The open society endangered
Talk delivered at the UN World Anti-Corruption Day, Abuja, December 9, 2019
Present here, I fully expect, is the Youth contingent of this undertaking. We are still within the United Nations designated Year of the Child, and that makes youth involvement doubly appropriate as an integral part of our encounter. This is not mere sentiment. As some of you here may recall, I have referred to my set on occasion as the Wasted Generation. I recall that this led to some members of the generation after mine referring to theirs as the Lost Generation. It all happened during a lecture, and the speaker’s comment went thus: “Professor Soyinka does not know how lucky he is. His generation has been merely wasted, ours is lost.” I do not know if that speaker was right, or I was, or maybe both were. Frankly, I am not even sure which is worse – to be lost or to be wasted. All I am certain of is – moral endangerment, the degradation of moral sensibilities in the vulnerable sector of any society, however defined. That impressionable sector is always at risk wherever abnormalities become accepted as the norm, and the jettisoning of moral restraints is lauded, through example, as the basis of routine existence.
If I may use a notorious example, can anyone of us have failed to remark how the phenomenon of cultism has penetrated downwards, lower and lower in generational infiltration until we now read of it even in some elite primary schools? Children may not find themselves in situations where they can actual engage in corrupt practices, but they grow up eventually into that stage, and if they have been raised in an environment where adults are exposed as corrupt, even expelled from their positions of status, only to return to their home base, to be lauded by their communities, received with pomp and pageantry and garlanded with chieftaincy titles, it requires no special exercise of the imagination to project what the future holds for overall society. The principle of “catch them young” is one that pervades most spheres of human activity, so it’s all a question of who does the “catching”. If we are serious and convinced about a foundational principle of social conduct, then we obviously cannot leave others to do the catching.
One of the most telling exercises I have indulged in in my creative career was one which evolved from my activities in the Lagos Black Heritage Festival. We initiated a youth item called “The Vision of the Child”. This consisted of members of that yet undefined generation being set a theme for creative interpretation – in painting, essay and even poetic forms. We encouraged them to let their imagination roam free in all directions. One such themes that I set them was “The Thousand And One Faces of Corruption”. The results were remarkable. If anyone thought that children even at the ‘innocent’ age downwards from thirteen or fourteen all the way down to seven or six, do not know what ‘corruption’ means, how it works, how it affects their lives and their families, they should see some of those visual and literary compositions, talk to their authors and artists, and ask the latter to explain some of the seemingly abstruse images they create. You would be thoroughly chastened. For example, even I had not thought of dragging Sambisa forest into the geography of corruption, being too preoccupied with the horror of that outrage in itself. They did, albeit inspired by an earlier thematic imposition – THE ROAD TO SAMBISA. This is how it all begins – read their submissions -, with corruption overwhelming even basic social and governance responsibilities. Mr. Magu, the chairman of EFCC happened on that exhibition, and was sufficiently struck as to request that it tour the nation. We were more than willing. Some of his staff visited the exhibition at Freedom Park and went into preliminaries with our young collaborators. That was – how many years ago? More ruefully, will that exhibition ever travel beyond its present confines?
Since then, that initiative has metamorphosed into an even more elaborate movement with the name Corruption Busters – launched in Lekki in December 2017. I was able to attend just the beginning of the event but, from evidence of the video recording, the Vice-President threw himself most vigorously into that initiative. So did a couple of supportive foreign embassies. Since then however, that movement appears to have gone into recession – but I may be wrong. I would be curious to see if they participated in the Walk from EFCC to this venue this morning. If not, Mr. Magu, you and I have a problem!
The coincidence of global affirmations of past agreements on social conduct such as the ongoing celebration of the Convention on the Rights of Children, the World Anti-Corruption Day which is today, reinforced by the World Human Rights Day on Tuesday, tomorrow, should be exploited to the fullest, not merely to involve that generation in a progressive seizure of society and humanity, but also to compel adults to see both themselves and the society they have created through the eyes of children, obtain a glimpse of how that generation itself views and assesses the conduct and values of their parents, uncles, aunts, chiefs, their ministers, even their priests and supposed moral exemplars.
Youth participation takes multiple forms, even where the youths are not physically present. Images are useful ‘take-away’ teachers. The venue of this encounter could have been festooned with the results from that – or similar — exhibitions, or other related exercises that represent minds yet under formation. If you must take on corruption, which runs 24/7 all-year round, then we must be alert to all opportunities to propagate the counter-gospel 24/7 all year round, with bonus ‘opportunity targets’ – to borrow from military parlance – such as the mentioned triple notations on the UN calendar. Do some of us sometimes perhaps appear obsessed by this problem? Of course. Long before any government ever thought it to make it its business, hundreds and thousands of Nigerian individuals in their fields of activities have tackled it head-on with all attendant risk. The choice was ‘join them or fight them’. How many here are old enough to have heard of the civilian Anti-Bribery League headed by the owner – I hopefully recollect — of Lisabi Mills in Yaba? Or later, of the government’s short-lived initiative, the X-Squad with offices in 5 Milverton Street, Ikoyi? Somehow or the other it takes on the intensity of a personal battle, for which agonizing setbacks, such as the assassination of the late Bola Ige, a personal friend, but also Attorney-General and Minister of Justice of this nation, only serve as further spur. Only the cynical fail to accept that it is a contest that transcends politics, partisanship and even governance, which, in this particular instance, has sunk in recent times to its lowest ebb.
