The responsibility of privilege, by Osinbajo
Leadership challenge that has been confronting Nigeria reached its peak recently with one-week protest over the removal of subsidy on Premium Motor Spirit (PMS). A lecture by the former Attorney General of Lagos State, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, delivered in one of the past editions of The Distinguished Ben Enwonwu Lecture Series throws up certain postulations that can be explored to tackle this challenge. Excerpts:
THIS lecture does not attempt to critique the works of Ben Enwonwu, his place in art history or any matter of such great intellectual moment. That would be far too ambitious for a lawyer whose sole claim to knowledge of the arts is the acquisition of couple of inexpensive originals of largely unknown Nigerian artists who I hope will one day become known and justify my investment and foresight!
Rather, we attempt to track a tangential but hopefully important issue: “The Responsibility of Privilege”. The obligation or burden which privilege places on an individual, group or indeed a generation. We attempt to quickly explore this subject using Enwonwu’s response in life and legacy as a “mask”-even as the great sculptor and painter himself would have done, to hopefully provoke the subject’s larger implications.
What is privilege? We adopt a simple definition. It is a special advantage, right or benefit possessed by an individual or group as a result of birth, social position, effort or concession. In the context of a nation or community, the majority of whom are poor and illiterate, the educated and the accomplished, the wealthy, those in position of authority, leadership in government and its agencies, the legislature or judiciary clearly belong to a privileged class. They represent, to use what is quickly becoming a colloquialism; the “elite” in that society itself defined as a dominant group within a larger society. That dominance evidenced in easier access to capital or patronage, political power and more rigorous education. They need not physically congregate or recognise their status as such but it is evident that by birth, effort or concession they are better off than the vast majority of their peers. In many ways, in their individual or collective capacities they determine not only formal rules but also informal rules and vogues. What they respect is what is respected, what they say it is, is what it is. In sum they shape in many profound ways the state of their communities and ultimately their destinies.
In the context of our nation- that elite is found in the academia, in religion, government and business; the formal professional cadres and of course the arts.
Responsibility on the other hand simply refers to that social or moral force which binds a person or group to their obligations and the courses of action or conduct demanded by that force.
Prof Yemi Osinbajo (left) and Dr Sunny Kuku during the lecture
It is my thesis, that the privileged, or the elite both individually and collectively have a responsibility, an obligation to society to plan it, organise it, order or reorder it and above all to make sacrifices for it, for the maximum benefit of all. This is the burden of privilege. It is their obligation individually and collectively to chart the course for the millions, they define and house the ethos and the public sense of the people. It is their expected role to find common cause across professions, vocations, ethnicities and faiths defining the minimum terms and conditions for the safety, security, growth and prosperity of the community. They define clearly what is lofty, what is noble, what is deserving of honour and how these values can be sustained, preserved and enforced. This is the burden of privilege. “Noblese oblige” nobility obligates or perhaps more correctly for our purpose, privilege obligates.
Enwonwu’s life, his work and now his legacy have, as is to be expected, being subjected by art historians, critics and political commentators to that test, although expressed in different ways, of whether the obligations conferred by privilege of such enormous talent ,pioneering advantage, extensive local and international patronage were discharged. In the particular context of his times- a frequently debated issue is whether his art was a significant voice in the challenges thrown up by colonialism and the African nationalist struggles leading up to independence.
Enwonwu’s engagement with changing historical contexts is an important narrative in understanding how he perceived the obligations of his position of privilege and its constraints and challenges. In his early professional years and subsequently the illogic of prejudice, andeurocentric control of art discourse ensured that his claim to modernist stature and more incredulously for his critics “an African modernist” was constantly challenged. But it was of course a deeper issue- it was the question of whether any African artist, outside of the well set out primitivist parameters of interpretation of African art ,could attain significance in modernist discourse. Enwonwu relied for his self-affirmation in the midst of the relentless assault on his relevance, on his nativity and pedigree. His father before him was a notable Igbo sculptor. His genius was not a donation of colonial power, even if his scholarships and patronage were. His elite British education was useful but in it inhered the notion that significance could only be attained in the context of European pedagogy. His answer- was the Igbo culture and aesthetics which undergirded his work.
