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Remembering Ajibola Ige — An ecumenical spirit

By Wole Soyinka
27 December 2020   |   2:36 am
The murderers are among us. Let no one be in any doubt - they sit among us, right within this sombre gathering that honours the passage of a hero.


Wednesday, December 23, 2020 marked the 19th year rememberance of the gruesome killing of the then Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Chief Bola Ige. Till date, his assailants or their sponsors are yet to be found or prosecuted. Pundits believe that the failure of the state to resolve this kind of high- profile murder and several others, indeed, sowed the seed of the worsening insecurity that has lately engulfed the entire country. As a fitting tribute to the late Cicero of Esa Oke and celebral politician, a funeral oration delivered by Professor WOLE SOYINKA on January 11, 2002 at Ige’s interment held at Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, Oyo State is hereby reproduced.

The murderers are among us. Let no one be in any doubt – they sit among us, right within this sombre gathering that honours the passage of a hero. There are the unwitting collaborators whose blind politics brought this moment to be, whose primitive notions of contestation offered up this land of sacrificial platter. Perhaps they are contrite.

Perhaps now, they realise that they have been mere tools in the hands of their diabolically far-sighted, deeply calculating partners. These latter are the gloating presences in this assemblage, mocking, ever cynical, triumphalist. Cold bloodedly, they have begun to debate who shall be next on the list of those whose social resolve will always plague their waking hours, those who stand between them and their nefarious ideologies, their internal obsession to expropriate and waste people’s material heritage, and their immaterial but palpable will. These murderers have been to the home of their victim – and I do mean the real perpetrators of this crime, not their agents, not the mindless mercenaries who pulled the trigger. These paymasters have polluted the register of condolences with the abomination of their names, and hypocritical sentiments. Their doleful countenances belie the cesspit of infamy that has invested and now passes for their minds.

The murderers are present among us in this space of honour, albeit one of a nation’s bereavement and leave-taking. They renew themselves in the abundance of our grief, but they fail to understand that here, at the core of our grief-stricken hearts is a vitality that cannot be extinguished. The stillness that they have imposed on this form only hastens the burgeoning of a seed that he has planted in the hearts of millions, in the hearts and will of succeeding generations. Our tears will water that seed, and its efflorescence will overwhelm the blight that they sought to impose on our horizon.

I do not eulogise a saint – I know of none. I speak only of a town-crier, a strident, sometimes intemperate witness, a gadly even to his close associates. But no one could steal his voice, living, and none shall steal his voice, though now seemingly muffled by the shrouds of death. In hamlets and villages, in private company and public institutions, in caucuses of politicians and the assemblage of thinkers and builders, in the pulsating nests of righteous dissidence, conscientiously in the corridors of power, and contentiously in the media, both on the home front and at international gatherings, this was a voice that rang out clearly, decrying injustice and mobilizing others, moving millions towards an infinitive vision of the possible, the vision of human cohabitation in mutual respect, the harmonising of diverse communities, but only in conditions of absolute parity, only under conditions of absolute justice. Our friend, brother and colleague turned the accident of birth into an insurgent force for the creation of one entity, north, west, east and south.

Born of adventurous Yoruba parentage, raised in the far Hausa north, he was, like many, a symbol of the potential oneness of a rich diversity, but unlike most, he chose not to remain a passive symbol. His maturity imbibed the vision of a nation-builder whose concept of a family of nations had, at its foundation, an egalitarian relationship of people. His temperament rejected the agenda of domination – there, this erstwhile lamb of peace roared with the rage of a provoked lion.

Ajibola Ige interracted with diverse origins, beliefs and allegiances with a conviction that sometimes made his own immediate associates ask themselves where his loyalty lay in a non-dogmatic ideology that embraced the possibility of transcending lines of division, of striving for a goal whose end is the upliftment of society – from the geriatric down to youths and infants. It embraced others who shared the same direction, even when camped across the dividing line of party allegiances. This was a responsibility that he accepted as a fundamental mandate of a nation’s humanity, one that transcended rhetoric and petty partisanship.

Ajibola Ige was a builder of bridges.And still, they killed him. Why? Why did they kill this man whose battlefield lay solely in the realms of ideas, of debate, in the skills of organisation and the ability to lead and inspire men and women? Even children. One whose tools of contestation would be found only in the arena of conviction and the tenacity to pursue noble causes?

Why should they kill a man who could not kill, who could never give orders to kill or maim, nor would ever respond in kind to the violators of his own humanity. Not even the most implacable of his enemies would attribute to him this spirit of crude retaliation. And those of us who knew him closely, who had battled alongside him in the many convulsions that threatened to engulf this nation, can testify to this. We can testify to his impassioned belief in the processes of law, his conviction that human concourse must constantly differentiate itself from that of the beasts of the jungle by operating through an agreed set of rules, and principles.

His induction into the International Law Commission of the United Nations, just weeks before his death, was a recognition so summative of his life that a short sighted, impatience Death could only misread his opening of a new chapter as the terminal page to an illustrious career.

Why do you imagine that he constantly sought among the artists, was at home at their gatherings and manifestations, why did he seek the fount of creativity to renew himself? It was only partially as an antidote to the dehumanising tendencies of politics – he was himself a communicant at the altar of the Arts. Both laws and philosophy, we sometimes forget, are suckled at the same breast of the Muses of which the Arts are equal partakers.

As Governor of Oyo State where he was confronted with a level of barbarism beyond imagining in the manipulation of the 1983 election, Bola Ige stuck to his belief that the rule of law would eventually prevail, establish truth, and vindicate the cause of the just. His allies, his associates, were exasperated at such an immovable defence of a rampart that was being eroded by day, minute by minute, by cynicism and violence of the other side. This then was a man whose reservoir of generosity insisted, against all evidence, that his opponent should be credited with a capacity to reflect to act justly, a capacity that would surely elevate them above the propensities of beast and would exercise a civilising control on their conduct.

Again and again, he conceded them grounds, gave them the benefit of the doubt – but remained adamant in the contest of principles. Robbed in open daylight of the mandate of the people, he did not respond in kind or advocate violence. This is the rare breed of the cultured politician that has been taken from us. We must ask ourselves – why?

But we have just named the reasons, and we need look no further. Only the specificity of the origin of this cowardly blow is left to determine. We are a nation that kills our best. Generosity is a tainted word. Largesse of heart is regarded as a medical condition, like an enlarged heart, requiring drastic intervention. Tolerance is ridiculed as the mark of weakness. And so we kill the generous, the large of heart, the tolerant. Even the symbol that should heal and bind the nation together are turned into agencies of death – including faith, piety, religion. A man of unswerving Christian conviction who has served on the World Council of Churches, a position that he used to battle the iniquities of Apartheid South Africa, joining hands with a minority to transform that body into a combative tool of liberation.

Bola Ige was, in turn, the incarnation of that liberation of the spirit that embraced the followers of other faiths as equals before a Supreme Deity. In this, he was twin to his predecessor on this road to calvary, the late President of this nation who never assumed office, Bashorun Moshood Kashimawo Abiola MKO as we all knew him – a devout Muslim, the Deputy leader of the Islamic Council, also evolved into a great exemplar of like virtues, the humanistic embodiment not merely of tolerance, but of full acceptance of the other.

Let the convergence of their convictions and of the nature of their deaths serve as a lesson to the living. One a Christian, the other a Muslim, both unequivocal in their embrace of the human entirety, whatever their faiths. If either could be faulted for the sin of intolerance, it was indeed that of an uncompromising intolerance of the intolerant. Neither viewed a friend, or a colleague or a stranger through the distorting veils of religion. Yet when they quit our midst, the nation assuages its conscience with one non-denominational service after the other. To what purpose?

The non-denominational service remains a ritualistic sham, a mockery of such lives, unless it is pervaded by the true ecumenical spirit that animated their existence. We need to cultivate their transforming spirit of oneness, a virtue that also defined the poet and statesman, Leopold Sedar Senghor, who has preceded our own Bola Ige to the land of the ancestor. It is the highest attainment to which any profession of faith can aspire, since it transcends mere catechism, canticles and scriptures which, whatever claims are made, are no more than products, interpretations and emendations of imperfect, deeply flawed humanity, however deeply inspired. Let us bear this in mind, as we mourn, yet again, another paraclete of the ecumenical vision that seeks to unite all beings within the immensity of the universal cloak of the spirit.

Let the killers among us pause and reflect. The route to the mind is not the path of the bullets nor the path of the blade, but the invisible, yet palpable paths of discourse that may be arduous but ultimately guarantee the enlargement of our private and social beings. Let the killings stop and the intercourse of minds begin. Let these killers understand that we do not simply lament this death, we are resolved to extinguish the impulse that lies behind it. We are bound in a common cause to terminate the impulse that takes our best, our brightest.

Everyday, we move closer to a polarisation of the word into two communities – the community of life and other – the community of death. That death is inevitable is such a banal comment on existence that it deserves no further avowal. When we speak of the Party of Death therefore, we refer to those whose life mission – often blasphemously transposed into a mandate of religion – is not towards the enhancement of life as an inextinguishable continuum in the consciousness of generation after generation – but a quick, and easy resolution in death. We speak of the Party of Death as a mindless surrender before the challenge that confronts and excites other with the complexities of intuition, discovery, creativity and the social articulations that define the human phenomenon. The feeble twitches of the killer, however lethal, is a confession of that intense frustration, a confession of creative impotence, an inability to extinguish the infinite phenomenon that is life. We reject the blasphemous who seek to play God by appropriating the right to the measure of existence.

