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‘At Long Last, Idunit!’ Wole Soyinka On His First Novel In Nearly 50 Years

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‘At long last, Idunit!’ Wole Soyinka on his first novel in nearly 50 years

A new work by a Nobel laureate is generally a cause for celebration, but for Wole Soyinka, it’s especially significant. It’s been nearly 50 years since he published his last novel, “The Interpreters,” and though his work has spanned multiple genres — poetry, plays, memoirs and essays — his new novel, “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,” manages to chart fresh territory. At 87, the first sub-Saharan author to be honored by Stockholm remains a brilliant thinker and tinkerer. “Chronicles” combines elements of a murder mystery, a searing political satire and an “Alice in Wonderland”-like modern allegory of power and deceit.

The novel picks up just as Nigeria — or the author’s stand-in for his home country — is gearing up to celebrate its annual Festival of the People of Happiness, yet another example of official doublespeak. The ruling People on the Move Party (“POMP”) have turned the country into a vast, innocuous reality show even as violence, fanaticism and ruthless plunder wreak havoc across the land. But when Dr. Kighare Menka, famous for tending to the mutilated victims of Boko Haram, stumbles upon a black market in human body parts, the nation’s ugly secrets begin to surface.

And that’s just the beginning of the conspiracies, which stretch from a charlatan preacher named Papa Divina to the president, Sir Godfrey O. Danfere. The mysterious death of Menka’s blood-brother, Duyole Pitan-Payne — who came of age with Menka during the hopeful early years of independence — tightens the web of intrigue. What did he know? Who wanted him dead? And when, exactly, did Nigeria sink so low? These and other questions — personal, moral, social and political — percolate through Soyinka’s acidly comic take on his country’s “grim contest in human desecration, physical and mental.” Soyinka spoke with The Times via email about the new book, his homeland and his own legacy.

I’m curious how long this book has been germinating and what about this story demanded the form of a novel.

Quite a while, certainly close to two decades. However, the themes found release in other forms, mostly polemical. Let’s say it found temporary outlet in my local interventions, both literary and political. So it had been building up in the mind. With that kind of pressure — rather like a flood behind a retaining wall — only the prose cascade seemed empowered to bear the burden of release.

Were there unexpected challenges in writing a novel again after so long?

Mostly technical. I work — like most — directly from my laptop. I am not a sequential writer, so each session does not necessarily take up the story where it left off. Now, imagine resuming work where you thought you had left your characters. The oftener you click that “save” button, the deeper you dig yourself into a hole — no, into several tunnels.

You started writing during the early days of the pandemic, outside your home in Nigeria. Was that out of necessity or preference?

No, I started work just before the pandemic. Needed to physically distance myself from the provoking environment to be able to address it, and in full isolation. Two sessions of about eight days each — one in Dakar, the other in Ghana — I needed those, to even begin. Then the pandemic locked me down in my own forested home, with just my characters for company. The heavy stuff took over, for some three or four months. Not a recommended regimen.

"Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth," by Wole Soyinka

The title is meant facetiously, but it was inspired by an actual news report on Nigeria’s high rating on a global survey of optimism.

Sometimes, I even propose that the novel wrote itself, with the overpowering gamut of occurrences in manic vein. To encounter a report that this land, clinging to a marginal survival index, is rated high on the “happiness” scale — that scatters your brain! But, then, you also understand. Just recently, a carnival wedding party was staged. The bride was the president’s daughter, and over a hundred private jets flew in guests from every corner of the nation. I had foolishly imagined that the nation was in mourning, what with a thousand or so students still held captive by religious fundamentalist loonies and other homicidal maniacs.

This novel can be read in many ways, but, ultimately, it moves with the pace of a whodunit. Was that something you’ve wanted to try your hand at?

Always longed to write a mystery, no question about that. In secondary school, I ate up detective novels. Well, as “Chronicles” progressed, my long-repressed antennae sniffed an opening and that was it. Backtracked and did some lateral adjustments. So it’s been gratifying to receive comments of it being a kind of whodunit. At long last: Idunnit!

How closely did you want to stick to the realities of present-day Nigeria and how much artistic license did you allow yourself?

Would be pointless to deny that I wanted Nigerians to recognize themselves in the work. Yes, it is consciously a J’Accuse of both power and the disempowered. And I drove my African publisher to distraction just so the work could emerge in time for Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary last year. And guess what? The government announced that the celebrations would be spectacular and would run a full year! Mind you, the anniversary project was simply abandoned. Left to sink quietly in government sump.

You’ve been an outspoken critic of abuses of authority. You tore up your U.S. Green Card when Trump was elected in 2016. I’m interested in how you viewed the Black Lives Matter protests of this past year.

Black Lives Matter was long in coming, its tempo was merely crudely accelerated with the entry of Donald Trump and what he represented. It was psychic release. Trump was the revenge of American racism to the shock of unforgivable Obama. I hope, by the way, that “Chronicles” is seen as not simply a critique of one’s own government. It is meant to indict us also, the governed, as a people who have jettisoned the humane values that that same society impressed on my upbringing. Yes, I would give much to bludgeon Nigeria into accepting that Black Lives do Matter!

You’ve said before that winning the 1986 Nobel Prize brought with it a heavy burden — in a word, it was “hell.” But it has also given you a powerful platform. Is this something you’ve learned to embrace?

Do recall, I did have a “platform” even before the Nobel. I had and routinely exercised that voice. The Nobel, however, began to render the voice hoarse and brittle from expectations and demands. Worst of all was that I lost even my remnant shreds of anonymity. That’s the unrecognized part, and one to which I am yet to be reconciled.

As the first Black African Nobelist, you’ve also had an enormous impact on contemporary African writing. How do you think it’s changed in the past half-century?

Yes, the prize did instigate literary emulation — not imitation, thank goodness — manifested in bolder, self-assured writing among the younger African generation. That alone was gratifying. The young female writers especially.

When you look back at your oeuvre, what works do you feel represent your greatest legacy?

No, no, I never think in terms of legacy. And I can truthfully claim that I am quite at home in any genre — from poetry to polemics. The theme calls to the medium, and one can only aspire to be a faithful conduit!

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Education

NUT faults sacking of 2,357 teachers by Kaduna govt

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NUT faults sacking of 2,357 teachers by Kaduna govt

The leadership of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) has faulted the sacking of 2,357 teachers by the Kaduna State government allegedly failing a competence test organised by the government.

The National Executive Council (NEC) of the NUT at a meeting held in Abuja on Wednesday, lamented decision of the Kaduna State Government to sack teachers, including its National President, Audu Amba, who was also affected in the mass dismissal.

In a communique released at the end of the meeting, the NUT Deputy National President, Kelvin Nwankwo, said the sack which came following the refusal by Amba and some teachers to write the competency test, was unacceptable to the union.

“It is pertinent to state that the Kaduna State Government’s purported Competency Test was held during the pendency of Suit No NICN/54/2021 before the National Industrial Court, Kaduna Division.

“Furthermore, the purported dismissal of 2,357 teachers was done during the pendency of another Motion on Notice,” the NUT statement said.

“We are teachers and best suited to know the concept of test administration which is a settled and accepted tool for the assessment of the performance of a learner in his or her educational career.

“However, this lofty tool has been maliciously bastardised and abused in Kaduna State. It has been deployed as an instrument of vendetta targeted at labour leaders who dared to perform their statutory and historical role of advocating the advancement of the welfare of teachers.

“The National Executive Council (NEC) of our great Union in good faith had in accordance with international best practices in the teaching profession, advocated that the Kaduna State Government should rather embark on a continuous teacher training programme.

“It is very sad and curious that the dismissal letter relative to the NUT President was in the public domain via the social media even when it has not been served on him.

“The intention clearly is to intimidate the NUT President and embarrass the teachers in Nigeria.

“The union will continue to perform its historical role of defending the rights of teachers in Nigeria and no amount of anti labour policies of the Kaduna State Government and elsewhere can diminish this resolve.

“The NUT family reaffirms its commitment to stand with its revered president, Comrade Audu Titus Amba, and all the teachers in Kaduna State,” the communique said.

 

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FG Continues Talks With ASUU As Strike Enters Fourth Month

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FG Continues Talks With ASUU As Strike Enters Fourth Month

The Federal Government has continued its negotiations with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) as the strike by the lecturers enters its fourth month.

A meeting between the striking lecturers and the Professor Nimi Briggs Committee, however, ended without a concrete agreement as members planned to reconvene within 24 hours to consider a draft agreement.

Talks between both parties were held on Monday at the Nigeria University Commission (NUC) in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

A senior member of the union who attended the meeting told The Harmattan News that they reached some agreements with the Federal Government, but members had to break and reconvene within 24 hours to consider the new terms in the draft agreement.

The Federal Government set up the committee led by Professor Briggs on March 7 with a three-month mandate to renegotiate the 2009 ASUU/Federal Government agreement.

The government had tasked the committee to ensure the renegotiation brings an end to the ongoing industrial action by the university lecturers.

Three months after it was inaugurated, the committee met with the lecturers but also failed to reach a final agreement that could end the strike that has crippled academic activities across government-owned universities.

ASUU embarked on a nationwide strike on February 14 over the adoption of the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) as the payment system in the university sector.

Members also decried the poor funding of universities, non-payment of salaries and allowances of some of their colleagues, as well as the inability of the government to pay earned academic allowance to lecturers, among other issues.

Since the industrial action began, several negotiations between the union and the government have ended in deadlock – a situation that was condemned by the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS).

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Talks with FG panel over strike fruitless – SSANU

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Talks with FG panel over strike fruitless – SSANU

The Joint Action Committee of the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) has said no tangible achievement was recorded at the Federal Government Renegotiation Panel.

Speaking in an interview with our correspondent on Tuesday, the National Vice-President, SSANU, Dr. Abdussobur Salaam, said the panel met only once with SSANU since it was inaugurated on March 7, 2022.

The Harmattan News had reported that the committee, which was chaired by the Pro-Chancellor of Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Emeritus Prof. Nimi Briggs, was given three months to conclude the renegotiation with the four university unions and send the report to Federal Government.

The committee’s timeline ended on Monday.

It is believed that the committee will submit its report to the Federal Government this week or get an extension.

But Salaam explained that the Briggs committee’s engagements with SSANU had been minimal and the timeline was not being adhered to.

He said, “Within the three months timeline, SSANU has only had one meeting with the Briggs renegotiation team. The meeting was held on Friday, April 8, 2022. Today, being June 7, makes it exactly two months ago.

“At the meeting, nothing tangible was put on the table. No offer was made by the government, particularly on improved conditions of service and welfare of our members.

“The government’s side seems not to be sure of itself and groping in the dark as far as its mandate is concerned.

“As of now, we have no reason to express satisfaction because even the paces of the discussions have been too slow. If it has taken two months after the first meeting with SSANU and no meeting has been called, it gives room to doubt the willingness and capacity of the committee to deliver on its mandate.”

He suggested that the panel be properly empowered to take decisions on behalf of the government.

Salaam said, “The Committee should be properly empowered to take decisions on behalf of the government. To be breathed down upon by government officials as the engagements with the committee suggest is not good for confidence building. They should show that they have a mandate to commit on behalf of the government.

“Similarly, the committee appears not to take cognisance of the timelines in the discharge of its assignment. Whatever the bottlenecks militating against the timelines should be removed.

“If we have only had one meeting within the three months timeline with nothing tangible being put on the table, it leaves much to be desired and it is highly unfortunate.”

When our correspondent contacted Briggs on the telephone for reactions on SSANU’s complaints and other issues, he declined comment, saying, “I don’t react to anything on telephone.”

SSANU’s strike started with a warning strike of two weeks which commenced on March 27, 2021, while the extension of another two weeks commenced on Sunday, April 10, 2022.

The union’s demands include the inconsistent issue of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, unpaid earned allowances, and delay in the renegotiation of FGN, NASU, SSANU agreements, and non-payment of minimum wage arrears.

Others include neglect and poor funding of state universities, non-payment of retirement benefits to outgoing members of the unions, and usurpation of the headship of non-teaching units in clear violation of conditions of service and establishment procedures, among others.

 

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