Friday, August 28, 2015
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ideas have consequences

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Frst, let us not simplify the challenge. There are no blacks and whites. It is not a contest between saints and demons, not one between salvation and damnation. If anything, it is closer to a fork in the road where uncertainty lurks - whichever choice is made. Someone in the media has called it a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, another between Apocalypse and Salvation. The reasons are not far-fetched. They are firmly lodged in the trauma of memory and the rawness of current realities. Well, at least one can dialogue with the devil, even dine with that creature with the proverbial long spoon. With the deep blue sea however, deceptively placid, even the best swimmers drown. The problem for some is deciding which is the devil, which the deep blue sea. For most, instructively, the difference is clear. There are no ambiguities, no qualifications, no pause for reflection - they are simply raring to go!  I envy them.


​Let all partisans of progress however constantly exercise self-restraint in assessment and expectations. Facts remain facts and should never be tampered with.  Verification is nearly always available from records and – the testimonies of witnesses. Yet memory may prove faulty, so even those who were alive during any political regimen should exercise even greater caution and not get carried away by partisanship in any cause, however laudable or apparently popular.  In the interest of truth, embarrassing though it is, we are obliged to correct all such tendencies openly, since revisionism is a travesty of history, and never more treacherously so than in a time of critical democratic choices. I apologize in advance to the authors of the instance that I must now use as an example, apologize because it does not come close to the most atrocious revisionist stances propagated in the past few weeks. However, it is one of the most recent, is born of noble intent, but serves to remind us of the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. From that same origination however also came a corrective, and that very adjustment offers us optional routes in the way we deal with historical facts, especially when we find ourselves on the same side of commitment to the positive in a political cause.


​In recalling, or commenting on any event that involves victim and violator, there is a difference between “It never happened” or “it was the accepted norm for the time” etc. etc. on the one hand, and, on the other,  “we have forgiven what did happen”. Both positions converge at the point of “moving on”. One, the first, however disparages and trivializes the suffering of – in this instance – victims of the abuse of power, dead or alive. In so doing, it also desecrates the memory of these and other victims.  The second approach insists on its entitlement to justice, waives that right by drawing on a store of magnanimity and even – places the violator on notice! Its example also challenges the adamantly unforgiving, challenges them to join in an exercise of their own capacity for obliterating the past, acting in the collective interest, and perhaps attaining closure.


​When I read the statement attributed to a scion of a political family that his father was “not jailed” but was merely “invited for interrogation as required by military tradition and policies then”, I felt deeply offended, but mostly saddened. For this adjustment of reality provided evidence of yet another lesson unlearnt.  Exoneration through denial, and without evidence of remorse or restitution by a violator is a serious lapse in public accountability, and an invitation to a repeat by the offender – or other aspiring emulators. In any crisis, it is not unusual to find oneself in bed with ideologically embarrassing partners.  Let it be understood that this does not require that we actually begin to dress them in saintly robes.


​What makes our situation especially galling is the fervid intrusion of some opportunistic sanitizers who bear direct, sometimes even originating responsibility for the plight in which a people have been placed. These are individuals who should be doing penance, walking from one corner of the nation to the other covered in the equivalent of ‘sackcloth and ashes’ for their role in bringing the nation to its lamentable condition. Yet they insist on remaining obsessively in the public face, preening themselves up for recognition as the primary forces behind a nation’s renewed efforts to redeem and re-determine itself. They are the promoters – actively or by default – of the current national trauma of a Boko Haram malignancy, the anti-corruption rhetoricians who however believe that they have literally got away with murder. Rather than make reparations in any number of unobtrusive ways, they impudently exploit a permissive, and despairing atmosphere for regaining relevance.  The nation should watch out for their antics, even while exploiting them to the hilt for the overall remedial purpose. They owe the nation. We must ensure however that they are incapacitated from making more mischief. I am consoled that not all the Nigerian electorate is as simple-minded and gullible as they believe.


​The nation finds herself at a critical turn, where the wrong choice places it beyond all hope of remaining intact – and by ‘intact’ I do not refer to breast-beating mantras such as the “non-negotiability of Nigerian sovereignty”. I am speaking here of the viability of whatever calls itself the Nigerian nation, its functional proof, the ability to generate its very existence and cater for the future. Since I still have some time invested in that commodity, the future – with apologies to impatient Internet Obituarists – it becomes impossible to refrain from direct participation in the process of, or the encouragement of others, in the process of making a choice.  In any case, I am compromised by the wiles of unprincipled campaigners whose pastime is to propagate a choice I have never declared. It is meagre consolation that I am not alone in being subjected to such fraudulence. Even the dead, who cannot answer back, have not been spared.

In and out of context, the ongoing campaign appears to have appropriated any public figure as free-for-all material, to be quoted out of turn, his or her utterances mangled and distorted, forced into incongruous contexts, and sometimes, even in a counter-productive manner, although such desperate campaigners appear blissfully unaware of this.  What is being overlooked however is that, while facts remain constant, the environment evolves, and may play a tempering role in the very evocation of a record of the condemable acts of governance. I am not speaking of time now – as a dulling agent of painful memory - but of the very actualities of the present as an advocate of – at the very least – remission.


​ The era of this election offers an incontrovertible proof of that reminder. Let us leave aside for a moment the parlous condition of the Nigerian landscape and look outwards for some inspiration. We live in an era that we, on this continent, may be forgiven for inscribing as the era of The Mandelan example. Mandela’s life trajectory remains a lighthouse in any voyage into uncharted waters – anywhere and any time that a people’s history is cited.  Confessedly, we can only adopt bits and pieces of this Monumental Examplar.  The bit that is called upon in this instance is a virtue that is aptly designated civic courage, an aspect of courage that enables one to make a leap of faith when confronted with a near intractable choice.

​Let me state, right on the heels of that exhortation that the acceptance of this imposition by society demands in its turn a massive reciprocity, a condition of individual moral courage that manifests itself in the ability to express contrition for the past, with its implicit commitment to an avoidance of such acts as violated the loftiest entitlements of human existence such as – freedom.  We have no apology for declaring that our civic Muse is, summatively - Freedom. The right of choice. Volition. The Right of participation in the modalities of collective existence including its rituals, the sum of which is routinely known as – Democracy. Its antithesis is enslavement, and we who have undergone centuries of enslavement and disdain from the imperious will of outsiders, have no intention of changing slave masters, irrespective of race, colour, religion, social pedigree, profession or political ideology. This is why, apart from a few deranged species that have removed themselves from the definition of humanity, we are united against the tyranny of Boko Haram and other proponents of chains – visible and invisible - as the rightful portion of their fellow beings.


​Through participation, direct or vicarious, we find ourselves landed within a system that has thrown up two choices – realistically speaking, that is. Formally, we dare not ignore the claims of other contestants. Of the two however, one is representative of the immediate past, still present with us, and with an accumulation of negative baggage.  The other is a remote past, justly resented, centrally implicated in grievous assaults against Nigerian humanity, with a landscape of broken lives that continues to lacerate collective memory.  However – and this is the preponderant ‘however’ – is there such a phenomenon as a genuine “born-again”?


​It is largely around this question that a choice will probably be made. It is pointlessly, and dangerously provocative to present General Buhari as something that he provably was not.  It is however just as purblind to insist that he has not demonstrably striven to become what he most glaringly was not, to insist that he has not been chastened by intervening experience and – most critically - by a vastly transformed environment – both the localized and the global. Of course we have been deceived before. A former ruler whom, one presumed, had been purged and transformed by a close encounter with death, and imprisonment, has turned out to be an embodiment of incorrigibility on several fronts, including a contempt for law and constitution.

Would it be different this time round? Has subjection to police tear-gas and other forms of violence, like the rest of us mortals, and a spell in close detention, truly ‘civilianized’ this contender? I have studied him from a distance, questioned those who have closely interacted with him, including his former running-mate, Pastor Bakare, and dissected his key utterances past and current. And my findings?  A plausible transformation that comes close to that of another ex-military dictator, Mathew Kerekou of the Benin Republic. Despite such encouraging precedents however, I continue to insist that the bridge into any future expectation remains a sheer leap of faith. Such a leap I find impossible to concede to his close rival, since we are living in President Jonathan’s present, in an environment that his six years in office have created and now seek to consolidate.  That is the frightening prospect. It requires more than a superhuman effort to concede to the present incumbent a springboard for a people’s critical leap.​


​I address only those who require no further persuasion that the present is untenable and intolerable – and from virtually every aspect of national life. All men and women of discerning can separate actualities from their exaggerated rendition, can peel off the distracting gloss that is smeared all over our social condition by those who seek to blind us to an unjust and avoidable social predicament. We have tasted the condiments of an incipient police state. We recognize acts of outright fascism in a dispensation that is supposedly democratic. We have endured a season of stagnation in development and a drastic deterioration in the quality of existence. We are force-fed the burgeoning culture of impunity, blatantly manifested in massive corruption. We feel insulted by the courtship and indulgence of common criminals by the machinery of power. The list is endless but above it all, we understand when there is a failure of leadership, resulting in a near total collapse of society.  We are now brought to a confrontation with choice, when we must make a leap of faith, to open up avenues of restoration.


