2011 ELECTIONS FLAWED-SOYINKA
Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka has taken a critical look at the Nigerian polity especially the current general elections and the war against corruption.
Soyinka, who spoke exclusively to Saturday Sun early in the week, also gave insight into the political crises in the Margreb, Middle East and Cote d'Ivoire, submitting that Laurent Gbagbo would have conceded to popular reasoning if he wasn't a monster.
How do you see the political campaigns for the 2011 general elections? Are they issue-based?
One is never satisfied except with the very best. Of course, there have been flaws so far but I think we will agree that the elections we've had so far is not 100 per cent but most people will agree that these elections have been genuine in the main and in any case, where there are flaws, the system as I have seen it is that it makes the work of tribunals easier when there are appeals so I don't despair either flaws here and there because the system has the various checks and balances and the possibilities of redressing where there has been foul play. Those possibilities exist now whereas they were like climbing Mount Everest without spikes under previous dispensations. Just to summarize, we have an election this time, which from all I see does not actually stop at the polling booth. In other words, that the structure which is there is there definitely gives anybody who has been cheated a fair chance to have the result reversed.
Since October 1, we've been having bomb blasts in different parts of the country. What do you think is responsible for the state of insecurity?
Again, I must begin by expressing my condolence to relations and survivors of the blasts and sympathizers for all those who were injured in the course of democracy and I'm glad that the government is taking steps to see that the bereaved are compensated and the injured are taken care of. The culture of violence was established under a so-called democratic dispensation in the country. Violence was preached from the very top of government. The conduct of that particular government in aborting fair elections; in debasing completely the whole notion of democracy out of a very crude do-or-die principle; subversion of the systems of justice; you see all these things drive a people to extremes. Of course, we have had the problem of the Delta area, which also has contributed to the resolution of serious disputes through violence.
They have recourse to violence. Then you have the extreme religionists – the fundamentalists who believe that even democracy itself is a sin. Where they read their scriptures, heaven alone knows; rejection of the right of people to determine their own life rather than to obey blindly the so-called revelations of some religious clerics. You know, you have all kinds of extremists and lunatics in any nation. So, this recourse, this facile; very easy, simplistic recourse to the use of violence has become glorified in a very perverse way by certain sections of the country, otherwise, in a huge country like - this, why do you think that you can stop a democratic office by blowing up one electoral office and killing innocent people.
If anything, it stiffens the resolve of people like me for instance. The more there are those kinds of terrorist attacks, the more I actually go out and participate in the process which those terrorists wants to abort and I urge the same thing on everyone that the response to terror is to dare and defy terror by continuing the process, which one actually believes and also it's honouring those who sacrifice their lives unnecessarily. So, these are the causes.
There is social, of course, in the sense of social injustice, inequality, the desperation of the have nots when they watch the wealth of the nation being siphoned out so blatantly, impudently; the kind of high executive robbery which we've been experiencing in this country is actually an act of violence against people so it shouldn't be too surprising that in desperation, people who have been so violently deprived of the means to a decent livelihood by the national resources being taken away. They also tend to response by violence. So, the alternative is simple. When there is justice, violence will be terminated.
How do you assess the quality of presidential aspirants for the 2011 elections?
All of them have negatives and positives because there are human beings and those who have been in office before are naturally far more exposed, you know their blemishes and flaws than those who have not had a stand in office. I'm not going to go into individual assessments here beyond that general remark. I just want to say to people that it is not so much an issue of personalities as policies and ideologies which are adhered to and which are expressed in the action by some of the aspirants and frankly, it is time to do away with the past to really strike out a new and different direction. I keep saying to youths, not that I glamourize them or romanticize them.
Some youths are a little bit sometimes even more corrupt than the aged and so on but there comes a moment in a nation's life when an opportunity comes to strike in a completely new direction and I keep reminding youth that look, you are over 50 per cent of the electorate of this nation, so why don 't you take a risk, invest in the possibilities of serious, genuine change especially when those possibilities are backed by past record.
Just turn in a completely new direction. I make no bones to the fact that I'm solidly behind the candidate of somebody like Nuhu Ribadu simply because he represents what I call the watershed possibilities of change and change in a positive way because of his past record when he held office as a public officer, how he acquitted himself there and also because of my personal knowledge of him. One thing, which I want to stress here, is that that pernicious, opportunistic and totally corrupt political arrangement called zoning is absolutely dead. The word zoning has always been an obscenity in a nation like this. There are certain countries with certain histories where you can talk about zoning being an arrangement for harmony; for egalitarian distribution and participation of power and so on. That situation does not apply in this country and those who mouth zoning, zoning are just political opportunists who have their own private agenda.
