30th October, 2013
By Wole Soyinka
Let me be candid. It was with mixed feelings that I accepted to deliver this lecture. On the one hand, I felt that it was a duty owed, not simply to an individual who has endured the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – to borrow from the famous soliloquy by our Bard for all seasons, Shakespeare – but because the very nature of that individual’s “slings and arrows” sums up what appears to be the most engrossing preoccupation of human society – that elusive quarry being, very simply – Justice. Unvarnished. Unambiguous. Blindfolded as symbolic representation in judicial iconography but – decidedly not blind. Indeed, it strikes me now as being almost an entire lifetime ago when, little suspecting that I was summing up my own existential raison d’etre, I declared that: Justice is the first condition of Humanity. To have declined to answer the call to deliver this address therefore would have left me with quite a few sleepless nights.
On the other hand, as some of you here may be aware, I had announced that I had had my fill of public interventions, and had enrolled as a student in that much underrated discipline known as – Retirement from Public Life. I must admit that I have proved a disappointing student, indeed not merely disappointing but an ‘international embarrassment’. If you don’t believe me, ask a newly minted addition to the academic world, female edition, who recently returned from South Korea with a doctorate degree in record time. Mind you, the fault is not entirely mine. All my professors are on strike nation-wide, and so, a straightforward course that should have seen me graduate in a mere semester or two is being stretched – as has become the norm for thousands of my fellow students – stretched into an indeterminate future. Heaven alone knows when I can proceed to induction for my Youth Service!
Why did I take that ‘retirement’ decision – quotation marks – in the first place? For the same reason as many others have. There comes a point when one feels that all that can be said has been said. The problem with that conviction of course is that one then becomes a compulsive reminder of what has indeed been spoken, crying out in spite of oneself – but I warned you. I told you so. So did others. Didn’t So-and-so say the same thing barely a month ago? Etc. etc. It is a human compulsion, especially for those who have inherited, it would appear, some teaching genes somewhere down their family line. Like all teachers, there come those moments of utter weariness and frustration when the teacher loses control and assaults his recalcitrant pupils physically, becomes an alcoholic, checks himself into a rehabilitation home for manic depressives, or takes to the order of the Trappists – that monkish order that is sworn to eternal silence, even among themselves. And others go quietly mad. Whenever you encounter a gentleman in a somewhat threadbare suit and scuffed shoes, shuffling along the road while muttering to himself, perhaps with book in hand, intermittently barking out savagely, “What did I tell you? What did I just tell you?” – check on the background of that individual – he is likely to have been a former teacher, finally driven out of his wits.
To avoid that fate therefore, I am sure most psychiatrists will approve my recourse to a regimen of pre-emptive therapy, not claiming to be a prophet, but simply pointing out what has been said before. This involves taking on the role of a memory prod in a structured way, quite unapologetically. Yes, many have warned. They have warned tirelessly and in various forms, become nearly deafened by the sound of their voices as it bounces back from the stone walls of indifference, complacency and/or complicity. Some are dead, their hearts caved in by the sheer pummeling of predicted, avoidable disasters. Others are still living, their voices turned hoarse from the curse of repetitiousness.
The most notorious example of that today is of course the so-called National conference – of which more in a moment. As with many other propositions, the social context – which is ever changing – may provide a veneer of fresh thinking, but the stark truth is that all has been said, cogently and relevantly. However, it would sometimes appear that ‘the stone that the builders rejected…..etc. etc. you know the rest. The question however is whether or not the optimism of the Scriptures – christian edition – is right, and that this rejected stone – often abusively dismissed – indeed proves to be the cornerstone of a new, modestly viable edifice. However, even a child knows that, before the erection of a simple farm hamlet, the ground, large or small, has to be cleared, the debris burnt or ploughed back into the ground where it is converted into entirely new matter – compost – or else disposed of in such a manner that it loses its earlier capacity to obstruct, compromise or endanger the new organism. Those who think they can erect a future without first ridding the ground of past debris fly against the natural order of regeneration. They carry with them negative baggage that already conflicts with the envisioned transformation, or a new organism.
