Of Critics And Patriots By Eddie Iroh
In the 1970s, there was a small bunglow in Independence Layout, Enugu, which housed what was called the Writers’ Workshop. It had been set up by the then governor of the defunct East Central State, Dr Ukpabi Asika, as a rendezvous for creative writers and artistes emerging from the civil war. In the small garden of the small house, the Director of the Workshop, the radical writer Obi Egbuna [Destroy this Temple], had posted a small but poignant sign. It read If you see a man walking in this garden and talking to himself, do not be afraid. He is not mad. He is a poet. You have nothing to fear from a poet but the truth. Going back memory lane to more than 30 years, I cannot recall whether there was any attribution as to the author of the words. But it is arguably one of those trenchant, timeless expressions that transcend both borders and cultures. For here I would like to replace poet with critic.
Two recent events, one about Nigeria and the other in the United Kingdom, have put the critic and his society in perspective. On September 30, the eve of Nigeria’s 53rd Independence anniversary, a Nigerian scholar, Professor Olu Oguibe, chose the moment to renounce his citizenship and opt for another [presumably the United States, where he is currently based]. On his Facebook Wall Oguibe posted his old green Nigerian passport in a final sacrificial ritual of renunciation and briefly stated his reasons for what must have been an excruciating decision.
He recalled being “disillusioned and heartbroken on leaving Nigeria and arriving in Britain 24 years ago.” Heartbroken, yet hopeful “that soon all tides would turn, and I would return where the earth still holds my umbilical cord,” he went on to rue: “Sadly over the years, this passport brought not renewed hope but deeper despair; not pride or joy but unspeakable pain.” In renouncing his citizenship, Professor Oguibe envisions the beginning of “a whole new chapter” in his life, “…a different dream, a different possibility, a different promise based on the will to build, to aspire, to accomplish, to serve the present and secure the future for generations yet unborn.” He concludes: “I hope to live long enough to see that [American dream?] fulfilled. But if that promise should fail to come true in my lifetime, I am glad to choose the dream over a nightmare.”
The other event relates to the father of Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Oppositition Labour Party in the United Kingdom. The London Daily Mail newspaper had, in a front page article, described Ed Miliband’s father as The Man who hated Britain. Admittedly the Mail, a right-wing newspaper, is on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum from the Milibands whose father, a Jewish immigrant from Belgium, was a socialist and raised his children in the leftist ideological mould. But most people, including those on the right, were appalled by the portrayal of a man who had fought for the United Kingdom against Hitler, and later became a respected professor, as a man who hated his country; simply because he held left-wing views that were critical of aspects of capitalist Britain.
These two seemingly disparate but really connected events raise fundamental questions about criticism and patriotism. The easier one to tackle is perhaps Ed’s father, Ralph Miliband. One would have thought that having served his adopted country by voluntarily enlisting in its Navy and fighting in the Second World War, a mere four years after he came to Britain, Miliband Senior had paid his dues as someone who loved his country. Indeed it goes without saying that by putting his life on the line in defence of his country, he had proved his patriotism beyond doubt.
But then comes the question: does love of one’s country mutually exclude or nullify one’s right to criticise the things that one finds wrong with one’s country? I ask this question because I find that there is a bit of the Daily Mail in the manner Nigerians in the corridors of power react to criticisms of our country and its many troubles, however objective such criticisms are. Very often, our reactions suggest that we should jail or exile all those who, like Julian Barnes, believe that “the greatest act of patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, or viciously.
” Indeed others like H L Mencken contend that critics are more patriotic than the rest of us because they hate to see the values of their countries debauched. I recognise of course that these views were an anathema to the juntas that ruled us for more than 30 of our 53 years, and we dared to challenge them only at our own peril, as Ken Saro Wiwa found out.
But in a democracy, we are entitled to expect better. Yet many will recall the uproar that followed the late Chinua Achebe’s rejection of Nigeria’s national honours on two occasions. Government spokesmen at the time saw it as an affront on the country, while others like Femi Fani Kayode in his time condemned it as a slap on the face of President Olusegun Obasanjo and his government, thus equating the president and the government with the nation.
It is of this ilk that Samuel Johnson said that “patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel;” people who cover their sycophancy with the green-white-green flag of pseudo-patrioritism, discrediting well-meaning patriots, while portraying themselves as loving the nation more than all else, when in fact they are only serving their own interests. In the end, they and those who take them seriously only succeed in undermining the belief of genuine patriots that nothing makes for a healthier nation than healthy criticism. And that sitting on the safety valve does not make for safety. Indeed it is those who portray all critics as traitors and fifth columnists are the ones doing a disservice to the nation, any nation.
Of course not all critics come to equity with clean, patriotic hands. Some foist their own prejudices on us, drawing from their excess baggage of religious, ethnic or political agenda. For those no one and nothing is good enough. But our true patriotic duty is to separate the wheat from the chaff; the patriotic critic from the partriotic charlatan, else our criticisms in the past may come to haunt us in future when we find ourselves in a position to defend what or who we had traduced before. It has happened often in our land.
That is why I believe that the condemnation that trailed the Daily Mail attack on Miliband’s father has lessons for us in Nigeria. It underscored the value that developed democracies attach to the citizen’s right to disagree with his country; his entitlement to criticise the ills of his nation without being labelled a traitor by those who see nothing wrong merely because they are beneficiaries of all that is wrong.
The collateral consensus from the furore over the Mail ‘s attack on the patriotism of Miliband Senior was an overwhelming reaffirmation that the privileges of a true patriot include the right to hate what he finds wrong with the country he loves. That was the view held by the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the celebrated Nobel Laureate who was banished to the Siberian Gulag for his sustained criticisms of the excesses of Soviet Communism. “Patriotism,” he wrote, “means unqualified and unwavering love for the nation, which implies not uncritical eagerness to serve; not support for unjust claims, but frank assessment of its vices and sins…”
On the other hand, the decision of Professor Oguibe to renounce his Nigerian citizenship poses a far more serious challenge for us as well as the very concept of patriotism. Not surprisingly, Oguibe’s announcement produced an avalanche of reactions and a deluge of emotions. A chorus of critics, cynics, sceptics and patriots weighed in with varying views on the meaning and significance of citizenship. What surprised me was the number of Nigerians who sympathised, even agreed with his decision to renounce the
“nightmare” he regards as Nigeria. One compatriot wrote: “Ah prof. You left Nigeria 24 years ago and you are still feeling this way. If you were still around you would have probably petitioned your parents for [giving birth to] you here.” Another went to the extreme of bluntly saying “I hate Nigeria,” while a significant other cautioned along the line that whatever harm Nigeria might have done to her citizens, Nigeria was where we belonged and we cannot right the wrongs by quitting.
From what I could glean from the narrative, it would appear that Oguibe left in circumstances of forced exile during the regime of Babangida.
He did not “check out” for economic reasons like “Andrew.” But for anyone looking at this from Oguibe’s point of view, one thing is clear: if after a quarter century, three military regimes and three civilian administrations, a highly celebrated intellectual like Oguibe still felt the need to take such a drastic step, one does not have to agree with his decision to recognise a call here for rigorous collective soul-searching. To illustrate my point, if, for instance, the healthcare situation that forced Chinua Achebe into his own exile, had improved, along with other variables and measurables, would Achebe perhaps not have felt that the troubles with Nigeria had declined noticeably, not merely for him to accept national honours, but even return to his homeland?
Solzhenystn in the Soviet Union and Nelson Mandela in Apartheid South Africa provide ample lessons for us that the critics’ ideas in the end triumph over the ills and system they oppose. RIP Soviet Union and Apartheid.
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