With Due Respect, Prof Soyinka: The Ecumenical Spirit

May 24, 2014


Respectfully Sir, professor, daddy and teacher of nations. With dictionary in hand, I read and re-read your “And Now, The Ecumenical City Of Jos?” treatise as I do all your pieces, trying to digest and appreciate its total message as best I could. I cannot say I succeeded in achieving that at the end of my last read so I plead your indulgence for whatever I may have misinterpreted. English is not my first cultural language and though born and raised my formative years outside Nigeria, I never perfected my reading or writing skills, so please bear with my presentation here. I would have and wish I could have written in Yoruba, one of my mother tongues, I believe; however I did not learn that well too in my formative years, thus the family nickname, ‘Igbo.’

My introduction I hope points us to an important aspect of my concern with your stimulating pose – culture. I believe culture is magical. I consider myself a life student of religion and culture. I have read that to understand a culture, one must speak the language; culture being more than what is seen, felt, tasted and spoken. We do not have to understand all cultures, but we must learn to respect them all, except where they violate fundamentals of human existence and safety. I do believe you agree with this.

There are only a few points in your write-up that I am pressed to comment on. Starting with the first: You quoted from an old piece of yours the following, “To order, for example, two hundred buses in order to enforce the segregation of men and women in public transportation, as the governor of  Zamfara state has just done, is Boko Haramism in creed and deed – let us state this reality with brutal frankness.”

I must say with due respect that you got this not quite right, Sir. A culture that separates women from men as much as it separates men from women, perhaps has reasons we in our respective cultures may not understand, but such a culture should not be referred to as “Boko Haramism,” and compared to some narcissistic, heroined, mentally deranged lunatics who speak gibberish from their jungles where they live and feast on blood and the suffering of the people. We would not refer to some Yoruba priestess positions or Yoruba rituals designated to women alone as being Boko Haramist, will we? Nor shall we refer to the ultimate conjugal separation of men and women in the Catholic Church as such. Perhaps insiders within such cultures may choose to vent their objection, but it is never the duty of outsiders to degrade aspects of cultures that as I mentioned earlier, ‘do not violate the fundamental principles of human existence and human safety.’ It is so-far impossible to argue that separation in duty, transport or conjugality equals denigration. The woman is as separated from the man as the man is from the woman, after all. There is a tall debate on women engaging in active and dangerous roles in combat, for instance as you observed. I would rather not participate in this debate that flies way above me. My wife will not fight though and hopefully, nor will my daughter. I will fight for them.

You see, in America today, there are pro-, and anti-abortionists. Qualifying anti-abortionists as anti-feminists and brutally frankly as terrorists, I believe is not something we support. Should a Hindi call a steak lover callous and a murderer? I believe arguments; especially public discourse should be elevated to a level higher than this.  I see mutual respect and understanding of the cultures of one, two, millions and billions as the way forward and the way to resolving the madness that flourishes from the east to the west; and not intolerance of cultural behaviors, mine, yours or others, which only serves to inspire the sick, needy of some ember to clutch on. Without question there are serious issues in some of the major creeds and ‘civilizations’ as practiced today that need address and redress. We should address these – where they do not infringe on fundamental human existence and life security – in light of superior understanding, tolerance, mutual respect and compassion. Then only will we make a breakthrough.

Maybe in the future you can further expatiate on the similitude of the 200 buses to the 200 abducted girls, but till then, while I fail to understand your reasons for comparison and vituperation of a rather common cultural behavior that transcends national borders and is applied in some of the most current and historically scientifically advanced and progressive societies on earth today, I will not be presumptuous; I’ll leave that at that.

Secondly, you emphasized the importance of recognizing what ‘Boko Haram’ is. But from reading your piece, I failed to see where you said what it was. It is understandable that you do not know what it is; who does? Many think ‘Boko Haram’ means, ‘western education…,’ of course we know ‘Boko Haram’ is not even the name of the group(s) and some explain that what it means is more like ‘western civilization (is bad)’ and not ‘western education… .’ The one thing that’s most defined about these blood-thirsty hooligans is their lack of definition, at least, since Mohammed Yusuf was killed. It’s certainly sad and something I have oft commented about that rather than the world at every opportunity, enjoy your intellectual pieces on life, literature and other educative discourses, Nigeria has condemned some of our finest minds, respected minds like yours into activists, full time activists and critics. What a waste! Thus, it is understood that you may not know what Boko Haram is or is not. As per your suggestion to spread faith-reorienting leaflets; though this seems reasonable, I would say, we need not waste our time with that. Bombs will do better; perhaps after leaflets that advise all who are compelled to rebel or run. You see, Boko Haram are a set of rag-tag, million dollar earning, hired criminals. What’s the use of distributing leaflets to a ‘Lawrence Anini ‘camp in the jungle? Why preach to a maniac? Perhaps the bombing in the Ecumenical City tilted you, or you were waiting for such attack that appeared to again set Boko Haram as some sort of religious extremists – to associate them with a faith. No Sir, there is no association. We heard and read less from you about Boko Haram the past two years they concentrated their efforts killing without particular religious target, massacring the farmers in Borno at will, up to 80,000 of them and displacing over 3 million. Are you seeking an attribution? A hot spot or spot of sensitization? There is none. Boko Haram are senseless killers and they need to be treated as such, regardless of the garbage they profess. As you said, we must remain focused in our clamor for more guns (civilian and army) against them and promotion of a true Jihad (‘struggle’ – as I was corrected as the true meaning of the word when I first pushed for it) against them.

