For ‘unbelievable Wale’, a gathering of great minds

Nationhood, elite consensus and corruption were among issues discussed when Professor Wale Adebanwi read from his latest book, Nation As Grand Narrative: The Nigerian Press and the Politics of Meaning, recently in Lagos.

IT was an interesting evening on Saturday, July 2 when some of the nation’s intellectuals converged on Jazzhole, Ikoyi, Lagos to hear professor of Afriscan American and African Studies at the University of California-Davis, US, Wale Adebanwi, read from his latest book ’Nation As Grand Narrative: The Nigerian Press and the Politics of Meaning’.

The quality gathering comprised Professor Niyi Osundare; former deputy vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan, Professor Adigun Agbaje;  Mrs. Bisi Fayemi,  Chief J.K. Randle; Mrs Nike Nedum (nee Ransome-Kuti), political strategist and public relations expert, Temitope Lakisokun; spokesperson to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo,  Laolu Akande and his wife; Tunde Fagbenle, and Ms Funke Awolowo. Others were Yinka Odumakin; Jimi Agbaje; Remi Adekoya; Olakunle Abimbola and Fafaa Dan Princewill.

Executive Editor of TheNews, Kunle Ajibade, anchored the early part of the programme as he introduced guests and highlighted some of the achievements of the author who is resuming at Oxford University, UK, in December.

Adebanwi thereafter read from the introductory part of the book by way of explaining what it’s about and also touched on how newspapers of the 1950s and ‘60s spun reports to favour their interests. He also read a part on how newspapers and magazines reported the June 12 crisis and the post-military rule era in 1999 when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo became president.

Before Professor Agbaje took charge of the question and answer session, Professor Osundare acknowledged Adebanwi’s diligence and brilliance.  He said: “He’s one of the most inspiring young men I ever met. I often wonder if Wale has any time to sleep at all; it’s one book after another. When he’s not working on one book, he’s doing research on one or two others. And he does write poetry too although he wants to hide it from the rest of the world. I do tell him that I’m offering myself as a blurb writer. This is something I hardly ever do in spite of so many invitations but now I’m telling him, please put out this book and I’m going to write the blurb.

“This is a political scientist who’s also a practising journalist and I think he’s able to look at both disciplines from the inside out as it were. What Wale has done is to open our eyes to two disciplines that are more or less like Siamese Twins. Let us take journalism seriously, it is really important. What could Soyinka have been without journalism? What about Chinua Achebe? Journalism is a very important part of the memory of a country. In any way it is superior to history.”

Like Osundare, Agbaje also acknowledged Adebanwi’s genius.   “I supervised his master’s thesis where he got a distinction plus; 80. With regards to his PhD, I must confess that I really did not have to supervise Wale’s work. What I had to supervise was the student himself, not the work,” said Agbaje who also recalled how the author was practically kicked out from the University of Ibadan when he wanted to take another PhD from Cambridge University.

He added of his protégé’s outstanding scholarship: “Wale is not just a political scientist, journalist or journalism researcher but more importantly an anthropologist. I respect anthropologists. They are strong on methodology; they are very rigorous in research and I think that’s why Wale is able to combine all of these. This guy is unbelievable. From 2008 till now, he’s published 11 books. 11 books published by leaders in the field: Cambridge University Press, Routledge, I mean he’s unbelievable.”

Thereafter, it was a mixture of praises and questions from commentators.  Mrs. Fayemi, who thanked Adebanwi for “being a witness for this generation” wanted to know if the author is thinking of doing something about how social media has become a tool in the hands of young people using it to frame their own narrative about Nigeria.

For Fagbenle, the author is an amazing and selfless man always at the services of any Yoruba leader, irrespective of the cost.

Ms Awolowo expressed concern over people’s reading habits and said it won’t be a bad idea if Adebanwi returns fully to Nigeria and becomes involved in governance.

Ajibade asked: what concept of a nation have you worked with in this book and did the magazine and newspapers whose contents you researched and analysed, alter your meaning or affirm that concept of a nation? And how ideologically divided were those media platforms in their interpretations of events of the time?

Responding to the first set of questions starting with Ajibade’s, the author said:   “What I did in the book is basically to look at the canons, the standard definitions of what a nation is through the ages in modern times. I look at all of those definitions and the understandings of nation and how have we dealt with the idea of nation on the African continent and Nigeria. How is nation explained within the Nigerian press and what comes out of this as I say in the conclusion is that it’s almost like a moving object.

“You find different kinds of understanding of what constitutes a nation. From the ethnic hole which is also very problematic. For instance, when people say the Yoruba nation, there’s also a lot of problem with that. You find people exiting that. You find evidence, for instance, in the case of Lagos. And that’s the interesting thing about the understanding of ideology that I deal with in this book. It’s basically meaning in the service of power. What people mean by what they say is actually basically in the service of the power which serves their own interest. So when people talk about what it means to be a nation, it’s basically about how it serves their interest…and I think what the press does very well is to give some kind of voice to these different elements.

“Oftentimes you find some kind simplistic understanding of this but you also find complexity within the media. That’s why it’s important to examine so many newspapers and news magazines, not just at a period but over a long time; and you also find a lot of shifts.  When you say Yoruba nation, what do you mean? That’s why I said let’s go to the text. At different points in Nigerian history, where do these newspapers stand on different issues? “

On the issue of homecoming, he said it’s in the mind and that he’s always around in Nigeria. He added that though he sometimes wonders if bothering about Nigeria is worth the trouble but that, “the Awolowo tradition into which I was born and which drives not just my public engagement but also my intellectual engagement is one that is committed to the possibilities of any social foundation. Awolowo was an incurable optimist; he believed in the undying possibilities of human beings. He was somebody who was committed to possibilities and he had his disappointments too but the overriding thing was that human beings are capable of re-inventing society and creating societies that are liveable. It’s a work in progress, we will never give up and we don’t necessarily have to be in government to be able to help in creating a better society.”

Odumakin wondered why there is no consensus among the elite and if it’s possible to build a nation without consensus among elite?

Responding to the question on elite consensus before the author did, Osundare said a distinction needs to be made between positive and negative consensus. “Corruption is the most powerful uniting factor among the elites,” he said, adding that the leaders are however not the only culpable party as followers, especially those who prefer “stomach infrastructure” to quality service also have their faults.

On elite consensus, Adebanwi said “it is very important and there are different manifestations of it. The United States is a very good example; when it comes to the American military, whether you are conservative, liberal, there’s a consensus about that. The only thing I think is settled about us here is that we are not going to have a good country.”

Citing the example what happened in Yoruba land in the 50s when the Action Group introduced compulsory free education and the initial opposition to it, Adebanwi reiterated that “it’s possible for an elite consensus to change this country. The consensus that exists now is that this is not going to be a good country and some people work hard every day and ensure that it doesn’t happen. If some people also work hard every day that this is going to be a good country, it’s actually possible.”

Contributing to the elite consensus debate while giving the vote of thanks,  Akande said it was time for a true positive consensus among the elite as they need to show the way forward for followers. He noted that the elite seem to have “agreed on corruption, to rob and rape this country” but that with the new administration, “Nigeria has a window of opportunity to get it right.”