Mike Asukwo: What’s in a Political Cartoon?

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Meeting life’s vexations with humour is a survival tool Nigerians wield too well. We see it everywhere; from the streets of Twitter, the pages of satiric novels and essay collections, in stage plays, in music, to the comic strips in our national dailies. Mike Asukwo belongs to the small group of artists who peddle humour in the latter category. Asukwo studied sculpture at a technology university in Lagos and has occupied the role of editorial cartoonist at BusinessDay since 2001 where he continues to condense, often baffling political happenings, into poignant cartoons that pull its references from the ever busy news cycle across the country and beyond.

It could be said that Asukwo’s artistry was bestowed at birth. Drawing and sketching came easy as a child and he was inordinately drawn to artists, especially older ones, who by fate or design surrounded him. Like the painter co-tenant who owned a commercial studio where he would escape to when sent on errands and where he first began learning about the tools of the art. Or the wood carver who worked at the Oron Museum of Antiquities in his hometown Oron, Akwa Ibom whom he loved to watch carve replicas of skin-cover carvings, an ancient art from upper Cross Rivers, which were exhibited in lieu of the originals.

By secondary school, his skills were already far developed so much so that during a holiday art class organised by the Museum, after he returned with his version of illustrated alphabets the class had been asked to do, one of the instructors came up to him and said, “You’re overqualified for this class.” It was around this time that he began cartooning as a member of the school’s press club. To what degree a secondary school in a small south-south town can produce cartoon-worthy drama, Asukwo spared no one in his cartoons. Students, teachers and even the principal, who on one occasion attracted the attention of the then state minister of education called in Asukwo to commend him.

I thought I was going to face some punishment because of it [the cartoon],” Asukwo recalls. It was here that the seeds of cartoons as a tool to address societal ills began to take root and blossom.

Naturally, he was going to study fine arts at university level but his mother, like most Nigerian parents, wanted a more professional and assured career path for him. So he got into a business administration program but spent more time with architecture students and attending art exhibitions. “Most of my notes were written in diagrams,” he says laughing. In his second year, after his mother passed, he saw no excuse to continue towards a banking career. He quit school and zeroed in on painting. But at an exhibition that brought him to Lagos shortly after, a client convinced him to return to school. Of all the works that were on display, his showed the most talent but was the least priced, the client said, because he was the only one without formal training in the arts. He returned to the Yaba College of Technology in 1991 to study fine arts and graduated in 1996, the year he turned 30, with a HND in sculpture. 

I chose sculpture because there are many things about this side of art that a non-sculptor cannot know and I wanted to know those things,” Asukwo says.


BusinessDay and editorial cartoon influences

Between then and 2001 when he joined BusinessDay, Asukwo continued to develop his practice, as a studio artist working in sculpture and later, in a short-term artistic collaboration with Reni Folawiyo, founder of Alára Lagos (from ‘96 to ‘98 they both ran a practice creating handcrafted spatial furniture alongside freelance designers and artists).

Asukwo tried to infuse his sculptures with commentary just as he had done with his cartoons in secondary school. But there was something about the seclusion of sculptures and paintings, once he turned ownership of them to their buyers, that diminished the impact and reach of these commentaries.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, when the internet as we know it today was just taking off, Asukwo joined forces with a few friends to produce and distribute a digital magazine. One of those friends was Okwudili Ojukwu-Enendu who joined BusinessDay sometime during the project. When an opening arose for a permanent editorial cartoonist at the newspaper, he called on Asukwo. 

“I didn’t know much about computers then,” Asukwo says but he interviewed and went off to take a course in PhotoShop. It was during the training that BusinessDay offered him the role. He accepted. 

A brief history of editorial cartoons in Nigeria

By the time Asukwo joined BusinessDay in 2001, just about every Nigerian paper had established cartoonists with regular strips or panels in the papers, a tradition traced to colonialism  when political cartooning had established itself in print media. According toTejumola Olaniyan, late professor of English and African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin, Akinlola ‘Lash’ Lasekan was the forebear of editorial cartoonists in Nigeria. Lasekan was editorial cartoonist at West African Pilot (a nationalist newspaper established in 1937 by Nnamdi Azikiwe as a tool to fight British rule) who published cartoons nearly every day from the mid 40s through the early 60s. Although his cartoons critiqued the colonial enterprise, clamoured for nationalism, and made commentary on the precarious independent country that was then emerging, Lasekan’s visual codes were largely influenced by the West where a tradition of cartooning was more established.  

Not all cartoonists concerned themselves with the political. In the early 60s, cartoonists like Ore Gab Okpako who was then at The Daily Times were creating purely edutainment strips by adapting literature or the weekend lifestyle publications of the newspapers into easy-to-digest long-running cartoons. Ghanaian Andy Akman’s Kaptain Africa as well as Kola Fayemi’s Terror Muda also belonged to this category of entertaining cartoon strips. 

But cartooning, as a journalistic tool, was crucial during Nigeria’s military years. Threatened by hostile military governments and its apparatus, the State Security Service (also DSS), cartoons allowed newspapers to continue to subvert the policing of vicious military rulers and criticise their rule. The visual codes of cartoonists, around this time, was also moving away from Western influences and incorporating more indigenous and pop culture iconography. Kaleb W. Jewell writes that Victor Ekpuk who was cartoonist at The Daily Times under the Abacha regime continued to make commentary  on the ills of the time often by hiding statements in the nsibidi iconography that he incorporated into his cartoons from the late 80s till 1998 when Sani Abacha died.

Of the array of cartoonists who were already in the scene at the time when he joined BusinessDay, Asukwo says Boye Gbenro’s oeuvre stood out the most to him as one of a few potential influences. Boye Gbenro was at Concord Newspaper (established by M.K.O. Abiola in 1980) at the time, having moved on from cartooning for Punch Newspaper. “Boye stood out for me because he was a very strong political cartoonist,” Asukwo says. “There were old hands like Dele Jegede [but] in terms of style, I could not fashion my work after anybody.” As a newcomer, Asukwo believed he had to create his own style and voice since he did not quite belong to any “class” of cartoonists per se. He frequented foreign publications like the Financial Times in those early years hoping to mirror the wit, simplicity and boldness with which their cartoonists approached social and political commentary. Boldness was key because it was not yet uhuru for journalists nor the media. By some accounts, 2001 seemed to be a year of press freedoms and government accountability. Yet, journalists were still being attacked, physically or through numerous tirades from elected officials, or arrested and jailed. As a business paper that ran on advertising revenue, Asukwo was also attempting the difficult, delicate walk between civil responsibility as a journalist and ensuring advertisers did not take their business elsewhere. “You needed to say things in a way that did not hurt the business,” he says. 

So how does a cartoon begin?

That is actually one of the hardest jobs to do,” says Asukwo, deciding what editorial cartoon accompanies the BusinessDay newspaper every day. “Sometimes that’s all that matters, settling on the subject matter.” Mood is a guiding word, he says, distilling what could be the most pertinent pain point in the minds of Nigerians from the array of political happenings all over the country and even beyond. Often, this entails  going through the headlines and fishing out what items may be of bigger implications. Other times, it is resurrecting an idea that has been left dormant for a while in his mind waiting for the right time to come to life. “How do you say all these things in one picture and from what angle do you want to look at it today?” For events happening outside the country, the work lies in finding those meeting points between global issues and the Nigerian situation. Ultimately, Asukwo says he is also coming at his work from very personal angles, searching for the ways in which the news cycle and political happenings impact him. 

Not everything he produces ends up in the paper. Although not a frequent occurrence, cartoons are sometimes pulled or rejected for publication often for various reasons. One example is a sketch about Rotimi Amaechi “linking his appointment and what he has been transporting”: money. In 2015, when he was  appointed minister of transport, Amaechi came under corruption allegations by the state governor Nyesom Wike to the tune of $15 million. Then editor, Philip Isakpa, argued that readers might infer that the cartoon was suggesting Amaechi paid for the ministerial position so it was pulled. Some push back has been sentimental too, pulled out of pity for the subject of its ridicule or for being “too harsh.”

Aside from the corner asukwo, eb signature on his cartoons, there’s a vibrancy that distinguishes Asukwo’s cartoons whenever you come across them. Like his forebears, public and political figures are instantly recognizable, and in the small universes of the cartoons, are often doing the bizarre or risqué. Flags are a prominent motif in his body of work; the country’s as well as political party flags. As an entity, Nigeria embodies multiple interpretations. And perhaps, only more than humans, animals are very present in his work. Elephants, bears, dogs, lots of dogs. Through proportion and biologic qualities—a raging shark in “PVC is your Weapon” or a brown bear in “The World of Debt” —these animals stand in for a lot of things from the predation of the political class to the enormity of foreign debt or the dispensibility of the masses. 

While Asukwo situates himself on the side of the masses, as one writing and commenting from being in the midst of the suffering and challenges of everyday Nigerians, this has not stopped threats from coming at him “especially our northern brothers.” 

“There’s a cartoon of mine that was retrieved from my archive and misrepresented; it was running on Twitter and the then editor was afraid for me.”

Asukwo doesn’t pay these threats much attention and considers them to oftentimes be sponsored by people with political ambitions to protect.  

What do editorial cartoons do?

In a 2011 article for The Times, Columbia Journalism School professor, Victor S. Navasky offers one suggestion for why cartoons, though seemingly “trivial”, agitate: “there is no way of answering back.” However, when considered in the light of how our forebears saw images, as possessing magical powers, then there must be something fearful about cartoons, something strong enough to elicit a terror attack, assassinations, and imprisonment among many others.

I think whether we accept it or not,” says Asukwo, “cartoons are as effective as regular editorials, acting as a watchdog and saying those things reporters might not be comfortable to say because of the consequences.” 

In the decade since he’s been creating cartoons at BusinessDay, his work has drawn ire and laughter, and in some cases, both. “Cartoons are important to them [politicians] and I get the sense that some of them don’t like to see the depictions of some of the absurdities and mistakes that they make in office,” Asukwo explains. While unable to conclusively state, he likes to believe that some cartoons might influence the decisions public officers make. 

For everyday people, I think cartoons help them see the humour in some of the experiences they go through,” Asukwo explains. When one considers the daily news cycle, policies and inactions that worsen the quality of life of many Nigerians, Asukwo hopes that his cartoons do more than make people laugh. Perhaps they might derive some comfort from seeing public officials lampooned. Perhaps they might take solace in the artist saying to these officials through cartoons, what they might never get the privilege or opportunity of saying. “People look at cartoons because it makes it easy to endure some of these very awful situations we pass through every day in Nigeria,” he says. “The message behind it is that you can swallow this very bitter pill because it has been coated in humour.”