THE invitation of Professor Wole Soyinka to the just concluded Lagos Book and Art Festival was, as is usual with WS, an event all by itself. From poetry to activism, and from scholarship to Nigerian politics, Wole Soyinka’s intellectual pungency has not been diminished by age. At the occasion, he put paid to all speculations about his religious affiliation. When asked what specifically was his religion, WS responded that he had never felt there was an imperative for him to have one. While most already knew that he was not a Christian or Muslim, most are now shocked that he denied being an òrìsà worshipper. According to him, “I have never felt I needed one. I am a mythologist. I believe that people have a right and cannot help creating mythologies around themselves, around their experience about what they project from the inner recesses of their minds as answers to questions. And so, I find nothing wrong with utilizing mythologies as part and parcel of my creative warehouse. But religion? No, I don’t worship any deity. But I consider deities as creatively real and therefore my companions in my journey in both the real and imaginative worlds.”
This definitive response of Prof. Soyinka has, expectedly, been stretched over whichever way by commentators, especially on social media. I feel compelled to use it as a springboard for outlining a different concern, one that WS is not a stranger to—the relationship between the Pyrates Confraternity (PC), moral degeneration among the youth and the God factor as a significant variable in the urgency of moral rebirth in Nigeria. Any talk of the PC brings to mind the terrible loss of innocence of an idea that was well- intentioned, but that metamorphosed according to the ravages of social anomie. When Soyinka wrote the Season of Anomie in 1973, it was a literary depiction of the emerging corruption that would eventually incapacitate the Nigerian society. And 49 years later, that anomic situation has further raised the issue of moral rebirth as a critical component of Nigeria’s development unfolding.
I recently came across the interview granted a former friend of WS and co-founder of the Pyrates Confraternity, the late Prof. Olumuyiwa Awe, who spoke about his participation in the group, his conversion and dissociation from the PC, and the degeneration of that group into a violent cult. Not surprisingly, when Prof. Awe got born-again and became a Christian, his ministerial responsibility revolved around cultism and the need to rehabilitate former fraternity and cult members into Christ, and hence into a new sense of responsibility to the Nigerian society. What is intriguing for me is simple: two bosom friends who co-founded a confraternity not only diverged on relationship with it, but eventually resolved their spiritual journey in two different ways. Professor Wole Soyinka still retains a critical and patronal relationship with Pyrates Confraternity/National Association of Sea Dogs (NAS), the late Prof. Awe severed all ties with the confraternity and indeed went on to establish a ministry that was meant to provide spiritual succor and direction for former cultists. Of course, WS has explained, ad nauseum, that it is disingenuous to conflate (con)fraternity with cultism. The charitable and humanitarian endeavors that characterized NAS now is vastly different from what the late Prof. Awe would have wanted— the total disestablishment of NAS and all other (oc)cultic groups in the Nigerian society. Of course, both co-founders are committed to the project of moral rebirth within the Nigerian society. But that must come from different spiritual perspectives.
When the Pyrates Confraternity came into existence, it emerged within the context of an ideological framing. The Magnificent Seven—Wole Soyinka, Ikpehare Aig-Imoukhuede, Olumuyiwa Awe, Pius Oleghe, Nathaniel Oyelola, Sylvanus Egbuche and Ralph Opara—were motivated to challenge the congealing elitism of the upper-middle class in the Nigerian society of the 1950s. The confraternity was thus founded on the ideals of social justice and the protection of human rights from the high-handedness of elitism. The Confraternity was also particularly irked by the increasing tribalist sensibility that was rife on Nigerian university campuses. The increasing incidence of obscene wealth and tribalism fueled the humanistic and radical ideological orientation of the Confraternity. The idea of the brotherhood of all humankind, which is the central objective of Marxism as well as all human religious institutions, is at the heart of the Confraternity’s underlying philosophy. Martin Luther King, Jr. must have had the Confraternity in mind when he argued that
“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” Wole Soyinka has been uncompromising not only in his belief that justice is the first condition of humanity, but also in the conviction that the societal transformation away from social anomie requires concerted efforts of individuals and groups. Let me unpack my thoughts. Nigeria faces a significant challenge in facilitating the moral rebirth that constitutes the most significant fundament in transforming its socioeconomic and sociopolitical frameworks. At the base of Nigeria’s postcolonial predicaments is the function of a moral deficit that frustrates a thorough commitment to the dynamics of good governance. In its basic form, political and bureaucratic corruption is a moral issue that speaks to the predilection of individuals—politicians, bureaucrats, public functionaries, etc.—to siphon the commonwealth for private considerations. Thus, moral corruption stands at the core of the disconnection between the government and the governed. Furthermore, this moral deficit is equally responsible for the loss of human dignity arising from the dysfunction of institutional dynamics. Administrative institutions have broken down and have lost their efficiency because those manning them have lost their moral compass. The healthcare system in Nigeria, for instance, has become moribund because people profit from sicknesses and deaths.
