Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, is never tired of commenting on issues of national importance. In one of such moments, he fielded questions from the Executive Editor, KUNLE AJIBADE; General Editor, ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE and Staff Writer, ERNEST OMOARELOJIE, on issues ranging from the removal of the former chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, power supply, the rotten education sector, to the economy that is on a tailspin, and others. Excerpts:
Q: I noticed that since Yar’Adua became president, wole-soyinka.jpg you’ve restrained yourself from criticising his government in very pungent ways. What is responsible for that? A: He only became a full-fledged President, in my political reckoning, with the decision of the Supreme Court. So he was President in a sort of hiatus, in semi limbo, in exercising the functions of President. My attitude to election, especially in a country like Nigeria where the culture of appeal to tribunals is truly phenomenal, is that I tend to consider incumbents, just incumbents, pending the end of elections. To me, I would calculate the end of appeals when all is over. That, to me, is when election is over. So the presidential election ended with the pronouncement of the Supreme Court. During that period, my attitude was that somebody was holding the bag for the nation in the meantime and so not much was expected. It’s only when the circumstances are so outrageous and the nation is imperilled that I felt obliged to say one or two things. My definition of the nation being imperilled includes media houses being closed down and if there is any undermining of the nation’s democratic imperatives, all of which could put the nation itself in great peril. Events like that require commentary, no matter if the person responsible is there for only two hours and it takes place under his watch.
The other event that elicited my commentary was the crisis in the Delta, which to me is an on-going event and which is a very volatile one which has to be sorted out as fast as possible. The other was the issue of Nuhu Ribadu. I consider him a president person. That is, a presidential appointee, responsible to the presidency during his term of office. Even after his term, he continued to be the responsibility of the presidency, especially if in his trajectory thereafter there is ill-relation to his functions as an employee of the President. And there, of course, the President failed to protect him. So that required speaking about.
Q: Just a few days ago, he was dismissed from the police by the Police Service Commission. It’s been a long-winding event that culminated in this, with everybody saying that we saw it coming. But the question has always been: what kind of nation is this that will treat a man like him the way it did? What is your take on this? A: I used the expression earlier, that when a nation is imperilled, one cannot wait, one must speak up. This, for me, is one of the most dire signals of peril when a national servant like Ribadu is treated shabily. It is a signal that goes beyond himself. This is what they are saying to the nation: this is how we deal with those who show what we consider as excessive zeal in the nature of their work. Even when we appoint one of our own with full official backing, with the full resources of the state, machinery of the state to implement what is alleged the policy and wish of the state, which is to stamp out corruption, see how we deal with him. So the Ribadu affair has gone beyond him. It is an affair of each and every one of us. Well, you see what is in store for you. This is what they are saying to the nation and I believe, with it, the nation is imperilled by this episode. It is an on-going episode because obviously that is not the end. I hope and people expect him to defend, demand his rights by going to court again over this recent development.
Q: What is the implication of Ribadu’s dismissal on the anti-corruption crusade? A: Well, it is very clear. Those who are responsible for this act, not just the commission which pronounced it, but the police which obviously instigated it and the other players in the background we don’t know about, are simply saying that there is no possibility of this country ever being cleansed of corruption. This is the unambiguous statement to the world: mind your own business, we have our own tradition here and that tradition is a high tolerance level and high level tolerance for corruption. This is what they are saying to the whole world. So the implications are vast. I don’t see how we can ever be taken seriously by any organisation dedicated to probity in government and I can imagine people running away from serving the nation because they would say: see what happened to those who pursued their assignment with dedication. This is what they are saying.
