Wole Soyinka on Obama's Choice

The Nobel Laureate dissects the message the president's trip to Ghana should send to the corrupt and failing states of Africa.

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Wole Soyinka in Nigeria in 2006 (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

The saddest song to have come out of Africa in recent times was actually composed as a song of celebration, written to mark the ascendancy of an African American to the presidency of the United States of America. It was a musical tribute by a Kenyan, and the lyrics say simply: “It is easier for a Luo to be president of the United States than to become the president of Uganda.”

The Luo are, of course, one of Kenya’s minority nationalities. Obama’s triumph took place, it will be recalled, after one of the most devastating riots ever witnessed in Kenya. It lasted weeks, left entire townships wiped off the face of Nairobi and environs, claimed hundreds of lives—many of them through singularly bestial forms of butchery. The panga reigned supreme. Those days were reminiscent—minus the scale—of the Rwandan massacres. Among the walking survivors are men who are traumatized for life, having been subjected to forced sexual mutilation. The cause? Denial of a people’s right to choose their own leader through the ballot box—that endemic curse of the modern African state. Kenya, nonetheless, made a claim on Obama as the logical spot for his first presidential touchdown on black African soil. It should have been an occasion to be celebrated in festive accents as the return of the native son. If sentiment indeed weighed more on the scale of entitlements than humanity itself, the Kenyan claim would be universally unassailable.

The other, and indeed more presumptuous claimant to Barack Obama’s recognition on his first presidential visit to the continent is, of course, mine, Nigeria. The Nigerian nation has not witnessed an uprising on allied scale to Kenya’s in the last few decades, not since in the mid-1960s when a similar, but far less wholesale, indiscriminate campaign of arson and killings took place in a region that an incoming head of state came to designate “the Wild, Wild West.” There was also the more recent spate of butchery in a northern state or two, but neither came close to matching the sheer brutality of the Kenyan scenario.

Nigeria cannot be ranked, needless to say, any higher on the democratic scale than Kenya, even though electoral robbery did not result in such mayhem, any more than it has led to a protracted civil war like the one that devastated the Ivory Coast in recent times. Nonetheless, it is important to remind ourselves that the Biafran War of secession that began in 1966 did not lack for flammable tributaries from accumulated electoral injustices. Memories of that war, and the fear of an even more nation-destabilizing repeat have contributed to the seeming accommodativeness of the Nigerian people toward a now deeply entrenched project of national disenfranchisement. Only the complacent, however, dare eliminate possibilities of an eventual explosion from the suppressed rage that stems from civic dispossession, and the air of impunity that surrounds the incorrigible perpetrators. Indeed, this inevitability is seen by many—both insiders and outside observers—as only a matter of time. Since the debilitation of civil society through decades of military rule, Nigerians freely use the expression “internal colonialism” as the readiest expression of the continuing suppression of popular will, an orchestrated democratic denial that operates in relay, and is sustained by a select hegemony resolved to remain in perpetual control of the nation. Offering nothing in return, this unproductive cabal has become increasingly arrogant and contemptuous in its dismissal of even a pragmatic semblance of a gesture toward fair dealing that sometimes salves the pride and dignity of a people.

This, then, is the background from which one listens to, or reads of, plaints of resentment and indignation from government cheerleaders at Obama’s symbolic boycott of the “Giant of Africa.” They are lost to the irony of laying claim to recognition by a product of electoral equity, an African American who came to power in a once openly racist nation through the ballot box. Such complainants are not stupid; however, they are merely actors in a script of diabolical cynicism. How else it is possible for such politicians to conceive that a leader like Barack Obama, who has ascended to power through a respect for the manifested will of a people, would actually lend his presence to dignify any state that demonstrably rejects, indeed actively ridicules, the very means that brought him, Barack Obama, to power? Blood, they say, is thicker than water. Obama’s gesture is intended to inform nations such as Kenya and Nigeria that neither blood nor oil courses thicker than equity.

The very astuteness of Barack Obama, one that dictated the strategy of a political campaign that catapulted him to victory from the underdog position of a rank outsider, should have informed the “patriotic” cheerleaders of African misgovernance that they can expect no preferential consideration from the 44th president of America. This, just to refresh memories, was a candidate who ensured from the beginning that he would break with corporate patronage and thus, indebtedness, and rely largely on the mass contribution of cents and pennies to ensure a mandate of maximum independence. By contrast, behold the permanent indentureship of the Nigerian power base, not merely to the moneyed oligarchy, but to the most corrupt, indeed criminal elements within that disreputable oligarchy. Nigeria is a nation that repeatedly blows its chances to stand tall, to present to the world a massively endowed colossus, bestriding the continent with the over-abundant productive genius of its people and the generosity of nature’s resources.

What, instead, has been the actuality? A plague of incontinent rulers in relay, some in military uniform, others in civilian clothing, but all clones of one another, united in a commitment to unabashed profligacy, mutually assisted corruption and, to add insult to injury, an obsessive hankering for self-perpetuation, necessitating the cultivation of outright disdain for the elementary right of their citizens to a voice in leadership choice. Is this truly a nation that deserves the recognition, much less a gesture of respect, from any democratically elected leader of the world, and one especially of such unprecedented political significance for the African continent itself?

A decade ago, needless to say, Ghana would also have been a non-contender. But the continent has witnessed, and remains envious of, the transformation that has taken place in Ghana, an internal process of self-recovery that nearly matches that of the United States in her transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. Among the attributes of intelligence is the ability to create or recognize the opportunity for self-renewal. Nigerians, at home or residing in the United States during the past decade, have not been slow to observe that the eight previous years in U.S. governance were uncannily paralleled within Nigeria—eight years of waste, deception, divisiveness and corruption, of advancing bankruptcy, eight years of arrogant subversion of democratic norms … all spearheaded by a man from whom the nation, the continent and the world expected so much, eight years that sent the nation spiraling into a reverse momentum that has earned it the humiliating designation of a “failed state.”

Should an incoming product of the repudiation of such a shared past compromise his mandate by a significant visit to the other half, while it remains fixated and unrepentant in its perpetuation of that disreputable past?

The homecoming son knows that the Delta, Nigeria’s sole economic provider, for which all prior and potential modes of productivity have been jettisoned, is up in flames. I have wondered sometimes, by the way, whether it is a coincidence that one of the handful of officers of which the Nigerian army can be truly proud, now a retired colonel, has taken to ostrich farming not far from Abuja, the seat of government. It cannot be by accident. Sooner or later, I think he reasons, the occupants of So Rock, and the profligate “representatives” of the Nigerian people in the legislative houses will recognize the message of the ostrich, its fabled habit of burying its head in the sand of unconcern while the wind ruffles and exposes its behind. These days, it is no longer the wind, it is the fire, and only the ostrich does not yet recognize that its rear feathers are aflame. That is the lesson of the Delta uprising.