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Soyinka: it is lamentable to reduce June 12 to an ethnic project

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

Don’t we all know it? Everything in this nation is fodder for controversy, often of the most pointless, mindless, simply adversarial kind – such has been this formal restoration of June 12th 1993 to its rightful place on the podium of Nigerian history.

Let us address some brutal truths. One comment regarding this formalization especially rankles, since its accompanying train of  remarks indicated that it was not a mere aberrant individual, but revelation of group sentiment. It was sent to me through the usual internet link and was – undisguisedly – a mock lament, a condescending swipe at the Yoruba race – yes, directly indicted – for being so naive as to have fallen for an obvious vote gathering ploy.

The conveyed message reminded me of the movement initiated by Charley Boy – Your mummu done do! – who, together with his fellow protesters, was severely mauled in Abuja by an incited  mob. At least Charley Boy refused to go down as nothing more than an internet slob, berating everyone around but swallowing the bile of daily discontent. He embarked on remedial action – one that was manifested in the true spirit of June 12th.

There are several observations on that ‘social media’ posting, plus the predictable, bandwagon comments, often pre-arranged. It is necessary, indeed mandatory, to clean up this template of the past before proceeding. First, I was not aware that the Yoruba, acting as ethnic entity, ever made a statement that promised to reward the government with their votes in return for this alleged June 12th bribe.

The serious, problematic bribe – the Minimum Wage concession – of course receives the scantiest of attention – beyond solidarity calls and insistence on implementation. Never mind that, North to South, East to West, numerous tiers of government are scrambling to find ways and means of ‘settling’ an agreement directed from the centre, with no corresponding consultation with states. From latest reports, even the Centre is taking to the sale of state assets – at disadvantaged prices – to fulfill a voter catchment commitment. This is the kind of consequential ‘bribe’, one would have thought, that merits critical attention. No matter, let us return to the monumental, non-material bribe. What does it consist of?  

A wrong had long festered, no matter how invisibly. Restoration was made. The faithful of June 12 embraced the gesture, pronounced their appreciation at the ceremony, several even with barbed qualifiers. After all, others before had had the opportunity, but chose to ignore, even deride the very notion of recognition, even if through symbolic gestures. If a few in that Abuja assemblage got carried away  – and some did, both Yoruba and non-Yoruba alike – heaped fulsome praises on the government, far beyond its deserving in my view, I found it unconscionable to seize the occasion as an opportunity to jeer at, and vilify an entire people. I have asked myself over and over again: to what end? Who profits from this?

Next, I found it equally lamentable that anyone should attempt to reduce the June 12 struggle to that of an ethnic project. It is a depressing travesty of the realities, a denial of the existence of a nation’s collective sense of justice and its tenacity in pursuit of that objective. No one denies that the immediate family of a victim of robbery feels the pangs of dispossession more keenly than others. The truth however remains that the entirety of the compound itself was violated, arrogantly and  contemptuously dispossessed.

In this case, its very aspiration to a unified identity was simply ground underfoot, compelling a return to the starting block, and even several milestones behind!  Disenfranchisement is the ultimate stigma for any free people. Again, despite official hostility, corporate blackmail and even victimization of some adherents of that date, a number of state governments but, even more crucially, civil society – with members drawn from across the nation – did not await permission of any power or agency of the centre to gather and celebrate that date, and pay homage to the fallen.

The June 12th movement never went into recess, and the current government merely jumped on a bandwagon that was already propelled by the people.

However, there is even more matter for discouragement, so we should not be surprised at the ethnic caviling. After the annulment, I recall that, when we tried to mobilize opposition to that sadistic impostor, fanatic voices of ethnic irredentism informed us bluntly, verbally and in print, that the Yoruba should go and solve their problems themselves, since we had let them down in the lead-up to the Biafran War of Secession, and should seek no collaboration from that side of the Niger.  

One recognizes, in today’s renewed voices of ethnic denigration, the same chant of a hate chorus, the fanning of divisive embers. It is gratifying therefore – and here we come to some cheering news! – that this tendency has become a source of concern to many of the leaders of that former secessionist state. It led to recent counter efforts under themes such as HANDS ACROSS THE NIGER, later followed by HANDS ACROSS THE NATION, encounters that have taken place both within the nation and outside her borders. It is crucial that those laudable initiatives continue in the same spirit of civic responsibility and nationally craved closure.

We must however sound a warning: these high-minded efforts are increasingly vitiated by the fanatic and obnoxious voices of an irrepressible handful. No, we are not speaking here of organized protests and demonstrations  to keep Biafra alive – for those of my school of thought, these are both legitimate expressions of the democratic will, and cannot be suppressed.

We refer specifically however to abrasive, irrational, and irreverent diatribes of  purveyors of unrelenting discord. Their innate proclivities are readily facilitated by that grossly polluted space – the so-called social network. Some have gone beyond recall, like the proverbial mongrel which no longer heeds the call of the hunter. They have become so blindsided that, almost under demonic possession, they heedlessly alienate sources of empathy and act against their own interests. This was prevalent in its most unfiltered density during, and after the 2019 elections.

Let the following be stated and re-stated as a personal, unwavering, socio-political conviction: The vision of a common homeland, rooted in commonality of ideas, values, culture, history and purpose, is as natural as breathing. However, the dream of such a state of collective desire is not realized by careers of deception and distortion of reality and history, any more than is the craving for a turn at the very pinnacle of governance within a polity which, for good or ill, still embraces all. On the contrary, both dreams fade, continue to recede, and may eventually remain unfulfilled in the lifetime of the purveyors of divisive filth. That would be poetic justice.

I am no believer in the juggling of score cards in order to earn the accolade of equitable dealing – find fault on ‘A’ by all means, but be sure to balance with faults from ‘B’, deserved or not. However, the following retrogressive slump in the democratic quest is fortunately, and blatantly, in the public domain and demands its place in the Index of repudiations.  

First, it was a minister, soon followed by the deputy of the incumbent himself, then other voices at various times – all advocating support for the government on the basis of ensuring “our turn” at the next electoral roulette! That primitive appeal remains one of the most dispiriting of the twists and turns in numerous calculations of that same 2019 electoral exercise, a dismal complement of the self-positioning of the earlier mentioned secession fundamentalists. If anything, the latter now had even greater justification to jettison all other parameters of political choice in favour of their own even more uncompromising, ethnic positioning.

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