There are persons you can never let alone if you are sincerely concerned about the myriad of problems dogging Nigeria. Major among such is the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka. He has been in the trenches for over six decades engaging his beloved motherland through the spoken word, through plays, novels, poetry, through stage drama— even music. It seems an obsession with him…
He just can’t let Nigeria alone.
Many of his interventions involve considerable risk. From a near-solo holding up of a radio station to embarrass a corrupt sitting government; to the “roasted yam” saga of the Wild, Wild, West; to braving military blockades to reach Biafra territory in efforts to avert the 1967 civil war (which earned him a jail term); to Kudirat radio and other battles of the Abacha years when he had to flee into exile to escape assassination…
Soyinka typifies the “Fighting Spirit” in flesh. At 87, just three years short of 90, his heart still bleeds for his country.
Eighty-seven-year-old professor of letters and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, is not under any illusion that “turning the other cheek” always works in dealings with men of the Mephistophelean cast. Yet he enjoins “sane and responsible Nigerians” to “carefully chose their weapons of resistance” against the evil forces currently laying siege to the country.
And he identifies three classes of “criminals” who seek to plunge the country into another civil war. There are those on trial for “massive corruption” who would like to erase the past and are desperate to avoid their just destiny by deploying a fraction of their wealth to stockpile arms against the country.
There are those behind the “original” banditry, which, according to the professor, actually started in Zamfara State with illegal gold mining. The trouble had nothing to do with religion but everything to do with control of the gold mines which, according to the professor, had been on for years but is just being admitted now.
“Attention is being diverted to religious piety while the state is being robbed blind. They sit on the gold resources but continue sharing from oil and other resources like VAT… some of them don’t mind starting a war. That’s how corrupt they are. By ‘corrupt’ I mean they don’t mind endangering the rest of humanity just for their own profit.”
“Gold is a violent metal. Anywhere there is gold, men will rush in (unless the activity is carefully regulated). What’s happening in Zamfara is the typical ‘Gold Rush’ and some people want to monopolise that wealth while also sharing in the oil from the Delta region and the VAT from mostly southern states.”
The worst threat of civil war, according to him, is from cattle because “cattle” is attached to a tribe. But then he digressed here to comment on the issue of “stereotyping” and “ethnic profiling”.
He was always careful, he said, in his initial interventions to use the phrase “herdsmen” attacks — with no tribe attached.
“That is, until the Miyetti Allah group claimed the crime for its own. They boasted and threatened Benue State openly that ‘either you rescind your open grazing law or you suffer more attacks…’ They, in fact, threatened the whole nation thus suggesting that there are governments other than the one the people elected. They even went further to claim that they had conquered that region and so could move anywhere they wished.
“It was then Nigerians knew, on the admission of the perpetrators themselves, that ‘Fulani herdsmen’ were responsible for the attacks.”
To tackle these threats of war without toeing the dangerous path of ethnicity, the professor advised, we need to adopt the right mental and tactical attitude devoid of violence.
Thus he commends the approach of the Anything But Cow Day Project (ABCD) which has been advocating a boycott of beef — as a way of minimising , if not totally eliminating, the attacks and killings that ensue from cattle grazing on farmers’ crops.
He urged other groups to adopt similar non-violent interventions.
Another topic that got the professor very passionate was the incessant abduction of school children. Taken up on his recent call that Nigerians should shut down the country if any abduction of school children recurs, he declared that all sane persons and societies must have things they hold sacrosanct, sacred.
Children in their “age of innocence” anywhere, fall in that category. They should be protected from the kind of trauma and brutality to which Boko Haran has been serially subjecting Nigerian school children:
“I have no apology for my passionate concern for those children. I denounce any attempt to deny them that protection. Any person or group that subjects children to such trauma, such brutality and boast of it is … is …”
Here he fired a string of adjectives and finally settles for “subhuman.”
“They are subhuman; a subhuman species.”
The growing calls for self-determination by various ethnic groups, to him, is not surprising. The major cause of this, he said, is the gross mismanagement of the country’s affairs — especially by the current regime.
“The events that resulted in one section seeking to secede have never been addressed. Rather, they have been compounded. A centralised constitution has been imposed on the nation which even negates the limited autonomy of each component of the nation… “Too much power has been given to the centre such that any cabal that captures the centre lords it over other sections of the country — unlike immediately post-independence when considerable autonomy allowed for development through healthy rivalry among the regions:
“Now, all power, most power, has been given to the centre; control, governance, decisions, policy-making — all other components are now dependent on whatever cabal occupies the centre.
“And when you have a cabal that is openly and shamelessly nepotistic against the rest of the country (as we have today), it is no surprise if others declare the Nigeria Project dead and seek ways of protecting their own interests outside of Nigeria…”
According to him, the centre today has proved particularly incapable of protecting the entire nation; yet it doesn’t want Amoteku, no community police, no state police. It does not matter whether or not they are competent.
“What kind of mentality is that? How can you be so self-centred, short-sighted in a nation of such ethnic, religious, cultural, economic and traditional complexity?
The section that is benefitting from the parlous state of affairs, he noted, continues to employ all manner of tricks to frustrate attempts to redress the situation.
He cited PRONACO which deliberated for over a year over every aspect of the country’s nationhood with participants cutting across professional, religious and ethnic groups. And the National Conference under former President Goodluck Jonathan on which billions was expended. Their recommendations were submitted to the central government only to be shelved.
“Their excuse has always been ‘The sovereignty of Nigeria must not be touched’. Who is tampering with sovereignty if not Fulani herdsmen, Boko Haram and allied militants?” But they choose to ignore the efforts of concerned, rational people.
“We are being served a toxic brew of ethnicity, religious bigotry, cupidity, greed and distorted history.”
And by distorted history, he meant “those who believe they have been divinely endowed with the right of governance and domination and proclaim it.
“Even while many of them are miserable and mentally under-endowed, their body language when relating with others show their condescending airs.
“But we need to make them know that the era when history is made by domination is over, long past. There have been terrible reverses for those who try to exert undue power over others. They and their children’s children have suffered the consequences.
“We need to let them know that we don’t have such evil domination instinct. All we want is to continue to be productive, creative, neighbourly, fraternal within or outside our borders, collaborate and promote healthy rivalry.”
However, he added, “any people that respects themselves must prepare for the worst and do everything possible not to get enslaved.”
Pa Soyinka has given up on any reformation or transformation from the top. According to him, the citizenry must take their destiny in their own hands.
As for young persons aspiring for political offices, he has one major criticism: “When it comes to the crunch, they too easily back out to join established forces.”
“They need to be more resolute, more dogged. The entrenched forces of the old brigade are powerful, their war chests are enormous. To tackle and vanquish them, the youths need hardwork, creative thinking, thinking outside the box, persistence.”
“Put your foot in that water. Create ripples. Even if you don’t win at the first attempt, you would have gained experience. Build on that. keep trying — like Mitterand of France, like Lula…”
Above all, he said, there is something the youths have which the old war horses lack: “Freshness of ideas.”
The Nobel Laureate, while noting that all religions enjoin the welfare of man, good conduct, peaceful living, expresses bafflement over the adherents of these very same religions fighting and butchering each other.
That, to him, “is most stupid.” .
“They butcher fellow humans and belief they are headed for Paradise. But the doors of paradise,” says Pa. Soyinka, “is shut against all fundamentalists of any religion.”
Only Yoruba religion, to his knowledge, is devoid of violence. Votaries of the orisa don’t proselyte, mount crusades or jihads.
Talking of spirituality, the professor, who declares himself unapologetically irreligious, said numerous personal experiences have convinced him that there are powerful forces beyond the human realm, the chief of which he calls the “Omnipotence”.
“But it is nothing for which men should kill each other.”
“I am opposed to all fundamentalists, be they religious, agnostic or atheistic.”
Yes, Ogun, one of the first Yoruba deities to journey from a habitable planet in outer space (Isalu Orun) to the Earth, is his “Companion Demiurge” who “most resonates with my temperament: creativity, astronomy (I love everything associated with space travel, zero gravity etc.), combativeness, music, warfare, technology, implements of iron etc.”
“No. I do not worship. I celebrate him.”
Pa. Soyinka recounted two instances when he witnessed physical manifestations of unseen forces. One was in Delphi, Greece, when another renowned artiste and giant of the theatre, Tunji Oyelana, was chanting the oriki (praise names) of Sango:
“From a clear, even bright sky, a cloud began to gather…and a strong wind descended on the assembly…”
The second instance was at the palace of the Alaafin of Oyo. It was during a programme tagged “Super Teachers” involving students of Abeokuta Grammar School. Various performances were ongoing at the palace and the Olori, a Sango priestess, was chanting incantations related to that deity…
From a clear sky, a cloud began to gather and the Olori had to pause to ask the Alaafin if she should continue with the incantations. The Alaafin’s response was non-committal; something like “You started it, deal with it”. The Olori continued and suddenly all hell broke loose!
“The canopies went first, borne aloft by the gust and I had to dash to the aid of the frightened students to get them into the safety of the bus. The Alaafin himself had disappeared. I had to tease him later, “Kabiyesi, I know you were a boxer, but I never knew you are also a talented sprinter … but he countered by accusing me of being the first to flee to the bus.”
That cracked up every one of us, including the cameramen. It was such moments that relieved the near-gloomy atmosphere of the Freedom Park hall venue of the interview as we poked the octogenarian with sundry questions over the fate of our beleaguered nation.
The theatre guru, with his trademark “snow-white” mane then remarked that he therefore disagrees with aggressive atheists and agnostics who dismiss others as hare-brained by reason of their belief in the supernatural.
Someone then asked the Professor about an account of a particularly difficult production during which he reportedly sacrificed a cockerel to restore normalcy…
“It was in Chicago. We were producing ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’. I had never had a production so beset by accidents. Accidents to and from the venue; on the stage; the stage manager fell off the rigging and landed just inches from a concrete slab (that would have snapped his spine); the lead lady actress came on set one day with an arm in plaster; I almost lost my chin from the swing of a baton by Amusa, the policeman character…
“Others would have called it spiritual attack. But no. I knew we were dealing with a play from a powerful culture, delving deep into the spirituality of a culture that believes in sacrifices; different from the ones you watch on films or television. In fact, the drumming and chanting was putting the cast into trance…such powerful atmosphere.”
It was then that, as director, he called the cast together, explained as best he could and then requested for a goat to be sacrificed. The theatre management however pointed out that it was against the by-law of the area. At last, some alternate arrangements were made which ended up with a spotless cockerel being sacrificed on stage and a goat elsewhere…
“And all accidents stopped.” Pa. Soyinka intoned solemnly in his baritone.
A hallowed silence followed as we all, in our respective ways, took in the intelligence…
When minutes later the interview came to an end there was this abiding sense of having been ennobled by sheer Contact — or Presence.
Probably, it was a touch of what the Nobel Laurate calls the “Omnipotence”…