really encroaching. Ask what has happened to Lake Chad. Lake Chad is shrunk, it’s almost dead. All these things are connected. Nature is the ultimate poet, it never forgets. If you have hurt some part of your body when you are a child, you will see what it will do to you when you are over 60. It will come back. But human beings forget.

Coming home to Nigeria, we have to do something about coastal areas particularly Lagos. Incidentally, Lagos is where all the rich and big men in this country build their houses. That Ahmadu Bello Way is where state governments have there liaison offices, these are the powerful ones. The sea will reclaim Victoria Island if we are not careful. We have to really shore up the shoreline. It is very important. Let’s learn from Holland, what Holland has been doing to keep the sea away from the people. Number two: All these dirt’s we throw into the River,  they all go into the ocean and fill up certain areas where water should be and then push water to places where it shouldn’t be. Nature organises itself through equilibrium and through balance. We have disrupted the natural balance and that is why I think all these things are happening to us. And then the rich ones who go to Ajah, Lekki and so on and keep sinking millions and millions that they have stolen from us; the people. I don’t know how many bags of cements it will take to build a house on the ocean. It serves for them some kind of ego trip. We should leave Ajah, Lekki and all these places alone, the way they’ve been left alone. When you sink something into the water, the water doesn’t disappear. It moves to some other areas and it moves back. It gets to places where it should not be and it worries the people. 


Newswatch: Let’s get back home. ASUU is on strike. What do you make of it?

Osundare: ASUU is one organisation I can never talk about in the past tense. I have always been there since 1980 and I still consider myself a member of ASUU. What is happening is not in anyway strange to me. I have been part of the negotiating team for all the other struggles and so on. It is always following the same pattern. First, ASUU says condition of service are bad, university system is sinking, then there is a warning strike for a day, government pretends to hear, a warning strike for one week, government pretends not to hear. And then the full blown strike comes. First week, second week, third week, government pretends. And all of a sudden, elders, Oba’s, all these people will say make peace. And then government will set up negotiating team, ASUU/government negotiation team. After a lot of time, sleepless night and so on, there will be an agreement. And then the press will be called that we have reached an agreement. And before the camera, those parties will signed and then the strike will be called off. Government will implement one third of what it has agreed to implement and ASUU will start all over again. So, what is happening is not strange. We have a government that has no honour. If you append your signature to a document, that means you want to honour every letter and spirit of that document. I’m happy you asked this question. I’m really worried about the level of illiteracy in this country. I’m not an alarmist. Education has been my life. For the past 40 years, I can draw the graph of the Nigerian education. It peaked about the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, it has been nose diving. You work in a media house and you know what I mean. Call a Nigerian graduate – first class, second class upper in English, journalism, communication art. Put him or her in this boardroom. Produce an essay in two hours- one thousand words.  Take that essay and go through it. By the time you get to the third line, you have started running into errors. When NEPA doesn’t work, we can see it physically, no light. When the water corporation doesn’t work, dry taps. What happens when your grammar creaks, when your logic doesn’t hold up and you are a graduate of Philosophy, when you cannot reason and you are a graduate. And then one way or another, you hold a responsible position in society. The reason Nigeria is not making progress? It is simply that our educational system has collapsed. Time there was when Nigerian students hardly needed to complete any application form before they were admitted to British Universities. I know my University, University of Leeds. It was with pleasure that I used to write recommendations to those that I taught in the 1970s and 1980s. From the 1990s, I stopped writing recommendations. I know the international standards.  And I know that Nigeria is not meeting these standards.  I’m not exaggerating things.


Newswatch: That is why they want to remove subsidy so that it would enable them fund education and other public utilities.

Osundare: I’m sure you know that that argument is what in law is called non sequitur. It does not follow. I still have to find the kind of argument that will hold water. What I’m hearing all over the place: you are going to remove subsidy so as to be able to fund education. What kind of education are you going to fund? What kind of institution? Is it institution owned by government? That is public institutions or the private institutions we have all over the place. If it is private institutions, you don’t need government funds. Those who have set them up have money. Those who set them up are people who have stolen money. Forget it; it doesn’t matter whether it is a religious group or whatever. I’m a pastor and I have a university, the first question I will ask is: How did you get the money? In Nigeria, nobody asks you how you get your money.

