Journalism in the service of society

Soyinka: ‘We must save our humanity from bigots and extremists’

*Bares literary fangs at Emir of Ilorin at presentation of his poetry collection, ‘Selected Poems (1965 – 2022): A Retrospective’

*Onobrakpeya sues for collaborations across artistic disciplines

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Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka in conversation with lawyer and award-winning poet, Tade Ipadeola and Juliet Nnaji on Sunday, July 16, 2023 at ProvidusBank Rooftop Lounge, Victoria Island, Lagos

By Anote Ajeluorou

IN apparent response to Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya’s challenge for him to find answers to horrible situations like the unfortunate Chibok Girls’ dilemma, Soyinka did not mince words before taking on the Emir of Ilorin, Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, who recently challenged him to a verbal duel that reduced the emir to the ignoble status of an enabler of murderers of school children, with the emir cheering them on in royal enjoyment.

Soyinka’s verbal assault was at the presentation of his latest book, Selected Poems(1965-2022): A Retrospective, which took place at classy rooftop lounge of Providus Bank Corporate Office in Victoria Island, Lagos, on Sunday, July 16, 2023. Soyinka was in conversation with award-winning poet and lawyer Tade Ipadeola and poet Juliet Nnaji.

Apart from dedicating two poems (‘An Anthem to Humanism’ and ‘A Vision of Peace’) to Gambari, Soyinka launched into caustic irony as a literary device to attack the royal father for his intolerance when he cancelled Isese Festival in Ilorin, Kwara State. But Soyinka, at his sarcastic best, praised Gambari to the high heavens for his exemplary behaviour and virtue of tolerance. It was an enraged Nobel laureate who laced his condemnation of Gambari with barbed, lacerating irony.

“I would like to recommend him to all of you here and, in fact, all the world as example to follow in your dealings with your fellow men, women and children. In fact, he should go further, if possible, when I outstrip him. Virtues like that lead eventually even to martyrdom. It leads to the public butchering of our children like Deborah, for instance. The kind of example, the kind of virtue I am talking about leads even to turning our fellow school children into murderers, murdering their own colleague. At a tender age, they become killers simply because of examples of tolerance, of leadership shown by figures like the emir, Sulu-Gambari.

“We know people like Sulu-Gambari, Boko Haram, ISWAP, all those who believe that theirs and only theirs is the only way of understanding and of approaching the deities. And heaven help all those who cannot follow the path they are blazing so openly, so lovingly the rest of humanity. And when some of us, of course, try to highlight their conduct, to make sure that the whole world appreciates them, they are so modest in saying that their land do not require any special garnishing. That they actually speak to themselves and therefore, we should go and sit down and mind our poetry perhaps.”

Soyinka then demanded three things from governments at the national and international levels, while castigating Gambari and other enablers of violence for their hypocritical and holier-than-thou attitude in the name of religion that they do not originate. He said even in the United Arab Emirates, the original home of Gambari’s religion, a respected level of intolerance that not only treats human beings as equals, but also gives them freedom of choice is maintained. Soyinka demanded that all files must be opened on all those who have been killed because of religious intolerance.

“All the case files must be opened on all those who have been killed because of intolerance,” he declared. “I don’t care if they were said to have abused this avatar or this prophet or not. The most important thing is that they have been extra-judicially murdered. And time and time again, these files disappear.

“The students who butchered, who killed in public, in open daylight in the presence of crown police, the students who were arrested have been released. I understand that some police command made the comment that they are not expected to go and manufacture accused or perpetrators. Imagine that kind of language coming from those who are supposed to protect us in this country. Something was done there, claims were made, the students who chased that girl into what you consider safety were known, some of them were arrested and then they were freed.

“And we say that we are living in a civilised society where royal heads like Sulu-Gambari can insist that those who happened not to believe in his own pathway, our own traditional ways of worshiping any deity whatever should be restricted. If you don’t believe in those deities, that is your problem. Follow yours. Nobody has disturbed you. Nobody has come over and said come and join us. No.

“Some people say we believe in giving honour to the goddess Osun. And we have a festival called Isese and we want to celebrate that festival. What is your goddam business to prevent them simply because you’re sitting on a throne? And yet they get away with it time and time and time again; they get away with it.

“I think it is about time to speak truth to one another. Not just to government, but truth to people. It is about time that we moved to full activity rather than reacting when our roofs have been insulted, desecrated.”

Soyinka’s second demand was that religious bigots and those who applaud and preach violence like Sulu-Gambari should be restricted from getting visas, noting, “The diplomats assist the world by denying visas to violent politicians. It happened during the last elections. They even named names. They said we’re not going to give visas to this person, we are not going to give all those who preach violence in politics, we’re not giving them visas.

“We say extend it to religious bigots; extend it to those who preach and who applaud violence in the name of religion. Let’s ask all the embassies. Say, tell your governments to assist us. These people they live here. All these hypocrites, they go to these other places. They drink to their hearts’ content, debauch themselves anyhow and they come here in the name of piety they restrict our lifestyle, our own choices.”

Soyinka’s final demand was that those who practise traditional religions should also be given annual holidays, a privilege that Christians and Muslims, who practice foreign religions, enjoy.

“It is about time we demanded on behalf of traditional religions an annual holiday like Islam and Christianity. We’ve had enough. We’ve had enough of being second-class citizens in this nation. So equal time, equal space. We demand public holidays, demand in those states, local governments and the federal government. We want an annual public holiday. Those are our three demands in this home of the Muses!”

EARLIER, Secretary General of Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), Toyin Akinosho, who was represented by Nollywood actor, Mr. Francis Onwochei, expressed delight at the gathering for Soyinka’s birthday and book launch at Providus Bank Corporate Office, Lagos.

“We have Professor Soyinka to thank for allowing us to insert an edition of the BookTrek in the programme of events around his 89th birthday anniversary,” Akinosho said.

“We saw an opening when we hosted him at the closing session of the Lagos Book and Art Festival last November and we grabbed the opportunity. This afternoon is about engagement with the poetic ouvre of Professor Soyinka; readings and conversation around Selected Poems (1965-2022): A Retrospective, a collection of 70 old and new poems written – some published, others not – in the course of the last 58 years. A retrospective indeed.

“The CORA BookTrek is a periodic author-audience interface, featuring readings, reviews and discussions of select books of searching historical and contemporary insight into the African condition. It is part of CORA’s extension services, aimed at deepening Literary Appreciation and Audience Engagement with the published text. For all intents and purposes, the BookTrek is a lifestyle advocacy: If I can wander into a musical concert uninvited, visit an art exhibition, or see a drama performance by merely buying a ticket, why can’t I join in a session of book reading? The BookTrek is not a Book Club. It is open. It is included in the city’s culture calendar.”

Akinosho highlighted some of the works CORA BookTrek has undertaken since January so far to include hosting Vincent Maduka to readings from his REEL LIFE: My Years Managing Public Service Television; Simon Kolawole’s Fellow Nigerians: It’s All Politics; Ben Egbuna’s Destiny Fulfilled (Posthumous); Musikilu Mojeed’s The Letterman: Inside the ‘Secret’ Letters of former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Uche Nwokedi’s A Shred of Fear.

CORA Secretary-General also invited everyone to participate at this year’s Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2023), from November 13-19, 2023, at Freedom Park in Lagos Island. He noted that the theme for 2023 is ‘The Reset: History and a Darkling Plain,’ adding, that for seven days, “we will discuss fictional and non-fictional historical texts that help us understand the past, learn from it and organize the future.”

