The association that serves as the professional umbrella of English scholars of Nigeria has just concluded its annual conference at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, the premier university of northern Nigeria. Last year, the Association celebrated its 50th Anniversary at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife with lots of “fanfare and glitz”. Of course, it was only germane for the association to have celebrated its golden jubilee at Ile-Ife because the idea of Nigerian English scholars was virtually incubated there even against the backdrop of the radical impulses of many left leaning Africanist and socialist-oriented scholars. Although the key scholars that have sustained the momentum of the association were mostly hovering between University of Ibadan, Obafemi Awolowo University, and Abdullahi Bayero College of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria at Kano. Prominent amongst them were Professors Ayo Bamgbose, Ayo Banjo, A. Afolayan, David Jowitt and Munzali Jubril, etc.
Among the trio of Ayo Banjo, Ayo Bamgbose and David Jowitt, who have been teaching English in Nigeria since the early 1960s, there emerged a very healthy scholarly debate on what exactly constitutes the Nigerian English. A number of groundbreaking abstractions, conceptualizations and theorizations have been recorded from their keen observations of English language behavior with particular reference to linguistic competence and performance in the different aspects of the Nigerian context. In their different ways, they have published academic papers and books that have now become important reference materials at home and abroad. Other English scholars that have taken up the gauntlet after those pacesetters are Odumuh A., J.S. Aliyu, Wale Adegbite and several others. Adegbite, Inyang Udofot, Kehinde Ayoola, S.T. Babatunde and Akin Odebunmi are cartographically mapping the parameters of Nigerian English in their works, with even Babatunde contemplating of a project on the grammar of Nigerian English after the successful publication of “A dictionary of Nigerian English Usage” by the triumvirate of Adegbite, Udofot and Ayoola.
Again, at Ile-Ife, the 50th Anniversary celebration was laced with the 32nd conference of English Scholars Association of Nigeria (ESAN), which went under the theme “English Studies in Non-Native Environments: Reflections and Projections”. All sorts of interesting papers were presented on varieties of English usage in the country, ranging from institutionalized academic prescriptions to energetic media applications, including highly creative social media banters and jokes. My humble person was requested to present one of the two plenary papers on literature curriculum in Nigeria, which I titled “Curricular Review in the 21st Century Nigerian University: Appraising National Universities Commission Benchmark Minimum Standards for Literary Studies”.
In my own submission, I called for the total overhaul of literary pedagogy, especially in Nigerian tertiary institutions where the teaching of literature is increasingly appearing to be boring, where reading or book culture is giving way in the face of creeping digital culture with its broad canvas of technological mediations. In addition, I recommended the review of National Universities Commission’s (NUC) Benchmark Minimum Academic Standard for Literature (BMAS), which I considered as moribund, outdated and irrelevant in its promotion of western canonical texts that do nothing but alienate Nigerian kids from Nigerian cultures. Nigerian government should consciously direct the teaching of a literature that will deliberately set out to foster a sense of belonging to Nigeria (nationhood) and love for everything Nigeria (patriotism) in Nigerian children and youth otherwise the strong tide of cultural globalization will sweep them away completely from “being and becoming” Nigerians in essence and existence. How else do we inculcate national values or culture in Nigerians without coherent set of ideals that would bring all Nigerians together?
This time around, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria hosted the 33rd regular conference of ESAN between 27th and 30th November 2017. Once again, the theme that was carefully selected by the local organizing committee is “English Studies in Multicultural Contexts: Prospects and Challenges” with Professor T.A.N. Abubakar of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, as the Keynote Speaker. Though unavoidably absent to present his paper directly, he was however adequately represented by Professor Ibrahim Bello-Kano of Bayero University Kano, an exquisitely sound scholar who was at home with the poststructuralist and postmodernist moorings of Professor Abubakar’s densely cerebral paper. Everybody present could feel the attachment of Professor I.B.K., as he is popularly called, to most of the liberal openness and pluralism canvassed by the paper.
Professor Tanimu Abubakar’s presentation, which is veritably christened “English Literary Studies and the Multicultural Contexts”, has aptly captured the thrust of the broad theme of the Conference when it succinctly posits, “English and Literary Studies are circumscribed by the diversity, variability and enunciation that multiculturalism entails”. Furthermore, it opines that “In a 21st century world knitted by economy, technology and knowledge and held in a state of tension by power and vested interest, the prevalence of difference and integration in the open space of the multicultural has created contesting frontiers and social formations precariously regulated by the push and pull between and within global capitalism through its legacies of modernity, domination and incorporation”. This has confidently set the tone of the conference; and, as the parallel sessions progress, it guides the diverse epistemic, conceptual and empirical contours of discussions.
The plenary speakers, starting with Dr. Ifeoma Obuasi of College of General and Communication Studies, Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike who decided to throw her weight behind the traditions set by the Nigerian pioneers of English Studies mentioned earlier on. Through the spirit of continuity, her lead paper titled “English Language Studies for Culturally Appropriate Communication (CAC) in Nigerian Context”, the need to recognize the reality of a uniquely Nigerian English was stressed. As a proponent of the descriptive school of English, she rhetorically raises the stakes higher by questioning the rationale of those sticklers to the rules of English grammar, which often are articulated in an alien context of usage elsewhere in Europe or America.
She actually frowns at those scholars who hide behind the question of English competence prescribed by the so called guardians of the rites of passage into the exclusive linguistic environment officially referred to as standard English, particularly in a world in which many “Englishes” are emerging to overtake standards set by the so called native speakers. Thus, instances of cultural intrusion in our English language performance within the context of what is normatively accepted as English competence is necessarily compelling us to come to terms with the inevitability of a new reality that is independent of our will or the desires of prescriptive English scholars. Many participants, including Professor Jowitt, have to come out of their shell forcefully in defense of the ruling orthodoxy, as they express fears over mutual exclusivity in the future of a world that’s rapidly globalizing.
Professor Oyeniyi Okunoye, Head of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, who happened to be the second plenary speaker, which is chaired by my humble self, surprisingly reinforces the narrative of openness, the necessity of multiplicity of vision in Nigeria, and of openness in the face of contesting plural identities and differences, earlier on introduced by Professor Tanimu Abubakar, the Keynote Speaker. Professor Okunoye’s presentation was titled “Nigerian Literature in the Pursuit of a National Dream”. In it, he explores further the issues of identity and representation in the robust Nigeria’s literary landscape. The salient aspects of his presentation apparently examine in conceptual terms the continuities and discontinuities of literary traditions, and how a vibrant literary culture is germinating plural identities in literary writing in Nigeria. Potentially, this can be harnessed in any genuine process of nationhood project that we urgently need in the country.
To substantiate his argument, national imaginaire that manifests itself through the prism of multiple identities can be easily appropriated through culture, arts and literature. It can be turned into a key ingredient in our journey to nationhood, which is everywhere manifestly characterized by cultural diversity that is embodied by our literary artists. Although Nigeria is gripped by crisis of identity, alas, this is horribly playing itself out at the expense of robust construction of a viable nationhood. In the symbolic realm therefore, a true sense of nationalism is something that is inseparable from imaginative ventures and other artistic projects and creations for national identity. In essence, literature enjoys a very close affinity to the notion of a desired national identity in Nigeria. This is also the sense in which literature in his paper calls for a good understanding of how to produce a uniquely national literature in Nigeria. We need a literature, in its broadest sense, that transcends our most celebrated ethnic-oriented canons that are everywhere passing for Nigerian literature.
Accordingly, many good literary voices and cultural unifying symbols that are complexly celebrating the spirit of Nigeria are either ignored or silenced. The task of mapping the genetic sequencing of the identity of Nigerian literature is by all means not an easy one. On that note, the parallel sessions of the Zaria Conference started in earnest in the cozy precincts of the Postgraduate school, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. The conference concluded with the election of Professor S.T. Babatunde as the new ESAN President after the successful tenure of Professor Wale Adegbite.