Delivered to the 16th Wole Soyinka Lecture, 12th July 2013, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria
Ahoy Seadogs – (and all Listening, and Educable Lubbers!)
This message comes to you from the bustling riverine town of Sapele which, as I learnt only a few days ago, boasts the oldest Athletic Club in Nigeria – albeit of a colonial paternity. It will celebrate its 100th Anniversary this year.
Now, why am I struck by this purely fortuitous notation? Simply on account of the fact that this club is a voluntary, comradely organization that even pre-dates Nigerian independence. The social aspects of the event that brought me here are actually physically centred on the history saturated premises of this club. As I walked through its corridors, its archival coves, its meeting, fraternizing and ‘rumming’ rooms, I was reminded of similar organisations that I grew up with, several hundred miles away, associations that have kept up their original sense of purpose, standards, quaintness, idiosyncrasies, and camaraderie. The shared, distinguishing feature among them is that they create and maintain a COMMUNITY of their own – restricted, yet open in its activities, governed by set protocols of their own devising, committed to both individual and group development, evolving, expanding, and exploring new means of relevance and commitment to the overall society, over and beyond the original intent. In short, a constant, jealously guarded identity and yet, open to innovation, all summed up as – renunciation of stasis.
The Pyrates Confraternity, also known as the National Association of Seadogs, is much younger by half a century, but it is similarly older than even the colonial enclave now known as an independent Nigeria nation. Its ethos, its vicissitudes, its membership bonding, and its commitment to relevance to the larger entity, are no different. I have no doubt in my mind that at certain colonial and post-colonial phases of their careers, the colonial powers also considered such Athletic , Cultural, and even purely Clubs mere camouflage for sinister, subversive activities, their members viewed with suspicion and dread by the establishment. This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Study the trajectory of similar voluntary associations that have been stigmatized by Establishment – colonial or post-colonial – since their inception. The Establishment – that leaden soul of ‘lubbish’ society – no matter of which nation – labours under a constant persecution complex and vilifying mentality, often irrational, or contrived. Whatever smells nonconformist, even if productive, must be necessarily evil.
And yet, we must be honest with ourselves. There is an important difference. The Pyrates Confraternity, unlike other clubs such as this Athletics Club, Rotaries and others, began as a product of the educational institution. Students are traditionally high-spirited, iconoclastic, confrontational, and even, sadly, egotistical, immature members of the larger society. If that society came to view the confraternity as all of these, society should not be entirely blamed. The problem begins, as you know, when such manageable aspects of student identity deteriorate to such a state that they threaten the very fabric of civilized humanity. This – needless to reiterate – has been the proud insignia of mimic ‘fraternity’ groups, some of them founded by repudiated and expelled members of the Pyrates Confraternity. It has resulted in confusion in the minds of much of society, whose lazy turn of mind proceeds to lump those deviant groups together with the genuine college confraternity, of which the Pyrates – at least to the best of my knowledge – is the only surviving one from colonial times.
Even the media, in tandem with notable commentators, most of them presumably educated, shamelessly perpetuate this travesty of reality, indulging the public in its perceptual torpor, brainwashing younger generations, unctuously tarring all self-proclaimed ‘fraternities’ with the same cultic, diabolical brush. It is that same intellectually self-demeaning, and ultimately self-destructive tendency that results in attempts to equate Boko Haram with movements for social liberation.
Our continuing task – a wearisome, thankless, often frustrating task – is to teach society, in its own interest, indeed for its own salvation, that there is a fundamental difference between a “student fraternity” and a “secret cult.” The withdrawal of the PC from campuses a quarter of a century ago was a productive, strategic move in this direction, but we do know that fake PCs still exist on some campuses, and this is despite letters of protestations to universities, urging them to expose and expel such student members, prosecute them, and purge the community of their presence. No, those institutions continue to harbour them. They turn a deliberate blind eye to their existence, deferring to the pampered children of corrupt, decadent, but influential parentage. That way, adult society continues to shift the blame for the existence of its vicious offspring to the authentic, original, and constantly self-regenerating fraternity.
Loudest of these in recent times are even some legislators who are self mired in the fallacious reading of campus fraternity culture and ‘cultism’ as interchangeable expressions. The reports of decades of investigation by police agencies into the purpose and activities of the Pyrates Confraternity are deliberately ignored under the policy of fingering a convenient scapegoat in order to divert attention away from their own gross malfeasances. From time to time, the ‘scapegoat’ is given literal meaning, as innocent members of the Confrat, minding their own business, are gunned down under one pretext or the other. Investigations are then stymied, and the homicidal agents of law transferred out of reach. Let us never forget the martyrs of Umaluku.
