Ifeoluwa Adedeji: Staging the Nigerian state (1) [NEW VOICES]

by Ifeoluwa Adedeji

In this piece, I am concerned with the ‘staging’ of the postcolonial Nigerian state and the specific nature of the production process that undergirds the success and applause of such performance. Just as a dramatic performance contains elements of script, audience, improvisation, the state produces a permeating rhetoric of ideas and symbols, and a powerful set of cultural repertoires and concepts.

Chimamanda Adichie recently wrote that Nigeria is enamoured of dark humour. It is as if the state recognises the frustrations of the people with the exercise of power and the administration of governance structures, and finds it necessary to produce materials and events of political significance that provide a sort of catharsis for its audience in the form of ‘humor to rave at’. It is exactly this production of humour, its appropriation and uses, and its relationship with the maintenance or breakdown of state domination and hegemony that I devote my attention. Are acts of political derision simply fun and entertainment materials? If there is any need to think deeper about their significance, how then do we make sense of their meanings? It is infamously said, and sung, that Nigerians are “suffering and smiling.” How is such a thing possible if we do not transcend the binary thinking of “either suffering or smiling”? Exactly, how are relationships ordered and manifested to perpetuate this paradoxical relationship with domination and subjection? For if we know we suffer, shouldn’t we all push for nothing but happiness? Are there deeper consequences to derisively mocking political power, consequences that leave us rather accepting than emancipated or simply amused or rejecting?

A distinction can be made in the way individuals, in the 1970s, most notably Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the popular Nigerian singer and socio-political critic, laughed away, kidnapped and forced power to examine its own vulgarity and obscenity. The military regime’s search for majesty, importance, and obedience was met with Fela Kuti’s politically derisive hilarity, resulting in charged conflicts that allowed the state to employ the full measure of naked power.

More recent activism-lined activities have consciously avoided such grand confrontation. Ordinary people use less-threatening, presumably potent, means of ridicule to point out the absurdities and incongruences in the exercise of power. This done, the fetish takes on the status of an artefact, an artefact that is a familiar friend, a member of the family, for the rulers as for the ruled.

Social media has increasingly risen to become the platform where citizens debate, criticise, reject, ridicule, promote, and engage politics and politicians. Indeed, to see what happens at the time they happen, one only needs to be on ‘Nigerian Twitter’. The sheer size of engagement recorded on social media platforms has partly given rise to the development of civic organisations like Enough is Enough Nigeria and BudgIT which stir public discussions. In addition, there has been a proliferation of a new career class of political analysts, commentators, PR experts, and bloggers.

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), the party that ruled the country from 1999 –when the military handed over power to civilians –to 2015, manifests in different forms in everyday usage. It has been creatively adapted into a metaphor of different meanings. It is common to hear loud shouts of ‘PDP power to the people’ when something suspicious happens. It could be in reaction to a news reportage on the television or the unfolding of an event in a group. When this happens, the meanings take form depending on the kind of message that the sender wishes to pass across. In most uses, however, there is a general connection to rigging, corruption, excess or misuse of power. There are also instances when ‘PDP’ is pronounced differently: the p is replaced with a ‘fi’ sound. This flavouring connects the party and its creatively blended alternative narratives to a face, a particular ethnic group, the Hausa-Fulani, pointing out – in a derisive manner – the Northern hegemony of political power. (To be continued)

Ifeoluwa is a graduate student at Ohio University’s Centre for International Studies where he engages research focused on Africa. Prior to this position, he has taught government studies at Nasarawa State Polytechnic; done policy research at the African Policy Research Institute, Abuja; and worked in Public Relations at Red Media Africa. In 2015, he was selected by the British Council as the Nigerian delegate on the Going Global 2015 Conference panel on graduate unemployment and entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa, and recently was shortlisted for the World Innovation Summit on Education Learners’ Voice Program. He has a degree in political science from the University of Ibadan.

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