One good thing about this election is that zoning has been not just killed but has been interred with an iron stick driven through its heart and electorate should just completely forget all about zoning and go for the most likely candidate to provide that positive change that is needed in the country.
The postponement of the National Assembly elections by INEC was unexpected. Do you think it was as a result of inefficiency?
It's as a result of backlog of rot. The only fault at the door of the new electoral commission including its leader was over-optimism; underestimation of rot that had been inserted into the political system by the former government of this nation. It is not an issue of the Nigerian factor. No! It is an issue of a factor of a monster which ruled this nation for eight years and deliberately corrupted the system because that particular president wanted to prolong his stay permanently forever, wanted to become the Mugabe of Nigeria and in this very selfish, very egotistical and unconscionable manner, destroyed civil political society in a way which even the military failed to do when they were in power and this is supposed to be democratic. Now Jega underestimated the damage, which had been done to the infrastructures; the procurement processes; he failed to recognize the seriousness of the level to which the system had been bastardized. So, I don't call it inefficiency. Just call it over-generosity for his predecessors. He just didn't believe they were capable of so much damage to the system.
From the results so far released, we see PDP losing the South West to ACN. What do you think caused the upheaval?
I don't want to go into that in great detail but let's just say may be what people are overlooking is that the party which has sort of transformed itself into ACN today never really lost the West. It was just cheated as many, many candidates were cheated all over the nation. What we are witnessing really is to a large extent a restoration of the political truth within the system and the people have awakened and they have seen their opportunity in taking back what rightfully should never have left them in the first place and I'm not talking of the South West alone. No, not at all. We've seen it happen all over the country. In other words, we've seen a political restoration to what things really should have been.
What do you think is responsible for the political crises in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya?
First of all, let me say it is glorious to be alive to see these dramatic changes taking place in areas of the world, which had structures incredibly politically comatose. I've been to all these countries and I've always wondered: Is it really possible for people to be so accommodating? So indifferent? Is it that they are really indifferent to freedom? That quality which for me defines a cynic being and that is the right to choose; the right no to be governed by secret police. Last year, I went to Tunisia at the invitation of the African Development Bank and I was delivering a lecture. In the process, I mentioned the names of some writers who were imprisoned and they complained about the Pen International, that is the writers' organization which has been declared as an illegal organization in Tunisia and everybody from outside is looking at Tunisia like a free country developed and democratic country but no, no. The discontent was always there and I used the opportunity of my lecture to mention the names of some of the imprisoned writers.
Believe me, as I went on, there was a blackout. Blackouts don't occur in Tunisia just like that. In fact, I joked and said, 'I'm sorry I brought NEPA to Tunisia -o! Do forgive me.' Everybody laughed. Then later on, you know are lots of Nigerians in African Development Bank and they have been there a long time. Later on, some of them called me aside and said I should be a little bit circumspect about my movement; that the blackout was not an accident. I said, what! They said, no, no, no! They check it was not an accident. The moment I mentioned the name of those dissident writers and went on about it mildly, repression, you know, free speech; free expression, signals went through and the power was cut microphone was cut and I went on to deliver the rest of the lecture without a microphone. That has been the situation in many of these countries and each time I've always wondered, what on earth is going on here. So, sooner or later, it had to happen.
There is a new generation coming up which has lost the fear of their fathers; a new generation, which observes what, is happening over the borders – what is happening next door and asking the question. Am I am inferior being to those who live on the other side? The same thing is happening in this country, Nigeria although it's happening in a different way. There is a new generation which is coming up and which is saying, wait a minute, why are we deprived in this manner? Why is it that I've left the university for five years, eight years, ten years I don't have a job and people are pulling out of what should be a joint resources of the nation? They are talking in terms of billions being spirited out. Some people come along and pretend that they are getting the money back and then you don 't even know what happened to the money which they said they recovered from others.
So, there is a new generation which is beginning to ask those very serious questions and what happened in the Margreb moving to the Middle East and so on is that his new generation is questioning and they have lost the fear of their parents. They are saying, we will not continue in this same manner. So nothing surprised me about what happening in the Middle East countries where a small cabal of people has been controlling not just the entire resources of a nation but even controlling the very humanity which produces those resources without giving hem a chance to be full citizens in their own nation. Nothing surprised me about it.
The case of Cote d'Ivoire is typical. How do you see the situation?
