WOLE SOYINKA knows that, in linguistics, there is something called register. Yet, while addressing students at a recent Lagos gathering, the Nobel laureate employed an elevated language suitable for addressing an international literary convention. Why? The answer must be found in the acute dilemma Soyinka found himself in. This author of such books as Death and the King’s Horseman and The Trials of Brother Jero, could easily have toned his speech to a level his listeners would readily understand. Instead, he delved into polysyllables, incessant subordinations and wanton opacity. Not without a good reason.
Soyinka, intelligent as he is, was aware that his speech on the occasion represented a total redefinition of all he had stood for through his adult life, a complete repudiation of his national philosophy, a philosophy that, through time, guided his writings, his pronouncements, his actions and his associations. We are talking of the man who, in October 1965, seized an Ibadan radio station at gunpoint, to make an anti-feudal statement. We are talking of a man who, during the Second Republic, ventured into partisan politics by aligning with the likes of Chinua Achebe and Uche Chukwumerije, to pitch tent with Mallam Aminu Kano’s left-leaning Peoples Redemption Party (PRP). We are talking of a man who, in the politics of the First and Second Republics, came down heavily and stood resolutely on the side of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Does Professor Soyinka regard Alhaji Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), as a credible successor of Chief Awolowo as the Yoruba leader? Does he in any way confuse the posturing of the APC as remotely or tangentially related to even the widest interpretations of political progressivism? As the man who declaimed that, “Justice is the first condition of humanity”, did he critically look at all sides of everything, and did he adequately assess the administration of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, and did he arrive at his damning verdict based on findings valid on the crucible of justice, equity and fairness? Apparently, it didn’t occur to Soyinka that those certain to be shocked by his about-face would be deserving of some explanation, he being the only high priest on whose altar Ifa divination is possible. He, therefore, couched his speech to school children in obscurantism, thinking obviously that, the less easy to grasp his presentation, the less flak he would get for what amounts to a disservice to history.
To be sure, Soyinka has the right to refuse to vote, as the Nigerian Constitution does not censure or criminalize non-voting by citizens. He has the right to campaign against any candidate. But he set tongues wagging by stating that, “It is pointlessly, and dangerously provocative to present General Buhari as something that he probably was not. It is however just as purblind to insist that he has not demonstrably striven to become what he most glaringly was not, to insist that he has not been chastened by intervening experience and – most critically – by a vastly transformed environment – both the localized and the global.”
There isn’t any doubt regarding what Buhari was not. He never was a democrat! But it is disingenuous to state that the former military dictator has “demonstrably striven” to shake off his authoritarian past, to insist that Buhari has “been chastened by intervening experience” and “a vastly transformed environment.” Soyinka may have been addressing school kids. But his audience breached his toddlers’ perimetres. Where is the evidence of the chastened Buhari? If “most critically”, “a vastly transformed environment” left previous despots chastened and amenable to democratic propensities, what has the world been experiencing under Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s democratic government? Was it not under a “democratic dispensation” that General Olusegun Obasanjo wiped out Odi and Zaki Biam?
It has become Soyinkaesque to posit that an elected Buhari would not be repressive because he would be operating under a democratic dispensation! Was apartheid not practiced under a democratic dispensation? Did not Hitler become German Chancellor by the democratic vote? It appears the only answer Soyinka has to these and similar questions is a string of sentences strewn together by an unconvincing statement. He is now rooting for a Buhari presidency because he has “studied him from a distance, questioned those who have closely interacted with him, including his former running-mate, Pastor Bakare, and dissected his key utterances past and current.”
A man with a contemporary Draconian past seeking the people’s electoral mandate deserves better than being studied “from a distance”. Little wonder Soyinka came by the conclusion that he found “A plausible transformation that comes close to that of another ex-military dictator, Mathew Kerekou of the Benin Republic.” On this tenuous ground, Soyinka is recommending a “leap of faith” to his fellow countrymen and women! People have a right to be scandalized on this score because, on no account, should an election for the next president of Nigeria be tied to a leap of faith and all the calamitous consequences it could engender.
