By Mwalimu George Ngwane
The ultimate mission of every writer is to liberate both the minds of the oppressed and the oppressors in order to cultivate a harmonious society. How this mission is attained may be a subject of controversy, but make no mistake about it, the message for every credible writer is the same; it is the style that may make the difference. Whenever power mongers become lost in the journey of personality cult, when the politician’s ship is drowning in the ocean of dictatorship, it is the writer who serves as the compass pointing the ship of state to the shores of sanity. The social role of the writer has not only been a desire to lodge a claim for artistic leadership but to lay emphasis on democratic entitlement.
The writer had always functioned in African society as the record of mores and experience of his society and as the voice of vision in his time. This urge and conviction to liberate their societies have sometimes motivated writers to embark on to political leadership either through constitutional means like the poets Augustino Neto of Angola, and Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal and the essayists Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria or through unconstitutional means like the poet Christopher Okigbo was killed fighting for Biafra during the Nigerian civil war or the poet-playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa who was hanged for defending the rights of the Ogoni people in Nigeria.
With the introduction of multiparty politics, writers have sought to have their visions engraved in party manifestoes like Chinua Achebe who became Vice President of the Peoples’ Redemption Party in the 80S, Mongo Beti who militated for the Social Democratic Front, Ferdinand Oyono and Mbella Sonne Dipoko who are apologists of the Rassemblement Democratique du Peuple Camerounais. So there has always been a smooth relationship between writers and politics maybe because both require the weapon of words as a medium of liberation even if one uses the weapon of words for self-defence and the other for the defence of society. There is an assumption that the writer and the power elite are concerned with the welfare of humanity but in the exercise of their duties, this assumption gradually degenerates to an erroneous philosophy-therein lies the perception of a writer as a nuisance.
A writer provides in his writings a certain articulate vision, which must order his society because otherwise social life will be a very sterile and very futile exercise. Any writer who therefore believes in the assertion of human values will not fail to speak when humanity is betrayed and mutilated. In Africa, most especially, the denial of some basic social amenities and the exclusion of more than 80% of the population from decision-making have become the trademark of leadership. It has become so entrenched that all but the writer regard it as the norm. Therefore why do politicians consider writer as nuisances? Simple -writers have the courage to tell the king he is naked when the emasculated power elite fool him (king) that his invisible dress is beautiful. In other words the writer is the voice of truth but how does he voice this truth? To answer this question, let me attempt a not too rigid classification of three kinds of writers and speculate how their writing styles can influence political reaction. The classes are the Writer-Activist, Writer-Statesman, and Writer-Politician.
He keeps reminding the politician of his promises to the people; he, like the housefly settles on the wounds of society; he generally ignores the strength of the politician and dwells essentially on his weaknesses. More often than not, writers in this class are never involved in government or party politics fearing to be infected by the virus of unbridled power. Instead these writers would be found in the rank of pressure groups and people-centred organizations. In politics they have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies only permanent interest – the interest of the people. It is therefore not strange to find them having problems with every government in power. It is this class that politicians are wont to regard as nuisance but I think one quality of this class and arguably the quality that leads them to trouble is their writing style. Most of them use a protest style, the language is one of bitterness and anger, the diction is one of invectives; the approach, conformational; the spirit, crusading and the mood indicting. The writer matches his outrage with the level of the politician’s betrayal. Because of this, the politician shifts his focus from the pertinent message of the writer to the confrontational style of the writer. The politician judges the writer’s work to be a call for incitement, revolt and rebellion. Then there is a clash of egos; a conflict of authority, - the writer maintaining his authority of principles and vision; the politician imposing his authority of legitimacy and legality. Some writers in this class include Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, Ngugi wa Thiongo of Kenya and Bate Besong of Cameroon.
Because these writers have a strong message couched in ‘hostile” style, politicians easily misunderstand them. Yet we all know the positive changes a writer like Soyinka has brought to his country. Apparently writer activists derive their greater authority from the confrontation of their political antagonists.
The main principle of this class is to pass a message to the politicians in a direct yet subtle manner. The writer’s style is pedagogic, full of innuendoes and euphemism. The writer uses what a South African author calls artful words – words that appeal to reason. The writer assumes the role of a teacher or preacher. Because of their appealing approach, members of this class have at one time or the other been invited to join political power. Here the writer gets in power with the purpose of fulfilling the aspirations of the people and not necessarily that of the leader. Within political power, the writer remains as a guide but sometimes opts out when his ideas are not welcome.
Each time a writer is invited to power or given a post of responsibility it is to draw from his deeper most fountain of ideas; he is called as a guide to translate his giant vision into consensual reality. A post of responsibility is not a favour or privilege conferred on a writer and while honoring this call, the writer must also fulfill the tenets of his vision. In all, this class cohabits easily with politicians not out of compromise; not because their message is different from the first but I think because of style,-yet it is not unusual to find members of this class join the ranks of the first.
Writer – politician
This is a class of neither nuisances nor guides; they are mere opportunists. Their messages may be illuminating; their style may be confrontational or pedagogic but at the end of the day they are not on the side of the people. For indeed to go back to the crux of this essay, my position is that the writer must have a social function whether he is loved, ignored or antagonized by political authorities. He must remain the conscience of the people; the agent of change, whatever the odds. But this writer-politician class is one of collaborators, lackeys and stooges who by joining any political system blur even the little vision left of the politician.
For all his artistic finesse and aesthetic superiority about negritude and black consciousness the poet-president, Leopold Sedar Senghor was the epitome of French culture and civilisation. I choose to talk about his Pan African side because that was the one ideal he so much espoused in his writing and yet one that was so greatly betrayed. The betrayal was so severe that he found himself antagonising a real advocate of the black race Cheick Anta Diop. Did Senghor use his black consciousness poems just to position himself in the decolonisation process that was rocking Africa in the late 50s?
Our continent is replete with writers who have transformed themselves into syndicated chroniclers of predatory “motions of support” at a time this continent needs patriotic “actions of service”. Their torch-bearing flame have eclipsed into a moribund sycophancy. Their sweet sources of inspiration have quickly dissipated into shrinking spaces of prebendalism. But time and history are never on their side. Time quickly catches on half – truths and history is fast at exposing half baked political clichés.
Writers in politics have been misunderstood, tortured, humiliated, imprisoned, exiled and hanged yet the problems for which they stake their lives continue to harass the citizenry by day and haunt the leadership by night. Any political leadership that is people-centered, development-oriented and enjoys popular support can never see any of the class of writers as nuisances. It is those, according to Ben Okri, who are secretly sickened by what they have become, those who are scared of reality, of their own truths, of their own histories, those who are alarmed by the strange mask-like faces that peer back at them from the mirrors of time; it is they who resist the writer in politics.