The subsidy issue I think will be the subject of a marathon interview. I am really scared at the way people advanced argument here and there for the removal of this subsidy. I don’t even know whether the word subsidy…if we really have to look at it from the real dictionary whether subsidy is the word really. Because what is happening! We are paying for the incompetence of those who rule us. What they are saying is since we cannot maintain our oil refinery, since we are so corrupt that we cannot do this, we will remove this so that you people in Nigeria will bear the consequence. It doesn’t really look nice to me. What bothers me is that if this subsidy issue is not handled properly, it is going to generate a terrible distortion and a terrible disequilibrium in this country. Nigeria is not a stable country by any means. Nigerians may be resilient. Nigeria is not terribly resilient as an institution. We have to be very careful. There is nothing to fall back upon. All the things that define us as a nation have disappeared. We have no national airline; we have no national shipping line. Do we have a railway system? So, Nigeria is just like a conglomeration…that gathering of tribes that Soyinka talked of in 1960 waiting to fall apart. Subsidy thing may fuel this. It scares. So many people are saying may be Nigeria is toying with its own Arab Spring. I don’t know how they are going to face it. I ask myself, how much yam will cost, how much will agidi cost when the subsidy is taken away. How much will I pay the okada owner before I can move from one place to another? If I have a headache, how much will I buy Panadol? If a relation has a terrible ailment, how much will the doctor take before performing surgery? These are the things that really matter. They are not in the books of our economists. Our economists are not talking about them. They are talking about macro! They are talking about them at the high level. Very good. Now that we’ve talked about them in the skies, let us look down below our level and see the earth below our soles. The millions of Nigerians who have never stolen money of this country and who have been victims of our rulers’ thievery and criminality are the ones that are being asked to bear the brunt all the time.  Will their resilience also enable them to bear this, how far will it last? This is the question I am really asking. How do we handle the kind of crisis it is going to generate with the crisis we are having with Boko Haram? It reminds of that man in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. A man who already has tuberculosis, you are asking him to add on elephantiasis of the scrotum as well. Nigeria already has a terrible disease; shouldn’t we do everything to avoid adding another problem to this? It looks to me that what we are likely to have will be something that traditional rulers paying visits to Aso Rock will not be able to solve.  A hungry man is a very angry man indeed. Let us tread softly.


Newswatch: What advice would you give President Jonathan in this regard?

Osundare: Let him smart-up. Let him put on his thinking cap. I don’t mean the Niger Delta cap. Let Dr. Jonathan show us that he really earned his PhD. He is not smart enough. We want to be ruled by more intelligent people. He is a good man. It is important to have good luck but good luck is something you have to defend all the time so that it doesn’t turn into bad luck. I don’t see him affecting this country yet. You may say anything you want to say about Obasanjo, but you knew Obasanjo was there. I had never agreed with him but you knew he was in charge. Let President Jonathan show that he is really in-charge.  Let him put his feet down. He is trying to satisfy so many interests at the same time. When you choose to chase two, three rats at the same time, you are going to end up not catching any of them. You are facing Boko Haram already!


Newswatch:  But Obasanjo also had so many reforms as well.

Osundare: Reforms! He was talking about reforms. Our friend is talking about Vision 20 20 20 20. That year 2020 Nigeria will be one of the greatest 20 countries. That is mere figures. It is even so insulting. I will tell him to choose his advisers very very carefully.  And I want to tell President Jonathan because he is somebody that I like to remember the way he came to power, the way he became president of this country. I would like him to know that the scars, the wounds that the election of last year created are still there, fresh. Let him know that the problems are still there. If you have tuberculosis already, don’t go over the place looking for elephantiasis of the scrotum. President Jonathan needs to think hard. He has to convince Nigerians that he is a thinking president.  He also has to let us know that he has our interest at heart. Reading the two, three hours speech to the joint session of the House, we’ve been having this since 1960 is rarely not the issue. He has to stand up to be counted. At the moment, he is not leading. Nigerians need a leader, I’m not asking for a tyrant. Somebody that we can look up to and say yes, he knows what he is talking about.


Newswatch: Is that why we are having this Boko Haram insurgency?

Osundare: I feel political undertones in Boko Haram for goodness sake. We didn’t have it 10 years ago, we didn’t have it five years ago, we didn’t have it 20 years ago. And it is located in certain parts of the country. A good country functions like a part of the body. If anything happens in a corner of it, the whole body will have to feel it. This is how it should be. In fact this is how a good federation should be. But Nigeria has no federation.  That this thing is located in Potiskum, Maiduguri and so on, now it’s also getting to Abuja. It doesn’t mean that it is just restricted to that part of the country. Someday, we might hear a boom in Lagos or Ibadan or whatever. Is it then that people will know that Boko Haram is here? We have to look at Boko Haram. Why is Boko Haram happening? We look for ways of solving this problem. It is not a matter of traditional rulers being bribed say oh talk to your people. What is the engine that is really driving these people. This is no time to add to the crisis that is likely to be caused by the subsidy removal fiasco. I don’t want us to end with a crisis in our hands that we cannot rarely control. Let President Jonathan choose his advisers very very smartly. Let him know who to listen to and whose advice to heed. Basically, how is this country run? We run the most expensive political system in the world.

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