The Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, like many revered thinkers is rightly worried about the declining reading culture in the 21st century and is concerned that the Internet is contributing to this dysfunction. Soyinka is worried that relying primarily on the Internet would spell doom for books. He raises legitimate issues that deserve to be explored in great depth. However, Soyinka is famously reticent about the Internet and the communities it has spawned. The records show that these communities have not always been kind to him. He talks about his experience with individuals and groups, some of which spilled into online forums like Naijanet in his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn (see my review here).
Naijanet? Well, Nigerians have formed online communities for a long time. In the early nineties, if you had any connection with an institution of higher learning or a multinational corporation, you had access to an email account. They were initially difficult to use but gradually email readers came along, as well as the precursors of the web. Naijanet, a mailing list or “list-serve”, founded in in the early 90’s was the premier online watering hole for Nigerians at the time. Out of Naijanet came other list-serves created to meet a real or perceived need absent in Naijanet.
Naijanet was a vibrant market among academicians and professionals in the Diaspora, and a hotbed of political activism – for and against Sani Abacha’s regime. Many activists were recruited on Naijanet by either side. It became a means of communication and of rallying the troops during the prodemocracy struggle in the 90’s as Nigerians sought to topple the dictator Sani Abacha. Those were heady days. When we needed to attend a rally, we used email. When we needed to raise money, we used email. When someone died we wrote some very heartfelt and (yes, pretty bad poetry) to manage our grief. My second daughter was born on July 4, 1995. We did an e-naming ceremony for her on Naijanet and we christened her Ominira (Yoruba for freedom). We raised quite a bit of money for the cause and for things like awareness campaigns to eradicate spinal meningitis. It is a big shame that these things have not been documented anywhere, however some of these activities are in the archives at Googlegroups.
As far as I know, Soyinka was never a member of Naijanet himself. He clearly monitored our activities as they pertained to the prodemocracy movement. A tidbit involving Soyinka and Naijanet: In 1994, there was a young doctoral student at the University of Connecticut, Storrs (UConn). His name was Ganiyu Jaiyeola. He had a rabid contempt for MKO Abiola and was wary of Soyinka’s prodemocracy credentials. That year, UConn decided to give an award to MKO Abiola. Ganiyu wrote to his university denouncing MKO and demanded that UConn withdraw the honor. When that news got to Naijanet, there was an unspeakable uproar. Most people wanted Ganiyu’s head (he was a Naijanetter). UConn was deluged by angry phone calls from netters. Many members of Naijanet signed a petition objecting to Ganiyu’s letter and requesting that MKO be honored by UConn.
Here is the petition to Uconn. The petition, circulated online and signed by exactly 50 people from many countries abroad, no mean feat in those days, was perhaps the first naija e-petition ever. In 1994. Many of us loathed Ganiyu but from the benefit of hindsight, he was not a bad guy; he simply believed that those of us who were against the annulment of democracy (on June 12, 1993) were thieves, phonies, carpet baggers, interlopers, etc. (insert your favorite abusive term). Many of us did not particularly care for MKO; this starry-eyed idealist simply felt at the time that for me, June 12 was the end of the shifting of the goal posts by the military. The battle grew ferocious; both sides trying to do each other in terms of the degree of abuse hurled at opponents.
Enter Soyinka. Sometime in 1995, Ganiyu decided to compile a thick unflattering dossier on Soyinka and he proceeded to distribute this dossier to the US State Department and the civil rights activist Randall Robinson who was dead-set on ending Abacha’s reign of terror. Ganiyu was a temperamental and energetic fellow and fiercely independent; whatever he set his sights on, he went after. When Soyinka got wind of Ganiyu’s activities, he became incensed and wrote a long letter excoriating Ganiyu. People close to Soyinka managed to convince him not to mention Ganiyu by name in his missive. Ganiyu Jaiyeola’s name was replaced with the term “Reprobate.” Ganiyu loved the attention and declared that indeed he was the one that the Laureate was referring to. From that day on, the term “Reprobate” stuck on Ganiyu.
The letter, written in May 1995, begins like this and shows the beginning of Soyinka’s enduring ambivalence about the Internet:
I am an intruder, not being a NAIJANET subscriber. I don’t even know how these networks operate and, from this first, albeit indirect, encounter with this discussion and information exchange, I think it is something over extended people like myself should avoid, if only to conserve precious time and necessary equilibrium for a positive contribution to real issues. My intervention (this once only, I hope) is quite fortuitous.
A thick dossier accompanying a letter to Mr. Randall Robinson, Director of TRANSAFRICA, has just provided my first contact with NAIJANET, to which reference was made in the letter, and of which I have heard some remarks in the past. It is apparently the product of a student which is what I find singularly shocking. From the mercenaries and propaganda machinery of General Sani Abacha, one would consider this as routine, but what has a serious minded student got to do with such venal proceeding ? Opinions, even where debatable, and analysis, even where faulty, are the legitimate province of the student, but what place has a deliberate concoction of falsehood got in a student’s mind ?
I read this tract with dismay, albeit, ironically, with some illumination. I had been encountering, in recent times, some sturdily held distortions of the truth of events in Nigeria in astute minds which would normally discountenance the predictable lies of government functionaries. Coming from supposed students or independent professionals, who are trained to respect facts, however, I begin to understand why such blatant lies actually obtain a hold in their thinking. NAIJANET obviously has some perverse entities in its midst and, considering the crisis of our times, I feel that I must use this instance to affirm their self exposure to members of NAIJANET and their correspondents.
Enter Jude Uzonwanne, a 22- or so year old. Somehow Jude had gotten close to Soyinka. He is mentioned as one of the Gang of Four in Soyinka’s book, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Jude suffered immensely from his youth and he was not exactly the most principled of fellows. Things were getting decidedly dangerous online and on the ground and another netter Mukhtar Dan’Iyan, aka @MrAyeDee on Twitter (mentioned in the book, please read this blog post in which in which I excerpted the pertinent passage) decided to stage a sting. He created a fake email address purporting to be trolling for recruits on behalf of the dictator General Sani Abacha. Jude fell for this bait and sent in a long resume of his and an equally long rambling essay on how General Abacha might use certain tools of propaganda to keep the masses down. His application started like this:
I would like to become a member of your organization. After carefully evaluating the current difficulties facing the Abacha Administration, I have decided that it… is in Nigeria’s National Security interest to cooperate with the current administration. After careful thought, I believe I should bring to bear, what my professors describe as my “prodigious intellect.” If accepted, I would bring to the organization my considerable talents; as an Honors Economics and History candidate, a World Bank Project research assistant, and a member of my university’s Board of Managers, I think I am well placed to understand the philosophical strains that propel behavior in the West. I think I can help the FGN reconstruct her rather battered image. It will be a tough task, but if certain tactical steps are taken, I believe we can achieve the same level of respectability that General Pinochet of Chile achieved between 1979 – 88. Also, if we are more respectful to the incisive powers of economic rationalization of human behavior, I think General Abacha’s Government can be in power as long as it wishes. But there are certain steps that need to be taken in the next few weeks. I hope you would carefully weigh my words; I look forward to joining the team of the Best and the Brightest.
From that day on, Jude was miserable, exposed as a Goebbels. Jude’s “application” to Abacha was circulated among a tight-knit group of Naijanetters. At some point, Jude wrote a long piece that was published in Nigeria that basically accused the pro-democracy movement and Soyinka specifically of violence (bombs, etc.).To cut a long story short, Kongi erupted in rage once more. Kongi faxed me at home a letter (dated December 24, 1996 on Emory University letterhead) excoriating Jude with the subject title “Jude “Goebbels” Uzonwanne.” He asked me to type it verbatim on to Naijanet:
Dear Dr. Onabanjo,
Re: Jude ‘Goebbels” Uzonwanne
Thank you very much for sending me the latest splurge from our young Goebbels. I agree with you that his pronouncements have now exceeded a mere “nuisance factor” and should be addressed in some form or the other. It is tempting to dismiss him as a poor man’s Walter Mitty, given the elaborate fantasy world he inhabits. I have good reasons to conclude that we are dealing here with a mimic Goebbels, one who has been given a distinctive mission and is resolved to execute it without the slightest scruple. The poor boy is a failed agent provocateur.
I have therefore passed the documents on to the F.B.I. with which, as you know, I am obliged to keep in touch over intelligence reports on the threats to my life. Uzonwanne’s statements are likely to provide crucial pieces in the diabolical jigsaw being constructed from Aso Rock to tie me to the bombings at home, and thus justify plans to try me ‘in absentia” and pass a formal death sentence. We are kept informed about these moves, I assure you. In the meantime, Uzonwanne should be encouraged to spew, in any medium he chooses, all the “dark secrets” that he claims to have about my activities. I am insisting to the FBI that they investigate every single one of them, then deal appropriately with whoever has been spreading dangerous falsehood, or whose activities transgress the laws of this nation.
In the meantime, let me assure you and others who have expressed concern that I have not yet reached dotage. To pick out just one among this plethora of concoctions – if I wished to set up an army, I would not pick as my “Chief of Staff” a twenty-two year old college boy who has never even attended a cadet course, is woefully short-sighted, and weaves fantasies around himself such as being in control of seven million dollars, a sum allegedly donated by rival oil companies that wished to end Shell’s domination in Nigeria and carve up its empire among themselves. There is of course a lot more, but I think I should let the FBI take over from there.
Happy Christmas to you and your family
Copy: UDFN membership
I was not close to Soyinka, where he was a revered god, I was merely a foot soldier, however, I decided without telling him so that I was not going to post it on Naijanet, certainly not right away. It was brimming with rage against a young man and I didn’t see someone of Soyinka’s stature tangling with a kid. I figured he would sleep over it and call me back to not post it. Shortly after, the letter appeared on Naijanet. Kongi had gotten another netter to post it since I was dawdling! One thing you can say for Soyinka, he is connected.
As for that petition to the University of Connecticut, I am taken by the idealism of our youth at the time, the prose fairly sings of our passion, dreams and naiveté:
We believe it is appropriate to view Chief Abiola as a universal symbol of the Nigerian people’s yearning to join the league of those nations that have established a culture of respect and reverence for individual freedom, dignity and the collective views of the people. The Nigerian people have spoken loudly and clearly; this struggle is not about one individual. It is about the immediate and long-term survival of a nation that is greater than any one individual. Your action is an endorsement of the legitimate cry of our people for freedom.
In this light, we applaud your university’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate degree on Chief M.K.O. Abiola. Your gracious and courageous decision is an affirmation of your belief in the just struggle for democracy by the Nigerian people. As we write, the dictatorship continues to shut down all voices of reason and progress within Nigeria’s walls. As we write a once vibrant nation is being throttled economically by the intransigence of a few that have elevated their personal agenda above the dreams and aspirations of an overwhelming majority. Your action is a rallying bugle call to the international community. It says to all of us: this disgraceful display of despotism and intolerance must stop.
Today, fifteen years after democracy was installed in Nigeria, very few would disagree with Ganiyu’s admonition at the time. Not much has changed. Ganiyu was right. We were fooled by wolves.