By Wole Soyinka
I am certain there are others who, like me, received invitations to the recent edition of the Storymoja/Hay Literature Festival in Nairobi, but could not attend. My absence was particularly regrettable, because I had planned to make up for my failure to turn up for the immediate prior edition. Participant or absentee however, this is one edition we shall not soon forget.
It was at least two days after the listing of Kofi Awoonor among the victims that I even recollected the fact that the Festival was ongoing at that very time. With that realization came another: that Kofi and I could have been splitting a bottle at that same watering hole in between events and at the end of each day. My feelings, I wish to state clearly, did not undergo any changes. The emotions of rage, hate and contempt remained on the same qualitative and quantitative levels. Those are the feelings I have retained since the Boko Haram onslaught overtook the northern part of our nation. I expect them to remain at the same level until I draw my last breath, hopefully in peaceful circumstances like Chinua Achebe, or else violently like Kofi. As becomes daily clarified in contemporary existence, none of us has much control over these matters.
Two earlier commitments were responsible for my inability to attend the Festival. One was a public conversation with a very brave individual, Karima Bennoune, an Algerian national, whose trenchant publication – YOUR FATWA DOES NOT APPLY HERE – is of harrowing pertinence to the events of Nairobi, a pertinence that continues to ravage our, and other nations. The other preventive factor was the annual conference of International Investigators in Tunis, doing battle with the monster of Corruption. The link of the former event is obvious enough, but if you think the latter has no relevance to what has happened in Nairobi, or is taking place in the northern part of this nation, permit me to correct you.
Yes, we all know of material corruption, we confront it all the time. Tragically neglected however is what we should learn to designate as spiritual corruption. Those who organized and carried out the outrage on innocent lives in Nairobi are carriers of the most lethal virus of corruption imaginable – corruption of the soul, corruption of the spirit, corruption of that animating humanistic essence that separates us from predatory beasts. I am no theologian of any religion, but I aver that these assailants delude themselves with vistas of paradise after life, that their delusion is born of the perverted reading of salvation and redemption. Those who attempt to divide the world into two irreconciliable parts – believers against the rest – are human aberrations. As for their claims to faith, they invoke divine authority solely as a hypocritical cover for innate psychopathic tendencies. Their deeds and utterances profane the very name of God or Allah.
Let us however abandon theology and simply designate them enemies of humanity, leaving a very real question that the rest of us must resolve – whether this breed even belongs to the human race, or should be seen as a mutant sub-species that require both moral and scientific definitions. We cannot continue to pretend that those who have set their sight against that enabling spark that we call creativity, those who arrogate to themselves the right to dispose of innocent lives at will, belong within the same moral universe to which you and I belong. Without a moral universe, humanity exists in limbo.
Not since Apartheid has our humanity been so intensely and persistently challenged and stressed on this continent. History repeats, or more accurately re-asserts itself, as a murdering minority pronounce themselves a superior class of beings to all others, assume powers to decide the mode of existence of others, of association, decide who shall live and who shall die, who shall shake hands with whom even as daily colleagues, who shall dictate and who shall submit. The cloak of Religion is a tattered alibi, the real issue – as always – being Power and Submission, with the instrumentality of Terror.
Let us objectively assess the true nature of the dominion that they seek to establish in place of the present ‘dens of sin and damnation, of impurity and decadence’ in which the rest of us supposedly live. We do not need to seek far, the models are close by – they will be found in contested Somalia. In now liberated Mali. Fitfully in Mauritania. In those turbid years of enchained Algeria, and her yet unconsolidated business of secularism. Theirs is the dominion of exclusion. Of irrationality and restraints on daily existence. A loathing of creativity and plurality. It is the dominion of Apartheid by gender. Of the demonization of difference. It is the dominion of Fear. Let us determine that, on this continent, we shall not accept that, after victory over race as card of citizen validation, Religion is entered and established as substitute on the passport, not only for citizen recognition, but even to entitlement to residence on earth.
After the deadly calling card of these primitives, the rest of the Nairobi Festival was cancelled. Understandably, but sadly. I have however written to the organizers not to even bother to renew my invitation for next year’s edition – life permitting, I shall be there. We must all be there. And we must learn to smother loss in advance, not just for that Festival but for all Festivals of Life and Creativity wherever in the world. Resolve that, no matter the tragic intervention, such events must run their course. Let us accept, quite simply, that a force of violent degeneracy has declared war on humanity. Thus, we are fated to be ever present on the battlefield until that war is over.
I submit that we were all present at that concourse of humanity in Nairobi. We were present by the side of every maimed and fallen victim, among who was a distinguished one of us, one of the very best that have defined us to the world. We were present in Mali even before this nation, to her credit, joined in stemming the tide of religious atavism and human retrogression. We were beside the students of Kaduna, Plateau, Borno, the school children of Yobe, the mangled okada riders and petty traders of Kano, beside all those who have been routinely slaughtered for so many years past in this very nation.
■ To be cont’d tomorrow