I am certain there are others who, like me, received invitations to the recent edition of the Storymoja/Hay Literature Festival in Nairobi, but could not attend. My absence was particularly regrettable, because I had planned to make up for my failure to turn up for the immediate prior edition. Participant or absentee however, this is one edition we shall not soon forget.
It was at least two days after the listing of Kofi Awoonor among the victims that I even recollected the fact that the festival was ongoing at that very time. With that realisation came another: that Kofi and I could have been splitting a bottle at that same watering hole in between events and at the end of each day. My feelings, I wish to state clearly, did not undergo any changes. The emotions of rage, hate and contempt remained on the same qualitative and quantitative levels. Those are the feelings I have retained since the Boko Haram onslaught overtook the northern part of our nation. I expect them to remain at the same level until I draw my last breath, hopefully in peaceful circumstances like Chinua Achebe, or else violently like Kofi. As becomes daily clarified in contemporary existence, none of us has much control over these matters.
Two earlier commitments were responsible for my inability to attend the festival. One was a public conversation with a very brave individual, Karima Bennoune, an Algerian national, whose trenchant publication - YOUR FATWA DOES NOT APPLY HERE - is of harrowing pertinence to the events of Nairobi, a pertinence that continues to ravage our, and other nations. The other preventive factor was the annual conference of International Investigators in Tunis, doing battle with the monster of corruption. The link of the former event is obvious enough, but if you think the latter has no relevance to what has happened in Nairobi, or is taking place in the northern part of this nation, permit me to correct you.
Yes, we all know of material corruption, we confront it all the time. Tragically neglected however is what we should learn to designate as spiritual corruption. Those who organised and carried out the outrage on innocent lives in Nairobi are carriers of the most lethal virus of corruption imaginable: corruption of the soul, corruption of the spirit, corruption of that animating humanistic essence that separates us from predatory beasts. I am no theologian of any religion, but I aver that these assailants delude themselves with vistas of paradise after life, that their delusion is borne of the perverted reading of salvation and redemption. Those who attempt to divide the world into two irreconciliable parts – believers against the rest – are human aberrations. As for their claims to faith, they invoke divine authority solely as a hypocritical cover for innate psychopathic tendencies. Their deeds and utterances profane the very name of God or Allah.
Let us however abandon theology and simply designate them enemies of humanity, leaving a very real question that the rest of us must resolve – whether this breed even belongs to the human race, or should be seen as a mutant sub-species that require both moral and scientific definitions. We cannot continue to pretend that those who have set their sight against that enabling spark that we call creativity, those who arrogate to themselves the right to dispose of innocent lives at will, belong within the same moral universe to which you and I belong.
Without a moral universe, humanity exists in limbo.
Not since apartheid has our humanity been so intensely and persistently challenged and stressed on this continent. History repeats, or more accurately re-asserts itself, as a murdering minority pronounce themselves a superior class of beings to all others, assume powers to decide the mode of existence of others, of association, decide who shall live and who shall die, who shall shake hands with whom even as daily colleagues, who shall dictate and who shall submit. The cloak of religion is a tattered alibi, the real issue – as always - being power and submission, with the instrumentality of terror. Let us objectively assess the true nature of the dominion that they seek to establish in place of the present ‘dens of sin and damnation, of impurity and decadence’ in which the rest of us supposedly live. We do not need to seek far, the models are close by – they will be found in contested Somalia. In now liberated Mali. Fitfully in Mauritania. In those turbid years of enchained Algeria, and her yet unconsolidated business of secularism. Theirs is the dominion of exclusion. Of irrationality and restraints on daily existence. A loathing of creativity and plurality. It is the dominion of apartheid by gender. Of the demonisation of difference. It is the dominion of Fear. Let us determine that, on this continent, we shall not accept that, after victory over race as card of citizen validation, religion is entered and established as substitute on the passport, not only for citizen recognition, but even to entitlement to residence on earth.
After the deadly calling card of these primitives, the rest of the Nairobi festival was cancelled, understandably, but sadly. I have however written to the organisers not to even bother to renew my invitation for next year’s edition - life permitting, I shall be there. We must all be there. And we must learn to smother loss in advance, not just for that festival but for all festivals of life and creativity wherever in the world. Resolve that, no matter the tragic intervention, such events must run their course. Let us accept, quite simply, that a force of violent degeneracy has declared war on humanity. Thus, we are fated to be ever present on the battlefield until that war is over.
