By Chukwuma Ajakah
Laden with a good dose of humour, life applicable lessons and related therapeutic ingredients, Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Naked Gods captures the hurly-burly of Nigerian politics on and off campus as recently exemplified in the drama at the University of Lagos over the vice-chancellorship position and the power plays-muscle flexing, arm-twisting, betrayals and mud-slinging, that characterize the political culture of the larger society as often demonstrated in the build-up to national elections.
Published in 1970, Nigeria’s 10th year of independence, by Harvill Press Ltd, The Naked Gods remains relevant 50 years after its publication as the country’s political gladiators still exhibit the divide and rule antics and character foibles mirrored in the narrative. The novel is set in a newly independent country which aptly typifies an African state pathetically overwhelmed with the challenges of visionless leadership and overt dependency on the expertise of expatriates in virtually every sphere of its existence.
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In each of its 27 chapters, the novel presented in 254 pages, encapsulates the intrigues associated with the power game on the campus of a top rate university where learned scholars are pitched against one another in vaulting ambitions. The plot of Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Naked Gods hinges on the rivalry between Professor Ikin and Dr Okoro, whose quest for the post of the Vice Chancellor of Songhai University takes a dangerous dimension, resulting in the near collapse of the university.
Despite their exposure to Western education, the two prominent sons of Songhai are ferociously on each other’s neck in a fight to finish battle. The bitter struggle leads to a polarization of the dramatis personae-including the students, into opposing camps. Dr Okoro’s background as an American trained scholar gives him an edge over the more experienced, but British educated Professor Ikin enjoys the backing of the British Registrar, Dr Toogood and Professor Brown.
While assuring Ikin of the assistance of the Britons, Professor Brown remarks: “I leave your house a happy man, Ikin, though this may sound paradoxical in view of the battle ahead…If Songhai University collapses, I know at least seven reputable universities that have assured me of professorships any time I need one. It’s your country that suffers. When Jim and I stick out our necks, we are not fighting for our selfish ends. We are fighting for your country…”
The central place of action is Songhai University, the nation’s premier university established to cater for the developmental needs of Songhai and other African countries. The desire to develop a template for an indigenous educational system remains elusive as Songhai is in a dilemma over which system to adopt. Like most countries of Africa, she is depicted as a glorified nation state eternally consigned to the whims and caprices of her erstwhile colonial masters. The existence of the university is threatened by the divisive inclinations of the learned scholars who represent divergent interests. The students are not left out as the situation degenerates to the point that two major factions evolve from the student body to support the protagonists-Professor Ikin and Dr Okoro.
There is also the religious dimension to the conflict as students from Onuku Province together with those from other parts of the country who like the professor are Roman Catholics root for Professor Ikin while Dr Okoro’s supporters are largely Protestants from Odo and other provinces. There are also aggrieved students whose camp is determined by either their grudge with the Professor for being stingy with marks or the learned Casanova for poaching their girlfriends. Some see the conflict as a struggle between British and American systems of education and subsequently align their loyalty on individual sentiments.
Behind the scenes is an amalgam of powerful forces that calls the tunes that the gladiators dance to their peril-either for personal reasons or national interest. The forces representing American interest scheme to establish their influence in Songhai by installing an American trained scholar as successor to the incumbent Vice-Chancellor, whose contract expires in three years while the erstwhile colonial masters plot to perpetuate their control over the supposed sovereign state via similar approach.
The conflict reaches its climax when an emergency meeting of the Provincial Council is called to present the Vice-Chancellor’s proposal for a successor. By this time, a twist has occurred turning the tables against Dr Okoro who had incurred the wrath of the American Ambassador by extending his unbridled sexual escapades to the Ambassador’s home with the eldest daughter, Alice as his victim.
His Excellency unleashes the ever-efficient secret agents on the randy don. Consequently, startling revelations emerge to diminish Okoro’s soaring personality. The dossier on him features indicting details from his alma mater in the States, his diabolical dealings-evidenced in nocturnal visits to Ebenebe, a notorious medicine man, to whom he had gone for fortification and his infamous role in a sensational newspaper editorial that had disparaged the American Vice-Chancellor’s leadership style.
Determined to turn the tide against Dr. Okoro, the Ambassador summons the Vice-Chancellor and persuades him to jettison the idea of recommending the lecturer as his successor. He further directs the Vice-Chancellor to propose a transition plan that would expose Ikin to the American educational system, enabling him to obtain a doctorate within one year.
Dr. Okoro’s outburst against his erstwhile American backers on realizing that he had been cornered reveals his hypocritical disposition: That stupid American Ambassador must have applied every sort of pressure on the Vice-Chancellor. The poor fellow can’t be a free agent, and in a situation like this you can trust an American to place his country’s interest foremost…That’s one thing our foolish leaders won’t understand. They think America loves us. That’s why they can go to the extent of gagging the press, because of a little discomfort to one idiotic man who happens to be an American!
In a private meeting with the Vice-Chancellor, the Ambassador reveals why America spends on education in Songhai: The British are not fools. Although they have granted independence to Songhai on paper, they know what they will lose if they pull out more than is absolutely necessary…Capture the education of a nation, and you capture that nation’s crème de la crème. Capture a nation’s university education and you set the tone for the rest of the educational system…Whichever way Songhai goes, there goes the rest of Africa.
Professor Ikin’s unexpected rejection of the proposal comes as a rude shock, especially to members of the Provincial Council whose envisaged mouth-watering six-week all-expenses-paid tour of America is truncated by his action.
In rejecting the offer, the Professor exposes the hypocrisy of the Americans who had worked assiduously against his candidature only to turn to him on realizing that they had been backing the wrong horse: “A glance at the staff lists of several major world universities, even within America, will show that a doctorate degree is not necessarily a prerequisite for headship of a university… I would rather remain unqualified than accept a doctorate degree, earned or honorary, ARRANGED for me; the conditions attached to the offer make it impossible for any Songhaian with a modicum of self-respect to accept…The future of Songhai University is much more vital than my self-aggrandizement.”
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