iroko a legacy


Many, many years ago, the African American poet Langston Hughes was compelled by America to ask what becomes of dreams kicked down the road. He offered no explicit answers, only rhetorical clues:

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

You need not be a student of Literature, History or America to perceive the pervasive pessimism permeating Hughes’ peroration; rhetorical statements about Black Life and yearning that still remain potently valid today, more than a half century after the poem’s publication.

But this isn’t about America.

In Iroko: A Legacy, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko reveals something not many may know. He was a commissioner then, an asoju whose potency only derived from and enhanced his chief executive. And back then in 1992, his chief executive, Michael Olumilua, considered his memo about a Mother and Child Hospital surplus to requirements. The dream festered, like a planted seed, in the purgatory of its conceiver’s mind, until new life burst out of its detritus after many years had passed.

Mimiko’s Abiye Programme, of which the Mother and Child Hospital is central, has won him accolades nationally and globally. But who has time for accolades? Ask certain Ondo State parents: Instead of accolades, they will tell that what one should have time for is that government has undertaken—as governments must strive to do—to benefit the citizenry, this time in the hawkeyed management of the birth-infancy continuum. This is nothing to sniff at it in a world where a certain former chief executive of Nigeria’s premier melting pot—lately pressed into federal service—can cite education’s expensiveness as justification for state-sponsored exclusion. The gall.

On the whole, the governor responded to exactly thirty five questions over some three hours, making this the longest and most engaging interview—by his own admission—he has ever given. The questions invited him to treat the question of his legacy in an intimate manner whilst also addressing some nagging local and global issues. Thirty five questions are a lot of questions and towards the end, the governor good-naturedly blurted something out about the bottomlessness of our questions. But you could tell his enthusiasm had waned quite. His volume was down a few notches, his sentences slightly laboured. His outward appearance was that of one who had rumbled through ten gruelling rounds with George Foreman in the sweltering heat of Kinshasa, which is to our credit. Then we asked what items would be in his training manual were he to be asked to coach a governor. He laughed. The enthusiasm returned. The training manual he described contained only two items. To conclude the interview, I asked the outgoing governor to situate himself in the canon of Ondo State leaders.

Canonicity and questions of influence are at least as old as Longinus’ treatise on great writing. Matthew Arnold, T.S Eliot and Harold Bloom are some of the most eloquent of its more modern exponents, and it is Eliot’s oft-cited “Tradition and Individual Talent”—at least in literary-scholarly circles—that I will now invoke. The essence of it, I mean. Which boils down to an imperative that one (the poet) be aware of the historical provenance of one’s (literary) being and to imbue this sweep of history with one’s (literary) idiosyncrasy.

In reframing the question, I somewhat inexplicably translated the idea of a canon to the simplistic concept of a rank. In the original question itself, I had limited the scope of influence to Ondo State. A double strike against me. By the time I realised what I had done, the words were too far gone to take back. I was too wary of circumlocution at this point, and this was after all the man who when he walked in had asked us if we had been informed “this would be brief.” Of course he sidestepped the question, because as presented, it was an invitation to presumption. Had he realised—or had I been able to make him realise—that what I required him to do was to attempt to trace and define his political ancestry in specific Nigerian terms, perhaps the horse may have neighed of its lineage.

As it happens, canon formation and the isolation of influence usually fall in the purview of scholars or other such commentators. I make no claims to scholarship, but let me attempt as rudimentary a stab at the question as the present circumstances will allow.

First, I should mention that The Cap the Governor wears is a let-on, even if throughout the interview he never mentions The Name—is this an intimation of Bloom? I am loath to read much into The Cap however, because, starting from 1999, The Cap’s ubiquity, the mendacity of many of its wearers, has translated into a dilution of its strong symbolism. But Cap or not, whatever you think—or not—of him, the Abiye programme, by itself at least, situates Mimiko in the direct lineage of Awolowo (by way of Jakande), whose commitment to social democracy, a democracy whose legitimacy derives from the salving of mass yearning, remains unparalleled, decades on. It is a big statement to make but I will make it nonetheless: as people of a generation older than mine can say they are products of Awolowo’s free education programme will other people—Mimiko babies—of a generation younger than mine say they are products of Mimiko’s Abiye programme. I feel rather envious seeing as I’m going over my life with a fine tooth comb to see what political accomplishment my generation can attach itself to.

My follow-up to his response would have been something out of Bloom: Do you, ephebe, feel the anxiety of, say, Awolowo’s influence? Is that why you haven’t mentioned His Name? How much of the precursor is in the philosophy of governance you have enunciated and tried to practice? Is this anxiety of an outsize influence something familiar with Nigerian politicians? Is this itiju in the face of greatness an animus for political accomplishment? Or, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, do Nigerian politicians, in your humble opinion, ever even feel this kind of itiju?

Of myself I would ask: can you find evidence of misprision? Misprision, to summarize that Bloomian invention, is the interpretive tension through which the ephebe—the upstart—attempts, consciously or unconsciously, to upstage his precursor’s idiosyncrasy.

When functionaries speak of the Abiye programme, terms like maternal mortality and morbidity are bandied about. The odd functionary will mention neonate and infant management. You will definitely hear things like “children under five” said. The mothers and fathers who have benefitted couldn’t care less what fancy jargon functionaries choose to describe what they do with. These men and women care about being spared runaway expenses and, many times, grief over the loss of a child or its mother. These men and women care about irreparable damage to mother and/or child being averted. The system is by no means perfect, but we talked to several parents in the two Mother & Child Hospitals in Ondo State careful only to ask about the service and leave out talk of any politicians. Many of the parents were effusive in their appreciation.

Let’s begin to wrap it up.

Social democracy is possible. It is possible for government to first and foremost be socially responsible, not to exist in and of itself, as end and means, its only interest its own perpetuation. After all, from whom does government derive its legitimacy? Who has foregone self-evident freedoms to foster a sense of society?

Forget Castro’s Cuba. That Castro. Forget the cold stretch of Scandinavia. We have something to point at here at home. We have a fact to insert in our impassioned, idealistic arguments as to the horizon of human yearning and ability. Our citation for the ideal-real can be: Mimiko, O.R. The Abiye Programme. Ondo State Government, 2009—.

Government cannot be a vehicle for dog-eat-dog-ness, for the narrow assuaging of the voraciously untamed appetite of a precious few. Not if we want to still a gradual but inevitable loosening of anarchy upon the world. Today’s ascendant philosophy has failed and continues to fail us. That flood of light at the end of the tunnel is the ghost of dreams. Fukuyama once insisted that history had reached waasimi. Events have since punctured his certainty, and tempered his enthusiasm. In 2017, it has become obvious that history is attempting to free itself from its hijackers and bending in a new direction. The quicker we ride the bend of history the better, if we are to avoid the fate of the tangent.

Perhaps we shouldn’t forget Cuba. Cuba teaches a more vital lesson than the nations of Scandinavia. For decades, that resilient nation has laboured in the shadow of a neoliberal behemoth intent upon its social, economic and political strangulation. Irony of ironies then that in 2017, one nation has cheap or free universal healthcare coverage and education, while vast swathes of the other dream on. And this is no mean healthcare coverage, no mean education: Cuba’s doctors, for instance, are some of the best trained in the world, and were immediately on hand while, like a shy lover, the world still wrung its hands and counted its fingers on Ebola.

Yes, the vagaries of the manner in which we have structured our little corner of the universe will make pressure on public finances inevitable. In the face of these pressures, to slink off like chastened dogs, our tails between our legs, is not a response. It certainly isn’t the universe of our capabilities. The challenge that lies before us is to define parameters through which government will always remain socially responsible to the governed, come rain or shine. If it takes a global lobotomy to consign neoliberalism to the scrapheap of history, so be it.


If Langston Hughes were to make our controlling inquiry of Mimiko, what might the response he receives be?

Maybe it explodes,
Brother Langston,
Rahman might say.
Maybe sometimes it simmers
and gels.
Maybe it festers—
then sprouts
into something palpable.

As the cry of a new-born?

(Disclosure: Being the Creative Director of Lagoon Communications, publishers of the Iroko: A Legacy, I was naturally intimately involved in its production.)


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