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NIGERIANS who are old enough will surely recall the source of the above title. For others, I ought to narrate its origin. Fortunately, early this year, I delivered a lecture at the University of Ibadan, where I made a passing reference to the true owners of that copyright. Here is the relevant section: “At the passing of a short-lived dictator, his successor decreed two weeks of mourning, two weeks during which the nation went into a coma. Even the television and radio stations closed down – nothing but martial and funereal music was played, while churches and mosques took over the abandoned air-waves to drown the nation in suras and canticles of lachrymose outpouring. A very sharp group quickly formed something that was called the National Mourners Association – clever lot! While the nation was quarantined and bogged down in the orgy of lamentation, they were touring the world, sponsored by government, to take the gospel of anguish to every corner of the world that boasted a Nigerian diplomatic mission.”
Yes, that was at the death of General Murtala Mohammed. But now, we turn to address the latest progenies of that association, operating in a different clime and context, but cacophonously enmeshed in variations on that ancient tune.
When that day comes that individuals encounter hostility over their sensibilities in dealing with loss in their own way, privately, away from public eye, with or without symbolic public gestures, then we are witnessing the end, not simply of plain civility, but of civilization, and the enthronement of Fascism. It is not the intolerance and excess of a moment’s excitation, but of a cultivated arrogance and will to imposition, one that attempts to dictate the private responses of others to shared events. Once again we are confronted with the Nigerian phenomenon of the egregious appropriation of what is not on offer and thus, is not subject to dispute. Where frustrated, these claimants reel out chapters from their Book of Imprecations.
Let it be stated here, for the avoidance of doubt, that I am a solid believer in the collective rites of Farewell. I believe in Ritual. Humanity is often assisted to reconcile with loss in a collective, and even spectacular mode. The choice to participate or not, however, belongs to each individual, including even those who arrogate to themselves the mission of imposing on others their own preferred mode of bidding farewell. These self-righteous clerics are dangerous beings, especially where they flaunt the credentials of secular learning and gather in caucuses of presumed Humanities. From the herd, the mindless Internet fiddlers for whom the landing of a planetary probe, or a medical breakthrough is simply distraction from fraudulent internet mailing, nothing less is expected. What menaces the collective health of society is when the deserving highs of intellectual application of the former, become indistinguishable from the loutish low of the latter.
I do not pander to the expectations of the sanctimonious. I can absent myself from any event, for reasons that are personal to me. I can absent myself as the result of a mundane domestic situation, as legitimately as from a visceral rejection of occupancy of the same space, at the same time, in the same cause, with certain other participants. I may absent myself for the very reason of my disdain for that breed which is certain to cavil at the very fact of my absence. Such specimens pollute the very space they claim to honour. Sputter and rage they may, but even the most illustrious of that ilk cannot control that choice, neither will they be permitted free passage to encroach upon, and abuse the private spaces of human responsiveness.
I shall speak to them directly: your psychological profile is commonplace. It is not the honour to Chinua that agitates you, no, it is your own self-regarding that seeks to be reflected in the homage to a departed colleague. It does not take a psycho-analyst to recognize this phenomenon of greedy acquisitiveness, even of immaterial products. Like emotional parasites, you feed off others, but you have never learnt to value what others give, or be thereby nourished. I recognize you, atavistic minds – was it not your type that once disseminated an unbelievably primitive accounting for Chinua Achebe’s motor accident? Here goes the story, for those who seek light relief from ponderous unctuousness:
What happened was that I found myself unable to return to Nigeria for a Colloquium in honour of Chinua’s sixtieth birthday. My dramatic mind immediately scrambled for some striking manner of compensation. So I telephoned a business friend who had some agricultural connections in Delta State and told him: find the chunkiest, spotless ram in Delta State – all white or all black, but a thoroughbred of striking physique. Find a leather pouch, tie it to its neck with the following message and deliver it at the venue of the Colloquium. I no longer recall the exact dictated wording, nothing inspirational, just the usual felicitations and injunctions to turn that ram into asun for general feasting.
Those who attended the event will recall the grand entry of the gift - as reported by one and all, including the foreign visitors, and Chinua’s reported reaction, seated on the podium. He shook head and said, “Typical of Wole”. The ram was then led off to meet its destiny at the hands of the gathered. (As a side note, it was I who took a gift away from his seventieth at Bard University – a sobering flash of time past that resulted in my ELEGY FOR A NATION. I had that poem re-published to mark the day of his funeral.)
Our story is only beginning. On the way back from that celebration, Chinua had his accident and was flown to the United Kingdom. At the first opportunity, I made my way there and called up the High Commissioner, Dove-Edwin, who was certain to know the hospital location. It turned out that he also planned a visit that afternoon, and he agreed to give me a ride. We waited – I was joined by two others – waited, and waited, then a phone call came from him that the visit had been called off. The High Commissioner would explain why, on arrival – over a promised dinner, as compensation.
That explanation was this: Dove-Edwin had received communication that some of “Chinua’s people” – a university professor among them, who was named – had pronounced publicly that “Chinua should have known better than to accept a spotless ram from his enemy” – yes, that was the word used – “enemy”. I verified this report from various other sources. Later, an alternative diagnosis surfaced: “Chinua had been too long away from the chieftaincy politics of his hometown, otherwise he would have realized that the title that he took was coveted by some others – and these were deeply steeped in traditional psychic combat”. In short, those rivals “did him in”. Both diagnoses competed for dominance for a while, petering out eventually.
Before the promotion of that alternative cause-and-effect however, Dove-Edwin had re-scheduled, and we had a most bracing, optimistic afternoon with Chinua. Yes, our patient was eventually told the cause of the earlier postponement, and he had a good laugh. On my return to Nigeria, I could not wait to take the opportunity of a public lecture to invite all desperate enemies to please send me their rams of choice – spotless, spotted, piebald, striped or nondescript – so I could treat starving writers to free meals in my home for the rest of the year. And I promised to taste a piece of each ram before serving.
Yes, it is that same breed that continues to sow poison in the minds of the susceptible. Alas for you, it so happens that some of us insist on our own way of commemorating, of being there, even when absent. You, by contrast were never there, however ostentatiously you position yourselves at the event, or at vicarious gatherings to denounce, attribute sinister motivations, and inseminate hate against those whom your pedestrian vision cannot see. Your very loudness proclaims your absence. You were always absent. You will always be absent. So, this communication is not really meant for you but for those potential almajiri – whose minds you corrupt daily with your jeremiads in that accommodating madrassa known as Internet. As a teacher, I lament your failure to use the opportunity of the passing of a revered writer to turn your younger generation in enlightened directions. You have chosen instead to coarsen their sensibilities and breed in their minds misunderstanding, suspicion and above all – hate!
You will have understood by now how I have come to view you as no different from the homicidal clerics who arm youths with kerosene and match, cudgel and knife, a few Naira in their beggars’ bowls, and dispatch them to set fire to structures of comradely cohabitation, of reflection, of mind enlargement, and destroy communities of learning. Your gospel of separatism goes beyond the geographical – in which I have not the slightest interest! – but the humanistic. The difference is in the weapon – in your case, poison, mind corrosion. The means – Internet, and its wide open, undiscriminating generosity. That is where you lay spores of poison, and doom future generations to a confinement of human relationships within the darkest corners of the mind.
You are beyond pity. Kindly absent your selves from my funeral, when that event finally intrudes.
NOBEL Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, has described June 12 as Nigeria’s Democracy Day, a day which, he said “embodies unity of purpose, equity and justice, the manifestation of the sovereign will of a people.”
Soyinka, in a press statement entitled: “A message on June 12, Nigeria’s Democracy Day,” said “what June 12 possesses is exactly what May 29, or any other day, lacks.”
According to him, “we need to remind ourselves what June 12, 1993 represents. It is neither mere date, nor sentiment. It is simply – human spirit.”
He lamented that the power of the very spirit of June 12 brought out of relegation or obscurity, even from the jaws of death, some individuals who had attempted to deny or crush the date, adding that it was the same spirit that bestowed upon them relevance and prominence.
Comparing June 12 and May 29, the country’s official Democracy Day, as declared by the Federal Government, Soyinka said “the former was a spirit of unified purpose, the latter simply an egotistical appropriation of the gift of the former.”
The Nobel Laureate said June 12 “remains forever a watershed of Nigerian history, no matter what the future holds.
“We remain unshaken! Let others continue their sham ceremonies – after all, this is a democracy - or so we claim!”
He charged that this present “democracy mandates those who are dedicated to truth, who are tutored in the lessons of history, who understand that the human spirit is enduring, to hold fast onto the truthful anniversary (of June 12) and recognise none other.”
Soyinka said they should ensure that “this date is emblazoned across the sky, and takes root in the very earth that has soaked up the blood of our martyrs.”
He equally urged Nigerians to try a simple experiment of narrating the story of May 29 to a child and watch his or her reaction.
He said “on that day – that child would concede – an individual was installed as a compromise president following a compromise election.
“Watch the difference in that child’s responses. Yet, even the beneficiaries of that day persist in their futile effort to kill the date and supplant it with another. Why should we be surprised?”
Source: Nigerian Tribune
Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, has said intellectuals and artistes, as the custodians of the people’s culture, have a duty to protect democracy in the country.
He noted that there is a relationship between politics and culture and said most politicians would rather advance their narrow interests at the expense of the people.
Soyinka made the remarks Monday in Port Harcourt in a keynote address he delivered at a colloquium to mark this year’s Port Harcourt Carnival (CARNIRIV 2012).
Speaking on the theme: ‘Reminiscing Our Past, Consolidating our Future’, Soyinka said every culture, if not well guarded against abuse by politics, could breed dictatorship.
According to him, examples of dictatorship across the world had revealed that there is a relationship between culture and politics, but that dictatorship begins the moment the politician manages to subdue culture to achieve its narrow end.
“Politics easily acts as a retarding force, more prone to stagnation or even retrogression. Politics and culture can and do collaborate. Politics tries to swallow up culture in one insatiable moment. In varying degrees, what happens is that politics strives to co-opt culture into serving its narrow agenda,” he said.
He said examples of dictatorships in Africa, Asia and Europe over time had shown that dictators had love for culture only as it would satisfy their personal egos.
He said there was need for the people to be vigilant and not think that what happens in other countries could not happen in Nigeria.
His words: “Are there any lessons from all these?. Before the advent of Sani Abacha many Nigerians were fond of saying ‘no it can never happen in Nigeria, the glorification of a human being, Nigeria has gone far beyond that, too critical to allow it’. I am afraid we did witness an example of this.
“It just shows that one can never be too careful, one can never be too watchful because sooner or later what begins as a small power issue becomes a grand, immovable, supreme entity through the collaboration of artists and intellectuals because it is they who create the spectacles that glorify the individual rather than enhance the condition of the commune.”
He, however, said there were few genuine politicians who would rather work with the intellectuals to advance the interest of society.
“There are some exceptional politicians who refuse to be subsumed under narrow politics but pursue policies that either keep culture as a partner in the future enterprise or even see culture as the ultimate destination of the people’s aspirations,” Soyinka said.
In his welcome address, Rivers State Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Dr. Nabbs Imegwu, said the state was using the carnival to celebrate the centenary anniversary of the city of Port Harcourt.
He also said the state was working hard at diversifying its economy as it was aware that its oil and gas wealth was fast depleting.
He said tourism offered a ready alternative and that the state would soon build Carniriv to an international brand.
Africa as we know it is a fiction, constructed after the arrival of Arab and European slave traders, at which point the continent had already experienced millennia of cultural and civilizational developments. That history was largely unwritten and therefore lost. Africa in the past century was governed by rulers, both colonial and postcolonial, who didn't know where she came from. Artificial borders and alien political structures were set up to govern her peoples. Rebellion, instability and economic stagnation followed. Though the leaders have changed repeatedly, the results have remained the same.
Consider Nigeria. The country had its borders drawn by the British in 1914, with little regard for ethnic and social cohesion among its hundreds of tribes. After independence in 1960, the Brits rigged the first election to ensure that power went to the conservative elements in the north, who came to believe that it was their natural right to rule Nigeria. In subsequent years, the country was racked by ethnic strife, secession and civil war. No Nigerian statesman was able to reach across to other tribes. And while the country has regained stability in recent years, its path to development today is hampered by corruption, misrule and the rise of radical Islam.
Nigeria stands in for Africa's broader plight, and it is fitting that books by two Nigerian authors—the Nobel-winning playwright and poet Wole Soyinka and the celebrated novelist Chinua Achebe—attempt to confront the historical and spiritual roots of Africa's crisis. The authors—among Africa's greatest intellectual giants—have been consistent and courageous critics of misrule on the continent for decades, stances which put their lives at risk and forced them to flee their native country. Both authors see hope in Africa's indigenous religious and political traditions.
Mr. Soyinka is "frustrated" by the false narratives of the continent, as well by the dangerous new ideologies flooding in from the outside. "Of Africa" is an intellectually robust, book-length essay that attempts to unravel the paradoxes and contradictions plaguing Nigeria and, by extension, Africa. "What is Africa?" the author asks. What we know of the continent is based on mythologies propagated by the early European adventurers, colonialists, postcolonial African leaders and African Americans.
The Arabs and the Europeans were invaders, colonizers and enslavers, who imposed their alien religions on Africa. Neither Islam nor Christianity, as Mr. Soyinka points out, is indigenous to Africa. While the Europeans ran the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Arabs ran its north and east African counterparts. But, says the author, the suppression or denial of the equally ugly history of Arab and Islamic plundering in Africa—perhaps for reasons of political correctness—has allowed a new threat to emerge: "a shadowy but lethal force determined to reenslave a continent with its chains of fundamentalist theology!" Radical Islam has taken root in places like Mali, Somalia and Nigeria. Mr. Soyinka sees it as more dangerous than the corrupt, secular dictatorships. The latter, he says, can be confronted but "the chains placed around the mind through religious absolutism are far more constrictive, tenacious, and implacable." According to Mr. Soyinka, the pre-eminent African issue of the 21st century will be a "crisis of religion," and he warns that if "Africa falls to the will of the fanatic, then the insecurity of the world should be accepted as its future and permanent condition."
Salvation, he thinks, can be found in "the undiscovered—or neglected, indeed, despised—terrain of African spirituality." He discusses "Negritude," a concept first formulated by, among others, the American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois to refute racist claims of black inferiority and spotlight black contributions to civilization. Among African intellectuals, Negritude took hold in the 1930s. To Mr. Soyinka, it is an untapped resource of African humanism. The anti-Apartheid icon Desmond Tutu describes a similar concept when he talks about ubuntu—"the bundle of humanity"—and Mr. Soyinka finds his own version in the traditional religion of his Yoruba culture, Orisa.
Mr. Soyinka's motivation for writing "Of Africa" was his search for an African humanism that could counter the deadly consequences of religious fanaticism. He urges Africans to remember their continent's traditions and recognize that tolerance is at the center of African spirituality.
Mr. Achebe's book is a history and decidedly less ambitious, philosophically speaking. But it, too, is driven by an ideal. "There Was a Country" is a fascinating and gripping memoir of Biafra, the country his Igbo tribe sought to create by seceding from Nigeria. In the first years after Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960, the Igbo, who hail from a region in the country's southeast, were among the most successful of the country's tribes. They had the highest literacy rate, the highest standard of living and the greatest proportion of citizens with postsecondary education among the tribes. They dominated senior positions in government and educational institutions. Igbo success bred resentment
The fateful day was Jan. 15, 1966, when Maj. Chukwuma Nzeogwu, an Igbo, led a group of army officers in an attempt to overthrow the government. It was widely misinterpreted as an "Igbo coup" and caused a backlash throughout Nigeria: "Thirty thousand civilian men, women and children were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded, maimed, and violated, their homes and property looted and burned." There was a mass exodus of the Igbo from the north. Mr. Achebe was working at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) and had just completed a novel, "A Man of the People," which severely criticized Nigerian politics and climaxed in a coup. Being an Igbo, he was naturally linked to the real coup under way. Drunken soldiers appeared at the NBS to ask him which was more powerful: their gun or his pen. The author wasn't yet at work, and, upon hearing this account, he fled.
On May 30, 1967, the Igbo declared their own independent country, Biafra. (Mr. Achebe would serve as its roving cultural ambassador.) But the Nigerian government reacted savagely to the Igbo secession, blockading the region and starving the rebel tribe into submission. Over three million perished, mostly Igbo, before the end of the civil war in 1970. Mr. Achebe interweaves his own history with a harrowing account of the war.
