By Pius Adesanmi
Three years ago or so, one theme ran through my public lectures. From one podium to another in Canada, in the USA, in Nigeria, I screamed about “the struggle for meaning”. I was transferring that concept from the terrain of abstract critical thought and high-tension theory in my graduate seminar rooms in North America to the trenches of our collective struggle to take Nigeria back from our establishment enemies in Abuja. I said that nationhood is first and foremost a struggle for meaning. How that struggle plays out and who wins it come loaded with concrete and material consequences for you, yes, I mean you, my friend over there, yes, ehen, you – roaming the streets of Abuja or Lagos with your CV in a manilla file, still seeking employment ten years after graduation.
If, as a people, your enemies win the struggle for meaning, they get to define the shape, character, purpose, essence, and mission of the political state which determines every aspect of your membership of Project Humanhood. Today, that state has effectively been defined by your enemy as a shorthand for impunity and corruption; the only patch of land on planet earth where twenty billion dollars could be stolen and there would be equivocation over whether to condemn the heist or not. Once a definition takes place and gains a foothold, all institutions of state, laws, etc, are designed by the victors to service their own forms of meaning. This is when the struggle for meaning stops being an abstract concept or dogon turenchi and you suffer from its real life material consequences. Today, all your institutions of state, your laws, everything that governs your everyday, are designed to facilitate, enhance, and perpetuate the singular meaning of the Nigerian state as defined by the few who won the struggle for meaning: government of Stockholm Syndromed fools by the criminals for the rich.
There are more concrete consequences to your surrender of meaning to the criminals ruling Nigeria. Surely, you know from the history of slavery, colonialism, and Apartheid, that victors don’t stop. Victors will keep on expanding the ideological, physical, and even spiritual space of their victory. They will keep encroaching and your world and margin of action will keep shrinking. Today, you are gnashing your teeth that they have released a Centenary Honours List featuring not just some of the most opprobrious and despicable characters in our national memory but, most importantly, they even managed to make a British colonial criminal, Lord Frederick Lugard, appear in the same list as Chief Gani Fawehinmi!! Why are you surprised that they are able to do this? These are the conquerors of national meaning. Victory over meaning comes with their ability to rewrite the history of national heroism for you, to re-inscribe national memory. Don’t fool yourself: the handful of credible names they have on that list are just there to shut you up. Their real heroes are the Lord Lugards, the Obasanjos, and the Sani Abachas of this world. Those are the people they really want to celebrate and invest with national heroic and symbolic meaning.
And there are still more concrete consequences to your surrender of meaning to the criminals ruling Nigeria. I always laugh, bemused and amused, whenever I hear genuine progressives and activists grumble that they no longer recognize themselves in those two words. Well, your world shrinks when you lose the struggle for meaning. No space is too sacred, too inviolate for the conquerors to invade.
You think that the conquerors of meaning are going to let you continue to enjoy a world in which “progressive” and “activist” mean Bamidele Aturu, Joe Okei-Odumakin, Ayo Obe, Chido Onumah, Omoyele Sowore, Okey Ndibe, Sonala Olumhense, Chidi Odinkalu, as well as the “collective children of anger” arrowheaded by the likes of Soni Akoji, Gimba Kakanda, Japhet Omojuwa, Dapo Rotifa, Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, Seyi Osiyemi, Tunji L’ght Ariyomo, Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, Safiya Musa, Petra Akinti Onyegbule, Agbaosi Gloria, and so many others on social media? Should you really be surprised that the conquerors of meaning have ensured that “progressive and activist” now also automatically bring to mind every and anybody from Bukola Saraki to Tambuwal via Atiku Abubakar? Because of this violation, I have even suggested we stopped using the terms, “progressive” and “activist” to describe those genuinely working for the emancipation of our people and fatherland. I have coined a new term, “community of conscience”, to house the genuine warriors of the people. But, if this new term gains acceptance, how long will it take before we begin to see Homo Lootophilus Nigerianus admitted into Nigeria’s “community of conscience”?
If you think that those raping meaning do not know what they are doing, consider the degree of discomfort that the intellectual wing of the APC – those who can be considered proper political progressives – exhibits whenever they are confronted in media interviews over the question of the damage that their political party has done to meaning. In otherwise brilliant media interviews, this is the point at which their logic collapses and Kayode Fayemi, Babatunde Raji Fashola, and Adams Oshiomhole suddenly begin to make Goodluck Jonathan sound like a beacon of coherence. Kayode Fayemi is a good case in point. When asked about what the wholesale embrace of decamping thieves and criminals from PDP means for the character and complexion of progressive politics, he rambled on and on, arguing that there are progressives such as Julius Ihonvbere in the PDP before settling on the progressive antecedents of the Republican Party in the US. Fayemi’s answer was shameful and disgraceful and he knows it.
But the real loser is you. Fayemi, Fashola, and Oshiomhole may be expanding and diluting meaning for purposes of political expediency and forced cohabitation with migrant criminals from PDP, they don’t really suffer personal consequences. They belong to the winning team in the struggle for meaning. You are the one who cannot have Ukraine because you lost out in the arena of meaning. Ukrainians are having Ukraine right now and you have been salivating over that struggle and wondering why you can’t have Ukraine in Nigeria.
My brother, my sister, Ukrainians have Ukraine because beyond their differences there is a rough, workable, transcendental agreement over what the Ukrainian state should mean for the Ukrainian people; there is an agreement that their current oppressors are in flagrant violation of that meaning; there is an agreement that the traducers of national meaning need to go, starting with the President. Nobody is saying that the President is our son. Nobody is saying that the President is a Christian or a Moslem. That is why Ukraine is going on and you are salivating.
I’m afraid you will not have Ukraine now. You need to start by re-learning how to win little symbolic struggles in the theatre of meaning. They have come up with their disgrace of a Centenary Honours List. Stop agonizing over their list. Organize and rescue the genuine and credible names from their list, add new names to it and draw up a people’s list. Compare names in all your spaces of national conversation and civic participation. It is going to be chaotic, it is going to be cacophonous. The usual monsters of ethnicity and religion will creep in. But here is one instance where you need to show that you can overcome what the rapists of meaning always use to divide you. Come up with a genuine people’s National Centenary Honours List and begin to circulate it on social media and other friendly media. Let the noise around your own alternative list drown out the buzz around their own list. This is one civic duty of disobedience and disagreement with the irrationalities of the Nigerian establishment that you owe to yourselves and to Nigeria.
If you are able to do this, you may be ready for other baby steps on the road to Ukraine. Take the case of the Iyaloja-General who has been breaking the law, practicing impunity, and terrorizing traders in Lagos with arbitrary market closures for political reasons. If you cannot even come together against the local terrorism of an Iyaloja in Lagos, how do you hope to ever rise against the might of the corrupt Nigerian state in Abuja? Something snapped in my heart when I read newspaper accounts of her victims claiming they went to beg her to reduce their fines and “temper justice with mercy”. Beg who? Why? And which justice? There is so much madness going on in Nigeria. Somebody is breaking the law, you go and beg her to have mercy! Again, this Iyaloja-General’s case in Lagos is a critical test. She can only happen to you because you lost the struggle for meaning and the state is consequently defined as impunity. Can you resist impunity at that local level before you start dreaming of Ukraine?
I can speak against her and call for action against her because I am not beholden to political gods and I have contempt for racism and bigotry masquerading as ethnic nationalism. I do support ethnic nationalism and autonomy within a redesigned and redefined Federation but, sadly in our case, many of those who speak for ethnic nationalism are pea-brained racists and bigots ruining and bastardizing a beautiful concept. Because I am not bogged down by the dual demons of ethnic racism and political godfatherhood, I can speak out against the Iyaloja of Lagos who, by the way, is terrorizing all traders on an equal opportunity basis. Your ethnicity or religion does not matter, just show your APC registration card or else! If I ask you to rise against her lawlessness and terrorism, can it be done transcendentally? Or will your putative action collapse in the face of ethnicity and religion?
If you cannot speak and act with one voice against an overbearing and wholly lawless Iyaloja-General in Lagos, if your usual dividers and conquerors are going to rally you to her support – and to the support of her lawlessness – because she is Yoruba or because of the faith she practices, then, folks, stop dreaming Ukraine at the centre in Abuja. You are not ready.