7 July 2014

Rwanda: What Kagame Has in Common With Soyinka


Today President Paul Kagame will launch a book to honour Professor Soyinka on his 80th birthday in Accra, Ghana.

Wole Soyinka needs no introduction. He is a colossus in the literary and intellectual world. He is Africa's first winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.

For decades he was the scourge of military dictators in his native Nigeria and even farther afield. Even physically he is distinctive with his great shock of white (not grey) hair and beard.

The profiles of the contributors to the book attest to Soyinka's status, not simply as a literary icon, but a great human voice as well.

They include statesmen like Ghana's incumbent president John Dramani Mahama, South Africa's former president Thabo Mbeki and former Commonwealth Secretary General Chjef Emeka Anyaoku.

There are literary figures - fellow Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer from South Africa, Derek Walcott from the West Indies and Toni Morrison of the United States of America, writers from an older generation such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o from Kenya and Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana, and a host of younger writers.

Renowned scholars, including East Africa's Professor Ali Mazrui, are among the contributors. Quite an impressive list.

What does Paul Kagame have to do with Wole Soyinka and this array of literary and academic glitterati, you might ask. He is more in the unglamorous business of governance and lifting people out of poverty.

Quite a lot, actually. There are many striking similarities between Kagame and Soyinka.

First, their manner - both are forthright. They hold strong convictions and speak their mind regardless of whom they may be talking to and possible danger to themselves. The unspoken attitude seems to be: as long as I am right, take it or leave it.

Second, both men abhor injustice and are prepared to fight it, even at personal cost. Many will remember Soyinka's unrelenting 1990s battles with General Sani Abacha, perhaps the most vicious of Nigerian military rulers.

Soyinka and Kagame can justly be described as freedom fighters who have spent most of their lives in the trenches (literally and figuratively) fighting for justice and human dignity. Twice, one took up arms to liberate people in two countries; the other has used the power of the pen and the public square for a similar purpose.

Writers and intellectuals are often preoccupied with ideas - some for their own sake; others for their effect on people's lives. Some are idealists, even utopian. Others are more pragmatic.

Indeed there has always been a debate about the duty of an artist - whether his primary duty is to his art or society. Professor Ali Mazrui framed the debate very well in a work of fiction on Christopher Okigbo, the Nigerian poet who apparently put patriotism before poetry and died fighting for Biafra in the Nigerian civil war more than fort four years ago.

Often, the measure of a great thinker lies in their ability to match the ideal with the real and positively affect humankind. The choice does not have to be one or the other. It is about how both come together.

Soyinka has passed this test of greatness - marrying art and public responsibility.

President Kagame is equally fascinated by ideas - not in the abstract or for their own sake but by how they can help his society to move forward. He is not a philosopher king in the classical sense. He is more practical and pragmatic in his search for what works for his country.

I am sure Rwandans understand what lies behind the concept of "home-grown solutions".

This article is not meant to be a comparative study of Paul Kagame and Wole Soyinka. But when people spend more time together and talk deeply about society's issues, they usually have a lot in common. Of course, they belong to different generations, come from opposite ends of a continent, their respective experiences could not be more different and have pursued unrelated careers.

However, their world view seems to converge on the need to liberate Africa from imposed or self-inflicted oppression and to live in dignity. This is a convergence of viewpoints that, if it was shared by more Africans, could truly liberate this continent.

It is, of course pure coincidence that the book tribute to Soyinka is happening at the same time Rwandans are still marking their liberation twenty years ago. Nonetheless, it is a significant coincidence.

Both events give us reason for celebration - on the one hand, a life of immense achievement and dedicated struggle for a better Africa and, on the other, a country determined to achieve the best for its people. And, more importantly, both events provide an opportunity for reflection on what more needs to be done to get where we want.

Twitter: @jrwagatare.

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