The end of Biafra didn't bring an end to the pogroms against the Igbo, nor to Nigeria's problems. The country became plagued with "a home-grown enemy: the political ineptitude, mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry, and corruption of the ruling class," as Mr. Achebe writes. To resolve these problems, Mr. Achebe also invokes the Negritude embedded in the mbari of his own Igbo culture, which emphasizes mutual respect and coexistence. "The Igbo believe that art, religion, everything, the whole of life are embodied in the art of the masquerade," Mr. Achebe says. It is the cosmic masquerade that upholds the "virtues of African tolerance and accommodation."
It is astonishing that two authors writing from such different perspectives should conclude that the solutions to Africa's problems can be found in Africa—her bosom, her humanity—and that Africans must rebuild their own indigenous institutions.
But Messrs. Soyinka and Achebe's focus on Negritude is problematic. It is an idea that failed miserably. Its first African proponent, the late president of Senegal Leopold Senghor, thoroughly discredited the concept by using it to develop an "African socialism" as an alternative to Marxism. Socialism is fundamentally antithetical to Africa's economic heritage, which explains why it was a disaster wherever it was implemented in Africa—in countries as varied as Ghana, Guinea and Tanzania, for example—producing one economic crisis after another. (When Senghor retired as president in 1980, he settled in France with his French wife to focus on helping improve the French language—some Negritude!)
Messrs. Soyinka and Achebe fail to adequately explain the genesis of African spirituality. It stems from the belief that man doesn't live alone in the universe, which Africans divided into three elements: the sky, the world and the earth. Each person has a specific place and function in this universe. Human action corresponds to the animation of nature, and each gesture correlates with some aspect of the universe. African art, dance, music and other human activities are a reflection of the rhythms of the universe.
The three cosmological elements—each represented by a god—must be in perfect harmony or balance. The sky god is the supreme among them, and each must be propitiated. If the sky god is "angry," there will be thunder, floods, etc. If the world god is angry, there will be conflict, war and state collapse. If the earth god is angry, there will be poor harvest, famine, barren women and the like. The gods may take human, inanimate or spiritual forms, and there are many intercessors—dead or alive—between man and the gods: ancestors, kings, chiefs, priests, medicine men. All are arranged in a hierarchical order. Among some tribes, harmony among the cosmological elements, called kiet, requires corresponding human behavior: tolerance, accommodation, etc. (Mr. Achebe's Igbo, for instance, have no gods, since any individual person is the union of the three elements.) Religious intolerance and fanaticism thus have no place in the highest ideals of the African soul, something noted by both Messrs. Soyinka and Achebe. They wouldn't coexist in a religious system that seeks harmony among the cosmological elements.
There are more than 2,000 African ethnic groups but despite the incredible diversity there are striking commonalities among them. Whereas Western jurisprudence emphasizes punishing the guilty, the widespread African tradition stresses restitution and reconciliation or "restorative justice"—the basis of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commissions established after the dismantling of Apartheid. Africa's economic heritage featured free village markets. There were rudimentary free markets in Timbuktu, Kano, Salaga, Onitsa, Mombasa and elsewhere before the advent of the colonial era. Whereas the West practiced majoritarian, or representative, democracy, ancient Africans practiced participatory democracy, where decisions were taken by consensus at village meetings variously called asetena kese by the Ashanti, ama-ala by the Igbo, guurti by the Somali, dare by the Shona, ndaba by the Zulu or kgotla by the Tswana.
More important, the traditional system of governance was inclusive. In Senegal, slaves could send the representatives to the king's court. There was also foreign representation: The kings and chiefs of Angola and Asante, for example, allowed European merchants to send their representatives to their courts. Many empires in pre-colonial Africa—Ghana, Mali, Songhai—were confederacies, characterized by decentralization of power and devolution of authority.
But much of this knowledge, as Mr. Soyinka rightly complains, has been hidden. Myths about Africa came to replace these truths, and the problem was compounded by the failure on all sides to distinguish between form and substance. The institutions of democracy, free markets, money, marriage, justice, can take many forms. Just because there were no ballot boxes or supermarkets or white-wigged judges in pre-colonial African villages doesn't mean Africans had no conception of those institutions. African tribal cultures aren't in conflict with the Western; only the forms of institutions are different.
In fact, there is one area where the two share exactly the same political philosophy. Both see the state as a necessary evil. The American founding fathers chose to deal with this particular threat constitutionally by limiting the powers of the state. Africans found two unique ways to accomplish the same. The first was to abolish the state altogether and dispense with centralized authority. Such acephalous, or stateless, societies included the Ga, the Igbo, the Gikuyu, the Somali and the Tallensi. These tribes have no chiefs or kings and took the concept of freedom to its most radical limit.
Other tribes chose to have states and centralized authority but surrounded them with councils upon councils to prevent them from abusing their powers. Such kings had no political powers; their role was spiritual or supernatural (to mediate among the cosmological elements). For this role, they were mostly secluded in their palaces and kept their royal fingers out of people's business. The Yoruba Oona, for example, could only venture out of his palace under the cover of darkness. Such indigenous democratic forms were eroded during the colonial age and decimated in the post-colonial one.
So what makes up Africa's soul? Tolerance, consensus-building, inclusion, restorative justice, decentralization of power, free village markets and free enterprise. The gods are angry because Africa's soul has been denigrated and trashed. As Messrs. Soyinka and Achebe warn us, Africa is doomed unless her rulers discover her soul. Without this knowledge, we cannot traverse the path to development. An African proverb says, "He who does not know where he came from does not know where he is going."
—Mr. Ayittey, a native of Ghana, is president of the Free Africa Foundation and the author of "Indigenous African Institutions" (2006).
Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka on Friday dismissed calls for peace negotiations with the radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram and said Nigerian society is at stake in what he described as a war for survival.
Nigeria's northeast remains under almost daily attack by the sect, which is blamed for killing more than 740 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. Three police officers died in an apparent bombing carried out by the sect in Yobe state early Friday morning, officials said.
Soyinka, a 78-year-old playwright and essayist, was once marked for death by one Nigerian military ruler. He has both has feuded with and befriended others. Africa's most populous nation now has a civilian government, though the military remains a powerful behind-the-scenes force.
Despite his often strained relations with his country's military, Soyinka said the military go after Boko Haram while avoiding civilian casualties.
He acknowledged that grinding poverty in Nigeria's north gave rise to Boko Haram, but said negotiating with "mass murderers" would not end the cycle of violence tearing at the country. He also suspects that crooked politicians had a role in Boko Haram's early rise.
Politicians who wanted to rig elections "activated this brainwashed horde of religious militants. That's how it started," Soyinka told foreign journalists in Lagos. Boko Haram members then "looked at those who unleashed them and they realized they were being manipulated. ... And now they are completely out of control."
Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's Muslim north, has carried out shootings and bombings targeting both Christians and Muslims. The sect continues to kill despite a heavy military presence and says it will stop only if the government strictly implements Shariah law and frees its imprisoned members.
Soyinka called the prospect of the government engaging in peace talks "abysmal appeasement."
"The issue has become a security issue in which the question becomes: who goes down? Is (it) the community, the nation, the society that goes down or is it a bunch of killers who are totally beyond control?"
In its fight against Boko Haram, Nigeria's military has killed dozens of civilians in reprisal attacks after its own soldiers died. Soyinka said the Nigerian military likely had committed "violations of fundamental human rights" in its assaults and that innocent people have been killed. However, he said soldiers had begun to refine their tactics and rely more on intelligence gathering rather "than just a blitzkrieg approach."
"This is a new problem with the military," Soyinka said. "They have never had to cope with this kind of insurgency. So the military itself is making a lot of blunders."
Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first African honored with the award.
The following is the text of an address titled "Religion Against Humanity," given by Nobel Prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian and member of UNESCO's International High Panel, at the 2012 Conference on the Culture of Peace and Non-Violence at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 21, 2012.
(Special to Afripol) -- To such a degree has religion fueled conflict, complicated politics, retarded social development and impaired human relations across the world that one is often tempted to propose that religion is innately an enemy of humanity, if not indeed of itself a crime against humanity. Certainly it cannot be denied that religion has proved again and again a spur, a motivator and a justification for the commission of some of the most horrifying crimes against humanity, despite its fervent affirmations of peace. Let us, however, steer away from hyperbolic propositions and simply settle for this moderating moral imperative: that it is time that the world adopt a position that refuses to countenance religion as an acceptable justification for, excuse or extenuation of crimes against humanity.
