Title: Interventions II: We The People…!
Author: Wole Soyinka
Publisher: Bookcraft, Ibadan; 2005
Reviewer: Damola Awoyokun
WHERE THE STRESS FALLS
There are people who eat Nigeria and eat all the people in it. And there are others, who stand around and watch them eat. It begins this sho(r)tgun collection of the essays, with the voice of recollection, of ambiguity and that of detected deceit. A voice so attractively superior, reflective, unassumingly learned, and cheeky:
“There were not many illusions left when the starting pistol was fired for the democratic race after the termination, in 1998, of that unspeakable dictatorship that many had sworn could never overtake that nation called Nigeria.”
That year, 1998, was the year of rapid reversals. The unspeakable dictatorship is that of the dark goggled unspeakable monster. But who are the many that had sworn that such a dictatorship would not overtake a nation called Nigeria? Again a pertinent distinction: the phrase ‘a nation called Nigeria’ suggests that there is a disconnect between ‘what is’ and the name ‘what is’ is called. That Nigeria is what it is being called is one for the not many illusions being referred to. The opening move continues:
“You could say that Nigeria was grouped into two set of believers…” who again is this voice that could divide a complex structure so confidently, put it into our mouths and still lead us on? It is like the voice of ‘that many that had sworn’; it is the voice of the angel of public interest, Wole Soyinka. But do many really believe an unspeakable dictatorship could never overtake Nigeria, talk less of swearing to it? No, I don’t think so; with proof. The starting pistol, ‘a blatant act of fraud’, that was fired, his is smoking gun.
The Democratic Transit is the first official essay in this public lectures-turned-booklet. It recounts, comments, and critiques. To recount is to voice, to cast memories into language; to critique is to offer language – both its body and soul – up for scrutiny based on an agreed standard of interest, ethical or moral. Soyinka recounts how the heavyweights of the democratic forces that ensured General Abacha knew no rest nor sleep met with the seemingly coolheaded General Abulsalami in New York; and how they tabled before him, the need for Nigeria to have a government of national unity and a sovereign national conference. General Abusalalmai, the essay reports, listened with respectful amusement, a kind of tolerant understanding. But when he got back to Nigeria he did something totally out of phase. This should not be surprising; after all when IBB then Nigerian military president, the commander in chief of the armed forces, the most powerful person in Nigeria, annulled the most meaningful election in Nigerian’s history he said ‘his hands were tied.’ By who? Either in military or civilian government, there has always been a micro-clique of power at the top of the food chain.
Soyinka with the UDFN/NADECO/JACON gang was requesting decency not from an indecent institution, but from a constituently obscene one. The late Bola Ige argued that the only requirement we want from the regime of Abulsalami was just to hand over power however the constitution. What is not acceptable is to say that Nigeria is making a transition to a democracy. What was happening was transition to a civilian rule. During the civil rule, Ige continued, we can then make a demand of democracy, putting its structures in place, a government of national unity, a national conference to produce a people’s constitution. Whose viewpoint is (more) right? Ige who argued that it was incorrect to task the reluctantly outgoing military lest they find a justification to hang on or Soyinka who in addition, lambasts the politicians for accepting to participate in a so-called democratic race, to preside over a country whose rules they do not know? Is it from the failed start that six years after, Nigeria is yet to have a democracy culture? Six years after, Nigeriastill has a constitution forced down their throats rather than one evolving from the diverse voices of the people. Yet it starts with a preamble, ‘We, the people…’
The second essay is a rallying call that gives the book its title, We The People…!. It opens with the living voice of the distinguished legal icon, Rotimi Williams being the first to draw attention to the 419 preamble that was glued to the opening page of the constitution. Then to the voice of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French political philosopher: “any law which the people have not ratified is void; indeed it is no law at all.” Then Soyinka deploys the voice of the ‘martyred president-elect’, MKO Abiola: ‘you cannot shave a man’s head in his absence.’ The ‘you’ is the military; the ‘shave’ is to beautify; the ‘man’ is the people; the ‘absence’ is the meetings of Mohammed/Obasanjo/Buhari’s Supreme Military Council, Babangida’s Armed Forces Ruling Council, and Abacha/ Abdulsalami’s Provisional Ruling Council. Then to the author’s voice inconsistently conducted in first and third persons, and the voice of June 12; then to the voice of examples and hindsight and the reported voices of Governor George Bush on the high rate of capital punishment in his Texas and that of President Bill Clinton when the prurient impeachment proceeding was set on him.
Curiously, the three major essays in this volume tend to excuse themselves boldly from a severe analytical skill of a Mamood Mamdani, and embrace the garrulous Bill Clinton of My Life: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations undermined by self-indulgence, scattered concentration; exhausting rather than exhaustive.
Unlike Bala Usman who thinks the country’s problem is primarily vertical: that of ever- widening economic disparities and hence, a solution must start from this premise, to Soyinka, the constitution should be the astute captain that will take the ship of the country through trouble waters or difficult storms to safe berth; a mother that desires the best for all her children however their age, strength or endowments. A good constitution should hear the voices of the people and speak their languages. It should elect justice, equality and human rights: political, social and economic rights.
Unlike Kayode Fayemi who in his edited book, Deepening the Culture of Constitutionalism, insists on habitually consulting the constitution as bedrock to consolidate democracy, Soyinka worries about what sort of constitution. Like Fayemi, Soyinka expresses preference for an option that is rather thin to support the weight of democracy. Democracy does not just happen; it needs a certain level of political discipline and moral features in the populace and the politicians. No constitution, nor law nor any free and fair election will by themselves assure equilibrium in a society where it is normal to persist in the pursuit of one’s interest or interests enticingly foreign to morality. When the people of power act out the rust at the core of their lives, when there is a general devaluation of values, when the politicians cannot be defined by or remain steadfast to any principle whatsoever, neither democracy nor constitutionalism can be sustained.
In his essay in The New York Review of Books (September 24, 1998), shortly afte he was reefed from Abacha’s gulag, General Olusegun Obasanjo called Nigeria, ‘a country of anything goes’. My point is: Democracy cannot grow in a country where anything goes. “Nigeria,” Obasanjo says of the Abacha era, “was reduced to a police state: a big prison with gallows, where intimidation, assassination, and deprivation were the instrument of misgovernance… by a sadistic, apparently mentally deranged, corrupt, incompetent and arrogant, and ruthless military dictator. The question on almost everybody’s lips was: why? What went wrong in a country of well over one hundred million people which used to take pride in its large educated and cultured population?” We only need to change the verbs into present tense to appreciate why democratic rule prefers to be elusive. Many of the politicians who stood on the democratic mandate of June 12, turned around later to prostrate before General Abacha. Ojo Maduekwe was one of those who travelled out with the president-elect on his mission to mobilize international support for the disannulment of June 12. He later joined in asking for Abacha to rule for life in that notorious New York speech. Like all those who have supported and profited from repressive regimes in Nigeria, he is still in government today. Chief Tony Anenih, the chairman of SDP, the platform on which Abiola won the election, practically handed over the party to ‘the evil one’ when he came to power.
Prof Bolaji Akinyemi personally wrote General Sani Abacha then a defence minister in the Interim National Government, to rude into the affairs of the nation during the tumultuous aftermath of the June 12 annulment. One wonders how many invitation letters are today being sent to the military. In this booklet, Interventions II, the author offers another tease of an irony or, absurdity: Arthur Nzeribe, one of the arrowheads used by the military to annul the most meaningful of all elections was on the high table at a conference to discuss with him, democratic consolidation in Nigeria! He is a senator. Moreover in the concluding essay, Soyinka says of Prof Omo Omoruyi, the architect of the Babangida transition programme as one of “impeccable credentials.” He spoke forcefully and tirelessly against the military and offered patriotic revelations on the politics of oil, of the inner workings of Babangida’s government vis-à-vis the northern oligarchy that eventually led to June 12 annulment. In fact, “Omoruyi was the victim of an assassination attempt and nearly lost his life even for the quite modest attempt that he made to divert the headlong rush of the nation to the edge of precipice.” Ladies and gentlemen, it is worthy to note that Prof Omo Omoruyi is now the chief strategist of General Babangida’s 2007 takeover. “The military do not act alone. They are supported by a gaggle of politicians, lawyers, judges, academics and businessmen, all of them hiding under the claim that they are only doing their duty, men and women too afraid to wash their pants of their urine,” Ken Saro Wiwa says in his sermon from the dock. Sani Abacha was a shining example of our collective moral leprosy.
Prof Wole Soyinka is a permanent fight between power and the people’s interest. His obsessions are anchored on social justice. Fine. But he is a person of stature who is yet to add fresh thinking to the national question or important debates. Exhibit one: Soyinka rightly criticises The Patriots for daring to suggest a single-6yrs presidency saying, “We should not because of incidentals tamper with the fundamentals.” What changes fundamentals if not incidentals? (This is why the constitution is a ‘living document’.) Then can fundamentals guide incidentals. Soyinka does not give us his take on the matter. As usual, he correctly observes, analyses and gives the biography of Nigeria’s problems then argues for a Sovereign National Conference but he refrains from offering the specifics of his own solutions. A 4year double presidency? Is it in federalism, confederalism, parliamentary democracy or a benevolent dictatorship ofChina or that of the earlier Singapore or the Jerry Rawlings option or a people’s revolution?
Soyinka sees financial corruption in the legislature and aptly flays it but none is done to the presidency’s. Soyinka unlike Soyinka, tactically avoids criticising President Obasanjo? The reason still baffles commonsense. Instead, if any, he shares the criticism out on the institution and none to the leader; especially in the forging of election results and on INEC -the official votes exchange market trading votes like stock; the handling of the Bola Ige’s case; the Oputa Panel Report; Abacha’s stolen billions; even on the conduct of the legislators: were they correct on their observations but wrong on the solution of impeachment?
What is worse, not for typos or grammatical errors, but Wole Soyinka blames the whole substance of a presidential inaugural speech on the speech writers not the president. Even if a governor sends his chief of staff to represent him at any function, the speech that that chief of staff writes and read is always regarded as the governor’s. In this case, the president read a speech and a Nobel laureate is putting the blame on and responding to the speech writers. Imagine holding White House speech writers accountable for the substance of the State of the union address making a case for a war in Iraq even when President’s Bush’s take on the issue had been known from earlier interviews and public statements? Deconstructing a Diatribe opens thus:
“The presidency’s speech writers are clearly no believers in clarity of intent as a working partner of public communication…”
Yet the issues or non-issues Obasanjo raises in that speech are serious: his rigging of history and outright lies, setting absurd limits to the scope of the National Reform Conference; redefinition of popular democracy and the invectives on the advocates of sovereign national conference. The peroration with which the essay concludes delivers more surprise:
“Speech writers should spare us gratuitous insertions of propositions that neither illuminate nor advance a purposeful agenda. No one has advocated a return to a model of the Greek city states, nor proposed a simultaneous…. Pronouncing faceless enemies guilty of ‘reifying ethnicity’ merely exhibits…”
He is still addressing speech writers:
“The point of these concluding observations is simply to expose the dangers inherent in rushing what should be a methodical process to the point of execution – from research, to logistical bolts and…” Enough!
The author, in the first essay, signs off with the vintage Chinua Achebe and a muffled voice. “With centralism, the centre cannot hold– and you are all familiar with the prediction that is the logical consequence of that lament Things fall apart.” Last year Prof Achebe refused a national award, saying patriotically, “Nigeria is too dangerous for silence.” It is impossible to delay speaking out. But what happens when according to Soyinka, our voices have been stolen? Or better put, we have allowed our voices to be stolen?
However, what is missing in his lectures or any of his textual activism is the connection between political instability and the economic welfare quality of the average Nigerian life which is an insult to the possibilities of development. Because they are given as public lectures (one to a serious conference, one a birthday lecture another to a gathering in the US but later retouched and updated), one may excuse the expected discursiveness of scholarly rigour and its inadequacy of academic support. His language is not cumbersome rather they are spells that agitates and make thoughts grow even when the essays are fattened by digressions instead of cutting deep and holding onto something solid.
Finally, in none of these essays does Soyinka acquire adequate conviction to confront the people. Nigeria is messy because the leaders do not fear the people and the people do not present themselves as fearable. Comprehensive pain that should make things happen persists in full vigour from corner to corner in Nigeria but the people do not have the sufficient rage against this oppressive system. Either it is an abuse of pain or a miracle of obedience. The author offers a hint at this when he called the ‘people’s silence’, a ‘deceptive one’; but it is still silence. To be neutral, to be passive, to be silent in a situation is to collaborate with whatever is going on. In France during the revolution, the guillotine was not only made to serve revolutionary virtue, it became the most patriotic Frenchman! The poignant image Soyinka summons in Deceptive Silences of Stolen Voices is Dare Babarinsa’s book, A House at War. History harbours abundant voices of appropriate examples. It is where the stress falls.
Damola Awoyokun, of AllyNee, Ibadan delivered this piece at the colloquium of the 7th Lagos Book Fair.