I submit that we were all present at that concourse of humanity in Nairobi. We were present by the side of every maimed and fallen victim, among who was a distinguished one of us, one of the very best that have defined us to the world. We were present in Mali even before this nation, to her credit, joined in stemming the tide of religious atavism and human retrogression. We were beside the students of Kaduna, Plateau, Borno, the school children of Yobe, the mangled okada riders and petty traders of Kano, beside all those who have been routinely slaughtered for so many years past in this very nation. In Nairobi’s hub of commerce we were present, confronted yet again with that same diabolical test that was applied to school pupils in Kano many years ago, where those who failed to recite the indicated verse of the koran were classified as infidels, and led away to have their throats serially slit. We have been present at the travails of Algeria, recorded for posterity by that lady Karima Bennoune in YOUR FATWA DOES NOT APPLY HERE. We were beside Tahar Djaout, author of THE LAST SEASON OF UNREASON, cut down also by religious fanatics. We are the mere survivors who continually ask, when will this stop? Where will this end? The ones who echo Karima and that miraculous survivor Malala in declaiming - No indeed, your fatwa can never apply here. We have been beside the children of Chechnya in the Soviet Union, innocents who, taken hostage, were reduced to drinking their own urine, then deliberately gunned down as they made their way out of a school gymnasium that had turned into an inferno. We continue to remain beside all who have fallen to the blight of bigotry, religious solipsism and spiritual toxicity. We shall continue to stand beside them, denouncing, condemning, but most critically, urging on all who can to anticipate, stem, and ultimately eliminate the tide of religious tyranny. We have taken the side of humanity against those who are against.
At this very time of the latest outrage, the world body, known as the United Nations Organisation was actually convened in General Assembly. We must instigate that body to evolve, through just, principled, but severe and uncompromising action, into a United Humanity Organisation, that is, thinking not simply ‘nation’, but acting ‘humanity’. It means going beyond pietisms such as – this or that is a religion of peace, but obliging its members to act aggressively in neutralising those whose acts pronounce the contrary, so that Humanity is placed as the first and last principle of nation existence and global cohabitation. The true divide is not between believers and unbelievers, but between those who violate the right of others to believe, or not believe.
Memories that span fifty or more years are difficult to distill into a few words. Suffice it to stress for now that Kofi Awoonor was a passionate African, that is, he gave primacy of place to values derived from his Ewe heritage. That, in turn, means that he was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of ecumenism towards other systems of belief and cultural usages – this being the scriptural ethos that permeates belief practices of most of this continent. We mourn our colleague and brother, but first we denounce his killers, the virulent sub-species of humanity who bathe their hands in innocent blood. Only cowards turn deadly weapons against the unarmed, only the depraved glorify in, or justify the act. True warriors do not wage wars against the innocent. Profanity is the name given to the defilement of the sanctity of human life. We call on those who claim to exercise the authority of a fatwa to pronounce that very doom, with all its moral weight, upon those who engage in this serial violation of the right to life, life as a god-given possession that only the blasphemous dare contradict, and the godless wantonly curtail.
This scalp that they have added to their collection was roof to a unique brain that a million of their kind can never replace.
A few months ago, in New York, on a joint platform of the United Nations and UNESCO, I entered an urgent plea into the proceedings of that International Conference on the Culture of Peace: Take Back Mali! I urged. At home, I impressed that urgent necessity on our own government. I know that Kofi Awoonor, poet, diplomat and democrat, would approve my commendation – in this specific respect at least – of the action of our and other ECOWAS governments – albeit after France had taken the critical lead – in taking back Mali. I especially applaud the outgoing Foreign Affairs Minister, Ashiru, who hearkened to that imperative of speedy intervention and urged it with vigour and urgency on the African Union. We salute the courage and sacrifices of the soldiers who reversed the agenda of the interlopers – al Qaeda and company - with their arrogant designs on those freedoms that define who we are in this region, and on the continent itself. Safeguarding freedoms, alas, goes beyond even the most intense passion and will of the poetic muse, and we must never shy away from acknowledging this cruel reality. Those who believe that a tepid, accommodative approach to fundamentalist rampage can generate peace and human dignity should study – as I have often urged – the experience of Algeria, captured with such chilling diligence in Karima Bennoune’s work. The cost of ‘taking back Algeria’ is one that will be reckoned in human deficit – and unbelievable courage – for generations to come. Today, I urge all forces of progress to – Take Back Africa! Rescue her from the forces of darkness that seek to inaugurate a new regimen of religious despotism, ruthless beyond what our people have known even under the imperial will of Europe.
These butchers continue to evoke the mandate of Islam, thus, we exhort our Muslim brother and sister colleagues: Take back Islam. Take back that Islam which, even where it poses contradictions, declares itself one with the culture of learning, one that honours its followers as People of the Book, historic proponents of the virtues of intellect and its products. There is no religion without contradictions – it is the primacy of human dignity and solidarity that serves as arbiter. We call upon the fastidious warrior class of the intellect, steeped in a creative contempt and defiance of enemies of the humanistic pursuit. We speak here of that Islam that inspires solidarity with the Naguib Mafouzes of our trade, with the Tahar Djaouts, with the Karimas and the Mariama Bas, not the diabolism of al Shabbab, Boko Haram and their degenerate ilk. Let us join hands with the former, and enshrine their mission as the history prescribed destination of our creative urge. What Nairobi teaches – and not just this recently - is that there is no place called Elsewhere. Elsewhere has always been right here with us, and in the present. I urge upon you this mandate: seize back your Islam and thus, take back our continent and, in that restorative undertaking - take back our humanity.
Soyinka is a Nobel Laureate in Literature