Sunday, 21 January 2018
Soyinka’s New Year Message: It’s Your Struggle Now

Soyinka’s New Year Message: It’s Your Struggle Now

In the final chapter of You Must Set Forth At Dawn, the fulsome account of his leading role in the struggle against the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka constructs a detailed narrative of his return to Nigeria in 1998, following the tyrannical soldier’s death. Focusing on the manner that the crowd of admirers received him at the Lagos airport, he writes of a critical moment when his concern for the crowd deliriously morphs into wonder about his own safety:

“A fear that my arm might be torn out of its sockets—Haven’t I been here before?—is soon submerged under the greater fear that some of the crowd might get knocked down or be trampled upon. The scene seemed primed for inevitable disaster, and it’s only now a matter of what form of injuries many would sustain. Then again I find myself compelled to direct my concerns to myself—it has become obvious that this very idiot, fast losing his balance while worrying over others, would prove the likeliest casualty.”

My mind returned to this passage in the book as I reflected on Soyinka’s most recent intervention—the public statement he issued last week in response to the current fuel shortage in Nigeria.

That statement was preceded by days of Nigerians hankering, mostly on social media, after the writer’s “responsibility” to own up to his endorsement of candidate Muhammadu Buhari in the 2015 presidential elections. As president, the argument goes, Buhari is an unmitigated embarrassment. In their simplistic but understandable view, those Nigerians—a collection of perennial malcontents, beneficiaries of the lootocracy of the previous government, opportunists staking a place for their turn to eat come 2019, and others—must be dragged out to account for the disaster of the current government. Better that such individual be recognisable from his head of white hair, and it matters less that white hair is proof of old age!

This simplistic view is understandable because what Nigerians as a crowd of faceless people want is a sacrificial goat, a carrier to clean up the mess that they have created through an unchanging habit of mindless indulgence. Beating the bush to smoke Soyinka out is an act of indulgence, and as the man said with an imaginative clarity that is unique to him, no endowment is beyond shortage: a time will come when there are no Soyinkas to scapegoat.

This is what the writer means by the italicised question in the passage quoted above: a lifetime of finding himself at the mercy of a community in need of cleansing but too hypocritical to ask itself to do the cleaning.

Soyinka’s repeated act of standing up and speaking out is thus an exhortation to Nigerians to take personal responsibility seriously. Honouring the memory of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa in Lagos in August 2000, Soyinka performed a small ceremony of symbolically passing a baton to the younger generation. The message was something in the manner of “It’s Your Struggle Now.”

He has been there before, yes. Whenever I think about Soyinka’s political interventions, one image fastens itself to the screen of memory: the character in Greek mythology torn into pieces by the hands throwing and catching him in a dance of appreciation of his courageous acts.

But for the vigilance of Providence resolved to repay the morality of the self-sacrificing by keeping that self intact, Soyinka would have perished in the 22-month ordeal of his imprisonment during the Nigerian civil war. As Soyinka went from hand to hand, from the prison in Kaduna to a jailer in Lagos, Nigerians died helplessly on both sides of the war, and Nigerians lined their own pockets with cash and gold because the war was just another opportunity for acquiring spoils.

How does one spend months in solitary confinement without losing one’s mind?

Several years before his arrest in 1967, Soyinka wrote a play titled The Strong Breed, about the ritual of the carrier—identifying someone, often a stranger, to use as the bearer of the sins of one’s community. In the play, the carrier is a character named Eman, who is picked upon because he stands up in defence of a child both orphaned and disabled. (The play has been made into a fine film, So Be It (1997), by Joseph Ramaka, the Senegalese cineaste). Rereading the play recently, I was stunned by something that the protagonist tells his girlfriend: “A man must go on his own, go where no one can help him, and test his strength. Because he may find himself one day sitting alone in a hut as round as that.”

The writer of those words would find himself sitting alone in a tiny cell for months on end, with thoughts as his sole companions. One might say that he understood his responsibilities well enough to seem to have prepared for them.

Self-sacrifice is ultimately about enhancing one’s personality, and this explains why self-sacrificing individuals tend to triumph over adversity. A society’s need for carriers is a different matter, a pretext for the deep desire to hide the inability to look critically at itself.
Soyinka’s repeated act of standing up and speaking out is thus an exhortation to Nigerians to take personal responsibility seriously. Honouring the memory of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa in Lagos in August 2000, Soyinka performed a small ceremony of symbolically passing a baton to the younger generation. The message was something in the manner of “It’s Your Struggle Now.” Some of those present at the ceremony had also played their part in the opposition to the Abacha dictatorship in various ways, so they got the message.

The point of this recall is that Soyinka, a self-described glutton for tranquility, would rather not put himself in the position of the sole carrier of our collective mess—and not out of lacking the liver. Those who speak up at moments of seeming collective paralysis do so as a way of nudging society out of complacency: if you don’t talk your own one day of course you must die!

Some of Soyinka’s heedless critics on social media in the days before his statement on the fuel crisis pointed to his endorsement of Buhari as a result of his association with some stalwarts of the ruling All Progressives’ Congress (APC).

This is the harsh truth. When the playwright turned eighty in 2014, I was invited to contribute to a special magazine issue to mark that milestone. I concluded my brief essay with this sentence: “I would rather that Soyinka resists the periodic enticements from ruthless power-mongers, the kind that brought him within inches of the scandal of hobnobbing with the former President Ibrahim Babangida in Benin City in April 2010.”

The harsh truth is also the opportunistic perspective of the champions of a carrier culture psychologically unwilling to hold itself to account. We might be lucky to have Soyinka the culture-hero, one of those rare gifts nature brought to us. We would be luckier, though, if we roused ourselves to the recognition that sentient beings like him are warning signs that we take control of our fate.

And so the Pyrates chant:

Otito ni yoo leke o,
Ologbon jogun aye…

May truth ever triumph,
The sentient gain the world!

Akin Adesokan teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.

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