By Wole Soyinka
Last year October, about a week after the nation space that we have generouslyagreed to refer to asNigeria, celebrated her 59th year of Independence from colonial rule, I found myself at the Athens Democracy Forum, Athens being of course that former nation-state that claims the honour of pioneering a system of governance that we all today, celebrate under the name – Democracy. I have no intention of challenging Athens on her claims. What is of note in that claim is simply that the Greeks consider this system of socio-political arrangement of such primal validity, despite numerous challenges and setbacks, that they continue to flaunt it at the rest of the world as the ideal to which all of humanity should aspire.What is even more striking is that much of the rest of the world continues to fall in line, join in the exercise, and propagate its virtues.
Two weeks after that conference, I was back on this soil of our own continent on an allied interrogation of history generated concepts. The venue of the second encounter was Dar-es-Salaam, the occasion, the bi-annual Conference on African philosophy. My remarks today derive largely from issues raised by those earlier exchanges. There is a coincidence of timing and relevance for our present gathering here, both thematically and historically, a coincidence that almost qualifies as a gift of Providence, since all three encounters are geared towards the historic search of humanity for existential choices based on the exercise of collective wisdom. I do not speak of wisdom as an abstract pursuit, a lofty aspiration that exists in a rarefied realm of its own, but wisdom as the very manifestation of the human ability to seize both phenomena and experience by the throat and squeeze them of any lessons they have to offer us in amelioration of human existence.
That claim is justified by the very theme of this encounter: NEVER AGAIN. It is not the first time most of us here have heard that expression. It is, unfortunately, also not the last time such an exhortation will echo in human caucuses, structured and/or casual, organized or improvised.It is both sentiment and pragmatism, an admission of an error, of an anomaly, of a less than desired expectation of ourselves, what we believe we are capable of, what deficiencies in judgment we consider we are capable of transcending. It is, to sum up, indication of our capacity for vision, a refusal to be stuck in a mode of thought that discountenances the possibilities of human transformation, of possibilities of transcending present limitations.That resolve may emerge from individual or collective experience. Let me bring it down to the most mundane, accessible level. Let us say, in a foolhardy moment, we have exceeded the dictates of prudence in spending, overshot one’s budget. What do we swear when the moment of realization descends? Never Again! Or perhaps – a more literally sobering experience – who still recalls his or her first hangover the morning after a night of over-indulgence? The very first words that emerge in that first flush of sobriety? Again, the two words: Never Again!
The trouble of course is that humanity tends to forget such lessons too soon, and will be found pursuing the same course of action again, all over again and again. We become inured to what we consider our capacity for recovery, even boast of our increasing resistance to the effects of the night before. However, we know only too well that, side by side with that seeming capacity for recuperation, there is a steady erosion of the physical constitution that comes from excess. Sooner or later, the liver – among other vital organs – will take its revenge.
That latter analogy is quite deliberate. Power intoxicates and, in that drunken state, human beings become mere statistics. Some people remain in a drunken stupor for years, alas, intoxicated by the sheer redolence of power and cheap access to the instruments of force. And so I evoke that analogy to bolster those sober and anxious voices that warn, from time to time, that no nation has ever survived two civil wars. The claim that no nation has ever survived two civil wars may not be historically sustainable but, it belongs to that category of quest that I have referred to as the pursuit of wisdom – in his case, we may equate it with the wisdom of not holding a bank note over a flame just because the Central Bank claims that it is fireproof. Or attempt to hold an exposed electric wire, just because NEPA is notorious for electrical incapacitation. Correspondingly, our analogy is sternly directed as a mirror to those contrary voices which boast: “I have fought a war and put my life on the line to keep this nation one, and I am ready to do it all over again.” That bravado, by the way, conveniently overlooks the reality that a parallel, often more devastating toll in human lives and lingering trauma is also exacted from untrained, unprepared non-combatants, burdening the future with a more unpredictable, indeed even irreversible hangover.
And that introduces us conveniently to my second conference in Tanzania for which my contribution was titled: WHEN IS A NATION? –with the sub-title,Power, Volition and History’s Reprimand. I believe you have begun to grasp the connection. If not, let me remind you that Tanzania was one of the five nations that recognized the breakaway Republic of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War. Finding myself in that setting, among products of a very special historical formation – pre- and immediately post-colonial African – despite variations in detail, if was an opportunity to interrogate what, if any, could be considered a philosophical or ideological extract from a human event that consumed – it is estimated – two million and a half lives within two years.One of the preoccupations of philosophy is of course to immerse its processes in what actually makes humanity – tick.
So, there we were in Tanzania, a crucial player in the Nigeria – note, I do not say Biafran but– Nigerian tragedy. Regarded as a progressive nation, with a track record of support for liberation causes both within the continent and outside – such as the Palestinians struggle for nationhood – serving as a front-line buffer against apartheid South Africa and thus incurring punitive attacks from that racist enclave, Tanzania nonetheless chose to go against the tide of opinion within the then Organization of African Unity. She recognized a secessionist state at a time when such a position was not only unfashionable, but was even regarded by many as an act of race treachery, a rupture of the not-for-discourse, not-for-consideration political ‘absolute’ named: African Unity. Yes indeed, that was the conjure word: African Unity. Unity as in non-fragmentation, non-divisible, was a proposition in transcendentalism, an Absolute. A modern continent, offspring of multiple rapes – or indecipherable trading treaties – and externally imposed distribution lines, was to be weaned on the milk of a foster mother named – African Unity
So let us consider the implications of that collective position. In objective terms, what exactly was it? A historic irony, I propose.We are introducing here a very plain issue that goes to the heart of national coming-in-being of any people, that issue being a polarity between volition and – dictation. Perhaps you will now admit the relevance of my commencing reference to that other conference that occupied itself with the ancient socio-political system known as – democracy. The Yoruba have a proverb for that implicit lesson in contradictions – it goes: won ni, amukun, eru e wo, o niat’isaleni. Translation: The knock-kneed porter was told: that load on your head is skewed. His reply was – ah no, the problem lies at the base, at the beginning, not, in the consequence. And so, the question is thrown open as a fundamental proposition: is democracy itself not vitiated, not a sham where the roots of coming-in-being of a people spell dictation, coercion as opposed to – choice? Volition? Consent and Participation?Those are the building blocks of Democracy. Democracy is manifested in act, not in the rhetorical flourish. That is the irony to which I refer, an irony that commenced when the Organization of African Unity adopted the very protocol of the inviolability of national boundaries – that is, the sacrosanctity of given boundaries, dictated, imposed, arbitrary and artificialboundaries, and its members resolved to defend those boundaries to the last drop of our blood.
Now, a pause here is mandated. Tomorrow, I know that I shall open the pages of the newspapers and read that Wole Soyinka has advocated the breakup of Nigeria. One reporter will educe that from an underlying principle I have just enunciated, jot it down in his or her notebook, and others will copy that conclusion verbatim. Too bad for the nation’s Intelligence Quotient – known as I.Q. I have long given up, and will proceed – as I always have – on my own terms, with my uninterrupted dialogue with history, and in my own mode of expression. Those who wish to catch up can do so in their own time. My extract from that Civil war remains what it always was – a simple self-interrogatory: Have we been had? Absolutes tend to resound with a clarity, an exclusionist proceeding that does not tax the brain. Absolutes readily corral even millions into a comfort zones of unquestioning receptivity, simply from fear, or even just from the way they sound, not for the implications of their content. Absolutes however remain what they are – glorified sound-bites such as: The sovereignty of this nation is non-negotiable. Yes, what exactly does that mean? We know what it meant for the first-comers at the helm of affairs in the Organization of African Unity. It meant: to each his own, as exists at this moment of history. This is a club of leaders, let us keep things the way they are by respecting one another’s turf. No trespassing. No adjustment of givens. No agitation. No negotiation.
Again, I warn against reductionism. I do not belittle the passion, the sincerity, the dedication to the liberation of the continent from external control as diligently pursued by a number of those leaders. I do not belittle the ideological determinism of a handful, the will to transform, to catch up the rest of the world and redress the history of enslavement – both by the Eastern and western worlds, the humiliating racism for which we are on the receiving end,even till today. I do not for a moment underestimate the self-sacrifices and `I do not ignore the vision of a few individual leaders. I do insist however that that protocol of sacrosanctity of colonial boundaries was a self-serving power mechanism of internal control and domination that had nothing to do with a structured, programmatic concern for the African masses who bore the brunt of effects of colonialism and its later, camouflaged successors – including internal colonialism.
And thus I continue to ask: Have we been had? Are we still being well and truly had? Do we continue to lay ourselves wide open to be cheaply had? Well then, consider the state of the world, at that very time that theconference in Tanzania was holding, just last October. Let us take a look over the continental wall and instruct ourselves. That conference was taking place, sixty years of modernity after the Nigerian civil war, simultaneously with an ongoing upheaval in a distant continent, Europe, in a former colonial power, Spain. Yes, that power, Spain, was embroiled in a secessionist move by a province known as Catalonia. The initial, dramatic proclamation took place in Catalonia’s own provincial parliament earlier that year, echoing that other allegedly retrogressive move thousands of miles away on this very continent, in this very nation, in a region abutting the Bay of Biafra – that is, history was being replayeda full sixty years after the precedent that was set in the Bay of Biafra. In between of course, need I remind you of the dismantling of the monolith known as the Republic of Soviet Unions – with the nearly forgotten acronym of USSR?
