By Nnamdi Elekwachi
First off, I am an above-average student of Wole Soyinka, if I do say so myself. I have equally made it sufficiently clear before now in numerous literary circles that Soyinka’s style as a classicist and poet whets my literary appetite, and that among all African playwrights known to me, he is simply a cut above the rest. For one who has read at least a half of Soyinka’s literary canon, including, in some specific instances, his numerous interviews, memoirs, essays and polemics, I know I am the least worthy to untie Soyinka’s literary shoestrings, but being an Obidient, I will share my views on his latest “fascist” outbursts.
Embrace or evade it, Soyinka deserves all the accolades he continues to bag as the first African Nobel prize winner for Literature, one who has contributed immensely to virtually all the genres of Literature, including poetry, criticism, drama, theatre and prose, but it would be limiting to perish our collective future by just dwelling and dying in an artful reverence at the expense of objective balancing of views.
Now is the time to focus on substance, not style.
As disciplines, Literature and Theatre, Soyinka’s forte, are open-ended human fields without finalities, hence reviews and criticisms are rules rather than exceptions. For the average student of Kongi, it is a common knowledge that Soyinka has an uncommon penchant for challenging ideas, most times, in a way that stimulates knowledge production, yet all that doesn’t make him the only literary cognoscente of his time. This penchant for debates manifested in his intellectual war with Ali Mazrui, the East African scholar, concerning Skip Gate’s African TV series; in his drawn-out exchanges with Chinweizu Ibekwe over “African Literature;” and also in his fierce criticism of the poet president of independent Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor, over the concept of “Negritude” for which Soyinka himself came up with his “Tigritude.” Such outings are countless and I don’t even expect them to end now, not even with Baba Ahmed-Datti, the Labour Party Vice Presidential candidate, after all did Kongi not write his ‘”Infra dig” piece on one of President Buhari’s boys?
On occasion too, I do think that some of Soyinka’s fights are beneath a man of his intellectual refinement. This was apparent in the needless exchange with Dame Patience Jonathan, former First Lady. Even now, I do not understand the motive behind Soyinka writing those diatribes on Mrs. Jonathan. While I do not call for silence or inaction on the part of Soyinka if wrongly maligned first, that Dame Patience Jonathan was the First Lady then did not place her on a matching pedestal with Kongi, and not even her husband as the first PhD president of Nigeria comes close to that exalted plane, but our Nobel laureate had no problem whatsoever descending from his paradisaical height to the mud just to fight Dame Patience Jonathan. Well, it ended in a coinage – “Sheppopotamus!”
To me, that fight was unnecessary, needless to say. Similar too was that rather exhibitionist scene that played out on a plane involving a young lad. I wonder how a minor Soyinka who refused to prostrate before an Isara chief [see: Ake, the Years of Childhood] would want a young man to quit his seat on a plane for him as an adult or scholar in the 21st century!
While we may surmise that his fights against Jonathan’s government were part of Soyinka’s interventions, activism and search for a better Nigeria, his diversionary views in the last presidential election where his former NADECO ally was on the ballot only left much to be desired. For emphasis, I repeat: I have no sympathy for Jonathan or how he lost his 2015 reelection bid; his failure to implement both the 2014 Confab and Uwais Committee reports, to me, was beyond pardon because some of the flaws recorded in the just-concluded elections are spin-offs from that non-implementation.
Having no problem with Soyinka’s politics of 2014/15, it is needful I stress that the Soyinka who led a protest against subsidy removal at age 78 suddenly took flight from the landscape of activism in his 80s, unfortunately in the face of the severest and harshest condition of national existence. I beg not to be told it is all about age! No. It is about affiliation and choice. Activism, as a protest measure, has forms and does not happen in the streets only, at least for protest writers like Soyinka. Even though he had not been entirely sparing, the playwright reduced the dose of his satirical polemics on the Buhari-led government to a volume less than what he administered the Abacha regime. Did justice which he termed “the first condition of humanity” suddenly improve under Buhari’s watch?
Soyinka’s latest designation of the Obidients as “fascists,” when properly situated, was wide of the mark as it was directly an in-apposite allusion, especially as he only wishes to reduce the flawed elections to an academic debate, rather than proffer solutions and condemn dirty players. Soyinka showed what his biggest problem in the 2023 elections was – the supporters of Labour Party’s Peter Obi, otherwise known as “the Obidients.” It was manifest such that Soyinka’s post-election analyses and commentaries failed to amplify in a deserving tone issues like: irredentism, voter intimidation and suppression, ethnic supremacism and profiling, other sundry forms of political discrimination which debased humanity – Soyinka’s first constituency. Maybe this is where history and posterity will serve summons on Soyinka.
Fascism, if I remember what I was taught, advocates a totalitarian state control of the individual; corporatism; repudiation of peace and glorification of exhaustive wars; suppression of opposing views and all instruments of the media. This, as a system, was first institutionalised in 1920s Italy under Benito Mussolini, “Il Duce.” For clarification, I had to read Peter Obi’s campaign speeches, manifesto and the Labour Party’s constitution to see if there is an iota of fascism that may have robbed off on some Obidients. There is none known to me as of yet. Fascism itself is complex a subject to be reduced to only literary debate, and certain occasions in the life of a nation demand that her men and women of conscience remain plainspoken than overly superfluous.
There were numerous other political movements with brand names like the Obidients whose excesses were simply unidentifiable to Soyinka, so the problem wasn’t partly the “BATISTs,” “Atikulators” or “Kwankwasiya” most of whom exhibited recklessness in their respective proportions, but largely, if not totally, the Obidients, mostly young Nigerians, first-time voters, seeking to decide who leads them. Who remembers Sam Omatseye’s “Obi-tuary” on Peter Obi? Was that not part of the bad press Obi got?
Granted, as a movement, not all was well with the Obidient camp in the last elections. There were vitriolic attacks by virtual Obidient mob which are condemnable, but it will be totally wrong to dump all the cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking witnessed before, during and as a fallout of 2023 elections on one party alone. There were state officials and certain presidential campaign council members who ran smear campaigns against Obi. The campaign has not let up, as I write. Even the National Peace Committee, at a point, spotlighted Femi Fani-Kayode and Reno Omokiri as purveyors of falsehood. These and others are the people some Obidient youth were trolling with responses. And while hurling toxic words at elders or rival camps is not to be entertained or entrenched within a system, I do not know of any law, written or unwritten, that says the young should sit back and idly condone a mannerless, cruel, thieving class of spent politicians and political has-beens that continue to populate the establishment and loot dry their future, even that of the unborn. This is why I consider it an overkill terming angry citizens fascists.
If there is fascism at work anywhere in Nigeria, it is loudly pronounced in the camp of our so-called “progressives,” APC, the ruling party. I did say before here that fascism thrives on: suppression of opposing views, including the media; control of the individual; corporatism; repudiation of peace and glorification of exhaustive wars. Now, nearly all these are tools the APC-led Federal Government had deployed for the purpose of state capture. In Nigeria, the APC government had stifled opposition; gagged media houses with fines for broadcasting certain interviews considered as “treasonous” or “against the state;” declared and sustained war against separatists by opening fire on unarmed members; and threatening to reenact 1967-70 horrors till we got to the point were armed non-state actors are violently reacting. The APC-led Federal Government also suppressed the right to freedom of assembly by unleashing troops at young protesters seeking police sector reforms; same government attacked freedom of speech by banning Twitter and attempting to introduce anti-Social Media and Hate Speech Bills; they invaded and laid siege to the homes of judges; then unlawfully sacked the head of the judiciary, a co-equal arm of government with the executive; and continued rule by court disobedience. But Soyinka prefers to label angry youth and other Nigerians talking back at a corrupt establishment as fascists. It is ironic coming from Soyinka who had called for a “third force,” and who had borne arm in defense of “justice.”
I do not agree with Datti that the chief justice of the nation should not swear Tinubu in, even though I understand his pain. That is alien to the 1999 Constitution, as amended. However, I blame the electoral umpire, INEC for becoming an actualising agent in the hands of the establishment by deliberately delivering organised and systemic failure in place of credible results, thereby foisting a fait accompli on the electorate after countless promises of credible polls. By going against its own regulations without uploading in real time the presidential election results to its result viewing portal, IRev, INEC widened apathy gap and grew trust deficit. But Datti’s comment pales in significance when compared to that of the then APC’s Vice Presidential candidate, Yemi Osinbajo, a professor of Law, who threatened that APC will form a “parallel government” if elections were rigged in 2015.
Personally, I do not know what to expect from a judiciary that pronounced absentee candidates the actual winners of primary elections they never took part in. Even Datti had expressed a similar view in his CNN interview.
Few months after he lost presidential election in 2019, Omoyele Sowore had staged a procession tagged “Revolution Now.” For daring the establishment, Sowere was arrested as government expressed fear with the word “revolution.” It was Soyinka who rightly spoke up: “Rein in your wild dogs of disobedience,” sounding a warning to Buhari to hold men and officers of the SSS in check after the Abuja court debacle.
Soyinka himself is an activist, one who held an Ibadan radio station to ransom armed with a weapon. A 31-year-old Soyinka then was of the view that the Akintola-led government wanted to rig the regional election of the mid ‘60s. That was his way of seeking redress, perhaps. Having stopped announcement of results on air, Soyinka, years later, called for armed struggle to flush out all vestiges of white supremacism, and was willing to enlist in a volunteer front that would dislodge apartheid regimes in Africa. How come the Obidients who, following the words of their principal, had resorted to a constitutional approach, are still his problem even after suffering physical harm and attacks more than any other camp during the last elections?