It is very depressing. It's really, really depressing. Here is a man, Laurent Gbagbo, a history professor who should remember the history of other nations. He should be conscious if not of contemporary history of other nations whether in Europe or Soviet Union. I mean the Berlin Wall fell after all after seemingly being impregnable for so many decades and he should be able to look at that and realize that power is always transient no matter how forceful; no matter how tenacious and uncompromising, power is transient.
Even if Laurent Gbagbo feels genuinely that he won the election, he's been there for over 10 years and everybody is saying look, Ouattara won. AU, Ouattara won; ECOWAS, Ouattara won; United Nations, Ouattara won; France, Ouattara won; US, Ouattara won. At that point, if you are not totally alienated from reality and if you are not such a monster as to be unconcerned about the consequences of your sit-tight action, isn't it the moment to say, okay, in the interest of the nation, I move out, I'll be back next year. You will see. I'm now going to mobilize and we shall contest again and I will prove that I won the election. Isn't that what a rational human being should do?
But you see what is happening. Ivory Coast is being destroyed for the second time. In Tunisia, I was telling the ADB people, you don't belong here, it's about time you return to Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast, if they stabilize, they are going to have election. You know that the African Development Bank, the headquarters is really in Ivory Coast. They left because of the unrest, which resulted in civil war. So, I was trying to cajole them and say, look. It's about time you people move back. Why are you in North Africa when your home is in Ivory Coast? So come back. Lo and behold, Laurent Gbagbo took the words out of my mouth and slapped my mouth with those very words. Now am I going to turn and tell African Development Bank to come back where they actually belong? No way! Everybody is moving out. So Gbagbo, to me is turning himself into a criminal against the interest of the African people and especially, against the Ivoriens.
Do you think that such a situation can occur in Nigeria?
O yes! Let nobody ever think that nothing happening elsewhere can happen in another place. It is amazing how many egotistical, power-lusting, power-obsessed individuals there are in this world and especially on this continent of ours. Yes, it can happen in Nigeria. I think it's less likely to happen, the more we see it happen in other places and we see the consequences but it takes only one individual to set a nation on fire and believe me, we do have some of those individuals in this country.
Do you support the military option adopted to get Gbagbo to relinquish power?
Well, the military option is already happening. Circumstances have forced the hand of the UN for instance, which is basically a peace-keeping body in protecting democracy and in this case, representing Ouattara. Circumstances have forced their hand into some kind of military action. What they are trying to do now is to prevent an all out civil war that has devastated that nation before. So, the military option is being imposed on the situation by Gbagbo's intransigence. If it happens, it won't be because anybody wanted it but because various forces have clashed and come to a certain point where the resolution comes out in the form of the military action. I don't think anybody wants military action but then if that is what it takes if already human beings, especially, civilian lives have been sacrificed, then military action becomes obviously the more rational course.
Some people are raising fears that Nigeria may split in 2015 because of political disagreements. Do you share this fear?
Well, I sincerely hope not. We've managed together this far and that's why I'm so heavily down on issues like zoning because this is the kind of language and the kind of mentality, which leads to disruption. I'm not sentimental about the 'territorial integrity of Nigeria.' No, I'm not sentimental at all if that is what is inevitable, then so be it but I do not see that option is on the horizon at the moment and I don't believe - that the political differences, which exist, should really be translated in ethnic terms or regional terms. I don't think so.
Controversy trailed the imprisonment of Chief Bode George and his thanksgiving after release. What do you make of the whole drama?
I don't really want to talk about that matter it's just that I think those who run the affairs of this country; who are supposed to set moral examples; who are looked up to should be a lot more circumspect about the way they try to turn convicted individuals into heroes. This is what we saw in the public acclamation accorded to Bode George when he came out of prison. Naturally, he is not somebody I admire politically. His record in governance and under the military is nothing to speak about and I do know a lot about that. At the same time, as a human being who has undergone this travail, I sympathise with him. I think that he has a right to go to a church or wherever he worships and thank the Almighty and his family for having survived the ordeal. Beyond that, it becomes public obscenity when the president sends representatives. Things like that set very, very bad example but then in this nation, villainy is always rewarded.
Do you think Nigeria is winning the war on corruption or the situation is worse?
