“Correct,” he affirmed when asked if the former president was caged. “There were forces around Jonathan, which he himself did not understand and that is why I stressed that you’ve got to choose your circles of advisers very carefully, when you are in charge. He was caged; things were going on that he did not know about.”
Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, has said former President Goodluck Jonathan was caged by some powerful forces while in power and therefore was not aware of some of things going on around him.
In a damning assessment of Mr. Jonathan’s tenure, Mr. Soyinka said the former president, who left office in May following his defeat by the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, in the March 28 presidential poll, did not know that the nation had been compromised so badly under him until he (Soyinka) brought some issues to his notice.
Mr. Soyinka, a professor, spoke in an interview with the current edition Zero Tolerance magazine, a publication of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
“Correct,” he affirmed when asked if the former president was caged. “There were forces around Jonathan, which he himself did not understand and that is why I stressed that you’ve got to choose your circles of advisers very carefully, when you are in charge. He was caged; things were going on that he did not know about.”
Mr. Soyinka, who said he visited Mr. Jonathan twice just before he vacated office, said on one occasion he asked the former president what he was doing to curtail his wife, Patience, who during the presidential campaign was indulging in hate speech. He refused to disclose his (Jonathan) response.
According to him, “On a lighter note, I asked him, ‘what are you doing about madam’ because that one seems to be embarrassing the nation as usual because that seems to be her function as so called first lady. You go to a section of the country and tell your supporters to stone those who campaign for change and you insult another part of the nation by calling them those who produce children that they cannot look after. That woman should be charge for incitement chaos. It is incredible that she is allowed to run loose.”
Asked what Mr. Jonathan’s reply was, the Nobel Laureate said, “I am not going to tell his response (laughs….) But I am free to tell you what I said. It will be an abuse of privilege if I tell you his response.”
Buttressing his clam that Mr. Jonathan was oblivious of some happenings around him while in office, Mr. Soyinka recalled the telephone saga with the king of Morocco, stating that he was the one that told the president about it when they met.
He said, “I will tell you one interesting aspect of what we discussed. I will reveal to you that Jonathan did not know that the nation had been compromised so badly in this telephone thing with the King of Morocco. I was the one who told him when we met over an issue and I said to him, ‘by the way, how is the king of Morocco? Jonathan didn’t know what I was talking about.
“When I mentioned the telephone issue, he thought I was talking about is campaign for AfDB managing director for which he was lobbying other heads of states. He said ‘I haven’t spoken to him in a long time’, and I said, ‘no, you spoke to him a few days ago.’ He said, ‘no, I intend to speak with him. I even asked my foreign ministry to link me up with him because I am campaigning for a candidate but I haven’t spoken to the king of Morocco.’ Then I said to him, ‘you better go and read the newspapers of last week.’ And I can tell you he did not know.”
Continuing, Mr. Soyinka lamented, “So you can imagine that the president did not know that a scandal had developed that involved a withdrawal of an ambassador!
“And again, I am revealing this to you since this interview won’t be published till after the elections because I wouldn’t want to be seen as campaigning for or against any one side. It shows how in deep trouble governance can be; governance can dig itself into a huge hole and not even know it’s in there. The statement that was issued was issued the night when I met him.”
Mr. Soyinka came down hard on Mr. Jonathan when asked about the criticisms that trailed his administration that it was not fighting corruption.
“This is what we are talking about. How can a public figure, an intelligent person like that come out to tell the public that corruption is not stealing,” Mr. Soyinka said. As president, you’ve got to show some example …Why should a president involve himself in what is already structurally established and dedicated to that purpose?”
Mr. Soyinka also said he maintained a cordial relationship with Mr. Jonathan during his tenure despite some attacks he felt compelled to launch on the former Nigerian leader and his wife.
According to him, at some point, Mr. Jonathan who ruled the country between 2010 and 2015 was tending towards fascism.“No. It was never anything personal,” when asked why he withdrew his support from the former president. “We marched in order to protect the constitution, not the person of Jonathan. We retained a cordial relationship during his tenure. However despite some attacks I felt compelled to launch on him – and his wife. Jonathan committed some truly alarming errors of governance. He was propelling himself towards outright fascism.”
Read full interview below. We got Zero Tolerance’s permission to republish here.
My Take On Corruption – Soyinka
Professor Wole Soyinka, Africa’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature and frontline crusader for social justice is the quintessential academic with a reputation for candour. The octogenarian, who is venerated for his accomplishment in the literary world and a life of activism, is equally famous for a rebellious streak that is founded on abhorrence for injustice. In this rare encounter with ZT Team ofWILSON UWUJAREN, SAMIN AMADIN, DELE OYEWALE, TONY ORILADE, THERESA NWOSU, MONDAY EMONI, AUGUSTINE OMONKHEGBELE and IDRIS ISIYAKU at his office in Lagos three days before the March 28, 2015 presidential election, Soyinka bared his mind on issues of anti-corruption, especially President Jonathan’s anti-corruption posture and political developments in the country.
ZT: You have been speaking lately and it appears you are worried about the state of affairs in the country.
Soyinka: Nigeria is so peculiar and dramatic. Even talking about the potentials before we talk about the negativities, Nigeria is a nation for perpetual study. I think in Nigeria, it is the potential which hits people and makes them believe in Nigeria. It tends to make them react when they see potentials being wasted and it is a tragedy to see potentials wasted. But paradoxically, it is a realization of the existence, that positive, that keeps many Nigerians and even foreign people going.
ZT: You talked about the potentials of the country but we have not been able to translate this potential to reality in terms of development. Why is this so?
Soyinka: It is the human potentials that interest me. I travel and everywhere I go I am amazed at the presence of Nigerians. The intelligence, integrity, productivity, initiative, you name it. So what is the problem? I think we got it wrong from independence as people became so conscious of the divisions because we wanted so much to satisfy the plurality of interests. I will say, we neglected the importance of real value, human value and the quality of potential in human beings and we contrived phrases like geographical spread, regional quota, etc and allowed mediocrity to reign. I think that is the problem that we are dealing with till today.
ZT: How do we overcome this problem of mediocrity?
Soyinka: We must acknowledge that we made a huge error in satisfying the lowest common denominator of the available human potential in this country and we elevated what I call the reign of mediocrity. Quite frankly, I think it is about repudiating the past, creating space for new thinking for the best of the new generation, creating both political and geographical space and going at it with single mindedness that says, ‘enough of buttering, sentiments and massaging the ego of the old brigade’.
It is what I sought to do for instance, when I tried to create a new political party, which I stressed to them that this is not my party. I believe very much that there has to be a revolution and this is a party for the young. I said it is a zero kobo party and you people have to learn in your campaigning how to use the bicycles again and if you are in areas where there are donkeys, you have to campaign on donkey backs from door-to-door and stop waiting to be financed by the old brigade because you will have to do their bidding. Instead, go to the young, appeal to the young. Make a small beginning, even if it is a local government, see what can be done with a new brigade, seize some space and create room for emulation from other people. Don’t keep waiting for the ‘money bags’ so you can spread all over the country.
ZT: Did that message settle well with the youths?
Soyinka: It did not settle well with them. I was shocked. First of all, they had not got over the notion that when you start a political party, you are creating space for yourself. So many of them were shocked when they realized that I was serious and had no interest in occupying any political position, so they started to fall out one by one. I said to them, this is your space, this is for you. I have no money to give to you but I have ideas and organizational capacity, but you are going to do the donkey work, the leg work. Once it is exhausted, you are on your own.
ZT: To what extent did you try to drive this vision?
Soyinka: Of course to the best of my capacity, we held several meetings here in my office, I showed them directions and we had meetings in Abuja. Once, I refused to go to Owerri when I discovered that the slogan they were using was ‘Wole Soyinka, Wole Soyinka, Wole Soyinka’ I said I was not coming because this is not about Wole Soyinka.
