Pius Adesanmi: Saraki, Sowore & Nigeria’s Barabbas moment

by Pius Adesanmi

There are two problems bordering on abomination in my title. First problem: the names, Saraki and Sowore, are appearing in the same sentence. Second problem: Saraki’s name even comes first in the list. If you feel disgusted, even violated, you are right. The names, Saraki and Sowore, should have no business in the same sentence, the same environment. What is the business of darkness with light? And why is Saraki’s name first?

These questions have only one answer: Nigeria. Nigeria is the agent that has created a situation in which darkness and light are not only appearing in the same sentence and environment but darkness even enjoys the added perk of coming first.

I think that Nigeria is enabling this travesty, this abomination, because Nigerians have not had a serious sober reflection on the issues attendant upon Saraki’s long-drawn battle to silence Omoyele Sowore and put Sahara Reporters out of business. We have not thought of the deeper ethical and moral implications of the fact that we are in a nation space in which a Saraki versus Sowore match is even possible in the first place. In saner societies, Saraki would be in jail and there would be no conditions of possibility for the current scenario.

I have put Saraki’s name first in this equation to drive home the choice that Nigeria is making. I have put his name first so that nobody would turn around and claim that they did not know when, where, and how we made that choice as a people.

I have put Saraki’s name first so that nobody would claim innocently down the road that they had merely imagined that Saraki versus Sowore was merely the usual roforofo between two famous and politically exposed Nigerians; that they did not know that what is unfolding before our eyes today is significantly bigger, much bigger than Saraki and Sowore and goes into the core of who we are and where we are headed as a people.

I have put Saraki’s name first because I don’t want anybody – especially members of Nigeria’s vast community of conscience such as progressives, activists, civil society leaders, intellectuals, who have been largely silent – to be able to claim that they did not know that Saraki and Sowore, especially in the context of the current face-off, are signs, symbols, and metaphors of our condition, choices and future direction.

But these are different signs, different symbols, diametrically opposed metaphors representing totally different, totally irreconcilable visions and versions of Nigeria. That is why we are currently in a situation of national choice and direction.

I’d say that we do not need to revisit the curriculum vitae of both men but ours is a society that can barely remember what happened this morning. Sowore has spent roughly the last thirty years in the trenches fighting for what Wole Soyinka calls the first condition of humanity: justice. He has spent his entire adult life fighting that Nigeria may be just and fair. He has spent his entire adult life fighting that Nigeria may overcome the demon of corruption. Above all, he has spent his entire adult life fighting to hold generations of corrupt orangutans responsible for the Nigerian tragedy accountable.

The least we say of Bukola Saraki, the better. However, we must say something about him for there are millennials and younger generations who only know him as a Senate President involved in the usual shenanigans of Nigerian politicians. Because of our national affliction of incuriosity, not too many will be able to make a direct link between Saraki and the current condition of Nigeria as the open sore of a continent (apologies to Soyinka). The three decades that Sowore has spent fighting for Nigeria correspond roughly to the time Saraki has spent consolidating an illustrious career in looting and corruption.

Today, Bukola Saraki is one of the most corrupt characters ever to bestride our national space in the 21st century. From Societe Generale Bank to the Senate via eight years as Governor of Kwara State via Panama Papers to his current complete ownership of the treasury of Kwara state as an extension of his personal estate, there is really no shortage of dossiers you could look into if you are sufficiently curious about the guy. If you are a millennial, an undergraduate, and you are at home because of ASUU Strike, see if you can research and write an essay exploring the link between Saraki’s looting and why you are home.

Our friend is, of course, Nigeria’s current Senate President, within a heartbeat of the Presidency. Inordinately ambitious and devious, he is not even beyond engineering the occasional Senate kerfuffle to test the waters. He is even now in Mecca to pray for President Buhari we are told. Nothing you hear about members of Nigeria’s political elite is implausible or improbable. Suffice it to say that Saraki represents a sick version of Nigeria. He represents a putrid vision of Nigeria.

It is this sort of character that our system has enabled, empowered, enhanced to compromise institutions, undermine society, buy judges and judgements in his private estate of Kwara, impoverish people in order to be able to buy them as supporters and thugs to be unleashed on civilized spaces of agency. Were Saraki to be domiciled in his second country of nationality, the United Kingdom, he’d probably be spending the second decade of his life by now in jail.

Anybody with half Saraki’s hefty dossier of corruption would be in jail for a very long time in civilized societies. In Nigeria, he is a lord of the manor, free to aspire to the highest office in the land, buy judgements to intimidate light and spread darkness.

I hinted earlier that what is going on between the two men have implications that are much bigger than both of them. Nearly twenty years after our return to democracy, a paradigm is being entrenched in which dark and corrupt forces in the political class are able to deploy bastardized instruments and apparatuses of state to shrink the space of civil agency and curtail the freedoms associated with democracy.

The forces of darkness and corruption have so personalized the state that they can use her instruments – the security agencies, the judiciary – to severely constrain and constrict the space of agency, free will, and expression. This is what has created a situation in which one of Nigeria’s most corrupt citizens, Saraki, can corral the judiciary in a state he owns and enlist her on assignments of intimidation and silencing. Hence the moral and ethical conundrum: what to make of a society where the thief gets to make rules to silence the anti-corruption activist and icon.

Saraki as sign.

Sowore as sign.

In both men, we are offered two opposed visions, two opposed possibilities for our country. Both men represent a symbolic struggle. That struggle is bigger than them. Where we stand, what we say or do not say, represents a position we are taking in that struggle. Our stance represents a choice we are making. Sowore will continue to confront this great evil in the courts. The legal process is taking its course as it should but we would be sorely mistaken not to understand that, beyond all the legalese, there is an ongoing struggle for which version and vision of Nigeria will prevail.

It is even possible that Saraki will win more Pyrrhic legal battles given the fact that the entire process is going on in a court system he has bought and he has access to limitless looted funds to bankroll the charade. However, beyond the battle lies a symbolic war, a struggle for meaning that he must not be allowed to win.

And the voices of progress must be steadfast and united in sending a clear message to Saraki that we do not intend to concede Nigeria as a space to him and his ilk in the political confederacy of looting and corruption. They will always have us to contend with and they cannot and will not win the struggle for meaning that is Nigeria.

Some two thousand years ago, another place, another time, some people faced this same choice between Saraki and Sowore and the visions each represent. They faced two individuals who were iconic of radically opposed versions of their society. They thought they were choosing between two individuals. They did not know that each individual was a metonym.

They screamed: give us Barabbas.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Pius Adesanmi, a professor of English, is Director of the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Canada

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