My editor Macdonald Ukah must recall a 2019 article, finally unpublished, which was full of anxiety about Kongi’s gradual political decline in the evening of his life. For a man whose intellectual universe shaped my writing, I feel connected to his legacy and, in light of the current debate, must share my concerns.
The above footnote shows that such concerns predate the Obidient Movement, the subject of Soyinka’s latest public outrage. This anti-climax began to unfurl shortly after 2015.
Between 1999 and 2015, Soyinka’s public life continued in his vaunted tradition of speaking truth to power. A large vault of searing articles appeared under his name in national dailies: in fact, the articles, mostly political, filled vast portions of at least five books that later formed his “Intervention” series. In addition to articles were public appearances that pilloried the PDP and the dark forces that enabled that party.
For those of us familiar with Soyinka’s ethic, his support of Mohammadu Buhari was shocking. The uninitiated should google his 2007 article “The Crimes of Buhari” to assess his visceral contempt for the general. He made that switch, I suspect, for Bola Ahmed Tinubu, his former ally during the prodemocracy days.
What followed from 2015 was Kongi’s eloquent silence.
In his defense, some acolytes said he had done enough for Nigeria and had retired. As Buhari’s unraveling set the country on fire, I can recall only one critical article in four years: “critical” being merely an operative word here, for the said piece was short of embarrassing, lacking, in critique, the stringency of Soyinka’s anti-PDP productions. More embarrassing were his foreign appearances lauding Buhari’s anti-corruption crusade! It was clearly a man who, unable to eat his words, chose to progress in error.
To the claim that he was fatigued with advocacy, it was a bit convenient that he managed to find his voice only when the subject was not Tinubu and his APC. I must add, however, that Soyinka’s “fascist” comment about Obidients may have more to do with his loathing of Nigeria’s internet youth than for his soft spot for his past ally. Yet one is baffled by this mislabeling: “fascists”—not the individuals who openly threatened Nigerians to vote for Tinubu or be damned—who made good their threat across Lagos and Rivers States and walk free as we speak; Soyinka’s fascists are Nigerians (over)zealously marketing their candidate, sometimes with scathing ripostes.
Yet no Obidient has come close to Kongi’s youthful excesses against the Nigerian state. For instance, imagine an Obidient ordering a radio presenter at gunpoint to announce a different election result. Talking about insults, one requires a terrible sense of morality to regard Nigeria’s undertakers with respectful engagement. Dark as was Nigeria’s past in which Soyinka defied the state, it was nothing close to what young people face today. Yet the narrative saddens: it was not Obidients that published an article in a national daily tagged “Obituary.” They were not the ones who coined terms like “Obidiot.”
Soyinka needs to understand that the internet is our own tool for holding the state accountable. It has its excesses—just like the Pyrates Confraternity, an otherwise noble initiative, led to unintended tragic consequences in our tertiary institutions. He should not allow his angst against social media becloud his judgment of what is truly an iconic sociopolitical machinery for change.
As someone who has always only written in his praise, I must speak the truth freely as I see it, exactly as Kongi would do in his heyday. I am saddened by this continual damage to his national memory. He has done too much for Nigeria’s civic space to now become an irritation to its youth—the very demographic that will inherit the country, flawed or promising, who now regard him with constructive doubt. Some of you may know, I often bragged about reading over 30 of his books; in our first and only physical meeting, I recall telling him that the younger generation seem apathetic to his kind of writing. Added to their view of his politics, his lifelong legacy risks losing a merited climax in history—and that should bother anyone who truly loves him.
Immanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu