A DEMOCRACY DAY PRIMER – I
By Wole Soyinka
This year’s recall of an uplifting day in the year 1993 comes up against a background of its most shameful disavowal: the 2019 elections – still under judicial contestation – an event that would be more accurately described as an exercise in body count rather than ballot count. The elections however merely reflected a pattern of savagery and abandonment of human sensibilities that have eaten away the sheerest sense of community in the nation. I have already described it as the final descent into the abyss of human degradation. The recent call – no matter how suspect the motivation — for what amounts to a national discourse on future directions was nothing new. The NIGERIA MOURNS movement, for instance, is only another expression of the same desperation. Input from someone who has exercised control over the nation’s affairs for a total of close to a dozen years, with shared responsibility for the very predicament in which the nation finds itself, reinforces the general anxieties that have become palpable in every corner of the nation — across class, political partisanship, religion and ethnicity. I wish to take the notion of a national ‘indaba’ even further and urge a non-partisan, broad-based government. The now undeniable social crisis is beyond the capacity of any government built on accustomed partisan loyalties and regimented thought processes, with their debilitating baggage of sectarian interests. I am aware that such a call is unlikely to be heeded, but let it be made anyway, and let it stand to trouble those who discard any opportunity to turn a radical page in a nation’s history. As if the crisis were not sufficient in itself, we are constantly distracted by crude attempts to distort the role of the past in a nation’s unravelling.
So, let us first address Democracy Day itself, since we know that those same nihilist voices, even before the Annunciation, were already primed to degrade it, ridicule what should be a potent signpost for future generations. Such voices even make desperate efforts to annul its very history, no different from the original act of annulling an event that was universally acknowledged as the fairest, the most orderly and peaceful elections ever conducted in Nigerian history, a chastening contrast to this recent of 2019. June 1993 recorded – just some quick reminders – an election in which the loser readily conceded defeat, having watched himself outclassed in his own state, his local government, his ward, and probably at his very polling booth. He was however prevailed upon to change his mind, thus smoothening the path for official military annulment, with dire consequences that continue to plague the nation even till today. Several of the players – directly, and supportive — in that inglorious history remain stubbornly in denial but let no one attempt to shunt aside or obscure its potential for public re-orientation. It is now a near quarter of a century since that watershed, and a Restoration, albeit symbolic, has been promulgated – Welcome Democracy Day! Is there any value left to it? And is its formal, official recognition doomed to be nothing more than an exercise in superfluity?
For all those who were actively involved, no matter how tangentially, in the events that flowed from the annulment of June 12, 1993 – largely of blood and lamentations — the restoration of that date to a slot among the milestones of nation-building will evoke, side by side with a sense of elation, a mood of sobriety and reflection, especially when one recollects how many productive projects were derailed, how many lives destroyed, how many underwent torture and remain traumatized by that experience, how many paid the supreme price. Many have witnessed death at close quarters, survived, but remain severely damaged. I shall leave others to comment on how little appears to have been learnt from that monstrosity of democratic subversion. What is undeniable is that the wiles of opportunists, cynics, saboteurs and beneficiaries from the sacrifices of others, continue to haunt the nation. Hopefully, also, it does haunt them spasmodically, those who thought to bury the message of that date and its faithful evocations.
Amnesia, the much-craved refuge of the battle-weary, the ravaged psyche, or simply weak-minded, is not always to be despised. Where deliberately cultivated, even propagated however, it amounts to further cruelty against the violated. Forgiveness is a different matter. In most theologies, and even for non-believers, it is ranked among the loftiest attributes of humanity. For those of us who confess our inadequacy in that respect, we can only implore those who violate, contribute to, or profit from the mutilation of the very humanity of others, not to aggravate our mortal weakness by a continuation of their past perfidy in any form. The orphan cries are still with us, so are the scars and trauma of survivors. Many remain impaired – physically and psychologically – for life.
I shall not participate in this year’s June 12 celebrations – from choice. It is part of my training exercises for withdrawing from public space, a resolution that I first half seriously injected into encounters over five years ago. That absence applies, not to the official celebration alone – of which I have never been a part anyway – but to the annual ritual by civic groups, a ritual of both tribute and defiance that has been unflaggingly observed till now. However, regarding the earlier Abuja ceremony that signalled the state’s reversion to June 12 as the most truthful expression of a people’s democratic will, I did attend, even at the cost of breaking a journey on the way to Brazil. That event, for some of us, represented closure – at least substantially. It was a reunion of sorts, a cauterization of many internal, invisible, and yet suppurating wounds, and private thanksgiving – for some of us – that the only route that appeared left for the recovery of a people’s dignity was abruptly, and ‘providentially’ closed by the timely demise of a singular human perversion. The nation was saved the anguish of the unknown. That sense of relief, on its own, is worth celebrating. The anonymous ones who acted on behalf of ‘providence’ remain unacknowledged, but we still owe them our gratitude.
One unforgettable extract from those dark days was the ease with which a people, accustomed to freedom as a natural bequest of humanity, can be thrown into twentieth-century enslavement, forced to endure a regimen of unprecedented brutality in the exercise of power. A nation of over a hundred and a half million slid into a condition of – not merely apathy and indifference, but servility, unctuousness, sustained by rationalization of – there is no other word for it – evil! Sheer evil. Fear reigned supreme. Whispers substituted for voice, even in homes. It is liberation from that miasma of civic subjugation that underpins the symbolism of a Democracy Day, very different in quality from, for instance, the euphoria – where it exists – of a day of National Independence. Now, why does one find it necessary to state what, in good faith, should be obvious? The answer is painful: that occasion also served as a trigger for raking up embers of divisive history, for tarnishing memories and belittling even the meagre harvest of a watershed in history.
Don’t we all know it? Everything in this nation is fodder for controversy, often of the most pointless, mindless, simply adversarial kind – such has been this formal restoration of June 12th 1993 to its rightful place on the podium of Nigerian history. Let us address some brutal truths. One comment regarding this formalization especially rankles, since its accompanying train of remarks indicated that it was not a mere aberrant individual, but a revelation of group sentiment. It was sent to me through the usual internet link and was, undisguisedly – a mock lament, a condescending swipe at the Yoruba race – yes, directly indicted – for being as naive as to have fallen for an obvious vote gathering ploy. The conveyed message reminded me of the movement initiated by Charley Boy – Your mummu done do! – Who, together with his fellow protesters, was severely mauled in Abuja by an incited mob. At least Charley Boy refused to go down as nothing more than an internet slob, berating everyone around but swallowing the bile of daily discontent. He embarked on remedial action – one that was manifested in the true spirit of June 12th.
There are several observations on that ‘social media’ posting, plus the predictable, bandwagon comments, often pre-arranged. It is necessary, indeed mandatory, to clean up this template of the past before proceeding. First, I was not aware that the Yoruba, acting as an ethnic entity, ever made a statement that promised to reward the government with their votes in return for this alleged June 12th bribe. The serious, problematic bribe – the Minimum Wage concession – of course receives the scantiest of attention – beyond solidarity calls and insistence on implementation. Never mind that, North to South, East to West, numerous tiers of government are scrambling to find ways and means of ‘settling’ an agreement directed from the centre, with no corresponding consultation with states. From the latest reports, even the Centre is taking to the sale of state assets – at disadvantaged prices – to fulfil a voter catchment commitment. This is the kind of consequential ‘bribe’, one would have thought, that merits critical attention. No matter, let us return to the monumental, non-material bribe. What does it consist of?
A wrong had long festered, no matter how invisibly. Restoration was made. The faithful of June 12 embraced the gesture, pronounced their appreciation at the ceremony, several even with barbed qualifiers. After all, others before had had the opportunity but chose to ignore, even deride the very notion of recognition, even if through symbolic gestures. If a few in that Abuja assemblage got carried away – and some did, both Yoruba and non-Yoruba alike – heaped fulsome praises on the government, far beyond its deserving in my view, I found it unconscionable to seize the occasion as an opportunity to jeer at and vilify an entire people. I have asked myself over and over again: to what end? Who profits from this?
Next, I found it equally lamentable that anyone should attempt to reduce the June 12 struggle to that of an ethnic project. It is a depressing travesty of the realities, a denial of the existence of a nation’s collective sense of justice and its tenacity in pursuit of that objective. No one denies that the immediate family of a victim of robbery feels the pangs of dispossession more keenly than others. The truth, however, remains that the entirety of the compound itself was violated, arrogantly and contemptuously dispossessed. In this case, its very aspiration to a unified identity was simply ground underfoot, compelling a return to the starting block, and even several milestones behind! Disenfranchisement is the ultimate stigma for any free people. Again, despite official hostility, corporate blackmail and even victimization of some adherents of that date, a number of state governments but, even more crucially, civil society – with members drawn from across the nation – did not await permission of any power or agency of the centre to gather and celebrate that date, and pay homage to the fallen. The June 12th movement never went into recess, and the current government merely jumped on a bandwagon that was already propelled by the people.
However, there is even more matter for discouragement, so we should not be surprised at the ethnic cavilling. After the annulment, I recall that, when we tried to mobilize opposition to that sadistic impostor, fanatic voices of ethnic irredentism informed us bluntly, verbally and in print, that the Yoruba should go and solve their problems themselves, since we had let them down in the lead-up to the Biafran War of Secession, and should seek no collaboration from that side of the Niger. One recognizes, in today’s renewed voices of ethnic denigration, the same chant of a hate chorus, the fanning of divisive embers. It is gratifying, therefore – and here we come to some cheering news! – that this tendency has become a source of concern to many of the leaders of that former secessionist state. It led to recent counter efforts under themes such as HANDS ACROSS THE NIGER, later followed by HANDS ACROSS THE NATION, encounters that have taken place both within the nation and outside her borders. It is crucial that those laudable initiatives continue in the same spirit of civic responsibility and nationally craved closure.
We must, however, sound warning: these high-minded efforts are increasingly vitiated by the fanatic and obnoxious voices of an irrepressible handful. No, we are not speaking here of organized protests and demonstrations to keep Biafra alive – for those of my school of thought, these are both legitimate expressions of the democratic will, and cannot be suppressed. We refer specifically however to abrasive, irrational, and irreverent diatribes of purveyors of unrelenting discord. Their innate proclivities are readily facilitated by that grossly polluted space – the so-called social network. Some have gone beyond recall, like the proverbial mongrel which no longer heeds the call of the hunter. They have become so blindsided that, almost under demonic possession, they heedlessly alienate sources of empathy and act against their own interests. This was prevalent in its most unfiltered density during, and after the 2019 elections.
Let the following be stated and re-stated as a personal, unwavering, socio-political conviction: The vision of a common homeland, rooted in the commonality of ideas, values, culture, history and purpose, is as natural as breathing. However, the dream of such a state of collective desire is not realized by careers of deception and distortion of reality and history, any more than is the craving for a turn at the very pinnacle of governance within a polity which, for good or ill, still embraces all. On the contrary, both dreams fade, continue to recede, and may eventually remain unfulfilled in the lifetime of the purveyors of divisive filth. That would be poetic justice.
I am no believer in the juggling of scorecards in order to earn the accolade of equitable dealing – find fault on ‘A’ by all means, but be sure to balance with faults from ‘B’, deserved or not. However, the following retrogressive slump in the democratic quest is, fortunately, and blatantly, in the public domain and demands its place in the Index of repudiations. First, it was a minister, soon followed by the deputy of the incumbent himself, then other voices at various times – all advocating support for the government on the basis of ensuring “our turn” at the next electoral roulette! That primitive appeal remains one of the most dispiriting of the twists and turns in numerous calculations of that same 2019 electoral exercise, a dismal complement of the self-positioning of the earlier mentioned secession fundamentalists. If anything, the latter now had even greater justification to jettison all other parameters of political choice in favour of their own even more uncompromising, ethnic positioning. I am Yoruba, and therefore felt sufficiently compromised as to intervene with some leaders demanding, ‘do you know what this portends?’ Is this wise? Progressive? It was gratifying to encounter other Yoruba voices – I especially recall one from Dr. Wale Adeniran – in forceful repudiation of such narrow chauvinism. And it resulted in personal disillusionment that sent me seeking solace from our man for all occasions, William Shakespeare in that cry of: A Plague on both your Houses!
There were other negative controlling manifestations, related to that very narrow social perspective, albeit sprung from a different malaise. The principal himself, formerly elected largely on the platform of corruption eradication, reinforced by the coy mantra of “I belong to all and belong to none”, presided over a growing degradation of advertised intent, a serial dereliction of the obvious imperative of any reformist agenda which should read: first, internal cleansing! One after another, scandals of escalating proportions from within the charmed circle of power, an apparent tolerance even in face of ‘in flagrante delecti’ captures on video! Clearly, this candidate had also done his arithmetic and could hardly afford to lose any treasure trove of numbers. The logo of the ruling party during those 2019 elections appeared to have been the three brass monkeys: Hear no evil, See no evil. Speak no evil.
Before any chortling of self- vindication is provoked among the ‘I told you so brigade’, let me quickly pause here, prodded by the strident opportunism of the corruption train and restate my position as follows: this does not invalidate the pass mark in this specific department that I conceded the government on a television programme – the anti-corruption fight. A pass mark is not the same as an A+, B or even C+, so that grudging grade stands, as shall be effortlessly demonstrated in ensuing parts of this primer. Some of us take a holistic, and comparative approach to the protean operations of corruption, not sensationalist ‘Rambo’ melodramas served up to titillate the public palate. We add, subtract, qualify, adjust, and only then – propose a grade. We shall venture later into that national bugbear, and in some detail, utilizing just one or two but representative voices of blanket dismissal that often read like commissioned pieces. We know what is at stake. Even as this is being written, guardian ‘sleepers’ of the Abacha and other hidden loot are being rumbled. They await moments of slackening in vigilance to pounce on temporarily ‘abandoned properties’ known only to them. Only this week, yet another sumptuous cache was unearthed in the Jersey islands. And there are many more awaiting exposure. No, we cannot afford to lower the nation’s guard, nor belittle the institutions that work towards eventual, across-the-board sanitation of society.
