13th October, 2010
A paper presented by Professor Wole Soyinka at the 40th Annual Accountantsâ€™ Conference
A paper presented by Professor Wole Soyinka at the 40th Annual Accountantsâ€™ Conference
It is the season of stock-taking, or should be. Some believe that it should be a season of jubilation and I suppose a case can be made for that. There is always the fact of life to celebrate. The nation underwent a devastating civil war, but managed to survive intact.Â There are two issues implicated in that statement â€“ firstly, is ONE nation an advantage over Two, Three or Four from that same one?
For many, the answer is an automated â€˜Yesâ€™. For others, it is a far more complicated question, since the parameters involved in coming to a reasoned conclusion are multiple.Â Economic advantages? Cultural variety? Developmental acceleration? International prestige? Quality of life?Â Expansion of opportunities? Ideological spread? Are there really advantages in surviving intact as one, over emerging as multiple entities?Â Beginning on the purely subjective level, if we asked the citizen of a large nation space where he is liable to arbitrary arrest, torture and imprisonment whether he would prefer to live in a smaller, but autonomous unit from the same nation, where such abuse of his body and contempt for his dignity could not possibly take place, I am quite certain that he would opt to live in the latter.
A second consideration is also provoked by our original question.Â When we say â€˜intactâ€™, are we speaking here of appearances, or actuality? PietismsÂ such as â€˜united we stand, divided we fallâ€™ merely evade the issue of internal realities. Do the social classes, increasingly distanced from one another within one nation, really feel that they occupy the same nation space? Do they act as if they do? Do they respond to crisis in the same manner? How many routinely say, whatever position they occupy â€“ â€˜What the hell, itâ€™s government money and government time. Why should I kill myself trying to make things work?â€™Â Are they all persuaded that they have a stake, a tangible sense of belonging, manifested in practical existence, within the same political entity? Even within the arena of governance, is there or is there not perhaps a sizeable section of the voting population that wonders whether the individuals they elected into power have not secretly changed places with legislators from another planet, complete aliens from outer space? The faces are the same, even the screaming voices in the legislative chambers bear similar vocal registers to the ones they heard during electioneering campaigns. The marked difference is that the promises at the earlier screaming sessions â€“ the political campaigns -Â have vanished, replaced by a new agenda that bears no relation whatever to what now emerges from the debating chambers or â€“ to quote a more durable clichÃ© â€“ the â€˜hallowed chambersâ€™ of law-givers.
If it is a virtue that a nation should constantly re-invent itself, ours has excelled over and above the call of virtue, so perhaps those who say there is cause to â€˜count our blessingsâ€™ are in the right. The nation has changed her personality from civilian to military, then back to civilian and again back to military etc etc etc. and now flaunts a persona that is aptly described as â€˜militricianâ€™, a not unusual hybridity that appears to satisfy all sides, it being convenient to forget that this is not only an imposition, but one of strong-arm, deceitful and cynical manipulations, prominent among which were the fake elections that have brought the nation to this present, this very present where, whenever it dares look in the mirror of democracy, the image that is thrown back is that of a raddled, incontinent prostitute, or else a mangy masquerade pieced together by the leftovers of others, certainly a scarecrow of the promise of independence, the desecration of the vision of a nation of hope.
Permit me to say nothing new for the next five minutes or so. I shall repeat what I have said before, nearly verbatim, just for those five minutes â€“ there are only so many variations one can play on the same theme without beginning to strain for effect.Â We can choose to forget the manner by which that latest sprint to the starting line of the democratic journey came to be â€“ through a blatant act of fraud! A constitution was foisted on this nation by a minuscule section of the Nigerian polity â€“ let us simply identify them as the Military Mafioso – and their handful of civilian collaborators.Â And even that fraudulent constitution remained a phantom from beginning to the end of the electoral contest. Thus, an election was held â€“ we must continue to hammer this hardÂ â€“ an election was held under a non-existent constitution! None of those it basically affected, those on behalf of whom the document was promulgated â€“ the electorate – ever saw the shape of the destination that justified that race. It was hidden under the beddings of the Mafioso, todayâ€™s militricians, and their co-conspirators within the civic polity. The ancient adage is only too pertinent to our case:Â if you cannot make a silk purse out of a sowâ€™s ears, it is obvious that you cannot make even a pigskin purse out of sheer emptiness, except of course you intend to be another butt of public ridicule, as was the pompous hero of that famous morality tale â€“ the tale of the Emperorâ€™s clothes.
After several years of military dictatorship that wiped away the last vestiges of political structures and civic interaction, the Nigerian nation went to the polls to vote for â€“ yes, let us use the occasion to again demand of ourselvesÂ -Â vote for what exactly? Oh, we know all about the individuals. There were individual faces on the posters and the ballot boxes but, I must insist on the demand: for whatÂ precisely did the Nigerian nation vote in 1999?Â The candidates that came forward on offer to execute the nationâ€™s will were offered no clue as to the contents of that willÂ â€“ neither as a nation-will, an expression of its own self-cognition and destination, or as aÂ project of reconstitution, even as a temporary holding device, for its severely damaged self? There was nothing, nothing whatever on which to hang the commitment of the candidates. Were they standing for a centralized form government? For a federal structure? For a theocracy or for a secular state? For a feudal, capitalist, communist, or laissez-faire liberal association of semi-autonomous entities?Â No one knew. Only the positions for which the contestants vied had any form or definition. The national agenda remained hidden even for long after the elections.Â And yet these constitution makers had the egregious impudence to preface the document as expression of the will of â€œWe the Peopleâ€¦.!â€
Permit me yet again, to re-invoke the morality tale of the Emperorâ€™s clothes â€“ it must be quite a few years since I last deployed it and so, for those who may have heard it earlier in related contexts, here I go again â€“ but just the aftermath. The con-men, the fraudsters who decked the emperor in thin air, disappeared before they â€“ as the Emperor already was physically -Â became exposed. I think that was most considerate of them. Theirs was a one-shot exploit; at least they left the foolish empire to work out its own salvation afterwards as best as it could. Our con-men, those who clothed this nation in the illusive robes of democracy, are still very much around, alive and indefatigable â€“ the pickings are not yet exhausted. And, in any case, had they not worked hand in hand with assiduous apprentices who have now taken up where they left off, determined to perpetuate the deceit, continuing to insist that the robes of democracy now cover this nation from Maiduguri to Port Harcourt ?
Well, for many, this belief is genuine. This is perfectly logical. Their definition of democracy is somewhat more personal than it is for most of us. Democracy had arrived for them from the moment it became possible, as their first act of self-accreditation,Â to look after Priority No. 1 â€“ the material pre-requisites that separate the law-maker from the common herd. The field was wide open. Their first task therefore â€“ and again my purpose is to jog this nationâ€™s lamentably short memory – was to propose and consecrate entitlements: wages, allowances, fringe benefits, travel allowances, living allowances, illness allowances and servantsâ€™ allowances, furniture, toilet and air-freshener allowances and â€“ wait for this, it is down on recordÂ â€“ even funeral allowances if they happened to die in office, calculated down to the last Naira.Â These figures, taken in relation to the average earnings of the top professionals, technocrats, engineers, teachers and creative workers in the nation, were astronomical.! They constituted the most insensate apportionment of a nationâ€™s resources that we had encountered in this nation since independence. That exercise, and the figures involved, defined the nature of representation that the nation had foisted on itself.Â It is a sad reflection of the nationâ€™s comatose will that, after decades of militaristic buffeting, that self-contradictory moment of undemocratic return has been permitted to stand.Â If the nation had not been truly war weary, those representatives, on return to their various appropriated constituencies would have been subjected to indefinite citizen arrest. It would have demonstrated that the people were resuming an active role in that process which, however it is structured, fulfils one of the articles of democracy that goes by the name of – accountability. Accountability is not merely accounting for the money allegedly spent on public behalf. It is, far more pertinently, being made to justify, to account for policies and actions taken in the name of the governed.
