In Harmattan Haze on an African Spring, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka condemns the notion that any of the major civilisations occurred in a vacuum. Most often, especially as it relates to Africa, these civilisations – Roman, British, French, etc. – were erected on the ruins or ashes of other civilisations “by fire and the sword.” The recent discovery of the non-literate Kush civilisation in Sudan, whose organised society was at par with Meroic, Sumerian, Hittite, Egyptian, Greek civilisations, has led to a rethink on assumptions, adumbrations and generalisations on civilisation.
The author laments the lacuna in much of the African experience when it comes to attachment, dialogue, conversation with past civilisations on the continent of Africa. He is left with no choice but to denounce some African leaders and scholars who lend their hands to the destruction of ancient civilisations of the continent in the name of development, modernity or ‘civilisation’.
The location of the origin of the human species has continued to be a subject of debate, though all eyes seem to focus on Africa in recent times. In May 2013, I was on the entourage of Governors Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun State and Rauf Aregbesola of the State of Osun, in the company of Professor Wole Soyinka on a visit to the 250,000-year-old Igbale Aiye in the Republic of Benin, said to be the origin of man. The two governors, we must note, are doing their best to protect and promote the cultures and values of Africa.
The playwright-historian then posed the germane question, “If the primogenitor of humanity did indeed emerge from the continent, why should the first civilisation not have emerged from the same landmass? Whence came the break in continuity?”
The dramatist, Wole Soyinka, believes that the description of Africa by the then imperial world as the Dark Continent is nothing but “the willful cataract in the eye of the beholder.” We have attained the age when “that external world must come to terms with a tradition of self-indulgence that encouraged layers of visual cataract to accumulate and harden over centuries, obscuring a truthful apprehension of the continent.”
Notwithstanding the accounts of the explorers, a truthful exploration of Africa is yet to take place. Interestingly, no one has ever claimed to have discovered Africa, unlike the Americas and Australasia. Soyinka has done us the world of good by giving the lie to the narratives of some of these adventurers, the products of Herodotus’ school of thought. Frustrated by their inability to comprehend the cultures and mores of their hosts across the continent, these explorers transferred the aggression to their pens, dripping with half-truths, distortions, contortions and outright fabrications, which they presented as the gospel truths. They suffered from what may be pronounced as authoritative ignorance. Buoyed by personal gain, recognition and nationalism (in relation to other European competing interests), these adventurers suffered no compunction nor had any qualms in standing the truths on their heads, pronouncing mere embarrassing conjectures with a tone of finality as authoritative truths.
Imagine the scabrous denigration of the entire Yoruba race by Frobenius (Yea, Leo Frobenius of the famed Ori lokun – bronze head of Ife), who lacked even a smattering of the language of the Yoruba, as quoted by the author in in the book under review:
“There is an element of typical rigidity in the Ilifian (Frobenius’ name for the native of Ile-Ife) and his intellectual poverty struck me repeatedly as being his most distinguishing quality…The kernel of the conundrum offered by this singular African city is this, namely, that these people are managing an hereditary estate, whose spirituality is quite out of touch with their present conception of life. The people of Ile-Ife lie like a slumbering dragon over the gold of a pre-historic treasure-house. Poverty-stricken in mind, because of their ignorance, they guard the old city which lends them respect…” (Italics supplied)
In Wole Soyinka’s Harmattan Haze on an African Spring, we have a riveting and sobering account of atrocities by Europeans, Arabs and, of course, some African chiefs – as collaborators – in the trade in human flesh. The poet regards this as no different from genocide: “The history of any violent dispersal is the history of genocide.” The Holocaust, Hiroshima and African Slave Trade, which predates the two, all question the humanism of the so-called torchbearers of “civilising missions” to Africa.
But then, what exactly is the nature of man – white, black or coloured? Former slave owners who endured the shackles of disgrace, victims of the barracoon, now free and wealthy, also became slave owners. After the two World Wars and the Holocaust, European humanism lay in debris. Can the claim of superiority of civilisation of one continent or race over the other stand the test of any objective appraisal? No.
“Africa remains the monumental fiction of European creativity,” submits the activist-writer. “Workable or not, the external arbitrariness of such an act, undertaken without even the cynical expression of consideration for the histories, cultures, and economic usages of their peoples, but as mere conveniences of the external will, was doomed to have dire repercussions. Africa has paid, and continues to pay a heavy price for the upkeep of a European fiction.”
Politics of exclusion, intra and inter-country boundary problems, lust for power, warped ideology, etc. are identified as the heart of the crises plaguing the continent in the book. While underscoring the place of “strict adherence to democratic justice” in resolving most of the myriads of convulsions threatening the continent, the blind defence of these European-created boundaries of death certainly demand interrogation: “Is it truly in the interest of the occupants of that continent that the present boundaries are being consolidated, defended, held so inviolate that the population of the continent is routinely decimated, millions maimed and incapacitated for life, vast hectares of farm land rendered useless by liberally sown anti-personnel mines? Youths are robbed of their innocence and their humanity, as the continent becomes the corrupted playground of boy soldiers. In short, what price is worth paying for the illusion of boundaries and ‘sovereignty’?”
To clear any misconception, the playwright-historian is not advocating the disintegration of the present nation entities. In fact, a proper interrogation could even lead to the opposite – amalgamation. The point is where such horrendous human conflict is traceable to this product of European fictioning, as in the case of Sudan, “Where this is seen clearly to be the case, and internal instability of a costly dimension evidently derives from such impositions, common sense urges that, at the very least, the basis for such amalgamations be revisited with a view to ascertain where precisely lies the will of the people themselves, acting in freedom.”
