From Myeti To Haiti – Notes From A Solidarity Visit By Wole Soyinka
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“Re-building Trust”? That requires frankness. Absolute, even unpalatable frankness but – constructive. It requires self-examination, an unflinching look in the mirror – both individually and collectively. No self-deception. No palliatives. No distractions. In this nation especially, realistically recognized as divided, a nation where hypocrites abound, where spurious, ever recurrent opportunist Messiahs browbeat the gullible and cauterize their memories, there has to be a platform open to wide-ranging perspectives – both into the past and into the future.
The exercise involves both leadership and the led – sometimes it becomes impossible to swear which is the worse calamity that plagues a nation and impedes its progress – leadership or followership. It is necessary to break that mould of brittle clay, smooth and entrancing on the outside but cracked and stained on the inside. My contribution to this endeavor will be frank, even brutal. When Truth simmers, the lid on reality has only a brief, unreliable life-span.
I have titled this contribution – FROM MYETI TO HAITI – Notes on a Solidarity Visit. As some of you may have gathered, I visited the Caribbean – specifically Haiti – a few weeks ago. I shall deploy that Caribbean trajectory to upload certain challenges currently being undergone by us, offspring of the stay-at-homes on our far less beleaguered patch of earth than those crowded, hurricane prone, earthquake convulsed islands. Nature, as many have observed, has been extremely generous to us – and some even propose that this is part of our problems. No nature challenges and catastrophes – a gap that human beings therefore feel compelled to fill as a duty.
Outside of that, we share, as you are certainly aware, a number of traits in common – cultural mostly. That is hardly surprising, since the majority of the Caribbean population claim, and some even move to trace, their ancestry to these very shores. We are speaking here of descendants of the enslaved. You’ll observed that I used the expression ‘enslaved’ rather than the definition – ‘slaves’. That is in deference to a very militant black diplomat whom I met in Haiti. She had decided that the word ‘slave’ was not only historically inaccurate but tendentious and should be abandoned in favour of ‘enslaved’. “We did not choose to be slaves” she insisted, “we were forced into slavery, therefore we were merely enslaved, not thereby slaves.” I sympathized, but reminded her that the etymology of ‘slave’ remained unsparing, no matter the justice of our shared sentiments. No, she insisted, neither African-Americans nor Afro-Caribbean agreed to be slaves, it was a simple case of force majeure, therefore they had a right to reject that nomenclature, even retroactively.
It was tough going! I suggested that it was much too late for such linguistic sentiment. The word had passed into universal use, in fact, the history it depicts has been subjected to universal condemnation – minus a few voices that insist that we deserved what we got in the first place. In short, the condition narrated by that word ‘slave’ did, and does subsist. It is constantly pilloried, its practitioners routinely excoriated – what on earth were we going to do with UNESCO’s Slave Route project? How are we to cope with the fact that the very status, slave, has been routinely abolished across the globe. What was abolished if we proceed to abolish the word ‘slave’? She retorted, quite admirably with the fact that it was a foreign, slavers’ designation – both European and Arab. So what, I demanded, was to become of the millions of lithographs, tomes, pamphlets, manuscripts, recordings, films, videos, the historic defiance captured in narratives of ‘Slave Revolts’, of inspirational spirituals such as – And before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave etc. etc. – built upon and into the universal repertory of that word – slave – if the word were suddenly to disappear?
I resorted to my comfort zone – Yoruba. But ‘slave’, I argued, has an equivalent in my own language, enshrined in the repertory of proverbs such as: Ti a ba ran ni n’ise eru, a o fi t’omo je.’ – if we are sent on a slave errand, we should execute it like a freeborn. ‘Eru’means ‘slave’. She remained unflinching. The passion of this lady was not one of fashionable ‘political correctness. It was visceral, which was why I was able to endure the contestation. Finally however, in sheer desperation, I brought her to confront the historic lament of Sojourner Truth, the matriarchal spirit if the Underground Railroad of the American Slave era, a titan among titans who is credited with the rescue and transportation of hundreds of thousands of slaves, fleeing from that unnatural condition of dehumanization in the Deep South. When Sojourner was praised for her heroic work in this rescue mission, her response was a deep sigh of regret. She said, I could have rescued a lot more, if only they knew that they were slaves.
That gained me a little space of relief, so I pressed the advantage. I said to her, I come from a nation where, not for the first time, I have been compelled to concede that millions belonged to that object of Sojourner Truth’s lament, those who instinctively take the side of the slavemaster, the wielder of the whip, in no matter what disguise. Instinctively, they grovel at the feet of Power no matter where situated, no matter how Power insults and demeans them, they turn slavishly on those who, as a routine imperative of existence, reject the branding of ‘slave’ in whatever form. Those fellow products of the same nation space and social conditions actually rise to the defence of the slavemaster in whatever reincarnation– how dare you annoy Masta! How dare you risk his displeasure? They proceed to massage the ego of their daily, or incipient terror, using every scabrous means to denounce and demonize what they consider – temerity! How dare he? Who does he think he is! Thus begins a hate campaign that escalates into manic proportions. They turn their venom on the bearer of any virus of defiance. The result is predictable. The slavemaster, seeing the contemptible material they are made of, seeing how they swarm to tear down, to smear and vilify their own advocate, despises them even more. He kicks them first in their upturned rear, then the groin, and finally the teeth, brands them with names of degradation.
The slaves are astonished and begin to whine. They claim that they have been insulted as a people. As a race. But how would any neutral observer categorize such humanity? Obviously – as natural born slaves! No, I did not express myself in such detail or personal references – they were merely thoughts that ran through my head, instigated by my physical presence on that island domain of liberated slaves with its heroic history. What I did was continue to remind my interlocutor of the history of liberation in the Americas. I said to her – you see, there is no need to be embarrassed by the word. It is what you do to liberate yourself from the condition that distorts and mangles your humanity. It took slaves to sell their own people into slavery, it is still slaves who rise to the defence of a clearly defective leader when one of their kind warns that a dangerously flawed entity is being let loose on the world. If you want a contemporary, indeed perennial graphic representation of the image if the modern Nigerian slave, you only need to obtain a copy of The Punch of last week Thursday, March 8, 2018, later reproduced, full page, in The Nation of Tuesday, March 13. That picrure captures a scene that many prefer to believer had disappeared from the Nigerian space for ever, but no. There is the soldier with a whip, ordering a civilian to do the frog jump and of course, he complies. Not so long ago there was a similar shot, even more dehumanizing – of two civilians being compelled to roll themselves in a mud pit, over and over again. And if you want to know where it all begins, where the culture of inhuman relationships is nurtured, leaf through the pages of Nigerian journals just a few weeks earlier – or scroll through Internet.
There it all is, captured summatively, and in live progression: two or three young, unripened recruits in cadet uniform dehumanizing a civilian – frog jump, slaps, boot in the groin and head – for daring to make advances to a female cadet. A civilian, a gardener employed by that same military training school, who dared to raise a voice against such brutality had apparently received even more brutal treatment. It is an accident waiting to happen to any citizen – among other daily hazards – kidnapping, robbery, cow colonialism and so on without limitations. It is the language of response that distinguishes the slave mind from the freely determined. Those images narrate the historic trajectory of our encounter withthe outside world. That recent print media image is especially uncanny. It could easily have come from ancient lithographs of life in the slave plantations of American Deep South – those slaves were made to execute precisely such animal contortions while the so-called nigger ditties of self-abasement. Who would have thought that in Nigeria, 2018, such scenes would be enacted in the streets of Lagos? However, be sure to keep constantly in mind our point of departure – the condition of slave is not always physical, it is manifested in the ingested relationship of citizen to power, both internal and external.
There is a new publication of mine on an ancient project – Road Safety – which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary on a nation-wide scale. It was of course much older. I
specially requested my publisher to ensure its display at this event – more or less its formal outing – for reasons that will become apparent. It is an account of why and how we came to establish the Road Safety in Nigeria, the first of its kind on the continent. At the risk of being accused of advertising my own wares, I unabashedly call attention to it, and the reason is simple: it narrates more than a mere Road Safety experiment, hence the deliberate title: The Road Map of a Nation. For those tedious voices which wake up suddenly from stupor and take to the media to lament some real or imagined absence or muting of a voice, I often ask, what have you done with the contents of voices with which you have been bombarded for over a half century? Here is an excerpt from that work. The Road Map of a Nation actually formed part of my Memoirs YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN and was excised at the time as the work was becoming too bulky! I then forgot all about it until close to the recent anniversary of the Corps, re-read it and decided that it would be a timely addition, not just to the archives of the Corps, but to the now crucial self-examination of this nation space that happens to encase us. Here goes:
Perhaps this clip-mustachioed, wiry, pint-sized colonel had been watching too many circuses where the ring-master cracks the whip to make lion or bear crouch on a stool, and so – out came the koboko! In the heart of Lagos, on the streets, along the Marina shopping strip and on the frontage of high-rise business centres, a renewed project of humiliation was enacted daily. For the slightest infraction, the presumed offender – man, woman, young and elderly – was pulled aside, whipped and subjected to the frog-jump indignity. At first, some commentators in the media, unbelievably, crowed in approval – serve them right, they declared! Mostly however, to my intense relief – I had begun to think seriously of relocating outside the Nigerian borders until the season of self-abasement had subsided
- mostly, the public was resentful. We counter-attacked by calling attention to the nature of the worst offenders, the most undisciplined and definitely the most homicidal – the military….
I took vengeful pleasure in depicting (in my play, Opera Wonyosi) a stereotyped officer in the shape of a koboko wielding maniac. Then I seized a chance to personally offload public pique onto the head of Obasanjo, then military Head of State.
I invaded his den in Dodan Barracks during preparations for Festac 77, the Black Arts Festival…..on this occasion, I took him to task over the increasing unruliness of the military, its warped code of esprit de corps which translates as – the soldier right or wrong….military violence, I warned, had reached intolerable proportions and could spark off civil revolt that might just spread out of control.
There has admittedly been some improvement in conduct since then but, that episode was over four decades ago, with at least some fifteen years of civilian rule. So why do we still witness such scenes today? And does its inherent message manifest itself only physically? Or in some more subtle, more dehumanizing ways? Let us look outside our borders for a spell.
Most commentators on this nation’s development, especially in a negative vein, tend to take themselves quite understandably to the Far East – Malaysia, Singapore etc. – with whom we commenced an undeclared post-colonial developmental race. They muse upon what happened to us, to have lagged so far behind others in virtually every field, even in that field of self-preservation through a basic, timeless occupation – food production! I propose that there are closer, and far more interesting lessons to be learnt by looking at our own kith and kin in the Diaspora. No need for a sustained, in-depth study, though that is also to be recommended, but simply to peek across the Atlantic occasionally, just to see how they’ve been faring. My recent visit – I call it a solidarity visit, and the reason will become clear towards the end – triggered off incidents from earlier visits – Cuba, Barbados, Guyana, Martinique and Guadaloupe etc. etc. This time, my most vivid of these memories was very likely triggered off by the fact that, during this Haitian visit, the Caribbean organization called CARICOM was meeting in session. That same CARICOM happened to be in attendance in Trinidad during the episode I am now about to narrate. CARICOM is simply the equivalent of our own economic community called ECOWAS. I leave it to experts to determine which of the two has been more effective, more responsive to the needs of their respective states and their people. CARICOM spells simply the Caribbean Community – economic integration, development planning etc etc. Its headquarters is in Guyana, a nation which you may all recollect, has achieved both fame and notoriety from being host to two familiar opposing axes of – good and evil, progress and retrogression – it is the home of the revolutionary Walter Rodney, author of the seminal work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Then, at its axial opposite, the horrendous mass murders of the Temple of Jim Jones, in Jonestown. There are times when I feel that Jim Jones’ Temple of Doom – or whatever he called his eventual abattoir – has transferred permanently to Nigeria.
