On Wole Soyinka | “The Man Died” By Demola Olarewaju [Good Read]

One of my long-held principles is to deify no person until they die and so although I respect many people and honour a few others, I align with the pantheistic/cultural idea that all gods were once men like us who upon death, transmuted and became gods.

Of course, the path to becoming a god is walked while here on this earth and very few are deserving and in our age and time, even further few are transposed into gods after they die. One of those who has walked that path in my eyes is Wole Soyinka.

Why we refuse to deify any person before death is not only so that we can see how they end… But also so that we can hold them to the ideal they once espoused without any feeling of guilt or betrayal. And here I want to remember Soyinka as he is/was, in his own words.

One of his most ideological works was released shortly after he was freed from detention during the civil war under Gowon. The title itself was a last minute decision that has now become a famous quote, wrongly attributed to him but rightly referenced by him in the same book

The book itself at first could not even be released entirely because some parts of it detailed the extreme military tactics deployed during the civil war during which Soyinka has tried to mediate but failed and was accused of working against the federal side.

The first edition of the book also omitted an exchange between Bola Ige and Yakubu Gowon around 1971/2 (can’t remember exactly) where Gowon had inquired of Ige’s friend. Ige asked “who?” Gowon replied “Wole. How is he?”. Ige replied that Soyinka was “alright”.

Gowon then told Ige: “Tell Wole I said, ‘Bygones is bygones’. Right? Use my exact words – ‘Bygone is bygones’”. This exchange is captured in the Rex Collings edition of the book – in a section titled “Tailpiece”.

Gowon knew that Nigeria under him had done Soyinka wrong and this was the best apology he, as Head of States, could muster. The book title itself came from a telegram cable to Soyinka in prison over the death of a journalist who was among a group of journos arrested and detained

Some pressmen back in the day were arrested on the orders of a Military Governor because his wife had said they were rude. The pressmen were beaten, had their heads shaved and so brutally treated that one of them had to be flown abroad for treatment but he died eventually.

Someone then sent Soyinka message about the situation – in that cryptic manner of ancient telegram where each word must be chosen carefully to avoid paying extra: “The Man Died”. And that became the title of Soyinka’s prison notes rather than “A Slow Lynching”.

In the opening pages of the book, Soyinka expands on this title and attributes the quote to one Professor George whose surname I’ve forgotten (and both my Rex Collings and Penguin editions of the book are now lost). The full quote is what follows and it’s where I’m going:

“The Man Dies in Him who Keeps Silent in the Face of Tyranny”. Kongi is alive – may he live for more years – but still, as he said, “the man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny”. I’ll move on swiftly from this point, certain the message is well delivered.

The luck some of us have is that we followed these men, not for anything other than their ideals which we imbibed and which we strive to walk in as we grow. And so when those men falter on the same ideal they once preached, we watch painfully from afar. But keep quiet.

So, far be it from me to speak against Soyinka whose deity in my heart and soul is confirmed pending. But some may speak – being under no compulsion of worship. And other ‘worshippers’ may defend…but there I have a problem because I see through the falseness of such worship:

Because what we worship isn’t the man – his name, his face, his alliances or even his person. What we worship is the ideal he lived for and which we hope he continues to live for and die with. Those who worship his name/face are strangers to this temple, no matter how zealous.

And it’s been painful for me personally because from the 60s, my sage had Awo to guide him and when Pa apotheosised, Ige was there as his political lodestar – a perfect symbiosis as Soyinka reminded us in his eulogy: Ige also refreshed himself from dirty politics with the arts.

But after Ige’s death, I’ve watched his friend totter in the political world: first forming his own political party before aligning with Tinubu then Amaechi and when realignment occurred and both men endorsed Buhari – Soyinka also found himself doing same, against his principles.

Equally painful was the episode where he spoke against Patience Jonathan in the defence of Amaechi; Cap’n Blud had no business with that saga but who would tell him to “die it!” As columnist Wale Adedayo once did several years ago? If any, surely not a lubber: And so: Silence.

But one must speak – never against the man but in defence of the principles of free speech he espouses, and if need be, against the false worshippers to whom I now direct my friendly fire for one brief moment as I end what Soyinka would likely call a “long and lachrymose thread”.

Follow ideals, not men. Catch their spirit, not their form. The aim of any intellectual relationship is to retain the substance, not the shell. For the body can be enslaved but never the spirit – the preacher’s judgement can be influenced but the ideals he preached are eternal.

A word for the eager “draggers”? Open your minds to see divinity in humanity as I urge our opposers to see humanity in deity. No man is ever perfect in this imperfect realm but some come close enough and in the eyes of many – and also mine – Soyinka is as close as any.

written by
Demola Olarewaju

NB: Title and edit to this article by the publisher of 9jas.com. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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