The RIghts and Obligations of Union Membership - by Wole Soyinka
October 15, 2007 | posted by Nigerian Muse (Archives)


 


Published @ NM October 15, 2007

 

THE RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS OF UNION MEMBERSHIP

 BY WOLE SOYINKA

 

Try, whoever can, to imagine the following scenario:

            A military unit is planning a public event – let us say the commissioning of a new standard, the award of long service medals, feats of bravery in action, or maybe simply commemoration of a military campaign. A war historian, a journalist, a human rights activist or maybe even a writer is invited to deliver an inspirational speech for the occasion.

            All proceeds normally, until an officer, or maybe just a corporal either from that unit or another, remembers, and calls attention to the fact that the proposed speaker once wrote an article, a short story or a poem, even a song of negative import against the military. It could even be an inaccurate account of a peace-keeping mission in which that unit had been involved or, to get down to fundamentals, a condemnation of the very profession of soldiering. In short, we are suggesting here the notion of the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the composer of Zombie – being invited to deliver a speech at the passing-out parade of new army recruits.

            The outraged officer begins a campaign to persuade his colleagues that such a guest speaker is an insensitive choice, that his background makes him unacceptable to the generality of the military. The organizers persist, so he resorts to other options. One is to urge his comrades to attend the occasion but rise the moment that invitee began his speech and walk out on him. Or resort to booing, catcalls and whistles, or a slow handclap. My estimation is that the average invitee would have bowed out a long time ago, thanked the organizers for thinking of him, but declared that he has no intention of intruding where he is not wanted.

            Imagine however if, on the contrary, that would-be speaker’s friends, cronies, cooks, stewards, gardeners, toilet cleaners and hangers-on began a campaign of calumny, of fabrication and historic distortions against the uniformed objector. Suddenly, he is accused of having sold classified information or military surplus to Osama bin Laden. The soldier is accused by the writing fraternity of being a frustrated writer whose literary efforts have been spurned by the club, or whose self-published novella has received short shrift from the critical end pen of the invited speaker.  It is suddenly ‘discovered’ that the dissenting officer has been denied membership of Association of Authors. For good measure, the same officer or rank, his friend or relation, we are now informed – true or false - was once a beneficiary of the writer’s largesse, so how dare he now do anything but embrace the designation of his ‘benefactor’ as the speaker, guest of honour or  ‘Father of the Day’? And so on and on down the slippery slope of putrid fantasies, self-substitution and other odious and unprincipled forms of distractions that leave the real issue unaddressed.

            So now, a little time to address the issue, to ‘step aside’ from the cascade of speculative mush and address History. History is not short of options, and we do not lack examples of principled alternatives to any course of action taken or not taken in our own recent history.. General Yakubu Gowon once presided, as Commander-in-Chief,  over a brutal civil war. War of any nature is never without its casualties among innocents, never without its atrocities, its abuses of human rights and a general debasement of humanity. Perhaps the most shaming single episode of the Nigerian civil war was enacted in Asaba, with the cold-blooded execution of hundreds of civilians who were lined up and mown down in broad daylight. General Gowon in his insulated position in Dodan Barracks knew nothing of that event at the time, certainly not until much later. On gaining knowledge of this crime however, what did he do? Shrug his shoulders and state baldly that it had nothing to do with him, that he never gave such orders?  Reinforce this claim by pointing to his widely publicized Code of Conduct, issued to the Federal troops with instructions that their commanders ensure that soldiers under their command understood just what was printed between the covers? Or maybe simply deny that it ever happened? Dismiss it as a justifiable act of war and, in any case, what was all the fuss about? Weren’t both sides guilty of atrocities? Didn’t innocent civilians die on both sides? Was the ‘rebel’ life more valuable than federal life? And so on, and on.

No, Yakubu Gowon took none of these self-exculpating routes. At the first opportunity, he undertook a trip to Asaba and openly apologized for what had taken place under his command, albeit without his knowledge or approval. He did not need to, but he did. He is easily absolved, personally, of responsibility, but he accepted leadership responsibility.

Courage takes many forms and, indisputably, courage on the battlefield is only one of the many faces of courage. Most of us ‘bloody civilians’ will dive under the bed at the first burst of gunfire and not emerge until it is all over, so no one is attempting to underrate the quality of courage of those who confront death over and over again as the very condition of their existence, and perform acts of unbelievable daring even when knowing that death or incapacitation, maybe for life, is the ultimate reward.

            However, there is also that category of courage that is known as the moral, one that is open to both soldier and civilian, and makes demands, such as taking responsibility for one’s actions, most especially when  confronted with the consequences for which one is unambiguously liable. Let us leave aside, for now, the circumstances that surrounded Babangida’s exit from power, a manner of departure whose consequences continue to truamatise a substantial portion of Nigeria’s population till today. One of Babangida’s stable of sanctifiers claims that his was an ‘honorable’ exit – well, language is a most accommodating vessel, so we shall let that be, for now. What is beyond denial is that the long drawn progression of that exit has left on the national psyche a wound that still festers, indeed one whose suppuration was intensified in the long, inglorious reign of his latest successor – but again, I do not want to prolong this discourse by tackling that most unenviable models of exits – another time and place for that.

            It is the case of Mamman Vasta that I obviously wish to address. Till this moment, setting aside the emotive input, not more than a handful of Nigerians, even within the military, can state with absolute confidence that Vatsa was guilty as charged, or innocent. Even General Bali’s statement, only last year, one that he shortly after amended to the point of contradiction, merely added to the confusion. One moment, we thought that he was about to open a tightly sealed can of worms, the next moment, it turned out that he had been ‘misunderstood’. What we do know for a fact is that the prerogative of mercy was open to the uppermost level of military justice, but it was not exercised.

            A collective decision and thus, a collective responsibility?  Or that of one individual? Again, we have heard nothing but conflicting assessments. I have made it a principle never to lay charges that I cannot sustain, and thus, have never cited Vatsa’s case as a clear instance of a miscarriage of justice. What we continue to reiterate is that reprieve remained an option, that commutal of sentence to imprisonment, however lengthy, was a choice. That choice was not made, despite several appeals from civil society, of which the literary fraternity played, not surprisingly, a conspicuous role.

            Now let us pass over years. Along comes Mamman Vatsa’s widow, seeking justice for her dead husband. How does the then Commander-in-Chief react to her agitation, including  her presentation to the Oputa panel?  Let me sum up Babangida’s commentary in a language that all Nigerians will understand, and let any dissenting voice go back to the actual reportage and assert that the following is not a fair summary:

            “Anyway, why all the fuss about Mamman Vatsa? Was his life more valuable than the lives of others who were also killed?”

            That, to be frank, is a most generous summary. ‘Whom I also killed’ would be closer to the spirit of IBB’s statement, which also reiterated his position that he would do the same in similar circumstances. In short – no regrets!

            That is the crux of the matter. We are speaking here of yet another wasted opportunity by an individual to embrace responsibility and express remorse for his role in that tragedy. We are speaking here of a public, categorical refusal to respond, at the very least, in a humane manner, in a language that would assuage the agony of a widow. Instead, what we obtained was the equivalent of gloating. How is this different from, shall we say, from the plight of a victim of Sani Abacha’s torture chambers, now agitating for justice. Imagine the following response from the torturer:

            “Why are you making such a fuss? Were you the only one I tortured?”

            As a member of the team of three – J. Bedekeremo-Clark and Chinua Achebe being the other two -  who went, in the capacity of writers and humanists, to seek clemency for the men whose lives then hung by a thread, IBB’s response was a complete contradiction of the response we obtained on that fateful day, indeed a most cynical contradiction. On that day, Babangida expressed his concern for his childhood friend – a piece of information that he himself volunteered on that occasion. By contrast, his response to Vatsa’s widow was a negation of his declared intent to us – ‘on my  honour, I give you my word etc’ -  as he assured us he would do whatever lay in his power to save his lifelong companion. It totally rubbished the report that came my way some time after the executions, that report being that Babangida had indeed fought tooth and nail to save Vatsa’s life but that he was told at the crucial meeting - and here I quote as accurately as I can – “Oga, if you won’t go with our decision, then step aside”.

