The Full Text Of A Lecture Delivered By Nobel Laureate And Winner Of The Obafemi Awolowo Prize For Leadership, Professor Wole Soyinka, On Wednesday 6 March, 2013
Today’s event may yet make a Christian out of me – since, from my admittedly imperfect recollection of the Christian bible – somewhere, it is written: to him who hath, even more shall be given. Despite the numerous explications I have encountered from childhood regarding that problematic passage, I have never been at ease with its implicit inequity. Today however, I am setting aside all such objections. I was a beneficiary of the liberal educational policy – at tertiary level – of the man whose memory we are here to honour, and now, today, I find myself recipient of yet another largesse, an inestimable honour at the hands – albeit posthumously – of that same sage. As a small return therefore, in tribute to some of those qualities which, in varying degrees, many of us admired in him, such as the principle of forthrightness, I intend to be blunt. When you live in an environment of the progressive insemination of fear as an agency of faith, it is no time for palliatives of speech and timorous euphemisms. As the poet Langston Hughes, a product of generations of intolerance, observes in one of his poems:
“There is no lavender word for ‘lynch’.
In this nation, the morbidity count for religious intolerance has surpassed the level of the intolerable. The triumphalism that first annunciates, then celebrates the brutal decimation of our own kind and thus, the diminution of our common humanity, is the veritable face of obscenity.
What is on fire today is not only within the mind, but the very nation space in which we all draw breath. Look left and right, check morning and night and you stumble on new minted issues that drain your vitality and compress the mind’s scope of functioning. Every individual, even infants, must have their own pertinent instances that illustrate our very topic. Let us make our entry point with a recent mild, but provocative event – admittedly on the lower rungs of the ladder of intolerance – nonetheless potent with assisted access to the very apex of discontent. It offers a most providential setting for the main body of this address.
At issue, very often, is the very banality, or the banalisation of Power: Illustrating that constant in social life was, conveniently, the decision of some civil servants to prevent school pupils from taking a general, universal examination because they were dressed in the moslem hijab. What, may I ask, does the choice of a hijab have to do with invigilating or sitting a public school examination? How does it compromise, or detract from the integrity of the tests?
There are differences and distinctions. It is not as if we are speaking of a private or public school, established on secular or religious principles and thus, requirements. When you are a club member, you observe the rules of the club. As I have persistently espoused – including in my recent publication – Harmattan Haze on an African Spring – all institutions have the right to set their own rules – as long as these do not violate constitutional rights – including dress codes and accessories that are symbolic of the school’s founding principles, philosophy or ideology. The West African Examinations Council exercise however – known as WAEC – is a general, all-comer, all-purpose arena for the testing of aptitude, knowledge and application, one that should be devoid of religious , national, or sectarian considerations at any level. Wherever its venue happens to be, that venue is neutral grounds. Why then should an examiner object to a choice of habiliments that do not disrupt the process of that educational test? This is what creates turmoil – the misappropriation of the designated province of Authority through the territorial rapacity and distortions of Power. It is crude, dictatorial, and avoidable.
As a student of such excesses, it has become routine for parallels to spring immediately to mind – and from multiple directions. The first contender was an occurrence in the United Kingdom some years ago, where two medical practitioners, trained with public funds, and sworn to the Hippocratic oath, refused to treat moslem women in their clinics unless they presented themselves appropriately – in the hijab. Need one really say more? Alas, there is indeed so much more to say.
Our late sage, Obafemi Awolowo, would surely have been baffled by such encroachments on human volition, wondering at the arbitrary limitations on entitlements to educational opportunities or – health. We only need to make one particular extraction from his humanistic vision, and we are instantly enlightened by its profound implications for humanity. Awolowo, a staunch Christian and leader in a predominantly Christian state, set up a Pilgrims’ Board in 1958 to assist the moslem faithful in fulfilling one of the requirements of the Seven Pillars of Islam. Such a policy, in my view, considered in all possible ramifications, deserves to be nominated one of the Seven Pillars of Nationhood. Translated in plain, practical terms, it establishes the principle that Religion should be recognised as a right, not a privilege, and that a citizen’s desire for spiritual fulfillment deserves to be assisted – as a basis for both social understanding and governance equity.
Now, that is the ideal. Is it however an absolute? When taken in the context of a multi-religious nation, it asks questions of the scaffolding that should uphold a nation – whether such state intervention is truly harmless, or can become an entrapment for unforeseen negative developments in the structuring of nation being. Let us begin with the banal. For instance, that policy became a springboard for demands for parity by islam’s main religious rival – christianity. It is my view that some of those demands should have been dismissed outright – certainly that of government assisted pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Nothing in the Christian religion makes pilgrimage mandatory to any destination in the world – so there is really no basis for claims of parity.
All it has resulted in, predictably for us in this nation, has been an encouragement to our affluent classes for extended tourist destinations, this time under the guise of religious obligation. It was only a matter of time before this class also felt that the act of tourism was not enough. There had to be a title for the outlay on that personal excursion, and thus came into usage the title of JP – no, not Justice of the Peace but – Jerusalem Pilgrim. You style yourself el-Hajj, I call myself JP. Of course, it all has to do with the promiscuous environment of ostentation that had become the hallmark of national life. Let me make it clear that I am speaking here of national trends, not of exceptions. Even long before independence or the oil boom, there were individuals who fulfilled their private spiritual yearnings by finding their way to Jerusalem and other places of christian pilgrimage without fanfare – among them, Chief Awolowo himself.
What we witness today however is the evolution of a new religious elitism that virtually looks down on those who have never stepped on the Mount of Olives, known to moslems as the Noble Sanctuary.
It is a pity that traditional religions, such as the Orisa, did not also demand their pound of flesh. The principle, after all, is what counts, and what principle for nation building could be more
crucial than one of religious equity? For a substantial proportion of citizens however, the principle of the separation of Religion and State is even more primary, no less crucial to Nation being than that pillar on which rests a nation’s accommodation of Religion – but strictly as a private engagement with unseen forces, where and however they are held to manifest themselves, and by whatever names they are known.
It would be absurd – I have to make this unambiguous, since there is such a tendency to take words out of their context and twist them to suit stubbornly held preconceptions – it would be even impious to lay the blame for the nation’s current dilemma on the shoulders of any leader who set the nation on a path of the harmonisation of religious preferences through the inauguration of an enabling board for pilgrims. More than even the practical aid, the gesture speaks volumes. It is to our discredit that this visionary proceeding has been poorly repaid, and in a measure that no one living even at that time could have foreseen. Obafemi Awolowo evinced foresight beyond any other national leader, but he never claimed to be a seer. He was, and remains till today, the nation’s preeminent sage. And so, not even he could have foreseen that, after over three decades of military dictatorial rule, and a civil war that lasted over two years at a cost of over two million souls and years of developmental retardation, a war – let this always be emphasized – a war that was fought specifically for national cohesion – he could not have foreseen that any state would unilaterally opt out of that resulting conglomerate, and declare itself a theocratic state, to be followed by eight others in a copycat relay of unilateralism – unchallenged. However, if all this had indeed unraveled before his eyes, and then he had learnt of a movement that had sprung up within that nation’s borders, demanding that the President of the nation converts before it ceased to blow up humanity in offices, on the streets, in factories, in market-places and in places of worship, I believe that his only surprise would have been that such a nation, supposedly filled with students of history, was expressing so much surprise.
But do we even have to be students of history to anticipate, and be pro-active against such developments? We have eyes to see and ears to listen with. Millions are addicts of CNN, BBC, Al Jezeera, SABC and other instruments that convey the march of history in contemporary, real-life tempo. In any case, even before the advent of such instant communication agencies, there are wisdoms that we imbibe with infant gums. Here now is a morality tale that has stayed with me since kindergarten school:
“A Bedouin on a journey through the desert camped down for the night, his camel tethered to a peg outside the tent. A while later, the camel pleaded: Master, the desert air is cold, can I just put my nose inside the tent to warm it a little? The Bedouin considered it odd, but decided to gratify his camel’s whim. Next, the camel, meek as ever, proposed that his neck follow suit. Again, the Bedouin felt that he had nothing to lose, just a little space, so he let in the neck. The head nosed its way up and down the tent, sniffed the air and wiggled its ears. His shoulders, the camel now pointed out to the owner, were not particularly broad, indeed they would take up far less space than his hump, so could he just intrude his shoulders a little further…..
The rest of the story is easily guessed. After the incursion of shoulders, the front leg, then two, chest, hump and rump, the camel began to grumble that the tent was getting cramped, and that even a blind man could see that there was not enough room for both…… Still vivid in my mind is the accompanying illustration – the astonished Bedouin sailing through the air from a powerful kick of his camel’s hind legs.
The lesson of that morality tale is unlikely to be missed, but just in case, permit me to ask you to recall the role that religion has played in the devices of history, the wars it has engendered, its imperialism of both the physical and mental estates – from the moment that this penetrative force of the ineffable was let loose on the world. From sticking its mere nose in the secular tent, the proverbial camel has moved to occupy centre stage – and in a most imperious manner, in the lives and schemes of humanity. This intrusion has often taken place in defiance and subversion of the real, the material, the palpable and even the productive – by which I mean, the means to the reproduction and enhancement of human existence. Never content with merely ministering to the ineffable – the soul – from the fount of the Ultimate Ineffable – godhead in whatever language – it moves to occupy the material space and dictate – I repeat – dictate the fortunes, pace and survival strategies of society.
