Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka has opened up on why he said Biafra can never be defeated. He revealed what he meant by that expression at the public presentation of his latest works, two-volume collection of essays entitled Of Power and Freedom and a soon-to be released collection of poems.
The programme, tagged Wole Soyinka In Retrospective, held on Sunday 20 Novenber at Alliance Francaise, Mike Adenuga Centre in Ikoyi, Lagos.
The distinguished writer made the revelation while responding to a question US-based Nigerian writer and journalist, Mr Okey Ndibe asked him as one of the panel discussants – the role of memory in keeping historical experience in focus for people.
Ndibe asked: “In your collection of essays there is this line that stood out for me, that I think encapsulate your ethical practice. And you said that history must not be allowed to gather cobwebs and that history requires constant evocation as contemporary touchstone.
“I like for you to elaborate on this: the role of memory in keeping historical experience in focus for people. Because there is this sense that what is the past in a lot of ways is past and history of course imstructs amd informs the present.
“I was struck by this stipulation by you that history requires a constant evocation in contemporary touchstone. So please could you elaborate on that?
Soyinka responded by saying that collective memory is the key , is that memory which is related to the mechanisms of relating reality to narratives, depending on the narrative that is given.
Soyinka also said as important ascollective memory is it is also dangerous because a group of people can get trapped in it as a community.
Here Soyinka was referring to the Biafra Question which has become a recurrent decimal in Nigerian politics, what with the endless agitation for the indigenous state of Biafra.
He sees Biafra and the horrors that the Igbo experienced during the Nigerian civil war as a collective memory that has refused, as the cliche goes, to be swept under the carpet.
According to Soyinka it was because of the hydra-headed nature of Biafra as a collective memory and idea that he said during the Nigerian civil war that Biafra can never be disputed. But many people misinterpreted his assertion as though he were talking about the battlefield.
“I think by memory you talk about collective memory, not just individual memory. Because collective memory is the key, is that memory which is related to the mechanisms of relating reality to whatever narrative is given to us. Because history is the narrative.
“But the collective memory, the active memory, is for me far more important . It is also the more dangerous. Because you can get trapped in it as a community.
“And some of that I think is happening to us here here in Nigeria. I am referring of course to the Biafran war. The collective memory there is very strong. And even before the war I warned that this collective memory might remain to plague efforts at nation building.
“And that therefore everything should be done to avoid that war. When I used expressions like Biafra can never be defeated, people thought I was talking about battlefield.
“No. I was talking about the notion, the passion which enters the collective memory in active life, not just as a past narrative. This is what I warned against. And we see it happening today,” he lamented.
Soyinka also criticized the manner government removed history from the curricula of schools with the erroneous thought that that would obliterate the collective memory, the war and the passion of a certain group of people
” There is something which I never believed could ever happen to us, that a government actually stopped the teaching of history in schools. So naïve, so stupid as not to recognise that there is something called memory, that there is collective memory, active memory in the present?
“The motivations behind that policy, with many of us who are going blindly around our business not aware that we have been truncated, we have been rendered a people without history, constitute one of the greatest crimes committed against even nation being, against humanity.
“If the purpose was to obliterate the war, the memory of the war, what about the events that led up to the war? What about, in fact, the position, the narrative of our existence in relation to the outer world? How do you obliterate that for heavens sake? And yet people sat down in this country and removed history from the curricula of schools.”
However, Soyinka advised that rather than being prisoners of collective memory, we should use it in a productive, creative, advance way, which according to him depends at last on leadership.
“We must always adjudicate the present by history, by the collective memory. At the same time, however, taking care not to become prisoners of that memory. Not even to use that collective memory in a progressive, productive, creative advance way. That also depends at last on leadership,” Soyinka maintained.