opinionBy Tunji Olaopa
The search for a Nigerian hero or heroine has remained one of the few significant planks in my understanding of the Nigerian national project. I have argued that it deserved to be considered as a serious variable in the academic and intellectual interrogation of the postcolonial realities in Nigeria.
In this sense, I am only just attempting to domesticate to Nigerian postcolonial realities the historical theory of Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher and historian, who propounded the idea of heroic leadership and the Great Man theory of history. This theory simply states that rather than viewing history as a compilation of minor and major events, we should see it as ‘the biography of great men.’ In other words, the twists and turns of historical dynamics can be directly or indirectly attributed to influential and world-historical individuals who have the capacity to impact historical trajectory through their wisdom, notoriety, political abilities, and charisma.
There are two points from which I would differ from Carlyle. The first is that I am not ready to go too far in arguing that Nigerian history is just simply the “biography of great men.” On the one hand, my own search for heroes is not a masculine project. There are heroines too whose activities influence the direction of nations. On the other hand, however, I will insist that the trajectory of a nation’s development cannot be summed up essentially as just the biographies of great men or women. The second point is to differentiate between Carlyle’s “great man theory of history” and my own understanding of political heroism. For instance, within my own context, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin will not be considered to be politically heroic. This is simply to say that political heroism connects directly to acts that move a nation forward. In other words, there must be a strict relationship between heroism and patriotism.
What is the relationship between patriotism and heroism? We can clarify this question with two statements. First, those whom we consider as patriotic may actually not be those who are capable of any heroic acts. In this sense, I am referring to those who, like politicians, unjustly benefits from a state without adding anything to it in return. It is so easy to be a “patriot” in this regard, mouthing silly slogans of national unity and the oneness of Nigeria. Being heroic or even patriotic does not arise from benefiting unjustly from the common weal. However, it is most likely that those who are truly heroic would not be considered as patriotic. This is because heroism stands at the border of perception between the patriotic and the unpatriotic. In other words, being heroic sometimes means speaking uncomfortable truths to one’s state, power and its leadership in a way that undermine the leadership’s complacence and legitimacy. A patriotic hero or heroine would not be one who cheers his or her nation or state whatever the state or nation is. Within Nigeria’s postcolonial and development realities, I know heroism and patriotism are two fundamental concepts that have become nearly compromised. No one can be patriotic who cannot relate with the Nigerian state in terms of infrastructural development. An average Nigerian is not patriotic because the state has refused to fulfill its own part of the social contract, which involves empowering Nigerians and making their lives meaningful.
Heroism is fundamental because it has a leadership capability. Political heroism challenges the decisional capacity of any incumbent leadership at any time. This is because whether in political position or outside of it, heroes see differently. And this leads to the second reason heroism is significant: heroes constitute a source of potential decisions and insights for resolving a nation’s predicament. Heroism comes with its own unique moral dynamics and dilemmas. Heroes and heroines are members of the same society as we all are, yet they must hold themselves to higher moral standards if their voices are to be heard, their views and perspectives considered, and their recommendations and suggestions approved. So, most times, they have to struggle against the current. And most time, they fail. Yet they press on with a vision of the nation which others find strange and which they oppose fiercely. As I have written before, the Nigerian state is not hero-friendly. Yet, we have produced countless of them. But it does not seem that we have made sense of their significance in the collective act of re-imagining the Nigerian nation. On the contrary, Nigeria ignores, maligns, disgraces, represses, jails, and even kills her heroes and heroines. And when they die, the leadership writes glowing eulogies to their memories, and then they are promptly forgotten!
How do we get the patriotic Nigerian heroes and heroines? My answer is that we start searching for them by first identifying those who, in my assessment, qualifies already. Those we are classifying as heroes are Nigerians (a) who, either directly through their careers or professions or outside of it, have engaged critically with the Nigerian predicament, sometimes to the detriment of their lives; and/or (b) whose ideas and perceptions have achieved a timeless relevance, especially to the urgent task of rebuilding a drowning nation. I know my choice of heroes and heroines would not go without a vociferous intellectual challenge, but I am not afraid to name a few-Herbert Macaulay, Queen Amina of Zaria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Aminu Kano, Anthony Enahoro, Adekunle Fajuyi, Moshood Kasimawo Abiola, Chief Simeon Adebo, Chief Jerome Udoji, Bolanle Awe, Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Gani Fawehinmi, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Dr. Stella Ameyo Adadevoh, Gambo Sawaba, Wole Soyinka, Billy Dudley, Ayodele Awojobi, Eni Njoku, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Hubert Ogunde, Amos Tutuola, Ben Nwabueze, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Asa Bukola Elemide, Dele Giwa, Ebenezer Obey, Tai Solarin, Margaret Ekpo, Chike Obi, and so on.
There are so many names in my abbreviated list (included and not included) that will lead to dissent. I know, for instance, that Igbo scholars would not agree with my perception of Awolowo as a Nigerian hero. Several Nigerians, and especially Yoruba, will think the same about Achebe. It is almost certain that the name of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo will shake the confidence of many Nigerians. While no one will quarrel with the heroic intervention of Soyinka, Dele Giwa or Udoji, many will wonder why Obasanjo would make the revised version of such a distinguished list. My answer is that in his person, OBJ represents the very essence of heroism-an unpopular vision of nationhood, an acerbic personality that does not suffer fools lightly, and an unceasing energy that is directed at rethinking Nigeria. A hero is always in the eye of the storm, is always swimming against the current, always at the opposite side of the offense.
Unfortunately for Nigeria, many of her heroes and heroines have died. There are equally many that have reached a point where old age has tempered the energies with silent wisdom. But there are still many more who are gearing up to take over from those who are gone and those who have been silenced. What is left for the Nigerian government to do about her heroes and heroines? At the first level, we need to recognize and critically celebrate those who are gone and those who have reached their life’s end. This is the norm in those societies that recognize what these citizens have contributed to making their societies better. Nigeria has no culture of mounting monuments in significant institutional locations to her heroes and heroines. But even less so is a national framework for engaging with those who calls Nigeria and her leadership to question. At this stage in her national existence, Nigeria ought to be a hotbed of series of national discourses on patriotism, nation building, national development and the many other ailments that have prevented her from achieving her postcolonial objectives. National discourses everywhere enable the government to engage with her heroes and heroines, whether we like what they are saying or not. The idea is not to silence them by offering them political positions that have the mute objective of distracting them.
Prof. Olaopa is a Retired Federal Permanent Secretary. He wrote this piece from Ibadan