On Kongi’s New Book: You Must Set Forth at Dawn

His description of the disarray within the prodemocracy movement in the Diaspora is spot on. The pro-democracy movement did great things with whatever limited resources were at its disposal. But it was certainly an odd gathering of odd fellows who seemed to relish the fine art of bickering while Nigeria burned. The bickering was high decibel and largely unnecessary. Sadly Soyinka clutters his analysis when he resorts to personal attacks and ridicule against those who disagreed vehemently with him and the movement.A lot of people, some very young folks who incurred Soyinka’s wrath have now paid for it by having their names immortalized in unflattering ways in his book. Sadly, in at least one instance, in Soyinka’s re-telling of the incidents that earned hid detractors his fiery wrath, some facts got lost in the translation. The personal attacks did not belong in Soyinka’s book. He should have stuck to issues and left these folks alone.

The book could have used several edits by other people who were in the thick of things with Soyinka, people he rarely mentions in the book. In talking about the book with my friend Professor Bolaji Aluko, he vigorously disputed Soyinka’s version of many events that happened during the pro-democracy period, as well as much earlier in his father Professor Sam Aluko’s house on at least two occasions in Ibadan and Nsukka. Bolaji would know; he was there at the time. Indeed, Bolaji points out that Soyinka’s latest version of the stories have changed remarkably from the first narration in Soyinka’s Ibadan: The Penkelemesi Years. Bolaji intends to fully read the book and respond in his own memoirs. One thing is for sure, Soyinka’s new book is going to get him a lot of attention from his friends and detractors – which is probably his intention in the first instance.

Yes, the book could have used a different set of critical eyes. For one thing, a book of this size and complexity should have been indexed. There are some errors that should have been caught. For example, he locates the making of the brew pito in Sapele (not true – every Nigerian worshipper of Bacchus should know that. He does footnote it correctly as beer made from millet. Millet and Sapele, an unpardonable contradiction in terms!). In his telling of it, gwon gwon, that delectable dish of the gods made of animal intestines becomes “ngwam-ngwam” and he footnotes it as “an Eastern Nigerian delicacy made from the chopped up head of a sheep or goat.” Our revered Soyinka was probably referring to isi-ewu.During the war, the name Gowon was turned into an acronym for “Go On With One Nigeria”; Soyinka remembers it as “Go On With One GoWon.” Finally, I cannot resist but comment on his awkward use of Pidgin English; it is cutely atrocious, as if written by a white man and it exposes Soyinka’s privileged upbringing. A pet peeve of mine: Soyinka faithfully footnotes every Nigerian word with detailed explanations but neglects to footnote his lavish use of French words and obscure English terminologies that tend to show off his erudition and worldly sophistication (those French wines!). I guess when it comes to Western culture the Nigerian reader has to do his research!

Taken together, these errors as sloppy as they are are not fatal and they do not diminish the book. In my estimation, what diminishes the book, and Professor Soyinka, are the relentless personal attacks on those he happens to disagree with. And they are legion in the book. The tyranny of the pen is just as devastating as that of the gun. As Soyinka would probably say, it concedes power to no one but the owner of the pen; it assigns wrongs to everyone except the wielder of the pen.Also, Soyinka’s tendency to employ unflattering character sketches and caricatures on the unsuspecting (for example on Professor Sam Aluko) is unnecessary, rude, and mean-spirited. Most of these people are still alive and I suspect he will be hearing from them. Soyinka is a brave man.

The legacy of our dysfunctional society has introduced a cultural pathology – a perverse culture of abuse which manifests itself in a debilitating inability to engage in civil discourse. That is a serious problem that needs to be fixed before we engage in any serious talk of nation-building. The book is an unsettling reminder of the complexity of the Nigerian problem, of constantly changing relationships among powerful brokers, relationships that are at once mutually parasitic and symbiotic, each one seeking the ultimate prize – power. It is a soupy, sweaty mess – of greedy, thieving, conniving self-serving agbada-clad politicians, academicians and soldiers, all aided and abetted by a populace long accustomed to the art of survival by apathy. And the beat goes on.

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