In recent weeks Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, multiple award winning writer, Chimamanda Adichie, and supporters of Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party in the 25 February 2023 presidential election (otherwise known as Obidients), have been trending. The backgrounds were an interview granted by Datti Baba Ahmed in which he was quoted as saying that whoever “swears in Mr Tinubu has ended democracy in Nigeria.” Elsewhere Dr Datti Baba Ahmed was also quoted as saying that Nigeria does not have a President-elect. The conversation took a different turn when Soyinka criticised the comments by Dr Datti Baba Ahmed, saying: “I have never heard anyone threaten the judiciary on television the way Datti did. I heard the kind of menacing, blackmailing language that we were treated to by Datti. That kind of do-or-die attitude and provocation is not what I think we have all been struggling for.” Soyinka also challenged Datti Baba Ahmed to a television debate which the latter rightly declined.
Responding to the critical responses that followed his Channels interview Professor Soyinka issued a statement entitled ‘Fascism on course’ in which he criticised the Obidients and argued that the “seeds of incipient fascism in the political arena have evidently matured.” He also called Obidients “the Republic of Liars.” Earlier, Chimamanda had on April 6 2023, published an open letter to Joe Biden in the US paper, The Atlantic, in which she urged the US President not to congratulate Bola Ahmed Tinubu as doing so would amount to legitimizing an election she thought was rigged.
There are several issues raised by the interventions of both Soyinka and Chimamanda Adichie in the contestations between the supporters of Obi and Tinubu:
One, though the outcome of the presidential and governorship elections is being challenged in court, the contending political parties rightly recognize that there is also the court of public opinion to which they are competing to sell their perspectives. In this sense the two global literary icons taking obvious sides in the contest for public opinion (which the contending parties obviously hope will also sway the judges at the tribunal) was perceived by each side as an attempt to use the echo of their big literary voices to skew the contest to their disadvantage.
Two, activists like Wole Soyinka who have spent most of their lives as system critics are often boxed in a manner that that they are not permitted to have feelings or cherish relationships that will seem to contradict their public persona. This was perhaps what Camilo Cela, the 1989 Spanish Nobel Prize winner in literature had in mind when he said that a writer should be a denunciation of the time in which he/she lives. Though Soyinka does not come out to openly admit this, one senses a tension between certain unrealistic expectations of him as a system critic and his appreciation of his friends in the APC government who have shown him love and affection. Did Karl Marx not probably face the same tension when his best known collaborator Friedrich Engels not only had contradictory roles of being a successful business man, an activist and a journalist but also had a father who was an owner of large textile factories – the same class of capitalists that Marx inveighed against? Like most people system critics also tend to become more nativist as they get older.
Three, Soyinka, the wordsmith, has always taken liberty with the English language so when he described the Obidients as a ‘Republic of liars” or Datti Baba Ahmed’s position on the inauguration of Tinubu as “do-or-die attitude and provocation”, we can surmise that Soyinka is once again taking poetic licence with language. If you add to this the fact that his literary oeuvre seems to be a fusion of anger, obstinacy and celebration of facility with the English language, it becomes easier to understand his mode of engaging both the Obidients and Datti Ahmed. For regular folks however, apart from the incorrect assertion by Dr Datti Baba Ahmed that Nigeria does not have a President elect, there was nothing “do or die” in his position on the judiciary which others do not express regularly.
Four, Soyinka also miswrote when he assumed that the Obidients are a homogenous, centrally organized group rather than a loosely aggregated movement with different tendencies which are united only by their support for the aspirations of Peter Obi. In this movement could be found sub groups like neo Endsarists, educated urbane dwellers, higher-end intellectuals, different ethnic factions of young people with their own agenda and of course irreverent keyboard warriors who seem to spoil for a fight on a whim. It is therefore misleading for many people to take the latter fraction of the Obidient movement as representative of the entire movement. Besides, this fraction of the movement is largely harmless because they operate mainly in the social media, and if you do not want their ‘nuisance’, you can lock your account from them or block them. Similarly, to pick on Obidients and leave out Tinubu’s social media trolls who seem to have been planted on several platforms where they can be even more irritating than the ‘irreverent Obidients’ exposed him to accusations of bias. In politics, once you throw your hat into the ring, people will trample on it – irrespective of the splendour around the hat.
Five, it is unfortunate but understandable given how far our social distance has widened that those critiquing Soyinka’s and Chimamanda’s intervention are introducing ethnic elements into it all. But being proud of your ethnic ancestry, supporting a candidate of the same ethnic group or having friends and benefactors of the same ethnic origin does not make one an ethnic supremacist. For one to be an ethnic bigot, one has to be guilty of promoting the conflictual elements in the ethnic ‘we-versus them’ dichotomy. Besides, Nigeria’s literary landscape, especially of old, was driven by a triumvirate – Achebe was the master novelist; Soyinka the genius playwright while JP Clarke was the admirable bard/ poet. People trying to compare Soyinka with Achebe are therefore comparing apples with oranges.
Six, what I find unfortunate is that in the quest by the contending parties to control the narrative, expressions of opinions, the bedrock of the marketplace of ideas that sustains democracy, are being criminalized. To put this in context, in the landmark case of New York Times v Sullivan (1964), it was established that opinions honestly held, even if the facts on which such opinions were formed were wrong, could be valid defences in defamation proceedings. This came to be known as the ‘actual malice standard’ or the ‘Sullivan rule’.
Seven, did Chimamanda’s open letter to Joe Biden amount to colonial mentality? Perhaps it did. But then Nigerian politicians and others are all guilty of it. In the run-up to the 2023 presidential election, did our politicians not troop to Chatham House in the United Kingdom for a validation? And when Tinubu was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, did Tinubu’s supporters not celebrate that? Whether winning an election in Nigeria is enough to make one among the 100 most influential people in the world is however left for Time magazine to answer especially given that past winners of presidential elections in the country or even most of the winners in bigger democracies have not been so honoured.
Jideofor Adibe is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Nasarawa State University, Keffi and Extraordinary Professor of Government Studies at North Western University, Mafikeng South Africa. He is also the founder of Adonis & Abbey Publishers and can be reached at 0705 807 8841(Text or WhatsApp only).