Q: What about the impunity with which the actions were taken? A: You see, what these forces are trying to implant into the mind of an average Nigerian is: we have a high level tolerance of noise. You people will make noise after which you will tire. But if you don’t tire quickly enough, we will do another one so that while you are busy coping with this, we have transcended that level of criminality. This has been the pattern for decades. You try to deal with one level of atrocity, hoping that your action will prevent the next. In actual fact, they will leapfrog that particular level of criminality and shamelessness to a different level, to the extent that you don’t even know whether you should go back to the first one, hoping you will use it to serve as a lesson or now confront the new one. But, of course, the moment you get to that level, they have already transcended it as well. It is one of the reasons that I think there has to be an alternative structure, if not exactly of justice but of truth, of something which has been put in place, put in practice in a number of ways. I mentioned when we put Sani Abacha on trial in London, brought in jurists and had testimonies presented by those who managed to slip out of Nigeria, those in exile. We did the same exercise for Omar Bashir in New York. I have become increasingly convinced that what we need is an alternative structure of, call it truth, call it justice, but of exposure so that even with all the powers and anything of the sort, people will come and testify as to what they know and then let the public do what it wants. But we must have a sitting, a continuous sitting or tribunal, placing on trial the enemies of people, truth, probity and saboteurs of the democratic process. The sooner a beginning is made to have that permanent sitting tribunal, the better for this country. This is because they have taken the measure, the rhythm of opposition and they feel they can outlast the opposition.
Q: I recall what happened in Paris recently at the UNESCO conference where decisions were taken concerning the Obasanjo Presidential Library and all that. Don’t you think that these forces are capable of corrupting these set-ups you are talking about? A: Of course they never give up because they are tireless. Oh, of course they are going to try! If you have a sitting panel, how was the anti-Abacha panel in London going to be corrupted? Impossible! We have tested international jurists sitting on the panel. Individuals, representatives of organisations are coming forth to give their testimonies. There is no way that process can be corrupted. It is not as if you are going to be able to bribe the panel. A government is being put on trial in the case of Omar Bashir in New York. The Sudanese government was not able to bribe members of the panel which I chaired. But I assure you, I was assisted by a professor of International Law. That is the way we did it. It is not as if a lot of amateurs were sitting down there. The other side was represented but the tribunal-appointed international jurists for them also to cross-examine all the witnesses. The essence of the exercise is that it is out in the open, it is publicised, videotaped and the records are sent everywhere so everybody can judge. It is like the democratisation of the processes of justice. I have become increasingly convinced that this is what we need. We need a parallel forum, a permanent sitting forum of, shall we say, truth expression. That is really what it takes when we talk about people’s court. When we talk about people’s court, we are talking about the dissemination of truth, a structure to enable the people themselves to see something and respond appropriately.
Q: This is very different from what happened in Paris…. A: Oh! that one, so many hungry diplomats from very hungry and impoverished countries were available for manipulations. It happens in the United Nations, it happens in UN agencies. That is a fact. The variation which has taken place now is that Citizens’ Forum is going to take charge and use my NNMA prize money to set up this kind of structure we are talking about. There were huge protests. I was bombarded by telephone calls, e-mails from civil organisations saying, why are you giving this money to the Supreme Court? Let’s use it. I buy the arguments absolutely and the money is going to the Citizens Forum which is committed to putting former leaders on trial within this kind of structure. So in a way, we are still assisting the same principle, assisting the judiciary.
Q: When we asked you about the lessons for Nigeria of Obama’s victory recently, you said Nigerian youths should get themselves organised. Is this also related to that? A: It is related. It is a galvanising movement. Many people don’t realise the enormity of what is being done to them, their psyche and their civil rights. You only see the eruption here and there. But they give a shrug. They were not there at the time these events took place. They were not there when Odi happened, they were not there when Jos happened or when Kaduna happened but when you have a sitting, it is like a living media, almost the same process as the media. But the transmission is through the human vehicle under which the people can actually empathise with people on the spot; they can give evidence before this alternative court. That, in itself, mandates taking on a greater responsibility for their lives, for their future and this, in turn, means beginning to organise. The youths, for instance, should begin to organise against the next election. They should begin to organise even for the on-going local government elections. The model is there, wide open and I hope people get to study what Obama’s team really did in the United States. A lot of Nigerians were involved. My own younger sister was involved in the mobilisation of people all of which led towards Obama’s victory. Nigerians mobilised positively this time, the same way they mobilised negatively on the ousting of that African-American woman senator who became Abacha’a apologist when the time came for her to run for senate. In Chicago area where she comes from, people mobilised massively and ensured her defeat, utilising the evidence of her conduct during the Abacha regime. The same kind of energy this time was used by the American youths. When I saw this movement among youths at a time when many people were still doubting that a young black man could do any such thing, I said, watch the youth movement here. It is what will ensure Obama’s victory. Watch it burgeoning, burgeoning and burgeoning endlessly. It was principally the youth movement that decided it very much earlier in the race.
