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Soyinka: Nigeria trivialising kidnapping

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Push The Envelope Of Federalism As Far As It Can Go
• We Are Not Operating As A Nation
• Blame Miyetti Allah For Ethnic Profiling Of Killer Herdsmen

Prof. Wole Soyinka’s way with words is legendary. When The Guardian proposed an interview with the wordsmith, it was with mixed feelings. WS must be too tired to submit himself to another talk session shortly after the presentation of his latest intervention, “The Flagship” reasoned. But the Nobel Laureate agreed to take up the challenge. There was no drama, but word pictures as he took questions on the country’s convoluted political structure, social upheavals and menace of banditry, criminality and the absence of governance at the centre. He proffered far-reaching suggestions, not only to mend the country but also to steady her flight to the future. Soyinka took the team comprising, KABIR ALABI GARBA, CHUKS NWANNE, GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR, LEO SOBECHI, FEMI ADEBESIN-KUTI and OSHANIWA TAIWO FRANK, through metaphysics, history, religion and his forte, creative arts, where he regretted that the National Arts Theatre is not worth the name.

Based on the attempts by some northern leaders, including Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, and the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, to rationalise violence lately, what would be your assessment of their mindset on the issue of insecurity in the country?
IT is not too surprising that we have such contrasting opinions about what is happening. Let me begin by appraising the security challenges that we are facing. I think they come from three main sources if we ignore what we recognise as the civilian one, anyway.

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Kidnapping also is a civilian phenomenon, which has escalated all through the country — child rape; gender abuse; everything violent has been on the increase. But, I’m talking about those, which seem to be the three, most structured and partisan, in the sense that there is an identification of source.

It is not as disparate, as what I call the civil criminalities, to which we are accustomed. One of them, of course, is Boko Haram. Everybody recognises that Boko Haram/ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) is a cousin of al-Shabaab and another extremist, violent fundamentalists.

Then, there is a second one, which is called banditry. When I hear the expression, banditry, for instance, my historic sense is a little bit longer than the others. The reason is this; people are talking about cattle all alone; we will come to that third one in a moment.

But, how did what we now call banditry begin? I believe that it actually emanated from Zamfara State and was as a result of the hidden, illegal, unacknowledged, gold mining, which has been taking place. I think some of the measures taken by former governors of that state have nothing to do with religion, even though religion was used as an excuse.

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Banditry only had to do with the control of the goldmines, which has been going on for years in this country, without being publicly acknowledged until recently. Anywhere there is gold, there is banditry. Go and take a look at all nations that mine gold. Gold, somehow, is a violent metal, beautiful. We all love it. It is the acknowledged universal currency throughout societies and throughout histories. Wherever there is gold, don’t let us underestimate, even if it is not the kind of fight, there are violent, sneak attacks, and the determination to control that source to the deprivation of the rest of society - the Gold Rush. Why do we think it would be different here?

Thirdly, and most prominently, is the cattle. It is the most dangerous because it is identified. Even though gold is identified with, let us say Zamfara, Ondo and in one or two other places, cattle has been the most intractable because the violence connected with the cattle has become attached to a particular tribe.

I like to bring people back to that when I hear about stereotyping, ethnic profiling and so on. I always like us to remember that Miyetti Allah, in particular, is responsible for ethnic profiling. I will explain it.

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I can tell from my personal usage of language and words, even in my interventions, I’m always very careful. I never used the expression Fulani herdsmen until Miyetti Allah itself openly and publicly acknowledged and boasted about the killings and destruction of farmlands and so on. I’m referring to Benue State, shall we say, the index state. It boasted and threatened the government that it either rescinded its legally formulated injunctions (something within the government’s right, responsibility) or the state will face killings and destruction.

That association threatened this nation, not just Benue State; it threatened the already fragile cohesion of the nation, by suggesting that there are governments besides the one people of this nation elected. It went further, if you remember, to remind the citizens that they had conquered the zone before and this was their territory and that they had the right to reclaim it.

When people are castigated or seeming to stereotype a particular crime, I want us to remember that Miyetti Allah claimed the crime in the first instance after which I felt we all followed.

We now know, on the admission of the perpetrators themselves, so, you cannot blame the rest of the nation for profiling. These are the three directions of the violence assailing us at the moment, and the most dangerous, I believe, I think we all agree is the one, which is associated with any ethnic group.

During the presentation of your latest book, Chronicle, a fortnight ago, you urged Nigerians to ‘shut down activities’ in solidarity with abductees should any incidence of child abduction be recorded again in the country. Were you indirectly calling for another nationwide mass protest amid the prevailing security crisis?