​Leadership is, I acknowledge, an often imprecise expression, conveniently absolving those who invoke its absence of the burden of proof.  When I make that accusation, it is based on hard instances for which proof is not only demonstrable in all spheres of governance – and superabundantly so - but can be provided if challenged by anyone, including the obscene convocation of the cretinous, who even believe  that they have earned the right to poke their messy  fingers into strictly family travails of a political contestant, that the medical challenges within a family are matters of public relevance or offer the slightest evidence of that individual’s ability to discharge public responsibility. Some tactics deployed in the process of this political campaign remain some of the most vulgar and sickening that the nation has experienced on its democratic journey. Perhaps it is just as well. The exercise on its own offers warning of  fascism in the offing if the wrong choice is made, if the crucial leap of faith is rejected by the faint-hearted!  Of course, it has not all been one-sided, but let us leave the exercise of assessment to every individual capable of applying the most stringent objective yardsticks.


​Has the campaign in itself thrown up any portents for the future? Let all beware. The predator walks stealthily on padded feet, but we all know now with what lightning speed the claws flash into action. We have learnt to expect, deplore and confront certain acts in military dictatorship, but to find them manifested under a supposedly democratic governance? Of course the tendency did not begin with this regime, but how eagerly the seeming meek have aspired to surpass their mentors!


​We must not be sanguine, or complacent. Eternal, minute-to-minute vigilance remains the watchword. Whatever demons got into a contestant to declare the spread of Sharia throughout the nation his life mission must be exorcised – indeed, are presumed to be already exorcised. Never again must any leader ban the discussion of democratic restoration in the public arena. Nor must we ever again witness the execution – even imprisonment! - of a citizen under retroactive laws. This persistent candidate seeks return, but let him understand that it can only be as a debtor to the past, and that the future cannot wait to collect. If this collective leap of faith is derided, repudiated or betrayed under a renewed immersion in the ambiance of power or retrogressive championing, of a resumption of clearly repudiated social directions, we have no choice but to revoke an unspoken pact and resume our march to that yet elusive space of freedom, however often interrupted, and by whatever means we can humanly muster. And if in the process, the consequence is national hara-kiri, no one can say that there had been no deluge of warnings.


​The art of leadership is complex and unenviable. Among its most basic, simple demands however, is the capacity for empathy, since a leader does not preside over stones but palpable humanity. Thus, in asserting a failure in leadership in a rivaling candidate, I pose only one question, a question of basic humanism that is directed at a leader who equally demands that a nation make a leap of faith for him also, that a people presume his capability for self-transformation. That question is this: 
​“If you had received news of your daughter’s kidnapping, how long would it take you to spring to action? Instantly? One day? Two? Three? A week?  Or maybe TEN days?”
​While we await the answer, the clock of Change cannot tick sufficiently fast!

Prof. Wole Soyinka, former Nobel prize winner and a social critic.

*‘Can’t share honours with Abacha’

 

The sheer weight of indignation and revulsion of most of Nigerian humanity at the recent Boko Harma atrocity in Yobe is most likely to have overwhelmed a tiny footnote to that outrage, small indeed, but of an inversely proportionate significance.  This was the name of the hospital to which the survivors of the massacre were taken. That minute detail calls into question, in a gruesome but chastening way, the entire ethical landscape into which this nation has been forced by insensate leadership.  It is an uncanny coincidence, one that I hope the new culture of ‘religious tourism’, spearheaded by none other than the nation’s president in his own person, may even come to recognize as a message from unseen forces.

 

For the name of that hospital, it is reported, is none other than that of General Sanni Abacha, a vicious usurper under whose authority the lives of an elected president and his wife were snuffed out.  Assassinations – including through bombs cynically ascribed to the opposition – became routine. Under that ruler, torture and other forms of barbarism were enthroned as the norm of governance.  To round up, nine Nigerian citizens, including the writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-wiwa, were hanged after a trial that was stomach churning even by the most primitive standards of judicial trial, and in defiance of the intervention of world leadership. We are speaking here of a man who placed this nation under siege during an unrelenting reign of terror that is barely different from the current rampage of Boko Haram. It is this very psychopath that was recently canonized by the government of Goodluck Jonathan in commemoration of one hundred years of Nigerian trauma.

