Birthday Sympathies For Wole Soyinka, By Tolu Ogunlesi

Listen to Fela’s songs from the late 1970s and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were composed in the 21st century.”

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“I’m getting a little bit bored with this Sisyphean struggle. I’m not exhausted; I can drop down dead tomorrow, that’s irrelevant, I want be around to witness the event. At the moment I do not feel I’m devoid of energy; [or that] my energy is diminished, whether mentally or physically. No. But something in me is getting very weary. And that is the burden of repetition; that it is possible in my own state for someone to sit down and try and turn a town house meeting into his own thuggish platform. It’s over fifty years now, I’ve been marching, I know the number of times I’ve been tear-gassed and of course gone through trials, a prisoner without trials, and so on and so forth. I don’t mind any of that. Mandela spent one entire generation of his life in jail; so I don’t grudge any of that. But if I feel inside me that I’m getting bored on a subject or theme or endeavour I become less creative and I don’t want that to happen to me.”

That was Wole Soyinka, who turned 80 yesterday, announcing what appeared to be his retirement from the Nigerian political scene, in an interview with the Guardian of London in January 2011, as Nigeria prepared for general elections. Of course you and I know that the man admirers like to call ‘Kongi’ (and who enemies like to call ‘godless’) would sooner become a priest or Alhaji than allow himself to be frustrated into silence or inaction by Nigeria.

Let’s go back to that line in the Guardian interview; about the “burden of repetition; that it is possible in my own state for someone to sit down and try and turn a town house meeting into his own thuggish platform…”

There’s something surreal about that line, a dejavu-ish quality to it that immediately summons another great Nigerian intellectual, and contemporary of Mr. Soyinka: Chinua Achebe.

In a letter dated October 15, 2004, Achebe wrote to President Olusegun Obasanjo rejecting his inclusion on the National Honours List: “For some time now I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.”

So, first, Anambra, then Ogun; theatres of government-backed gangsterism. Years later, in 2013, it was the turn of Rivers State: opponents of Governor Rotimi Amaechi, with the apparent endorsement of the president and his wife, unleashed terror on the state.

On July 11 last year I attended a press conference in Lagos at which Wole Soyinka and Femi Falana spoke, on the Rivers crisis. Soyinka understandably singled out First Lady Patience Jonathan for censure. Even though it was Education Minister of State, Nyesom Wike, who was on the ground as the main actor in the horror film being shot in Port Harcourt, it seemed quite obvious to all that the film’s scriptwriters, directors and executive producers were a famous and powerful Abuja-based couple who live beneath a famous Rock.

Now we’re all wondering, where next? What state will host this moving train of state-supported terrorism next?

And therein lies one of Nigeria’s biggest problems: the shocking predictability, to the point of banality, of our dysfunction. I’ve always said this, that my biggest fear for Nigeria is not that the country will fall off the edge but that it will instead permanently live on it, regurgitating old demons.

That twenty years from now we will still be here (rumours of our collapse are of course exaggerated!), dancing ‘etighi’ on the brink, threatening to tip off but of course never quite summoning the courage to do so. That in 2030 we will still be here listening to promises of 10,000MW of electricity, or of a functional express way or railway line between Lagos and Ibadan; still at the mercy of presidents sponsoring terror in ‘disloyal’ states.

Wole Soyinka will by then be a 96-year-old elder-statesman, still in the process of fully ‘retiring’ from political involvement, unable to do so because Nigeria will not stop troubling him. In interviews he will endlessly repeat his words from the Rivers State press conference of July 2013, regarding the plight of Nigerian activists: “We’re being given the same work to do over and over again. It is boring, condescending and insulting.”

On this occasion of his 80th birthday I deeply sympathise with the Nobel Laureate, on account of that most random act of pre-existential allocation that succeeded in matching him with a country that delights, more than most, in numbing its people with unoriginal frustration.

I wonder what it’s like, after decades of activism, of engagement, of suffering tear-gas and jail and exile, to step into the twilight wondering if it hasn’t all been in vain.

Think about it: Fela, GaniFawehinmi, Chinua Achebe, Aminu Kano, and others like them have come and gone. Soyinka is here with us, on his way out. They all made noise, ranted, protested, cried. Listen to Fela’s songs from the late 1970s and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were composed in the 21st century; read ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’ (published in 1983) and wonder why Achebe chose to make a living as a novelist and not as the General Overseer of Things Fall Apart Prophetic Ministries International.

Every one of these people mentioned above tried politics, with limited success. (All, deeply unsatisfied with the prevailing political blocs, were involved in launching political parties). Historians and pundits alike will forever debate how much of a transformational dent they were able to make on a hopelessly-corrupt, lowest-common-denominator culture of politics and governance.

The question that lingers, for us all who are sauntering along in the imposing shadows of these visionaries, is this: Why should we bother? Is it worth it? Instead of trying to step into these huge shoes shouldn’t we just focus on lying low and blending in, mastering the impossible rules of this rigged game that is Nigeria?

And instead of obsessing about making our country work, shouldn’t we be singularly devoted to maximally exploiting the chaos and corruption, to secure for ourselves and our children the physical and material comforts without which life in this hovel would be starkly Hobbesian?


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