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Soyinka got it right, then wrong

Professor Wole Soyinka is Kongi, the hero man. He excites ardour from numerous Nigerians. However, this is especially for those with some intellectual bent. And it is not just because he won the Nobel Prize in literature. Before the Nobel and such other honours came to validate his prowess, Soyinka, it may be said, had lived a charmed life. He had written great and germinal works especially for the theatre and in poetry. And the dictator General Yakubu Gowon, who instigated and supervised the worst genocide in Africa, had Soyinka imprisoned, in solitary confinement. The purpose apparently was to destroy Soyinka or at least his brainpowers. But Gowon’s insidious game failed. Soyinka irrepressibly not only survived but went on to write, among many other things, one of the greatest prison memoirs of modern times, The Man Died, in part a monument against gowonism. And as we can all guess it takes time to have achieved and lived through all these. Though in excellent ‘youth,’ Soyinka is actually in his 80s. Data is important.

Now, Soyinka who is really less a Nigerian and more a world citizen, on the basis of his unique cultural achievements, commented on Donald Trump the candidate. Soyinka not only commented, he took a bet against Trump winning the U.S. presidency. In a feat of poetic flourish, Soyinka promised to ditch his Green Card if Trump won. One suspects that Soyinka never meant the matter literally, till events forced him.

Why do we say so? Like a great many people, Soyinka must have thought it was too unlikely a Trump would emerge President of so great a nation. So it was prudent, not outlandish, of him to stake as much as he could against an unlikely event. But perception of a trend is not its reality. And by the moment the results were announced, Trump actually won. And Soyinka it appeared had lost his bullish bait, yet there was his word on it. And he was bound by it!

Well, very well, all the hell and fury of the people were let loose. The Nigerian people, especially the Internet or e-youths, took Soyinka and threw him under the bus, as Americans would say. And the great man became so bitter that he spoke in a manner he has never been heard before. But the matter has to be understood in context.

Soyinka is a grand senior citizen. At 80-plus, he has lived nearly through three or more generations. And within those time brackets, things have changed. In Soyinka’s youth and working adulthood, there was, for instance, no Internet or e-media. What that means is that ordinary people had no chance to comment and be heard save via revolutions. In those days, if a Soyinka spoke, only ‘eminent persons’ had a right to respond and be heard. Anonymous people who dared write to editors in the letters columns were subject to being edited for “clarity, space or decency.” Or they may not even be published at all. Of course, many of the editors, as writers, would have been students of Soyinka or admirers of his works, which were required readings at several levels of education. And for many of these editors, the natural instinct would be to preserve the integrity of the master.

That is, in those bygone days, the arguments were moderated by editors. But technology is about to bring recession, if not to the pay of the editors, at least to the work they do and their importance. Today, with a smartphone, just about any guy who cares can be his own correspondent, editor and publisher and can be heard worldwide. All he or she needs is a blog, tweet, etc., and these things come substantially easy.

Here is the caveat. The new age that Soyinka’s longevity has thrown him and the rest of us grandfatherly types into is not the one we grew up with or are used to. This new strange world is open, and any idiot or genius can be equally heard. And, of course, being heard in this brave new age is not a measure of the weight or lyricisms of one’s thoughts as it was in Soyinka’s time. It is a matter of ‘branding.’ And sometimes shit gets better branded or marketed than banquets, so it outsells the latter in the e-world. And this fact is suggested by the falling figures of print and the rising figures of social media worldwide. Yes, much junk goes into social media but the fact is that it sells. That may not make the finest reason for our human existence, but that is how the game goes.

In a sense though, there is nothing strange in this. It is just that what was hitherto said only in the privacy of tombo bars is now available to a worldwide audience. In Soyinka’s youth and adulthood, such issues were also dissected in the raw, blood and all. It is just that it was not aired in the world-wide-open, WWO, if you cared. Now it is. Soyinka will be in error to demand that the ways of his autumnal adulthood should be the ways of today’s springly youth. They have their choices. It might not be elegant by the standards we were brought up as uncles and fathers, but it is their life and they have to live it. The sins may have been in our longevity and not their youth.

That is, rather than Soyinka taking umbrage over what comments there are about him in the social media, he should let those go. His very rebuttals make the issues the more viral, perhaps achieving their purpose, all at Soyinka’s cost.

And lest we forget, Soyinka made an error of judgement by demanding that he be given some special consideration as a man who, in his words, has paid his dues. He also spoke asocial words at the anonymous fellow citizens, calling them morons, etc.

First of all, democracy in its public space has no understanding of persons having paid their dues or part thereof. Dues are paid in market places, that is, the professions. In public and democratic spaces, all citizens are equal and no one is deemed, whatever accomplishments, to have paid any greater dues. That is, yabbis is allowed, Kongi to citizen and citizen to Kongi. Perhaps, in the older times, only Soyinka’s words would be heard. But, today, thanks to technology, anybody who has a voice can be heard. In the old Soyinka-type world, it may then be said only geniuses go viral. In today’s world, going viral is anybody’s game, even morons have world broadcast rights and no Soyinka can rob them of that.

In summary, it may be said that Soyinka, like some of us elders, has lived so long to misunderstand the strange new age he is lingering in. And like some guy said, denouncing the youth may be our way of keeping hygienic. Or as Mother A’Endu quipped: Modernity looks septic to all grandfathers. And each generation is guilty.

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