Soyinka@88: Making a case for citizens’ rights, freedom, justice at WSICE programme

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‘…to be poor, young, female and Nigerian is now a crime’
‘…I don’t identify myself as a proud Nigerian citizen,’ says Nigerian university student
‘…youths should be continuously innovative and curious, and think of ways to get involved’

By Godwin Okondo

88 happy cheers to Prof. Wole Soyinka!

AS usual every year, the Wole Soyinka International Cultural Exchange (WSICE) programme organised this year’s birthday celebration of black Africa’s first literature laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka on July 13, 2022. It generated a lively discourse on nation building and the question of citizenship, a subject the laureate has had a lifelong engagement for most part of his adult life.
The programme had as theme ‘Citizenship and Nation Building… The Case for Rights, Freedom and Justice’ and was held virtually. It featured five panel members namely, lawyer and writer, Mr. Dele Farotimi, Co-founder of SESOR Empowerment Foundation and justice advocate, Mrs. Ier Jonathan, poet, writer and development strategist, Mr. Adamu Garko, management professional, broadcaster, theatre producer, social activist, feminist and culture advocate, Ireti Bakare-Yusuf, and author of The Night Before November, Mr. Okere Chukwuma Christian. Programme anchored was Mr. Jahman Anikulapo while moderation was by Mr. Victory Ashaka.
The goodwill messages were delivered by a professor of African Literary Criticism, Gender Studies and Creative Writing at University of Abuja, Razinat Mohammed, lecturer at University of New York, Dr. Lily Chen, and an Associate Professor and Executive Director at the Centre for Peace, Democracy, and Development, University of Massachusetts, Boston, Darren Kew.
While speaking on the theme, Mr. Farotimi said, “Sometimes, we go to the doctor, and we give the doctor our own diagnosis, which is the doctor’s job, and the doctor gives medications for our diagnosis. Nigeria has been in this situation for so long. I don’t think a Nigerian is a citizen, because we don’t have the free will to go where we want. We are essentially residents in this country.
“Some people have chosen not to allow the law to rule, but to allow feudal order to continue. The British came and found free-born and citizens. No king had absolute power over anybody. When they came, they took an independent nation and colonized the people. Nigeria was founded as a state with tribes, and the minorities were concerned about their safety and interests.”
Continuing, Farotimi said, “Citizens are not killed the way people were killed in Lekki, Zaria or Sokoto, or being kidnapped. Citizens do not outright get murdered by the agents of the state. That takes it to the stage of rights, which are only spoken about in the rule of law. Why would a citizen living in freedom demand freedom? How do we have justice where the law does not rule? Nigeria has essentially become a feudal state. We live in a country where the greatest lawbreakers are the police. There can be no peace in the absence of justice, which the human spirit continually demands.
“Nigeria is younger than Prof. Wole Soyinka, but has never known freedom, rights or justice. The only way a Nigerian can win freedom is by voting and standing by it. It is time for Nigerians to define the context of change we want. If a Nigerian is going to be a citizen, he is going to have to win it.”
Jonathan said the concept of justice is anchored on fair treatment for all, but which is observed more in breach adding, “There’s this understanding of justice in Nigeria. It means doing the right thing, fairness, and you can see that justice is not part of our everyday life. Some people think it means revenge, considering the kind of country we are in. There are violations of human rights; there have been several attacks and deaths caused by terrorist groups and Nigerian agents as well.
“We also see that in our freedom of expression through Twitter ban, the #EndSARS protest, and even in IDP camps where women are forced to be sex slaves. What people don’t realize is that if we don’t get justice, there won’t be peace, and as humans, we are naturally inclined to seek justice. Where is the restitution? In Rwanda, a programme was arranged for the victims of the genocide, whereby people came out and identified those who had attacked them and talked about the traumatic experience, and the culprits were made to make up for their wrongdoings. When you speak, people say you don’t want peace or you have a phobia for those people. How long do we have to wait to bring criminals to justice? There is hope, as long as we keep pushing and fighting for justice.”
Garko submitted that the easiest way to bring injustice to light and hold state actors to account is to engage the media at all times, adding, “Our leaders use their power and authority to silence us from attaining freedom and justice. There are ways which they can be held accountable for their actions. Citizens should leverage on journalistic output and create collaborations that would ensure that leaders make provisions for the needs of the masses.
“If I see something wrong being done in my state, I could look around for journalists and share the information with them. This could bring a form of solution to our societal problems. The #EndSARS protest, to an extent, brought an end to police brutality, as it was well organized and people coexisted peacefully, with the aim of attaining the same goal. We can use peaceful protests to bring about accountability, no matter the level of government. We can also have journalistic tools at our disposal.”
Bakare-Yusuf stated categorically that “To be a Nigerian is a full-time job,” adding that #EndSARS protest was the audacity of youths who asked questions the authority ordinarily wouldn’t allow or thought not possible.
“What should citizens expect in return for patriotism?” she asked, “Even the expectation is a privilege, and that belongs to a minority. The vast majority may never have the opportunity to ask that question or even have the mindset. If I’ve got freedom, why does the country prevent me from being free? The #EndSARS protest was a rebellion against suppression by maniacal leaders. To be poor, young, female and Nigerian is now a crime.
“There are said to be 26 simultaneous #EndSARS protests, which were carried out peacefully. People are used to that oppression from leaders; they get to even support that status quo. The leaders had to end it with deaths, because they felt the youths didn’t have the right to question their generation. I invite everyone to borrow from the sacrifice of Prof. Wole Soyinka with this quote, ‘O ye, make my body a Nigerian who asks questions!’ Never stop questioning, because if Prof. Soyinka did, many of us would not be here.”
Okere, a student, who, like a vast majority are stranded at home because of government’s insensitivity to university lecturers’ plight, drew the most sympathy from the audience members when he said, “I am a student who has been at home because of the ASUU strike, and if I graduate tomorrow, there are no jobs. The government has failed us. The Nigerian state is not providing our needs in terms of security, employment and entrepreneurship. The cost of living is so high. I don’t identify myself as a proud Nigerian citizen. The ongoing menace now is cybercrime. Looking at those involved; they do this because their environment doesn’t help them thrive.
“Twitter, one of Nigeria’s biggest social platforms, was banned at one time, because the world knew about the #EndSARS protest. Talking about equality, if you go to Bayelsa State, you wouldn’t believe that the state produces the oil Nigeria uses and sells. What about Justice? People who carry dreadlocks are being labelled criminals and being talked down on. Nigeria is a great state but we have corrupt mindset, and we have to change that by engaging ourselves constructively. Destructive engagement has been the reason why people commit cybercrime or pick up arms to kidnap someone. The government doesn’t care. We have been talking about #EndSARS, but what has been done? It’s our duty to make the right choice in the coming elections.”
In her goodwill message, Prof. Mohammed commended the organisers and wished Soyinka a happy birthday, noting, however, that “Nigeria is at a crossroad now because a topic like this will touch everybody emotionally. I applaud all of you for all these observations you have made.
“For a fact that we were born here makes us citizens, but we have not taken being citizens as it should be. There can be no justice in this country, because our judiciary is so corrupt. If our judiciary had integrity, things would be different. The government signs agreements with people but will never honour it.
“Prof. Soyinka has always been fighting for humanity and for the cause of people in this country. If we can correct the judicial system, wrongdoers would be punished. I want to wish Soyinka many more years; we love and appreciate you, and we pray to God to give you good health and peace of mind.”
Dr. Chen also wished Soyinka a happy birthday and thanked everyone for joining the conversation, saying, “In discussing about citizenship, we should be able to understand and care for each other as global citizens, and I hope we will be able to talk about it next year.
“Each person has the responsibility to build the nation, especially the young people; the future is in your hands. On the issue of diversity, we are all born with our unique gifts, and we should use them to do what we can. Opportunities should be given to all, not just the privileged. We want to think of new ways to solve problems, understanding the importance of innovation and collaboration. I hope you will be continuously innovative and curious, and think of ways to get involved.”
Prof. Kew said he relished the “honour to join in the celebration of Soyinka today. He is the voice of political integrity the nation yearns for. I remember asking a man during an interview at a polling booth in 1999 in Nigeria (about) what he wanted the leaders to do, and he said ‘he hopes the government will do something for us’. The way he saw it, the government was for those in the upper class in the society.
“Movements like #EndSARS need to be encouraged, non-violent protests with the interest of a better nation in mind. The clock is ticking for the government to encourage peace in the society. Major society groups should also be engaged in nation building. If those groups can be engaged, I think that will create a way forward. It’s a huge privilege to share some thoughts and ideas, and I want to thank the organizers for a job well done.”

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