Shall we turn yet again to another instance from the healing pursuit, one to whose discoveries – both for preventive and – when that fails – remedial application we all turn in time of need?
How recently was it that HIV-Aids cut its destructive swathe through southern and Eastern parts the continent? A Christian bishop, who presumably was in direct text or email correspondence with his deity, had no doubt whatsoever about God’s position on the matter. And so, in a region already half decimated by the disease, he mounted an aggressive campaign, preaching that the condom is in fact an instrument of Satan designed to infect its users with the very scourge it is meant to prevent. AIDS, he claimed, was God’s punishment for the promiscuity of modern society.
As the expression goes however, let us thank God for small mercies. At least he did not pick up his AK47, summon his catechist or verger, hijack an okada motor-cycle and proceed to mow down the anti-HIV campaigners caught distributing condoms in his diocese. This was the criminal recourse embraced by his self-declared islamic counterparts in Northern Nigeria – how recently? We no longer remember. That horror has been supplanted – is daily displaced by new, self-surmounting horrors. Nine female health workers mown down in an orgy of hate, and commitment to the will to dominate. One’s first response is primarily the shock, next, recognition of the animalistic in man which makes one feel that an apology is due to beasts. The mental conditioning between the two aggressors is however identical. One condemns fellow humanity to the possibilities of a slow, lingering death from HIV-Aids, the other settles a one-sided score once for all – arrogant, homicidal and unrepentant. Ground beneath both left and right theocratic heels is – my and your humanity.
Let me, before we go any further, establish the context within which I situate the manifestations of certain human phenomena – summed up in two words: Power, and Freedom. That binary provocation will come up again and again in this address. The first, Freedom, is a familiar caller on the portals of humanity. It is easiest grasped in tandem with the other – Power – and in a context that makes large claims, yet narrows down the seizure of the phenomenon of history to a most simplistic level. I readily admit that it does feel reductionist to propose that we view the complex evolutionary processes of that organism known as society through a straightforward, oppositional binary which, to make matters worse, happens to be essentialist. Freedom, however fervidly as it is pursued and valued as a humanistic defining goal, is largely essentialist. It is not material in any sense of being quantifiable or palpable. It has no dimensions, no taste, no texture, no GNP, it is not cited on the Stock Exchange – yet it is so real that millions have laid down their lives in its pursuit. Freedom is humanity’s eternal quest.
‘The other end of my proposed binary opposition – Power – also qualifies as being essentialist. To propose that this axial tension summarises human history must therefore sound like seeking signposts from the immaterial for an understanding of the material – the clearly tangible convulsions that characterise our actual world. Usually I find myself allied with those who decry such ‘undialectical’ references – far too loose, vaporous, almost theological in approach – how, we may ask, is this different from claiming that society is a product of the struggle between good and evil? Or its ideological version – that history is propelled through the ideological struggle – variously translated as – between progressive and retrogressive forces. Or a much favoured variant of that last, which lays claim to “scientific” verification – that history does indeed advance through that same process of binary oppositions within the class structure, but of an ascending dialectical order. In short – that the polarised struggle takes place between social classes, one supplanting the other, until history culminates in the final showdown between approximations of the middle class and the proletariat, and in a victory for the latter. Finally however – the thesis continues – such a struggle concludes in an elimination of that very process – an end of the serial binary contests which throw up a predominant class, and thus eliminates classes altogether. Humanity would have arrived at utopia, where all classes have vanished and their inherent social contradictions no longer exist. I have tried to be very fair-handed in that necessarily rapid excursion: I hope I have succeeded. If there is disatisfaction, here is some consolation.
I simply invite you to cast a prolonged overview to the north of this very spot where we are gathered, making a detour towards that region known as Somalia, then on to Egypt. Don’t stop at Egypt but proceed to Syria. Leap across to the former Soviet Union – the mothering state of satellites that finally jettisoned doctrinal tyranny and a long enduring – and complicating – Personality Cult. Then decide if the reality of our world today has not inflicted far greater demolition to that theoretical – and utopian – end to the phenomenon of social conflicts. By Personality Cult, I would like you to feel free to substitute, quite accurately, the Cult of Power, as an end in itself, not merely as a motivating factor but the craved end. I am speaking of the phenomenon of Power as an Absolute, one that is so glibly understated and/ or simply brushed aside, so as not to create untidy ends for a predictable grasp of History’s unveiling.
I am however fortunate to have emerged from a culture that pays due respect to the symbolic figure of the god Esu, who, as you know, makes nonsense of the “well-laid plans of mice and men”. Or tidy, precision calculations. Esu is the deity of the random factor, which perhaps explains why I have been averse to the dominion of mathematics all the way from school. I accord that discipline its place – it is awe inspiring – but completely reject its application to non-mechanistic functioning – such as the workings of the human entity – its psyche, temperament, hormones, its irrationalities and inconsistencies. Thus I remain unrepentant in my conviction that the motoring force of human history – to which the very evolution of society is subject – is best apprehended – indeed, most accurately understood – as the non-measurable, non predictable, time-immune tension between two axial ends of human striving – Power at one end, and Freedom at the other.
All human socio-political choices – including the economic – I find, are grouped around these compelling drives. The neutrals are drawn, sooner or later, into one polarity or the other through their sheer magnetic – that is, compelling – fields of force, or else are flung off from the centrifugal effect of the spinning axis. It does not matter whether we are speaking of a society driven on secular or theocratic ideologies; sooner or later the basic tendencies become clarified in those two opposing allegiances. It is what accounts also for internal splits, and counter splits within all social pulsations – so that even when, for instance, an organised movement, or even a mere ideological notion invades society and is embraced as a liberating force, it invariably mutates into yet another agency of human repression, and the struggle commences all over again. The two new polarities that have sprung from what was once a unified – and from our point of view, progressive – axial end begin to tear at each other’s throats. Barriers go up, and the lettering reads: yes, we have come this far but – no further! Or: this is the ONE direction we must now take, and all other propositions are reactionary, ungodly, unrealistic, subversive etc. etc. Voices raised in renewed opposition suddenly become secret agents, dangerous revisionists, fifth columnists and all, who must be wiped out. Liberation turns into Power and Dictation, confronting a new polar end of which it was once a part – Freedom and Resistance. Nothing appears to change, only the personnel, the tempo and intensity of struggle. To be enslaved once is bad enough. To be enslaved the second time, third and fourth, indeed a limitless number of times, provokes a level of humiliation that leads to desperation.
Of the contributory binaries that have propelled, even through costly, self-sacrificial routes, the course of human history, Religion and Nation – the power of Faith, and the romance of Nation – appear today to be the most resilient. That contrariness has come into the open, and with such impact that some in positions of authority and public responsibility feel compelled to seek out reasons, or simply voice out frustrations as to why intended binding structures , such as ‘nation’ appear, to disintegrate before their eyes, thanks to the encroachment of trans-border allegiance to that rapacious rival – Religion. They begin to interrogate the composition of the elements within that very crucible – nation – within which the ingredients of existence are supposed to be mashed to provide a homogenous paste, without particles, without granules, without impurities, in which all the contributory characteristics have been subsumed.
Of course such a paste does not exist, and it is best to explore, promote, and exploit differences but – creatively, productively, and positively! For purposes of variety – the many in one. Of all the ingredients that go into that crucible, the most obvious, the most stubbornly resilient is the element we have identified as – Religion. You can eliminate classes, you can eliminate inequalities – or at least grind them down to levels of inconsequentiality. You can miscegenate your population until even the colours blend or cease to matter – so that you arrive at a level when you declare your nation colour blind, or speak of a rainbow coalition, or whatever else. Brazil, for instance, likes to boast that it has become a raceless society – often disputed, but that the claim is made at all is most indicative of human aspirations. You may eliminate gender inequality through social policies, through progressive re-education and, in any case, except in Aristophanes, and recently in a recent threat of a sex boycott from Uganda, who can really conceive of a war between the genders. You can diminish extreme nationalism and internal micro-nationalisms through progressive governance policies and opportunities, and the strengthening of international organs for conflict resolution. It can be achieved through liberal educational policies that bring xenophobia to its knees. In short, at one level or the other, the human identity appears transformable, which implies that society itself, is. Only one irreducible is left and that is, alas – Religion. That appears to be the final bastion of resistance to the transformative end of the human psyche at its most revealing, most contumacious, most subversive of any vision of social oneness.
I must single out at least one example of those who have begun to break the mould of silence and warn publicly against this apocalyptic spectre called Religion. Normally it is a theme over which one would expect the executive director of the apex financial system to remain reticent. He has more than enough on his mind, such as closing down rogue banks and pursuing their predatory managing directors, yet, out came this recent indictment by the Chairman of the nation’s Central Bank. It was a cri de Coeur, a cry uttered straight from the heart. In summary, what he said was that he was not against spirituality, but that he wished that Religion would vanish off the surface of that earthly portion occupied by the nation It is a cry that echoed a lifelong frustration that I have myself articulated on various fora and discourses, the most recent being September last year in the conference hall of the United Nations, at a gathering dedicated to promoting the culture of peace. Permit me to repeat a paragraph from that address:
To such a degree has Religion fueled conflict, complicated politics, retarded social development and impaired human relations across the world, that one is often tempted to propose that Religion is innately an enemy of Humanity, if not indeed of itself a crime against Humanity. Certainly it cannot be denied that Religion has proved again and again a spur, a motivator, and a justification for the commission of some of the most horrifying crimes against humanity, despite its fervent affirmations of peace. Let us however steer away from hyperbolic propositions and simply settle for this moderating moral imperative: that it is time that the world adopt a position that refuses to countenance Religion as an acceptable justification for, excuse or extenuation of – crimes against humanity.