Like you mandated, we must all combine forces, mental, physical and spiritual to battle this aberration, but we must focus on the war at hand, without seeking to assign Boko Haram to a creed or by deed, because I have studied them and written of them for years, and I say categorically, they have no logical, religious or cultural affiliation, and the only thing that defines them is hatred for the north of Nigeria and the northern farmer to be precise. Have you noticed this? Perhaps in seeking what Boko Harm means today, we would be better steered if we look at the land, the farming land Boko Haram is systematically displacing farmers off, from Benue to Borno. Perhaps someone wants the best resource of the north – land.

J. B Kendrick, Director of the Agricultural Sciences Experiment Station, University of California, in 1976, said in a paper titled, “Our Most Valuable Resource,” that, “One can argue that the human mind and its ability to reason constitute our most valuable resource. There are strong arguments for identifying the energy giving source of the sun as our most valuable resource. Both air and water also occupy a place of primacy for life itself. But even air, water and sunlight could not sustain life without the most essential of all resources – our land and all its products.”

Perhaps if we focus less on what the junky, drug-addict says and more on what he does, we will better appreciate what ‘Boko Harm’ is and how to address this problem. Like Hitler who said many things, religious and not. What use would it have been spreading leaflets over Berlin or trying to assign a deed or creed to Adolf, regardless of what he said?

Again, you appeared eager to single out women as some sort of particular target of Boko Haram. Sir, with due respect; where have we been the last two years that Boko Haram has been stopping passenger trucks and seizing young men, forcing them at knife-edge to fight for them or slaughtering them in the middle of the encampments? Without diminishing the severity of the 200 plus abducted girls, I have been focused and involved in combating this government enabled crises for the past couple of years, being one who pushed the president to declare a state of emergency and deploy the full might of the army, when most, north and south (yourself excluded) were sleeping/objected, referring to the organization report I was part of that pushed for this declaration as ‘foreigners, not interested in Nigeria’s progress.’ Sir, thousands of boys have been abducted and forcefully conscripted and killed by these terrorists; thousands – of men—are still in the camps, there against their will. Did you hear/read about the Maiduguri air force base attack? During that attack, I heard from new friends on the ground that some of the forcefully abducted boys dropped their guns, not participating in the raid and ran into the town hopping to return home; unfortunately for them, they looked skinny, scruffy and no different from ‘terrorists,’ and the JTF, civilian and army killed these fleeing boys. Their parents later tearfully identified their bodies as their sons recently abducted and it was then that the tragedy that had transpired was fully realized. I believe we should abstain from inaccurate sensationalization that may hamper the collective effort to combat this senseless menace that preferentially targets the poor of Nigeria’s farming north, without tangible religious or gender preferences.

You threw the word, ‘civilized,’ casually. I am sure you know that this concept is very hard to understand and most of your readers will perhaps associate very different things with the word than you did. To some, it is a word that should perhaps be scrapped from the dictionary in entirety because it fails more often than not to have meaning. Some even take offence in the word-concept, as being in the league of ‘racism,’ classism’ and ‘sexism.’ You see, some argue that   the ‘civilization’ concept was adopted to represent a particular culture; so anyone outside that culture is not respectfully referred to as ‘a different culture,’ but now gets qualified—degradingly –  as uncivil.  I should have wished you elaborated on this important word; but as you did not, again, I will not presume. I think we should deal with these criminals as mere criminals without philosophizing too much on them. You really wasted too many good words discussing these nitwits. Had we had a better funded security department and leaders with a brain in their heads, unstable persons would be quickly swept away before they can propagate their madness, and we would have more space and time to enjoy your philosophical thoughts.

Craving your indulgence once more, I do hope you understand the reason for my addressing the issues I have raised. I work day and night as many of us are forced to these days, trying to solve or at least deflate a deadly problem we have on our hands in Nigeria. Thus, I (we) are cautious of those on either side and on no side or both sides, who may subtly, stylishly or inadvertently inflame it with publicized simple or complex grammatical treatises, or/and any other careless actions or inactions. 200 people in the Ecumenical city of Jos are no different than the 300 in Gamboru-Ngala the other day that you did not write about; well except if we wish to whet up a specific botheration.

Finally, you said, “a philosophy of education that says the mind must be open, not closed, a principle that subjects all claims of human discovery or certitudes to empirical scrutiny and establishes in the mind of the young the foundation of equity under one law as the sine qua non of civilized society and the creation of social man and woman.” Can I know where that place is? I would love to visit someday.

No mortal is above error and criticism. May the good Lord permit me to grow as old as you and remain as wise as you have remained at that age.

I remain, faithfully, your student.

Dr. Peregrino Brimah for http://ENDS.ng [Every Nigerian Do Something]
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @EveryNigerian