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Wole Soyinka’s hardtalk

By Rotimi Fasan

WOLE Soyinka was in the news last week for a comment he made to Zainab Badawi on Hardtalk, an interview programme on the British Broadcasting Service, BBC. Badawi started by asking if Soyinka thought his generation of older Nigerians have failed the people and he responded in the affirmative. The hope that led many in his generation who studied abroad to rush back home to join in the transformation of Nigeria, he said, has not materialised. This very aspect of the interview framed most of the headlines in the newspapers that reported it. This was, perhaps, so because Soyinka’s response was a restatement of a well-known remark of his made during celebrations of his 50th birthday in July 1984. Soyinka had then described his generation as wasted. Badawi probably had this statement at the back of her mind when she asked him the question about the failed hopes of his generation. Some mentally lazy people, determined to hold him responsible for the failures of the Buhari administration probably saw his response as a personal confession of guilt.

hardtalk, Wole Soyinka
Festival consultant Professor Wole Soyinka delivers a speech during the opening of the fourth edition of African drum festival at the Abeokuta city centre amphitheatre in Ogun State, southwest Nigeria, on April 25, 2019. – The fourth edition of African drum festival with theme “Drumming for Futureî has opened with international workshops by culture scholars and performances by troupes from various regions across the world in Abeokuta, southwest Nigeria. (Photo AFP)

He was also asked if he thought the two leading contenders in the 2019 presidential election, Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar, had also failed the people? Soyinka said that the election was one of the most depressing he ever experienced and it was impossible for him to make a choice between the two candidates owing, respectively, to their past and immediate ‘history’. Asked why he, a well-known pro-democracy advocate, could support Buhari, a former military general Soyinka had called a ‘born again’ democrat in the build-up to the 2015 elections, Soyinka again responded that Buhari did not actually win the 2015 presidential election, or rather, had won it ‘by default’ as it was impossible to continue with Goodluck Jonathan. He went on to say he had described Buhari as a born-again democrat for standing for election four consecutive times.

Soyinka said much more in this 23 minutes conversation, remarking also on literature and his detention in solitary confinement during the Nigerian Civil War. There was thus background to much of what he said in the BBC interview. However, last week’s headlines were cast against the backdrop of his comments about the failed hopes of his generation. This became immediate grist to the mill of internet trolls. They chose, as usual, to deviate from the meat and context of Soyinka’s comments to indulge themselves in their pastime of hurling at him insulting remarks that were informed by neither intelligence, nuance nor the slightest notion that they knew anything of his history as a public intellectual, activist or writer. A few things that I have observed in comments about Soyinka in the last four years were again immediately obvious from the blog responses.

First, it was clear that most of the responses were from young Nigerians; second, the responses lacked depth for the very reason that they veered off the point at issue and third, Nigerians from the South-East made most of the negative comments, which is rather ironic given the role Soyinka played and the price he had to pay for this in what was no doubt the darkest moment in the collective experience of the Igbo in the Nigerian post-colony. In spite of the long history of his activism, going now into its eighth decade, I am yet to see what foot Soyinka placed wrongly to warrant the disgraceful hostility that has characterised the attitude of some Nigerians to him in recent times, particularly those from the South-East.

Most of the responses to his BBC interview were bereft of any sense of history except, perhaps, in the contemporary context of what happened in the last four years. This too reflected a dismal picture of irresponsible thinking that is as much wilful as it is a result of dogma born of hate. Whatever these young Nigerians have been reading or whoever has been feeding them the kind of lies that is leading them into the self-destructive, dead-end of their unguided and baseless anger, does a lot of damage to the future and unity of this country. However, these Nigerians, especially the young ones amongst them, owe themselves the duty of finding out the truth for themselves. More importantly, they must locate the true source of their misguided hostility. Soyinka is the wrong customer to pick for this type of attack for many reasons that space would not permit me to elaborate.

Demand real and lasting change

My comments here are not to defend Soyinka. His standing as a writer of world renown, an activist of no mean pedigree and scholar of profound intellect, speak for themselves. His achievements, both personal and those made on behalf of us all, will continue to be relevant long after he would have departed this side of the eternal pendulum. They need no advertisers. Shame, therefore, on his traducers who for no worthy reason have been trying in vain to sully the name of one of the most iconic Nigerians, a national and global treasure that has given and continues to give of his prodigious intellect and energy at a time when he should be in well-deserved retirement. What could be his crime? For many of these contemptible upstarts, it is no more than the fact that Soyinka, not as much as supported Buhari as that he refused to endorse Jonathan in the 2015 election. Even if the necessity of this choice could not overturn the idiocy of his critics, if his right of choice could not be respected, should that lead them into the criminal foolishness to blemish the lifelong contribution of one of Nigeria’s most consistent intellectuals and activists of the public space?

The attempt to dismiss flippantly Soyinka’s contribution, although forever doomed to failure, injures our collective sense of what constitutes patriotism. Soyinka is a Nigerian original and hero for his selfless service to our flawed nation. He is not and has never been a government contractor. He has remained steadfast to his calling as an intellectual. What more can he give? The closest he came to holding a ‘government’ office was as chair of the Road Safety Corps, an outfit he founded as a volunteer organisation to stem the carnage on our roads before government took it over. His symbolic rejection of Donald Trump’s nationalism by giving up his green card was lost on the mob instinct of a Yahoo-yahoo generation that would rather iconise con artists and common thieves stealing women’s underclothes when not murdering them for money-making rituals.

As for those who say he has gone silent because, at nearly 90, he is not leading anti-Buhari demonstrations under a cloud of tear gas, let such imbeciles tell us what their own grandparents,  Soyinka’s contemporaries, are doing now or have done for Nigeria at any time in the past.

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