Uwatt: A Teacher, Thespian and Nigeria’s Moral Burden of Literature

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By Paul Obi

“It is in literature that the concrete outlook of humanity receives expression.”
– Alfred North Whitehead

Over the last two decades, there has been a global debate about the importance of liberal education, humanities, civics and social sciences. Given the world’s dire and precarious situation; ravaged by pandemics, climate change horrors and natural disasters, many have argued that there’s an urgency to reduce the concentration in the study of humanities and focus more on STEM courses- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Leading the pack of opposition against such neoliberal ideologies in education has been no other than the American-Indian Harvard trained journalist and host of CNN’s the Global Public Sphere (GPS), Fareed Zakaria. In his globally acclaimed book, ‘In Defence of a Liberal Education’, Zakaria argued passionately about the paradox of a scientifically driven education and a liberal one. He compared a President Donald Trump boasting about bankruptcy and a German scientist going underneath over a slight failure in entrepreneurship or start-up. These two variables are all products of the quality and the fundamental character of education in a society.

From the foregoing, and within the last two decades, Prof. Efiok Bassey Uwatt of the University of Abuja, in defence of liberal arts has painstakingly created a niche for liberal arts – particularly literature that many have come to cherish. For those who have had to study English, Linguistics, Law, Political Science and Sociology at the University of Abuja, Prof.

Uwatt is not a stranger or lone ranger in grooming students and preparing them for the future.

As a lecturer of Nigerian Literature; Literature and Society and Short Story, Uwatt’s lectures and classes are a projection of Nigeria’s society in various ramifications. Beyond being a Thespian in the classroom, his ability to dramatically deploy literary texts and situate them to Nigeria’s present socio-political quagmire makes him a prophetic teacher.

Uwatt is not merely an ordinary teacher; his grasp of the Nigerian literary world within the last four decades has compelled him in many ways to project literature as a source of our collective power. His ability to unearth hidden histrionics, historical artifacts and political implications of a text sits top among his many qualities. In many instances, Uwatt will navigate from being a teacher, to a mentor, a strict disciplinarian and end it all with being a dramatic persona in class. Ending with some comic relief, some of his students will be thrown into a hysterical moment.

In his classes, often filled to the brim, Uwatt will serenade his students with the various layers of society as unveiled by literature. From the Greek tragedies and their fatality of life as captured by Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Euripides’ Bacchae to the Shakespearean Titus Andronicus to Christopher Okigbo’s blend of ecumenical and the Roman Classics in his epocal collection, Labyrinths, Uwatt brings the world of abstract to reality.

More so, Uwatt’s understanding of the Nigerian society comes to life in Literature and Society, where he often re-enacts the Civil War Literature to Nigeria’s Wild Wild West Crisis in the first republic. From the first republic politics to Soyinka’s Poems from Prison (1969), Uwatt is able to vividly capture Nigeria’s history leaving his students with the full grasp of the political and historical trajectory the country has traversed. It was in Uwatt class, that some of us born in the 1980s got to know about Penkelemesi a.k.a Peculiar Mess – Adegoke Adelabu, the powerful and radical Ibadan politician in the first republic. When Uwatt goes further to give us another melodious rendition of the political anthem of that era:

Demo oh; demo oh
I belong to demo
If you see my hand
You cannot see my heart
I belong to demo.

The whole class will end in a thunderous admiration of the Thespian in Uwatt. Today, that song ‘demo’ echoes the politics of the first republic and a re-enactment with the recent Edo State governorship election where the people stood their ground in defence of liberal democracy.

Beyond teaching, Uwatt has also taken time to ensure that Nigerian literature survives the growing cases of attack on scholarship and intellectualism. In that regards, Uwatt’s publication of The Epilogue: The Unpublished Works of Ola Rotimi can be seen as a rigorous effort to save Nigerian literature for posterity. In ‘Man Talk, Woman Talk’, Uwatt’s publication brings to bear endless gender wars and feud between men and women. In today’s digital and supersonic world, gender squabbles have quadrupled without any headway. It is in this role that Uwatt’s contribution beside teaching will remain a timeless intervention in the annals of history.

In the re-enactment of society, literature locates the very essence of humanity; the human foibles, greed and fallibility of man. These variables are often in contention with benevolent principles inherent in humans. As Uwatt would often posit, literature breathes life by enacting reality through texts, imagery and drama. In that context, the burden of literature on the Nigerian society is the inability of the nation’s leaders to write-off the illiberal and debased predictions of Nigeria by its indigenous literature.

From Achebe’s ‘A Man of the People’ and its portrayal of corruption, to Zaynab Alkali’s ‘The Virtuous Woman’ and the theme of feminism to Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’ and its animist realism, Nigeria’s nationhood challenges have continued unabated. The burden is not just the ill-fated predictions, but the inordinate and deliberate efforts that have perpetually stagnated the country. It’s in this regard that the call for restructuring of the country has become even more indispensable.

Further, as academics like Uwatt continue to interrogate Nigeria’s perennial crisis as captured by literature, our memories are situated within the realm of a waiting game. A long wait for redemption – for Nigeria to live up to its calling and billing of greatness. Such anticipated greatness could come through leadership, education and the quality of teachers in the mold of Uwatt. For Uwatt, who celebrated his birthday on October 3, 2020, we can only hope for more elevation.

The Professor of Literature attended the Universities of Calabar, Ibadan and Benin, where he bagged BA, MA and PhD in English and Literary Stuudies.

Uwatt has also served as the Head of Department, English Department, Deputy Dean and Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Abuja. In an era where Nigerian government’s dilly-dally approach to education and care for teachers has continued to impair our collective growth, recognising great teachers like Uwatt remains a lofty idea. To this writer, if Mr. Bernard Odu introduced me to literature in Secondary Commercial School, Kakwagom, Boki, Cross River State, Uwatt inflamed my passion and moulded me towards appreciating the influence of literature on society. As encomiums continue to pour for Uwatt across board for his mentorship, we can only wish him the very best. And may the stars be with him.

Obi is a journalist and political communication expert, based in Abuja