Wole Soyinka: Learning From Yesterday

Wole Soyinka: Learning From Yesterday

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 4:58 pm

The Nigerian variation on any universal practice is guaranteed to develop a character of its own, quite unique, but of course uniqueness is not always a virtue, and some forms of originality actually set one’s teeth on edge. So let me warn from the onset that I shall not follow the formula that is fast gaining ground among reviewers, such as:

“The book consists of three hundred and fifty-seven pages. The three hundred and fifty-seven pages are split up into fourteen chapters, not counting the Introduction and Preface, which coinsist altogether of another eleven pages, in Roman numeration. Acknowledgements cover one and a half pages. Then we come to the book proper, which is divided into five sections. There are seventeen photographic plates…some in colour, some in black and white. The hard cover weighs 27 pounds eight ounces and measures…..
I exaggerate of course, but not by much. Even serious academics have succumbed to such arithmetical preambles.

All right, it’s time I got down to my own – well, not so much a review as occasioned commentary – by admitting what a relief it is to be able to interact in the public arena – even for a few minutes – where one is not bombarded with the babel from electoral Bedlam. I suspect that this was why the author pushed so hard to ensure that the presentations took place during the doldrums of the election postponement, an intellectual deed of kindness to a stressed public which, as already admitted in my case, is in dire need of a few moments of some sanity in discourse. Perhaps this is why I also allowed myself to be inveigled into this event, and even play a role in the turning of yet another page in the overall enterprise of the recovery and preservation of a people’s past. One may be forgiven for feeling, during the past few months, that the entire nation has been thrown into a holding pound for man-eating dogs. The analogy is not mine, I’ve merely appropriated and extended it from one of the most hysterical of the ongoing political campaigners who was once on the other side of the fence. He used that very metaphor while serving his former master. “I am his guard dog”, he boasted, “to get at my boss, you will have to step over me.”

All of us here have passed through the electoral furnace before now, if only as mere spectators. We are all affected one way or the other by the exercise, and I suspect we would mostly agree that never before have we been subjected to this level of sheer venom, crudity and vulgar abuse of language in such prodigal quantities as in this current political exercise. The very gift of communication, considered the distinguishing mark of cultured humanity even in polemical situations, has been debased, affecting even thought processes, I often suspect. Speaking as objectively as is possible in such circumstances, I would say that, among the various camps of the gladiators, the most reckless and indecorous has sadly proved the incumbency camp. There, restraint has been thrown to the wind with such abandon that even a highly privileged Spouse has publicly urged supporters to stone any voices raised in opposition to her cause. As for the afore-mentioned rotweiller, all those who have watched him in action or read his media tracts will agree that – fail or succeed in his mission – he has created a national precedent. Augmented by the omnipotency of a sitting governor, now himself definitively exposed as a product of a conspiratorial and criminal electoral malpractice, and one who confers a death-wish certificate on a prominent opponent, the arena of public contest appears to have fallen to the domination of newbreed undertakers of the democratic norm, taken us to a hitherto imaginable low in the art of public persuasion which – we have a right to imagine – forms the foundation of political life. Such passionate partisans and/or cynical mercenaries may be unschooled in the art of rhetoric, they most certainly have excelled in the art of demagoguery, and earned themselves a place in political history.

The target of history brings one round to why we are gathered here today – history and the roles of individuals in the making thereof. Making history one way or the other is perhaps a sub-conscious craving of social man, winning the accolade of one’s peers and even hopefully affecting posterity. The real issue therefore is through what means one actually ends up making history, and to what end? Serial killers make history, as does prowess in the athletic field. Nation builders, liberation fighters and transformative leaders stand the greatest chance, for the obvious reason that history is about society fn formulation, and nothing excites the human imagination and ambitions as does the very process of the coming-in-being of any social entity. Perhaps the most memorable personae in this work for instance, are two pivotal figures in the Nigerian nationalist struggle, a convergence of two contrasting personalities and ideological tendencies, and who emerge as crucial protagonists and luminaries of this history in the making. It is difficult to think of either without invoking possibilities of what other directions a colonial Nigeria – whose roots like deep in the phenomenon of Lagos – could have taken without the activities of one or both. I refer here to the flamboyant and tempestuous Herbert Macaulay, and the more reserved, erudite and conservative Henry Carr – rivals, yet unwitting collaborators.

