Eteng: Is This the End or Synthesis of Sociological Postulations?
It is difficult to write about Inya Abam Eteng, Professor Emeritus, in the yesterday tense. It is difficult to believe that one of the shining lights in the world’s sociological firmament has suddenly gone dim.The difficulty is worsened when, on a promenade through history, I recollect that I was privileged to have sat under his feet. Thus, when news of his death filtered to me, I asked: is that the end of sociological postulations, or the beginning of Utopia? Is that the end of Marxism or the triumph of Capitalism? It cannot be. Rather, it is the praxis or synthesis of both!
My path and that of Professor Eteng crossed in 1982 when I was admitted to study Sociology at the University of Calabar. He was my teacher, and he was an eager beaver. It was a delight to hear him speak either in class or in public. Each time he was to deliver a lecture in class, non-sociology majors would gather around the windows and pavements of the lecture hall to hear him speak. His grammar was not only intimidating and weighty, it was electrifying and music to the ear as they rolled out of his lips subconsciously and effortlessly.
The presence of Eteng and other Marxist scholars like Professors Eskor Toyo, Daniel Offiong, Chinweizu , Ekwekwe and a host of other leftist radicals made the UNICAL Faculty of Social Sciences the hotbed of intellectual ferment.
Under him I developed deep interest in Marxism and Leninism and waited with bathed breathe for the anticipated clash of capitalism and the proletariat revolution which we were taught was just a matter of time to happen in Nigeria. No doubt, the introduction of perestroika and glasnost by President Mikhail Gorbachev which whittled down socialism and led to the disintegration of the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) must have saddened Professor Eteng because it dealt a blow to other alternative philosophical schools of thought.
Fortunately again, ten years later we were to meet again in Sunray Newspapers in Port Harcourt in 1992, the first all full-colour digital national newspaper in Nigeria, where he was hired as a consultant. His coming to the publication did not witness much paradigm shift in the ideological orientation of the paper, but he had a keen sociological imagination. He examined every issue with a fresh pair of eyes.
Professor Eteng stood in UNICAL as a shining model of what commitment to knowledge should be. He was totally and unreservedly married to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge to the extent that he inspired both students and his colleagues. The profundity of his learning was brought to the fore when he was voted to deliver the 2004 Ahiajoku Lecture at Owerri. He held everybody spellbound for hours as many educated elites, no doubt, learned fresh vocabularies from him and began to question their own education.
In his book, African Socialism or Socialist Africa?, A. M. Babu of the University of Tanzania posed a question which I threw to Eteng in class: “Is Africa ready for socialism?” His reply was that “by the communal nature of African societies Africa was already socialist, but in a primitive form.” He went ahead in a Hegelian fantasy to analyse and postulate the inherent contradictions that must be removed in Africa to Africanise, or rather, socialize Africa. His ideas were seminal, the analysis got everybody nodding and clapping in class. Such was the measure of the man we have lost! Such was the measure of the man we have gathered to inter his final earthly remains. In fact, I don’t know what his colleague and friend Patrice Wilmot who was deported from Nigeria for his radical thoughts by the Babangida regime will say of his death!
If Eteng were to have lived in the Golden Age, he would no doubt have been at Mars Hill or at the Pantheon to argue with Aristotle and Socrates. If he were to have been born in more humane climes like America and USSR, he would have teamed up with Martin Luther King Jn.r or Marx and Lenin in their classical class struggles for the emancipation of the poor masses from the stranglehold of the rich. Such was his depth of love for the underprivileged!
From my little and few interactions with him, I saw Eteng as a man that had utter disdain for wealth. He had a different weltaschauung that made him unique from the rest of us. He loathed to the hilt the accumulation of primitive capital and had nothing to do with the lumpen bourgeoisie. As professor, he had so many opportunities to make poverty history but he saw wealth, like Alexander The Great, as something that had no value beyond here.
At the University of Port Harcourt, the fear of Eteng was the beginning of wisdom. He carved a niche as a committed Marxist and always proffered alternative solutions to any problem from the socialist perspective. He was a trade unionist; his presence at ASUU meetings radicalized the union and gave it more credibility. He was ready to defend his views even if that would mean engaging in fisticuffs. And he did severally.
I’m in fact told that the Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI) which was like the socialist manifesto of the Babangida regime was crafted in his room at Uniport alongside with other radicals like Nzimiro, Nwala, Amucheazi, Ekekwe, Nwabueze, etc. He was indeed a man of the people, and he lived for the people.
On a deeper reflection, sometimes I ask myself:
“What will happen to our education system when the Etengs of this world leave this shore? What will happen to the future of this country when those who shaped the contour of our early education, anchoring its foundations on values and moral probity, are no longer here?”
Pius Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Babs Fafunwa, Claude Ake, Inya Eteng, Nzimiro and a host of other intellectuals who shaped the contour of our education system and directed its trajectory are no longer here with us. They were like the thermometer in gauging the quality and temperature of our education system. They did not debauch their conscience. They did not sell hand-outs or involved in sex for marks. They did their job well and tried to replicate themselves in others. Indeed, they have an honoured place in the pantheon of Nigerian education.
But today, things have fallen apart. Our institutions of learning from the secondary to the tertiary are filled with teachers who lack the zeal to teach or read. Our universities which are supposed to be hallowed grounds for learning and research have become haven for uncommitted lecturers and students. Every year lecturers engage the government in a perpetual strike for salary increase and other issues, truncating the academic calendar. Our students on their own part no longer have the love for learning; what they want is not knowledge but certificate which they erroneously believe is a meal ticket or passport to Eldorado. And in order to get it they throw caution to the wind and do all manner of things ranging from sorting to sexual harassment.
A student once told me how she forgot to re-sit an examination but was afterwards given the freedom to choose what grade she wanted to score. She was clever enough not to tell me the other side of the story which I already know: she paid in kind. Now, it is no longer our teachers that harass our female students sexually, it is the other way round. And all for marks! They teach our lecturers “forkology”, (apologies to my friend) and at the end of the day end up with what my colleague Okey Ndibe calls “Sexually Transmitted Degrees”. Things indeed have fallen apart!
As a Marxist, Eteng had little regard for organized religion as he always believed it was the opium of the masses. But I did not travel that lane with him. When his wife, Juachi, told me that he recanted and gave his life to Christ many years before his passing on, I said to myself: so there is no ideology that cannot be softened with time? So there is no mountain that cannot be mowed down? This, indeed, was to me like the amplification, or the dawn of that messianic and eschatological era Isaiah looked to when all crooked roads shall be made straight and all valleys filled. I was more than delighted because the fangs of hell had no hold on him again. Satan lost woefully here. And such is the depth of Christ’s love for sinners: all are bidden to come!
As William Hazlitt would say, Eteng is now in “sleep deeper and calmer than that of infancy, wrapped in the softest and finest dust.” But I am consoled that my teacher did not die in vain.
There is no better epitaph I can leave on the tomb of Eteng than the words of Armand Hammer, the American industrialist:
“A person first starts to live when he can live outside himself. Life is a gift, and if we agree to accept it, we must contribute in return. When we fail to contribute, we fail to adequately answer why we are here.”
Eteng, you lived outside yourself. You adequately answered why you were here by contributing to life in return. The number of professors you made and the myriad of sociological and philosophical postulations you formulated are living testimonies of the flavour you added to life and knowledge.
Life is a pantomime, and you enjoyed it all well! After all, we are like a speck of dust floating in the firmament, one day we shall settle somewhere. Heaven, by it.