Reactions to Monday’s incident between Prof Wole Soyinka and an unidentified young man on an airplane are typically Nigerian-impulsive, emotional and clearly devoid of rigour.
A nation cannot grow beyond the thoroughness of its people’s contemplation. For it is from deep thoughts about conditions around a people that vision is born and as the good book says, a people without a vision are going nowhere. This is why it is a happy thing that Soyinka, the good man of letters, has not joined the partisan mobs that have taken on the war that they have no business in.
Knowing a bit of the Soyinka’s deviant and non-conformist tendencies, it would be surprising that the Nobel laureate himself does not nurse some admiration for the young, who chose not to be persuaded by tradition and the crowd of star-struck people who urged him to allow Soyinka to be, even though the old man had seemingly usurped the seat rightly allocated to this unidentified young man.
No one knows this man’s age, but social media accounts suggest that he could be something between 20 and 30 years. At about the same age several decades ago, Soyinka led some of his friends to form the Pyrates Confraternity.
That organisation still exists today and it is carrying on the ideals of its founding fathers. And what are those ideals?
The website of the National Association of Seadogs, which is the alternate name of the body, says the confraternity was “formed in 1952 by seven undergraduates of the University College, Ibadan, in response to the prevailing predisposition, at the time, of notions of class privilege, elitism and indifference to the social realities of the nation, Nigeria, especially by students of middle class upbringing, scions of business tycoons and colonial aristocracy.”
Not just at that youthful phase of his life, Soyinka has from time to time stood up for the rights of people across the country by confronting constituted authority and showing the way not to stand down when it concerns your belief. There is no way that sort of man would not realise that he should not insist on a seat that was not assigned to him on the airplane. Little wonder, he invited the young man to take his seat, regardless of whatever might have inspired his initial decision to take the window seat.
Now, the concern of Mr Tonye Cole, who shared the incident with the world, was more about the young man’s disregard for Soyinka’s advanced age rather than the non-recognition of his achievement as a globally acclaimed writer. The assumption is that Prof Soyinka and the generation after him, which Cole apparently belongs to, would have quietly taken the aisle seat and allowed any old man or woman (if that was the case), to take the window seat! A very valid posture, no doubt; but this is where a disconnect pops at us.
In the final paragraph of his post, Cole writes: “I couldn’t understand how we got to this point where we no longer have respect for elders, even if we are so ignorant of the great global personalities in our midst. Is it too much to ask that an elderly man be allowed to remain in a seat allotted to you in the same business class cabin and the same row?” With this statement, the business mogul unwittingly indicts his generation for failing in their roles as parents and leaders of the country.
The first question that stares at you is exactly why should any young Nigerian not know who Soyinka is? Even if they are not literature students, who should have read one of his numerous literary works before they conclude their school certificate, they would have learnt from their study of the history of Nigeria that Soyinka is the most honoured writer Nigeria has produced. But so many young people do not truly know Soyinka or anyone like him who is not a pop star throwing handkerchief and socks at thousands of intoxicated fans sipping from the ecstasy of increasingly seductive music. Nigeria’s world has moved from that of ideas into that of mammon and the desperation to acquire it.
Mr Cole then wondered “how we got to this point where we no longer have respect for elders…” So one should ask how many of the parents in Cole’s generation bother to instill the kind of respect he is demanding from this young man in their own children. Can he vouch that his own children would give up their business class seats for an elderly person, whether he is renowned or not?
Events that followed Mr Cole’s post have revealed that the problem with Nigeria is deeper than the fact that a younger man may not know the first black Nobel laureate for literature or show respect for an older man. It has shown that Nigerians, young and old, have no sense of what is right and wrong, dissipate energy on inanities and are never honest enough to look in the mirror and deal with whatever they see.
For example, offering a seat to an elderly person is not so much of an act of respect as it is an act of civility. This is why the western countries, (which we fool ourselves to believe have no respect for age) run systems that give institutional priority to older people, the physically challenged and pregnant women in all public places and in government policies.
There is the story of one of the earliest American Presidents, who during the selection of his cabinet, was said to have refused to nominate one of his closest associates.
On enquiries from those who thought this associate was a definite choice, the new President was said to have recounted an incident during his campaign when this associate failed to give his seat for a manifestly older woman until he, the candidate offered. With that, he doubted the compassion and humanity of this associate and did not think he was good for public office. Compassion and humanity are, therefore, the essential principles behind this idea of giving up seats for persons who seem more vulnerable.
Sadly, compassion is not a virtue that Nigerians have in any significant measure. So, even if all Nigerians pride themselves as champions of respect for the elderly, the fact that compassion has increasingly become a scarce consideration reduces respect (which is a universal and reciprocal principle) to the background.
And here is when Mr Cole’s question, as to when Nigeria became like this, becomes relevant. It is at the point that materialism started to take over the soul of the country — when leaders of the country have chosen to appropriate the resources of state to themselves and their families without a care for the masses of the people. It is the time when crass acquisitiveness has become the driving force of all agents of socialisation in the country.
At the level of government, the education of children is perhaps the least important issue in contemplation currently. Children who can go to school and learn under circumstances that emasculate what innate sense of compassion might be in them. They are tutored under inhuman conditions, such as classes without roof or chairs, by frustrated teachers who transfer aggression, and go home to parents who have turned into money mongers without very little time left to inculcate the real essence of life into their children.
Another unfortunate leg of Nigeria’s contemporary social malaise is the failure to come to terms with the fact that the country is a conglomeration of people, ideas and values, such that it is immoral to judge others by what you consider to be your own standards, especially when you have failed to understand theirs or find a common value system that unites the country. This story, which Prof Soyinka himself dismissed like it never happened, would not have taken the pathetic, divisive and ethnic dimensions it took earlier this week.
So where is this leading to? Nigeria needs to find a soul as a matter of urgency. When it finds it, it will give attention to the well-being of all its citizens, train its children to love humanity and treat people right, deal fairly with all its citizens without prejudice and re-evaluate its value system, such that what is right will be right and what is wrong will be wrong, regardless of who you are.