They are not alone. It is thanks to the diligence of our chronicler that we are enabled to weed out the pretenders to history in our own time and evaluate the contributions of genuine leaders to the conscious formulation of both our collective and individual identities – from ethnic to the “national”. Historians narrate the trajectories of such historic personalities and try to make sense of even their contradictory passages through the inchoate rudiments of society in a particular epoch. They plunge into the dark passages of power – real and incipient – course through its interstices, track its warps, highlight defining moments and even exhume trivia that go to enlighten us about a close or distant era. Some think history is mere linear narrative but no, it is a creative task. By that I do not mean that the historian invents events and even dramatis personae, but that he or she arranges the material of actualities to present a coherent canvas for us to contemplate. The central plinth, mostly abstract, around which events are organized, may not even be overtly stated but, constantly, the historian attempts – let me put it in plain language – tries to make sense of disparate material, almost like puzzling out a jig-saw puzzle, fitting the pieces in, one at a time, for future readers and, in some cases, actually revealing lessons that not only instruct the present but offer a glimpse of the future.

Why it is necessary to reiterate the obvious? Simply because, in their anxiety to be seen to have made history, some actually equate the industry of Memoirs with both the writing and – by implication – the making of history. Nothing could be further than the truth.

Without actually setting out to do so, History nudges us to make comparisons between past and present, to ask questions such as, ‘have we been here before?’ Is the nature of humanity – or perhaps simply Nigerian humanity – static? Even recidivist? Patrick Cole sets out to narrate a corner of the Nigerian nation space known as Lagos at a critical period when that trading entrepot – call it a micro-state – is just emerging into what we refer to as a modern state – or part of it. We are escorted into the arena of the contest, not only for power but for status within the emerging entity. The wiles, conspiracies, intrigues, shifting allegiances – including, in this instance, even collaboration with external power of subjugation that should be a constant focus of resistance – in this case the colonial presence – these constitute the immediate material for some comparative thinking – for those who are enmeshed one way or the other by the varied impactions on day-to-day existence at politicking time – such as we find ourselves at this very moment. It is inevitable that one is moved to ask the question: has anything really changed?

Consider the following model of brutality: a partisan in the assertion of status and power, visits the grave of the grandmother of a rival, exhumes her bones and scatters them to the four winds. In retaliation, that injured party bides his time, captures the offender, pushes him into a barrel, douses him in flammables, sets the barrel on fire and rolls it into the lagoon. Then fast forward to upwards of a century and a half later, and consider the spate of kidnappings, assassinations, sniper action at political rallies, fire-bombing of rival political offices, and other forms of sponsored mayhem – even the kidnapping of relations in order to force a rival to abandon his or her quest for political office. Or the violence that became known as the wetie uprising in the Western region of Nigeria in the mid-sixties, where, together with a can or two of kerosene, a matchbox substituted for the ballot box . Admittedly – in this specific exchange of violent political visiting cards of this slice of Patrick Cole’s history, that bit of mayhem stemmed from connubial issues, but it did take place in the context of the exercise of power in traditional political conflicts, and introduces us to the volatile conflation of power and status within one setting.

Yes, status and – Power! These are the largely unstated objectives of most political intensities. I felt personally gratified that Dele Cole highlights the operations of both in the transformative phase of a society like Lagos under colonial power. It enables our apprehension of the role of the elite, traditional and evolving, in social formulation. Cole pursues a theme that comes close to my own personal obsession – though usually couched differently, as – Power and Authority. As concept and reality – the operations of both, mostly in a conflicting mode, remains prime candidate as the driving force that often determines the course of society. This thread runs through the entire work and can even be considered the leit-motif around which an era is delineated. The evocation of that non-identical twin should always be called to mind in the study of, participation in, or mere observation stance in political affairs. Obviously some of our author’s “rival” historians are conscious of the distinction, otherwise – why would a veteran politician announce to the world that he is stepping aside from politics to become a statesman – both internally and externally, he took pains to stress. The implication is clearly that of an advancement in social status after power. After power, what else but authority? But what exactly is this object of desire, this nebulous acquisition called Authority that transcends power? Is it something for which you sit an exam? The flawed notion is that – while anyone can be a politician, there is a special examination which you must sit – perhaps at Bells University – after which you get your Ph.D in statesmanship. But authority can even be discerned in children’s micro-groupings, and in the animal kingdom, there it has nothing to do with apprenticeship in power. Someone is clearly confusing statesmanship with status worship, – and while I must laud our present author for ensuring that we do not miss the distinction, he must also take the blame for its confusion – specifically in regard to the recent 3-part tome that was launched not so long ago in this same Lagos, followed by Nairobi, then the city of London.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing” warned Alexander Pope, centuries ago. Patrick Cole used to be Special Adviser to his rival author when the latter was in office both at his first and second coming. Clearly, something must have rubbed off on his informal pupil, now rival, though, alas, not deep enough. You don’t wake up one morning and say, from now on, I am a statesman, any more than you become a historian because you’ve produced three tomes of doctored and self-serving narratives, self-published, and can afford to launch it from Ukraine to Papua New Guinea.