I wish to repeat that last section:
“It is time that the world adopt a position that refuses to countenance Religion as an acceptable justification for, excuse, or extenuation of – crimes against humanity.
In the same vein as our young banking crusader however, I have been at great pains not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I recognise the definition of man as an innately spiritual being, indeed, laud those nations who accept the responsibility to protect a human essence that demonstrates its ability to reach out to causes beyond man and immerses his being in the potential of forces outside the provable circuit of his minuscule being. Religion is a different kettle of fish however, a kettle that is perhaps filled with that species known as the electric eel.
Sleek, sinuous and inviting, it shocks when least expected. As illustrated in the morality tale of the camel – Religion is never content to occupy its own sphere of competence, which is ministering to the irrational but psychologically therapeutic cravings of mankind. Because of this propensity, it is stubbornly subversive of the secular order of human intelligence that deduces, and builds upon the evidence of the material world, on evidence that is palpable to human senses and can be apprehended as a commonality of experiencing – with the freedom to embrace or reject their insights.
Current events may appear to have provoked these reflections, but they are not dependent on those events themselves. Even comparatively stable societies, founded on democratic principles, continue till today to question the place and the role of Religion in national life. The only different between such a nation and ours is that, over yonder, it is not being pursued as a life-and-death issue, but as a fundamental, character forming principle of nation being. On this continent, it is a life-and-death issue, and thus constitutes an immediacy that transcends theorizing. It is actual. It demolishes humanity. It threatens to incinerate – no, not even erode – but incinerate the very scaffoldings that hold up the yet uncompleted structure that goes by the name of nationhood. It is therefore imperative that we place emphasis where emphasis is due and, while acknowledging contributory factors to the nation’s current dilemma, dismiss escapist theories in which we can comfortably bury our heads, taking refuge in propositions that all we have to do is eliminate poverty, eliminate unemployment, eliminate class distinctions, eliminate alienation, eliminate illiteracy to achieve that smooth paste in which all granules are atomised and attain the harmonious ideal. Yes indeed, this shopping list of contradictions must form a background consciousness of what is desirable, but they only provide us a cosseting picture of the totality. It is an understandable tendency in human nature to concentrate on what seems performable: what seems beyond immediate solution however had better be accorded proportionate space and attention.
Nation and Religion, alas, are two ancient principalities seeking privileged access to, and precedence to that same commodity – Power. Their warring ground is – Humanity, and its innate pursuit of – Freedom. The bedrock issue then, the constant that continues to narrate the history of mankind is the contest between Power and Freedom, of which Nation and Religion – when all else is eliminated – threaten to remain ‘the last duo standing’. It is within this struggle that the intractable is lodged. Intractable because essentialist, yet it is within that nexus that other abstractions, including societal virtues such as tolerance – are to be found. It is the final battleground of nation being and the winding down of human history.
Let us not underestimate the protean reach of Power – its exercise, abuses and appropriation – apprehending it only in its formalised, and often spectacular array: an ecstatic field of millions mesmerised by a ranting Adolf Hitler; an Idi Amin methodically reducing a nation to fear and obsequiousness; a Sanni Abacha and his sinister brigade of hitmen and so on and on – yes indeed, these are the more notorious templates of power: usually a Goliath of state versus David and his civilian slingshot. We tend to fasten on the concept of Power only when a brutal dictatorship is squatting on our faces and obstructing even the simple instinct of breathing. However, Power, even in a democracy, can become the foraging field of even marginal elements of society, such when a Kalashnikov confronts us, cradled snugly in the crook of the arms of an armed robber who has broken into the home in middle of the night – sometimes a youth young enough to be one’s grandchild, points that agent of subjugation in our faces and orders us to lie face down – or else! Power is experienced by the victim of rape, helpless under the brutal violation of her innermost being. Power is in evidence when a telephone call is received from a family member, friend or colleague, who informs you that they have been kidnapped and marched into the depths of the forest, and you have to choose between raking up the ransom or mounting a rescue operation – whichever choice we make – ransom or rescue – the fact is that our choices are set for us outside our own volition, our lives are interrupted and thus our freedom – snatched from us for an unpredictable duration. Indeed, the very fear that is instilled in the average citizen today at these very possibilities, fears which place a crimp on our choice of movements, anxieties that dictate the choice of life-styles, these are the many faces of the exercise of Power at its crudest and physical.
