Sunday, March 29, 2015

Nigerian laureate Wole Soyinka laments ‘vicious, unprincipled’ election

There is a very sinister force in control and it is that sinister cabal which is responsible for caging him in and showing him what they think he should know about and keeping away from him things which are not in their interest, and this for me is the most dangerous situation that any nation can be in.”

Not for Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s foremost man of letters, a gentle retirement or attempt to separate art from politics. The 80-year-old spent election day in Africa’s biggest democracy working the phones late into the night, gathering reports of technical glitches, irregularities and violence. There was plenty to keep him awake. “We’re talking about a very positive response by the public in terms of determination to register and vote but, you know, this has been one of the most vicious, unprincipled, vulgar and violent election exercises I have ever witnessed,” Soyinka reflected sadly. “I just hope we won’t go down as being the incorrigible giant of Africa.”

A Nobel laureate and former political prisoner, Soyinka could be described as the conscience of the nation. In an interview with the Guardian in the commercial capital, Lagos, on Sunday he railed against what is thought to have been the most expensive election in African history, revealed intriguing details of a recent meeting with president Goodluck Jonathan (“He jumped up as if his seat was on fire”) and warned a “very sinister force” could exploit disputed results to mount something approaching a coup. Jonathan is fighting for his political life against opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari in the most hotly contested poll in Nigerian history. Voting spilled over into a second day after widespread technical hitches on Saturday that saw Jonathan himself initially denied registration.

Tall and thin with a shock of white hair and Socratic beard, Soyinka said: “The stakes appear to be so high that all scruples have been set aside and it’s very distressing to compare this election with the election of 1993, which was one of the most orderly, civilised and resolute elections we ever had. This one was like a no-holds-barred kind of election, especially, frankly, from the incumbency side. One shouldn’t be too surprised anyway given the kind of people who are manning the barricades for the incumbent candidate.”

Countless millions of dollars have been lavished on the election campaigns, with commercials dominating television and newspapers for the three months. Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) produced a so-called documentary savaging Buhari’s character and last week paid for a 36-page advertising supplement in leading newspapers. Cities have been coated in placards and posters on a breathtaking scale. “Most expensive, most prodigal, wasteful, senseless, I mean really insensitive in terms of what people live on in this country,” Soyinka continued. “This was the real naira-dollar extravaganza, spent on just subverting, shall we say, the natural choices of people. Just money instead of argument, instead of position statements.

“And of course the sponsoring of violence in various places, in addition to this festive atmosphere in which every corner, every pillar, every electric pole is adorned with one candidate or the other, many of them in poses which remind one of Nollywood. “I get a feeling sometimes that some of these candidates were just locked in their wardrobes and they were told: ‘Just take selfies in there and don’t come out until you’ve finished the entire wardrobe.’ All kinds of postures. Just ridiculous. It has been an embarrassing exercise in terms of electioneering.”

The writer fears that Nigeria’s multi-millionaire tycoons will continue to call the tune. Nigeria is ranked 136th out of 174 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. “Obviously this money didn’t come from personal pockets only, there’s no question. It’s been bankrolled by lots of businesspeople – many of them I’m sure have been taxed indirectly – and they’ll be expecting some returns for this outlay, and so how are we actually going to get rid of this thing called corruption, if the electoral process itself has been so corrupted? It’s a money election. 

How on earth is that bugbear going to be lifted from the neck of society? I just don’t know.”
Soyinka was imprisoned for almost two years during one of Nigeria’s spells under military rule in 1967. He became the first African to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1986. He remains politically active and a constant thorn in the side of authority, although he insists that he lacks the temperament to ever run for office himself. He told how he was recently invited by Jonathan, who has a “boyish charm”, to discuss various issues.

“We even discussed life after power, whenever that takes place,” he recalled. “It was difficult for me to decide from his side how readily he might accept defeat. He absolutely swore that if he lost he was going back to [his home] Otuoke village. If I take him literally, I think he will accept the result, but I’ve learned never to trust any politician from here to there, even if they’re just coming out of communion. So I really don’t know.”

He added: “I think Nigerians have had a very rough time over the last few years with [the Islamist militant group] Boko Haram and all kinds of insecurity, failure of governance and so on. I think we deserve to have this period as a period of comparative tranquillity and peace of mind to reconstruct and address some really fundamental issues of society. So I really hope the result, however gracelessly or grudgingly, will be accepted by the loser.”

If it is not, however, chaos could ensure. Although both leaders have sworn a peace pledge, it is unclear whether they can control their supporters, some of whom have threatened a violent backlash.