Soyinka: Nigeria’s ‘Center No Longer Exist’ [INTERVIEW]

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Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka speaking during an interview with The New Diplomat at the Freedom Park, Lagos (Tuesday, 2nd March, 2021)
  • Says Nigeria Needs Massive Decentralisation
  • Says Obasanjo Right With His Earlier Warning Against “Fulanisation”

Africa’s literacy giant, PROFESSOR WOLE SOYINKA is not the one to gloss over issues, especially when they touch on the Nigerian project and the sanctity of the human person — a course he has virulently defended for several decades. In this Special Interview, the first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in Africa spoke with THE NEW DIPLOMAT’S ‘DOTUN AKINTOMIDE and YEMI OGUNSOLA on the current state of the nation.

After a prognosis of the prevailing security crisis that seems to be rocking the boat of Nigeria from all sides, the renowned essayist and poet gave a damning verdict — ‘the center no longer exist’. Soyinka, often described as ‘the conscience of the nation’, following his decades of unending activism weighed in on sundry issues threatening Nigeria’s stability and continued existence as a nation. He offered practical and pragmatic ideas on the way forward for the country.

EXCERPTS:

Insecurity has put every Nigerian on the tenterhooks recently and amid this evolving challenge, some leaders of thought in the north, including Sheikh Ahmad Gumi…have continued to explain away the daily act of violence by perpetrators, hence, further heating up the polity. How would you assess the current security crisis and the voices of cacophony in the nation?

Let me begin by expressing my own opinion on the security challenges which we have in the country. I think they come from 3 main sources. One of them is Boko Haram, I think everyone recognizes that. Boko Haram/ISWAP (Islamic State of West Africa Province). Then there is the second one, which is called banditry. Now, when I hear the word banditry for instance, my historic sense is a bit longer than others, the reason is this, people are talking just about cattle alone, (we’ll come to that in a moment). How did banditry originate? I believe that it actually emanated from Zamfara State and was as a result of the hidden illegal gold mining which has been going on for a while.

I think some of the measures taken by some governors of the state had nothing to do with religion, even though religion was only used as an excuse, it has nothing to do with religion, but the control of the gold mining, which has been going on for years in this country without being publicly acknowledged until recently. Anywhere there is gold, there is banditry. Go and take a look at all nations which have gold. Gold itself is violence – beautiful, we all love it. It is the acknowledged universal currency throughout societies, throughout history, and so on. So wherever there is gold, don’t underestimate violence, sneak attacks and the determination to control that source to the deprivation of the society. Thirdly, and the most prominent one of them is cattle, the cattle one is the most dangerous because it is identified.

Even though gold is identified with, let us say Zamfara, Ondo and in one or two other places, cattle has been the most intractable because the violence connected with the cattle has become attached to a particular tribe. I like to bring people back when I hear about stereotyping and ethnic profiling. I was of the opinion that those that are responsible for the ethnic profiling should be prosecuted until the Miyetti Allah openly acknowledged and boasted about the killing, the destruction of farm lands and so on, I am referring to the Benue State incidence — the index state. It boasted and threatened the government that it either rescinded its legally formulated injunctions or the state will face killings and destruction.

That association threatened the nation. The association went further to remind the citizens that they had conquered that zone, saying that it is their territory and they have right to reclaim in any way they want. So, when people are being castigated for seeming to stereotype a particular tribe, I want us to remember that Miyetti Allah claimed the crime on its own in the first instance, after which we all follow, we now know on the admission of the perpetrators themselves. So, we cannot blame the rest of the nation. So, these are the three directions of violence assailing us at the moment.

While speaking during the presentation of your latest book: ‘Chronicles of the happiest people on Earth’ in Abeokuta recently, you asked Nigerians to ‘shut down activities’ in solidarity with abductees, should any incidence of child abduction happen again in the country. Were you indirectly calling for mass protest?

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I make no apology for my passion about children. I am not sentimental; I mean they grew up with criminals, but I believe there is a stage in once existence, that should be at least that stage quote or unquote of innocence, a condition in which a certain recognized sector of any society, any human government, has a right to protection, extra-care within the compass of their growing up. Denying them that fact of being protected from trauma which kidnapping involves is totally unacceptable. Those who are responsible for the kidnappings are below humanity, it is as elemental as that.

The rest of us must expiate a level of guilt for being so complacent; so careless; so forgetful of history, of precedence that we allow this to happen again and again. I feel personally rebuked, and I hope others feel the same. And when it reaches a state where it is becoming a culture, certain drastic measures are necessary, and that is why I said that any time children are abducted, that state, for me, has a responsibility of taking some kind of drastic action, including to say, we are shutting down until these children are restored. That then leads to the next stage, which is the general mobilisaton to go after the kidnappers. We have no other duty right now, no priority beyond recovering that generation of victims. We are trivialising kidnapping and it will just become fashionable, acceptable.

How can you go into a school, take these vulnerable entities and you think you’re brave? We have got to evolve all the language of chastising such sub-humans until they recover some element of their humanity and make restoration to the communities that they have violated in this way. Then ensure that those children do not go through that traumatising experience again.

So, yes, I’m calling for unusual measures and if anybody has a better idea, let me know. But right now, it seems we are being laughed at; we are being rendered impotent. I had the same reaction when, for instance, if you remember the Siege of Beslan (when 1,100 people including 777 schoolchildren were held, hostage). I’ve written about it. For me, it didn’t matter where they were from, whether Chechnya or Russia, they were children across the globe.

And this monster, who thought himself a brave warrior, then waged war on a school, a boarding school, shot some of them and tear-gased them, when they were running to escape and were forced to drink their urine. And this character stalked around like our Boko Haram here, giving interviews and justifying his actions as the will of Allah. When last did he speak to Allah? Does he know Allah at all?

This is a common cheap specimen of sub-humanity and yet they are glorified. Shekau dances in front of cameras around saying, we have your children, what are you going to do about it? We are going to sell them into slavery. Such people need to be exterminated. And if we cannot exterminate them immediately, the society must rise in repudiation, inactive repudiation of one form or another. If it means fasting, going without certain luxury for so long; if it means depriving ourselves of our usual hobbies; if it means cancelling social engagements; if it means cancelling professional engagements, where the health of humanity or society is not involved, then we must do it.

We just cannot sit down helpless each time, especially shouting at the centre, which no longer exists to come to the rescue.

How do you mean by the centre no longer exist?

I’ve said that over and over. I’m not the only one. I recommend, for instance, Tony Nyiam’s interview on Arise Television. Oby Ezekwesili made a similar statement saying that there is nobody in charge. In fact, she went further to say that whatever mechanism we have, political, governance mechanism should be evoked to examine if Buhari is really capable of governing, or if he is actually governing; if he is physically and mentally capable of governing at the moment. She has gone that far.

I use the expression of Rip Van Winkle, that is, the mythology of the man who slept for several decades and eventually woke up after so many years to find the world had changed around him. This one will wake up one day and find that Nigeria is gone! He (Buhari) will wake up one day saying that the sovereignty of Nigeria cannot be compromised, and the people will ask him, which Nigeria are you talking about? That is what I feel about the centre.

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Sheikh Gumi and others like him have been hobnobbing with the bandits, following them to their enclaves. He has equally asked the Nigerian government to negotiate with the aggressors. Is this kind of approach in the right direction?

I support any kind of effort, and I actually find laudable, any action, which involves personal risk. The question, however, is what I call the Gumi approach, is the theology that goes with it. That’s problematic. It looks safe to say he is going there to plead the cause of violators, not the violated. He is using language, which for me, is pernicious. In a moment, he will get the victims feeling guilty that they allowed themselves to have been kidnapped in the first place. That is the logical conclusion of that kind of language. If he says he goes there to negotiate, negotiation has been taking place with bandits throughout history in the entire globe. I was involved in negotiation by MEND, for instance, and it was possible for me to relate to MEND, but at the same time, I said to them, ‘I do not approve of your kidnappings.’ I think I was probably the first person in this country to speak up against such tactics. That is talking about adults, how much more vulnerable children. So, Gumi needs to get both his approach and his language right. So that he doesn’t present himself as being an accomplice to the very phenomenon of kidnapping.

Sunday ‘Igboho’ and other campaigners have been calling for O’odua Republic. In the Southeast, the IPOB is also rooting for Biafra. What do you have to say to dissidents expressing frustrations and calling for the balkanisation of Nigeria?

Well, the truth is we are not operating as a nation, by which I mean we’re are not operating on a constitution that has our will. This kind of call, we didn’t experience at the immediate post-independence until that first military coup, then we started experiencing sequences of loud call from different groups in the country. Simply because the events, which resulted in one section of the country wanting to leave, have never been addressed. On the contrary, those problems have been compounded by the centralized constitution imposed on the nation, which limited the autonomy of collectively action by the component of what we call Nigeria. And we have been regressing ever since, the kind of advance development, healthy rivalry which took place post-independence have vanished to become self-centeredness, because all the major power, policy making and control have gone to the center, making the others dependent on whatever group of people we have in power at the center. So when we have someone that is openly geared toward nepotism, what else do you expect? People will say ‘oh you are looking after yours, we would like to look after ours too’. But it is the most understandable thing in the world. For those that are saying ‘let us decentralize’, it is possible to dialogue with those with that position but for those that have already reached a point where they say ‘the Nigeria project is dead’, then we are in real problem, and that has reached an alarming stage.

What these resonating dissenting voices, how can Nigeria avert the seeming looming catastrophe you just warned about ? 

I have been screaming about decentralisation each time somebody says, oh, I don’t know what they are talking about. Restructuring, what is it? Anyway, don’t let me go in that direction. But, I always ask them to begin with massive decentralisation. It is a gospel that I have been preaching for more than a decade now. I addressed Houses of Assembly in Lagos, in the South-South and once in the North, and I passed on the same message, saying push the envelope of federalism as far as it can go, and if there are any problems in terms of constitutional interpretations, head for the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, however, generate your own resources and generate the resources in a way that a percentage of it cannot be cornered by the centre like Value Added Tax (VAT). For instance, one state is producing greater a percentage of VAT, and yet a major part of VAT is going to the centre, which then distributes the way it must go. That is not federalism, and that is even what leads to friction, crime and the cry for secession. So, we got to absolutely reconstruct, decentralise, give whatever name you want, to reconfigure, but in a practical way, not just rhetorical.

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We have had so many conferences and everybody knows that this constitution is not working. Even those who are operating it are just enjoying it because they are the ones interpreting the constitution any way they want. Look at the whole issue of breakdown of security, the centre obviously cannot protect and has proven itself incapable of protecting the entire nation, and yet you are insisting you don’t want state police; you don’t want community police; you don’t want Amotekun; you don’t want anything except centralised regimentation.

In the meantime, it doesn’t matter whether those who occupy the centrality of power and responsibility; it doesn’t matter whether they are competent or not, it doesn’t matter whether they are unlucky or not, it doesn’t matter whether the world has moved so far forward and the nation has become so far transformed that the old reliables no longer apply, and therefore you need new minds, no, he insists on centralism. What kind of mentality is that?

And so, time and time again, even governors no matter, which president recognises the fact he must do something. And so, they set up a constitutional review committee and whatever they call it, and all the results are piled up. I said okay; the monkeys are satisfied, they threw them some bananas, now they throw us all the recommendations and continued the centralist kind of government.

So, it is part of the leadership problem that we are talking about. A self-centred, shortsighted kind of leadership, especially in this complex nation — a nation of ethnic, religious, cultural, traditional, economic complexities, the like of which no other nation maybe on this continent.

In spite of the long history of quarrel-trading you have had with former President Obasanjo, both of you appear to be on the same page concerning the sate of insecurity in the country.

People should by now, know that for Obasanjo and me, it is a love-hate relationship, which has been going on for donkey years. I have a feeling that it would continue until one day two of us will meet at the place we are going. It is a kind of natural phenomena. I call it natural because it is happening and it seems it is not going to stop.

Remember that during the Africa Day conference organised by United Bank for Africa (UBA), I took pains to call attention to his warning, when I said, forget the messenger, you could please fasten on the message and he warned and was warning about the Fulanisation; he used that expression of this motion, the dangers this portended. He can be very perceptive; I just have a problem with him for certain reasons and that is all.

Should Nigerians expect more collaboration between both of you in the search for a solution?

I hope he would not mind my telling you this. When my forest was invaded, not for the first time, and the police decided to use fake news to counter fake news, I got a message from him, saying, ‘don’t take your security lightly; don’t think this is an accident. I hope you will not quarrel with me; I am still your cousin in question.’

I just want people to understand that public fight; often called the ‘roforofo fight’ does not mean that we do not take each other seriously on serious issues. Both of us I know will stand side by side and rebuff any attack on the wellbeing of Nigerians. There is no problem there at all.

Many have argued that Nigerians’ choice of leaders is often ill-informed. In terms of choosing our leaders, what would you recommend as the way forward for Nigeria.

Somebody defamed me recently. And I said I must have committed some crimes in the previous life, but certainly it is not this one because I did not commit the crime and did not go in that direction. But for somebody to have the gut to defame me, it has to be the law of karma. I wish to apply the same analogy to Nigeria, I think there is a crime we Nigerian committed in the past life, that we have been saddled with the kind of leadership we have all over the place. Of course, there are exceptions, but nobody seems to take notice of the exceptions, or they don’t seem to have any influence on the rest. Generally, I’m beginning to be converted with the law of karma, whether individually or collectively. I think there is something we did in some previous lives.

NB:… To Be Continued on Wednesday, 10 March, 2020.

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