Soyinka and his enemies


By Sam Omatseye

When an avatar turns 90, it should evoke a universal hurrah, especially if that personage is Professor Wole Soyinka. We can say that more people are rejoicing than those who are in pain. Yet the best writer this country has known is at odds with a certain mob of dark conscience.


This essayist is more concerned about the young ones who have mutated into a monster of a generation and are even trying to deny him the name of a writer.

I will ignore the older ones, some of my generation who have melded into that raucous chorus. Those are men and women, some of them prominent, who extol tribe instead of conscience, trump civility with imprecations, can’t act without cant, cloak the law with impunity. This tribe of men and women will not clap as Soyinka turns 90 but will fill the air with claptrap, with long-winded essays and pretensions to scholarship, erudition and inflammatory law.

But what concerns me are the younger ones, some of them already 40 years old, but most of them younger.

For the older ones, they know the pedigree of the bard. They followed in their lifetimes the sacrifices of his career and the genius of his offerings. But they have swathed themselves in denials. They are entitled to lie to themselves. But for the younger ones, I shed tears. This is a generation without what Frederich Nietzsche calls historical sense. This does not mean merely understanding the past, according to the German philosopher, but of deploying it with purpose for the present.

T.S. Eliot defines it as how to use the “pastness of the past” as though it has “presence.” it compels the attitude of William Faulkner, who asserted that the “past is never dead. It is not even past.” But you have to know the past to employ it.

But these young ones do not know the past, so they are deprived of a historical sense.

I must say not all of that generation are victims of this poisoned communion. Just a section, a wild, uproarious, unhinged, barbarous horde.

It all started this season when Wole Soyinka pitched his tent with a certain presidential candidate. When he did, the conclave of catcalls clasped him to their bosom as their friend and ally.

He even described Pitobi as a new kid on the block, which I thought was errant of the bard.

I drew his attention to that at a certain lunch after the election. He was genuinely for the guy.

But after the election, and the man lost, Soyinka was mum for a while. I learned he was undergoing his own research on how the polls went.

He eventually saw that Pitobi lost, and that his followers wanted to hijack the republic.

Unfazed, the bard came out and said the man he supported had lost and his followers were employing what he called “Gbajue,” a word more understood in Yoruba than any translation can attempt.

In order words, it is what Joseph Conrad calls the “bravado of guilt.”

They knew they lost, but they wanted to force their own republic on us all.

A republic of agberos. Soyinka also expressed disgust at Pitobi’s mendacity over a meeting he held with him. He said what Obi made of the meeting was different from what they discussed. The bard had just seen the father of Gbajue pull his act to him at his Abeokuta redoubt.

Since then, this mob has turned one of Africa’s most renowned writers and man of conscience into a villain.

This has happened because of the collapse of decorum in our society.

We no longer have a democracy of decorum or respect but a society of insults. If you navigate the social media and read and hear what they spew out in the name of free speech, you will understand that this nation has bred a generation of vipers.

During the election campaigns, they operated like a faith with a cathedral. They had a general in battle, and sang all sorts of pious accolades as they cheered him on. But faith was his poisoned chalice.

Pitobi didn’t know that. He was like the general Sisera in the scriptures who thought he had the great army. When the battle came, he quilted. The war was his poison.

As the scriptures described the poison in an eternal line: “He asked water, she gave him milk, and she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.”

The movement is still dizzy with that poison of illusion, a grand, delusional, self-aggrandizement. If they had a faith with a cathedral during the campaigns, they now have a faith without cathedral today. Their ecclesiastical leaders are seeing their icon pretend to be every one’s priest and follower, fasting for one faith today and another tomorrow, the sort of faithful that God said he would spit out in the Book of Revelations.

That is their agony. They are spawning a new divinity in the mob, a god of chaos and rage, like the Greek god of the sea and water and earthquakes known as Poseidon.

His exploits in Greek stories of shipwrecks and subversions are breathtaking. The Bible attributes the power to Satan in the Revelations and shouts “woe to the inhabitants of the sea.”

This mob, who would not appreciate our bard, would do well to embrace logic. Rather, they profit in complaint. They have forgotten that this man has written some of the best plays ever written. Have they read A Play of Giants? Have they watched Death and the King’s Horseman? Do they know what his plays mean? Have they absorbed the awe of Idanre and Other Poems, or are they aware that this man who fought with pen and rhetoric and travels in the past wrote the long poem Ogun Abibiman dedicated to the fight for freedom in South Africa? They are ignorant because they are still making their Shuttle in the Crypt.

These young men and women, who love Indomie, should read more about this indomitable man.

Do they know that, in the throes of the Nigerian crisis, Wole Soyinka drove solo across the Nigerian borders to the Biafra and wanted to stop the carnage to come?

Who among them can boast such courage? He stood for principle and that of peace, and that the Igbo brethren should not be forced into a fratricidal bloodhound.

In his memoirs, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, he describes how Christopher Okigbo saw him in the east and yelled in ecstatic surprise.

Okigbo, an immortal poet, was one of the casualties of that inferno. We lost him and how many more potential Okigbos have we lost to that needless war?

Read two-time Booker Prize finalist Chigozie Obioma’s new novel on the war, The Road to the Country, a riveting new offering on the savagery of war. Soyinka drove on a lonely road to the country, and drove back. A top army officer told me that there was an instruction to apprehend and even eliminate any person or vehicle coming through the west from the east, except Wole Soyinka.

He was a young man then. He was arrested and held by Gowon and the result was his prison notes, The Man Died.

Has any of his traducers picked up a copy? One should wish that the plays, readings, seminars and other tributes of this season for Soyinka drown out the ululations of the barbarians.

I want to recall some lines dedicated to him by the Ghanaian poet Atukwei Okai: “Let the greying day glow/Let the evening horns blow/ Let the melting mountains go/But let the sundown sow/ in your soul…the soil-sanctioned bulwark-bone…”Omatseyeis Chairman, Editorial Board of THE NATION newspapers.


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