The battles of people like Wole Soyinka must not be relegated to the archives of history; it is our collective responsibility to ensure their sacrifice for Nigeria is the foundation of this country’s greatness.
My first hero was a tiny man called Diego Maradona. The 1986 world cup was the first I watched on television. The games were usually at a time kids were meant to be asleep, but my uncle who lived with us at the time ensured I stayed up for the games. He was a Brazil fan, and badly wanted them to win the trophy. As he still says, Zico and Socrates deserved the world cup for the joy they brought him. On the other hand, I was enthralled by the little man, similar to me in size, mesmerizing bigger and stronger players. So while he rooted for Brazil, I supported Maradona. In the end Joel Bats inspired France in a penalty shootout against Brazil, and Maradona inspired Argentina to the World Cup.
Just as I was coming to the terms with the concept of heroes, I found a second one a few months later. This time it was much closer to home, and my admiration for the man has not diminished 26 years later. It started one evening at home; my father came home very excited because someone called “Wole” had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I had no idea who “Wole” was or what did Nobel Prize meant, but I knew it was a big deal. Later, we watched on TV as this man with an afro, dressed in danshiki, spoke proudly about a topic that meant nothing to me.
Later, I realized that speech, from which I have stolen the title of today’s article, was dedicated to Nelson Mandela. He started the speech describing how he refused to take the stage during the production of Eleven Men Dead at Hola, because it was based on on the official (and incorrect) version of how eleven detainees died at the Hola Camp in Kenya, during the Mau Mau liberation struggle. By the time he was done, Soyinka had delivered a damning judgment on apartheid and similar discriminatory systems around the world. It was fitting that in the year Samora Machel and Olof Palme were murdered, a black man had a global platform to denounce apartheid.
For almost half a century, Wole Soyinka has been a rallying point for those who believe in the greatness of our nation, and continent. He has sacrificed personal comfort, freedom, and sometimes family; all for the greater good. It is a tragedy that 25 years after his famous acceptance speech, the world is not remarkably better. His closing statement that day was: “Whatever the choice, this inhuman affront cannot be allowed to pursue our Twentieth Century conscience into the Twenty-first, that symbolic coming-of-age which peoples of all cultures appear to celebrate with rites of passage. That calendar, we know, is not universal, but time is, and so are the imperatives of time. And of those imperatives that challenge our being, our presence, and humane definition at this time, none can be considered more pervasive than the end of racism, the eradication of human inequality, and the dismantling of all their structures. The Prize is the consequent enthronement of its complement: universal suffrage, and peace.” Today, Nigeria bears the mark of a divided nation, not by race, but by tribe and religion.
In 1965, Soyinka seized the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio to broadcast a demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional Elections. Ten years later, he was arrested by the Federal Government during the civil war and kept in confinement for two years. Finally, he fled Nigeria in 1994 as the guard dogs of Sani Abacha hunted him for his stoic opposition to the tyrannical regime. It is time to acknowledge that people like WS have run their course, and the baton lies on the floor, waiting for us to seize the moment.
It is a reminder that the journey towards greatness will be long and hard, without guarantees. The battles of people like Wole Soyinka must not be relegated to the archives of history; to address the present, we must draw on the lessons of the past and the battles of those who went before us.
For Wole Soyinka, who is 79 years old today, happy birthday.
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