And this moral decadence becomes aggravated with the advent of a youth counterculture, from cybercrimes and frauds to a virulent sociocultural disregard for ennobling values. Even the very idea of a cult has been transposed out of its original ritualized essence into a violent counterpoint to all things meaningful. “Fraternity,” from the Latin fraternus, relates to brotherhood. Indeed, the idea of “confraternity” has its root in a Christian charity and pious organisation of laypeople. It was this idea of brotherhood that signal its significance in colleges and universities from where Soyinka and friends picked it up as a nodal point for ideological advocacy.
In fact, the idea of the Ogboni confraternity embeds judicial, political and economic function that grounds the Yoruba worldview in the ordering of the society. That commitment to societal unity and functional relevance is still preserved in the metamorphosis of the Ogboni to its reformed essence in the Reformed Ogboni Confraternity. When the first internal crisis surfaced in the Pyrates Confraternity, it was the prelude to an unwholesome transformation that caricatured the original objective of upholding human dignity and agitating for a just society.
Nigeria is essentially out of moral articulation; we have lost our moral compass, and the values required to put decency and dignity at the core of our national reconstruction. Ana Navarro, the Nicaraguan-American commentator and strategist, one noted insistently: “There is a minimum requirement of morality, of moral compass, of decency, of moral empathy. And if you are incapable of meeting that minimum requirement, you can’t even talk to me about policy.” She is right! At the very core of good governance is value reorientation that, at least at the minimum, directs the path of policymaking in ways that improve the quality of life of the citizens. What is not clear is where that value should derive.
This is not a discourse that Soyinka would want to be involved, but the late Prof. Awe would insist that the spiritual experience of being born-again is a sufficient condition for a moral rebirth — “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” The newness that comes from that spiritual rebirth refers to being reborn with a new set of values and virtues that practically makes the person a new-born. Here, the God-factor is a potent moral force for moral rejuvenation. Of course, a lot of critics of the Christian faith will look at the larger picture in keying into the moral force of Christianity. The absolutist epistemology that grounds the Abrahamic faiths—Christianity, Judaism and Islam — undermines the basis for social and national relation. The three religions are founded on an exclusivist and exclusionary frame that differentiate humanity into the believers and the unbelievers. And this distinction is circumscribed by monotheist belief in one God and a set of conditionalities on how that God can be accessed. For Christianity, for example, salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. Any other mean is counterfeit. And all sorts of religious violence have been perpetrated on this dichotomy.
The African traditional religion still remains one of the victims of religious discrimination. The fundamentalism that is the logical derivation of an exclusionary religiosity violently confronts any and all appearances of evil, including “heathen” and “idolatrous” practices. When the Colonial missionaries confronted the traditional Africans, they only saw souls who needed to be delivered from savage barbarism, rather than a set of humanity who had developed a cultural heritage that had sustained them for centuries. The Yoruba traditional religion is famous for its accommodationist dynamics. There is no exclusionary epistemology that demonizes the Other. And that is because traditional African religion does not insist that it has the whole of the natural and the supernatural realms all figured out. It considered itself just one framework out of many for understanding the cosmos and all its dimensions.
