Nigeria decides: Wole Soyinka on 'cycle of evil'

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Media captionWole Soyinka: "We cannot continue this cycle of evil and irresponsibility"

Nigeria's Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka has strongly criticised the two main contenders in Nigeria's presidential election.

In a BBC interview, he insisted that the country should have come up with far better options and described President Goodluck Jonathan, who is running for a second full-term, and opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari as "problematic candidates".

"There is a huge albatross hanging [around] the necks of the two main candidates. I can understand the dilemma which many voters have," Mr Soyinka said, adding that one contender is troubled by the present, the other by the past.

Speaking before the polls were delayed from 14 February to 28 March, he also decried the lack of fair play in the election, saying the spirit of "let's have a fair war" was not yet deep enough.


The incumbent's campaign for re-election has been hampered by his handling of the six-year insurgency by militant Islamist group Boko Haram and Mr Soyinka faults Mr Jonathan for the failure to rescue the more than 200 schoolgirls abducted from Chibok in April 2014.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls focused international attention on Boko Haram's insurgency
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Boko Haram is fighting to create an Islamic state
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Officials say more than three million people have been displaced

"What happened was a clear failure of leadership - a slow reaction, an inadequate reaction and response," the highly respected author told the BBC, stressing that while responsibility for the Boko Haram crisis rests with President Jonathan, the government cannot be held solely responsible for the entire jihadist problem as it began under previous governments.

Mr Soyinka was imprisoned for almost two years when Nigeria was under military rule in 1967.

In his memoirs entitled You Must Set Forth At Dawn, he had few kind words when recalling the days when Mr Buhari was the military leader.

Playing on the phrase "If you sup with the devil make sure you have a long spoon", he said then of him: "In my calculation no spoon existed long enough to justify the risk of even an impromptu snack."

'Back to the trenches'

Today, Mr Soyinka stands by that but is ready to accept that the general may have changed for the better.

"Buhari and his partner General Tunde Idiagbon, after [former military head of state] Sani Abacha, I think they represented the most brutal face of military dictatorship. There is no question about that," Mr Soyinka said.

"But the environment changes, circumstances change and… I look at the possibility of a genuine internal transformation in some individuals. I've been disappointed before and we must always be ready to be disappointed again," he added.

Goodluck Jonathan in focus:

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A supporter wears a mask of the Nigerian leader
  • Has a penchant for fedora hats
  • Regular church-goer
  • Middle name, Ebele, means "God's wish"
  • Fond of saying he never had shoes as a child because of poverty
  • Told journalists in 2012 that he would not declare his assets because he did not "give a damn about it, even if you criticise me from heaven"
  • Denied reports in 2014 that his net worth is about $100m (£62m)

Explore Nigeria in maps

Five questions about delay

Goodluck Jonathan in profile

For decades, Mr Soyinka has been at the forefront of the pro-democracy struggle in Nigeria and today he warns that people should be ready to "go back to the trenches" and stand up against misrule, whoever wins the election.

"Nigerians should be prepared to deal with any new betrayal by any ruler with the same passion and commitment…. as they did with Sani Abacha because we cannot continue this cycle of repetitious evil and irresponsibility."

The vote was controversially postponed due to security concerns, even though many suspect political reasons for the delay.

Election officials said the military would be too busy fighting Boko Haram in the north-east to be able to help with security across the nation.

Muhammadu Buhari in focus:

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Will the former general get the kiss of approval in February - his fourth attempt to win at the ballot box?
  • Age 71
  • Military ruler of Nigeria from 1984 to 1985
  • Deposed in a coup
  • Poor human rights record
  • Seen as incorruptible
  • Disciplinarian - civil servants late for work had to do frog jumps
  • Muslim from northern Nigeria
  • Survived an apparent Boko Haram assassination attempt

Sharing Nigeria's cake

Does a candidate's religion matter?

Muhammadu Buhari in profile

As part of the effort to counter the jihadist threat, Mr Soyinka called for "an aerial bombardment with weapons of the mind" in addition to the military offensive.

"All kinds of propaganda leaflets should have been raining in those areas because not all members of Boko Haram are convinced. They need to know there is an exit and the state will take care of them. Then the waverers' minds have to be reinforced on the positive side - on the side of humanity," Mr Soyinka said.

"The kind of propaganda being used now between the political parties, just a fraction of that should have gone into attacking Boko Haram," he added.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Most northerners are Muslims who come from the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Christianity is the main religion in the south

The conflict has once again exposed the divisions between Nigeria's mainly Muslim north and Christian south, which at times make this feel like two different nations.

'Notoriously expensive'

Africa's first Nobel laureate hopes the country will stay intact but does he think the map of Nigeria will be the same in 10 years time?

"I doubt it very much. The threats of dismemberment have been going on so long that one of these days there is going to be a wish fulfilled.

"The idea of either dismembering at the cost of human lives, as the Boko Haram people are trying to do with their caliphate delusions or to force people to stay together as happened in the case of the [1967-1970] Biafra war, it doesn't make sense, it's an abuse of intelligence.

"Arrangements can be made in which people stick together under protocols of association which allow some kind of autonomy for certain issues and other cases centralised policies," he said.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nigeria is Africa's main oil producer, but has been hit by fuel shortages

The election winner will face immense economic challenges with the drop in the oil price and the depreciating currency, the naira.

The problem is likely to be exacerbated by the fact that Nigeria's elections are notoriously expensive. The BBC was told of a senator needing a campaign war chest of at least 200m naira ($980,000; £640,000).

Mr Soyinka says the staggering amounts will inevitably lead to broken electoral promises.

"What does this make of the incoming government? This money came in from somewhere. It means such candidates are going to owe, they are obliged to interests which are not necessarily in the best interests of the nation," Mr Soyinka said.

"So a lot of the electorate will be disappointed at the failure - the reneging on electoral promises - because there may not be funds for the fulfilment of those promises," he said.

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