Op-Ed: Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka Reflects on What Feels Like 'Déjà Vu—In Tragic Vein'

Playwright and poet Wole Soyinka, of Nigeria, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, listens during award ceremonies for the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013.
Playwright and poet Wole Soyinka, of Nigeria, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, listens during award ceremonies for the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013.
Photo: Steven Senne (AP)

I arrived home from external commitments just over a week ago to an extraordinary homecoming gift. It took the form of a movement—sometimes angry, sometimes entrancing, poignant, sometimes strident, certainly robust in expectations but always moving, visionary and organized. That movement demanded an end to [brutality] from state security agencies, focusing on a notorious unit known as SARS. But of course, SARS merely stood for the parasitic character of governance itself, in all ramifications. That dimension—albeit not in those very terms, of course—was acknowledged by the first formal response of government, delivered through the vice president.

Advertisement

The movement involved members of the Nigerian Bar Association, feminist groups, professionals, technocrats, students, prelates, industrial institutions, and artists—writers, cineastes, actors, musicians. It was markedly a youthful movement, its energy, creativity and resolve diffused throughout the nation through impressive strategies. It was, above all, orderly. In places, one felt vibrations that seemed to echo concert grounds like Woodstock; other times, the massed processions of France’s yellow vests or waves of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. Even closer, more recently and pertinent, the patient, stoical gatherings in Mali that lasted weeks and in whose resolution our own nation played a critical role. As I stated in my Message to Youth at the Freedom Park 10th anniversary events on Saturday, Oct. 17, these youths brought fresh blood into tired veins. It was bliss indeed to be alive, to watch youths finally begin to take the future into their own hands.

People hold banners as they demonstrate on the street to protest against police brutality, in Lagos, Nigeria, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. After 13 days of protests against police brutality, authorities have imposed a 24-hour curfew in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city in an attempt to quell growing violence.
People hold banners as they demonstrate on the street to protest against police brutality, in Lagos, Nigeria, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. After 13 days of protests against police brutality, authorities have imposed a 24-hour curfew in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city in an attempt to quell growing violence.
Photo: Sunday Alamba (AP)
Advertisement

But—and haven’t we been here before?—suddenly, virtually overnight, it all changed. State security services—which specific branch, we have yet to identify—transported thugs to break up the protests. The videos exist, they have been widely disseminated—sleek motorcades with number plates covered—moved to recruit and disgorge thugs and breeds of hoodlums to break up the peaceful protests. Those mercenaries set fire to the protesters’ vehicles where parked, set upon the gathered youths with cudgels and machetes. They broke open at least one prison to let out the inmates. It has since been established that some of those vandals were actually recruited prisoners who, we can only presume, have been paid not only in cash but in kind. Casualties began in single, sporadic numbers, climaxing in the shooting deaths of a yet undetermined number of protesters in a Lagos sector called Lekki.

The mood and climate of protest changed abruptly and devastatingly with that diabolical intrusion. For the first time, anger and nihilism entered the lists, moving to dominate emotions. Organized militancy has been replaced by vengeful, omnidirectional hatred. The capital, Abuja, has been torched in places, including the famous Apo market—that name itself evoking memories of an ancient massacre of youth—known as the APO Six—by SARS. On Tuesday, Oct. 20, I set out to drive to my hometown, Abeokuta, to be on my own turf as the violence was spiraling mindlessly in multiple directions. After negotiating my way through some eight or nine protesters’ roadblocks, I was compelled to turn back. It was all déjà vu—the uprisings in the former Western Region of Nigeria, the anti-Abacha movement, etc., etc., etc. The attempt, however, enabled me to assess the mood and transformation of the movement. I was better prepared. I rescheduled my trip for the following morning.

In the meantime, however—that is, within the next eight to ten hours—the tension became unimaginable! At that [aforementioned] Lagos sector, Lekki, where most of the affirmative action gatherings had taken place, soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing and wounding a yet undetermined number. One such extrajudicial killing has drenched the Nigerian flag in the blood of innocents—and not symbolically. The video has, in accustomed parlance, ‘gone viral’. I have spoken by phone to eyewitnesses. One, a noted public figure has shared his first-hand testimony on television. The government should cease to insult this nation with petulant denials.

