By Prof. Niyi Osundare
Our history as human beings is anything but clean, rational, or innocent. It has always been a pecking order in which more powerful countries prey on weaker ones, and stronger people oppress and exploit the not so strong, a situation which lends immortal credence to Shakespeare’s Albany in his grim observation: “Humanity must perforce prey on itself/Like monsters of the deep”, and what Wole Soyinka, our own WS, once called the unending cycle of human stupidity. We have frequently moved from revolution to revisionism; from wedding train to funeral hearse, from the high-minded internationalism of the Obama era to the narrow-minded ultra-nationalism of the Trump regime.
And it is at this juncture that I consider a note of warning not just necessary but vitally imperative. The way things have been going in the past 12 months, it should be clear enough for the blind to see, loud enough for the deaf to hear, and sufficiently simple for the dim-witted to grasp, that we are all witnessing the possibility of another World War. About that war, many prescient commentators are saying it is now a matter of when, not if. With the sabre rattling going on between the young King in Pyongyang and the old Emperor in Washington, it is only a matter of time before the crude verbal missiles between these two hot up into nuclear conflagration. The plot is ready for a gigantic human tragedy: on one side a rash, unstable, ruler with a severe empathy deficit and dreadful bout of malignant narcissism, on the other a young, inexperienced maximum ruler with one of the world’s largest armies under his firm control; the former needing a nuclear assault to appease his bloated ego and justify the ‘red line’ he has drawn with his intemperate rhetoric, the latter needing a nuclear offensive to secure his hold on power and demonstrate his dominance over the Korea Peninsula. Two perfect antagonists in a tragedy of possible apocalyptic proportions.
Permit me to borrow a line from a recent poem of mine and say again: Global Humanity must “borrow a lamp from the past to light our future”. At the end of the First World War, a war-ravaged Europe surveyed the mountains of dead, wasted human beings, the wilderness of destroyed cities, the squadrons of vultures and crows in a visibly bewildered sky, the chronic tremor of savagely traumatized populations, and vowed ‘never again’! Barely 15 years after the end of that war, a rabid ultra-nationalist with fustian rhetoric came to power in Germany, canvased and entrenched the myth of Aryan superiority, precipitated the Jewish Holocaust, commenced an expansionist war against European neighbours, and plunged the world into the Second World War. This war surpassed its predecessor in its utter barbarity and mindless devastation. The hydrogen bomb made its triumphal entry as the world’s new weapon of mass extermination. Since then, the so-called developed countries of the world have perfected the science of human annihilation as a symbol and measure of their power and added a truly MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) imperative to the protocol of international diplomacy.
Iniquitous nuclear non-proliferation declarations have tricked the world into believing that nuclear weapons are perfectly safe in the possession of the advanced countries who already have them in tons and megatons, and who are doing everything legal or illegal to prevent new members from joining their nuclear club. No thinking could be more dishonest, more dangerous, and more untenable. To corroborate this assertion, let us remember the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in the United States, the 1986 nuclear fiasco in Chernobyl, in Ukraine, and the 2011 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan. No nuclear plant is safe anywhere, anytime, and in the custody of anybody. Which is why the world has to be aware of the dangers in having the fingers of the two current gladiators so close to the nuclear button. A nuclear war is a lose-lose encounter: no victor, millions vanquished. Unless urgent care is taken, our world stands the risk of flaring up into an apocalypse of ashes.
History has shown that there is no creature like the human being. We are capable of instituting the loftiest science and succumbing to the most ridiculous superstition; we are capable of the noblest and most magnificent creations, and also the most brutish and most destructive; we are noted for the kindest and most humane disposition, but also the cruelest, and most sadistic inclinations.
This is the time for Global Humanity to throw in their lot with the forces of Life. Time to speak out, loud and clear against shallow, narcissistic pseudo-nationalists who dream up walls of severance, and convert ethnic/cultural difference into costly disadvantage; mindless despots who dismiss civility, press freedom, and the rule of law as mere “political correctness”. Our fate and that of our children are too precious to leave in the hands of politicians who tout party loyalty and damage the world behind the mask of their opportunistic silence. Their overriding interest, always, is in the next election, never in our common future. As the Yoruba say, erun oni loni mii ko m’eje (It is with your own mouth you say “I will never eat the rubbish you are offering me”). And as another saying goes, all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to be silent. A silent majority has already degraded themselves into an irrelevant minority. There are too many acts of injustice in this world, too many wars, too many refugees, too many refugee camps, too many victims deprived of dignity, drained of hope. There is too much hate, too much fundamentalism and its concomitant bigotry and blindness. Our present world is too unequal to be just, too unjust to be peaceful. We live in a world that needs to demolish existing walls of severance, not erect new ones and then have the cruel, insulting audacity to ask the victims of those walls to pay for them. For, as I have always believed and often said, truly educated minds build bridges, not walls. They perceive the vital connection in the ostensibly disconnected. They celebrate global friendship, not nativistic, flag-enshrouded fragmentations. Our Common Humanity needs more of those bridges built of justice/equity, compassion, generosity, and spirit of true internationalism. For it is either we survive together or we perish apart. That Humanity compels all of us to put uncommon pressure on myopic, egotistical, jingoistic arogunyo (war-mongers) whose vanity and blindness now threaten our future with a nuclear Armageddon. Let all nations rise now and cast a vote for Life, for the Future. It is our inescapable responsibility to save and preserve this world, OUR world.
Lastly, my gratitude to the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), not only for making me the Special Guest of Honour at this year’s Festival, but also for inviting me to deliver its keynote address. Founded some 26 years ago “in the courtyard of an apartment block” – to quote Toyin Akinosho, its Secretary-General, CORA has matured into an organization whose socio-cultural activism and intellectual stimulation have relentlessly challenged the philistinism of Nigeria’s political class and indicted our connivance with their disdain for regenerative ideas. In the words of Jahman Anikulapo, CORA’s Festival Programme Curator, 3 E’s – .Education, Enlightenment, Empowerment –the “combo of mind development”, have remained the bedrock of the CORA initiative. With the unassailable belief that “the unexamined society cannot contribute significantly to human civilization”, CORA has constantly provided the platform for the interrogation of the Nigerian mind within the framework of our Common Humanity.
The very venue of this address is a testimony to the realization of the possibilities inherent in the CORA philosophy. Once a colonial Prison Yard; today a Freedom Park. An epically long journey from place to parable. The CORA possibilities are the possibilities of Hope. The burden of this year’s Festival is the need to bring those possibilities to fruition in a world free of hate and severance; a world free of the threat of war and perpetrators of pogroms.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your attention.
Keynote address, 2017 Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF).
Theme: Eruptions: Global Fractures, and Our Common Humanity.