 

It has been long a-coming. One of the broadest avenues in the nation’s capital, Abuja, bears the name of General Sanni Abacha. Successive governments have lacked the political courage to change this  signpost – among several others – of  national self degradation and wipe out the memory of the nation’s tormentor from daily encounter. Not even Ministers for the Federal Capital territory within whose portfolios rest such responsibilities, could muster the temerity to initiate the process and leave the rest to public approbation or repudiation. I urged the need of this purge on one such minister, and at least one Head of State. That minister promised, but that boast went the way of Nigerian electoral boast.  The Head of State murmured something about the fear of offending ‘sensibilities’. All evasions amounted to moral cowardice and a doubling of victim trauma. When you proudly display certificates of a nation’s admission to the club of global pariahs, it is only a matter of time before you move to beatify them as saints and other paragons of human perfection. What the government of Goodluck Jonathan has done is to scoop up a century’s accumulated degeneracy in one preeminent symbol, then place it on a podium for the nation to admire, emulate and even – worship.

 

There is a deplorable message for coming generations in this governance aberration that the entire world has been summoned to witness and indeed, to celebrate. The insertion of an embodiment of  ‘governance by terror’ into the company of committed democrats, professionals, humanists and human rights advocates in their own right, is a sordid effort to grant a certificate of health to a communicable disease that common sense demands should be isolated. It is a confidence trick that speaks volumes of the perpetrators of such a fraud. We shall pass over – for instance – the slave mentality that concocts loose formulas for an Honours List that automatically elevate any violent bird of passage to the status of nation builders who may, or may not be demonstrably motivated by genuine love of nation.  According generalized but false attributes to known killers and treasury robbers is a disservice to history and a desecration of memory.  It also compromises the future. This failure to discriminate, to assess, and thereby make it possible to grudgingly concede that even out of a ‘doctrine of necessity’ – such as military dictatorship -  some demonstrable governance virtue may emerge, reveals nothing but national self-glorification in a moral void, the breeding grounds of future cankerworm in the nation’s edifice.

 

Such abandonment of moral rigour comes full circle sooner or later. The survivors of a plague known as Boko Haram, students in a place of enlightenment and moral instruction, are taken to a place of healing dedicated to an individual contagion – a murderer and thief of no redeeming quality known as Sanni Abacha, one whose plunder is still being pursued all over the world and recovered piecemeal by international consortiums – at the behest of this same government which sees fit to place him on the nation’s Roll of Honour! I can think of nothing more grotesque and derisive of the lifetime struggle of several on this list, and their selfless services to humanity. It all fits. In this nation of portent readers, the coincidence should not be too difficult to decipher.

I reject my share of this national insult.

Wole SOYINKA

A Statement by Nobel laureate  Wole Soyinka

 

“An APC-led group, we understand, has been paying courtesy visits to former Heads of States. Would it be correct to state that their purpose is captured in the following Mission Statement? ‘Tinubu added that the APC had resolved to rescue Nigeria, appealing to Obasanjo to lead the mission. We’re resolved and determined to rescue Nigeria. We want you as navigator.

 

APC leaders, source of Nigeria's problems - PRESIDENCYAPC leaders with OBJ

 

 

 

If this attribution is correct, may I urge you, as an urgent public service, to advise families to begin the stockpiling of life-belts for the guaranteed crash. Don’t forget to alert the coastguards—ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), AU (African Union), UNO (United Nations Organization) etc, to be on the alert for possible salvage operations. “If General Sani Abacha were alive today, would he also have been on the ship’s complement? As Captain perhaps?”

 

The Village Mourners Association, a write up by Prof. Soyinka   on June 19, 2013 in response to ‘those who are making a mountain out of a mole hill’ as a result of his absence from  Chinua Achebe’s burial ceremony.

 

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.

 

Source: ThisDay

Friday, 30 November 2012 18:13

Review of Achebe and Soynika Writings

 

The Gods Are Angry

False narratives hamper Africa's development, while dangerous new ideologies flood in from the outside.

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.

 

 

 

Friday, 19 October 2012 02:14

Prof. Soyinka: Religion Against Humanity

 

Religion Against Humanity

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, 18 October 2012 18:55

Should they write or fight?

 

When Africa’s stormy politics turns into real, blood and iron war, writers find themselves in a position where they must take sides but must they grab a gun and head for the trenches or employ the explosive power of the written word? Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo chose the gun. Okigbo would be killed in the process prompting Kenya’s Ali Mazrui to try the dead poet for dabbling into a business best done by other people

The recent release in Britain of the long-awaited memoirs of Chinua Achebe, the man often referred to as the father of modern African literature, was a major event in the annals of African 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]”.

 

Source:CIUGU MWAGIRU This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it - Daily Nation. Kenya

 

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