Do I appear to digress? Not in the least. Dele Cole’s book invites – indeed compels – comparisons, including comparisons with other volumes – such as Echeruo’s – on the fascinating and inexhaustible subject of Lagos. The more recent magnum opus however, lays claim to first refusal, since it remains the freshest in memory. It provides an opportunity to instruct ourselves about how history often comes down to us, and the choices we make between letting history serve humanity – that is, through knowledge and scholarly engagement on the path to enlightenment on the one hand, and, on the other, through a compulsion to parade oneself, not merely as a maker of history but as History itself.

So, Patrick, I’m afraid we must send your pupil back to you for a refresher course. It is never too late to learn. It is true, I concede, that in the case of the work being launched today – as with Echeruo’s – we are dealing with comparatively distant material. Most of the characters in the making of this history are dead. However, the structures they built are still with us – in this case, a structure known as Lagos. Pursuant generations have renovated, degraded, polluted, enhanced…..even reduced to rubble substantial chunks of its social edifices. Yet even the rubble remains primary material of history. Tracing the survival of such structures, their perversion and or purification, and as truthfully as one can, is the real excitation of immersion in history. If, as happened a few decades ago, the heirs to modern governance set a seeming precedent by reducing an oba’s stipend to one penny per annum, historic recall enables us to recollect that such precedents had been set by the colonial powers. We then proceed to determine whether they merit preservation and/or emulation or rejection. We do not stop there however, we are instructed in how the people responded from their own traditional ethos. In this case, they rallied around the victim of colonial pauperization tactics used against a symbol of traditional authority – they set us a Rescue committee, levied themselves and replaced the colonial stipend with an amount that even exceeded his former earning – and this was kept up for eleven years, the entire period of the Oba Eshugbayi’s unjust exile and humiliation – until he returned to Iga in triumph. Awareness of such precedent conduct and its neutralization may even have served as a restraint on the Western Region government which perpetuated this imperial conduct, it could have served as a check on the arrogance of power, the thought of – oh, we are behaving as the very political oppressors against whom we collectively fought to liberate ourselves? We are becoming the very thing we repudiated.

The chapters dedicated to that entire Eleko affair, where the same Oba, intensely loathed by the colonial governor, was deposed and exiled indeed reads like a recurring decimal of déjà vu in our experience of judicial perfidy. The time-line in the supposedly legal recourse to regain his throne, a struggle that was spear-headed by Herbert Macaulay, also the bête noire of that same governor was a masterpiece in judicial complicity, hardly the loftiest moments in the operations of the British much touted system of justice. The juridical dodges that followed the historic recourse to a writ of Habeas Corpus on behalf of the king remains a study in judicial rigmarole that even the Privy Council saw through, resulting in the Council sending back the case to the very courts that had declared that they lacked jurisdiction to try the case. Does that sound a familiar note? The lack of jurisdiction! Go down memory lane in whichever part of the nation, under post-independence governments both at the state and national levels, and see how history repeats itself! Executive disrespect towards, and the consequent trashing of the basis of civilized co-existence which spells: Justice as the bastion of the weak against inordinate power. Lagos, as always, as prime player in our own time, before our very eyes, offers herself as a presidential victim of disdain by Patrick Cole’s rival historian, as as that state was deprived of its statutory allocation in defiance of judicial orders. This is what Patrick Cole’s narrative serves to elicit as the bequest of any past to this present of here and now, as succinctly captured quite early in his treatise. I quote:

All public officers also have considerable leeway in how they interpret their mandate whether such mandate originates from an electorate or from Ifa, as was the case in Lagos. But public officers are also subject to restrictions; the interplay between those who try to hold public officers within those restrictions and those who interpret their mandates in such a way as to circumvent restrictions form a crucial element in political activity. Restrictions and the degree of leeway are important indices in any typology of societies.

End of quote. And I would add: and constitutes a propulsive factor in the inevitability of tension in the history of such social typologies – traditional, modern, or transitional.

