Corporate Gains, Human Deficit By Wole Soyinka
Professor Wole Soyinka delivered this lecture titled: ''Corporate Gains and Human Deficit'' at an event organised by Women Arise to mark the 79th birthday of Dr. Tunji Braithwaite on Monday September 17th 2012 at the Airport Hotelin Ikeja, Lagos.
A month of human challenges, providentially arranged for a lifelong combatant as birthday present. Who can forget the late Tai Solarin’s favourite salutation – May your road be rough!
Where shall we begin? Oh yes – over two hundred workers burnt, suffocated or propelled themselves onto distant ground as a kinder form of death. Scene of crime? Pakistan, perhaps the most densely populated nation of sweat-shops on the globe. Right or wrong, it does not really matter. What matters to us are the circumstances under which this already marginalized humanity, wage slaves in the worst sense of the word, perished. They never stood a chance. The reports testify that only one exit was available, the rest having been locked to ensure that the workers did not quit their shifts before closing time. Since over a hundred years, even all the way to the dark days of crude European mining technology, cheap systems for clocking in and out have become routine. But not there, apparently, not In Pakistan. The workers were sealed in, just as you slot pole barriers through barricades on cattle destined for the slaughter house. In an emergency - of which, surely fire hazards must be pre-eminent in any functioning mind - there is no way out of a death so clearly foretold. The sweat shop operators, the profiteers of slave labour, blind to all humane considerations except to extract the maximum return for minimum wages, cram men and women into suffocating conditions, barred and bolted to ensure that the last micro-second of labour’s worth is not left out of reckoning. Just the one exit. When catastrophe comes calling, the world sounds surprised. We are inundated with sentiments of shock – as you see, I have just added my own quota. Nonetheless, I also ask myself - why? Why the shock?
I try – and fail, I must confess - to steer clear of atrocious clichés, time-worn expressions such as ‘capitalist inhumanity’ in situations such as this, the rhetorical recourse that often succeeds in merely simplifying inequitable social relationships and burying a full gamut of labour variations under radical sounding formalae. Capitalism today is not what capitalism was at the time of the Russian revolution. Capitalism constantly re-invents itself, not just once, but several times over, like a snake that sloughs off its skin and re-emerges in sleek, seductive gloss. No, today’s sweatshops - all over the world – but in Asia most notoriously, do not even dignify the opprobrious categorizations of capitalist relationships. They exist simply as dehumanization camps, where the human deficit is measured in inverse proportion to blood profit – and by human deficit here, I refer, not to the deadly tally of human lives after such tragedies, but the deadness of human feeling that enables the operators of such incubators of catastrophe to feel comfortable, day after day, week after week, overseeing the unrelieved, soulless mechanism of the factory line.
In most instances, capitalism today, true capitalism, has learnt how to put on a human face. What happened in Pakistan has not one vestige on display that remotely resembles a human face. Is it any wonder that in such conditions, extremist movements, sworn to overturn the state and destabilize society, take root so easily? Hordes of recruits to the army of the willing line up at clandestine mobilization hour, primed to enter the second stage of alienation from society – the first having been imposed on them by intolerable social conditions. But now secondary alienation is voluntary, embraced as the sole guarantor of their dignity. When this alternative is presented in spiritual terms – that is, allied to the floating category of spiritual salvation and rewards in the after-life, a new allegiance is born to a new social order, a new state, a new nation, albeit undemarcated in actual geographical terms, and with only a rallying-cry in place of an anthem. But a new citizenship is promulgated, even without the possession of a passport. That new allegiance, that new citizenship for the recruit is real, indeed far more real than the former, whose sole reward has been the casual disposal of a hundred, two hundred souls, sacrificed on the altar of societal laxity with its ethos of unfeeling, inordinate accumulation. The current situation in this very nation is a reflection of this – but only partially.
Perhaps I should track backwards a little and call special attention to that possession called wealth – be it as savings, as negotiable commodity, or simply as value. Wealth fits into two broad categories – the inert, and the dynamic. The inert comprises, primarily, of what nature donates, even without being asked. Within this group are things growing in the wild, equally available to man and beast – berries, tubers, breadfruits, citrus, grazing etc. More restricted in utility, somewhat more specialized, are items such as timber, rocks, minerals and – yes indeed – petroleum. The dynamic wealth, on the contrary, is the direct and indirect product of human intervention, quite different from what the animal needs to guarantee mere survival and continuation of its species. Let us make a note however of a dubious third, which is virtual – and I do not mean virtual in terms of paper currency or stocks and shares. I am speaking of ‘virtual’ as in non-palpable, vaporous, fantasized realms – such as heaven or its equivalents in all religions. You know the religious admonitions – ‘lay not your treasures down upon earth’ ‘your reward is in heaven’, plus a hundred other varieties – you’ll encounter them in virtually all religious constitutions, known as the scriptures. We shall return to that business of heavenly capital accumulation later on – right now, let us concentrate on the inert, and the dynamic – both present, accessible, and capable of measurable appreciation or deprecation in the here and now.
How comforting it must feel to be able to direct our attention to far-off Asia! Even more tranquilizing it must be to be able to say – it could not possibly happen here. Is that so indeed? But perhaps those who believe this are right. The cotton industry of the North is dead, that same industry whose trade union, the present governor of Edo State, once ably led. It seems ages since I last visited the factories and the offices of its trade union. I recall being presented with a bolt or two of fabric from its looms; at that time, the industry was already gasping for breath. The inevitable was only a matter of time, and one must emphasize this – it did not commit suicide. It was killed, and we know how. It was killed by highly placed smuggling corporations that were allowed to operate freely through our obliging borders. Corporations, you see, are not limited to licensed businesses which incinerate a hundred or two workers in one fell swoop. They include other forms of enterprise which slowly starve hundreds of thousands to death and create hordes of unemployed who are then snatched up by spiritual corporations for the destabilization of an entire nation – in the process of which, let us take note, hundreds of innocents in this nation are also incinerated, gunned down, and/or blown to pieces.
This act of economic attrition - organized smuggling – received a boost, perhaps unintended, under the military, since one of the most notorious smugglers who had been tried and sentenced on even more serious charges – treason – was released from prison by a successful coup plotter. It was one of the very first acts of that iron-fisted junta – to release the smuggler and economic subversive. ‘After all’, remarked that Maximum Ruler, ‘he only tried to do what we succeeded in doing – overthrow the civilian government.’ The chequered career of that single individual has yet to be fully narrated – to claim that he single-handedly shut down the garment industry in the North and may be considered a major remote cause of what the North is now experiencing would be, perhaps, an exaggeration, but it is not far from the truth.
No matter, the consequences are the same. Close down industries, and open up recruitment centres for the army of unemployed – the skilled workers, the factory-liners, the commission dependent salesmen and women, the retailers and extended circles of dependants of a thriving industry. So, what is the difference? Only that maybe it would have been more honest to have locked those workers inside a factory, then set fire to it – then we would have taken care of the menace of the unemployed once for all, instead leaving them roaming all over the countryside in various degrees of starvation – until they are recruited into syndicates of armed robbers and kidnappers. Vulnerable, impressionable, they also become willing recruits to extreme religious indoctrination and are focused solely on the hereafter, having been expelled by neglect from the garden of the here and now – albeit a garden overrun by the brambles of inequity.
Well now, seeing that we have re-entered our own continent, let us remain there a while longer. Our theme, may I remind you, is profit and loss – who profits, and at whose expense? I recall, from my student days, Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy, one of the earliest documents of social indictment to emerge from South Africa, indeed, sometimes regarded as the first South African novel of proletarian realism. It narrated the progress – or more accurately, the degradation of the individual psyche, exposed to the inhuman conditions of labour in South African mines, and specifically under Apartheid. As I have narrated in my memoirs, in the formative years of my generation, South Africa was the zone of consciousness of collective racial humiliation. The apartheid codification of indigenous Africa as a subhuman entity in the continent’s history was unique, unknown anywhere else except perhaps under the Jim Crow laws of the southern parts of the United States. The atrocities committed under apartheid laws deeply affected my generation, a generation that was weaned on the racy, yet gritty magazines such as DRUM, not to mention direct interaction with South African refugees – across all classes. It is necessary to evoke these ancient realities to understand why, even till today, at least for many of my generation, when South Africa stubs her toe, we bleed in distant parts of the continent. Pity, many South Africans, post-apartheid – do not appear to reciprocate this shared history as demonstrated in their attitude to outsiders.
With atrocity surmounting atrocity, as if determined to outdo the conduct of apartheid government at its most brutal, the newly liberated once again affirms the insights of Franz Fanon, the psychiatrist of social convulsion so accurate in his diagnosis of the psychology of the oppressed in The Wretched of the Earth, his seminal work. Yet I wonder if even he could have foreseen that the once marginalized entities, as new incorporations, mimic their predecessors by turning their guns on their own kind, mowing down thirty-four workers of the underground sweat-shop – the miners, massed in a peaceful demonstration.
We shall be very careful here be careful here and not fudge the background – demonstration there was, and it is undeniable that it turned violent, but surely, in the knowledge that has come through to us of what has become known as the Marikana Massacre, nothing whatsoever justified the replication of what the black majority constantly experienced under apartheid, or indeed, just to recall us to our own history, this nation’s own baptism of fire in the Nigerian Iva Valley massacre of Enugu, nearly a century ago, a colonial atrocity that resulted in Hubert Ogunde’s combative folk opera, Bread and Bullets. The most grotesque aspect of the South African fatal confrontation however werd the charges filed against the miners, accused of the deaths of their own colleagues. That charge has now been withdrawn, yet, which of us in this hall could have imagined the surreal situation where charges were indeed laid against the survivors of that massacre. This is what is known as gallows humour, a macabre travesty that reads more like an episode extracted from the imagination of a Franz Kafka. And latest on the news is that the state is gearing up for – I quote – “a crackdown on the miners”.
Those mines were closed down, we learnt earlier. Perhaps that is the only answer to the industrial unrest under a post apartheid South Africa but by now, surely, we do know that throwing workers out of any employ to swell the jobless army is a time-bomb that detonates suddenly when society is complacently asleep. Be it in Pakistan, in Nigeria, Namibia, Cambodia, Japan, France, Soviet Union, South Africa or wherever, one condition that ensures national security and cohesion is the lowering of its unemployment ratio, not its increase. To lop off even one finger of the industrial hand in any society is to throw on the market the ingredients of a counter-corporation that leaves the original corporation, and the rest of society, exposed and – insecure. This, I suspect, is the lesson that is lost on state corporations. The choice of that word by the way – corporation - is quite deliberate, since one observes that there are certain modes of conduct that are common to the entity that we call state, nation, their entrepreneurial arms as state or private enterprises or indeed, their theocratic equivalents. To begin with, there are very few differences left in the running of this nation – from years back into this active present - and the operations of a corporation owned by an oligarchy.
In any case, in my attempts to come to terms with the anomalous entity known as ‘nation’, I find myself resorting to several terms – anything at all to avoid actually conceding the expression – nation – to many of its pretenders, including ours. I have resorted to expressions such as ‘the Nigerian project’, ‘the Nigerian nation-space’ among others, none of them quite satisfactory, but certainly less painful than having to subscribe to the notion that any entity that has given itself a flag, an anthem, and been granted a seat in the United Nations has thereby become a nation. So, let’s settle for ‘corporation’ – at least for now. It conveniently covers also those entities I describe as quasi-nations – borderless, flagless, lacking anthem or a seat in the United Nations, yet forging alliances with recognized nations, imposing taxes, entering into negotiations and even occasionally occupying spaces. Most obvious and notorious of these are terror organisations relying only on the propulsive ideology of coercion and disdain for human lives to impress their existence on the rest of the world. I refer to such entities such as al Queda – yes, those I call wannabe nations, whose aspirations to nationhood are fitfully exercised whenever they succeed in capturing space, such as our Africa’s current force of occupation – and incorporation - in Northern Mali.
A new United Nations Report reveals that the Taliban, soul-sister of Al Queda - to make a concession to attempts to keep the two separate entities – raised 400 million dollars through taxes , donation, extortions from businesses as well as narcotics in 12 months up to March this year. For a government that is without a nation-space since it was pushed out of Afghanistan where it ran a diarchy with Al Queda for several years, these are no small pickings. 275 million dollars are said to have gone to the leadership, while the rest - $125 million – and here I quote – “was spent and misappropriated at the local level.” From this alone, it is difficult to deny that the aspiration to nationhood – at least through the familiar conduct of leadership – is not to be lightly dismissed. The report specifies - and again I quote:
“Revenue extorted from nationwide enterprises such as narcotics producers and traffickers, construction and trucking companies, mobile telephone operators, mining companies, and aid and development projects goes to the Taliban Financial Commission which answers to the Taliban leadership.”
The report continues:
“The Taliban use traditional taxes: a 10% tax on harvest and a 2.5 percent tax on wealth. The harvest tax, much of it from poppy cultivation, is the “main source” of income….but the Taliban also tax water and electricity supplies and other services.”
Not much of this is unusual, and it does not apply to Al Queda/Taliban alone, or indeed to religion based irredentist movements with or without a terrorist arm. The majority of revolutionary movements have resorted to forced taxation, extortion and downright criminal activities at various moments in history, often with the conviction that “all is fair in love and war” or even more to the point – “the end justifies the means”.
Most times they are persuaded that once the revolution is over, their first target for demolition would be the very rickety rungs of the ladder by which they ascended to power. Not all, but certainly some. No one can attribute such goals to the Delta creek militants, even in the attempted corporation of MEND since, despite all efforts, it never did become a political body with a central command, subject to discipline at the centre, nor did it aim at a full revolutionary takeover even of its own corner of the federating states. It thus left itself open for psychopaths and opportunists who turned extortion and kidnapping into lucrative corporations within a revolutionary movement, the consequences of which plague Nigeria today. We did not even require the additional identification of the recent catch of the kidnap kingpin of Anambra state as a former creek militant, to remind us that throughout history, it will be difficult to find one single movement, however idealistic, ideology focused and motivated, that did not harbour some of the lowest scum of humanity.
Far-sighted movements recognize this likelihood of criminal infiltration and police themselves internally – the IRA for instance adopted methods such as knee-capping for some of their criminal elements. A handful of anti-colonial movements established an elaborate programme of orientation that emphasized, at all times, the primacy of the human factor, anxious that they did not become the very things they fought to eradicate. No matter, it is virtually impossible to avoid miscreants whose ideology is simply spelt as the spoils of power, extracted with maximum sadism from a prostrate populace – in short: the higher the human deficit, the higher the corporate gains. The first casualty, we have learnt to recognize, in any social convulsion , organized or spontaneous, is always the very humanity on whose behalf a state of contention has been launched.
Was it surprising that an internal struggle between two factions began so soon after Northern Mali was overrun by rebellious Tuaregs, a situation generated by the ill-conceived adventurism of the military corporation? Of course the quarrel is over turf. Who dominates it? Who exploits it? Secular ideology or theocratic, the ultimate goal - and the gains thereof - is Power. For these contenders, the wages of power are palpable – amputations of limbs for all sorts of infractions, stoning to death of alleged adulterers and so on and on – at base, simply the insemination of fear into every household among a people who, also practicing moslems, had never been subjected to such forms of dehumanization or loss of societal volition.
Virtual power - exercised through the mind, through the virtues of example and persuasion - is never sufficient for our warriors of the theocratic mould.
Power also needs nation space in which to manifest itself. May I recall your memories to the pious dedication of the warlord Basayev after the siege of Beslan in the Soviet Union? Remember that siege? Perhaps some of you here even saw footages of that repudiation of, and harrowing degradation of primal innocence that took place in the Soviet Union. Permit me to refresh your memories with this unparalleled instance of gross human defilement in pursuit of corporate gains. It is an episode that is now undoubtedly subsumed in many minds, overwhelmed as we all are under the culture of competitive atrocities that have become the signature of conflicts in virtually all corners of the earth, but most noticeably on our own continent. Does anyone still recall the searing event of mass rape and massacre – nearly three years to this very day - by the Guinean military corporation in that nation’s sports stadium? That shame of Africa should never be permitted to settle into the sump of collective memory. The Russian episode was however in a special category of its own, since it involved school pupils. It took place in far off Soviet Union during the war between the Chechen nationalists and the Russian state. As it happened, I was quite sympathetic to the aspirations of Chechnya for self-determination. I still am, since I remain dedicated to the principle of self-determination for any groupings. Incorporation should not be the privilege of large, powerful entities but the entitlement of all human settlements from the Urals to the disputed islands of Bakassi – at which we shall duly arrive before we are done.
Right now however, the siege of Beslan by the warlord Chamil Basayev. That catastrophic event remains stuck in my mind, perhaps because it was beamed live all over the world – that is, even as it was unraveling. Seeking to carve out further pieces of Russian territory - the Dagestan - and unite them with Chechnya to create a Greater Islamic Republic, the warrior Basayev declared: ‘When people ask me who’s going to benefit (that is, from the war with all its slaughter and suffering), I say God. Allah will get a new part of the world.’ Note, never Basayev himself, not Chechnya, not Dagestan but – Allah! The disruption of life, the kidnappings, general mayhem, rape and bloodshed had to be understood as sufferings undertaken on behalf of – a remote Superbeing! And what arguments can any mere mortal propose against a holy warrior who is evidently in direct satellite communication with God? Well then, a piece of real estate for the unreachable God, but what is in it for God’s representative on earth?
The same Basayevian justification - slightly adjusted – will of course be advanced for the mayhem that is taking place over parts of the world even as we are gathered here. That frenzy will spread – if it has not already begun – to Jos, Kaduna, Maiduguri, Gombe etc. – just as it did years ago when a loutish editor in far-off Denmark allegedly insulted the image of the Prophet Mohammed with some cartoons. As I stated at the time, poor, already marginalized individuals, the unemployed, shirtless and unsheltered - perhaps even from the closed garment factories of the North - who had never even tasted Danish butter paid with their lives within our own borders for the irreverence of one white individual somewhere on the fringes of the North Pole. This time, it is a naturalized American of yet undecided origin who has chosen to plough the donations from as yet unidentified theocratic corporations into a crude, anti-islamic film video, but the scene is instantly set to plunge this nation deeper into the ravine of intolerance, virulence and disintegration in which it has resided for some three years running. So what is there to choose between the two forces of blind hatred? None whatever, but there are questions to ask, such as, “when will supposedly grown-up individuals, including heads of states and religious prelates learn to distinguish between the droolings of lunatics and the policies of states and allied corporations? Are there no real problems confronting the world?” Mobs take their cue from the attitudes of leadership, inferred or overt. The truth is that much of the mayhem we endure from remote wastelands is solely in the interest of the perpetrators and their instigators, not in defence of any revered saint, deity or avatar who are totally beyond, and contemptuous of the imbecilities of mankind. They need no assistance from earthly corporations or deluded, infantile but homicidal followers. Opportunists abound who merely wish to assert their territorial imperiousness on earth, to impress on us, and in the most violent way, that they are very much around and muist be reckoned with.
The craving, ultimately, is Power! The Ecstasy of Power and Domination. When Basayev, destroying the innocence and right to life of school pupils declares that he is capturing a slice of real estate for deity, he knows he is lying, and his response would have been worthy of General Franco, or Musollini, or Pinochet. Or Mariam Mengistu, the textbook butcher of Ethiopia. Or indeed the Hutu genocidaires of Rwanda, the last two of which list never cited any deity. The earlier named were great churchgoers, never known to miss a Sunday morning mass or neglect the pomp of the cathedral on national occasions.
Some of the preceding excerpts – with updated commentary - can be found in my preface to the 2004 edition of THE CLIMATE OF FEAR, the collection of my BBC Reith Lectures under that title. Nothing has changed, but much has escalated. All we feel compelled to stress today is the affinity of mind between the conduct of the Chechen warlord, the Libyan opportunists who sacked the embassy of their recent ally and slaughtered two or three diplomats without whose help their tormentor of four decades, Colonel Qaddafi, would still hold them in abject servitude. They will find soul-mates in our own ever-ready Nigerian mimics without one original thought in their heads, except quantification of the ability to destroy, no different from the garment factory owners and their periodic bouts of worker homicide, the Guinean military corporation of rapists…all the way to the Hutu genocidaires who at least openly sought power and had the decency not to call on any deity as the ultimate authority and beneficiary of corporate terror. Now, that is where blasphemy truly lies.
It is not the first time that children have served as sacrificial lambs. There are thousands of infant skulls in the open-air museums of Rwanda, they litter the killing fields of Cambodia. Children’s throats have been piously severed in the classrooms of Northern Nigeria during a number of upheavals. Children are abducted and forced into military service all over the continent, they are forced into prostitution, and even infants were not spared the Nazi gas chambers of Germany. The Beslan episode however, was a vivid, real-time indictment, a gloating performance under the gaze of the world, and the images remain to haunt human conscience. The retentive power of those images does not benefit from considerations of an accidental triggering off of a tragic chain of events. No, its deliberateness was reinforced by the self-commendation of the master-mind himself as he recounted details of preparations for the assault, and the promise of more to come. Listen to this. It speaks to much that we have endured in this nation, most devastatingly in the North, and we had better pause and take note. The portents are overwhelming. Place Basayev’s utterances side by side with the rantings to which we have been subjected by the Basayevs of Northern Nigeria:
“The fight continues without any rules, and with the connivance (sic) of the entire world, so we are not bound by any obligations to anyone and we will fight the way we find comfortable and beneficial.” (Interview on Lithuanian website)
Basayev’s chilling itemization of the cost of the operation – 8000 euros for some eight hundred lives, a third at least of them children, compels one to withdraw inwards and re-examine every proposition that has hitherto governed human co-existence. Place this side by side with the meticulously itemized expenditure of executions by the self- designated revolutionary Dergue of Ethiopia – which evoked no deity but the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and whose prophet was Karl Marx; or Pol Pot of the Cambodian Khymer Rouge who liquidated millions of Cambodians – intellectuals, the middle class, factory workers, shop workers, peasants – whomsoever the Khymer Rouge considered an enemy of the Revolution and in need of re-orientation; consider the meticulous ordering of bureaucratic details of the killing machine, right down to the last kopek, won or cent and you come to a realization that you are dealing with a distinct corporate mentality of the most primitive kind. The events of Beslan profoundly impoverished normal discourse to the point of near extinction even as, today, the Boko Haram destroys not just the livelihood and lives of already impoverished okada riders, the edge-of-survival market dealers, factory workers, students and school pupils and taunt the nation with their smug self-satisfaction.
Let me remind you of the actual battle lineup once again: A band of heavily armed, battle seasoned adults against a sanctuary of children. They deprive the children of water and food over three days, watch impassively as they drink their own urine in desperation, subject them to physical and psychological terror, bayonet one, shoot others in the back as they flee certain death, and finally incinerate them in their hundreds. Is this, for us, an unimaginable scenario within this country?
The horror of Beslam may prove only a distorted mirror of the future, but complacency is no longer an affordable luxury for the nation. It may be the national psyche that is undergoing distortion, not the mirror. Once, armed robbers were content just to rob, and vanish, now they taunt, humiliate, maim, kill, and rape. Was the Sagamu-Ore road in Beslan, Cherchnya, in Dagestan or Rwanda, where a bus carrying pupils from a girls’ school was waylaid, and the pupils robbed and raped? No, it took place here, in the land of green and white – for agriculture, and for peace, we were informed at independence. But it goes beyond the outlaw corporation of the highways, and the underworld.
Of the many chilling pronouncements that I heard during and after the riots that were triggered off by the last presidential elections, one has kept its permanent echo in my head. It was uttered by a governor, as well as by some of the personal aides and spokesmen for the side that felt that they had been cheated out of victory. I heard that statement during a closed circle meeting with the supporters of the losing candidacy. I read it in statements in the media, including one by a vocal critic and former government minister in an extended interview, one who, from all indications, even nurses presidential ambitions. That response was given to those who, like me, had deplored the shocking pursuit and butchery of youth, specifically members of the National Youth Service Corps who were hunted like animals and killed as such. The remarks took various forms such as: ‘Were they the only ones that were killed?’ ‘One life is not more important than the next’. ‘We should keep sentiment out of this’ etc. etc. – with the inference of course that their position was objective and analytical, while those which deplored the killings, and especially the murders of students were mushy, sentimental. With the cushioning of distance in time and the presumption of sober reflection by all the participants in that saga, plus armchair commentators, I wish to enter that aftermath in our theme.
My internal comment, as I listened to those statements that evening was: how lucky we all are, sitting in a cosy living room on Victoria Island, drinks in hand, safe, secure, waited on hand and foot by our host. Next, how lucky for these speakers that I did not lose any one of my children in that mayhem – in all likelihood, I would not be here speaking to you today. As a matter of fact, I found it wise to withdraw from the gathering much earlier than I had planned. These are subjective, but also legitimate reactions, founded on elementary humanistic bonds that transcend ideology or religious teaching. From the moment any self-vaunting intellect loses the capacity for empathy, he or she joins the soulless concourse of the damned. Casualties are not bloodless statistics. Ultimately however, Choice is the deciding factor. When a human entity attains the stage that society concedes as the state of choice, that entity becomes responsible for the consequences of his or her choice. If I choose, as a consenting adult, to place my body in the path of a locomotive, the consequences are mine and mine alone. Bereft of that conferment of choice, considered in all things as being not yet adult, compelled to go where directed by the collective will of adult society, that dictating society owes a fundamental responsibility for the vulnerable – nurture, health, shelter, security and – the right to life! That is not only a moral responsibility but is founded on unassailable logic. To lay claim to less is to contribute to the human deficit that leads eventually to the Herodian syndrome. We shall avoid distractions such as whether the demonstrations were spontaneous, organized, accidental, externally instigated or totally home grown, justified or unjustified etc. etc. – all that no longer matters. I wish to concentrate very simply on the phenomenon of humanistic deterioration that enables even the consideration, much less the articulation of a dismissive nature for the valuation of any life, but most especially of the vulnerable – and in this case, those we might even consider the value-added sector of the productive arm of the nation.
I find myself compulsively revisiting that statement that was repeated over and over – after all, no life is more important than the next - since the movement known as the Boko Haram moved to demonstrate quite unambiguously that it had declared war, not merely on the state corporation, but on Nigerian humanity – and do take note of the difference! To take up arms against the state engages in a totally different form of conduct from declaring war on a populace. In the former, the people may indeed incur what is known as collateral damage – one must be realistic – but they are never deliberately targeted for destruction. Boko Haram has unleashed its rage against people, indiscriminately, against humanity, specifically targeting institutions established for adding value to the intellectual and scientific potential of inert wealth that we have identified as being the material base for the transformation of society.
So, let us indeed dismiss sentiment and tackle the hard, material parameters of social value, treating humanity just as productive resource that belongs to our joint corporation, and ask whether or not society has a duty to pay especial attention to such assets, or leave them to the whims and caprices of fluctuating assessment, to be disposed of, and with brutish nastiness, by any one sector that feels aggrieved for any reason, real or imagined, or in any cause that is considered higher than that of the totality of one’s community.
The issue therefore is not whether one life is more important than the next – no one, to the best of my recollection - even entered such an ascription, so it is nothing but a cop-out invention of minds that either approve of the slaughter of youth, or wish to shirk adult responsibility. The issue is whether or not society accepts certain responsibilities for its weaker members. Failure to fulfill those responsibilities should be followed by abject remorse, not aggressive repudiation and rhetorical deflection. Society is built on wealth, on development of its resources. The one irreducible component, the lowest common denominator of any source of, or nature of wealth, we continue to emphasize is – human labour. Even when wealth is inherited and – as the saying goes, made to work for you, as opposed to you working for wealth, there is a chain, reaching back to origination, which, when tugged, reveals at base a human value that has been responsible for the production of such wealth. All we know is that, without that input, what we call wealth would not even begin to exist. Even lottery is the product of past labour, and if it happens to appreciate under the custodianship of one beneficiary or the other, such wealth is not virtual but grounded in a history of the labour – either of exploitation and extortion, or assiduous, systematic, and rewarded labour, on the material transformation of human initiatives. And by labour, we include intellectual and other forms of specialized labour. However remote, all wealth is built on it, and it can never be wished away, not even by those who go to church and mosque, praying for a miracle to happen that would turn them millionaires overnight.
When we speak of education, training, what exactly do we educate or train? Robots? Even robots are the work of human intelligence and inventiveness. We know that other animal species can be trained to perform some tricks or routine chores. A trained elephant will lift timber and deposit it where it is led. A Security dog can sniff drugs, gunpowder and other contraband. Of all the creatures that can be made to contribute to a nation’s economy however, only the human species has the capacity to exercise its mind in a dynamic, creative manner. Importance? Degree of importance? These are meaningless claims. When taken to their illogical conclusions, they also justify attacks on universities and all institutions of learning with the pronounced goals of their permanent closure. If newly trained youths are available for casual disposition, then what use are the institutions of learning, from primary to tertiary? I think perhaps we should all simply burn them down and enroll in the ranks of Boko Haram.
Finally, to round up -the theme of wealth – both inert and dynamic takes one’s mind inevitably to Bakassi, that island that has become the latest interrogatory for the lop-sided valuation of human worth in relation to corporate accumulation and gains. For this nation in particular, Bakassi remains a testing ground for corporate integrity. The basic facts are no longer in dispute – there has been much fudging, much elision, much false attribution and denial – all in order to avoid taking responsibility for an actuality that no one can deny. The Bakassi islands were not uninhabited spaces. The Bakassi islands were human settlements, they existed not as wasteland but as homeland. And then, they were traded off – a quite pertinent expression – traded off between the leadership of Nigeria and the Cameroon corporations during the civil war.
What I warned of at the time, the failure to have taken into consideration the wishes of the people who actually inhabited and worked that piece of real estate, turning its inert wealth into a dynamic composite of their livelihood, has returned to haunt, not merely the state, not merely the nation, but the international prospects for peace. Reactions to what I said at the time focused, in the usual reductionist way we have in this nation, on a side issue. That side issue was: I declared had seen the official, authorized atlas of Nigeria from our own side, signed by a former head of state – military - in the symbolic green ink of office. The signature was that of the head of state who had succeeded the original donor – which made it an affirmation of the first act of excision. Every page – demography, contours, fauna and flora, aerial view, lateral view, oceanographic map etc. had been authenticated, and that the line of division between Nigeria and the Cameroon enclosed the Bakassi islands within the acknowledged geographical boundary of the Cameroons. My intervention was a necessary act of citizen testimony, of sharing facts, since very few Nigerians would have laid their eyes on that atlas even while they were singing jingoistic national anthems. I therefore could not understand how the government had hoped to succeed in the International Court at the Hague on the terms on which the Nigerian case was argued.
However – and here we come to the crux – I asked the pertinent question, were the wishes of the people who actually inhabit that space taken into consideration when that head of state appended his signature thereon? Were representatives of the indigenes invited to The Hague to testify? The answer was No, thus vitiating whatever judgment that learned body chose to pass, and no matter how many topographic maps the Heads of the Nigerian state and the Cameroons had signed. The world no longer lives in a feudal fiefdom. The rights of minorities and indigenous peoples are encoded in the statutes of the United Nations. The human deficit inserted into the Bakassi decision is now plagued with unpredictable scenarios. Land does not speak, nor does it agitate. When it does agitate, we all know what that means – convulsion. Well, human beings also share some characteristics with Nature. Not in every aspect, thank goodness, but certainly in matters of self-knowledge, deserving, and self-fulfillment. The chickens have come to roost and the natives are restless.
Nobody truly relishes being parted from what was once considered his, or hers, or had grown to relate to as a part of one’s self – not even where it has been grafted, not organic. Unless of course that part is more liability than asset, then we cannot wait for the surgical excision. That conceded, let us recognize that no amount of posturing, war-hoops and other forms of nationalist jingoism can substitute for the claims of community over the land that its people have worked and which has sustained its members for generations, irrespective of what other material is later found to be hidden within its earth. Is it not ironic? Much of the nationalist rhetoric that we heard at the time of the Hague judgment was a mere regurgitation of the credo of colonizing powers, most robustly articulated by the British empire builders in those memorable words: what we have, we hold. The irony of how ‘we’ came to have, or the morality of hanging onto what we ‘hold’, despite the dubious origins of such possessions, the cost of holding on to it at all costs, as colonizing powers have found to their cost, the consequence on future relationships between the contending claimants – all these tend to remain beyond the logical considerations of the owners of disputed
The ones we must beware however are those upon whom none of this is ever lost, but who did urge, and still urge the nation to go to war over Bakassi, knowing that they are safe from being compelled to put their money where their mouths are either through volunteerism or conscription for the campaign for Greater Nigeria, or even through donations to the war chest. They knew the score from the beginning, and had been responsible for dragging the nation through a costly and protracted litigation in their own interest, for reasons that were neither patriotic nor legalistic but extremely renumerative. Do not take my word for it.
The then Head of Nigeria’s version of the KGB cum MI5 etc etc, M.D. Yusuf has placed it on public record that, among those who urged the nation so stridently to defy the judgment of the international court were indeed those who enjoyed lucrative retainerships from the state. Were they ever interested in the people? Did they care for the humanity of Bakassi? Of course not. The views that I expressed at the time, and to which I still adhere, is that neither Nigeria nor the Cameroon had a modicum of just rights over the slab of real estate known as Bakassi. The crucial question that the International Court does not appear to have considered remains this: what do the people of Bakassi want for themselves? To become Cameroonians?
To become Nigerians? Or simply to remain Bakassians? Bakassi became a focus of interest and desire only because of her oil reserves and the greed of state corporations – presented as national interest.
So, let the next act commence. The final date of appeal is still ahead. It is within legitimate rights that the Nigerian corporation should appeal the judgment. This time round however, let the suppressed voice of Bakassi’s humanity be heard. There is a certain procedure known as Plebiscite. Simple, straightforward, and full of precedents – a time-tested reversal of the pattern of human deficit! Let us give voice to the people of Bakassi.
Once again, both to the people of Bakassi, and to our celebrant, I offer you Tai Solarin’s enigmatic prayer of human solidarity: May your road be rough!