Between Truths and Indulgences, Part Two

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Read part I of Wole Soyinka's piece here.

Fascination with the slave trade as part of my own history, right from elementary school, was as routine as that generation's immersion in — for example — local mythology. The most notorious part of this human misadventure, unarguably the transatlantic slave trade, was the stuff on which we were weaned quite early, almost uniformly narrated from the point of view of the altruistic efforts to end it. It was, after all, a missionary school.


Well, the years passed, knowledge deepened, and even before my encounter with sobering landmarks such as the slave forts of Elmina Castle, Cape Castle in Ghana, Goree Island in Senegal or the Calabar fort in Nigeria that now serves as a prison, my generation had become acquainted with history-book figures. There was King Jaja of Opobo in Eastern Nigeria, the Mobee family in Badagry, proud preservers of a family slavery museum complete with restraining and punitive equipment for difficult slaves, and, closer to my own home in Abeokuta, legendary characters such as Madame Tinubu, a powerful politician and nationalist of the colonial era after whom is named a now congested square in Nigeria's Lagos. The Tinubus are a famous Lagosian family whose wealth was made from trade in palm oil, clothing, guns, gunpowder and — slaves. Several works have been written about this remarkable woman, including a Yoruba play by Akin Isola, a well-known dramatist. Madame Tinubu was sufficiently powerful to aspire to be a kingmaker, an unusual role for a woman. From a fascination with narrated history evolved an obsession with phenomenon: human enslavement.

It began to strike me as distinctly odd, somewhat surreal, that the political power wielded by this woman, one that enabled her to confront the colonial administrators, owed its source substantially to the trade in her fellow humans. In addition, it would appear that part of the source of her contentions with the British colonial office was over her resolve to continue with a trade to which the erstwhile British malefactors were now opposed. The same sense of contradiction was provided by some of the northern emirs in outposts of the Islamic caliphate, or indeed the colorful King Jaja of Opobo, who once drove his European rivals off the scene in the battle to exercise a monopoly on trade—palm oil and, of course, slaves.

From a lifetime of immersion in the history of the enslavement of one's own people, which no one located and educated in situ sanely attempts to deny or revise, with a plethora of scholarly works on the interior life of the slave phenomenon, and its exterior manifestation across the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, across the Sahara and in the Middle East, it has been most bemusing to encounter a related phenomenon: the stubborn resistance, in one of the outposts of the black Diaspora, to aspects of truths that narrate the origins of their dispersal. I find it a strange aberration, a self-imposed ghetto obstinacy of a part that does little to enhance the intellectual repute of the African-American community. That phase, at least in its former crudeness, is at least being repudiated. Nonetheless, it still needs to be remarked that this willed condition — the refus al to confront history in its fullest implications — has led black leaders of the Diaspora in recent past to embrace — at the expense of their kinfolk on the black continent — the heirs and perpetuators of slave-master tradition, the Mobutu Sese Sekos, the Idi Amins, the Macias Nguemas, Sanni Abachas, Omar al-Bashirs and company.

These monstrosities can do no wrong; it is their critics who are brain-washed western lackeys. It is easy enough to dismiss those who persist in believing that the first successful African slave revolt took place in Haiti. Arab historians have themselves established the contrary, and in contemporaneous detail, so that it is near common knowledge that a revolt of epical dimensions took place at least a millennium earlier, in the salt marshes of Iraq. Those who prefer to believe that the annual Feok Festival staged in the northern extremities of Ghana — a festival that celebrates the resistance against, and defeat of, notorious African and Afro/Berber slavers like Samouri Toure and Babatou — is an event of mistaken identity, a cultural hallucination that should truthfully star only non-locals. Blue-eyed and flaxen-haired intruders should now be left severely alone. There are more pressing issues that beset us on African soil.

The holding slave camps and markets of the Bolgatanga region — Pikworo, Paga, Gwolu, Jenini, etc. — deep into the West African interior exist till today as reminders of Africa's deep, internally inflicted wounds in that era of the slave trade. There are exhumed cairns of bones from slave burial mounds — a work of preservation undertaken by, among others, the Ghanaian historian Akosua Perbi and archaeologist Yaw Bredwan-Mensah. Unfortunately, the slave burial mounds have been interrupted by local sensibilities and politics. Still, for some of us, such sites stand as precursors of the Museums of Horrors preserved in Rwanda, Africa's rendition of the ''final solution,'' reminding one that the wheel of human viciousness continues to roll over the defenseless across the centuries. Rafi Angalu, the River of Vultures — named for the disposal of slaves by their owners — cannot fail to evoke memories of Idi Amin's penchant for feeding his political enemies to the Nile crocodiles.

No matter the still-fashionable denial by our kinfolk among African-American leadership at that time, some of whom, including stalwarts of America's own liberation roll of honor, even set up ''embassies'' for the recruitment of black migrants to the liberation land of a psychopath. Survivors of Africa's share in leadership dementia across the world cannot afford the lofty solidarity of race that discriminates against the voiceless.


That continent of Africa — 17 among its constituent nations — marks her 50th year of independence from foreign rule. Most of those nations cannot afford the expected splurge in the rites of celebration. There is a commodity, however, that is nearly without outlay, without overheads and without any risk of sinking African nations deeper into bankruptcy, especially of the moral kind: Truth. A frank confrontation with the past, commencing close to the present and reaching far back as the spirit of enquiry chooses to go. For some of us, the urgent mission is to ensure that the continent truly overindulges itself in that priceless but accessible commodity of celebration. I find the proposition of President Barack Obama being personally placed as an arbiter in this process needlessly controversial, an avoidable distraction. Nonetheless, between the ascent of a product of that continent to a position at the world's pinnacle of power, and the failed expectations of 50 years of self-rule on the mother continent itself, there hover some unpalatable truths over the continent's history. It is difficult to project a better time than now in the uncensored apprehension of that history, its appraisal and its lessons.

The foregoing takes no issue whatsoever with the claims of the African-American people in the project of reparations — symbolic or material. Despite the ascension of an African descendant to the leadership of a notorious slave encampment, the business of full restoration of African-American humanity remains unfinished, and reparations in one form or the other — affirmative action was a variant — may lead to ultimate closure of a lacerating chapter. That cause remains on an active agenda of social restitution in which Africans on the home continent have, as clearly indicated, a vested interest. It instigates present and future generations to press the project of self-examination, but also of a candid interrogation of the past in the direction of all beneficiaries from the degradation of African humanity — from the Arab world through the African continent itself to the Americas and beyond. And let us at least improve on the fateful designation of the African race at the hands of the two slavery-enabling religions: Islam and Christianity. Let us repudiate, once for all, all contemporary intellectual versions of the absolution trade in ''papal'' indulgences.


Wole Soyinka, a native of Nigeria, was the 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.