As a young child in the 1962, with great interest and passion for the unfolding events surrounding black and African liberation movements and the civil rights struggle, I was intrigued by the struggles of the African American people , in the Southern states of the USA, in the effort to desegregate the institutions of state, especially education and voting rights. The case of James Meredith, the first Black student to desegregate Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, was quite enthralling for my young mind. I was fixated on going to the United Sates, like the legendary Nnamdi Azikiwe, in search of the Golden Fleece in the mode of Jason and The Argonauts. However, seeing the television newsreels of the Civil Rights struggle, I wondered whether this was what the young Zik confronted when he stowed away to the USA in the 1930s. How could a student attend lectures with about a company of State troopers and National Guardsmen for protection from the baying mobs of white supremacists and people wearing the forbidding hooded robes of the Ku Klux Klan? In class, the television newsreels showed him alone in a corner of lecture rooms, shunned by his white classmates and treated with contempt by his lecturers, themselves all avowed racists.
Meredith withstood all this and some more provocations, but had to surrender at some point, to come to the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, to continue his education. He however, finally managed to graduate from the University of Mississippi . His travails scared my young mind and made me wary of white America and was instrumental to my decision to study in the United Kingdom, like my father, who told me that, even though there was discrimination and racism in the United Kingdom, the degree was nothing comparable to what was happening to African Americans , especially in the Southern States. An interesting aspect of all this was that the resistance to the desegregation of Ole Miss was led by the Senator representing the State of Mississippi in the US Senate, a certain Senator Jesse Helms. An avowed and unrepentant racist and segregationist, Senator Helms opposed any action by the Federal Government to desegregate the South, where Blacks faced apartheid conditions in a supposedly liberal country where the constitution and an earlier declaration of Emancipation after the US Civil war, freed the slaves and gave them equal rights, encompassed in the promise of 40 acres of land and a mule to farm it, a promise however never kept by the State, like Yakubu Gowon’s 3Rs after the Biafran war. Fast forward to the 1990s and James Meredith is in the news again, but now for incredible reasons. This grandson of freed slaves, who by now had graduated from the University of Mississipi, but was also the proud father of a son with a Doctorate degree, was now a political aide to believe it or not, an old and ailing Senator Jesse Helms, still representing the state of Mississippi, now in theory desegregated. The surprising and heart rending narrative was the fact that Senator Jesse Helms was now running against a young educated black man for the senate seat, and James Meredith was what in Nigerian parlance is called an “otimkpu” or political thug for , wait for it, the racist senator Jesse Helms.
And what was James Meredith saying? That he supported Senator Helms against his black brother, because blacks did not have the intellectual ability to run the state of Mississipi or represent it at the Senate. James Meredith!! On whose behalf the Nigerian Government and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples( NAACP), the umbrella black emancipation organisation, waged an unrelenting political war to ensure that he got an education , while fighting for the desegregation of the American South. And he had to mouth the same racist dogma that was used to first deny him his right of education as a citizen of the State of Mississipi. This is the stuff that fiction is made of, but it is true and very well documented. I still cannot for the life of me, understand what drove the regression of James Meredith from civil rights warrior to a slave or house Nigger, a situation that his grandparents were liberated from about two centuries ago. Nobody has offered an explanation for this terrible stain on the conscience, racial integrity and intelligence of the Black American and Black people in general. Just a few years after James Meredith’s sojourn at the University of Ibadan, the Nigerian Civil war broke out , a direct fallout of the pogrom against the Igbo and other Eastern Nigerians that followed the ill-fated military coup of January 1966. A certain young intellectual, poet and playwright Oluwole Soyinka and lecturer at the university while the Meredith drama was playing out, was embroiled, first with the resistance against the denial of the political will of the peoples of the Western Region, by the Northern dominated Federal Government, through its surrogate in the West, a certain RF Akintola, who was then the Prime Minister of Western Nigeria via a party that was in a local alliance with the Northern dominated Northern Peoples Congress. This political imbroglio in western Nigeria was one of the immediate causes of the military coup and counter coup and therefore the Civil war. As the clouds of war loomed, the indefatigable and idealistic young intellectual affirmed his support for the secession of the Eastern Region as the Federal Government could no longer guarantee the lives and safety of the citizens from that unfortunate part of the country.
With the declaration of the independent state of Biafra carved from the former eastern region, Soyinka went to Biafra to meet Ojukwu, the leader of the eastern region and now Head of State of the Republic of Biafra after a similar sortie by the newly acclaimed leader of the Western region, Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, fresh out of prison on conviction for section and treasonable felony . On his return from Biafra , Awolowo was made the Vice President of the Supreme Military Council of Nigeria, the Governing authority of the military regime that was then ruling Nigeria. Wole Soyinka, was , on the other hand, incarcerated until the war’s end in 1970 by the military Government on the trumped up charge of conspiracy to supply weapons to the secessionists. While incarcerated, Wole Soyinka wrote his prison memoirs , titled The Man Died, a harsh critique of the Military regime and its brutal prosecution of the Biafran War, which has been the greatest post-Independence tragedy in African history to date. Even after his release from Jos prison, Wole Soyinka, never renounced his support for the idea of Biafra as a refuge for people persecuted and left unprotected by the Nigerian State. Wole Soyinka, perennial thorn in the flesh of successive Nigerian military dictatorships, culminating in his exile from Nigeria after the June 12, 1993 electoral debacle, never changed his views on Biafra and the Igbo’s right to seek a safe heaven in a new state after the incredible pogrom and genocide of the Biafran war. In fact as late as December 2014, Wole Soyinka insisted that the Biafran War was a Genocidal war against the Igbo people. He also attended the funeral of the Biafran Leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, as a sign of solidarity with the Biafran cause , when the Biafran Leader died in 2013. Wole Soyinka was the only nonIgbo/Eastern Nigerian prominent personality to attend the funeral, where Ojukwu was given a State funeral, interestingly, the only other Nigerian to be given that honour after the late great Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first President of Independent Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife were also in attendance.
Fast forward to early 2015, as the countdown to the 2015 Presidential election started. A new Wole Soyinka emerged. Hitherto known for his contempt for the military dictators that had brought Nigeria to its knees from their decades of misrule, the new Wole Soyinka started singing a different tune. Asked on the Qatari Cable Television Channel, Al Jazeera, about the disconnect between his new found love for the democratic credentials of the brutal military dictator now turned the Presidential candidate of the opposition All People Congress, General Muhammad Buhari, which was diametrically opposed to his previous opinions on the candidate, Wole Soyinka, unashamedly retorted that he had a right to change his mind and was ready to support the ex-dictator because the ruling party did not appear willing or able to secure the State and fight corruption. However, the dictator turned democrat had earlier exonerated a previous, now late, dictator, Sanni Abacha of corruption charges, even though Abacha’s family had accepted the fact of his corruption and were signing off on the repatriation of proceeds of their father’s corruption from sundry European, American and Middle Eastern jurisdictions. The new Soyinka was also now in cahoots with State Governors who were blatantly corrupt but were feting him during book launchings and other activities designed to siphon funds from state coffers. The APC Governor of his home State of Ogun, actually employed Soyinka’s son as a commissioner( minister) in the state cabinet.
However, more of the new Wole Soyinka was yet to come. In a secretly recorded proceedings of a lecture at Harvard University, Wole Soyinka appeared to launch an unwarranted diatribe against his beloved Igbo people of Biafra , on behalf of whom he spent years in Jos prisons and nearly lost his life. He accused the Igbos of always making a mercenary political choice and this time , by not supporting his beloved All Progressive Congress of the military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, who only six months earlier, Soyinka had vowed not to dine with, even with the longest spoon, as the dictator was in his opinion, worse than the devil. The question now, as in the earlier case of James Meredith, is what drove this black and Nigeria intellectual pearl and Nobel Laureate in Literature to repudiate all he stood for in these, his twilight years, an action that suffers the risk of irreparable reputational damage? Can Oluwole Soyinka, an intellectual per excellence and infant terrible of Nigerian resistance to military dictatorship, succumb to the temporary and reputationally destructive spoils of corruption at age 80 and for what? You have to wonder at his very loud silence as the military dictator turned democratic President, is reenacting most of the blatant illegalities that made him Wole Soyinka’s greatest adversary in a previous incarnation as Head of the Nigerian State and military dictator.
The descent of James Meredith and Oluwole Soyinka to the depths of intellectual, moral and political regression in their twilight years is a worrying omen of things to come and may spell the end of Black intellectual and moral rebirth in this millennium. How do some of the best of a race always turn coat for, ostensibly purely pecuniary reasons, lending sickening credence to the assertion by white racists, that slavery was perhaps a redeeming process for these morally deficient peoples who were going to inflict the same pains on themselves anyway. Looking back at the shenanigans of James Meredith and Oluwole Soyinka, I am gratified that Nelson Mandela came out of prison too late in his life to succumb to the disease of regression that seems to afflict other Black people , who suffered for the race early in their lives, but renounced all they stood for, and therefore, the whole purpose of their lives, in old age. It would have been the greatest injury to the moral and intellectual reputation of Blacks and Africans, if that global moral icon were to have regressed and perhaps extolled the merits of apartheid in later years.
Fast forward to early 2015, as the countdown to the 2015 Presidential election started. A new Wole Soyinka emerged. Hitherto known for his contempt for the military dictators that had brought Nigeria to its knees from their decades of misrule, the new Wole Soyinka started singing a different tune. Asked on the Qatari Cable Television Channel, Al Jazeera, about the disconnect between his new found love for the democratic credentials of the brutal military dictator now turned the Presidential candidate of the opposition All People Congress, General Muhammad Buhari, which was diametrically opposed to his previous opinions on the candidate, Wole Soyinka, unashamedly retorted that he had a right to change his mind and was ready to support the exdictator because the ruling party did not appear willing or able to secure the State and fight corruption.