As a creative writing scholar at Oxford University, I have been reviewing the legendary literature Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka’s latest book, Chronicles from the land of the happiest people on earth. A political novel, albeit verisimilitude, the book fictionalises social and political corruption in Nigeria.
Ben Okri, the famous Nigerian-British writer, and winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, described it as “Soyinka’s greatest novel”, adding: “No one else can write such a book.” As I read the book, I’m enthralled by its superb artistic quality.
You can then imagine my bafflement when Professor Soyinka, master of the English language, recently used the word “fascistic” to describe Dr Datti Baba-Ahmed, vice-presidential candidate of Labour Party in February’s presidential election, and supporters of Peter Obi, the party’s presidential candidate, who call themselves “Obidients”.
What drew Professor Soyinka’s ire, in Baba-Ahmed’s case, was his controversial interview on Channels TV. “Whoever swears in Mr Tinubu has ended democracy in Nigeria,” he said, adding: “Mr President, do not hold that inauguration. CJN (Chief Justice of Nigeria), your lordship, do not partake in unconstitutionality.” Baba-Ahmed argued that Bola Tinubu “has not met the requirements of the law”, having failed to secure 25 per cent of the votes cast in Abuja. As for the Obidients, Soyinka was irked by their moblike behaviour on social media.
Resplendent in his iconic aureole of white hair and fruity voice, Professor Soyinka appeared on national television and heaped criticisms on Baba-Ahmed. On Arise TV, he accused him of “blackmailing and threatening” the Supreme Court. “That’s fascistic language,” he said, “and it’s unacceptable.” Later, in an article titled “Fascism on course”, a response to the Obidients’ hysterical reactions on social media, Professor Soyinka upped the ante. “The seeds of incipient fascism in the political arena have evidently matured,” he declared.
The seeds of incipient fascism in Nigerian politics were sown by the APC. They really matured under Buhari but might reach full maturity under a President Tinubu
Well, what’s fascism? According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, it’s “a way of organising society in which a government ruled by a dictator controls the lives of people and in which people are not allowed to disagree with the government.” For Cambridge Dictionary, it’s “a political system based on a very powerful leader and state control.” And for Oxford Dictionary, it’s “a political system that is in favour of strong central government.”
As someone who has immersed myself in Nigerian politics as a weekly columnist since 2014, I categorically affirm that the real fascists are President Muhammadu Buhari, Tinubu, their party, All Progressives Congress, APC, and followers. Indeed, compared with Buhari, Tinubu, APC and their loyalists, it’s a misnomer, a dysphemism, to call Baba-Ahmed and the Obidients fascistic!
I watched Dr Baba-Ahmed’s interview. What I saw was an angry person, who spoke angrily. He indulged in “parrhesia”, a Greek word for speaking boldly, bluntly, and freely. Some speakers deploy parrhesia positively for moral purposes, and Dr Baba-Ahmed would argue he was doing that, hence he justified his comment by saying: “I am taking this risk for the sake of my country.”
However, he used negative parrhesia, unleashing his views boldly and freely without forethought. But politicians always indulge in negative parrhesia, their tongues often run before their thoughts. That doesn’t make them fascistic. What’s truly fascistic is not merely making angry statements but having the intent and power to act out fascism.
Take APC. Even before coming to power in 2015, its behaviour was fascistic. Through Lai Mohammed, its loquacious spokesman, who later became one of Nigeria’s worst and most irresponsible ministers in history, recently accusing Obi of treason, the party threatened to form a parallel government and make Nigeria ungovernable if the 2015 presidential election was rigged. General Buhari, the party’s presidential candidate, said, as widely reported, that “2015‘ll be bloody” if the election was rigged, adding that “the dogs and the baboons would all be soaked in blood.”
That wasn’t an empty threat. In 2011, when Buhari lost to President Goodluck Jonathan, 800 people died in post-election violence, widely blamed on his inciting comments. It was against that backdrop and the apocalyptic predictions of Nigeria’s disintegration following the 2015 presidential election that the world was laser-focused on Nigeria during the poll.
But while Jonathan, who later conceded defeat, repeatedly said that “my ambition is not worth the blood of any Nigerian”, Buhari and his party stirred the embers of Nigeria’s disintegration should the election not go their way. Their commitment was not to Nigeria’s unity, but to their individual and collective ambitions. So, who are the real fascists?
Then in government, Buhari acted out fascism. In 2018, he said: “Rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the national interest.” Of course, he defined the “national interest” tendentiously. For instance, he said those “who dare to question Nigeria’s corporate existence cross our national red lines,” and ordered the military to “fight and destroy them relentlessly”. Well, that’s exactly what his government did, brutally suppressing separatist agitations, rejecting political solutions. Please refer to the definitions of fascism above!
In 2019, President Buhari suspended and replaced the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, on corruption allegations, two weeks before the presidential election. The allegations against Onnoghen predated his appointment as CJN, so why remove him during the presidential election? Clearly, as I wrote in a piece titled “Buhari: The deception of a ‘converted’ democrat” (BusinessDay, February 4, 2019), Buhari wanted to blackmail and intimidate the Supreme Court ahead of the presidential election petition. If Baba-Ahmed is fascistic for making some angry, but ineffectual comment about the CJN, what is a president who removed a CJN in the middle of a presidential election?
Which brings us to Tinubu’s fascism. Recently, Mrs Sinatu Ojikutu, a former deputy-governor of Lagos State, told journalists she would “renounce the citizenship of Nigeria” because her life would be endangered under a Tinubu presidency. Anyone who doubts her doesn’t know Tinubu’s politics, it’s mafia-like and takes no prisoners. That’s fascistic.
What about Tinubu’s contribution to political thuggery? In the early 1980s, a man called Adebayo “Success” terrorised Lagos during elections. Lateef Jakande, the governor, couldn’t control “Success” because the Federal Government, led by the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, protected him for political reasons. That’s exactly what Tinubu has done by enriching, empowering, and protecting MC Oluomo, head of his political thugs, who habitually disrupts elections in Lagos, as evident particularly in this year’s violent governorship election. Under a Tinubu Federal Government, MC Oluomo and his motor-park thugs would be a national plague, just as Fulani herdsmen became a national problem under Buhari’s government.
By the way, can a Tinubu government that includes Bayo Onanuga, Femi Fani-Kayode, Festus Keyamo, Nasir el-Rufai be anything but fascistic? Onanuga recently said: “Let 2023 be the last time of Igbo interference in Lagos politics.” He was essentially saying Lagos is not part of Nigeria, and Igbos are not Nigerians! Fani-Kayode was such a public nuisance the deputy British High Commissioner in Nigeria had to name and shame him publicly.
What about Festus Keyamo, whose sophistry and dissembling know no bounds? Or el-Rufai? In 2019, he told foreign observers they would go home in “body bags” if they interfered in Nigeria’s presidential election. As governor, he turned Kaduna State into a killing field, thanks to his religious and ethnic bigotries. Can a Tinubu government that includes such people be anything but fascistic? Absolutely not!
So, let’s be clear. The seeds of incipient fascism in Nigerian politics were sown by the APC. They really matured under Buhari but might reach full maturity under a President Tinubu. Professor Soyinka is, therefore, wrong to brand Dr Datti Baba-Ahmed fascistic. He should point his finger elsewhere; yes, at Buhari, Tinubu and their party!