Soyinka’s introduction of Kérékou is even misapplied because the former Benin Republic leader took a positive step in his time that Buhari has found impossible to appropriate. During the nationally televised 1990 National Conference in Benin Republic, Kérékou spoke to Catholic Archbishop Isidor de Souza of Cotonou, confessing guilt and begging forgiveness for the flaws of his military regime. Likewise Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings who, in 1992, and when campaigning for the Ghanaian presidency, attended a church service in Accra where he apologized for all the killings that attended his first military dispensation. It was because Kérékou and Rawlings repented that their peoples relented, according them the chance to try their hands at democratic governance. But the gestures of apology, contrition, regret and repentance have never been seen, heard or noticed in Soyinka’s “chastened” Buhari.
To quote Soyinka’s demolition of Candidate Buhari in 2011: “The grounds on which General Buhari is being promoted as the alternative choice are not only shaky, but pitifully naive. History matters. Records are not kept simply to assist the weakness of memory, but to operate as guides to the future. Of course, we know that human beings change. What the claims of personality change or transformation impose on us is a rigorous inspection of the evidence, not wishful speculation or behind-the-scenes assurances. Public offence, crimes against a polity, must be answered in the public space, not in caucuses of bargaining. In Buhari, we have been offered no evidence of the sheerest prospect of change. On the contrary, all evidence suggests that this is one individual who remains convinced that this is one ex-ruler that the nation cannot call to order.”
Yet, Soyinka discarded his recommendation of “rigorous inspection of the evidence” to settle for armchair analysis. Soyinka, the writer and teacher, is proposing a leap of faith into Buhari for Nigerians. This development is so startling that any of Soyinka’s “students” will, in a flush of angst, borrow from the title of one of Fela’s compositions and rail thus: Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense! The question of numeracy also comes into it all. Soyinka said he had 60 reasons not to vote for President Jonathan. But he mentioned only one – the kidnap of the Chibok schoolgirls! Did he not realize that he owed his listeners the listing of the remaining 59 reasons? Even on that unfortunate incident, a lot of distortion has obscured facts. For instance, it did not take 10 days to respond to the kidnap. The pursuit of the kidnappers followed almost immediately. What actually took 10 days was the public relations dimension for which blame should, in the main, go to those with the primary responsibility. If the Chibok girls have not been rescued, it is because the proposition is not easy. Not because government is fiddling. After all, the United States and other developed countries descended on Nigeria with all their scientific and technological gear aimed at locating and rescuing the girls without registering any success. Again, it took America all of 10 years to find Osama bin Laden.
There is no justice in a six-year administration judged solely on the basis of an emotive issue on which vested interests have studiously muddied the waters of public opinion. Odia Ofeimun, the poet and former private secretary to Chief Awolowo, who acknowledges Soyinka as his mentor, supports this assertion. In 2015 and After, an article he widely published in both orthodox and social media on January 25, 2015, Mr. Ofeimun said: “One remarkable paradox about the 2015 General Election is that it ought to be a referendum on whether President Goodluck Jonathan has done well in Agriculture, Aviation, Road construction, Education, Health and especially Ebola, Railways, Electricity, and whether he achieved the purpose of putting constitutional reforms on the agenda of the Nigerian state as most Nigerians have been asking for since the beginning of the Fourth Republic. It is simply true, and provable, that in these areas, Jonathan has done exceedingly better than his illustrious predecessor, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, a very remarkable under-achiever, who has been needling him on all grounds and cooking the mythology that Goodluck Jonathan has no clue.”
It is a sad commentary on the state of Nigerian political discourse that Soyinka and all the radicals with a lower case “r” have turned a blind eye to President Jonathan’s achievements and have rather decided to worship at the expedient altar of opportunism. What remains is this lamentation for Soyinka: The cynosure of all eyes should not dab their face in charcoal.
*Mr. Iloegbunam, an author, wrote from Lagos.