This is not a death in isolation. It thrusts itself outwards as an encapsulation of the killings that have dominated our landscape these many lamentable years. The question that this Absence places before us is a simple one: shall we come together and engage in a sincere dialogue, or shall we continue to splutter through these terminal monologues of serial violence? Those who continue to refuse this dialogue of peoples no matter by what name it is called – who continue to concoct untenable reasons for its avoidance, and attribute impure motive to its advocates, have merely chosen to concede the last word to the Party of Death.

Today it is the Ijaw, the Itshekiri or Urhobo, tomorrow is the turn of Sagamu, Agege. Umuleri, Aguleri have been there before, Modakeke now, Osun to follow soon after, not forgetting the Ijaws and the Ilaje. Kano will not be outdone when Kaduna has laid claim to hierachical preferment in the Party of Death.

And then Jos, the ancient ecumenical city of Jos goes up in flames, is awash in torrents of blood, while Tivs and Jukuns meet at the abbatoir of mutual repudiation. If only this death could be the last, this death that we own so intimately, if only the death of Bola Ige, one that we may call a true ‘peoples death’ could be a culmination of this ascent of the bestial pedigree in us but – I fear not. I gravely fear that this will not be the last.

How can it be, when a human outrage that takes place thousands of miles away is read and preached as a divine mandate to pour out into the street, desecrate the places of worship of others and augment the distant tally of death with the local slaughter of innocents.

No, I fear it cannot be. Not when those who have had the unearned privilege to rule this land before, those who treasonably seized the reins of leadership of this nation, continue to ignite the dormant flames of zealotry, compound their career of infamy by fanning those flames with divisive declamations, affirming what we have always asserted – that they are closet fanatics, wedded to a hegemonic agenda, that theirs has ever been an opportunism that masqueraded as a social reformist zeal. Now, disrobed of the mantle of power, they reveal the parlousness of their self-vaunting leadership integrity, the emptiness of their commitment to the concept of this nation, indeed the hollowness of their very pretensions to a common humanity.

In the midst of the killing orgies of the besotted, we sought to hear statesmanlike words that rebuked, that stoutly denounced these acts of insanity. What we heard, instead – and by which we are still assailed till today – was the manifesto of the Party of Death, the language of human alienation and even, of treasonable incitement. The very air waves are demeaned by the indelicacy of their public interventions. In our silence, in the feebleness of our response, we set the stage, we nerve the hand towards this definitive moment, the extinction of a voice of tolerance, of equity and the re-harmonisation of a much violated community. Behold the resonance box of one among the foremost, in life an anathema to the purveyors of hate and intolerance, now entombed in the mortal frame of Ajibola Ige, our friend and comrade.

Someone has publicly described the assassination of our brother as this nation’s equivalent of the calamity that was inflicted by human hands in distant America, whose symbolic towers of a complex human concourse were crushed, entombing thousand of lives of different nationalities, races, sexes, ages, political persuasions and religious faiths.

The comparison may sound hyperbolic but, when considered closely, as an exercise in degrees of traumatisation, it is not really far-fetched. Ajibola Ige can indeed be seen as a twin promontory of Political Intelligence and Creative Spirit that has dominated the national landscape of our times, and animated its search for a cohesive identity. His political estate is vast and demanding, a network that reaches into virtually every corner of this nation space, and in every field.

It is an estate that cannot be inherited by any one individual, yet must be embraced as a bequest of duty and nurtured with care and commitment. We must all prepare to secure portions of that estate as dictated by our varied political temperaments and measure of commitment, tend it carefully, yet within one collective and cohesive context that answers the vision of Bola’s fecund mind and organisational skills. His constituency was vast, and even so much our will expand to embrace and nurture that constituency.

To the unrepentant hegemonists, the claimants of a divine mandate of governance who sought to drag a nation down to their normal habitation in the pit of perdition, you, Ajibola Ige, reached down and said – Take my hand. They obeyed. You hauled them up to a plateau of equity, saying, walk beside me. But they replied, we shall walk with you, but we shall dictate the destination. At which you smiled and replied: I said: take my hand, not my voice. And that is why they killed you. That was why they conspired and killed a man of peace, a believer in the powers of the mind, a living exhortation of faith in the triumph of the human Spirit. That is why they killed a man of politics who identified with the Arts and creativity as an integrated process of life and community, as an expression of the cultured self, of which he was himself a living paradigm. This is why they killed a builder, a pathfinder through the labyrinths of man-made divisiveness. But they cannot kill hope, nor can they extinguish the conviction and a faith in the future that burns within our hearts.

Ajibola Ige, suun re o. You have earned a place of rest among those giants who, mysteriously, emerge from a land of midgets to astound and challenge the world. Farewell. Walk tall among the ancestors.

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