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Soyinka: I shall not participate in this year’s June 12 celebrations

First instalment of a piece — titled “A Democracy Day Primer-1” — written by Professor Wole Soyinka to mark the June 12 Celebrations

This year’s recall of an uplifting day in the year 1993 comes up against a background of its most shameful disavowal: the 2019 elections – still under judicial contestation – an event that would be more accurately described as an exercise in body count rather than ballot count.

The elections however merely reflected a pattern of savagery and abandonment of human sensibilities that have eaten away the sheerest sense of community in the nation. I have already described it as the final descent into the abyss of human degradation. The recent call – no matter how suspect the motivation — for what amounts to a national discourse on future directions was nothing new.

The NIGERIA MOURNS movement, for instance, is only another expression of the same desperation. Input from someone who has exercised control over the nation’s affairs for a total of close to a dozen years, with shared responsibility for the very predicament in which the nation finds itself, reinforces the general anxieties that have become palpable in every corner of the nation — across class, political partisanship, religion and ethnicity.

I wish to take the notion of a national ‘indaba’ even further, and urge a non-partisan, broad-based government.  The now undeniable social crisis is beyond the capacity of any government built on accustomed partisan loyalties and regimented thought processes, with their debilitating baggage of sectarian interests. I am aware that such a call is unlikely to be heeded, but let it be made anyway, and let it stand to trouble those who discard any opportunity to turn a radical page in a nation’s history.  

As if the crisis were not sufficient in itself, we are constantly distracted by crude attempts to distort the role of the past in a nation’s unraveling. So, let us first address Democracy Day itself, since we know that those same nihilist voices, even before the annunciation, were already primed to degrade it, ridicule what should be a potent signpost for future generations.

Such voices even make desperate efforts to annul its very history, no different from the original act of annulling an event that was universally acknowledged as the fairest, the most orderly and peaceful elections ever conducted in Nigerian history, a chastening contrast to this recent of 2019.  

June 1993 recorded – just some quick reminders – an election in which the loser readily conceded defeat, having watched himself outclassed in his own state, his local government, his ward, and probably at his very polling booth. He was however prevailed upon to change his mind, thus smoothening the path for official military annulment, with dire consequences that continue to plague the nation even till today. Several of the players – directly, and supportive — in that inglorious history remain stubbornly in denial, but let no one attempt to shunt aside or obscure its potential for public re-orientation.

It is now a near quarter of a century since that watershed, and a Restoration, albeit symbolic, has been promulgated – Welcome Democracy Day!  Is there any value left to it? And is its formal, official recognition doomed to be nothing more than an exercise in superfluity?

For all those who were actively involved, no matter how tangentially, in the events that flowed from the annulment of June 12, 1993 – largely of blood and lamentations — the restoration of that date to a slot among the milestones of nation building will evoke, side by side with a sense of elation, a mood of sobriety and reflection, especially when one recollects how many productive projects were derailed, how many lives destroyed, how many underwent torture and remain traumatized by that experience, how many paid the supreme price.

Many have witnessed death at close quarters, survived, but remain severely damaged. I shall leave others to comment on how little appears to have been learnt from that monstrosity of democratic subversion. What is undeniable is that the wiles of opportunists, cynics, saboteurs and beneficiaries from the sacrifices of others, continue to haunt the nation. Hopefully also, it does haunt them spasmodically, those who thought to bury the message of that date and its faithful evocations. 

Amnesia, the much-craved refuge of the battle weary, the ravaged psyche, or simply weak-minded, is not always to be despised. Where deliberately cultivated, even propagated however, it amounts to further cruelty against the violated. Forgiveness is a different matter. In most theologies, and even for non-believers, it is ranked among the loftiest attributes of humanity. For those of us who confess our inadequacy in that respect, we can only implore those who violate, contribute to, or profit from the mutilation of the very humanity of others, not to aggravate our mortal weakness by continuation of their past perfidy in any form.

The orphan cries are still with us, so are the scars and trauma of survivors. Many remain impaired – physically and psychologically – for life. I shall not participate in this year’s June 12 celebrations – from choice. It is part of my training exercises for withdrawing from public space, a resolution that I first half seriously injected into encounters over five years ago. That absence applies, not to the official celebration alone – of which I have never been a part anyway – but to the annual ritual by civic groups, a ritual of both tribute and defiance that has been unflaggingly observed till now.

However, regarding the earlier Abuja ceremony that signaled the state’s reversion to June 12 as the most truthful expression of a people’s democratic will, I did attend, even at the cost of breaking a journey on the way to Brazil. That event, for some of us, represented closure – at least substantially. It was a reunion of sorts, a cauterization of many internal, invisible, and yet suppurating wounds, and private thanksgiving – for some of us – that the only route that appeared left for the recovery of a people’s dignity was abruptly, and ‘providentially’ closed by the timely demise of a singular human perversion.

The nation was saved the anguish of the unknown. That sense of relief, on its own, is worth celebrating. The anonymous ones who acted on behalf of ‘providence’ remain unacknowledged, but we still owe them our gratitude.

One unforgettable extract from those dark days was the ease with which a people, accustomed to freedom as a natural bequest of humanity, can be thrown into a twentieth century enslavement, forced to endure a regimen of unprecedented brutality in the exercise of power. A nation of over a hundred and a half million slid into a condition of – not merely apathy and indifference, but servility, unctuousness, sustained by rationalization of – there is no other word for it – evil! Sheer evil.

Fear reigned supreme. Whispers substituted for voice, even in homes. It is liberation from that miasma of civic subjugation that underpins the symbolism of a Democracy Day, very different in quality from, for instance, the euphoria – where it exists – of a day of National Independence. Now why does one find it necessary to state what, in good faith, should be obvious? The answer is painful: that occasion also served as a trigger for raking up embers of divisive history, for tarnishing memories and belittling even the meagre harvest of a watershed in history.

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