Soyinka, Labour and Progress
Dr. Aliyu Tilde
Muhammadu Buhari, the presidential candidate of ANPP during the 4-19 elections has never been the favourite of the media and its clients since he came to power in 1984. Therefore, it was not surprising that when he warned the government of a possible mass action if the last presidential elections were rigged, the press, the government and its agents were quick to interpret his warning as blowing the whistle for civil disorder.
Though Buhari, his party and the Coalition of Nigerian Political Parties tried to explain what they meant by mass action, the ruling party and the press never relented in reproaching him. However, it remains a fact that there was nothing wrong with his warning. It was completely in consonance with Nigerian political tradition. Election rigging was always followed by unrest. It was there in 1965 when the “Wild, Wild, West” went on rampage, inviting the first military to topple our first civilian government. It was also there in 1983 when the same West, again using widespread rioting, led the country in opposing the rigged elections of 1983. For the second time, the military responded to their call and toppled the republic. Buhari was made the head of state then. I wonder how a warning from such a person could attract vehement criticism.
The election took place on 4-19. And what coincidence it was for it to hold on such a date in a country where ‘419’ connotes fraud. It was testified rigged not only by the aggrieved parties but also by international observers. Fortunately, this time there was not anybody wild outside there to go on rampage. Buhari cried foul, protesting that Obasanjo has shunted the race midfield. We ‘counselled’ him to head for the courts instead of saying that there will be no legitimate winner to be sworn in as President in Nigeria by May 29, 2003. That is an invitation to anarchy, we said. We reminded him that he has not crossed the finishing line of the democratic race yet. He had to follow “due process” and respect the “rule of law.”
One of the most sincere ‘counsellors’ of Buhari was the Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka. “He should wait until the tribunals make their pronouncement,” said Soyinka in an interview with Thisday of May 10, 2003. “He should exhaust the process. Why should he call for an interim national government? He has not gone through the democratic process; he has not finished it. And it is typical of people like that, very bad losers… His language was the language of incitement. How can he be calling for mass action? You know, people like that should be watched very carefully. They haven’t really changed their skin.”
An outsider conversant with Nigerian political history must have jumped at this level of political maturity. Nigerians, he would think, have overnight become supporters of due process and rule of law; they have grown out of their ‘wild’ disposition and embraced the values of civilization; they are now confident that their courts can grant justice to aggrieved parties in a matter as volatile as presidential elections. Having known our past history he would marvel at the complete U-turn of people like Soyinka. He would wonder how Soyinka discovered the wisdom of trusting the courts at seventy that he did not possess as a professor at fifty.
The outsider would recall how Soyinka, as cited on this page last week from the report of Sunday Concord of September 19, 1983, went to Europe and America warning of an outbreak of civil war. Now he has changed such that even the lesser evil of mass action is too criminal to contemplate. The outsider would have wondered how the labour leadership that was advising Buhari to go to court has developed confidence in the judiciary and abandoned civil unrest as a way of seeking redress. Almost at the time Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) leader, Adams Oshiomole, was calling on Buhari to go to courts, he was also advising the Academic Staff Union of Universities to dump their strike action over the under funding of education and return to their dialogue with the deaf and dumb.
Such an observer must have been surprised that the same NLC, beginning from last Monday, forgot the advice it was giving ASUU and went on strike over a fuel price increase. It also forgot seeking any redress in court. Actually, when the government realized that the labour was bent on going on strike, it thought that a court order will be a clever means of stopping the it, since the same union was requesting Buhari to respect the law. The court granted government the order but in spite of it the union flagrantly went ahead with its strike.
More revealing however was the conduct of the union during the strike. Its members did not remain in their houses, as law-abiding citizens. They were preventing other willing workers, petty traders, grocers, spare part dealers and market women from reporting to work or earning their daily bread. In Kano they attempted to prevent motorcyclists from running commercial drops. The cyclists defied the coercive efforts of the union and continued with their activities, claiming that they are masses who live on daily earnings. In Bauchi, shop owners in the main market rejected the union saying that it did nothing to prevent NAFDAC from destroying their items and, after all, they have been buying fuel a cost north of N40.00 for the past four years. Where was the union since? No government vehicle was allowed to ply the roads in all cities and capitals, while private vehicles were forced to hang protest leaves in their frontage. In Abuja Enugu and many other cities, there were even skirmishes with the police that left many injured. I wonder if there is anything that could qualify to be called mass action worse than the conduct of the NLC.
It is surprising how quick the NLC lost its appetite for the court, for due process and for the rule of law. I am confused on why we Nigerians think we have any moral locus to protest against Obasanjo. Is it not the same labour whose leadership supported his return despite his failure in the past four years? Why did not the union go on strike over the rigging that took place during the last election since choosing a purposeful president would have saved it the hundreds of strikes awaiting it in the next four years?
The attitude exhibited by members of National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) whose leadership and members have been opposing PDP’s plan to reform local governments qualifies for another contradiction. Like the labour, they do not have any moral justification to condemn any impending fate. Why did not they go on a nationwide strike when state governors were slicing their local governments to achieve cheap political goals at the eve of the last elections? Did not they submit themselves as foot soldiers who rigged elections in favour of the same governors who created the mess? Did they protest against the massive rigging that brought Obasanjo to power, knowing very well that he does not have the potential for correcting the mess he and others before him created? Why bother now about fuel increase?
The same logic stares at many members of other major unions forming the NLC. The union that had the largest share of staff who participated in the last election was National Union of Teachers. Why did its members aid Obasanjo to return for the second time, not withstanding his unenviable record of spending the least on education in our history? Many ASUU members cannot also be spared from this daunted conscience. Their strike was four months old when the election took place. I thought they would mobilize other Nigerians to ensure that the person who ignored them so long has not returned to power. No. On most campuses, they could not even mobilize members of their community against the president. Thus, on the main campus of Ahmadu Bello University the same Obasanjo got the highest number of votes than any other candidate.
The level of our hypocrisy is really amazing. That is why we never stopped fascinating the world. We make so many charades about our country’s backwardness and the obsession of its leaders with theft and irresponsible management. But never have we – those of us who are not in power – made any genuine move to check their excesses. It is now becoming clear that we make noise over such travesties only when “one of our own” is not in power. But once he is there, he can do anything and get away with it, Scot-free. We are then ready to overlook his shortcomings and cover up his atrocities. When others commit lesser mistakes, we would never miss the slightest opportunity to demonise them.
Since Obasanjo came to power there have been agitations on how different measures of justice are used for different people. We have for example members of Oodua Peoples Congress who maimed innocent citizens of other regions residing in the Southwest. Their leaders were arrested but none of the courts found any of them guilty in the crises that killed thousands of lives. On the contrary, hundreds of ANPP supporters are wallowing in police custody over their attempt to prevent PDP from rigging the last election. In another instance, bail is denied Bamaiyi and Al-Mustapha who are standing trials for attempted murder, but Omisore who is a principal suspect in Ige’s murder is granted bail and even sworn in as a senator.
Here, Soyinka again is a good example to cite. In the May 18 interview, he condemned Buhari for sending “three men to the gallows on retroactive decrees, to me that was murder. So forget Buhari and democratic…” Well Buhari might have killed only three criminals, using a retroactive decree. However, talking about killings, have we ever had a leader, outside the civil war, who has killed Nigerians more than Obasanjo? How many did he kill on our streets and our university campuses during his tenure as Head of State? How many thousands of lives did he kill in the last four years, from Odi to Zaki Biam and other populations that were massacred by his army? How many thousand others has he killed by permitting the ethnic and sectarian violence that took place in the last four years and from which he made his greatest political harvest?
In carrying out the massacre of innocent students at Ahmadu Bello University in April 1978 or ordering the military to massacre the populations of Odi and Zaki Biam, was he killing criminals, or did he even have the conscience of resorting to using a decree, retroactive or proactive? Yet, to Soyinka, it is Buhari who is “a bad case”, not Obasanjo.
Perhaps perplexed by Soyinka’s silence over the incompetence of Obasanjo, the reporter insisted on knowing whether he is satisfied with the president. “Of course, I am not satisfied,” replied Soyinka after an earlier evasion. Then came his excuse: “But I am not ready to be shooting my mouth every time. I am almost seventy now. I have been calling for a global approach to these issues. It is very tiring. The only thing to do is to encourage the progressives of this country to seek power.”
Progressives? We have heard this nomenclature for long now. But it appears that our self-acclaimed progressives have failed to live above the pedestrian level of ethnicity, religion and self-promotion. With every tick of our political clock, they are gradually becoming demystified and the masquerade they wear falls from their faces to render their reactionary psyche.
True progressives must possess two qualities in a democratic setting. They must cross the line of ethnic and sectarian chauvinism to embrace the universal values of equity and merit wherever they come from. In other words, their praise or condemnation of a person should not be inspired by his colour, faith, geography or mother tongue. And when injustice is committed, they must abandon those primordial differences and stand united against it, regardless of who the complainant is. Only this could qualify as “global approach.” Unless our ‘progressives’ can do this, their claim to progress could only pass as a façade to the promotion of primitivism.
I am hard on Soyinka and our labour unions because their domains – literature and labour – represent two of the most progressive areas of society. In Nigeria, however, learning and labour have failed to hatch out our progressives out of the hard shell of cultural primitivism into the egalitarian world of equity and merit. That is why this country still finds it hard to progress in its journey to nationhood.
To further his contradiction, Soyinka was insisting that Buhari heads for the courts in the same breadth he was condemning the police and the judiciary over the way Ige’s murder trial was going on. “It is not heard anywhere in the World,” Soyinka generalizes, “to say that a person accused of murder in a household comes around to win elections in the household of the murdered. I don’t know what part of the world that impossibility can be contemplated. The man has been accused of murdering Bola Ige… And you say the accused man won in the household of the victim? Go and tell that to the marines, not rational minds… It is something so flawed.”
That was for the elections in the Southwest where Omisore and the PDP welcomed the region into the ‘mainstream’ of Nigerian Amala politics that Soyinka is correctly resents. But for the rigging that took place during the presidential election, the level of the stick was brought down by Soyinka so that the President would jump over it easily. Protest against that was reduced to the private affair of Buhari.
That is the Nigerian ‘progressive’ for you.