At Howard University last evening (only my second time there for an event), Wole Soyinka ostensibly spoke on the theme of ‘Rwanda: Paradigm for a Continent.’ The scene was set by a call and response between the Howard administrator presiding over the event and the predominantly student audience, something that was a far cry from the staid environment at events at the New England liberal arts school I attended.
The Nigerian Wole Soyinka, one of the continent’s undisputed intellectual giants gave an extremely hard hitting talk, which was as much about Gambia being a blight on Africa’s image than Rwanda being its savior. Keep reading for Soyinka’s thoughts and why his handling of a Q&A made me lose all respect for him, after a pretty good set of prepared remarks.
To set the scene, I understand that all (or nearly all) Howard Freshman have been reading Soyinka’s Of Africa (which I don’t know). Most of the audience appears to have been these students and a steady trickle of them walked in and out throughout the address, the poor acoustics of the auditorium probably increasing the high turnover.
Soyinka noted, in a very eloquent way, that trauma (the Rwandan Genocide presumably) can often accelerate growth (the Rwandan economic miracle presumably). It was clear that Rwanda, which Soyinka noted is a ‘internal reference point’ for him, is valued due to its economic success and (the more debatable) efforts at national cohesion since 1994. He added that he attended Rwanda’s 50th independence celebrations last year and it’s rejection of child soldiers is a significant feather in its cap.
He did compare Rwanda to South Africa, which transitioned from Apartheid the same year as Rwanda’s genocide, but I did not particularly understand his larger point. He later cited Thabo Mbeki’s denial of HIV as a cause of AIDS and praised South African democracy for removing him from office. Despite Rwanda’s paradigm, there is ‘only one species of African leadership on the continent and his name is Nelson Mandela.’
Soyinka’s wrath for President Yahya Jammeh was even more effusive than his praise of Rwanda – and to be accurate Soyinka studiously avoided mentioning Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame by name, if he did so it was extremely infrequently. Soyinka dubbed west Africa ‘a blood soaked portion of the continent’ and excoriated Jammeh for his dabbling in the occult, anti-homosexual legislation, and claims that he could cure HIV. His regime was explicitly compared to the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.
France was praised for its intervention in Mali and as would be expected, Islamists in Northern Nigeria (Boko Haram was mentioned) were eviscerated for not respecting houses of worship and for targeting university students. If I understood correctly, he spoke positively of the new phenomenon in northern Nigeria of neighborhood watches to deter Boko Haram attacks (ironically just as I write this, I hear a song referencing Trayvon Martin).
Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast was criticized for being a poor scholar of history as was Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal (though I didn’t know he was a professional historian). There was a larger point about Senegal’s role in the slave trade and the country’s outreach to Haiti and the Caribbean that I did not follow.
I enjoyed Soyinka’s forthright remarks but his hesitant, inept, and waffling responses to his first questioner, left me quite exasperated, particularly in light of how direct he had been.
The very first question, was I think, one of the best he could have been asked. When requested to share his thoughts about Rwanda’s support of Congolese rebels, Soyinka ducked the issue completely. He spoke of Belgium’s colonial atrocities in the Congo and the lingering effects of Patrice Lumumba’s execution. I agree that history shapes the present, but I see no reason to place Rwanda’s engagement in the Congo on it.
Perhaps the most telling clue was that Soyinka indicated that right after Mobutu was overthrown, the Congo seemed to be on a positive trajectory. A war broke out when Uganda and Rwanda fell out with Mobutu’s successor, Laurent Kabila, so perhaps one can infer that Soyinka supports a Congolese regime subservient to the interests of the strongman in Uganda and Rwanda.
The same speaker also asked for Soyinka’s thoughts on Robert Mugabe’s assessment that Mandela was too lenient with white south Africans, I didn’t fully catch the response, but it was obvious the question was dodged.