Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, in a one-on-one with Ekene Ezeji on Plus TV Africa, speaks on the state of the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for restructuring of Nigeria and the 2023 general election, among other issues, TEMITOPE OGUNBANKE monitored the interview
What are your thoughts on the recent open letter by a former military governor of Kaduna State, Col. Dangiwa Umar (rtd), in which he said lopsided appointments by President Muhammadu Buhari is pushing Nigeria into ruin?
My first reaction was thank goodness for people like Umar, he has the tendency to hit the nail hard and go to the point factually without self-interest. There are all kinds of letter writers but Colonel Umar, for me, is one of the serious letter writers without self-interest and not subservicing in anyway. It struck me when I saw that and I was appalled and then I said to myself, why should I be surprised that such an atrocity has been going on in that critical economic sector of the nation, controlling the economy. The reason I shouldn’t have been appalled was that I came into this story many years and I am going to share that story with you; that was where my mind went straight away.
It took place at the Gateway Hotel, Ogun State, when a young man brought Gani Adams to meet me shortly after my return from (Sani) Abacha political sabbatical. The young man worked in the petroleum sector and he told me a story, explaining why he became such a passionate Oduduwa Congressman. He said when Prof. Jubril Aminu was in the petroleum sector; he called him and said he wanted all the lists of top civil service officials. He said he really wanted him to single out the Yoruba; to mark them for him and he asked why.
He said there were too many of them around and that he is going to take action about that. Thank goodness Gani Adams is still alive and I can’t remember how much of that particular part of the conversation he took part in. And the young man said to me that he felt so insulted because he knows that he is a Yoruba man and yet he asked him to list the names and actually said he was going to take action against them because there are too many of them around.
Since we have a history of this to the extent that what you are saying demonstrates an open show of this kind of things, doesn’t it shock you that we are still at this stage when we are dealing with what many people will term stating the obvious…
That is why I said that I shouldn’t have been shocked. You can imagine people coming to me like the young man who I had never met before with all kinds of documented evidence of this greed; this insult to the entirety of the nation. It is an insult when you have that level and that is what is called massacre. I understand the president is setting up a commission of inquiry or something like that. That is ridiculous; he is the minister of Petroleum and this is a department which he is very familiar with. This is not the first time he is being involved in that ministry and such evidence, heinous face of lopsidedness don’t heal.
Colonel Umar gave specific illustration; he mentioned that he felt that the former Chief Justice of Nigeria was ousted. Is open letter the best forum and having said much as we may applaud it, what next?
They said there is going to be an inquiry; I think it is waste of time and energy. There will be some juggling here and there and the answer for me, we always get back to decentralisation. I think we need to reach a stage where each of the state is so self-sufficient that it becomes almost a symbolic struggle and not one, which has very serious material consequences. Also, we have to be very historically conscious. We haven’t quite got over yet the Niger Delta unrest; Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is still very much around and the Avengers. They said they have laid down arms, but this kind of revelation, for me, is earth shaking, it is really nation disintegrating. It requires one or two things; one, outright denial with proof that this is fake news or secondly, literally a restructuring of that sector completely; in other words, something like sending everybody there on temporary leave and revamp.
What happens as it usually plays out, if we have neither of the above; if there is silence as it seems to be the case here …
First of all, I was appalled by the silence that followed this revelation; that was why I said at the beginning ‘thank goodness for somebody like Umar.’ There are many of us who feel occasionally but not always generally inhibited. We don’t want to make statement which might seems inflammatory and yet this kind of reticence encourages; it creates a sense of impunity, getting away with this in a sector means you will get away with it in another sector. I think those who are responsible for this criminal lopsidedness should be punished. It is not sufficient just to discuss it and to say you restructure, it is criminal at this level. Like I said, it is one of two things, it is fake news or it requires an upheaval in that whole sector.
You said you were surprised at how even the response to what Colonel Umar said wasn’t as you had thought. Can you help us to understand when someone is brave enough to stick out his or her neck and you still don’t get a follow up in the climate such as ours?
I have said this before; I don’t believe there is really anybody in charge in Aso Rock. I am sorry to say this, but I have been studying the trend over the past year and a half and I believe very much that this president is not in charge of this nation.
Looking in many directions, I am convinced that he is not really totally with it because as a responsible leader and a minister of the indicted petroleum sector, there should even have been an address to the nation. It should have formed the subject of an address to the nation. For me, it is so serious; it is not the fact alone but the fact that we know the history of this and we know what it has caused the nation and we know that it is not over yet. Then you say you are launching an inquiry; that is not enough. This man is not in charge.
I am thinking of the populace now, Prof. Wole Soyinka is speaking, but are you hearing other people? Does it seem like people are not having that same reaction that you feel when you said this is something that deserves a stronger response?
I always wait for some time, hoping somebody else will speak because first of all, I am bored with my own words. Two, it then becomes a Wole Soyinka issue rather than an attention being paid to the substantive, which then becomes counter-productive. And then, I have to deal with that rubbish-talking sector of the community. In the meantime, it becomes a distraction. So, that is why I said it is such a relief when I read that very strong, haunted and focused statement and a challenge to this regime and he spoke as a defender and spokesperson on issues, which are so crucial to the welfare and even the very survival of the nation. Let us just give thanks that there are still voices.
Do you feel this lopsidedness we are addressing now is at the core of why we are where we are today?
Certainly, if it is not at the dead center, it is certainly very close but not on the peripheral. We are dealing with human beings with a sense of dignity, entitlement, equity or justice. Let us bring justice when we are talking about economic justice, material justice; justice in health sector and justice even in the ability to deal with crisis like we are undergoing now. Yes, it goes to the heart of the nationalists and so when people talk about unity and when I hear things like sovereignty of this nation, over their dead body; it is over the dead nation and let us not beat around the bush.
Let’s expand our length a bit; let’s say it is not only in Nigeria that we can found controversial appointment. I am talking about the case of Akinwunmi Adesina and the controversy surrounding renewal of his tenure as president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), what do you make of all these?
It is very simple. Let us recognise the fact that the United States sometimes tries to play the bully. I don’t go with the expression or sentiment that the United States is a bully, but I am just saying that its pronouncement and actions sometimes, like very often are pronouncement to be bully and other nations don’t like to be bullied. Certainly, if my nation allows itself to be bullied, I will do some bullying here internally on whoever is responsible. So, the resistance to America’s position is very worthwhile and dignified. America’s position is totally untenable.
Here is an organisation with its own rules, overseeing mechanism, it has listened and taken seriously the complaints of the so-called whistleblowers and this is a multinational institution, it is not a Nigerian thing alone covering up and all the people that served there have gone by their own rules and they cleared this man, so who are you to come and say, it is not acceptable? So, others should rally round, this government in particular.
This is not the first one, they like using any opportunity to back out of international obligations. In this case, I think there should be a rallying round to assist the United States to save them the time and energy. They just backed out of the World Health Organisation; can you imagine doing that during this critical period? For me that backing out is a crime against humanity. This United States government should go on trial; it is a world affliction, absolutely non-discriminatory and you are saying that you have the right to cripple a world organisation, which was set up to deal with an emergency like this and then you pulled the rug under their feet.
So, if they want to throw stakeholders in the African Development Bank out, they want to bankrupt the bank by pulling out their percentage ownership, I think others should just look in other directions to fill that gap if they cannot fill it immediately and tell them to get up.
I heard an economist express the sentiment that, he who pays the piper dictates the tune and what we are seeing is a product of us lacking in cohesion, so we are the mercy of countries like America and even European leaders, who want to have influence in African development and organisation…
You are moving to a very large subject, which is preoccupying seriously on the African continent and some of them are getting together to set up think tanks, post-COVID-19, for instance. We shouldn’t have waited for COVID of course, but now that we have a trigger, which pushes us into considering seriously how dependent we still remain on this continent after so many years. Yes, this is part and parcel of the whole malaise, which just hit us on this continent.
Are you saying that some good are coming out of COVID-19?
Yes, I hope so because it must go beyond talk. There have been so many sessions regarding the future of Africa at so many levels and I think if you brought out all those documents, set up think tanks around them to see through them, we will probably find that we don’t even need one more meeting. The materials are all there but once the meetings take place, the documents are thrown away like we do here also with constitutional reform and so on, and then we start all over again.
Will you commend President Buhari for at least getting behind Akinwunmi Adesina, calling him and assuring him of his support?
It seems the race for the 2023 elections began even before we concluded with the 2019 elections. We seem to be more obsessed with grabbing power and when we get hold of it, we don’t know what to do with it…
Power is a toxin as you know and unfortunately, to make changes seriously and economically, very often, you have to strive for power. So, it becomes difficult to distinguish between those who just love power for its own sake because they love dominating the environment and those who are seeking power because they seriously want to transform the environment. My position remains the same as it was before the last elections and that is that the young generation must sweep aside the old generation and give themselves a new start. I think the old generation is tired, it cannot cope; we are doing nothing but recycling. So, when are we really going to have the revolution? I don’t care if somebody says I am a (Omoyele) Sowore’s supporter.
Revolution in the deepest sense of the world means stop doing things the way we were doing if the results from the way we were adopting before, the results are zero or minus; stop trying to transform the transport system if you are going to use the old method. If you are not thinking seriously for instance, of resuscitating the moribund railways when you know very well that till today apart from water, it is the cheapest means of transportation and certainly in terms of human beings and goods, it is the most social and productive more than water transportation because when you have railways and the roads are working, you will also have trade.
In fact, you will develop a secondary economy simply because you have the communication tribute to it; a physical one which involves human beings, productivity, farming, small manufacturing and so on and also transportation of heavy products, oil and steel related, you need rail. But if we are going to continue spending, let us say on Lagos-Ibadan road through choking up the ports because of the ineptness and inefficacy of the transportation system and things are plying up on the way, you are not developing dry port and you are clogging up transportation and so really suffocating even productivity, et cetera.
I am m using this immediate example since I came on the road just recently, even during this period where essential commodity like myself, which are allowed to go through, I see what is going on there. So, when we actually get back to full production, it is back to starting point. So, we need completely new revolutionary thinking and I believe while I am among the old generation, we still have those who are young mentally. We have those who have the combination of the energy, the mobilising capabilities, the new thinking along technological lines far more than susceptible right now; the generation like mine.
I think until we have that, we are going be treading the same spot. If you look at the governors for instance, I see some of them as very bright, very determined, really capable of making changes but they are hampered by the old ways of doing things; they cannot get hold of their standard ways and many of them are still obliged.
I was reading recently the excitement over the new Chief of Staff (Prof. Ibrahim Gambari). Something struck me about that; first of all, we shouldn’t be discussing who is the Chief of Staff because he is not an elected person but because of the twisted way this government has allowed a sort of wrong pattern of governance, we have a situation where everybody without contradiction is saying, actually we had a prime minister only his name was a CoS and then you have others who are now weighing the merit and the potential of the new CoS and trying to measure the hopes, possibility of restructuring and many other things on account of CoS whom we shouldn’t even see or know about.
I read something by Balarabe Musa, where he was surprisingly making excuses in advance for the failure of the CoS as if it is the CoS we should be looking at. When I say making excuses in advance, he was praising Gambari to the sky. The question is: Will he be allowed to function? When I read that, I said really we are finished. Gambari is part of the old brigade. I know Gambari very well; he is a friend of mine, I know his family, I love the family and so on. Gambari is part of the structure; he was an Abacha man, which means he has Abacha status quo mentality.
Gambari is not going to make any difference here; he is just going to make sure that he is looking after his portfolio over there. So, why are we looking in that direction for salvation in this country? I didn’t want to join in that debate because I want him to enjoy his stay but I know Gambari very well. Just let him to do his work and leave him alone and don’t place any hope on him. In fact, we shouldn’t be looking the direction of the Chief of Staff. The man who is in charge is Buhari, the bulk stops there.
Would you align with that school of thought that said our problem in Nigeria begins and ends with leadership? If that is your thinking, are we then to look at the polls; is that where salvation lies; to get it right at the polls?
Leadership counts but if the leadership fails, then let us chop off the leadership, which is literally what everybody has been saying; restructuring, reconfigure everything, place less burden on the shoulders of the man at the centre. When I said this at the beginning of the anti-COVID struggle; I said decentralise this from the beginning, you heard some master voices talking garbage over there that I should keep writing books. I will feature them and I hope they will like their roles in the books because they say that is what I should be doing.
But shortly after that, the second speech of Buhari to the nation was already acknowledging the need for decentralisation and this most recent one, they have thrown everything back. But when we have ignoramus like the spokesman of Buhari, I don’t want to mention his name, challenging something which I said in such an insulting manner and then you come round to that very position and you didn’t have the decency to apologise and say, Wole Soyinka said this from the very beginning, maybe if we had tackled it this way, the situation won’t be as dire as it is.
But no, they buttered their garbage and sunk into their holes, giving wrong advice and speaking, taking over functions, which will saddle the leadership with, the nation is doomed.
What is the role of election in achieving the decentralisation? How do you see us going beyond rhetoric?
They must begin now. The whole brigade is already mustering, calculating, negotiating, manipulating and spending. The young generation doesn’t have much to spend, but they have energy, mind and numbers on their side, and they had better start mobilising those numbers, putting forward to the nation an agenda that people can actually buy, read, study, analyse, compare and say this makes sense.
I am a humanist, I know what this country needs now is real heavy investment in technology and technological education. If they put forward that programme and disseminate it, go to the farms, factories, schools; talk to teachers who will then teach the young ones, go to the universities in all seriousness and selfless way. Do not just say, I want to get there and it is my turn to chop mentality; No. If people see that reality, you would be surprised at what can be achieved in two years.
They have three years; so let them get their acts together and move again; try again what they tried the last time and didn’t succeed; get a consensus candidate and see how the nation will respond.
What are your thoughts on the issue of electronic voting because we see people experimenting more with that because of the COVID-19 situation? Is there hope that if we move towards electronic voting, elections will be more transparent?
The young people are living in electronic age; in fact they speak an electronic language and their thinking is electronic. They should be able to infiltrate the system to an extent in which they ensure that every vote counts, and not that it counts for the wrong side, but count for those who actually voted in that particular direction. So, they have so many things going for themselves. The legislative houses are now recognising the inevitability of electronic voting.
Even before COVID-19 coming, they have said whether we like it or not, sooner or later, this is the way to go. Even if COVID-19, Ebola and bird flu disappear completely tomorrow, we have learnt that certain things are possible and less painful, and possible by the time you use them more than once, they are less costly. Definitely, electronic voting will save this country a lot of money once it is up and running. You have already gained something from that. We should make sure first of all that the electronic voting system is adopted. We have to keep pushing and this generation must be ready.