Demystifying the Imperial Will

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Demystifying the Imperial Will

by

Wole Soyinka


Being the text of a speech given on March 24, 2000 at a Conference
entitled "Preventing the Breakdown of Democracy in Nigeria: Strategies for
a Living Consitution" at the Colin Powell Center, City University of New
York, New York, USA, March 23-24, 2000


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Excerpt:

   "The concept is not new. In 1966, after the second military coup in the
   nation, the putative military government of the nation organised a
   series of encounters that were dubbed meetings of 'Leaders of thought'.
   Expectedly, as the then insecure regime consolidated its power, it
   resolved in its own wisdom that such meetings had outlived their
   usefulness. Today, more than ever, such an encounter - but much more
   representative, less arbitrary - has become inevitable. At such a
   congress of peoples, all options must be tabled - centralism,
   federalism, confederalism, anarchism, communism, monarchism, theocracy,
   secularism, even dictatorship or - as has been proposed, probably as a
   tongue-in-cheek expression of desperation - a return to colonial
   tutelage! There must be room at the forum for both sages and madmen,
   for visionaries and pragmatists, for babes-in-the-woods and
   gerontocrats, for dyed-in-the-wool ideologues and laissez-faire
   fatalists.  We must ignore the old military language of No-Go areas.
   It is the destiny of the whole, not of a part, that is up for
   negotiation, and there will be room both for passion and objectivity.
   Above all however, let no one deny this inalienable right of a people:
   the right of any people, at any moment, under any circumstances, to
   embark upon the quest of coming into their own self-defining,
   self-constitutive history. "

------

Whenever you find a nation obliged to scrutinize, even interrogate its
origins over and over again, as we appear to do condemned to do within the
nation space called Nigeria, it is a certain sign that there is something
fundamentally flawed, or troubling, in the current conditions that define
that nation space. In other words, we cannot regard such a recurrence as a
mere love of history, or an opportunity for some general academic
excitation that goes with digging into the past. Certainly, we know that
such exhumation is not an act of celebration - I am not aware that there
has been any proposal to celebrate the day of amalgamation of the
constituent parts of Nigeria as a national holiday - not once since 1914.
Indeed the opposite is the case. What we appear to be assailed with sound
to me like accents of mourning. And thus, we cling instead to a much later
date, October 1, 1960 - the day of the nation's formal independence - as
the national day. In short, no one really thinks of, or declares Nigeria
to be ninety years old. The general assessment is that Nigeria is a mere
forty years old - in short, a very young nation, some would even say,
retarded. And it is reasonably safe to claim that we reckon by that date,
October 1st, 1960, because it can be claimed that this was when the
representatives of the nation formally acquiesced in the process of the
coming-in-being of the nation. Nigeria's history up to that point, we can
claim, has been largely given, even dictated, a mere expression of an
alien, imperial will.

Let me emphasize that point yet again: no one appears ever to have thought
of celebrating the day that physically brought the nation into putative
being, not even the colonialists who perpetrated the deed - for better or
worse. Indeed, as schoolchildren - that is, when the colonial powers
dictated our holidays, what we celebrated was something called Empire Day.
On that day we were forced into our best starched white drill shorts and
shirts and marched past the District Officer or the Resident, saluting the
British flag. It is noteworthy that no such homage was paid to
Amalgamation Day. It is perhaps no more than a small point to note, since
the ambiguous sentiments that surround that largely invisible date are
still very much with us.

Why, we may ask, does that Amalgamation Day, whenever invoked, tend to
come in circumstances of repudiation, even opprobium? 'The mistake of
1914' pronounced one national leader in the late fifties or early sixties
'has come to light'. Not very long after, just before the Biafran war that
tested the nation's ability to remain a cohesive unit, another leader
declared bluntly that 'the basis for Nigerian unity' was no longer
present. The famous Orkar coup d'etat will go down in history as one which
defined its brief career by excising a number of states from the national
entity.  And only a few weeks ago, the same denunciation of present
actuality was made, albeit indirectly, by a group of governors, backed by
the leaders of their regional grouping. They called, bluntly, for a
reconfiguration of the Nigerian national entity under the terms of a
confederation. Many would recognise this as the resurrection of a call
that was made in 1966, in the days leading to the outbreak of Nigeria's
civil war. The unnamed object of indictment is that same act of
amalgamation, and what these various cries have in common can be summed up
in one phrase: renegotiate the terms of amalgamation.

