SOYINKA: More Tasks For A Hero Essay
By Jare Ajayi
"...if a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays" - Ezra Pounds (1979:32)
"The contest between state and nation is an ancient one, and for a simple reason - the interests of state and nation seldom coincide. On the contrary, we find that both are constantly at loggerheads with each other. Do not be fooled by appearance, exceptions or political punditry" - Wole Soyinka: 2009.
TO say that Nigeria is hemorrhaging would be stating the obvious. The kind of its affliction is one requiring fundamental surgery - the type that could be performed only by genuine nationalists and statesmen and women. Oluwole Soyinka has, in his writings, speeches, actions and the company he keeps, shown that he is eminently positioned to be in the vanguard of reinventing Nigeria. Actually, of all literary artists in Nigeria, Wole Soyinka is the most politically active as though living out an observation by Mcleish (1985:44) that "books liberated the mind; literature led to thought and thought to action". This essay, is written to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of Wole Soyinka winning the Nobel Prize. It is also dedicated to his 75th birthday which came up a little earlier.
Human beings across the ages elevate those among them who are outstanding in some ways. A person becomes renowned - as a hero or villain - due to the tenor/colour of his deed(s); particularly the conduct that earned him the distinguishing uniqueness.
Every individual is dual in nature regarding certain attributes: courage/cowardice, benignity/bestiality, meekness/aggressiveness, humaneness/monstrosity etc.
Like the English playwright with whom he shares the initials of his names, William Shakespeare, the name Wole Soyinka (WS) conjures the image of a legend, a hero, rebel, non-conformist and a cult figure whenever it is mentioned - especially around the 1970s. By the 1980s, the versatile writer-activist has acquired the status that could conveniently get him deified were he to be living in pre-18th century Africa! But before we take a random look at some of the heroic exploits that we regard as making Wole Soyinka a candidate for deification, let us ponder on what is meant by heroism - a necessary pre-condition for deification. This is especially pertinent now since human beings have stopped deification in the mystical sense. What they do now is to herosize, legendarise or if in the religious circle, knight and consecrate.
Webster Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines a hero as (a) a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability, (b) "an illustrious warrior, (c) a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities (d) one that shows great courage, (c) a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities (d) one that shows great courage."
History is replete with heroic figures who attain that status as a result of the exceptional attributes they demonstrated. The reason for this is not far-fetched. First, being material entity, most of the visible challenges man confronts in his day-to-day living are physical in nature. Secondly, the Plato-Christian tradition in philosophy adumbrates two claims, to wit (i) man is a being of two parts - the body which belongs to the reality dimension and his consciousness which belongs to a higher, spiritual realm; and (ii) the logical consequence of the mind-body split; the belief that this physical world is utterly material and carnal where brute force asserts itself more effectively than reason and the intellect. As though to prove the latter position right, those who physically exerts themselves and stand out in physical feats tend to predominate in the list of heroes and heroines. This may further explain in part, the tendency for humankind to venerate their physical essence often more than they do their intellect and the spiritual.
But true heroism has an intelligent and moralistic or at least humane ring to it as an ideal. Thus, a hero is a person of an enhanced moral stature and remarkable ability and courage to tirelessly pursue goal(s) even in the face of antagonisms. Due to his unwavering commitment to and pursuit of the chosen cause, sometimes against daunting odds, the individual moves towards a pedestal of the transcendental or spiritual grandeur even when he has not fully achieved his aim. Such personalities as Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Thomas Sankara and nearer home, Kaduna Nzeogwu, Obafemi Awolowo and Gani Fawehinmi belong in this category. So, of course, are Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Bob Marley, Barak Obama and Wole Soyinka. In a nutshell, heroism entails any or combination of the following: Prowess, ingenuity, gut, perseverance/devotion, sometimes vision, courage and to dare and act even in the face of apparent danger or opposition. For an individual to be a candidate for heroism, sainthood or deification, he or she must be one whose deed(s) is life-enhancing and/or life preserving. Even where the deed is spiritual, it must be berthed on earth and be humanity-based. Man makes their gods because they (gods) did something that touches them in an exceptional way.
Route to heroism
WHILE the route to the renown or greatness can be any of the aforementioned, genuine greatness is a function of the benign and creative aspect of man. In a martial or military situation, chivalry is usually the distinguishing factor. Even here, the role of creativity cannot be underestimated since a person - a soldier, an army general - has to be somewhat ingenious to outsmart his foes on the battlefield. This was the situation where supremacy was determined by how effective an individual could employ his intellect in the deployment of his brawn and weapon.
Although some kind of heroism could still be attained through a means that some might consider non-benign, civilized people, in modern times, prefer to recruit into their heroic club only those who touch the life of others positively. Whatever route is being considered towards heroism, chief among its ingredients is the ability to stand up to be counted when it matters most! At a decisive moment in the life of a society or group.
Apart from natural occurrence, most of the events that often call for exceptional rescue operation are human-induced. In modern times, it borders on man's inhumanity to man. The reason for this is found in the nature of man. Man (by this we include woman) basically tends to pursue things that would further his interests wherever he is. Position of authority has an impact on a vast majority. As such, actions taken or failed to be taken by those in authority is of great effect on the people. Political position at whatever level and in whatever garb (feudalism, monarchy, republicanism etc) is used to determine who gets what, when, where and how. Consequently, policies and deeds that are products of political decisions have no equal in their impact on those concerned. This is why even individuals or groups who are not politicians and those who have nothing to do directly with government show interest in who occupy important political offices. In positions of power, man can be likened to Chimera, a she-goat in Greek mythology with a lion's head and a serpentine tail. Man manifests the characteristics of this creature depending on the circumstance. Blaise Pascal elaborates further on this when he says of man:
What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy, judge of
all things and imbecile norm of the earth; depository of truth, a sewer of error and doubt;
the refuse of the universe. Who shall unravel this confusion that man is?
As though to justify the prominence of negativities as against positive attributes in Pascal's characterization of man, most persons in authority down the ages exhibit the beastly aspect of them more than they do the human or the divine. John Milton, the renowned English writer argues strongly against censorship in his book entitled Areopatitica. In his words, "He who kills a good book, kills reason itself." But after joining Crownwell government in 1649, Milton was among the key figures of that government who suppressed books.
At the height of the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in Nigeria, General Olusegun Obasanjo was a loud voice upbraiding President Ibrahim Babangida for not injecting human feelings into his implementation of the economic programme. In his words, government of the day should let its programme have 'milk of human kindness'. This was in 1987. Venue was the launching of Joseph Nanven Garba's book The Diplomatic Soldiering. In 1999, the critic, Obasanjo, again became president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. (He ruled the same country between 1976 and 1979 as military head of state). Just a few years into his governance as an elected president, the policies he inflicted on the people of Nigeria are not only harsh, his style of administration impoverished the people, alienated them, endangered life and property and created general sense of fear and insecurity. To worsen matters, Obasanjo not only turned deaf ears to people's lamentation, he hounded those who challenged him with the security agencies.
As Soyinka argues in his 2004 Reith Lecture (in the United Kingdom), a feeling of powerlessness is a fertile ground for terrorism to be bred - the same way that too much power can make a leader rabid. Examples abound attesting to the two claims.
Before the problem in Iran in the late 1980s, organized terrorism of international dimension was unknown. As the Middle East crisis deepens so terrorism heightens.
The seeming invincible power of the United States of America induces it to act like a drunken bull, disconcerting situations and wasting human lives and resources in various parts of the world. (At least up till the end of George Bush (Jnr)'s tenure. The hope is that Barack Obama's tenure will reverse this - as he appears to have started doing). Olusegun Obasanjo, in his days as Nigerian president, continued a tradition that reached a head in Sani Abacha days - a mind-set of absolute power. In this resides an explanation for Obasanjo's usage of this delicate instrument - power - to brutalize Nigerians just as the US was using same to brutalize virtually the rest of the world physically in some parts and psychologically in others.. Herein lies the challenges facing international advocates of humanism among whom Wole Soyinka ranks very highly.
An individual who sets out to be a literary artist, Soyinka realizes early enough in his career that neither he nor his work would be fulfilling and ennobling unless he humanizes his own world outlook and conduct. These must be complemented with a deliberate effort to ground his works on matters bordering on social ethos - political, cultural, religious, ethical and the like.
It is not surprising therefore that his first major commissioned work meant to be part of the programmes heralding Nigeria's independence celebration in 1960 is a wake-up call.
The drama piece, A Dance of the Forests, is a riddle for the nation about to take a life of its own. While implying the happy state of the dancer, the fact that this is taking place in a forest calls for caution, alertness and preparedness. The play is, in this sense, a warning to the people to be sober in their celebration and brace up for the tasks - and dangers - ahead. Tasks of building the new nation and dangers or threats that are bound to come from various sources - internal and external. Just a few years into the new nation, events keep vindicating Soyinka - regrettably. The successive events that followed - without deliberately wishing it to be so I'm sure - ultimately credit the playwright with a prescient instinct.
Another of his plays, Death and the King's Horseman brings into bold relief, the conflict arising from the meeting between Euro-Western culture and that of Africans - in this case the Yorubas. It is a work that underscores the dilemma a pact between man and god could subject the former to - discomfort and the inevitability of death. The work is also a vote for the sancrosancy of life.
Soyinka as Writer-Activist
THROUGH his various works, Soyinka returns to the issues raised in this major play - or aspects of the issues. Three of his prose works Season of Anomie, The Interpreters and Ibadan: The Penkelemis Years A Memoir 1946 - 1965 in different manners look at social, economic and political currents going on in Nigeria at critical epochs of the country. Through assorted characters, Soyinka sounds notes of warning over five basic idylls:
(1) Failure of the amalgam (Nigeria) to identify the proper route to follow in its quest to be a nation of which its people would be proud.
(2) Failure of the people to erect structures through which those in position of authority would be put in proper check.
(3) Declining culture and/or downward slide in moral values.
(4) Social upheavals inherent in youths that are not been adroitly directed and planned for.
(5) Consequences and implications of the two factors (3 & 4) just mentioned.
A proper reading of Wole Soyinka the man, as against or along with his works, reveals that the tendency to challenge whatever he regards as unwholesome is innate in the activist writer. This fact is well established by Ake: The Years of Childhood and You Must Set Out At Dawn (Bookcraft, 2006).
It is important to know that Soyinka does not limit his patriotism to Nigeria both in his works and personal commitments. A number of his creative works such as From Zia with Love, and Mandela's Earth and his being a Nobel Laureate, his being a UNESCO cultural ambassador are some of the attestations to this fact.
In his works and activities, Wole Soyinka espouses one fact of life: nothing good and enduring is obtained easily on earth. Conflict is part of life and continuous struggle is not only inevitable, it is the only way of getting ontological condition bettered. This, in itself, is nothing unique. What is exemplary in Soyinka is the fact that he neither draws back from challenges nor shies away from seemingly dangerous terrain. The trite of a person 'who treads where the angel fears to' can be said to be apt for this activist-scholar!
Observing that writing alone is not enough potent and fast enough to achieve the objective he seeks - and being convinced of the desirability, if not nobility, of his objective - Wole Soyinka throws his person into his preachments. He, for instance, is reported to have forced himself into a radio station in Ibadan, Nigeria, in the 1960s to prevent a broadcast of what would have been a misrepresentation of what actually happened in a just concluded election. The infiltration of the station was in respect of a recorded broadcast of the then western region premier, Sir Ladoke Akintola to the people. Soyinka had reasons to believe that the broadcast, if allowed, would misinform the people. He was reported to have forced his way into the studio and succeeded in disallowing the unwholesome broadcast from being aired. The propriety or otherwise of this action is not the issue here. What we want to point attention to are (i) The strength of his conviction which made him to undertake what many regarded as a suicide mission (ii) the non-selfish nature of his action - without regard to the danger it posed to his own life and person. It would be recalled that the issue involved was the alleged planned announcement of election figures that were different from the actual result on the said radio. (That Soyinka himself was not the candidate being robbed by the planned figure-distortion further underscored his selflessness and patriotism).
A few years later, he left the safe haven of his University of Ibadan campus for the east where the drum of war was being heralded. His mission was to persuade those who were preparing for war to have a change of heart. Apart from the danger inherent in this type of mission, he needed not to make it but for the massiveness of his mind and kindred spirit he has for humanity. The direct combatants in the looming war were not of his Yoruba stock let alone his sanguine relations. The aftermath of his adventure earned him over two years in solitary confinement by the federal military government of Nigeria headed by General Yakubu Gowon. It is worth reminding ourselves that this experience gave birth to the book The Man Died and many profound poems.