Soyinka’s affiliation with NADECO sustained his close ties with many activists of those days, including Chief Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the APC stalwart, because of whom he was quick to denounce a spontaneous composition from Pyrates, an association he co-founded as a university undergraduate in Ibadan over 70 years ago. In one of Tinubu’s birthday colloquiums, a reminiscent Soyinka recalled how he benefited from the former’s munificence through Thailand rice line in those exilic days when his bank accounts were frozen by Abacha. He shared before an audience a testimony on Tinubu’s benevolence. Said he: “As you know, he was a fugitive offender like some of us here. Former Lagos State Governor and a businessman. Some of us in the anti-Abacha movement wouldn’t have survived if not for him. During our period of exiled resistance, we looked for all kinds of means to raise funds, including trying to print redeemable bonds. I think we did print redeemable bonds. We were so confident of victory, and we said, ‘Let’s print and sell bonds.’ We designed those bonds…”
Soyinka who said he (and others) would not have survived the exile but for Tinubu, would later venture into rice line with Tinubu’s Thailand connection, proceeds of which were used for the “revolution.” Further, Soyinka recalled how Tinubu’s wife, Oluremi, sent him cooking utensils upon his return from exile during when his home was destroyed by the Abacha government. So it is not surprising that Soyinka still nurtures his relationship with the Tinubus, his pro-democracy allies of the early and mid ‘90s who were there for him in his lowest moment, and even though he advised the former governor to quit for younger persons, then goes the question: at what cost?
While he forgave Gen. Yakubu Gowon whose “prison guest” he was for 22 months because he went to Enugu during the Civil War to sue for peace, Soyinka did not forgive Abacha whom he had named “psychopath.” During the 2014 centenary award investiture under the Dr. Goodluck Jonathan presidency, Soyinka declined the honour of a national award to mark the hundredth year of the 1914 amalgamation because Abacha, the late tyrant, was on the honour list. Soyinka wrote his piece: “Canonisation of Terror,” a downright rejection of the award insisting that he would not share in such honour since many Nigerians, for insisting on democracy, were picked up, disappeared or hanged by the Abacha regime, the most notable being, Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa, an environmental activist and TV series writer. It was while in exile that Soyinka wrote his jeremiad, “Open Sore of a Continent; a Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis,” where he dissected analytically the Nigerian state and her numerous crises. The question, “When is a nation?” gained traction among scholars, but not many today recall how it came? It was Soyinka’s interrogation of nationhood, identity, boundary and artificiality as it has to do with Nigeria; Soyinka made it a leitmotif when he repeated it again in his tribute to Ojukwu, his friend, the Biafran warlord, by asking, “When is a nation not?”
The politics of Soyinka, like his poetics, is laced with protest. His, in the trouble days of this nation, was voice of resistance. For identifying with the Abacha government, Soyinka named his friend, Odumegwu Ojuwjwu, an “expired general,” being the Soyinka that takes no prisoner. But did something stop Kongi’s mouth in Nigeria of today where rigging has become scientific, and where power is “not served à la carte,” but must be “snatched” and “grabbed” and “run away with”? Indeed, these words were Tinubu’s creed, the one he enunciated at the dinner party after his Chatham House outing? If Obasanjo or Datti had said that would Kongi have muttered silence? Does that not sound fascist?
I still love Soyinka and will remain his student, I am grateful to have been impacted by his poems, but his seeming pro-establishment politics of today is not the same with the man who in the 1970s and ‘80s took sides with Aminu Kano in defence of the commoners during the second republic under the PRP. Again, what Obi and Kwankwaso achieved in the last elections, does it not liken to the achievements of Aminu Kano, whom Achebe and Soyinka laboured for? Radicalism is not in any form fascist, else Soyinka leads the pack.
I hadn’t expected Soyinka to support Obi. No. It has nothing to do with ethnicity. After all, under the Citizen Forum, Soyinka chose Kingsley Moghalu of the YPP, an Igbo, as his “third force” candidate during the 2019 elections ahead of Yoruba candidates like Fela Durutoye, Sowore and others. But Soyinka’s relationship with the Igbo, it must be understood, dates back to years ago. He too was a beneficiary of Igbo hospitality when he became a persona non grata following the radio station saga. It was Mazi Ukonu, who had announced real results from Awolowo’s personal library during the Wild Wild West days, that arranged for Soyinka to be smuggled out of the West into the East where Premier Michael Okpara made sure Soyinka had all the comfort he needed to himself, so his intervention during that war, his mourning the death of Okigbo in his prison cell, all were human and understandable, but as for his fascist label, I respectfully disagree.
Fascism is a harsh label for what the Obidient movement represents, but it will still not separate me from Soyinka. I am Obidient, Soyinka’s views about that leaning will change nothing, for me. I wish Soyinka health as he keeps ascending his senescence, but I wish above all that he doesn’t become an expired activist before he sets forth at dawn.
Soyinka, still the man I love.
I have talked enough. I don’t know much.
Nnamdi Elekwachi, a historian, can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org