Satire is a nec­es­sary and vi­tal part of free speech, says Anenih

Ose Anenih is a hote­lier and de­sign con­sul­tant who also writes po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary on the state of the Nige­rian na­tion on his blog, Abuja Pol­i­tics. He has a De­gree in Math­e­mat­ics from Ah­madu Bello Univer­sity, Zaria as well as two Masters De­grees in In­ter

The Guardian (Nigeria) - - INTERVIEW - By Lo­lade Nwanze

Did this idea bring you and Yemi to­gether or do you share any his­tory at all?

Yemi Ade­sanya and I met on Twit­ter maybe late in 2015. I think I was look­ing for con­ver­sa­tion that wasn’t an­chored around pol­i­tics and elec­tions. Our shared in­ter­ests in the arts, log­i­cal ar­gu­ments and banter ba­si­cally brought us to­gether. We worked on my suc­cess­ful on­line cam­paign to be­come the Con­vener of the #Troll­ca­bal, an on­line group of Nige­ri­ans com­mit­ted to the use of sar­casm and wit as pri­mary de­bate de­vices. Founded by Ikenna Okonkwo, the #Troll­ca­bal is ba­si­cally an ir­rev­er­ent par­ody of the Nige­rian state. It’s a bit of light-hearted fun, but we do try to en­gage in se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal and so­cial de­bates de­void of ha­tred and ran­cour. It was pri­mar­ily our in­ter­est and in­volve­ment in that space that led to the dis­cov­ery of our ar­eas of com­mon in­ter­est.

How did your ro­mance with satire start and when did you be­gin to moot the idea of a satire fes­ti­val?

My first con­scious en­coun­ters with satire both in­volved an­i­mals, cu­ri­ously enough: Richard Adams’ fan­tasy epic about rab­bits, Water­ship­down, and the time­less Ge­orge Or­well clas­sic, An­i­mal­farm. Lord of the Flies gets an hon­ourable men­tion as an­other sim­i­larly satir­i­cal al­le­gory of hu­man com­mu­nity re­la­tions and the lead­er­ship co­nun­drum. The story high­lights the con­stant strug­gle with lead­er­ship, fol­low­er­ship, syco­phancy, ac­tivism, di­vi­sion, vi­o­lence, cor­rup­tion etc.

Away from my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences, I think the av­er­age Nige­rian has al­ways been sur­rounded by satire in var­i­ous forms. Once you un­der­stand that satire is much more than com­edy; that it ex­ists in our para­bles and moon­lit tales, al­le­gor­i­cal sto­ries passed down from par­ents to chil­dren, you come to re­alise that the life of the av­er­age Nige­rian is steeped in satire.

To the birth of the Satire Fes­ti­val it­self, it was born out of the be­lief Yemi and I shared that we – and by we, I mean Nige­ri­ans – needed to have ‘safe spa­ces’ within which we could let off steam, or dis­cuss typ­i­cally un­com­fort­able sub­jects without pro­vok­ing or in­cit­ing peo­ple. Satire is po­lit­i­cal, there’s no get­ting around that fact. To be ef­fec­tive satire must be po­lit­i­cal, as it is ba­si­cally the use of hu­mour, sar­casm, irony, and ve­hi­cles like drama, poetry, plays, lit­er­a­ture, etc to high­light the flaws and fail­ings of the sys­tem.

Tell us about The Arts and Civics Table. What role does it play in so­ci­ety? Com­pared to other CSOS do­ing great work in the civil so­ci­ety space, we’re ba­bies. We were for­mally reg­is­tered this year – not just to pro­mote satire – but mainly to en­cour­age and help de­velop a civic en­gage­ment cul­ture and par­tic­i­pa­tion in the our so­cial, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses. We hope to pro­mote in­creased aware­ness of po­lit­i­cal, per­sonal, and civic rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties by iden­ti­fy­ing and dis­cussing is­sues of pub­lic con­cern. What should peo­ple ex­pect from the Nige­rian Satire Fes­ti­val?

We’re hav­ing panel dis­cus­sions on is­sues that should have been set­tled decades ago – the role of youth and gen­der in so­ci­ety; na­tional iden­tity, po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, and press free­doms ver­sus pri­vacy rights.

Dike Chuk­wumeir­jie is per­form­ing his amaz­ing stage play Made in Nige­ria. It’s truly spec­tac­u­lar, al­most a re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence but he con­verts you to a Nige­rian at the end of his 2-hour jour­ney through Nige­ria’s past, present and fu­ture. It’s an in­spired piece of dra­matic poetry – I think that’s what he calls it – and I sin­cerely en­cour­age you to see if you haven’t al­ready.

Through the two-day fes­ti­val, we’re hold­ing a satir­i­cal art ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing tal­ented car­toon­ists Mike Asukwo, Mustapha Bu­lama and this truly spe­cial young man, Justin Ira­bor. It was fun cu­rat­ing their work – Mike is al­most mil­i­tantly anti-gov­ern­ment, but he man­ages not to cross too many red lines; Mustapha is the ex­act op­po­site, I think the gov­ern­ment will love him be­cause his pen is more sym­pa­thetic to­wards them; Justin man­ages to cre­ate the il­lu­sion of be­ing to­tally apo­lit­i­cal as he fo­cuses on the hu­man per­spec­tive, cap­tur­ing not gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies, but the re­flected ef­fect on the av­er­age Nige­rian.

