Festus Iyayi And A Past Remembered
By Sunny Awhefeada
The 1980s was the magic moment for Marxist radicalism in Nigeria. The roots of that era of robust ideological ferment can be traced to the 1970s when the reality of “the bitter taste of liberty” was beginning to dawn on Nigeria. The most traumatic experience in Nigerian history, the Civil War of 1967 to 1970 had just ended. With it were entrenched military dictatorship and an economic boom that bubbled with petrodollars. Nevertheless, the era did not bode well for those who could see beyond the moment. Nigeria’s head of state, youthful General Yakubu Gowon told the world that Nigeria’s problem was not money, but how to spend it.
In spite of the nation’s wealth, there was poverty, underdevelopment, exploitation and the tendency to politically negate the essence of democracy for as long as the soldiers in power wanted. The gross contradiction manifesting in want, hunger, exploitation and oppression became the impetus needed to inaugurate a new ideological credo. It was at that point that a new generation of Nigerian academics returned from European and American universities where they not only studied, but embraced the ideology of Marxism as negotiated by the German thinker Karl Marx.
The Marxist allegiance to the working class was particularly appealing to the returnee scholars mostly in the humanities and the social sciences. Entrenching an abiding faith in Marx whose infectious teachings were reinforced by those of Friedrich Engels, the likes of Omafume Onoge, Biodun Jeyifo, Molara Leslie, Eskor Toyo, Bala Usman, Segun Osoba, Bade Onimode, Toye Olorode, Ola Oni, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, G. G. Darah, Festus Iyayi, hoisted the flag of radical scholarship anywhere and everywhere there was a campus in Nigeria. In no time the humanities had an alliance with the social sciences.
In literature as in history, in economics as in sociology, in political science as in philosophy, Marxism was domesticated in Nigeria. The class struggle manifesting between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the manifestation of poverty in the midst of plenty, and the anticipated victory for the oppressed and exploited working class charmed the Nigerian radicals who stood out with their austere and bearded looks in solidarity with the suffering masses.
It was in literary representation and criticism that Marxism manifested itself fully. While Omafume Onoge led sociology, the original domain of Marxism, to invade literature at the University of Ibadan in the early 1970s, the trend created a zeitgeist for Nigerian literature. Niyi Osundare lyricized the ethos of Marxism in poetry. Festus Osofisan valorised Marxism in dramatic enactment. While Festus Iyayi invented narrative voices in whose brains Marxist ideals throbbed. It was a great moment and Festus Iyayi who died on 12 November 2013 made that moment very compelling. This November, exactly on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of his gruesome death, family, friends, comrades and colleagues and students gathered inside the Akin Deko (Main) Auditorium at the University of Benin for a lecture in his honour.
The significance of that gathering not only inhered in it being an honour for Iyayi, but it should be regarded as a celebration of an epoch in our recent past. That epoch was defined by a restless spirit of enquiry embedded in endless questions. It was a great moment of intellectual debates when academics interrogated ideas and conceptualised ideals. The Ivory Tower was, indeed, respected at that time and academics were truly in pursuit of knowledge. The society looked up to academics for solutions to the nation’s problems. Those in power dreaded scholars and courted them. Academics were magisterial and they spoke truth to power. A wink from a professor could put a dictator in his place. That was in the 1980s and Festus Iyayi was part of that great tradition.
That halcyon ideological moment did not last. The soldiers in government assailed the universities from inside out. The soldiers needed a venomous minister of education and a few rabid vice chancellors to quench the flame of Marxism. Professors Jubril Aminu, Grace Alele-Williams and others were on hand to assail the universities the abode of Marxism. In no time the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) was hit and things began to fall apart not just for the universities, but for Nigeria. Festus Iyayi was caught up in the hurly-burly of the conflict between the state and the academia. As national president of ASUU, Iyayi was sacked from his University of Benin duty post. He was dehumanised and evicted from his residence with the roof pulled off.
However, Iyayi’s spirit soared above that of the state. He took the battle to emancipate Nigerians to the literary turf. Iyayi wrote novels which spoke to the harsh and debased condition of the Nigerian people. He lashed out at the establishment and envisioned a new order when the people will assume their rightful place. His novels Violence (1979), The Contract (1982), Heroes (1986) and Awaiting Court Martial (1996) remain the most forceful narratives in the enunciation of Marxist ideals in Nigeria. Iyayi went on to win the 1988 Commonwealth prize for Literature with Heroes. Iyayi’s death was caused by the murderous convoy of a state governor.
The recent lecture which held in the celebrated main auditorium of UNIBEN has shamed Iyayi’s detractors and confirmed that those who ranged on the side of the people will always outlast the oppressors in collective memory. It was reassuring that Ogaga Ifowodo stood so tall to read Iyayi’s citation. Ifowodo alongside Iyayi were sent packing from the University of Benin by the forces of retrogression. They were treated by outcast, but history has vindicated them. That Ifowodo mounted the podium that day was a triumph for not just the radical Marxists, but it was a moment that recreated the past. Ifowodo’s reassuring voice must have boomed and brought nostalgic feelings of that past when he was the symbol of aluta continua! A past that is yearning to be reborn.