By Anote Ajeluorou
IN most parts of the world, Africa and Nigeria inclusive, the artist is the conscience of society, the man or woman who points out the way forward. He’s also the seer or prophet foretelling the future from the present. In these cases, he or she is usually apolitical, refraining himself or herself from overt political power. But times are changing; with reactionary forces seemingly commanding political power and using same for less than honourable purposes that hurt society’s wellbeing, artists are increasingly beginning to rethink their stance of aloofness.
Clearly, their houses have caught fire; chasing rats in the circumstance would seem defeatist. So more than ever before artists are venturing out rather than remain mere prophets and seers of doom shouting themselves hoax on the sidelines about the shenanigans of reactionary politicians leading from the tail rather than from the head. This also has always been the position of culture activist, poet and playwright, Mr. Ben Tomoloju for whom the culture sector turned out in their numbers to celebrate his 60th birthday with a fanfare of activities including sundry performances, a lecture and vintage conversation.
On Sunday at the museum at Freedom Park, Lagos, Tomoloju, who once took a shot at elective office but failed, had asserted, “The artist is a political animal. The likes of Bob Marley, Fela impacted on the politics of their societies with their revolutionary music. Artists should be able to affect the political desideratum. There’s this push that artists should be in politics so as to transform the nation culturally. In fact, without a cultural revolution, there cannot be a political revolution”.
Tomoloju, who had his three plays – Jankariwo, Mujemuje and Ephigenia Finds Ayelala - performed to a warm reception both at University of Lagos and Freedom Park, also spoke on the value of intellectualism as forming the basis on which social development could be achieved, a commodity that is lacking in today’s Nigerian political culture. What is pervasive in the political scene, he said, was mere charlatanism that is reductive in reasoning in all spheres.
He recalled his days at University of Ibadan as a student unionist, who helped to influence major decisions on campus. Although he never wanted to be lead, he was a kingmaker and helped in lending intellectual vigour to debates on campus, including the infamous ‘Ali Must Go’ students’ protest of the late 1970s against the scrapping of feeding allowance for students.
According to him, “I was a student politician. Radicalism was the in thing for students who wanted to be useful. I campaigned for one Osagyefo; I don’t always want to be in the executive. Back then students will be radical from the inside, but join reactionary forces when they join politics after university. We used to eat with N50 a day as students. We need to tell our children these things”.
Tomoloju’s right and rite of literary philosophy in which the future exerts a strong pull on the present is quite ample, saying the prophetic rite of literature to give accurate prognosis to problems is always vindicated in the long run. “I just pity those who refuse to hearken to the statements of the artist’s vision,” he said. “To argue with them is to argue with the dumb; it’s part of the imbecility that informs political leadership in this country.”
On the currency of the recent infamous ‘stomach infrastructure’ coinage that represents a warped national political culture that cripples development on offer, Tomoloju sees it as recipe for the hoped-for revolution that would sweep away current shaky structures. He noted, “Stomach infrastructure will be the instrument for revolution”, as it is antithetic to enduring intellectualism infrastructure that should stand society on a sound footing.
It’s was also to chart a pathway for society from such fraudulent coinages that he based the focus of one his plays Let the Vanguards Come to Town, in which he exposed the “sequestration, disconnect between intellectualism and popularism… Rather than produce vanguards to advance society, we’re producing vandals to annihilate it”, as the case with Niger Delta militants and the current rage of Boko Haram suggests.
On his plays, Tomoloju said, “There was a season of experimentation in the early plays. It was a kind of total theatre. My first three plays are very revolutionary, especially in the Marxist revolutionary frame. We wanted to test out how we could do it like the masters”.
But even as a Marxist, Tomoloju said they knew back then that Marxism could never work in Africa. The major problems were that the citizenry was largely uneducated and not the working class proletariat, as found in parts of Europe where Marxism effectively took root.
The culture activist paid tribute to lawyer and playwright, Mr. Fred Agbeyegbe, describing him as “that individual who created and a creative habitat for artists to create and have spiritual satisfaction. Fred was a standard-bearer; he sheltered us, fed us, paid artists to just stay in one place and perform! He created the Mbari-like kind of infrastructure, where artists were removed from society and camped in the shrine groove to just create as the muse led them. Agbeyegbe provided the intellectual ferment for us. And we forget that intellectualism is of the highest value in social development. Rather, what you find in today’s Nigeria is charlatanism in the highest places”.
The man of culture also lent his voice to artists’ cry for the establishment of structures to support artistic and cultural productions for employment generation for the teeming youthful population that easily becomes targets for recruitment into radical ideas that are inimical to society’s wellbeing. He called for the establishment of Neighbourhood Theatres that can sit from one hundred people and above for artists to produce.
He said, “We need Neighbourhood Theatres in every council area in each state of the federation. By now Fashola should have built theatres in all local government councils of the state. I will shout myself hoax on this until something is done”.
Tomoloju expressed disappointment with Lagos State governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, whom he campaigned for in some local council areas, for failing to do anything of real value for artists.
A former Director of Lagos State Council of Arts and Culture and Osimawa of Simawa, Oba Gbenga Sonuga, also paid tribute to Tomoloju. He decried the inability of the state government to embark on building theatres across the state, as was nearly the case while he was director, but which plan was aborted for whatever political consideration. A visual artist, Mr. Kolade Oshinowo, also lamented lack of structures for artists, as there were no purpose-built galleries across the country. He said it was a regrettable situation that impacts negatively on youth employment.
A day earlier at Afe Babalola Hall, University of Lagos, Akoka, Distinguished Professor of English at New Orleans University, U.S., Prof. Niyi Osundare, who attended the same Christ School, Addo-Ekiti, as Tomoloju, recalled their days as youngsters in that famous school. He said although Ben Tomoloju was one of the smallest boys in the school, he stood out in his erudition and intellectual prowess at that early stage. He recalled that Tomoloju would not speak or write in simple, straight-forward manner, but was always fond of using convoluted sentences and complex phrases.
In adult years, according to Osundare, “Any time you met Ben, he was talking culture, philosophy, ideas, poetry. He has impacted so fundamentally on the culture of this country. Now, our country looks like philistines, but Ben Tomoloju is the silver lining of our skyline of thieves. Integrity is in short supply in our country, but not in Ben. Money does not decide anything for him; it’s of less value to Ben. He breathes ideas, culture, philosophy; he does all kinds of things to change our culture. He has this depth; it’s what we need that is in short supply in our country.
“He is a mentor to young and old people alike. Our country has a future; you are the future. Ben’s uniqueness is in his versatility as a poet, a playwright and a singer. People like Ben never die!”
Tomoloju also presented books – Jankariwo, Flowers Introspect and Other Plays and Ben Tomoloju: Essentials of a Culture Communicator. Mr. Fred Agbeyegbe was chief presenter and guest of honour.