CARICOM and I seem destined to cross paths in quite memorable circumstances – I shall quickly narrate the most dramatic of these intersections – in Trinidad and Tobago. I was visiting, as usual on a cultural mission, that is, minding my father’s business – when I underwent one of the greatest provocations of my existence. One Abu Bakr, who announced himself as the leader of a Muslimeen Revolutionary movement appeared on television and announced that the government of Trinidad and Tobago had been overthrown and that he was negotiating with the army. He called for calm – that familiar prelude to mayhem – and even took the trouble to announce that there should be no looting. His people – the Muslimeem – had taken over the television house after some exchange of fire, attacked the parliament – known as the Red House – and taken some members hostage – among them the Prime Minister the A.N.R. Robinson, together with his cabinet.
I could not believe what was happening. I had met that same prime minister that very morning in the cosiness of his own home. Now, my ears were informing me that this tiny staid, British mannered, hitherto peaceful island, famous mostly for its calypso, cricket and carnival, was actually having a coup. Well, whether I believed it or not, there I was in the middle of this weird event, trapped in the hotel with other guests. I must confess my extreme relief that one of my fellow prisoners – not hostages, let there be no misunderstanding – was Sir Sonny Ramphal, who had just yielded office to our Emeka Anyaoku as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth and was transferring his services to CARICOM. We spent quite a few hours together attempting to dissect and digest the situation. He became involved in the some of the background work to resolve the situation, indeed, he tried to involve me in it, but I very firmly declined. I had enough of the real thing where I came from, and was simply not interested in a bunch of riff-raff who happened to have accumulated a few Mark IV rifles on the Caribbean drug market, espied a prone, unsuspecting target, and now held an island hostage.
The aftermath of that coup was however the most instructive part. Basically, the instructions were twofold. The first, the prologue: don’t ignore signs of potential social destabilization, however seemingly ludicrous and inept. What was the history of these would-be reformers? They spouted a religious cause – just like Mr. Yusuf Mohammed leader of Boko Haram that has become universally acknowledged as the most vicious terrorist organization that the world knows today. Next, but simultaneouly of course: beware the opportunism of religious spouting insurrectionists – sometimes their sights are set, not on the hereafter but on the here and now. In Trinidad, the issue was quite materialist and earth-bound, literally. Listen to the background to the fomenters of that Trinidadian uprising:
They had squatted on land and the government was in a constant quandary as to whether to throw them off of it. They had just taken over some land that belonged to the government and built on it. So Selwyn Richardson, Minister of National Security, it was his job to figure out how to deal with them. Eventually, he did not throw them off this land, but he made them stop building, earning their wrath.
Now take your mind back to Abuja a few years back, substitute the Police Headquarters in Abuja Nigeria for The Red House of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and recall how Boko Haram nearly took over that national security nerve centre. I do not need to itemize the number of lessons to be extracted from both. However, I am concerned with one item that hardly ever makes the news in competition with the more sensational aspects, that item being what we might call – national character, a subject that surely should be of interest to both amateur and professional sociologists.
I shall take you directly to the aftermath of that coup charade. When the great ‘revolutionaries’ finally trooped out with their hands above their heads, having succumbed to the ‘do or die’ ultimatum from the token military, the police then took charge of restoring order. The no-looting injunction of the Gilbert and Sullivan operatic clowns had of course been ignored, and extensive looting taken place. My observation, as objectively as I could testify, and in discussions with a cross-section of Trinidadians, is that the looting had actually shocked the average Trinidadian to the core. Stores, even neighbourhood shops had been severely looted. So, the Chief of Police went on air, announced a period of amnesty during which all looted goods must be restored to their original places. There would be no persecutions, no recriminations, no penalties – simply return the goods, and all shall be forgiven. Curfew was lifted between designated hours to enable the peaceful return of looted items. When I heard that announcement, I began to laugh – you know – ke, ke, ke! Return looted goods? I said, that police chief ought to be fired. Those looters would spend each night transferring the loot into secure hiding places, then go about their business as if butter would not melt in their mouths.
Well, the Trinidadians had the last laugh. The following day, there were the streets threaded with processions here and there redeeming their citizen honour. Wheel barrows, nearly toppling over with refrigerators, washing machines, ghetto busters and all other electronic equipment, unopened cartons of heaven knew whatever, clothing off the racks, kitchen utensils, garden equipment, furniture, sports gadgets etc etc. Rickety as well as sleek private and utility vehicles loaded with liberated appliances were going back and forth unmolested, depositing their ill-gotten gains at the frontage of stores , schools, churches and supermarkets. The police had even allowed for those who found it difficult to transport their material back to origin – just leave them on your own frontage or nearby, and we shall come round and collect them. One phrase the police chief kept repeated: “This is not us, Trinidadians. Something has happened to derail us as a people, but now is the time to recover what we are.”
Allowing perhaps for the rum and allied liquidities which had been consumed in the first rush of excitation, I believe that over ninety percent of the looted items were returned. I sighed with disbelief, my mind flashing straight back home. Was this something I could ever boastfully say anywhere in the world – this is not us? I knew what would have happened if that looting had taken place in our beloved country. There would be a sudden flurry of mass internments Emergency graves would spring up overnight, silos and water wells would be converted, into whose welcoming bosoms the coup trophies – including motor cars – would have vanished until full tranquility was restored and the robbed had become adjusted to their losses. In some pits, human beings would have been slaughtered or buried alive, their vital organs buried with the loot to protect them from discovery.
Did I remember to mention that the Minister of Defence was shot in the leg while the so-called coup lasted? A minor note for those victims perhaps, one that was painful for that Minister but, consider how honorable that wound surely counts, compared to that of one Minister of ours over here who shot himself in the mouth over the deadly rampages the nation has endured in the past few years at the hand of a different breed of land grabbers. At least the Trinidadian counterpart did not say, “What do you expect them to do when you stop them from building on government land? Go home and smoke ganja?” During that abortive Trinidadian misadventure, over twenty plus people lost their lives in one form or another, including a parliamentarian who died of a heart attack, thanks to the stress of the experience. Incidentally, I was very well positioned to have been one of the casualties – I shall reserve for narration some other time, that near unbelievable conspiracy of events that make me boast sometimes that I am already on to my third edition of the proverbial nine lives. On our way to the home of our High Commissioner, we had passed by the national broadcasting station during the firefight. We came under fire, but assumed that it was merely gangsters having a night out. It was the locals who beckoned us out of harm’s way but we did not know till later that we had actually been at the bloodletting scene of a takeover.
So now, let us translate that into Nigerianese. Land-grabbers are trying to build on a piece of land that is not theirs and you obstruct them? What else do you want them to do? I’ve been waiting to hear our Minister of Defence comment on the most recent outrage that has been inflicted on the nation – the Dapchi school pupils abduction. It’s all their fault. They know very well that Boko Haram forbids the education of the girl-child, so what were they doing in school in the first place? Stupid pupils. Stupid teachers! Stupid parents. That such a Minister is still retained in Buhari’s cabinet simply shows just how low we have fallen in our valuation of human life, and the alienation of governance from the people.
This is not about sentiment. I get very impatient when I read complaints such as – Buhari has failed to go and sympathize with the people of Benue, with the people of Nasarawa, with the people of Plateau or wherever – who needs sympathy, presidential of whatever? Is it sympathy that will re-order their broken lives? Is sympathy the issue? We are speaking here of one eternal commodity that is of fundamental human deserving – justice! Sympathy – genuine or false, with or without ostentatious wreath-laying by self re-cycling Messiahs – is a commodity that we dispense naturally as human beings, no matter who we are, how close or remote we are from victims or bereaved. It costs nothing, but may be augmented by material largesse. Sympathy is an instinct, not a duty. We are speaking here of a people’s need for security and, where the structures for that fail – bringing perpetrators to book even while emplacing deterrent measures against repeat. We are speaking of governance will and responsibility, not pietistic sermoninzing such as ‘learning to live together’. I do not have to love my neighbor to live in peace with him. But I must demand that he obeys the protocols of co-habitation! If either of us breaks the provisions of such protools, then there must be penalties. So, what we are speaking of here is the readiness to respond with massive punitive action when the fundamental security of a people is violated. We are speaking here of a President showing up at the arena of human desecration, not to shed unctuous tears but to read the riot act and give orders, right on the scene of violation. Order his forces into action against the arrogant, bloodthirsty renegades of society who wallow in the blood of others, garbed in the cloak of impunity. We are speaking of the courage to decree such monsters terrorists and enemies of humanity with the same dispatch as the declaration of far less violent, far less destabilizing movements, albeit disruptive and supra-nationalist in their attestations and activities. We are speaking of a culture of even-handedness.
Let me stress this yet again, and without ambiguity, this is not a question of whether or not one agrees with the direction and methods of MASSOB, or IPOB, MOSOP, OPC or AREWA. The issue is stark, unambiguous and unchallengeable. It is simply this. An organization has been rampaging up and down the nation, armed to the teeth, descending on innocent villagers and farmers, eating up their crops and burning down their farms, dismembering any protesters, raping their women young and old and defying all agencies of law and order. Their spokesmen appear on the media, unrepentant, distorting history, mangling the sequence of cause and effect, calling on governments to rescind their laws or else…! And proceeding to suit the threat to the act. Repeal this law, they demand, we shall settle for nothing less! They defy such laws, then proceed to demonize the affected state governments by twisting the order of events: the killing happens, it is claimed, because of what was put in place in response to killing! You ever encountered a more cynical rendition of the sequence of cause-and-effect? A nation has been placed on the defensive, a role that government spokesmen and security agencies appeared to embrace with glee and facile rationalizations. I am not aware that that Myetti demagogue, the upside-down historian of first settlers and the logic of conquest, that illiterate mouther that was so filled with his sense of power and confidence of impunity – I am not aware that he has ever been called for questioning. Needless to add, his organization was never publicly proscribed. In the midst of this, the president of the nation went Missing in Action only to show up where least expected.
Oh yes, let us pause there a while. Sometimes, I weary of the short memory of this nation. Have there, or haven’t there been precedents? Does it help to recall a pattern, indeed a seeming tradition of power alienation? How long ago was it that, in this very nation, in the bustling commercial capital of Lagos, in its Ikeja section, the national armoury went up in serial detonations, lobbing bombs into both commercial and residential areas. I visited the scene afterwards, saw gaping holes in the roofs of homes, including that of our literary colleague, JP Clark. Ikeja was in collective panic, not knowing what demons from hell had descended upon them. Hundreds drowned in the weed covered, shallow seeming creek in a directionless race to save their lives. The bombardment had registered in their minds, not even as another coup d’etat on course, but as an invasion, so heavy, prolonged and indiscriminate was the ordinance barrage. And what was government doing?
Yes, the president at that time, the Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s armed forces did visit the scene of carnage, but it would have been much better if he had stayed away. For when some of the bedraggled survivors began to launch their plea for help across the protective ring around him, all they got in response were snarls from bared teeth and a further destabilizing discharge:
“What do you want me to do? I am not even obliged to be here?”
Well spoken, Doctor General ex-Presido! That sterling model of leadership has survived with variations. Your immediate successor – whom you have boasted you yourself emplaced single-handed – with some conceded token assistance from God of course – took, in his turn, nearly three weeks to accept that two hundred and seventy plus of our children had been abducted, nearly half of whom are still unaccounted for three years later. For that other fellow doctor, it was all a ploy by the opposition to discredit his government, and thus, precious days were lost to any rescue strategy. His wife proceeded to stage one of the most nauseating acts of incoherent, tuneless, meaningless and purposeless investigative charades ever witnessed on any national media, a farcical performance that had neither beginning, middle nor end, head nor tail, but has entered the repertory of the clownery potential of satellite power in a nation that has never been short of buffoonery in the highest redoubts of governance.
Let me backtrack a little, and I reveal something to you here. I called up that earlier mentioned president general – or we met physically, I forget which – to chide him on his reaction. I said to him, “you want to be accepted as a political leader, and you do not even accept that it is your duty to have been there at a scene of disaster that was created by your own armed forces? Did you actually utter the words attributed to you, addressed to traumatized survivors of that experience? His response remains a riddle to me till today. The exact words, not easily forgotten, were:
“Kampala ti e ni’yen”. (That is your own Kampala!)
As the saying goes, that is one enigma wrapped in a conundrum. I have tried to decode in a number of ways – sadly, I have had no means of verifying the accuracy of my interpretation. One of these days, perhaps I shall stumble on the profundity or banality locked in there. Kampala ti e n’iyen. Well, whatever the origin, or strict translation of that, it nonetheless takes us back to the nation’s latest Kampala, named – Dapchi!
How gratifying, to be able to express one’s satisfaction with the reaction drawn by another, and contrasting event, a celebration that took place not too far from Dapchi. This was where that presidential declaration, “I am not obliged to be here” would have been most applicable, most considerate and inspiring! This contrasting, yet complementary event took place not long after, indeed so close to it, that the presidential apologists when finally stung by criticisms, felt obliged to try and corral it into service as a divinely prescribed therapy for the trauma that was inflicted by that Dapchi slap in the face of the nation from the chronically blood-stained hands of Boko Haram! This was a specious, nearly insulting argument, and constitutes a very lame response – if that was the intention – to Pastor Tunde Bakare’s measured, restrained and ministering rebuke to his former running make, president Buhari.
Alternatives were never in short supply. There are so many formulae that could have been adopted to ensure that the couple still had their wedding without the accompanying exhibitionist lavishness so soon after a national calamity, and each of such options eliminated the presence of a president who had yet to respond with his own physical authority to the scene of human carnage close by. The nation was in mourning. A quiet wedding by the couple, minus the atmosphere of a national carnival, or else a shift of location elsewhere – Dubai, I understand, is the current favorite destination – one that the parental pair could of course afford. A festive convergence that included a gaggle of twenty-five governors, plus a president constituted a national provocation, not celebration. Yes, in this instance, the dictum of our ex-President – I am not obliged to be here – was what this incumbent president should have addressed to the celebrants – indeed, re-phrased that to read: I am obliged NOT to be here, and sent blessings and presents.
Now let’s see if we can find our way back to Haiti after all this meandering. Haiti, try and recollect was that island which suffered – speaking proportionately for size, resources and population – one of the greatest human disasters in human history. It is estimated that over 200,000 people died, and over a quarter of a million homes were destroyed. Schools, churches, institutions, hospitals, factories…..every kind of functioning human habitation destroyed. The city centre was flattened, rendered uninhabitable, all infrastructure wiped out. No food. No water. Let’s not dwell further on the scene of devastation, the corpses that littered the streets, leaving no option whatsoever but for mass burial, including opening up of above-ground vaults in order to shove in corpses that had begun to fester in the streets and threaten an epidemic. I leave the rest to your imagination, which should enable you to vaguely forecast how many were maimed for life, left dependent on others. Of course there was chaos, and there was criminality, but here is what American ex-president stated when appealing world-wide for help.
Former US president Bill Clinton acknowledged the problems and said Americans should “not be deterred from supporting the relief effort” by upsetting scenes such as those of looting. Lt. Gen. P.K. Keen, deputy commander of US Southern Command, however, announced that despite the stories of looting and violence, there was less violent crime in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake than before.
Port-au-Pince is the devastated capital of Haiti. A further testimony:
In many neighbourhoods, singing could be heard through the night and groups of men coordinated to act as security as groups of women attempted to take care of food and hygiene necessities. During the days following the earthquake, hundreds were seen marching through the streets in peaceful processions, singing and clapping.
Port-au-Prince is a city pocked with many hills, thus you can imagine the twisted, narrow motor routes, the congestion at all hours. Those who had lived in the devastated plains below of course sought refuge among the already cluttered hillside structures, so that till today, commuters endure hours of traffic seizures up and down the hillsides. To fulfill the crushing schedule that had been mapped out for our visit, which turned out to be something of a state visit, we had no choice – I’m embarrassed to say – but to use the siren assisted vehicles supplied by the government and a participating embassy. It was notable however how the rest of the traffic simply stayed where they were, made no attempt to swerve out of line and take criminal advantage by following our vehicles – which were not even marked, simply equipped with a special – but muted – sound. We never resorted to the blaring siren so beloved in these parts.
When we proceeded to the suburban areas, I discovered for the first time that, cows were actually reared in Haiti, and reared even in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Yes, we saw cows. And they were in ranches. They were not wandering through the spiral lanes that laced the hill sides, neither were they browsing among the devastated areas of the city centre. They were not wandering through the luscious green belts that had survived the destruction, or the Garden of Remembrance being carefully cultivated in memory of those thousands who had lost their lives. The cows were not trampling over farms, be they of commercial food crops or unfenced domestic vegetable plots. In fact, I saw no herdsmen, either with prod sticks or with AK47s. However, there were these herds of cows with ‘robust cheeks’, and they were all within ranches, munching and ruminating contentedly, not being used as instruments for mass destruction, justifying murder, mayhem, rape and rapine. I am speaking of a small island that underwent a Nature affliction that should have knocked out the last vestiges of order, communality and humane sensibilities of a nation that was already notorious for drug trafficking and other crime instigated violence, an island that still qualifies easily to be the most impoverished community in all of the Caribbean.
So, when I read of attempted understanding – note, I do not say justification! – I am speaking of attempted understanding of a predatory descent into the state of the brute and a gleeful culture of massacres under the excuse of the drying up of a water resource called Lake Chad, I have a feeling that we are still far from confronting the truth among ourselves. We are shying away from the real texture of our own – man-made – human catastrophes. We are massaging unpalatable realities with opiates and thereby foreclosing the imperatives of astringent remedies, even where unbearably clamorous. All the way from Lake Chad to come and kill in Bayelsa, rape in Oyo and ambush in Ogun? Is this nation the first to be beset by drought or floods? Do we even know how an earthquake feels?
Where else do we have butchery in such numbers because of the shrinking of a lake, the drying up of a river, or a volcanic eruption where molten lava buries thousands in its malevolent cascade? Would that perchance be in the Sahel with its cycle of droughts and famine – the Tigre in Ethiopia, Eritrea, or the historic floods of Mozambique? No, it had to be in Nigeria where the fomenters of mimi-genocides not only vaunt their killing credentials but insist that the laws that are enacted in collective self-defence are a provocation that justify– retroactively to give it its real name – crimes that were committed, and are further threatened, and executed daily, even as we gather here! Crimes that led to those laws in the first place. And such arrogant demagogues walk free!
Let us never overlook one tangential possibility. When you ask yourself the question– who are these killers? I am not speaking of the mythical answers, such as – these are foreigners imported from Iraq, from Syria and maybe even Sudan. Well, let us rule nothing out, however outlandish. The question is, whoever they are, how did they get here? Who facilitated their entry? Who sustains them? Who protects them? Who, on encountering these invaders from outer space, embraced and lodged them? Above all – armed them, then turned them loose on such diabolical rampage? The continent may be awash with arms from displaced mercenaries all over the continent, especially Libya, but these guns still cost something, and there has to be a network that guarantees their movements. The question therefore is, who are those who can boast the resources for the provisioning and protection of these killers? The answer is not of course a unitary one – there are numerous forces in the nation whose interests are best served by total destabilization. Some, we can presume, are simply crude politicians seeking pockets of authority and political dominance. And the rest?
Yes indeed, there is one department that appears to be generally overlooked, and yet, it stares one in the face. We are dealing with a nation in which the average citizen has lost the capacity to capture the actual worth of amounts that have been stolen – and are still being laundered to escape detection – just by a few individuals. Some of these lavender rogues have amassed enough, merely as pocket money, to sustain the budget of the nation single-handedly for the next five years. Well then, do we really think that they are all content to enter plea bargains, take their punishment meekly and make some reparations here and there? We all tend to assume that the herdsmen menace is a uni-cellular phenomenon – is it really too extreme to propose that some of these demonic attacks may be instigated opportunism? That some of the sponsorship may be actually traceable to our trillionaire looters under investigation or beginning to feel the heat of approaching exposure? This is why intense police work is essential in the herdsmen crisis. How, exactly are these people empowered? Is Myetti Allah just a power deluded entity or are some of its branches merely fronting for massively corrupt and desperate political figures, in or out of office, some of whom actually lord it over the nation from the law-making chambers of Abuja. Corruption is not a snake but a tarantula, the spider famous for its tentacular dance of death.
I must be careful not to shortchange the deserving source of these evocations, so we must return to Haiti. While on that island, the UNESCO presence in Port-of-Spain, shall be held accountable for fears that led me to wondering if I would ever make it back home on my two feet, or on a stretcher, or even in a coffin. When I thought I had already reached the limit of geriatric endurance, it turned out that UNESCO had already laid a trap, into which I fell, and found myself compelled to submit to another cultural reception. I did however, take my revenge.
Now, the UNESCO event was attended by what was surely the entire diplomatic corps and international institutions in Haiti. I felt distinctly honoured and overwhelmed by their presence, and thereby felt obliged to be quite open about my credentials, most especially as they had been most flattering in their comments on my person. I wanted to ensure that they did know who they were talking about, and not go away and file reports to their governments after discovering the truth. So, as close to my words as my memory serves, the following words convey my response to their generous remarks:
“Today, I have been subjected to some truly overwhelming accolades about my person and career, remarks which even extended to the country from which I have emerged, and whose passport I carry. These remarks were made in English, in French and in the local language of Haiti which is a domesticated version of French and has attained the status of a lingua franca. However, I find myself compelled to tell you that my presentation by all of you all so far remains incomplete. You have all spoken in three languages, but surprisingly, considering that you are all diplomats in one form or another, one language has been completely missing – that language is known as diplomatese, a special language reserved for diplomats, international civil servants and Heads of State. It therefore falls to me to speak to you in that refined language and inform you that I come from the biggest shithole nation in all of Africa.
“I am here on a solidarity visit to a sister shithole, a junior sibling, who has also had the honour of being so designated – together with Mexico and others – by the Head of one of the most powerful and influential nations in the world – the United States of America. By the end of this visit, I would have seen for myself if our little sister, Haiti, truly deserves that honour. However, minus one or two of the usual dissenting voices and constipated digestive systems here and there, I wish to assure you right here that we, in Nigeria, have fully digested that accolade, and concluded proudly that we have robustly earned that distinction.” End of quote.
The problem is this: there is a confusion between the right not to be insulted and the right to feel insulted. The first is arguably close to qualifying as a fundamental human right, the other however, the right to feel insulted is absolutely NOT a fundamental human right. It is one that is born through dint of hard work, a productive ethos, but above all, a respect for, and cultivation of human dignity. It includes a sense of responsibility, especially towards the vulnerable of society, most especially children. When your children go missing and you are seen cavorting a few yards away from where you last saw them, you have lost the right to feel insulted. When you jettison all conduct that derives from, and confers human dignity, you lose the right to feel insulted. On the contrary you become an object of ridicule, individually or collectively.
However, do not take my word for it. Just study the media, read and carefully engage yourselves with the words of those who persevere even when all appear to have given up in despair. Read the following passage from one op-ed in the national media of this past week, and I accept in advance any foolhardy challenge that dares suggest that I cannot produce a half dozen near-identical cry from the heart on any given day in the Nigerian media:
“Is Nigeria accursed?” that columnist asks, and he goes on to answer: “I can’t say No. But I’m sure Nigeria is sick. Nigeria is empty like a vase without flowers. Some retrogressing forces won’t just stop doing a number on her. She is not Midas. Midas was a man. Everything Nigeria touches rusts. When life-changing ideologies, products, concepts arrive in Nigeria, they die. It is curious, but this is the way we crookedly are. The interiors of our airplanes are like the sties of drunken pigs. Our highways are pathways to the grave. Our vehicles are coffins. Our telephony is bedlam. Our medicines kill. Our fuel fuels chaos. Our schools decline. The few products and products that remain true to form include arms, ammunition, hard drugs, prostitution and yahoo-yahoo.” End of quote.
What does Donald Trump read of any brain exerting import? I have no idea, but we know what his favourite reading is – Twitter. Who are the champion tweeters of the world? Indisputably Nigerians. They violate all written and unwritten laws of human decency. They concoct. They degrade. They contaminate everything they touch. They manufacture events and occasions. They are the dregs of humanity. So, when Donald Trump, who – from all appearances – reads only Twitter, encounters their toxic outpouring, what other conclusion can he obtain! These trolls of internet are tireless. Their energy and time are unlimited and they totally overwhelm the rational, creative, truly engaged voices that also use that facility. They are the official window into national thinking and values. Theydominate the virtual environment. They compete to be the first to comment on any event under the sun, of which they are mostly abysmally ignorant. Any alien visiting this planet, and logging onto internet will come to the same conclusion as Donald Trump who lives right on this planet and breakfasts on Tweet.
Now, let’s be careful here. We are not speaking of sayers of unpleasant truths. We can winnow the grain from the chaff. We even insist that some of the time, the history, antecedents, probably motivations, hidden agenda, unsavoury past etc. etc. take secondary place – not to be ignored, but secondary – to the truths that are dispensed by no matter whom. No, we are speaking rather of those cacophonic, maggot infested brains who prey on the ignorant and construct a nauseous environment on the so-called social media. These are the shithole artisans whose tireless industry present the world with a warped image of the total environment. The only difference is that while some are content to wallow in an environment that they find enabling, others are working to clamber out of it. Like those inspired lunatics who walked from Lagos to Abuja in their campaign against the monstrosity of corruption that threatens to engulf this nation space, even as that space struggles to transform itself into a nation. Those walkers made me envious. They reminded me of a similar walk we had planned along the same trajectory in 1989. The purpose of that march was to pressure the goggled robber, Sanni Abacha, into relinquishing the reins of power under which this nation was being throttled to death.
Some of you may recall details – a little space for reminiscences, do forgive me – perhaps you were part of the preparations. You may remember the final briefing in the gymnasium of Tai Solarin’s Mayflower School, the tuning-up march through the streets of Ikenne, routine harassment by riot police with bristling guns, on orders to intimidate and disrupt the session. They did not succeed, but passionate pleas from other civil leaders – Pa Ajasin especially – did compel us to abandon the march some days later – the account of that non-event can be read my memoirs YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN. You will understand therefore why I smitten with envy. Please, feel free to invite me to join you if you plan a repeat but, first make available an automated wheel-chair, air-conditioned, with a small fridge.
How sad that such a rigorous gesture, a powerful message, was so poorly covered! Such meagre reporting reflects our sense of values. Had it been a society wedding – watch the difference! I must warn that movement however that it is attempting to unseat a cannibal monstrosity far more rapacious and deadly than just a human being called Sani Abacha. You may not know it, but you are attempting to yank the seat of power from under the bloated buttocks of Deceit, Hypocrisy, and Intimidation. Those marchers – as well as the young organization called CORRUPTION BUSTERS, formally launched about three months ago, are taking on the soulless devourers of a people’s future, whose fangs on a nation’s arteries are not easily dislodged. Bon Courage to you all!
This exercise in laying the grounds for future trust will be incomplete without the following footnote, a terse one with a personalized signature. That note is one year overdue as a direct, confrontational and defining act of reciprocity. We established from the beginning that Trust cannot exist without candour. Like deserves like, and mirror images do not lie, except in a circus booth of comic distortions. I have already brought out a publication which I hope some of you have read or will read: Green Cards, Green Gods. For me, that collection of variations on the theme of the freedom of expression signaled the end of my mission of opening a mottled window into the soul of this nation, an unedifying vista that warns how easily a people can place the shackles of enslavement around their own necks. Unfortunately, that theme has been lately resurrected, and in a most grotesque dimension.
It seems incredible, but with so many corpses littering our urban streets, villages and farmlands, not forgetting hidden dens of ritual killers, the nation’s lawgivers have decided to succumb to the homicidal itch that appears to plague the nation. Murder is about to be incorporated into law! Not satisfied with watching arbitrary execution of innocents in tens and hundreds by Boko Haram, cowherds, kidnappers and police itchy triggers, our legislators now declare their intention not to miss out on the action. One cannot keep silent, nonetheless I intend to exercise my right to insert a well merited astringent that I hope will church several stomachs.
And so to – Hate speeches, and the recommended penalty? Death sentence! First of all, let us understand that, if such a law were truly adopted, half the population of the so-called social media will end on the execution block. Good riddance, many of us would secretly feel, but unfortunately, the same ‘many of us’ live with the conviction that human life is not a trite commodity, to be so trivially disposed of. Let’s look at this supposedly corrective project most carefully: the death penalty if you are judged to have made a ‘hate speech’, used language of incitement that may lead to violence or whatever. Distractions upon distractions, but now of a most bloodthirsty kind. What is this but a ploy to stifle criticism and snuff out the fundamental right of expression. What does it amount to but a cover-up for corruption and impunity in high places. But let us not be fooled – they would not dare carry out such an outrageous sentence. No one denies that they can count on judges who will gleefully apply the law, and that prospect will be dangled over the head of all citizens with a restless social conscience. The intention is therefore to simply inhibit their activities, to keep them out of circulation, preferably rotting quietly on the death row. That is the calculation. I warn this nation – resist it!
Now, subjectively, it is one measure that this very speaker should applaud. Who says the chickens do not come to roost? This is something known, in our literary occupation, as – poetic justice! How long ago was it since an unprecedented, singularly purulent hate campaign against this speaker was inaugurated by the so-called social media, orchestrated so remorselessly that it even engulfed the print media and supposedly sober minds. And the cause? One individual had chosen to express himself in a manner that he always has, since he commenced a lifelong career in defence of human freedoms, but most especially that of the freedom of expression. A columnist actually admitted that she felt contaminated just from reading a fraction of the sewage that cascaded through the digestive tracts of the media, and felt that she needed a ritual of cleansing.
So, your legislators now want to hang you for exercising your freedom of expression? Why not? Where’s the complaint? What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. And the Big White Massa who rose to power in his own nation through hate rhetoric, who demonized your kind – you went out ferociously to defend him, unasked, over an individual act that did not involve you or violate your rights, some of you even so obsequious, so self-ingratiating as to insist that his threats were nothing more than campaign hot air. Well, I hope a season of cool harmattan air has blown some reflection into such overheated brains. Perhaps Donald Trump felt that you never did get the plain message, so he makes it simple and sends out a Valentine card, addressed to a shithole nation. And you feel insulted? It is more than merely fortuitous that this discourse commenced with the slave motif and the slave mentality.
Slave forts dot the West African coast, built by European slavers. In Haiti however, there is a fort built by a slave descendant, the legendary King Christophe – now that, by contrast, is a Freedom Fort. It dominates its surrounding landscape from a near inaccessible promontory, and has been designated by UNESCO one of the world’s heritage sites. It is known as the Citadel, visited by thousands all the year round. It was built to repel the forces of Napoleon who had decreed that slavery be reinstated in the French Caribbean after its abrogation. Napoleon’s forces were routed by our descendants under the generalship of Dessalines. However, Christophe warned, slavemasters never give up, they will be back. So he began work on a massive defence fortress that is still the object of study by experts in military architecture.
Your adopted father, Donald Trump – who however continues to disown you – also swore to build his own historic monument, this time a wall across the American landscape, to keep out inferior people, your kind. The doors would remain open to blue-eyed Norwegians – he was quite specific on that. Dubious humanity like you, Mexicans, Haitians etc – out! Once sworn into power, while hunting for funds to commence the historic undertaking, he continued to live up to his word in practical policies. Single-mindedly, he set out to dismantle every achievement of his predecessor, Barak Obama, the first black occupant of the White House. However, it so happened that one individual had read the signs aright and taken a personal decision, saying, if this man is elected, I shall cease to be a member of this community. That pronouncement set off a hysterical outburst, not in that community – they had other things to worry about – but thousands of miles away, in this very nation. It is that ruler who has now called you a shithole people, and you dare contradict him? In the words of yet another colourful ruler from this designated shithole nation, our very own ex-president who offered Donald Trump his services in a well publicized release, you make me laugh – ke, ke,ke!
Being a speech delivered by Soyinka ata dialogue organised by Ripples Centre for Data and Investigative Journalism in Lagos
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