Had this pioneer mentally or intellectually succumbed to the notion that modernism could not be African or come from an African, the arguments about African art or artists in modernist discourse would either not occur or would have had to find a more auspicious historical locale. To quote Ogbechie in a piece titled in “Praise of Greatness, Memory and Meaning of Enwonwu’s art and life”:
“The meaning of Enwonwu’s art career and its implication for the discourse of art history in general thus lies precisely in the fact that it charts the sustained struggle of modern African art against the entrenched ethnocentrism of European discourses about modern Art.”
Enwonwu received wide patronage from the colonial government and Euro- American audiences since his debut at the Zwimmer Gallery in London at the age of 16!, which sometimes led to charges of his having been appropriated by those constituencies and their mores. However in various writings and interviews Enwonwu repeatedly enunciated the African provenance of his art. His stubborn commitment to the use of adz- a sculpting equipment used by his father in Onitsha- being by itself a powerful affirmation of those origins. Enwonwu’sdiasporic status, his elite European training almost inexorably mandated a conflation of both European and African conventions in his art. Nevertheless, he cared for, advocated and articulated a distinctive ideological space which African artists had to create for themselves. In his own words:
“What concerns the African artist today is to find a new aesthetic creed or philosophy as a guide to his revolutionary ideas. Artistic revolutions do not occur merely by the capacity to adapt one form of art to another, but through revolutionary ideas.”
It is of course possible to interprete- Enwonwu’s interpretative attempts to target his divergent constituencies as betraying a political ambivalence- especially in post colonial Africa- as has for example been suggested by Ulli Beer and UcheOkeke. However a more nuanced reading of theevidence suggests the contrary. Enwonwu affirmed and supported African nationalism in overt ways –aside from his artistic interpretations. His interaction and kinship with Leopold Sedar Senghor and AimeCesaire of course lent his weight, as possibly the best known African artist of that generation, to the radical politics of negritude, African pride and nationalism which then sought to emancipate the black man mentally, culturally and physically.
It is perhaps important to note that Enwonwu as quoted earlier quite clearly recognised the artists’ need for a “creed or philosophy” as a guide to the revolutionary ideas that would then become the substance of anartistic revolution. He appeared to have found that platform in “Negritude”.
It provided intellectual affirmation for his belief in the vitality and even superiority of African culture.
At the same time it provided a sound ideological platform to contest Euro- American pretensions to primacy and superiority in Modern Art. Several of his works after his encounter with Negritude – show a bolder, cheekier experimentation with African derived imagery. Probably his most important commission, the portrait sculpture of the Queen of England, received considerable indignant criticism in the British press for Africanising the facial features of the Queen.
Enwonwu – in fact sharply criticised the racist tendencies evident in western representations of African culture. .
Enwonwu’s art celebrated Nigeria’s diverse ethnicities, its contours, colours, and vibrance. By unifying disparate cultural tendencies yet maintaining the uniqueness of each, he pointed to the propitious direction that a critical mass of such diversity could go.
For a man who literarily had no company at the peak of African art for so many decades, Enwonwu certainly demonstrated a commendable grasp of issues of his times and actively devoted his enormous talents and fame to addressing them.
One of the great attributes which he possessed and perhaps it is to be expected of an artist of his ilk is continuous introspection. The ability to reflect deeply and to act subsequently as a fruit of such introspection, this is a matter to which we will return shortly.
Our brief interrogation of Enwonwu’s discharge of the obligation of privilege leads to the wider question of how the Nigerian elite- a group to which he belonged fared and is faring? There are many who take the view that many of Nigeria’s intellectual, professional or religious elite are individual successes-but the collective is a failure. Unfortunately it is the failure or success of the group as a group that ultimately determines the successes of the community or nation. It is the ability to come together to reason clearly, with a view to finding enduring answers to difficult community questions that characterise a responsible elite. Invariably, the elite may proffer self serving ideas, but ultimately they would be wise enough to recognise that it is only where the policy seeks the ultimate good of the majority that it will stand.
The framers of the American constitution and other great statements and charters of liberty were such an elite. Not all were noblemen, not all were of great learning, some broke laws, some cheated on their wives, some were outright outlaws, but all agreed on minimum conditions for efficient and just government and how these could be preserved. These documents which have endured centuries are some of the most eloquent testimonies to man’s ability for high thought and behaviour. Over the years despite travails of every kind the core of the American elite defended their constitution and insisted on its central values.
