The Challenge Of Change – A Burden of Choice, By Wole Soyinka
First, let us not simplify the challenge. There are no blacks and whites. It is not a contest between saints and demons, not one between salvation and damnation. If anything, it is closer to a fork in the road where uncertainty lurks – whichever choice is made. Someone in the media has called it a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, another between Apocalypse and Salvation. The reasons are not far-fetched. They are firmly lodged in the trauma of memory and the rawness of current realities. Well, at least one can dialogue with the devil, even dine with that creature with the proverbial long spoon. With the deep blue sea however, deceptively placid, even the best swimmers drown. The problem for some is deciding which is the devil, which the deep blue sea. For most, instructively, the difference is clear. There are no ambiguities, no qualifications, no pause for reflection – they are simply raring to go! I envy them.
Let all partisans of progress however constantly exercise self-restraint in assessment and expectations. Facts remain facts and should never be tampered with. Verification is nearly always available from records and – the testimonies of witnesses. Yet memory may prove faulty, so even those who were alive during any political regimen should exercise even greater caution and not get carried away by partisanship in any cause, however laudable or apparently popular. In the interest of truth, embarrassing though it is, we are obliged to correct all such tendencies openly, since revisionism is a travesty of history, and never more treacherously so than in a time of critical democratic choices. I apologize in advance to the authors of the instance that I must now use as an example, apologize because it does not come close to the most atrocious revisionist stances propagated in the past few weeks. However, it is one of the most recent, is born of noble intent, but serves to remind us of the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. From that same origination however also came a corrective, and that very adjustment offers us optional routes in the way we deal with historical facts, especially when we find ourselves on the same side of commitment to the positive in a political cause.
In recalling, or commenting on any event that involves victim and violator, there is a difference between “It never happened” or “it was the accepted norm for the time” etc. etc. on the one hand, and, on the other, “we have forgiven what did happen”. Both positions converge at the point of “moving on”. One, the first, however disparages and trivializes the suffering of – in this instance – victims of the abuse of power, dead or alive. In so doing, it also desecrates the memory of these and other victims.
The second approach insists on its entitlement to justice, waives that right by drawing on a store of magnanimity and even – places the violator on notice! Its example also challenges the adamantly unforgiving, challenges them to join in an exercise of their own capacity for obliterating the past, acting in the collective interest, and perhaps attaining closure.
When I read the statement attributed to a scion of a political family that his father was “not jailed” but was merely “invited for interrogation as required by military tradition and policies then”, I felt deeply offended, but mostly saddened. For this adjustment of reality provided evidence of yet another lesson unlearnt. Exoneration through denial, and without evidence of remorse or restitution by a violator is a serious lapse in public accountability, and an invitation to a repeat by the offender – or other aspiring emulators. In any crisis, it is not unusual to find oneself in bed with ideologically embarrassing partners. Let it be understood that this does not require that we actually begin to dress them in saintly robes.
What makes our situation especially galling is the fervid intrusion of some opportunistic sanitizers who bear direct, sometimes even originating responsibility for the plight in which a people have been placed. These are individuals who should be doing penance, walking from one corner of the nation to the other covered in the equivalent of ‘sackcloth and ashes’ for their role in bringing the nation to its lamentable condition. Yet they insist on remaining obsessively in the public face, preening themselves up for recognition as the primary forces behind a nation’s renewed efforts to redeem and re-determine itself. They are the promoters – actively or by default – of the current national trauma of a Boko Haram malignancy, the anti-corruption rhetoricians who however believe that they have literally got away with murder. Rather than make reparations in any number of unobtrusive ways, they impudently exploit a permissive, and despairing atmosphere for regaining relevance. The nation should watch out for their antics, even while exploiting them to the hilt for the overall remedial purpose. They owe the nation. We must ensure however that they are incapacitated from making more mischief. I am consoled that not all the Nigerian electorate is as simple-minded and gullible as they believe.
The nation finds herself at a critical turn, where the wrong choice places it beyond all hope of remaining intact – and by ‘intact’ I do not refer to breast-beating mantras such as the “non-negotiability of Nigerian sovereignty”. I am speaking here of the viability of whatever calls itself the Nigerian nation, its functional proof, the ability to generate its very existence and cater for the future. Since I still have some time invested in that commodity, the future – with apologies to impatient Internet Obituarists – it becomes impossible to refrain from direct participation in the process of, or the encouragement of others, in the process of making a choice.
In any case, I am compromised by the wiles of unprincipled campaigners whose pastime is to propagate a choice I have never declared. It is meagre consolation that I am not alone in being subjected to such fraudulence. Even the dead, who cannot answer back, have not been spared. In and out of context, the ongoing campaign appears to have appropriated any public figure as free-for-all material, to be quoted out of turn, his or her utterances mangled and distorted, forced into incongruous contexts, and sometimes, even in a counter-productive manner, although such desperate campaigners appear blissfully unaware of this. What is being overlooked however is that, while facts remain constant, the environment evolves, and may play a tempering role in the very evocation of a record of the condemable acts of governance. I am not speaking of time now – as a dulling agent of painful memory – but of the very actualities of the present as an advocate of – at the very least – remission.
The era of this election offers an incontrovertible proof of that reminder. Let us leave aside for a moment the parlous condition of the Nigerian landscape and look outwards for some inspiration. We live in an era that we, on this continent, may be forgiven for inscribing as the era of The Mandelan example. Mandela’s life trajectory remains a lighthouse in any voyage into uncharted waters – anywhere and any time that a people’s history is cited. Confessedly, we can only adopt bits and pieces of this Monumental Examplar. The bit that is called upon in this instance is a virtue that is aptly designated civic courage, an aspect of courage that enables one to make a leap of faith when confronted with a near intractable choice.
Let me state, right on the heels of that exhortation that the acceptance of this imposition by society demands in its turn a massive reciprocity, a condition of individual moral courage that manifests itself in the ability to express contrition for the past, with its implicit commitment to an avoidance of such acts as violated the loftiest entitlements of human existence such as – freedom. We have no apology for declaring that our civic Muse is, summatively – Freedom. The right of choice. Volition. The Right of participation in the modalities of collective existence including its rituals, the sum of which is routinely known as – Democracy. Its antithesis is enslavement, and we who have undergone centuries of enslavement and disdain from the imperious will of outsiders, have no intention of changing slave masters, irrespective of race, colour, religion, social pedigree, profession or political ideology. This is why, apart from a few deranged species that have removed themselves from the definition of humanity, we are united against the tyranny of Boko Haram and other proponents of chains – visible and invisible – as the rightful portion of their fellow beings.
Through participation, direct or vicarious, we find ourselves landed within a system that has thrown up two choices – realistically speaking, that is. Formally, we dare not ignore the claims of other contestants. Of the two however, one is representative of the immediate past, still present with us, and with an accumulation of negative baggage. The other is a remote past, justly resented, centrally implicated in grievous assaults against Nigerian humanity, with a landscape of broken lives that continues to lacerate collective memory. However – and this is the preponderant ‘however’ – is there such a phenomenon as a genuine “born-again”?
It is largely around this question that a choice will probably be made. It is pointlessly, and dangerously provocative to present General Buhari as something that he provably was not. It is however just as purblind to insist that he has not demonstrably striven to become what he most glaringly was not, to insist that he has not been chastened by intervening experience and – most critically – by a vastly transformed environment – both the localized and the global. Of course we have been deceived before. A former ruler whom, one presumed, had been purged and transformed by a close encounter with death, and imprisonment, has turned out to be an embodiment of incorrigibility on several fronts, including a contempt for law and constitution. Would it be different this time round? Has subjection to police tear-gas and other forms of violence, like the rest of us mortals, and a spell in close detention, truly ‘civilianized’ this contender? I have studied him from a distance, questioned those who have closely interacted with him, including his former running-mate, Pastor Bakare, and dissected his key utterances past and current. And my findings? A plausible transformation that comes close to that of another ex-military dictator, Mathew Kerekou of the Benin Republic.Despite such encouraging precedents however, I continue to insist that the bridge into any future expectation remains a sheer leap of faith. Such a leap I find impossible to concede to his close rival, since we are living in President Jonathan’s present, in an environment that his six years in office have created and now seek to consolidate. That is the frightening prospect. It requires more than a superhuman effort to concede to the present incumbent a springboard for a people’s critical leap.
I address only those who require no further persuasion that the present is untenable and intolerable – and from virtually every aspect of national life. All men and women of discerning can separate actualities from their exaggerated rendition, can peel off the distracting gloss that is smeared all over our social condition by those who seek to blind us to an unjust and avoidable social predicament. We have tasted the condiments of an incipient police state. We recognize acts of outright fascism in a dispensation that is supposedly democratic. We have endured a season of stagnation in development and a drastic deterioration in the quality of existence. We are force-fed the burgeoning culture of impunity, blatantly manifested in massive corruption. We feel insulted by the courtship and indulgence of common criminals by the machinery of power. The list is endless but above it all, we understand when there is a failure of leadership, resulting in a near total collapse of society. We are now brought to a confrontation with choice, when we must make a leap of faith, to open up avenues of restoration.
Leadership is, I acknowledge, an often imprecise expression, conveniently absolving those who invoke its absence of the burden of proof. When I make that accusation, it is based on hard instances for which proof is not only demonstrable in all spheres of governance – and superabundantly so – but can be provided if challenged by anyone, including the obscene convocation of the cretinous, who even believe that they have earned the right to poke their messy fingers into strictly family travails of a political contestant, that the medical challenges within a family are matters of public relevance or offer the slightest evidence of that individual’s ability to discharge public responsibility. Some tactics deployed in the process of this political campaign remain some of the most vulgar and sickening that the nation has experienced on its democratic journey. Perhaps it is just as well. The exercise on its own offers warning of fascism in the offing if the wrong choice is made, if the crucial leap of faith is rejected by the faint-hearted! Of course, it has not all been one-sided, but let us leave the exercise of assessment to every individual capable of applying the most stringent objective yardsticks.
Has the campaign in itself thrown up any portents for the future? Let all beware. The predator walks stealthily on padded feet, but we all know now with what lightning speed the claws flash into action. We have learnt to expect, deplore and confront certain acts in military dictatorship, but to find them manifested under a supposedly democratic governance? Of course the tendency did not begin with this regime, but how eagerly the seeming meek have aspired to surpass their mentors!
We must not be sanguine, or complacent. Eternal, minute-to-minute vigilance remains the watchword. Whatever demons got into a contestant to declare the spread of Sharia throughout the nation his life mission must be exorcised – indeed, are presumed to be already exorcised. Never again must any leader ban the discussion of democratic restoration in the public arena. Nor must we ever again witness the execution – even imprisonment! – of a citizen under retroactive laws. This persistent candidate seeks return, but let him understand that it can only be as a debtor to the past, and that the future cannot wait to collect. If this collective leap of faith is derided, repudiated or betrayed under a renewed immersion in the ambiance of power or retrogressive championing, of a resumption of clearly repudiated social directions, we have no choice but to revoke an unspoken pact and resume our march to that yet elusive space of freedom, however often interrupted, and by whatever means we can humanly muster. And if in the process, the consequence is national hara-kiri, no one can say that there had been no deluge of warnings.
The art of leadership is complex and unenviable. Among its most basic, simple demands however, is the capacity for empathy, since a leader does not preside over stones but palpable humanity. Thus, in asserting a failure in leadership in a rivaling candidate, I pose only one question, a question of basic humanism that is directed at a leader who equally demands that a nation make a leap of faith for him also, that a people presume his capability for self-transformation. That question is this:
“If you had received news of your daughter’s kidnapping, how long would it take you to spring to action? Instantly? One day? Two? Three? A week? Or maybe TEN days?”
While we await the answer, the clock of Change cannot tick sufficiently fast!
Professor Wole Soyinka, 80, Nobel laureate, humanist, writer, and national treasure.