The Politics of Suffering and Smiling
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the late maverick Afro beat musician, still enjoys critical immortality not only for his trenchant social analysis of the Nigerian and African predicament, but also because of the protracted relevance of his analysis. In his album--Shuffering and Shmiling (Suffering and Smiling--1978)--he lamented the pathological timidity of a followership that allows citizens to acquiesce in the mis-governance of Nigeria, especially through the instrumentality of religion. What then is the politics of this "shuffering and shmiling"? It is this: That the elites, both spiritual and political, are complicit in the disenfranchisement of the Nigerian underclass. Thus, for Fela,
Every day my people dey inside bus [My people commutes daily in the bus] Every day my people dey inside bus Forty-nine sitting, ninety-nine standing Them go pack themselves in like sardine [They pack themselves tight like canned sardines] Them dey faint, them dey wake like cock [They faint and daily wake up like cock] Them go reach house, water no dey [When they get home, there isn't water] Them go reach bed, power no dey [When they get ready for bed, there is no electricity] Them go reach road, go-slow go come [When they get on the road, there is unceasing traffic jam] Them go reach road, police go slap [When they get on the road, there is policy brutality] Them go reach road, army go whip [When they get on the road, there is army brutality] Them go look pocket, money no dey [When they check their pocket, it lacks purchasing power] Them go reach work, query ready [When they eventually get to work, summons and queries are waiting] All these compilation of woes would suggest a recipe for revolution. This is because this is the way "E dey happen to all of us everyday [they happen to us everyday]". Yet, about thirty seven years after Fela made his diagnosis of our common situation, the desired revolution had still not occurred. Rather than react radically, we have only been able to manage a complicitous cheerfulness enabled by the otherworldly hope of a better deal in the hereafter. Why is this cheerfulness wrong?
Let me illustrate this question with a somewhat bittersweet experience. The "somewhat" would appear to be the eventual key to answering the question. Some few years ago, I had to deliver some amount of money to someone in Lagos, Nigeria. I dropped at Ojuelegba and was making my way towards Lawanson, my destination. All of a sudden, a plainclothesman accosted me and surreptitiously flashed a battered identity card signaling he was a "policeman". The normal fear of the police forced me to standstill in spite of my suspicion of his identity. I moved to the side of the road where I saw about three other pedestrians undergoing a similar "stop and search" experience. The "policeman" then commenced a thorough search of my bag, and it didn't take him too long to discover the money I had with me. Again, in spite of my fear, I thought it shouldn't be a crime to have such an amount of money with me. I was wrong!
The "policeman" subsequently further "discovered" a "fake" receipt for a desktop I recently purchased. Not minding my explanation about the provenance of the receipt, I was immediately bundled into a commandeered van where I came face to face with stern-looking, gun-toting others. One of them looked at me seriously and said: "You no know say na serious crime to carry a fake receipt around? [Don't you know it's a serious offense to carry fake receipt about?]" I promptly replied, with my heart already looking for a way out of my chest, that it wasn't a fake receipt but one I was issued when I purchased the computer system. My explanation was cut short with a gruff: "You know what to do." I actually knew what to do in such a compromised situation, yet I was so confused that I blurted out: "I don't know what to do!" The "policemen" read it as a stubborn declaration; it was actually a lamentation. "If you no know wetin you go do, then you go follow us reach our station! [If you don't know what to do, then be ready to follow us to the police station!]"
It was very surprising to me in that situation that my mind could react with swift mental clarity to the danger of following them to the "police station"? I quickly came to three critical conclusions: One, the "policemen" didn't understand my confusion about knowing what to do; two, they are aware of the huge sum of money in my bag; and three, I may disappear on the way to the "police station". Without much ado, I dug into my pocket and parted with a thousand naira. Thereafter, I was asked to go with a stern warning not to carry "fake" receipt around again. When I was a safe distance away from the "stop and search" operation, I looked back and deep at the ridiculousness of the whole situation, the people going about their "normal" business while daylight robbery was been perpetuated, and the equal daring of the daylight robbers. I didn't really know where the laughter came from given my recent ordeal, but I laughed! And then I walked away, still laughing.