By considering himself a mythologist, rather than a worshipper, Wole Soyinka calls on an eternal theme in his literary and nonfictional works—the role that myths and history can play in the renewal and regeneration of the human society. Myths, WS will agree, provides a storehouse of symbols that allows us to keep reimagining the possibilities that are embodied by the human spirit and human will. Mythology takes the idea of renewal and rebirth seriously, and Soyinka remains the arch-activist in his commitment to the transformation of the Nigerian society through mythological reassessment and reformulation. Indeed, it is in this sense that he prefers being regarded as a mythologist than a worshipper, even of the òrìsà religion. According to him, “But I consider deities as creatively real and therefore my companions in my journey in both the real world and the imaginative world.” It is in this sense that Soyinka can travel with Ogun, the Yoruba divinity of war and creativity, as a mythological re-enactor of change and rebirth. In Ogun, the human society is always in the acting of being reborn.
How does this Soyinka’s vision of the relationship between mythology and transformation pan out within the Nigerian state and her urgent need for a moral rebirth? Or more specifically, we can ask about the feasibility of upholding an exclusivist religious and moral framework for value orientation in a plural context like Nigeria. I am too enlightened to know what the consequences would be. Fanaticism. A fanatical sensibility has the propensity to recreate the society around an autocratic image or idea, rather than allowing for a collective and concerted recreational essence. If, as Soyinka argues, everyone has the right to create the myth around which experiences can be grasped and better understood, then we arrive at an ecumenical point that commits everyone to viable alternatives of individual and social change. This act of will, demands in Soyinka’s mythological framework, that the renewal of the inner self be translated into an active outer quest for societal change and communal transformation.
Mythology does not recreate the societal possibilities in the image of any gods or divinities; rather, it allows for a revolutionary recreative possibilities drawing from the entire spiritual energies a society can manufacture. I read this as a society’s capacity to draw on the spiritual belief of a Prof. Olumuyia Awe in the transforming power of Jesus Christ, a Muslim’s conviction in the peace-potential of Islam, and a traditionalist’s communitarian and relational capacity to draw everyoneand every belief into a convivial framework of interaction. At a very deep level, the moral energies of all the religions represented within Nigeria’s religious landscape have the capacity to contribute to the search for moral rebirth. I mean to say that Nigeria requires a dynamic framework of mythological narration—through a national integrity and moral system—that speaks to all Nigerians equally within a broad moral prism they can all identify with; a prism that is not discriminatory or exclusivist—a framework that is undergirded by the objective of regenerating Nigeria’s decadent social fabric by appealing to the very best in the religious myths and symbols that humans have created themselves.
Religions are meant to alleviate humans’ existential anxieties and national disarticulation. And this is where they serve the purpose of assisting in Nigeria’s search for a moral reformation as a precondition for her sustainable good governance. In this sense, the late Prof. Olumuyiwa Awe and Professor Wole Soyinka want the same thing—a transformed country guided by the best in moral rearticulation. This was what led them to the vision of the Pyrates Confraternity in the first place. And when that idea became caricatured, this is what led to Awe’s dissociation and the embrace of what he considered a better alternative. And this, it seems to me, is what keeps reanimating Soyinka’s mythological reenactment of societal possibilities, either through the confraternal philosophy of brotherhood, or through the cosmic vision of any of the Yoruba deities and divinities.
To achieve wholesome framework of moral armaments that would sustain her quest for a postcolonial democratic and developmental transformation, Nigeria needs a moral discourse—the type that swings around the possibilities typified by Awe and Soyinka, rather than a fundamentalist understanding of a value reorientation that demonizes others for what they belief and the myths they have chosen to recreate their own experiences. God is a factor that is a real force for transformation for some. And for others, God remains a creative myth that could facilitate transformative experiences at the individual and societal levels. Either way, the God-factor is potent.
- Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary, is Professor, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies