By Wole Soyinka
Narcissus and other Pall Bearers: Morbidity as Ideology
The LUCAS Annual Lecture 2015
Thursday 8 October, Conference Auditorium, University of Leeds
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 77 (Winter 2015/16), pp. 65-83]
Morbid Narcissists: The Ideologues
There is, firstly, and more familiarly, the individual narcissist, very conspicuous, very easily identified. Then there is group narcissism. Now that is far more difficult to distinguish, since it often manifests itself only after the successful usurpation of a communal identity, one that turns into a self-righteous collective, or cult, secure and inflexible in its group conviction, and adopting a creed of apartness, for which another word is – The Chosen. Imperceptibly, quietly, operating through peer pressure, often however in relentless, even manic offensives, what was touted to be a ‘liberating’ creed becomes the empowering, then the over-powering. It moves towards self-positioning as the norm, as the only reality, against which every other form of conviction or exploratory proposition is decreed an aberration, a revolt against the norm, a lie, a crime, a sin. The phenomenon is common among religious ‘born-agains’, and is perhaps best captured in Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros, a cautionary parable that is often lumped together with the Theatre of the Absurd. Group narcissism, when fed with a diet of revelatory virtues as opposed to the testable, that is, revelation as against deductions from actualities rooted in the real world that surrounds you and me, can only be sustained by the acquisition of political power – at all costs and by any means – the most drastic of which is obviously the complete elimination of the bearers of divergent spores. In the political arena – and at any given stage, even the religious has morphed into the political. Silence and fear usher in acquiescence, and signal the beginning of transfiguration for the leader of the herd, extending to an anointed inner circle, the early converts and original disciples. That Root Narcissist has cloned himself several times over, can finally see himself reflected, embodied and consummated in a surround of cloned beings among the living, or else in streets of piled-up corpses transfigured – in his mind – to spent clones.
Don’t be fooled by the external, physical elaborations – it is humanity that is the real objective. The rest is mere sign-posting, instructional devices for the slow-witted, to awe the impressionable, or direct the sights of visitors and strangers. I refer to fabricated objects or appropriated landmarks – thus – King Rhinoceros Park. Rhinoceros Institute. Rhinoceros University. Rhinoceros Boulevard. Rhinoceros Sports Stadium. Rhinoceros Towers. Rhinoceros Plaza, Rhinoceros Highway, Rhinoceros Institute for Peace…. and other Blasphemies. Admittedly he does revel in the replication of his existence in massive structures and public statuaries – except of course in the case of theocratic orders that frown on such ‘idolatry’ but find other means of deflecting adoration onto their selves, usually as sole representatives of a Supreme Being on earth – basically however, the human populace is destination. Methods differ but convergence is all. Nothing ultimately satisfies as the proliferation of human clones when every other living being becomes a replication of the Super Narcissist. Wherever he turns, he must see no being other than his kind, so that no exertion is required of him to see and adore his reality expressed in all genders, from infants to geriatrics. He needs no mirror. The world has become his field of mirrors. This is the attainment of apotheosis for the Master, where all existence, mentally or physically outside himself, is mere augmentation of his own consciousness, established as the primal reality.
That is what the narcissist seeks – a self-transcendentalism, the true “end of history” and terminus of all questing by humanity. The new community – more accurately, the communality that has replaced community – has survived by dissimulation or conviction. All now affect the rhinoceros’ solitary horn of identity. Be it the Maoist uniform as in Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Ethiopia or the beard of Zamfara’s mullahs in Northern Nigeria – by decree, pressure, inducement – whichever way, the word is – Submission. The elite, or inner circle of this new commonality – is conferred with, or assumes the authority to speak and act, unquestioned, on behalf of the Leader. The more assertive the act, the more dogmatic the pronouncement, the greater the augmentation of the presence and dimensions of the Rhinoceros Boss Beast. Such extreme acts enlarge and intensify the affective permanence of the herd of rhinoceroses, thus leading members to struggle to outdo one another in the characteristics of the lowest common denominator of rhinoceros conduct. The herd strives to surpass the original uni-tusker in its sheer magnitude, ponderousness, hide density, destructiveness, but especially in the short-sightedness of that pachyderm, a handicap for which they have cultivated the compensating faculty of smell. Thus, they smell out the lukewarm or skeptical in identity affirmation even before the culprit is aware of it. All pretence is over, lip-service to liberation demonised and empowerment scorned. The comprehensive word is “cloned”, since this is not merely in physicality but in mentality. If the prevailing ethos is cruelty, then cruelty becomes the reigning ideology. If sybaritism, then sybaritism. If nihilism….and so on and on. We have no choice but to seriously consider if morbidity, in its own right, is not indeed the prevailing ideology of today’s group narcissists who agitate the landscape of our world.
Let us proceed with the following question: what is the difference between the doctrine of the blue-eyed, blond beast doctrine of Aryan race superiority and the current theology of divine selection, the pursuit of both of which is predicated solely in a morbid ideology – some to be spared, others to be slaughtered. Only the methodology of that resolution. One takes us through the gas chambers and the crematoria, the other through slaughter pits in inaccessible strongholds, where unworthy victims have their throats slit like pigs to that pious incantation that serves both consecration and desecration alike – the chant of the greatness of Allah. One obsesses with difference in physiognomy and history, the other a difference in spirituality and – geography. Both are fanatics of the morbid thesis – Death to the different! And even worse: Death to the indifferent. Auschwitz or Yazidi – only a difference in geography and – era.
What struck me most chillingly, in more than one video I have watched of these scenes of ritual slaughter of humanity, was the rapture that suffused the faces of the inner circle witnesses, albeit partially hooded by their turbans, privileged witnesses to the act of purification through blood-letting, as each captive’s throat was meticulously slit over a pit, already blood congealed. Their incantation was ostensibly beamed at the glorification of a Supreme Deity, but the gestures and comportment were more of smugness and self-adoration. These are the latter-day narcissists in thrall to the cult of morbidity.
Anyone seeking a secular expression of such morbid absorption should sample a few pronouncements, images of comportment of a Janjaweed leader, one Sheik Musa Hilal in the Sudan against fellow Muslims, or follow the line of defence of their spokesman who was actually present in Abuja, capital of Nigeria, at a conflict resolution meeting at the height of the Darfur crisis. Here is a little taste of the florid bombast of the death dealers – not at the Abuja meeting but earlier, when accosted in his den by an intrepid researcher:
‘(I am) a big sheikh…not a little sheikh. I did not take up arms. I answered my government’s appeal, and I called my people to arms. I didn’t take to arms personally. A tribal leader does not take up arms. I am a sheik, I am not a soldier. I am ‘soldiers’…..I am cleaning our land of….agents, mercenaries, cowards and outlaws….We promise you that we are lions, we are the Swift and Fearsome Forces. We fear neither the media and the newspapers, nor the foreign interlopers.’
Now that is narcissism at its crudest and loudest, but also of an impressive honesty. No hiding behind any deflective pietisms. The lines of conflict are drawn in this instance in confrontations between between race and race – or power and rebellion – not between believers and infidels. Our terrifying warrior then signs himself ‘The mujkahid and Sheik Musa Hilal, Amir of the Swift and Fearsome Forces’.
That self-glorifying CV is the personification of the alliance of forces between the Sudanese government and Arab volunteers during the campaign of ethnic cleansing in Sudanese Darfur – a scenario of destruction that is currently relegated in world attention – as concern becomes more critically directed at the increasing spread of violent jihadism in Somalia, North-eastern Nigeria, Mali and the Middle East. What the situation is today in the Darfur is, frankly, somewhat ambiguous, but in that nation, the ruler, al Bashir, now charged for crimes against humanity, routinely ordered the nation’s Air Force to conduct air raids even on refugee camps, softening the ground for the Musa Hilal raiders known as the Janjaweed, to follow up, slaughtering human and livestock indiscriminately and even poisoning the water wells. The scenes of mass rapes have been meticulously documented – long before Chibok, there was Darfur. Yet today, one is near blasphemously nudged towards responses in comparative degradation. Hilal killed the black autochthones of Sudan in racial contempt; today’s replacement killing fields are morbid conclusions to a different category of separatist consciousness – the religious. Irrational we may deem it, but there does seem to be a sense of primordial horror that accompanies the latter, possibly because the Sudanese instance is ‘ameliorated’ by political and economic complexities. One can choose, or negotiate one’s politics; religion however comes close to a visceral attachment that all but defines the human species from birth, well below the age of volition.
We are speaking here of those other scenes of slaughter where the spared are those who were put to the religious test, and who passed only through a rendition of religious affirmation, and were thus spared their lives. A shopping mall in Nairobi? Or fugitives at the point of embarkation on the Libyan coast, some of them already marked for death at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Yet even there, this human debris blown in from zones of death were accosted, put to the test of morbid differentiation. Those who failed were herded to one side and prematurely ended their often epic journeys there and then, to a hail of bullets.
To many of my generation, as well as others, in Nigeria, this was no news. Periodically, the fatal wages of difference were paid in organised slaughter against such outcasts. Once, in the ancient city of Kano, an emirate presided over today by one of the most enlightened products of the nation’s feudal heritage, it was sudden hour of reckoning for school pupils. The self-elect of God, impassioned by this factor of competitive adoration, protested against the advertised arrival of a Christian preacher, Reverend Boncke. They invaded a primary school. The children of the raiders’ spiritual adhesion – Islam – were escorted back to their homes. The rest, that is failures of that test of ritual affirmation, were taken to a separate room and slaughtered to the now familiar chorus of divine absolution. I cite only one attested instance of the Herodian resort, time and time again – regretfully, the news is ‘naught for your comfort’ – yours or mine – to quote that largely forgotten pioneer spirit – Father Trevor Huddleston – from the now receded phase of South African apartheid. Huddleston’s impassioned partisanship for human sameness resulted in his denunciation by his own church, an abandonment which in turn facilitated his expulsion from South Africa. It is easy to dismiss those turbulent days of a collective blindness when the Boers – the Chosen – were globally execrated but remained incurably dedicated collective narcissists of racial partitioning. Is there truly a difference between those now subdued enemies of humanity – the white Boers – and today’s al-Shabbab for instance? Or Boko Haram? As for the unspeakable ISIS, better known to the Arab world as Da’esh….
Why did my mind leap to Father Huddleston? Largely because we did meet – and right here, in the Student Union Hall where he was invited to lecture, after the church attempted to dismiss him as a ‘busy-body’. We exchanged views after I had posed a question to him, challenging the Christian interpretation and emphasis he had placed on his position in the cause of black people. Why it mattered to me so much, I cannot recall, but it did. I would not concede his humanism to any religion, Christianity least of all. Let me tell you what I said – it is one of those formative encounters one can never forget: ‘Father Huddleston’, I protested, ‘listening to you, I am convinced you would have championed the cause of the underdog anywhere no matter your religious upbringing.’ I simply would not bring myself to accept his own explanation which was – that in every black sufferer, he saw the image of a crucified Christ. Did his motivation really matter? But you see, my career of contumacy began much earlier than is commonly thought.
And since that event? A cloud of history’s repetitive scenario, but by different actors, hangs over the African continent and the world. It is only human that one periodically sighs and demands of nobody in particular: What has a continent done to deserve these latest architects of human retrogression? I am speaking of throwbacks in the social evolution of humanity, undertakers of culture and zombies of morbid ideologies – what have we done to earn their attention? The continent has endured and survived much – enslavement, colonialism, the consistent rites of exodus as waves of humanity take to inclement trails from floods, drought, famine and diseases. Now along comes a faith inspired horror in full rampage to prolong the agony of Africa’s populations. Well, in a way, we have already touched on a part of the answer to my question – leadership alienation! The cult of self-love, self-adoration, as substitute for pride in creative leadership. Those leaders create the vacuum into which more highly motivated, better organised irredentists step – it is the simple logic of opportunity. Have space, will spread. The quasi-state, ever on the lookout, sees an open field of malcontents, of the alienated, the hopeless, and brings in a gospel of redemption, seductive and promising. The alienated turn their backs on leadership induced misery in the here and now, and sign up for the promises of after-life.
So let us spend a little time on those originating provocateurs. That variant at least offers some light relief, being, by their very nature, studies in straightforward egotism, tawdriness of imagination and – pathos. So, let us call to mind the precedents set by some of these founding fathers of African leadership narcissism.
Easily the most cultivated of this breed that it has been my lot to encounter was the late Desiree Mobutu Sese Seko. He is historically identified as the former President of Zaire, but he was also, arguably, the African honorary president of Belgium, if only from the sheer volume of his ‘personal’ wealth that he sank into that former coloniser enclave, presumably for its development, so that country could catch up with the comparatively advanced Congo Kinshasa – and her neighbouring African states. So committed was Mobutu to the advancement of King Leopold’s domain that an entire street in Brussels, its capital – that is, all landed property on both sides of that street – was actually reputed to belong to him. We must read ‘personal’ of course with inverted commas, in the same spirit as we used the word ‘cultivated’. Mobutu cultivated the art of narcissism with the same ardour and proficiency as he cultivated the skills of plunder, an over-endowed but prostrate Zaire serving as his field laboratory. Mobutu took the art of self-cultivation or, more accurately, image cultivation to unprecedented narcissistic heights on the African continent. He worked at it, and with a dedication that remained unmatched until the advent of one Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose style of image crafting took a different approach, a remarkable contrast in styles. Both variants however achieved the same end – setting Self apart from the rest, so that there was no possibility of conflating the object of adulation with any other being, which would only dissipate the aura that attends power, and its absolute, submission demanding effects. Reflecting on these two embodiments of the narcissistic occupation we find, on the one hand, the manifestation of the corrupt, decadent, insatiably acquisitive capitalist order. The other, at the opposite end of the ideological axis, was Mengistu, a supposed manifestation of the radical, Marxist left, dedicated only to human upliftment and the eradication of social inequality. Both were however responsible for economic destitution of their populations and their numerical decimation in thousands and hundreds of thousands.
For those whose preoccupation entails leadership signatures scrawled across the landscape, certain images remain active. One was the handiwork of Mobutu in his early years in power. After successfully reducing his rivals to irrelevance in the power stakes and even forcing them into exile, he encouraged those rivals to return to Zaire in a magnificent gesture of national reconciliation. They took him at his word, abandoned exile and returned with high prospects of joining hands to build a new nation. On arrival, he promptly clamped them in chains, escorted them personally to their villages one by one, and hanged them in the market square before a gathering of their of their own clans, kinsmen and women, and families. Dedicated power narcissists do not tolerate competition, not even as subordinates. The space around them must be vast and clear. The opposition got the message.
Such images merely complemented the notorious image of Mobutu Ascending – two sides of the same coin, quite logically. This was the image that greeted the Zairois on turning on their television sets in the morning, or turning it off at night. If Mobutu had the means, he would have monitored families to see which ones turned on their sets in image worship at the beginning of each day’s programming, and who did not. I refer to the superimposition of his own persona on the visceral apprehension of divine reality, the use of television images to conflate himself with an imaginary God rising like a sun from behind the clouds to dominate the screen – and the nation. Nothing unusual on the African continent. Those who engage in the field of semiotics will have no problem recognising the appropriation of the divine order and its aura through various means, subtle to blatant – including by would-be revolutionaries of the secular order. The names, for instance. National Redemption Council, The Revolutionary Committee for National Salvation, The Supreme National Council etc. etc. If anyone fails to recognise the deliberate invocation of divine authority by these latter-day redeemers, they only need to refer to the Nigerian instance after one of our ritual coup-d’états two or three decades ago – an instructive instance because, in this case, their genuine and long established theological rivals did not take such interloping lying down. They imposed their will on one such take-over military junta. Eager not to lose the support of the powerful mullahs, that junta quickly buckled under and changed its name from The Supreme Ruling Council to the Armed Forces Ruling Council. The former was blasphemy, the priestly contenders cautioned. Only God is supreme, and God – or more accurately, the jealous guardians of his territorial imperative – would stand for no act of encroachment. The Nigerian junta publicly agreed, and recanted. Mobutu had no fears of such a challenge. He simply went the semiotic way – images – far more eloquent than verbiage. Mr Mobutu rose above the clouds. Mind you, the Christian equivalents also had their say and eventually, their way. They recognized what the narcissist was up to and had a quiet word in his ear. That image suddenly vanished from the screen – I recall that this took place at the onset of one of the popular rumblings that punctuated Mobutu’s reign – he desperately needed the support of the church.
Having endured the reputation of never seeing any good in African leadership – a famous African polemicist, now deceased, with whom I have had a running battle almost our entire adult existence – once accused me of having insulted every African leader that ever came to power. My first line of defence is that this simply isn’t possible. The next is to point out that, even if it were true, we are legion in that occupation and, to prove it, I have learnt to quote others as part of my self-defence. So here is how another commentator assesses the real worth of Mobutu’s ‘Africaniation vision’ – or authenticite – which was Mobutu’s attempt to appropriate Kwame Nkrumah’s ‘African personality’, and claim an original construct for a mind of stunning banality. Here comes the quote:
‘There is always something ridiculous and farcical in dictators. Their clothes, their mannerisms, even their faces. They are pop stars, or rather crooners, who entertain the public from a media stage, in order to hide the atrocities they commit in the wings. That’s the reason why their style is very often over-the-top and excessive, and at the same time painstakingly constructed and cared for.’
Mobutu, for example, was a bloodthirsty dictator, but he was also a key exponent and lover of a certain African glamour made of floral shirts, cloaks, and noteworthy events which attracted attention to him and the facade of Zaire, while obscuring the dictatorship’s crimes.
May I interject briefly, the voices of the ordinary Zairois, how, for instance, they framed their social frustrations through their own variations on his African cognomen in the security of their homes and anonymity of their workplaces, albeit looking over their shoulders. When Mobutu took his Africanization spree to what we may designate adult child-naming ceremonies, he renounced the former Laurent-Desiree with which he was saddled as a child and renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Zabanga – literally ‘Mobutu, the warrior who goes from victory to victory as no-one can stop him’. The people’s version, however, was – I quote – ‘the almighty rooster who goes from victory to victory over a thousand women without ever tiring.’ I have a good reason for bringing up a reminder of the vibrant existence of popular reaction to these social reifications of the phenomenon of narcissism in the social realities of a nation.
Let me round off my quotes from other voices:
‘What remains of him today? Echoes of a tacky, scoundrelly grandeur. Videos of parades into stadiums and cheering crowds in the streets. Pompeian villas, once flourishing with marble, swimming pools, fountains, and now falling into ruin. The presidential palace, with its Louis XIV style furniture, the chandeliers in Murano glass, and the cellars that once contained fifteen thousand bottles of precious wines. It is said that the old leopard, egocentric and superstitious like all dictators, preferred to drink wine of the vintage 1930, his year of birth.
We can only imagine the parties that took place there, and the characters who patronized those halls, intent on pleasing the boss and collecting the crumbs of power and the coins he threw around from his throne. Now the jungle takes everything back again, and the river Congo erodes the grotesque splendor of the past, because everything flows and passes by, the glory of the world and its ignominy.’
Enough, I believe, from this assessment, only one of about a thousand others in journals, books and private testimonies.
Never was power more integrally invested in the presence of one individual – and on all levels. Never was self-adoration more comprehensively cultivated and given expression within the ambiance of power. Our own Sanni Abacha in Nigeria was unfitted temperamentally for such a role, and he did not attempt it. He was content with simply looting and looting while letting his hit-men loose to deal with dissidents without restraint – incarceration, torture, and physical elimination while he occasionally manifested himself however in the awesome immensity of a motorcade of – I did count it once, so did others – thirty-seven vehicles – several of them armoured, and a phalanx of fourteen motor-cycle outriders, with the road cleared hours before he was due to pass. In the midst of this convoy was tucked one armoured long-chassis Mercedes with tinted glasses containing this goggle-eyed manikin. When he took off from Abuja airport, it was not sufficient that air traffic should be suspended or diverted for several hours – his motorcade led the way on the tarmac. It roared across the tarmac in formation, while the plane taxied and took off into the clouds, leaving his motor-bound escorts peeling off on either side of the plane on bare earth. Like Mobutu’s human parades, every such appearance and disappearance was meticulously choreographed. Abacha’s displays were however manifestations of power, designed to awe and cow the population, not acts of self-adoration in the manner of a Mobutu or Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic. Abacha was also a gambler to whom bags of cash were delivered directly from the Central Bank for his all-night gambling binges. Can you think of one gambling narcissist in the entire history of humanity?
I cannot. Gamblers are too tense, never mind what sang-froid – also called poker face – they cultivate and present to spectators or opponents. Not even the most improbable Hollywood films present characters so preoccupied with beings clearly in love with their own image.
Let me return to the earlier comment on Mobutu Sese Seko, the maestro of the narcissistic podium:
‘There is always something ridiculous and farcical in dictators’.
When a narcissist attains power, no matter how total the controls of his rule on the rest of us we are able to identify that aspect of the ‘ridiculous and farcical’. This empowers society to arm itself, even silently, against it – there is no weapon more effective and devastating than the weapon of ridicule. When such a weapon is copiously supplied in the excesses of the subject himself, society can only be grateful at such immersion in a psychological disorder, may even encourage the individual in his space of delusion, until his very excesses bring him down, or at least, or facilitate public mobilisation against a tyrannical rule. You have only to recall, for instance, the generous follies of the ex-Sergeant-Major of French colonial wars Jean-Bedel Bokassa who considered himself a reincarnated Emperor Napoleon and regaled us on the continent with one of the most pathetic extravaganzas produced by the condition known as delusions of grandeur ever witnessed on the African continent. It was obvious – he was self-doomed – it was only a matter of time.
Not so easy to contain however is the expansion of this affliction into what I have categorised as group narcissism, a collective immersion that is absorbed by, and thus enlarges individual self-regarding, an ironical rendition of supreme self-love which relieves each contributing entity of individual responsibility, enables that individual to bask in the reflected aura that places each member beyond questioning, beyond moral doubts, and beyond hesitancy. It is a development that enables and empowers him to act anywhere, anytime, and under any condition in a manner that is contrary, hostile and even terminal to the beliefs and practices of other groups, practitioners of other creeds and socially derived practices. It is easy to say that this is no different from an army whose members imbibe sectarian loyalty – known as esprit de corps – or are inculcated with the doctrine of absolute obedience to orders, or indeed any association whose members feel bound in loyalty exclusively to that closed-off collectivity. Group narcissism is totally different, both in the degree of inner absorption and in its outer effects, and that is where the danger lies, a fact that is yet to be recognised by those who observe, like me, that the world presently confronts an absurd and morbid situation which appears to be beyond understanding and thereby defies solution. The maximisation of that conditioning is one that I have chosen to term – morbidity – a belief that death itself, embracing and/or inflicting death, is the highest form of self-expression of which humanity is capable, thus making it the supreme and controlling ideology of human existence.
Morbidity is an ideology that is increasingly fascinating to a certain contemporary cast of mind and is, alas, rooted mostly in religion, the transfer of the beginning and end of all reality to a Super-Reality that is not testable in the material world. Again it is easy to propose that many religions have this embedded in their creed, their catechism. The difference however lies in the politics of that ideology, its expansionist compulsiveness and its contempt of all counter claims to human existence. Today, in religion, this manifests itself in a transcendentalism that moves beyond the historic trajectories of jihadism or its Christian equivalent – the crusade, a rivaling partnership that provides the socio-political material of much of medieval history. It has bred apocalyptic dimensions in the minds of a contemporary generation, and entails a question that becomes a political imperative – how do the rest of us respond to it? The answer that is constantly deflected is of course – only by rooting it out entirely. The proneness towards evasion is why it has been allowed to fester that long. Because it is rooted in religion, the language of denunciation adopted by a menaced world is tepid, anodyne, the product of a disabling socio-political language known as Political Correctness. I have become convinced that that language has to be abandoned and a totally different one, indicative of the degree and intensity of a global malaise, substituted. Only then can we come to terms with the effective strategies required for its containment, instead of floundering among the choices that are imposed on the rest of us by the enemies of life.
This is a life-and-death issue that has come home to us, with brutality on the African continent. It is not simply a question of survival but of survival in what form? I do not suggest of course that Europe is self-doomed for failure to address the issue, no. I state very simply that the issue is especially pertinent for the African continent because that is a continent whose populations have undergone the designation of, and collective experience of an enslaved people, enslaved even as a righteous duty in the perception of others. Economic duty, or divinely ordered duty, it makes no difference. We have a responsibility to ensure that the continent does not provide affirmation of the superstition of the cyclic nature of history. That threat is not as remote as many like to believe. If it nearly happened in Somalia, nearly happened in Mauritania, nearly happened in Mali, then it is beating on the doors of other nations, and we had better be aware of it. Of course it all depends on whether we believe that one part of the world today is divided against the other, and that the lines of division have less and less to do with geography, language, customs, even politics – though all of these are involved, both historically and practically in our present – but about the entire issue of human volition, in whatever clime and – Submission. Until that word, Submission, and all its implications are expunged from the world’s active dictionary, the present approaches for human peaceful co-existence are merely diversionary, and even the histories of people’s liberation – including the anti-colonial struggles especially on the African continent, are merely rhetorical, illusory and ephemeral. Spiritual enslavement and the physical have always proceeded hand in hand – ask the unfortunate populace of North-Eastern Nigeria and their immediate neighbours in Chad, Cameroons and Mali.
People constantly ask the question: how did what appeared to be a localised insurgency come to attain an intensity that today guarantees a monthly body count of four figures, has become a cause for resolutions in the United Nations and an embarrassment for Nigerian humanity in particular? Three or four years ago, you could speak of monthly casualties in two digits, then the escalation took a steep upturn, rapidly, brutally and unpredictably. ‘Unpredictably’ because at the beginning, you could predict and even attempt to protect zones of vulnerability – such as those associated with Christianity – the churches, their schools, orphanages, institutions etc. Today, that zone of peril is everywhere, indiscriminate. Indeed the major targets are those that you and I grew up to understand were mainstream Islam. The ferocity of onslaughts of today’s Islamists against recognised Muslim leaders and scholars is such that Christians and other infidels must be breathing an embarrassing air of relief – the target zones have expanded, and thus the probability of direct experience has lessened. The highest of respected political leaders, such as the Emir of the ancient Islamic city of Kano have had their palaces attacked, the Emir owing his life perhaps to a mistiming of the insurgents who were not aware that he had traveled out not long before. The incumbent president, who, in a wide swathe of the Islamic north especially among the talakawa – the poor – is the nearest creature to an imagined Allah, came so close to death that he actually had the blood of victims on his clothes. He was the unmistakable target of the attack in that same Muslim part of the country. Monuments to past Islamic teachers, sages, and saints have been pulverised and the rich libraries of Mali, treasured and carefully tended for centuries, some predating William Shakespeare, and covering virtually all disciplines imaginable have become prime targets, not only in themselves, but a danger to those who retain them in their custody as religious, intellectual and national heritage. In those areas where Boko Haram, al-Shabbab, or Ansar Sine attempted to plant, or succeed in planting their black flag – more accurate, mass shroud – of what they insist is Islamism, no one survives but those who subscribe to their warped edition of the Islamic faith. Sterile denunciation alone appears to be the only available response – sterile because you cannot argue with those whose very creed precludes dialogue in advance of an encounter. The only choice is – Submit or – Die. That is the crude, unvarnished ideological adhesion that confronts the troubled parts of the African continent – and of course a widening swathe of the Middle East. There is total repudiation of an alternative called discourse. Only submission. Nothing else resonates in their skulls.
So, how did things come to such a pass? Appeasement, among other causes. An appeasement approach to the angels of death. Consider this: after the bombing of the police headquarters of Nigerian capital, Abuja, nearly simultaneously with an even heavier carnage at the United Nations headquarters, the response by a former Head of State who shall be nameless, was to visit the family home of Muhammad Yusuf in sackcloth and ashes. And that seemingly simple-minded, two times former head of the Nigerian nation both in military jackboot and civilian sandals chose, for his peacemaking adventure, the very day that the nation was holding a memorial service for the slain and maimed workers of the United Nations! I prefer not to dwell on his real motives – it will only distract from what must rank as one of the grossest disservices any former incumbent of such a high office could render to his serving successor in office. It was rank treachery, a betrayal of the innocent servitors of the United Nations. The pietism of ‘Blessed are the peace-makers’ may have motivated this ex-soldier, but the groveling language – and here I quote nearly word for word – ‘Please forgive and forget’ makes Chamberlain’s notorious ‘peace in our time’ one of the most defiant pronouncements ever to have emerged of a now defined climate of terror foretold. There is no time to analyse the encounter of these two frames of narcissism, one the appropriation of an authority that was not his – since he was no official emissary but was filled with a sense of mission – the lure of centre stage – and that other narcissistic movement Boko Haram. Hardly surprising that the response of the leaders of that movement was: before I so much as talk to you, you must first convert to Islam. And this Islam to which poor Jonathan was supposed to convert is the very perversion of that religion that millions of Muslims continue to denounce as – let us just call it – rhinocerositis.
These are not true Muslims, Islamic leaders, preachers, scholars continue to declare. So what exactly are they?
Narcissists, obviously, narcissists in love with death as an avocation, as a doctrine. Have you watched Mohammed Yusuf on Shekau on video? But it did not begin with Yusuf, or Boko Haram. The morbid narcissists have been with us long before Boko Haram. Now it is true, yes, and utterly condemnable, that their leader Yusuf was extra-judicially killed by the police after his capture by the military. So much for state responsibility. However, remedial action, and public consciousness must be tuned to the fundamental nature of what such movements represent which is – a cultic aberration – and cults do sometimes have a drawing power, a fatal attraction if you wish, for some human temperaments. In confronting them therefore in either open or covert manner, an awareness and response that are close to psychological warfare become mandatory. That, I’m afraid, is what is currently missing in our approach to the menace. A readiness to tackle the roots of its attraction as a psychological warp, an affliction that makes it impossible to tolerate difference, the distinguishing mark of the incurably self-absorbed to whom any such difference is a mortal affront. This manifests itself, most desperately, in culture, and thus, menaces the makers of culture, not only contemporaneously, but as personages who that have shaped, in whatever form, present humanity. Hence the fate of the statues of Buddha wherever the narcissists have passed through. Hence the assaults on the ancient city of Nimrod. Hence the destruction of tombs of sages in ancient Mali, and the possessed frenzy against the libraries of Timbuctoo.
Roughly ten years ago I addressed a group of industrialists on the familiar subject of social responsibility in industry. The main sponsor of that conference was a brewery. It was celebrating some kind of landmark – I forget now – maybe ten years of production. That occasion struck me instantly as an appropriate platform for introducing what often strikes me frustratingly as a one-sided dialogue with Religion and religionists. It might strike some of you in this setting – where the ratio of pubs to churches is roughly three or four to one – that religiosity is a rather strange topic on which to engage at an event sponsored by a brewery, but no, not in the least. Indeed, that conjunction of venue and topic was singularly pertinent. We had just experienced one of those sporadic aggravations that must now be seen as violent preludes to the current sustained religious insurgency in Nigeria. This particular outbreak was the handiwork of some self-appointed religious vigilantes in the city of Ilorin in Kwara State. Not that it should matter, but it is educative to mention that Kwara state is one of Nigeria’s cities of religious even-handed distribution – like Kaduna, Jos, or Benue – a balanced mix of Christians and Muslims, with traditional religions ignored but thriving in small patches here and there. However, bitten suddenly – one presumes – by the rampaging bug of religious intoxication, those wannabee Hisbahs, the purity vigilantes of the creeping Nigerian state theocracies took it on themselves to declare a denial of passage to beer delivery vehicles. They were no longer permitted to drive through sectors that they, the born-again Muslims, considered Islamic territory.
Notice was served in the usual way – no, not pasted on walls or manifested through barricades. No, never that way. The driver found himself suddenly engulfed by a mob shouting the now familiar divine summons – Allahu Akbar. Before he could even think of what could be happening on a route he had driven regularly over years, his vehicle was on fire. He leapt down and fled, was pursued, captured, a tyre was placed around his neck and – another fiery statistic, soon augmented by casualties as the various sectors set to among themselves.
Now I find myself here, back in Leeds, a city where one of my favourite recollections is the annual beer barrel ritual where supposedly serious minded, mature beings, sent to a place of high intellection for the improvement of their minds, actually dedicated a day – usually two, maybe three, if we count the day of limbering up, then the morning after, considered it a highlight of their career to dress up in tweed, flannel, golf caps, walking sticks, college blazers and scarf and accompany a barrel of beer down the main street of the city to a designated venue. There the barrel is solemnly de-bunged and quaffed, to the accompaniment of ribaldry in song, anecdotes and drunken camaraderie. Come lecture hours however, even long before the sobering examinations, these same high-spirited, spirituously lubricated individuals are bent over their books in isolated swot holes. Come vacation, or graduation, some volunteer to serve humanity in some obscure corner of the world or another. Occasionally, some get kidnapped for their pains, kept for years until the actors of the earlier scenario decide that it is time to administer some shock to those they consider enemies of God. Those individuals whom we have seen being beheaded on television, shot execution style by assassins on motor-cycles, those national and external volunteers administering anti-polio vaccines, are of the same history as those tweedy youths whom the public watched, bemused, at the pagan beer ritual of their student days. The seven Nigerian nurses shot in the line of duty were all Nigerians, serving their local humanity. We happen to be here in Leeds, Yorkshire, UK, but we all know that such recalls derive from shared cultural scenarios in far-off Kenya, Somalia, Maiduguri in Northern Nigeria. And these challenges to complacent existence should not be considered too remote, for was it not on this very island that some years ago, that a questionnaire circulated among Muslim students enjoying the liberal environment of the UK, couched in one single interrogatory: ‘Would you kill for your religion’ yielded a majority of ‘Yes’? So, we are speaking a condition of the mind, that unique equipment whose tending is the common charge of institutions such as this, and from ancient times, no matter where situated – from Belorussia to the Tahitian islands. The unmasked Executioner John, the grim icon of Twenty-First century narcissism was born, domiciled and nurtured in this nation, Great Britain.
I am trying to find a direct language that brings home to you the affliction that has befallen the African continent since my childhood, where the season of fasting was sometimes joyfully shared by neighbours of divergent beliefs and their branches. Then, in my Christian family, we awaited our portion of the sacrificial rams from our Muslim neighbours as routine, unremarkable proceeding. I am speaking of a period of my upbringing where, if by any unforeseen cause, at Christmas, our Muslim neighbours awaited their share of the Christmas turkey – actually it was far more likely to be chicken – accompanied by a small dollop of what was an improvisation for the Christmas pudding. If it was not dispatched before the Christmas church service, it was guaranteed to arrive on a tray soon after the service, each neighbour’s share designated in its own dish, then arranged along the rims of the flowered tray balanced on the heads of the young ones in the household. Such are my recollections. No one dare claim that this was a uniform sealing of community in such a vast region as Nigeria, each section with its own history, internal stresses and methods of coping with colonialism – both of the West and East. Nevertheless, it was the reality. The Emir of a small village in the far North did not dispense his zakat only to the Muslims in his emirate. On the contrary, he might even favour the non-believers under his fiefdom at the expense of his co-believers. One thing is certain, he did not send his Hisbah – the Virtue Police – to look into the clay pots of the sabon gari – meaning, the strangers’ quarters – of his village to see if those mini-silos contained dried sorghum or were being used for beer fermentation. What do we encounter as today’s equivalent? An aspiring governorship candidate, totally bereft of ideas for his electoral manifesto, surges out with a commandeered or volunteered religious army, invades hotels, bars, even in the designated strangers’ quarters, smashes everything within sight, and departs leaving his visiting card – a few victims caught in the unexpected rampage. At the end of it all, he appears on television, basking in self-induced transfiguration, apparent only to himself, and calling on followers to emulate his example. Puffed up with a sense of a divine mission fulfilled, gloating in a handiwork that has left dozens dead or dying, these are the mutants I refer to as the morbid narcissists of our time. They speak, they pray, they dress the part for the ritual of death even as they would for the weddings of their own sons and daughters.
