By Wole Soyinka
I shall begin on a morbid note. One of the horror stories that emerged from the Daesh (Isis) controlled parts of Iraq was the gruesome tale of the mother who had a daughter affected by wanderlust, even in that endangered zone. One day, when she looked for her to attend to some home chores, she found that she had gone missing yet again. As she searched, she shouted in frustration: ”As Allah is my witness, I’ll kill that girl when I catch up with her”. A neighbor overheard and reported her to the Hisbah. The mother was summoned by the mullahs who ordered her to put the child to death, since she had sworn by Allah. She refused, so they took the child by the legs and smashed her head against a wall. End of story. True or false? It certainly was published as true testimony. That is all I have to say to the ”literalists” who obsess over a time scheme of their own assessment.
Thus, failure to have torn my Green Card ”the moment” that I learnt that Mr. Donald Trump had won the presidential elections of the USA. It did not matter what I was doing at the time – teaching, eating, swimming, praying, under the shower or whatever. Or a family member saying, ”Wait for me!” – speculatively please, no such disturbance ever took place. If it did however, I am supposed to contact the Nigerian media – to whom I have never spoken, and who never contacted me – except one – to beg permission to pursue a realistic definition of ”the moment”. Media fascism is however a subject for another day,
For now, that moment having passed, I must be culpable of breaking a solemn promise. By the way, since we are on the terrain of literalism, has anyone attempted to ”tear” or rip apart a Green Card? Even a Credit Card? For the average hands, that would take some doing! I have actually considered garden shears for a dramatic resolution, this being closer to my real profession.
I have been asked several times – interestingly only by the foreign media, with the exception of THE INTERVIEW – whether indeed I did make such a statement at any time, and whether I still intended to carry it out, and the answer remains a categorical ’Yes’. Not recently, mind you, nor, in the inaccurate blazing PUNCH headline of Thursday Nov. 16 , but in the accurate wording that is contained in the actual story on page 9. So, where and when did I first notably make that declaration. Answer: Addressing a group of students at Oxford University and fielding questions. It was NOT a public lecture. I have never summoned a press conference on the issue. The organizers did not invite the (unregistered) Association of Nigerian Internet habituees. It was the accustomed student seminar format that moved from the light-hearted to the serious, the ridiculous and (hopefully) the profound and back again. I even used the encounter to compare my threat with the public antics of a former president – unnamed, I assure you – who tore up his party membership card of a moribund ruling party. Whatever my failings, I do not lack originality, and I was not about to be find myself indebted to that contumacious general!
Nonetheless, did I mean what I said – that is, ’exiting’ the USA? Absolutely, and that is the very theme of this address. It will not attempt to deal with the notion of an exit time-table as conceived by others, as if even the incumbent US president and his replacement are not even permitted over two months to pack their bags and prepare to move in and out of the White House, but must exchange positions the very moment that a winner was proclaimed. Anyone would think that the Brexit Vote made it imperative for the Brits to plunge into the English Channel instantly, instead of negotiating two years for an orderly withdrawal. Plebians like me of course need far less time, nevertheless they do not uproot overnight. Any other proposition speaks of a permanent agenda, of frustration and hidden histories – such as opportunities to rehabilitate themselves in the public eye. There is also recession in the land, and I can understand the psychology of impotence and thus, transferred aggression. Let it be understood – before I move even one word further – that I interrupted my present commitment in the United States solely for an urgent meeting with the Ooni of Ife on an ongoing project. I am obliged to return to the US in a matter of two or three days to complete my interrupted mission. Fortunately, that mision is guaranteed to end long before the United States becomes Trumpland Real Estate.
And now we move from absurd, frankly idiotic distractions to Substance. Why, in any case, am I pulling out of the United States? Why – as demanded of me by some of my genuinely concerned and sober interlocutors around the world – why such an extreme reaction? Why the terminal response to the elections of another land? Also, and perhaps most crucially, why am I left virtually mouth agape at the furore my stance has engendered? I simply fail to understand why this has gone beyond a flurry of public commentary and hilarious cartoons, and turned into a masturbatory for some, a vomitory for others, and an epilleptic sanatorium for a self-reproducing number? Why, in genuine bafflement, do I experience astonishment? Why do people find this commonplace, accessible-to-all act so extraordinary?
The answers to all the forgeoing can be summed up in a familiar expression: a life of environmental sanitation, or call it – sanity. My temperament requires a certain minimum level of environmental health to function properly. I use the word ’temperament’ as a historical fact, a personality development that first manifested itself all the way back to student days, and has remained consistent all my life. Nowhere is perfect, certainly not all the time. Nonetheless, every human being has this need, however approximate, some perhaps with objective awareness, others intuitively, some more acutely and intensely than others, especially when defined by their professions, occupations, social and other involvements. The craving is common to all humanity – if I am wrong, then I must have dropped from Mars.
Here now is a potted history of the choices made by this contributor over the years in pursuit of this need, all the way from student days. Read carefully and learn!
As a student in Leeds University, one of whose subjects was Spanish, I steadily refused to accompany other students on long vacation job opportunities in Spain, designed to make us master the spoken part of the language. Apart from the Isle of Man, I went to France and Holland instead, whose languages were not part of my studies. And yet I had already fallen in love with flamenco music – played for us from records by our Spanish lecturer, and was dying to watch flamenco dancing in the flesh. Language study however involves, as we all know, the study of a people´s history and culture. I had encountered the history of the Spanish Civil War, the violent overthrow of a legitimate Republican government, and the ’white terror’ of the Falangist leader, General Franco. I identified with the volunteer soldiers of the International Brigade. Spain was under boycott in parts of Europe, so there was a choice to be made. I refused to step into Spain until years after I had graduated and returned home, and General Franco was certified dead and buried. A personal choice.
Australia: It is now some twelve to fifteen years since I issued a Red Card to Australia, unannounced. That Red Card subsists till today. The occasion was a conference of PEN International, and I had made the usual visa application. When the forms arrived, I found the requirements for applicants over 70 years (I think) so obnoxious, intrusive, and degrading that I refused to fill them. Negotiations with the Australian government by Australian PEN led to an exception being made for me. When it was communicated, I wrote back: Absolutely Not. I refused to be the token geriatric. That application document was highly disrespectful of age and I wondered what kind of mentality had crafted it, wondered if the Australians themselves knew what image was being projected in their name. I said to our go-betweens: Not for a moment am I equating myself with Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela, but they are older. Does it mean that, if they decide to visit Australia, you would subject them to this form of degradation?
Till today, I have routinely declined any invitation to Australia, a country I had visited years earlier to sumptuous hospitality. I learnt some time ago that the obnoxious requirements have been removed but have not bothered to check. The reason was this follow-up: a journalist heard about my absence from the PEN conference and made enquiries. He interviewed me and I told him the cause. After visiting the Australian embassy for their side of the story, he reported back that the diplomat in charge responded to his questions with the comment that the embassy was too busy with more important matters. did not make a fuss. My position was based on principle but, basically, it was a personal affair between me and Australia. It remains so till today.
China: I did not, could not visit China for years after Tienanman Square. I was dying to visit that remarkable nation of culture and history, itching to go with every invitation. The Chinese ambassador in Nigeria tried to win me over after the ousting of the Gang of Four. I declined, but accepted the books he had told me did not exist while the Thought of Chairman Mao ruled the waves. Even when, years later, one of the top American travel agents organized a visit of Nobel laureates with mouth watering honoraria, I could not bring myself to join others. Constantly swimming before my eyes was the image of armored trucks and tanks running over students encamped in Tienanmen Square, leaving behind rivulets of blood. Before I eventually accepted an invitation from the University of Beijing, I checked with some of the dissident poets – was it a decent time to visit? Had sufficient time passed for the average survivor of that carnage to obtain closure? Until they gave me the green light, I refused all invitations. Again I did not fuss. I did not call an international press conference in the interim.
Back home to our continent – this time, post-Apartheid South Africa. How many of these hysterical purveyors of Internet obscenities – including some printed media – are aware that for nearly two years, I handed South Africa the Red Card? And why? Because of her then astonishing display of xenophobia, most notably against Nigerians. I was a personal recipient of that treatment which took place – of all occasions imaginable – on the occasion of my visit to deliver a three-part memorial lecture in honour of the late Nelson Mandela. Undoubtedly, on that very occasion, there had been a misunderstanding over visa issuance. Nonetheless, taken in the context of the rampant humiliation of Nigerians at the hands of South African authorities, and the South African civic pockets also, I went to the final lecture with my luggage. The moment I concluded the last of my lectures, I insisted on being driven to the airport, silently shaking off the South African dust off my feet for ever. It was only to my hosts that I uttered the declaration that they were seeing me in their nation for the last time. Until I withdrew the Red Card, I did not summon the Press.
Now, how did that boycott end? It is a remarkable story which deserves its place in the narratives of sheer serendipity. It involved Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, an enlightened Head of Nigerian Immigration and, indirectly, Archishop Desmond Tutu and Albie Sachs, former chairman of the South African Constitutional Court. Also, retrospectively, the role played by Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, during my ordeal at the airport. While the boycott lasted however, I declined between seven to nine invitations to South Africa, including a UNESCO event that was however billed to take place there. The ending of that boycott, like the beginning, was ultimately my private and personal decision.
Shall we take Cuba, that revolutionary island where I was personally decorated by Fidel Castro with the Felix Valera medal of honour? Despite all efforts by the then Cuban ambassador to Nigeria, and very valued friends and colleagues in Cuba, I issued her my usual silent card some years ago. I found the execution of those ill-fated adventurers who tried to escape on a raft excessive, not forgetting the shooting down of a hi-jacked plane. Were their acts condemnable? Indisputably! Did the punishment fit the crime however? My answer is obvious – No. Jose Saramago, the late Portuguese Nobelist had apparently taken the same position, as I found out when we both met at a subsequent event in Cuba when our Cuban boycotts eventually ended. Were we wrong or right? That is immaterial. The point is that neither called a press conference or publicised our individual decisions. They were personal decisions, made independently.
And so on, and on, and on….brief to prolonged, reluctant to instant boycotts of places of normally congenial roosting, for a variety of reasons, and dictated by individual temperaments. And so we come finally to Donald Trump, and the sometimes travesty of collective choice.
I was in New York during the run-up to elections. I watched this face, its body language, listened to his uncouth, racist language, his imbecillic harangues, the insults to other peoples, other races, especially the Hispanics, Africans and Afro-Americans, even citing once – I was told – Nigeria as an instance of the burdensome occupation of global space. I watched and listened, disbelievingly, since this was America, supposedly now freed to a large extent – as we like to believe and have a right to expect – from its lamentable history of racism. But I saw, not only this would-be president but – enthusing followers on populist a populist roll at the expense of minorities! I followed the fluctuating poll statistics. I began to warn my colleagues, friends, my family: listen, this thing is happening right before our very eyes. This is how it begins, how humanity ends up with Cambodia, with Rwanda, with Da’esh. We are watching a Hitlerite phenomenon. We are witnessing history in reverse, unravelling before a complacent world. I said to them, if this man wins, I am relocating. It had gone beyond a joke. They all said, it will never happen. Even a day to elections, some Nigerians, with whom I had a meeting in New York, waved off the possibility. The entire world goofed – T.B. Joshua and other pundits, charlatans and experts alike. A colleague at Harvard mentioned the celebrations that would follow the election, but shortly after, confessed his concerns, cursing the FBI man who had chosen to intervene at an unprecedented stage in the elections.
Again, I said to him, I shall relocate if Trump wins. He said, I’m coming with you, echoing numerous other colleagues to whom I had sounded the same alert. I promised them all political asylum! So, it was nothing new, the Oxford comment.
Whatever language I used is my familiar language, not the language of Da’esh or its local impotent surrogates.
Finally, here is something very personal, but I have to answer the question of my genuine interlocutors in matching sincerity.
Our US base and family home in California – Abacha instigated – faces a rock hill known as Mount Baldy. It has survived the menace of fires, so close to disaster that we were placed on evacuation alert a number of times and were once actually bundled out by the police for over forty-eight hours. A fireball overflew the house on one occasion, landed some distance from ours and consumed that unlucky home. Not too far away, an escaping family took a wrong turn and lost their lives in the flames. Nothing of such menacing interludes ever brought to the fore the remotest consideration of relocating! However – and let this be stressed to all those who are strangers to the world of images – for this individual called Wole Soyinka, the superimposition of the Trumpian face on those bare mountain slabs began to take on reality, a reality that probably became even three-dimensional, like the massive faces of those former US presidents that remain gouged into the peaks of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, visited by millions. My environment, albeit a substitute one for our authentic home in the forests of Ijegba – had become compromised. That is all I shall write on the reality of superimposition – the notion of waking up every day of habitation and seeing on that mountain slab the face of Donald Trump on my borrowed preserve, where, from upstairs, I sometimes stood in bouts of contemplation, especially whenever the house was empty.
For me, something is gone. Again, I speak for myself, not for my family who are, in any case, also American citizens, an acquisition that I have declined I cannot recall how often. Let me repeat, even that portion of empathy that comes from intimate occupancy and usage over the years, and where the products of my ”extra mileage” were born, has become violated. It is still home, second home, but one individual named Donald Trump – and his cohorts – have ruined its hard-earned companionship and serenity, built up over the years. As I keep repeating, these issues are personal.
And so, back from our quick excursions to Asia and the Antipodes, what is so special about America that an agenda of abandonment creates such hysteria? I am incapable of double standards in these matters. Why do individuals feel threatened? I have never invited anyone to join me in my purely personal odyssey, begun before most of these sniveling upstarts were born. Is it the Green Card that sets America apart? Then perhaps it iis time to repay the compliment with a Red card, as in soccer. I am not aware that the world’s oxygen storage tanks are located in the US of A, so that we cannot breathe away from it. I shall always compliment the American success story on many fronts, including the fact that millions of migrants derive their very living – including crucial send-home remittances – from her generosity. Many of us will always be grateful to her government at the time for sheltering both our persons and our mission during the Abacha years. However, we are also individuals, with specific needs, different sensibilities, and definitions of productive environments and thus, up to this moment, my Wolexit stands.
It is a personal thing. Perhaps it will help even further if I remind you of what I wrote in my memoirs: YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN. There I confessed that my greatest – and irrational – fear in exile was that if I died outside Nigeria, my well-meaning family, colleagues and friends, would bring my body home. I took firm steps. The thought of resting within that earth while it was trampled over by a despotic monster whom I thoroughly despised, was the absurd but all-consuming fear that I had all through that deadly struggle. Obviously that fear has been eliminated, but then, having watched this American Wonder rise to power through a contemptible denigration of my sector of humanity, through mockery and jeers of my origin, I no longer find that environment congenial either for work or leisure, and I have signaled my unambiguous intent to exit. No one else is invited.
Well now, a remarkable development. I stated earlier that the issue is not just one individual called Donald Trump, but the human environment that he and his ilk have spawned, one that contributes to a toxic environment across the globe, with the rise of ultra-nationalism and exclusionist politics. That environment is however engendering counter aspects to that created by Trump’s lowest common denominator in followership. Spontaneous protests have sprung up across the country. Too late, I’m afraid, and ineffectual, since Democracy has the last word, and its rituals have been concluded. The law of the land will prevail. However, I have been considerably cheered by the spontaneous manifestation of this rejection of the shame and horror that a ”majority” has imposed on the totality. Americans will have to live with it, but there is hope. Even before the street protests, something rather strange had taken place.
On the very morning of the conclusion of elections when I switched away from one news channel to the next, the screen went suddenly blank. Then came a scrolled message that called for a quiet, peaceful revolution. It went on and on, without voice or images, and it was non-partisan, since it rejected not only Trump but Clinton as befitting candidates but declared American democracy a sham. It went on to complicate matters by identifying an individual – Bernie Saunders – by name as an acceptable leader of a new movement. It excoriated past governance policies, dismissed even Obamacare as a failure – I disagree by the way – and urged viewers again and again to LET’S TALK ABOUT IT. LET’S MEET ON THE INTERNET. LET A PEACEFUL REVOLUTION BEGIN etc. etc. It could have been Channel 33 or 34, I am no longer sure. A serious, viable movement? Maybe not sustainable under the present system, but it goes into that multi-faceted network that leads to the eventual sanitization of any socio-political environment. And then, latest of the latest, the state of California has mounted a referendum for secession, within her constitutional rights. Quite an unpredictable prospect but, much as I am predisposed to upheavals by vox populi, I prefer to be out of the environment, being a non-citizen.
Let me end with a Red Card to those noisome creatures, the nattering nit-wits of Internet: maybe Trumpland is not as despicable as the Naijaland you impose on our reality from your secure cesspits of anonymity. Go back to school. Your problem is ignorance, ignorance of whatever subject you so readily comment upon. Learn to study your subject before opening up on issues beyond your grasp. Sometimes you make one feel like swapping one green for another, out of embarrassment for occupying the same national space as you. But don’t get nervous, or start jumping for joy too soon – the Nigerian passport is just as tough to rip, physically, as is the Green Card, so I’ll stay put in my private Green Belt – the one I have named the Autonomous Republic of Ijegba. I negotiate my relations with both peoples and nations from its internal protocols – yes, that is indeed arrogance for you, but an arrogance of several decades’ principled growth. I carry that patch of green with me, everywhere, in a secure, invisible, and inaccessible pouch! It is that warehouse of ingrained sensibilities that engendered my decision.
WOLEXIT stands – I coined that deliberately, to signify repossession of my space of legitimate decisions. The media can nitpick over details – that is your profession. At long last, totally oblivious of the ongoing cacophony that had sprung up in my absence, I finally did receive for the first time a brief questionnaire from a Nigerian journal, The INTERVIEW, and one other. I responded. My exit time schema applies, not yours. If it even becomes convenient to bring it forward, I intend to do so, but please don’t come at me with plaints of time imprecision. I never discussed it with you, nor invited you to a private decision whose execution was already in the making. Do not try to browbeat me. It’s a waste of time – all you have to do is immerse yourselves in my antecedents.