Remarks at the Biodun Jeyifo @ 70 Conference, January 21, 2016, at the OAU Conference Centre, Ile-Ife
I am very pleased to be here and to be honored with the invitation to give the Keynote Address at this conference in honor of one of the most illustrious Nigerian academics, Professor Biodun Jeyifo. I commend the organizers for their wisdom in hosting this befitting celebration of excellence in the academic profession and radical intellectual activism, which Professor Biodun Jeyifo epitomizes.
Going down memory lane, I believe I first met Biodun Jeyifo in 1986 during the ASUU Delegates conference, which took place here at OAU, and during which I was elected as Vice President, with late Professor Festus Iyayi elected as President. I remember him chairing the Left, or is it “leftist”, Caucus meeting of the Delegates at which Festus and I emerged as candidates for the elections. (I remember my initial difficulty in distinguishing Professor Toyo Olorode from Biodun Jeyifor! They all looked lean and lanky and fiery in speech, and balding!) And I especially remember Biodun Jeyifor’s calm and cool demeanor in presiding over that meeting, with his apt summary of issues discussed and astute and commendable effort at consensus building. As a young activist, I, along with many of my colleagues, were inspired by his personal example (and others like late Mahmud Tukur); in serious scholarship, activism and personal sacrifices, in building ASUU as a strong and credible union of academics; and in establishing appropriate rapport and unity of purpose with the Nigerian labor movement. He remained ASUU’s representative on the CWC of the NLC until 1987 or thereabouts. Although he departed from Ife in 1987 (I must here confess that we were disappointed by his departure, because we believed there was a lot his presence would have offered the struggles) and I lost personal communication with him, I have remained inspired by his example; his passion for radical and humane scholarship, his combative (or is it combatant?) intellectualism and his popular engagement with the struggle for a better Nigeria, reflected in this interviews and contribution to newspapers and other media. As a reputable literary critic, cultural theorist and scholar of Marxist literary and cultural theory, in his sojourn abroad, he has become a great symbol of credible Nigerian intellectuals who have made us proud by their accomplishments and intellectual contributions, which have profound impact globally.
Comrade Biodun Jeyifo, I join others in wishing you a very happy birthday, and many happy returns, in health and contentment, and full of continuous struggles for the betterment of Nigeria, nay Africa, and our people.
Now back to the theme of this conference, “The Complexity of Freedom”. Let me begin by saying that mine is, regrettably not a Keynote, but at best a few preliminary remarks. This is because, for five years, I have been out of the Academy, and have been embedded in the huge Nigerian bureaucracy embattled by the challenges of institution building and managing and conducting elections. (Talk about a perfect excuse!) I am just struggling to find my feet again in the academia; so I deem myself incapable, as at now, of making a significant or crucial address, or intervention, which a Keynote Address really means, on the theme of this conference.
First, freedom, as a universal right, as in freedom of thought, of expression (i.e. academic freedom) and religion is not only desirable but it is also worthy of struggles to protect, defend and expand. For intellectuals and academics, academic freedom is much cherished and strenuously struggled for.
Second, the pursuit of, or struggles for, freedom need to be predicated on the recognition of the complexity of the contemporary world, as well as the complexity of freedom. As Taylor has observed, “we are living in a moment of unprecedented complexity, when things are changing faster than our ability to comprehend them”. As such, “the task we now face is not to reject or turn away from complexity, but to learn to live with it” (2001). I might add: to strive to understand it, and to design methodologies and strategies to effectively operate within it.
With regards to freedom, as Hickerson has observed, social complexities and interdependencies in the contemporary world have made the conventional, “individualistic” or so-called “liberal” view of freedom unhelpful “as a guide to intellectual action” (1984b: 435). He criticizes the classical liberal view as “unduly restrictive… atomistic, negativistic, aresponsible and historically perverse” in the context of “the complex and interdependent characteristics of contemporary society” (1984a: 91). Hence, an alternative conceptualization is certainly needed. He quoted Polanyi’s correct assertion that: “we cannot achieve the freedom we seek, unless we comprehend the true significance of freedom in a complex society” (1944).
Hickerson’s alternative is what he calls the instrumentalist view of freedom, which sees freedom as “positive power of participation in the framing of the rules of right conduct”, in contrast to the liberal view, which only sees “freedom as the absence of coercion”. Says he: “freedom obtains with meaningful and informed participation in the rule-making process” (1984b: 438).
In contrast to the instrumentalist view, there are structuralist as well as post-structuralist perspectives (Arland 2016; Dillon; Rose 1999; Taylor 2001; Cilliers 1998). The key point noteworthy is that, the complexity of freedom has spewed different perspectives struggling to understand and explain it and quite often, this is done in very complex and obscure manner.
Third, I wish to draw an important point from the works of Biodun Jeyifo, which I recently came across, because of what I perceive to be its fundamental relevance, not just to literature and literary icons, but also to all radical leftists involved in daily struggles to expand the scope of freedom in our post-colonial societies. Reading a synopsis of BJ’s Perspectives on Wole Soyinka: Freedom and Complexity (2001), on Waterstone’s website, it was stated that the essays in the book “revealed the irony that the downtrodden peoples whom Wole Soyinka champions are those who cannot read his stirring books or see his compelling dramas”. Then in Conversations with Wole Soyinka, (2001), the synopsis noted as follows:
“The Volume throws welcome light on many difficulties and obscurities of form and “message” that both academic and non-academic readers find in the most ambitious works of Soyinka”.
Apparently addressing these concerns, Soyinka says: “ I never set out to be obscure. But complex subjects sometimes elicit from the writer, complex treatments”.
Now, I am not sure about writers, but for those radical intellectuals involved in daily struggles to protect and defend freedom, as well as expand its scope, no matter how complex the subject is, we should not “complexify” its interrogation, evaluation and explanation. We should constantly strive to meet the challenge of understanding matters in their complex dimensions and then present them in simple terms for others not as professionally trained, or intellectually endowed as ourselves, to comprehend. Simple folks need to understand even complex matters in simplified terms amenable to easy comprehension. It must be one of the required roles of radical intellectuals to endeavor to make this happen.
For me, the significant point is that: while, the masses would not necessarily understand or appreciate the struggles waged on their behalf, the basis of that misunderstanding or lack of comprehension need to be constantly evaluated and understood, and methods and strategies vigorously deployed, at the individual and collective levels, to engage, inform, sensitize and mobilize them. In short, the lesson is: engage, strategize and, as late Tajudeen Abdulraheem used to say: “Organize, don’t Agonize”!