After his return from a self-exile in the 1970s, he continued his devotion to teaching, research, writing and humanitarian services. Disturbed by the carnage on the way, particularly on Ibadan - Ile-Ife road (he was at the then University of Ife by the time), he inspired the setting-up of road service marshal corps in the Western State where Governor David Jemibewon gave him support for the corps' operation. Its success was so visible and so monumental that the federal government later invited the Professor to start a similar body at the national level - to cover the whole country. He did. The Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) so established is not just extant still, many countries in Africa actually requested Nigeria to help them establish a simulacrum in their respective countries. Here too, the motivating factor is how lives of thousands could be saved. The step he took and the methodology were unprecedented - at least in this part of the world. His initiative and actions were exemplary.
Confronting despots and nincompoops
THE inauguration of civilian administration in Nigeria in 1979 raised hope that, at last, the most populous country in Africa is again going to set on the path of genuine nation-building. Just about two years into the first term of Shehu Shagari administration, reality dawned that most of the people at the helms of affairs in the country were not only incompetent but morally deficient. That they were no materials for a nation crying for unity and development - as such, far from being an inspiration for other developing countries. This uncomfortable realization led Soyinka to produce, among others, a musical satire entitled Ethical Revolution after a hollow programme of the same name launched by Shagari administration supposedly to induce better ethics in public officers and citizens.
The annulled presidential election of 1993 and the tyranny unleashed on the land by General Sani Abacha again got Soyinka back in the trenches. He, like some other patriots, soon became a target for elimination by the state. He had to run for dear life. But even while abroad, he was so concerned about what was going on at home that he was instrumental to the setting up of what was termed a guerrilla radio station Freedom Radio later to be later known as Radio Kudirat International (named after the martyred wife of M.K.O. Abiola, the undeclared winner of 1993 presidential election in Nigeria). The radio station was used exclusively for mirroring what was going on in Nigeria with a view to getting the international community to do something decisive about it. That the military was forced to leave was due to efforts such as this among others.
As was the case in 1979, the return of the country to a civilian rule in 1999 rekindled high hopes in Nigerians and lovers of the country. Unfortunately, three to four years into what should be democratic rule, Nigeria was worse economically, socially and politically than it was even under the military except perhaps under the Abacha's era. Even under Abacha, the economy was more stable, cost of living lower than under Obasanjo just as armed robbery was not as rampart and as morbid. Oluwole Soyinka again rolled up his sleeves to engage Nigerian leadership. His phrase that the ruling party, (Peoples Democratic Party, PDP) is a nest of murderers sums up the perception of many Nigerians. But it took a Wole Soyinka not only to voice this out but to induce deserving weight to be attached to it. The description is a metaphor for the cheapening of life under Olusegun Obasanjo's government and the sheer disdain it has for the people in general terms. This degeneracy brought about a parting of ways between Soyinka and the government to which he was a cultural consultant in the early days of the administration. He thereafter renewed his advocacy for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC). As conceived by Soyinka and other notable patriots like Chief Anthony Enahoro, the SNC was to provide a platform for the re-definition of the Nigeria nation - the terms under which the constituent parts can live together without the violent acrimony that had characterized the country in nearly two decades past. SNC could not hold as originally envisioned majorly because of the subversion by the federal government. But the patriots later instituted a Pro-National Conference (PRONACO) which more or less served the same purpose.
Soyinka's oyster is not just Nigeria. Disturbed by the carnage in various parts of the world due, in large part, to America's foreign policies, he and some other Nobel Laureates on the eve of American presidential election of 2004, came out to reprobate American President, George Bush. They urged American voters to reject Bush at the polls. This open show of disapproval of a strong personality at the international arena is uncommon in terms of timing and focus.
On the path to the pantheon
Most legends and heroes/heroines in history attained that status because of remarkable feats. As enunciated above, Soyinka has traversed various fields - and left visible marks just as Ogun, his patron god. Moremi became a heroine in Yoruba pantheon because of her salvaging mission for the people of Ile-Ife in the middle age. Inikpi attained the status of a goddess among the Idomas as a result of her paying the supreme price for the sake of her people. David attained the position of a legend and later statesman on the basis of his chivalrous performance against Palestinian Goliath in the battlefield.
The task before Wole Soyinka for the rest of his eventful life is in line with what he is already doing. It is better illustrated with a Nordic myth in which the (Viking) people regard this world as an island in constant threats from outside dangers. This island is called Midgard - meaning the kingdom in the middle. Within this lays Asgard, the domain of gods.
Outside Midgard is the Utgard, the domain of treacherous giants who employ diverse tricks in their attempt to destroy the world. One of the ways they tried to do this was to abduct Freyja, the goddess of fertility. If they succeeded, the land would become barren just as women would no longer bear children. Everything must be done to stop these evil giants. Thor (the god with a hammer for inducing rain), could use his hammer to deal with the giants; to hold them in check.
Unfortunately, the giants could not be totally destroyed, but only be held in check. This is why Thor has to be at alert all the time. Herein lies the task for the septuagenarian Soyinka and those who believe that evil forces must not triumph over good ones. Whereas some find it convenient to place the responsibility of wrestling with evil forces on the shoulder of the Supreme Being, it is important to remember that even gods have to be courted before they act. In secular, modern settings, intercessors against evil forces like tyrants are those who genuinely believe in humanity. Wole Soyinka has demonstrated that were he to be here three or four hundred years ago, he would qualify as a creature capable of intervening for human beings - thus a veritable candidate for a position in the pantheon of gods. But this is not the pre-enlightenment era - Wole Soyinka's current society is 'modern'. He should be content with being a hero - and ultimately a legend for all times.
The path to that he already chosen. The means of sustaining the image and perhaps surpass himself is, ironically, to strive even more! Particularly now that efforts of spirits like him seem not to have succeeded in stopping giants from Asgard to come into leadership positions to inflict pain on human beings. Having failed to abduct and possibly assassinate Freyja or Yemoja or Orisaoko (goddess of fertility/goddess of fertile soil), the evil spirits incarnate into human forms and constitute boils on the otherwise smooth skin. They stick out pointedly where they are and cause painful inflammations in parts of the body. George Bush in America, Sani Abacha in Nigeria, Malawian's Banda, Samuel Doe of Liberia, Shah Palavi of Iran, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and the most sadistic leader Nigeria ever had in her recent history who was supposed to operate a democracy, Olusegun Obasanjo. These people seem to be determined to hold citizens of (their) nations up for invisible vampires of wealth, ego and power-mongering to suck and decimate.
It is incumbent on Soyinka and his ilk to ensure that by the time they change mortality for immortality, they are not only sanctified, they create or induce sizeable devotees who would continue to sacrifice to their humane-biased spirits just as users and wielders of iron sacrifice to Ogun perennially. The greatest means of minimizing evil is to have an army of idealistic resistants. Soyinka has been quite inspiring in this regard. He should, by the time he is 80, 90 and 100, be able to look back and gloat over the sanity prevalent in the land and the number of acolytes already carrying on where the transmutating hero is physically retiring from.
The incumbent power wielders in Nigeria under Umar Shehu Yar Adua have shown that they could be as insensitive, if not as mean, as any vampire. Happenings on the political arena in Nigeria, Niger, Congo, Zimbabwe etc keep vindicating the Soyinkas, Frantz Fanons and Walter Rodneys on the issue of state and nation. Those in governments at any point in time otherwise called 'the state', has always, to quote Soyinka, "historically opposed to nation-becoming, even while spouting nationalist fervour. (They) will always act in (their) own interest, not in the interest of the nation entity."
What needed to be done to ensure that a nation is built is to make governments accountable. This can only be done not by being aloof but by showing keen interest in how the state is ran; even though those in-there would want to restrict the space.
As we celebrate this icon through whom the Nobel Prize for Literature first came to Africa, the challenge is that we all should be able to remember that eternal vigilance is the price for freedom. The good thing is that Soyinka is not one who runs away from challenges. He is aware of the fact that rulers are not necessarily in pursuit of the best interest of the citizens as he remarked in a March 2009 lecture quoted at the beginning of this piece. He is constantly urging the citizens to safeguard themselves and make governments to be pro-people. Luckily, he is prepared - as ever - to be part of this 'Vigilant Group' if not actually leading it - despite being aware of the dangers involved. Our task is to encourage people like him, support them and insist on participation since a preparedness to dare is inevitable if the society is to break new grounds and forge ahead progressively.
A writer, essayist and journalist, Jare Ajayi is executive director African Agency for an enhanced Socio-Ethics and Traditional Order (ASETO), an NGO based in Ibadan, Oyo State and former Assistant General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).