June 14, 2024

Recovering the Narrative

  • February 29, 2024
  • 41 min read
Recovering the Narrative

By Wole Soyinka

I begin by pleading an obsessive problem – media language. As one who is routinely traumatized by encountering his own words reworked into imagined equivalents, duly enhanced and augmented even with the best and honest intentions, but which actually convey the exact opposite of intent, such an obsession is quite understandable. Fortunately, this preliminary is not personalized. I shall proceed, as gently as I can, and through purely fortuitous exemplars from our national media, to a straightforward proposition of just how a national psyche can be programmed, rewired, so to speak, into absorbing the freakish, the grotesque into its digestive system, so that it becomes assimilated as the norm. The process is mostly imperceptible, but the results are manifested in conduct, values, relationships in both the private and the public domain. Language is part of the enabling factors of such social disfigurement. That is obvious, since it is our basic means of social exchange. The print media has a very special responsibility in this respect, as the communication field is now wide open, instantly and promiscuously accessible. It is patronized by the knowledgeable and the vacuous, the purpose oriented and the dilletante, the nihilist and the builder.

By contrast, the print remains the product of a long tradition of discipline and commitment, no matter how suspect or unpalatable its choices in political partisanship. The real veterans of the species often become famous for what is known as “a housestyle”. Each consciously aspires to credibility and peer respect among its competitors. When it slips up, it makes efforts to ‘clean up its act’ or else, confront sanctions. In sum, each member of that estate strives not to lower the sensibilities of the humanity it claims to serve – this is where the issue of language comes in. The secret sign of progress is when one finds that the frequency of certain reprehensible expressions has diminished, and eventually vanishes altogether. Retrogression is when certain replacements are introduced, through imitation, attain currency through ignorance and a craving to be “in fashion”.

These days, for instance, it is unlikely that you will encounter an account of a motor accident which reports that so many passengers were “roasted to death”. Yet, up to a few years ago, the print media was almost competitively awash with it. It was almost as if journalists were on the hunt for nothing else but fiery road shows just so they could splash the supposed barbecue party across their pages. And so, it was quite a shock for me to encounter, just a few days ago, yet another innovation along this perverse valuation of human life. Perhaps it was just an isolated slip in standards, but it struck me as a reflection of the state of the collective conscious of a fast-unraveling nation, a condition that provoked my recent novel – Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth.

Hopefully, you have come across it. It quite rightly earned comments such as a lavish exercise in the vein of gallows humour. However, that work belongs to the realm of fiction, not daily reportage. It was perhaps unfortunate that this was one of those occasions that I chose to browse through the newspapers after a stretch of absence, just to acclimatize myself with a whiff of environmental fragrance and – well, what else did I expect? Morbidity as the staple read. One has become accustomed to that. However, there was one headline that instantly leapt out – yes, another case of “Mystery death”. The casualty? A young female graduate on her way to Europe. Without any conscious effort, my mind flew instantly to precedents. First, to that student victim of the fanatic lynch mob in Sokoto, Deborah Samuel, next, further back, to yet another student, Cynthia, who was lured into a hotel on Victoria Island, and was drugged, robbed, raped, and strangled. Her killers were also youths, mostly of her own age.

I paused, took a deep breath, then proceeded to immerse myself in details. It turned out that this was not a Deborah scenario, and it vastly differed from the Cynthia exercise in murder via virtual encounter. This was related neither to the lucrative ritual killing and trafficking in human parts as celebrated in the earlier mentioned fictional work. It appeared to be one of those deaths for which, blasphemously, one comes close to even breathing a sigh of relief. No crime appears to have been involved. No summary execution by kidnappers for failure to pay ransom. So far anyway, it appears to have been a freakish outcome of some medical procedure gone wrong. So why did my mind switch from the initial “Oh, no not again”, to “Oh no, why kill her all over again”. Expand that to, “Why dehumanize her?” “Where is human empathy in this family tragedy?” The cause of that silent outburst is easily grasped in the following reportage:
“The promising, beautiful girl was hale and hearty when she walked into the hospital theatre for a minor medical procedure but, an hour later, she had become lifeless like a dead cow on the slaughter slab.”
Really? That is how to report the premature death of another being? This has nothing to do with grammar in a foreign language – translate it into any indigenous language and we are still confronted with an accusing question – what has happened to basic humanity? To find such a degradation of sensibilities in the print media delivered quite a jolt. And a warning: T’ewe ba pe l’afra ose, ohun na a bere sii ho yoyo. (Translation: If the leaf wrapping stays too long on the soap, it also begins to foam). The question then arises: who now is infecting whom? Are we dumbing down in deference to the language of trolls? Freedom of expression implicates also freedom of the choice of expression, thus, personal, as well as corporate responsibility cannot be evaded. One’s mind goes immediately to veteran editors such as Lateef Jakande. Lade Bonuola, or closer to the present, Stanley Macebuh, Patrick Cole and that breed – would such a travesty have left the press room under their watch? If the answer is – most improbable”, then does this indicate human progress? Or is a complacent society being programmed to accept as normal what was once unthinkable?

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Prof. Wole Soyinka

Of course, we also have a choice: we can relegate such retrogression to quite a minor glitch, label it isolated and let it pass. We do all the time anyway, knowing fully well it is anything but isolated. Well, why not? After all, it is only language. There is absolutely no correlation between the depiction of that “cow on a slaughter slab” and the story on a succeeding page, or shared in lurid headlines across sister journals, this time featuring another youth, also a student, male in full confessional flight: WHY I SLAUGHTERED MY MOTHER AND CHOPPED HER IN PIECES. Or that student, this time female, who murdered her lover in a hotel room, then went on to contest in a Beauty pageant in prison while awaiting trial. It all comes round to that other, but fundamental contest for – what is human?

Enough of those grisly preliminaries. We shall return to that theme on a related note – the exercise itself of the fundamental right to freedom of expression, and its subversions in the strangest, least expected places. You express an opinion, a political preference in Kontangora, and your ancestral home gets burnt in Idi-Ayunre. State power, you see, is not the only identifiable villain, albeit it has the inbuilt capacity to grab us by the neck, spit in our faces, and shake us out of complacency. I refer to the degree of license so ruthlessly exercised by Vladimir Putin in his feudalist elimination of Alexei Navalny, the democratic voice of the Russian people. Any local echoes here of the fate of MKO Abiola? Of Yar’Adua? We shall not let Poison Putin long distract us. Society itself – its own citizen domain – often harbours mutations of the same virus. Alertness is the watchword, and the Press, will it or not, sooner or later, always finds itself catapulted to the fore.

So, for now, let us find some relief in indulging a little in the rites of Celebration of Creativity. That, after all, is the purpose of our gathering today. We proceed by way of some reminiscences, pausing only to remind ourselves that the creative urge in humanity is unpredictable. Considering our religious saturated environment, perhaps the closest comparison for us here would be the phenomenon of spiritual possession.

Oh, that brings up the recent hullaballoo occasioned by a BBC documentary on the religious enterprise rampaging across this very nation. The question to pose is: why the fuss? Why the attempt to pillory the BBC? Stories are an open field where fiction, reality and faction – the name for fictionalized reality, or a mix – meet and intersect. Reality? That is the very name of the harvest of some three hundred souls in search of spiritual fulfillment – mostly all the way from the other end of the continent. They were sucked into eternity through illegal and deficient construction authorized by a “man of God”. Plus a lot besides, a lot more. If culpable homicide knows no boundaries in its allocation of victims, its narrative acknowledges boundaries even less. If one human enclave fails or dawdles in its mission of appropriating and transforming raw material, others outside will adopt it as theirs.

In any case -and here comes a minor revelation – don’t tell me everyone missed this. I invite you to return to the earlier mentioned Chronicles from the Land… etc. etc. The story of the nation’s star prophet is right in there, splashed all over some 500 pages. No? Re-visit the names acquired by that faith healer of prodigious talents and execrable theatre, projected in that novel as a man of many parts. Shall I remind you? Yes, he was most prominently identified as Father Davina and Teribogo but, call out slowly one of his other names: Tibidje. What does it spell? Call it out – separately – Tee-Bee-Jay! That’s our man, who else? T.B. Joshua. I studied him for quite some time, I assure you. I even once discussed him with the then Lagos governor who had plans to bring him to justice. He vanished of course, relocated to Latin America. No matter, between journalism and fiction, the narrative is virtually complete – a creative genius of fakery and – diabolism. Let us return to creativity in the uplifting mode

Yes indeed, creativity, and the modes through which it is manifested often makes many of us miss recognition of its operations, and thus fail to give credit to numerous products of the expression of human vision. The parturition of a new vehicle of communication and thus, the promotion of socio-political discourse, including the stimulation of artistic productivity, is one such creative feat, and cannot be over celebrated. When, despite numerous obstacles – from basic economic uncertainties and brand competition, to exterior incursions, often of a hostile, even fatal nature – it has survived and arrived at a significant milestone, it needs no excuse whatever to preen its feathers, flaunt its colours and bask in public appreciation.

I enjoyed – no, that is something of a misleading expression – so, let’s just say that I was thrown into a somewhat unique, personal, yet vicarious and intriguing relationship with The Punch from its very beginning. I was part of the environment of its birth, and have watched its rise from the public regard of what we might call a sigh of resignation – that sigh of, “oh, another one in an already overcrowded field – to the status of a sturdy must-read journal, observed its transformation through experimentation in every production department – from basic aesthetic appearance to shifts in political leaning and ideological flirtations. I have every reason to recall that last paring in particular, and the reason is not far to seek. The The Punch came to life at a critical phase of this nation’s history. Unquestionably the brainchild of one individual, its driving force both financially and creatively, that individual, the late Chief Olu Aboderin, was socio-politically impassioned, and he drew into his orbit similarly engaged minds, influential and combative. I can only speak as a peripheral observer and occasional interloper, most in the adversarial mode, so I plead guilty here to possible upturned assessment of individual hands in the making of that institution. However, this was my assessment in those days, and I believe it tallied with the perception of most of the public.

Regarding the timing however, there can be little dispute – The Punch burst on the media scene with a finely tuned sense of history in the making. It emerged as if on cue, as if timed to enable or reinforce a new political order that was poised over the nation, following our baptism in the font of military coups – the installation of the regime oi Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi. This was soon followed by the counter-coup that transferred power to General Yakubu Gowon. The danse macabre of musical chairs would consolidate the relegation of civil society to the margins of political relevance and deepen the fault lines of ethnic divisions, such as we are currently undergoing. At the time however, hopes were not totally absent for the re-building of a new society on the rubble of the past, that watershed of existence for which the press invariably plays a frontal role. The Punch was not implicated in the catastrophic errors of the past, so it entered the fray with the credentials of a new eye on that past, and the potential of a new order.

There was yet another unique aspect to the profile of this newcomer to the lists. Yes, indeed, it was a new conduit for national aspirations. Was it however, a new voice? Here follows my personal take on its emergence, one that was product of a close but also vicarious relationship. That seemingly contradicting connection evolved through the agency of a movement of which most of us here probably have never heard, or may have forgotten. It was however a powerful pressure group at that critical phase of the nation’s history. It was known as the Committee of Ten, and consisted of a group of young to middle-aged and middle-class intellectuals and professionals, of which Chief Aboderin was the acknowledged head. That pressure group had pronounced itself unambiguously supportive of the government of General Gowon. By contrast – I am sure no one needs reminding – I was, to put it mildly – no fan of the Gowon dispensation. The committee – let me now interject the personal insights – included my own cousin, the late Sobo Sowemimo, S.A.N. I mention him specifically for a number of reasons. One, he was a distinctly hyperactive member. Occasions such as this should not be allowed to pass without a few reminiscences that enable us to restore faces to the dramatis personae that animated a fast-fading era. Such restoration even adds a bonus of chain reaction. Each link tugs at the next, enabling us recover details that revitalize events and reconstruct a number of illuminating aspects that tend to crack and crumble with time.

Sobo Sowemimo and I – on opposing sides in that critical phase – were close, so close in fact that he made a habit of stopping at my residence in Igbobi – I was then teaching at the University of Lagos but lived off-campus. This wily cousin owned one of the few sports coupes in Lagos – it was either a BMW or a Mercedes, I forget which. The strange thing however was that he hated to drive. Despite that phobia, usually on his way home from his club – it was either the Island Club or the Yoruba Tennis Club – Sobo would stop at my quarters, dismiss his driver, and settle down to continue what he had been engaged upon at the club – which was depleting a few more bottles of beer. He usually arrived with an ice bag fully loaded. That meant only one thing – he expected me to drive him home -and in his own car! He did not hide his contempt for what I called a car. I had no objection, I loved driving that coupe – and he knew it. So, I would drop him at his home, bring his car back to my Igbobi home for the night. His driver would then pick up his car the following morning.

In between – what else? – we talked politics, and the politics of Sobo was none other than the politics of the Committee of Ten. I doubt if Gowon ever knew what a determined advocate he had in Sobo – but I would be greatly surprised if he failed to note and indeed appreciate what a fervent ally he had in The PUNCH, once it surfaced. It took a while before I began to suspect that Sobo was not always as incapacitated or averse to the steering wheel as he professed. He had a mission, and that mission was to convert me into the Committee of-Ten position on post-war prospects under Gowon. It was an uphill task, and my learned cousin was visibly heartbroken when I began to make my contrary position public, largely in strident opposition to the military presence which was fast digging in. The fallout was inevitable. I found myself – facing a ferocious barrage of the collective hostility of the Committee of Ten. When I published my prison memoirs – The Man Died, all hell was let loose in the Nigerian media, The Punch very much at the vitriolic head of assault. My beloved cousin was not left behind, indeed he felt duty bound to deliver the most resonating Punch – that pun could not be more appropriate!

The social landscape had begun to change however, and so had a citizen viewpoint. The cynical beneficiaries of war – any war! – had begun to preen in their true colours. The oil boom distorted values. Corruption soared, as did political opportunism. Nigerians began to readjust their veneration of the military as agents of progressive change. The sworn affidavit became the weaponry of indictment in high places – Who still recalls the battle-cry of “You Tarka me, I Daboh you!” Ideological pundits began to readjust post-war priorities. All this evolved against a background of a soaring national economy that even valued the Naira above the dollar? The non-beneficiary exceptions were of course, those defeated on the battle field – the Biafrans. As confidently predicted by this roundly vilified negativist – in company of a few other voices such as, it is often forgotten, the unwavering Tai Solarin – the bubble of triumphalism was close to bursting.

It burst eventually, but not before, for example, a delegation – which, in my recollection, included two members of The Committee of Ten, was commissioned to tour the military belt of the globe – most particularly Latin America – and study how coup makers had transformed themselves into civilian rulers, even as Life Presidents. However, that inevitable process of reassessment that catches up with even the best assimilated victors from the battlefield began to take hold. I confess that I cannot recall how early and deeply that mood of re-assessment was reflected in The Punch during that transitional phase – and the reason is straightforward: not long after emergence from my involuntary tenure in Gowon’s Kaduna guest house, I began to sense the need for a mental break from the cloud of euphoria that had settled over the nation, one that seduced a people into believing that the crisis of nation-being had been definitively resolved on the battle field. I prescribed myself a spell of voluntary exile where neither The PUNCH nor other Nigerian media was permitted space among my informative read.

Well, as we all know, Gowon took his turn on the power roulette. It was the signal I had long awaited – it was time for us to change places, he moved into exile while WS found his way back to Nigerian soil. Murtala Muhammed was now in charge, a mercuric and somewhat unpredictable leader but, I was prepared to take my chances. Within the Committee of Ten, a commonality of purpose appeared to have dissipated. Sobo remained my barometer. He took pains to seek me out, unburdening his mind on the reorientation that had taken place within the famous group and in him in a most profound way. He had got rid of his sports coupe, but he did not require any tools of seduction. I had returned from exile in the same frame of mind as I had emerged from Kaduna prison, which was exactly the same as when I had brought down a rain of fiery coals on my head with my “unpatriotic” – some even called it “treasonable” – article titled “Let us think of the aftermath of this war”. Alas, till today, the nation continues to writhe within the debilitating coils of that “aftermath”

These reminiscences are intended neither as vindication nor indictment of one position or the other in relation to the concluded war – no, I would hate for them to be read as such. They are intended, as earlier confessed, as simply acts of recollection augmenting an occasion of celebration. They also serve however to evoke the quite routine phenomenon of how institutions respond to changes in socio-political realities, which, let us recollect, are often not of their own making. But then, this also constitutes a warning. All we have to do is look over the borders, but not far. Is it possible to deny that we are, at this moment, witnessing History repeating itself? A cordon militaire, a khaki belt that we considered permanently unbuckled and jettisoned is being refastened, and tightened, under our impotent gaze? That Belt consolidate daily, even to the extent that its wearers now feel sufficiently confident to pronounce themselves a sub-region within a sub-region, having taking the step of “seceding” from the umbrella body, ECOWAS. Largely Francophone for now, it narrowly failed to distend itself with an anglophone nation quite recently, that nation appears to have been “saved by the bell”. Or perhaps there is a secret understanding, even a pact, that this neo-khaki belt is meant to be strictly francophone. Consider the signs emerging from one time-tested democracy located at the historic westernmost departure point for Africa’s traumatic history of enslavement that lasted over two centuries! I shall let an appeal, circulated to a group of us, I speak for itself. It is an appropriate indicative of the concerns into which some individuals beyond their immediate borders are drawn time and time again. Even where one is impotent to intervene, to alter the course of events, such summons still serves as a template against which one sees reflections of the lurking threats in one’s own internal condition before such threats actually materialize. This particular appeal was sent to a number of black intellectuals both within the African continent and the Diaspora – that is, to us all in this hall, and on the continent. An earlier – warning, just about a year ago – had been followed by some of the most intensely violent civil unrests, of unprecedented destructiveness that Senegal has known since independence. Let us begin with that earlier alert, just so we understand that these convulsions do not simply spring up overnight. The signs are always present, nudging the complacent and/or naive, leaving them to the wearisomely predictable fate of the indifferent. Here goes:
Dear Anthony, Cornel, Noam, Wole:
I hope that this email will find you well. I am sad but I would like to inform you about the on-going chaotic socio-political situation in Senegal. A month ago, you were kind enough to sign the petition where we, Senegalese intellectuals, called on Macky Sall, the head of state of Senegal, to stop the instrumentalization of justice. We thought that this appeal, which was very successful, would have brought the head of state to reason.
Unfortunately, he has stubbornly carried on with the repression of the opposition and the popular will of the people of Senegal.
Today the consequences are horrible. In the past three days, about fifteen very young people were killed by police force, and the armed militias of the head of state, not to mention those seriously injured alongside thousands of extra-judicial arrests.
This situation is very worrying and unstable, with drifts dangerous for Africa and Senegalese democracy.
Thank you for your attention

