Handshake Across History?, By Wole Soyinka
Let us begin with some collective introspection. I have become increasingly convinced that, between leadership and the led, there is only a very thin dividing line, often nearly indistinguishable. There is no question in my mind that, most often, the so-called led are their own worst enemies, even to the point of self-betrayal and treachery to their own existence. It is therefore necessary to caution that when it comes to handshakes, a strong dose of discrimination is also to be recommended. There is no point attempting to shake hands with an amputee who had willingly thrust out both arms to embrace a machette-wielding lunatic. You ask him, why did you do such a thing? He replies, pained: But he knows we are from the same village.
Those who organised this encounter hopefully bear that cautionary tale in mind, side by side with their motivations lodged in optimism. The initiative itself, which is a progression from the earlier HANDS ACROSS THE NIGER, indicates that they have taken the pulse of the nation and come to the conclusion that the nation is a sick patient, very sick, and in dire need of healing. The theme in full speaks for itself, implicitly throws out a challenge for constructive thinking to a chronically improvident nation. I have not physically met any of the organizers, but I do know that, very active among them are ‘off-shore’ Nigerians – that is, domiciled outside their homeland, some with their families, earning their livelihood externally, enjoying occupational fulfillment, self-sufficient, without any obligation to their original homeland, and without owing any moral duty to that homeland – except by choice. In other words, like hundreds of thousands, even millions of Nigerians abroad, they are in a position to forget totally that nation space called Nigeria. Nevertheless, that entity exerts a pull on them, and a need to assure themselves of the survival of that portion of a natural entitlement that comes with birth. I see them mulling over the totality of that entitlement day after day, wondering if they can salvage something from, or contribute something to, what they see as an expanse of chronic wastage.
Perhaps they have also come to accept, and move to fulfill, a need for an anchor in some other place than their current abode, some other place that they can decidedly call theirs, so that if, at any time, they are made to feel, for whatever reason, merely tolerated, marginalized, subjected to abuse, denigration, collectively, even nationally or racially insulted, they can at least look outward and say, without any need to apologize for that alternative, that they have a place that will not turn them back, and on which they will not turn their backs when, on arrival, the condition they encounter provokes instant recoil, and their instinctive response is to do a one hundred and eighty degree turn screaming: Take me back. Anything is better than this!
I wish to congratulate them – and their onshore partners – on the initiative. Even if the foregoing does not apply to them specifically, they are still performing the role of protagonists for such others I meet constantly in all corners of the world – I repeat, virtually any corner of the world – a massive capital of human talent, of which the home ground equally boasts. They have been moved to act both intuitively and by analytical knowledge. I imagine that they have become progressively conscious of the fact that, outside a geographical space called Nigeria, they are merely birds of passage, however deeply rooted in their new living, working and leisure environment. They understand that every nation ultimately has – and may exercise – the right to decide who are their nationals by whatever parameters, and that such nations can repeal even the very rights that were conceded to them generations before, and for any reason that did not exist when they first set foot on foreign soil.
They do not even need to cite lessons from a Buddhist nation like Myanmar, so recently rescued from a brutal, dictatorial regime, embarked on a long denied democratic journey, which has taken to brutalizing its long entrenched minority moslem population – the Rohingya – who have known no other home but Myanmar. Yet, in this very present, the year of the 70th Anniversary of Fundamental Human Rights, that nation has set in motion the process of de-naturalizing the Rohingya after a sustained spell of ethnic cleansing that earned condemnation around the world and the United Nations. A government headed by the Simon Bolivar and Nobel Prize for Peace winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, former graduate of that famous British institution – the School of African and Oriental Studies, a prisoner of conscience – albeit under home arrest – for over fifteen years – has now embarked on the process of expelling – or, if you prefer – repatriating – the Rohingya from the only home they had ever known. That government recently adopted the ploy of offering inducements to ensure that they are seen by the world to be leaving of their own accord.
The conveners of this gathering are kindred spirits to the perceptive immigrants of the state of Israeli nation who invested in the insurance policy of ‘home security’, even before Israel reversed her ‘welcome home’ immigration policy, and embarked on a project of deportation, beginning with preventing families from joining their already naturalized fellow Jews, the Black Falasha. That government has also resorted to the language of ‘voluntary self-repatriation’, backed by monetary inducements. In the chilling words of that Mafia character, Don Corleone, The Godfather of cinematic fame, they are being made ‘an offer they cannot refuse’ – take the cash, or be forcibly ejected!
I have concluded that we are speaking of a sizeable population of Nigerians, exercised by their own intelligence and sense of personal and racial dignity – with the national under question – who survey the wave of extreme nationalism sweeping over a Europe of the sea of Enlightenment, and sliding into fascistic resuscitation. They have seen visible cracks in the reconstructive, post-Second World War opening out that brought a liberal European Union into being. I cannot conceive of any motivating factor less than a holistic, globally contextual self-seizure – let that expression serve us for now – a self-seizure in the originators of this conference . I refer to an awareness of self that is nurtured within the virtues of dignity, volition and the existential sense of security of belonging somewhere, even if located elsewhere. It is that branch of human sensibilities that does not wait to be nudged into pre-emptive motions by ominous signs, such as – shall we say? – a flag-bearer of the liberal tendency – pursuing the actualization of electoral promises that are based on exclusion. With new elections in sight, that democratic ultra-nationalist recently moved to the ultimate destination: the right of birth on American soil no longer brings automatic entitlement to an American passport. These conveners chose not to wait until that ideologue, proceeding from the right of revocation of the almighty meal ticket known as the Green Card, slid in the final building block in the nationalist edifice – in character, as a Leader sworn to Make Great Again!
And so, it is indeed invigorating to discern that the promoters of this gathering are anything but mental mendicants clinging to an unwilling embrace, barely tolerated, despised and openly repudiated by, their hosts, the frenetic children of Donald Trump, desperate to reassure Papa Don of their undying fealty. There is deep satisfaction in responding to a different order of the Nigerian family, the breed of citizens of anywhere whom we can extol without hesitation as sincerely engaged humanity, and to whom one feels an obligation to respond, no matter the prospects of fulfillment for their lofty projections. I meet them all the time, they are harbingers of hope. They help to resuscitate the flagging energies that time brings on us all, sooner or later.
Fortunately – there is also some good news, and to such good news we shall immediately proceed. Almost as if in response to the literal appeal of the theme of this meeting, our weekend journals were full of reports of a resumption of civic concern by CAN – the Christian association of Nigeria – calling on the President of this nation to obey the orders of the court and release those detainees who are forcibly held by this government – notably the former director of the State Security Service, and the Moslem Shiite leader, El Zakzaky and his wife. It is a principle that, in any society governed by law, the Executive does not pick and choose which judgement he obeys and which not. Not for nothing do we encounter the cry – Justice all or – Justice None! Other branches of Civil Society, NGOs and Civil Rights organizations have repeatedly made the same calls in the past – it is a matter of both law and conscience. It is therefore time overdue that President Buhari comes to an understanding that one of the honoured titles he bears is – First Citizen. This translates, quite simply that he is primarily a citizen like any other among the nation’s millions of humanity. Being First means, additionally, that he is a product of their will and subject to the agencies for the actualization of that collective will, its custodian and protector of its enabling institutions – in this case – Justice! His oath of office affirms no less.
If I may go back a little in history, I shall refer Buhari attention to the plight of one Abdurahman Shugaba, a political opponent of the civilian government of President Shehu Shagari. That government constituted a one-man tribunal that determined that Shugaba was a foreigner. He was promptly deported by the government and turned into a stateless wanderer. The same conviction of Hands Across the Nation acted in near unison, pursued his case through the law courts until justice was done at the Apex, the Supreme Court, and Shugaba retrieved his identity as a Nigerian citizen. He was awarded damages for the injustice. The spearheading of that campaign from beginning to end was from the South – agitations, legal recourse, political pressure, civil society etc. etc. By now, this nation is tired of half-a-loaf democracy and selectivity in rule of law. The continued detention of El Zakzaky is especially grotesque, considering that his people sustained the largest single casualty that any religious movement has ever sustained in any confrontation in this nation since Independence. It remains a gross blemish on the government, but especially on the nation herself. The world has moved beyond one-man tribunals to which this pesident, Buhari has even, in this case, appointed himself.
Many people still believe that Liberty is a luxury and/or a concession. They are pathetically wrong. It is a fundamental human right and, in this 70th year of the inauguration of that document, known and adopted by virtually all the nations of the world as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is simply unacceptable that we find ourselves classed as a nation without respect for the fundamental human rights of her citizens, and contempt for our legal structures. The pursuit of justice by CAN augurs well for the nation. Its timing deepens the inscription of consequences, the proverbial writing on the wall of insensate power.
A handshake s expressed in so many forms, as we see – even the physical act itself is executed in through a number of motions, gestures – including the rubbing of noses in some cultures. In other climes, as our expatriate organizers know, it sometimes comes in the form known as the hi-Five, a gesture of special recognition, a rite of group solidarity. What matters is the intent behind, and within the gesture, or ritual. For instance, a handshake ’seals a deal’ – as the saying goes, also serves to build a bridge across negative memories, and so on. Let us keep all that in mind, as we also observe that there are few more humiliating and disorientating gestures than the spurning of the outstretched hand. The anticipating arm is then retracted in embarrassment, and hurt. It is a moment that festers long after the event, sometimes for the rest of one’s life. And I stress this reminder of precedents, not to reduce the value of this initiative or its pioneering spirit, but to insist that hands have reached out again and again, thrust from one part of the nation or another, only to encounter from others, a rebuff whose cumulative effects remain with us till today.
But not always, and examples are always around to instruct us. Here for instance, is a lesson that imparts not only statesmanship, but evidence of the power of faith. I am notorious for my private convictions, which are not too dissimilar from those of the late Tai Solarin. However, from events going on around me, I fear for my atheistic soul, since I may yet end up a Born-again! Some handshakes effortlessly command pause, and demand especial attention. They move beyond a mere handshake to become an earth-shaker. Do not take my word for it – here comes a recent exemplar of this genre. We learn every day, and in the end, we all decide which handshake is an edifying spectacle, and which hints at a possible profanity – even retroactive blasphemy. Sometimes, when you believe that rejection of the outstretched hand is eternal, being born of deep convictions, based on inside knowledge from close encounters, even partnerships of long duration, when, despite abject pleading, concession upon concession which only result in further doses of humiliation for one half, we, mere sidelined observers must be forgiven for our deep puzzlement when we are abruptly slapped in the face with a handshake of breath-taking magnanimity, a consummation of seemingly proven incompatibility – in short, a Handshake Across Time and Memory! The implacable animosity of decades suddenly dissolves, and the once arrogant, contemptuous partner in an unequal bonding in hatred not only annuls the decades-old suspended retracted response of the proferred hand, but thrusts itself forward in a a warm, made-in-heaven handshake, but tops it up with an all-enfolding embrace, braced on either side by prelates of rivaling faiths, annunciting: “Behold your Redeemeer”! We have indeed marveled at the cleansing virtue of forgiveness, given glory to the Almighty that the age of miracles is not over, dismissing all diabolical thought of possible unholy pacts between devil and saint, obliterating a dichotomy that has been assiduously promoted by one side over these years, a closure to the animosity and rejection, a pact to which the Almighty himself was now summoned, in that iconic moment, to witness and set down for eternity and beyond. Such has been the miracle of our time, filled with promise of not just any handshake of flesh and blood, but a golden handshake for even the lowest of the electorate in this annus mirabili, the year of national salvation, 2019! Both geographically, spiritually and ethically, this has been one grandfather of all handshake!
It makes such acknowledged sinner as this speaker feel inadequate and ungodly. I mean, haven’t we all, at one time or the other, on an individual level, deployed that gestre of rejection, but wondered afterwards if we had not been excessive? In the end, in my own experience, I confess that I mostly left the judgment hanging, saying to myself – it was well deserved, there were solid reasons, and the owner of that rejected hand knows it. We all have our thresholds and since, ultimately, our peace of conscience is the sole guarantee of the validity of our choice, we have no option but to maintain such thresholds. That is an individual position. However, a power loaded hand, that is, a hand that weighs more than the hand of mere mortals like you and me, a hand that is representative of more than one’s self, is a far more serious matter. It either indicates the promise of an unprecedented bumper harvest of social returns, or its very opposite – approaching disaster, a future of deep social fractures that no plaster of paris can hold together. The hand we have seen only in dramatic, strident withdrawals, a scene replayed over and over again in and out of office, or else as a bunched fist threatening to strike, or rather like those paintings of the Original Expulsion – an unbending angel of wrath with flaming sword, pointing to the exit door from paradise. Now, suddenly that hand of moral and political repudiation, stridently uncompromising in or out od context, turns to a caressing hand, enfolding the designated pariah that has retreated time and time again like a wilted vegetable, behold that hand of rejectionist fixity suddenly transformed into a hand of papal benediction.
Let us be thankful for small mercies. The future looks promising. With such lessons in forgiveness, the handshake across Nigeria promises to shake, not only Nigeria but the entire continent. And I do agree, I agree, the sign of patriotism is the ability to put aside personal rancor, to find a common ground – all for the sake of the nation of course, never in one’s narrow interests. We shall pray that the raised arms do not end up falling limply to the sides once again with resentment and irreparable hostility, perhaps with thoughts of vengeance when one’s ultimate aims are yet again frustrated.
Let us remind ourselves again of the purpose of our presence here this morning. In his or her innermost recesses of the heart where candour is lodged, we know we are here to consult over a stricken nation, seeking some means of joining hands to resuscitate, and even re-vitalize. Each, hopefully, has brought something to the table, and expect to take something away. There will be varying prescriptions – that is inevitable – but our very presence here can serve as a commencement of re-aligning different approaches to the same destination of transformation, perhaps even begin to change one’s conduct towards the totality that constitutes a nation. In the end, exercising a modest optimism, we may even commence a quiet revolution in attitudes within one’s community, spreading the gospel outwards to form a network of viable, committed entities that propel themselves towards one another in renewed appreciation of strengths and weaknesses, leading to the creation a recognizable new social organism to replace the present.
It is clear, the task is not for government. I do not pretend to know ALL the factors that have led us into this pass, but what I feel I can bring to the table is a personal conviction – which I then hope others will share – that the way forward along the present path is blocked. Totally. In short, that we are left with no option than to return to basics. This is not the equivalent of returning to the past – not in the least – it means returning to the building blocks of co-existence, refurbishing them, then commencing a drastically adjusted socio-political strategy for reconstruction. It is not just a question of surviving as an entity, but of survival in individual and collective social dignity, not continue to slide along the bottom of the trough of peer respect of sister nations, and a sense of shame – never mind the outward bravado – of carrying that green coloured identity booklet called a passport. It is time for some candour.
The prospect, fortunately, presents itself as being not altogether bleak. We began with the intervention of a combative religious body, usually at war with others, but now adopting a just cause, across the borders of religious separation. We followed this up with the ecumenical virtue of human forgiveness beside which the South African Truth and Reconciliation exercise simply pales in magnitude, evoking yet again that famous quip of Julius Caesar: There is always something new out of Africa! Time to proceed to an even more seizeable, more immediately accessible department, offering up a lesson in collaboration across socio-political and cultural divisions that are mere regions of habit, or administrative conveniences – this time, the economic front, but extending into self-made obstacles that interrogate the rational status of leadership. It is the usual story of – sweet and sour.
A number of the nation’s constitutive units – the states – have of course recognized and actualized the necessity, and continue to give even quantifiable reality to collaboration in one productive field or another. So, let me single out, as one example, the basic reproductive imperative of human existence – food! Here and there, we find examples of a Handshake et cetera manifested as a Green Handshake Across the Nation, a rational strategy that is so obviously tuned a survival imperative that is not mired in any contested field of rivaling social preoccupations. I mean – who contests any policy or undertaking that contributes to the production of – food?! Anyone on this earth? So let me proceed to cite an instance to which I happen to be quite close, and in whose promotion I have even been culturally involved, being an indigene of one of the partnering stages – Ogun – in conjunction with Plateau State. It resulted in the production of a commodity that appears indispensable to the Nigerian palate – rice. To watch the rise and rise of rice pyramids from modest beginnings – kindly excuse the sound pun, but it came of its own accord – The Rise and Rise and Rise of – Rice – perhaps we shall set it to music, and air it at the next cultural festival.
Once upon a time, you will recall, the image of groundnuts pyramids on the landscape of Kano was so iconic that the nation flaunted that image on postage stamps and nation promotion brochures and journals. Alas, the pyramids gradually diminished until they vanished completely. However, the disappearance was actually a very positive event, not the result of neglect and mismanagement, of corruption, sabotage, of enslavement to foreign tastes, or parasitism on a mono-commodity called – petroleum, if the governor of Kano state – who appears also poised to join the Grain Train, is to be believed. His statement, two years ago went thus:
The groundnut you are talking about in those years it was the production of groundnut to be exported to the foreign land and be processed and be brought back to Nigeria. “But now it is a different issue. We have a lot of oil mills that consume the groundnut. So, you will not expect to see the groundnut pyramids as you used to see because the economic situation has change. “The industrialisation is much better than those days. “So, you better stop dreaming of groundnut pyramids now. But when you are talking of rice; that is where we need the pyramids now.
Which is very good news indeed and charged with progressive thinking. Kano is marvelously positioned to join hands with Ogun State and Plateau, and possibly others I do not know about. Success breeds emulation – others, one by one will follow suit, assuming they are not already on board, resuscitating moribund localities that went the way of agricultural productivity the moment oil was struck. We have an obligation to stress, strongly and uncompromisingly what should be obvious to all by now, given the lessons of a recent past that is still with us: that this kind of commodity spread, this expanding stain on the rice map of Nigeria is far more progressive, more meaningful for Nigerian humanity, contributes far more to the well-being of any peoples right across their nation – is more worthy of our being as thinking humanity with a rational sense of priority and responsibilities – yes, that’s another useful slogan – Rice across the Nation – it must be some hidden inspiration of our theme, since I seem to be coming up with these conducive and collaborative variations – The Rise and Rise of Rice Across the Nation – I must have been eating some serious rice, but – to return to where we were – the propulsion and extension of the Grain Train is what the nation needs, the winnowing of grain on the threshing floor, not the spreading of the prayer mat of Sharia across the Nation. There is space for both, but let us get our priorities right. If we cannot spread our prayer mat beside the threshing floor, then we are deservedly doomed both in this world and the next.
Let me pause right there and ensure that my meaning is correctly taken. Those who wish to take it ill are free to do so. There is nothing I can do, or intend to do about that – just as long as my exact words and the meaning they carry are made to sink into the minds of my audience, both here and absent, without any intermediary amendment, adumbrations, and mischievous, often sinister extrapolations to which we have become sickeningly familiar in our environment. I said, and I repeat, this nation needs rice advocacy far more, and urgently, than religious promotion or extension, least of all religious extremism, the intolerant, divisive strain of belief and practice. Religion is an unchallenged actuality whose presence is felt daily across the nation, as in others, so it does not require my championing. Christianity is a fact of life across the nation, so is islam, as are several Traditional Religions which some like to pretend do not exist, or persuade themselves are inferior to the two religious behemoths.
If Zamfara – and I deliberately focus on Zamfara out of other culpable states, for reasons that shall become obvious – if Zamfara, for instance, after the departure of a disastrous, profligate military monopoly of power, had focused on Rice, or Sorghum, Wheat, potatoes, garden eggs and any other staple consumables, instead of Sharia, that state would not have become the pathetic hotbed of banditry that is being experienced in the state today. Food does not divide, Religion does – not basically Religion itself, but the use, the energy, the resources and even political vileness to which it is subjected by the habitual manipulators of any social phenomenon. Religion – and ethnicity of course – are simply putty in the hands of single-minded opportunists, and used with diabolical effectiveness. That it often is not the phenomenon of Religion itself that is divisive is a matter for extended and in-depth, multi-disciplinary debate, and those who have the time and leisure constantly address that issue. Blame who you wish – collectively. The powerful gun lobby in the United States, just as did the Russian inventor of the iconic Kalashnikov etc. all insist – and in strict logic – that the gun does not kill, but the humanity behind it. So let it be with Religion. Religious does not kill, it is the voice behind the Scriptures that blasts humanity to hell. So let it rest.
What remains incontestable is that a certain virus in the exercise of Religion is a patented killer and, in this nation, Religion has manifested itself as a contagion and a socially retarding, homicidal epidemic. And I am stressing here that, in any reaching across the nation for a handshake in a united purpose, it is far more intelligent to join those hands in producing – Food than in preoccupying oneself with the propagation of Sharia. I conveniently deploy Rice as symbol of human sustenance, and thus the priority of any planning for community. Any government, at any level, which comes into power, and makes Religion is priority, declares and acts Religion as its first port of call, is already an anti-human incursion into social existence. In a constitutionally multi-religious entity, it is a pernicious act, which stands for retrogression. Do not take my word for it – go into Zamfara, and determine for yourselves. Does Zamfara even qualify to be called a state? Of course, I am willing to stretch my arm across the nation to reach Zamfara, but that arm must be strictly to planr rice, and to install any machinery required to reduce the labour of producing rice, to mechanize the process of winnowing the grain from the chaff, ensuring the hygienic conditions of producing tuwo, the staple food in that part of the world, ensuring that its nourishing properties are enhanced, and that distribution of tuwo, and other derivatives of rice reach the impoverished, the children, the disabled, the old, thus reducing the army of beggars that flow from that state in all directions, to join other beggars of other states, trapped in a permanent state of penury, hopelessness, and indignity.
And it is the same message that embraces maize, sorghum, maize, yam, cassava, garden egg or whatever, but we have watched Rice transfer from its status as a privileged consumer item to become staple diet, a pillar for that edifice now famed as ‘stomach infrastructure’ So when I evoke that grain, I invoke palm oil, starch, beans, garden eggs and all their relations and extended family – and thus, confidently urge that mission: Rice Across the Nation. This should have been the priority of states like Zamfara, and all those states that followed its retrograde step in advocating, and implementing, often brutally, unconscionably and irresponsibly – Sharia Across the Nation. But Hands Across the Nation? – yes, let this be meaningful and relevant to human existence. Food, or whatever enables human survival, and their sciences – bind humanity together in common, unbreakable purpose. Food does not exclude any one sector, no matter beliefs, ideology, social status, life-style or gender, and thus – this is where to begin – not policy or faith impositions that have consistently divided humanity and sown death, instead of enhancing life. Rice Across the Nation in the winnowing hands of man and woman on the threshing floor, a unity of laboring hands that also receive commensurate returns from their labour, not expending that labour to extend the already protruding paunches of a rapacious minority. We know them. While one side is laboring, they are spreading the extremist interpretations of the sayings of avatars of religion, long departed avatars of a different age, of different social actualities, of a different nature of knowledge with all its limitations, avatars who are resting peacefully in eternity, indifferent to the self-destructive antics of their supposed followers. Those avatars must surely be looking with disdain and contempt at the humanity they left behind.
But now, again reverses! The fruits of that endeavor are under siege. Even the southern end of that collaboration, presumed immune from the plague of bigoted minds is threatened. No sooner is one degraded – to use the military’s own terminology – than an even more determined destroyer take its. Boko Haram in retreat, nomadic herdsmen take its place. Food, that one irreplaceable, life-sustaining crops – is under siege. Rice is being reduced to mush under the hooves of – unbelievably but true – the hooves of cattle! So, observe where we are. The material reward of this productive HANDSHAKE ACROSS etc. – is being ground underhoof, its producers chased off their farms, butchered in their beds.What guarantee, asks the farmer, do I have that the product of my labour, will not end in mush and cow dung? Cow disease has been given a new meaning. Experts who are brought into the act from the venture from the security of their productive bases arrive, find themselves confronting a totally unmerited area of problem solving – barbarism. Can they concentrate on tracking the development of hybrids, pest resistant strains? Can they develop the mechanization of production, attuned to the rudimentary technology of their current environment? Can they track, with radar technology, the migratory patterns of locusts and the kwela bird?
I have no qualms whatsoever for singling out Zamfara, or any one state, as a dismal reference point, and contrasting it in a negative mode with other Nigerian states. We have to get specific, not wallow in generalities. It is only fortuitous that that name begins with the very terminal point of the Alphabet, but right now, any strategy of self-assessment helps. On the other hand, I balk at the obvious candidate to deploy in a conrrasting mode – that is, to find an ‘A’ state which comparatively deserves a Grade ‘A’ development assessment – comparatively, I said. Let’s not waste our time pointing out the defects of any state that we end up co-opting – this is just an exercise in driving home certain long avoided lessons! We must pull ourselves out from the pit of denial. And so – to an ’A’ state.
Abeokuta is out – we have already commenced with that state and milked it to death. So – Akwa Ibom? ’ There is something from Akwa Ibom that many of us may have forgotten. A former governor, when he took office, swore that his mission was to eradicate the image of Akwa Ibom from that of a supply depot for domestic servants. Has he succeeded? I believe he has, to some extent. I make no comment on other controversial aspects of the governance of that state. I merely single out an intent, a worthy agenda. By contrast, what was Zamfara’s priority? To install Sharia throughout the state. Not even to turn the state into the food basket of the North, or the nation – as have impressively some of her neighbouring states in that same region, but to order a fleet of buses to ensure segregation between men and women. And the result? While the children of Akwa Ibom were chased off the streets and herded into schools, Zamfara swelled the population of beggars – women and children in other states. Then, ultimately, she became the hunting grounds of yet a third group of insensate killers called simply – bandits.
Again, let me pause and emphasize this: no state, absolutely no state in the nation is free from the plague of violence and homicidal maniacs. Some, however, are simply unlucky – in any case violence is, by nature, an exisrential – albeit predatory Handshake Across the All Borders. Rhey remain porous. Others however brought it on themselves through various routes. Their very policies invited marauders, increasingly organized, increasingly ruthless and unconscionable. And – check the records of EFCC, visit the law courts, check the media as far back as you like and you will discover that these retrograde ploys are not even about religion and piety. At the base is criminal opportunism and moral hypocrisy. Religion has been used to rob the state clean of its meagre resources, and to gratify the criminal proclivities of individuals – paedophilia, most notoriously. Check the pages of the media, check the records of the so-called leaders who invoked Religion to justify the cross-border traffic of underage girls they then put through the mockery of marriage. In the meantime, their peers continued to grow – rice – to feed their people, build schools to feed their minds and transform them into worthy citizens of a modern state.
HANDS ACROSS THE NATION , and beyond the deification of oil – except of course cooking oil – yes – but my understanding is – ecumenical hands which, when clasped, then raised in supplication, are totally devoid of bigotry and religious discrimination. The products of those hands should be products of multilateral designs and practical productive strategies, stemming from a decentralized consciousness – in a nation like this, hands which stem from minds that are adaptive, flexible, conscious of productive development elsewhere within the nation and the world that they promote the contents of one context to another, having overcome the inferior partnership status of sending their raw products outside their borders, and receiving them back in a different texture and taste, paying exhorbitant prices for their transformation – more accurately distortion – but creating alienated tastes and craving. These in turn churn out totally new problems at origin, so that even that rudimentary state of supply and demand become a distortion of organic production.
Let us extend that handshake across even the nation’s borders and learn from immediate neighbours – Cocoa, for instance, is undergoing a similar transformation at-source strategy in Ghana, as are a number of other subsistence crops in the Republic of Benin – interestingly, the pioneer of that major industry – the Songhai Farms – in that Republic is none other than a Nigerian, from the South East! The groundnut pyramids of Kano give way to rice pyramids, and the constantly evolving nature of human sustenance returns control to Source, boosting revenue and reducing unemployment – that patient tinder-box! All that is common sense. It is not an abstruse science, but plain basic human intelligence that does not require a degree in economics or finances, and does not carry the certification of death and destruction.
Alas, that once predominant image at the northern end of the collaborative axis that we have chosen as our pointer or, more accurately, has thrust itself on our consciousness from pre-colonial times – the pyramid is passing through a morbid pyramidal transformation – name it pyramids of corpses, courtesy firstly of a homicidal movement called Boko Haram, to be joined` later in a competitive orgy of blood letting by a marauding bunch – the nomadic herdsmen. Between them they have turned the nation into a reeking abattoir. Are those abattoirs circumscribed however? Are they confined to some sectors, and none other? No such luck. They are complemented, sustained by individual volunteers all over the nation, those who have made ritual killings their preferred mode of interaction with the rest of society. And of course, need we mention the new rage of kidnappings and the killings that go with the trade, murders that follow even the payment of ransom?
Where was the Baidoo cult – now hopefully eradicated – located on this planet? At the North Pole? No! Right here, at the opposite end of the national axis to Maiduguri – in an extension of the bustling, ultra-modern commercial capital of Nigeria – Ikorodu! Tied to wealth of course, infected by the get-rich quick infernal mentality that deadens conscience in both high and low. The nation is dragged down to such abysmal depths of callousness and greed that the business of ritual killing and negotiation of human spare parts for easy wealth has seen the unbelievable episodes of school pupils collaborating in luring victims, their own school mates to their fate. Just how often do we encounter testimonies of the few who fell into such traps and miraculously survived to tell the tale! Just how many of such busted dens – Ibadan, Kwara, Lagos, Ogun, Benue etc. have been reported in the media. For each of such cases where the lucky have survived to testify in court, how many go undetected, unreported. A teenager confesses to killing his own mother, then raping her corpse, having been persuaded that he would thus become a multi-millionaire – even at the age of seventeen or eighteen through matricide and necrophilia. To cite the world’s immortal Bard – there is something rotten in the state of Nigreria
One moment! I nearly forgot the most currently relevant department of blood – political killings – obsession with power and position at any level, be it in the upper, glamorous realms at the centre, where one is seen as a beacon of society, and from where the juiciest returns are imagined. Parallel killings occur at the level of the so-called proletariat, for the control of motor garage unions or associations of container management. We need to ask ourselves – how do these differ from those mass murderers of innocent farmers, by the nomadic herdsmen? Birds of the same feather – and talons. Perhaps you will begin to understand why, at the height of the fundamentalist killings in this nation, one of the many lectures I delivered both here and abroad was titled: A Fowl Called Boko Haram.
Enough. As the Yoruba saying goes: melo melo la o ka l’eyin adepele – it translates: how many teeth does one count in the tiers of dental deformity? The sad fact is the failure of governance to make a connection, to understand that one ambiguous commentary – or silence, or inaction at a critical moment – let me repeat that: inaction at the critical moment – is the beginning of impunity, and is all it takes to create a ripple that expands and expands, and finally divides civil society, designates one side as legitimate victim and the other empowered violator with or without a cause. So as not to lose that point, let me cite once again the dismissive statement of a Minister of Defence in this government at the height of the killings by nomadic herdsmen. His remark: Well, if you block the paths for the movement of cattle, what else do you expect? Unspoken answer: The right of herdsmen to produce AK 47s and mow down fellow humanity. The predictable follows, an entire nation becomes nothing more than a victim population, open to collective, serial abuse, their quality of life irreparably degraded, their expectation from civic membership dwindling to absolute Zero. We then become a do-it-yourself nation.
Fortunately, do-it-yourself is a recurrent invitation – so, let us embrace it. It is indeed at the very heart of democracy, and the time approaches for another Do-it-Yourself ritual, enshrined in law and constitution. But first, a final word on that very commodity – law and constitution.
A nation without law is not a nation. A nation without a constitution is of course an existential disaster. A nation with more than one constitutional ascription is however more than one nation, two masquerades in one costume struggling to manifest themselves as a single apparition. And let us take this occasion to stress, yet again, that nations are not defined by that wearisome mantra of “national sovereignty”, “national unity”, not by thundering oaths of “readiness to lay down own lives for the unity of the country”, “any attempt to break up the country shall not be tolerated”. These are all meaningless rhetoric. It all depends on what you mean by ‘break up’, especially when confronted with the reality of disintegration. This nation, I don’t care who contends is, is disintegrating before our eyes, underneath our feet. And if the only rational solution is a structural breakage that leads into a rfunctioning, productive re-composition of the parts, then by all means, begin the process. Break it into pieces and then re-arrange those pieces. Call the new recomposed entity by whatever name you please – restructuring, re-configuration, radical decentralization etc. – there is no shortage of descriptive terms and – let me silence those who complain that they do not know what these expressions mean. All those expressions have been clearly elucidated in numerous conferences, tomes of elaboration gathering dust in the archives of governance, the last one under President Jonathan, their recommendations arrived at by some of the finest analytical minds in this nation, on the continent, and on the globe, so do not let anyone come at us with a whining protest of lack of comprehension. The nation, as it stands, as it is configured, is obviously unmanageable and dysfunctional. Those findings are in the public domain.
Those who claim ignorance of what people mean by restructuring should either immerse themselves in those findings, or recuse themselves from the debate, since they clearly have no interest in it, only an interest in maintaining the status quo, whatever that is. I was part of what was perhaps the longest sustained exercise in that search – PRONACO. Participants in that conference were threatened with arrest and trial for treason by the then government. The Police even had the temerity to issue a statement forbidding a gathering of people to make propositions, in full conscience, and in full democratic freedom for the future of this nation. Some of us came into the exercise on the very account of that undemocratic threat – we dared the then government to make good its threat. We remained with it for nearly two years. A compendium emerged, a Draft Constitution. That was about a decade ago. Once again, the incumbent government has taken to wrong-footing a demand for re-configuration, once again making veiled threats. Slowly and insidiously, we hear sounds that again attempt to equate reconstruction with secession or national break-up. This deceit must stop. It belongs in the dismal category of mischief and desperation – no different from Fake news!