How then to diagnose my reaction to the entire situation? How was I different from those who have also joyously surrendered to the situation, and then, may be, cast their eyes to the heavens? Would it have been different if I had smiled, shook my head sardonically, and then walked away? Maybe. Max Beerbohm, in analysing the essay of Bergson on laughter, made a subtle distinction between laughter and a smile. According to him, "There is no dignity in laughter; there is much of it in smiles. Laughter is but a joyous surrender, smiles give token of mature criticism." (1) Fela would no doubt disagree with this distinction to the extent that both are unjustified in the face of injustice. I also disagree to the extent that laughter is regarded as hapless acquiescence or joyous surrender.
Laughter, it seems to me, can achieve more than "rollick on the high planes of fantasy or in depth of silliness" (2) or even more significantly lose touch with reality. I argue that laughter possesses the epistemic capacity of knowing or making aware. In this sense, it becomes difficult to be dissolved, as it were, into a paroxysm of hysterical and jarring laughter that actually turns one into the object of the laughter. It is on the basis of this epistemic laughter that we can draw the distinction between "laughing at" and "laughing with".
It is the former which is relevant for us in this essay because it excites our "sense of the ridiculous" with regard to the political elites and the Nigerian predicament. The latter is merely a mode of escape that gives vent to the impotent and dark thoughts within. (3) Let us next see how the Nigerian predicament generates in us this sense of the ridiculous.
The Nigeria Predicament as Farce
Reading the Nigerian situation as a farce will turn out to be an ambivalent one. This is because most Nigerians will not see the farcical dimension of the predicament. Laughing does not really come easy in the face of socio-economic travails. It would seem that the laughter space is also an ambivalent one which exercises a pull-push effect on us: The socio-political situation of the country is at an all-time height of the ridiculous that demands hilarity, yet it seems equally difficult to laugh.
In what follows, I will highlight the postcolonial predicament of the Nigerian state and its farcical dimension. To do this, I will appropriate Achille Mbembe's idea of the post-colony as my entry point into the analysis of how the postcolonial situation could generate the hilarious. My hypothesis therefore is that as a captive of the colonial entrapment, Nigeria's attempt at making sense of its "(post)-colonial space" has inevitably led to a melodrama of ridiculous, and hence laughable, proportion.
It will not be difficult to read Nigeria's 50-year post-independence political history as that of an entanglement: a complicated evolution made up of "discontinuities, reversals, inertias, and swings that overlay one another, interpenetrate one another, and envelope one another." (4) A temptation we should not fall into, however, is interpreting the post-colony solely as a function of colonial manipulations to which the African intellectuals and nationalists had to comply almost inevitably with unthinking alacrity. Rather, such an entanglement, in a significant sense, could be read as the consequence of a mutual inventiveness of the post-colony; (5) a function of the colonial calculation foresighted into the post-colony as well as the political activities of the Nigerian national elites in their eagerness for political independence. In other words, rather than seeing the post-colony in a unilinear fashion as the sole invention of colonialism, it is better to see it as a function of the collective inventiveness of the colonial and Nigerian elites. The Nigerian post-colony could thus properly be read as a "complex world of inventions" in which the socio-economic and political activities of the Nigerian leadership complicated the bequeathed colonial framework. (6)
Given the crucial point that many anti-colonial responses are possible within the constraints of colonial discourse, it therefore becomes appropriate to argue that the Nigerian post-colony betrays the unpalatable consequences of an uncritical and naive acquiescence with the colonial framework of rule and organisation. (7) Zachernuk, for example, argues that
... while postwar Nigerian political history progressed along an apparently linear path toward the realization of self-government, Nigerian intellectual history did not follow a parallel trajectory. All but overwhelmed by their exposure to new ideas and conditions, the intelligentsia on the eve of independence lost sight, at least temporarily, of much of their earlier tradition. (8) This tradition was that of a radical opposition to the programme of colonialism under the umbrella of pan-Africanism. There...