The criminality of the Janjaweed, under the banner of impunity, really troubled the human rights activist and he devoted a lot of attention to it. South Sudan eventually gained its independence after the publication of this book but then what does one make of the current internecine upheavals in the new country? I think the answer to the situation could be located in Soyinka’s lecture during his investiture as Awo Laureate on March 7, 2013: Winding Down History: Religion and Nation, Power and Freedom.
One then comes to the conclusion that, whereas there are no absolutes in any propositions, it seems the path of “democratic justice” , as enunciated by the author, can be the best of all the alternatives as a way of restoring our humanity in Africa. The sanctity of the rule of law, constitutional provisions that safeguard the interest of minorities and entrenchment of democratic norms such as free and fair elections, all within the structures of government most suitable for different countries based on their cultural, economic and socio-political realities – federal, confederal or unitary. But admittedly, these can only be achieved through interrogation of the present in an atmosphere perfumed with burning passion for justice. Restructuring, either of the structures of government, forms of government or power relations, seems inevitable across the African continent.
If I may add in passing; in Nigeria, for instance, the present unitary system disguised as federalism must be dumped without further ado. The aim of dividing the country into three regions, each with a Regional Council in 1947, according to the then Governor of colonial Nigeria, Sir Arthur Richards, was “To create a political system… within which the diverse elements, may progress at varying speeds, amicably and smoothly, towards a more closely integrated economic, social and political unity, without sacrificing the principles and ideals in their divergent ways of life.” Inherent in this submission was federalism.
Again at the Ibadan General Conference, preparatory to the promulgation of Macpherson Constitution of 1951, the question on the structure of Nigeria was asked: “Do we wish to see a fully centralised system with all legislative and executive powers concentrated at the centre, or do we wish to develop a federal system under which each different region of the country would exercise a measure of internal autonomy?” The London Conference of 1953 and Lagos Conference of 1954 that followed emphasised a full-blown federal constitution, which was later captured in the Lyttleton Constitution of 1954 and Independence Constitution of 1960… Now that history has come full circle in Nigeria, we need to return to the bequest of our founding fathers – federalism.
In Harmattan Haze on an African Spring, Soyinka also holds that the redemption of African spirituality, indeed, Africa and the world lies in the embrace of the doctrines of Orisa. “Thus, for all seekers after peace and security of true community, and the space of serenity that enables the quest after Truth… we urge yet again the simple path that was travelled from the soil of the Yoruba, across the Atlantic landmass to contiguous nations, across the hostile oceans to the edge of the world in the Americas – Go to the Orisa, learn from the Orisa, and be wise.”
What Soyinka presented in this book is an exegesis of Orisa worship. The Babalawo (traditional healer/diviner), the equivalent of a Bishop or Imam, is “the wistful embodiment of all that is missing in the political life of a continent.” Ifa, the equivalent of Bible or Koran, according to Soyinka, “emphasises for us the perpetual elasticity of knowledge. Ifa’s tenets are governed by a frank acknowledgment of the fact that the definition of Truth is a goal that is constantly being sought by humanity, that existence itself is a passage to Ultimate Truth, and that claimants to possession of the definitiveness of knowledge are, in fact, the greatest obstacles to the attainment of Truth.”
He rejects the tag of paganism often placed on believers of Orisa by Christianity and Islam and cautioned that these traditional religions should not be conflated with cults. “The accommodative spirit of the Yoruba gods (Ogun, Esu, Oya, Sopona, Sango, etc.) remains the eternal bequest to a world that is riven by the spirit of intolerance, of xenophobia and suspicion,” he submits.
Soyinka spoke of the “beneficent gods and their potencies, their curative and fortifying interventions…the combative, even malevolent, who can be invoked to work against the enemy,” citing the reference by a former head of state after a visit to Mandela in prison to the potency of these traditional powers: “Where is our egbe? Where is our onde? Where is our famed juju to take out these perpetrators of hideous injustice on our own soil?”
Rightly or wrongly, the question cannot escape the attention of a reader, let alone a reviewer: Why did these traditional powers not work against the intruders, including their religions on the continent of Africa? The dramatist is a faithful of the Orisa but is he a worshiper in any shrine? This, certainly, is another conundrum.
In summary, we cannot but agree with our erudite scholar that religion should be an evocation and constitute “the spice of life, not the trigger of strife.” The culture icon made a strong case for the efficacy and potency of traditional medicine, citing a haunting instance where the latter had come to the rescue of orthodox/Western medicine. Harmattan Haze on an African Spring is a treasure trove, controversial to boot in some aspects.
Finally, Soyinka urged that the questioning of cultures and social norms within the concept of what is globally acceptable or fundamental human rights is a categorical imperative. Cultural relativism or respect for other cultures should be within such a context. You cannot say because in your own culture, the toe of the firstborn must be cut or that girls must not go to school, therefore, I have to respect such.
Of course, this lucubration cannot but contain some errors – the ritual every reviewer must perform. “African past and present” is given as “African past and presence” on page 19. Berlin Treaty of Partition of Africa took place in 1885, not 1881 as provided on page 50. “…is one of my favourite” should have been “favourites” on page 98; “it serves” is typed as “it serve” on page 196.
Through the exploration in Harmattan Haze on an African Spring, Soyinka, my intellectual avatar, has once again reiterated the immensity and polyvalence of his knowledge. He has sown a seed on a fertile ground, which should sprout to produce “a new breed of explorers for the relay race towards a deeply craved Age of Universal Understanding – African inspired.”
–– Soyombo, a media practitioner, writes via email@example.com.