Interview with Chambers Umezulike on: Malcolm; Africa’s Leadership-Development Crisis; Writing; and Youth Challenges
In an interview with Chike Ifedobi (a presenter and journalist) of Lion FM, University of Nigeria; Chambers Umezulike talks about: Malcolm; Africa’s Leadership and Development Crisis; Nigerian Politics; Writing; and Youth Challenges and Advocacy.
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Chike Ifedobi: Good morning Chambers
Chambers Umezulike: Good morning Chike
Chike Ifedobi: Welcome to Nigeria. Welcome to Enugu. Welcome to the University of Nigeria
Chambers Umezulike: Thank you so much Chike
Q: I told you yesterday that your reputation precedes you in a way. I got to know about “Malcolm” before I met you in person. I must say that this is one book that you can judge by the cover. It has a very captivating cover, showing frontline revolutionaries, you said you were inspired by them. How exactly?
A: I grew up reading about them. My dad used to have a very big library. So, I grew reading about their causes, works, and all they fought for, through a lot of books. I grew up admiring them and I have been able to model my life around their lives, causes and works.
Q: On the cover of the book, we have Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Osvaldo Dorticos and some other Cuban revolutionaries. These are the men that are considered by the West, especially the US as terrorists and anarchists?
A: The West has a way of pushing narratives that suit them. The Western Media, if you go by them, you are going to misinterpret a lot in the world’s affairs. To me, they are not so. To me, they are remarkable leaders that have been able to lift millions out of poverty; champion causes, champion social change, and champion activism and revolutionize a whole society. For an example, Cuba is working. Their Human Development Index is the 44th world over. They are exporting doctors everywhere with remarkable education and health care sectors.
Q: So why don’t we know all these things? Is it because of the information that we have been fed with?
A: It’s because of the Western Media. They push narratives that suit them. But if you go out of their ways to find out information for yourself, you will find out that these are great and brave leaders.
Q: Malcolm, what is it all about?
A: Malcolm is a novel about the elements of African Politics and Revolution; elements like dictatorship, mismanagement, embezzlement, godfatherism, foreign influence; our phony political class etc. It also has the elements of international relations, bilateral relations, diplomacy, and international law. I am passionate about development. That made me to very concerned about what I call the elements of Africa’s backwardness. Like the leadership, governance, development, social and security crises in Africa. The resource paradox issue: we have resources and we have not been able to develop. You look at DRC, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria . . . countries with enormous resources but have not been able to develop. While our counterparts in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Middle East that we got our independence with within the same period have all developed and made tangible progress. You look at Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Indonesia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait etc. Dubai was a desert 3 decades ago. Iran ended their war with Iraq in 1989, and today, they have relatively developed to the extent of talking of nuclear weapons. I am passionate that we have not been able to develop despite having enormous resources. And living for a while in East Africa deepened my exposure about these things. I am a pan-Africanist, but a conscious pan-Africanist. I have dropped that rhetoric that we have not been able to develop because the West doesn’t want us to and colonialism. The exposure to East Africa enabled me to challenge this rhetoric. We Africans are our problems. You look at the dictators that we have in the continent: Mugabe, Museveni, dos Santos, Yammeh, Biya, Bashir and Nguema etc.; leaders that have led their countries for decades with absolute power but have not been able to develop their countries. Their countries have the worst of economic and human development statistics. This has been my narrative and argument, so I decided to write a story that will depict all these elements. So Malcolm is a depiction of the realities in the African society especially political realities.
Q: You mentioned a whole range of issues, concepts and ideologies. You are a young man and know these things. You remind of our conscious young Nigerians in the 60s. Doesn’t it bother you when your contemporaries don’t know these things? They are not society conscious. What do you think about when you get to coming into contact with them?
A: This is a deep one. I understand the issue about the docility of young Nigerians. The lack of consciousness, self development, not just the mainstream education, passing through the university, but reading and knowing so much about the world and Africa; and understanding all these narratives, but I shouldn’t blame only my generation. I did an article for the Guardian: My father’s generation failed mine. I send in articles about our societal realities to them occasionally. In that article, I presented a very serious debate. My father’s generation had everything good and fine: quality education and scholarships. They graduated and companies were begging them to come and work for them. Naira had value then in the 70s and early 80s. They had everything good and fine. Then you look at what we have been left with. Taking education for an example, our educational sector is into serious crisis. We cannot get quality education again in the country. Most of the public primary schools are dead. The malpractices during secondary school certificate exams. The universities are rotten. Even most of the private universities that should have been able to raise the bar of quality education aren’t doing that: admitting students that even got less than 100 in JAMB. It’s all about profit, money and not quality. So that particular educational sector is very key. So my generation has not been able to get quality education like our fathers got which is affecting us. Education is very key: mindset reorientation, mental education, exposure etc. also, I have an issue with my generation but this was also caused by my father’s generation. We are so materialistic. It’s all about money. A young graduate graduates today and wants to have a car, house and all the costly devices in town. It’s a wrong mindset. It’s all about money and to make it through any means. But this is because of the economic realities. Nigeria lacks an economic direction in terms of development. And young people are being pushed into a lot of things to make money, to survive, and make a living. Look at the entertainment industry, there is a total migration away from the sciences. Young people are dropping from the universities to go into entertainment as it is been seen as an escape route to economic freedom. I understand you perfectly but I should not only blame my generation but my father’s generation as well and the society we have.
Q: So after the blame, what is the way forward?
A: I have been involved in a lot of conferences, summits and workshops to address the challenges of young people, in Nigeria especially. For an example, this August 12 was UN International Youth Day and we had a Summit with the President who came, gave a key note address and left: it was not an engaging meeting which I thought it should have been. I was amongst the 100 young Nigerians that were selected to attend. We had a pre-Summit the previous day before the Summit itself. We discussed about the challenges of young people and came up with recommendations-solutions and presented it in a report to the President the following day. So during my group’s discussion in the pre-Summit, I told them that: “there is nothing we are going to discuss here that the government doesn’t know about.” That all the interventions that the government has been coming up with, most of them are not sustainable. We have problems of monitoring, implementation and the political will to drive them. Most of these interventions are inadequate and are jokes when you look at the realities. No Nigerian government has ever sat down to make a policy to critically address the issue of unemployment. So, I further told them that the government knows these challenges but is doing so little to address them. I told them that we young Nigerians might actually need an element of activism to get what belongs to us. Except young people that are PAs to a PA to a PA to an SA to a governor or minister, we don’t have a stake in governance. Young people are not giving opportunities again. Most of our leaders today started manning key government positions in their late 20s and early 30s. Why don’t we have a young minister? Though the present administration hasn’t gotten a cabinet but we need a young minister when they settle. In 2013, I interviewed a youth minister, in his 60s that was even sleeping at a certain period during the interview. But we need a young minister for that Youth Ministry for an example. We need a young Nigerian that understands our realities to be in charge of that ministry. So that if the person messes up or embezzles, we will drag the person out and beat the person up. We might actually need forceful diplomacy or going to the streets to force the government to address youth challenges and unemployment, it shouldn’t just be round table discussions, theories and expensive conferences.
Q: What’s your opinion about the challenges that fresh Nigerian graduates face after NYSC?
A: Fresh Nigerian graduates are passing through a lot of terrible things. And Nigerian undergraduates finishing their university education should prepare before getting out and expect a very brutal environment. Dreams are dying in Nigeria. The environment is not conducive for small business practices, no access to loans and all that. We have private sector crisis where young people are being underpaid; being owed; malpractices during recruitment (young people are asked for #500,000 to get a job in federal government establishments); and then the marketing crisis where fresh bankers are giving millions of naira crazy targets. It is so terrible; unemployment is so sharp and at 2 digits; so adequate preparations should be made before graduation.
Q: Talking about writing. As a young writer, I know that there are peculiar challenges in the industry. Can you share some of them and how you were able to get around them, for prospective writers?
A: Malcolm is my third book. My first book: Foot-Prints of 50 Great Nigerians was published by Sir Victor Uwaifo’s museum in Benin city. My second book is a compendium that I have been working on with 3 other young writers and journalists, a 1,000 paged compendium about Nigeria at 100. The Nigeria’s brutal reality has frustrated the publishing of this compendium. It has an interview section through which we were able to interview very key Nigerians including: President Muhammadu Buhari, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, Prof Bolaji Akinyemi . . . about what they think of the past, present and future of the country. But we have not been able to get the resources to publish the book. It has been so difficult. We approached a lot of corporate organizations and none of them saw the importance of such an important compendium that should be in libraries country over and important places in the country, for the young people to know where they are coming from, to plan a better future. So it is so challenging for writers. The environment is very rough. I wrote Malcolm in 2012 and it took me till 2014 a get a German Publisher. The reading culture is so terrible; local publishers are packing up, and finding it difficult to pay office rent. Most of them just float websites and blow up whatever they have been able to do. A writer prints 1,000 copies or a publisher prints such for a writer and sales cannot be made, even just 300 copies of that. It is so difficult for young writers to publish or get a publisher. The problems are the publishing aspect and sales after that.
Q: Traditionally, writers especially novelists and poets are professionals from the English Literature discipline but conventionally we have a paradigm shift through young people going into writing. Do you sometimes see yourself as lesser than the very professionals themselves like Prof Chinua Achebe, those that made their marks in the literary discipline?
A: No. Not in any respect, though they have spent so much time in the profession like Achebe and Soyinka. But I do not see my works to have a lesser value. Writing is writing. I write fiction and non-fictions. I am a researcher. And I am even going into the academia. I have gotten a publisher for my next book: Leadership and Development in Nigeria and Singapore: comparing the 2 countries. It is a policy and academic book. No, I don’t see my works of lesser value. And before I spend the time Achebe and Soyinka have spent in the profession, I might even be more contributive.
Q: Blogging has made journalism so cheap like how camera phones have made photography a going into extinct profession. So what do you think about this rave of blogging today. Every young person wants to go into blogging?
A: It’s because of the economic realities. Post-graduation life has exposed me to the challenges of young people, reason why I went into advocacy. So, young people see blogging as a platform to make quick money from. I do not see most of them as passionate bloggers. And you know blogging has an element of copy and paste. They just borrow news from everywhere without crediting the sources, which is a threat to professional journalism.
Q: Looking at Nigerian politics. Were you amongst those that screamed for change?
A: Yes. Absolutely!
Q: Because you said something early about how the old generation has failed ours. But you then supported a 72 year old man for the presidency. Is that not a contradiction?
A: Yes, because of the options we were given: President Buhari and former President Jonathan. They were the key people that we were to vote for.
Q: But voting for a 72 year old man? Is that not a retrogression?
A: Not in this context. I would rather vote a 90 year old man that has the political will to drive the country; has a direction and has the readiness to change our story than my mate.
Q: In the 60s, these men held sway and 60 years later, they are still holding sway. Who is losing out?
A: We. It’s because of the structure of our politics. Entrance into politics is very expensive and difficult. This is why we are advocating for participation in governance, because we lack exposure into our political terrain, and we are not seen in the hierarchy of governance. It’s so sad.
Q: What are your expectations from this present administration, especially for young people?
A: President Buhari has mentoring ideology. He works with few young people in aides’ capacity. I believe that the older generation should mentor ours. We have asked for 30% inclusion in his government through key positions. Also, though I supported him, the signals so far are not encouraging. We are in deep economic crisis and he has not an economic direction: fall in oil prices, stock exchange losing money, naira is depreciating and investors are losing confidence. There are no policies on agriculture, diversification, power, education and infrastructurisation. Regarding corruption, I expected him to come in and hit the ground running. We had a lot of expectations. I expected him to kick-off the auditing all MDAs that we get revenues from; and not media-corruption fight. And initiate the whole anti-corruption processes; they would be going on while he faces other critical sectors of the economy. I expected him to merge EFCC and ICPC and get a mad anti-corruption warrior to lead it. You know those very immediate, brave moves, but it’s unfortunate that he is operating this way.
Q: You have toured some countries and presently in East Africa. What are you doing there?
A: I went there for some academic researches with the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies in Nairobi and currently rounding off my Master of Arts in Regional Development and International Studies at the same Institute.
Q: Regional Development! Why that?
A: It’s the concentration of most of my researches and Masters’ Thesis. Just like I have mentioned about Africa’s development crisis, and you look at other colonized regions decades ago, that have been able to industrialize and grow. The concentration is to find solutions to Africa’s development crisis. Doing comparative studies, and looking at development ideas that could be borrowed from other regions and implemented here.
Q: You said that you are a Secular Humanist, what does it mean? How do you get to thrive in and relate with the people in a very religious society?
A: No! There is freedom of religion, association and expression. And Secular Humanism is all about the dignity of humanity. It’s the religion of humanity. Secular Humanism means food and fireside, roof and raiment, reasonable work and reasonable leisure, the cultivation of the tastes, the acquisition of knowledge, the enjoyment of the arts, and it promises for the human race comfort, independence, intelligence, and above all liberty. It’s all about equality, democracy and development. It’s all about a better and just world; and human concerns. It’s all about better concerns for the affairs of man rather than Supreme Beings. We believe that we can help our fellow men but cannot help Supreme Beings and they cannot help us too. And that instead of focusing on the unknown, that we rather focus on this present world. Secular Humanism is a religion of courage, belief in the dignity of humanity; and not a religion of kneeling down, mumblings, fears and superstitions. It is a religion that believes in hardwork rather than in prayers. It is a religion that proposes man to take care of his destiny, and abhors dependence on any gods. Secular Humanism sees Religion as a bondage; and an extension of slavery. Secular Humanism is a declaration of intellectual independence.
Q: Okay. But Humanists are believed to be secularists and unconscionable. This is believed by many, maybe heartless because they are not bound by religious laws.
A: That is a wrong notion. We have our conscience. Morality and values are never about religion. For an example, I am into Community development, humanitarian and human rights activism Practices. These practices are all about people, a better society, justice and sacrifice. So the narrative is wrong. You cannot say that we lack conscience, not bound by love, do not help people and self centered. It’s wrong. I know a lot of non-religious practitioners that are remarkable people.
Chike Ifedobi: Thanks so much Chambers for this interview, and my best wishes in your works.
Chambers Umezulike: Thanks so much Chike.
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Chambers Umezulike is a Nigerian Secular Humanist, Revolutionary, Novelist, Youth Advocate and Essayist. He is the author of MALCOLM, a novel of revolution, politics, social change, and dictatorship; depicting the elements of African politics (corruption, embezzlement, godfatherism, dictatorship and foreign influence). This interview was conducted on Lion FM, University of Nigeria during his book tour there in September, 2015.
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