When Wole Soyinka spoke at a dialogue session in Lagos, he rolled back the years and made the place his own.
Ripples Nigeria has brought some of the smartest people in the country into one room for a dialogue on Nigeria (what else?).
The theme is ‘Rebuilding trust in a divided Nigeria’.
There is Professor Pat Utomi who couldn’t make it and has to be represented, there is Reuben Abati who served as President Jonathan’s spokesperson, there is former Anambra Governor Peter Obi, there is Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi of the Transition Monitoring Group and there is Wole Soyinka.
Soyinka will be 83 years of age in July, but you wouldn’t know it from the energy he still radiates. His silver hair still sits nicely on a man who is referred to as the conscience of the nation these days. He has his trademark waist jacket on and a smile that is at once mischievous and sarcastic. His sleeves are rolled up and his gait is upright.
The man just continues to roll back the years.
“I’ll be leaving as soon as I deliver my speech”, Soyinka announces with a chuckle. “In fact, I didn’t want to scare the organisers before now. So, I asked what 1;30 meant in the letter they sent to me. It was ambiguous. Was it that I was going to be speaking for one hour and thirty minutes or I could choose between speaking for thirty minutes or an hour? In any case, you’ll be lucky if I speak for 45 minutes. Okay, I’ll be generous. So, I’ll speak for 46 minutes!”
But once he settles into his task, the Professor in the man returns. He’s at home here, speaking on the topic, ‘From Miyetti to Haiti, notes from a solidarity visit’.
Soyinka commences with the tale of a sojourn in the Caribbean. He pokes fun at how a coup was staged in a Caribbean nation during his visit there and how the coup looked like a theater play. How people who stole government’s property were asked to return them and how they complied.
“Imagine if that directive is given in Nigeria”, he says to more laughter. But he is still warming up as the room follows him through his speech.
And then he lands. As surely as you expect he will. There are herdsmen all over the world, but they don’t bear arms or carry AK-47s. Why are the herdsmen in Nigeria allowed to roam freely with guns? Soyinka asks, perplexed.
Why is the Defence Minister who made excuses for the pastoralists still serving in Buhari’s government? Why did Buhari attend a wedding in Kano just days after 110 Dapchi schoolgirls were kidnapped?
Soyinka wonders why the herdsmen haven’t been labelled terrorists by the Buhari government. Why was Nnamdi Kanu’s IPOB branded a terrorist outfit and Miyetti Allah (umbrella body of herdsmen) hasn’t? , he wonders.
He flares as he dwells on the receding Lake Chad excuse that is being made for the killer herdsmen and kicks at sympathizers who say there is no land for the herders to graze cattle anymore, hence the killings.
“I don’t want to hear of all these ridiculous excuses anymore!” he screams.
The room is silent. A few feet shuffle. Someone attempts to clap and then stops. And then before you know it, everyone is clapping. His presentation is laced with humour, sarcasm and wit. The delivery is a study in linguistic mastery. He punches hard, but he also punches sensibly.
And his punches are landing. Everyone of them. Except that no one here is ducking.
Soyinka is taking on everyone now. Obasanjo, Jonathan, Buhari, killer herdsmen, corrupt people, Donald Trump, Nigeria’s Twitter users. Everyone. He goes hard. He goes harder and he just keeps going.
No one is spared.
And then his speech ends. The applause is electric. It fills the room. An octogenarian has just brought the roof down. The organisers know they have gotten their money’s worth from the man of letters.
The journalists here nod in approval. They now have enough stories to last a week. The photographers have been snapping away.
And just as he promised, he was gone. Gone with all of that wisdom in his silver mane. Gone in a flash.
He promised to last just 46 minutes on the stage, but Soyinka spoke for well over an hour. He concluded his speech with the same energy with which he started. He owned the stage like he's done his entire life. He was born for the stage.
“Soyinka never really ages. He’s like fine wine”, someone mutters near me.
I couldn't agree less.