Now what, shall we say, has brought us to this pass? Before that question
however, there is another that is far more profound: have a people the
right, once they have accepted to live together as one nation, to
reconsider the very terms of their origination? Perhaps the answer to that
question will be found in my deliberate identification of, but
juxtaposition also of the two defining events of Nigeria's corporate
existence - one, the amalgamation and two, independence.  The first was an
imposition. It took place outside even the notional will of the people
circumscribed within that space whose identity lacked organic evolution.
This is not the place to rehash the propositions that go into a question I
have posed in another place in an attempt to answer the question, "When is
a nation?" Suffice it to say that in this specific case, the nation,
Nigeria, like virtually all nation spaces on the African continent,
remains an expression of an alien, imperialist will, not that of a
people's sovereign will. It remains therefore, unfinished business, a
business that was first taken up, in any conscious way, during the second
event - the agitation for independence.

It is important to recall that this unfinished business was taken up, that
is, it was not taken for granted. The staggered independence dates of the
dictated regions that then made up the nation testified to this. We are
not speaking here of a series of uniformly even, progressive steps towards
independence, no. The process of negotiating independence succeeded more
than anything else in tacitly questioning the act of amalgamation, and if
anyone requires proof of this, you have only to recollect the unfortunate
scenes at the National Assembly in Lagos when representatives of the
Northern region were humiliated for daring to declare their own space
unprepared for independence. "Self-government as Soon As Possible",
declared that half, "Self-government for Nigeria Now", insisted the other.
The former were manhandled, jeered at and generally excoriated by the rest
of the putative nation. That insensitive response by the rest of the
nation was to rankle for a long time - its bitterness is not concealed in
the biographies and memoirs of Northern leaders. It would deepen the
already evident awareness of separate identities that has continued to
plague the country in sporadic crises. That unfinished business also led
to Nigeria's first civil war, and much that has happened since continues
to remind us that even that war that was ended in a much lauded spirit of
reconciliation, remains yet another unfinished business.

We should be grateful however that war is not the only instrument for
coming to grips with the left-over business in a nation's coming-in-being,
never mind that one statesman-historian once defined war as simply
diplomacy by other means. Adolf Hitler is our most notorious instance of
an obsession with the unfinished business of the German national identity,
and we need no urgent reminding of the havoc that he inflicted not only on
that very nation, but on the rest of humanity. Ten years ago, it appeared
that the Soviet Union had drawn the right lessons from the insane edges of
nation-building as a hegemonic concept.  Courageously, it dismantled its
own artificial monolith which, only a decade earlier, appeared to be glued
together indissolubly by an ideology that certainly won over the minds of
large portions of the world.

Recently however, indeed, as we speak, that nation has taken a step
backwards into unbelievably barbarity against its own internal
constituents. None of these costly experiences appears to have served, for
us on this continent, as a corrrective lesson for nations such as Somalia,
Sudan, Angola, the Congo, all self-destructively intent on writing 'Finis'
in their own sectional script to the yet unconcluded business of nation
building. And we applauded too soon, it would seem, when Ethiopia and
Eritrea, after terminating the dehumanising regime of Mariam Mengistu
whose megalomania merely masqueraded in the guise of ideological
engineering, maturely decided to terminate a forced amalgamation that
would stretch ours in arguments over comparative validity, a union that
had been held together firstly by a local feudal, then a foreign
imperialism. The ideology-driven Mengistu embraced a restive partner,
Eritrea, in the struggle against a feudal tyranny, promising to ascertain
the sovereign will of the people in the process of deciding the future of
the uneasy amalgam. He (and his movement) succeeded in terminating the
feudal tyranny, only to renege on a promise and replace the feudal with
his own unbelievably crude and bloodthirsty regime of oppression. After
hundreds of thousands of wasted lives and a devasted economy, after years
of a dependent existence that preyed on the great-power rivalries of the
Cold War, the seemingly unstoppable Mariam Mengistu was toppled, the
ancient project of ascertaining the sovereign will of the people
resuscitated, and a peaceful dissolution of an enforced marriage embarked
upon. Mengistu's dream of the imperial will, like so many others before
him, evaporated suddenly under the consuming sun of a people's will.

