Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian intellectual and the Nigerian society


Ibiyinka solarin



‘Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its historical mission, fulfill it or betray it’ Frantz Fanon.


The attainment of the biblical age of three scores and ten by Professor Wole Soyinka is as good a time to assess the  role and place of  Nigerian intellectuals in our society. For the purpose of clarity, perhaps, we ought to try to grasp  what an intellectual is.  The person of letters? The one that carries on with a pompous air of affected knowledge? The bearded eccentric? The one that obfuscates and mystifies instead of explaining and making it clear? The one that ‘blows grammar’, dogo turenchi? The prof? The one that is offended when he is addressed by his name or simply as Mr or Ms Y? The one who insists that he must be addressed as ‘Dr’ or ‘Prof’?  The one that uses his specialized knowledge to confuse and confound the unwary? The one that lends his name and signature, when in privileged position, to what is patently an affront to common sense and sound judgement?  The consultant on the make, in search of filthy lucre?

No, I think not. The intellectual to my mind is one who is at once engaged with his or her society and contributes in his or her own little way to impart knowledge and lower the bar of ignorance. As a result of his exposure to varied reading and other cultures, he is impatient that his society ‘gets it right’ His restless spirit is constantly in turmoil, raising questions, seeking explanations, accepting no easy answers. While others acquiesce in the face of what is patently injurious to the interest of the society, he raises his voice, he is not afraid of the powers- that- be. A person of uncommon courage, he confronts head on,  the  inequities of his society. He cannot be silenced. He suffers the betrayal of those he thought ought to take up the cause.  He understands the cowardice implicit in human nature, when faced with adversity,  particularly when  inflicted or threatened by the awesome power of the state. He knows some just do not share his passion,  and some are just looking for what to eat and how to go about eating it.   He knows that some of his ‘friends’ are in fact  agent provocateur, detailed by the powers that be  to inform and help determine the  best way to compromise him.  He knows  friends who crave to be in the bosom of the establishment, the reigning regime intellectual and palace fronts, because frankly, that is where the money is. A brief stint serving the temporary whims of the current power holders  have put some on easy street for life and  some have been permanently seduced. But that is the easy way and not his own way. He knows about the transience  of power.  The intellectual is no different from any other category in the society except that in a particular field of human endeavour,  he is adjudged to have excelled but that does not make him above the society. He is only as good as his commitment to the mental and social emancipation of his society. He wants his society to live up to its potential and he does not apologise for it. He is not craven and a quisling, he is not. Nonetheless, he is aware that the human nature suffers from two fundamental burdens, the flesh and the material and he struggles against his own limitations, fighting compromise and surrender. This is the titanic struggle all human engage in with varying degree of success. He knows that it cannot be easy for many, fighting material deprivation and want,  not to succumb particularly in a society where the state is everything. But he draws the line. He does not judge. Faced with egregious injustice, he refuses to back down. This is the role the Wole Soyinkas of Nigeria have chosen. There are not many quite like him, profile and all. Some are celebrated, some not so celebrated. Some paid with their careers and worse. They are in many professions. Our society needs this kind of people, and with  the sorry pass we have found ourselves in Nigeria , the need is compelling and urgent. They are the conscience of the society, those who speak truth  to power.

I was a student at Government College , Ibadan ,  when the Nigerian civil war broke out.   In August 1967, when the Biafrans entered the then Midwest , we were sent home. Many bright students never came back. I remember Uchechukwu Anyanetu, a class mate of mine,  a very bright student, one of those we used to refer to as an ‘all-rounder’, because he was good in all subjects. Mercifully, some did come back, but they had three years to catch up. Many young people in Nigeria today of course have no memory of the civil war. They ought to read Wole Soyinka’s ‘The Man Died’ and of course  the accounts of the Biafran and Nigerian partisans,  so they can make up their own mind what led to this terrible tragedy.

Like most people all over the world, I only know Soyinka from his writings, though colleagues and students have asked me about him. I always say he is ‘my brother’. I justify this claim the following way; His father is from Isara. My paternal grandmother is from Isara. In fact,  my father has a house there, where we sometimes spent some holidays  when I was a kid. Though my father has passed on, our family link endures. My parents are from Sagamu which is the metropolis of Remo division of Ogun state. All Remo towns [Isara is one] speak the same dialect with varying accents.    Wole Soyinka went to Government College , Ibadan [GCI],  so did I .  I was once interested in a career in Literature, after all I won the T.M. Aluko prize in creative writing in my final year at GCI.  But that is as far as I went, because I got lost in the social sciences and could not retrace my steps. Or may be I was not good enough.  After I narrate all this to my colleagues and students, they seem to forgive my license.

The second book of Soyinka that I will like to recommend is ‘The Open Sore of a Continent; A personal narrative of the Nigerian Crisis’ This is a book that many complacent Nigerians ought to read because there are those who habour the illusion that Nigeria cannot slip into fascism and one- party  rule.  Nigeria can, and the tell tale signs are evident already. Indeed there are outstanding personages in Nigerian politics today who will like nothing better than to turn Nigeria into a one-party state, where all opposition is muzzled, declared ‘subversive elements’, while they go on with the important business of ‘national unity’ and ‘nation-building’.

I met Soyinka once. It was  at a public lecture on the campus of Georgia State University , Atlanta , in 1996. I gave him my copy of his book. ‘The Open Sore of a Continent’ to sign.  I was surprised that the event was not packed with the  large Nigerian population in Atlanta .  Having never met him, I thought  he looked thin for a man of his height, and his face was fixed with this melancholy look throughout the program. I wondered what pressure he must be under. Who to trust among Nigerians around him, some undoubtedly, agents of the Abacha  regime that was after him? He looked tense, ill at ease, and the melancholy look hung on him even as he signed.  I tried to take a measure of him. The organizers allowed comments and questions.  I commented on the sparse assembly. He responded that the attendance would have been larger if ‘free booze’ had been promised. That is an exact quote.

I am happy that he has founded the Civic Forum. A thoroughly political person, this will be his enduring legacy to Nigeria , to help found an institution, funded and administered by Nigerians. Not one where people depend on funding from the ‘international community’ There is no free lunch. The captains of Nigerian industries and ALL who believe in the ideal of a free and responsive liberal democratic society have a stake in the Civic Forum;  market women, the artisans, the workers, students, professionals, ‘ordinary people’ and all of us who just want a decent society so we can get on with our lives. Most Nigerians, like most people all over the world, have little to do directly with the government, but they just  want a society where it is possible to realize and pursue happiness. They do not want their voice and choice predetermined by a cabal where popular consent as determined in a free election is a mirage. Where ‘elections’ are routinely held but there is no change, where people who did not run for an office are declared ‘duly elected’. That is a society where people have lost their voice.  If Nigerians do not want a society like that, every one must see to it that it is their bounden duty to struggle to have one. The Soyinkas can lead but many must supply the sweat and intellectual capital and  ALL be driven by the same passion for the kind of society we want. And we must be willing to make sacrifice and contribution to bring the idea to fruition. We do not yet have this kind of culture in Nigeria , yet it is a sine qua non for a liberal democratic polity. Nigerians are intimidated, overwhelmed and frightened by the excesses of those who claim to speak in our name. As a result, those in government believe they can get away with anything and we are all powerless or we can be bought and neutralized. In an underdeveloped society where want and deprivation stare most in the face, it is hard to face the awesome  coercive apparatus of the government, particularly when the culture of  the rule of law and due process has been badly vitiated and weakened for decades.  The civil society is not strong enough and independent enough.  The organized voice of the civic society as a counterweight to the excesses of those in government is feeble, so those in government feel they are unaccountable to no one. Witness the scandalous embarrassment of the event of July 10, 2003 in Anambra state or the cynical tampering with  the electoral bill of 2001 AFTER the national assembly had passed it. If people who perpetuated these acts knew that the Nigerian people will not tolerate it and would call them to account, they would think twice, if they knew there are severe penalties, including recall and removal from office. Assistant Inspector General Ralph Ige would not obey an unlawful order if he knew he would go to jail. The principal  who gave the order would  not contemplate it either. A person can be drunk with power only to the extent he feels he will not be held accountable.  The only reason such an order is given is because the culture of the rule of law is weak. The struggle to establish a liberal democracy in Nigeria will rest primarily on four fronts. A robust and vibrant civil society;  a fearless judiciary ; a free media and most importantly the vigilance of the Nigerian people. Freed from the jackboot of  the  traducers of democracy of the ancien regimes, the Nigerian judiciary seems to be  rediscovering itself, particularly the supreme court under Chief Justice Uwais Lawal and the Nigerian media has acquitted itself well, relatively. However, we do not yet have an awareness of a civil society with a nation-wide reach and influence that can serve as a watch dog and with sufficient clout that no branch of government can feel safe with any unlawful act. Witness for example the increasing audacity with which the electoral process is tampered with, the selective compliance or outright noncompliance with court ruling and arbitrariness in decisions by the executive branch  at various levels. A strong civil organization, respected by the Nigerian people, founded, funded and administered by them  and with nation-wide credibility will be ideal. Its duty is to raise the awareness of the Nigerian people vis-à-vis the actions of the agencies of government under the rule of law and to deploy all available resources under the law to fight any unlawful or illegal act. This is a formidable task.. Wole Soyinka through the western regional crisis of the mid 1960s, the civil war, the Shagari ‘landslides’, Buhari’s incipient fascism,  Babangida’s interminable transition, Abacha’s murderous  tyranny has kept faith with the Nigerian people. He has lent his prodigious energy and talent to a good cause, a relentless quest for good and responsive government in his life time.  If he finds a way,  working with like-minded people,  to institutionalize the ideals of the Civic Forum in all the nooks and crannies of our land, the foundation of the goal he spent half his life in pursuit of, may yet take root.