Even within the wardrobe of democracy, there are many apparels, differing in texture, colour, cut of cloth, and even styles.Â We have asked, and must continue to demand: are full-time legislators essential to the democratic health of this nation or do they constitute a parasitic bloc, an incubator of desperate measures â€“ including political murders – since the stakes are so high. Lesser crimes include the culture of cronyism, profligacy, unbridled corruption and guarantee of a profound alienation from the enabling constituency that is, and will always remain, the electorate.Â Does the system,Â by itsÂ very operations, make a mockery of accountability? Does it infer and confer unassailable immunity, even where not written into law?Â These are questions that go deep into the heart of nation viability, questions that should have been resolved within the first term of a post-military, that is, post-dictatorial imposition. The governance system is a bequest of a colonial force, an internal colonial force of domination â€“ the military.Â Until it is debated, militarism, which includes militaristic thinking, one that translates itself effortlessly into a hegemonic centralist ideology, remains at the heart and motions of governance.
Now of course, it is possible that this is indeed what is best for the nation. That possibility should never be ruled out â€“ allÂ propositions, even the most outrageous, must be considered appropriate material of debate. If a legislator were to claim that it is right and just to amputate the hands and feet of a petty thief while he is himself stealing his state blind, pocketing the revenue but paying protection money to the Centre in order to stave off prosecution, why not? It is a viable debating proposition. If such a legislator claims that his state has a right to turn his state of origin into a theocracy, in defiance of Section 10 of the constitution that states clearly that:
â€œthe Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religionâ€,
even that is still a viable proposition for debate, especially if there exist astute lawyers who are able to discern other sections that may be interpreted as legitimizing that repudiated governance policy.
The point therefore is that neither centralism nor federalism, neither autarchy nor anarchism was ever debated. An arrogant force of occupation, violently emplaced, sought to perpetuate itself by other means, having reluctantly conceded that its days of open dictatorship were over. This coming to terms with an altered status of itselfÂ was compelledÂ both by a changing world and by internal circumstances that had gobbled up numberless lives of its citizenry including those of a freely elected president, his wife, numerous political dissidents young and old, and other not so prominent individuals, unsung matyrs, master-minded the bankruptcy of thousands and left yet others tortured into insensibility. It was this force of occupation that slammed onto the nation what now passes for a constitution, what passes for a system of governance, known as presidential butÂ bastardized beyond recognition. The slavemasters remain the same â€“ they have merely substitutred their studded whips and branding irons for a mere electric fence.Â The slaves remain abject and unctuous in the fulsomeness of their gratitude, rationalizing the indignity. After all, they now have a choice: they can remain passively corralled, or else get shocked into conformity if they attempt to scale the fence erected around them in the name of democracy. The over assiduous of course are simply electrocuted.
The dreaded event â€“ let us give it its real name – is known as a SOVEREIGN NATIONAL, or a NATIONAL CONSTITUTIONAL CONFERENCE.Â Only products of a slave mentality are afraid to meet, deliberate and direct their destiny. They might be considered plotting their own liberation, which of course is a very bad thing, totally unheard of. It upsets the apple cart or – to utilize the most noxious utterance so beloved of the high placed representatives of that class of impostors, the newbreed militricians â€“ it heats up the polity.Â Never, in this nation of obsessive phrase-mongering and mindless repetitiousness, has one expression been fashioned that is so blatantly self-serving, so assiduous in saluting and conserving the status quo of fraud, criminality, privilege, self-perpetuation and deception. A call for accounting of political stewardship becomes â€“ heating up the polity. A call for the termination of a national insult in the kidnapping of a sitting president, demanding his reappearance into public view, or else an open determination of his medical condition becomes â€“ heating up the polity. A demand for an investigation of obvious political murders becomes â€“ heating up the polity. A demand to overhaul inequitable, lop-sided arrangements for national cohabitation is of course â€“ heating up the polity. A demand for even-handedness in governance, is – what else?Â â€“ heating up the polity. Even a demand for the cessation of atmospheric pollution, caused by decades of heating up the stratosphere is â€“ heating up the polity.Â No, not the heating up of the very air we breathe until it becomes uninhabitable for man and beast, not the heating that dries up vegetation, poisons ancient fishing ponds, degrades the land below sterility, results in instant conflagrations that consume entire villages, incinerates innocent passers-by,Â no, not the carbon heating that introduces endemic pulmonary diseases and reduces the life expectancy of the newly born, no, not one of these heats up the polity. Not the manipulation of religious sensibilities that results in midnight raids on sleeping villages, not the rise of fundamentalist insanity that destroys communities, not the sack of major cities, the daylight descent of death and mutilation in the service of intolerance and bigotry, not the division of once peacefully cohabiting peoples into no-go zones for one group or the other, not billions that vanish in smoke whose sources are nearly always traceable to cookery of books from governance kitchens, not the reign of impunity, the scapegoating of lesser thieves while the captains â€“ no, not of industries, but of lucrative indolence â€“ luxuriate in decorations and honours both national and of their own localities, no, it is never the thieving arrogance of the high placed, constantly re-inventing themselves through their surrogates, it is never the provocative dare of those who demand, as of the right of democratic entitlement, to return to rule a nation they came close several times to setting on fire â€“ no, these never once heated up the polity, it is only those who say, â€˜Enough, let us sit down as free people, confident in our democratic intelligence and organizational will, let us sit together and fashion out how we propose to live together on egalitarian, humanistic arrangements â€“ these are the ones who â€˜heat up the polityâ€™. Well then, let us say this right out. The polity is frozen, congealed, comatose, it is suffering from cardiac arrest, close to rigor mortis. It is about time the polity was heated up!
Nonetheless we must be measured and responsible in our choice of heating equipment. Fireworks are all very well when triggered off in celebrative designs, not when they incinerate the innocent. I extend my concerns and sympathies to the wounded and maimed of Eagle Square and wish them that full and speedy recovery that is born of fellow feeling. I mourn with the bereaved, the friends, colleagues and relations of those who lost their lives at Eagle Square on what should have been a day of joy for some, a day of sober reflection for all. Whichever way we all choose to remember that day fifty years ago, we did not deserve the outrage that was inflicted on us as a people. However – and this applies most especially when we hear those self-exonerating cries, â€˜But we are doing our best,â€™ â€˜after all, we inherited this problemâ€™, â€˜people must learn to exercise patienceâ€™ etc. etc, – let us even concede some justice to these cries of frustration. What matters is to recognize that liabilities, including inherited ones, also obey the laws of credit â€“ they accumulate interest, and most times it is compound interest.Â We must always bear in mind that expression, â€˜too little, too late.â€™ Whenever years and decades have been conceded to a succession of governance that is certified chronically hard of hearing, whenever a cold shoulder is turned to legitimate yearnings of a people over generations, a succeeding generation may grow weary of the unproductive methods of their predecessors â€“ then the polity will get heated up, and by methods which we all deplore, but over which we have lost control, authority, and morality.
There are always alternatives, productive alternatives, not the sterile options of death and destruction, which have a tendency in any case towards a spiral of self-perpetuating violence. One contributory option to other corrective social mechanisms is known by that already named dread phrase â€“ A Sovereign orÂ National Constitutional Conference, the genuine article, not the fake, self-serving, manipulative tinkering as we underwent during the tenure of the Great Hypocrite. Those who shy away from that prospective arbiter must understand that they will always have to deal with its alternative -Â Serial Sectarian Monologues – couched in the syntax of arbitrariness, short-sightedness and crudeness, where the impact of violence is mistaken for directness and the syntax of dialogue is condemned as subterfuge.Â At fifty years, let us have some honest stock-taking, line up the plus and minus columns in the ledger book of the past and admit where there have been deficit, forgery, cover-ups and criminal impunity. This nation came into being as a modern state under certain protocols of association.
Protocols are not immutable. However, when a treasonable force comes into being and arbitrarily upsets those protocols, taking authority from its own minority will, then the majority on coming into its own – assuming that it places the slightest value on its collective civic integrity – has a responsibility to itself, to its healthy continuance, to examine the imposed, illegitimate protocols in the fullness of recovered freedom. Are they an improvement? Flawless?Â If they are, then let the electorate openly endorse this product of genius and settle down to faithfully implement its articles.Â If they are not an improvement, if in fact they are seen to be riddled with drawbacks, reactionary or whatever, then the next course, a complementary one, is mandatory â€“ take it to pieces, replace it entirely or reconstruct it fundamentally. Otherwise let us simply invite that usurper minority that imposed its will to return. Let us bring back that minority to complete the task they began in secret caucuses, under cover of darkness, protocols that were never intended to liberate the majority but to entrench the minority in accustomed privilege, arrogance and impunity.
