Text Messages | Truth of the time

Wole Soyinka has a knack of being in or speaking about the right place at the right time, from living in a climate of fear to prophets and fake news.

Wole Soyinka surprised a symposium in Abuja, Nigeria, last week by declaring that fake news potentially is so dangerous that it could lead to a world war. The Nobel Laureate then cranked up the shock levels by warning that such a catastrophe might be started by a Nigerian.

Soyinka is Nigerian by birth but Biafran by political and ideological sensibility. He has had a troubled relationship with his homeland, being jailed between 1967 and 1969 for his Biafran secessionist ideas and deeds, and living outside Nigeria for long stretches in the past few decades.

Soyinka’s world war comments came at a BBC News symposium, Countering Fake News, held in what turned out to be a curiously apt place given recent speculation that Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, had died and was being represented by a clone or robotic drone. (Cynics had asked what the difference could be between a droning robot and the automaton-like Buhari, but that’s another matter.)

For his part, Soyinka explained that he too had been declared dead by fake news. Perhaps even worse, for a writer at least, is that quotes have been attributed to Soyinka that he neither wrote nor said. Among those, Soyinka noted, were that “during the last presidential election I was quoted as saying that it serves President Jonathan right for marrying an illiterate. Sometimes some people quote me as saying if you vote for a particular candidate, your mother is a goat or your father is a gorilla.”

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Soyinka has a knack of being in or speaking about relevant places at the right time. Almost 14 years ago, he was in the process of delivering the BBC’s annual Reith lecture, in actuality a series of five talks. The second lecture was scheduled to be recorded in front of an audience of academics and students at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London on 11 March 2004. On that very morning, bombs exploded in, ripped through and destroyed three commuter trains in Madrid.

The title of that second lecture was Power and Freedom; the overall title for the series was Climate of Fear. As noted above, Soyinka has a way of being — thinking, saying, writing — in the right place or mind space at the most apt time. Soyinka examined the conflict between power and freedom and predicted that those states of being, and the inherent tension between them, would define how the future would be fought for. In our current world of autocrats and dictators — worse to acknowledge, elected to those positions — Soyinka’s grim view from 2004 has been proved prescient.

Eerily, he spoke of the formation of what he called quasi-states (think now of Daesh — what Western media call Isis or Isil — and al-Shabaab and Boko Haram). These present an unknowable threat, ready to be unleashed at any time, but principally when their targets are least prepared for such an attack: ominously, when ordinary people are going about their everyday lives. This week’s attack on the dusitD2 hotel complex in Nairobi, Kenya, which al-Shabaab claimed, fits the scenario that Soyinka outlined that day in London: secret and insidious menace unveiled in a public space to brutal and deadly effect.

When one recalls his third Reith lecture, Rhetoric That Binds and Blinds, Soyinka looks more and more like the best sort of prophet (though in his case, one without honour in his own country). He identifies rhetoric as the weapon of choice of the political leader, against which there is the written word, the shield and metaphorical sword of the political prisoner. Of prison, Soyinka had two years of terrible captivity, during the Biafran War.

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In the world of 2019, it’s logical to extend the written word to being the protective armour and the counter-offensive weapon of the people too, the populace stripped of any meaningful say in their lives, voting in elections that are manipulated, fabricated charades of democracy. Cue here the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Memorably, Soyinka coins “our season of rhetorical hysteria”, by which he means a conscious inducing of a self-willed state of hysteria, via a mantra of phrases that come to be widely used and which are designed to instil and provoke fear. Given the prominence and large numbers of preachers and self-styled prophets in Nigeria, it is unsurprising that Soyinka cites them as examples of this rhetorical hysteria. Well before that, he had written the scathingly satirical novel The Trials of Brother Jero (1960), taking aim at the “prophets” of newly founded churches who grow rich by exploiting the gullibility of their followers.

Soyinka the great humorist, the master of irony and satire, is not much present in the Reith lectures. But the fierce idealist and the philosopher are, and the lectures to a degree display his call in Death and the King’s Horseman for the distinctive artistic ways of Africa and Europe to cross-pollinate.

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