Corruption triggers off numerous collateral activities in institutional conduct and governmental interface with citizenry, confrontation with its effects is thus plainly transformational. This means that, for any corruption degraded society, it should be nothing less than revolutionary in approach – call it by that or any other word, it is still a revolutionary undertaking. Revolution Now? Or Soon? Later or Whenever? An anti-corruption focus is surely integral to any revolutionary agenda, often it constitutes its very trigger – check any society you wish – from Cuba through China to Egypt or Myammar. Corruption is hardly ever omitted in the list of indictments that justify that very undertaking called a revolution. Thus, anti-corruption activism is a conscious, revolutionary offensive that aims at transformation of the totality of the social phenomena. Those agencies, or governments that permit themselves to be terrified by the word had better learn to live with it. Even governments sometimes pride themselves with claims that they have revolutionized this or that facet of society or indeed, of governance itself., meaning that such a government embarks on a drastic self-transformation in both form and practice. So much, in general terms.
Now we turn our spotlight more specifically on that agency that appears to consider the word treasonable. Has anyone been following recent testimonies in the media by those who have entered the dungeons of the state security agency and lived to tell the tale? What has emerged in these past few days is that the very agency that recently desecrated the sanctum of justice is itself charged with corruption. It is publicly claimed that extortion has become commonplace, inflicted on helpless citizens, some of whom lack a voice, or influential contacts, unlike the yet ongoing instance of a former media publisher and presidential candidate. Corruption can only be fought and degraded, if not entirely destroyed, within the reality of an open society. And an open society is built and sustained on the freedom of expression.
And here comes the complement to that assault. We need only veer laterally and consider a recent – perhaps merely fortuitous act of – partnership by another governance installation – the legislative houses. We must thank the DSS for impressing on us the same obligatory call to interrogate any proposition that curtails that right of free expression, even where camouflaged under the rubric of Hate Speech. Or Fake news. Both, we all agree are not only harmful but cowardly and despicable.
However, combine these recent sample offerings from the two institutional within the context of an Open Society and where do we find ourselves? Let me repeat: a legislature proposes nothing less than capital punishment for what it deems Hate speech. First, are we really prepared to take on the awful responsibility of telling our children that the rational response to any kind of social outrage is to kill? Does that truly reflect the ascent of humanity from instinctive animal predatoriness? Let us take a moment to follow the trajectory of what amounts to nothing less than a vicious cycle. This very setting in which we are assembled, Aso Rock, could not be more appropriate for charting the perilous waters into which this nation is being plunged. So, here goes, a reconstruction that should by no means be considered a worst-case scenario.
Society does not operate in virtual reality. We exist palpably. The structure that is constitutionally empowered to determine what is denounced as Hate or Toxic Speech is rendered ineffectual daily through acts of executive condescension and disdain from the peak of governance. The seal of desecration was finally planted on the institution of law, the sole legitimate adjudicator, by an agency that now stands accused of violating the very principles that this agency, the EFCC and its sister ICPC, were set up to uphold. Is it excessive to consider the possibility that other potential accusers of that security agency are locked up in dungeons, some forgotten for upwards three to four years? Kindly check the media for testimonies of those who have recently been discharged from or discovered in DSS custody after years in their hellholes. How would the DSS now respond, given the protection of this ready-to-kill Bill on Hate? Obviously, with complaint of Hate Attack by the accusers, punishable by death. The agency proceeds to arrest the newspaper staff and the accusers. The case goes to hearing. The judge sets a date and grants the accusers bail.
What happens next? The agency under accusation invades the court, scatters everyone, pounces on the recently bailed ‘felon’ and drags him off struggling desperately for life and liberty. That, I repeat, is not a worst-case scenario, nor is it far-fetched. The blueprint is out in public domain.
The anti-corruption offensive, on which we are hopefully sincerely engaged, is meaningless without complete openness and without the total liberty of every citizen, subject only to constraints imposed under the law. It is therefore most heart-warming that civil society is waking up to its responsibilities and has called strongly for an apology to the nation from the so-called Directorate of State Services. We must proceed further. We need from the DSS a list of all its current detainees, their names, addresses and records of confinement. I see no security issue fulfilled in keeping such names secret. Why is any citizen reduced to paying 50,000 Naira to bribe an officer to procure a cellphone, just to let his family know that he is alive but immured in a dungeon? The right to information must be exercised comprehensively and most certainly in favour of citizen liberty, in conformity to that third United Nations notation – Human Rights – that it has designated for tomorrow. So perhaps something positive will be extracted from this collective violation that this nation has recently undergone.
With that foregoing, Greetings on my own behalf, and on behalf of – shall we call them? – the anxious generation, on this World’s Anti-Corruption Day. Let this morning’s overture, the symbolic walk from the designated citadel of ethical transformation to this venue be absorbed as a walk to freedom within a corruption-free air for those forgotten Nigerians in illegal captivity. A LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, wrote Nelson Mandela, victim of a vicious system called apartheid. We do not labour under apartheid terror, so let us shorten that walk and open up society by giving voice to the voiceless, and presence to the absent, held under our very noses under inhuman conditions, forced to pay for the privilege of reminding the rest of us, in approximate freedom, that they still exist. In short, let us embrace the liberating, transformative spirit of — if not exactly Revolution Now – then at least, maybe — Liberation Now?
•Soyinka is a professor of comparative literature and 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature