The world is going through a season of political tsunami. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the United States of America signposts a new wave of populism in the West that is reverberating across the rest of the world. These are times that call for introspection and circumspection as the global balance of power points in uncertain directions. It is against this background that one would have expected Nigeria’s one and only Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka to be temperate in his interventions regarding the emergence of Trump. But the professor of literature is on another wavelength on the matter and seems to be sparing no effort to attract maximum attention. The sad corollary of his ill-advised venture is that it has also imposed a string of attrition on him. As things stand and by his own doing Soyinka has brought some collateral damage upon his brand.
When Soyinka told the AFP recently in Johannesburg, South Africa that he had kept his promise to dump his green card, social media got buzzing with scepticism and criticism. He was promptly called out. While some pointedly demanded video proof of his action, others slammed the professor for privately fulfilling a promise made publicly. Others rose in his defence and asked that the professor be taken for his word.
The negative reaction angered Soyinka to no end and he decided to react with less tact. In a typical magisterial manner, the Nobel prize winner went really low in splashing spleen. His vituperations were unsparing just as his verdict was scathingly acoustic. He fired from all cylinders arguing that no one had a right to question his decision and methodology, wondering “where is the arrogance coming from? What right do they have to tell me that I have no right to take a decision in a particular way?”
He tried though to elevate the discourse by rationalizing the initial pledge to cut the green card as a revolt against “the rhetoric that got him (Trump) there. “There was a rhetoric against the black peoples and in particular, specifically named, Nigerians, and I responded to it, and that’s my business.” Such stance is highly commendable and very much in tandem with his high standing in society. But Kongi missed the point by portraying himself as being above public scrutiny. His harsh chastisement of critics tended to place him above the realm of fallibility.
Eager to remind everyone of his brave exploits with military dictatorship in the past (for which he believes the nation owes him eternal gratitude ), he fumed: “I never took orders from (the late) Sani Abacha, why should I take orders from you? Let us have a little respect and spirit of tolerance. I can decide whether to use a garden shell or scissors for my green card. What is the business of any Nigerian to challenge me on my decision? I am not an entertainer. Why should I entertain you on that? I am a dramatist. When I say I have done something, Ogun (the god of iron) is my guiding spirit on it. They sit somewhere, writing about me, questioning the right of me to express myself.”
Having dealt a deadly blow on the unjustified arrogance of his traducers, Kongi threw the big punch by concluding that “Barbarians have taken over the country, using the anonymity of the Internet. Our common sense is totally lost. I am embarrassed sometimes that I occupy the same nation space with some people.” Not done with the foul rating of his fellow country folk, Soyinka said he would relocate his Foundation outside Nigeria, adding: “Maybe I should be exiting Nigeria and not the U.S. People that one dedicated one’s life of struggle to can be so slavish in mentality to query the right of their champions to freedom of expression.” He continued with disdain: “If I decide to leave the U.S., it is my personal decision and not that of the millipedes of the Internet. We have far too many illiterates in this country.’’
For full effect, Soyinka then spoke of plans to hold a private funeral on January 20, the day Donald Trump will be inaugurated as president “to mourn the death of common sense in Nigeria and not to bewail the citizens of the U.S. over their choice of president.”
Soyinka’s acerbic rejoinder has attracted more controversy if not disdain to.himself. Some have questioned his superiority complex while others quickly rallied to his defence, saying the Nobel laureate deserved reverence irrespective of whatever public stand he took. For the former group, the issue really is that Soyinka cannot be infallible and being a public figure, he should not be exempted from criticism when his posturing is perceived to fall below expectations.
Nobody forced Soyinka to declare in October that he would call a press conference and cut his green card to pieces if Donald Trump got elected president of the United States. And if the public demanded evidence of how he eventually kept that promise does not make fellow citizens become millipedes, barbarians, illiterates and imbeciles. It is incomprehensible that Nigerians who have celebrated this literary icon with staunch loyalty for upwards of three decades since he won the prized Nobel honour have suddenly become so trashy to be described with such adjectives by him. Nigerians are buffeted from every side- leadership and governance failure, economic recession, biting poverty, plummeting public amenities and social services, etc- and what they need from models and revered public celebrities like Soyinka is empathy and solidarity. They need figures like him to resume pro-people activism and public interest crusading that is copiously lacking in the country today. They need people like him to advocate for them and save the nation from cascading into rights recession where unarmed protesters are shot and dumped into mass graves by agents of state for simply seeking political and religious self-determination. They need the likes of Soyinka to shout out when court orders and judgements are disregarded and treated with contempt by state actors. At the least, they need the likes of him to simply keep mute and allow them suffer in silence instead of the loud rebuke for using windows duly provided by himself to ventilate their frustrations.
Bad enough for Soyinka, he has taken a battle to a field where defeat is almost certain. Here, the combatants may not know how to speak big grammar and use highfalutin language to confound foes or conscript admirers. But they sure know how to make their point pungently and drive the message home. They sure know the turf enough and how best to draw blood. Worse still, they don’t know when to stop even when the opposition raises hands in capitulation. That is Nigeria’s social media space. This is where a putrefying stench is easily activated at the drop of a hat. Anything can trend on Twitter at any time where the tweeting children of anger (apologies to Reuben Abati) lay wait for victims like a predator prowling about in search of prey. In this boundless cyberspace, there are no rules of engagement; no scruples and no pretence to decorum. There are no regulators; no ombudsman; and no umpires. Instead,
there are overlords, trolling lords, and underdogs all parading levels of influence at different levers whether positive or negative. In this unregulated and uncensored territory any and every issue or person is topic for discussion. And whether right or wrong, the highly opinionated players are not necessarily swayed by reason or rhyme; they just hold views in extremity and express such with venom. There is usually little or no provocation before punches are thrown. The unrestrained liberty, anonymity and immunity it offers is why social media peddlers would defend the space against any attempt to circumscribe it. Recall how the attempt (misguided as it was) by the Nigerian Senate to gag social media through the dead frivolous petitions bill met with strident opposition until the lawmakers backtracked? See how the more recent move by the government to increase cost of data (the live-wire of the internet) also met with spontaneous resistance that caused an immediate retreat. There is no way the lords of the manor and the numerous minions who parade the space will allow a constriction no matter how subtle. In social media all Nigerians both young and old have found a place to share their aspirations and ventilate their frustrations unhindered. Like everything else, there have been abuses and excesses.
Several factors account for the wide and wild nature of the social media space in Nigeria. These range from the political, economic, sociological and even technological, among others. With a data-enabled mobile phone, just anyone can air his or her views and/or share images on Facebook, Twitter, Instalgram,
Snapchat, LinkedIn or any of the several other platforms for free. That is the power of technology. The high population of young persons that dominate the space makes room for much of the exuberance, bad behaviour and indecorous indecency that abound. This unfortunately is exacerbated by the high rate of unemployment in the country where a lot of idle minds and hands are deployed for mischief in the name of poking fun and at the expense of hard-earned reputations of individuals and institutions. The use of social media for political campaigns and hatchet jobs also contributed in polluting the space. Just like real-life situations where politicians recruit thugs and arm them for violence during elections, the social media is also filled with used-and-dumped voltrons who pranced menacingly in defence and promotion of political godfathers. This scary imagery of the social media is however only one side of the picture even if predominant. There is also the good side where decent and productive discourse can be enjoyed; where meaningful and results-oriented bile-free media campaigns can be engaged. The social media in Nigeria has made successes of individuals and institutions and weighed in on events that eventually produced positive values. There are individuals including celebrities and known public figures who have engaged decently, decorously and respectfully even when disagreeing and disagreeable in views. It is therefore wrong to paint everyone in social media with the same brush. That is what Soyinka did by his derogatory rejoinder to reactions about his American green card misadventure. Anyone who chooses to dance naked in the marketplace should hardly be offended when he is called a mad man. Soyinka is a revered elder statesman. He should therefore conduct himself as one.
Epia, Publisher of OrderPaper.Ng is on Twitter @resourceme