June 12, Ndigbo And Soyinka’s Red Herring

Wole Soyinka speaks during an interview at his home. Date: April 03, 2009. Image: Ann Johansson/Corbis/Getty

JUNE 20, 2019

I decided not to write on this year’s June 12 Democracy Day having written two articles, back to back, on it last year. On June 13, 2018, I lauded President Muhammadu Buhari in this column for taking the bold initiative of “honouring Abiola with Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, GCFR, Nigeria’s highest award, and declaring June 12 Democracy Day. Some have queried the president’s motive. My answer is simple. Whatever informed the decision, it was the right thing to do. And if in doing what is right, he is reaping some political capital, so be it,” I concluded the article, titled, “June 12: I still remember”.

A week later, worried by the ethnic tint of the celebrations, I wondered whether Buhari’s action had gravitated from its essence – the symbolism of righting a historic wrong – to a celebration of Yoruba triumphalism. Besides, in the one year since Buhari’s declaration, we have had a general election which outcome eviscerated the very idea of democracy, thus violating the spirit of June 12 – a repudiation of the country’s primordial fault-lines of ethnicity, religion and prebendalism.

June 12 was about the free and fair election. It was about the right of the people to choose their leaders without let or hindrance. It was about inclusiveness. It was against bigotry, prejudice and ethnic profiling. It was about merit. Moshood Abiola’s Social Democratic Party, SDP, had a Muslim-Muslim ticket, with Babagana Kingibe on the ballot. Yet, it didn’t matter. Abiola defeated his opponent, Bashir Tofa, of the National Republican Convention, NRC, in his home state of Kano.

It didn’t matter to Ndigbo that their illustrious son, Sylvester Ugo, a Christian and former governor of the defunct Central Bank of Biafra, was on the NRC ticket, majority of them voted for Abiola. So, any election to be used in celebrating this electoral feat must encapsulate its spirit, otherwise, it will lend credence to Olu Fasan’s assertion in his Vanguard column last week that: “Due to the empty symbolism of the president’s decision and its crass politicisation, June 12 only gives Nigerians another public holiday. Beyond that, it signifies nothing meaningful.”

The 2019 general elections were unarguably the worst since 1999, the very antithesis of whatever June 12 represents. The joint Nigeria International Election Observation Mission of the National Democratic Institute, NDI, and the International Republican Institute, IRI, on June 18 gave a damning verdict of the polls in Abuja. “The 2019 general elections fell significantly short of standards set in 2015. Citizens’ confidence in elections was shaken,” said Daniel Twining, IRI President.

“Election stakeholders should take concrete steps to address the concerns of citizens with regards to the polls in order to rekindle their faith in the power and possibility of credible elections,” said the two United States-based organisations that have been involved in Nigerian elections since 1999. There was nothing, therefore, to write about the June 12 debauchery in the name of celebrating democracy; or so I thought until I read Wole Soyinka’s article, “A democracy day primer.”

Inimitably, he lamented, just like everybody else, that “this year’s recall of an uplifting day in the year 1993 comes up against a background of its most shameful disavowal: the 2019 elections – still under judicial contestation – an event that would be more accurately described as an exercise in body count rather than ballot count,” because the poll epitomised Nigeria’s “final descent into the abyss of human degradation,” and “reflected a pattern of savagery and abandonment of human sensibilities that have eaten away the sheerest sense of community in the nation.”

But his potshot at Ndigbo in the same article is both objectionable and beyond the pale. It was unwarranted. Soyinka lured himself into a conspiracy theory, insinuating that some people took the Democracy Day celebrations as an opportunity to jeer at and vilify the Yoruba. He found that unconscionable and lamented that some are trying to reduce the June 12 struggle to that of an ethnic project, calling such an inclination “a depressing travesty of the realities, a denial of the existence of a nation’s collective sense of justice and its tenacity in pursuit of that objective.”

But Soyinka should take a look at the mirror and the face(s) of those who cynically appropriated the struggle to the exclusion of every other people will gawp at him. They will be familiar faces because they are his kinsmen. Pretending otherwise is a disservice to his age-long reputation as a fervent purveyor of truth. Conscience, to borrow an axiom, is an open wound which only truth can heal. Ethnic cavilling is a non-starter. Soyinka should know better than anyone else.

So, I find it difficult to understand the point he was trying to make when he wrote: “After the annulment, I recall that, when we tried to mobilise opposition to that sadistic impostor, fanatic voices of ethnic irredentism informed us bluntly, verbally and in print, that the Yoruba should go and solve their problems themselves, since we had let them down in the lead-up to the Biafran War of Secession, and should seek no collaboration from that side of the Niger.”

Can’t Soyinka and his ilk for once leave Ndigbo out of Nigeria’s self-inflicted lesions? That claim is nauseating, ridiculous and very unfortunate coming from him. Just as it is condescending when he wrote that: “It is gratifying, therefore – and here we come to some cheering news! – that this tendency has become a source of concern to many of the leaders of that former secessionist state.” Assuming, without conceding, that Soyinka tried, as he claimed, to mobilise opposition against Babangida’s monkeyshines and was rebuffed by the Igbo, who would blame them after their experience in the 1960s?

The crisis that heralded the “Wild-wild West and “operation wetie” phenomena and precipitated the genocide against them was a battle for political supremacy between the North and the West. It had nothing to do with Ndigbo. Yet, when the chips were down, they were used as cannon fodders, brutally massacred in their millions, using starvation as “legitimate weapon of war”.

To ensure a complete decimation – physically and economically – those who survived the genocide were stripped of their hard-earned wealth by giving them a paltry 20 pounds each. Yet, Ndigbo were at the forefront of the battle to revalidate the annulled June 12 election. Soyinka knows that. So, why this malevolent narrative?

Ibrahim Babangida didn’t hand over to an Igbo. Soyinka’s kinsman headed the Interim National Government, ING. The annulment had the backing of Yoruba monarchs even when Igbo royals rebuffed Babangida’s attempt to inveigle them into accepting the malady. Rather than sheltering under sophistry, Soyinka should take a cue from Abiola’s son, Kola, and reveal the identities of these Igbo irredentists.

Penultimate week, Kola told Nigerians his own June 12 story in an interview with the Sun newspaper. Most of the major actors who betrayed the cause, including those masquerading today as pro-democracy aficionados but only became converts and joined the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, when Sani Abacha refused giving them political positions in his government, are Yoruba, not Igbo. And Kola said that much. He named the two-faced political jobbers.

Soyinka knows that Igbo patriots like Ndubuisi Kanu, Ebitu Ukiwe, Ralph Obioha, et al, were NADECO’s driving force. Perhaps, he is referring to the role played by Arthur Nzeribe of the Association for Better Nigeria, ABN, infamy. But how about Abimbola Davies?

It will be selective amnesia for him to claim not to know that for every Alani Akinrinade, there was a Ndubuisi Kanu who co-founded NADECO; for every Beko Ransome-Kuti, there were Olisa Agbakoba, Chima Ubani, Chidi Odinkalu, et al.; for every Kunle Ajibade who was imprisoned on trumped up charges, there was Chris Anyanwu, who nearly went blind in prison and Ben Charles Obi, who didn’t quite survive his prison ordeal.

Is Soyinka claiming to be unaware of Ralph Obioha, a man born into wealth but who gave everything up for the sake of June 12? Obioha’s African Trust Bank, Safari Brewery, vegetable oil company, cement company were destroyed by the military. Unlike some of his Yoruba compatriots who used the public till to rehabilitate themselves, Obioha is yet to recover. He may never recover. Who remembers him today?

If Soyinka was not on a mischievous voyage for whatever reason, he would be appealing to his friend, Buhari, to honour Humphrey Nwosu, the man who delivered the freest and fairest election in the annals of Nigeria’s electoral politics, as he honoured Abiola, Kingibe and Gani Fawehinmi. Soyinka knows those who betrayed June 12. If he follows the evidence, it will lead him inexorably to his own neck of the woods and not to the South East.

To pretend otherwise is sheer red herring.