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Revisiting The Dialogue Of The Deaf And The Damned: For Edwin Madunagu @ 70
By Chido Onumah
It is not very often that I find myself writing a tribute considering that ours is a country where heroes and heroines are in short supply. But I couldn’t allow this particular occasion to pass without reflecting on what Edwin Madunagu, popularly called Eddie by friends and comrades, means to me, to Nigeria and the international socialist movement. Eddie has been described by one of his contemporaries and closest comrades, Biodun Jeyifo, Harvard University’s Professor of African and African American Studies and Comparative Literature, as “the greatest materialist historian and archivist of socialism and the Left in Nigeria’s political history”.
Edwin Ikechukwu Madunagu was born on May 15, 1946, in Ilesha, in present Osun State. He attended Obokun High School, Ilesha, and later studied mathematics at the universities of Ibadan and Lagos. He taught mathematics at the universities of Lagos and Calabar before he and other radical lecturers were sacked in the late 70s by the egotistic military dictator, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, for teaching what they were not paid to teach. Eddie has published many works, including The Philosophy of Violence (1976); The Tragedy of the Nigerian Socialist Movement (1980); Human Progress and Its Enemies (1982); Problems of Socialism: the Nigerian Challenge (1983); The Political Economy of State Robbery (1984); The Making and Unmaking of Nigeria (2001); and Understanding Nigeria and the New Imperialism (2006).
In The Nigerian Left: Introduction to History, Eddie says of himself: “I am a Marxist and a socialist and have been so since 1973. I am also strongly influenced by anti-sexism, humanism and revolutionary internationalism. I have remained committed to what Karl Marx called the categorical imperative, that is the struggle to overcome all circumstances in which the human being is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised…As I have said publicly on several occasions, this commitment comes before everything else, including family, ethnic group and nationality.”
I wanted this tribute to coincide with Eddie’s 70th birthday on May 15, 2016, but the vicissitudes of life in Nigeria made that task practically impossible. Ever since, that responsibility has weighed on me. Last September, during a conference in Calabar, I made out time, as I always do anytime I am in Calabar, to visit Eddie and his spouse, Comrade Bene. Such visits, even if for an hour, are usually tutorials in radical politics, history, political economy and the struggles of the working class and the “wretched of the earth” in Nigeria.
During that visit, I had asked Eddie what he planned to do on his 70th birthday. The short answer he gave was, “Nothing”. And then he muttered something to the effect that he would be doing a lot of reflection. It occurred to me that I had posed the wrong question; and that instead of asking Eddie what he planned to do, I should have confronted him with what we planned to do in return for what he has done us, particularly those of us he worked with closely as students at the University of Calabar. I immediately made efforts to bring together some of our comrades in the radical student movement for whom Eddie was a towering source of inspiration and support to do something to honour him. Unfortunately, that effort did not yield the desired result. But it is not too late!
Twenty years ago, in 1996, when Eddie turned 50, I wrote a tribute and journeyed to Calabar to join friends and comrades in celebrating this iconic newspaper columnist, mathematician, author and socialist internationalist. I first met Eddie on the pages of The Guardian newspaper where he maintained a must-read Thursday column for almost three decades before I met him in person. Eddie was among those – others were Profs Biodun Jeyifo, Chinweizu, Godwin Sogolo, Femi Osofisan, Olatunji Dare and Onwuchekwa Jemie – whose writings in The Guardian shaped the thinking and writing of many of my generation. Humanist per excellence, Eddie brought panache and mathematical meticulousness in explaining even the most complex of historical, political and ideological issues. I not only read Eddie religiously, I made sure I preserved all his writings, first in hard copies, and subsequently in soft copies when The Guardian joined the Internet revolution.
Ten years ago when Eddie turned 60, I was away in the US. As his birthday approached, I contacted Comrade Bene, herself a radical socialist and feminist activist, a founding member of Women In Nigeria (WIN), Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) and now a retired professor of botany, on the possibility of putting together Eddie’s articles into a book to mark his birthday. Comrade Bene jumped at the idea. But there was the little problem, considering the shortness of time, of how to compile and type Eddy’s articles in The Guardian spanning 21 years.
What I told Comrade Bene next was music to her ears. I informed her that I not only had copies of Eddy’s articles from when he joined The Guardian in 1985 but that I also kept soft copies from the moment The Guardian went online. That effort culminated in the publication of a 573-page book titled Understanding Nigeria and the New Imperialism: Essays 2000-2006, a collection of Eddie’s articles in The Guardian edited by Prof Biodun Jeyifo, Prof Bene Madunagu, Kayode Komolafe and myself. That intervention spurred my interest in documenting my own essays which appeared first in The Punch in 1991 and subsequently with Eddie’s encouragement in The Guardian and much later in other newspapers and online platforms. The result has been three published works of essays: Time to Reclaim Nigeria (2011); Nigeria is Negotiable (2013), and We Are All Biafrans (2016).
Understanding Nigeria and the New Imperialism is a book I find myself referring to each time I want to understand the many problems confronting our country and our world. On page 338 of the book is what I consider one of Eddie’s most endearing reflections on the Nigerian crisis – a tribute to Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph – which was an essay in The Guardian of June 27, 2002, under the title, “To Remember and to Honour”. Eddie wrote, “Of all the contemporary social developments that currently sadden me, one of the most painful is the disconnection of Nigerians, especially the younger ones, from their own history, including the history of their own immediate environments. I can put my finger on a number of interconnected factors responsible for this historical connection. Our educational system pays little attention to our history. Most of the current generation of teachers are products and carriers of this deficiency, so what do you expect from the new products? Our media, print and electronic, from time to time, put out historical materials and programmes. But many of them are disgustingly eclectic, distorted and full of errors of fact and sequence. Our post dependence history is short, just 42 years. But you are asking for a heart if you dare ask any final year undergraduate or young politician to name, in historical sequence, the regimes that this country has had since independence.”
Thanks to social media and the rise of religious fundamentalism, among other factors, the condition Eddie described above has worsened in the last decade. Young Nigerians are not only disconnected, they are tragically disinterested in the history and future of the country as well as in socio-political events that shape their material conditions. And when they attempt to “confront” these issues, what you get is what Prof Biodun Jeyifo describes in the foreword to the book Understanding Nigeria and the New Imperialism, as “a dialogue of the deaf and the damned”. Of course, this attitude is not limited to our youth. As Prof Jeyifo notes, it finds expression “within the community of Nigerian radicals and leftists and the broader community of the national intelligentsia – of all shades of ideological opinion”.
Essentially, what Prof Jeyifo is saying in describing Eddie’s vast and complex body of work is that he (Eddie) shows us that “no meaningful conversation exists” among Nigerians about the future of the country. “What we have is a dialogue of the deaf and the damned. A dialogue of the ‘deaf’ because interlocutors and disputants in our national conversation don’t take the time to listen at all to one another, let alone hear one another as the same issues, the same ideas are repeated and recycled again and again. And a dialogue of the ‘damned’ because we seem headed for a catastrophe that we might not survive this time around as we survived – after a fashion, at least – our Civil War of 1967-70.”
“The eloquence, clarity and force with which he advances (his) theses mark Eddie out as perhaps the revolutionary conscience of our generation,” notes Prof Jeyifo. In a country in crisis like ours, it is the likes of Eddie that we should turn to for guidance. Sixteen years ago (May 4, 2000), in an essay in The Guardian on the Biafra agitation titled “Settling accounts with Biafra”, Eddie wrote, “The young Nigerians now threatening to actualise Biafra should forget or shelve the plan. In place of ‘actualisation’ they should, through research and study, reconstruct the Biafran story in its fullness and complexity and try to answer the unanswered questions and supply the missing links in the story. This is a primary responsibility you owe yourselves: you should at least understand what you want to actualise. If 30 years after Biafra, you want to produce its second edition, you need to benefit from the criticism of the first. History teaches that a second edition of a tragic event could easily become a farce – in spite of the heroism of its human agencies. On the other hand, those who enjoy ridiculing Biafra – instead of studying it – are politically short-sighted. My own attitude to Biafra is neither ‘actualisation’ nor ridicule. I propose that accounts should be settled with Biafra.”
In another essay titled “Sovereign conference or civil war?” (March 16, 2000), Eddie observed: “Nigeria has been reprieved from civil war several times in the past decade. The point is that this reprieve cannot continue indefinitely. Sooner or later history may give Nigeria what the powers-that-be have been reckoning.” If Eddy were still active as a columnist, I wonder what he will make of the depressing news that in a country where the minimum wage is N18,000 ($50) a month, a career soldier, a serving general, in the country, could save enough money to buy not one but two houses in Dubai, one of the swankiest real estate markets in the world.
There are many today, even in the midst of mounting despair and alienation, grinding poverty, hopelessness, terrorism and violence, inextricably linked to the renewed onslaught of capitalism, who still have doubts that a post-capitalist world is possible. To such people, I recommend this extract from a tribute to Eddie by Prof Biodun Jeyifo (The Nation, May 15, 2016): “Let us put away the fears, the worries of the faint-hearted among us that socialism is dead in our country and our world. Indeed, without being in the least complacent about the challenges ahead of us, let us rest assured that prospects for a post-capitalist era of political, economic and social justice for the vast majority of our people in Nigeria and the peoples of our planet are as good now as they were more than forty years ago when, in the Anti-Poverty Movement of Nigeria (APMON), we first became, instantly and forever, lifelong comrades in working class activism.”
Apart from my father, perhaps no other person has had as much influence on my life as Comrade Edwin Madunagu and I am proud not only to be associated with him for three decades but to be his protégé. At 70, Eddie spends his “retirement” running the Calabar International Institute for Research, Information and Documentation (CIINSTRID), a free research institution and public library of the Left, which he set up in 1994 in collaboration with other comrades.
I conclude this homage to Eddie by returning to Prof Jeyifo’s tribute. “It so happens that the prospects for a post-capitalist future are indeed much brighter in many other parts of the world than in our country at the present time,” he wrote. “But we are part of the world at large, thanks in part to global capitalism. No comrade that I know understands and appreciates this contradiction better and keener than Edwin Madunagu.”
There is nothing more to add other than to say that the mission of the generation of Nigerians under 40 is to renew the progressive, radical and popular-democratic traditions of struggle in Nigeria which Comrades Eddie and Biodun Jeyifo (who turned 70 on January 5, 2016) exemplify. You betray that mission at your own peril!
Onumah’s latest book is We Are All Biafrans – A Participant-Observer’s Interventions in a Country Sleepwalking to Disaster. He can be reached through: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @conumah