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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

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.