There is even phantom power that is nonetheless palpable and humiliating in its exercise and effect. Such is encountered when a creature of mere circumstance, but with a will to dominate environment in inverse proportion to demonstrable intellect and proven capabilities, when such a being, devoid also of constitutional existence, exhibits an unhealthy propensity towards appropriation of public funds to feed her phantasmagorical projects, her illusions of power, delusions of grandeur and allied obsessions. There is much more to be said in that vein, but today is dedicated to addressing issues far more worthy of our attention than a narcissistic streak, for which even a three-day resurrection is not enough, but must aspire to a full week of days.
We shall take leave of that distraction – at least for now – with this parting admonition: Aspire to be a Lady first, then a First lady.
There are manifestations that are more subtle, more insidious and profound in their effects, though these may also be exercised stridently. Of such manifestations, none is more humanly reductive and more sinister than the exercise of power over the mind, reducing us to merely glorified zombies, subject to the dictatorship of clerics of all hues, an exercise that relegates the functions of the mind, the rational quotient in our human make up, to the provenance of the absolutist intermediation of another mortal. Such a mere mortal then proceeds to attempt to control every action, every choice, from what we consume internally to the external covering of our bodies, dictates our modes of relating to one another, dictates our very sensibilities towards, and derivations from environment, attributes what is palpably inimical to our well-being to the will of unseen deities and, in sum – preaches the theology of meek submission to whatever they, mortals like us, prescribe – this power that saps the holistic apprehension of our human potential and reduces it all to the private interpretations of textual theology – this is the most insidious challenge to our full seizure of human potentiality, exercised in freedom.
It is this Power to propose inferior status, penury and beggary as divinely ordered conditions – even more than state neglect – that constitutes the last frontier for social liberation. It is this Power that releases its deadly toxin in the serial slaughter of nine female health workers, and the detonation of home-made devices in the market concourse of farmers and traders. It is this Power that so benumbs the mind that we become addicted to remedial incantations that only lead us into the escapist mode of ignoring the tyranny of the origination. This origination, which grants advance absolution for no matter what atrocity, is that of the painstaking, assiduous corrupters of malleable minds, who would rather see a generation of polio-stricken youths on our streets, than accept their presence in our midst as whole citizens of a common wealth.
A truthful recognition of this bedrock of the eternal human assertion – the choice between Power and Freedom, between Submission and Liberation, inevitably decides the agencies that we decide upon for confronting the violence that is unleashed in our midst. Yes indeed, we do applaud such measures as the overhaul of those breeding grounds for mind corruption, the religious schools where, from infancy, the impressionable mind is taught that the material world is a chimera, and that reality lies only beyond the present, in the hereafter, where certificates of pleasure earned in self-denial in this world can be cashed. Yes indeed, measures such as the establishment of supervised schools is essential. Side by side also is the unpleasant but mandatory responsibility of immobilizing those who threaten the very existence of the inhabited world with their own agenda of eliminating its humanity – unless it adopts its own warped reading of reality. However, even the sometimes enforced duty of violence as legitimate resistance to violence requires its own dual proceeding. We are after all, dealing with a phenomenon of the genie that has escaped from the bottle or, to deploy another metaphor, locking the door of the stable after the horse has escaped. The hordes are out in the open, infecting new sensibilities, not in the enclosures of the madrassas, but in scattered fields of indoctrination, remote from state controls. So, bombing versus bombing? All right, but with what material? I have yet to learn of a strategy – for instance, of raining down enlightenment leaflets instead of bullets. It is the minds that need most desperately to be bombed as part of state strategy. The airwaves need to be bombarded with counter indoctrination to what has already taken hold of the minds of these addicts of the untenable. Listen to the following gleeful , obscene declaration of a follower of al-Shabbab, broadcast only a few days ago:
We shall win, because we have nothing to lose. When any of us is killed, we rejoice, since we know he has gone to join the ranks of the martyrs, but when we kill the other side, they go into mourning.
That cast of mind has divided the world into teo geo-spiritual zones: The School of Life, and the Ministry of Death. But it goes beyond this apocalyptic effusion. What, in the profoundest sense, that individual and thousands like him are saying to the world is this: I exercise power over you. I am free, you are chained. You are chained because you cling to life. I do what I like with you. Let us stop foisting our own analysis over a freely conceded, and boastful declaration. That individual does not say, I am hungry, I am marginalised, therefore I kill. He tells you to your face: you have only one choice: Submit! I want to take possession of your mind. So what shall your response be? In what form? No, I shall not answer my own questions – at least, not openly. What I do have a duty to publicly express is this: whatever response you have, do not base it on the social condition you impose on that speaker. Listen to what he has actually said, follow what he does to actualise his proclaimed intent, not to your own sense of guilt or that of the society you inhabit. Yes of course, clean up the fertile ground in your own backyards on which such mental disposition has been cultivated, offer social options that wither its easy recruitment grounds. But first, in order to do this, you must ensure your survival, and that requires a response that is sometimes unpalatable, since it requires – to put it bluntly – neutralising such forces to keep them from inflicting further harm on society, and with all the capabilities you can muster. There is only one caveat: we must not become like they, in our choice of methodologies. We must not offer dehumanisation for dehumanisation.
Let us continue to stress this: nothing new is happening in this nation, only the final suppuration of a boil that has been left to fester, and the burden that it is happening during a period of greater accessibility to both sophisticated and home-made technology of instant and massive destruction. The child behind a AK47 has taken a quantum leap in evolution from the guileless child that was merely bred in the Nigerian madrassa, or the forest camp of a Joseph Kony, the Christian warrior of Uganda. That new being has tasted power, and is massively transformed beyond the pale of humanity. Call him a monster – such expressions are accurate but unhelpfully emotional. He will be restored only if he is fortunate to be captured alive – or escapes his captors. But there are differences.
Go and study the recovery processes of the child soldiers of Liberia, Sierra Leone and other warring fields – that early model of obedience, now grown into an ageless killer – will be restored only through time-tested rituals. In one model, he is taken back to the village where he has committed atrocities, put through a process of reclamation that takes him back to the age of lost innocence and emerges, blubbering like a child and asking forgiveness. But that distorted human entity was never a product of religious indoctrination – therein lies the difference. Joseph Kony may be a christian claimant and a deviant who has imbibed the dangerous cocktail of fanaticism and crude politics, but he does not preside over schools where the child is immersed, as it were, in a deeply penetrative bombardment, day after day, hour after hour, of religious principles that make the outside world a sub-human aberration, a heretical environment, and above all – enemy of a Supreme Deity whose virtues, attributes and commands form the daily, and virtually only diet of the mind. Joseph Kony’s or Charles Taylor’s child recruits are victims of Power who in turn embrace the pressure of power in order to survive, then come to relish the trickle-down ration of that same ambrosia that is enjoyed by their original captors, the desecrators of their innocence. They are, in the main, redeemable. Sooner or later, the effects of hashish and other lethal cocktails wear of. Not so those others who believe that the hereafter continues to be a heightened enjoyment of that same ambrosia of power preferment, where unimaginable, sensuous delights await them on attaining martyrdom.
How do you wean such a generation from their delusion and whose responsibility is this? Of course it is ours, collectively. But primarily it is the responsibility of those whose religion has been distorted into one of a hate machine – that is, those who recognise this. And many such voices are raised daily, deploring the consequences of this ideological distortion, if not outright desecration of the essence of that religion. They are the ones who must come to the front – with all the attendant risks, admittedly – by furnishing from within that original Faith the intellectual weapons of counter indoctrination, those who will say bluntly, not merely that this is the false face of islam, a distortion and desecration of the faith, but take the lead in a sustained campaign of re-enlightenment, beamed at that ultimate battleground – the mind.
I address you in all frankness. Leadership in the currently troubled regions of the nation has been remiss. The signs were over-abundant. I have lamented, on numerous platforms, the delinquent silence of religious and community leaders where the religious rights of others were trampled upon, often terminally, where again and again martyrdom became commonplace – yes, the genuine martyrdom – made up of innocents, singly, in sectors, often brutally but always with the confidence of immunity. The sanguinary appropriation of the word ‘martyr’ today leaves one sick in the pit of the stomach. I acknowledge the exceptions to my plaint of indifference: I remember Shekarau, then governor of Kano state who made a point of going to worship with christians in a church after one such atrocity, not just to sympathise with the victims but to demonstrate the spirit of oneness despite the different approaches of faith. And even earlier, the act of a young man, Jacob Mishali, to whom we awarded the Ken Saro-wiwa Prize for Minority Rights and Conflict Prevention. Let me tell you how that young man responded to a rampage of butchery that had overtaken some neighbouring towns and was consuming humanity like harmattan twigs.
Mishali gathered the elders of his village together and pleaded: all religious tendencies have lived together peacefully for generations. There is madness going on all around us, community after community submitting to the affliction. Let us all agree to make this community an exception. Whenever we encounter any attempt to sow dissention or incitement, let us denounce it immediately and expose it. They agreed. The fires raged just outside their community. That village remained immune.
The tragedy of the nation is that these, and allied initiatives did not find emulation remotely proportionate to the incidents and intensity of violent bigotry and impunity – and at levels that they deserved. So it is not merely staunching the grounds for recruitment that is the problem. There is also the issue of leadership. Of wrongful silence and inertia. The folding of arms and the buttoning of lips when leadership – and not merely localized – desperately needed to lead and inflict exemplary punishment on violators of the freedom of belief, and existence of others. The examples are too numerous and depressing, and this is hardly the occasion for a recital of human derelictions that only stir up negative memories. During that period of serial violations, we missed the strength, the vigorous conviction of voices such as we have heard in recent times, voices of community and traditional leaders, political figures of iconic stature. I refer to declarations such as that of Hassan Mohammed who was recently quoted as saying:
“It is laughable to describe these characters as pro-north or as defenders of Islam. They are evil anarchists who have not only killed almost every imam in the Maiduguri area, but are hell bent on eliminating our political and traditional rulers as well.”
