At the time of independence, most African countries were poised to take charge of their own affairs. However, postcolonial realities characterized by political upheavals, coups and counter-coups, civil wars, and economic downturn, among other setbacks, created a sense of ambivalence in terms of political and economic freedom. In Nigeria, satirical expressions became the tool used against oppressive regimes. In post-independence Nigeria, from the military dictatorial era to the present civilian dispensations,1 sociopolitical issues have been lampooned in different forms of expression such as music, performance, cartoons, and memes. Within this environment, political cartoons began to thrive, as they became a relatively safe way to comment on the political issues of the day (Akande 2002: 2). This was achieved largely by concealing the main subject matter behind the “masks” of metaphoric imagery, which enabled cartoonists to develop narratives that counter the dominant narratives, often opposing governmental policies and practices. Since the early 1940s, when Akinola Lasekan employed cartoons as one of the tools against British imperialism in Nigeria, political cartooning as a graphic form of satire has become part and parcel of everyday satirical culture. Lasekan was the first indigenous cartoonist in the country. His works in the West African Pilot newspaper became weapons of propaganda for African nationalism and against the editor's colonial and indigenous political rivals2 (Fig. 1). Today, most national newspapers3 have editorial cartoon columns, which provide readers with a visual narrative or editorial position of the state of societal happenings. The Internet has also provided a platform for cartoon publications, as most cartoonists now publish their biting visual expressions on the web.4
Though cartooning in its current form in Nigeria is of colonial provenance, the strategies of satire employed in cartoons were embedded in some traditional Nigerian societies long before the advent of colonialism. Cartoons, like their satirical performance predecessors, are couched in imagery drawn from “African mythologies and archetypes” (Eko 2007: 222). Symbols and metaphors are employed to simplify and to communicate complicated ideas and concepts (Harrison 1981). Cartoonists can be likened to the traditional palace jesters in most African societies because of their roles in ridiculing the excesses of influential people in subtle and humorous ways (Wyk 2012: 10; Onipede 2007: 4; Olaniyan 2002: 124; Olowu, Kayode, and Egbuwalo 2014: 119).
In this article I explore the ways in which Etim Bassey Asukwo employs visual elements as counter-narratives against dominant governmental narratives on sociopolitical issues.5 By examining his cartoons within the context of production and the choice of imagery he employs, I argue that rather than simply expressing societal happenings, these images provoke discourse on various sociopolitical issues. As such, these cartoons are not just passive reflections, but are also instruments of persuasion. Contemporary cartoons share significant similarities with the precolonial tradition of satire. Imagery in contemporary times are employed as a “mask” for protection in order to reveal societal ills and to speak truth to power. In rendering some of his works, Asukwo usually masks his identity as “Basati”—a signature he coined to conceal his true identity, when he does not sign his works as Asukwo EB, the main signature he is known for.
TRADITIONAL SATIRE IN NIGERIA
The use of satire to ridicule, challenge, and potentially subvert the excesses of the aristocrats or power brokers in society is not alien to most African contexts. Among the Yoruba of the southwestern part of Nigeria, forms of satire range from caricature portraits in terracotta, wood, ivory, bronze, brass, and stone to verbal manifestations in satirical songs, chants, and performances by Egungun6 masquerades with headdresses featuring humorous images (Figs. 2–3) (Lawal 1977). Popular among these performances is the /, which epitomizes the concept of sociopolitical control through satire (Adepegba 2016). The night of during the masquerade performance is characterized by wit and sanctions (Drewal 1974a).7 Evildoers, and even despotic kings, are ridiculed in a subtle manner in the presence of everyone. It is a taboo for any king to order the arrest of maskers or satirists, hence the adage in Yoruba, ọba kìí mú ònkọrin,8 which means “the king does not arrest a satirist.”
Similarly, in the southeastern part of the country, the Okumpa theater masks of the Igbo combine indigenous and Western costumes in entertaining and educating the public on societal happenings. Though the majority of the maskers are young and are forbidden to insult or rebuke the elders in ordinary circumstances, the mask provides a form of spiritual protection and a license to mock, criticize, and parody the wrongdoers among the elders in the society (Jewell 2016).
These performances with caricaturized sculptural assemblages, which always exaggerate the wearer's stature and often emphasize main physical attributes relating to what is being ridiculed, are usually staged in the king's court or market squares for reasons of mass dissemination and societal approval. Some masquerades are performed in religious contexts; others combine these rituals with social aesthetics and entertainment functions to drive home the subject matters of their performances (Adedji 1972; Adepegba 2016; Jewell 2016). Cartoonists in contemporary society perform a comparable function and mostly employ the same conceptual apparatus. The use of imagery to equivocate intentions serves as a protective veil for cartoonists in the same way that masks serve the performers. Cartoonists sometimes publish their works under different pen names or signatures for protection when sensitive subject matters are expressed—as when Asukwo signs as Basati to mask his true identity. It is also important for cartoons to be disseminated to the public in order to get approval for expressing public opinion; hence newspaper pages and the Internet, especially social media platforms, become the “palace” and “market square” in present-day spatial negotiations.
ANALYSIS OF SELECTED POLITICAL CARTOONS
The introduction of newspaper publishing in Nigeria created a much-needed platform for cartooning. Although Iwe Irohin— the first newspaper in Nigeria, established in 1859 by the British missionary Rev. Henry Townsend—did not feature cartoons, other publications founded in the precolonial period did, such as the Nigeria Weekly Record (1891), the Nigerian Chronicles (1908), the Daily Times of Nigeria (1925), Gaskiya Ta Fi Kwabo (1936), the West African Pilot (1937) and the Nigerian Tribune (1949). Among these publications, the West African Pilot stood out as the most prominent in terms of anti-colonial advocacy owing to its extensive use of editorial cartoons by Akinola Lasekan (1916–1974) whose pen name was Lash (Jewell 2016). The Daily Times of Nigeria later, in the 1980s, became the stable of gifted and talented cartoonists such as dele jegede (b. 1945), Josy Ajiboye (b. 1948), and David Lasekan (b. 1953), among others (Medubi 2008). After independence, many media houses sprang up and cartoons became one of their regular features.9 Political cartooning has contributed immensely to the sociopolitical life of Nigerians. It has developed into a vibrant means of disseminating information, educating the public, providing entertainment, and speaking truth to power. Furthermore, it continues to play a vital role in the documentation, critique, and reflection of both social and political issues in Nigeria (Olaniyan 2013).
Among the contemporary cartoonists in Nigeria who embrace modern modes and techniques of rendering their works digitally is the prolific Etim Bassey Asukwo (pen name Mike Asukwo). His use of multiple platforms, such as social media and websites, to disseminate his works has allowed him to reach a wider readership than cartoonists who only publish in print and has generated a lot of controversy. His works, built firmly upon the established tradition of cartooning and satire, are couched in visual allegories. He often appropriates visual symbols within a metaphoric context—what Deleuze and Guattari (1972) refer to as “transience and deterritorialisation,” the communicative act that entails taking human beings out of their accustomed “territories” for the purpose of ethical critique. In contextualizing imagery in African cartoons, Lyombe Eko, applying this concept to his study of the representation of African political leaders in four African newspaper cartoons, opines that to “deterritorialise is to [figuratively] break down well-marked political, cultural, biological, and social boundaries or territories” in re-presenting societal happenings (Eko 2007: 220). The way cartoons refocus societal lenses enables different dimensions of interpretations and further provokes multimodal political discourse.
The cartoon Riding Out the Storm (Fig. 4), published in BusinessDay, was produced against the backdrop of former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan's ascension to power. Following his presidential election victory on April 16, 2011, Jonathan10 dissolved the cabinet he had inaugurated in 2010 as acting president after Umar Musa Yar'Adua's death. His new ministerial list stimulated resentment in the populace, with strident accusations by southerners of northern favoritism. It was claimed that the ministerial list he submitted to the Senate for ratification marginalized the south.
Even though this cartoon is placed within the context of President Goodluck Jonathan's controversial assumption of power in May 2010,11 the broader historical context is entrenched in the postcolonial realities that grew out of the 1914 British amalgamation of the northern and southern Protectorates into one entity called Nigeria. By situating the real state in an imagined space using visual imagery, the cartoonist expresses ethnic divides entrenched in Nigerian polity right from colonial administration.
Asukwo represents the south as a dinosaur (an extinct animal) and the north as a camel (an animal associated with the desert). By suturing them in the middle like Siamese twins, he suggests that the unity of Nigeria was faulty right from the start. He implies that no significant movement can be achieved, even though the land is green, as these two animals are moving in opposite directions. Another important issue to consider in this representation is the affinity of the rider, Jonathan. It is pertinent to note that Jonathan comes from the south-south region,12 a province that is believed to have been marginalized in the central power distribution even though it produces the largest percentage of the country's revenue. In the cartoon Jonathan decides to face the direction of the north despite his affinity with the south. The symbolism may also indicate the reality of the Nigerian political system. By default, since the colonial era, the north has had largest number of seats in the two chambers of the legislature—the House of Representatives and the Senate. This numerical advantage makes the region a strong political bloc in national affairs, as its representatives can influence most decisions without a major alliance with the southeast or southwest regions. In view of this, it is clear that no single bloc from the south can win with a clear majority in national elections. Therefore, southern blocs always need to court the north. Manifestations of this abound in previous presidential elections: 1959, 1964, 1979, 1983, 1993, 1999, 2003, 2007, and 2011 (Odusote 2014). The March 28, 2015, presidential elections also validate this theory. The All Progressive Congress (APC), which defeated the incumbent People's Democratic Party (PDP), emerged from an alliance of Nigeria's three biggest opposition parties—the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), and the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), together with a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) (Buba 2017).
The cartoon is loaded with codes that visually expose the lesser-known structure of Nigerian democracy. It reveals that a particular region is more powerful politically than the others regardless of its actual physical strength, and it implies that there is little that the rider (President Jonathan) can do about it. It is clear, however, that inequality impedes progress.
The next cartoon focuses on Boko Haram13—a terrorist organization that is alleged to have been raised as political thugs in northeastern part of Nigeria (International Crisis Group 2014). In the wake of their activities, several allegations were leveled against the leadership of Alimodu Sheriff, a two-term governor of Borno State. Sheriff was accused of establishing, nurturing, and funding the dreaded terror group, which has claimed responsibility for over 20,000 deaths in Nigeria since 2009. It is “believed in the region and by most Boko Haram members” that Sheriff sponsored the group for political gains against his opponents (International Crisis Group 2014: 11).
In Asukwo's cartoon Governor's ATM Point (Fig. 5) the kiosk represents an automatic teller machine (ATM). After a successful transaction, the ATM's user interface displays a polite message: “Take your cash, thank you for banking with us.” The elements of a real-time ATM transaction are metaphorically employed to suggest that the then Borno State Governor was the sponsor of the terror gang Boko Haram. Here Asukwo substitutes the main machine for the caricaturized figure of Alimodu Sheriif, the alleged sponsor of the radical Islamic sect, showing appreciation for the service of terror rendered by his political foot soldiers. The exaggerated depiction of the automatic weapon seems to suggest that members of “the sect are more equipped than the Nigeria army who has been on their trail since 2009.”14 These imageries are used symbolically in commentaries on the governmental conspiracies surrounding insurgency in the nation.
Asukwo's cartoon King Kabal (Fig. 6) was published in the Business Day newspaper in November 2011, when debates were ongoing between the federal government and the Nigerian populace—represented by the Labour Union—on the imperative to stop the government subsidy on petroleum products. The federal government had claimed that the actions of oil cartels and cabals in Nigeria negated the essence of subsidizing fuel prices for Nigerians. Government claimed to be spending over one trillion naira to subsidize the cost of fuel imported yearly, since the country does not refine most of her crude. It was claimed that most of the subsidized fuel was being diverted to neighboring countries by the so-called oil cabals and cartel (Onifade and Ojukwu 2010).
Mike Asukwo draws from popular culture in his commentary on Nigeria's fuel subsidy crisis, here deploying imagery from the poster of one of the most popular monster movies, King Kong. King Kabal is a visual allegory representing the federal government's justification for removal of the fuel subsidy in 2012. The saboteurs are depicted as King Kong, holding on firmly to the helpless Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, as the character Ann, who is offered to Kong as a sacrifice in the epic movie.
Voting for Luck (Fig. 7) was published four days after President Goodluck Jonathan's government withdrew the subsidy on petrol on January 1, 2012, a day of festivity for most Nigerians. The development led to violent reactions from the populace, the majority of whom were stranded because of the sharp, unexpected increase in transportation costs heralded by the increase in petroleum pump prices. Revealing the perception of President Jonathan that many Nigerian citizens held, the cartoon played a significant role in provoking discourse.
Drawing from religious and mythical allusions, the ruling political party to which President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria belongs, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), is portrayed as the devil, a character that symbolizes vice, chaos, and deceit in Christian iconography. The symbolic positioning of a halo on the president's head is indicative of “godly” endowment. It is pertinent to note that in this visually stimulating cartoon, one of the first visual imageries of the devil as depicted here was illustrated in the Codex Gigas—the largest extant medieval manuscript in the world (Boldan, Milerova, Miller, and Klementinum 2007). This illuminated manuscript is also known as the Devil's Bible because of a large illustration of the devil in dragon form on the inside cover and the legend surrounding its creation.15 By placing a godly head on devil's body, Asukwo may be suggesting that the president sold his soul to the PDP devil because of his presidential ambition; this means that he would need to execute the devil's agenda—a reality that manifested during the fuel subsidy removal glitches in January 2012. Many Nigerians decried the president's insensitivity towards their plight, describing his decision to withdraw the fuel subsidy on New Year's Day, when the majority were in a festive mood, as a satanic move; indeed, most religious leaders described him as a devil incarnate. The cartoon unarguably summarizes many people's opinions about President Jonathan and his administration. It comments on the citizens' perception of the president before coming to power and during his reign. The cartoon depicts feelings of betrayal, mistrust, and disappointment, as can be seen on the expressions of the two figures to the right, one of whom says, “I voted only for the head too.” By drawing from mythical and religious allegory, Asukwo constructs an imaginary setting in demystifying political leadership of President Goodluck Jonathan to aggravate discourse on his policies.
Boko Haram has been launching violent attacks on Nigerian citizens, mainly in the north-eastern part of the country, since its leader Mohammed Yusuf was summarily executed in police custody in 2009. The cartoon Stone the Devil (Fig. 8), was published a few days after the terror group killed over fifty-six worshipers in cold blood at a mosque where they were performing jumat prayers. In this depiction of the war against terrorism, the cartoon draws from the Islamic ritual of stoning the devil (Peters 1994). The Stoning of the Devil (or the Stoning of the Place of Pebbles) is part of the annual Islamic rite during the hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Muslim pilgrims cast pebbles at three walls called jamarāt, in the city of Mina, east of Mecca. It is one of a series of ritual acts that must be performed at the hajj. The walls represent the points at which Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) rebuked the Devil (Shayttan) by stoning him with seven pebbles.
In Asukwo's Stone the Devil, the three walls become the three notorious terror groups in the world: Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, and Boko Haram. Depicting these terror groups as devils, the cartoonist likens their actions against humanity to those of the devil described in the Bible and the Qur'an as “the cursed.” Paradoxically, these groups claim to be upholding Islamic tenets by unleashing terror on fellow citizens, even though the meaning of Islam is peace; or, as the text in the cartoon states, “It is a religion of peace … Let's stone the devils who make some people think otherwise.” Several Islamic organizations have denounced these groups, arguing that they do not uphold the true tenets of the faith and hence should be brought to justice.
In 2013, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) remained the largest political party in Nigeria since the 1999 democratization experiment. Several presidential elections held since this period (in 1999, 2003, 2007, and 2011) showed the party winning with landslide majorities. Other major opposition parties, such as the Alliance for Democracy (AD), the All People's Party (APP), the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), and the All Nigerian People's Party (ANPP), have formed an alliance to dislodge the PDP, which says it wants to rule Nigeria for the next fifty years (Agbese 2013).
To break the PDP's monopoly on presidential power, the All Progressives Congress (APC) was formed on February 6, 2013, in anticipation of the 2015 presidential elections. The megaparty is the result of an alliance of Nigeria's three biggest opposition parties—the ACN, the CPC, and the ANPP—and is a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). The newly established political party embarked on several means to weaken the ruling party's grip on power. One of the strategies employed was to lure some political kingpins from the ruling party into its own fold. In October 2013, one of the national leaders of the APC, and a former governor of Lagos State, Senator Ahmed Bola Tinubu, swooped down on several states in the northern part of the country in a bid to encourage dissident PDP governors to join his new party (Buba 2017).
In the 2013 cartoon titled Mr. Devil (Fig. 9), Asukwo illustrates the political schema of the newly formed alliance of opposition parties. Some influential members of the then ruling party are personified in the cartoon as the devil in his kingdom, that is, hell. The devil character holds his staff of office, which is a three-pronged spear known as a trident or the devil's pitchfork, and he sits on a throne that is embellished with a silhouette of the umbrella logo of the ruling PDP party. The kneeling figure has a grass broom close to his knee, the symbol of the new mega political party APC.16 These images complement the textual elements credited, in the cartoon, to the APC leader who invites the devil into his party: “Please Mr. Devil, we need men like you in the opposition. Please, come join our party.” The move by the new party and its leaders to lure rebellious PDP members has been criticized by several political analysts, most of whom see the development as a lack of meaningful political ideology on the part of the opposition. With the use of metaphoric allusion within an imagined space, the cartoonist summarizes societal perceptions of the APC's move to unseat the PDP in the then forthcoming presidential election.
One of the problems faced by political cartoonists, as Peter Limb notes in a recent book on African cartooning, Taking African Cartoons Seriously, is
how to balance the barbed playfulness of their art with the power they critique and all that this involves in terms of (self) censorship, as well as freedom of the press and freedom of the arts … [as] freedom of the press remains less developed (Limb and Olaniyan 2018: xix).
Cartoonists have been arrested, lost their jobs, been jailed, and even lost their lives owing to their craft.17 Hence it is germane to seek ways to circumvent dangers. One of these is to engage metaphors and humor as veils to mask the subject matter. As masks provide immunity for the masker in traditional satirical space, creative use of imageries gives cartoonists a sort of license to express their opinion without being reprimanded. Analysis of selected works by Asukwo reveals that contemporary cartoons dwell on existing concepts of satire from the precolonial era in the use of imagery for sociopolitical intervention. They engage with the context of traditional forms of satire in speaking truth to power. It is observed that to expose the truth, the messenger must be concealed, as evident in festivals, which are aimed at correcting societal ills. Metaphoric allusions are employed as masks, within the same framework to conceal or obscure the truth. Cartoons “ridicule and demystify political leadership” and provide an alternative narratives to governmental policies and propaganda (Dodds 2010: 120).
This paper benefited immensely from rigorous reviews and deliberations at the 2017 Publishing and Research of the South: Positioning Africa (PROSPA) workshop in Kampala, Uganda, organized by the Arts of Africa and Global Souths research program at Rhodes University, South Africa with the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts, Makerere University, Uganda. Thank you to Ruth Simbao, Amanda Tumusiime, and fellow 2017 PROSPA publishing workshop participants for their input and constructive criticism.
The military era in Nigeria began in 1966, after bloody coup d'état which overthrew democratic government of Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe and Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. The military held power in succession through coups and counter-coups from then until 1999, when democratic governance was restored with Olusegun Obasanjo—a onetime military head of state—as the president.
The West African Pilot was established in 1937 as an anticolonial newspaper by the leader of the NCNC political party, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, who later became the first indigenous Governor General of independent Nigeria (1960) and the first president (1963) of Nigeria.
Core national newspapers include the Punch Newspaper, the Nation, Daily Tribune, the Guardian, and Vanguard, among others.
Websites such as Africa Cartoons (www.africacartoons.com) provide platforms for online publishing of cartoons free of charge. Most Nigerian cartoonists also publish their works on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for wider readership.
Etim Bassey Asukwo, also known as Mike Asukwo, is a prolific cartoonist in Nigeria. He has won several national and international awards for his works, which are thematized around sociopolitical issues in the country and beyond. His use of imageries has been one of the most cerebral and expressive. Asukwo is the chief art editor of the BusinessDays newspaper, where he has been working since 2003. He is also the president of the resuscitated Cartoonists' Association of Nigeria (CARTAN).
Egungun is a masked figure that represents the spirit of the ancestors or orisha (gods) among the Yoruba people. It is believed that the deceased ancestors return to earth from time to time in a physical form to interfere in the activities of his or her living descendants. For further studies on Egungun see Adedeji 1976, Lawal 1977, Drewal 1978, and Pemberton 1978.
The festival begins with an all-night show called . The masquerades employ didactic songs to entertain, educate, and lampoon perpetrators of immoral acts in the society. For extensive discourse on / see Drewal (1974a, 1974b)
Personal conversation with Dr. Abisoye Eleshin of the Department of Linguistics, African and Asian Studies, University of Lagos, Nigeria, September 18, 2017.
Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was Nigeria's sixth democratically elected president. He succeeded Umaru Musa Yar'Adua when the latter died in office two years into his tenure, in 2010. Jonathan served until 2015. He became the first Nigerian incumbent president to lose power to the opposition.
In November 2009, then President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua left Nigeria for Saudi Arabia to treat an undisclosed ailment. This created political tension in the country, as he did not formally transfer power in acting capacity to his deputy, Goodluck Ebele Johnathan, to execute presidential duties as stipulated in the country's constitution. The opposition clamored for Yar'Adua's impeachment, while his allies and kinsmen from the northern region did not want power shift from north to south, because Jonathan is from a minority group from the oil-rich southern part of the country. The impasse lingered until February 9, 2010, when the legislators voted in support of Jonathan becoming the acting president in Yar'Adua's absence.
The south-south region is one of the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria created by the military government of General Sanni Abacha, who ruled between 1993 and 1998. The province comprises six states from the southern part of the country: Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, and Edo State.
Boko Haram, also known as Jam'atAhl as-Sunnal Lid-DawahWa'l-Jihad or Islamic State West Africa Province, is a terrorist organization; it is based in northeastern Nigeria but is also active in Chad, Niger, and northern Cameroon (Johnson 2011). The group was founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri. Boko Haram was founded as a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist sect advocating a strict form of Sharia law. The group declared all other Islamic sects—Sufi, Shiite, and Izala—as infidels. Boko Haram, which is believed to have links with the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2.3 million from their homes in Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon (Cook 2011). It has carried out mass abductions including the infamous kidnapping of 219 schoolgirls from the Borno State town of Chibok in April 2014.
Felix Agbati, interview with the author, 2015.
It is believed to have been created in the early thirteenth century by a monk who sold his soul to the devil in order to create his image (see Boldan, Milerova, Miller, and Klementinum (2007))
The PDP adopts an umbrella as their party logo—it symbolizes shelter and protection. The broom, which is APC's party symbol, represents unity and strength—this is within the context of the strands of the broom coming together to form a formidable alliance.
Godfrey Mwampembwa, pen name Gado, the most syndicated cartoonist in East and Central Africa, was fired in 2016 at the Nation—a newspaper he had been working with for more than two decades. On January 7, 2015, four cartoonists were murdered in cold blood alongside eight other staff of a French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo.