Taking African Cartoons Seriously: Politics, Satire, and Culture

Taking African Cartoons Seriously: Politics, Satire, and Culture


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Cartoonists make us laugh—and think—by caricaturing daily events and politics. The essays, interviews, and cartoons presented in this innovative book vividly demonstrate the rich diversity of cartooning across Africa and highlight issues facing its cartoonists today, such as sociopolitical trends, censorship, and use of new technologies. Celebrated African cartoonists including Zapiro of South Africa, Gado of Kenya, and Asukwo of Nigeria join top scholars and a new generation of scholar-cartoonists from the fields of literature, comic studies and fine arts, animation studies, social sciences, and history to take the analysis of African cartooning forward. Taking African Cartoons Seriously presents critical thematic studies to chart new approaches to how African cartoonists trade in fun, irony, and satire. The book brings together the traditional press editorial cartoon with rapidly diverging subgenres of the art in the graphic novel and animation, and applications on social media. Interviews with bold and successful cartoonists provide insights into their work, their humor, and the dilemmas they face. This book will delight and inform readers from all backgrounds, providing a highly readable and visual introduction to key cartoonists and styles, as well as critical engagement with current themes to show where African political cartooning is going and why.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611862966
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Series: African Humanities and the Arts Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 308
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

PETER LIMB is emeritus Africana Bibliographer and Associate Professor in History and a Distinguished Faculty Member at Michigan State University.
TEJUMOLA OLANIYAN is Louise Durham Mead Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Read an Excerpt


The Art of Bisi Ogunbadejo

Tejumola Olaniyan

Bisi Ogunbadejo, accomplished cartoonist, has been publishing cartoons more or less regularly in the Nigerian and West African press since the 1980s, and to great applause. Unfortunately, there is little to no published scholarship yet on the depth of the pioneering contributions of this master stylist to the history and evolution of political cartooning in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general.

There are at least two things that would and should immediately strike the general fan of political cartoons on viewing any selection of Ogunbadejo's work. The first is Ogunbadejo's unusual, very unique approach to doing what cartoonists do, which is, show us our foibles and failings as a society so that we can be shamed and inspired to learn to do better. The second is the kind of humor in the cartoons.

First, the approach. Ogunbadejo's distinctive approach to cartooning has a nuance that is so subtle that many may miss it in the general excited enjoyment of the cartoons. That nuance is this: he does not focus as such on particular topical limitations and failures as many cartoonists do, but on exploring how such failures come to be because of our existing condition of relating socially with one another and with institutions of governance. In other words, his cartoons seem to be more interested in how? and why? rather than what? I describe this cartooning approach then as the cartoon of exploration rather than the cartoon of display. Most political cartoonists in Nigeria and elsewhere operate in the latter mode, showing us specific failings of particular individuals, groups, and target figures at a point in time. The cartoon of exploration, on the other hand, is the more challenging and more head-scratching, because it, in addition to showing or displaying, points more to underlying processes and attitudes — the how? — that could not but produce any number of different kinds of the particular failings shown.

Take, for instance, the understated classic cartoon shown in figure 1, "From the Outside ... ," published in 2008 as part of the series As Seen from the Outside ... in This Day newspaper. There is no better illustrative entry point into Ogunbadejo's vision and enterprise as a cartoonist than this two-panel cartoon. It asks a question that is more difficult-exploratory than simple-interrogative: "Why is it, when we are outside the system, all we see is the rubbish inside ... but once inside, we get in the rubbish and forget how we used to see it from the outside?" In the first panel, we see a well-to-do man — well-to-do, as we can surmise from his well-fed bulk size — outside a securely locked gate intently looking inside through a pair of binoculars. In the second panel, the man is already inside, no doubt a mansion of privilege, for now we see the man among many of his robust kind, apparently in a joyous reception with champagne glasses clinking, amid "secret" files of, surely, government contracts corruptly awarded and contract percentage cuts corruptly skimmed off.

In the cartoon, no particular identifiable political leader, minister, governor, commissioner, or local government council official is being ridiculed. And the cartoon is not so much about any particular failing of our leaders as about a conundrum, a profound, amazing, systemic, disheartening, hypocritical transformation that cannot but produce leadership failings and societal inadequacies of all kinds. As anyone can imagine, answering the question will prove more than a small task for a dozen or more books and doctoral theses. The question speaks to what in the last four decades has become, seemingly, a most distinctively Nigerian characteristic: a blazing sense of outrage by all of us at the failures of the system, and a quick, leechy accommodation to that same system by those of us lucky to get inside the gilded halls of power and opportunity. The social critic of yesterday has become the leading embezzler of today. The radical trade unionist of yesterday has become the corrupt minister of transportation today.

I have admittedly put this in a stark manner, but that is the way anyone would hear it on the streets of Lagos, Kano, or Enugu. Certainly not all of us are or will ever be able to "get in," and the cartoonist's question itself appears more directed at the middle and upper classes that supply those who "get in" to leadership thrones and palaces. But many sharp thinkers among us will be right to warn me against self-righteous condescension by assuming that only the elite bear the moral fault the perspicacious cartoonist refers to here. Am I forgetting, they would ask, venal clerks, low-level policemen on the streets, commercial bus and taxi drivers, and office messengers who, if they could, would squeeze you dry before you get that one official service task, receipt, or paper that you need? Ok, we better stick to the general "we" in the cartoon.

Just imagine, in the preceding few paragraphs and lines, how much complicated processual thinking Ogunbadejo's simple cartoon engendered. The cartoon's query reminds me of the "bribing conversation" between the corrupt Chairman (leader) and the noisy complaining Shareholder (citizen) in Wole Soyinka's famous LP recording, Unlimited Liability Company (1983). "Shareholder, take your time, you hear?" the Chairman chastises, and invites the Shareholder to "come in and shut the door":

There is still room in the company caucus If na matter of butter dey worry you I will fill your mouth with cake and jam.

The Shareholder promptly succumbed to the temptation — accepted the invitation. Just as in Ogunbadejo's cartoon, the door was obviously opened to our outsider "shareholder" citizen, who promptly capitulated and became an insider, a member of the exclusive club of leaders. Could it be that we so easily join the "rubbish" and forget "how we used to see it from the outside" because we accept our mouths to be filled with obviously very sweet "cake and jam"? The question here is not so much a kind of corruption as systemic hypocrisy and absence of principle, population-wide. The social system is doomed for the long haul if no one principled individual or group can hold up against the corrupt tempting glitters of the current corrupt managers of the system. This is the foundational issue that Ogunbadejo is asking us to explore. The particular kind of corruption shown here is a mere symptom; the cartoon is directing attention more to the source or sources of the shown symptom. Ogunbadejo is the thinking person's cartoonist par excellence, the most densely intellectual in orientation in Nigeria and Africa generally.

Here are more examples. Figure 2, "Tolerance," published on 9 January 2015, is on the massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by Islamic militants in Paris on 5 January 2015. The cartoon is not a direct condemnation of the attacks, brutal as they are. It is more on the possible source of the mindset that created the attackers, an issue that is more foundationalist than contingent or symptomatic. There are matters of parochialism, fanaticism, and absence of self-consciousness implied here. There are also implied in the cartoon questions of what "satire" means, the function of cartoon as a satiric art, and appropriate evaluative responses to it. It is a potent discussion template, a discussion of the stimulating intellectual rather than religious-political passionate kind.

Figure 3, "Why Some Nigerians Still Don't Go to the Police ...," is positively mindboggling in the manner in which the police officer and his superior earnestly discuss endless strands of the very opposite of due process, as if that opposite was the expected norm. Some Nigerians do not go to the police because, whether as accused, accuser, or victim, they cannot be guaranteed fair treatment. Criminal investigation of a murder is criminal in its weakness or nonexistence. Crime suspects are randomly rounded up, locked up, paraded, and charged, all with little, flimsy, or no evidence, as repeated court acquittals show. But an acquittal is merely an excuse for the police to go and round up another set of "suspects" from the "petty thieves, fraudsters and vagrants in the pool." In the cartoon, as we can see, that pool is quite large. A murder victim's family will complain till kingdom come — to invoke a popular street expression of the tragedy of impunity — without justice. So, why go to the police, even if you are the aggrieved, the victimized?

"Ghost Workers," figure 4, is more light-hearted but no less dispiriting. Again, it is not the corrupt phenomenon of "ghost workers" that is the issue here, for that is common and known. The cartoon goes beyond that to attempt an explanation of a complex evolution in the common fraud in the Nigerian context. A "ghost worker" as commonly understood is actually a real person on the payroll of where he or she does not work. At least two people must be involved in the scheme — the real person who collects benefits, and the person who manages the books and shares the proceeds. In Ogunbadejo's take in the cartoon, that is so old school. In the newdispensation, ghost workers no longer need to be real persons — they are just names of unreal persons and "spirits" collecting their salaries monthly. In the cartoon, of the 26,528 irregular names discovered in the accounts, only 168 are actual ghost workers in the conventional sense. It must surely have taken a most hardworking corporate team of "spirits" to invent 25,369 fictitious worker profiles and collect their salaries! For those who know Ogunbadejo's context well, it is the large scale of corruption and the impunity with which it is executed that are the sources of aggravation in the cartoon, not primarily the corrupt practice. In the cartoon, you can see the dubious pleasure of the character on the left explaining the process, and the dispiriting response of the figure on the right on discovering yet one more outlandish and incredible extension of a method of corruption in the country. As an issue for exploration, it is so appropriate that the method can be and is uncovered only by a "verification panel."

As I argued at the beginning, it is not just the orientation toward exploration rather than exhibition or display that makes Bisi Ogunbadejo unique as a cartoonist. There is also his brand of humor.

Not all cartoons are funny, surely, but the question "What is a cartoon that is not funny?" is hardly strange or out of place. Ogunbadejo's cartoons are funny, really very smartly funny. But one thing you will quickly notice is that the humor in his cartoons is not the common kind. Because the satire in the cartoons is rarely the straightforward fierce, judgmental, attack type, the humor is frequently not the loud belly-laugh but the chuckle, the biting mockery, very ironic and allusive. It produces neither catharsis nor the (easy) emotional satisfaction that comes with catharsis. On the contrary, it invites only a complex and contradictory pleasure of an absorbing shallow grin laced with a regretful, head-shaking oro pa esi je — the word or call that kills its response, the cannibal question that consumes the answer for it. It is actually "not funny" at all; it is funny only to those who can think and fully imagine the grave, very tragic, unfunny ramifications for society.

Ogunbadejo's humor is refined, allusive, sophisticated, but it does not condescend. It paints a vast canvas in which we are all implicated in what we find untoward around us. Most of the characters we see on the page are neither absolutely bad nor absolutely good but scheming, cozening, corner-cutting scoundrels who have mastered how to work the system, though without guarantees. They do not pretend to want to change the squalor around them; they just want to profit from it, and the shamelessness and vivaciousness with which they reveal their schemes to us actually make them very charming in a perverse, deeply troubling way. We laugh at them, but also with them because we do have the sneaky suspicion that in real life, characters like them more often than not are successful in scamming the system with impunity. I am reminded here of the market women in Femi Osofisan's famous play, Once Upon Four Robbers, as they sing and lustily dance:

The lure of profit has conquered our souls and changed us into cannibals oh praise the selfless British who with the joyous sound of minted coins and gold brought us civilization!

Even as we point an accusing finger at them, our remaining fingers point at us. In Ogunbadejo, we have irresistible humor at its most troubling unhumorous best. Just look again at "Ghost Workers" or "Tolerance" and see how much humor either one calls for or not calls for.

I would say, of course, that there is more to Ogunbadejo's cartoon art than the unique thematic approach and the productively unsettling humor. For those like me who are not just die-hard fans but also — let me put this in a less plebeian, more elitist, and shamelessly arrogant way — sophisticated connoisseurs of political cartoons, it is impossible not to harp on the unfailingly deep pleasure and insight each of Bisi Ogunbadejo's cartoons give us. And for those like me who are, additionally, also dispassionate, professional scholars of political cartoons, it is equally impossible not to speak in superlatives when discussing Ogunbadejo and his art. He is without question the most radically innovative cartoonist Nigeria has produced. To move from the national to the continental scale, Ogunbadejo is second to none on the immensity and significance of his stylistic contributions to the art of political cartooning in Africa. The only other cartoonists his equal are the more well known leading South African cartoonist Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro) and Gado (Godfrey Mwampembwa) of Kenya. Even so, the tradition within which Zapiro and Gado predominantly work is the much more common and hallowed one in the global history of political cartooning, while Ogunbadejo's is the more experimental in its stylistic and conceptual multifacetedness. Let me highlight just two major features of this inventive cartoon art: the multipanel format, and the narrative, storytelling mode.

Other than Bisi Ogunbadejo, I know of no political cartoonist anywhere in the world who has transformed the multipanel cartoon format, normally reserved for "comics," into such a most effective tool of the most incisive political cartoon commentary on our times. To be sure, the distinguished American cartoonist Jules Feiffer has been using the multi-image if not quite the multipanel since the 1950s, and is one of Ogunbadejo's admired influences. But Feiffer's cartoons are thematically more about social foibles; they are less about that distinctive feature of what scholars call "political cartoons": a consistent focus on topical matters of political governance. In subject matter, Feiffer's work is still closer to comics than to the political cartoon. Comics are not yet a widespread art form in Nigeria outside of lowbrow imports, fitful local imitations, and one-time popular magazines like Ikebe and its clones.

The first two major newspaper cartoonists in Nigeria who are significant practitioners of the multipanel style are Cliff Ogiugo and dele jegede in the 1970s. Both published with the Daily Times. After that, the style next appeared in the early 1980s in the Guardian. By and large, Ogiugo and jegede followed the theme of comics in exploring cultural and social rather than explicitly and consistently topical political issues. The Guardian made multipanel cartooning one of its distinctive hallmarks, as virtually all the cartoonists who have published on its pages since then worked mainly in that form. I mean accomplished cartoonists such as Ebun Aleshinloye, Obe Ess, Obi Azuru, Bassey Nnimo, Cheche Egbune, Sidnee Boe, Ake Didi Onu, Edun T. — the list is now too long for me to be exhaustive here. Without question, the towering flag-bearer of that tradition, the one who made the multipanel a most imaginative tool in the hands of the daring Nigerian political cartoonist, is none other than Bisi Ogunbadejo. This style has now become an entrenched tradition in the country, though only a minority of cartoonists practice it there.

The dominant practice in political cartooning in a majority of places is still the single panel, but there is nothing that recommends it other than that it is the long-established main tradition. Of course, arguments are often advanced to enforce it as the superior. Two of such arguments are that it is the more technically challenging because the cartoonist has only the single panel to make his or her point, and that it is closest to the "true essence" of cartoons as primarily a graphic art in a single frame. But the features mentioned in these arguments are merely descriptive and contingent, meaning that they only explain and extrapolate from what already exists; they are not conditional and essential, meaning that they are not inevitable laws a political cartoon must obey before it is regarded as such. Generic categories originate after the fact of life's multiplicity, and never before.


Excerpted from "Taking African Cartoons Seriously"
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Table of Contents

Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Drawing a Line between Play and Power in African Political Cartooning Peter Limb xiii

Part 1 Essays

The Art of Bisi Ogunbadejo Tejumola Olaniyan 3

Wetin You Carry? The Nigeria Police Force in Cartoonists' Space Ganiyu A. Jimoh 17

South African Cartooning in the Post-Apartheid Era Andy Mason Su Opperman 33

The Rise of Kenyan Political Animation: Tactics of Subversion Paula Callus 71

Kenyan Cartoons and Censorship Patrick Gathara 99

Ideology and Intention in Ghanaian Political Cartoons, 1957-66 Baba G. Jallow 113

This Cartoon Is a Satire: Cartoons as Critical Entertainment and Resistance in Ghana's Fourth Republic Joseph Oduro-Frimpong 133

Part 2 Interviews with African Cartoonists

Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro, South Africa) 161

Gado (Godfrey Mwampembwa, Kenya/Tanzania) 179

Mike Asukwo (Nigeria) 187

Mabijo (Tebogo Motswetla, Botswana) 195

Dudley (Dudley Viall, Namibia) 207

Bibliography 215

Contributors 233

Index 237

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