Soyinka, “Wolexit” and Hero-bashing


Tunji Olaopa

In this article, I want to explicate on two significant assertions that has been at the heart of my confrontation with the Nigerian national project for a long time, and especially with the intellectual capital that I suspect is a very significant part of rehabilitating Nigeria to greatness. First, Nigeria has a fundamental problem with her intellectuals, and most especially her heroes and heroines. Second, Nigeria’s heroes and heroines have a fundamental problem with Nigeria. These two assertions may appear interchangeable, but they are not. This is because each carries a different weight and valence. In other words, the problem Nigeria has with her heroes is not the same as the problem the heroes have with Nigeria. On the one hand, Nigeria’s heroes and heroines are concerned with the urgent task of reconfiguring Nigeria for greatness. This task most often take a non-conventional but still patriotic modes that require these highly endowed Nigerians to challenge the Nigerian state from all sides and angles. We all still remember Ken Saro-Wiwa’s attempt at calling out the Nigerian state over the wrong treatment meted out to the Ogoni minority of the Niger Delta. And on the other hand, Nigeria resents almost all and every interrogation of her national dynamics, and especially of the kind of statecraft that bend the empowerment of Nigerians to the exigencies of national unity. And again, Ken Saro-Wiwa typifies Nigeria’s reaction to perceived “anti-patriotic” challenges. Ken Saro-Wiwa died trying to make Nigeria stand up to what is right and just with reference to its own citizens.

Interestingly, Wole Soyinka captured this Nigerian angst against her hero at the burial of another hero, the late Professor Ojetunji Aboyade. With utmost weariness of his soul, he lamented: “Nigeria kills us slowly; one by one, but surely.” According to him, if Prof. Aboyade had given less of himself to Nigeria in a thankless job, he would not have died when he did. Wole Soyinka is no doubt one of the redoubtable heroes that Nigeria has today. In fact, he represents in himself one of the few positive achievements the global community reckons with about Nigeria. In terms of intellectual outputs and national activism, he is committed to Nigeria in all senses. While most of us were still in our diapers, Soyinka was hijacking radio stations, writing stinging commentaries, staging satiric plays, crossing from Nigeria to Biafra to intervene in national tragedies, and paying enormous price, in jail terms, for his patriotic courage. But unfortunately, it is this same Wole Soyinka that is presently at the centre of a national uproar over Soyinka’s personal conviction.

What I call hero bashing is a fundamental issue which is neither here nor there in terms of value judgment. Heroes and heroines are humans with human frailty. They make mistakes, miscommunicate, are arrogant, fall short of expectations, make wrong decisions, have short visions, fall into temptations, just like every other human. The difference however is that they are heroes who must be held up to a higher standard of humanity than every other because they have a larger than life status. Hero-bashing therefore seems appropriate but sometimes most tragic, especially in proportion to the event or the persona involved. I remember the posthumous bashing that Chinua Achebe received for There Was a Country, his personal testimony about Biafra. That was an issue that gave me serious concern given that Achebe was not a mean person (in both senses of that word). Achebe loved Nigeria, and that is clear from his many engagements with the concept of Nigeria. Yet, it turned out that he had to die before he would have died given the enormous bashing he received as a result of his personal understanding of the Biafra incidence.

But if Achebe’s hero-bashing came from a significant confrontation with the idea of Nigeria, the recent bashing of Wole Soyinka leaves a more bitter taste in the mouth. This is because what is at issue seems so trivial in proportion to the outcry it is generating. Let me summarise. Wole Soyinka was so anxious about the possible electoral victory of Donald Trump that he served a “Wolexit” notice—He would tear up his green card if Trump emerges as the president of the United States. Against all odds, Donald Trump did become the president-elect, and Nigerians called out Soyinka on his threat. Not to be caught hanging, the formidable Soyinka offered a loud retort against those who, according to him, failed to understand a simple matter of figure of speech and a fundamental right to free speech. Soyinka fumed that it was illogical to think that “tearing up” his green card meant an actual card-destroying gesture. According to him, the United States is not the only country he had issued a “red card.” What then was the outcry about?

What actually was the outcry about? It seems to me that Soyinka has earned his right to free speech, and even his eccentricities. But it does not seem that it was eccentric for him to issue such a warning of suspending his citizenship of the United States. His statement was borne out of a deep conviction against all that Donald Trump represented. Most of us also have our various anxieties about a Trump presidency, but most of us are not Wole Soyinka. Soyinka is global. And by that, I mean Soyinka’s voice has achieved such a global stature that his threats, approval, and even silence carry a stentorian weight that compels attention. This is no hero worship. I know Soyinka is human. If I were him, I would have offered my explanation and resumed my silence. But Soyinka cannot be silenced. What is most unfortunate is that agitated and aggravated responses can cross the bound of moderation and civility. When speech crosses to the level of “idiots,” “morons,” and “stupidity,” then something has gone terribly wrong. It seems to me that this issue of “tearing up” the green card does not deserve the nature of hero-bashing it has become. Soyinka has the right to speak, and he has spoken.

But the prospect of a “Wolexit” has another deeper implication which we are not paying attention to. In a further retort, Wole Soyinka threatened that Nigeria itself deserves a form of withdrawal appropriate to Trump’s America. Now, that is a real threat, and Soyinka does not make jokes on issues like this. He has the means and the will to carry out his threats. I am taking “Wolexit” serious in terms not only of the loss of intellectual capital but also more in terms of what it says about Nigeria and Nigerians. Let me start from a historical point of personal agitation. I have never ceased to wonder at the literary and intellectual implications of what would have happened to Ibadan’s literary and intellectual stature if Soyinka had consolidated his reputation there rather than leaving for Leeds and later choosing to reside in Abeokuta. The answer to this question is already lost to the undetermined fog of history. We can only wonder and speculate.

Now, take the larger issue raised by my earlier questions. Soyinka seems to have reached a point where he is more than willing to do something drastic about his fundamental problem with Nigeria. What is the implication of Soyinka giving Nigeria a “red card”? What is the implication, as he threatened, of moving his Foundation out of Nigeria? I could imagine the social media resounding with “to hell with him; to hell with his foundation.” That answer would not be surprising; in fact, it will be typical of a strange alliance between a rising and irreverent generation and the Nigerian state apparatus on the task of killing off our heroes. “Wolexit” served on the United States is a personal statement by a world citizen against what Donald Trump represents in terms of the time honoured principle of freedom and racial blindness which the U.S. enshrined in its constitution. He has a right to that declaration, and to whatever symbolic act it is meant to represent.

But “Wolexit” served on Nigeria becomes the ultimate rejection of Nigeria by those who loved and fought with and for her. Fighting with Nigeria translates into a form of lovers’ quarrel over a future both disagree to agree with. Fighting for Nigeria is a solid patriotic belief in Nigeria potentials for greatness in spite of everything that had gone wrong. Rejecting Nigeria is worse. Even uttering its possibility must only have been made possible by a heart that is wearied by despair and disillusionment. We have killed and hounded almost all of our heroes out of existence or out of their senses. Wole Soyinka is one of the legends still remaining, and we are calling him out for what he believes. If “Wolexit” comes to pass and Soyinka withdraws from Nigeria, we would collectively have become like Jerusalem that kills and stone the prophets sent to her. How then do we ever hope to become a great nation when we kill greatness in others, and refuse to listen to our heroes?

Olaopa, is the Executive Vice-Chairman Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy