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Soyinka’s Sermon In Asaba – By Uche Igwe


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An erudite teacher of literature back in the days at the University of Ibadan, once described him as an indeterminate prodigy. Another described him as a reservoir of boundless creative energy that characterises seminal writing. Yet another chose to characterise him as one who exudes the kind of profundity and indomitability that arouses traditions of creativity. Many Nigerians loathe him with a passion, while many more adore his brilliance. Regardless of the side you belong to, many people have come to acknowledge that Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel Laureate is an enigma. You may wish to like or even hate him — just like many, but one thing is clear, you cannot ignore him.

In his characteristic provocative style and sophistry, Soyinka took the podium and addressed the participants of the 2nd South-South Economic Summit in Asaba, Delta State, a few days ago. For more than 40 minutes, he dazed and dazzled his audience made up of the Vice-President, governors, politicians, academics, ministers and captains of industry with a blend of suspense, imagery, riddles, plot, metaphor, and sarcasm. Vintage Kongi (as many call him), he sang like a soloist leading an ethereal orchestra.

I have spent the last five days trying to decouple the speech and extrapolate the message it tried to convey. I must confess that it has been a bit of a Herculean task. To understand a gigantic literary genius of the status of Soyinka is nowhere close to my preoccupation as a prosaic political analyst.

You will therefore be able to understand why I was able to draw only six observations out of his speech which I am willing to share with you. The first is the crisis of nation-building — our collective inability to recognise that Nigeria is not yet a nation. He lamented the fact that we have failed to revisit the history that brought us into being to examine the factors that have shaped our existence. Rather than do this, he observed, we have decided to muddle “in an impenetrable carapace of complacency.”

The second observation is what he referred to as “occupational illegitimacy” — the dubious legitimacy of a large percentage of representatives of the people’s supposed will. He opined that many of our political representatives in Nigeria today could not have caught the ‘sheerest whiff of the wood varnish on the seats they currently occupy’. Simply put — that if elections were properly conducted in Nigeria, many of those who are currently occupying political positions today could not have come anywhere near those posts.

The third observation refers to uncanny particularisation of the crisis in the Northern part as a burden on one part of Nigeria. Rather, Soyinka saw it as ‘a diabolical judgment on the structure that struggles to deserve the name nation, calling to question through its fiery monologues, the very legitimacy of our nation being’. He called on other constituents of Nigeria to take up the responsibility of finding lasting solutions to the crisis for the “survival of the totality of our national humanity.”

The fourth point made by Soyinka referred to a need to conduct a historical inquiry about the current crisis in Northern Nigeria by asking who let loose “these inhabitants of hell.” His comparison with the situation in Iraq offers a subject of reflection. He emphasised the need to conduct this enquiry in order to develop comprehensive response — whether it be political, revolutionary or theocratic. He invited government agencies to think deeper on the possible networks and sponsorships of the denizens of hell instead of the current approach of “climbing aboard the conveyance of evasion” which is likely ‘bound for the bunker of denial. “Their sponsors are not phantoms. They are real. They exist among us”, he insisted.

The fifth point made by Soyinka was the identification of a set of “gang-bangers” of our national future beyond the military. He described them as those who “even while claiming to defend the rights and entitlements of their own constituencies, do little more than defend the rights and entitlements of their own privileged existence.” He pointed sarcastically at two sets of people. First, the generator contractors, petroleum moguls and long haulage monopolists — who have ensured that our nation neither enjoyed electricity, nor a functional railway system. Second, those who see government solely as a livelihood and who engage in every dirty trick in the book to ensure that government remains in their hands, since they know no other way to survive.

The sixth and probably most important point was his recommendation for a reversal to decentralisation and developmental autonomy — a deliberate policy to progressively render the centre of Nigeria “reduced in its ability to impede the pace and quality of development of the constituent parts of the nation.” Soyinka made this prescription with palpable urgency recommending that the “constitutional envelope that holds the parts together must be pushed as far as it proves possible without it actually bursting.” Such political configuration, he opined, would leave the central government with issues of foreign policy, national security and interstate affairs.

I could not but giggle at his three seemingly “mischievous” references to abuse of power and banal extravaganza of the so-called spousal appendages to constitutional authority; zombie following who graduate from collecting pittance to demanding their own pound of flesh; uniform arrogance, unbridled rapacity and uniformed propensity to sterile interventions.”

Is Nigeria heading ominously to a perilous future?

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