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OPINIONS: “Wole Soyinka, Obidients and Righteous Incivility”, by Jideofor Adibe

Wole Soyinka, arguably Africa’s best-known writer, has once again stirred the hornet’s nest with his proclamation that Peter Obi, the 2023 presidential candidate of the Labour Party is not fit to be President of the country.  He was quoted as saying that Obi’s failure to rein in his supporters from attacking others with opposing views online was a pointer that he is unfit to lead a country like Nigeria. 

Soyinka’s intervention raises a number of interesting issues: 

One, there are two heavy burdens most famous writers, activists and public intellectuals bear: the first is that they are expected to be permanently anti-establishment even when they have friends and family members in the establishment. In fact, Camilo Cela, the 1989 Spanish Nobel Laureate in Literature, helped to popularize this notion when he declared that a writer should be a denunciation of the times in which he or she lives. The second burden is that there is often a failure by critics to take into consideration the fact that such activist writers and public intellectuals (like all living systems) evolve and may have consciously or unconsciously moved away from their earlier convictions.

The point is that critics often make the mistake of abstracting and freezing a period from a writer’s or public intellectual’s career trajectory and insist on using that to define such a person. For instance, the Soyinka of The Man Died (1972), The Telephone Conversation (1963), The Trial of Brothers Jero (1963), and Ake: The Boyhood Years (1981) the same as the later Soyinka whose anti-establishment activism seemed to have stopped in 2015 when the APC came to power? One of Soyinka’s harshest critics is Adamu, the immediate past Minister of Education and one of Nigeria’s finest prose writers (though I disagree with most of his views which I find too conservative and too hard-line). Adamu Adamu consistently accused Soyinka of paganism and nativism even in his literary works.

Two, what people call an ‘insult’ is often subjectively determined.  While no one wants to promote the use of rude language, the truth is that insult – defined as an offensive language that provokes one to anger –  is protected speech in several jurisdictions including the USA. This is contrasted with what the US Constitution calls ‘fighting words,’ defined as words “which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” While rude language is protected speech in several jurisdictions, fighting words are usually criminalized as they pose “real and immediate” danger of triggering violence.

Some have in fact argued that just as anger is an art form, rudeness is also an art form. There is also the notion of ‘righteous incivility’, that is, rudeness motivated by moral concerns or the quest for justice by a weaker party in asymmetrical exchanges. Usually, supporters of any candidate feel there is a deliberate attempt by a powerful person to de-market their candidate. In that case, some will invariably resort to ‘righteous incivility’, to also de-market the purveyor of such a hatchet job, hoping that through the aphorism of ‘the messenger is the message’, the impact of the attack on the person they support will be mitigated. This is probably one of the reasons why rudeness is never regarded as defamatory in any jurisdiction.

Three, most people who complain of being insulted by ‘social media warriors’ are ‘powerful’ people who throw the first punch, and when their victims or supporters respond, they turn around to play the victim. For instance, when the respected Soyinka called supporters of Peter Obi ‘fascists’ or declared that Peter Obi was not fit to rule the country, did he not realize that such were also insults? Certainly, anyone who does not want to be insulted by people online can simply block such people from sending messages to them or refrain from throwing the first punch.

In essence, most of the people claiming to have been insulted by social media activists want to use such allegations to achieve an ulterior end – usually to de-market a candidate through de-marketing the candidate’s supporters – which I honestly believe was what Soyinka set out to do despite masking his intentions in Soyinkarist obfuscations and demagoguery.  Any honest political observer knows that the supporters of the three main political parties are equally guilty of whatever anyone can accuse one group of. Therefore, to isolate one group of supporters and pretend the others are saints is a clear giveaway of the person’s partisanship.

Fourth, during the 2023 elections, the likes of Bayo Onanuga and Femi Fani Kayode used fighting words, clearly criminalized in most jurisdictions, to weaponize ethnicity in Lagos State (of course there are also people on the other side who did the same but they are not of interest here since their party is not in power). Yet, despite Onanuga openly proclaiming himself a Yoruba irredentist, the Tinubu government rewarded him with a frontline position in his government, suggesting an endorsement of his abominable actions during the elections.

Similarly, one Reno Omokri, who in the run-up to the 2023 presidential election constantly translated into Hausa language issues that he knew were capable of inciting Northern youths against the Igbo, and who recently seemed to have been commissioned to attack Peter Obi and by innuendo the Igbo race, appears to have been embraced by the Tinubu government. He not only had a photo-op with Nuhu Ribadu, the National Security Adviser, but the government also sent a congratulatory message to him on his birthday – even though his highest accomplishment in life seemed to be the minor role he played in the Jonathan government. The well-respected Soyinka saw no evil and spoke no evil. 

Five, from identity studies we learn that identities that are perceived to be under threat are the ones most vociferously defended.  For this, when Wole Soyinka attacks Peter Obi in a barely concealed partisan manner, many people who share the same ethnic identity as Obi will feel also attacked by innuendo. The same also goes when Soyinka is attacked by the Igbos – several people who share the same Yoruba ancestry as Soyinka will similarly feel insulted by innuendo.

The consequence will be an exacerbation of the already problematic relationship between the Igbo and the Yoruba. Soyinka ought to have been mindful of this fact.  Not surprisingly, whenever Soyinka or Achebe is dragged into the Igbo-Yoruba rivalry, a concomitant question of who ought to have won the Nobel Prize that Soyinka won in 1986 would also crop up. I think such a debate is irrelevant as Soyinka and Achebe play in different arenas of literature – Soyinka is primarily a playwright while Achebe is primarily a novelist. 

Six, many people are attracted to Soyinka not necessarily because of his literary works but because of his activism, self-assuredness that borders on artistic mischief, originality of thoughts, defiance, and even what some called his elevation of rudeness as an art form. For instance, at a conference in Berlin in 1964, Soyinka famously dismissed the self-promotion of the Negritude movement with this inimitable quote: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigeritude. he pounces.” In his prison notes, The Man Died (1972), he told us that “in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny, the man dies.”  Recently, I watched Soyinka in a TV interview warning the ‘Obidients’ that if he ever met them in a blind alley, they would feel the strength of his 90-year-old fist. It is difficult to resist chuckling as I imagined Soyinka, who would be 90 years old on 13 July 2024, in a fisticuff with the youngsters that could be his grandchildren. But it is vintage Soyinka.  Even at his age, he remains strong and intellectually alert – to the glory of God!

Between 2007 and 2010, my publishing firm, Adonis & Abbey Publishers (www.adonis-abbey.com), incubated and published the journal, African Performance Review, for the African Theatre Association, which listed Wole Soyinka as one of its patrons. Many members of the Association were ardent Soyinka ‘disciples,’ and they regaled me with stories of Soyinka’s reported ‘artistic mischiefs.’ Let me share just a few: Soyinka reportedly said that several women kept pestering him to have children with him in the hope that they would beget geniuses. He was said to have told them, “Whenever I can, I help’. In another story, he was reportedly asked why he did not try to get a PhD, given his obvious brilliance. He was said to have retorted, “But who would mark it?”.

Let me mention that while my firm was publishing African Performance Reviews for the African Theatre Association, one of Soyinka’s most ardent ‘disciples,’ the late Esiaba Irobi, was pressurizing me to start a journal, which he called the ‘Soyinka Journal.’ Apart from my discomfort in dealing with Esiaba’s famed ‘artistic temperament,’ I pleaded with him that an academic journal built around the works of one scholar would not be sustainable. I favored a journal of African literary studies that dealt with the works of several African writers. We were still conversing when Esiaba transited on 3 May 2010, aged 50.  Probably inspired by that conversation, several years later, precisely in 2020, I honored that discussion by setting up the Journal of African Languages and Literary Studies, which in December 2024, was accepted for indexing by the highly regarded SCOPUS, one of the two dominant global benchmarks for measuring the standard and impact of academic journals.

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The opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author, and does not necessarily align with the views of JolibaLive News! or any of its staff members. The author is in no way associated with this online news blog.
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Jideofor Adibe
Jideofor Adibehttp://www.adonis-abbey.com
Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nasarawa State University and founder of Adonis & Abbey Publishers

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