Niyi Osundare and the Nexus of Literature and Governance

Tunji Olaopa

The successful negotiation and renegotiation of human civilisations,through the ages, have been hinged on the dynamism of people, with all necessary human factors at play. Societies have developed and excelled by the blend of diversities. This has been the strength of humanity, with a stage room for every actor, idea and ideology. The full complement of humanity is multi-sided and invigorated by varieties of creativity. Creativity, in the scheme of any society, can never be overlooked because this is what humanity is all about. The wheel of continuous human existence and distinction runs on creativity.

It has not been a smooth deal for the humanities in many parts of the world. However, I will be concerning myself with the broader concern of country. That Nigeria is blessed with abundant resources is no news but our performance on the human development scale cast aspersions on our incredible resources, including human gifting. My intention is not to rain on anyone’s parade but for whatever we lay claim to as achievements, there remains a multi fold opportunities and resources that are left to waste. One of such repressed and unutilised resources is the voice and strength of the creative minds especially those in the humanities and more specifically, the creative elements like the poets, essayists, novelists and playwrights amongst others. My aim in this essay is not to rehearse my known advocacy for disciplinary relevance of the humanities, but to interrogate the nexus between literature, politics and governance.

The relationship between literature and politics has always been a contentious one. On the one hand, there are those who hold on to what has been called the “singularity” of literature. Literature, for them, has an intrinsic value in and of itself that cannot be reduced to its instrumental value for the society. The inventiveness of literature, for instance, speaks to its capacity to constantly generate new modes of expression and experience to exploit or represent. Literature has no instrumental function, or any special relationship with truth apart from being a specific way of organising of linguistic production. As one commentator puts it, literature “solves no problems and saves no souls.” This is because a literary text cannot be used as a mere means to serve a non-literary ideological or social ends.Literature’s singularity is solely a matter of form and language—of styles, beauty, genre, Bildungsroman, figures of speech, etc. It has no utility, if “utility” is taken to mean using literature as an instrument for ideological purposes. The other response to the meaning of literature actively argues for an instrumental relationship between literature and politics.

This is very instructive at this period because one of our best literary minds in this country; Professor Niyi Osundare is being celebrated. So, I am dedicating this piece to Niyi Osundare, global icon, poet, teacher, dramatist, essayist, literary critic and reformer, whose works have been outstanding not just as creative outputs but as commentaries and conscience of the nation.

Osundare, like many other literary icons in this country, and you will agree with me that we have always had them in enviably large numbers, is a phenomenon. Nigeria’s literary figures remain creative giants with huge imprints on humanity with their works and the accolades that have attended to them all over the world.
However, it bothers the mind to ask; if the literatures of our creative enigmas are respected the world over, then where is their place and that of their works in the scheme of things in the country?

The fundamental question that troubles me therefore, is why poets and other literary intelligentsia would often face the wrath of the state for what they see and what they write. Why would the state not also tap into this literary capital that allows it to see what the poet is seeing; to see beyond the humdrum of politicking? The poet also becomes a critical political actor with a stake in the future of a state. Except that he has a different understanding of what patriotic service to the state means. The poet, like Osundare, relates with truth and justice, rather than filthy lucre. The poet wants to reconstruct and reinvent. With the Word, s/he molds chaos into cosmos, as Thomas Carlyle wrote of Alfred Lord Tennyson. This molding ought to be so easy for anyone—politicians, statesmen, patriots, etc.—to accept and celebrate. Yet, chaos often is productive of profits that undermine the foundation of the commonweal. And this is where the poet, like Osundare, becomes a dangerous possessor of the Word. When John the Baptist thundered the dynamics of sin and redemption, Herod often quaked, and the Pharisees scampered! Why? As Osundare writes: “In the Word was the beginning.” The poet launches the foundation of newness, and of reform, with words.

It is important to establish the fact that literature is moulded by the political and socio-economic dynamics of a state. Seeing literature in this instrumental sense leads to several questions especially as it concerns the relevance of literature within the context of governance in Nigeria. Literature is often seen as the works of destabilising factors, with many creative writers cast as anti establishment elements and enemies of the state.

