South Africa-based Nigerian intellectual Prof. Bankoe Omotoso, author of the provocative fact-fiction Just Before Dawn, will be 70 on April 21. Various activities have been lined up to celebrate this Nigerian icon of letters in his home state, Akure, Ondo State. But in this online interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Omotoso engages some of the issues confronting the country of his birth and why he had to leave when he did
Congratulations on your 70th birthday, Prof.! What does it mean attaining such great age? How would say life has treated you?
One of the joys of living long is watching your children bring up your grand children!
It’s such a long journey from years back till now. What happy and sad landmarks can you point at in retrospect?
Too many of both but on balance same-same
Your book Just Before Dawn, often seen as a biography of Nigeria, stirred a lot of controversy at the time, which is also at the heart of Nigeria’s evolution as a country. What did you make of the controversy? Has anything changed ever since?
It saddened me that it caused any controversy! A lot has changed. The army is not in power. There's less misappropriation at states level. Private business is beginning to get out of the embrace of politicians.
Nigerians are often seen as a people that suffer from collective amnesia. How much of this is at play in the country’s historical evolution?
It is not collective amnesia. Just that different people remember differently. Our future wars will be fought on the different remembering. How we remember our past will decide how we build our future.
The theme for your birthday lecture echoes your book, ‘Radicals, Literature and Nigeria: Just before 1914’. How far radical do you think Nigerian literature has been? Has there been any achievement in social, political orientation, if any, with that radicalism?
Our literature has been our greatest export. Followed by our films. Imagine if petroleum had been able to bring us as much positive as these two how much greater Nigeria would be?
Do you think literature has made any appreciable impact on the basic psychology of Nigeria as a nation?
I still feel Nigeria has a future behind it! Unfortunately!!
You always castigate younger writer, even including your daughter, Yewande, who doesn’t reside in Nigeria, for not being politically engaging enough in their works. Do you think that criticism is fair, seeing how averse the public has become to reading literary matters, and the kind of political culture at play in society?
It is good young writers are not obsessed with the politics of the nation as we are. All the same politics and literature, the greatest literature, are inseparable!
In spite of its imperfections, the political culture of South Africa, where you reside, has a measure of sanity even if power is in the hands of blacks. What useful lessons can Nigeria learn from her?
In South Africa power is not the monopoly of one particular group. Blacks have political power. Whites have economic power and there are trades off between different seats of power. Banks are well-run and infrastructure is the business of everybody. Governments at national provincial (state) and local levels have to get annual account certificate! All the same inequality is still too high and unacceptable.
A large pool of Nigerian intellectuals resides and works abroad like you. Is such absence from home still tenable given the onerous rebuilding work needed all areas of national life in Nigeria? How can intellectuals abroad be lured back home?
Each time I'm asked this question, I tend to laugh. When you are unable to effect change in your environment, when you cannot dislocate the wrong doers, you do not join them. You relocate. You relocate in the hope that you will empower yourself on your return to dislocate the enemies of progress. Dislocate or relocate. As at now the balance is still in favour of those who don't want change. The day enough Nigerians refuse to use generators and insist that NEPA or PHCN must deliver, then coming back will be in sight.
Give insight into some of your recent writings, especially drama and short fiction? Are we expecting a major fiction work from you soon?
I don't speak of my writings. I expect those interested to do their homework!