There are of course honorable exceptions, those who have thwarted moves to extinguish the PC through spurious legislations. Some have been taught. Some refuse to imbibe this teaching for various reasons – convenience, political opportunism, religious bigotry – which always needs an object of demonization – or simply intellectual laziness. Some deliberately dismiss a glaring reality because they are indeed the sponsors, patrons and even deadly armourers of the deviant groups, some of whom are paid enforcers, election riggers, social wreckers and paid assassins for political rivals and parties. Others have no choice but to accept the judgment of the courts in these matters, knowing that any further reference to the Pyrates Confraternity as a secret cult may land them in the courts on charges of contempt and/or libel. The rest – a diminishing minority – are simply an uneducable lot, and should be left to the solace of their ignorance, their spurious, sanctimonious purism and, in many instances – envy.
So much for past, though yet uncompleted history. The present is what should preoccupy us most, and that active present, on the national arena, is soon stated. The only word for it is – Bleak! Confronted with that dismal vista, and mindful of the fact that the vast majority of seadogs have whelped their own cubs who will inherit the failures of past generations, the question is – what do we owe their future? Next, how much of this debt can we discharge, and how urgently?
The confraternity is not a government. It wields no political power, controls neither public funds nor public structures, yet, it is not within its nature, or raison d’etre to simply fold its arms and siddon look! My charge to you therefore is soon stated, being so obvious: resolve what role you must play to transform the condition of society from Bleak to – Bliss!
A tall order? Of course. But then, pyrates always aim high. Yes, we know that THE SYSTEM – capital letters – requires, not merely an overhauling, but a drastic, fundamental transformation. That fact is acknowledged and glibly parroted, even by those who have no inkling what this means or requires, or else, shudder and take cover at the very notion. While we await that ‘African Spring’ however, is it not obvious that some ground-clearing falls within the responsibility and capability of individuals and groups? The Confrat is not being burdened with the ultimate destination all on its own – no! Numerous pro-active groups such as Human Rights, anti-corruption movements, civil liberty, whistle-blowers, electoral watchdogs, democratic monitors etc. etc. – are engaged on the same mission, and what is required of you is to raise the bleak corner of your social existence, or awareness, to a state of near Bliss! Then encourage, prod and shame others into doing the same for their own limited patches.
Associate with, and boost the positives. Identify the negatives – individual or institutional – and engage them fearlessly, indeed ferociously, but always methodically and with sustained commitment. It does not matter whether such negatives are embodied in individuals, such as parasitic, abusive appendages of power – of whatever gender – or in institutional, and/or constitutional but corrupt and self-aggrandizing repositories of power. Show no favour and – take no prisoners. No friend or foe! But also – build! Build your own counter institutions, however modest, however minuscule. Guide and nurture the maturing generation into the future army of positive ‘like minds’. Establish social models – of every conceivable undertaking – that proudly declare: yes, it can be done, and this is one way to do it.
I must not end without specifying the greatest current threat, not merely to corporate social existence, but to its humanity – religious fundamentalism, and of a truly horrifying, ruthless and unconscionable dimension. No other word for it – we are into a season of unprecedented barbarity, inflicted on us by a brainwashed, fanatical horde. When all the impedimenta to self-fulfillment – economic contradictions, social disparities, marginalization, unemployment and policies of alienation – have been admitted into our calculations of cause and effect, we are still left with one irreducible factor: fanaticism. There is no escaping that core of our present malaise – the obsession to inflict one uniform cast of mind on the human entirety. In short, a remorseless agenda of spiritual, social and intellectual enslavement, pursued by a sadistic minority, one that does not discriminate between age, gender or economic classes. As an intellectually grounded association, the Confraternity has a responsibility to contest any effort to trivialize or subsume the assault on the hard-won freedoms of humanity by spurious analysis and blame deflection. We have a duty to awaken society to the fact that nothing new is happening here. This urges, quite simply, that we must learn from where it has happened before.
Algeria is currently celebrating her twenty years of the jihadist war on intellectual enquiry, creativity and culture, the totality of which distinguishes humanity from those rams that are destined for the slaughter slab in this pious Ramadan season of true believers. It is the aggressive face of religious distortion and retrogression that briefly consumed our next-door neighbour, Mali, and has totally destabilized the northern part of this nation. Their plight is our plight, their will to resistance a call on our will to solidarity that must reinforce that resistance through every conceivable means. Faced with the mind butchers in our midst, the ruthless decimators of our learning youth, the options are few, and none of them goes by the name of – Submission!
Ahoy seadogs, and welcome also, educable lubbers. As that ‘pyratical’ lubber, the late Tai Solarin, Teacher Extraordinary, loved to phrase it – may your waters be rough!