Interview: Keeping Nnamdi Kanu in prison wrong — Soyinka

Soyinka

You are 89 years old now and will be 90 in July. What is your secret to living a good life?

A secret? I have no idea but I think it is largely luck. I try to make sure that all my problems are taken care of during my normal working hours which can be around 18 hours a day or more but when I get to bed, I fall asleep.

What was growing up in Nigeria like for you?

I was a voracious reader. I read everything and any piece of paper lying around, including scraps. I was just fascinated by the reading word, and of course, I was also intrigued by a lot of things going around me. I asked questions. I was always asking questions and not satisfied with the surface of things.

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How would you describe the civil war of 1967 to 1970?

A waste! It was a total waste. (It was) A gross and costly error. It was an avoidable error. It was an unjust war. I was appalled by the fact that we went to war so easily. I believe very much in the right of self-determination. Otherwise, what was Independence all about? What was the entire struggle for liberation on the African continent all about if it was not about the rights of people to determine their own destiny? To find us fighting a war to preserve the demarcations inflicted on us by foreign instruments was for me a function of abject mental enslavement. It was surrendering our will. And the readiness to go to war and lose close to two million people to preserve something that was imposed on us by total aliens was for me a humiliating fact. It is worse than the crime against ourselves. It is also a denial of who we are as creatures of reason, volition and self-determination. It made nonsense of what I considered we were. The consequences are still with us today.

You met the late General Odimegwu Ojukwu, who led the Biafrian side of the war when he was alive. How would you describe him?

He was a mixture. He was very conscious of his class. He belonged to an affluent family. He had an affluent father who was a businessperson. He was sent to the best schools for education. I think he went to Oxford University. When he came back, we met as young people. He was older than I was. In the beginning, I didn’t even like him at all. Before I went away, I knew he was very class-conscious, rich, and wealthy. He drove a sports car while I rode along on my father’s bicycle. I remember very well. We used to meet in the same areas, seeing that we had mutual friends.

But, when he came back – and this happened to so many young people – he definitely felt a sense of mission to the Biafran cause. He tried to rise to that occasion as fast and as determinedly as he could. I thought that for somebody with that background and those challenges, that he didn’t do too badly. He made some terrible decisions though. He also had to accept responsibility for the entire scenario – going to war. However, all the people in leadership at that time were culpable. But, in my view, we on the Federal side, had a greater culpability.

When you compare some of the decisions Ojukwu made with that of Nnamdi Kanu, who is trying to resurrect that Biafra spirit, and others who are also trying to secede; what would you tell them?

The first thing I have to say as I said at that time – which got me into serious trouble – is that you cannot defeat Biafra. People took a merely simplistic approach to understanding that. They felt I was talking about the battlefield. When the people are determined, they are willing to sacrifice anything to preserve their identity. When they feel they are on a righteous cause, it is difficult to defeat them. If there is any military defeat, it is only temporary. The real issues remain unsolved. That is a lesson of history all over the world. So, when I made that statement, I was seeing the Biafran notion and concept, and all that it represented both antecedents and the future. When you have that kind of combination of different causes, it is very difficult to defeat them.

So, Nnamdi Kanu represents that concept. He is one of the younger generation who inherited a burden of defeat, resentment, and a determination in their view, not to make the same mistakes of their predecessors. They have a new will and a new understanding of history. The only problem I had was the language Kanu used over Radio Biafra. I listened to some of it. It was very incendiary and also disrespectful of even his own people.

What we fought for – for those of us who stood on the other side – was a Biafra of conscience, and for me, that is very critical. People like Nnamdi Kanu or IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) or MASSOB (Movement for the actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra) for that matter should not act against what I call the ‘core of our humanity’ which is one of conscience.

Nothing surprised me at all. What surprised me was that it took so long.

Would you say there are similarities with the Yoruba Nation agitators, for instance, especially with the way the Federal Government is treating things?

It was a mistake keeping Nnamdi Kanu in prison; I believe they kidnapped him. He had the right to pursue his cause in any way he wanted. He was never accused of using physical force or bombing or killing anyone. Yes, his language was inciting but you don’t kidnap people. President Muhammadu Buhari seems to have an obsession with kidnapping people. It seemed to be his trademark. I think that politically speaking, if they have any real charges against him since he is in their hands, they should try him. All these technical postponements, delays, and tactics of avoiding the basic issue, for me, are counter-productive.

What would you say about Nigeria’s standard of education as a Nobel laureate yourself?

We require a whole revamp of our mentality. The idea that one can rush people through a course and, in the end, give them certificates, dealing with the yardstick of quantity rather than quality, has to be expunged. It is not the pupils or students; it is the teachers themselves. They have to totally abandon the idea that education is perfunctory and go back to those early times when education was educating the entire person, not memorising, pouring things down, and regurgitating whatever is put in one’s head.

When you go to a museum, it is not about what you learn at that spot. It is the curiosity that it inspires within you in the direction of history, geography, culture, and productivity. It stimulates the mind. When we were school pupils, we used to go to places like that – like Olumo Rock in Abeokuta Ogun State, and Blaze Memorial Factory which produced canned fruits and juices. I remember I had a fascination with how these things worked. It didn’t matter if I became a scientist or not. The important thing is that my entire mental, critical, and understanding faculties were engaged. This is what one carries over into textbooks so it goes beyond question and answer. All that has varnished. How often do you see students on the streets of Lagos being accompanied somewhere? The teachers themselves are then challenged further by such exposure of these school pupils.

The environment is also important. If you have a rundown, ghetto environment, you would bring out ghetto-barricaded student mentality, where the entire world is locked up in a very narrow physical environment.

A good effort is being made by nourishing the brain by giving these students free meals, at least, one a day. All that is very well taken care of, but we have not coped with the holistic demand for education. Something went wrong along the way. It became looser and looser, haphazard. So, by the time the youths come to university, they are half-baked, and unfortunately, they think they already know everything, especially now with the incursion of the Internet.

They feel they can go there, tap out a few keywords, and go home and think they have contributed to a debate. Rubbish! They are just digging themselves deeper into the morass of ignorance. Let’s not deceive ourselves. We need an educational re-revolution. There is no other word.

There was a stage I proposed that we closed down tertiary institutions for, at least, a year or even two. During that period, we can send our youths to do their youth service and come back. In the meantime, the universities can hold a conference or discussion and look at all the problems they have been encountering and really bring down the education curtain so we can talk of the before and the after.

There is nothing original about the idea. Other countries have done it. China did it. If we, on our own, can close down the universities to take stock and evolve a new educational philosophy based on our material conditions, our historical experiences, and also the experiments of others, you’d see that within five years, a ‘new person’ would have been created.

When you saw how ‘Obidients’ treated you and how they were not receptive to critical thinking or the critique of Peter Obi or the movement. How did you take it?

Again, it has to do with education. I assure you that, by the way, I didn’t read all of the things that were been said. But some links were sent to me, especially when facts were being ‘manufactured’. When I read them, I was disgusted. There was no other word for it. I know that it was orchestrated.

The Internet has become so promiscuous and even venal. There is a relay mechanism that is triggered into action by those we call the trolls of the Internet. I just went about my business, because anybody on this earth who thinks he can stop me telling the truth as I see it should go have his/her head examined. It is as elementary as that. It is depressing to see those who want to be political leaders encouraging that kind of action and attitude in the youth.

My mind went to the expression, “They do not know what they are doing. Those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind.” These very trolls who have been trained by these purveyors of hate, one of these days, will turn on them and teach them a lesson.

So, my attitude was very blasé and it would remain so, by the way. But, it is, for me, a sad phenomenon, especially for those who want to lead a multi-textured society – different religions, ethnic groups, and world views. It means they have already declared themselves incompetent to lead such an entity.

What do you think of the person of Peter Obi? What mistakes did he make in the last elections and do you think he has a chance in the 2027 elections?

I hope for the sake of the nation that he (Obi) doesn’t express interest in the next election. Because, for me, as a leader, if there was any proof that he was unfit to lead Nigeria, it was in the conduct that he encouraged amongst his followers. I know for a fact that he was in control of these forces.

What are some of the instances?

When he came to visit me in Lagos – you know, he did come at one time – and I watched his actions and body language. It seemed to be very conciliatory but I remember when he took out his phone and tapped on the screen. He had made a statement like, “Don’t worry. Everything would be taken off. You don’t have anything to worry about these people.” He was talking about the ‘Obidients’. I was watching him very closely. After that, everything seemed to be nice and cozy.

Also, I read his statement about what transpired in the meeting that day and it was a contrast to what we discussed and I mentioned it. It was a misrepresentation of what happened. I put out a statement and told the world what really transpired.

When I meet someone who is incapable of – I mean in a meeting that is supposed to be conciliatory – being honest. I smile to myself. When I had an interview, I made it even stronger that Peter Obi did not win the 2023 elections.

It led them (obidients) again to go on the rampage and I went about my own business. There were witnesses at that meeting. Please, do not take my word for it. The statement Peter Obi put out was not a reflection of what went on at our meeting which I very reluctantly considered. I just let him come to my home to say what he wanted to say. I wanted to see him face-to-face, study him, give him an opening, and act on it.

What would you make out of the regimes of former Presidents Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari?

Buhari, of course, was a disaster. I made very pungent criticisms of Buhari when he was in power. For instance, I gave him an ultimatum when this banditry, fundamentalists, kidnappings, the raiding of farmlands, and the creation of a new nation of displaced persons were the order of the day. I told him that as Commander-in-Chief, he should give those insurgents 48 hours to quit all the lands that they had illegally acquired, and after that, it is maximum force. I watched him, but nothing happened. I merely cite this as one. This exposes the nature of Nigeria’s vociferous critics for who they are – liars. It is either they are liars or deliberate ignoramuses for them to say that when critical issues that attacked the core of our nation were being discussed, Wole Soyinka kept quiet.

From that, all kinds of disgusting insinuations were made. Some even said I had been bought. They dared say that.

After that, we gave up on Buhari completely and began a do-it-yourself mission. Don’t let us flog this horse. Anybody who wants my answer should go and read ‘Baiting Igbophobia’ which is my last in the intervention series. I already made up my mind that anybody who wanted to know certain issues and the truth behind certain truths that I share should go read those interventions and come and meet me on any public forum for a debate. Otherwise, it is just talking to the ignorant who take pride in their ignorance.

In most of Nigeria’s opinions, things are not going well. There are a myriad of issues. What would you say is the way forward? How do we solve the cultural issues, division, and endemic corruption?

The first thing is that we have got to kill the culture of impunity. There are people in high positions today who are supposed to be on trial. Even the judiciary – which comes under criticism – is often used (through technicalities) to postpone the Day of Judgment. This is a fact. That gives these criminals to aspire and obtain high positions of protection where they are immune from prosecution. So, we have a backlog of reckoning. Those who are supposed to be going to court on serious charges by the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) and ICPC (Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Offences Commission) are dominating the political scene.

We have got to change the constitution. Some have called it restructuring, but I call it decentralisation. This is so that productivity and policy come closer to the people and the people themselves are able to point and ask, “What is this person still doing in this position?” Whereas, here, everything is so diffuse and at the same time, paradoxically, so centralised. That is why somebody can steal in Bayelsa and go and call the shorts in Abuja. That has got to stop. And it is only by finding a workable and efficient constitution. That will enable us to deal with that negative drawback which is being created by the wrong people being in these critical places.

Next is the acceptance of the secularisation of the nation. This is so that we don’t have different laws being applied – again, this has to do with the constitution – in one part of the country and not in the other. Then, there are the instruments or structures of justice – i.e. the Sharia or Local Government judges being able to pass life sentences – on youths who are deemed to have blasphemed over a certain religion. If someone does not believe in an entity, it is impossible to blaspheme against that non-existent entity. For writing and debating on the Internet, a youth can be sentenced to life imprisonment. We’ve been fighting for the liberation of this young man, Bala Mubarak, who said he did not believe in God. He said there is no supreme entity like God and you lock him up? All you have to do is avoid him. Don’t invite him to your house. If he wants to marry your daughter, you can place as many obstacles as you like. Make sure he doesn’t eat from the same pot as you. How can you dare to sentence somebody to death for saying, “I don’t believe in what you believe?” That is not a nation, of course. That is not a nation. That is a terror enclave. That is what leads to the brutal killing of young women like Deborah.

Talking about criticism, do you know the last time I said something like this, someone told me that I was trying to create religious tension in order to avoid talking about hunger in the land? This is the kind of mentality that we have to deal with in our country, and it makes you just disgusted.

The system of justice makes it possible for the criminals responsible for the death of the young lady (Deborah) to escape judgment till today. The judge sat and sat but the prosecution did not show up. One of the accused has the nerve to show on that same Internet the box of matches with which he set the body of the young lady on fire. When somebody like me says we cannot let this drop, not only because it is a crime, but also because we have those in authority in that religion who had the nerve to open their mouths to say it was justified, thereby, encouraging others to emulate. When I speak, somebody goes on the Internet and says I am criticising a religion. I have been criticising religious fundamentalism before these idiots were born or even conceived. We have got to agree on basic, minimal protocols of mutual conduct and interaction.

We have to re-establish and re-enthrone the values of beliefs and non-belief. I teach in a Muslim country in Abu Dhabi. I see how they manage their religion there. Yet, the same religion is in our country but it is abused and used as a means of control. That is what this is all about – control. If you go against it, and don’t believe it, then, you are in trouble. How are they different from the trolls on the Internet who say, “Lynch Wole Soyinka because he does not believe what we believe in!” They are fundamentalists of different kinds. Empty skulls! It is a vision of domination. If we really want to stay together, we have to sit down and write a new constitution for ourselves. This is the instrument of our association. It is not a question of secession. It is a question of voluntary association or dissociation.

Where would you say your passion for Nigeria, literature, and activism came from?

I don’t know about love for Nigeria. I accept Nigeria simply because that is the nation into which I was born. I think it would be the same if I were from any other country. Indeed, my constituency extends beyond Nigeria. Only yesterday, I was speaking about (Vladimir) Putin and Ukraine. I have spoken of what is happening in those two rebukes.

That is how I see Nigeria. This is why I had no problem when a certain unit said they had been unfairly treated and wanted to go. I felt no personal outrage at it. This is what I carried over into the public domain. I would not support any war that insists otherwise. It is a question of a basic belief in humanity. Punch

 

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