What exactly, I have often had cause to demand, is a nation? Since something called a nation is being celebrated, well, let us ask again â€“ what is it?Â What does it do exactly? What does nation mean? For whom does it exist? Is it an object of worship? A god that demands human sacrifice in their millions? Is it an abstraction that exists merely in the naming? A name to conjure with when ideas have dried up or the people need to be distracted from actuality? Anyone who thinks these mere rhetorical questions should question our history and ask why it is that the greatest impostors, most corrupt and manipulative in the leadership ranks of this nation have always been the loudest in evoking the nation mantra.Â Do not take my assessment for the first half of that assessment.Â In a most cooperative fluke of timing, a FOREIGN POLICY journal of October 1 this year â€“ as the nationâ€™s 50th Anniversary present perhaps? -Â named one of ours as one of the Five Worst ex-Leaders of the globe. Check it out â€“ we actually qualified â€“ one of the five worst ex- rulers! No one can say we are not up in world rankings in the human field of endeavour. More than any other leader that the nation has ever endured, this individual also ranks as the steadiest and most monotonous gospeller of that mantra: The unity, or the sovereignty of the nation is non-negotiable.Â He fooled many. He fooled even that friend of mine who, not long before he met his death in a hail of bullets in his own home, wrote a letter to this record setter extolling his nationalist, patriotic credentials, a letter our good man could not wait to publicize in the media at the first contrived excuse.
We knew our man however and, in any case, our response to that non-negotiable sovereignty of the nation was always:Â surely it is not the nation to whom sovereignty belongs, but the people. The sovereignty of the people is what remains non-negotiable. Yes, of course, the people can bargain away their sovereignty â€“ history is full of such instances. They can trade it for an easy ride to illusions of greatness, order and prosperity. They can lose it through carelessness, and they can even transfer it structurally, from a misinterpretation of patriotism, sometimes simply for not appearing to be â€“ heating up the policy. Sooner or later however â€“ and here we call history and time to witness! â€“ sooner or later, they retrieve it.Â The state is not sovereign, that is a blasphemy of monarchists, feudalists and despots, and history has proved them wrong, sometimes most ingloriously.
Even if we do not agree with the existing reality of nation-being, or the coming-in-being processes of such a nation, or its necessity, we know who it is meant to serve â€“ the humanity that inhabits and works its material space for their living.Â The humanity that settle it as their living space, and make itÂ reproduce their very existence. The reproduction of human existence is not in its material terms alone however â€“ tilling, sowing, harvesting or manufacturing. If that were all, human life would be only a short rung above the animalsâ€™ on the ladder of the mind. We recognize that humanity also reproduces the intangible, populating its spiritual zone and sometimes even investing that zone with the primacy of values and secular control. Gradually, that zoneÂ becomes so structured, so autogenous and territorially rapacious that it encroaches upon, then appropriates the findings of reason, and overwhelms other intangibles – including even concepts such as Freedom, Equality, Choice. A few are assigned â€“ the divinely Chosen -Â the dictatorial monopoly of interpreting the wishes of the Supreme Intangible, a handful who proclaim its Manifesto superior to the protocols that bind together all other citizens â€“ including those whose structures of the intangible are different, equallyÂ verifiable or non-verifiable by the phenomena that surround us, the deductions that we have extracted from social experience, relying on the operations of the mind.
We had an example of that right here, in this very capital city, Abuja, the seat of governance and law-making, the concourse of the democratic order. At fifty years old, let us learn to confront unpleasant Truths, or else admit to a chronic infantilism – yes, it was in this very city that a law-give who earns his salary, his extravagant allowances and other perquisites, his prestigious title and perhaps a brace of diplomatic passports that entitle him to protection in foreign lands in the name of our collective called nation, but one who clearly suffers from a psychiatric disorder that makes him prey on underage girl children â€“ yes, it was right here that this individual had the temerity to declare that he was not bound by the laws of this land, that he was free to flout even the laws of other lands since his crime was not spelt out as such in his Scriptures. Trafficking in underage humanity across borders from a nation whose own laws forbid such conduct, he flung his defiance in the face of our own laws for the protection of the vulnerable, laws that obtain in both nations, and was applauded, it would appear, by aÂ number of his own fellow law-givers in that chamber. Does anyone still think it a mere rhetorical question when we demand: â€˜When is a nation?â€™ Remember, this was no ordinary citizen. He was a state governor, now Senator, and he was applauded and defended by his peers. He has not been expelled, not even suspended from the seat among law-givers. At least, former Attorney-General of this nation has been disciplined by his own peers for conduct unbecoming. He should have pleaded his own Divine Manifesto, then perhaps he would still proudly bear the prestigious accolade of an SAN, of which he was recently stripped.
