Wole Soyinka, writer and Noble laureate in literature, does not need any introduction. Nor does he need anyone to defend him, or speak for him, in any battle in which language – the word – is arrayed against cant. So, this column is not in defense of Soyinka. I’ll like to make this clear. But I do feel that it is important to take issue with Garba Shehu, the President’s spokesman, who on Thursday took a very bold swipe at Soyinka’s famed long beard by way of an intolerant, and by God, ignorant quip! Professor Soyinka had in a public statement noted what everyone else really knows: Muhammad Buhari’s tardiness in responding to the Coronavirus emergency.
Soyinka had said the president had woken finally from a long siesta, long after the rest of the world had taken steps to deal with the pandemic at their doorsteps. And it is true that President Buhari is a recumbent man. He is often “not awia,” about these matters. And it is true that he seemed to have been roused from stupor to finally begin to take rather tepid measures against this public health emergency. Everybody knows this fact. Nigerians know. Soyinka knows. Even Garba Shehu and Buhari both know that this government indeed seemed to have been asleep when Coronavirus finally arrived in town with a deadly bang. Now, because Soyinka likes often to call it as it is, he told the Nigerians in plain language what everybody already knows. Well, that apparently did not go down too well with Garba Shehu. Shehu basically told Soyinka off in no uncertain terms: “what do you know about such matters?” he asked.
“You know only English and literature!” Basically, he told Soyinka that Coronavirus was above his pay grade. He should, therefore, step off, so that more expert opinion could hold sway. The point here is Garba Shehu’s own unfortunate ignorance about literature, language, and the very power of the imagination. I think it speaks a lot about Garba’s own kind of education which limits his conceptual universe. It also says something about the ways in which Nigeria has organized its knowledge industry. I’d like to speak to a very important misconception which has often denied the public the use of highly trained minds in public governance because they are put in a single box, which thus routinely undermines the place of the imagination in conceiving and defining solutions to human problems. Men and women of ideas are the greatest gifts and rarest resource of a nation.
That is where the “humane letters” come in. What we generally describe as the humanities. Traditionally, those who are trained in these traditions of liberal thought are deployed to administer the state. The classical school system and the Confucian ethos did train, and it’s a training that draws mostly from scholars of the humanities to public service. The administrators of the state, those who make up its higher service, must be drawn by merit among men and women who have studied the human condition, that is the technicians of human thoughts and systems – writers, philosophers, linguists, historians, mathematicians, those who have studied political and economic behavior – generally, those who conceive man within that complex space of social performance which we generally describe as “society.” They are the thinkers of the state. Their failure is often the failure of the state.
To ignore them is also to condemn the nation to the morass of deadly ignorance. This is exactly what has happened to Nigeria. It is not a nation driven by ideas. It is a sorry country driven by a different kind of hunger: a contrivance for crass power. It is bankrupt. It is valueless. It is philistine. Of the peers of Soyinka in different, more enlightened parts of the world, there is a higher, more elemental regard. Just like De Gaulle, once asked to rein-in Jean-Paul Sartre, said, “What can I do to Sartre? Sartre is France!” And in the same sense, “Soyinka is Nigeria,” and that does not mean that Soyinka is infallible. Like Sartre, Soyinka embodies very deadly contradictions.
But Nigeria requires that moral compass to point to the map of reason, and possibility. Without that the nation will end in the slough of what some very smart folks have called, “misprision.” Now about Soyinka being knowledgeable only in “English and Literature”: that is intended to be a put down by Garba Shehu. But it ended up as a cop-out! A mark of his own terrifying ignorance. When people think “English and Literature” they imagine that people in these fields are just studying the “is” and “was” and “wherefores” of the Language. That is, its speech act or grammar. Not exactly.
There is more to it. They are studying the “grammar” of culture. Let’s put it this way: “literature” is the short word for “literate culture.” It means simply all the codified texts of a culture preserved in its canon. The canon of course is the select organogram of every civilization’s system of ideas. Okay, let me make it a little simple for Mr. Shehu and his likes. When some fellow goes to study English, he or she is basically studying the canon of texts and ideas upon which an English Civilization has been reserved – its fiction, its poetry, its history, its entire system of ideas. In that process you study English philosophy, English history, the English world, including all its colonial cultures and reaches; English Law and Jurisprudence; English engineering and production systems; English systems of naming; the structure of the English imagination; English economic ideas as preserved in its literary and canonical texts; English science, its system of social organization and government; Its intelligence gathering systems; its coded secrets preserved in its poetry and thought systems; its conceptual universe; its medicine; its explorations; its architecture and city culture (see for instance Raymond Williams Town and Country) – basically its entire system of ideas preserved in its “literary culture,” – which is what we call, “Literature.” The interconnection of all the fields of the humanities – philosophy, History, Literature, the Languages – basically allows those who have received training in these fields to look at the world wholly, critically, and discern answers from the known world to solve complex human problems. That is why they are great administrators.
Their training, if properly done, gives them a high analytical quotient. Many of these individuals have polyvalent capacities which is why they are drawn to the humanities. A historian, whose field is the “History of Medicine,” for instance might know more about the management of pandemics than a medical doctor, or a scientist engaged in the daily search for cures. Just as the same Academic historian whose field is “Military History,” is the teacher of Generals on the history of war, and who even though he is no soldier, has deeper knowledge of the various tactical and strategic operations of the various theatres of war, than a Military General. To ignore such a fellow in the operations of war would be blind and ignorant. The writer of the Anabasis, Xenophon, was not a soldier, he was at best, a war correspondent who accompanied Cyrus in his march against Cyrus’s brother, Artaxerxes II.
But his book is the greatest account today of war in the Hellenic era, studied in every decent military academy. And Garba Shehu is correct: Soyinka is a playwright. He might well write a play about the Coronavirus. He might write it satirizing a character called “Haribu” who is busy trying to achieve an erection with some “Ashewo,” because his wife in “Ze Oza room,” had gone on strike, because of the serial flagging beneath the thighs of a lazy lout to boot who had allowed “Coronavirus” to come to their marital bed. This would be called a “Satire.” But long after we are all gone, people who will watch the play will remember, “the Idiot king, Haribu.” Of course, I’m just imagining all these. What I’m trying to say is, Garba Shehu is right: Soyinka is a playwright. It is not a job to be taken lightly. Soyinka could never make a decent playwright if he did not catch more than a hint of the subject he is writing about.
That is the point: his task as a writer requires him, demands of him in fact, to enter the world he is writing about – to be a doctor, to know everything a doctor knows about Coronavirus; to acquire by imaginative power, the universe of meaning that renders accurate, the world he is trying to describe. Such demands make him master of his craft, and polyvalent. To dismiss such a man of the imagination is the curse of ignorance. And Mr. Shehu, pardon my French, is ignorant if he does not understand this. But of course, his own work pushes him to self-enervating demagoguery on behalf of his client, the president.
By Obi Nwakanma