Advertisement

I resumed my trip to Abeokuta at 6 am [Wednesday] morning as scheduled, again negotiating roadblocks—this time, somewhere between twelve and fifteen, all distinguished by an implacable state of rage. It was in stark contrast to the inclusivity of the protesting ‘family of common cause’ of earlier days. All inherent beauty of instant bonding and solidarity [had] evaporated. At the block just before the Lagos Secretariat, the protesters proved the most recalcitrant. In the end, they exacted from me just the one offering to the rites of passage—I could sense it coming—I had to come down from the car and address them. I did. Little did they know what was churning in my mind: This is not real. This is Back to Abacha—in grotesque replay!  

It is absolutely essential to let this government know that the army has now replaced SARS in the demonic album of the protesters. My inquiry so far indicates that the Lagos governor did not invite in the army, did not complain of a ‘breakdown in law and order’. Nevertheless, the [Center] has chosen to act in an authoritarian manner and has inflicted a near incurable wound on the community psyche. Need I add that, on arrival in Abeokuta, my hometown, I again had to negotiate a roadblock? That went smoothly enough; I expected it, and have no doubt that more are being erected as this is being written.

Advertisement

It is pathetic and unimaginative to claim, as some have done, that the continued protest is hurting the nation’s economy, etc., etc. COVID-19 has battered the Nigerian economy—such as it is—for over eight months. Of course, it is not easy to bring down COVID under a hail of bullets—human lives are easier targets, and there are even trophies to flaunt as evidence of victory—such as the blood-soaked Nigerian flag that one of the victims was waving at the time of his murder.

Alister, a protester who says his brother Emeka died from a stray bullet from the army, reacts while speaking to Associated Press near Lekki toll gate in Lagos, Nigeria, Tuesday Oct. 20, 2020. After 13 days of protests against alleged police brutality, authorities have imposed a 24-hour curfew in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, as moves are made to stop growing violence.
Alister, a protester who says his brother Emeka died from a stray bullet from the army, reacts while speaking to Associated Press near Lekki toll gate in Lagos, Nigeria, Tuesday Oct. 20, 2020. After 13 days of protests against alleged police brutality, authorities have imposed a 24-hour curfew in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, as moves are made to stop growing violence.
Photo: Sunday Alamba (AP)
Advertisement

To the affected governors all over the nation, there is one immediate step to take: demand the withdrawal of those soldiers. Convoke town hall meetings as a matter of urgency. 24-hr curfews are not the solution. Take over the security of your people with whatever resources you can rummage. Substitute community self-policing based on local councils to curb hooligan infiltration and extortionist and destructive opportunism. We commiserate with the bereaved and urge state governments to compensate for material losses, wherever. To commence any process of healing at all—dare one assume that this is the ultimate destination of desire?—the army must apologize, not merely to the nation but to the global community. The facts are indisputable—you, the military, opened fire on unarmed civilians. There has to be structured restitution and assurance that such aberrations will not again be recorded.

Then, both governance and its security arms can commence a meaningful, lamentably overdue dialogue with society. Do not attempt to dictate—Dialogue!

Advertisement

Wole Soyinka

11 a.m., October 21, 2020


Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright, poet, essayist and educator who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

saulderrity
Chuck_Wagon

First of all, the fact that my comment says I am addressing Wole Soyinka is completely tripping me out. Well done to The Root! It’s articles like this that remind me that this website is so much more than just another news blog. Like the Jim Crow-era Chicago Defender or the apartheid-era Drum magazine, The Root is really providing a seminal contribution to social discourse, and please give us lots more op-eds like this.

I personally owe a great deal of my intellectual and moral development to the writings of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Flora Nwapa. So often in the west, writers from other parts of the world are not properly integrated into our educational curriculum. I’m luck to have had a middle school teacher that had us read “Things Fall Apart,” and as an adult I was able to explore the incredible literary and cultural contribution Nigeria has made to the world. I have been reading the stories coming from Lagos, and I am reminded how unimportant national borders and divisions are becoming. What these Nigerians want is what we are fighting for in this country, and what people all over the world are currently fighting against. It’s like the great James Baldwin said, “I simply want to be able to raise my children in peace, and arrive at my own maturity in my own way in peace.” I wish us all success.

Ile oba t’o jo, ewa lo busi.