By Godwin Okondo
LAGOS Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2021) provided a veritable ground for the fertilization of ideas towards the ideals that continue to elude Nigeria and deny it the status of nationhood and its march to greatness. There was a wide spectrum of resource persons who took opportunity to ventilate on a country that has arrived at ‘Oritameta’: the ‘Fork in the Road’ festival theme and how the country must decide where to go next: whether to progress or continue on the road to self-annihilation as is currently the case. The PEN-CORA Convention was such explosive, agenda-setting session for a country that continues to wobble.
The ‘Authors-Readers Conversation’ addressed the disturbing issues of freedom of expression for writers and critics and government’s attempts to suppress free speech in Nigeria. The session had as theme ‘The Pen is Mightier than the Bully’ and comprised of a four-man panel that suggested ways Nigerian writers and journalists can survive the shrinking space for civic engagement and outwit all draconian laws designed to muzzle them. The panel members were writer and academic, Dr. Tunji Sotiminrin; poet, critic and journalist, Mr. Ralph Tathagata, and Baptist, with Aj Dagga Tolar moderating the session.
For Sotiminrin, “There is straightforward meaning, in terms of the expressive nature of the topic, ‘The Pen is Mightier than the Sword’ or ‘Mightier than the Bully’; so, all it’s saying is, what kind of power does the pen have? What sort of authority do we use the pen to dislodge, to dismantle? We are in situations where there is pressure on the masses, from whatever level, even within the family environment.
“In the home, when children are not happy about certain things; there is a way in which they express themselves. Sometimes they can’t confront their parents directly, but at times some of them just write to express their dissatisfaction about that particular thing that is going on within the family. There’s a way in which it creates some kind of crisis in the mind of the family head. ‘Okay, This boy is indirectly sending me a message to say he’s disappointed, because I have taken this sort of decision.’
“In the same manner, in the universities, for instance, there are times when students want to protest, and they cannot confront their lecturers directly. There’s a way in which they communicate this. I remember as undergraduates in the university, we used to have what he call The Writers Club, and then whatever we posted on the board – then there was no internet, on Instagram, and all of these social media platforms — whatever you saw on the board was hectic for the management at that time.”
Tathagata spoke on #EndSARS campaign that happened from October 10 – 20, 2020 that resulted in the loss of lives and property, and how it spurred Nigerians to fight back, noting, “Let me start with the same expression that we are treating as a theme, “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword,’ but in this case, the pen is mightier than the bully. A bully could be dissolved — the tyrant, and all tyrannical, totalitarian regimes and government operations. It could be in the home, it could be in school; a teacher could be a bully.
“The pen has continued to evolve and we, as artists, depend on the power of the pen, the power of expression. Twitter represents poetry in the new media in terms of technology, because it requires very short expression, but for it to have made impact, it needed to be strong, and that was why government felt a different impact of that expression and decided to ban it.
“We know, as regularly said, last year on October 20, the sword temporarily triumphed over the pen over freedom of expression, especially the youth. But why is it that the sword still weilds much power and authority in the world? It may not be in the immediate. Oftentimes, it takes time, and the pen is definitely going to dry off, because as far as people continue to express themselves, even writing the history of the world with blood, as we witnessed last year.
“Talk about really bloody history. It took place on October 20, 2020. And the human will, from experience, from history, starting from Stalinist Russia, down to this very era, the human will is something that nobody, no regime, no tyranny has been able to stop.”
Baptist also condemned government’s brutal action and used the EndSars campaign and its violent crack down as a metaphor of all authoritarian regimes that ultimately crumble under the iron will of the people, noting that no totalitarian regime lasts forever. According to him, “My prophecy is that it does not matter how long it takes, those who think it is their birthright to inflict violence on people who want to express their individual freedom will never prevail. You see, the world cannot be ruled by force. Sometimes it looks as if that is the way it is, but if you go through human history, you discover that rival nations on earth have accumulated so much weapons of mass destruction against the people, but eventually they ended up imploding from within.
“Some of them have been unseated from their ‘ivory tower,’ so to speak. Some of us have been arrested, some have been killed. Remember the French Revolution? It was just something that ordinary people started when they challenged the powers of the French monarchy. It couldn’t withstand the power of the people. Remember what happened to some Arab nations in North Africa a few years ago? So if anybody anywhere sits down somewhere and thinks that they have monopoly on violence, that’s just not true. The recent #EndSars movement that took place last year is an indication of what I’m talking about. “Nobody could have imagined that a group of young people with like minds could come out like that and shake the nation; they came up with one of the most robust demonstrations, a test of the will of the people against the government that has decided to go oppressive. Those concerned are being called to answer for their crimes and even pay about 409 million or so, to people that are either related to survivors, or lost loved ones. And this time, the soldiers behind it are being unmasked. They will not go scot-free.”