Ben Okri on citizenship and making a difference
By Ben Okri

Acclaimed novelist and poet Ben Okri delivered a powerful provocation on the urgent need for ‘active citizenship’ during the 2018 Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Here we present the entire text of the speech, complete with an exclusive interview with Ben conducted immediately after the event.

< Commissioned as part of the International Literature Showcase


Citizenship is one of the most vexed issues in the human story. From the ancient Egyptians to modern times who is deemed a citizen has been at the core of what constitutes a human being with rights in this world; who is considered a citizen is at the heart of statehood.

Citizenship and visibility are linked; citizenship and power are conjoined. For the citizen is the very unit of humanity, the brick of which the cathedral of state is composed, the living cell of the vast body that is society.

Citizenship is at the root of the contested terrain of statehood. The first thing that is done in any colonial or imperial enterprise is to re-define the idea of the citizen. Usually the colonising power revises downward the citizenship content of the indigenes, and revises upward their own status.    During the colonial enterprise the indigene was no longer quite a citizen, as citizenship then was determined from the centre of power, with the Queen or King at its head. The indigenes then, in their own land, were deemed to be living on the periphery. They were outsiders in their own land. This was true with the Romans in Britain, with the Greeks in Persia, with the Spaniards in Peru, with the English in India and Africa.

It would seem that citizenship is an idea. It is not an actuality. You can be born in a land and still not be a citizen of that land. You can have the land as your roots, going back countless generations, and yet an act of power can sever you from any form of citizenship in that land.

But what is citizenship? When the African-American athletes refused to salute the national anthem, and knelt in protest at Charlottesville, was that an act of citizenship or anti-citizenship? And what happens to your citizenship if you are deeply, dangerously, at odds with the prevailing ideology of your government? If you are a Jew in Nazi Germany, witnessing the crushing barbarity of the state against your people, what is the state of your citizenship then? If you are black, Indian, or coloured during the apartheid regime in South Africa, what is the condition of your citizenship if your freedom can be so rigorously determined with force by the ruling power structure?

It becomes clear that citizenship is not a straight-forward concept after all. It is certainly not a thing of nature. When the Europeans sailed to North America and made themselves at home there, did the act of being there constitute immediate citizenship? And how did that affect the citizenship of the native American Indian? As it turned out the very citizenship of the native American was immediately contested, in wars and laws, the effect of which was to alter the status of the indigenous people.

There is a sense in which citizenship is related to law. But there is another sense in which it is related to power or powerlessness. It turns out that Brexit was also about citizenship or about a perceived absence of citizenship. It was about immigration, which is a challenge to the idea of citizenship


For me being a citizen is a high political and spiritual responsibility. It means holding one’s nation to the highest ethical and moral standards. It also means being constantly vigilant about freedom, liberty, and our human rights. It means being vigilant for our fellow citizens, no matter who they might be. It should not only be about the defence and the upholding of one’s moral rights, but also that of our neighbours, even if we disagree with them, even if their faith or political persuasion is different from ours. It is a commitment of our souls to the enrichment of the human race. True citizenship therefore transcends nations. Because one is first of all a citizen of the world.


That which is politicised ought to be humanised. A citizen is a living unit of democracy, which is to say a living force for the possibilities of this world. What interests me is the living force.

This is why the quality I most value in the citizen is not political savvy, or high education, or even political leverage. The quality I most value is awareness.

Everything else can be bought or smothered or diverted or confused, but not awareness. There are many who know their rights because they have read about them. Then there are others who know their rights, and about rights not yet enshrined in any laws, rights that will be discovered in the future, because they are aware. They feel the depth and truth of the human condition. They feel its nakedness, it richness, its self-dependence and its dependence on others. They feel its solitude and its solidarity, the two mutually dependent and contradictory qualities Camus explored in an important short story about an artist.

Being a citizen is the channelling of that eternal force we bring to the contingent reality of participating in society. We offer a portion of our measureless spirit that we may receive a portion of the protection, nourishment, and responsibilities of a shared society.

Being a citizen intersects the limitless and the limited. The limitless here is the individual, their internal reality, the splendid potential of each soul, their dreams, their hungers, their loves, their hopes, their legitimate aspirations, their freedom. And awareness is the place where all that potential, all that vitality, all that freedom, finds its powerful focus.

The first thing that any state, any corporation, any government wants us to lose is awareness. They would rather replace awareness with laws. Even with rights. But laws and rights, even when enlightened, are the fossils of awareness.

But awareness is the constant engine of evolution, of social and political growth. This is because awareness sees things as they are. Awareness asks questions of the world. There are many who, with excellent education, see things as they are, see the conditions of the world, but they then rationalise them. Awareness sees them as they are. Then it asks questions. It asks why. Sometimes it asks why not.

They are deemed political thinkers who think about the conditions of society on behalf of others. Everyone who is aware, who sees things as they are, is to some small degree a political philosopher. Anyone who asks legitimate questions about society and the world is in their way a political thinker.

The sheer quantity of facts and details inundating all aspects of life renders the individual seemingly powerless before the complexity of the world. It is perhaps one of the reasons why we surrender our reason to others, to specialists and commentators and demagogues and politicians who know how to manipulate our ignorance.

In the many decades to come the poor quality of debate over Brexit will give dispassionate analysts much to contemplate in the specious methods used to emotionally manipulate people into making decisions quite contrary to their natural impulses. One line of argument used, which I still find intriguing in how easily it worked, was when politicians told the electorate that they were not to trust experts. It was a case of the Cretan saying all Cretans are liars. But a portion of the public chose to believe an expert telling us not to believe experts on the opposing side. It worked. And it worked because people wanted to believe. They preferred to believe more than they wanted to ask questions.

Another line of argument was not a line of argument but a naked appeal to the worst instincts in a people going through economic difficulties. It had to do with a poster that showed a long line of immigrants. It had a caption that suggested the terror of an unstoppable avalanche of immigrants through the borders. A simple visual appeal, and it worked. Similar visual appeals worked terrifyingly well in the years building up to Nazi Germany. Those visual appeals were about Jews. We know into what holocaustal destinations those visual appeals ended. In short, it worked. It worked then and it works now. And it works because of a lack of awareness in the citizens. It works when no one asks the fundamental human questions. And they don’t ask the fundamental questions because their minds have been closed.


There is a dangerous mood of recidivism running through the west. There is this idea that history can be turned back and that time can be undone.

More seriously, there is this fake nostalgia for a time that never was, a nostalgia for a time when there were no immigrants, when the west was white and pure. One of the causes of this is a staggering ignorance that people have about their own history. And a cause of that is the flat-earth history that they teach in schools.

It means that we have to keep fighting the same battles over and over again. We have to keep reminding people that the history of nations is the history of immigration. If you go back far enough we are all immigrants. No one originated in the place that they are right now. Everyone comes from somewhere else. If it is not immigration it is conquest, which is immigration backed by force.

In Trump’s America, there is this idea among his primary voters that the whites are the eternal aborigines of the land. But Trump himself is of German immigrant stock. American is a nation of immigrants, a fact which has been conveniently forgotten in the big white backlash sweeping the west.

Aside from that, it has also been conveniently forgotten that countries like America and Britain actively sought immigrants. Windrush, of the fifties, was a direct consequence of this policy.

It seems that a deep shift has taken place in this country, so that there are no politicians who feel able to defend the great value that immigration has had for Britain or America. During the paltry Brexit debate no one really explained with passion and intelligence that nations have been made richer by immigration. From the Vikings, to the French, to the Saxons, and the Romans, this country has been forged in successive layers of immigration, each layer adding something new and unexpectedly wonderful to the genetic stock and the cultural and spiritual make-up of the land.

It seems history loves combinations. The rivers and seas flow into one another, air currents circle the globe, and we are saved from spiritual stagnation and cultural incest by the rich dialogue of souls.


The secret history of the world reveals this coming together to be the cause of the constant regeneration of the world.

But it seems right now that the negative impulse is to turn inwards, to reject, to come apart, to become smaller. Becoming smaller and narrower is the fashionable impulse behind a politics of disengagement with the wider realities of being human.

Maybe it is part of the cycle of things. Maybe this impulse too has to have its moment in order for it to be thoroughly played out in the failure that it brings, the opportunity it brings others who can step into the gap left behind by our stepping back.

Maybe this impulse needs to be properly played out in order to be thoroughly discredited. It is one of the prices of democracy that stupidity is sometimes allowed to run nations right over the cliff edge into decades of failure.

I guess that is also what freedom is – the freedom to be foolish, the freedom to thoroughly mess up.


But the folly of nations is really the folly of its citizens. We may have expert demagogues and specialist politicians, we may have master manipulators and emotional bullies, but finally it is the citizen that choses.

Democracy is really the surrendering of power to one kind of mesmerism or another.

We should abandon for the moment the idea that people vote with their reason, with their heads. People vote often with their more primitive instincts, their deeper and sometimes unknown impulses. Which is why people are often surprised by what they have done, what they have voted for.

We must also alter a little our notion that people vote wholly as individuals, separate from everyone else. I think that people vote from the underworld of their collective selves. I think people vote sometimes the way birds move in the air en masse, in curious secretly co-ordinated patterns. This is another way of saying that there is a secret will at work at the seabed of a people. The politician who understands that secret will, that secret impulse, is best able to sway the people, but with their apparent co-operation.

In short, what we get as a nation is what we have summoned, what we have secretly summoned.

There is a dark and a bright magic in the act of democracy. Afterwards events are rationalised by data and figures. But at the time, at that poll booth moment, something deeper and altogether difficult to analyse is often at work. There is nothing mystical about what I am saying. If it is mystical it is only to the degree that human beings are mystical, which is to say that we often do not know who we are or what we truly want or even if what we want is really best for us. We are slightly unknown to ourselves. We are a mystery to ourselves.

Our desires when made visible baffle us. Often we want things that we dare not admit to ourselves, things which we play out in displaced ways, in indirect forms. Power is a harnessing of these unknown impulses and desires, canalising it towards one end or another.

The more unaware citizens are the easier is it for us to be led in directions that we thought we chose but didn’t really, because we did not know what we were doing.


It is essential for power that citizens remains unaware. It is absolutely essential for power used negatively that citizens remain ignorant, that we not ask questions, that we revel in our narrowness.

There is no mystery to how nations fail, how they collapse, how they fall. It begins with the unawareness of citizens. It begins with the ignorance of the people.

The ignorance I speak of has nothing to do with education. Some of the most ignorant people I have met have also been some of the best educated. It is quite common for the educated to be quite stupid about the highest goals for humanity. I am not the first to make this observation. Chekov in the Cherry Orchard – a profoundly political play about how a people fall by being unaware – has a character say ‘ These educated people are so – stupid!’

The ignorance I speak of has to do with a lack of understanding of the true consequences of our actions, our decisions, and the destiny of our deeds.


History is the sum total of our deeds, our dreams, our actions and our failure to act. History is negative as well as positive. Things not done become part of things that are allowed to be done. It is not only our votes which alter the climate of our times.

Citizenship does not exist only with the plebiscite. In ancient Greece, where the idea of citizenship first crystallised in the form in which we recognise it today, citizenship was active. The word comes from the word city, and individuals belonged to their cities. The structures were small enough for everyone to participate. They debated, they made their views heard, they physically shaped their democracy with their votes and their presence.

There’s the view that it was easier to be an active member of society then because the structure was smaller. But I think that the idea of citizenship is more powerful now, precisely because the structure is bigger. Bigger or smaller are all illusions anyway. What matters is the quality of consciousness of the citizens. What counts is the quality of awareness.

We have all seen how amazing people can be in cities and nations when they are faced with a terrible crisis. I have heard how the character of New Yorkers became transformed for a while in the aftermath of 9/11. The normally remote New Yorker became engaged and helpful and supportive. They knew the spirit of solidarity.

I saw it here too in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Individuals responded with generosity, volunteers multiplied overnight, and people simply could not do enough to help. In more significant examples we have all read about the toughness and solidarity and resilience shown by the British people in the bombings of cities and the countryside during the second world war. A people surprised themselves with the hidden depths of their national and individual character. But then maybe people rise to their true potential during a visible crisis.


But it is not the visible crisis that determines the true health of nations in the long term. Visible crisis do not happen every day. That is why they stand out and appear to us so extraordinary. A nation is shaped more by how its people conduct themselves during the stretches of invisible crisis.