Hindsight or foresight, irrespective of what triggers off recollection, it is all part of our humanity to call history to account from time to time, and most especially in those moments when its obscured fault-lines are exposed. And so we proceed to an even closer scenario – closer that is, even intertwined with our own history as former colonials – the United Kingdom, a fellow Commonwealth nation. I refer to the attempted breakup of that once colonial power whose policies in the first place certainly contributed to a violent, devastating resolution on the Nigerian testing ground. The Brexit movement is taking place within a loose organization, so one can claim it is not quite the same as that ugly word, “secession”. However, Brexit did lead, with remorseless logic, to a renewal – repeat, renewal of the calls for Scottish independence. It is a recurrent agitation that actually resulted in a referendum in 2014– just six years ago – after a motion in the Scottish Parliament. That motion, like Brexit, obtained the assent ofthe union government in Westminster. The UK government under David Cameron,found that it had to campaign hard to swing the votes for a “No”. Some here may recall that even Lawn Tennis had a cameo role in that drama since the referendum took place close to the Olympics, and collateral anxieties built up– would Andy Murray compete as a Scot, or as a Brit? If only such weighty issues of governance and nation-being could be reduced to benign proportions such as the uncertainties of the game of tennis! On a personal note, let me reveal here that I was in that very parliamentary house not long after the failed referendum where I addressed the International Society on European Enlightenment. It gave me the greatest pleasure to sympathize with members of the Scottish parliament on their abortive act of secession.
Closer home of course we have undergone the break-up of Ethiopia and Eretria, after decades of human wastage. There is of coursethe resolution of a Sudanese separatist uprising in negotiated divorce. When – or if at all – will a verdict be objectively delivered on whether this was ‘one giant step forward for humanity’, or one harrowing step for socio-political retrogression? What matters for those of us committed to a humanist mode of thought is this: a direction was finally agreed upon in favour of the survival of Sudanese humanity,the termination of its decades-long agony, and the annulment of the unwritten pacts of mutual decimation. Let my comments during a eulogy to our own home grown secessionist leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was once violently excoriated, later absorbed, after his military defeat, into the bosom of a “united” family – let those comments stand for some of the wider implications that derive – not to all, necessarily – but indisputably from some such events of dubious associations, even of the most benign. My eulogy went as follows:
“On that day, May 30, of the year 1967, a young, bearded man, thirty-four years of age in a fledgling nation that was barely seven years old, plunged that nation into hitherto uncharted waters, and inserted a battalion of question marks into the presumptions of nation-being on more levels than one. That declaration was not merely historic, it re-wrote the more familiar trajectories of colonialism even as it implicitly served notice on the sacrosanct order of imperial givens. It moved the unarticulated question: “When is a nation?” away from simplistic political parameters – away from mere nomenclature and habit – to the more critical arena of morality and internal obligations. It served notice on the conscience of the world, ripped apart the hollow claims of inheritance and replaced them with the hitherto subordinate, yet logical assertiveness of a ‘people’s will’. Young and old, the literate and the uneducated, urban sophisticates and rural dwellers, civilian and soldier – all were compelled to re-examine their own situating in a world of close internal relations and distant ideological blocs, bringing many back to that basic question: Just when is a nation?
Throughout world history, many have died for, but without an awareness of the existential centrality of that question. The Biafran act of secession was one that could claim that a people had a direct intimacy with the negative corollary of that question. Their brutal, causative circumstances – I refer to the massacres, the deadly hunts – could provide only one answer to the obverse of our question, which would then read: When is a nation not ? In so doing, he challenged the pietisms of former colonial masters and the sanctimoniousness of much of the world. He challenged a questionable construct of nationhood, mostly externally imposed, and sought to replace it, under the most harrowing circumstances, with a vital proposition that answered a desired goal of humanity – which is not merely to survive, but to exist in dignity.
Even today, many will admit that, in that same nation, the question remains unresolved, that more and more voices are probing that question – when is a nation? – from Central Africa through India/Pakistan to Myammar and the Soviet Union – enquire of Cherchnya and the siege of Beslan! Innumerable are the casualties from contestations of that facile and unreflective proposition that whatever is, is immutably ordered, which confers the mantle of divine ordinance on those spatial contrivances, called nations, even as they continue to creak at the seams and consume human lives in their millions. Such arch-conservationists, sometimes imbued with a high sense of mission, see only a sacrosanct order in what was never accorded human approbation, as if it is not its very human occupancy that confers vitality on any inert piece of real estate.