We end with a Din­ner and Roast in the style of the White House Cor­re­spon­dents Din­ner. It’ll be fun. And funny. And proba- bly deeply un­com­fort­able for a few at­ten­dees. We plan to un­veil the first re­cip­i­ent of our LOL Gov­er­nor­ship award, an award voted for by the pub­lic that recog­nises out least im­pres­sive per­form­ing Gover­nor. Hope­fully the award will en­cour­age the even­tual win­ner to do bet­ter next year. It’ll be a fun evening. As­sum­ing of course we don’t get ar­rested by some over-en­thu­si­as­tic gov­ern­ment agency for breach­ing the peace or some­thing sim­i­larly ridicu­lous. In a coun­try where we have seen a man ar­rested be­cause he named his dog, Buhari, and peo­ple get­ting picked up for ‘cross­ing red lines’ on so­cial me­dia, many will ar­gue that Nige­ria’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape, as con­sti­tuted, is not tol­er­ant of satire. Do you agree?

First off, I need to state that con­sti­tu­tional free­doms out­rank per­ceived po­lit­i­cal land­scapes. I don’t think we should be pro­mot­ing the en­force­ment of si­lence as the rem­edy for an in­tol­er­ant so­ci­ety. Satire is clever; it’s witty, it can be sub­tle. Call­ing a dog Buhari, isn’t clever, or witty, or sub­tle. But I do very re­luc­tantly con­cede the point that our po­lit­i­cal space is very charged. It’s why we won’t be dis­cussing is­sues around re­li­gion at this it­er­a­tion of the event, be­cause we’re con­scious of the fact that so­ci­ety might not yet be quite ready to poke fun at re­li­gion.

But this is where I ex­pect lead­er­ship to lead. We’re hold­ing the event on the 16th and 17th very de­lib­er­ately. The 16th is the UN In­ter­na­tional Day for Tol­er­ance. I’d be beyond proud if rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Pres­i­dent – or even the Pres­i­dent him­self – sub­jected them­selves to a cou­ple of hours of good-na­tured, to­tally con­struc­tive yab­bing. But we will get there. These are baby steps, ad­mit­tedly, but we’re mov­ing to­wards a more tol­er­ant so­ci­ety.

How do we grow satire as an art into our cul­ture? How does it be­come ac­cept­able? I think we need to recog­nise that satire is a nec­es­sary and vi­tal part of free speech. A few coun­tries ac­tu­ally have con­sti­tu­tional pro­tec­tion for satire. Ger­many and Italy, I be­lieve. And like ev­ery for­eign tra­di­tion that has be­come a part of our Nige­rian iden­tity – foot­ball, Christ­mas, Keke NAPEPS, even jollof rice, con­tin­ued cel­e­bra­tion of these val­ues sinks their roots deeper into so­ci­ety’s fab­ric.

It might not be main­stream yet, but satire has al­ways been a part of Nige­rian so­ci­ety. Ak­in­tola Lasekan, one of the pi­o­neer Nige­rian satirists, used satir­i­cal car­toons in the print me­dia, just like Mike Asukwo does to­day, to crit­i­cise the gov­ern­ment of his day. Covert and overt, ac­tual or po­ten­tial cen­sor­ship has al­ways threat­ened satire. It may be ob­vi­ously worse un­der au­to­cratic regimes, but it ex­ists in var­i­ous forms un­der many demo­cratic gov­ern­ments as well, not just in Nige­ria. Satirists by their very na­ture must keep push­ing bound­aries. Al­though ev­ery­one must re­spect the rights of oth­ers, vi­o­lence is never the an­swer; tol­er­ance must be im­bibed by all. We need to ap­pre­ci­ate the value that satirists bring to so­ci­ety and con­tinue to en­cour­age them.

How to make it ac­cept­able? Find great satirists and Theoth­ernews sup­port their work. We all know John Ste­wart and his South African suc­ces­sor Trevor Noah; back home we have our own Okey Bakassi and his show; years be­fore that – and this might sur­prise some – we had Charley Boy with his ahead-of-its-time This is not the News show. We have the acer­bic Dr. Dam­ages, the ge­nius that is El­nathan John, Okechukwu Ofili, Gor­dons, Ikenna Azuike, Mike Asukwo, Justin Ira­bor, Frank D Don, Mc Tag­waye, Omoawe, even our bril­liant per­for­mance poet Dike Chuk­wumer­i­jie. And most of these artists will be at the Nige­rian Satire Fes­ti­val.

I don’t want to jinx it, but fin­gers-crossed and God-will­ing the Nige­rian Satire Fes­ti­val will put Nige­rian satire firmly on the in­ter­na­tional map. Hope­fully the Min­is­ter of In­for­ma­tion can list it in next year’s Tourism At­trac­tions al­manac.

Why is NSF hold­ing in Abuja and not La­gos, as one would ex­pect of a ma­jor event?

Great ques­tion. For me Abuja rep­re­sents Nige­ria’s seat of power, and the sym­bol­ism of hold­ing this event in Abuja is pro­found, for Nige­ri­ans and for the rest of the world. I think it also helps put paid to the lie that Nige­ri­ans can­not ex­press them­selves freely. At least I hope it buries that fear. My truly Nige­rian co-founder, Yemi Ade­sanya, dis­agrees, and would like to see the Fes­ti­val tour Nige­ria to make it more in­clu­sive. We’ll prob­a­bly end up tak­ing a pub­lic vote, or draw­ing straws. We’re very demo­cratic at TACT.

Anenih

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