Of all the conceivable negative baggage I can think of right now, the most pressing, I have always maintained, takes the form of a critical absence, subversion or suppression of – Justice. One of the elementary lessons we all learnt from school, even those of us with incurably unscientific minds, is that – Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of justice, something else takes its place, a monstrosity in myriad forms and shapes, fecund with yet unencountered horrors – indeed even as the portals of Justice are shut, the lid of a Pandora’s box is opened. These are not mere figures of speech but narratives of experienced reality. No society is exempt, and no one experience is unique. They all differ in form, intensity and duration – no more.
How have we fared, within this environment that most immediately sustains us – well, sort of? I shall evoke here one of the most notorious public profile cases of the serial degradations of Justice that seemingly shook this nation to its foundations. There are other cases we could cite – the murder of Dele Giwa for instance. Or Harry Marshall. Kudirat Abiola. Suliat Adedeji. A.K. Dikibo. Abukakar Rimi. Barnabas and Abigail Igwe, husband and wife, both officers of the law. Or Chief Dina – lest I stand accused of omitting my own homestead. Or indeed numerous others, so quickly relegated into the sump of unsolved cases. My choice today, the main reference point for our sobering retrospection is however singularly apt. Despite his terminal absence, that preeminent victim shares with our celebrant, albeit in a tragic mode, the ironic symbolism of ‘Justice in Denial’, a role that interrogates both the very concept and operations of Justice, and also, the main structure for its delivery, which is – the Judiciary. No one will question the seismic impact of the circumstances that took him from our midst, a dastardly deed which, as already claimed, shook the nation to its very foundations. However, the nation did not topple over – from all appearances. Nonetheless, I am reminded of the condition of Washington ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ which dominates the zone of the seat of US government – Capitol Hill. When Washington underwent an unprecedented earthquake in 2011, quite mild in comparison with those that regularly hit the other side of the continent – California especially – that nation gave a sigh of relief that very little damage had been done. As we all know however, nations like the United States do not rest satisfied with appearances. Visible or not, internal damages – that very possibility – preoccupied the guardians of public monuments and safety. Thus, after meticulous inspection, it was discovered that the landmark column had indeed been damaged, cracked so badly that it had become unsafe. It has been closed down since, undergoing repairs – no visitors allowed. If you happen to visit Washington – as I did recently – you will find that famous plinth trussed up – but quite nicely – like a valued but badly injured athlete. Do try and have that image stamped on your mind as we proceed.
There are many events that sap the morale and integrity – even credibility – of nation being, many of them completely shut out from media mention, much less branded on the public mind. I consider the brutal elimination of the highest placed Custodian of the Law one such event. This, I believe, is a reasonable attribution, especially when you consider that it is, in effect, from such a position that authority is derived by lesser officers of the law for the pursuit – or abandonment – of judicial proceedings. Critical as his position is however, I make the claim that even this supervening responsibility is still subordinate to the role and obligations, and innate potentiality of the community for which he holds this office in trust. This is why, despite all appearances, and although we cannot deny that the feet of justice often appear to tread slowly, and ponderously, indeed agonizingly snail paced, we need to fasten on to the conviction that, sooner or later, it arrives. As long as a people exist in full self-awareness, conscious of their inherent designation as the final court of jurisdiction, Justice cannot be eternally denied.
And that leads directly to the ultimate question, one which – let me emphasize and re-emphasize – merely takes on extra cogency when the voices that are denied justice are those who embody and administer justice, such as our present Celebrant, and one that we have described as the Highest Custodian of the Law. This question on my mind applies to every past and potential seeker after justice – from the administrators of justice themselves such as our protagonist here, to the bolekaja driver shot dead by a policeman for refusing to part with 50 kobo – and that question is this: what is the role of the rest of us – the in-between humanity – while that cry for justice awaits the arrival of the chariots of Law in its awesome Majesty? Do we adopt, literally, that often misunderstood commentary of the very Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of the nation, the very figure whose butchery constitutes my core reference for today’s retrospective? Do we – fold our arms and “siddon look”?
Most of the time, it would appear that we have no option. When Justice appears to fail even its own immediate, high-echelon servants, fails to protect them and, failing, yet again fails to avenge them, the rest of us can be forgiven for succumbing to sheer inertia. Don’t forget that we all live in sheer terror of that Majesty and hate to incur its wrath, often captured in that no-appeal writ – Contempt! That always places limitations on our scope of commentary, especially while a case is under trial. Sub judice means, watch your tongue, and that is merely one of the many areas of absolute authority that the Law exercises over the citizen. That Majesty exercises dominance over virtually all other claimants to the vector of Power – over the politician, governor, even over Heads of State – I speak of course of ordered society, not shambolic, anarchic spaces masquerading as democracies or, more honestly, as open dictatorships. Under both – we need no reminders – anything goes. Even the supposed enforcers of the Law, high or low, become what are known as scofflaws. Governors are blithely selective of what court orders they obey, and presidents become completely deaf and blind to judicial orders. Following examples from on high, even the smallest minnows in the seepage of officialdom become manic in the contest for the space of power.
Where they all are bested however, is in the province of Authority – there, Law dominates. Note, I do not even qualify this by saying – in an ideal state. I mean, at all times. Law, even where it is temporarily obscured, emasculated, predominates. Written or unwritten – Law embodies the total will of society in its self-regulation and as unexceptionable vector of a people’s arbitrational intelligence – yes, Law exercises an Authority that transcends mere Power. This is why we must task those who serve as administrators of Law with an ethical rigour, a measure that is paralleled perhaps only by what society expects of medical doctors who minister to a people’s physical and mental health, or religious ministers who are preoccupied with the requirements of the spirit. I am always at great pains, repeating for the benefit of those who are sometimes torn, or caught between these two axes – Power, and Authority – that they are as alike as any two lobes of the kola nut. They may look the same, smell the same, taste the same, wear the same tints but, neither weighs nor measures the same. Ask any botanist or – better still – kolanut farmer.
What else but this consensus of respectful submission to Law as Authority made it possible for the nation to keep silent during those years that a notorious torturer and butcher, under the late dictator Sanni Abacha, made a mockery of its system while under trial with a series of nauseous antics? During that trial, he insulted the patient servitors of Authority as he played for time, deployed every delaying tactic conceivable, stretched every concessionary thread in the law to its absolute limit, impugned the integrity of the courts, ever hopeful of a change in the political order – that is, hopeful of the corrupt intervention of Power, of unprincipled political bargaining under electoral calculations and ambitions – a ploy that we know, nearly did succeed in his favour under one government . We are speaking here of a proven torturer at the very least, once brimful of his trickle-down omnipotence, who engaged in cheap variations on Nollywood blustering stereotypes in a calculated bid to delete his date with the gallows. However, we shall not allow that case to divert us from our ultimate destination. In any case, the ball has been thrown back into the lap of the Judiciary, making it sub judice. As quite readily admitted, some of us live in mortal terror of that No-Appeal judicial pronouncement known as – Contempt.
We need to continue to sustain ourselves with that confidence in the ultimate primacy of Authority over Power, especially where verdicts that stem from the former prove a hard pill to swallow. Even outright dictatorships – theocratic, military or simply secular – make a pretence of acknowledging this substantive authority, although we are all familiar with how structures of delegated power make a mockery of that institution subtly or brutally, piecemeal or entirely, furtively or frontally. Despite such affronts in impunity, we must continue to identify with, and draw social solace from this manifest differentiation: Power is one thing; Authority is another. The former is constantly up for grabs, the latter, grounded in public will – barring of course the sweeping Marxist denunciation of Law as an expression of the ruling class. One constantly vies for attention, for extrusive supremacy, the other is innately replete in its myriad manifestations, often understated and, finally – Power is limited and ephemeral, while Authority is boundless and timeless. This is not to deny that there are instances where Power and Authority truly converge – that, after all, is one of the craved goals of democracy. Such instances abound, but they merely remind us of the differentiation.
Here is a case in point, if I may jog memories. Very early in our career of independence in the Western Region, after exhausting the judicial structures provided within the country itself, the contenders moved their case to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. On the eve of judgment, the Federal government, having been apprised of the tenor of decision, quickly passed a law that nullified, in one stroke, the jurisdiction of that body over the Nigerian legal system. That is Power at work at its crudest, a classic case of the contest between Power and Authority. By that very act of renunciation however, in an ironic way, Power had merely acknowledged the hierarchy that assigns the gavel of supremacy to Authority over and above Power, and accorded, in the process, a moral victory to the plaintiffs in the case. As we know from that history, Justice was slow to reassert itself but, ultimately, it did. And who were the handmaidens of that restitution? The people themselves. The thwarted humanity of a violated space. This is why we must never despair. Where Justice appears to have failed, we discover that there is always a higher order of restitution lying in wait.
Of a similar, yet divergent tenor was the case of the former governor, presently Senator, a serial paedophile caught literally with his pants down. For that opportunistic pervert, it proved convenient to reverse the relationship between Power and Authority, assigning the former to Law and the latter to his personal Scriptures. As with almost everything else, there is little more to add to what has already been said, but those who are still interested may wish to browse through one of my INTERVENTIONS series – Volume III – titled THE PRECURSSORS OF BOKO HARAM. I urge that you keep just two thoughts in mind. One: when you enthrone your private, or sectional Authority in opposition to the collective, sooner or later comes along a more uncompromising private challenger to your fragmentary authority – small letters – armed with greater unscrupulousness and brutality. And secondly: that this nation failed that underage girl who was sold as a mere sex object across national frontiers, one who deserved the protection of the Law. As civil society, we surrendered to religious blackmail and intimidation, and the beneficiary of that moral collapse is the monster that now goes today by the name of – Boko Haram.
Related to the foregoing, we should pause and clarify in our minds just what we mean by an expression I employed earlier – a Higher Order of Restitution. That clarification is necessary, because some habitually place that ‘higher order’ in the realms of the Unseen, making themselves the privileged intermediary and interpreters of directives or decisions from that fictive realm. This is a dangerous avoidance of responsibility or, as in the last cited instance, blasphemous opportunism. I refer here however to catechisms of resignation such as – “leaving everything in the hands of God”, and allied sermonizing. When literally embraced, as in the literal invocation of ‘siddon look’, it simply leaves an open field to bullies, cheats, malefactors and all kinds of social predators. Again, I must point out that there are those whose deployment of that phrase is purely metaphorical. With them, all they are saying is, let’s wait and see, rather than fulminate pointlessly and impotently. Worse than inaction, I find, is pretence to action. With the literal advocates of an Invisible, Supreme Arbiter however, when, for instance, a murder is committed, or when, yet again a plane crashes, we are enjoined to accept what is a human lapse, neglect, or criminal commission as an act of God, the will of Allah or whatever other name by which their Omnipotence is known. I always wish that I were God for just one second. I would look down in contempt and say, Very Good. Under the authority conferred upon me by that very humanity – I hereby transfer your case – to the Devil.
I hope it is understood that we are not playing semantic games – translate what we are expressing here into any language as we proceed and the message remains the same. It addresses a cankerous tendency of our humanity, one that eats into the social will within which resides Justice, renders flaccid the redressing temper that should be innate to any self-respecting humanity.
Let us continue with our ground clearing exercise: of a different temper, albeit also dangerously allied to the literal application of “leaving everything to Almighty God” is the expression, “leave everything to time” or its many variants such as “it’s all a matter of time” or “Time will tell”. These however represent a tolerable ambiguity in social attitudes. But it is equally critical to assure ourselves that we are not thereby taking refuge in the ante-chambers of the lair of Resignation, preaching that sooner or later, a resolution will unfold ‘in God’s own time’. This, surely, is not the ideal of which humanity is capable. Even that expression “Time will tell” – translate it, for instance into – igba lo gba – should be limited to a candid acknowledgement that, for the moment – I repeat, for the moment – we lack the means to bring about the closure, the cause of justice that haunts us asleep or screams us awake. If justice could be served in one fell swoop, in seconds, society would be paradise made real. Alas, it is hardly ever thus. On that basis, even social impotence can be absorbed as a temporarily affliction. This means that we remain ever watchful, awaiting the moment when the broken moral order of existence – the order of violation and restitution – can be reestablished. It demands – most critically – that we routinely ensure that memory does not go permanently to sleep. That we reject that sticker that goes on police files to read FILE CLOSED where the wounds and lacerations within society, with their suppurations remain – WIDE OPEN. After all, a credible branch of that very category of believers that we indicated earlier also agrees that, “Heaven helps those who help themselves”. So even the theology of resignation remains permanently contested, leaving to us one critical component of human definition – Choice. We can choose resignation, or we can maintain that Justice is the paramount definition of social existence, and thereby assist, exhort and provoke Justice in its mission of self-fulfillment.
Why do we insist that this is incumbent on the social conscience? The answer is straightforward. Each death, so goes the saying, diminishes us. Each unjust death however debases us, one and all! And we are not speaking here only of those unjustly railroaded to the gallows through the flawed mechanisms of the judicial process, especially in those societies where Power – operating as Class, Race or other schema of human separatism – has usurped the mantle of Justice and condemned the innocent to the gallows, the electric chair, or the gurney of lethal injection – check the trajectory of justice within the United States of America. No, we are speaking here of Power, exercised through secretive or blatant surrogates, of corrupt power that extinguishes the lives of innocents, while procuring the violators the shield of immunity. This is a phenomenon that has become rampant in this nation on an unprecedented scale over the past two decades, with a chillingly predictable outcome – CASE UNSOLVED!
How far back do we wish to go? What new manifestation of impunity makes us gasp? How many accusing fingers do we count pointing in this or that direction while awaiting divine solution from the Unseen Arbiter? While memory is put to sleep, the founts of justice are polluted from the effluvium of power. This is when citizens despair of the very possibility of Restitution and closure, and thus move to challenge Power itself, despite all its agencies of intimidation and social control, including violence, simply for that modicum of dignity that defines them as creatures of feeling, of social apportionment and equity.
Time to return to the victim figure in our appointed case, the very voice which , before its brutal silencing, gave rise to that ambiguous expression of “siddon look”. As I have pointed out, that phrase was anything but an invitation to resignation. The most direct proof of this of course was that, even from the day that he uttered that phrase, he himself never did “siddon look”. Very much the contrary! And this was why he suffered incarceration under the very regime in response to which that phrase was uttered, a passage that eventually turned out to be an augury for his eventual martyrdom at the hands of yet unknown assassins in his own bedroom, and another shameful chapter in the growing anthology of unsolved crimes. But – unsolved? That really is the question that should agitate our minds. Are such cases truly unsolved? Or should our question confine itself to asking: are there not those among us – and in positions of public responsibility – who hoard valuable knowledge? We cannot resurrect the dead but it is in our power, indeed it is imperative that society, lest it be buried alive with it, resurrect what has been buried alive. Those who are capable of a deep, unbroken sleep with a succession of live burials in their backyards and front gardens are truly superhuman beings. I envy them, readily acknowledge that I belong to the lesser breed who only sleep fitfully, haunted by the ghosts of live burials, knowing fully well that Impunity is an insatiable monster that can hardly ever be reined back once let loose on society. Those who doubt this only need remind themselves of the statistics of political deaths that have been the lot of this nation, not counting those that have been disguised as armed robbery or casualties in the now burgeoning trade of kidnapping.
We must stop paying lip-service to Justice, or else name this the New Age of the Brute, while other societies continue to fine-tune their mechanisms of Law to such an extent that they can even begin to boast of a New Era of Enlightenment. In the wake of the enquiries into the murder of the late Attorney-General of the nation, Chief Bola Ige, I drew attention, again and again, to the outcry of a judge, Justice Femi Abass, who revealed that intolerable pressure had been placed on him from ‘unexpected places’ to subvert justice in the application for bail from the principal accused. In several statements, one of which has appeared also in the very first of that same series INTERVENTIONS – Justice,,,,Funeral Rites – I urged that this principled judge, who had kept meticulous notes, detailing time, date, place and names of his improper lobbyists – among them, lawyers sworn as officers of the law – preached that he should be invited to submit his diary for examination, so that the nation could affix names to these faceless people, extract from them the identities of those on behalf of whom they were acting, and why they all had such an inordinate interest in the case. Only then, I insisted – and still so insist – would the mystery of that high-level murder conspiracy be resolved. I revealed that photocopies of two pages of Justice Abass’ diary were in my possession – as well as with other individuals to whom the judge had consigned them – and the entire diary – for safe keeping. The implications of their content must surely be of interest – at the very least – to state agencies such as EFCC and ICPC. Attempted bribery, after all, is not irrelevant to the portfolios of these bodies, one of which was, after all, then headed by a former justice and the other, a police officer. Currently, EFCC is pursuing a case of a forgery ring for US visas – so how could there have been such a lack of interest in bribery attempts within the judiciary, and in such a notorious case? Concerning the direct investigators on the case, I indict you yet again before the nation and before the world: you cannot claim to be serious about a murder enquiry if you fail to take an interest in those shadowy fronts who attempted to influence the presiding judge. It means, very simply, that you have deliberately refused to follow valuable leads. Here is an extract from my commentary at the time:
“Was it simply a routine move that Justice Abass was transfered out of his seat of judgment in Ibadan soon after? Another coincidence? Until the spirit of that murdered national and international servant is appeased by Truth and Revelation, its feet will continue to sprout above the very ground we all tread. Something is truly rotten in the state of the nation, where a judge screams out loud to be saved from ‘pressure from high places’ and his cry goes unheeded.”
Impunity breeds impunity. Consider the two cases – Justice Femi Abass and Justice Ayo Salami in detail, both in fact and in spirit. Was the predicament of today’s celebrant, Ayo Salami, not the very child of the travails of Femi Abass? And do tell me, what role did Power play in both crises of Authority? Come to its aid? Or bury it deeper in the cesspit of impunity? In the unheeded cry of pain that issues from the throat of Justice, we hear the death-rattle of mere mortals, and ultimately the death-rattle of a nation.
That stench refuses to be dissipated. It envelops us, contaminates us as citizens of the same nation space. In the pursuit of justice, delay must be counted an accessory, but permanent silence in itself becomes an equal partner-in-crime, its culpability level rising with time. Just as the nation constantly renews itself, so must that organism that we deem Ultimate Authority, and that is one organism that must extend the longest reach into an even longer memory. It goes beyond self-defence, the need to avoid the unleashing of forces that may prove untamable, a deluge of pent-up rage and frustration from denial, from the accumulation of criminalities against those who have placed their trust in the last resort, the hallowed hall of equity. It is not simply the realization that when that sanctuary falls, anarchy, citizen vendetta, and the collapse of the civilized state will follow, sooner or later. It goes beyond the fact that the past returns to haunt us, that taking refuge in the culture of convenient oversight regenerates criminality in an interminable spiral, each loop stronger than the last, since it rides on precedents of impunity. It is simply a case of preserving – or else restoring – the integral wholeness of an institution that is both symbolic and actual, at once serene yet pro-active, unflappable yet impassioned, that citadel of ultimate recourse that we revere as Justice.
Today, in this nation, Justice is on trial! But let me repeat: I do not task the Judiciary alone as the agency for bringing that validation of civilized society – Justice – within the reach of all. No, it is no news that the Judiciary is on trial. Blatant manipulations, haggling and marketing of justice on the auction block have scandalized us in the public domain, sufficiently clamorous to have prompted the new Head of the Supreme Court to embark openly on a reform agenda. It is when the people themselves fail to hound the other agencies of Justice until they bring the culpable to lie prostrate before that throne that is raised to Justice, where the people themselves abandon the critical role of memory and the virtue of persistence – that is when Justice finds itself in the universe of doubt, of cynicism and finally, repudiation. We all are profoundly responsible. We all are, both those who believe that ‘siddon look’ is the literal portion of citizenry, and others, who understand that it is an ironic challenge to complacency and a rebuke to supine acquiescence. The failure to ensure Justice in its multiple forms, even when it takes, optimistically, the form of eventual forgiveness and reconciliation – for these are also valid routes to the altar of Justice – Revelation, Contrition, necessarily strengthened with Restitution, then Forgiveness or Reconciliation – yes, these are also components of Justice that should never be underestimated – this route that calls on a magnanimity of spirit are never excluded. But first, Revelation – this is where we all empowered – those who are in direct possession of the truth, and the rest who can compel this minority to reveal what they know. Where the clumsy machinery of state fails, defaults or betrays, then we must, as conscionable beings, assist Justice to fulfill its being through every means at our disposal. The simplest of these means costs nothing. It is accessible to high and low, rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, and that possession is known as – Memory. The refusal to forget, until Justice is made manifest, felt in the most mundane aspects of our communal being. This, in every sense, is the validation of events of honour such as this, convocations that challenge the complicity of Power in depredations against Authority. Reinstate this victim of injustice, screamed all the arms of Authority. But Power responded: No, I cannot hear you. The lesson is clear: we must learn to scream louder, with greater passion, and without relenting.
And now it is from that same source of monumental denial that emerges a call to the nation to – Dialogue. Dialogue! Genuine? Sincere? Or simply a distraction? A political ploy? A game? Yet another of the self-serving gambits that this nation has endured at the hands of predecessors in the seat of power? Or a new opportunity, perhaps the very last, for a tottering giant to find its feet. Well, let us assume that it will happen, that the calls for a boycott will give way to – albeit – watchful participation. Why the call for a National Dialogue in the first place? We could put the answer this way: an acceptance – however belated – that something is amiss in the nation weal. An acknowledgement that the foundation of nation being is deeply flawed, that the parts of a supposed whole are malfunctioning, working at variance with one another, that the turning of the wheel is far from harmonious. All that is undoubtedly true, but when you seek the common denominator of these ills, you will encounter, again and again, that eloquent absence, a yawning abyss in place of the emanating core of a nation’s heartbeat – Justice. Whether we are speaking of the relation of the parts to one another, the relation of the parts to the whole, the apportionment of a nation’s resources – both palpable and intangible, both human and material, between denied or acknowledged class stratifications, between and across Religions, between genders and across interest groups however defined, between Power and Authority – at base, and responsible for the nation’s crisis is that immaterial presence but one that is palpably manifested in its effects on individual and collective existence – Justice.
Permit me to seize upon one more excerpt from my tribute to that individual whose voice resounded vibrantly among those who called for that same dialogue. I cautioned:
“This is not a death in isolation. It thrusts itself outwards as an encapsulation of the killings that have dominated our landscape these many lamentable years. The question that this Absence places before us is a simple one: shall we come together and engage in a sincere dialogue, or shall we continue to splutter through these terminal monologues of serial violence? Those who continue to reject this dialogue of peoples – no matter by what name it is called – who continue to concoct untenable reasons for its avoidance, and attribute impure motives to its advocates, have merely chosen to concede the last word to the Party of Death.
“We are a nation that kills our best. Generosity is a tainted word. Largeness of heart is regarded as a medical condition, like an enlarged heart, requiring drastic intervention. Tolerance is ridiculed as the mark of weakness. And so we kill the generous, the large of heart, the tolerant. Even the symbols that should heal and bind the nation together are turned into agencies of death – including those of faith, piety, religion…..”
“We are bound in a common cause to terminate the impulse that takes our best, our brightest. Every day, we move closer to a polarisation of the world into two communities – the community of life and – the cabal, or Party of death. That death is inevitable is such a banal comment on existence that it deserves no further avowal. When we speak of the Party of Death therefore, we refer to those whose life mission – often blasphemously transposed into a mandate of religion – is not towards the enhancement of life as an inextinguishable continuum in the consciousness of generation after generation – but a quick, and easy resolution in butchery. We speak of the Party of Death as a mindless surrender before the challenge that confronts and excites others with the complexities of intuition, discovery, creativity and the social articulations that define the human phenomenon. The feeble twitches of the killer, however lethal, is a confession of that intense frustration at, and admission of – creative impotence, of an inability to extinguish the infinite experience that is life. We reject the blasphemous who seek to play God by appropriating the right to the measure of existence of humanity.
“Shall we come together and engage in a sincere dialogue?” I demanded. That was twelve years ago, when Bola Ige was silenced, and of course there had been allied cries from us all, even before then. Well then, so now we have the same counter voices, scornful of the very notion of dialogue, and they have done a 180 degree turn! Suddenly, national dialogue is no longer the abomination in which it was clothed some years ago. Ridicule has been transformed to sense of purpose, even solemnity. And so, quite rightly, the people are suspicious. Why the change of heart, goes the question? Why now? What deodorant has been employed by those whose mouths were considered to stink when they counseled Dialogue? National Dialogue? National Conference – with or without that much misunderstood, much maligned word – sovereign. Suspicion is therefore inevitable, even essential, but it should not be allowed to scuttle prospects, however slim, of the renewed crafting of protocols for a sane, disciplined and just society. That, above all, a just society – socially, politically and economically just. These are not rhetorical catch-phrases, though we often encounter them glibly trotted out as such – most especially at election time. Those interlinked compartments of justice – social, political and economic are inescapable for the re-ordering of any social organism.
There are numerous – and clamorous – items that will vie for attention within a proposed National dialogue. Without question, all over the country minds are being rubbed together to catapult such issues into prominence. My focus today has been quite simply and modestly – the unfinished business of the living dead. And let no one attempt to fob us off with fake pietisms such as letting the past bury itself. The National Conference – if it does take place – must insist on a Standing Commission, an independent Judicial commission to exhume that past and re-open its case files. The late Yar’adua was not courting votes when he ordered the police agencies to re-open such files and provide the nation with answers. Please recall that I did meet Yar’Adua both in company, and immediately after, on a one-on-one meeting during the upsurge of MEND violence. His order has been issued even before those meetings, at the very beginning of his tenure, and was a response to the consciousness of a huge, ominous cloud that weighed upon both governance and the governed polity. That undertaking was a call for national exorcism, without which the nation not only continues to live a lie, but invites the perpetuation of the homicidal culture of impunity. From Argentina and her hideous record of torture and the disapparecidos – as the simply vanished were known – to Rwanda and the reign of the Hutu genocidaires, every nation has learnt that it cannot guarantee a future, a stable future, without confronting the past. A National Dialogue based on a pretence that there are no ghosts hovering over the debaters? This again would be to build a future on a yawning abyss – a guaranteed collapse of that very future, however ingeniously crafted. The abyss is waiting to swallow it intact, to accommodate, even enthrone the criminals of the past as guarantors of future impunity. They are very much around, occupants of prestigious positions, interfering in and even directing the nation’s destiny, installing and re-installing their clones. Failure to mobilize against them makes us willing accessories in our own destruction. The culture of impunity is spreading fast, constituting a livid stain across the national visage.
A word of caution. Dialogue mandates inclusion, but Dialogue does not translate as Appeasement. If the goal is transformation, ordination of a viable future, then those who make it a life mission to kill the future cannot be part of the dialogue. To extinguish innocent lives on their way to preparing themselves for that future, in classrooms, in their dormitories, even in their homes, as has become the lurid, vampiric signature of those who also claim to seek dialogue, and even mouth the name of Justice, is a degradation of the very principle of Dialogue, and a collapse of the destination of Dialogue that we term the Future. A nation that shuns memory is a people without a future. There are certain acts whose perpetrators have placed themselves beyond the pale of humanity, and we must never shy away from expelling them from community, or else re-define humanity altogether.
Earlier, I made a point of stating that Justice is sometimes served even through the exercise of magnanimity, forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us note however that none of these virtues panders to appeasement. They demand, on the contrary, a rigorous process of collective morality. I once described the heroic example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation in terms such as – a symbolic passage through an archway, beyond which lies the future. One arc of that archway is Truth, or Revelation, the other – Forgiveness, or Reconciliation. Holding up both arcs, however, is the capstone. Without that capstone, the archway collapses – as every builder will testify. Both arcs converge upon that capstone, and its name is – Restitution or – Justice.
Power is transient, Justice Eternal. I look around me, absorb the quality of the assemblage in this hall, gathered in solidarity with Justice as in “Justice in Denial”. These formal caryatids of the vessel of Authority, are an eloquent testimony to the timeless craving that separates brute power from humanized existence – that essence, that leaven in the yeast of social ferment, bears the eternal name of – Justice.
—The Honourable Justice Ayo Salami Lecture delivered by Professor Wole Soyinka in Abuja on 30 October 2013.