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Has Nigeria Been Here Before?

By Wole Soyinka

I address the following question directly to General Olusegun Obasanjo: do you declare before this nation that you could not…… we must accuse you of plotting to restore dictatorial rule……  All structures of resistance of Abacha years must begin to reconstitute themselves. We are back to Ground Zero in the collective effort to raise a citadel that will be unmistakable as – democracy. 

If this uncannily timed Guardian publication – The Whole Truth – has one lesson for us at all, it is in compelling us to answer that very question  - haven’t we been here before? My insertion of that expression “uncannily timed” is more than sufficient to act as a trigger for activating chastening memories of the past five decades. And if anyone still fails to understand what is being pointed out here,

I call you attention to the recent editorials of this same Guardian Newspapers, one of Monday December 12, and the other only yesterday, Wednesday December 14. I shall not direct your attention to the specific editorials in this volume whose present publication reminds us that nothing of what is now happening is new. It is all déjà vu – we have seen it all before. We cannot claim not to have been warned. The editorial of December 12 is entitled The Closure of Bayelsa State Radio, while that of December 14 carries the hurricane alert in the title, The Gale of Forceful Evictions. Are these two totally unrelated issues? Let the following extracts assist you in deciding that question. From the editorial on Bayelsa state radio, we encounter the following observation:

“The forceful closure of the Bayelsa State-owned radio station by security forces of the Federal Government is clearly high-handed and an abuse of power…Besides, this act is a violation of the constitutional rights of the government of Bayelsa State…and the people of the state, the audience, on the other…is a breach of Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution…”

 The editorial continues:

“…the right of Bayelsans and other citizens of Nigeria ‘to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference’ has been trampled upon.”

Let us quickly summarise this pungent, timely and cautionary editorial in its own words:

“Without mincing words, there is much evidence of a calculated and systematic assault on the rule of law in this polity. Judicial pronouncements are wilfully ignored, the legislature is treated with disdain, security agencies have become more of tools for settling scores than for the security of the state and its citizens…”

Enough of December 12 – at least for now. Let us move on to yesterday, December 14, and the gale of forceful evictions where the following passages appear:

“Most unfortunately, and totally against the norms of the rule of law, transparency which the Federal Government professes to believe in, occupants of the Federal Government properties…are all being forcibly ejected by strong forces of armed soldiers and policemen, in some instances in clear defiance of orders of the High Courts and proceedings in such courts…”

 This editorial continues:

 The Supreme Court’s epic judgement in the case of Military government of Lagos State vs Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu (1986) A.N.I.R 233 particularly at 239, 240 and 243 encapsulates and exposes the illegality in the present government sponsored or tolerated forceful eviction exercises…

Indeed, the present spate of forceful eviction of these Federal Government properties and those of the defunct Nigeria Airways are clearly illegal, unconstitutional and a subversion of the rule of law and, in some instances, a subversion of the entire judicial process. The active participation in or toleration of these eviction exercises by the Federal Government is so undisguised and blatant to the point of being nauseating…”

Dear compatriots, is there any possible failure to grasp the linkage between these two geographically separated  events, and the wearisome cycle of illegalities, indiscipline and arrogance that the nation is compelled to tolerate at the hands of governments in whatever guise, military or civilian?

I am tempted to read both editorial in full but cannot for lack of time for my own editorial; nonetheless, I cannot resist the following passage that serves to remind us of the cynicism and arrogance of power in its relations to the ruled. Listen to the following:

“The Commissioner of Police in Bayelsa State, Mr Hafiz Ringim, is reported to have said – and this has not been refuted – that the closure of Bayelsa Radio was caused by a technical problem. This must rank as the most asinine statement of the year.

Pray, when did the police become a consultant on the diagnosis, and repair of broadcasting equipment…


I cite the report of this ‘asinine’ officialese because the closure of Bayelsa Radio is cruelly reminiscent of a number of state security actions under the demented reign of General Sani Abacha, such as the sealing off of the home of the late NADECO chieftain, Pa Ajasin, the military takeover of a private home where a former American ambassador was to have been hosted, or indeed the storming of a church service by Abacha troops where a microphone was forcibly snatched by the then Chief Of General Staff, General Diya before the commencement of a sermon. Was that perhaps in order to prevent the microphone from malfunctioning?

So, what is there left to understand?  What potential consequences are there left to grasp? What portents for the nation remain shrouded in mystery? What ambiguities do we continue to pretend still remain to puzzle us in the conduct of the power possessed?

What further signals does the farmer require from the wolf that has just made off with his prized calf? Are we truly incapable of discerning the fate of thousands, hundreds of thousands, in the condition of an air pilot who, having put in 32 years of service in the Nigerian Airways, finds himself, despite an unambiguous court order, bulldozed out of his home, nothing left to show for a life time of specialised labour but the shirt on his back? Does this recall the dark fate of the Maroko settlement under the regime of Ibrahim Babangida?

Shall we proceed to list the court orders, orders upon orders, all the way up to the decisions of thee Supreme Court that the democratic regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo has treated with utter contempt, disdain and defiance? Can we truly reassure ourselves that this sequence of encroachments on our collective rights is merely the momentary aberrations of a watchdog that can no longer distinguish between a villainous intruder and the law abiding household it is trained to defend?

There comes a moment, surely when the household learns to distinguish between a diligent watchdog and the one that has turned rabid and commenced to savage the members of the household.

Charles Dickens character once exploded in words – the law is a ass - throwing plain grammar to the winds. That character, aptly named Pumblechook was of course a creature of ridicule and was easily rendered harmless. We do have, presiding over this nation however, a character who appears resolved to make the law – a ass, and he is no laughing matter. His conduct treats the judiciary indeed as nothing less than an ass, reduces it to abject impotence and subservience in a manner so blatant that it insults the very regarding of the powerless and mocks their dependency on an independent, arbitrating body. Listen to the following cry from the pit of impotence:

“Those in authority and their agencies cannot pick and choose what court order to obey. If they feel aggrieved by the order, the only remedy is to appeal, but in the meantime, the order must be obeyed.”

Does this sound familiar? Take your minds back to the reign of Sani Abacha and similar cries for help from the judiciary of that time. Is there any difference? But one took place during a self-declared, non-hypocritical dictatorship.  That regime did not pretend to follow a constitution, did not pretend to recognize the rule of law.

It operated by decree, and what decrees had failed to foresee, it drove through by plain and simple force majeure, through mechanisms of arbitrary arrests, tortures and disappearances. The legal fraternity knows this only too well, indeed, it still suffers from the aftermath of that season of humiliation, where the overarching legality in the nation was the language of the gun.

A Yoruba proverb goes thus: a f’ete le, a npa lapalapa – we ignore the leprosy, and dedicate ourselves to the cure of the ringworm. Permit me to twist that saying around a few degrees. Our current national situation is more accurately captured if we proposed that in the process of treating the ringworm, we precede to contract the disease of leprosy.

Or, as I expressed it at a brain storming session in Lagos this past Sunday, the surgeon operates on a cancer but ends up infecting the patient with HIV/AIDS. Is it a crime, or a love of cancer that makes us demand that the surgeon avoid the use of a contaminated scalpel? If the side effect is worse than the disease, wherein does this benefit the patient? Are there no alternative methods to the excision of the cancer of corruption except that the body be rendered immunity deficient to present and future attacks of the dictatorship virus?

I address the following question directly to General Olusegun Obasanjo: do you declare before this nation that you could not deliver Governor Alamieyesiegha a knockout punch without first knocking out the state radio-television service? If you could not, then, for a trained soldier, you are an inept strategist.

If however you did have access to alternatives, yet chose to recourse to extra-legal, unconstitutional means, then you have another agenda that extends beyond the cauterisation of a cancerous growth in the national body. It smacks of opportunism. That agenda clearly necessitates trampling on the civic rights of the people, of reducing us once again to a plantation of slaves. In such a case, we must accuse you of plotting to restore dictatorial rule.

Any political leader who defies the law so persistently, arrogantly and with such impunity reveals only too clearly that he is on a one-way track to a one-man rule, an open-ended one. Assaulting the freedom of expression in this manner is a certain guarantee of a veritable Tower of Babel, since it will lead to not one, but a dozen or more Radio Kudirats, and don’t imagine it is this speaker who will be found behind its operations.

 What now do we do? Here, I direct myself to the judiciary. You have openly acknowledged that there is a new sinister force in the nation that has emasculated your authority. Very good. We, the civic body have decided to take up the gauntlet. And it is not simply because the head of your institution, the Chief Justice of the Federation, has been forced to cry out that we must begin to act, but because the conduct of the state has attained a critical mass of sheer effrontery, brutality and callousness.

The state has declared itself to be above and beyond the rule of law, even as it does not hesitate to co-opt the machinery of the law for its own ends. This contradiction, this strategy of having its cake and eating it, cannot be allowed to endure.  It must be tackled now and wrestled into submission, or else we accede to a pattern that will prove irresistibly to the next power holder in the nation. He will trample on civic rights in broad day light and respond to our now enfeebled protests: Shut your mouths. Democracy has been re-defined.

If the state elects to break the law, the citizenry, in who resides the ultimate sovereignty, is being implicitly invited to break the law. Civil society has been shown by example, that the law exists, not to sustain society, but a lottery, and not even a where each player makes his own rules, where the dice are loaded permanently against one side.

We know however that this is a recipe for anarchy and the destabilization of the society. Unlike the present state, we are not promoters of anarchy. Thus, our only choice is to embark on a campaign of organised defiance of what only purports to be law; since the law is totally compromised by the state, and its custodians are treated as the asses of Pumblechook.

To the judiciary, we say clearly, you cannot save us, so it is up to us to attempt to save you, since in so doing, we shall restore the integrity of our protective agency. We have lost confidence in the state, but we wish to reinstate the law in which surely, you hold primacy of interest.

