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Foretelling democracy atrophy


Wole Soyinka

Nigerians were alarmed by President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent attempt to join issues with legal practitioners over the correct order of the rule of law and national interest, notably national security.

But, what should ordinarily have passed as a lively intellectual discourse ended up raising up the red flag, reminding most citizens of the President’s antecedents dating back to his days as military head of state, when free speech and other freedoms represented in the constitution were suspended.

The inference drawn from the cross fire was that the country was at the crossroads once again, being a path it had travelled quite often in recent history, particularly during the prolonged military interregnums.


It was at such historical epochs, particularly the unending transition programme of former military President, Ibrahim Babangida, that the air of uncertainty threw a halo of despondency among the citizenry.

One individual that has always maintained the tradition of the taking up the licence to sound the alarm of the deleterious effects of choking human liberties is Wole Soyinka.

Interestingly, it was during the IBB era, when the military president experimented with diarchy that Soyinka earned the Nobel laurel, for his outstanding work in literature.

Soyinka adorned his literary skills to challenge enemies of free society, especially the military, whose officers he saw as ulcers of social progress and inquiry.

When former military head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo aspired for the position of United Nations Secretary, the playwright mounted the barricades, denouncing the ambition as an attempt to export a national bad example.


However, when the dark-goggled one, General Sani Abacha, sacked the quasi democratic structure erected by Babangida at the point of his sudden decision to step aside, Soyinka, got more than he bargained for as the junta sought his head.

Escaping to exile in the United States, from where he continued his verbal warfare against totalitarian regimes in Africa, the Nobel Laureate joined citizens to set up a government in exile that ultimately led to the downfall of the Abacha regime.

Perhaps as a result of experience garnered over the years from speaking truth to power, Soyinka decided to put together his thoughts in periodicals aptly titled Interventions.

He summed up the motivation for that publication by stressing, “The Nigerian state is bedevilled by various scourges: the constant thirst for and abuse of power by governments and individuals alike, is posing a great threat to freedom more than ever before in the country.”

It was in that mental frame that WS weighed in on the red flag waved by President Buhari’s attempt to justify the continued detention of former National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki.


Espying that the former military boys were back to some scary games, the Nobel Laureate described the exchange as “Buhari’s Pernicious Doctrine.”

It was not the firs time Nigerians would hear him, but he has developed great instincts at foretelling the impending atrophy of democracy and open society.

Going down memory lane, Soyinka said: “Here we go again! At his first coming, it was ‘I intend to tamper with Freedom of the Press’, and Buhari did proceed to suit action to the words, sending two journalists – Irabor and Thompson – to prison as a reward for their professional integrity.

Now, a vague, vaporous, but commodious concept dubbed ‘national interest’ is being trotted out as alibi for flouting the decisions of the Nigerian judiciary.

President Buhari has obviously given deep thought to his travails under a military dictatorship, and concluded that his incarceration was also in the ‘national interest.’ 

He said the “timing is perfect, and we have cause to be thankful for the advance warning,” pointing out that “not all rulers actually make a declaration of intent, but simply proceed to degrade the authority of the law as part of the routine business of governance.”


Further he added: “We have been there before.

It should be of mere interest, not despondency that this latest proclamation of dictatorial recidivism has also been made before an assembly of officers of the law, the Nigerian Bar Association. 

We expect a robust response from the NBA as part of its conclusions.”

Sounding much like an experienced educator that he is, Soyinka declared; “There is no short cut to democracy.

The history of law, even where uncodified, is as old as humanity. Numerous rulers have tried again and again to annul that institution.

“Sometimes, they appear to succeed, but in the end, they pay heavy forfeit. So does society. The Rule of Law however outlasts all subverters, however seemingly powerful. 

“If the consequences for society in defence of the Rule of Law were not so costly, any new attempt would be merely banal and boring, hardly deserving of attention. We know, historically, where it will all end.”

Whatever happens afterwards, it is either that Nigerians would end up saying ‘but Soyinka said so,’ or ‘thank God Soyinka waved the red flag!’


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