I remember someone once came proudly from the North to show me a poster. He was contesting and his picture was on the poster and there was my picture on the poster too. I asked them, ‘don’t you get the message, why make this useless poster?’ And I said ‘am sorry, but this has to be destroyed and I did’.
I must confess I could not win them from the notion that a political party has to be about a single individual. Maybe the next members will get it right because the party is not entirely dead. That INEC does not recognize a party does not mean the party does not exist. INEC has its own rules, we were recognized and deregistered. I said to them, ‘shut yourselves down and turn yourselves into a movement, until you are re-registered’.
ZT: Do you see the party being revived again?
Soyinka: Of course. My advice to them now is to team up with some of the new parties like KOWA Party that is led by that lady (Remi Sonaiya). They came to see me here and I was impressed by the lady. The youth should come together to challenge the status quo. They must not give up.
ZT: What strikes you about the KOWA Party?
Soyinka: I only met the party leaders and I have seen pieces of their manifesto and I was impressed by the youthfulness of the party and its candidate and the tendency of a total new approach to politics.
ZT: To achieve any change in the minds of the youth, there must be reorientation in terms of materialistic tendencies, corruption and crime generally. How can we achieve this?
Soyinka: I agree with you. The battle is the mind and to achieve this mind change, the media has crucial role to play. The media must be used effectively to reach the masses. You have to find a new language in which to address the people and demonstrate what is possible. You see, concreteness impresses people more than all the grammar of Wole Soyinka. There is a governor that says he goes out to eat amala with his people and what he did was to create ‘stomach infrastructure’, that kind of blasphemous message.
You go to the ‘bukar’ and engage people in languages different from the one I am using with you now, get down to their basics and get your hands dirty with work among the people. This is something I realize is a full time job.
ZT: But cyber crime, bank fraud and many others are today perpetrated by the youths, how can we tackle the situation?
Soyinka: First and foremost, we must catch them young. I remember late Tai Solarin used to use this expression ‘I’ll die for the youths, I’ll die for the youths’ and once, I called him, ‘egbon’ (my older brother) stop saying that. Some of these people you want to die for are the ones that will stab you in the back so don’t use that expression because you and I know that they are not angels. Most of them are rapists, cultist and I use that expression as opposed to a confraternity which is confused in the mind in my experience which is very sad.
The obstacles to this transformation in youths are ignoramus. We just had a festival here and the theme was ‘Corruption’. School children were handpicked to know how they see the issue of corruption, why do we keep crying that the adult society is corrupt, what is it that you see? Many schools were involved and ICPC wanted to take the results and maybe you (EFCC) can take that over if they are not fast enough because this project has been over a year now. We have their response and all those paintings of how the children see us.
Exercises like that involving the children put to shame the adults by depicting what corruption does to them. So it’s a matter of catching them young and that way we transform the next level of humanity who in turn exercises an influence on adults, aunties, and parents etc. Because that top stratum is almost finished.
Look at this election for instance, the current election (2015); have you ever seen such an expensive contest? Where is all the money coming from? Look, this country is awash with naira and dollars on a level we have not seen since Obasanjo made his third term attempt. But this has beggared even the corrupt spending which took place over that exercise. This election, I have never known anything like this in any other country.
ZT: Was that why it was reported in the media recently that you ‘bombed’ President Jonathan?
Soyinka: Ahh! Am not Boko Haram oh (laughter). I have been speaking with President Jonathan not only publicly, but privately. There are policies that are avoidable. When it comes to the issue of corruption, Jonathan surrounds himself with certain unsavoury characters and that is something you don’t have to do if you are in charge. You are in a position to select those who are seen with you so that the populace can look up to them.
And I can say this because by the time this interview comes out, the elections would have been over and nobody will charge me with campaigning for or against somebody. Quite frankly. I saw him as recently as two weeks ago; because there are still certain things to be resolved, whether he returns to office or not, time exists to be exploited no matter the circumstances and no matter what is taking place during that period. So leadership of course has a primary responsibility but followership is very critical and you mentioned it before, why do you prefer to go this way rather than that way? People prefer not to carve a totally different path for themselves and it is relative to all of us.
ZT: Critics of the Jonathan administration rate him low in fighting corruption, what is your view?
Soyinka: As a president, you’ve got to show some example. I am disturbed for instance when I read that a candidate said, ‘I will not probe anybody or something like that’. You don’t fight corruption by sweeping everything under the carpet, you don’t. You just say, am going to allow the law take its course; I am going to empower the agencies which has been set up for such specific purpose of stemming the corrupt out flow of resources from this nation and don’t even talk to me about corruption beyond saying you going to strengthen existing institutions.
That is what we want to hear, don’t make any promises.
ZT: Why should a president involve himself in what is already structurally established and dedicated to that purpose?
Soyinka: I warned your former boss, I told him that, your task will be done when in the course of your investigation, you discover that the source of the problem is the very person who appointed you. He looked shocked a bit, and eventually Ribadu and I met in London, after he was removed and El-Rufai was also in exile after they tried to kill him. We met and Ribadu refused to sit down. I asked him to sit but he said no, that until I accepted his apology, he won’t sit down. I asked what apology? And he said, “i should have listened to you, I failed to listen to you. Something you said to me, and I failed to listen” Ribadu admitted that he realized very late that Obasanjo was using him.
So we have to destroy that link between power and corruption. Audu Ogbe confirmed what i am telling you. Then it was ‘go after this one, go after that one, ahh you did not arrest him? Arrest his mother!’ I am challenging Obasanjo to deny it.
So when you are looking for corruption, you should look at the entire stratum of the society, while some forms of corruption are direct, others are indirect. For others, corruption sometimes is encouraged by careless statements. This is a hydra-headed problem which is why I had to invent a monster to answer the name of corruption and I ended up with ‘HYDROPUS’ which means a hydra-headed monster plus octopus (laughter). I needed something that will convey to people what corruption is, what it does, its antecedents, its ability to camouflage, to vanish and resuscitate somewhere else, which is why i used school children to give me an image of corruption.
ZT: There seems to be some confusion on what corruption entails, some people argue that corruption is not stealing, what is it to you?
Soyinka: This is what we are talking about, how can a public figure, an intelligent person like that come out to tell the public that corruption is not stealing. Then you should have asked him, what then is corruption? The media should have challenged him.
ZT: Election is here, and between the devil and the deep blue sea (PDP and the APC), where will you turn?
Soyinka: This is a very tough one. Maybe, we should have even intervened in this political process at the stage when they are selecting their candidates to say if you go in this direction, we won’t take you. Maybe that is what we should have done. Buhari on one hand, has a very dark past which some of us find very difficult to obliterate, while Jonathan on the other hand, has been dismal, allowing himself to be surrounded by questionable people like Fayose. Do you have to appoint somebody like Femi Fani Kayode as Director of media in charge of presidential campaign? Someone on trial for stealing and conspiracy to steal? Is this what you understand by democracy?
ZT: Can a man under prosecution for corruption be qualified for a ministerial appointment?
Soyinka: Do you need somebody like that? What about somebody like Gbenga Daniel who closed down a legislature for almost a year? When I heard this, I called Jonathan, I asked him, ‘is this your understanding of democracy”. A governor closes down an assembly with the aid of the police and the place is under lock with ‘Mopol’ guarding it. When Jonathan selected this person as his campaign manager in Abuja, I telephoned him; I said does this support democracy that you choose this person. It is not a question of this person is a governor therefore come to my party, I can work with him. No, when a president picks somebody for a particular duty it means you are pointing that person out as an aspect of government so you see, it is impossible for me to pick Jonathan as a candidate.
in fact, Jonathan’s campaign manager is the greatest asset that Buhari could have hoped for. All the opposition needs to do is look at his spokesman, is that the kind of person he should have?Look, Buhari is a very lucky man. Between the two, the one whom I think has paid some debt to the community would be Buhari because I think he has accepted the fact that he made mistakes. He hasn’t brought himself round to apologise, if he had done that, I might have been less ambiguous about him. But I think from my findings about him, I think he is a born again phenomenon. If am wrong, well, too bad. Though I don’t believe in ‘born-againism’ but I think this may be an exception.
ZT: Would you say that corruption in Nigeria is a reflection of the society?
Soyinka: I don’t know what is happening to the society, but I can tell you this much: when I was a child, for a public/civil servant to be caught in corrupt practices, that individual will be a pariah. He will be a complete reject of the society; he/she could not raise his or her voice to speak in the public. What you are asking is what happened to society? So what happened between that time and now? That time when a public officer, prison or customs officer caught in corruption hides his face in shame amongst his peers, he just couldn’t come out publicly. For instance, I remember one or two cases when somebody couldn’t come to our house the way he used to, he just disappeared. Today, when they come back, they get chieftaincy titles, they are received in grand style, cows are killed, they ride on white horses. You have a former president who welcomes political thugs, like Obasanjo who welcomed the late Adedibu who rode into his Otta farm on horseback with Kakaki and Obasanjo even named Adedibu his political mentor. A former president of this nation, called the late Adedibu his political mentor! Society is finished!
ZT: So, how did we get here?
Soyinka: You tell me? I do not know. I do not know what has happened. People say human nature is a very vague expression, people tend to say human nature is corruptible anyway and it comes from a theological point of view, goes back to the Garden of Eden, that there is always this corrupt gene waiting to be activated that we inherited from the very beginning. I don’t believe in that theological excuse but I know that the sudden oil wealth, easy access to wealth fuelled the process, it definitely accentuated the process, it made corruption easy because if you are corrupt and you have extra cash you are able to shut the mouth of your accuser and they will be silenced.
ZT: Let me take you back to the issue of Ribadu which you raised earlier. There was a time when we interviewed former President Obasanjo and he told us that Ribadu investigated him and cleared him of all corruption charges. I don’t know if it tallies with what you have just told us?
I am not going to speak on this; but one thing I like, when I speak, I don’t dwell on rumours but at the same time I form opinion within the limits of the investigation which I make, that’s how far I go. I am a very curious person; I’ll always ask: is this thing true, is it not true? And I use my own means to investigate and come to my conclusion.
Anybody can say I have been investigated, I have been investigated, it’s okay, some people are lucky and others not so lucky. So let’s leave it at that.
ZT: When you said Ribadu told you that he will not sit until you forgave him of something you told him, did he tell you exactly what?
Soyinka: Of course he did, that was one of the longest discussions I had in a long time. We were there for almost four hours and we spoke for at least two and a half hours. I asked him a couple of questions and he told me certain things in confidence and there were things which corroborated the things I have heard from different directions on investigations which I myself had made.
But the important thing is that he came around to see that my indication to him is that you had to get to the source of corruption which grows when it is tolerated, what we call the culture of impunity. When a leader encourages the culture of impunity, the society is lost and it makes the work harder for the rest of us. As I said in Tunis in a conference on this very subject, when you fight corruption, corruption strikes back and that is the truth because when you fight corruption, you get confidence and when it gets to impunity, then it gets aggressive and says, ‘oh, so you think you are different? You think you are tough and different?’ This is why some of us are almost permanently in the libel court. I just had a case recently that has been in court for over ten years now, that’s a long time, a case of libel, especially when the libel is committed by those whom you exposed, because they think that by libeling you, after a while you get tired and get off their back which of course I refused to do. And this case has been transferred from one judge to the other, did I say ten years? Fifteen years, just before Justice Oke, in fact it was resumed by somebody else who picked up the dirty gauntlet and libeled me again on this very issue, and until even Abacha’s son had the nerve to use that statement, and libeling me on the internet, I didn’t waste my time because I think the next day, the United States returned another huge sum of Nigeria’s stolen money from the Abachas coffers. But the thing is that it is not fair to those who fight corruption that they have to fight the aggressiveness, the impunity of the corrupt so maybe you (EFCC) should have a department which caters for the interest of those who are victims of aggression of corruption. I think it’s about time, otherwise, people will get tired and wouldn’t want to serve or appear in the public because of this aggressive, corrupt cabal which take up their own guns and who manipulates society and opinion of the society. So that is an idea for you, innovation.
