‘Unlike societies right next to the Igbo for instance – more famously the Yoruba or, all the way southwards of the continent, the Kwazulu of the legendary Shaka – the Igbo, with their strong social formation rooted in republicanism, would appear to belie my general claim. The Igbo have no history of expansionism, being content with a strong organization around autonomous clan entities that made contact – friendly or unfriendly with one another as the need arose ( , Distinguished Nyerere Lecture, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, 2010: 1)., or further West, the
That childhood sentiment of his must have been reinforced later in life when he was obviously an admirer of and was the Master of Ceremony for the artistic tribute during Zik’s inauguration as the first President of Nigeria where he refused to succumb to the domineering demands of an American opera singer who did not intend to keep to the time allocated to her despite what Soyinka saw as her poor musical talents and not withstanding that she was a personal guest of the guest of honour, Zik (see the autobiography, Ibadan). I think that Soyinka was the first to inform me that Zik was a poet, although he called him a bombastic poet somewhere in his writings, prompting me to go looking for Zik's collection of poetry that was recently republished by his wife, Professor Chinyere Azikiwe of the University of Nigeria. I read the poems and found no bomabastic verses unlike Zik’s political speeches but it was probably to the speeches that Soyinka referred when he called Zik, Mbonu Ojike, K.O. Mbadiwe, et al, the bombastic poets of nationalism.
Soyinka's love for Igbo culture is very obvious in Ibadan: The Penkelmese Years where he secretly admired a bombastic prefect in his high school and said that he talked the way he did probably because that was how everybody talked in his village. No wonder Soyinka became the master of the bombast in his own work as an adult. In the Ibadan volume of his always stranger-than- fiction fictionalized autobiography, he recounts how he was approached as a family friend by the daughter of a western regional governor to ask him why he was supporting the 'socialist' culture of the Igbo rather than the monarchical tradition of his own people? The mutual admiration of Baba Sho and Igbo culture is clearest in that part of Ibadan where Soyinka narrates the role of Power Mike Okpala during operation ‘Weetie’. Instead of sending thugs from the East to join the orgy of violence in the Wild Wild West, Okpala sent a team of mobile broadcasters from the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation to broadcast live election results to the whole world since Akintola's faction was in control of the Western Broadcasting House.
Soyinka’s love of a people who were almost universally hated calls for some explanation and he may have provided the answer in the Nyerere Lecture that I quoted from above. The Igbo are admirable because they have resisted the temptation to build empires and impose monarchs. Of course, Soyinka could have added that General Obasanjo tried to sabotage this radical republican Igbo tradition by imposing the requirement in the 1976 Local Government Reform Decree that every town should have a 'traditional' ruler, forcing the indomitable Igbo to plunge into bloody chieftaincy struggles unbecoming of their egalitarian principles. Afigbo narrates a similar attempt by the colonial administration to appoint warrant chiefs for the democratic Igbo but the result was that Igbo women declared war on colonialism and warrant chiefs just as Yoruba women did 20 years later by forcing the Alake of Abeokuta to abdicate and make way for a new Alake to be installed and just as Kikuyi women did 30 years later in . The significant difference was that the Igbo and Ibibio women fought against all warrant chiefs and the colonial administration rather than against an individual chief while the Kikuyi women were led by a Mr , the Chief of Women.
The obsession with monarchism is rife in the Diaspora as well where there are annual contests to see who would be the carnival monarch, the dancehall king, the king of pop, king of reggae, calypso monarch, socca monarch and what have you despite the fact that the American revolution and the Haitian revolution clearly rejected monarchism and opted for republicanism. The late Adiele Afigbo critiqued the tendency in nationalist historiography to focus only on kingdoms as a vain attempt to prove to the Europeans that Africans are not inferior because we also had kings and queens, forgetting that we also had participatory democracy that could only be devalued at our peril.
Soyinka is emphasizing that monarchical institutions tend to be anti-democratic wherever they are found and that our people have better models of democracy to draw from rather than celebrate authoritarianism in the guise of celebrating traditionalism. Baba Sho could have strengthened his case by pointing out that this radical democracy that he admires among the Igbo is not as exceptional as he suggested because the Ibibio of and the Kikuyi of Kenya, for instance, were also radically republican traditionally. Yet, our beloved Baba Sho should be given credit for recognizing that African cultures have indigenous models of democracy that the rest of the world could learn from as opposed to the tendency by and CLR James alike to point to ancient Greece as the model for direct democracy despite the institution of slavery, a monarchy and the disenfranchisement of women in '.
Happy birthday Prof! Many many more happy returns!