By Biko Agozino
‘Unlike societies right next to the Igbo for instance – more famously the Benin, or further West, the Yoruba or, all the way southwards of the continent, the Kwazulu of the legendary Shaka – the Igbo, with their strong social formation rooted in republicanism, would appear to belie my general claim. The Igbo have no history of expansionism, being content with a strong organization around autonomous clan entities that made contact – friendly or unfriendly with one another as the need arose (Wole Soyinka, Distinguished Nyerere Lecture, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, 2010: 1).
Soyinka may have helped to answer a question that I have been longing to ask him for a long time: Why does he love Igbo culture so much when almost everyone else appears to hate the Igbo? I found clues to this answer that his 2010 Nyerere Lecture confirms starting with his childhood autobiography, Ake, where as a kid he refused to lie down to the elders as is expected in Yoruba culture and reasoned that if he was not expected to lie down to God, why should he lie down to anyone? Before the publication of Ake, he had already fictionalized this biographical sketch in his novel, The Interpreters that a Youth Corps teacher, Adamu, tried to get my form four High School class to understand without much success perhaps because of the fractal elliptical structure that is characteristic of Soyinka’s work.
What Adamu taught us effectively was always to look for a deeper meaning in the work of Soyinka and not to read it at the surface level. In that novel, there was a university lecturer, Soyinka’s alter ego, called Egbo, who delivered exactly the same defiant line of prostrating to neither God nor man. Now I wonder if Egbo was a suggestive code for Igbo because Soyinka may have been rebuked as a child by elders for being an uncultured bush man or Igbo man, ‘igbo’ means bush in Yourba language, all because he admired the Igbo concept of all heads being equal. Maybe Soyinka actually witnessed an Igbo man perform this indomitable spirit and admired it enough to adopt it himself.
That childhood sentiment of his must have been reinforced later in life when he was obviously an admirer of Nnamdi Azikiwe and was the Master of Ceremony for the artistic tribute during Zik’s inauguration as the first President of Nigeria where he refused to succumb to the domineering demands of an American opera singer who did not intend to keep to the time allocated to her despite what Soyinka saw as her poor musical talents and not withstanding that she was a personal guest of the guest of honour, Zik (see the autobiography, Ibadan). I think that Soyinka was the first to inform me that Zik was a poet, although he called him a bombastic poet somewhere in his writings, prompting me to go looking for Zik's collection of poetry that was recently republished by his wife, Professor Chinyere Azikiwe of the University of Nigeria. I read the poems and found no bomabastic verses unlike Zik’s political speeches but it was probably to the speeches that Soyinka referred when he called Zik, Mbonu Ojike, K.O. Mbadiwe, et al, the bombastic poets of nationalism.
Soyinka's love for Igbo culture is very obvious in Ibadan: The Penkelmese Years where he secretly admired a bombastic prefect in his high school and said that he talked the way he did probably because that was how everybody talked in his village. No wonder Soyinka became the master of the bombast in his own work as an adult. In the Ibadan volume of his always stranger-than-fiction fictionalized autobiography, he recounts how he was approached as a family friend by the daughter of a western regional governor to ask him why he was supporting the 'socialist' culture of the Igbo rather than the monarchical tradition of his own people? The mutual admiration of Baba Sho and Igbo culture is clearest in that part of Ibadan where Soyinka narrates the role of Power Mike Okpala during operation ‘Weetie’. Instead of sending thugs from the East to join the orgy of violence in the Wild Wild West, Okpala sent a team of mobile broadcasters from the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation to broadcast live election results to the whole world since Akintola's faction was in control of the Western Broadcasting House.
Soyinka said that he sat in Awolowo’s chair and persuaded the mobile broadcasters to go back to Enugu because security agents were searching for them frantically but he himself was not afraid to wait alone for the security agents that desecrated the library of Awo in search of incriminating evidence to return and face his resistance. That took some courage and is indeed part of the democratic trait that Soyinka has identified in our own African culture that is worthy of emulation. This Igbophilia is found in his collection of poetry, A Shuttle in the Crypt and in the prison diary, The Man Died, where he bore witness to the oppression of the Igbo during the civil war and his one-man attempt to stop the carnage, earning him solitary confinement. Then he capped it all with that eye-popping witness-like harrowing account of the pogrom against the Igbo that he detailed in Season of Anomy. In Ibadan, he said that he traveled the country to conduct ethnographic observations of traditional theatrical performances and in Season of Anomy, the hero also travels the country searching for traditional socialist roots but ended up being confined in a psychiatric hospital as a mad man. Did Soyinka witness the pogrom in the North and could he have achieved more in preventing the tragedy if he had worked as part of a popular democratic organization instead of always tending to perform his one man shows apart from that stint with the Peoples Redemption Party as Director of Research in the 1980s?
Soyinka’s love of a people who were almost universally hated calls for some explanation and he may have provided the answer in the Nyerere Lecture that I quoted from above. The Igbo are admirable because they have resisted the temptation to build empires and impose monarchs. Of course, Soyinka could have added that General Obasanjo tried to sabotage this radical republican Igbo tradition by imposing the requirement in the 1976 Local Government Reform Decree that every town should have a 'traditional' ruler, forcing the indomitable Igbo to plunge into bloody chieftaincy struggles unbecoming of their egalitarian principles. Afigbo narrates a similar attempt by the colonial administration to appoint warrant chiefs for the democratic Igbo but the result was that Igbo women declared war on colonialism and warrant chiefs just as Yoruba women did 20 years later by forcing the Alake of Abeokuta to abdicate and make way for a new Alake to be installed and just as Kikuyi women did 30 years later in Kenya. The significant difference was that the Igbo and Ibibio women fought against all warrant chiefs and the colonial administration rather than against an individual chief while the Kikuyi women were led by a Mr Harry Thuku, the Chief of Women.
Please note that Soyinka's praise for the Igbo culture of radical republicanism in the epigraph above and his critique of empires and kingdoms echo that of Walter Rodney in Groundings with my Brothers where Rodney told poor Jamaican youth to be skeptical of African histories that emphasize only kingdoms and empires given that many parts of Africa had no kings or queens but practiced direct democracies of the sort that Soyinka appears to be recommending as a better alternative for the whole of Africa. Europeans simply assumed that such societies were primitive ‘headless societies’ and proceeded to impose chiefs on them but Igbo and Ibibio women declared war on such Warrant Chiefs as Adiele Afigbo documented.
The obsession with monarchism is rife in the Diaspora as well where there are annual contests to see who would be the carnival monarch, the dancehall king, the king of pop, king of reggae, calypso monarch, socca monarch and what have you despite the fact that the American revolution and the Haitian revolution clearly rejected monarchism and opted for republicanism. The late Adiele Afigbo critiqued the tendency in nationalist historiography to focus only on kingdoms as a vain attempt to prove to the Europeans that Africans are not inferior because we also had kings and queens, forgetting that we also had participatory democracy that could only be devalued at our peril.
Soyinka is emphasizing that monarchical institutions tend to be anti-democratic wherever they are found and that our people have better models of democracy to draw from rather than celebrate authoritarianism in the guise of celebrating traditionalism. Baba Sho could have strengthened his case by pointing out that this radical democracy that he admires among the Igbo is not as exceptional as he suggested because the Ibibio of Nigeria and the Kikuyi of Kenya, for instance, were also radically republican traditionally. Yet, our beloved Baba Sho should be given credit for recognizing that African cultures have indigenous models of democracy that the rest of the world could learn from as opposed to the tendency by Cornel West and CLR James alike to point to ancient Greece as the model for direct democracy despite the institution of slavery, a monarchy and the disenfranchisement of women in Athenian 'democracy'.
Happy birthday Prof! Many many more happy returns!
Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA.