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Bala Usman and the Project of Radical Renewal

30 Apr 2013

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GUEST COLUMNIST TUNJI OLAOPA

In the first part of this series, we outlined the achievements and contribution of Nana Asma’u as a forerunner to the contemporary feminist movement in Nigeria and Africa whose insights enable us to come to grip with how the national project can benefit from a critical mass of individuals whose contributions are sorely needed to enhance the greatness of the national project. In this second part, we turn our searchlight to another personality whose reputation is unquestionable not only in the northern part of Nigeria, but equally in academics and the national scheme of things. Like Dudley, Kenneth Dike, Wole Soyinka, Awojobi, Bolanle Awe and others that we have critically showcased, he constitutes a formidable part of the intellectual capital required to fast-track the national project into reckoning.

It was Hussein al-Attas, the Malaysian philosopher, who categorised intellectuals into two: the functioning and non-functioning. For him, functioning intellectuals are repository of the hopes and potentials of their nation. They are constantly burdened by the malaise, the disjuncture and fissures in their society. The irony, however, is that such an intellectual, according to Chinua Achebe, “lives on the fringe of society—wearing a beard and a peculiar dress and generally behaving in strange way. He is in revolt against society which in turn looks on him with suspicion if not hostility. The last thing the society would do is to put him charge of anything”.

The north, like other regions, has always been a real test of diversity and unity in Nigeria. It is made up of several ethnic components and diverse cultural manifestations that the term ‘north’ seems to cover up. In Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman, we have a blend of northernness and Nigerianness that facilitates the making of an enlarged and enlightened mind ready to perceive through the prism of historical and radical interpretation of the trouble with Nigeria and how to get out of our national wood. Like most scholars of his time, Usman came to scholarship from a Marxian perspective. He strongly held on to Marx’s retort that philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world whereas the point is to change it. Transforming the world ranges from aligning scholarship to the amelioration of the human condition, subordinating knowledge to human progress and making theories socially responsible to human needs.

The dynamics of Marxism was, in his case, confronted with the rampant injustice of his society. The justice which Usman pursues is not only that which, in Anatole France’s words, “forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread,” but also an egalitarianism that is yoked to the necessity of national and democratic unity. Injustice and inequality represent for him two issues that uniquely define the incapacitation of national development in Nigeria. “National injustice,” Usman would agree with William Gladstone, the British statesman “is the surest road to national downfall”. It would have been easy for the ‘north’ in Bala Usman to twist the course of justice into an ethnic template. However, it is part of the genius of this historian to forge a unique political and scholarly identity that defines his progressive orientation in terms of a broad national ideology that holds both the northern and southern political elite responsible for the degeneration of the polity. He was motivated by the vision that Nigeria could be rescued from the mercantilist political class which constantly sought to benchmark its material prosperity against the existential austerity of the ordinary masses. What is needed is an alternative governance space that affords intellectuals the possibility of exposing not only enormity of elite crimes but also the recipe that could bring about national transformation.

Being a progressive therefore does not translate into merely lifting the radical cudgel of criticism against power without also applying the balm of recommendations that could point at the right direction that resolves the identified problems. Usman was therefore not only functional as an intellectual who speaks truth to power, but also one who insinuates himself into social and national responsibilities. He was not only a seasoned administrator at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, he also accepted to participate in the national Constitution Drafting Committee which was set up by the federal government in 1975. However, his radical thought on the preconditions for national unity could only be aired through a minority report he wrote with other progressives like Dr. Segun Osoba.  

Usman came to his nuanced critique of the trajectory of mal-development in Nigeria from a radical understanding of the methodology and role of historiography in national development. Understanding the nature of the national question requires a deep understanding of history and how it ought to be done. Usman, together with his teacher, Professor Abdullahi Smith, pioneered a rethinking of postcolonial historiography and the teaching of history in Nigeria. This effort followed in the step of the Ibadan School of History masterminded by Prof. Kenneth Dike in the 60s and 70s. After its decline, the Ahmadu Bello University School of History took up the challenge of rethinking African history that had hitherto been circumscribed by colonial methodology and its emphasis on written sources as the only objective means for writing history. This methodology automatically leads to the disparagement of oral tradition and other sources as a veritable useful means of historical reconstruction.

The implication of this historical methodology for the reconstruction of African and Nigerian history becomes immediately obvious: the largely oral basis of African history would ensure that we would never be liberated from the “victor’s history” written by the West. The colonial historical methodology essentially distils a conqueror’s worldview that is inimical to a true understanding of the achievements, values and possibilities inherent in a people’s history. Thus, as a contrary perspective, Usman and others fabricated a radical historical template that ensures not only that historical reconstruction must involve a vast array of sources—written, oral, linguistic, ethnographic and archaeological—but these sources must equally be subjected to strict critical and evaluative standards to authenticate their provenance and reliability.

The radical nature of Usman’s historiography manifests in his insistence that history must be consulted to answer the question of the formation and possibilities of nation states. The lessons of history, in other words, points at the capacities of nationalities and nations to emerge out of the multiplicities of cultural and ethnic energies available to it. Thus, the critical assessment of history from its many sources confirms that nation-building, or what Dike called “an experiment in polytechnic state formation”, is a fact of history. In a lecture dedicated to the memory of Dike and the Ibadan School of History, Usman insisted that contrary to the European myth of a primordial and indissoluble racial and ethnic groupings that make up the state, “not only nations, nationalities and ethnic groups, but even racial groups, are products of the historical process and are formed, unformed and transformed in the course of historical development.” History therefore undermines our pessimism about the national project by confirming the possibility of mosaic of ethnic and cultural synergy that would make Nigeria an enduring dream.

The legacy of Usman is therefore that we can learn and unlearn our own histories as a nation, and from its insights take up arms against the centrifugal forces of disintegration and injustices. This legacy alone is enough to make Usman a world-historical intellectual, according to Hegel, the German philosopher. And the singular honour required for such men is to incorporate their thoughts into national action.

•Olaopa writes from Abuja

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