Professor Wole Soyinka and the Biafra question

Professor Wole Soyinka has just written an essay in Newsweek reflecting on Biafra and the Nigerian civil war, 50 years later July 7, 2017). You should read it, it is a thoughtful, measured piece, I dare say an important piece of work. Here, there is no bombast, no bluster, it is a disciplined production, bearing a vision of Nigeria’s trajectory. These are the words of a man who has clearly thought of these things. Okonkwo’s Obierika in the winter of his life wondering about how things should have been. I was struck by several passages in Soyinka's essay:

“Should Biafra stay in, or opt out of Nigeria? That. is the latent question. Even after years of turbulent co-tenancy, it seems unreal to conceive of a Nigeria without Biafra. My preference for “in” goes beyond objective assessment of economic, cultural and social advantages for Biafra and the rest of us.”

“Today’s global realities make multi-textured nations far more compelling, not only for outside investors — tourists included — but equally inspiring to the occupants of any nation space. The West African region is marked by an intersection of horizontally and vertically-formed groupings and identities, the result of colonial intervention in the race for territory. The result has proved often dispiriting but just as often stimulating. It has gone on for long, with developmental structures whose dismantling strikes one as being potentially perilous even for the most resilient and endowed of the resultant pieces.”

“Tormented by the image of a herd of human lemmings rushing to their doom, as a young writer, I made the “treasonable” statement warning that the secessionist state, Biafra, could never be defeated. The simplistic rendition of that conviction in most minds — certainly in the minds of the then-ruling military and its elite support — was that this applied merely to the physical field of combat. Thus it was regarded as a psychological offensive against the federal side, an attempt to demoralize its soldiers while boosting the war spirit of the enemy. That “enemy” had also boasted that no force in black Africa could defeat them.”

“One question, rhetorical in tone, stuck in my mind for long afterwards. It went thus: “Why should you take it on yourself to make such a statement? Is it because you’re a writer? Who are you to take a contrary stance to the government?” I replied to myself that I had learned to listen. The young man countered that he was on the side of history, and Biafra would be crushed. Not quite, as it turned out. The Biafrans were indeed defeated on the battlefield, but crushed

Today, most Nigerians know better. Biafra has not been defeated. If anyone was left in any doubt about this, the last work of my late colleague, Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country, has left us re-thinking. New generation writers, born long after that brutal war, have inherited and continue to propagate the Biafran doctrine, an article of faith among the Igbo populace, even among those who pay lip-service to a united nation. Millions remain sworn to uphold it. Many have died at the hands of the police and the military as succeeding guardians of that legacy troop out to reclaim it in defiant manifestations. Amnesty International estimated that at least 150 pro-Biafra activists have been killed since August 2015. Some of their leaders, including the director of their official mouthpiece, Radio Biafra, remain on trial for alleged subversion and treason. Others have gone underground.”

My thoughts?

I agree with Professor Soyinka’s analysis. The restructuring that is needed in Nigeria is more technical than land-based. In the 21st century, notions of nationhood, community and tribe (yes, tribe) are more complex and fluid than was thought possible. Merely redrawing boundaries and calling the result nations would be to simply redistribute severe dysfunctions.

Most of Nigeria’s public institutions are holdovers from the colonial era, they were built for a time and to meet the needs of a parasitic conquering force. These institutions haven’t changed much. Our storytellers love to tell stories, our technocrats have little incentive to do the work, because no one holds anyone accountable. Nigeria needs, not just storytellers, but technocrats who know the substance of managing complex organizations to sit in a room, design several Marshall plans and set about executing them. If they are well designed, they may well restructure Nigerians’ core beliefs and attitudes from one of rank consumerism to one that is deeply spiritual and fulfilling. We cannot continue like this. So we need a real national conference on restructuring.

It is interesting that in this essay, Soyinka now proudly and publicly uses Professor Chinua Achebe’s epic book, There Was a Country as a thoughtful point of reference in his intervention. He has corrected his earlier viewpoint that it was a book that should not have been written in its current form. He also shares that he was of the view that Biafra could not be defeated, whereas in the same interview dismissing Achebe’s book, he shared that he’d told Ojukwu that the Biafran army was ill-prepared for a war. Let me be generous; I don’t see these as mere inconsistencies; I see them as words of a man correcting history. We are making progress. Or I am being generous.

Is restructuring Nigeria’s problem? At the very least, power and institutions need to devolve to the satellite states. The real issue is that Nigeria is increasingly becoming not a land governed by laws, but one governed by and with strong offensive opinions. Nigeria is firmly in the grips of minstrels at a time when she needs doers. Achebe was right of course. The problem with Nigeria is a rank failure of leadership.

Our political and intellectual elite including Professor Soyinka have created warm spaces for themselves at home and abroad, from where they pretend to rule Nigeria. They have had six decades to put into practice the sea of ideas and solutions flowing from their books and essays. It has not happened. Our poets are now the oppressors, draped in the garb of thieves and criminals. In the absence of once robust voices of conscience the poor have turned to madmen and fake specialists for relief. Yes, Nigerians, especially the poor, are traumatized and mute witnesses to the gentrification of once powerful voices. Do not look for voices of conscience among the traditional chattering class. That tribe of rent-seekers now hunts for crumbs at the oppressors’ trough. Our poets and thinkers have colluded with the folks pretending to govern Nigeria; 99% of them and their children are effectively in the West with me enjoying great schools, great roads and great hospitals. Including their president. The poor of Nigeria have really suffered.

Yes. Things have fallen apart. It is not the white man’s fault. It is Soyinka’s fault. And ours. In the absence of robust institutions and structures of accountability everybody becomes compromised. Our intellectuals and politicians have lost all credibility because they have preferred to serve themselves rather than the country. Talk is cheap. We should start owning our issues.

By the way,

I wrote an essay on Achebe’s book here:

Here is Soyinka’s interview:

Here, read Professor Soyinka’s Newsweek essay on Biafra :

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