Somehow, perhaps due to an upbringing I have just described, I never imagined that would become the portion of any part of the African continent, given that continent’s unique cultures of procreative existence, and its broad spectrum of tolerance and community sense. Fortunately however, again due perhaps to that very nature of upbringing which had honed my sensibilities to recognise very quickly an aberration that could only lead in one direction, I can claim to be one of the earliest to raise public alert over the destination of such tendencies as organised monstrosities that have now taken to themselves names like Isis, Da’esh, Boko Haram , al Shabab and other mutually competing manifestations whose ideology can be summed up simply in one word: Morbidity. Convert, or Die. Renounce what you are or – Die. Convert, or not Convert, you must die anyway, die wondering what crime you may have committed in a prior life since, albeit even a Muslim today, you must die for the fact of existence in a place, a time, at a preoccupation or without one – simply of catering for existence.
Those who inflict this non-choice on humanity, how do they express themselves? For they do. They cannot conceive of their existence without that fact of expression, hence their frequent appearances in self-made videos which they distribute through obliging channels. Have you watched them preening and primping before the camera lens? Even dancing. Have you watched the danse macabre of Shekau, against a background of two hundred and seventy abducted school pupils, cowed, frightened and subdued school pupils? Are their captors human? Or were they spewed above ground from a long hidden cave by a diabolically minded earthquake? He looked drunk, but it was the drunkenness of triumphalism.
So how should the rest of us respond? I can only think of the way we deal with drug addiction – or intoxication, since there is no scientific recognition of the condition known as narcissism. Intoxication is scientifically accepted as an instigating agent of irresponsible, anti-social conduct that may even result in homicidal consequences. Governments legislate against driving under the influence of alcohol. Doctors warn against taking certain kinds of medication if you‘ve had even a sip of wine. In the United States, you lose your driver’s licence and may even be jailed if you serve alcohol to anyone under twenty-one – the principle being that humanity under that age lacks the maturity to control the effects of alcohol – which we all know is a gerontocratic lie. Mind you, the same nation – as with many others – does not hesitate to send human beings under the age of twenty to the war-front, to kill and be killed. That, however, is a digression for another time and place.
Of all the deadly intoxicants that the world has ever known, the most lethal is not even alcohol but – religion. Yet no nation has had the wisdom or courage to decree that religion should be kept away from human beings until they have attained maturity and are capable of a rational choice in the matter, to absorb it into their system, regulate its effects on their minds, on their social disposition and conduct, or spew it out entirely. This strikes me as distinctly irrational, one demonstrable difference between the two forms of intoxicants being so obvious: one wears off after a while, the other – with rare exceptions – is permanent in its effects on the human system.
Winston Churchill, otherwise known as the British bulldog, was also famous for his caustic wit, as well as his love of brandy. Once, at a social event – the story goes – he got drunk and misbehaved in his equally notorious boorish manner. He was reprimanded by a bejeweled lady with the straightforward observation: ‘Mr. Winston, you’re drunk.’ Winston Churchill leered at her and slurred: ‘Yes indeed Madam, I am drunk but, you are ugly. Tomorrow, I shall be sober, but you will remain ugly’. So it is with those who are intoxicated with religion. Not for one moment – let us quickly add – does one advocate alcoholic drunkenness. By any yardstick in the world, a drunken being is an ugly sight to behold. However, society has devised severe penalties – from social ostracism to fines and imprisonment – for what is known as drunken and disorderly. Alcoholics Anonymous also see to their rehabilitation. Unfortunately, those same organised concerns have failed, in the main, to recognise the state of being ‘drunk and disorderly’ from the religious intoxicant. ‘Drunk and disorderly’ does not even remotely come close to capturing the condition of religious inebriation – a state that is more factually described as ‘drunk and homicidal’, ‘drunk and pyromaniac’, ‘drunk and genocidal’, ‘drunk and narcissistic’ and so on. Thus, whoever fails to understand the urgency of the present discourse must consider himself or herself a blissfully insulated individual on whose roof, however, gruesome reality from without may come crashing down some day. Or they have simply not paid attention to the guaranteed latest media report from religion infested zones. Or, finally, perhaps all such are simply insensitive, deaf, and dead to the sounds of the profound rending of the last shreds of the cloak of collective belonging that continues to make a mockery of that ubiquitous prospectus that we encounter on national flags, manifestos, coats-of-arms, and in the ecstatic renditions of national anthems, all united to give voice to a supreme irony: Unity in Diversity.
 Wu Ming Foundation, ‘Mobutu Sese Seko. The dance of the Leopard’ (2009).
Professor Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian recipient of the Nobel prize for literature, a world-leading contemporary playwright, novelist, poet, writer of memoirs and polemicist. He is also a political activist who has been fighting the vilenesses, horrors and absurdities of Africa’s corrupt leaders for much of what is now quite a long lifetime. Professor Soyinka has made theatre and professed in many nations, though the wellspring of his enormous energy and creative imagination has always been his Nigerian Yoruba culture.