(A memorial portfolio)
Dr. Makanjuọla Ọlaṣẹinde Arigbẹdẹ, the Nigerian neuroscientist, activist and national coordinator of the United Small and Medium Scale Farmers Association of Nigeria, USMEFAN, died on November 4, 2022, about a month short of 80 years. His associates, friends, and comrades in Nigeria and across the world noted the passing of a man of unusual moral and intellectual power who, with his spouse, Dunni, took a decision to throw their lot with the common people on the cusp of professional stability, and never wavered. He puts it best in 2017, with characteristic forthrightness, while reaching out to a newspaper columnist he considered a kindred spirit: “I am…a 75-year-old Nigerian patriot who has been driven by the need…to rescue our beleaguered patrimony from the locusts into whose hands we have entrusted our destiny. I have sacrificed my own life, comforts, professional ambitions, etc., and more importantly, those of my family, nuclear and extended. I am a trained neuroscientist who has crossed class lines to accompany the struggles of our under- privileged compatriots, particularly the beleaguered smallholder farmers who, despite their vicissitudes, sweat to feed the rest of us.”
For a Nigerian of above-average reading interest, the name Arigbẹdẹ might be easily recalled from the resonant opening sentence in the preface to the 1983 edition of The Man Died, the prison memoirs of Wọle Ṣoyinka, the Nigeria-born literature Nobel laureate: “Ṣẹinde Arigbẹdẹ did not die. In the course of his duties as a medical doctor, however, he was caught up in the violence unleashed on the citizens of Ondo by the Nigerian state after the disputed 1983 elections, and nearly died.”
From the collective group, the Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Nigeria (REMLON), founded circa 1976 and numbering Biọdun Jeyifo, Eddie and Bene Madunagu, Tony Engurube, and others in its rank, to mentoring another group of young activists in the Workers’ Education Research and Documentation Unit in the early 1980s, to his role as coordinator of USMEFAN, Arigbẹdẹ saw and treated every new group as tool for advancing only progressive goals, a terrain of struggle. Even in the 1990s, when his activism brought him in close contact with Christian groups and institutions, he walked through that door as a person of humanistic values: Addressing one such group, he posed the following question: “Can the Church effectively articulate a vision of Abundant Life in Jesus Christ which affirms solidarity, caring, sharing, and equity in a continent (Africa) that is riven with Strife, Mass impoverishment and marginalization, glorification of personal greed…without itself fully transforming into a Prophetic Church in the most fearless, consistent and comprehensive manner?”
I first met him around this time, at the Bodija, Ibadan, apartment of Kọle Ade Odutọla, then a program officer with the Nigerian Environmental Study group, NEST. He sat quietly in a chair, with a folder in his hand, the smiling, attentive presence of a man without attitudes.
In a tribute published a few days after Arigbẹdẹ’s death, Madunagu remembers him as “very versatile, talented, creative, physically very strong, brilliant, humane and humanistic.” His artistic gifts were numerous: actor, dancer, musician; he was known as “the singing doctor” in his undergraduate days at the University of Ibadan. (There is an anecdote that he refused a role in the film version of Kongi’s Harvest, due to casting improprieties.) Meanwhile, in every instance, he kept a low profile, never drawing attention to his role, but centering the idea of collective action. Writing about the couple in his column in The Guardian newspaper in 2013, Jeyifo regards Ṣẹinde and Dunni as embodiments of the value “in which on the road to equality, you start with equality itself…and you absolutely never stray from this path.”
It may seem like a paradox to single out for attention someone whose modes of operation was collectivist and collaborative. Yet it would be a mistake to downplay Arigbẹdẹ’s singularity. His ability to stay totally committed, despite disappointments, setbacks, and the onerous challenges of working for change in a uniquely tough space like Nigeria—that ability is an individual gift, and does reappear periodically in other gifted individuals. The best tribute to pay such a person is that stories of his unique vision be shared, and thus possibly sustained in other ways, through thick and thin, by others who may come across records of his—and Dunni’s—example.
What follows is a series of curated texts—interviews, excerpts, and tributes—that provide an insight into the activities, thoughts, ideas of this extraordinary Nigerian. The interviews were transcribed from a series of videos posted on YouTube by CaptainCasparo and published in January 2010. The interviewer is not identified; he sits in a car with Arigbẹdẹ, as the latter drives past a farmland, speaking in an arresting manner on a range of topics related primarily to agricultural practices and policies. We have included a few short excerpts: from a paper he presented at the South-South Forum on Rural Reconstruction and Sustainability held at the Southwestern University in Chongqing, China in 2012; from another interview with an online journal, Grain De Sel.
The published writings by former comrades Jeyifo and Madunagu are linked to this portfolio. Finally, there are short texts, tributes paid to him by his spouse, comrades, friends and associates, upon his passing.
Clip 1: Farmers and climate changes
When you lose that size of effort in a season, for a farmer who is already marginal, it could be quite disastrous. But that’s because the weather suddenly changed, the patterns known to farmers, suddenly change.
So for how many years have you seen the change?
Well, the change’s been gradual for, make it, about ten years now. Things have started shifting forth, shifting back, shifting forth again, so that the farmers have not been able to really establish a new pattern properly. And we do not have meteorological services here that can really give them the necessary back-up so they can understand what’s happening. But it’s been quite some time.
[Hails a farmer across the field: Ẹ yá’ṣẹ́ o!].
Is it getting worse? Does it increase?
It’s getting worse definitely. It’s getting worse, getting more confusing. Because the pattern it produces this year now will not be followed next year. So that’s what I mean that a very stable pattern has not been established. What farmers have done is when there’s a change and that change repeats itself over two three, four years, they usually can establish a new pattern that they respond to. Because, their farming is critically tied to the weather. If they fail by one week sometimes, it could mean the difference between bankruptcy and a bountiful harvest. But the weather never stabilizes enough for them to establish a pattern. And that’s an additional problem. They don’t expect the weather to remain the same for all times, but they require some stabilization for a while so they can quickly adapt to it. But to adapt suddenly to things that are just flip-flops, it’s very difficult.
Clip 2: “On government policy on agriculture”
The government is really retarding agriculture, not promoting it. The policies that are put in place, they tag these as support. But even when the policies look like pro-smallholder on paper, the practice is anything but.
So, what do you feel needs to happen to…what does the government need to do?
Government themselves…Well, first of all I think the government has to listen to farmers. Authentic farmers’ voices, for a start. Alright? And you would ask, Why are those speaking with them not authentic? I think they know already. If the government intervenes in the choice of framers’ leaders, or farmers that are authenticated by state, it’s already just setting up vassals, isn’t it? Clients. So that clientele system, once you do it, it makes everybody feel doubtful about their intentions. And government uses, politicizes the leadership of farmers’ organizations, so that when one government leaves office, the farmers’ leaders that it approves also generally tends to leave with it. And farmers have to scramble again looking for new bases for self-organization. So, first of all, government must listen, to the authentic voice of farmers, particularly the smallholder farmers. And then government must move boldly, boldly in the direction of a clear path, the declaration of a clear option for farming, for food production. Our government has never done that. It claims to be able to sell the smaller and the big, because it also recognizes that the so-called large-scale farmers have failed generally and are not there. They bring in big Zimbabwean farmers who are cast out of Zimbabwe. They give them land, support, guarantee, you name it. Things it’s never given to farmers in Nigeria. And it says, Well, it’s because our own large-scale farmers in Nigeria have failed. We need these Zimbabwean farmers to teach us how to engage in commercial agriculture. As if the smallholder farmer is not commercial, has no commercial sense at all. So, they must really show the ability to pick a path. And I think only Cuba, and a few other countries, have boldly institutionalized that choice of sustainable path. Because if you don’t do that, anybody can do what they like. We don’t even have priorities, we don’t even have a kind of template from which you decide, how much should I put into this aspect, this option of food production.
You talked about the Cuban model. Are there other models in the world that you feel can work?
My source of information may be quite limited in this regard. The Cuban example I picked may in fact be influenced by ideological preferences. Whatever the case, I’ve looked around and I do not find, not in Africa, any other system, that we feel satisfied about as smallholder farmers. Or any that has boldly, boldly challenged existing options, and opted for a truly sustainable smallholder-based, or family farm-based agriculture and food production. The Senegalese might have, but I myself sat down and listened to Abdoulaye Wade begging some […unclear] “to please, please bring this second revolution to us. Do it for us the way you’ve done it for India, please.” We will give you citizenship, we will give you this and that. In Dakar, the Dakar Agricole organized by Wade himself and they invited us, [Nigerian president] Ọbasanjọ was there, to take a position. All the other heads of state were there. They were begging for large-scale, packaged, expensive, chemicalized approaches to agriculture. They see the Euro-American model as the thing to struggle for. So, for me that already defeated the Senegalese thing because if that’s what they’re begging for then that’s not what we’re looking for. Which other country can I see? I’m really quite ignorant about any other country that can give an example that would support anything that we’ll be happy about. The Cuban example came through a lot of struggles, a lot of painful learning, but through leadership that’s committed to its people. Totally committed.
The Cuban example came through necessity. They didn’t have a choice.
Yes. But other leaders under that situation would have taken other choices, believe me. What you said about not having any other choice. They would have called in Monsanto, called in Syngenta, other big, huge companies and say, Please do it for us, Go ahead. The land is there for use. And they would have put pressure on the smallholder farmers, driven them off their lands. Yeah? The Indian government is pushing this Special Economic Zones thing now, that will put four hundred million farmers out of their lands. Out of their communities, in favor of what they call Special Economic Zones for entrepreneurs. So, really, the Cuban thing was not just out necessity. Yes, there was the need to respond to the collapse of the Soviet machine they were using for industrialized agriculture, heavy machinery and all that. But they could have gone any other way than they did.
Clip 3: On Biofuels
If I ask you what agrofuels are, could you explain what you mean by the term agrofuels?
Okay. That’s usually a question that’s important to deal with. It never used to be called agrofuels. It was called biofuels. But we later discovered that it was in order to prevent people from seeing how pernicious it is. And then we insisted on calling it what it is: agrofuels. Because if you call it biofuels, like biotechnology was used to cover up GMOs, you might lose sight of what it’s really doing to us, and to our agricultural patrimony around the world. Agrofuels really means converting agricultural land, land that is supposed to serve the purpose of food production, to feed humans, to stave off hunger, converting it to the land that will be used to produce alcohol, produce diesel, and perhaps other fuels, for engines. And it is that product, the fuels that come from it, that we label “agrofuels.” As different from what the market will prefer, biofuels. Because have been in existence for a long time so why should they begin to attract our objection? Biofuels, people have used palm tree, what comes from expressing the oil, the chaff, has fuel in it. Many, many societies, in Mali and everywhere else, people have used fuels derived from biological materials, from biological base. And it does not damage humanity because they have not usurped land that should produce food. So, biofuels is not the culprit, but agrofuels. It is when you go into the realm of agriculture, of food production, and you convert land that is supposed to go into food production, that you’re committing the sin of letting agrofuels take place of food for human survival, and threaten it. That’s our general attitude.
Biofuels have been used for a long time, and continue to be used. In fact, in the history of Mali, communities used biofuels to propel engines, to move engines along. So, it is not that that’s our problem. Agrofuel as it becomes industrial agrofuel, and as it expanded industrial agrofuel becomes extremely dangerous for the food sovereignty of the world, particularly the South, where they come to, to use the land. So, turning our land into that is used for growing diesel. It is dangerous, but it is even worse when you realize that this is big business. It is not small business at all. And as very big business, in the agriculture field, GMOs will be the principal typology of the crops that will be used. To make the maximum profit, it has to be GMOs. We were at even at a point where we succeeded in keeping GMOs at bay, but this will now open the gates for them, once you let agrofuel production, industrial agrofuel production, into place. Beyond that, it will set the small farmers against the leaders of activist organizations because it will seemingly give them the opportunity to have more money. Buying their land very cheaply, pulling them in as contract growers, and all that. It would seem to give them money for a while, but go to Benin Republic next door to us here, in northern Benin Republic, farmers who were seduced into that system, for the first few years thought, Oh, life is great. They have become dependent on food aid now. In northern Benin Republic. That’s what would happen everywhere…
On North’s dominance over the South:
It’s the choices that they made, among other choices. So the North gets away with it. I’ll give you another example. Here in this country, and in a lot of Africa and the South, the USAID dominates the role of development agency, development partners to government, because it can produce money, it can produce recommendations that would support that particular regime in place. But we know that the USAID is an instrument that is used to force our countries in the direction that the US insists we must take. Indeed, Bush is on record as having said to USAID, Go out and make the world ready for GMOs. And that’s being done all over. USAID is doing terrible things, horrendous things to people like us, who fight against GMOs. In Egypt, everywhere. Using very rough methods, too.
Do you think Barack Obama is the answer to Bush?
No, no, no. I do not know about Barack Obama, I don’t know what he would do. I know he’s the America president. The first black [president], fine. Maybe that may mean some change, but Barack Obama would have to work according to the system that produced him. I mean he’s already going ahead from what I hear, picking former advisors to Clinton and all that, and I don’t see much difference between his administration and Clinton’s. And Clinton was not what God recommended for us. So, the hysteria about Obama, I would accept only to the extent of saying, Thank God, at least, a black person could become president. But we in the South make too much of it, and we might find out, to our chagrin, that he’s not cut out as what we want. Of course, the system that produces him won’t change. The Military-Industrial Complex that produced him is not about to change. It produced John F. Kennedy and pulled him down when he was perhaps too enthusiastic. It could pull down Obama if he was really, really looking for change in a new direction. I don’t think he would do that. For us, it’s a change on the American scene, but we must keep up our struggle, trying to get our leaders to develop a spine, do what we need. It just shows us that change is possible, that’s all. The Obama thing. That change is possible. But whether or not that change is in our favor, we shouldn’t be in too much of a haste to tell.
How USMEFAN Began
Elite farmers used to justify their leadership using small holder farmers. They generally got government to give them inputs (some bags of fertilisers, some inputs to spray coco, etc.) and they use this to prevent the small holder farmers from protesting. In 1969 farmers broke through that façade. Their was a farmers’ uprising in the country. I started working with farmers in 1973 and lived with them directly, left my appointment at the university. If we approved it as we did for the first nearly ten years, “head on”, we couldn’t win, we were too weak to do that. Farmers were entrenched. Governments were behind us. They treated us as disruptors of order, so we decided we would now use large scale farmers. Given that they continued to fail, the direction they were going to did not really satisfy the small holder farmers. So we said to the big ones “why don’t we all come together?” You can’t by yourself make serious change. But if we all come together, we can get governments to listen. And this worked. We spent a long time beating about the bush. … looking for the wrong solutions. So, by 2004 we finally got together, we started by bringing in the religious institution-based farmers’ organizations. There were the closest to really empathic organizations. We held a national workshop, inviting 5 or 6 from different states of the country. One problem in Nigeria is representation, given the size of the country. That is how our organization started. At that point we could not possibly ask smallholder farmers to contribute membership fees. They had been exploited so often by different kinds of NGOs, governments, farmers’ leaders. So we refused to ask for membership, money or anything and just said, “You, organizations, please come together.”
–Culled from Interview with Grain De Sel
What Do NGOs Do?
A relatively new layer of social actors and actresses whose intervention might be expected to contribute to the defense of peasant livelihood is the Non-Governmental or Civil Society Organizations (NGOs/CSOs). Indeed, an active segment of this group lays claim to this task of defending peasant livelihood within what they refer to as Farmers’ Organizations, FOs, even though many of the members are anything but farmers themselves. These organizations are very important to the credibility of the farmer-focused international/multilateral Agencies: UNFAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), and, IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), particularly. In order to earn their keeps, these agencies must demonstrate that they collaborate with and consult civil society organizations, to accord their perspectives credibility and relevance.
These organizations and other funding bodies, individual, bilateral, and multilateral, have taken upon themselves, or in response to their founding remits, the task of working to guarantee food security to the world, especially to the less privileged who live in the now neglected rural world. They therefore, put up a strong show of working with NGOs/CSOs who are regarded as representing the interests of the ordinary people, particularly the marginalized, from a citizens’ perspective. The impression that is often given is that of equality-in-partnership of these agencies with the non-governmental ones. However, there is much more to this than meets the ordinary eye and people are assisted to believe what it is good for them to believe. Indeed, just as it cannot be seriously denied that the very phenomenon of NGOs/CSOs, as a social sector that must be given pride of place in how society is manipulated, is a deliberately diversionary one. Indeed, these non-State actors/actresses have often been placed on a higher pedestal than sovereign governments!
— Excerpt from a lecture presented at the Southwestern University, Chongqing, China, December 2012.
“Dear friend, may I congratulate Nigeria for producing you and, having said that, I would like greatly to appreciate you – your transparent humility of the truly knowledgeable, your prodigious work on Alternative Knowledge, etc. I accidentally listened to a program that showcased you and your work on AIT and I knew we must work together. I have the privilege of coordinating a Smallholder Farmers’ Organization that has a dynamic Youth Platform to secure the future of food sovereignty in Nigeria. The platform has a chapter in UNAAB led by one of your students. It would be great if you could become one of the mentors of this platform at UNAAB. We have a great deal to share, if you can find time for us.”
“Dying is a debt that we all owe, the time to pay up is what we don’t know. The most important thing about Makanjuọla Ọlaṣẹinde’s death is that he did not experience suffering or neglect as the end came for him. May God ease his way with the gentlest breeze. Ọlaṣẹinde’s death brought a great emptiness into my life. I lost a precious friend and confidant who never deceived or misled me. Although his knowledge and experience exceeded mine, he never used that to belittle me. Instead, he turned himself into my mentor and guide. We were the most intimate of friends, and treated each other with genuine respect. Ọlaṣẹinde was an embodiment of humility, and he did not use his vast knowledge and experience to create fear or anxiety in those who looked up to him. His abiding moral codes were: “‘The balanced wisdom of the young and the old was the founding principle of Ifẹ.’ ‘A tree does not make the forest.’ ‘The collective fist strikes the chest most resoundingly.’” One page is not enough to speak in detail about his personality. I am convinced, however, that our dear departed lived a good life, and he helped many people to experience a meaningful existence. His name will never be forgotten. Sleep well, Makanjuọla Ọlaṣẹinde. Rest peacefully in the Lord.”
–Dunni Arigbẹdẹ (Translated from Yoruba)
For Seinde and Dunni Arigbede: Making haste slowly for human equality, By Biodun Jeyifo (premiumtimesng.com)
For Comrade Seinde Arigbede | Blueprint Newspapers Limited: Breaking news happening now in Nigeria and todays latest newspaper headlines
“Priceless, boundless, bottomless. Ṣẹinde remains beyond the imagination.”
“Ṣẹinde was deeply concerned about Nigeria and he saw what Nigeria was going to become. In early 1975, he left the University of Ifẹ Faculty of Health Sciences. It was a great loss to all us. He was at the cusp of earning his chair in Neuroanatomy…What a man. Ṣẹinde lived what he preached. He saw Nigeria long before Nigerians saw themselves.”
“I saw you come and go at Ifẹ. Gentle, no frills. Your commitment to humanity was your garb…If there is an afterlife and you are reading this, let me say thank you for the light you introduced to my life with your selfless example. Your life was a joy to behold. Your courage, one of a kind. Your aura, immaculate. Walk good, Ẹgbọn.”