While there is no doubt that literature and the arts can be enjoyed solely for their entertainment and aesthetic appeal, all literatures are conditioned by specific social factors. Literature is a social institution whose forms and styles are moderated by political and ideological concerns. The strength and glory of literature include its capacity to constantly generate new modes of expression and experience to exploit or represent. Literature has no instrumental function, or any special relationship with truth apart from being a specific way of organising linguistic productions.

The other response to the meaning of literature actively argues for an instrumental relationship between literature and politics. This is inevitable especially within the postcolonial context of where these literatures are produced? A poet, novelist or dramatist is born within the confines of specific historical configurations which, it is safe to assert, must influence his literary works in one form or the other.

The next reasonable set of question would be; what then is the socioeconomic configuration of development and governance challenges that condition the literary outputs. And must their muse respond to these challenges? What happens to literature and literariness in the environment of poverty, the jackboot of authority and persistent injustice? How does the poet or writer cope with constant power outage that frustrates creative inspiration? How does the literary muse respond to these challenges?

The artists, the poet and the literati in general cannot afford to stand aloof in a context that challenges their creativity in the first place. And the issue goes beyond adapting literariness to something extra-literary. On the contrary, it seems to me that literary forms must necessarily be transformed and reinvented to respond to social anomie. A poet or writer, for instance, who has had to face the disconcerting discouragement deriving from a harsh publishing regime, or even worse, the biting reality of poverty and bad governance in Nigeria, cannot hope to dwell with the pure aesthetic value of a lyrical poem, or the truth-functional dynamics of an epic novel.

The literatures produced by these creative minds see and speak to Nigeria’s governance crisis in terms of a debilitating infrastructural deficit that spells the difference between empowerment and crippling poverty. These sound minds know that deficit is the sole limitation to an efficient service delivery that is the foundation of democratic governance anywhere. Governance everywhere is guided by a moral imperative which insists that government must work for the empowerment of its citizens. Every policy decision must be democratic in the sense that it must be taken within the moral framework which directs the positive consequences of those policies at the well-being of the people.This governance deficit is a function of Nigeria’s institutional incapacity to handle development and governance matters.

Osundare and other literary minds like him know very well that there is a connection between infrastructural development, human capital development and economic growth. The economic growth of any country depends on the state of her infrastructure. Once the infrastructural dynamics is limited, then a huge constraint is placed on the capacity of human development to achieve any significant development.

The diagnosis, as creatively put forward in the commentaries and other literatures of these patriotic countrymen is that since we have failed to nurture our structures to institutions, we have equally been constrained by a productivity drawback that has continued to affect Nigeria’s hope of good governance. The challenge therefore is to sufficiently confront Nigeria’s institutional renewal in a manner that strengthens them for infrastructural development.

With their poems, essays, plays and novels, they are constantly in the consciousness of Nigerians, asking critical questions that speak to various dimensions of our shortcomings as a people; questions of rule of law, justice, fairness, good governance, accountability, responsive leadership, tolerance and many more.

In the light of all these, the creative minds would not be a cross current once their literatures get the right responses and make over with the populace. It becomes important that creative writing is accorded its place of honour and significance with insights deepened for critical thinking especially as it concerns the nation, economy, justice system, politics, electoral behaviours and orientations and many more. Literatures would continue to give the populace the right resources to ask questions of those in public office and others aspiring too especially as it concerns their visions and purposes. They would also help to train the people to articulate their arguments Indeed, these works of words are dialogues with future generations who will learn from past and present mistakes, arm themselves with right resources for future masteries.

Furthermore, the literatures that would come from the founts of knowledge of the creative minds would birth new generation of leaders, distinguished by their policy intelligence, professional sophistication and intellectual versatility. These ones being detribalised, cosmopolitan and unstained in their integrity of purpose would by force of personal example communicate new vision of development. They would be leaders that could and would be trusted to implement them honestly in spirit and in truth. Literature will then be indispensable in this whole dynamics as a tool of development communication that creates better enlightened citizenry who are more critical, more informed and more educated and therefore will justifiably demand a better deal in governance.

*Being excerpt from the Keynote Lecture delivered by Dr. Olaopa, Executive Vice-Chairman, Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy – ISGPP – at the 2018 Niyi Osundare International Poetry Festival (NOIPFEST), held at the Lead City University, Ibadan on Tuesday, 29th of May, 2018

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