That, in sum, is the testimonial extract from this work, for which the factual, informative unraveling of history serves as the human backdrop, a riveting reading, an endless source material for on-stage drama. The ghosts hover, even though the actors in this larger-than life narrative have made their exit, but their lineages and vestiges survive, making histories that either redound to the glory of their departed forebears or echo the same errors, exhibit the same human failings and catastrophic interventions in public life – heroes, villains, collaborationists and confrontationists alike – and this includes even the street names and institutions that have been preserved through time, including titles – Ajasa, Idejo, Lugard, Clifford, Baddeley, Eshugbayi, Obanikoro, Alakija, Macaulay, Henry Carr, Ajayi Crowther, Willoughby, Cameron, Dosunmu, Akintoye, Ojora, Erelu, White Cap Chiefs, Eyo, Randle, Carter…..after reading a work of this richness and socio-political dimension, one cannot again traverse Carter Bridge, enter Blaize Memorial Hall, wander by accident into Ajasa street or visit the Henry Carr collection in the University of Ibadan library without engaging in an unconscious dialogue with the past, however fleeting.

That is why those who seek their own place in history owe a debt to posterity by rendering proper dues to both past and present, a debt that can only be serviced by a strict adherence to Historic Truth. There is always the next generation after the Patrick Coles, the Echeruo, the Jacob Ajayi and others waiting in the wings to set down the material of this era. History – as even dabblers know – is authenticated by reliance on primary sources. Future historians therefore deserve better than to spend their time being misled by outright lies and other forms of perversions of truth, especially where reinforced by self-conscious, self-conferred status.

Imagine – and I choose this illustrative episode deliberately, as a teacher who has also supervised theses – imagine a history student confronted by an “authoritative” claim that an incumbent Head of State has trained a thousand – repeat, a thousand snipers to take out a thousand – repeat yet again – a thousand political enemies? Is that possible? Is it true? If false, is such alarmist conduct befitting from the pen of an ex-ruler. Even when we fought the dictatorship of Sanni Abacha, we were careful not to tell any lie, lest it explode in our faces. Our modest but effective Intelligence unit identified a killer squad, right down to the Abuja hotel where they were lodged in-between operations. Abacha and his hit-man al-Mustapha could never be credited at any time with anything near a hundred, more likely close than twenty-five or less in that so-named Special Task Force of trained killers. We refrained from exaggerating the number, as we did not wish to become a laughing stock in international caucuses – including the US State department – to which we reported the sinister collection, even as we sought their help in neutralizing the nest.

And now, the question: who was it that absorbed some of them back into the military establishment? Yes, who? And for what purpose? Any relation to the unprecedented spate of high profile political killings that the nation underwent under the egotistical Watch of our tireless memorialist? Desperate as we were, we dealt in verifiable facts. There is always more than sufficient negative material to hang around the neck of any figure who has exercised power and responsibility, without concocting the fable of a thousand snipers for a thousand enemies – sounds very much like the title of that now dated musical –Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Does such a claim even appreciate what it takes to train a sniper? Such narrative insults the intelligence of the citizens over whose fortunes a chronic fabulist has presided. The path to recognition as a statesman is not through such egregious fabrications, and are no different from the noisome cascades currently issuing from the Tower of Babel in Aso Rock. Future narrators of, and moulders of history, deserve better than opportunistic lies of climbers on the wagon of public discontent. They contaminate and degrade a cause, compromise the truly dedicated agents of Change. A craving for social transformation should never be compromised by lies. But enough said – for now. There will be other occasions for serial dissections on the output of pretenders to the desk of the historian, and even as would-be Embodiments of History.

A bit of quick carping: the habit of pluralizing indigenous names as if they were English deserves to be stopped dead in its tracks. It is wrong to write “Ekiti Parapos”. Plural of Ekiti Parapo is exactly that: Ekiti Parapo. The same goes for the “Ibadans”, the “Egbas” etc. etc. No “s”, if you don’t mind. I have had cause to educate foreign media – including The New York Times – on that score. Next, and even more serious, I hereby serve notice on Dr. Patrick Dele Cole that he should wean himself of the missionary habit of denigrating traditional religions by the pejorative word, ‘pagan’. Any more of that condescending stuff and I shall invoke Ogun, Sango and other Yoruba deities to pay you a re-educational visit and then you’ll see whether your Christian eponymous patron saint, Saint Patrick, can save you from their corrective cane for your profanity.

Apart from that carping, Modern and Traditional Elites in the Politics of Lagos emerges as a timely service to posterity – Lagos, and the rest of the nation – a vibrant testament whose consequences are still very much with us. As my fee for this intervention, may I now impose on you, as your next historic undertaking, a serious research into the history of those thousand snipers. A good starting point would be, I suggest, a farming settlement somewhere around a place called Otta.

–Wole Soyinka

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