By Wole Soyinka
(Address at the launching of the memorial publication on the late General Ibrahim Attahiru at Ladi Kwale Hall, Abuja on Saturday May 21, 2022)
General Ibrahim Attahiru would be immensely pleased and appreciative if he could become aware of another passing being commemorated today, indeed this very moment. The connection is that the late Prince Tony Uranta, whose week-long remembrance rites have also commenced in Lagos, and Opobo, shared an article of faith with the late General, namely, that the sustainable security of society is crucially dependent on a tripod whose three legs are: the People, the Army, and the government. Thus, the weakness or flaws in any one leg leads to the collapse of society. The mandatory implication of this in practical terms is that each must come to the aid of others to compensate for weaknesses, but also to enthrone mutual understanding and collaboration. Tony Uranta actualized this credo by forming a Troops support initiative in 2019 under the name #WECARE. I did not hesitate to serve on the board. Regretfully, owing to my notoriously charged existence, my membership has been more symbolic than active.
Why do I regret this? And why do I readily welcome any opportunity to make up for this deficiency? Well, to begin with, I happen to have been raised in a family with a military history that goes all the way back to World War II. Those who have browsed through my childhood biography will recall the story of my first encounter with a serving member of the then West African Frontier Force, then on leave from, or freshly discharged from the war theatre. My sister and I engaged in unequal combat with him when he visited our home in Ake parsonage, Abeokuta. Our parents were absent on that day, and this stranger in uniform conducted himself in a less than decorous manner. In retrospect, I find it one of the most hilarious episodes of childhood, and I sometimes suspect that it laid the foundation for the total demystification of militarism that is part of my makeup, but also induced lasting empathy with the humanity of the serving man.
That family connection has been sustained. At the inception of the Boko Haram insurgency, a close family member served at the war front where he and his soldiers took the brunt of the earliest onslaughts from that product of religious lunacy. I received first-hand accounts of the challenging technicalities of engaging such an unpredictable foe whose most lethal weaponry was – fanaticism – increasingly augmented by sophisticated hardware that my cousin’s own forces sorely lacked. Such anomalous series of confrontations, accompanied by the irony of his superior’s demands of a rapid and definitive victory over the enemy, are thus not new and remain depressing. Indeed, this high-ranking officer did eventually find himself under court-martial on a charge of cowardice in face of the enemy and was duly convicted. He appealed, and backed by corroborated evidence, was vindicated. His dismissal was reversed, but his punitive demotion was not. Such cases are not new or rare. The case files of that feisty lawyer and human rights advocate, Femi Falana, are filled with instances of such miscarriages of justice, sometimes rectified, more often subsumed under the formula of ‘esprit de corps’, a fear of inserting a disruptive note in a system based on unquestioning obedience to orders. Some of us are constantly exposed, far more than generally realized, to the grisly details of these internal contradictions in the disciplined services – and that includes engagements on the international field, such as UN Peacekeeping forces and, closer home, ECOMOG. One’s empathy with the fighting man thus goes beyond even the self-exposure to the ultimate sacrifice at the battle front. Even where we are powerless to ameliorate their condition as the third leg of the uneven, delicately balanced tripod, we identify with their frustrations, their sacrifices, and honor their memory. Along their career, we also develop lasting friendships.
I never did meet Attahiru but, thanks to his widow’s dedication, I believe I do know him. That is not difficult for someone of my temperament, and whose occupation requires probing beneath skin and flesh and even beyond bone into marrow to discern reality from hype. One instinctively re-constitutes the truthful persona from a uniformity of attributes offered from colleagues within his profession, but also from without, those whose paths happen to have intersected with his. It also helps that one of the spurs to my acceptance to be here today was a senior colleague of his who had preceded him hence, the late Ibrahim Alfa, with whom I was especially close. Those of you who have read my memoirs YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN will surely recollect my account of the circumstances that brought Ibrahim and me together and resulted in a remarkable bonding. That friendship did not go unnoticed, since it led to the late dictator Sani Abacha imposing on Ibrahim a special assignment: he was to track down this very speaker – a plane always ready at short notice – to convey overtures of peace talks during a desperate phase of that dictator’s misbegotten venture into power. I no longer recall how much detail of that episode I recounted in YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN but, I do testify that Alfa did catch up with me in London, carried out his diplomatic mission in all seriousness, but with the aplomb and finesse of one endowed with a deep sense of humor. After which, having received the very answer he expected, we both went drinking in a secure wine bar in Bayswater. Perhaps the only difference in an imaginary encounter with Attahiru in place of Alfa is that Attahiru would have sipped water or orange juice in place of wine.
But finally, on a far more lethal note, let us contribute the following to this nation’s ongoing navigation of military/civilian crosscurrents, one that is characterized by prolonged irregular warfare that tasks the bravest and the best, nullifies even the advantages of tested experience. We can only repeat that incessant cry from the civilian front: do not neglect the potential contribution of that third leg. Stop feeling threatened by the prospect of abandoning the monopoly of the means to defensive violence – in other words – Demystify the uniform and demystify the gun. In this nature of conflict, it is not an army that is at war but the entirety of the nation. This cry has been only been part heeded, and then, only patchily, in certain parts of the country, but we have surely seen the successes scored through that approach to synergy against overwhelming odds. The times are not normal and thus require off-beat, lateral thinking, new constructs outside orthodox boxes of military engagement. Above all, let no one imagine that the ongoing insurgency will forever remain within its present borders. It spreads. It contaminates. It breeds mutations in the least expected places. To anticipate, and prepare, is not even military thinking but the urging of common sense – and that, is universal territory. However, let me explain that this implicit call for total mobilization is not meant to expand the military as a career but to induce its social integration as a calling. The entirety of national life, lifestyle, priorities, urgently demands re-designing to respond, holistically, to the exigencies of current abnormalities. The much-touted, consistently sidelined, willfully misrepresented call for National Restructuring, for instance, as well as proposals for state and community policing, are only alternative and/or partial expressions of this holistic and urgent imperative. We continue to ignore it at the peril of total, messy, irreversible disintegration.
And now, a confession. Buffeted from every sensory direction by the absolute conviction that there does exist a basic, inner code of self-regulation, what we might call the Lowest Common Denominator that governs all who consider themselves members of the human family, it is unavoidable that I devote the rest of this contribution to a series of apologies. The first goes to the convener of this very event, the widow, Madam Fati Attahiru. That apology is deserved by my momentary decision – not once, but twice – to cancel my appearance here today, despite a firm commitment. The explanation for such a negative impulse has to do with my oft-stated view that certain kinds of assault on human sensibility in this nation should attract nothing less than a total shut down in whichever affected state, until that untoward event is resolved. That consideration has a long history. It became galvanized, not surprisingly, by an unprecedented human desecration, an event that inserted the word Chibok into global awareness in the tragic mode, to be followed by Dapchi, then evolve into a haphazard venture, with schools as primary targets. It did not end there. As that new culture in child degradation, commonly referred to as kidnapping, became rampant, I seized whatever occasion I found to reiterate that position, namely that whenever any member of our community goes missing, only to resurface as the voice of an invisible surrogate negotiating his sale like any other market commodity, such a state should shut down totally, leaving only security agencies at large to restore to us our collective dignity.
