Considering its ramifications for the principles of civility and mutual respect in a democratic public sphere, it is quite surprising that Professor Wole Soyinka’s verbal assault on Mrs Patience Jonathan has not attracted greater critical attention in the media.
Twice in the space of ten days- once in the company of progressive Lagos lawyer, Femi Falana- the Nobel laureate elected to call the First Lady, Mrs Patience Jonathan, to order.
Clearly, Professor Soyinka was vexed at the apparent role of the First Lady in the simmering crisis involving her husband, President Goodluck Jonathan; the Governor of Rivers state Rotimi Amaechi, a personal friend of Soyinka’s; the state Commissioner of Police Joseph Mbu; and an irregular cast of political stooges and fawning sidekicks.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the eminent playwright’s intervention. He has merely exercised his democratic right to free speech, and his obvious apprehension at the turn of events in Rivers state is, I believe, shared by every alert student of Nigerian history.
No observer in his right mind can ignore the frightening possibility of the crisis in Rivers state degenerating so much as to threaten the fragile foundation of Nigeria’s budding democracy.
Yet, while Professor Soyinka is clearly within his rights to have weighed in, the very language of his intervention was needlessly insensitive. It wasn’t just lacking in his usual delicacy; it was shockingly incongruous with the persona of a literary giant from whom Nigerians have learnt to expect a fair mix of balance, sophistication, and prudence.
In a public statement in which the Nobel Laureate did not exactly cover himself in glory, Professor Soyinka alluded to Mrs Jonathan in the following unflattering terms: “For the rest, since beneath the surface of most Nigerian conflicts will be found inordinate greed for public resources, it is perhaps pertinent to remind ourselves that Oil is not the only marvel to emerge from the Delta swamps. There are also exotic creatures – mermaids, manatees, even mammy watas and hippopotami. However, unlike crude oil, which can be refined, you can extract a hippopotamus from the swamps, but you cannot take the swamp out of the hippopotamus.”
Challenged at another forum as to the unseemly directness of his language, Soyinka reprised his original swipe at Mrs Jonathan, reiterating, “People said I call her a domestic appendage, what’s the problem with that? What’s the problem with Madam Shepopotamus?”
Now, there are plenty of reasons to dislike Mrs Jonathan. It is true, for instance, that she doth tend to put herself about, and for an unelected person, her public visibility borders on the excessive. She has held up city traffic far too many times to be the favourite of many Nigerians. She clearly has a fish to fry in the politics of Rivers state. Her speeches are not exactly models of doctoral sophistication; and, truth be told, it is difficult to imagine people turning to her for coaching on public oration.
Yet, for all her innumerable personal flaws, Mrs Jonathan still deserves to be treated with some courtesy. Clearly, Professor Soyinka disagrees, or how else does one explain the shocking intemperateness of his language?
The issue here is not whether or not one likes the First Lady. As I have just noted, there are many reasons perhaps not to. The point however is about how we treat the very people with whom we have fundamental differences in a democratic public space.
I find it interesting that Professor Soyinka advised Mrs Jonathan to borrow a leaf from Michelle Obama, the American First Lady. Perhaps she should. But might not Professor Soyinka himself have borrowed a leaf from Michelle Obama’s husband? Presented with the same situation, Mr. Obama would certainly have chosen his words far more carefully than Professor Soyinka did.
Why did Professor Soyinka react that way, going for the lowest hanging fruit? After all, there are many parties to the Rivers state conflict, and there is enough guilt to go round. Why go after Mrs Jonathan in such a manner? What about her husband, who is a leading player in the shameful episode? Is there perhaps a subliminal gender bias at work, something that Professor Soyinka himself, admittedly a stout defender of women’s rights, might not have been cognizant of? Is it just a simple matter of elite disdain? Or did Professor Soyinka perhaps overreact due to his friendship with Governor Rotimi Amaechi?
These are all probable conjectures. What cannot be disputed is that Professor Soyinka’s references to Mrs Jonathan constitute an abuse of influence. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with, or attacking Mrs Jonathan; or, for that matter, any Nigerian citizen. The nub here is that, no matter the seriousness of the disagreement, there is no reason not to continue to treat people with respect and courtesy. If anyone should know and respect that principle, it is one of the world’s most consistent campaigners for human dignity.
Professor Ebenezer Obadare (email@example.com) teaches Sociology at the University of Kansas.