Q: What do you think is the effect of the impunity you talked about earlier on democracy? A: It destroys democracy. Democracy is about accountability, openness and it includes the removal of excessive secrecy, the passing of the freedom of information bill, as when you have a right to go and demand to know this or that. This is part and parcel of what e-government is about. Click on a link and find what was said at the National Assembly the other day, follow that link to read what somebody said to controvert that. It is open. And of course, with knowledge there comes a lessening of the impunity culture, which means I can get away with anything because I am sheltered and nobody can do anything at all about my actions, no matter how atrocious or anti-human. Mugabe is living in a cocoon of impunity and so have many civil servants, governors, etc. Impunity was the hallmark of military regime in this country and, unfortunately, many civilians think they are entitled to their own share. At a point, Ribadu was actually called and told by one former governor that he would be dealt with. At every inch of the way, what he told Ribadu has come to pass, not minding the opinion of the rest of the world.
They are not even mindful of what religious bodies might preach against sin, sinfulness, thieving and corruption. They do not care about flouting basic moral orders of society, whether through the secular, judicial or religious route. This is what impunity is all about.
Q: The Supreme Court judgment giving victory to President Yar’Adua was the reason you rejected the Merit Prize… A: No. I accepted my certificate. I thought there was a plaque. Apparently there was none. So that space on my wall is still empty.
Q: Many people could not reconcile your acceptance of the plaque and rejection of the money… A: It isn’t so much rejection of the money as such. It is saying that something is needed over in this side, why don’t you take it and use it? I know people find it difficult sometimes to deal with that kind of dichotomy. But to me, it is a most natural thing in the world. If you give me a Christmas present of a turkey and let’s say a bottle of wine and I take the bottle of wine, I can return the turkey to you and say, Look, there are hungry people, go and feed them with this turkey but I am going to keep the wine for myself.
Q: One Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, actually asked, ‘What does Soyinka know of law that he is passing this very harsh judgment on the Supreme Court judges?’ The other question he asked was whether you were there when they sat on the facts of the matter. To him, you are not competent to pass judgment on them…. A: He is probably right, but I will still pass my comments as a citizen of this nation who was at the thick of the electoral process and who can say confidently without being a trained lawyer that there was no election. I don’t think that the lawyer, that SAN, is trained in electoral conduct. I am not aware that he took a degree in how to conduct elections. So we are on the same level as far as that is concerned. We saw and we were inside what happened. We knew who rigged and how it was rigged and tribunals have been backing up some of our observations. It is okay, he is quite right, I am not competent but I will still make my comments. ( Gestures to press home to irony).
Q: Still on the Yar’Adua issue, the Supreme Court recently legitimised his presidency. But before then, a lot of people had actually been talking about his competence or incompetence. With the list of ministers he has selected, what is your view about his competence or lack of it? A: I don’t think it is one of the most brilliant lists of ministers I have seen, especially in terms of slotting the individuals into appropriate ministries and obviously appropriate areas of competence. It is a very strange list. That is all I really want to say at this point. It is a very weird list.
