by Guardian UK
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.
When you are informed that 200 children are missing, you don’t go to dinner until you have got to the bottom of it
“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. Soyinka fears that political instability could be used as an excuse by figures in the state security apparatus to seize power. “Even before elections there had been discussions and preparation for ‘interim government’,” he alleged. “Why on earth such a card should be on the table at all beats me. I asked President Jonathan, ‘What is this business of interim government?’
This for me is the most dangerous situation that any nation can be in
“What he said was, ‘I could never be part of it. I would consider it a downfall, a demotion. Here I am president of the nation, I was voted in by the whole nation, why should I then accept an arraignment, which is by a few people? I would consider it degrading to what I have attained in life.’ That was his expression. But President Jonathan is in a cage. He didn’t strike me as being aware of the forces which surround him.”
The author cited an incident earlier this month when Morocco recalled its ambassador to Nigeria in a diplomatic spat over whether Jonathan was trying to use the king of Morocco to win over Muslim voters. The Moroccan royal palace said the king had declined a request for a phone conversation, while Nigeria insisted that the two leaders had spoken at length. Nigeria later backed down and admitted the conversation did not happen.
“Here is a situation where a president did not even know that a foreign country, a friendly country, had withdrawn its ambassador from Nigeria. I was the one who told him. He jumped up as if his seat was on fire. I couldn’t believe it … He was not aware that for about five days the media had been absolutely hysterical with this embarrassing situation between the two. It was that very night that he made a public statement about it for the first time.
“So when I say that there is a force around, I know what I’m talking about. 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.”
Soyinka is scathing about Jonathan’s record as president, notably his mishandling of last year’s incident when 276 schoolgirls in Chibok were kidnapped by Boko Haram, prompting a worldwide outcry and social media campaign. “I think he is remorseful now, but at the beginning he took it very lightly. He himself has admitted as much in public. When you are informed that 200 children are missing, you don’t go to dinner until you have got to the bottom of it.
“But it took him I don’t know how many days to believe, but it certainly took him about 10 days to react. Now, for a leader of a people that is just totally unacceptable. Two hundred people. And then his wife was telling the police to go and arrest people who were protesting. The whole of that episode, I told him, whether you win the election or not, you’ve got to do something to assuage the feelings of people over that particular lapse. That was one horrendous lapse of which no head of state should ever be guilty. You send children to school to go and take an exam, and then you’re told they’re missing. For me, the entire nation should not sleep until an answer to that assault is provided.”
But while Jonathan is too weak, critics say, his opponent, Buhari, may be too strong. He ruled Nigeria as a military dictator for 20 months in the mid-1980s, cracking down on the media among others, but claims to be a “born again” democrat who has contested three previous elections, losing every time.
Soyinka admitted: “My memory of General Buhari has become rather mixed up. Four years ago I certainly wasn’t even prepared to consider the possibility of a genuine ‘born-again’. But at the risk of being proved wrong, I think we have a case here of a genuine ‘born-again’ phenomenon.”
The poet and playwright declined to say explicitly how he voted, but dropped a big hint by saying: “Maybe we should all try to be a little bit of Mandela. If Mandela could actually make a leap of faith towards the Boers after the atrocities committed against the black people [in South Africa], when the moment comes and the system under which we operate has thrown up just two candidates really … I think I asked myself: ‘Who would Nelson Mandela have voted for?’ and that’s the person I voted for. That’s all I’m going to tell you.”