By contrast, our paedophile continues to feed on the sweat of millions on whom he then spits, declaring as worthless the very instrument of association that makes him entitled to the same document of nation belonging as you and I carry. Well, it is time to decide who is right, to declare it openly through debate and a re-working of the articles of association. The current Attorney-General, responding to the demand that he prosecute the slave traficker, claims that his exalted office could not intervene, since this imported underage sex object was not a Nigerian citizen, therefore our rampaging law-maker had broken no law under which he could be tried! May one ask what that makes of the Nigerian passport if a Nigerian child is tortured by skinheads in some European racist enclave? We wait to see what the Bar Association, Body of Benchers etc. will eventually make of this national disgrace.Â For the moment, we the unlearned brothers call upon the learned to heed the words of the late Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Bello as set down in his contribution to the Sharia Working Papers for Dialogue, 1999,Â then pronounce just which article of faith promotes the singularity of nation, and which the multiple and fragmented. Justice Belloâ€™s declaration went thus:
The constitution under Section 1 provides that it is supreme and binding on all persons and authority, and if any law is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution, the Constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall, to the extent of its inconsistency, be void.â€
More on this and related pronouncements of the late Justice in another place, including what is known but kept secret of his ordeal at the hands of extremists after that reasoned declaration. We, who believe in the dignity and sanctity of the human entity, conscious of our responsibility towards the vulnerable of society, cannot permit ourselves to be shunted into a defensive or apologetic stance on account of the artificial lather of religious sensibilities worked up by hypocrites, least of all by compulsive paedophiles. But of course, we are notorious idlers whose sole preoccupation in life is to â€“ heat up the polity!
Let us simply state this: it is either we belong in the ranks of the nation project, or we opt out totally. Opting out includes â€“ let this be clear â€“ conniving at acts and pronouncements that militate against the project â€“ what we might categorize as crimes as against nationhood. Such crimes are enabled by acts of omission and neglect,Â the failure of the public in its seizure of citizenâ€™s right, self-cognition, self-definition within a collective understanding. But perhaps one should not designate them crimes at all?Â After all, you can only commit a crime against a recognizable entity and we have yet to resolve the question of – when is a nation.
That nation accolade does not come with the ability to celebrate a golden anniversary, no matter what euphoria accompanies such a moment. Is it not an irony, when one is moved to deny oneself the right to be offended, the right to be aggrieved as a collective within which one takes his being? Therein lie oneâ€™s subjective contradictions. I readily admit, for instance, that I feel instinctively offended when the Nigerian nation is touted as a land of Advanced Fee Fraud, as the land of corruption. I bristle and remind my accusers that the corrupt are still shot in the Republic of China. I remind them that communist utopia, even where it once existed â€“ or was claimed to exist – was never free of economic crimes. That the bottled-up, rigorously denied organized crime in the former Soviet Union has expanded perhaps even faster than communism ever did, and is now taking on the once supreme Italian Mafia internationally in ruthlessness, and deadly efficiency. Solidarity of the criminal world has taken on a new meaning from its original mantra as the bond of socialists. I remind them of the Enrons, the City Bank of the US with its heartless liquidation of pension funds, the loss of life-time savings against the vulnerable age of non-productivity, I remind them of the Andersons, the war contractors like Haliburton, that US company with a former Vice-Presidential finger in its every pie. I gloat over the most recent and breath-taking addition of the incredible Madoff who wiped out, among others, the funds of the Foundation for Humanity, the life work of a colleague for Peace, Elie Wiesel.Â I even dare slip in the footnote of the sudden depletion of the parsimonious education fund for my children which underwent drastic devaluation, reel off the names of a number of my acquaintances in their country, including university lecturers who have lost their homes and are reduced to sleeping in their cars, then invite such detractors to go take a jump in the Potomac.
Rebuttals, however unanswerable, only offer a fleeting reprieve, soon evaporated. My inner squirming is guaranteed when I see the sudden alertness on the face, and in the body language of the immigration or custom officer in other lands the moment he or she sets eye on the green booklet.Â Mind you, I do manage to retain my sense of humour when the Customs Officer,Â the green passport is in his hand, looks at me in disbelief: â€˜Is that all your luggage? Only carry-on?â€™ I nod a Yes, knowing what comes next, â€˜Are you bringing in any food? Some egusi? Gaari? No fried snails â€™ My answer emerges pat, accompanied by a smile, â€˜I let my wife do all the food smugglingâ€™. We both laugh, he waves me on. He knows I know itâ€™s the green booklet. And I do not mind. If thatâ€™s all Nigerians are noted for, I am all for it. Itâ€™s a critique of their own cuisine.
Not so funny however was when I am invited by the FBI to address them â€“ as I was some years ago, in Atlanta, on the Nigerian rising profile in world criminality. At the time, they had just opened a special division for certain types of criminal activities. I was shown a departmental profile, widely distributed, of the kind of persona likely to be involved in a specific category of crimes â€“Â male, between twenty and thirty-five, and – a Nigerian. I was sufficiently intrigued by this negative recognition to consider accepting the invitation but declined, as my gorge rose and my innards became heated up â€“ like the polity. You see, one is never completely immune from that instinct of nation solidarity that makes claims on one and makes defiantly flaunt your green booklet, come what may.
It would be unwise indeed to ignore, or understate the negativities, or fail to move beyond leadership into the led, those in whom we insist on vesting the rights of sovereignty. Every slaughter of innocents in the name of internal boundary disputes, of ethnic repression, of unacknowledged class warfare, but most especially of religion, a spiral of self-justifying homicidal recourse that pits community against community but finds expression in the decimation of oneâ€™s kind â€“ truly makes one question nation claims.Â The humanistic solidarity in us is affronted again and againÂ with the conduct, not simply of nation, but of the humanity that lays claim to nation, the humanity that actually takes pride in being known as nationals of a settled space, those in whom sovereignty is invested, if one must be consistent and truthful to oneâ€™s living creed. Earlier I stated that some of these mutual acts of lethal attrition belong to an unacknowledged class warfare, and I am certain that this may have created a shock â€“ there does not appear to have been an overt class warfare, or class based insurrection within this nation space. The minds of my listeners, in all likelihood, would have switched to classic class divisions, which would be understandable. No, I am reverting yet again to the cruder forms of class stratification â€“ such as the military on the one hand, and the â€˜bloody civiliansâ€™ on the other. Time and time again, these clashes flare, subside, and end with no punitive measures against the inculpated, lending an air of inviolability to the privileged â€˜classâ€™ of assailants.
Only two years ago, I held a press conference in Lagos, where I screened the scene of a fracas at a bus station in Mushin, involving some soldiers. In that scene, a soldier was shown coming out of a bus, a dagger in his hand dripping blood. That scene had been filmed by aÂ member of the public whose apartment window overlooked the bus station. A few moments later, as the passengers in that bus ran helter-skelter, a blood-stained body was brought out of the bus. In that press conference, I openly challenged the Inspector-General of Police to explain to the nation what had happened in that bus, if the event ever came to his notice. The camera zoomed in on the face of that soldier, a face that would not require any effort to track down, seeing that we also provided details of the barracks from where he and fellow assailants had surged. I challenged the police, as well as the media, to pursue that case, providing all possible lead towards the identification of that murderer, handing over a copy of the CD to the then doyen of the press corps.
Till today, not one squeak from any direction. in Zaki Biam, the military lined up the inhabitants of an entire village â€“ men, women and children of all ages â€“ and mowed them down in cold blood in reprisal for an â€“ admittedly – bestial assault on military personnel. As it happened, that village was the birthplace of yet another soldier, General Malu. Nothing came of that outrage. The Head of State was yet another soldier, a former colleague within that sameÂ military class. The military nation, it would appear, had also fragmented. So, let it be clearly understood. We do not limit ourselves here to clashes between ethnic or religious groupings. What the nation is confronted by is the solidarity of impunity. It cuts across all self-identified groups and classes within the entire society, making nonsense of the claim that we are all equal under the law, or bound together by one common set of protocols.
When, after crimes against humanity such as the nation experienced in Odi, Zaki Biam, etc, the response of a supposed Arbiter, Chief Security Officer, Commander-in-Chief and Head of State is: â€œwell, if you provoke a soldier, you should expect the fall-out on your headâ€™ â€“ words to that effect of course, my memory does not retain all imbecilities in their precise format â€“ then of course, you have to re-order your class designations.Â However, the message was clear: there exist divinely ordained classes, born in immunity and weaned on impunity. The problem with such culture is that predators who profit from it soon turn their violence inwards. The gross permissiveness of earlier and recent times â€“ largely for political opportunism – is what is now preying on our neighbours in Borno, Kaduna and other beleaguered states, where a new nation is being inaugurated. It goes byÂ various names, the most recent and notorious being the Boko Haram. Dissidents to its undebated constitution end up dead, shot in their own homes – a party leader today, a legislator yesterday, or an Islamic cleric whose only crime is speaking up against the sect leaders of the new nation which has taken up bigotry and extremism where others have left off and settled instead for a career of paedophilia under the protection of the majesty, glory and lucrative security of an institution whose very laws they repudiate.
What do we seek in a nation? Certainly an internal identity, a collective one, created through volition, not imposition. This is the basis of civic dignity to which other factors become contributive, including even the vagaries of the operations of the protocols that create that common civic identity. We know that some dictatorships can prove far more humane than what calls itself in operation, that indeed some so-called democracies are an abuse of the world even by the uttermost limits of elasticity.Â The operations are what the dynamics of co-existence entail, but first you must have the agreed basis from which the operations draw their authority. That basis is considered so crucial that sensible nations actually set up constitutional courts to assist with interpretation and thus enable its operations devoid of rancor or crisis.
So what is missing? What does one seek in such a foundation? I have participated in exercises that sought to give meaning to that ritualistic opening pronouncement, â€˜We the Peopleâ€¦â€™Â Its product â€“ and I refer here to the PRONACO initiative -Â has never pretended perfection, indeed never claimed to be anything but a draft, but it was thorough, it was obtained through a criss-cross network of civic societies, ethnic nationalities, professions etc, and it was thorough. Even I, one of the signatories to that document, remain dissatisfied with some of its provisions but, it remains a model for, or viable partner in, any such undertaking. It was an undertaking where the very meaning of constitution was actualized â€“ the coming together, despite state menace and a rampaging, power drunk autocrat masquerading as a democrat. This individual, let us recall, actuallyÂ threatened its initiators and participants with the terror of the state, throwing around words like â€˜treasonâ€™ as freely as he dispensed the contents of Ghana-must-Go bags in his treacherous attempt to subvert even the pseudo-constitution and prolong his tenure in office. The threats failed, even as his sit-tight project ended in disarray and in personal disgrace.
Let the objective therefore identify, dispassionately, those who are truthfully nation-builders and who the nation-wreckers. In between, you will find those who are neither, but admit to being nation skeptics. I find myself quite comfortable within that group for an unexceptionable reason. Such a tendency holds that you do not take â€˜nationâ€™ for granted. You do not grant any construct reality simply because it is given a name, the name is annunciated, decorated with a flag, solemnized by a pledge, serenaded with an anthem and given some territorial recognition. The hard work begins with annunciation. It is not mushy, it is unsentimental, thus it cannot evenÂ be equated with a labour of love. It is not populist, and is insulted by crude populism and breast-beating â€˜nationalisticâ€™ rhetoric, of ready digested jingoism. On the contrary, it is a task of moral rigour, of choice, commitment and deserving. You cannot cheat your way between concept and actualization, you will simply fall into the abyss that swallows promoters of fallacies and illusions, no matter their passion. What passes for nation today is a chimera, a nightmare foisted on real humans to consolidate a dangerously terminal deception. â€˜We the Peopleâ€¦.? Yes indeed, but just where were that insolentÂ lie was promulgated? Do the people count? It is time we returned to basics, time we decided, as free peoples, what liberates us into, not deludes us into membership of the true community of nations.
By Wole Soyinka