And so, today, I ask you this question: if as an increasingly compelling plan of action, we decide to march on Aso Rock, to demand a restoration of that, without which neither the state nor the judiciary has any foundation, will you march with us?

 Will you link arm with us? Will you abandon your now degraded, emasculated chambers, abandon the masquerade of authority, and reintegrate yourselves in the foundation of your existence? The last bastion of citizens recourse, whose guardianship was entrusted to you, has been reduced to rubble, so what do you have to loose? After you, I repeat yet again, there is either chaos or dictatorship, or both.

We seek neither. And so, if the people move out, it would be only to restore your own integrity and give meaning to your existence. It is a time to choose, and we are calling all democratic forces to prepare – if we must go back to the trenches, then so be it, so let the preparation begin now.

All structures of resistance of Abacha years must begin to reconstitute themselves. We are back to Ground Zero in the collective effort to raise a citadel that will be unmistakable as – democracy.  We did not seek this contest, it has been forced upon us, but we embrace it just the same, and must begin to gird our loins in readiness.

Let me take this opportunity to remind all agencies of state that it is a crime – I repeat that word – crime – to carry out orders that are unlawful. Do recall the once self-designated givers of life and death who are currently standing trial in International Courts of Justice, from The Hague in Amsterdam, to the genocidaires of Rwanda. The world no longer accepts the self-exonerating plea of – I was merely carrying out orders. No, says the world, you are not creatures of Fela’s Anikulapo’s Zombie. Maybe not now, maybe not immediately, but whenever humanity reasserts itself, speaks and demands explanations, you will be forced to answer.

Is it, you think, by accident that the word ‘treason’ has been exhumed from forgotten and immediate post-colonial archives, dusted and flaunted at the slightest provocation? Why is that the complaints against Uwazurike, Asari Dokubo, Frederick Fasehun and Ganiyu Adams have been framed in these charges and none other?

The answer, in case you have not noticed, is that these charges are non-bailable. The habeas corpus has been conveniently circumvented. So now, tomorrow, you and I can be charged with treason – for any utterance or attribution of intent.

After all, the former chairman of the ruling party was accused of treason merely for warning that treasonable acts were being committed in the state of Anambra, and that such treason might call to a far more violent, and more tenacious structure of treasonable dominance. Never in the history of Nigeria has the charge of treason been so prodigally deployed as under this regime. Soon, merely to speak of a strict adherence to the constitution will amount to a charge of treason.

By contrast, I invite you to recall how a self-convicted felon - from the accounts of a Head of State, no less – confessed to having subverted the electoral will of a people. That treasonable felon Chris Uba, however still walks around, not merely a free man, but surrounded by the full security apparatus of the state.

After a token rustication, he was recently re-admitted into the bosom of the ruling party, elevated to the lofty position of trustee, to the accompaniment of drums and trumpets and full-page laudations in the media. The highest act of treason of which any individual is capable is surely to thwart the sovereign will of the people, and that is one crime that was boldly admitted by this felon.

And yet the Uwazurike, the Fasheun, the Gani Adams languish in goal. Is it simply my imagination or do I decry a hideous manipulation of standards?

We must act, and do take that conviction as an invitation to join in whatever motion is decided upon to demonstrate to a dictatorship that our civic dignity has been more than sufficiently abused. If we must march, at the head of than human wave should be the institution in which a people have no choice but to invest, since it remains the sole guarantee of their civic dignity within an equitable environment.

There is nothing left to understand. Nothing left to decry. Nothing remains untainted. Even the EFCC, whose achievements are justly lauded and celebrated both nationally and abroad – except of course among the cowering ranks of the guilty is being tainted by improprieties and unconstitutional conduct of its overseers. It is time that we move to safeguard the autonomy of such agencies as long missing enforcers of fiscal discipline and accountability.

Let us remind the EFCC that its very effectiveness and integrity require an independent, fearless judiciary. If judicial pronouncement has been rendered meaningless, consider how, even what we say here today will be dismissed with contempt by the abductors of our civil will. And so, enough of rhetoric.  We serve notice on all civic and ethics-minded organisations – academic, labour, religious, student, professional, market women, private enterprise and all others - enough of this executive lawlessness. It is time to head back towards the trenches.


In attendance upon that moment, Mr Chairman and my much abused, eternally betrayed compatriots, betrayed again and again, I have the honour to present this book of reflection and recollection, a compendium of past and present realities, pungent and instructive, permanently relevant and provocative, yet not without reminders that life need not be grim, disordered and humourless. If you wish to understand why you are where you are today, not where you fought to be, take it with you as companion reading, as you take up our your new residence in the strategic trenches of your choice.


  • Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s and Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in literature, delivered this speech at the presentation of The Whole Truth: Selected Editorials of The Guardian (Lagos, Nigeria) (1983-2003)

Wole Soyinka Rebukes Obasanjo

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