Let us not permit the mind-boggling irrationality of the current war
between those two erstwhile partners in the struggle for self-liberation
to obscure the historic lessons of the Ethiopia-Eritrea moment of truth,
and the arbitrating virtues of that process for all the nation spaces on
the continent, many of whom are still locked in the throes of the
unfinished nation business. One such lesson, one that can be equally
extracted from several other zones of national coming-in-being and
redefinitions of sovereign entities - Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Israel,
Ireland, Mauritania/Morocco etc - is especially pertinent to the Nigerian
situation, and that lesson is easily summed up in that expression borrowed
from the world of the cinema: "Never say Never, again!"  It is necessary
to emphasize this, no matter what is our deepest heartfelt wishes, based
on habit, pride, sentiment and even - yes - even reason. There are factors
in the shaping of a people into nation entities which unfortunately
transcend reason, and these include mere accidents, the random factor that
was neither wished nor wanted. A single moment of leadership inspiration,
or conversely, of leadership or mass lunacy - usually sanely ,
meticulously induced by a few - in short any such moment of the unforeseen
can for ever shape the destiny of a people, never mind how hard the tidy
schematicists of history, or of wisdom after the event attempt to
manipulate our thinking.

Given this potential of the unforeseen for far-reaching consequences, be
these positive or negative, it is merely idle talk to propose, when a
people are resolved to come together, armed with an equal say in the
destiny of a nation, that there are such things as no-go areas. To make
such a claim is to dig a bottomless pit for the future; one that merely
stores up the seeds of conflict for yet another day. It is much wiser to
commence by admitting even the improbable, the seemingly illogical, and
then, by superior reasoning, and the presentation of far more durable
alternatives, to win the opposing proponents to one's side. We must also
be very careful about the history of the nation, and the so-called
political moralities that appear to dictate our basic propositions. Here
is an example, one that became a kind of talismanic utterance from the
throats of a succession of leaders, especially the military dictators, you
are all familiar with it, and it goes thus: The unity of this nation is
non-negotiable. Now let us ignore the fact that at other times, some of
these same leaders have pronounced the opposite, even by action, such as
the leader who once declared that the basis for unity was no longer
present, then promptly went to war to preserve that very unity, a war that
devastated an already traumatised section of the populace and only ended
up questioning the very unity that it was meant to uphold. We shall not
bother our heads too much with such mid-term conversions by self-serving,
or simply confused custodians of power.

Instead, I propose that we carefully examine what such declarations truly
disguise. What really is this item that is non-negotiable, I mean, in
historic terms? It is Amalgamation, nothing else. What such leaders are
voicing is simply this: the legacy of Amalgamation is non-negotiable.
Observe, it is not the Sovereign Will of the people that is
non-negotiable. It is not the self-determining prerogative of the people
that is non-negotiable. No, it is simply the fact of amalgamation, in
short, the Imperial Will. How absurd we must appear, on close
self-examination, when we expend millions of lives to preserve an alien,
Imperial Will, using of course, and on both sides of contestation the very
latest lethal weaponry and borrowed resources of the Imperial Will,
indenturing ourselves in the process to an Imperial Economy for decades to
comes, all in order to obtain the plaudits of the Imperial cheer-leaders
who make pious noises but continue to feed the destructive lust of their
proteges, already spoon-fed with the broth of simplistic, Sunday-school,
undialectical morality of - what the Imperial Will has joined together,
let no colonial put asunder.

Our first task is to completely destroy this shibboleth. Only the
Sovereign Will of the people is non-negotiable - check the turbulent
histories of all nations on the globe if you doubt this - and the only
question that remains to us is: how do we proceed to ascertain the
Sovereign Will and invest the destiny of a nation with its structural
durability? This, I believe, is what constitution making is all about. And
the reason I have taken this route - arguing for the validity, indeed the
necessity of admitting, indeed encouraging even the most extreme
challenges to the political moralities that fetter us is this: by squarely
confronting such options, we open ourselves to a recognition of the
practical necessity of avoiding them, of making them unattractive through
the strength of counter propositions. Why, let us ask ourselves, was there
such a to-do over the call by sections of the nation for a confederal
structure? I was in Nigeria when the call was made, and was frankly
startled by the responses. The Head of State declared that it was
mischievous, irresponsible etc. etc., while some senators went so far as
to declare the very suggestion an act of treason.