I make no apology for my passion for children, youths. I’m not sentimental, but some youths grow up to be criminals, extortionist, etc. But I believe that there is a phase in one’s existence, which should be sacrosanct. There should be, at least, that phase of innocence, a condition in which a certain recognised sector of any society or any recognised human gathering has the right to claim protection, extra care within the compass of their growing up. We’ve all been through that, but to deny that age group the right of being protected from trauma, brutality, which kidnapping involves, is below humanity. They shouldn’t be considered as humans to start with. It is as elementary as that.

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The rest of us must expiate a level of guilt for being so complacent; so careless; so forgetful of history, of precedence that we allow this to happen again and again. I feel personally rebuked, and I hope others feel the same. And when it reaches a state where it is becoming a culture, certain drastic measures are necessary, and that is why I said that any time children are abducted, that state, for me, has a responsibility of taking some kind of drastic action, including to say, we are shutting down until these children are restored. That then leads to the next stage, which is the general mobilisaton to go after the kidnappers. We have no other duty right now, no priority beyond recovering that generation of victims. We are trivialising kidnapping and it will just become fashionable, acceptable.

How can you go into a school, take these vulnerable entities and you think you’re brave? We have got to evolve all the language of chastising such sub-humans until they recover some element of their humanity and make restoration to the communities that they have violated in this way. Then ensure that those children do not go through that traumatising experience again.

So, yes, I’m calling for unusual measures and if anybody has a better idea, let me know.  But right now, it seems we are being laughed at; we are being rendered impotent. I had the same reaction when, for instance, if you remember the Siege of Beslan (when 1,100 people including 777 schoolchildren were held, hostage). I’ve written about it. For me, it didn’t matter where they were from, whether Chechnya or Russia, they were children across the globe.

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And this monster, who thought himself a brave warrior, then waged war on a school, a boarding school, shot some of them and teargased them, when they were running to escape and were forced to drink their urine. And this character stalked around like our Boko Haram here, giving interviews and justifying his actions as the will of Allah. When last did he speak to Allah? Does he know Allah at all?

This is a common cheap specimen of sub-humanity and yet they are glorified. Shekau dances in front of cameras around saying, we have your children, what are you going to do about it? We are going to sell them into slavery. Such people need to be exterminated. And if we cannot exterminate them immediately, the society must rise in repudiation, inactive repudiation of one form or another. If it means fasting, going without certain luxury for so long; if it means depriving ourselves of our usual hobbies; if it means cancelling social engagements; if it means cancelling professional engagements, where the health of humanity or society is not involved, then we must do it.

We just cannot sit down helpless each time, especially shouting at the centre, which no longer exists to come to the rescue.

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How do you mean by the centre no longer exists?
I’ve said that over and over. I’m not the only one. I recommend, for instance, Tony Nyiam’s interview on Arise Television. Oby Ezekwesili made a similar statement saying that there is nobody in charge. In fact, she went further to say that whatever mechanism we have, political, governance mechanism should be evoked to examine if Buhari is really capable of governing, or if he is actually governing; if he is physically and mentally capable of governing at the moment. She has gone that far.

I use the expression of Rip Van Winkle, that is, the mythology of the man who slept for several decades and eventually woke up after so many years to find the world had changed around him. This one will wake up one day and find that Nigeria is gone! He will wake up one day saying that the sovereignty of Nigeria cannot be compromised, and the people will ask him, which Nigeria are you talking about? That is what I feel about the centre.

What is your take on negotiating for the release of abductees, especially schoolchildren?
I support any kind of effort, and I actually find laudable, any action, which involves personal risk. The question, however, is what I call the Gumi approach, is the theology that goes with it. That’s problematic. It looks safe to say he is going there to plead the cause of violators, not violated. He is using language, which for me, is pernicious. In a moment, he will get the victims feeling guilty that they allowed themselves to have been kidnapped in the first place. That is the logical conclusion of that kind of language. If he says he goes there to negotiate, negotiation has been taking place with bandits throughout history in the entire globe. I was involved in negotiation by MEND, for instance, and it was possible for me to relate to MEND, but at the same time, I said to them, ‘I do not approve of your kidnappings.’ I think I was probably the first person in this country to speak up against such tactics. That is talking about adults, how much more vulnerable children. So, Gumi needs to get both his approach and his language right. So that he doesn’t present himself as being an accomplice to the very phenomenon of kidnapping.

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Igboho and other agitators have been calling for O’odua republic. In the Southeast, the IPOB is also rooting for Biafra. What do you have to say to dissidents expressing genuine frustrations and calling for the balkanisation of Nigeria?
I have been screaming about decentralisation each time somebody says, oh, I don’t know what they are talking about. Restructuring, what is it? Anyway, don’t let me go in that direction. But, I always ask them to begin with massive decentralisation. It is a gospel that I have been preaching for more than a decade now. I addressed Houses of Assembly in Lagos, in the South-South and once in the North, and I passed on the same message, saying push the envelope of federalism as far as it can go, and if there are any problems in terms of constitutional interpretations, head for the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, however, generate your own resources and generate the resources in a way that a percentage of it cannot be cornered by the centre like Value Added Tax (VAT).

For instance, one state is producing greater a percentage of VAT, and yet a major part of VAT is going to the centre, which then distributes the way it must go. That is not federalism, and that is even what leads to friction, crime and the cry for secession. So, we got to absolutely reconstruct, decentralise, give whatever name you want, to reconfigure, but in a practical way, not just rhetorical.

We have had so many conferences and everybody knows that this constitution is not working. Even those who are operating it are just enjoying it because they are the ones interpreting the constitution any way they want. Look at the whole issue of breakdown of security, the centre obviously cannot protect and has proven itself incapable of protecting the entire nation, and yet you are insisting you don’t want state police; you don’t want community police; you don’t want Amotekun; you don’t want anything except centralised regimentation.

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In the meantime, it doesn’t matter whether those who occupy the centrality of power and responsibility; it doesn’t matter whether they are competent or not, it doesn’t matter whether they are unlucky or not, it doesn’t matter whether the world has moved so far forward and the nation has become so far transformed that the old reliables no longer apply, and therefore you need new minds, no, he insists on centralism. What kind of mentality is that?

And so, time and time again, even governors no matter, which president recognises the fact he must do something. And so, they set up a constitutional review committee and whatever they call it, and all the results are piled up. I said okay; the monkeys are satisfied, they threw them some bananas, now they throw out all the recommendations and continued the centralist kind of government.

So, it is part of the leadership problem that we are talking about. A self-centred, shortsighted kind of leadership, especially in this complex nation — a nation of ethnic, religious, cultural, traditional, economic complexities, the like of which no other nation is on this continent.

In spite of your being described as an Aparo hunter, by former President Obasanjo, based on his claim that you are a poor political analyst, both of you appear to be on the same page concerning the worsening insecurity in the country.
People should by now, know that for Obasanjo and me, it is a love-hate relationship, which has been going on for donkey years. I have a feeling that it would continue until one day two of us will meet at the place we are going. It is a kind of natural phenomenon. I call it natural because it is happening and it seems it is not going to stop.

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Remember that during the Africa Day conference organised by United Bank for Africa (UBA), I took pains to call attention to his warning, when I said, forget the messenger, you could please fasten on the message and he warned and was warning about the Fulanisation; he used that expression of this motion, the dangers this portended. He can be very perceptive; I just have a problem with him for certain reasons and that is all.

Should Nigerians expect more collaboration between both of you in the search for a solution?
I hope he would not mind my telling you this. When my forest was invaded, not for the first time, and the police decided to use fake news to counter fake news, I got a message from him, saying, ‘don’t take your security lightly; don’t think this is an accident. I hope you will not quarrel with me; I am still your cousin in question.”

I just want people to understand that public fight; often called the ‘roforofo fight’ does not mean that we do not take each other seriously on serious issues. Both of us I know will stand side by side and rebuff any attack on the wellbeing of Nigerians. There is no problem there at all.

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Fifty years after the attempts to dismember the country, traditional frictions along with ethnic nationalism, economic models and political dissensions continue to roil the nation. Will Nigeria survive the ongoing disagreements over the political structure and the federal system?

Everything is interwoven and it is our responsibility as supposedly rational and concerned beings to try and disentangle ourselves from all of it when they threaten the fabric of the nation, by fabric I am not talking of any mythical nation, but the humanity of the nation.

There are many ways of tackling the issue, but let me give you one way out of the entanglement of ethnic issues with economic and social colouration. Recently, you must have come across the Any Thing But Cow Day (ABCD) project, which incidentally the first launch took place on February 25. I saw a notice saying it would begin on March 5, but it was actually launched on February 25.

In fact, I have two goats to show for it. I was presented with two goats by the movement, which is a symbolic and practical gesture to be given. It is on cow pandemic, and that was Phase 1. Many more groups are coming on board. From what I saw, Afenifere, Yoruba Youth Movement, and others are coming on board this project.

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It is interesting that from the February 25 inauguration, the Miyetti Allah, among others, two days later, decided to stop exporting food and cattle to the South. This is where there is ethnic collaboration even though it is supposed to be antagonistic; both sides are working towards the same goal.

Cattle seems to be the problem, one side says stop eating beef, and the other says, we are not giving you beef. So, it is a problem solved.

During the Nigerian Civil War, Biafrans resolved to survive and to obtain protein by all means. It was horrifying and you just have to pray that no generation ever undergoes a situation where they had to kill and eat lizards as nourishment to survive. All that this movement is doing is to say stop the eating of beef.

So, one side is treating it in an ethnic way by saying, we are not exporting beef across the border, while the other one -#EndCowPandemic, which is looking for support all over the rural communities, even in the Diaspora is just saying, this is an issue of survival; people are being killed, displaced, raped and brutalised. They are being made to undergo dehumanisation on a level, which appears the rival wants to do what happened during the civil war. This is not an ethnic issue. No, it is not; but one side wants to make it so.

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This is exactly what Miyetti Allah did at the beginning when people were saying herdsmen have become a nuisance; herdsmen are becoming terrorists. He got up and said shut up, you haven’t heard the gnome: “We conquered you, we Fulani, we conquered you. No complaints otherwise you get our assail.’ So, it all depends on mental attitude and also tactical traces, which is one of the reasons that you see me backing the #EndCowPandemic movement. If we do it this way, then you will eliminate violence and ethnic issues.

It is not only the Fulani that raises cattle; the owners of the cattle that invaded my place were Yoruba even though there was a Fulani leading the cattle. The first time they did it, I warned them. So, mental attitude, tactical traces, are approaches, which will enable us not to go to that very dangerous brink of ethnicisation. We just have to be rational and select our weapons of resistance very carefully and rationally.

What of the claim that a civil war could erupt in the country by 2022?
Some people would like this country to be plunged into a civil war. From that observation, it is easy to accept the fact that it is in the interest of certain groups for this nation to go into another civil war. Different motivations, the most dangerous of this, are what I would call the motivations behind those who actually arm these mercenaries.

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There are many powerful people in this nation — groups and sections, who would like the past erased. Some of them are standing trial for corruption on a massive scale, and a fraction of the money they have stolen is sufficient to actually equip a small-size army, and take on the nation. And they don’t mind expending that money on other activities to be able to escape their eventual destiny.

Religion has also been used in a very gratuitous way. I have already mentioned the issue of gold in Zamfara State. When attention is being directed towards religious parity in actual fact, the poor deluded polity is being robbed blind. It is those things that the colonisers; the imperialists came to this country with the advance guide of the missionaries.

They came with guns and the Bible. They gave the Bible to the people and said start reading. And later they asked the people to close their eyes for prayers and by the time they opened their eyes their land, and property were gone, while the Bible was still with them. This is exactly what has been going on in this nation. There are those who want to sit on top of resources such as, gold, while however sharing in other resources maybe oil from one side, VAT from the other, or other forms of taxations, while they are keeping their own natural bequest to themselves. Some of them do not mind starting a war just to ensure that the limitation of sharing their own wealth. That is how corrupt, and I use that word not even in terms of stealing alone, but corrupt in terms of endangering the rest of humanity simply in order to profit themselves. That is for me, the worst kind of corruption.

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So, I think we are on the brink because we have been served a toxic brew of ethnicity, religion, cupidity that is greed, and also distorted history. By that I mean, those who cite history to say that they are divinely endowed with the right of governance and domination.

Believe it or not, there are people like that and they are entitled to their beliefs. Some of them are the most miserable and mentally endowed people, but because they came from a particular area, they actually believed that they should proclaim it. It is in their body language, even when you relate to them; even when they are trying their best to be reasonable, you can see that principally, they still feel that they are just condescending to top the tap.

How do you reform such minds, only through preparedness? You make them know that the era where history is known by domination is over. And there have been such reverses for those who insist on maintaining that power domination mentality that their children are paying for it till today. We have to get that history to them and also make them understand that the rest of us do not have any condemnable instinct. We just want to be productive; we just want to be creative; we want to be noble; we want to be fraternal to others within and outside the borders, and we are just saying let us have a healthy rivalry or productivity.

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