The Uses of Ridicule: Humour, Infrapolitics and Civil Society in Nigeria
When, earlier this year, two South African radio journalists were reprimanded for making an 'expensive' joke about the person of the Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, the powerful symbolism of humour as a social technique was inadvertently underscored. Jokes, expensive or cheap, have generally been used by the disprivileged to caricature those in power, subvert authority and, in some instances, empower themselves. In traditional African societies, the bard who delights in subtle ribaldry is a famous, if notorious, presence. Curiously, despite the salience and robustness of what might be called the humouristic reflex in Nigeria and indeed the rest of the continent, sociological inquiry has been phlegmatic in apprehending what is clearly one of the most important means by which the majority come to terms with or 'get even with' power. This study will redress this critical omission by describing and analysing how ordinary citizens in Nigeria are using humour both in coping with social asperities as well as negotiating, shaping and re-defining the public domain of critical deliberation. I believe that a study of this kind is long overdue for a number of important reasons. First, jokes are serious things; they constitute a powerful metaphor for understanding the distribution of power and the nature and dynamics of social relationships within any given configuration. Second, historically, comical allegories (manifested in contemporary terms in the phenomenon of political cartooning) have invariably functioned as a means of rallying those at the margins of power and are therefore worthy of investigation as a critical part of the politics of subordinate groups. Third, as civilian democracy across Africa paradoxically reproduces the same shenanigans that were characteristic of military rule, humour has emerged as a means through which people are constructing meaning out of a reality that is increasingly surreal.
Keywords: Humour, Jokes, Civil Society, Public Domain, Politics, Democracy
Mr Ebenezer Obadare
Doctoral Candidate, Centre for Civil Society, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science