The ball has been kicked back to the people’s court. You have a responsibility – if you believe in the necessity to withhold your votes from those who say ‘No’ to re-configuring. It is a duty to yourselves and to posterity. But, considering all that has gone before, and threatens to kill the future of this nation, you have a responsibility to go further and say, ‘Enough’ of unchangeable casts of mind whose possessors only re-cycle themselves either directly or by surrogation. It is time to disarm the entire political scene and re-arm the visionaries. The nation needs new players, new minds. It is time that a united opposition seize the bull by the horns and make a determined effort towards total transformation.
A highway between ocean and desert would come close to being the most primal, most unifying Handshake between cultures that a modern nation like ours can conceive – but where is Nigeria’s? When last did Lagos enjoy an arthritis-free handshake with Ibadan, with Sagamu, how much more – with Kano or Maiduguri? Oh, there is a lot of shaking on that route, and not merely of hands, there is guaranteed spine shake whose bone percussion can be heard across the nation’s orthopaedic hospitals, while mortuaries await next delivery from vehicle pile-ups, engineered by a conditioned morbidity of the roads! When did it begin? Who commenced this debacle? Who sustained it? Now we are told, this very morning, that a decades overdue promise, a routine, functional imperative, has been shifted once again, this time to 2021! These are the returns from the indifference of Representatives who represent no one but their honorable, ego-inflated selves. Behold the ‘dividends of democracy’, that profane canticle of politics of the ‘stomach infrastructure’.
So, let the chips fall where they will but first, take the plunge! Do not scatter your forces. Come together, agree on an arrow-head. Be selective but, in the main, abandon the decrepit brigade and cast away the counterfeit currency that has proved, over the years, only two sides of the same coin. That coin has not been minted whose two sides can be prised apart – if anything the sides can only get compressed, and stand finally exposed as what they hide: a single counterfeit coin, only worn thin by usage. Why should a new generation not arise on the ashes of the past? Let us empty those ashes of the old on the Benue and Niger Rivers and flush them down into the Delta estuary, to be carried far away into distant oceans. This nation needs a break. You don’t need anyone to tell you – it needs a totally new orientation where a Head of State does not distrust an over endowed populace so thoroughly that he restricts the entire security structure of the nation only to the closed circuit of his clansmen – and with what results? Can the people boast sounder sleep? But – caution! The nation needs even less offers of rescue from grasping, guilt-laden, hypocritical, control freaks who try to batten on current ineptitudes to replant themselves, their cronies and surrogates yet again on the populace, desperate to reverse even the modest gains of the present, and re-install the Aegean stables of sleaze. Shakespeare phrased it perfectly, as always – A Plague on both their houses! – we need a break from this past where fanatics lay the embers of hate and discord that end up consuming our young, the work of sponsors who fail to learn that they, the arsonists, also get consumed in the end, that their predecessors woke up too late to the fate of pyromaniacs who kept cheering the distant infernos, only to turn round and find that the sparks had already consumed the thatches of their homes. Then begins the wringing of hands in sterile lamentations.
And so, to the electorate: these past years, you have watched erstwhile political contraptions re-invent themselves again and again, only to implode and disintegrate, sink into deep contradictions. I merely state the obvious, I am no undertaker to walking corpses. For that handshake, stretch your hands across partisan lines but – do not restrict yourselves to the behemoths that have so far dominated the scene. There are new faces, new energies in the neighbourhood – take a good look! Study the terrain and walk off the beaten track.
To aspirants, who offer us a potential for new thinking, new configurations – step into the black hole created by their inward collapse and illuminate it with a torch of new energy and resolve. Mobilize! Be bold. Be original. Be prepared to sweat! Earn your blisters and treasure them. Be extremely circumspect but, by all means, identify and ally with individual exceptions in this roll-call of catastrophic players. Begin now. Abandon all timorousness. Give your future a cause for hope. Reassure your constituencies that you will neither throw out the baby with the bathwater, nor throw good money after bad, that you will not dismantle heedlessly, nor let fall into decrepitude whatever can be salvaged and refurbished for use. Delineate objectives and how they may be achieved. Be specific. Guarantee that you will reinforce institutions which contribute to public good, that where that public good and common wealth are clear, you will abolish the principality of sacred cows – be they on four legs, or two. Take the war, even from now, and with increased zeal and re-invigortion, to corrupt overlords who are so lacking in conscience that they divert and consume resources assigned to the rescue of our daughters and the rest of our humanity from bondage. Reject their sleeping partners. Come down to the people and spell out, in clearest terms, a genuine transformation agenda.
There is time. More than enough time. Do not be defeatist. It has been done in other places where, when last I visited, the humanity I encountered had only one head each – that is, no different from you. Individual drive is essential and inevitable – that is where it all begins. When it comes to battle pitch however, only ONE must go forward. You know what to do. Our place is now at the rear, ready to lend our moral energy to your chosen protagonist.
A Handshake Across the Nation? Yes, but let it also read: A HANDSHAKE ACROSS HISTORY.
Wole SOYINKA is the first Black Nobel Laureate in Literature.