But even earlier it was the Barons, the English elite at the time, sword in hand who forced King John, the then English monarch, to sign the Magna CartaLibertatum, The Great Charter Of Freedoms from which almost every other charter of freedom in the history of man has borrowed. From which also in later years the concepts of enforcement of rights such as the Petition Of Rights, and the Writ of Habeas Corpus were birthed. Britain’s representative institutions and its modern judicial processes derive from that charter. This was the work of land owning barons in 1215AD. Hear some of the great thoughts written by these men so many centuries ago:
No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way harmed--nor will we go upon or send upon him--save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
To none will we sell, to none deny or delay, right or justice.
Now these elites whose great works we have described so glowingly were men and not spirits. They still frequently fell short of the high standards they set, they fought brutal wars and killed millions, they perpetrated slave trade, genocide and institutionalised racism but the gravity of the core values to which they subscribed, inexorably returned them or those after them to repair and restore, to make right what had gone wrong. And so slave trade, official racial discrimination, genocides and much later Apartheid were, challenged and defeated by the very same principles established by those elite groups so long ago. Again even the whole concept of orderly society, under law was the product of elite consensus in many societies.
The recognition of the primacy of order itself led to founding of governments and the donation of powers to them. By order, we mean security, law enforcement, and even such matters as landscaping, communal provision of water, power, control of traffic, mass transportation, and services that raise men and women from a brutish lifestyle.
The rule of law was a logical piece in setting the ‘order’ puzzle. Judges, juries, arbitrators who could be trusted with the responsibility of arbitrating disputes, imposing penalties and declaring laws without fear or favour were appointed. The rule of Law also ensured that the power of state, through its agencies was governed by law as espoused or declared by judges. And laws were not arbitrary or ad hominem. Yes, there were corrupt judges even then, and perverse application of laws, but the elite kept the focus on the core values of society. The scholars, publicists, men of faith and politicians forcefully reminded, prodded and harassed all to towards the ‘core values’, so that corruption , arbitrariness, and impunity were not the norm. Why? The reasons were both self-serving and high- minded. The failure of order was dangerous for all, especially the elite themselves, all could be lost! Even all they had acquired.
Taxation was also the product an elite consensus. Taxation especially progressive, incremental taxation was a concession of the elite to the fact that the government to whom the responsibility for order had been given had to have the resources to do so. Without it, society was back to the chaos of might is right. The principle, that those who earn more should pay more, also had to be accepted, even if hurt them. Order is not merely an altruistic aspiration – it is self preservation.
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So today, the reason a highly placed British citizen will balk at speaking to a judge or police about his case with a view to ‘seeking help’ is because he is part of an elite that has come to terms with the importance of judicial fairness, and integrity. He understands that his life and livelihood which may come up for adjudication someday are not worth much if the judge can be bought. But more importantly he realizes that if he can buy the judge someone else can. The reason why all over the world many trust the English judicial system is because it has consistently maintained its integrity and independence. So the choice of judges, again an elite consensus, is amongst the best legal minds in the profession, men of proven integrity, through a rigorous process of selection. Why do they not favour a nepotistic or quota system? It is clearly for the reason that the elite recognizes that justice upholds our system of order. Once the system is unreliable, society is at risk, everyone’s life and livelihood is potentially at risk.
I have taken the time of this distinguished audience to consider a few examples of the way in which the privileged, the elite in a society must attend to the obligations of their status. It is evident from the examples I have given, that if the “elite” in the societies considered, had not come together to act in the common good when they did, their civilisations would have either failed or been irreparably damaged.
It follows therefore, that the present state of our nation- the poverty and misery of the people, the failure of law and order, the corruption of the electoral system, the legitimization of corruption etc, are consequences of the failure of the privileged to discharge the obligations of their status. If the Nigerian elite wereeven sensitive enough to save itself as a collective not as individuals, that consensus will probably save the entire national project. Unfortunately coming together for the common good appears far too onerous a distraction from the chronic selfishness that defines those of us who constitute that elite.
But the self-centeredness of our elite is greatly compounded by a seeming lack of deep reflection. That ability to think deeply, not about self-alone, but about community.
In any event, self is endangered or at risk if community is disorganized or prone to arbitrariness. What best serves all is what makes sense, so that our lives may be lived in some measure of peace and happiness. Introspection helps us all, it helps to remove selfishness.
Take a simple issue, the availability of power. If power is so crucial to the livelihoods of all, if it affects livelihoods of the lowest, the carpenters, tailors, battery chargers, hairdressers and the highest, professionals, industry, services ,why is it not so high a priority that all effort is geared daily towards solving it? Why for example did the Obasanjo regime so vehemently oppose the Lagos private power initiative?
Introspection may help answer the question – so if I have all the money and I have all the facilities but I cannot prevent robbers from plundering my house (some of who are my purported bodyguards) or kidnapping me or my children, what then is the point? As I ride around in my jeep, it is not to the adulation but the resentment of my immediate neighbours in all the slums around me, all believing that they too can become like me, rich anyhow, selfish and uncaring about the rest.
Introspection might help move us from the childish one upmanship that manifests itself in more money, more jewellery, and more cars, so that I can show off to my neighbours and I oppress them with my wealth. In a society without power, water, healthcare, one which has the highest rates of malaria, tuberculosis and infant mortality, how can the conversation of our elite be :“”when are you going for mid-term? (mid term holidays of the children abroad) Or why do you prefer Virgin Atlantic when BA has the best first class seats? How can those of us who went to good schools here in this country now see how our schools now believe that they must have the token white headmaster or mistress regardless of real qualification, to answer our childish desire for the foreign.
Introspection might help us to reflect on the state of education. An open sore.What to do about cheating in exams, fake results, and the desperately poor quality of teaching and teachers. We know of course thatknoeledge will determine the place of any community in the coming years. Where is the big investment in education? Who are the educators and policy makers? Are they thinkers, planners who know what needs to be done? Are we engaging the best minds to plan and plot or most significant resource – human capital? If not, then how do we get out of this educational rot? What sort of teachers do we need? How long will it take? How much will it cost? Surely we cannot afford the proliferation of fake graduates in every discipline emerging from our campuses and especially the so – called satellite campuses – themselves, victims of a failed school system.
Reflection will probably show why the insistence of our elite on “quotas” and ethnic balancing in public service appointments is usually not for altruistic or nationalistic reasons. Why would the advocates of ethnic balancing not apply the same principle in the choice of doctors who treat them when they are ill? I will not risk my life on a plane flown by a pilot from Ikenne, (my hometown) if I was told that the reason why he was hired pilot was not because he was the best but because the management of the airline was in search of an Ikenne man to fly the plane. But our public services, our vital government ministries have been known to be run by appointees whose main qualification for the particular assignment was “state of origin”.
Why would anyone insist as is the case in state universities across the country- that their vice chancellors and heads of departments must be indigenes? Yet the same decision makers- dispatch their own children to foreign universities built on principles of universalism of knowledge and where the smartest men and women are sought to head their institutions regardless of race, colour or creed.
“Some reflection might help the privileged to insist as other civilisations have done, on the sanctity of the orders of courts and the rule of law. Unfortunately ,our elite, like the motley crowd, gets carried away in their thirst for the blood of the next victim in their class , they look away and even hail, when an overzealous agency of government in the name of overriding public interest, ignore the orders of a court and violate the tenets of the rule of law.
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But soon enough, the wheels turn full cycle to hurt those who cheered when their guarantee of liberty and fairness was contemptuously ignored. For example I do not have to be a great friend of a Bank MD in detention or approve of Lamido Sanusi, to object strenuously to the Central Bank Nigeria or EFCC refusing to obey the orders of a court!
Why are we innovative but unable to sustain innovation? Many of the countries even in Africa, are not nearly as creative as Nigerians can be but they outlast us in their capacity to keep what they have working. Maintenance. Thus what must be celebrated as a core principle is ‘sustaining innovation’ not necessarily innovation, the sheer number of abandoned projects clearly shows that innovation is not the problem.
Must we not establish integrity as a core principle.? How does integrity become a national ethic? What will it cost to appropriate honesty to our national ethos and how? Integrity of course here refers to basic honesty, commitment to one’s word, trustworthiness. Can we develop a system that rewards transparency, honest service and sanctions misbehaviour, a society based on cheating is rotten at its heart and will ultimately self destruct.
An ‘elite’ consensus to destroy 419 before it ruined our image as a nation could have prevented or reduced the now phenomenal cost of winning back the confidence of the world. No nation in the world would watch itself destroyed without taking action, witness US and 9/11 and how nations react to threats against their livelihoods. Somehow we have not reacted in the same way to the 419 scourge or at least in the way that demonstrates our recognition of the fact that this vocation of obtaining by false pretences now defines us everywhere and threatens to ruin access to credit internationally and eligibility to do business with the rest of the world. An elite consensus could get everyone, including children, searching out 419ers and exposing them. At least making the enterprise extremely unattractive.
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A failure of our criminal justice system to apprehend and punish offenders has legitimized stealing at every level. The pilfering in homes, offices, frauds in banks, stealing by drivers, to white collar criminality, all are hardly ever punished. Despite all the pilfering that goes on and on daily
How many times in recent years has anyone been jailed for simple stealing? Despite the acknowledged high level of petty and grand criminality in our large population, Lagos alone, 16 -17 million, we have one of the lowest convicts per capita, in the world. The criminal justice system fails because we pretend not to know that it is not functioning right.
Policing is a joke. The desire to feather individual nests makes it impossible to review our policing options. Every IG dishonestly claims that he would reduce crimes and protect the public. But is soon reduced to helping the government harass its perceived enemies. It is obvious of course that you cannot run a federal system of the size of Nigeria without community police. Posting a policeman of Sokoto origin to Anambra where he does not speak or understand the language and certainly does not know the neighbourhood is at best a cynical approach to law enforcement. Effective policing must be local.
Can we not have state/community police and a federal police to deal with federal offenses, elections, etc as do other federal systems. Can we not set national minimum standards for police officers e.g at least first degree or HND for entry level policemen. Today, different state judiciaries can compete in justice delivery innovations and performance and best practices can be copied across jurisdictions. A national judiciary may have been attractive to some, but it certainly cannot beat a system where each state depending on its work load determines the number of its courts and judges such as is largely the case now. In the next few months the 2011 elections will come. All of us know that if there is no fundamental reform of the electoral process the robbery perpetrated in 2007 will seem like a Sunday school class. Faced with the horrible possibilities that ultimately will confront us, if the people are again denied the option of free choice of their leaders, one would expect that the ruling elite would make the sacrifice as others have done to reform the electoral process even at the risk of losing power. That is the responsibility of privilege.
|Ben Enwonwu working on the Queen Elizabeth sculpture|
The incredible life and times of Ben Enwonwu, master painter and sculptor, once described as Africa’s greatest artist, his prodigious talent and remarkable boldness in those pioneering years- reaffirms that bold, sometimes brash, but always optimistic Nigerian spirit. The resilience of his legacy- is evident across the nation , in his timeless sculptures and paintings. 15 years after his departure, new reviews, some complimentary, some critical continue. The inevitable aftermath of a life of significance.
The work of the artist is of course never finished. His studio on the day of death, still strewn with sketches, busts of planned sculptures, ideas, and thoughts, awaiting execution. A metaphor, if you like, for the far from finished work of nation building, which all of us, especially those of us who have the privilege of education and some talent, are obliged to complete. What will you do, before you go?
I leave you with a story. In 1994 (incidentally the year Ben Enwonwu died) I served as a United Nations justice sector expert in Mogadishu, Somalia. The country had failed then, after several years of misrule, corruption, neglect of social justice and disregard for the rule of law. The nation was now managed by warlords. (Area boys to use a more familiar expression) every part of the city and country had its own reigning warlord. There was hardly any food, chaos everywhere. In one of the camps where hungry men, women and children queued up for food in a long line with their bowls. On the line were, former university professors, former senior public servants, former Supreme Court justices, former journalists, all hungry, waiting in line with their little bowls for food from the World Food Programme.
Prof Yemi Osibajo delivered the lecture at the 2009 edition of the Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Lecture, in Lagos.
Prof Yemi Osibajo delivered the lecture at the 2009 edition of the Ben Enwonwu Distinguished Lecture, in Lagos.
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