Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka could have been the “conscience of the nation”. This was a man who was imprisoned without trial under the military dictatorship of Yakubu Gowon during the Nigerian civil war for standing up against injustice to the Biafran side.
While in prison, he wrote the masterpiece “The Man Died”, which contained the killer quote: “the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny”. The Soyinka of the past could be trusted not to keep silent in the face of tyranny. Nigerians could rely on him most times to call time on the excesses of the charlatans that have visited themselves on the country. He recognised how essential this was when he said: “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism”.
But Soyinka has been strangely silent recently on critical issues affecting the country. One Nigerian tweeted last week: “Where is Prof Wole Soyinka? The man who loves stirring still waters. We need him to make comment on the hardship that’s in the country”.
Nigeria has faced in recent months deadly violence from Fulani herdsmen, a massacre of Shi’ites in Zaria by the army, with the Kaduna State government admitting that 347 of them were hurriedly buried, the shooting of unarmed pro-Biafran agitators, chronic fuel and electricity shortages, and many other challenges associated with state failure.
Martin Luther King said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Soyinka has said and done nothing about the evil that has been happening under the watch of President Muhammadu Buhari. Inquiring minds have been wondering why for sometime now.
Incidentally, Soyinka warned Nigerians about Buhari in 2007: “A far graver, looming danger, personified in the history of General Buhari. The grounds on which General Buhari is being promoted as the alternative choice are not only shaky, but pitifully naive. History matters. Records are not kept simply to assist the weakness of memory, but to operate as guides to the future. Of course, we know that human beings change. What the claims of personality change or transformation impose on us is a rigorous inspection of the evidence, not wishful speculation or behind-the-scenes assurances. Public offence, crimes against a polity, must be answered in the public space, not in caucuses of bargaining. In Buhari, we have been offered no evidence of the sheerest prospect of change. On the contrary, all evidence suggests that this is one individual who remains convinced that this is one ex-ruler that the nation cannot call to order.”
He added: “Buhari enslaved the nation. He gloated and gloried in a master-slave relation to the millions of its inhabitants. It is astonishing to find that the same former slaves, now free of their chains, should clamour to be ruled by one who not only turned their nation into a slave plantation, but forbade them any discussion of their condition.
“So Tai Solarin is already forgotten? Tai who stood at street corners, fearlessly distributing leaflets that took up the gauntlet where the media had dropped it. Tai who was incarcerated by that regime and denied even the medication for his asthmatic condition? Tai did not ask to be sent for treatment overseas; all he asked was his traditional medicine that had proved so effective after years of struggle with asthma!”
However, last year, Soyinka decided to ignore the history that he said mattered and urged Nigerians that “there’s a moment when we must put the past aside.” He then claimed that: “Against my rational instincts, I believe that we have here a genuine case of a born-again democrat”. This belief seemed to have coincided with after Soyinka was hosted in an 82m naira ($412,000) dinner by the Buhari presidential campaign’s chief financier Rotimi Amaechi.
Since Buhari returned to power in May last year, perhaps against his “rational instincts”, Soyinka has mainly turned a blind eye to the plight of Nigerians. He wrote in Newsweek last week about the second anniversary of the abduction of the Chibok girls, he spoke out about the alleged removal from the budget of the Lagos to Calabar railway line, he called for an “economic summit” when it appeared to him that the Buhari regime, that he gave a “declaration of support” for, was floundering as the Nigerian economy went south with the drop in oil prices. That was as far as it went for Soyinka.
In February, Fulani herdsmen killed over 300 Nigerians in Agatu Local Government Area of Benue State. Locals accused Buhari of “insensitivity” to their plight because he is also Fulani. In the same month, security agents fired at Biafran protesters in Aba, Abia State. Buhari would later claim during an Al Jazeera interview that they shouldn’t “joke” with Nigerian security. This month, the Kaduna State government admitted to an inquiry that 347 Shia Muslims were buried following an attack by the Nigerian army in December last year. The Shia claim that the deaths ran in the thousands.
Soyinka’s silence “in the face of tyranny” has been deafening. Before convincing himself that Buhari was now “a genuine case of a born-again democrat”, Soyinka wrote: “Don’t take shadows too seriously, reality is our only safety, continue to reject illusions”. The man has clearly died in him, as he ignores the reality that has made many Nigerians unsafe, while embracing the illusion of Buhari the democrat. At a time in which he could have been a voice for the voiceless, Soyinka has turned into a shadow of the man he once was.