When I first heard of Wole Soyinka’s intention to destroy his Green Card in response to the American election of Donald Trump, I wished I had the opportunity to foretell his future to him.
The Nobel laureate has since then been driven to such depths of anger he has not only fulfilled his promise ahead of time, but also threatened to pull out of Nigeria, literally or figuratively.
And of January 20, 2017, the day Mr. Trump will become the 45th president of the US, Soyinka promised last week: “I’m going to hold a private wake…to mourn the death of Nigeria common sense.”
Professor Soyinka is known for the many fights he has been in and the many mountains he has conquered, personally and professionally. Celebrated around the world for his writing and scholarship, it has also turned out during the current crisis that he had his Green Card handed to him by Jimmy Carter.
In other words, his was never the humiliating visa application lines at the American embassy in Nigeria, or the tortuous US Immigration & Naturalization Service processes. The first experience, for those who know of it, makes a Nigerian’s possession of an American visa an intensely humbling one. The second is probably a bigger triumph than earning a string of higher degrees: not only is it the real door into America, it is also the key to keeping that door shut, for those Nigerians who so wish.
The point is, Nigerians do not take the acquisition of the US Green Card lightly, and in cases such as Mr. Soyinka’s after he announced his intention, far too many were unwilling to believe he would really choose to disown his. They asked him to do it, to do it now…and eventually, to provide video evidence.
Surprisingly, he—the hero of so many stories spanning Time, legend, geography and philosophy—paid attention. Ironically, the reason may well be that he had not been paying enough attention elsewhere.
Remember: many of today’s top teachers were taught by Mr. Soyinka, or by people taught by him. In those days, every student was required to justify himself in school and in the community. A student did not graduate from the university because he had been found worthy intellectually; he also had to have been found worthy of character.
Speaking (or writing) in class or in an examination, and indeed outside of it, was based on strict and clear standards. In those days, our cultures and communities were clear as to what constituted good behavior: that is, as to who was a good child.
A good child said “Good morning” and “Sir” or “Madam” to older people. In public, he addressed as “Uncle” or “Auntie” people whom he had never met before. And even if he knew that the first name of the man sitting across the church pew from his family’s was “Godwin,” he addressed the man as “Uncle Godwin.”
Training consisted broadly of interrogation. You learned to read books, and more books. You asked questions of your teachers, parents, your superior peers.
It is to the transition from that reality that I say Mr. Soyinka may have paid insufficient attention. Because that was in the ancient era of the dial tone. Oyingbo market.
But Oyingbo has given way to Amazon. Google, or perhaps sadly Wikipedia, is the new library.
Dial tone? That, my child, was the scarce sound you had to hear before you punched a number into a phone. Its closest equivalent is probably the phone credit. No dial tone, no phone call.
Yes, a student still enrolls in a class, but the authority figure to impress today is hardly the teacher. And where both the teacher and the student might have once thought little of the lowly typist, today’s principal tool of defence, but more importantly of offense, is the keyboard.
That is why it is the computer keyboard, which is also in use on mobile phones and tablets, that is responsible for Mr. Soyinka’s current distress.
Add it to the temptations of the Internet, and the complications can result in an international icon threatening to rip up his national roots and to hold a ceremony to bury “common sense.”
I hold the new technologies in high respect; there are lives and careers and communities owed to the cell phone, the Internet and social media. I have known people who used these technologies to carve out previously unimaginable pathways.
In similar ways, unfortunately, lives and communities and careers are being hurt daily by people for whom sleaze is a way of life. The problem with Nigeria is that much of what is smuggled into social media arises, and thrives on, malice, ignorance and opportunism.
It has become a cottage industry in Nigeria to register multiple screen names on the Internet for mischief. The professor has choice terms for them, including slugs, millipedes, imbeciles, barbarians, and blabbermouths.
As one who for over three decades enjoyed the opportunity to express his views regularly, I have seen some of the baboons grow. Some are known to be paid to sharpen their scalpels and to dig into your back with no provocation, and then to follow up with their alternative screen names to provide the semblance of legitimacy and support for their views, but there are others who need no prompting. They need only that keyboard.
When there is an issue on which he is interested, the baboon pulls that keyboard and those screen names closer. When you have a keyboard to speak for you, you do not need to think.
If you have never been the victim of an anonymous assault or campaign on the Internet, all may appear to be fair and joyous with the world. But it is scandalous to see so many instances in which someone who is being so unfairly attacked is left to suffer by those who know the truth.
This has an everyday correlation: very often, people needing help in public incidents, including road crashes, accidents or fights, are ignored by Nigerians who simply want to take pictures and shoot videos for their social media enjoyments.
How did we get here? When I was young, editors did not even look at your letter unless it was signed with your full name and your address.
That was in recognition of the point that a point of view is meaningless unless there is identifiable ownership. The tragedy is that today’s ownership is the keyboard.
It is why I advise Mr. Soyinka to reconsider the anger to relocate his foundation out of Nigeria. To do so is to grant those baboons a victory they had not dared imagine.
The menace to which he responds cannot be eliminated, but it can be ameliorated. That is why I ask Mr. Soyinka to find a few Nigerians he trusts enough to teach to farm and to fish without fear. For we are speaking about the audacity of hope, in terms of keeping it alive until dawn. A birth, not a burial.
I tell my four children, them of the Internet age, to feel free when they praise, to use fictitious names because praise needs no signature. But when they criticize, and should they ever abuse, I insist they must identify themselves.
For cowardice invalidates the argument—if any—and cheapens our common humanity. In the end, it is cowardice which makes the baboon.