Soyinka Speaks on Wounds to the Psyche, Homicidal Myopia, and More
Text of a speech delivered by Wole Soyinka at the annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Port Harcourt on August 22, 2011.
Let me begin by confessing, without any fudging, that it was with very mixed feelings that I finally agreed to join you today at your annual conference. Some wounds dig deep into the human psyche, and continue to suppurate long after they were inflicted. Such, in my case, was the trial and execution of my late colleague and friend, Ken Saro-wiwa and his eight co-defendants in this very city. I have written about it, both in prose narrative and in anguished poetry, so I am saying nothing new. When I discovered that the chairman of your association was the very prosecutor in Ken’s case, I changed my ‘yes’ to a ‘No’. Then came the arguments for and against from NBA’s intercessors. The argument that tilted the balance, ironically, was never proposed at all. This was - could it possibly be that NBA was seeking an engagement on the issue, with the aim of arriving openly, and on the very scene of a singular trauma, at a measure of closure?
It was an intriguing possibility, one that I found frankly seductive. And now the timing, unsuspected at the time, turns out to be providentially propitious over and above any original considerations, Law having thrust itself to the forefront of national concerns, and not quite in a manner that redounds to her dignity. So let us at least dispense with that abnormal event that remains a transformative watershed in the lives of many of us, to which we all responded, and still respond, even subconsciously, in our inner directed, individual ways.
It would be irrational to have failed to take note taken of the circumstances under which Law then existed. I do take into consideration the regard under which Law and Justice were held during that reign of dictatorship dementia. That regard was, in one word – disposable. At best, patronizing and condescending, at worst, contemptuous. And yet it was different only in style and execution from the democratic equivalent that the nation has since experienced, such as the sack of Anambra State for over three uninterrupted days, overseen by an agency of the Law - the police. The same enabling environment was provided during the trashing of the Oyo State House of Assembly under what claimed to be democratic governance. What happened in the court premises of Ibadan, the brutalization of members of the Bar during judicial hearings for the restoration of legitimate governance to Oyo State, again with the same arm of Law looking on - all these were hardly different from what obtained under Sanni Abacha during the trials of Ken Saro-wiwa and his colleagues. We shall not even bother to enumerate the rash of extra-judicial killings, unsolved till today, mostly of political challengers.
In this very Port Harcourt, the Ogoni Nine defence lawyers, led by Gani Fawehinmi, were harassed and manhandled, their documents scattered to the winds. They were denied a level playing field. They were insulted and deprived of meaningful defence space. Cameras captured the scenes of this reversion to state force of intimidation at its crudest, contemptuous of opinion, local and external. Images were projected in gory detail. International observers were disgusted. The defence could only operate with one hand tied behind its back and, in the end, Gani Fawehinmi and his team withdrew - controversially – from their brief.
My view till today is that it was not Gani Fawehinmi and his team who should have withdrawn, but the Nigerian Bar Association, including its prosecuting member. It was prime setting for collective affirmation of the principle of Law, even under dire circumstances, indeed most especially under the direst circumstances, where an issue of life and death was involved. As with most other dramatis personae – direct or merely peripheral – of that painful drama, closure remains a destination much desired. I do not think that we shall attain it at any one encounter but, lancing the tumour of evasion and letting out the scab covered pus of Truth is one way of inching closer to that moment of closure. We have moved beyond recriminations, but all social organisations need to learn from the past, open themselves proactively to challenges of an abnormal nature, work hard at options of creative alternatives even where society is suffocated under the horrors of insensate, all-consuming power.
Today – and I speak of immediate, ongoing events - the problems of Law, and the challenges to her ministers are vastly different, but the implications for society remain the same – a severe drought on the judicial landscape, a deficit in public confidence, a questioning of the very viability of the legal recourse. It goes beyond a House divided against itself, asks whether the Citadel of Law has ever been much more than a long sustained mirage whose promise as a shimmering oasis of justice has finally evaporated.
One of the most riveting images of that struggle against the Abacha tyranny remains, for me, the picture of a former president of this same Nigerian Bar Association, Olisa Agbakoba with one eye blackened and nearly closed from an encounter with the outlaw enforcers of Ken Saro-wiwa’s direct murderer, the dictator Sanni Abacha. It was clearly a defining moment when an officer of the law discarded his wig and gown, having decided that only direct identification with the Civic Will remained as the last remaining recourse for the restoration of social justice. It is wrong that such a stark situation of limited choices should be imposed on a guardian of the portals of Law, but it is a choice where, when taken, reminds us that in the pursuit of democracy, the commonwealth of humanity sometimes requires methods of commitment outside the privileged bounds of one’s professional constituency.
We shall return to this theme shortly, and in greater detail, as we proceed. But first let us situate the nation’s governance experience within a continent’s formative history. As the last straggler clambered onto the ‘unity’ conveyance, the OAU in the early sixties, and was applauded into the chambers of the United Nations, Africa, many claimed, had finally come of age.