That was just about a year ago, Now let us take the latest sequel – dated February 7, 2024
Dear all:
I hope you are well. Surely, you are aware that Senegal is currently undergoing a major crisis. The President of the Republic has abruptly halted the electoral process, canceling, for the first time in Senegal’s history, the presidential elections scheduled for February 25. With his mandate ending on April 2, he has decided to postpone the elections to December 15. The entire country is in anger. It is uncertain what will happen, but it’s highly likely we are entering a cycle of uncontrollable violence. This Head of State and his entourage have been involved in so many malpractices and corruptions that he fears for his own safety. We, intellectuals, civil societies, and political parties, are organizing ourselves for resistance.
That’s the current situation. I will keep you informed of developments and actions to be taken.
Best regards,
Just what is it that happens to us on this land-mass? Again, let us recall that a khaki belt does not simply spring to life from nowhere and from no causes. We know what those causes are, and they are never without warning signals – suppress those signals as often and as brutally as you choose, the fingerprint smudges are clearly there for all to see. Coups are not thereby justified, they are politically amoral, illusionary, and dehumanizing. All known organisms – among which we must reckon human society – evolve in an ascending direction of more and more self-sufficiency, less and less dependency. This presupposes, for human society, increased capacity for navigating the unexpected. To come down to concrete examples, experience teaches us to anticipate, and thus devise, and structure responses to the untenable, such as corruption, marginalization and – most insistent of all – the will to dominate. Historic consciousness is also part of the human asset, and when we see supposedly mature people today carrying soldiers’ shoulder high and jubilating at yet another jackboot intrusion in their lives, one comes close to despair, seeing the evolutionary process operating on a reverse track. And where the home bred imperators proceed to forge new alliances with foreign adventurers, one can only mutter the embarrassed question: haven’t we been here before?

Well, perhaps there is another way of looking at such history, and maybe even find a crumb of consolation in this tragi-comedy of recycling, but what a desperate, even perverse extraction, since it is based on the principle of vengeance on ancient oppressors, of the chickens coming home to roost in their barns. I refer here to that – quite understandable – feeling that reads: Serve them right! Our erstwhile colonizers are having a taste of their own medicine. They now know what it feels like to be dispossessed, albeit even of property that was never theirs. That position claims, with grim satisfaction: we Africans are finally asserting our authentic independence by abandoning the colonial embrace of francophonie, anglophonie, lusophonie and all. From all signs and pronouncements, a new linguistic entity may be in the making – a Russophonie. Abandoning years of surreptitious moves, most especially in the uranium saturated Sahel, Russia appears to have convoked a presumed one-nation version of the Berlin conference – perhaps with North Korea and China as privileged observers, and moved frontally into Africa, asserting her own interest in that beleaguered continent. Never too late to begin. decided Mr. Vladimir Putin, as he commissioned his Wagner Group and inserted that surrogate army into the African interior, first covertly, operating under the strategy of denial, then openly and defiantly. If only African leaders had listened to alerts, both open and coded, they would have discovered, long before Nigeria hit the air-waves with that famous election battle-cry, Vladimir Putin, ardent poacher in troubled waters, had long declared to the retreating Western imperialists: Emi l’okan!

All it takes is a “civil war” – under whatever guise and by any available euphemism – and West Africa is awash with that commodity at the moment and – who can dispute it? – our region is desperate for helping hands. We need not travel beyond our own borders to find a much more ancient precedent than the present plague of religious insurgencies across the region. Russia also played a most effective role in the Nigerian war of secession. Most of the bombing raids that wreaked havoc on Biafra were Russian, manned by Egyptian pilots, so we cannot even claim that the Russia are strangers to the African conflict zones. When you add such aerial intervention to the role of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in Africa’s liberation struggle, we can estimate this latest wave as no more than a phase of just recompense for past services.

There are, however, two questions that should agitate us , and they are questions that African leaders should take to heart as this new entity, the Russophonie, begins to consolidate and take formal shape. One is: is the continent an inert, expendable commodity, condemned to change hands eternally under foreign will? Then, two: is the present contender for imperial possession the same socio-political entity that, in the nineteen-fifties sixties and seventies, aided the liberation of the continent from western imperialism? Just those two questions for objective reflection, and we can return our attention to how the continent itself, despite her harrowing past, continues to lay herself wide open for serial rape.

My observation is that, from north to south and east to west, this home continent is burdened with far too much of unfinished business, imbuing in much of leadership thinking a psycho-pathology of evasion, rather than a pro-active temperament that takes on board, simultaneously, in one hand, the immediate, mundane task of governance – health, housing, economy, infrastructure, environment, unemployment, much of which ailments have provoked a craving for the short cut – military intervention and – firmly in the other hand, the unfinished business of nation being. Remedies are thus left to individual desperation. We find this expressed in the form of what is now known as the “japa” syndrome – seeking not just food and shelter, but also marginal identities elsewhere, even if this ends in lining the Sahara sands with their skeletons or, more highly publicized, the sea-bed of the Mediterranean. They feel nothing for origin, feel no further sense of belonging, seek nothing further at its hands.

I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of conferences and encounters in which I have participated regarding this scourge, some of which have resulted in manifestoes on the fundamental rights of the immigrant. The causes of this renewed wave of Africa’s depopulation following the slave trade, can be summed up in that phrase yet again – “unfinished business” of nation-being. Preoccupied with the earlier enumerated features of existential woes, sometimes as much nature inflicted as they are man-made, for which corrective measures are easier to tackle, and whose returns are material, even quantifiable, we simply brush aside as inconsequential the fundamental notion of identity, of belonging, which constitute the fruits of the tree that is nation.

And yet, we know that the most cursory glance across any continental axis, be it along the west African sub-region, the Horn, or central Africa to the south, reveals that the uprights across which those material rungs are sustained are at best illusory props, largely sustained by habit only, prone to collapse at the slightest stress. Even right here, the Biafran war of secession offers us a constant springboard for a rethink. All we have to ask is the question: is that war over? Taken narrowly, for instance, an ancient statement of mine which warned that a people who had resolved on secession could their mind that a seceding part of a nation could never be defeated, would appear to be contradicted by a mutual, terminal ceasefire ritual. The leaders did sign the article of surrender. A policy of No Victor no Vanquished rang out vibrantly and the three Rs were promulgated, and probably with the most sincere intent to deliver as declared – Reconciliation, Restoration and Reconstruction – or something along those lines. However, is that all? Then tell me, what is MASSOB? Or, more currently and militantly – IPOB? Only a few months ago, I was sent a statement allegedly issued by iPOB, canvassing an internationally supervised plebiscite among the Igbo to determine whether or not their people wish to remain within Nigeria. Peacefully. Legitimately. I have not read of any follow-up, but I am assured that it was not FAKE NEWS. Certainly, early pronouncements and actions of that movement weigh on the side of authenticity.

Well, all the foregoing results in only one question? Why not? Fifty post-bellum years of existence for this journal have passed and I challenge its midwives and their successors and consumers – that is, all of us in this hall – to point out anything they have published or read that sheds, unwaveringly, the laser beam of illumination from the whole wide world – from the Ukraine to Palestine, from the Horn of Africa to Myanmar – on that critical question: Why not? We find that we come down constantly on the side of relativity, not categorical absolutes. The right to self-determination for any people, capable, and desirous of creating a viable national identity for themselves cannot be proven inimical to human survival, its road to prosperity and human dignity – indeed, the contrary comes closer to the truth. There are effective, non-dehumanizing ways of determining the authenticity of that choice of belonging or not belonging, rational ways that result in a Reconfiguration of the Willing, not the incorporation of the Reluctant or Resentful. It can hardly be considered elevating to substitute one geography of subjugation for another.

There is a corollary however, and if any instructive event has been providentially offered to influence independent thought on this frankly artificial dilemma, that event is to be found in this very nation which illustrates that logical corollary, which is: the right of any nation to expel from its bosom any sector that flouts its enabling protocols and ideological foundation of co-existence. There was, you may recall, a coup attempt that declared this approach as its manifesto. It was, alas, a bloody coup, with a record cast of fatalities in the annals of coups. At base however, setting aside – for now -, certainly not dismissing – the pragmatic challenges for ascertaining the true will of a people, that manifesto was grounded in flawless logic. We live in an era of space travel, of the ascendancy of Artificial Intelligence? Are we saying that the management and structuring of human collectives will continue to remain at a standstill? The philosophy of nationhood and its management imperatives have become antiquated, no different from the violent antics of religious primitivism.

That evocation in the comparative mode is by no means accidental. We have, in recent times, endured unprecedented savaging of our humane sensibilities, the blatant cooption of religion in the violation of the sanctity of human lives – in other words, the casual disposal either through incited mob action, or by encouragement, even endorsement after the deed. By such overt acts, a sector of the nation can be considered to have “opted out” voluntarily from a collective will, based on humanistic principles, and only requires to be formally assisted to relinquish membership of the larger community. It is obvious, a nation cannot claim to be one if it espouses two clashing sets of protocols for cohabitation.

