It is a warm summer evening and as I approach the Great Court of the British Museum, I am struck by how unusually empty the vast courtyard leading into the Museum is. On this evening, the courtyard is only open to visitors to the joint forum organized by the Museum and Guardian Media to mark the end of the Kingdom of Ife exhibition which has gathered enthusiastic responses from critics and the public and which has now been extended till the 4th of July. The forum with the interesting title – “Nigeria: Africa’s Superpower?” includes a private view of the exhibition and then a panel discussion with Nigerian writer, Chika Unigwe, Father Matthew Hassan Kukah, Dr Abdul Raufu Mustapha of Oxford University and Dele Oguns, a Nigerian solicitor and public commentator based in London.
Under the sprawling glass roof of the Great Court, tables are set out with drinks amidst a large crowd of different ages and nationalities, in which I spot a number of familiar Nigerian faces- Oba Nsugbe QC; Onyekachi Wambu of AFFORD, Chikwe Ihekweazu (my friend and colleague from Nigeria Health Watch), Muhtar Bakare of Farafina and Dipo Salimonu from Africa Confidential. After we exchange greetings and I meet more new friends, I slip away for one last look at my favourite piece in the exhibition- an alabaster stool with a protrusion like an elephant’s trunk carved from a single solid block- it is so beautiful and unlike what I associate with Ife- the bronze heads and sculptures that it has stayed in my mind from the first time I visited the exhibition.
Kukah, Unigwe, Anya
As the private view closes, we desecend to the Lecture Theatre where the forum is to take place. The broadcaster Jon Snow appears on stage with the four discussants, “having cycled furiously over” we are told from the Channel 4 station where he has been reading the evening news. He introduces the panellists and invites Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum to set the scene. Neil explains that the Kingdom of Ife has been a huge critical success and links it to other exhibitions currently running at the museum, particularly the South Africa Landscape garden, a collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden and the exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings- Fra Angelico to Leonardo. He highlights the fact that the Renaissance drawings were being made at the same time as the Ife sculptures and laments that this synchronicity and its implications is never taught in European art history classes. Supported by slide images of objects in the exhibition, he talks about how the quality and technical excellence of the objects astounded the Europeans who first saw them, causing them to doubt that these were made by Africans. He emphasizes the links with the Benin bronzes, Ife and Tada and other areas in the Niger valley and wistfully asserts the continuing mystery surrounding these objects- what were they made for, who were the artists and what do the markings on the faces mean- and concludes by saying that this is an opportunity to reimagine Nigerian history.
Father Kukah begins the discussion, wondering how the knowledge of these artistic and cultural achievements can be more widely available to Nigerians to foster a reassessment of self-image and help to think more clearly and creatively in tackling the challenges that face the nation. He wonders if that is already beginning to happen, whether the winds of change have begun to blow- citing the fact that for the first time in Nigerian history, the President, the Senate President and the Chief Justice all come from minority ethnic groups.
Dr Mustapha argues that as a Nigerian who grew up in the 60s and 70s, his greatest sadness is the failure of the nation to live up to its tremendous historical and contemporary potential. He attributes this to a failure of vision, leadership and institutions, but adds that it is important to remember that in spite of this, the Nigerian state has not collapsed. He thus poses the question- how does a sub-optimal state maintain itself, saying that unlike Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa who had strong leaders to unite the people, most Nigerian leaders have been largely ethnic champions.
He suggests that oil, the military and the presence of a strong middle class are possible answers but appears dissatisfied with these answers, suggesting that the question requires further exploration.
Dele Oguns begins by recounting his reading a book recently about Genghis Khan and comparing the achievements of that era with contemporary Mongolia and asking himself “what happened?” He admits to similar feelings after visiting the exhibition and suggests that in Nigeria, the failure to achieve its potential is due to the inability to find a form of relationship between the ethnic groups that harnesses all the different talents and creates a space for fulfilment. He talks about the unity of the apple- homogenous and solid versus the unity of the orange-segmented and discrete, suggesting that Nigeria needs to go for the orange model, given that the apple is not an indigenous fruit.
Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street is more optimistic accepting that Nigeria is an African superpower- in the cultural sphere-citing the wealth of Nigerian writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians whose works are consumed all over the world as her evidence. She laments the destruction of irreplaceable cultural objects by religious zealots in different parts of the country, recalling her sadness as a child watching a 90 year old “heathen” woman describing how she burnt all her household idols as she converted to Catholicism.
Jon Snow asks whether people look at these writers and artists and musicians as being Igbo or Yoruba or Hausa musicians .Chika’s answer is that they do not, and so in some way, a Nigerian cultural identity is slowly emerging. Snow then asks why this isn’t replicated in government and civil society, giving father Kukah the opportunity to assert that the privileging of religion and ethnicity is largely an elite phenomenon. He tells the story of his sister who lives in a largely Muslim area in Kaduna who kept her things with an elderly Muslim neighbour for safekeeping during unrest when Christian homes were being targeted. The neighbour helped his sister escape but two days later, some Christian youths who were supposedly carrying out reprisal attacks burnt the old neighbour’s house and Kukah’s sister’s belongings in the process.
Raufu takes the opportunity to disagree with Dele’s proposal for a unity of the orange, arguing that segmentation is not the answer. Dele, in rebuttal recounts a conversation between Zik and Ahmadu Bello, in which Zik asks that they forget their differences, only for the Sardauna to respond with “No, let us understand our differences”, prompting laughter from the audience.
Snow raises two issues he is surprised no-one has mentioned- corruption and the rise of China. Dele’s view is that corruption thrives in an enabling environment and that the current systems and processes in place encourage corruption. Father Kukah highlights the fact that the current President Goodluck Jonathan has never spent a penny to get elected to political office- this in a country where you need to spend millions to become a local government councillor. He argues that this challenges the perception that you need money to get elected.
The questions are thrown open to the audience and there are several robust contributions. Tonye Cole of Sahara Energy who is in the audience talks about how his company is harnessing the skills, resilience and tenacity of Nigerians, which he accepts is sometimes misguided, pulling professionals home to share the techn
ical skills that they have learnt to conquer the world, arguing that Nigerians need to stop depending on government but utilize their inherent unquenchable enthusiasm and tenacity at getting things done. Another member of the audience talks about the unifying power of football, predicting that the coming World Cup will again bring Nigerians together.
Father Victor Akongwale, a Catholic priest from Obudu makes an emotional and passionate contribution arguing for what he calls the elephant in the room- that until Nigeria formally acknowledges the injustice done to the Igbos and the blood spilt in the war that true efforts at nation building will be flawed. He challenges Father Kukah as to why the Oputa Panel (on which he was a member) did not recommend an apology and formal restitution and is only persuaded with great difficulty to yield the microphone.
His contribution is received calmly by Father Kukah and less so by Dr Mustapha who deplores the “raking over of wounds, especially by a priest” and argues that such approaches will not move us forward. He then argues that President Jonathan should not disrupt one of the few institutions that Nigeria has managed to establish- the informal power-sharing agreement between the North and the South, which draws some angry retorts from the audience.
Another audience member asks about the role of the church in ensuring good governance and speaking out against corruption. Father Kukah jokes that democratic government tends to put social critics out of business and laments that people often assume that it is because “someone has paid you to keep quiet” More seriously, he talks about the rise of the Pentecostal churches and the prosperity theology which tends to undermine some of the efforts towards achieving social justice.
Each panellist is given the chance to conclude, with Father Kukah, making the case for distinguishing between office-holding and leadership and quoting a Nigerian Muslim friend who said “Nigeria is like a Catholic marriage- it may not be happy but it doesn’t break up” and affirming his cautious optimism that the coming year and the elections will be pivotal for Nigeria, a view largely shared by Chika. Dele Oguns emphasizes the need for a system that acknowledges the diversity of Nigeria, pointing out that “apples don’t grow in Nigeria, oranges do”, while Dr Mustapha points out that the last three elections have all been described as “pivotal” to Nigeria’s future.
Jon Snow summarizes his understanding from the debates in a few words- Nigeria is a country where its best leaders are not in office, it is a superpower not at home, but abroad and it is a superpower but not as we ordinarily know it.
As we stream out of the theatre, he tells me that it is one of the most enjoyable debates that he has chaired, citing the good humour, the passion and vibrancy that he has seen. As I leave the Museum and head for home, his words keep ringing in my head.