While it should be mandatory that states justify their place as members of a world community by educating their citizens on the entitlement of religion to a place within society and the obligations of mutual acceptance and respect, it should be deemed unacceptable that the world is held to ransom for the uneducated conduct of a few, and placed in a condition of fear, apprehension, leading to a culture of appeasement.
There are critical issues of human well-being and survival that deserve the undivided attention of leaders all over the world. Let us recall that it is not anti-Islamists who have lately desecrated and destroyed -- and with such fiendish self-righteousness -- the tombs of Moslem saints in Timbuktu, most notoriously the mausoleum of the Imam Moussa al-Khadin, declared a world heritage under the protection of UNESCO and accorded pride of place in African patrimony. The orientation -- backed by declarations -- of these violators leaves us with a foreboding that the invaluable library treasures of Timbuktu may be next.
The truth, alas, is that the science fiction archetype of the mad scientist who craves to dominate the world has been replaced by the mad cleric who can only conceive of the world in his own image, proudly flaunting Bond's Double-0-7 credentials -- Licensed to Kill. The sooner national leaders and genuine religious leaders understand this and admit that no nation has any lack of its own dangerous loonies, be they known as Ansar-Dine of Mali or Terry Jones of Florida, the earlier they will turn their attention to real issues truly deserving human priority.
These cited clerics and their ilk are descendants of the ancient line of iconoclasts of Islamic, Christian and other religious molds who have destroyed the antecedent spirituality and divine emblems of the African peoples over centuries. Adherents of those African religions, who remain passionately attached to their beliefs, all the way across the Atlantic -- in Brazil and across other parts of Latin America -- have not taken to wreaking vengeance on their presumed violators in far-off lands.
These emulators are still at work on the [African] continent, most devastatingly in Somalia, with my own nation, Nigeria, catching up with mind-boggling rapidity and intensity. Places of worship are primary targets, followed by institutes of education. Innocent humanity, eking out their miserable livelihood, are being blown to pieces, presumably to relieve them of their misery. Schools and school pupils are assailed in religion-fueled orgies -- measured, deliberate and deadly.
The hands of the clock of progress and social development have been arrested, then reversed in widening swathes of the Nigerian landscape. As if the resources of the nation were not already stretched to breaking point, they must now also be diverted to anticipating the consequences -- as in numerous nations around the world -- that would predictably follow the cinematic obscenities of a new entrant into the ranks of religious denigrators, who turns out -- irony of ironies -- to have originated from the African continent.
In sensible families, while every possible effort is made to smooth the passage of children through life, children are taught to understand that life is not a seamless robe of many splendors, but prone to the possibility of being besmirched by the unexpected and unpredictable. A solid core of confidence in one's moral and spiritual choices is thus sufficient to withstand external assaults from sudden and hostile forces. That principle of personality development is every bit as essential as the education that inculcates respect for the belief systems and practices of others.
The most intense ethical education, including severe social sanctions, has not eradicated material corruption, exploitation, child defilement and murders in society, not even deterrents such as capital punishment. How, then, can anyone presume that there shall be no violations of the ideal state of religious tolerance to which we all aspire, or demand that the world stand still, cover its head in sackcloth and ashes, grovel in self-abasement or else prepare itself for earthly pestilence for failure to anticipate the occasional penetration of their self-ascribed carapace of inviolability?
It is time to demand a sense of proportion, and realism. Communication advances have made it possible for both good and evil to transcend boundaries virtually at the speed of light, and for the spores of hatred to travel just as fast and as widely as the seeds of harmony. The world should not continue to acquiesce in the brutal culture of extremism that demands the impossible -- control of the conduct of millions in their individual spheres, under different laws, usages, cultures and, indeed, degrees of sanity.
What gives hope is the very special capacity of man for dialogue, and that arbiter is foreclosed, or endures interminable postponements as long as one side arrogates to itself the right to respond to a pebble thrown by an infantile hand in Papua New Guinea with attempts to demolish the Rock of Gibraltar. I use the word "infantile" deliberately, because these alleged insults to religion are no different from the infantile scribble we encounter in public toilets, the product of infantilism and retarded development. We have learned to ignore and walk away from them. They should not be answered by equally infantile responses that are, however, incendiary and homicidal in dimension, and largely directed against the innocent, since the originating hand is usually, in any case, beyond reach.
With the remorseless march of technology, we shall all be caught in a spiral of reprisals, tailored to wound, to draw virtual blood. The other side responds with real blood and gore, also clotting up the path to rational discourse. What we are witnesses to in recent times is that such proceeding is being accorded legitimacy on the grounds of religious sensibility. It is pathetic to demand what cannot be guaranteed. It is futile to attempt to rein in technology: The solution is to use that very technology to correct noxious conceptions in the minds of the perpetrators of abuse, and educate the ignorant.
I speak as one from a nation whose normal diet of economic disparity, corruption, marginalization and ethnic and political cleavages has been further compounded by the ascendancy of religious jingoism. It is a lamentable retrogression from the nearly forgotten state of harmonious coexistence that I lived in and enjoyed as a child.
One takes consolation in the fact that some of us did not wait to sound warnings until the plague of religious extremism entered our borders. Our concerns began and were articulated as a concern for others, still at remote distances. Now that the largest black habitation on the globe has joined the club of religious terror under the portentous name Boko Haram -- which means "the Book Is Taboo" -- we can morally demand help from others, but we only find them drowning in the rhetoric and rites of anger and/or contrition.
Today it is the heritage and humanity of Timbuktu. And tomorrow? The African continent must take back Mali -- not later but right now. The cost of further delay will be incalculable, and devastating.
The spiral of reprisals now appears to have been launched, what with the recent news that a French editor has also entered the lists with a fresh album of offensive cartoons. To break that spiral, there must be dialogue of frank, mature minds. Instant, comprehensive solutions do not exist -- only the arduous, painstaking path of dialogue, whose multitextured demands are not beyond the innovative, as opposed to the emotive, capacity of cultured societies.
So let that moving feast of regional dialogues -- which was inaugurated by former President Khatami of Iran in these very chambers -- be reinforced, emboldened and evenhanded. The destination should be a moratorium, but for this to be strong and enduring, it must be voluntary, based on a will to understanding and mental reorientation, not on menace, self-righteous indictments and destructive emotionalism. Perhaps we may yet rescue religion from its ultimate indictment: conscription into the ranks of provable enemies of humanity.
Wole Soyinka, a poet, playwright and a social critic was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature.
Centred on the Biafra secessionist war that nearly wrecked Nigeria, the memoirs, titled There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra, focus on Achebe’s experience during the civil war that saw his Igbo-dominated native eastern Nigeria secede as the Republic of Biafra, a development Achebe assiduously supported.
That four and a half decades later Achebe is still ruminating on that particular event in the history of his country amply confirms the extent to which leading African writers like him, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been affected by war and other forms of turbulence in Africa.
Coming hot on the heels of Ngugi’s Dreams in a Time of War, a recollection of Ngugi’s childhood that includes his growing up in the shadow of the liberation struggle in Kenya, Achebe’s memoirs also fit into a growing collection of long-awaited historical reflections by globally revered writers, including Wole Soyinka, who made history by becoming the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Also known as an indefatigable political activist, Soyinka in 2007 published the now widely acclaimed You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir.
That widely-acclaimed major work joined the Nobel laureate’s earlier Ake: The Years of Childhood in chronicling the turbulence of his life in a perennially troubled country.
Going by their most recent memoirs, it becomes amply clear that Achebe, Ngugi and Soyinka, all acknowledged pioneers of African writing, have to a major extent been preoccupied with their own life experiences.
Evidently – and logically – their works have been inspired by the turbulence, suffering and wars that have bedevilled Africa over the centuries, and which they witnessed firsthand during their lifetimes.
But these major African writers are by no means the only ones whose worldview and literary consciousness have been heavily influenced by the widespread general havoc that has marked Africa’s history from the colonial times and persisted well into the continent’s post-independence era.
On the contrary, a close reading of the African literature produced over the decades reveals that African wars of the last century were always a great source of inspiration for many of the continent’s writers and poets.
Not surprisingly, themes relating to these devastating wars have for years provided material for the continent’s creative minds.
Margaret Dickinson’s anthology, When Bullets Begin to Flower, for instance, showcased the greatest poets from Portuguese-speaking Africa.