Now, let us look at these positions as objectively as possible. I consider
them, in the first place as nothing but panic reactions, the result of
decades-old, colonial mental conditioning. Treason? But against whom? If
there is any act of treason involved, it is surely against the Imperial
Will, nothing at all to do with the Sovereign Will of the people - which
has yet to be ascertained. The much abused, much distorted concept of a
National Conference is surely the place to ascertain the Sovereign Will of
the people and that has yet to take place. For the avoidance of all
misunderstanding, let me state quite clearly that I am of the opinion that
confederation is fraught with far too many pitfalls to provide the ideal
solution at this moment of our history. However, the very process of
debating the option of confederation opens up avenues of confrontation
with the factors that led to such a call being made in the first place. It
cannot therefore be dismissed out of hand or demonised in any way. To do
this would to declare the protocols of Amalgamation sacrosant, and the
intelligence of the amalgamated peoples inferior to to the agents of that
Imperial Will.  Speaking personally, I even hope that there will also be
calls to submit the entirety of the nation to the laws of the Sharia. This
will enable us to bring such proponents and islamic scholars to educate
the true representatives of the people on the many faces of the Sharia,
what models are being recommended, what is the antecedent history of
spiritual, social and economic privation that led to the call. It will
enable us to identify which sections of our people, and to what extent are
culturally marginalised. Experts on jurisprudence will assist us in
determining if it is indeed true that the present legal system of Nigeria
is based on christian ethics and, if indeed it is, whether it should be
jettisoned altogether or whether there are - just as in Sharia - certain
provisions that are universally applicable and answer the needs of society
for equitable dealing and the demands of natural justice. In short, we
establish a forum where all emotive potential will be exorcised and its
manipulative intent, where it exists, thoroughly exposed.

Constitution making in these times - or indeed at any other - is therefore
not an exercise that takes place in a vacuum or for academic
gratification. It is a socio-political quest for a structure of justice
and thus, anticipates the future, even as it looks backwards into remote
experience and the immediate past of the people it must serve. Thus, we
cannot pretend that the constitution that will emerge will not be tinged
by recollections of our Civil War, any more than we pretend that its
provisions will not be informed by our ordeal at the hands successive
regimens of brutal and incontinent military dictatorships. The
constitution will not be devoid of knowledge of the incumbency sit-tight
syndrome of African leaders and thus, must evolve strategies to arm the
people with the weaponry of authentic democratic authority. The
constitution cannot but be affected by the current militant intransigence
of neglected minorities and the lessons of what happens to a society when
it pauperises and marginalises sections of its own peoples, especially
those from whose land and sweat the bulk of the nation's wealth is
derived.

The constitution cannot but be informed by knowledge that for decades,
certain areas of the country, even under the absolute centralism of
military regimes, have virtually operated their own laws - that is,
refused to be bound by those laws that the rest of the nation religiously
obeyed. Its provisions cannot but take note of the anomaly that even
public services - such as the supply of basic electricity from a national
grid - have been skewed to favour the least productive areas at the
expense of areas where major industries are based, sectors whose revenue
indeed has virtually kept the Electricity Authority's epileptic fits from
degenerating into an incurable condition of muscular dystrophy. Those who
wish to understand the irresponsible lop-sidedness of the allocation of
such a basic commodity as power have only to attempt to digest a situation
where a section within a nation contributes less than ten percent of the
revenues of the Nigerian Electric Power Authority, known as NEPA, but is
supplied with nearly forty per cent of the total power capacity of that
agency, while another which pays forty percent enjoys less than ten per
cent.  This cock-eyed distribution order has been maintained over decades,
obviously as a political decision, resulting in a deliberate retardation
of development of economically aggressive states and the encouragement of
indolence in others.

Even more tragically, the constitution makers of present-day Nigeria
cannot help but take note of the recent massacres that have taken place
all over Nigeria, commencing at the heart of Nigeria's multi-religious
mixture, Kaduna, the result of dormant religious hegemonic impulses that
were deliberately fanned into flames by political reprobates. These are
not superficial skirmishes, and our forty-year history of religious
opportunism has taught us that they are not the last of their kind. Those
who brandish the banner of a non-negotiability of Nigerian unity should
therefore fasten their minds on the root causes of such easy accessibility
to instruments of profoundly divisive eruptions, then instruct us how they
propose to prevent their future occurrence. Can this be done through
specific constitutional provisions? No one suggests for a moment that even
the perfect constitution is the ultimate panacea, but a constitutional
route that addresses the fundamental discontent of which these are
sometimes mere symptons, is clearly one that is ignored at a nation's
peril.

We cannot sufficiently stress the spuriousness of, indeed, the
self-demeaning, non-critical parrotting of the amalgamation agenda. It is
time to come out frankly and declare what has been apparent these many
decades - that amalgamation to one section of the nation means only
hegemonisation to another. The lives and livelihoods that have been
wantonly destroyed, both through so-called spontaneous eruptions all over
the nation, as well as through the terrorist machinery of state, are
proofs that there exist active, substantial, well-placed, heavily
resourced, implacable opponents to the Unity agenda - except on their own
terms. These individuals are not even representative of the masses of
their peoples whom they deliberately hold down in thrall. They establish a
virtually master-serf relation with those masses, a condescending,
contemptuous regard that is anathema to the underdog counterparts in other
parts of the nation. It is in the interest of such a minority that their
own people are never elevated in economic, social and intellectual worth
to the level that the masses in other parts of the nation take for
granted, no matter what actual privations they may undergo, thanks also to
periodic inept leadership in their own regions, and the game of
favouritism at the centre.

We have to evolve a constitution that emasculates such hegemonic
conspiracies, and opens up every access of self-fulfilment equally to all
our citizens. This is the non-negotiable unity that we on our part
understand, not primarily the unity of amalgamation or the unity of the
knife and the throat in the presumed peace of one's home, or place of
work, within a sham unity. We recognise only the unity of peoples across
any and every merely convenient administrative divide, the indissoluble
unity of a nation's humanity with opportunity, resources, responsibility
and fulfilment, with education and housing, a unity in freedom of
association and freedom of religious worship, with freedom to believe or
not to believe, unity with employment and health, with access to justice
under the law, with care and pension in old age and even the right to a
continued productive existence at the twilight of existence. Any other
recourse to the drumbeat of unity is shopworn rhetoric.

And how may this be achieved? We can only state here how the process
viably be commenced, and that is through a meeting of the representatives
of the amalgamated nations, intersected by representatives of group
interests, professional bodies, religious voices, labour unions, student
and academic organisations, social minorities, sitting for one, even two
years if necessary, as the authentic expression of the Sovereign Will of
the people. We believe that this is one effective way of eliciting a
constitution that is truly of the people and speaks to the people. The
currently 'elected' legislative bodies who constantly express the fear
that their 'sovereignty' will thereby be eroded are simply toying with the
destiny of the nation. A new constitution, through whatever process it
comes into being, will not in any case take effect until the virtual
termination of their so-called sovereign mandate, so this argument is
clearly untenable, and can only be proferred through ignorance or
inattentiveness.

The concept is not new. In 1966, after the second military coup in the
nation, the putative military government of the nation organised a series
of encounters that were dubbed meetings of 'Leaders of thought'.
Expectedly, as the then insecure regime consolidated its power, it
resolved in its own wisdom that such meetings had outlived their
usefulness. Today, more than ever, such an encounter - but much more
representative, less arbitrary - has become inevitable. At such a congress
of peoples, all options must be tabled - centralism, federalism,
confederalism, anarchism, communism, monarchism, theocracy, secularism,
even dictatorship or - as has been proposed, probably as a tongue-in-cheek
expression of desperation - a return to colonial tutelage!  There must be
room at the forum for both sages and madmen, for visionaries and
pragmatists, for babes-in-the-woods and gerontocrats, for dyed-in-the-wool
ideologues and laissez-faire fatalists. We must ignore the old military
language of No-Go areas. It is the destiny of the whole, not of a part,
that is up for negotiation, and there will be room both for passion and
objectivity. Above all however, let no one deny this inalienable right of
a people: the right of any people, at any moment, under any circumstances,
to embark upon the quest of coming into their own self-defining,
self-constitutive history.

Wole Soyinka

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