Had she? Was there something missing perhaps? A crucial lack that has resulted in the hideous destabilization of the continent North to South and East to West? One does not propose for one moment that this absence was solely responsible for a continental – not merely stagnation but - retrogression. That would be over-simplifying the complex nature of the organism called nation, and nation especially of the deleterious genesis of colonialism. One also concedes that coming of age has never implied entering a phase of existence that is devoid of stress, retrogression, or uncertainties. What we wish to call to mind is simply this: in the process of the emergence of the African modern state (in company with a number of Asian and Latin American states) one governance option was constantly given short shrift, irrespective of ideological leaning. That missing item is not much of a riddle. We only have to ask ourselves, taking an example each from two extremes of the ideological spectrum, this question: what was the abandoned option that was common to one nation of extreme radical Left - Sekou Toure’s Guinea - and another of the extreme Right, Mobutu Sese Seko’s Congo Zaire? Answer: Democracy. Even where Democracy was the starting acceptance as in Ghana, it was soon jettisoned. The culture of inclusive participation, constitutionalism, even law, Human Rights and accountability quickly became cumbersome. ‘Liberal democracy’ was pronounced like a dirty phrase, it stood in the way of the anti-colonial struggle, the African Personality etc. At times it was even deemed a sign of ‘western decadence’, a call to ‘bourgeois individualism’. It has taken upwards of half a century for the process of reversal, the ‘wind of change’ that was first sniffed by Harold Macmillan in apartheid South Africa, to traverse the continent, gathering force and turning into a veritable hurricane by the time it touched down in the Maghreb, toppling dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Democracy has a reticent characteristic of never appearing glamorous, no, not the way ‘radical’ sounds and positions itself. It is such a mundane expression, so pedestrian. It seems to drag, and we all prefer to sprint. Democracy could even be the name of a daily attire, of a farm implement or a social get-together. It is worn so threadbare in discourse of measured sobriety that many hanker for a change of clothing that stands apart from basics – flashy, ideally embodied in the unquestioned, charismatic leader. Paradoxically however, this same Democracy often appears difficult to sustain. Let us probe into the interstices of this state of governance evolution a little more closely.
Democracy may be viewed as a social platform – emphasis on platform, that is, a level plane, or better still, a trampoline - but balanced on three legs. Those three supports are anything but linear. They are much closer to those intricately carved traditional three-legged stools whose legs intersect in the middle, then stretch outwards to rest firmly on flat ground. In the type of stools I speak of, the legs are, to all appearances, carved from a single piece of wood with impressive ingenuity. One of those legs is known as the Constitution – written or unwritten, a set of protocols that enables society and defines its mode of functioning. The second is Law – a code of social regulations and modalities of adjudications that is sustained by its own autonomous structures and agencies. We also know that Law existed in pre-literate societies where enforcement was just as rigorous, or lax as lax we know it today.
Regarding that latter option in the provenance of Law - laxity - just to help us along, to remind us that role designation is not always the same as role fulfillment, compelling us to keep our feet on the ground, is a current commentary on the derelictions of Law by an executive governor. He voices a frustration that is the daily plaint of millions of Nigerian citizens. Thus, in The Guardian of August 17, 2011, we encounter this item:
“Governor Adam Oshiomole, swearing in his new state Solicitor-General, seized the opportunity to declare that the maxim – “equality before the law” must be practiced to the fullest for people to have implicit confidence in the nation’s democracy.
Oshiomole goes on to elaborate further on this in a personal, direct, experiential manner, down to earth:
“Before I came into government, I have always had the feeling that there are certain persons in society whom. through collusion by people in the Ministry of Justice, appeared to be above the law. They could kill and walk out freely. If they cannot help prosecute them, they can charge them in a manner and water down the charges such that no reasonable judge would convict them on the basis of the evidence presented. When the evidence is so compelling then they cannot be watered down, they resort to endless adjournments” etc. etc,
Law, in short, is also subject to manipulation. However, flawed or flawless, Law is not a leg of our tripod that can be dispensed with. Democracy cannot exist without it. However, the active core of Law is bound within that summative maxim “equality before the Law” even more profoundly than other popular guidances such as “justice delayed is justice denied” etc. etc. ‘Equality before the law’ cannot be detached from the very ontology of Law, any more than “equality under the constitution”. Infringement of either provision renders them invalid, inoperable, defunct and undermines, not only Democracy, but society itself. Again, let us bear this in mind as we proceed.
The third leg of our tripod, the Civic Will – I glancingly referred to it earlier - is a paradox since it is an extract from, and also finds its expression in the vital beings that make up society – that is, the citizenry, yet it remains a nebulous aggregate of that public pulse. Needless to remark that it is not codified, and it certainly is far more ancient than either Law or Constitution, and in fact may amount to the record of a people’s history. Take any one of those three supports away and – the result is predictable. A two-legged stool is simply not viable, even when carved to intersect somewhere along the middle.
This operation of the three supports is one of mutual inter-dependency. Social evolution has complicated the operations of both Law and Cosntitution, sometimes even while claiming to streamline both. That is one of the paradoxes of development – we should not complain but do our best to unravel such complexities and find a new language and mode of transmission for their ready absorption into public understanding, observances and application. Law of course interprets and adjudicates provisions and ambiguities in the Constitution where necessary. The Law also intervenes in the province of Civic Will – a ready example is the enforcement of Human Rights, without which Democracy cannot even begin to be conceived. Take a look at the recent history of this nation for instance, where the Civic Will has to be exerted again and again on the streets. As a nation, we would still be subject to those obsolete colonial laws that required citizens to obtain a police permit before any assemblage or procession in public spaces. That colonial law, as it was claimed to exist, was tested under the Constitution, and overturned through the very functioning of Law on behalf of the Civic Will.