Nwafor: Remembering Festus Iyayi

On November 12, 2013, Professor Festus Iyayi was killed by the convoy of Governor Idris Wada of Kogi State. Iyayi was on his way to Kano to participate in the National Executive Council Meeting (NEC) of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). November 12, 2014, therefore, marks his one year remembrance.  Iyayi’s death came at the height of the ASUU-FGN struggle over the disappointments in the fulfillment of ASUU-FGN 2009 Agreement. Iyayi, however, paid the supreme price of that protracted crisis that lasted over six months. It is important to dig deep into history, not just to remember Iyayi’s role as a committed ASUU member, activist, administrator, playwright and award winning novelist, but also to reflect over the meaning of leadership, at all levels, in Nigeria.

Late Professor Festus Iyayi was born in Ugbegun in 1947 in the present Edo State of Nigeria. He came from a humble background where his parents, notwithstanding their meagre resources, valued intellectual knowledge and, sent him to school. In 1966, Iyayi completed his Junior secondary at Annunciation Catholic College (ACC) in the old Bendel State. His sterling educational qualities earned him admission into Government College Ughelli, where he graduated in 1969 in very good academic standing. Proving his precocious mettle for academic pursuit, Iyayi, in that same year, won a zonal prize in John Kennedy Essay Competition organized by the United States Embassy in Nigeria.

Like Ulysses, in his unending quest to follow knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought, Iyayi left Nigeria to pursue his higher studies in former USSR, and in 1976 he graduated from the Kiev Institute of Economics with a BSc and MSc in Industrial Economics. Afterwards, he travelled to the United Kingdom where he bagged a PhD in University of Bradford, England.

Some scholars have suggested that Iyayi’s sojourn in Russia helped shape his literary radicalism especially in the genre of Social realism. However, far from any postulation of his radical tendencies following his post-Russia trip, Iyayi was innately built with a force of struggle to defeat philistinism, crudeness and ineptitude especially as propagated by the Nigerian political class.

During the period when most independent African nations were enmeshed in the discourse of nationhood, Iyayi emerged to define the entangled terrain of post-colonial struggle in explicit intellectual terms.  He came back to the University of Benin in 1980 to become a lecturer in the Department of Business Administration.  Iyayi’s emergence as a writer in the 1980s was significant for a number of reasons. The 1980s was when writers such as Ayi Kwei Armah was beginning to engage political corruption in Ghana and Iyayi lent him a critical voice in neighbouring Nigeria by highlighting, through his writings and activism, the danger that confronted human existence during the height of military dictatorship in Nigeria. The 1980s was also the period when Iyayi joined the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). His role was epochal. As a unionist, he allowed his sterling academic qualities to bear on his style of leadership. Thus, either manifesting as intellectual and moral leadership or as an exemplary humanistic crusade, Iyayi’s time as ASUU leader was majorly characterized by organic attempts to rouse the followers and draw them into the process of stiff resistance against corruption and oppression.

It seems Iyayi’s death opened the Pandora box that suggests that ASUU’s relationship with the Nigerian government might seem irreconcilably hostile. While he fought for a just cause, ASUU is presently skeptical that he died in vain especially since the ASUU-FGN 2009 agreement, which contention cut his life short, is still far-fetched.  In trying to theorise the rise of hideous power in Nigeria, Festus Iyayi’s life really stands as a model. This is because in 1987 he was dismissed from the University of Benin for his involvement in the activities of ASUU. That was under the reign of Professor Alele Williams as the Vice Chancellor.  Iyayi got his job back after Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, won his case in court. In fact, ASUU was banned in 1988 and Iyayi, who was the then president of the Union, was detained. That same year, 1988, Iyayi won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for his novel, Heroes.  Two remarkable events in the life of a single individual in one year: an international prize in the West and detention in Nigeria. The two events forge concurrent antithesis in which Nigeria exercised a regressively fatal effect on Iyayi’s life while the West exercised a dynamic and progressive action on his life. Thus contained in the above two happenings are a number of key concerns: the failure of the Nigerian political class to transcend crass nescience and create a fertile ground where academic excellence can thrive, and, on the part of the prize-giving Western world, the defeat of Nigeria’s ignorance and the restoration of Africa’s lost hope in the human intellectual dignity.

That is an apt analogy and serves, as initially suggested, to construct a theory of gruesome power in Nigeria. That the convoy of governor of Kogi State, Mr. Idris Wada, rammed into the vehicle conveying Iyayi and some members of the Union to Kano, killing Iyayi on the spot, is not just a typical example where political leadership devolves into brutal domination; it also suggests the collapse of governance in Nigeria. It suggests that there is disconnect between political power and the masses in Nigeria, a vexing severance between the leader and the individual whereby the individual is constantly objectified in the everydayness of the politician. Being the second similar accident involving the convoy of Kogi State governor, it becomes clear that in Nigeria, leaders are mysteriously ferried across the land like awesome gods. Moving with the mechanism of fierce monsters, rocket-speed bravado, deafening sirens and ferociousness, leaders have literally emasculated the masses, stripping them of the last hope of amiable affinity and increasing their inherent hatred in the political class. This is actually a case of internal conflict among Nigerian masses eliciting the grand question of whether it is actually a good idea to constitute the governed in a country like Nigeria.

However, this piece has served to shed light on Iyayi’s legacies once more and at the same time pose a serious challenge to the state of leadership in Nigeria. That nothing meaningful has emerged from governor Idris up until now, after their convoy murdered Iyayi, suggests that if Iyayi stood for freedom then the governor may have stood for imprisonment. If Iyayi fought to redeem the organic incapacity of the Nigerian masses, the governor might have enthroned unreasonable barbarity on the masses by killing Iyayi. Finally if Iyayi died for the good of humans in Nigeria and the world all over then the governor and his convoy still need to revisit their continued propensity to depose human reason and obstruct genuine struggles for liberation.

• Dr. Nwafor is currently the Head, Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka.

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