To sum up the contribution of the incumbent candidate and his handlers to the last electoral architecture, it was indeed numerology that triumphed over ethical rigour. We insist however that even political pragmatism has its own moral demands. Any other position leaves wide open the sluices of cynicism, pent-up frustrations, disillusionment, reducing democracy to the numerical count as the sole electoral victor. Will the projected June 11 Summit on Corruption compel the government itself to tackle its own record in this respect? I have received an invitation but will not be attending. I, however, recommend deep introspective attention to the second item on the suggested themes – NEXUS BETWEEN ELECTORAL SPENDING AND PUBLIC CORRUPTION.
And so, on looking back, our view encounters only the debris of a wobbly scaffolding of the 2019 democratic exercise that predictably crashed, a rickety podium of cynical improvisations on four temporal legs roughly identified as: (i) payback time (ii) our turn next time (iii) laissez-faire time, and (iv) the all-purpose ‘stomach infrastructure’ dinner bell. The unprecedented epidemic of the collapse of buildings all over the country has since struck me as a morbid analogy for the collapse of humane structures, burying so much hope of advance on 1993, a full quarter of a century later, in their rubble. One became quite fearful that the nation was trapped in the material actualization of an even more comprehensive advance on Shakespeare’s curse: A Plague on All your houses!
If only nothing more than the current political houses took a final tumble! Alas, the collapse is far more extensive than such mere contraption. We need only look around, or revert to those alarms that we echoed at the beginning. One may squirm at the verbal formulation but, truthfully, NIGERIA MOURNS! And so, towards the exorcising of that curse, the prescription of a government across partisan interests is not misplaced and is not entirely starry-eyed. A day dedicated to democracy – as a compelling morality of social existence – is merely frivolous unless directed at the recognition of the telling, prevailing features of the last exercise, which throw in question the free, hopefully, educated exertion of human choice. It brings us back to numerous considerations of what constitutes, as the democratic base of any human grouping, their rights and limitations, both of which are involved in the guarantee of healthy societal survival. It must raise, pre-eminently, the very issue of the protocols of association – relation of the parts to one another, and the parts to the whole. Such protocols are of a fundamental, negotiable category for a basic reason – they deal with humanity, not abstractions or material resources. Above nations, we cannot help but place humanity, otherwise, we are mere idol worshippers – the idols of patriotic jingoism and pietistic abstractions (e.g. sovereign integrity and allied rhetoric).
Democracy Day deserves truthful confrontation with the socio-political conditions that we have brought into being to plague ourselves and thus, compels our acceptance of responsibility for whatever, and wherever roles are traceable to one and all in that process. It is not wrong to make political calculations – not for nothing is it claimed that politics is a game of numbers – one of those partial truths, but let it stand for now. However, when those calculations go wrong, it is cowardly to seek scapegoats and fabricate non-existent histories. D-Day should not pass shrouded under sentiment. At the same time, it should not be celebrated with groundless recriminations. It calls on hard-core values, yet remains open to mature and logical adjustments, deploying the rigorous blade of truth to cut through overgrown, self-proliferating brambles of deception, especially at the hands of past rulers. If the present demons of nation being are confronted, with brutal frankness where necessary, there is a chance that we may assist even this aspiring generation to sweep past the past, and target a far more salutary celebration in the coming year, that much touted magic number 20/20.
Says the ‘good book’ but, I am certain, echoed in numerous scriptures of Faith – Render unto Caesar what is Caesars’s etc. etc. We have rendered unto D-Day its dues, its pietisms and imperious mandates, and in as measured accents as can be mustered by any pained member of a polity under a ‘state of siege’. All that is left is to tackle, through a few illustrative samples, the hooded mercenaries who remain committed to the triumph of every imaginable shade of the anti-democratic agenda. They operate like the chameleon, adaptable to colour and texture of their immediate and appropriated environments. Forget the parable of never serving more than one master – they serve several, all interchangeable as readily as their wearing apparel. To them we are the mummu, they the lordly predators of the political jungle. In the interest of historic truths and self-preservation, it becomes a duty to seize every opportunity – fortunately mostly of their own providing – to dissect their proclamations, subject them to public scrutiny and take the trouble to probe deeply into their hidden briefs.
A hopeful Democracy Day to the electorate of June 12, 1993, and their political descendants, on whom the burden of the future unavoidably – falls.
The full text of this contribution and its follow-up are scheduled for publication in mid-July in the INTERVENTIONS series by BookCraft, under the sub-series, THE REPUBLIC OF LIARS.