My spate of apologies, as you must have anticipated by now, extends further back in time. They instigate memory all the way back to my response to the family, clan, village, and state of that innocent man, Akaluka, whose severed head was stuck on a pole behind which his murderers sang, danced, jubilated and extolled the might and peace of Allah against whom, it was alleged, that victim had committed the unpardonable crime of blasphemy, Akaluka was hunted down, dragged out of a police station where he had taken refuge, dehumanized and butchered. Does that scenario ring painfully familiar? My apologies leap over numerous unremarked, unrecorded mimics, simply reduced to statistics in a nation’s subconscious, to plead for acceptance by the family of Madame Oluwatosin, a schoolteacher posted to Bauchi in a routine educational process, as invigilator. She was similarly hunted down like wild quarry, stripped naked, dragged to her messy death which culminated in a funeral pyre of motor tyres. She was accused, like Akaluka, of having disrespected a factory line copy of a book known as the Koran! Again, does that reel from history spin once again on familiar grooves? Just to add piquancy to this feast of the macabre, the torturers, the killers in that preceding instance were also school pupils, and of a model secondary institution. She was also dragged out from sanctuary – the headmaster’s home or office, where she had fled for protection. For those who dispute the truism that history merely repeats itself, the young Deborah is merely a tragic disputant, tawdry, dismal, inglorious history, never mind the sight of jubilating mobs, fouling the air with chants of victory, and parading the spoils of war.
But why do I burden myself with this jeremiad of apologies? Simply for the reasons I have just stated. It would have been, at its most profound, a dereliction of duty, and our event today is to commemorate that communal imperative that sustains faith in our collective being. No one will deny that we all owe a duty to the living, but some incline to the stance that such duty terminates with the living. Well, in my school of reflection and the testimony of history, that duty extends to death and beyond. That claim is grounded, not in mere sentiment, not in attachment to morbidity or unassuaged grief but in banal self-interest. For instance, if having failed to save Akaluka, having failed to rescue Oluwatosin, setting aside hundreds, possibly thousands of others, we had openly, justly, and rigorously ensured justice in the crime that terminated their existences, we would not now be apologizing to the late victim of such religion-inspired barbarity – Ms. Deborah Samuel.
Of course, we are not all to be found within the same terrain of sensibilities. Absolutely no! And that has been demonstrated most vividly by the very nature of responses that have been exacted after the nation’s recent exercise in human sacrifice. The nation’s president, traditional rulers – among them the Sultan of Sokoto who also serves as the Amir of Nigerian Muslims, women organizations, workers’ unions, and professionals from all walks of life, young and old, have raised their voices in accents of apology and condemnation. However, a glorified cleric, no less than the Grand Vizier oi the iconic Mosque of the nation’s capital, Abuja, has inserted a dissenting voice. The young woman, Deborah, he declared, deserved her death. This mullah, allegedly a man of learning, since his name is professorially captioned, says that there is a line, a red line that none of us must cross, no matter who we are, what we think, profess or value. Like the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, this mere mortal has declared himself a Supreme Being with the power of life and death over all the denizens of the world. His call is unambiguous. Professor Ibrahim Maqari has placed his myrmidons of faith on the alert, primed to emulate the example of these death-dealing mutants of fanatic indoctrination.
Permit me a digression, one that is however pertinent to this occasion. I must take you back to a certain indelibly bloodstained day of December 2015. On that day, and not for the first time in the career of a certain religious sect, hundreds of lives were mown down in broad daylight, and within minutes, in the state of Kaduna. The presumed leaders of the alleged provocation were locked up, charged with every kind of criminal conduct, and are still battling, even till today, for their full liberation. Now, what exactly was their crime? They also had drawn a line. That line, they declared, should not be crossed by any. Well, it seemed they had met their match. The Army also had a line, but the Shiite leaders appeared not to know where it was drawn. For that, they paid a deadly forfeit of numerous lives.
So, there we are, arbitrary lines crisscrossing, drawn by individuals and constituencies of beliefs and non-beliefs, of power and aspirants of power. Nowhere do the belligerents profess the common constitutional line and the boundaries of legitimate conduct that supposedly define the imperatives of cohabitation and respect for a human commonality known as – life. In the ongoing war in Ukraine, it is being demonstrated that an ancient line remains forever with us and that those who deliberately kill defenseless civilians are regarded as war criminals, to be placed on trial at the first opportunity, A Russian soldier, at this very moment, is undergoing that line of instruction. He has not only pleaded guilty, but actually confronted the widow with the words “I am sorry”. Professor Imam Ibrahim Maqari however insists, with a handful of others including a vocal serving policeman quite recently, that there is no remorse attached to the torture and lynching of a young student on this earth we all share. To anyone who cares to listen, Maqari has implicitly directed his followers to take the law into their own hands in the name of religion, and in a nation beset on all sides by wars of ultra-nationalism and religious fanaticism. That is the message of a supposedly holy man to youths, to us, his message to a nation embroiled in a madness of multiple insurgencies.
I have also drawn my own line. I drew it decades ago, as contained in numerous statements, among them, most pertinently, THE UNAPPEASABLE PRICE OF APPEASEMENT – pertinent because it is within the cesspit of appeasement that this nation is currently mired. I was compelled to draw my own line when an acting governor of Zamfara state assumed the right to pronounce a killing fatwa on a young Nigerian journalist for alleged blasphemy, enjoined his listeners wherever situated in the world to terminate the existence of that young woman. That same ex-governor – for those who have missed the comic sequel – has actually thrown his hat in the ring for the presidency of this nation. A macabre joke that is however beyond any form of amusement. Yet such is the one-sided tolerance culture of the nation, its permissiveness empowers murder through surrogates, instigating killing sprees at will, and sometimes even assume personal supervision of a mission of death and destruction. No matter which, such enemies of life are free to contend for a position of power on a national level, where they can proceed to draw lines against the rest of the world at will and spread the cloak of immunity as reward of unconscionable defiance.
It is time for all group interests to draw their lines, to decide where they intersect with others, where they run parallel, and where they diverge and/or snarl into a chaotic maze. If Professor Grand Imam Maqari can draw a line in blood, the rest of the community of equal rights must proceed to draw their own, but they will do so in less primitive, bloodthirsty mode, in full respect of human dignity.
That apostate of the creed of humanity, Professor Maqari, must be removed from office. It is no longer sufficient for all to declaim that Islam is this and that, that the Sharia is thus and thus, that Prophet Mohammed set this or that example and made this or that humanistic pronouncement. We have gone beyond theocratic rhetoric that merely pays lip service to civilized norms. Let all pietistic denunciations be backed by affirmative action.
The Grand Seer of Abuja Mosque should be hounded from office. He should be tried under any existing laws that approximate hate rhetoric, incitement to murder and abuse of office. The nation is confronted with just two propositions: One, that the Sultan of Sokoto is right, a position that is daily reinforced by voices stretching from even Zamfara in the north to the southern voice of the Chief Imam of the Yoruba. The alternative position is that Professor Ibrahim Maqari is the acknowledged Oracle of Islamic Ethics. Between the two, a choice must be made, a choice that is both moral and constitutional. Both the Sultan and Professor Maqari cannot be right. And that choice does not belong to any esoteric domain. It is not grounded in privileged, hermetic caucuses of religious doctrine and interior revelations. It is not subject to spiritual pietism. It is straightforward: either murder is criminal and abhorrent, or it is a legitimate pastime, to be indulged at whim and by any. What exactly is “blasphemy” in a polity of religious pluralism? Presumably the twenty-four heroic lawyers who have sprung to the defense of the accused killers will also take up that question and enlighten us along the exposition of their briefs. Until then, however, the protocols of association, known as the constitution, remain the sole arbiter. We, on this side of humanity, must draw our defining line, and that line reads simply: do not extend your religious predisposition beyond the realms of constitutional legitimacy. Do not flout the protocols of association. Else, pack your private baggage of homicidal precepts and depart for the purist wilderness of blind Submission.
We have already paid and are still paying too high a price for the culture of Appeasement and Impunity. Let it end now, in Affirmative Action. That a new generation should also be programmed to aspire to brutish existence below the Lowest Common Denominators of what constitutes “human”? Surely that is where any self-respecting nation should draw its defining, unbreakable line!
Abuja, May 21, 2022