We have seen the example in the public rehabilitation of a convicted individual. We've heard of certain moves being made to try and obtain pardon for other individuals. I believe that plea-bargaining which resolved certain trials of corrupt governors as a two-edged sword. Whenever you confess to some of your deeds, you give back some of the looted money and then, you are given a small slap on the wrist. I see it as a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I cannot condemn it outright because you begin to save yourself the labour of prosecuting, spending time and with the possibility of the accused getting away on technicalities. So, there are positive aspects to plea-bargaining but if it is overused, then people get to develop a frame of mind because they say, well, instead of stealing 100, I will steal 1000 and then when I'm aught, I will plea bargain with 500 and I just go in for a few months. It is a very dangerous thing. I don't want to be pontifical about it.
I know the difficulties and tortuous ways of legalisms but I think examples need to be made. We are not just talking of material corruption; we are talking of political corruption. For me, the deprivation of human beings - citizens of their rights even ranks higher in my view than material corruption because there, you are reducing your fellow human beings to ciphers; to zombies in their own society. You are robbing them of their civic dignity and our failure to punish vigorously political corruption also feeds materials corruption because when people are politically corrupt, they want to get to office so that they can be materially corrupt and they use the proceeds of materials corruption to perpetuate themselves in office and the vicious cycle goes on. So I would like to see a far more vigorous way of dealing with those who have been proven to be politically corrupt in this nation.
How do you assess the Jonathan presidency?
As I said, I don 't want to go into details. I don't believe very much in negative campaigning for instance. I think what we need to see now is to encourage all the candidates and to assist them in putting their best foot forward so that the electorate can actually see what it is that they will do; how they will execute such positive projects on behalf of the nation but having said that, infact, I don't like to deal with personalities. I would like to deal with parties. I'm totally implacable in my position that the governing party, the PDP of this nation has failed this nation abysmal and that it is in the interest of this nation to get rid of the PDP government and allow others to show what they are capable. So, it is not an issue of personalities. It is an issue of this time really to get rid of the ruling party. Their failures have been monumental.
You travel round the world, is Nigeria's image better in the international community than it was may be, eight years ago?
I don't think the image has improved. Between governance and 419ners, I'm afraid the Nigerian image has not been improving lately.
With reforms in the banking sector, would you say the economy is faring better?
I'm always very careful here because economics is not really my strong point and I don't want to make pronouncements which will immediately be pounced upon by the experts in this field therefore, let me just take refuge behind. For instance, the kind of position of the governor of Central Bank, Sanusi who admonished the National Assembly on the fact that they are eating up the large slice of this country's resources in a very crude and blatant manner. In other words, the consumption of the economic resources of this nation by a handful is an obscenity in itself and that the country cannot survive economically if that trend continues. So, for me, the test of the sincerity and the patriotism, if you like, of those who are aspiring though the elections are already happening, so the test would have been, are you willing to forego some of your privileges, which are undeserved in relation to the earning capacity of the majority of people in this country?
A situation where a member of a House of Assembly in Nigeria is earning more than the president of United States is obviously a grotesque sense of self-evaluation by our legislators. The infrastructure are not being developed. We still have epileptic power supply. How can a modern society develop without electric power? It's so basic. In so many parts of the country, there is no portable water. Health system has virtually deteriorated almost to the point of being useless. Legislators can send their relations, themselves to London, Germany, Saudi Arabia for treatment while the hospitals here are collapsing for want of medicine. Doctors are fleeing taking their skills elsewhere. So, the yardstick by which I measure the economic health of a nation, that yardstick has been completely criticized as seems the priorities of our obligation to the citizens who produce the wealth of the nation. So, they tell me that the oil prices have brought buoyancy to the reserves of the nation. We don't see it translated in terms of an improvement on the quality of life and that is how we gauge nations' economic health.
Some people say the problem with Nigeria is leadership while some say that is it followership. What do you say?
It is a mixture of both. If the followership continues to tolerate the incompetence of their leaders and vote them back in power, then followership also has a problem. If followership says that short term gains are preferable to long term development and sustainable gain, then the followership has a serious problem. However, leadership is elected to represent the masses; to represent the electorate and, therefore, the primary blame and responsibility lies with the leadership. The leadership is supposed to show example.
Looking at Nigeria's presidents and military rulers from independence to date, who would you say has been the best?
I find that question very difficult to answer because those people automatically refer to didn't stay there long enough to be assessed so I find it really very difficult to say. All I can say is that there has been a steady decline in leadership quality since independence.
You are the first African Nobel laureate. Would you say that that was your most glorious moment?
No, I don't think so. For me, the Nobel Prize is just another literary prize, which however has developed a kind of mystique over the years, but I can assure you internally - inside of me, it is just another literary prize. Many people don't believe me when I say this but really, that's the way I regard the Nobel Prize and there are many literary prizes but I admit quite frankly that it has acquired a mystique about it.
In any case, to tell you the truth, I don 't believe in literary prizes. I think they are good; they encourage the occupation; that they show that writers should not be marginalized and that applies to arts ad creative prizes so it is important from that point of view but the reason I find it so difficult to may be, see one prize, infact, any literary prize as a great mark of distinction is that I'm a voracious consumer of arts; of creative works whether literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture. I'm a voracious consumer and I see and consume so much that it is a miracle for me that one is able to decide among some peers, for example, which one deserves the prize rather than the other because I see them all the time. I travel, I see sublime works, I listen to sublime music. I read books, which move me so much that I even read the books in my head long after I close the books for days and for weeks. So my attitude is, yes prizes are good but one shouldn't make too much of those who win prizes in the creative field because there are numerous others, producers who deserve those very prizes which everybody is talking about.
What legacy are you bequeathing to the younger generation of Nigerian writers?
Well, one legacy, which I wanted to leave, which I can talk about was the legacy of being a good teacher; a compulsive teacher; an obsessed teacher to let the youth know that it is never too late to learn or to try new tricks. In other words, to teach the younger generation they must be constantly recreative. Constantly reviewing themselves even in ways which they never though possible before. The political party, which I declare open, is one of those examples, which I said to the youth what is wrong with you? You are such a huge percentage of the electorate.
You are incapable of coming together, creating a platform for yourselves and finding a voice within the system even if you want to destroy that system because that system is proving so pernicious - year after year, election after election, you are being marginalized and all you are doing is sitting down and complaining. Of course, I must confess that that experiment backfired on me; backfired in the sense that they said, will you to, you stand for election, then we will follow you. I said, you must be joking. They said if you are not coming, we are not coming. I'm telling you, this has been my experience. That having failed, having finally discovered that I mean it and I'm not standing for election on any form whether local government or whatever, then the next thing they said was, alright in that case, you must come and campaign for us. We'll enter the list but you have to come and campaign. I said, listen, my campaigning days are over. This is your platform, this is your party.
Go all out and if you get your nose bloodied, at least, you will get your feet wet and you would have entered and understood and you have learnt new tricks; you would have studied the enemies of society as well as the friends of society and even if you don't make it this first time, just keep going. It is this another way of effecting change but as I said quite frankly, it backfired on me because they kept telling me, well, come and talk to us here so that people can see that we are physically associated with you and many of them at the beginning did not even believe me when I said this is a zero kobo party - that we don't have one kobo and that they must be prepared to ride bicycles; to ride okada; to ride Keke NAPEP campaigning from door to door, market to market, supermarket to supermarket. I said, it's the only way you can beat the moneybags because I have no money to give you and the party does not have any. It is a zero kobo party. Many of them didn't believe it.
We used to get bills at the beginning saying okay, we want to set up five campaign offices and we need four cars, security total N18 million. I said the millions can pay something. Where do you think the money is coming from? I want you to use your intelligence, your creativity to go out and address people. You print things on the cheapest newsprint instead of expensive things. The fight that I had with them was when I said I don't want to see my photograph on your posters. I'm not the one standing election. I said, take my photograph off there and they said but you are the chairman. I said I'm not chairman, I'm convener. We'll only have to call me chairman so as to satisfy INEC. That's why I said the experiment backfired on me. I've learnt my lesson but the hard core. They are struggling but they are studying and they are learning the system. So, if you ask me what legacy in the political field, I would say that's the kind of legacy I would like to have left; to be able to look and say, ah, this is a young generation on the march. The other legacy is those who find something valuable in my work and are able to refer to it from time to time. I'm more than satisfied. So, creative, political, the legacy of having taught youth that life is all about constantly recreating and regenerating themselves.
People assess your work, The Interpreter and have the impression that it is the most difficult to understand…
(Cuts in) Let us not talk about specific works because when people say Interpreter, I say what about Brother Jero? What about Lion and the Jewel? So, let us not talk about individual works. When I approach other writers, if I find a particular work not congenial to my taste, I just leave that work. There is so much literature out in the world, you know. The list of books, which I haven't read because either I have heard about them or read their reviews, it stretches from Maiduguri to Lagos to Ikorodu so there is so much literatures. One will never get to the end of it. You must live a dozen lives so people if one works seems difficult, you have a choice. You can either go back to it and you might somehow discover that you just didn't read it in a particular way or else you just say to hell with Soyinka. Let me go and read Ngugi (laughs).