It is the invisible crisis that really determines our destinies, those periods of times when nothing seems to be happening, when our decisions do not seem to be momentous in their effects, those slow spaces of time when the policies or lack of policies of governments either crystallise into a state of affairs or allows the secret emergence of a condition in national life that becomes its mode.

I believe we have been in such an invisible crisis for some time. It is the condition of nations slowly drifting towards a state of affairs that they do not wish for when it becomes fully manifest.

I believe we either choose or life chooses for us. But what life chooses for us will be the realisation of our secret dreaming and willing, which may be negative or positive, but it is often unknown to us because we have not chosen.

In short Brexit did not happen overnight. It did not happen on the day of the referendum. That day merely revealed what we had not been facing all along. It merely revealed conditions that had been festering unseen and unexamined. Grenfell Tower did not happen on the day the tower caught fire, on the 14th of June 2017. It happened in the days and years before, in the conditions of the tower that weren’t being faced, in the pleas and cries of the residents that were not being heard, and even before that in the mentality of the government and the council involved in the construction of the tower itself.

Even before it was conceived as a tower, Grenfell was doomed. It was doomed before the first brick was laid. The attitude towards those who needed affordable housing, the attitude towards the poor, towards those who would live in council estates already sealed the fate of the tower and many other towers like that whose apotheosis the future awaits in the slow spaces of negative crisis.


Even now many things are doomed, waiting for the moment when their collapse would manifest to the horrified gaze of the world. It has always been thought that one of the key issues of our day is the crisis of leadership. I certainly subscribe to that view, but with qualifications. There has always been a crisis of leadership in the world. Good leadership in any nation is rare: great leadership is the exception.

I think that perhaps the myth of leadership has been carried too far; it is the modern secular equivalent of believing in avatars. I think there is more realistically a synergy between the times and the leader, between the quality of the consciousness of the people and the qualities of the leaders it throws up.

I think we summon the leaders commensurate to us, commensurate to the spirit of the times. It is absurd to think that somehow the great leader made their nation great. That is tantamount to the worst kind of magical thinking. The circumstances of the times might bring to the fore the potentials of a people. And this hovering potential brings forth the leader best able to crystallise it.

This for me is the heart of the idea of citizenship. It is we the citizens who help to contribute to the hovering potentials of the times. It is our active participation at a local, national and international level that helps to create the mood and possibilities of our world. This is true everywhere.

We ought to be transnational citizens, to be conscious that our local decisions and deeds affect not only our nations but peoples beyond our borders. I became a little bit more aware of this when the poem I wrote about Grenfell tower was read on Facebook by about 6million people across the world. It turns out that all over the world people are concerned about safety, about the poor, about accountability, about how citizens are treated.

There are many arguments to be had about citizenship, about who is a citizen, who should be a citizen, and what the state’s responsibilities are to its citizens. But for me the core issue is that a new force, an unstoppable force, is unleashed in the world when the citizen, the individual, becomes aware that they are the light and the power that make it all happen, that their solidarity can alter the course of history, that their ‘yes’ can transcend obstacles and create new futures, that their ‘no’ can stop future disasters and correct injustices.


We are in a time of negative crisis and we are slowly drifting towards some unknown destiny. We can be mesmerised by this slow drift or we can wake up and see that this moment too is lived time, is time rich in potential to alter, to change, to make real what we really want.

Citizens of the world, wake up, unveil your eyes, use your power, ask questions. Many things are changing under our gaze. Quietly our world is being turned into something we don’t want.


Here I must tell you one of my mother’s favourite stories. She used to tell it to me often. Once a frog found itself in a frying pan. There was water in the pan. The water was cool so the frog thought nothing of it. But the water was being made imperceptibly hotter. The frog did not notice the slow increase in the heat. It always seemed as cool as it was before. The heat under the water was turned up slowly, so that from one moment to the next the frog did not know what was happening, did not realise what was changing, had no awareness of the temperature increasing. In this way it was boiled to death.


Quietly our world is being changed into something we don’t want.

Maybe we ought to be angrier.

Copyrights: Ben Okri, November 2017 and July 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Commissioned as part of the International Literature Showcase, an initiative supported by the National Centre for Writing, the British Council and Arts Council England. First presented at the Word Factory Citizen Festival.

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