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The Nation “Person of the Year”

By Wole Soyinka

I cannot wait to congratulate The Nation Newspapers, and then the (Nigerian) nation herself, for  an invigorating decision on this year’s nominations for the ritual identification of individuals to whom honour belongs for the title of “Person of the Year”. I do not know the process by which the final decisions are taken. I have no idea if specific parameters of deserving are set for each annual exercise. If the process involves a specific theme, this year’s election exercise must have been set around evidence of “Nobility of Mind”. The decisions are, in my view, not merely appropriate, but universalist and unexceptionable. It redeems us, in a consoling measure, as responsive humanity. It offers a desperately needed salve of conscience for those to whom the abduction, and continued imprisonment of innocent children remain a dereliction in our moral existence and sense of civic responsibility. Some day, we know, this nightmare will be over. Right now, however, the nation is held prisoner and her collective pride severely bruised. We should feel unfit even to celebrate the award, feel inadequate to share it with Leah Sharibu’s family.

It is a useful moment to drag public attention back
to a recent call for public involvement by Senator Shehu Sani, who, like many of
thinking citizens, had clearly taken stock of the recent reverses endured by
the military – most especially with the infiltration of a military camp and the
massacre – let us not mince words! – the massacre of numerous soldiers. He
advocated the adoption of the orphaned children of those fallen soldiers by
senators. My only difference here is that this reach-out to our military should
not be limited to the elected arms of governance but to the entirety of the
nation. Where the cause is just, where a response to crimes against humanity
with state structured violence cannot be faulted in any way, then maximal
public involvement becomes not only just but mandatory. Failure to involve the
nation, as a profoundly affected entity in the war against Boko Haram, is a
grave psychological omission. It is not often that a nation finds itself,
without reservation, on the side of state violence – I believe this is one of
those exceptions. The government has failed in this elementary appreciation,
and that prospect of boosting military morale through public solidarity has
been jettisoned quite unnecessarily and pointlessly. War was taken to the
nation, not the other way around, and the nation has no option but to engage
through all available means for her people’s survival – and in full freedom.
This is a vastly different call from the “Troop Comfort Fund” co-option of the
War of Nigerian secession!

To return to this Award, an expression of national –
and humanist – resolve, signified in the chosen young school pupil, let me
plead that, even as we battle on different fronts for her restoration to
freedom, undue expectations be not placed on any one individual predicament.
Concentration should be, firstly, on her release, next, ensuring that she
regain the normality of development from which she has been so violently
wrenched. I tried to enter this plea on the occasion of the 70th celebration of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, where a world-wide reading was held
both for that anniversary and in memory of the murdered journalist, Jamal
Khashoggi. I cautioned that no attempt should be made to fasten on that fragile
prisoner of conscience any public burden beyond recovering her persona as human
being and citizen. With the conferment of this award, I repeat and reinforce
that plea. Recognize, honour, but prepare to let her be. And it is in that
connection that I fault the – probably unintended – intent to drag her into
feminist prospectus, through the evocation of that combative, but misplaced
confection: sheroes. There is no such word. Leah Sharibu is a heroine, a
national heroine, a universal heroine. Or hero. That should be sufficient.

‘Shero’ is an ugly concoction that even the feminist
movement quickly recognized as distractive and distortive – and abandoned.
Words sometimes go beyond mere meaning, they implicate history, just to
complicate matters for unforeseen generations and other cultures and
causes.Ironically,‘Hero’, for instance, was the name of a woman. In Greek
mythology, she was a priestess of the deity Aphrodite. Imprisoned in a tower,
she lit a lamp to guide her lover, Leandros, who swam the straits of the
Hellespont for their nightly tryst. Hero is NOT a masculine word, it is not a
candidate for gender emasculation.

However, we also must not be distractive, so permit me to end this little intervention with a few lines from my reading at that mentioned 70th Anniversary at Freedom Park, Lagos. May she gain freedom soon, and in sound body and mind, so that we also may relish ours:

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Dear Leah,

Yours is yet pulsating rock, prospecting

Self-cognition. It may crack. Fissures

Will commence, the heart core melt, the weight,

The pressure take their toll with time, but –

This, your moment, stands outside time.

The voice endures, its echoes linger on.

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