Julius Nyerere was too astute not to know that his gesture of recognition was futile. That leaves us one extract – arguably others, but I wish to fasten on just one – symbolic. Translated into the language of propulsive thinking, impelled to extract a lesson from an unrelenting cycle of human wastage, that lesson would read: Humanity before nation. Indeed, Nyerere’s justification of his action implied as much. And, when we finally met, during a North-South conference that took place in Lisbon after his retirement, at a criticalphase of theanti-apartheid struggle, he reaffirmed the rationale behind his decision. Well, it does not matter whether r or not that alone constituted the rationale for his position – we know he was a politician, and political motives are predictably multiple and interchangeable. What does matter for us today, is the imperative of a ‘revisionist’ attitude, even as a purely academic exercise. For example, ask ourselves questions such as: What price ‘territorial integrity’ where any slab of real estate, plus the humanity that work it, can be signed away as a deal between two leaders – as did happen between Nigeria and the Cameroon. You seek an answer to the claims of territorial integrity? Ask the fluctuating refugees on Bakassi islands just what is the meaning, for them, of ‘territorial integrity’?
Again, I feel obliged to emphasize that this has nothing to do with whether or not one side was in the wrong or right, nothing to do with accusations of a lack of vision, of pandering to, or resisting the wiles and calculations of erstwhile colonial rulers, or indeed, taking sides in a Cold War that turned Africans into surrogate players and the continent into prostrate testing ground for new weaponry. No, we merely place before ourselves an exercise in hindsight – with no intention however of denying credit to those who did exercise foresight – we propose that the loss of two million and a half people, the maiming and traumatization of innumerable others and devastation on a thitherto unimaginable scale, by a nation turned against itself even as it teetered on the edge of modernity, provokes sober reflection. That’s all. Sober reflecrion. A re-thinking that is unafraid, especially as such scenarios, considered in some cases even worse, more brutish, have since followed. Need one recall Rwanda’s own entry into that contest in morbid pathology, one that surpasses the Biafran carnage when comparatively assessed in duration and population parameters? Allremain active reminders to haunt Africa’s collective conscience – the existence of which, I know, is an optimistic presumption – and appears to elude the ministrations of politicians and/or ideologues, or indeed theologians.
I propose that we borrow a leaf from our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora.I have no qualms in reminding this, or any other Nigerian audience that, such is the ingrained slave mentality of the contemporary progeny of those who sold those exiles into slavery in the first place, that some in this nation actually consider it a duty, even honour, to take up cudgels on behalf of the denigrators of our own kind, of our own race. Thus, they proceed to insult those who respond in their own personal manner to such racists, however powerfully positioned and no matter where on this globe – but let that pass for now. My intention is to jog your memories regarding that spate of serial elimination of our kind – the African-Americans – by white police in the United States at that very time, an epidemic that merely actualized the racist rantings of the current incumbent of the White House as he powered his way to the coveted seat in the last United States elections. The African-Americans, tired of being arbitrary sacrificial lambs,the victims of hate rhetoric, went on nation-wide protest marches, carrying placards that read: Black Lives Matter.
Adopting that simple exhortation enables us to include the millions of victims of failed or indifferent leadership on this continent who are more concerned with power and its accruements, who see the nation, not as expressions of a people’s will, need, belonging, and industry, but as ponds in which they, the bullfrogs of our time, can exercise power for its own sake. It is they who militate against ‘nation’, not – I shall end on this selective note – not the products of migration from purely nominal nation enclaves who perish daily along the Sahara desert routes, who drown in droves in the Mediterranean. They are the ones who confronted the question with, alas, a fatalist determinism. They asked themselves the question:When is a Nation? And the answer of those desperate migrants is clearly read as: not when we left where we called home! As long as our humanity opts for unmarked graves in the Sahara desert, or in the guts of the fishes of the Mediterranean, their answer remains to haunt us all. Yes, indeed, let us internalize that Africa-American declaration as statement of a living faith, an expression of our humanity that may compel leadership to pause at critical moments of decision, thereby earn ourselves some space where we can re-think those bequeathed absolutes that we so proudly spout, gospels of sacrosanctity, pre-packaged imperatives or questionable, often poisoned“truths”that incite us to advance so conceitedly towards the dehumanization, and decimation of our kind.
Any time that leadership, on whichever side, is about to repeat yet again the ultimate folly of sacrificing two and a half million lives on the altar of Absolutes, any absolute, we should borrow that credo, paint them on prayer scrolls, flood the skies in their millions with kites and balloons on which those words are inscribed:
African Lives Matter!