The “Obidients” – supporters of the mission and vision of Mr. Peter Obi, candidate of the Labour Party in Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential election had it coming. And now they are getting their “comeuppance” served in flagellating doses, from Professor Wole Soyinka, grandmaster in the art of dissent, debate and reasoning who has all it takes to sustain an intellectual fight in the public arena. In two high-profile television interviews in recent weeks – Channels TV and Arise News, and two published commentaries: “Media Responsibility” and “Fascism on Course”, Professor Wole Soyinka has reacted robustly to what he describes as a predilection for fascism on the part of the “Obidients.” Fascism also means dictatorship, tyranny, autocracy, intolerance, the unwillingness to entertain the other view, the tendency to assume that one’s opinion is supreme and superior and that other human beings do not matter. Remember Hitler. Think Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Fascists simply want to have their way no matter what others think or suggest.
The catalyst for President Wole Soyinka’s intervention was an interview on Channels TV by the Vice-Presidential candidate of the Labour Party in the course of which he said that it would be unconstitutional to swear in the President-elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu on May 29, 2023, and that doing so would “signal the end of democracy.” Soyinka upbraided Datti Baba-Ahmed for saying uncomplimentary things about the Nigerian judiciary in a subsequent interview with Channels TV and cautioned against the resort to the use of words that smack of fascism. Indeed, he pointed out that he had advised Peter Obi that if he lost the election, it would be partly because of those persons called “Obidients”. He went further to advise Datti Ahmed to desist from “television tirade of intimidation.” I would ordinarily think that this should not have generated any drama. What Soyinka said simply is that nobody should be a judge in his own cause or dictate to the judiciary.
Every elementary student of law must have heard of the maxim: nemo judex in causa sua. Following the February 25 Presidential election which Obi and Datti Ahmed claimed they and their party, the Labour Party won, they have since gone to court to file a petition. It amounts to contempt of court to even attempt to comment on the matter that has been handed over to the courts to determine. Besides when Datti Baba-Ahmed said it would be un-constitutional or undemocratic to swear in the President-elect on May 29, he missed the point. The current President’s tenure, after the maximum limit of two terms guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution, ends on May 29. The law does not allow him to stay a day longer. The Constitution does not provide for a vacuum either. The only legitimate concern that has been raised is the suggestion by Olisa Agbakoba SAN that election disputes should be concluded, before inauguration as is the case in other countries, especially Kenya. While there are many who would share this view, the truth is that the current system in Nigeria makes that difficult.
Agbakoba says the judiciary should be pro-active and adopt methods of arbitration and deal swiftly with constitutional and technical issues within seven days. The Nigerian judicial system is not structured to be pro-active. It works at snail speed in the best of circumstances. The courts are over-burdened. The judges are overworked and they do not have enough support systems. Lawyers are never in a hurry. In election matters, they would depend on the time limitations provided for in Section 285 (6) of the 1999 Constitution. Where we are today is an improvement in the adjudication of election matters; it used to take up to three years to resolve an election dispute.
The best that can be proposed is a further amendment of the Constitution with regard to the handling of election cases. It doesn’t require much intelligence therefore to see that a new administration would be inaugurated on May 29, and while the cases at the tribunals and courts continue, new persons would have settled into office. The real issue is that the power of incumbency would have shifted and the new persons in office would use it to their own advantage. There is so much tension in the land also because Nigerians do not trust the judiciary. They have seen too many cases of how the courts determined election petitions in a manner that caused confusion. In this country, a man once became a Governor of a state without going through the process. He didn’t even print posters not to talk of campaigning. In this same country, a man who did not take part in party primaries was declared a candidate and he got re-elected to the Senate. Is it not in this same country that the Supreme Court ruled that someone who came fourth in a gubernatorial election was the winner? The bigger irony is that many Nigerians now regard the judiciary as a truly Nigerian space where anything is possible beyond the facts and the law.
The sub-text of Soyinka’s intervention, as I see it, was to remind everyone of basic principles, an instruction in the values of order, justice, and the importance of institutions. Those who seek justice should not defeat the same purpose by dictating what kind of justice suits them, and insist solely on their view of the coin. Mr. Peter Obi, the LP Presidential candidate had always insisted that he has strong faith in the judicial process and he is committed to exploring every legal and constitutional means to “reclaim what he calls “his stolen mandate”. Indeed, on one occasion, Mr Obi in an interview on Arise TV tried to make a distinction between Obidients and members of the Labour Party when he pointed out that there are many Obidients who are not members of the Labour Party and that not all party members are Obidients, which I understood to mean that he, as a person does not dictate to Obidients, even if he is the rallying point for the aspirations of the group, made up mostly of young, angry Nigerians who want change, a transition away from the old political order, and who consider Peter Obi’s political philosophy a good expression of those aspirations. They galvanized momentum and passion around Peter Obi and the Labour Party in the last elections.
Professor Wole Soyinka has spoken about his preference for a third force, a fresh option which may well be represented by Peter Obi, and so you could say he is one of those persons who consider Peter Obi a possibility. His only complaint was about the intolerance and the fascism of Obidients. Any close watcher of the political scene would recall how Obidients in the lead up to the elections, took over the social media. They deployed vitriol, abuse, intimidation, harassment. Anyone who disagreed with them was insulted and disparaged. Opposition spokespersons soon labelled them “Obidiots”. But they were combat-ready. And it is that same combative spirit that they have taken to Professor Wole Soyinka’s door step. The old sage has refused to be intimidated. He says “Obidients is one of the most repulsive, off-putting concoctions I ever encountered in any political arena.” He accuses them of projecting their disdain for “corrective criticism” as a badge of honour and certificate of commitment… rabid parochial minds of easy excitation, the tyranny of the ignorant, and the opportunism of time-servers… living in a world of false mythologies.” This is not flattering at all, but the Obidients asked for it.
Their response to Professor Soyinka was bound to get them such whiplash. Some of the responses on social media and elsewhere have been so discourteous and rude. In this season of reckless conduct, people hide under the anonymity that social media offers and heap abuse on persons whose shoe lace they cannot ever hope to tie. Even the more direct and open responses have been shocking. Charly Boy, “Area Fada and an Obidient,” like many others told Professor Soyinka: “You can’t be compared with Chinua Achebe”. Please what has Chinua Achebe got to do with this matter? Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), through Emmanuel Onwubiko wrote that Soyinka “should stop siding with the oppressors and tyrants.” Could that be Onwubiko speaking for himself for it would be most strange for a body like HURIWA to accuse Soyinka of supporting tyrants when that is the same tendency that he deplores? Then of course, I saw a comment by Daniel Bwala, spokesperson of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) asking that Professor Soyinka should have a debate with Chimamanda Adichie. Bwala can claim his right to free speech, but he is at best a busy-body in this instance. Yusuf Tanko, the chief spokesperson of the Labour Party had already addressed the matter when he responded to Professor Soyinka’s invitation of Datti Baba-Ahmed to a debate. He said the Labour Party’s vice-presidential candidate declines the invitation for political and cultural reasons. Before nko? It would be foolhardy for Datti Ahmed to go into a debate with a man of Soyinka’s stature. What I find surprising in all of this however, is a certain Easter message attributed to Mr. Peter Obi in which he talked about “orchestrated efforts to demarket and delegitimize the OBIdient movement.” Is that a veiled attack on Professor Wole Soyinka? So far, Mr Obi has maintained his cool in the political arena, he should not allow himself to be hijacked by an emerging “personality cult.”
But isn’t this a sign of the times though? It is not only Obidients that are in a foul mood. The triumphant members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) are not better. They in fact have a much larger tendency for fascism that is frightening, and the real fear is that when these persons get to the corridors of power, their arrogance and imperialism would know no bounds. While the Obidients scream on social media, the BATists, that is the supporters and spokespersons of the APC and President-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu shoot from the hips on all platforms. Before and after the elections, they have been on the offensive, making it seem as if they have won a war, and must gather prisoners and shoot them down. They act based on suspicion. They respond to every little comment. They are quick to do the dirty job on their principal’s behalf, victory has become their aphrodisiac. It does not matter to them that the February 25 Presidential election is now a matter before the election petition tribunal. They openly taunt the opposition to go to court, giving the impression that nothing unfavourable to their party and candidate would come out of there.
Their latest target is Chimamanda Adichie, the distinguished, internationally acclaimed writer, who sent a letter to President Joe Biden on the Nigerian elections, in which she condemned the Nigerian electoral process, and accused the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of being compromised. The attack launched by spokespersons and supporters of the APC on Chimamanda Adichie must be quite shocking to her. She has been accused of being a tribal bigot, an Obidient, supporting a former Governor of her state, and an unpatriotic Nigerian maligning her country. And how dare she report Nigeria, a sovereign state to Joe Biden? The APC attack team has also sent letters to the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Canada to debunk Ms. Adichie’s reflections on the 2023 election. One commentator, Femi Fani-Kayode to be specific, dismissed her letter as a “boring epistle of dishonest garbage” – except that Adichie is incapable of writing garbage! She has also been accused of colonial mentality and sedition, with calls that she should be sued. President Biden has been advised to ignore her. Ms. Adichie wrote: “Congratulating the election’s outcome, President Biden tarnishes America’s self-proclaimed commitment to democracy. Please do not give the sheen of legitimacy to an illegitimate process. The United States should be what it says it is.” Unlike Professor Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Adichie has not responded to the backlash that she got. She obviously thinks silence is the best answer for the APC crowd.
Thus, within the same period two prominent Nigerian writers, Soyinka and Adichie being attacked for expressing views about the conduct of politics and political players in Nigeria. Both the elder and the younger writer are drawing attention to omissions that could have far-reaching implications. Their mode of intervention may differ, but in truth, they are both concerned about the health of our nation, and the character of the political class. Soyinka is a national treasure, a global humanist and one of the best thinkers of the century. Ms. Adichie is one of Nigeria’s great ambassadors on the world stage with her contributions to culture, literature and knowledge. Writers are the conscience of the nation. Their job is to speak truth to power, shape public thought, create a current of ideas, no matter whose ox is gored. Soyinka is the elder statesman calling for restraint. Ms Adichie expresses the feelings of many of her generation who feel disappointed by the 2023 election. Critical as her piece may seem, she has not said anything that is not out there in public. It would be wrong to assume that only persons inside Nigeria or who voted during the elections are entitled to comment on the outcome. It is not even a sin for writers or any citizens at all to hold political beliefs. What is objectionable is the growing drift towards fascism in Nigeria’s political space. It reflects a culture of intolerance that erodes the tenets of democracy and human freedom.
Beyond all the expectations about the immediate future of Nigeria, it must be possible to take our country back from the fringes of despair, hate and division to which it has been driven by the recent elections. It must be possible again to have healthy, open and decent conversations in the public sphere. This calls for leadership, restraint, and above all wisdom.