The venue was Afribank, Oke-Ilewo, Abeokuta, Ogun state. My father had sent me to the bank to make the type of withdrawal a high school student could handle — well, in those “non-open-eye” days. I had instructions to say hello to the bank manager, a friend of my father. There he was descending the stairs as I ascended. He had his trademark couture top and black trousers. A legend walking the streets of the Ancient City. A symbol, yet a real person described in thousands of stories, tales, facts and anecdotes. We had no verbal interactions and it was not yet the era of selfies; therefore the normative economy of the hypervisual was absent.
It was to be a transformative non-encounter. Such was the profundity of Wole Soyinka’s mere presence that a few days later when asked about my future career by my producer at NTA Channel 12 Abeokuta, I said I wanted to become a professor. He said I would need a “PhD”. I didn’t know what a PhD was at the time but I remember telling my “Weekend Delight” producer: “I guess I have to get a PhD”. The desire to become a university professor was permanently etched on my mind.
Fast forward to many years later, I was quite shocked when I read from “The Cable” that Professor Wole Soyinka used derogatory words against Igbos at a lecture he delivered at Harvard University. Those words are not worthy of being reprinted. The statement was conscientiously malicious and lacked the imprimatur of Soyinka. Like many Nigerians, I was confident that Soyinka did not utter those words. It is great to see that the medium that invented the words has since apologised.
Soyinka’s non-controversy is reminiscent of the passions generated by Chinua Achebe’s book There Was a Country in 2012. It was quite stunning to find people expressing strong emotions for and against a book they had not read. The recently manufactured “controversy” speaks to lingering issues in Nigeria’s body politick. The fact that a statement that has turned out to be untrue could generate such passions indicates that it does not take a lot to ignite raw emotions in our country. However, we would be negligent to dismiss those emotions. The emotions do not exist in a social vacuum. They are products of unaddressed historical issues and Nigeria’s current socio-political and economic silhouettes.
It is sad that issues of national unity (or lack of) are raised when one person says or writes something. This is the increasingly episodic and pathetic state of affairs in Nigeria. The negative reactions were not simply about what Soyinka was alleged to have said. The invented statement merely brought to the surface simmering tensions. These include issues relating to the civil war, the curious debate over the ownership of Lagos, the pronouncements of the Oba of Lagos prior to the governorship elections, the results of the presidential elections, and so on.
We cannot allow animosities of older generations to have an overbearing influence on how we relate with one another. This proposition is not intended for collective amnesia: We cannot simply forget about the Nigerian Civil War. It is fundamental that we make concrete steps to address its spectres. There ought to be a respectful national conversation about losses incurred, where and by whom, as well as compensation for victims. Of course, none of these will happen overnight but we fail by simply refusing to engage with these issues. I think it is a shame that you could obtain a degree in one of the social sciences in a Nigerian university and find no course offering about the war in which millions of our fellow citizens were killed. The civil war ought to be nationally memorialised, annually commemorated, and taught at all school levels in Nigeria — lest we forget.
Post-independence generations of Nigerians need to be wary of those who delight in generating ethnic tensions through mischief. Words are powerful precisely because they are bearers of meanings. Sanusi Lamido warned against using old language (precisely those of the 1950s) in his critique of Sir Olaniwun Ajayi’s book in 2009. It is important to remind ourselves that the experiences of Achebe and Soyinka in the 1950s and 1960s are not necessarily the same as those of generations below 50 years in our country.
I indicated in a piece on the controversy over Achebe’s memoir that for all intents and purposes, manufactured countries, fabricated nation-states, invented national identities, or what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities” are routine and unspectacular around the world. We may choose to continue to discuss the 1914 Amalgamation or work out modalities to guide how to live together should we choose to. We need to construct a Nigerian identity from the disparate elements, as many other countries have done and continue to do. The divisions in Nigeria are not simply because of multiple ethnicities.
As I argued in 2012, France, for instance, is not in fact ‘French’. Rather it comprises Celtic and Latin, with Teutonic, Slavic, North African, Indochinese, and Basque minorities, among others. Germany is actually German, Turkish, Greek, Italian, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish. The United Kingdom is English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, black, Indian, Pakistani, and several others of mixed origins. The teleological presupposition that Nigeria’s ethnic diversity necessarily means there can never be national unity is not borne out by evidence in other parts of the world. The divisions in Nigeria are because of the lies we tell ourselves, our failure to develop our country and limited socio-economic opportunities. Indigeneity and citizenship issues also have to be addressed. For instance, it is a 21st Century absurdity that people still have to put on their CVs their states and local governments of origin, religion and age. What have these social and demographic variables got to do with capacity to excel on a job?
Finally, Professor Wole Soyinka is not infallible but I am glad that ethnic bigotry is not one of his foibles. Champions of human rights do not trade in the dangerous currency of stereotypes and ethnic chauvinism. Stereotypes are antithetical to human decency, peace and harmony in society. Wole Soyinka is a champion of human rights, freedoms and human dignity. His place in history is assured.
We need more than words to build a country, but words may be sufficient to ruin a country. Those with powerful platforms should refrain from unscrupulous inflammatory comments. Let us be wary of mischief-makers and those who write about the present using the language of the past.
‘Tope Oriola is Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow. Twitter: @topeoriola