The recent news that Wole Soyinka has decided to join partisan politics made headlines. The Nobel laureate, who was elected unopposed as chairman of the Democratic Front for a People’s Federation (DFPF), also disclosed that the aim of the new party, which was initially denied registration in 2002, was to “sanitize and transform Nigeria’s nationhood into a democratic sanctuary for all her citizens”.
Soyinka’s decision to embrace partisan politics raises a number of pertinent issues:
One, the new party raises a vital question of unity among the ‘progressives’, as it will now seem that virtually everyone of those often labelled by the press as ‘progressive’ – the late Gani Fawehinmi, Femi Falana, Pat Utomi, Balarabe Musa, Arthur Nwankwo etc. – is now the chairman (or is it the owner?) of a political party. This trend must be dispiriting for those hoping that the ascendancy of the ‘progressives’ in Nigerian politics will provide a genuine alternative to the current form of politics, which is often characterised by acrimony and disunity among the contending elites in their quest for power and lucre. If every ‘progressive’ must ‘own’ a political party -none of the founding chairman of these parties has ever stepped down or been voted out of office – it raises legitimate questions about the democratic credentials of the leaders of the ‘progressive’ camp.
While it is legitimate to criticise our traditional politicians who too often bombard the public space with the fallouts of their acrimonious intra-elite feuds for power and money, it is equally imperative that those who position themselves, or are seen as the alternatives to the traditional politicians, are very sensitive to the implications of their political conduct. For instance as the clamour for an alternative to the existing political order continues to get louder, with some even calling for a revolution, it could be legitimate to interrogate the implications of the tendency for each ‘progressive’ with a name recognition to carve out his own political fiefdom rather than work in concert with others for democracy and national unity – should they come to power.
Two, no one can ever accuse the highly revered Soyinka of ‘mee-tooism’, so it can be averred that it is unlikely that he decided to found his own party simply because other ‘progressives’ are doing so. Soyinka had already become an icon even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature so he hardly needs a platform to engage in the political process. We must therefore believe Soyinka, who is affectionately called the Kongi, when he said the new party was founded to “sanitize and transform Nigeria’s nationhood into a democratic sanctuary for all her citizens”. He gave us a further insight into the rationale for founding the party: “The DFPF for now is disinterested in the overall national scene. But after taking control in one state, one council, one ward, would begin to reach out through example to others, gradually evolving a civic rule that governs and performs through mutual collaboration”(Next online, September 25, 2010). While this objective appears laudable, it is not without problems. Do the extant laws governing the formation of political parties permit a party to emerge with the sole aim of winning power in just one state – even if it was meant to use that state as a model? How logical is it for a political party which has a national chairman and other officers from other parts of the federation to proclaim that it is disinterested in the national scene and will want to win power in just one state? What will be the criteria for deciding which state to target?
Three, the respected Kongi also implied that membership of the new political party will not be open; saying that certain category of politicians who cross carpet from the existing political parties will not be accepted. This again raises the question of whether the DFPF – which by the way sounds more like a liberation movement than a political party – intends to be a political party or just a cause group. A political party, as opposed to a cause group, actively canvasses for support and membership with the aim of winning political power. It can be inferred that a political party, which from inception erects hurdles on membership contradicts the notion of political parties as they are traditionally known.
Four, it remains unclear how the DFPF will help the presidential aspirations of Nuhu Ribadu who has over the years cultivated the support and friendship of Soyinka and a faction of the civil society that is allied to him. Mallam Ribadu has since declared that he will seek to realise his presidential ambition under the Action Congress of Nigeria. With many Nigerians seeing Ribadu as a sort of Soyinka’s protégé, wouldn’t it have been more beneficial to Mallam Ribadu’s ambition if Soyinka had embraced the ACN rather than seeking to found his own party? There are fears that the mileage that Ribadu might have hoped to earn from his carefully cultivated association with Soyinka and his associates may be diluted with Soyinka’s chairmanship of the DFPF.
Five, Soyinka’s entry into partisan politics could re-open the old debate about activist creative writers in politics. Activist creative writers such as our own Kongi, Ngugi wa Thiongo of Kenya and Bate Besong of Cameroon, are often said to operate like house flies that settle on the wounds of society. They are perhaps the people that Camilo José Cela, the Spanish winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989 had in mind when he said a writer is necessarily a denunciation of the time in which he or she lives. One of the defining features of activist creative writers is their tendency to use the protest format, which includes the deployment of combat language that is couched in anger, invectives and bitterness to engage the political process. Most mean well. However they often open themselves up to charges of naivety, if not dismissed with a wave of the hand as ‘political paper weights’ by traditional politicians because their premises and approaches are often so divorced from reality that even in a free and fair election they will pose no threat to the existing political order. Therefore while we will remain grateful to Soyinka for his life-long commitment to the struggle for justice, not to talk of his gift of quotable quotes, we must use the opportunity of his foray into partisan politics to interrogate the whole notion of ‘progressivism’. Who is a progressive? Does ‘progressive’ politics really exist in Nigeria, and if so, what is the character of its current form? Do ‘progressives’ really want power or are they simply enamoured by protest politics? Can Nigerian ‘progressives’ provide a genuine alternative to the current political order?
Soyinka is a man who is much respected, if not idolised by most people who can string words together. Therefore as he dabbles into partisan politics with his full creative weight, questions are bound to arise, for which many of us will respectfully demand answers.