To kick off Soyinka’s book launch, four readers regalled the audience with eight poems from Soyinka’s Selected Poems to give the audience a foretaste of what was to come. They were Victory Ashaka who read ‘An Anthem to Humanism’ and ‘A Vision of Peace’; Mrs. Iyabo Abaoba read ‘Massacre, October ‘66’ and ‘And What of it, if Thus He Died’; Mercy Timilehin Kelani read ‘I think it rains’ and ‘The Child Before A Mirror of Strangers’, and Francis Onwochei who also read ‘For Christopher Okigbo’ and the famous caricature poem on racism, ‘Telephone Conversation’. Soyinka would later bring the interactive session to a close by reading ‘An Anthem to Humanism’ to further underscore his earlier message to all enablers of violence and murder in the name of religion like Sulu-Gambari.

The Managing Director of Bookcraft and publisher of Soyinka, Mr. Bankole Olayebi, said the publication of Soyinka’s Selected Poems has been long overdue, saying, “there is no better time than now, and we have the book illustrated with the works of the great artist Bruce Onobrakpeya,” and urged everyone to get a copy of the book.

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Soyinka signing copies of his new boofor enthusiastic fans

While explaining his works that adorn Soyinka’s Selected Poems, Onobrakpeya recounted his last meeting with his lifelong friend, writer, activist and humanist Soyinka in San Diego, California, USA during his own ‘Retrospective’ show titled ‘Idi Owena’ (The Great Artist). He congratulated him on his 89th birthday. The 90 years’ old artist expressed the hope that he would still be around when his friend celebrates his 120th birthday to a loud guffaw from the audience. However, the great artist picked out just two works from the lot used to illustrate Soyinka’s new book to highlight certain contemporary issues plaguing Nigerian and African societies that represent the contradictions that he has had to deal with and which found expression in his works.

Onobrakpeya urged his fellow visual artists to emulate his own collaboration with Soyinka, saying they should “interact with one another the way Soyinka has consented to work with me over the years.”

The nonagenarian first work highlights the fate of all abducted schoolchildren in the country, particularly Chibok Girls, in the name of religion while the second highlights modern day slavery where people wilfully cross the Mediterranean Sea for greener pastures abroad. The Chibok Girls’ work is titled ‘Ibiero Djabaro I’ (‘Tears from the eyes’), “whose cries, the scream and the pain” are evident in the anguished contortions that the painting conveys to viewers. According to Onobrakpeya, “there’s some poetry there. The Chibok Girls remind us of the evil things going on in our society. I wonder what keeps going on in the minds of our poet, the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, when the words ‘Chibok Girls’ come up every time.

“The second image there is ‘Ibiero Djabaro II’, of a man being battered and lamenting. It reminds us a lot of things happening today. But the one that touches me the most is the fate of our people crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The people who have wilfully sold themselves to slavery, to become slaves, and who with their open eyes could enter a boat knowing fully well that the boat will surely sink in the Mediterranean Sea.”

The famous artist urged his fellow visionary artist Soyinka “to help us to contemplate what’s going on in the world, to look at these things, to give us an answer about the problems here, problems about climate change, to help us to contemplate, to help go in the direction that will help set our country aright and prevent these disasters” that stare us in the face.

The wife of the Managing Director of Providus Bank, Mrs. Winnie Akpani, while expressing gratitude for hosting the event, said it was relaxing to have such gathering in a bank and not talk about money. She added that seeing 90 years’ old Onobrakpeya and 89 years’ old Soyinka still standing upright and on their feet, and all the other writers and artists of different hues, it was apparent that “it will be nice to begin to live in their world; I see a very healthy world devoid of materialism. Every time I attend an event with Prof. Soyinka, I see how impact he’s making. I look forward to when he turns 90, so we can do something even bigger.”

The roll call was massive. From Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi, Dame Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Jimi Solanke, Chief Kayode Aderinokun, to former Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, CORA Chair and Culture Communicator, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, Erelu Abiola Dosumu, Lola Shoneyin, Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo, Toni Kan, Molara Wood, Olu Ajayi, among many others.

Soyinka then signed copies of Selected Poems for his teeming literary fans who thronged the ProvidusBank lounge to hear him speak.

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Soyinka signing copies of his new boofor enthusiastic fans

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