ZT: Can you share with us some of the things you told Jonathan on the two occasions you met with him?
Soyinka: Oh its more than two occasions, but two in recent times. I will tell you one interesting aspect of what we discussed. I will reveal to you that Jonathan did not know that the nation had been compromised so badly in this telephone thing with the King of Morocco. I was the one who told him when we met over an issue and I said to him, ‘by the way, how is the king of Morocco? Jonathan didn’t know what I was talking about’. When I mentioned the telephone issue, he thought I was talking about his campaign for the ADB managing director for which he was lobbying other Head of States. He said ‘I haven’t spoken to him in a long time’, and I said ‘no, you spoke to him a few days ago.’ He said ‘no, I intend to speak with him, I even asked my foreign ministry to link me up with him because I am campaigning for a candidate but I haven’t spoken to the king of Morocco’. Then I said to him, ‘you better go and read the newspapers of last week’. And I can tell you, he didn’t know.
So can you imagine that the president did not know that a scandal had developed that involved a withdrawal of an ambassador! And again, I am revealing this to you since this interview won’t be published till after the elections because I wouldn’t want to be seen as campaigning for or against one side.
It shows how in deep trouble governance can be; governance can dig itself into a huge hole and not even know it’s in there. The statement that was issued was issued the night when I met him.
ZT: So are you saying Jonathan was caged?
Soyinka: Correct. There are forces around Jonathan, you put your fingers around it, which he himself does not understand and that is why I stressed that, you’ve got to choose your circle of advisers very carefully, when you are in charge. He’s been caged; things are going on in his ministry that he did not know about.
On a lighter note, I asked him, ‘what are you doing about madam’, because that one seems to be embarrassing the nation as usual because that seems to be her function as so called first lady. You go to a section of the country and tell your supporters to stone those who campaign for change and you insult another part of the nation by calling them those who produce children that they cannot look after. That woman should be charged for incitement, chaos; it’s incredible that she is allowed to run loose.
ZT: What was his reply?
Soyinka: I am not going to tell his response (laughs…..). But I am free to tell you what I said, it will be an abuse of privilege if I tell you his response.
ZT: Your are widely considered as the godfather of cultism in Nigeria because of your role as co-founder of Pyrates Confraternity in your days a student of the University College, Ibadan…
Soyinka: (Cuts in) Because those who say that are willfully ignorant. Everybody knows that fraternities are a normal culture in all colleges. It exists in all colleges. President Clinton was a member of a fraternity. In fact, anybody who goes to College in the United States is a member of a College fraternity. There is absolutely nothing evil or occultic about fraternity.
But here , the media is largely responsible for fuelling the ignorance of society of the word cultism and fraternity. This is a disservice and I have said it again and again. There are evil cults, whose members must prove themselves by going to rape. There are others whose entry test is to slash or beat somebody or rob, it has nothing to do with College fraternity. The media owes the responsibility to constantly tell the public the truth. But they go on and children grow up believing that college fraternity is Satanic, demonic, and this is wrong.
I was on the Disciplinary Committee in University of Ife. It will surprise you to know the number of students who we recommended for expulsion as a result of cult activities; despite the spineless attitude of some members on the committee who would beg for clemency for children of the elite. If you know the people that were involved, Commissioners of Police were involved, always writing letters. Imagine, a student just gang raped a girl because he is a member of a cult and you ask me to review that violation! These are letters which I received from the elites of the society because their wards were involved in occultic activities. I said this is not fraternity, this is criminal and normally such cases should be charged before the court. But while I am a member of this College, this type of character does not belong here and must be expelled.
Society itself is responsible for the degradation where it takes place from fraternity into cultism but the distinction must be made. The Buccaneers call themselves a fraternity; they originated from the original Pyrates Confraternity. They were thrown out for misbehaving and destroying the efforts of the fraternity. Black Axe, these are cults, the leaders know, they won’t deny it.
