13th January, 2015
By Wole Soyinka
Our predicament is universal, and this is what we have stressed from the very beginning. The nature of religious zeal that would routinely maim, kill, or enslave the object of its proselytizing – that sometime euphemism for brainwashing – rather than let it thrive and contribute to humanity from within his or her limitations and uncertainties, from within its questions or skepticism, a mental cast that equates the mere absence of exhibitionist ardour or rigid conformism with impiety and apostasy, punishable by death or mutilation, is no different, in effect, from the tyrannical temper of the political dictator of any age. Both can only grasp the substance of their being through an inverse reflection of themselves, that is, in the complete and evident submission of their citizens, their flock, their human charge, in every aspect of their lives, without questions, without the concession of a possible alternative order of social being to whatever ideology or religious absolutes that they choose to peddle. Total submission, laced with adulation, remains the driving goal of the authoritarian temper – never mind that it is covered in mufti, khaki or clerical regalia. The objective remains – Power over others! And if ever there was an unholy marriage entered into to plague human existence, it is the obscene wedlock of the theocratic and secular mandates of power. Its issue has always been guaranteed as enslavement, misery, death and destruction. It is this that represents the greatest threat to human freedom, and its creative will. This is the proposition that acutely confronts the African continent today, following upon centuries of enslavement, colonialism, and the mutated versions of both in her dealings with the rest of the world. No wonder then, that we feel compelled to ask ourselves: what were our people’s struggles for liberation about? True Liberation? Or re-enslavement?
Algeria has gone off the radar in recent times, but I must continue to stress this, especially on the continent: we would do well to keep our mind on that nation, not so long freed – and not even completely as yet – from a malady that is currently consuming other parts of our continent and the world. In our own interest, for the survival of our humanistic values, we could do worse than keep that nation in our minds as a crucial cautionary template, so that we can begin to grasp the enormity of Boko Haram, al Shabab, al Queda and other active carriers of the same spore of human deformity. It is only at our peril that we forget that we have been here before, and elsewhere, that there is nothing new about the extremes to which the power urge can exert itself. For those who perhaps were not born during that prolonged internal struggle for a people’s total liberation – and I am not speaking of the brutal struggle against French settler colonialism – or who were miraculously shielded from its vicious and prolonged intensity, or whose education has stopped short of the chilling testimonies of its survivors, I recommend a sobering and thoroughly authenticated compilation by Professor Karima Bennoune with the title – Your Fatwa does not Apply Here.
All that is necessary is that we immerse ourselves in the tragedy of that nation to enable us to grasp the ruthless enterprise of terminal censors, the shadowy killers, the obsessed enemies of creativity, crippled minds whose notion of a divine mission is the eradication of all knowledge, and truncation of the reaches of the imagination. Then we would cease to be surprised by the fate that nearly overcame, and still threatens our neighbour Mali, that ancient warehouse of Africa’s intellectual heritage whose capital, Timbuktu, became a household name even in the racially jaundiced histories of European scholars.
Perhaps it is time that we constructed Walls of Remembrance, on which we shall inscribe the ever lengthening roll-call of victims of this ongoing resurgence, and their place names, in order to give flesh and blood to statistical losses sustained to blind doctrine, victims young and old, extinguished before the full bloom of their creative powers. We are speaking of musicians, cineastes, writers, journalists, intellectuals, even the consumers of their products, condemned for daring to taste the forbidden fruit of knowledge. My mind immediately goes to – among others – fellow authors like Tahar Djaout to whose posthumously published work, The Last Summer of Unreason, I had the honour of contributing a preface. The kind of monument I speak of is one that should occupy the centre of every state capital of the African continent and of the African Diaspora. For those who still believe in, or simply dream a resurrection of the pan-African idyll, such a project offers us a purpose, a propelling motivation towards a holistic self-recovery. It will serve to remind us that we are a people to whom tolerance is a norm, knowledge an eternal pursuit, and pluralism the foundation of our communal ethos. Such monuments will represent milestones of the human journey towards enlightenment, a shrine to the real martyrs of human civilization. They will restore meaning and dignity to that word “martyrdom” that has become hideously corrupted, degraded and blasphemed against by those who wage war against infants, yet wallow in their own perverse conception of bravery and valour. Nor must we neglect those who survived their mindless onslaught, damaged yet intact, and undaunted – the Malalas of our world.
The wages of morbid narcissism in the extreme – or should I say ‘supreme’? – exercise of power remain the coveted prize for the self-appointed warriors of a new blood-thirsting godhead that has been extracted and distorted from the religion of islam. If this speaker had put Abubakar Shekau – or any of his multiple incarnations – on stage, you would only have granted him the grudging concession of a satirist, yet Shekau remains real, deadly and ludicrous, a clown, yet a human obscenity. Those of you who watched him taunting Nigerian humanity and the world after the abduction of the Chibok girls will understand my evocation of the banality that is power. Not indifferent to, but clearly relishing the anguish of parents, family, and the trauma of victims, cavorting, rather like one of those advertising balloon marionettes you may have encountered in front of American gas stations, he gloated: We have your girls. We are going to sell them off as slaves, and there is nothing you can do about it”. Shekau felt that he had the entirety of the world in his palms to squeeze as the mood directed him. Shekau indeed, in those moments represented the solipsistic totality of power at its most banal. So did the solemn assemblage of the holy warriors in Northern Nigeria around a pit clotted with blood, as they interrogated a captured Nigerian soldier before slitting his throat, turning the chorus Allah Akbar into a parody of piety.
It is the same savoring of the trickle-down potion of power that sustains the hooded figure, allegedly straight from a humdrum life in faraway, sedate England, standing over a kneeling health volunteer or journalist before beginning his gory task. It is what nerved the commander of the killer squad in Peshawar to slaughter a hundred and thirty school children and gloat: I want you to feel the pain. It is not piety, but the seepage from the obscene communion of power that induced the massacre of twelve French protagonists of the freedom of expression and leveling of divine afflatus in the affairs of mankind – the Charlie Hebdo martyrs. The narcissists of morbidity – these are the elite beneficiaries of the toxin of power and its pursuit.
Let us learn to repudiate the language of “Political Correctness” that attempts to dim the incandescent rage that is justly felt in us as response to assaults on our humanity, to pretend that history, or societal or state corruption justifies the invasion of a community of children, blowing them to bits, then hunting the rest down one by one as they cower under their desks. We are being programmed to understand and accept their fate, and the fate of their peers in Nigeria who are called out by name from their dormitories one by one in a sanctuary of learning to meet their end. Often, the analytical language of media pundits merely panders to, indeed encourages criminality, especially through misplaced emphasis. Without actually intending to, it enfeebles moral outrage, nudges readers into accepting that the abduction of over two hundred school pupils in Nigeria, whose fate is to be turned into sex slaves, into suicide bomb conscripts, is a logical response to all kinds of governance criminalities and infelicities, or indeed the brutality of a military. We are being inducted into the credo that the serial slaughter of school children and their teachers across a widening swathe of Northern Nigeria is an understandable response to the decadence of western society across the globe, that the amputation of hands which clasped each other across the gender barrier in Somalia under al-Shabbab, the live burial of women to be stoned to death in Northern Mali under affiliates of al Queda, or the open decapitation of aid volunteers in overrun parts of Syria and Iraq, the execution of anti-polio workers, be it in Northern Nigeria or the Middle East are all “traceable” to association with the devilish west and its ways, and usury on the world markets. This is the language of appeasement, an indulgence that urges Africa to accept a renewed condition of enslavement – this time by religious overlords.
Appeasement is the diet of impunity. For those who seek explanations for the intolerable in the role of memory, in historical precedents, in distant causes and effects even from remote times – these are all legitimate zones of enquiry, and corrective action in the present becomes a social and political duty. So does the whittling away of contradictions within society, thus cauterizing the breeding grounds for future recruits to the ranks of homicidal maniacs. Surely, by this present, we should have learnt to stop parroting the time-worn clichés of social disaffections as acceptable causative factors for the dehumanizing of our kind. It is time to confront the long persistent question of what truly fits, unsentimentally, into our definition of humanity. Definition by race, colour, gender or faith have ever been derogatory and untenable, contributing to the world’s current dilemma in furtherance of the agenda of power. Our parameters must now transfer to social conduct, to the manifestation of blind attachment to creeds that contradict and dismiss our very aspirations as thinking, reflecting and expressing beings. If the world shies away from that task, we on the African continent, should take on that duty, and annunciate what, for us, constitutes basic humanity. From those whose acts place them outside of such a definition, we must withdraw recognition, protect ourselves and take the battle to all such outcasts.
Let me underline the foregoing in the specific language of a political precedent. Once, under a president who was considered somewhat intelligence challenged, the public in the United States evolved a short-cut mantra for bringing the reality of a national recession to his notice. That mantra was “It’s the economy, stupid”. The world is not stupid, but I have come to suspect that it often falls asleep, even falls comatose, and thus requires some kind of wake-up call, a bluntly heretical viewpoint to check the assigned primacy of economics as the material base of all social upheavals. What is required today is a balancing of the economic catechism through a saturation of vulnerable environments with variations of the complementary mantra that becomes a mental ticker-tape: It’s the power drive, sucker”!
After Baga, surely no one can be left in any doubt: the world is confronted with the narcissists of death. Study the killers as they strike poses for the iconic photos before setting forth to earn their so-called martyrdom in a terminal, dastardly act. Watch Shekau of Boko Haram prancing about in his propaganda video as he taunts the world – We have your girls. We are going to sell them into slavery. Share the testimonies of survivors as they grope for language to convey the cultivated swagger of these killers as they go from hut to hut on invading a hapless village, where they massacre the men and herd the women before them for enslavement, their studied posturing and comportment of self-adoration. The exploits of this breed bring to my mind the apocalyptic acronym of the policies of power blocs during the Cold War – M.A.D. – Mutual Assured Destruction, the doctrine of the balance of nuclear terror. At least that madness was mutual – our ongoing orgy of destruction is anything but mutual. It is arbitrary, dictated, one-sided, yet equally Doomsday determined. The narcissists of morbidity contemplate their images in troughs of blood as they slit throat after throat of their captives ululating with snatches of praise songs to their Almighty.
The challenge is out, and it is couched in anything but the language of spirituality. It is humiliating, I know, but let us be sufficiently humble as to admit the truth: this is one scourge that laughs in our faces, mocks the comfort zone of the rational, the schematic, the contextual, even comparative habit of mind, defies probability theories and historical precedents. And what choice of responses do we imagine has been forced on us, the rest of humanity? The expression, I believe, is – damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. This phenomenon understands only one language:
Mobilize, or perish!
Excerpted from recent Overseas Lectures on our common concern, for the BRING BACK OUR GIRLS Visitation, Jan 13, 2015