Only recently, I yet again called attention to the plight of a young man, Mubarak Yusuf, currently passing his third year in prison. And his alleged crime? Blasphemy. We know of Mubarak. Before him, there was the musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. You must excuse my saying this, but the press is simply not sufficiently assiduous on these issues. Letting the extremists get away with murder – figuratively – only escalates to the real thing – murder in the physical, and with impunity. Activists can, and indeed do much, but this is an issue that goes to the heart of nation-being, and thus require sustained attention. As I complained during my address to the Nigerian Bar Association at the Gani Fawehinmi Memorial event, this January, if the ground is laid but not followed to conclusion, it means we have yielded those grounds to jungle repossession. Every struggling ethical sprig is then overtaken by poisonous weeds, and the teeth of the strongest ploughs are repeatedly broken.
From imprisonment, under whatever local contraption, but always in defiance of constitutional provisions, to open, brutal murders by thrill-seekers parading themselves as defenders of one faith or another – the name of Deborah Samuel is one that this nation must never be permitted to forget. There are hundreds of others but this stands out as the nadir of mob dementia and the deadly arrogance of impunity. Also alleged to have disrespected the person of Prophet Mohammed, she was set upon by her own classmates, pursued like a quarry in a hunt, dragged out of safety and clubbed to death. Her body was then set on fire in the presence of armed police. That was sufficiently mind-churning for any sensibility of national shame. Worse was to come however.

The head mullah of the national mosque in Abuja proceeded to justify and bless the crime, while governance in that state, Sokoto, made feeble noises of disapproval. It took a while, but eventually two Identified participants in that bestial act were charged to court. You know the rest of the story. The judge appeared dutifully, robed in majesty of the law but even the expected Show Trial was No Show – by the prosecutor – that is, No Show by the State. Again and again, No Show by the State and thus. Adjournments upon adjournments. The judge did not so much as castigate the Justice Department or upbraid the police for subjecting the public to such an exercise in nation degradation. His Worshipful Adjudicator simply set free the case, unleashed these sick products of doctrinal extremism on the world to target and eliminate their next victim. Prosecution is not a personal affair but an institutional responsibility. If one assigned prosecuting counsel goes underground like a Wanted felon, there is always a Prosecutor above ground in line. Not in this case! And cases are legitimately subject to transfer in the interest of justice – it all depends on willing and – professional and ethical integrity.

No, that was not the end of the macabre dance of separatist escalation by occupants of the benighted zone. Months after these variations on human outrage, it turned out that a woman, a mother of five, Rhoda Jatau, had been in prison detention for eighteen months. Her crime? She dared to make and disseminate a video that condemned the open lynching of Deborah Samuel! And so, some underarm arm of the law, in this very nation, rose to a defence of the Right of Religious Homicide, had her arrested, then kept in prison detention without trial. It took some strenuous intervention by Human Rights Associations and Christian religious missions to effect her release. Well then, what price nation identity? What value the commonality of passport attribution? What, let us consider, is the next logical step in this supposed upward spiral of human evolution? The most brain-dead question if ever there was one! The answer? It shall be considered a crime even for the family and friends of Deborah Samuel to show any signs of grieving for the loss of their daughter and community member. As for intervening busybodies who never even heard of either victim until these events, warrants of arrest – why not?!

There is a yet deeper erosion of claims to a fundamental nation concept. The nation – indeed the entire world has since been regaled by the ultimate obscenity – one of the killers thumbing his nose at justice – he has joined in polluting that ever permission media even further by posting his photo on our faces, posing with a box of matches with which, we are meant to understand, he set off the gruesome culminating act. He has not been arrested for the implicit admission of a hate crime or for inciting emulation, any more than the Imam of Abuja Mosque for his impious intervention. I made it a duty to accept a lecture invitation in Abuja not long after, where I openly demanded of Buhari that the professorial maniac be removed from that position, since an unlicensed butcher was unfit to preside over any structure of spirituality. Did I expect fulfillment of that demand. Obviously not. And the reason was clear – I was speaking, not just from a different nation, but a different planet. This is why, very often, and wherever relevant, I stick to the expression “nation space” rather than “nation”.

An implicit critique of the judicial loss of nerve was recently manifested as the accusing shade of Dele Giwa was prompted into life quite under that same supposed uniformity of justice, prompting the following outcome:
“The court, per Justice Inyang Ekwo, has asked the Attorney General of the Federation to bring Dele Giwa’s killers to justice because the killing violates the right to life under the Nigerian Constitution and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.”
Dele Giwa’s murder took place over sixty years ago, but the files have been thrown open, challenging this nation space to prove its right to be considered a nation. Is there any further prompting needed for the Deborah Samuel call to be granted judicial closure?

