A text of the paper delivered by Prof. Soyinka at the just-concluded South-south Economic Summit in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria.
I must begin by thanking you for the honour of this invitation to address you. I am glad that I did not have to decline, pleading the truthful excuse that I am, unfortunately, still saddled with a heavy load of unfinished business elsewhere. In any case, I have come to accept that it is a condition of human existence to be saddled with this particular affliction - unfinished business – that sense of an incomplete mission.
The difference between one individual and the next is perhaps that some know this, while others do not. With individuals, this distinction does not matter a great deal. We go into retirement with a sigh of mission accomplished, convinced that one’s self-imposed, fortuitous, or mysteriously transmitted mission in life has indeed been fulfilled. Or perhaps we simply shrug our shoulders in resignation, saying, ‘Enough is enough, let others take over from here.’ No matter the variant, we are still buried with our own self-assessment, accurate or misconceived.
A sense of mission, and the identification of such a mission varies from individual to individual, from institution to institution, from community to community, with or without relationship to one’s social status or formal responsibilities. For instance, you might read that the United Nations is sending a fact-finding mission to the Sudan to check on al-Bashir’s compliance with its latest directives. Or that Amnesty International has sent a fact-finding mission to Burma, to see whether the Burmese military dictators were truly easing up on their stranglehold on Burmese democracy, ensure that the mere concession of an electoral exercise, or the release of the opposition leader Aung Suu Kyi, is not mere cosmetic, an excuse to clamp others into detention or retain despotic powers by other means. Peace missions, or peace initiatives – sometimes known, in the latest Nigerian parlance as Peace Advocacy - are also just as commonplace.
A former head of state in this nation went on what he considered a peace advocacy mission to a group of rampaging psychopaths who had laid siege to the nation. We may argue from here to eternity about the appropriateness of that motion, especially its timing, but at least he had some credentials for his undertaking, and it would appear that the proposal came from some of those who thought – rationally or with pathetic naiivette – that he might play a useful role in stemming the tide of blood. The former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, was sent on a mission to Syria, in an attempt to stop the Butcher of Damascus using his people for target practice, and endeavour to bring both sides to the negotiating table. Peace missions - or advocacy - come in various shapes and guises. Quite a number of them are self-ascribed. Many successful ones, such as that undertaken by a little known Irish group, worked quietly, unpublicized but effectively to bring an end to the decades long civil war in Mozambique.
By contrast there are others which only end up afflicting their target areas with all the bristling paraphernalia of war, appropriate to themselves a disproportionate amount of the security resources of a nation to inflict peace on a perfectly peaceful environment, and with maximum gaudiness and ostentation. Variously also deflected as a thank-you mission, they move from state to state with all the extravagant baggage and panoply of feudal potentates visiting vassal states.
They seize up traffic in throbbing commercial capitals, bring all motion to a halt, insisting on a gift of peace on a state which never evinced any indications of warfare nor asked for peace evangelism. The places where the nation may be said to have be at war are known all over the world, not just within Nigeria, but they do not venture there. No, it is to states which are in the throes of peace, which evince no need of peace healing, that the ministrations of such peace physicians lead what end up memorably as carnivalesque caravans of disruption.
Traffic is tied up. Security is tied up. Productive motion is tied up. Commerce is tied up. Governance is tied up. Individual, corporate, even leisure schedules are tied up - all to pander to bristling head-ties tied up in a floating parade of gorgeous fabric, sterile, provocative and contemptuous of the rights of others to their own desperate mission, the mission of generating the life-sustaining morsel for family and self.
A vanity parade born perhaps of boredom or a feeling of neglect, this banal extravaganza, which attained obscene heights with the military, has transferred to our supposedly democratic environment under various pretexts, guzzling funds and guzzling the productive time of others. Productive motion is held to a standstill and citizen rights are trampled upon.
This disrespectful misappropriation of public space that exists primarily for the movement of goods and humanity, especially by the unelected, by mere appendages to constitutional power, has become a culture of spousal aggression and can only beget a response of disrespect and ridicule from those it most affects.
There are numerous, far more creatively effective ways of bringing the train of peace evangelism to places in need, or not in need, and these do not involve the usurpation of the daily mission of millions by the mission of any one individual.
Where were we? Oh yes, we were embarking on the theme of missions. Every individual does have, or is entitled to have his or her own self-assessment of the level of achievement of a life mission – it does not matter in the least what that mission might be.
The sense of satisfaction in the fulfillment of that mission, or regrets about its non-fulfillment remains primarily an individual assessment, and one that accompanies each individual to his or her grave. With nations however, there is little room for such indifference, and the reason is simple: individuals vanish but nations endure – at least in one form or another - and nations impact on the quality of existence of each transient occupant. Each occupant therefore has a stake in the fortunes of the nation, a stake that, proportionately speaking, equates the eternity that we have optimistically conceded to the life-span of the nation.
The unfinished business of nation being is thus not one to which we, as individuals, can afford to remain indifferent. In many more ways than we like to admit, the nation defines its citizen. This means that the citizen remains unfinished, a creature in the limbo of identity, leading an improvised, unsecured and uncertain existence, until the nation itself can boast of a recognizable and functional identity.
I do not refer merely to unfinished business as in governance business - policy making, planning, execution, and so on. No, I refer to that far more fundamental, unobtrusive, but nonetheless comprehensive seizure of nation being. Some nations are wise enough to acknowledge their state of incompletion, and take steps - even while the business of governance remains uninterrupted - to tackle this essential business head on, addressing the very history that brought them into being and examining the factors - both positive and negative - that have shaped their existence since they began to recognise, and conduct themselves as nations.
Others muddle on, immured in an impenetrable carapace of complacency. They list their achievements, both internal and external - economic buoyancy, a prestigious foreign policy, low level of unemployment, a highly literate society, eradication of diseases, uninterrupted electric power, potable water and other indices of enhanced civic life, even IMF and World Bank approbation etc. etc - as proof of the claim that they have “arrived”, and can confidently assess themselves as nations, beyond the mere naming.
They refuse to recognise that some at least - not necessarily all but some part - of a suppressed social malaise or political fractiousness can be traced to the basic issue of the unfinished aspect of their self-constitutive process. This includes those who cannot boast of even these medals of achievement, those who, long after any self-respecting nation should have been weaned, continue to insist that their endemic negative symptoms are merely “teething problems.” Such nations are clearly on a self-destruct trajectory.
Permit me to cite as analogy the ordeal of one my children who, one day, during a routine basket ball game, collapsed and passed out. Until then, he had experienced intermittent breathing problems – they were put down as mild attacks of asthma and allergy – you know, increase in pollen counts with seasonal changes and so on. Until then however, nothing as drastic as an actual faint had ever occurred. Fortunately, one of the paramedics who were called to the scene felt that this was more than a mere asthmatic attack, or equally benign incident – and so began a series of tests which merely increased the bafflement of the diagnostic clinics and their specialists
A period of round-the-clock monitoring was prescribed. He was banned from any further sporting activities and was strapped to a gadget that communicated directly to an emergency centre for any sign of recurrence. No matter where he was, a fully equipped ambulance was on call, ready to rush him to a clinic in case of a life-threatening recurrence – all this, while various images of his heart, lungs, full body and brain scans were subjected to analysis. The trouble was that some of these scans gave off contradictory images, which simply drove the doctors to distraction.
In the end, the mystery was solved. His condition was a heart tumour, but not just any tumour. It was that uncommon type which has a habit of sinking back into the wall tissues of the heart, and then pulsing outwards, so that sometimes the instruments showed only one, but at other times, two or three growths. Evidently these extrusions would sometimes impede the regular flow of blood, which had led to his passing out in the first instance. In one of these sophisticated machines, one could actually watch the tumour change shape and contours, flattening back invisibly into the wall. The option had already been decided upon - open-heart surgery – but it was necessary to do a thorough study of the behaviour of this pulsating growth before embarking on the drastic process.
That decision was only the beginning. The surgical team had to go back to school – that is, they were compelled to look up prior cases, consult surgeons who had carried out similar operations. Video recordings were exchanged. Finally, D-day. It was, I must confess, an unnerving experience to see your son’s heart taken out of his body while he was attached to an artificial heart that kept the blood pumping to his system. As if that was not enough, we learnt that, after the heart was re-attached and resuscitated, it suddenly stopped beating. Injections, administration of electric shocks – the surgeons did what they were trained to do and he survived.
Now, why have I bothered to go into details? Simply to ensure that you do not overlook the mission that has – I presume – brought us here today. The realities that compelled you – again, presumably – to demand of yourselves what is missing from the delivery of responsible governance and thus, seek strategies for their fulfillment. You know that if that youth had been in our part of the world, he would be long dead. And that applies to many deficiencies that your citizens face – not merely in terms of the quality of life they lead, but even the very threats to survival in numerous fields of routine activities.
That is Lesson One. Many here have at least one such story of deliverance, of an extract from real life that barely escaped tragedy. Others were not so lucky. The stories they have to tell did not have such a happy ending. We must not however lose sight of the analogy, which goes deeper than the incidental vagary of the health of one individual, but concerns the corporate body.
Even the greatest pundits can be wrong about the health of any organism - human, institutional, or national. I am speaking here of the deceptiveness of appearances – those of you who are soccer addicts would have read recently of the collapse and death of an Italian player – my eye caught the news because the story reached backwards to refer to similar tragedies, sudden deaths of other athletes who had evinced no sign whatsoever of a weakness in their anatomy.
It happens all the time. This nation must surely recall the shocking case of Kanu. Institutions are no different – just see how the banking system in the most advanced countries suddenly collapsed, creating a domino effect that saw seemingly robust economies collapse one after the other. But here again, we are still speaking simply of parts of a functioning totality, not the entirety. A deep malaise may defy the most astute diagnostic minds, leading to a complacent reading of its state of health. If however, there is a sound, fundamental structure that holds the totality together, that totality will override flawed mechanisms of the parts – this is what is pulling many European nations out of the rut. Lucky, therefore, is that entity that is urged from time to time to examine and re-examine the very walls, tissues and muscles of the heart that pump blood into its system. That it is beating sturdily does not mean that there are no tumours embedded within its very interstices, waiting its moment to strike while bounding confidently from one field of undertaking to the next, overriding one hidden trauma after another, but progressively weakened by each trauma inducing experience.
Most mortals do need to be left alone to find their feet after any traumatic experience. The nation is no different, the most enfeebling traumatic experiences in the Nigerian instance being both the civil war and years of military rule. There is also the affliction of illegitimacy –the dubious legitimacy of a large percentage of representatives of the people’s supposed political will at the centre, at the federal and national assemblies and even in the lodges of executive governors.
The percentage of occupational illegitimacy did admittedly decrease over the last elections but, we still do know, and they know that we know, that even in a seventy-five percent perfect election, properly conducted, a vast number of the present ‘honourables’, senators and governors, could never have caught the sheerest whiff of the wood varnish on the seats they now occupy.
Some of these are the most vociferous, most assiduous in their denunciation, indeeed demonisation of the very notion of a genuine convocation of peoples, that is, a convocation outside the sanctuary, privilege and self-interest of the homes of illegitimacy, the convocation of a people who wish to examine their present and decide their future.
Let me declare here that I have taken a decision never again to add my voice to that call, having joined with others - two of whom are now dead – to let the judiciary pronounce, at the very least, a symbolic judgment on whether what now passes for a ‘people’s constitution’ is indeed any such product of a people’s will, or yet another product of illegitimacy hung around the nation’s neck like a noose.
That I shall no longer add my voice to that call however does not mean that I abandon the right to examine, even if only as a contextual exercise, the antecedents of that call, its provocation, the distortions it has endured, and continues to endure, the potential consequences of its rejection, and perhaps the true motivations of its opposing or evasive voices.
Northwards from this very spot where we are gathered, a daily decimation of our humanity pronounces its diabolical judgment on the structure that still struggles to deserve the name nation, calling in question, through its fiery monologues, the very legitimacy of our nation being. Let me take this opportunity however to stress to us all within the nation that this ongoing catastrophe is not the burden of any one part of the nation by itself, but a fight of survival for the totality of its humanity. The antecedents of the present national crisis may seem particularized, the carnage concentrated on a geographical sector – at least for now - the solution nonetheless remains the responsibility of the entirety of the constituent parts. There is an immeasurable gulf between taking up arms against the state and declaring war against humanity.
I recall a cry from a stricken heart – metaphorically speaking this time – when the United States of America invaded Iraq under the pretext of looking for weapons of mass destruction. The Arab League happened to be holding its session at the time, and its Secretary-General was reported to have exclaimed: “the inhabitants of hell have been let loose”. Several members of that League thought he was merely being alarmist. The US president, George Bush certainly thought so too, especially once he had overrun the defences of the deluded tyrant Saddam Hussein. Several years after, not merely the Middle East, but the entire world is still attempting to cope with the rampages of the successors of those fiends from hell, unleashed through past global defaults admittedly, but also ministering to their own innate demonism, determined to drag the rest of the world down into their own private and collective hells.
What applied to Iraq is both pertinent to, and apparent in Nigeria – evade it how we will. The rejects even of hell have indeed been let loose, but many prefer to shy away from the question: who let them loose. How long was the present scenario in preparation? For how long was the mind-set of its direct perpetrators nurtured, for how long were impressionable minds doctored, warped and then homicidally re-focused? Was it through secular ideological indoctrination – let us say, a Marxist revolutionary orientation? Or was it through the theocratic, serving however the power obsession of a minority? This is a basic enquiry that should precede all else. However, the nation has elected, in the main, to climb aboard the conveyance of evasion, bound for the bunker of denial.
Those who unleashed the denizens of hell are among us, they did not come from outer space, they are known, and they know where their myrmidons retreat while they prepare their next outrage on the populace. I invite you to take a hard look, for instance, at the photos of those killers of the Italian and British hostages, finally trapped in Kaduna. Do you seriously think that they – and hundreds like them - are independent actors in the ongoing rampages? Does anyone still believe that they sponsored themselves to training grounds, on this continent or outside, in some infernal regions, for their deadly mastery of weapons of human evisceration? Their sponsors are not phantoms.
They are real. They exist among us. But, phantoms or not, today, they are afraid. Their own agents of destruction have turned upon them, demanding evidence of preparations of the theocratic utopia that was dangled before them, a utopia founded on theocratic myopia that nerved them to acts of total disregard for fellow humanity and a passion for self-immolation.
How do we disable such forces? Let me insist on the negative – not by appeasement. Not by utterances or gestures of appeasement. Those who seek to dominate others do not understand the language of appeasement. To them it translates as endorsement, multiplies their self-righteousness and urges them to even greater acts of contempt for humanity. Dialogue is a cultured, always commendable device – in principle. However, I must call attention to a fervent contradiction – within this general field of dialogue - that appears to have escaped certain among our pundits of dialogue at all costs. Here it goes:
On the one hand, those very voices are on their knees urging dialogue on the assailants. On the other, those whose call for dialogue – but on a wider, national scale - holds out the possibility, at the very least, of a holistic apprehension of the far-reaching causes and prescriptions for remedial action for the guarantee of a future, are told to go and have their heads examined.
Therein lies the contradiction. A force for blind violence comes to the fore, a force that manifests utter contempt for that very civilized facilitator of co-existence called Dialogue, yet, hardly has the first prickle of blood been drawn before the chorus goes up - let’s invite them to sit down and talk. Tell us what you want and we’ll see what can be done. And even before that, there were already calls for Amnesty. The sequence is important – let us keep this in mind. Now, what is this supposed to indicate? That only through the language of terror can one make oneself heard?
One side says, let us sit down peacefully, as free peoples, and work out a new order of internal relationships and overarching governance. The other says, I already have my own unilaterally concluded order of internal relationships, divinely ordered, beyond questioning by mere mortals, subject to no tests of rationally, equity or experimentation. To the first, the response that hits their ears is – nothing doing. To the other however – at least from those responsible for the health and survival of the nation, the response is, ‘please, come and talk to us.’ And for their pains, what has been the constant reward? A few hundred souls in their daily routine of scraping a living from the sales of basic, life sustaining products of farm and manufacture, and yet a hundred more, gathered on their okada motor-cycles, waiting to transport those market men and women to their farmstead and homes, workers to their factories and homes, are unconscionably blasted to eternity. Thus comes into being the ordination of two competing sovereign states, one pleading for dialogue, the other contemptuous of the very word.
Yes indeed, ‘sovereignty’. The sovereignty of the nation, we are lectured, is non-negotiable, and that mystic possession – sovereignty - would be imperiled if the constituent parts of the nation do indeed embark on a dialogue of free peoples. It’s a very portly word – sovereignty – mouth-filling, and chest expanding. It is designed to stop all arguments. Merely pronounce that a form of action is a threat to the illusionary banquet called sovereignty and the world is supposed to go into seizure from sheer surfeit. One can only marvel at what happened to this patrimony of ‘sovereignty’ when a Buhari, a Babangida or a Sanni Abacha terminated preceding sovereign claims with a mere radio announcement accompanied by a martial tune.
Some of the more hysterical among our current voices, opposed to a people’s dialogue, did not wait for the military spittle to dry out on the air-waves before they vanished into the obscurity of their villages. In this case however, today, Dialogue as a voluntary undertaking, an operative stage in nation-being, as an expression of collective will, increasingly voiced even in hitherto unexpected sectors, is being derided.
Sadly, one can sometimes understand causes for the vilification of this recourse. Only a few days ago, the clamour for Dialogue – the genuine kind that is – was joined by one of the most nauseous and obsequious, self-ingratiating servitors of the repellent dictatorship of Sanni Abacha. Such incidental bed-fellows make one despair but, as we say, this is a democracy, and even those who seek to sanitize their past by a cynical revision of a history through which we all lived and survived – thank goodness - must be given a hearing. The message, not the messenger – that must be our meager consolation.
I merely play the devil’s advocate. I have lost all interest in the call for a National Conference and, at the very end, my prescriptions shall be made plain. For now let us also offer a material solace to those who are morbidly afraid of a national dialogue. In the highly unlikely event that such a mythical National Conference concludes its work with a rational agenda that garners the approbation of an overwhelming majority, leading to a clamour for instant implementation, such demurrers would only be bowing to the clearly articulated will of the people, as opposed to a bunch of adventurist individuals in uniform. This, of course, is only an extreme speculation, designed to douse the dismissive, unreflective, more sovereign-than-thou, what-we-have-we-hold, what-exists-is-holy mentality that has corrupted the reasoning of some of these opposing voices.
It is actually a liberating position, abandoning the chimera of a National Dialogue. It leaves one free to confront one prospect, the most challenging prospect of all – the future.
Where else does one look at this stage? The future naturally, leapfrogging the chancy route of what a dialogue might bring, seizing the future by the throat and demanding of ourselves – what can we make of that future, with or without dialogue? But first, what do we see when we do turn to that future? Yes, let us first direct our gaze at that future, which means – let this present speak to the future. So, what does it say? I urge that we address ourselves dispassionately, not fantasize, not simply project the future of our escapist desperation. We shall let our present interrogate that future, and what does it spell? Peril. An imperiled future, and that means – an imperiled generation of a nation’s humanity.
We obtain a preview of a future that is finally divested of the surviving scraps of the opportunities that many of my generation enjoyed when we were indeed pronounced as that future that is now our present. In practical details, what the present projects objectinely as its offspring, is a vista of brain wastage, thanks to unstable tumours that peek and vanish, undetected, and when detected, are left uncorrected. A future that is very much in doubt, a future tarnished and devalued by a succession of incontinent, irresponsible leadership, decked in both civilian and military outfits, but mostly of the military. A future where the intangible yet reinforced pillar of civilized society – such as justice - has become available on the open market. I am making no new assertions and, do not take my word for it. Revert to internal motions for reforms such as the Justice Eso commission of enquiry into the judiciary and also call to mind various pronouncements of the National Bar Association.
Ask yourselves how it comes about that one of your former members of this very governorship consortium is currently basking in immunity, having succeeded in obtaining a judicial injunction against prosecution for his crimes against the future, perpetrated while in office. Do we need to point out that as a nation we are covered with shame that it took an external court of justice, of the former colonial masters, to finally put an end to the costly shenanigans of another of your former brother governors, one who held the forces of anti-corruption at bay, led them a merry dance all the way to Dubai until he was plucked out of his imagined sanctuary?
And what of that judge, the judge who freed him of over a hundred and fifty criminal charges here, in this very nation, pronounced him innocent of blasting the very future of the generations under his watch by a career of systematic, unconscionable robbery? Why are we surprised therefore to find ourselves faced with a future where all sense of community has all but evaporated and only predators roam the streets, making their own laws of survival as they proceed. Yes, they make their own laws, for even these know that without law, written or unwritten, there is no community, and without community, all talk of nation is vain. Nations are built on the palpable operations of community, otherwise they are empty, artificial and hollow. They collapse with the tiniest pinpricks of unrest, they drift into oblivion with the slightest winds of external pressure. So, that learned judge held the strings of community in his hands, the judge who pronounced our elusive governor free of all blemish, that custodian and administrator of justice, our question today is - is he still passing judgment in this nation, or has he proceeded on retirement leave to Dubai?
Prof. Soyinka, Nobel Laureate is a social critic, freedom fighter and people’s intellectual.