What we formed in my University days was anti-corruption and justice-seeking student organization, not a cult group as many ignorant Nigerians want to make believe. I am still a member of Pyrates confraternity and anyone who wants to accuse me of cultism is making a big mistake and incidentally, there have been cases where the Court declared the Pyrates confraternity as non occultic or secret society. The judgments are there and yet the public is still ignorant of the clear difference. It is when they are fighting Wole Soyinka that is when they say Wole Soyinka is the father of cultism, their father is the founder of cultism (laughter).
ZT: How would you describe your only experience in government as Chairman of the Federal Road Safety Commission?
Soyinka: First, let’s situate my involvement, so you can understand why I never considered myself ‘in government’. The Corps was my very own idea. I invented the Road Safety Corps in the Old Oyo State days, while I was teaching at the former University of Ife. I was tired of picking up bodies on the Ife-Ibadan highway – which I dubbed the Ife-Ibadan Slaughter Slab. I got sick of scooping up the brains of my students from the tarmac after supposedly stuffing them with knowledge. I became a regular feature in the UCH emergency section where I routinely deposited the mangled. Nigerian road users’ stupidity, their irresponsibility enraged me on every trip etc. etc. – not to mention the superfluous presence of the police. They hadn’t the slightest interest in road sanity, only checking ‘partik’lars’ and collecting private tolls. So, call it an act of self-interest if you like, trying to save myself from high-blood pressure or even potential homicide – because, sometimes, I wanted to KILL some drivers! Well, one Sunday, after a particularly stressful trip, I locked myself in my university office and fleshed out the idea of a civilian volunteer ‘brigade’, backed by a handful of uniformed corps. I sent it to the then governor, General David Jemibewon…..and that was how it all began.
Later the politicians chased the Corps from the Federal Roads, using an antiquated colonial law. It was an inhuman act, since the Corps had recorded such remarkable success. Of course the death statistics rose astronomically, and we were invited to turn this state initiative into a federal one – under a military government. They were losing their finest officers on Nigerian roads, not on the battlefield, so they sent Bolaji Akinyemi to me as emissary. Some other states had emulated Oyo – they all came to Oyo for training, so the nationwide expansion was not too difficult.
Now this will interest you. With the brief mention I have already made of police malfunction, even before the Corps was formally inaugurated, I set up a secret Monitoring Unit, all volunteers. That was how we weeded out the misfits so early, and earned a reputation for the cleanest agency in all of Nigeria. The road users learnt that they were in trouble if they offered a bribe. We even banned pleading, begging, including that nauseating habit of drivers and their passengers prostrating themselves on the road for leniency. I loathed that abject, self-abasing culture. I still do. The Road Safety Corps was justly feared. That reputation endured until Obasanjo came into power, merged the Corps with the police – for reasons best known to him. A few years later the National Assembly forced him to rescind that decision but of course by then, the damage was already done. My ‘incorruptible’ had imbibed the culture of wetin you carry?
ZT: After the Road Safety experience, you have not taken up any appointment in government. Why is this so?
Soyinka: Only if an aggressive policy of protection is guaranteed for those who undertake such risk-laden assignments. And by aggressive I mean, criminal prosecution against those who attempt to smear the reputation of anti-corruption leaders and impugn their integrity. I told you about the success of the Monitoring squad in eliminating corruption. Well, it cost me dear. As I have often stressed, “Corruption Fights Back”. It fights back desperately, dispensing calumny and shoveling dirt with abandon. Corruption never gives up, it only lies in wait. Each time I fought the government on any issue – you could guarantee the timing – those slime merchants went to work! I sued, they begged for mercy and I settled for published retractions. But they were only re-grouping. They resumed their campaign, I sued again, and won. Back they came again, under Sani Abacha, so back we went to the courts – the last case was decided only a few months ago, and of course I was awarded damages – that is, twenty something years afterwards.
When the criminals found that I couldn’t be moved, they attacked my wife – then my daughter. That’s how unconscionable Corruption is. Each filed suits against the trash purveyors and each time they were awarded damages. It’s bad enough that I should expend my time and energy, why should my family come into it? That sickens me. About time the state took a hand – unless of course it believes that even agencies like yours can handle corruption without civilian involvement!
ZT: With your constant criticism of government and your views on purposeful leadership, shouldn’t you be seeking an elective office to lead by example?
Soyinka: Thank goodness, that is now a purely academic question. At eighty, I must be counted senile to attempt to stand for office.
ZT: Why are you not a member of any political party in Nigeria?
Soyinka: Temperament. In any case, I did try to set up a political party – as a platform for a new generation. Ironically, it lost steam when the members found I was dead serious about NOT contesting any office. They came in mostly on personalized grounds, not on faith in a carefully worked out manifesto. But the party still exists – at least as a movement.
ZT: Some people say the reason you are not a card carrying member of any political party is because you are a lone ranger who finds it difficult to work in a collective. How true is this?
Soyinka: Far too sweeping a claim. Those with whom I’ve worked politically etc. have come to acknowledge my capacity for team work. Ask for voiced observations during the 2-year long PRONACO initiative. However, there’s some truth in it. I tend to work best as a one-man Task Force, including even the roles of messenger, coffee maker and office cleaner.
ZT: How are you able to sustain friendship with politicians who are known to be corrupt?
Soyinka: “Known to be corrupt? ‘Known’ is a presumptive claim. When I set up the Monitoring Unit for the Corps. I knew what I was doing. I understood the nature of our society from which the Corps would be drawn, so I took pre-emptive measures. Next to the commodities of corruption, and religion, however, Nigeria is the world capital of rumour mongering, so I wanted to nail offenders with no route for escape. Now, am I supposed to do the same for all of Nigeria? You, the EFCC, ICPC, the numerous anti-graft divisions of the police – you must do your job. Identify, investigate and prosecute.
Now, I am going to come closer to specificities. I cannot pretend not to know one or two names among my acquaintances who are presumed to have a cloud of corruption over their heads. I shall not mention names, since this would only contribute unfairly towards the promotion of such allegations. What I can testify to is that one such prominent figure – if we are thinking of the same businessman and politician – was a front-line collaborator during the anti-Abacha struggle. After that nightmare, when Obasanjo began to flout the constitution, humiliate the courts, and generally prove his real nature in an attempt to reduce this nation to yet another slave plantation, that individual earned further spurs by standing firm. Your agency invited him for questioning, and he later gave me his account of what transpired. If you do find a cause to charge him with corruption, I expect him to be subjected to the same legal processes as any other citizen. If found guilty, then he must take his punishment and make public restitution. Until then, I can only judge him on what I know to be true, and that is – an astute and dogged political fighter and comrade-in-arms. Otherwise, how am I different from those who defame my own person? What then separates me from slanderous whelps like Sanni Abacha’s offspring – just to name one notorious beneficiary of massive, internationally proven corruption – who declares that I am no better than his father!
ZT: As a global citizen are you often embarrassed by Nigeria’s reputation for corruption?
Soyinka: As a global citizen, I sometimes feel like denying my identity.
ZT: Have you personally found yourself in a situation where you were asked to offer bribe for a service? If yes, how did you deal with the situation?
Soyinka: Certainly. Such people did not repeat their attempt. Sadly however, I discovered in one particular case that a colleague went and paid the bribe on my behalf, just to get our mission fulfilled. That was painful, and it strained our friendship.
ZT: You were once supportive of President Jonathan. At what point did you decide to withdraw your support from the president?
Soyinka: No, it was never anything personal. We marched in order to protect the constitution, not the person of Jonathan. We retained a cordial relationship during his tenure however, despite some attacks I felt compelled to launch on him – and his wife. Jonathan committed some truly alarming errors of governance. He was propelling himself towards outright fascism.
ZT: Some observers say you have a tendency to always find fault in others. How correct is this?
Soyinka: Why should that be surprising? Pity you can’t be present during my periodic fault-finding sessions with my image in the mirror!