Otherwise, what price for nation belonging? Is it any wonder that calls continue to surface for the complete overhaul of the protocols that fake the validity of this mere nation space that continue to preens itself a nation? The word “Restructuring” refuses to disappear, despite evasion by one elected leader after another. Of course, that word means different things for different people – just what is strange and unusual about that? Certain facts however, implicitly admit that the word has a number of common, pragmatic implications for both governance and the governed, that indisputable commonality being as follows: the present contraption is not working – neither economically, developmentally, or even as a material expression of any functional social philosophy. Another is that those who come in power have indulged in pretend exercises in that direction, engaging the populace in totally phony exercises – obviously just to “pacify the natives”. It is surely time that this demand be taken seriously, and addressed head on. There is no shortage of reasoned and implementable propositions in past conference papers, including even sham, money guzzling initiatives, summoned to distract attention from conspiracies for self-perpetuation in power. It is high time we stopped the cyclic distraction of re-inventing the wheel. The spokes are in place, the rims intact. Only the will, not the wheel, is missing in action.

The Press, needless to urge has a crucial role to play in this! However, be it noted that the Press is only one of the enabling estates – all arms of governance, most pertinently, at state level, have a propulsive, even commanding role to play in the effort. Repeatedly, backed by constitutional authorities, both publicly and privately, we have pointed out to them that there is sufficient constitutional leeway in the present protocols of association – if I may quote myself unapologetically – to “push the envelope as far as it can go without actually bursting” – if the centre continues to shirk away from this now strident imperative. I repeat that wearisome call yet again. There can be no further evasion. That assertion is made both as a general principle of socio-political volition that is fundamental to any free, truly liberated people, and as informed response to the actualities in which we struggle to exist as a sentient people, responsive to the exigences of daily manifestation of change. To anticipate accustomed banal responses, let me state quite clearly that no one has ever claimed that Decentralisation – a precise word I personally prefer – will end Hunger in the land or terminate religious conflicts and other forms of national malaise, no. We simply insist that this is central to the incomplete mission of – nation-being. It is essential to activities of basic existence such as food production, and access to such products. Palliatives remain crude, short term, stop-gap measures only. As a veteran of food security working conferences from Uganda to India, from Paris to Sochi, I insist that, for a nation to be food self-sufficient, and sustainably, decentralization is the key, not collectivisation.

Today, I shall not particularize. I simply point out, quite generally that, in addition to the nation’s current state of economic recession, more than one section is in a state of secession. Secession is not defined solely through geography – there is also a secession of minds, independent of the merely geographical. It has become a pointless exercise to argue whether this is a positive or negative development. Both entail risks. What we can agree upon is whether or not a collective strategy can mitigate the negative consequences of either secessionist mode. Bearing in mind that scabbing over suppurating sores merely deepens the abscess, not miraculously heals it, It becomes irrelevant if such wounds are self-inflicted, opportunistic, self-indulged and pampered, largely imaginary – I think the medical expression is psychosomatic or – genuine wounds. We know the pattern – once programmed, sustained indoctrination set in, then, take it from me, the battle is over and the choices squeezed down below Ground Zero. Sectarian self-preservation then becomes paramount, with the very dire consequences that we had striven so hard to evade. Check the world wide over, and you discover that Nigeria is not a favoured child of History, indeed, it is more the abandoned foundling of the human race. Truth Is now submerged within the blood stream of memory, not in the operations of the mind.

Permit me to end with one of my extreme convictions – I call it extreme but it is nonetheless a product of history – including contemporary actualities – if you don’t believe me, just cast your gaze in the direction of Ukraine, of Gaza or the Horn of Africa. That conviction has weathered time and localities, and declares, quite simply:
“Let nations die, that humanity may live!

A postscript, quite brief. It is intended to ensure that we do not lose the preliminary remarks to the main body of this address, and concerns the culture of freedom of expression, so constantly under threat, frontally from state power, but often in a more sinister form by civil society itself. That postscript takes the form of a recorded exchange, quite recently, between two individuals. Let us simply name them HANDLER, and the other – TROLL. The exchange went as follows:
HANDLER: Your online performance was pathetic. We expect better from you this time round.
TROLL: Sir, I did my best.
HANDLER: Which kind best? Your orders were to get online and scatter him to the four winds.
TROLL: With all due respect sir, easier said than done. I did not understand what the man was saying.
HANDLER: Did anyone ask you to understand anything? We said, whenever he opens his mouth, don’t bother what the subject is, just jump down his throat.

End of Excerpt. Now, a friendly message:

Be very careful. The expression, slightly adapted, goes: Think before you leap, especially down time weathered throats. You may end up being swallowed intact, without any condiment, then expelled through the rear end of the human anatomy.

That is sufficient food for thought, I hope. Thank you once again.

* Soyinka delivered this lecture at the 50th anniversary of The Punch newspaper in Lagos on February 29, 2024

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