Yes, we missed such intensity of conviction, such stern, uncompromising denunciation when individuals, with or without public profile, were being systematically mown down for alleged religious offences, some of which took place, not even within our borders but in remote, frozen regions as the Scandinavian nations or the United States. Again and again, the innocents, the real martyrs paid the supreme price. My intention is not to weigh down any sector of this nation with the burden of guilt but to say to you, to me, to all of us: No more evasion. The knives, the cudgels, the matchbox and burning tyres that decapitated Akulaku, that incinerated the female teacher and invigilator Oluwaseesin and a host of others, including school children and infants, at the slightest or no provocation have given way to far more efficient but indiscriminate means of human disposal – but still in the hands of the same malformed minds, now grouped under the fatalist banner of the Party of Death. Individually and collectively, we are at war, and the enemy is not hidden. Of its own volition it has given itself a name, a profile, and an agenda. Others have sprung up, geared to outdo their obsessed predecessors. Let each community look into its past, and see how both inertia and covert gleefulness have fueled the raging inferno. Nowhere is immune, not even those which presently appear unaffected. Now is the time to close ranks. Making up for past derelictions is not a sectional task, but a collective undertaking. Protection of our hard won Freedom – against any threat – is the imperative of our times.
Francis Fukuyama, whose briefly famous work, The Last Man and the End of History I have deliberately invoked – as some of you will have recognised – in my choice of a title, predictably revised his earlier views in a later work and essays, acknowledging that he had failed to take into account the power of culture in his calculations. Of the various forms of culture, the religious exercises the most powerful, unpredictable influence on human conduct, more potent and domineering, evidently more enduring than secular ideology. As long as Religion exists as a facilitator for Power, we have little choice but to make Freedom its challenger, and contest their sinister alliance. Settling for the title – ‘Winding down History’ in preference to Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’ is of course an acknowledgment that we must learn to be less presumptuous. Let our assignation with History read modestly as ‘Work in Progress’, but with a clear projection of this ideal as terminus – a vision of that state of social – and global – equilibrium in which, not only conflicts, but hostile contradictions have come to terms with humanity as the only permanence, where the final combatants – Power and Freedom – have come to that accommodation where Power is transmuted into Authority, Authority as a commodity that is earned, ceded to the management organs of society, not brutally exacted under whatever guise. That force of change continues in the spreading arena of democracy, capturing – though not without the occasional recidivism – grounds that were formerly surrendered to power. Take a look at the map of the world. Where is the former Soviet monolith?
What has happened to the banner of colonisation? Of Imperialism? Where is the Libyan dictator who once preened himself The King of Africa? What was the end of Milosevic? How do we view the necropolis of Pol Pot? True, their errors haunt us till today, especially here on this continent, but no less in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. The withering of ideology throws up ever new contestants for that constant – Power and Domination – against which Freedom is equally eternally ranged.
Yes, indeed, history is winding down, faster in some places than in others, as the multiple series of binary forces of propulsion lose their validity, wither, are proven to be hideous and costly fallacies, and become increasingly untenable. The question is whether or not this winding down will prove to be a shroud that also winds round our existence as nation, and drags us down into oblivion. Let me again recall us to my earlier declaration, and insist that I do not lay all the world’s ills on Religion, perhaps because I have come to accept that it is a yet unidentified loop within the DNA spiral. This means that I also dread what else might take its place – let us not underestimate the negative inventiveness of idle humanity! I do however vehemently denounce the use to which Religion has been put, and that means, I indict such abusers. And we must not be afraid to expose them. To defend ourselves against them. To isolate them.
Where they have intruded on our peace – or even fragile mutual accommodation – we must hunt them down, in here, or pursue them wherever lodged. To Mauritania. To Somalia. Or Mali.
Arrest them where we can, and re-educate them. If they have committed crimes against humanity during their period of delusion – ensure that they make open restitution before competent institutions before re-admittance into the parent community. If they refuse, if they prove incorrigible, then we must punish them. Openly, not secretively, as indication that we, as rival theologians of the Religion of Freedom, will not submit to the tyranny of the few.
The primary, yet ultimate implacable binary challenges us all, as history winds down to its ultimate resolution – that binary remains Power and Freedom. And we must learn to identify the camouflage of power. Secular or theocratic, that camouflage must be ripped wide open so that the real contender – the latest, smirking, unctuous face of Power in whatever guise, is exposed, and neutralised.
Only then shall we have truly fulfilled our existence and deserved our Freedom, only then would we have concluded our final assignation with – History.
– Prof Wole Soyinka
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