With almost all the writers and poets of the former Portuguese dominions drawing their themes from the protracted anti-colonial armed struggles in the former Portuguese colonies, collections like Dickinson’s inevitably became classics of resistance literature.
From Mozambique and Angola to Cape Verde and Sao Tome, Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea, the creative consciousness of the colonised was inevitably fired by the sheer brutality of the colonial situation and the protracted armed struggles it gave rise to.
The same had happened earlier in Kenya and Algeria, where the armed struggles for independence captured the imagination of top writers, including Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi in Kenya, as attested to by their focus on the Mau Mau war in their earliest literary works.
At the same time, the wars in both Kenya and Algeria captured the interest of non-indigenous writers like Graham Greene and Robert Ruark in the case of Kenya and Albert Camus and Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born French-Algerian psychiatrist in the case of Algeria.
As for pre-independent South Africa, apartheid and the armed struggle it elicited provided crucial material for the country’s literary set, whether black, white, coloured or Indian.
It is indeed practically impossible to conceive of an authentic South African body of literature had the spectre of apartheid not catalysed the country’s creative minds into action.
The same cannot be said about the secessionist crises in the Congo and later in Nigeria, where the Katanga and Biafra flashpoints captured the attention of the local intelligentsia while not necessarily providing the germ for the regions’ literary traditions, which had existed and even crystallised long before the secessionist raptures.
Nonetheless, in Nigeria, the aftermath of the Nigeria-Biafra war was poignant in its almost total arrest of the attention of Nigeria’s creative fraternity, whatever side of the political divide they found themselves on before, during and after the devastating conflict.
As it happened, Biafra was also the home of leading Igbo intellectuals like Chinua Achebe, who doggedly espoused the Biafra cause.
The price he had to pay was that, together with members of his immediate and extended family, he was among those directly affected by the war, particularly after his house in the eastern city of Enugu was bombed.
Earlier, in Lagos, the perilous situation had forced Achebe to send his pregnant wife Christine and two of his children, Chinelo and Ikechukwu, to his Ikenga village in Ogidi, his hometown.
In the meantime, according to Ezenwa-Ohaeto, an earlier biographer, the writer himself continued to take refuge in the home of Frank Cawson, the then British Council representative in Lagos.
Fearing for his safety in Lagos, Achebe later fled the capital and joined his family in the village soon afterwards.
Other Igbo writers marooned in the secessionist state included the poet Christopher Okigbo, who fought as a major in the Biafra army and eventually died in action during the civil war.
It was that renowned poet’s tragic decision to become actively engaged in the Biafra cause that was to inspire Kenyan political scientist and writer Prof Ali Mazrui’s famous book, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo.
In that book, Mazrui questioned the rationality of writers and poets taking up arms and laying their lives on the line for whatever political causes they might espouse.
But however audacious or foolhardy Okigbo’s move was, other Igbo writers based in Biafra during the civil war certainly did not follow suit.
Apart from Chinua Achebe, among those based inside the secessionist state were already well-known writers like Flora Nwapa, Cyprian Ekwensi, John Munonye, Chukwuemeka Ike, Gabriel Okara and other many if lesser writers.
Although not going as far as to replicate Okigbo’s direct engagement in the conflict, many of these writers embraced the Biafran cause, and in fact met regularly to strategise on how to concretise support for it.
In fact, as things turned out, in later years many of them would write books on the conflict, describing its horrors in the most vivid terms.
Apart from Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, numerous other books – both fictional and non-fictional – sprung from the Biafra war.
Among the works of fiction inspired by the war were the late Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace, Eddie Iroh’s Forty-eight Guns for the General, Flora Nwapa’s Never Again, Andrew Ekwuru’s Songs of Steel and Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn.
As for later generations of Nigerian writers, they were to continue struggling with the Biafra genie many decades later.
Many of their works were to focus on the war and the rapture it wreaked on Nigerian society.
That preoccupation with the Nigerian civil war is particularly salient in the case of Chimamanda Ngozi Andichie’s award-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.
“I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war,” she told one interviewer, “because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present.”
She added that in her opinion many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in contemporary Nigeria, and explained: “Writing Half of a Yellow Sun has been my re-imagining of something I did not experience but whose legacy I carry. It is also, I hope, my tribute to love: the unreasonable, resilient thing that holds people together and makes us human.”
The spirit of combat had however captivated older writers like the then already internationally renowned Achebe.
During the crisis, the denizen of African literature had become an avid roving ambassador for the rebel state, and had in person proclaimed its legitimacy from Dakar to Kampala to London, New York and elsewhere.
However controversial his stance became, Achebe remained unapologetic to the end, and openly distanced himself from the Nigerian federal entity that had been his motherland before the birth of Biafra.
Having throughout the conflict been categorical about where his loyalties lay, he indeed did not mince words when responding to a letter in the British paper, The Times.
In that letter Dame Margery Perham, the famous British scholar famed for assisting people like Kenya’s populist politician the late Josiah Mwangi Kariuki – who was later assassinated – had called on the Biafran secessionists to surrender.
In her view, the move was necessary if they were to stem the brutal repression directed at them by the federal forces and their western backers.
Irked by that call by Dame Perham, who had at first supported the Biafrans but later changed her mind, and whom Achebe referred to as a person he had hitherto considered to be “a powerful friend of the Biafrans”, the writer was unremitting in his renunciation of Federal Nigeria and support for the Biafra cause.
“I was a Nigerian and a great believer in Nigerian unity,” he wrote under right of reply in the same British paper, and categorically added: “I knew and loved Nigeria. Now I do no longer.”
That stance put Achebe on a collision course with anti-secessionist non-Igbo intellectuals like the writer, playwright and poet John Pepper Clark, probably best known for America, Their America, his fiery anti-imperialist treatise.
As it became obvious, Achebe’s and Clark’s views on the Biafra question were so disparate as to cause a harsh exchange of words when the two erstwhile close friends and associates met face-to-face at the London offices of Heinemann, their publisher.
Recalling the encounter later, Clark described it as “one of the most chilling experiences” and added: “Achebe felt that I had betrayed him and Chris [Okigbo]”.
Peter Godwin Professor Soyinka, you’re not an ivory-tower kind of writer. You are not a stranger to danger, and in fact you’ve been imprisoned on at least two occasions, once in solitary confinement. Can you tell me what that was like?
Wole Soyinka Writing in certain environments carries with it an occupational risk. When I was imprisoned, without trial, it was as a result of a position I took as a citizen. Of course I used my weapon, which was writing, to express my disapproval of the [Biafran] civil war into which we were about to enter. These were people who’d been abused, who’d undergone genocide, and who felt completely rejected by the rest of the community, and therefore decided to break away and form a nation of its own. Unfortunately, the nature of my imprisonment meant that I couldn’t practise my trade because I was in solitary confinement for 22 months out of the 27, and I was deprived of writing material. So I had to somehow break through the barriers, smuggle in toilet paper, cigarette paper, scribble a few poems, pass messages outside. I was able to undertake exercises to make sure that I emerged from prison intact mentally.
PG There have been high hopes for some African leaders after they were elected – Meles in Ethiopia, or Museveni in Uganda, or Kagame in Rwanda – but who then went to to show a more authoritarian bent. Are you an Afro-optimist or an Afro-pessimist?
WS I’m an Afro-realist. I take what comes, and I do my best to affect what is unacceptable in society. I’ve remarked how similar in many ways Mexico is to Nigeria, and to a number of places: we have the same condition of unstructured, unpredictable violence, both from the state and from what I call the quasi-state. Whether the quasi-state is formed, as its basis, of theocratic tendencies, or secular ideological rigidity, you always have forces, even outside the state, competing for the domination of people. That’s what’s happening on the African continent today. That’s what’s been happening in the Arab states and what led eventually to the Arab Spring. Gradually people come to the recognition after decades of supine submission that they are not whole as human beings.
PG Your parents were Christians, Anglicans, I understand. How has your own religious belief evolved?
WS I consider myself very fortunate. I was raised in a Christian environment in Abeokuta, but another side of me was very much enmeshed in African values. I gravitated towards what I saw was a cohesive system of a certain relationship of human beings to environment, a respect for humanity in general. I came through a traditional system, where children not only had rights, but had responsibility. In the European world today, especially in America, it seems to be forbidden for children to have responsibilities…
I gravitated towards a deeper knowledge of the orisha, which represents the Yoruba pantheon, very similar in many ways to the Greek pantheon. You have reprobate deities, beneficent deities. I found that more honest than a kind of unicellular deity of either Christianity or Islam.