Q: There is this fear about global economic meltdown. You have travelled wide with an n95 mask due to the pandemic. What panacea do you suggest for reviving our economy especially? A: I have been studying with great interest the statements of great economists and financial experts on the issue and it is amazing that they all use one word: greed. There is the fundamental ethos or if you like, call it anti-ethos of greed in capitalism, which goes to the extent that actual productivity is sacrificed for what I call virtual wealth–with trading in money overtaking the equivalent of the products. For an economic illiterate, I understand what is happening and I am not surprised that Nigeria is also feeling its effect.
Q: Many people have been making jest of the West which is trying to apply a socialist solution to correct a capitalist problem. When communism fell, Francis Fukuyama wrote about the end of history. But now, it seems history has shifted to gear one. What is your opinion about it? A: I know you would like me to say that this means we are witnessing a comeback of socialist principles. But I want to be very careful and say that the country which epitomises socialist principles, including socialist economy, unfortunately, knuckled down on capitalism. Deep inside me I believe that the so-called victory is a pyrrhic victory which is bound to burst sooner or later. The simple reason is that capitalism went unchallenged by any other ideology and so it became arrogant, unfeeling, inhuman in many ways. Of course, globalisation was part of it in many ways, which included the use of cheap labour in various underdeveloped countries to mass produce commodities which then floated in very high value in consumerist societies, including even the upper levels of societies which produce the sweat labour. This is the irony of global capitalism and globalisation.
There was this man, I have forgotten his name, an economic guru, who had to go on television to say that he had been wrong, all his theories he followed all the while had been wrong and that he was mistaken in some critical aspects of capitalism which others had been preaching but which he ignored. He said it and continued to be an economic adviser in the US when he knows that something is really wrong. In decent societies, he would go on stage and commit sepuku, disembowel himself as a global apology for having misled the world for so long. But he said and passed it off as a little error but which in truth has thrown millions out of work, made pensioners lose their savings. In the robust capitalist economy of the United States, we have lecturers who have lost their homes as a result of this meltdown and then somebody comes and says that it is my gospel which is wrong and the person smiles home and continues with his job. I don’t understand.
Q: I want to ask you about what you think of the premier university, the University of Ibadan. The President sent a representative there to read his speech in which he said this is not a university. Lots and lots of people have said that he shouldn’t have gone to the extent of abusing the institution this way. What is your take on it? A: First of all, people don’t like truths. Sometimes, it is the messenger people don’t like, not so much the message. It shows that the messenger, the President himself, in this sense representing the government and bringing the message, should not be the one pointing his finger at universities because the universities were degraded by previous governments.
We have undergone some anti-intellectual passages from the government, beginning with the military and the tradition being carried on by both military and civilian dictatorships. It is hatred, personal and private insecurity which make them go for the jugular of universities. They are responsible for the downturn. But the universities themselves have a lot of responsibilities. They watched their intellectual and physical environments decay. The accusation that some lecturers are corrupt, this I know, is true. When I was in Ife–Obafemi Awolowo University–I was involved in getting lecturers sacked for insisting on sexual favours from female students. We had a very tough disciplinary committee in Ife and a case came and I insisted it was something which could not be tolerated. I am not interested in personal relationship between lecturers and students. That is their private business as they are adults over the age of consent. But when you use your position to influence the grading of students to deny a student his or her intellectual right, you betray your intellectual mission and you are just as corrupt as the politician.
Q: So the issue here is, who is pointing the finger, the appropriateness of the time, the flexing of muscles and so on? A: I think that is what is bothering most people, but those who know the workings of the university know better. You have heard about student cultism, barbarism, un-collegial conducts. Go and find out. It won’t take you long. We’ve heard of one Vice-Chancellor who was using one of these cults as the bodyguards of the Vice Chancellor’s office. He was actually encouraging and giving them cars so as to use them to deal with the radicals in the university. It is all there in the open. So what are we talking about? Universities need to reform themselves drastically and internally and then they will not be openly abused with this kind of rather hypocritical message.
Q: Many private universities are springing up. Are they really a solution to the problem of tertiary education in this country? A: There is nothing wrong with private universities. Some of the private universities in the USA and elsewhere are some of the best. The discipline there is second to none because the rules are rigid and so there is nothing wrong. But the question is, is the proliferation of private universities here on the same level as proliferation of churches, tabernacles and mosques all over Nigeria? When you talk about churches and mosques, is it religion or business? It is the same way we must look at these universities. Is it academic or business?
Q: Nigeria still suffers from religious crisis. How can it overcome this? A: We have an expression which has it that a stitch in time saves nine. Those who were there at the time when this tendency began, when this religious and sectarian violence and the impunity that went with it began and failed to take action at the time, encouraged the culture of impunity between sectarian sects. A nation like this should be ashamed of itself. This is nothing new. The slaughter of innocent people, women and children for religious reasons has been going on all over the country but particularly–I must emphasise this, let us not mince words about it–in the Northern part of the country on a level which will not be tolerated in any decent society. And there is a failure of leadership, both sectionally and nationally, who have continued to witness and tolerate the massacre of innocent citizens in the name of religion. It is a contemptible situation.
Q: Is there any way out of it? A: Leadership education and more dialogue between the religions. By dialogue, I don’t mean the kind held in the sanitised halls of Abuja or Lagos but open air dialogues between religious leaders. We need more and firmer use of religious sanctions against those who subvert the true essence of religion and brainwash the foot soldiers and send them out to battle because these foot soldiers don’t just get up and say I want to slaughter a few people from the other side. The truth is that they are used by some religious and political leaders. So we need sanctions and punitive actions. We need the airing of all the commissions of inquiry that have taken place since the very first religious riot. We need to know what was done to those who were fingered as the perpetrators. We need a closer look at religious schools to see what doctrines that are being preached–I am talking about all religions–to see whether they are doctrines of hate, accommodation or the beautiful exploration of the comparative nature of religion that teaches followers that these are all routes to the same God and that it is a most abysmal kind of conduct to kill, maim, destroy because you feel your route is the only way to the ultimate God. We need to understand why in certain areas of the country you cannot come and preach openly your own religion. There has to be open tolerance everywhere. If you say that somebody from a different religion cannot come and preach in your environment, then carve out your environment and declare yourself as having seceded from the nation. The same rule must apply everywhere. It is about time we spoke frankly to one another for heaven’s sake. We need more frank talking. Let us bring all the events out in the open the way they occurred and have authentic commission of inquiry where blame is apportioned and rewards are given to those who try to hold together the communities in the true sense of community so that people will see that there is even-handedness on all sides.
The first winner of the Ken Saro-Wiwa prize for ethnic understanding which we organised is one young man, Mshelia, a school teacher in the North, who, when the wave of religious riots began approaching his village, called together the elders of all the religions in his community and said, let us have a meeting. They had the meeting and decided that the wave of violence would not enter their village. That is why he was nominated for the prize and he won it hands down. That is the kind of initiative that is needed in this country. And the only way to achieve the proliferation of that kind of initiative is education, especially [against] the preaching of contempt and hatred of other religions. Let us be frank about it, there has been too much lying, too much pretence to ourselves. It happened in Jos, it happened during the beauty pageant and it will happen again tomorrow somewhere else. This intolerance and holier-than-thou attitude just got to be stopped and it is only by speaking frankly to one another that we can obtain mutual respect for one another.
Q: There was the case of this teacher, a woman, who was killed recently. It is very scary because of the issue of education which you raised. What should be done about this kind of attitude? A: I know the case and I have met the husband of that woman. I have read the book and have the tape of the incident. I raised the issue at the Oceanic Bank Conference which we had this year. I think I held up the T-shirt which was made in memory of that woman. I asked: Is there anybody looking at what is being taught? Is there any supervisory agency that looks into what is being taught? The woman has died in vain if that case is not being used to awaken the conscience of not just the killers but of those who taught and programmed the killers mentally. It was a very gruesome death. It was not just the killing but the gruesomeness of it. That woman was openly and publicly tortured by youths. This is where I say the local leaders failed. What they should have propagated in a most robust way is to let the followers of the religion know that those who were desecrating the Quran were the students who were cheating with the book, not the person who was trying to defend probity by confiscating the book. I don’t care whether it is the Quran, Bible or the book of Ifa. Let them understand that those who desecrate the religions are those who act against the tenets of the religions. If you are cheating with the Bible or Quran, then you are no Christian or Muslim. In fact, you are the one who should be punished and then when those criminals, with impunity stripped that woman, tortured her, beat her and even threatened their own principal, it is absurd. The principal tried to defend her and as you know, not everybody has the same level of bravery. We don’t know how far the defenders went but we know that at one point or the other, they took hold of the woman. If the principal defended her very stoutly, he should be one of those for whom the national honour was created. He should be one of those who should be given a tour round the whole country saying this is what the mission of teaching is all about, to defend learning and by extension those who promote it. At the moment, I don’t know what is being done to those people, whether they are in a juvenile delinquent home but in truth, they should carry the mark of pariah on their foreheads for others to see. When things like that happen, it really burns my head. Let us go back a little, there was a minister of education who one day, just sent packing all senior Southern teachers from the North. I remember that incident because my landlady at the time was sent packing overnight, because he didn’t want teachers from the South.
Q: If you don’t want teachers from here what is the essence of national service in which you have posted young people outside of their normal communities? A: This is one of the credits which I give to Yakubu Gowon till tomorrow. Forget what national service has become now, where you can tell your uncle that you don’t want to go over to the other side so that he can use his influence to alter the posting. My children served in the North, outside their normal areas and they loved it because it was a wonderful experience for them. When things like the one that happened in Jos take place, how do you expect parents to allow their children to go outside their immediate environment? Can you blame them now? Leaders and those entrusted with responsibility have a larger responsibility than merely passing the budget. They have to look at how deeply the education process goes and who are those countering the efforts that are being made to give a universalist approach and human understanding to their wards.
Q: Yar’Adua has been unable to fix the power problem here. You have travelled far and wide and I want to know the things they do… A: Your last president took the Ministry of Power under his wing after humiliating Bola Ige who, with his special assistant, Agunloye, had penetrated into the seeming corrupted intestines of the power delivery system. He humiliated him out of office. Even long after he died, Obasajo said Ige didn’t know his left from his right. He said he was an engineer after all and took over the ministry! I don’t know how much I am still spending on diesel for my generator. I know areas which are still in permanent darkness till this moment. There is no mystery over power for God’s sake.
Bola Tinubu wanted to ensure independent power supply for Lagos, but he was sabotaged. He was prevented at the last moment because he had already ordered floating barges to by-pass the national grid. They refused to allow him to do it because they actually sabotaged it. There is big business in darkness. People think that light provides wealth. No. In this country, it is darkness that provides wealth. And so, the president took it over himself. The result is what we have today. Still, there is no mystery about it because we know how power is being generated. And we know that the generation and distribution of power are no mysteries. They are simple technical issues but you just have to have the will to do it. Go back and study the brief period Bola Ige was in charge of electricity and look through the events that resulted in his removal. It was a deliberate sabotage by some of the technicians with him. I am sure the perpetrators could have been identified. Some people died as a result of the explosion, sacrificed just for people’s greed and determination that this nation must remain in darkness. They sabotaged him and of course got rid of him, which was what they wanted. After that we went back to not even square one but square minus one. Sometimes I wonder why I was born here.
Q: We have just marked the seventh year that Ige was killed in his bedroom. What would you like to say in his memory? A: It is just that the nation owes much to Bola Ige than Bola Ige owes the nation. And the final settlement will be when the perpetrators of that crime are exposed.