            Incidentally, my informant credited that statement to the chairman of the military panel of last recourse, the one that sat on the very day of executions, though I must hasten to add that I make no claims for the accuracy of that attribution. It belongs in the grey zone of hearsay. General Bali’s public statement, casting doubt on the guilt of Mamman Vatsa and his fellow accused, was deflated, and left the public deflated, when he proceeded to qualify his earlier statement to the point of extinction. So, in just what murky crevice is the ultimate truth hidden? No matter where, IB Babangida cannot escape the burden of self-revelation that was contained in his defiant statement, flung in the face of a widow. It was a cruel, unfeeling statement, a contempt for humane sensibilities. No amount of programmed aggression by the general’s squad of libelous liars and revisionists can obscure that summative self-indictment.

            There are soldiers who continue to believe that the uniform confers on them the cloak of immunity. We continue to preach that the uniform  - any kind of uniform merely confers additional responsibilities, that of group responsibility – over and above those of the civic kind.  It is a total misconception - one that is however not peculiar to the Nigerian military – that to clarify an event or apologise for it as a soldier, is a cowardly act and a dishonor to the uniform. The Spanish military - until recently, though not fully cured - was one of the most prominent institutions of this backward thinking. General Pinochet and his military cabal have gone, or are certain to go to their graves convinced of this spurious  perspective on military honour. Soldiers are not from another planet.  Much as they would like to believe it, they are descended from Mars. Indeed, they are no more than adult species of the rest of mortals, ‘mewling and puking’ infants who, sooner or later, are considered to have matured sufficiently to be responsive to the discipline of reflecting on past actions.

            I find it most disheartening that Babangida permits convicted blackmailers, unctuous servitors, liars, libelers and unanchored jobbers to speak on his behalf.  Discourse on principle has been dragged to its abysmal low by unscrupulous, a-line-a-lie hack writers and moral degenerates in competition with one another for the laurel of licentiousness. It is a sign of the nation’s close to irreversible spiritual collapse when chronic perjurers such as Godwin Daboh, and vendable lickspittles of Afegbua’s ilk are given rein and means to drool all over the media in the name of one who once held the reins of the government of this nation.

            These distractions cannot be helped  – they is one of the penalties of free expression. To sum up the provoking issue along the terms of our beginning: the question that confronts us is this: does an association have the right to guard and promote its protocols of self-affirmation, written or unwritten? Let us set aside all further distractions, most especially those of dubious claims. That any gesture of good will, symbolic or material, extended towards such an association by anyone, in or out of office, can be interpreted as furthering the purposes of that association is neither here or there. Musicians’ unions, athletics and football associations, golf tournaments etc. have received far more material recognition and support than the Association of Nigerian Authors from any government, military or civilian, so let’s cut out all exaggerated claims. We can even afford to overlook questions of the motivations behind such gestures - disinterested or simply self-ingratiating? What we cannot overlook is how much water has flowed under the bridge since such gestures, what further actions have enhanced the purification process, or increased pollution of those murky waters?

            For those who can only justify their existence with perversions of truth, let me serve notice yet again, from this side of creative and intellectual pursuits, that writers remain engaged in watching and responding to all issues that touch their calling. There will be more than ample call on those bottomless drums of toxic confections, the predictable sustenance of those naive criminals, past or present, who think that falsehood can be effective in stifling discourse or sustaining the integrity of the tools of the trade, including its institutions. Currently, close interest is being taken in an ongoing attempt to launder the image of a notorious monument to corruption and abuse of office through the prestigious international organization, UNESCO. Tertiary institutions will be mobilized to intervene at a moment’s notice, lest they be confronted by an unpalatable fait accompli.  ANA will of course ride out this recent diversionary trivia as quickly as possible, so as to form a solid front against a career of literary censorship that a sharia court has recemtly embarked upon, claiming as victim a play by one of ANA members - Shehu Sani’s  Phantom Crescent.  There are numerous areas of threatened self-expression that fall under the mission, not only of ANA but of Human Right organizations,  crude, primitive deprivations of human liberty such as the imprisonment of a young amateur music promoter, Adamu Zango, in Kano under sharia law. None of these is a one-man mission.

            These should constitute the zones of activity, countering the erosion of fundamental freedoms under whatever guise – including the religious.  There will always be platforms for restless generals to exercise their freedom of expression, but every union has its rules, its guidelines, and guiding principles, even when unwritten. Gate-crashing is not quite the same as acceptance. To be spared the indignity of rejection, or indeed of disputed entry, those who wish to pass through the portals of engaged humanists – of which a literary association is only one - should first purge themselves of a contempt of humanity.

 

Wole Soyinka            


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