I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but just a few days ago some of these Islamic fundamentalists butchered close to 50 students of a technical college. I cannot imagine the religion I was brought up in having such complete contempt for human lives. And yet these are supposed to be the world religions. So that’s why I consider myself rather fortunate that I’ve been able to see what other religions had to offer.
PG How should Nigeria deal with the Boko Haram, the Islamic militants in the north of the country?
WS All religions accept that there is something called criminality. And criminality cannot be excused by religious fervour. Let me repeat something I first said at the meeting organised by Unesco a few weeks ago, which was prompted by the recent film insulting the religion of Islam and depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a very crass way.
The first thing to say is that we do not welcome any attempt to ravage religious sensibilities. That can be taken for granted. But you cannot hold the world to ransom simply because some idiot chose to insult a religion in some far off place which most of the world has never even heard of. This for me is a kind of fundamentalist tyranny that should be totally unacceptable. So a group calls itself the Boko Haram, literally: “Book is taboo”, the book is anathema, the book is a product of Western civilisation, therefore it must be rejected.
You go from the rejection of books to the rejection of institutions which utilise the book, and that means virtually all institutions. You attack universities, you kill professors, then you butcher students, you close down primary schools, you try and create a religious Maginot Line through which nothing should penetrate. That’s not religion; that’s lunacy. My Christian family lived just next door to Muslims. We celebrated Ramadan with Muslims; they celebrated Christmas with Christians. This is how I grew up. And now this virus is spreading all around the world, leading to the massacre of 50 students. This is not taking arms against the state, this is taking up arms against humanity.
PG Is freedom of expression something you see as a universal right rather than as some Western construct?
WS There are many cultures on the African continent where days are set aside, days of irreverence where you can say anything you want about an all-powerful monarch or chief. It’s a safety valve. It’s a recognition of freedom of expression, which perhaps has not been exercised, and bottled up grievances; this is the day when you express your grievances in society. So there is no society, really, which does not boast some form or measure of freedom of expression. Now, it’s true that freedom of expression carries with it an immense responsibility. Well that is why laws of libel exist – that when you carry things too far, you can be hauled up before the community, and judged to see whether you are right to call somebody a thief, or a hypocrite, and damage his reputation. But unless you establish that principle of freedom of expression, we might all just go around with a padlock on our lips.
Audience member I read somewhere my freedom ends where your freedom begins. In Europe there have been cartoonists who have mocked the Prophet. Should they limit their freedom of speech?
WS Religion is also freedom of expression. People want to express themselves spiritually. And they also exercise the right to try and persuade others into their own system of belief. Those nations that say it’s a crime to preach your religion are making a terrible mistake. All they’re doing is driving underground other forms of spiritual intuitions and practices.
If religion was to be taken away from the world completely, including the one I grew up with, I’d be one of the happiest people in the world. My only fear is that maybe something more terrible would be invented to replace it, so we’d better just get along with what there is right now and keep it under control.
The unrest which is taking place as a result of Boko Haram, in my view, has attained critical mass. When a movement reaches that state of total contempt even for universal norms, it is sending a message to the rest of the world, and to the rest of that nation, that this is a war to the end. The president of Nigeria is making a mistake in not telling the nation that it should place itself on a war footing. There’s too much pussyfooting, there’s too much false intellectualisation of what is going on, such as this is the result of corruption, this is the result of poverty, this is the result of marginalisation. Yes, of course, all these negativities have to do with what is happening right now. But when the people themselves come out and say we will not even talk to the president unless he converts to Islam, they are already stating their terms of conflict.
*This is an edited transcript of Wole Soyinka’s event at Hay Xalapa.
Source: Telegraph UK
I must begin by thanking you for the honour of this invitation to address you. I am glad that I did not have to decline, pleading the truthful excuse that I am, unfortunately, still saddled with a heavy load of unfinished business elsewhere. In any case, I have come to accept that it is a condition of human existence to be saddled with this particular affliction - unfinished business – that sense of an incomplete mission.
The difference between one individual and the next is perhaps that some know this, while others do not. With individuals, this distinction does not matter a great deal. We go into retirement with a sigh of mission accomplished, convinced that one’s self-imposed, fortuitous, or mysteriously transmitted mission in life has indeed been fulfilled. Or perhaps we simply shrug our shoulders in resignation, saying, ‘Enough is enough, let others take over from here.’ No matter the variant, we are still buried with our own self-assessment, accurate or misconceived.
A sense of mission, and the identification of such a mission varies from individual to individual, from institution to institution, from community to community, with or without relationship to one’s social status or formal responsibilities. For instance, you might read that the United Nations is sending a fact-finding mission to the Sudan to check on al-Bashir’s compliance with its latest directives. Or that Amnesty International has sent a fact-finding mission to Burma, to see whether the Burmese military dictators were truly easing up on their stranglehold on Burmese democracy, ensure that the mere concession of an electoral exercise, or the release of the opposition leader Aung Suu Kyi, is not mere cosmetic, an excuse to clamp others into detention or retain despotic powers by other means. Peace missions, or peace initiatives – sometimes known, in the latest Nigerian parlance as Peace Advocacy - are also just as commonplace.
A former head of state in this nation went on what he considered a peace advocacy mission to a group of rampaging psychopaths who had laid siege to the nation. We may argue from here to eternity about the appropriateness of that motion, especially its timing, but at least he had some credentials for his undertaking, and it would appear that the proposal came from some of those who thought – rationally or with pathetic naiivette – that he might play a useful role in stemming the tide of blood. The former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, was sent on a mission to Syria, in an attempt to stop the Butcher of Damascus using his people for target practice, and endeavour to bring both sides to the negotiating table. Peace missions - or advocacy - come in various shapes and guises. Quite a number of them are self-ascribed. Many successful ones, such as that undertaken by a little known Irish group, worked quietly, unpublicized but effectively to bring an end to the decades long civil war in Mozambique.
By contrast there are others which only end up afflicting their target areas with all the bristling paraphernalia of war, appropriate to themselves a disproportionate amount of the security resources of a nation to inflict peace on a perfectly peaceful environment, and with maximum gaudiness and ostentation. Variously also deflected as a thank-you mission, they move from state to state with all the extravagant baggage and panoply of feudal potentates visiting vassal states.
They seize up traffic in throbbing commercial capitals, bring all motion to a halt, insisting on a gift of peace on a state which never evinced any indications of warfare nor asked for peace evangelism. The places where the nation may be said to have be at war are known all over the world, not just within Nigeria, but they do not venture there. No, it is to states which are in the throes of peace, which evince no need of peace healing, that the ministrations of such peace physicians lead what end up memorably as carnivalesque caravans of disruption.
Traffic is tied up. Security is tied up. Productive motion is tied up. Commerce is tied up. Governance is tied up. Individual, corporate, even leisure schedules are tied up - all to pander to bristling head-ties tied up in a floating parade of gorgeous fabric, sterile, provocative and contemptuous of the rights of others to their own desperate mission, the mission of generating the life-sustaining morsel for family and self.
A vanity parade born perhaps of boredom or a feeling of neglect, this banal extravaganza, which attained obscene heights with the military, has transferred to our supposedly democratic environment under various pretexts, guzzling funds and guzzling the productive time of others. Productive motion is held to a standstill and citizen rights are trampled upon.
This disrespectful misappropriation of public space that exists primarily for the movement of goods and humanity, especially by the unelected, by mere appendages to constitutional power, has become a culture of spousal aggression and can only beget a response of disrespect and ridicule from those it most affects.
There are numerous, far more creatively effective ways of bringing the train of peace evangelism to places in need, or not in need, and these do not involve the usurpation of the daily mission of millions by the mission of any one individual.
Where were we? Oh yes, we were embarking on the theme of missions. Every individual does have, or is entitled to have his or her own self-assessment of the level of achievement of a life mission – it does not matter in the least what that mission might be.
The sense of satisfaction in the fulfillment of that mission, or regrets about its non-fulfillment remains primarily an individual assessment, and one that accompanies each individual to his or her grave. With nations however, there is little room for such indifference, and the reason is simple: individuals vanish but nations endure – at least in one form or another - and nations impact on the quality of existence of each transient occupant. Each occupant therefore has a stake in the fortunes of the nation, a stake that, proportionately speaking, equates the eternity that we have optimistically conceded to the life-span of the nation.
The unfinished business of nation being is thus not one to which we, as individuals, can afford to remain indifferent. In many more ways than we like to admit, the nation defines its citizen. This means that the citizen remains unfinished, a creature in the limbo of identity, leading an improvised, unsecured and uncertain existence, until the nation itself can boast of a recognizable and functional identity.
I do not refer merely to unfinished business as in governance business - policy making, planning, execution, and so on. No, I refer to that far more fundamental, unobtrusive, but nonetheless comprehensive seizure of nation being. Some nations are wise enough to acknowledge their state of incompletion, and take steps - even while the business of governance remains uninterrupted - to tackle this essential business head on, addressing the very history that brought them into being and examining the factors - both positive and negative - that have shaped their existence since they began to recognise, and conduct themselves as nations.
Others muddle on, immured in an impenetrable carapace of complacency. They list their achievements, both internal and external - economic buoyancy, a prestigious foreign policy, low level of unemployment, a highly literate society, eradication of diseases, uninterrupted electric power, potable water and other indices of enhanced civic life, even IMF and World Bank approbation etc. etc - as proof of the claim that they have “arrived”, and can confidently assess themselves as nations, beyond the mere naming.
They refuse to recognise that some at least - not necessarily all but some part - of a suppressed social malaise or political fractiousness can be traced to the basic issue of the unfinished aspect of their self-constitutive process. This includes those who cannot boast of even these medals of achievement, those who, long after any self-respecting nation should have been weaned, continue to insist that their endemic negative symptoms are merely “teething problems.” Such nations are clearly on a self-destruct trajectory.
Permit me to cite as analogy the ordeal of one my children who, one day, during a routine basket ball game, collapsed and passed out. Until then, he had experienced intermittent breathing problems – they were put down as mild attacks of asthma and allergy – you know, increase in pollen counts with seasonal changes and so on. Until then however, nothing as drastic as an actual faint had ever occurred. Fortunately, one of the paramedics who were called to the scene felt that this was more than a mere asthmatic attack, or equally benign incident – and so began a series of tests which merely increased the bafflement of the diagnostic clinics and their specialists
A period of round-the-clock monitoring was prescribed. He was banned from any further sporting activities and was strapped to a gadget that communicated directly to an emergency centre for any sign of recurrence. No matter where he was, a fully equipped ambulance was on call, ready to rush him to a clinic in case of a life-threatening recurrence – all this, while various images of his heart, lungs, full body and brain scans were subjected to analysis. The trouble was that some of these scans gave off contradictory images, which simply drove the doctors to distraction.
In the end, the mystery was solved. His condition was a heart tumour, but not just any tumour. It was that uncommon type which has a habit of sinking back into the wall tissues of the heart, and then pulsing outwards, so that sometimes the instruments showed only one, but at other times, two or three growths. Evidently these extrusions would sometimes impede the regular flow of blood, which had led to his passing out in the first instance. In one of these sophisticated machines, one could actually watch the tumour change shape and contours, flattening back invisibly into the wall. The option had already been decided upon - open-heart surgery – but it was necessary to do a thorough study of the behaviour of this pulsating growth before embarking on the drastic process.
That decision was only the beginning. The surgical team had to go back to school – that is, they were compelled to look up prior cases, consult surgeons who had carried out similar operations. Video recordings were exchanged. Finally, D-day. It was, I must confess, an unnerving experience to see your son’s heart taken out of his body while he was attached to an artificial heart that kept the blood pumping to his system. As if that was not enough, we learnt that, after the heart was re-attached and resuscitated, it suddenly stopped beating. Injections, administration of electric shocks – the surgeons did what they were trained to do and he survived.
Now, why have I bothered to go into details? Simply to ensure that you do not overlook the mission that has – I presume – brought us here today. The realities that compelled you – again, presumably – to demand of yourselves what is missing from the delivery of responsible governance and thus, seek strategies for their fulfillment. You know that if that youth had been in our part of the world, he would be long dead. And that applies to many deficiencies that your citizens face – not merely in terms of the quality of life they lead, but even the very threats to survival in numerous fields of routine activities.
That is Lesson One. Many here have at least one such story of deliverance, of an extract from real life that barely escaped tragedy. Others were not so lucky. The stories they have to tell did not have such a happy ending. We must not however lose sight of the analogy, which goes deeper than the incidental vagary of the health of one individual, but concerns the corporate body.
Even the greatest pundits can be wrong about the health of any organism - human, institutional, or national. I am speaking here of the deceptiveness of appearances – those of you who are soccer addicts would have read recently of the collapse and death of an Italian player – my eye caught the news because the story reached backwards to refer to similar tragedies, sudden deaths of other athletes who had evinced no sign whatsoever of a weakness in their anatomy.
It happens all the time. This nation must surely recall the shocking case of Kanu. Institutions are no different – just see how the banking system in the most advanced countries suddenly collapsed, creating a domino effect that saw seemingly robust economies collapse one after the other. But here again, we are still speaking simply of parts of a functioning totality, not the entirety. A deep malaise may defy the most astute diagnostic minds, leading to a complacent reading of its state of health. If however, there is a sound, fundamental structure that holds the totality together, that totality will override flawed mechanisms of the parts – this is what is pulling many European nations out of the rut. Lucky, therefore, is that entity that is urged from time to time to examine and re-examine the very walls, tissues and muscles of the heart that pump blood into its system. That it is beating sturdily does not mean that there are no tumours embedded within its very interstices, waiting its moment to strike while bounding confidently from one field of undertaking to the next, overriding one hidden trauma after another, but progressively weakened by each trauma inducing experience.
Most mortals do need to be left alone to find their feet after any traumatic experience. The nation is no different, the most enfeebling traumatic experiences in the Nigerian instance being both the civil war and years of military rule. There is also the affliction of illegitimacy –the dubious legitimacy of a large percentage of representatives of the people’s supposed political will at the centre, at the federal and national assemblies and even in the lodges of executive governors.
The percentage of occupational illegitimacy did admittedly decrease over the last elections but, we still do know, and they know that we know, that even in a seventy-five percent perfect election, properly conducted, a vast number of the present ‘honourables’, senators and governors, could never have caught the sheerest whiff of the wood varnish on the seats they now occupy.
Some of these are the most vociferous, most assiduous in their denunciation, indeeed demonisation of the very notion of a genuine convocation of peoples, that is, a convocation outside the sanctuary, privilege and self-interest of the homes of illegitimacy, the convocation of a people who wish to examine their present and decide their future.
Let me declare here that I have taken a decision never again to add my voice to that call, having joined with others - two of whom are now dead – to let the judiciary pronounce, at the very least, a symbolic judgment on whether what now passes for a ‘people’s constitution’ is indeed any such product of a people’s will, or yet another product of illegitimacy hung around the nation’s neck like a noose.
That I shall no longer add my voice to that call however does not mean that I abandon the right to examine, even if only as a contextual exercise, the antecedents of that call, its provocation, the distortions it has endured, and continues to endure, the potential consequences of its rejection, and perhaps the true motivations of its opposing or evasive voices.
Northwards from this very spot where we are gathered, a daily decimation of our humanity pronounces its diabolical judgment on the structure that still struggles to deserve the name nation, calling in question, through its fiery monologues, the very legitimacy of our nation being. Let me take this opportunity however to stress to us all within the nation that this ongoing catastrophe is not the burden of any one part of the nation by itself, but a fight of survival for the totality of its humanity. The antecedents of the present national crisis may seem particularized, the carnage concentrated on a geographical sector – at least for now - the solution nonetheless remains the responsibility of the entirety of the constituent parts. There is an immeasurable gulf between taking up arms against the state and declaring war against humanity.
I recall a cry from a stricken heart – metaphorically speaking this time – when the United States of America invaded Iraq under the pretext of looking for weapons of mass destruction. The Arab League happened to be holding its session at the time, and its Secretary-General was reported to have exclaimed: “the inhabitants of hell have been let loose”. Several members of that League thought he was merely being alarmist. The US president, George Bush certainly thought so too, especially once he had overrun the defences of the deluded tyrant Saddam Hussein. Several years after, not merely the Middle East, but the entire world is still attempting to cope with the rampages of the successors of those fiends from hell, unleashed through past global defaults admittedly, but also ministering to their own innate demonism, determined to drag the rest of the world down into their own private and collective hells.
What applied to Iraq is both pertinent to, and apparent in Nigeria – evade it how we will. The rejects even of hell have indeed been let loose, but many prefer to shy away from the question: who let them loose. How long was the present scenario in preparation? For how long was the mind-set of its direct perpetrators nurtured, for how long were impressionable minds doctored, warped and then homicidally re-focused? Was it through secular ideological indoctrination – let us say, a Marxist revolutionary orientation? Or was it through the theocratic, serving however the power obsession of a minority? This is a basic enquiry that should precede all else. However, the nation has elected, in the main, to climb aboard the conveyance of evasion, bound for the bunker of denial.
Those who unleashed the denizens of hell are among us, they did not come from outer space, they are known, and they know where their myrmidons retreat while they prepare their next outrage on the populace. I invite you to take a hard look, for instance, at the photos of those killers of the Italian and British hostages, finally trapped in Kaduna. Do you seriously think that they – and hundreds like them - are independent actors in the ongoing rampages? Does anyone still believe that they sponsored themselves to training grounds, on this continent or outside, in some infernal regions, for their deadly mastery of weapons of human evisceration? Their sponsors are not phantoms.
They are real. They exist among us. But, phantoms or not, today, they are afraid. Their own agents of destruction have turned upon them, demanding evidence of preparations of the theocratic utopia that was dangled before them, a utopia founded on theocratic myopia that nerved them to acts of total disregard for fellow humanity and a passion for self-immolation.
How do we disable such forces? Let me insist on the negative – not by appeasement. Not by utterances or gestures of appeasement. Those who seek to dominate others do not understand the language of appeasement. To them it translates as endorsement, multiplies their self-righteousness and urges them to even greater acts of contempt for humanity. Dialogue is a cultured, always commendable device – in principle. However, I must call attention to a fervent contradiction – within this general field of dialogue - that appears to have escaped certain among our pundits of dialogue at all costs. Here it goes:
On the one hand, those very voices are on their knees urging dialogue on the assailants. On the other, those whose call for dialogue – but on a wider, national scale - holds out the possibility, at the very least, of a holistic apprehension of the far-reaching causes and prescriptions for remedial action for the guarantee of a future, are told to go and have their heads examined.
Therein lies the contradiction. A force for blind violence comes to the fore, a force that manifests utter contempt for that very civilized facilitator of co-existence called Dialogue, yet, hardly has the first prickle of blood been drawn before the chorus goes up - let’s invite them to sit down and talk. Tell us what you want and we’ll see what can be done. And even before that, there were already calls for Amnesty. The sequence is important – let us keep this in mind. Now, what is this supposed to indicate? That only through the language of terror can one make oneself heard?
One side says, let us sit down peacefully, as free peoples, and work out a new order of internal relationships and overarching governance. The other says, I already have my own unilaterally concluded order of internal relationships, divinely ordered, beyond questioning by mere mortals, subject to no tests of rationally, equity or experimentation. To the first, the response that hits their ears is – nothing doing. To the other however – at least from those responsible for the health and survival of the nation, the response is, ‘please, come and talk to us.’ And for their pains, what has been the constant reward? A few hundred souls in their daily routine of scraping a living from the sales of basic, life sustaining products of farm and manufacture, and yet a hundred more, gathered on their okada motor-cycles, waiting to transport those market men and women to their farmstead and homes, workers to their factories and homes, are unconscionably blasted to eternity. Thus comes into being the ordination of two competing sovereign states, one pleading for dialogue, the other contemptuous of the very word.
Yes indeed, ‘sovereignty’. The sovereignty of the nation, we are lectured, is non-negotiable, and that mystic possession – sovereignty - would be imperiled if the constituent parts of the nation do indeed embark on a dialogue of free peoples. It’s a very portly word – sovereignty – mouth-filling, and chest expanding. It is designed to stop all arguments. Merely pronounce that a form of action is a threat to the illusionary banquet called sovereignty and the world is supposed to go into seizure from sheer surfeit. One can only marvel at what happened to this patrimony of ‘sovereignty’ when a Buhari, a Babangida or a Sanni Abacha terminated preceding sovereign claims with a mere radio announcement accompanied by a martial tune.
Some of the more hysterical among our current voices, opposed to a people’s dialogue, did not wait for the military spittle to dry out on the air-waves before they vanished into the obscurity of their villages. In this case however, today, Dialogue as a voluntary undertaking, an operative stage in nation-being, as an expression of collective will, increasingly voiced even in hitherto unexpected sectors, is being derided.
Sadly, one can sometimes understand causes for the vilification of this recourse. Only a few days ago, the clamour for Dialogue – the genuine kind that is – was joined by one of the most nauseous and obsequious, self-ingratiating servitors of the repellent dictatorship of Sanni Abacha. Such incidental bed-fellows make one despair but, as we say, this is a democracy, and even those who seek to sanitize their past by a cynical revision of a history through which we all lived and survived – thank goodness - must be given a hearing. The message, not the messenger – that must be our meager consolation.
I merely play the devil’s advocate. I have lost all interest in the call for a National Conference and, at the very end, my prescriptions shall be made plain. For now let us also offer a material solace to those who are morbidly afraid of a national dialogue. In the highly unlikely event that such a mythical National Conference concludes its work with a rational agenda that garners the approbation of an overwhelming majority, leading to a clamour for instant implementation, such demurrers would only be bowing to the clearly articulated will of the people, as opposed to a bunch of adventurist individuals in uniform. This, of course, is only an extreme speculation, designed to douse the dismissive, unreflective, more sovereign-than-thou, what-we-have-we-hold, what-exists-is-holy mentality that has corrupted the reasoning of some of these opposing voices.
It is actually a liberating position, abandoning the chimera of a National Dialogue. It leaves one free to confront one prospect, the most challenging prospect of all – the future.
Where else does one look at this stage? The future naturally, leapfrogging the chancy route of what a dialogue might bring, seizing the future by the throat and demanding of ourselves – what can we make of that future, with or without dialogue? But first, what do we see when we do turn to that future? Yes, let us first direct our gaze at that future, which means – let this present speak to the future. So, what does it say? I urge that we address ourselves dispassionately, not fantasize, not simply project the future of our escapist desperation. We shall let our present interrogate that future, and what does it spell? Peril. An imperiled future, and that means – an imperiled generation of a nation’s humanity.
We obtain a preview of a future that is finally divested of the surviving scraps of the opportunities that many of my generation enjoyed when we were indeed pronounced as that future that is now our present. In practical details, what the present projects objectinely as its offspring, is a vista of brain wastage, thanks to unstable tumours that peek and vanish, undetected, and when detected, are left uncorrected. A future that is very much in doubt, a future tarnished and devalued by a succession of incontinent, irresponsible leadership, decked in both civilian and military outfits, but mostly of the military. A future where the intangible yet reinforced pillar of civilized society – such as justice - has become available on the open market. I am making no new assertions and, do not take my word for it. Revert to internal motions for reforms such as the Justice Eso commission of enquiry into the judiciary and also call to mind various pronouncements of the National Bar Association.
Ask yourselves how it comes about that one of your former members of this very governorship consortium is currently basking in immunity, having succeeded in obtaining a judicial injunction against prosecution for his crimes against the future, perpetrated while in office. Do we need to point out that as a nation we are covered with shame that it took an external court of justice, of the former colonial masters, to finally put an end to the costly shenanigans of another of your former brother governors, one who held the forces of anti-corruption at bay, led them a merry dance all the way to Dubai until he was plucked out of his imagined sanctuary?
And what of that judge, the judge who freed him of over a hundred and fifty criminal charges here, in this very nation, pronounced him innocent of blasting the very future of the generations under his watch by a career of systematic, unconscionable robbery? Why are we surprised therefore to find ourselves faced with a future where all sense of community has all but evaporated and only predators roam the streets, making their own laws of survival as they proceed. Yes, they make their own laws, for even these know that without law, written or unwritten, there is no community, and without community, all talk of nation is vain. Nations are built on the palpable operations of community, otherwise they are empty, artificial and hollow. They collapse with the tiniest pinpricks of unrest, they drift into oblivion with the slightest winds of external pressure. So, that learned judge held the strings of community in his hands, the judge who pronounced our elusive governor free of all blemish, that custodian and administrator of justice, our question today is - is he still passing judgment in this nation, or has he proceeded on retirement leave to Dubai?
Prof. Soyinka, Nobel Laureate is a social critic, freedom fighter and people’s intellectual.