“Won fe so mi di a lai m’ose; b’eni pe ki nse ilu yi ni won be wa si. Sugbon, ilu yi ni oju ma ti.” ‘Funmi Adewunmi was wont to run you through this sentiment as soon as you were sufficiently acquainted. I’d come to know him in the 1990s years when he taught at the Michael Imoudu Institute for Labour Studies in Ilorin.
And his argument was simple. A huge divide (in terms of wherewithal and social standing) had opened between those of our compatriots concerned to make Nigeria work properly, and those who didn’t care a jot about how the country turned out. The former was likelier to do proper things properly. To insist on transparent and inclusive governance processes; and accordingly went home with no more or less than they were properly entitled to. The latter lived at society’s deals’ edge; and having learnt to, were comfortable cutting all corners. It was therefore nearly always handsomely rewarded.
‘Funmi’s plaint, for a complaint it was, was that our society’s new ordering of its values was increasingly such that the former group of compatriots (with him at the vanguard) were increasingly made to look like incompetents. Like folk, indeed, who had but strayed into this space. He was assured, though, that ultimately, given the propriety of positions like his, society was always going to be put to shame by its poor choice.
Despite his secular, if not atheist outlook then, ‘Funmi’s perspective on the condition of the Nigerian state had a religious bent to it. Whether it was to love one’s God with all one’s might; or to love one’s neighbour as oneself, the promise of most scriptures is of a rewarding hereafter. If therefore, if our society did not requite one’s commitment to its being properly run, then our kingdom was not of this earth. Within these narrow conceptual confines, it was not just that it’s good to do good. It’s simply the natural thing to do. Still, even within this spiritual narrative, there was space for one request: “Here now, O God, give us a foretaste of our heavenly reward!”
In ‘Funmi’s presence, the conversations ranged wide and went as deep and as elevated as possible. And it didn’t matter whether it was the sheer danceability of Kollington Ayinla’s music or exploring the philosophical boundaries of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s “Beast of no Nation” — you couldn’t but be bowled over by his thinking. Yet, his short take on how responsibility for the sorry state of the country was going to be accounted for, stuck. It was such a convenient stop-off point each time concern over the poor management of this country ranged deep and wide, and ran the risk of getting lost. I had no doubt that no one was going to declare me incompetent. Rather, Nigeria and the way it is currently organised would be put to shame.
That was before ‘Doyin Salami called me three months ago. He began the conversation by reminding me of ‘Funmi’s aphorism; then went on to ask: “In the event that Nigeria has no sense of shame, is there any chance that we would ultimately be the ones to eat humble pie?” Or something to this general effect.
It took a while to make sense of this poser. But apparently, he’d just lost a friend. Another intellectual, committed to the idea of building as good a country here as is obtainable anywhere in the world. This friend had died of cancer — as usual, misdiagnosed until it had metastasised beyond the competence of our local caregivers. And then, it took an eternity to raise the money needed to “fly him out”!
That he eventually died, was a given no less quotidian than that his family was now going to be at some risk of a diminution in welfare status because of his death. He’d worked hard, very hard. And he’d done and insisted on everyone around him doing things properly. In the end, he died because he didn’t have the means to travel for invasive surgery abroad. His children were going to become recipients of charity because he had not salted enough aside to guarantee them his post-mortem comfort.
In the ensuing conversation, it mattered a lot what the domestic balance of shame is like. A society with a consciousness of guilt was always going to give respite to the wise and the prudent. While one incapable of censuring or reproaching itself was likelier to succour dealers and jobbers. It would have been nice to have had ‘Funmi weigh in on this conversation. Especially, whether, how much, and how those who are about to be shamed by the Nigerian state could repurpose the dialogue in the light of this new understanding of their interest. Ololade Bamidele, another friend, conversation with whom was an essential part of this piece, puts this added dilemma more pithily. “When the state fails and seems incapable of ever doing better, how should its people weave safety nets that would prevent them from victimhood as an ontology?”
Sadly, Professor Funminiyi Adewunmi died on June 13th, 2017.