BY CHRIS ANYOKWU
Chris Anyokwu, PhD, a dramatist, poet, fiction writer, speaker, rights activist and public intellectual, is a Professor of English at the University of Lagos, Nigeria and has joined Business a.m.’s growing list of informed editorial commentators to write on Politics & Society. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
Oratory has been universally acknowledged as an important part of political communication. The glory of power, notably political power, derives in the main from oral extemporaneous declamations, from great speeches delivered in situ. To be sure, a great many historical personages who had strutted their stuff upon the stage called the temporal vale of tears have achieved immortality because of their oratorical skills, many of them; their quotes still charm the imagination to date. Perhaps a short roll-call of these orators will put in bolder relief our main contention. Indeed, the mere mention of the word oratory immediately brings to mind the following great men of power noted for their unique gift of the gab: the Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill (1874-1965); Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968); J.F. Kennedy (1917-1963); Nelson Mandela (1918-2013); Ronald Reagan (1911-2004); Bill Clinton, Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948), Abbe Lincoln, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and; Barack Obama.
These aforementioned great orators of global reckoning would seem to be the first set of people gifted with the power of language that the world has ever known. But the truth of the matter is that, before them, the world had been blessed with other extraordinarily cerebral owners of words, as Achebe would refer to Nwaka in Arrow of God. Who hasn’t heard of Cicero (106 BC-43 BC); Demosthene (384 BC-322 BC), Pericles, Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC) and Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340 AD-402 AD)? They, all of these men, attained timeless relevance, epithetic status and unfading global renown, not due to their martial dexterity or the number of human heads they were able to bring back from the battlefield, or the enduring work of their statesmanship or even their ability to alchemise nature into culture, or to birth a civilizational paradigm into global currency. They all owe their place of everlasting fame and glory to the use of the tongue; their facility with words, to oratory. We are reminded at this juncture of Apostle Paul before King Festus Agrippa (Acts 26: 1-29). Finding himself in the teeth of possible death by execution, Apostle Paul had seized upon one of man’s greatest and surest instruments of self-liberation – speech. He had to summon all his powers of elocution in self-defence and, more crucially, in the defence and propagation of the Gospel before the all-powerful emperor Agrippa, the Roman King. Such was Apostle Paul’s dexterous command of language that Agrippa exclaimed: “Paul, thou almost persuadeth me to be a Christian!” Those who know their Christianity well would remember that the Christian hymn captioned, “Almost Persuaded” was inspired by Agrippa’s expostulation in that momentous moment of metaphysical epiphany.
It is assumed that for you to aspire to lead any country, you must distinguish yourself by your oratorical prowess; your ability to arouse in your audience patriotic ardour, the can-do spirit in the face of dwindling expectations and expiring hope. Small wonder, for anybody to nurse and nurture the dream of occupying the White House or Number 10, Downing Street, s/he must have attended an Ivy-League university such as Harvard or Stanford in the case of the USA or Oxford or Cambridge in the case of the UK. In some cases, these politicians deliberately choose a course of study most suited to the pursuit of their political calling. In this regard, a favourite course of study for these aspirational politicians is Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), a unique academic discipline specifically designed to meet the intellectual requirements for the office of the Prime Minister or the President as well as leadership in other spheres of life including academia, industry, banking and journalism.
Aspiring to lead a nation is no cake-walk; it is, arguably, the most important calling on earth. As such, the individual wishing to occupy such an exalted position must, willy-nilly, prepare for the onerous task of statesmanship, for political leadership at the highest level. As President Olusegun Obasanjo noted in his recent Open Letter to Nigerian youth, the President is expected to interact spontaneously in a face-to-face, in-person oral verbal give-and-take with other world leaders at international fora, such as G20, the UN, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the AU and ECOWAS meetings, among others. The leader has to be an on-the-spot, hands-on personality, forever thinking on his feet and speaking off-the-cuff because, out of the abundance of the mind, the mouth speaketh. But what happens if and when the leader’s mind and heart are a veritable desert of data and ideas, a tabula-rasa of sorts? The people over whom he presides are, invariably, done and done for, period!
Some scholars, especially those in the humanities, have written projects, master’s dissertations and PhD theses on the Great Campaign Speeches of some world leaders, Prime Ministers and Presidents. It is generally believed that the inchoate and nascent ideological and policy germs and kernels of a leader are contained in his campaign speeches delivered in situ on the hustings and allied stomping grounds. Normally, journalists and media aficionados whose business it is to inform and educate the citizenry are wont to be on the trail of politicians during an electioneering period in order to glean the truth from the horse’s mouth. So that it can be said, when the dust of the promise-season must have settled, when the candidate has been voted into office, that: Thus saith the president during his campaign for office. This is because his speeches on the campaign trail provide direction, hope and succour for the immediate and distant future. The speeches disclose the quality of mind and the ideological orientation of the leader. The electorate is able to distil and deduce from his “words on marble”, his organogram for leadership for a period of time in the nation’s untiring march towards modernity and prosperity. Yes, the politician’s campaign speeches are a veritable trove of imperishable words; they furnish an invaluable cornucopia of quotes which illuminate the paths of progeny and posterity. They are a rich intellectual and historical treasure-trove for sundry researchers, political commentators, scholars and the general public. Besides, political and cultural historians (as well as historiographers and hagiographers and biographers) can rely on the speeches as authentic sources of academic material. They interlink the oral past with the scribal present as far as record-keeping is concerned. Society can add to the shaky prop of the memory of the unlettered but highly fecund oral griot and bard of old the scribal fixity of the nib. The communal pond of memory is the better for it. For, Memory is Master of Death, as Wole Soyinka quips in Death and the King’s Horseman. But beyond the monumentalising and memorialising imperative of Great Speeches, people tend to regale themselves with the inspired and coruscating quotes of leaders of bygone eras. William Shakespeare in As You Like It tells us that “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players;/ they have their exits and entrances…” Thus great orators who have crept “this petty-pace” and strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage include Toussaint Louverture, reputed to be born in 1743. He was the father of the Haitian nation. Regarded as the “Black Napoleon”, Louverture, a former black slave, had gone on to prove to be a brilliant military leader and skilled politician during the Haitian Revolution against the French conquistadors. Another great orator and leader was W.E.B. DuBois, an African-American scholar. He has many quotes attributed to him. For instance, this: “Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.” And this: “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, – all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, – who is good? Not that men are ignorant – what is truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men”. Martin Luther King Jr., the late Baptist minister noted for his doctrine of non-violent political engagement once famously declared: “The time is always right to do what is right”. He also said that: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that…”. But his quote that takes the cake is: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. This is a timeless quote and truism that speaks to our contemporary situation here in Nigeria. Apart from these aforementioned orators, the world had also witnessed the dazzling brilliance of mind and extraordinary breadth of vision of such great personages as Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Marcom X., Kwame, Julius Nyerere, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Zik of Africa, Obafemi Awolowo and M.K.O. Abiola.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo once said that: “The rich, and the highly-placed in business, public life, and government, are running a dreadful risk in their callous neglect of the poor and down-trodden.” The Great Awo also said that: “Any people that is starved with (sic) books, especially the right type of books, will suffer intellectual malnutrition, stagnation and atrophy”. But this next quote takes the eagle feather: “Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English’ ‘Welsh’ or ‘French’. The word ‘Nigerian’ is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria and those who do not”.
It is meet to concede at this juncture that Nigerian (African) politicians of old were men and women distinguished by their oratorical nous, formally informed by their recourse to the traditional formats of public address. Among the traditional Yoruba, for example, the public address contains: (a) the ijuba (salutations) (b) the address proper (song, dance, speech, narrative or oral recital, etc.) and (c) credits (appreciation and gratitude expressed to royalty and people, farmstead and homestead, flora and fauna, the dead and the living as well as the benevolent and malevolent spirits). Nigerian politicians of old used to adopt and adapt this opening glee, performance and closing glee format of oral public speaking in their own hustings on the soap-box. They would open their speeches by paying homage to the high-and-mighty, the people themselves, inter alia. Then they would focus on their manifestos, posturing themselves as magicians and workers of wonder. Through a lavish mix of coaxing, cozening, and cajoling, the politician would drench his listeners in a deluge of IOUS and political dud cheques, largely promissory notes of ephemeral shelf-life. The campaign ground, usually teaming with mammoth crowds, was a veritable coliseum of emotional blackmail: the man of the people would woo, wheedle and, if need be, weep like a wimp! All for the vote! Such maudlin sentimentality on the politician’s part always had the magical effect of inter-fusing power with powerlessness, prince and pauper, and the master with the (poor) masses. The powerful also cry! So he’s one of us! Ambition transmogrified into passion wins the day!
However, since the beginning of the current campaign season ahead of the 2023 presidential election, it has been one long Harmattan of arid, dry-as-dust husting season, the campaign trails empty and almost funereal. All one sees are rented mobs and foul-mouthed political jobbers and hucksters. And what passes for campaign speeches are sterile and shop-soiled inanities, mindless brickbats, and all whatnot. The meat of the campaign is usually pure ethnic baiting, personal attacks, name-calling, muckraking and mutual recriminations. Truthfully, much of the on-going electioneering campaign is a hollow ritual of mere sloganeering and mouthing of taglines. Nothing deep; nothing original. Nothing fresh. In the arena of speechifying, eloquence, brilliance, invention, creativity, and vision, all stand aloof from the yapping of trite shibboleths. Charges of plagiarism and barefaced thieveries (identity, idea, ideology, dress, quote, gesture, sound and sense) take centre-stage as political rivals defraud, impersonate and steal from known sources! Talk about the search for the truth in a post-truth dispensation! Nigeria’s politics today is nothing short of the Theatre of the Absurd.
What we are witnessing is the poverty of politics which in more ways than one is equally the politics of poverty. Down and out as the poverty capital of the world (no thanks to oil theft, institutionalised corruption, Biblical poverty and privation, and hunger) Nigeria’s material poverty has morphed into intellectual and spiritual poverty. How educated are the frontrunners and contenders in this presidential election? The never-ending allegations of certificate racketeering, “Oluwole” dealings, impersonations and identity theft confirm the abysmal hollowness of the charade we call politics in Nigeria.
What’s more, the lack of power of personal example, the sheer brash and brusque, in-your-face fecklessness of our politicians, notably the candidates and their spin-doctors saddle the party flag-bearers with a baggage of moral deficits. Mere braggadocio and blowing of hot air will not do. He who comes to equity must come with clean hands. As a presidential wannabe, your private and public life should be open like a book for public scrutiny. Questions of integrity, character, mental acuity and intelligence and wisdom have to be asked of you. Sadly, the masses, blinded by ethno-religious blinkers, have been deeply compromised through so-called stomach infrastructure so much so that they are ready to settle for the devil’s bargain. Thus both the political elite and the people are mired in the bog of ethical filth. Yes, hope springs eternal, and as such we conclude this piece with tough-minded optimism despite troubling facts and figures to the contrary.
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