The Guardian (Lagos)

11 July 2014

Nigeria: What Influenced Soyinka's Choice of 'Captain Blood' as Confraternity Name, by Owodiong-Idemeko

Photo: Books Live
Professor Wole Soyinka

The National Association of Seadogs (NAS), better known as Pyrates Confraternity (PC), began as a campus fraternity, with well-defined objectives, within the confines of University College, Ibadan, during the 1952/1953 academic session. Overtime, it metamorphosed into an international humanitarian and charitable advocacy organisation. And of all the seven founding members, Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka, sticks as the poster boy of the fraternity. In this interaction with the NAS Capoon 2012-2014, Ide Owodiong-Idemeko by ENO-ABASI SUNDAY, he gives an insight into their understanding of the enigma they fondly address as 'Captain Blood'. He also details what the group's supreme leader symbolises and what he means to the group he co-founded.

MANY who had the opportunity of studying literature as a subject in secondary schools up till the early 1990s came across a novel, Treasure Island, written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Indeed, the Pyrates Confraternity (PC) was founded in line with the legend of this novel.

In order to mask their ethnic and tribal names, as a deliberate strategy to fight tribalism, which is the second fundamental value proposition of the Four Compass Points of the fraternity, each of the "original seven" founders took on sobriquets.

Soyinka chose 'Captain Blood', which is the name of the hero in Rafael Sabatini's 1922 adventure novel, Captain Blood: His Odyssey. Captain Blood is a fictional Irish Medical Doctor who had a wide-ranging career as a soldier and sailor (including a commission as a captain under the Dutch Admiral De Ruyter) before settling down to practice medicine in the town of Bridgwater in Somerset. In 1935, Michael Curtiz made the book into a film starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Ross Alexander. The film was made by First National Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures and produced by Harry Joe Brown and Gordon Hollingshead, with Hal B. Wallis as executive producer.

Soyinka liked the character of Dr. Peter Blood and chose his name as sobriquet. The story is told of how Soyinka, in his early days, had longed to take up a career in medicine and even considered being a sailor. This, in a way, made Soyinka's choice of Captain Blood really appropriate.

Depending on what prism one looks at Soyinka, the Supreme Leader of the NAS, he means different things to different people. But what does he mean to the NAS?

Owodiong-Idemeko responded: "Capone Blood, as we know him within the circles of National Association of Seadogs is the grand ache-type of Pyrates; the quintessential writer, playwright, activist, custodian, Nobel laureate, father, uncle, brother, leader, motivator, orator, scholar, visionary and dragon-slayer. He is the iconoclastic embodiment of the pyratical essence, defined by a sworn disposition to combat moribund conventions and all predispositions, which militate against the attainment of a just and egalitarian society; a path he has remained truly, steadfastly and unwaveringly committed to all his life. He is the quintessential symbolism and embodiment of the Nigeria of our dreams.

"He is hated by many for his unflinching and eloquent stance against corruption, injustice, oppression, repression, tyranny, bad governance and all or any individuals or groups, who manipulate the levers that maintain the status-quo. He is loved and adored by the teeming masses many who are daily offered the short end of the stick by thieving governments and their agencies, the suffering masses, which are huddled together under the sweltering heat of injustice, poverty and disease."

According to the capoon, "It will be difficult, if not impossible to separate Prof. Soyinka's personal attributes and idiosyncrasies from what he brings or means to the NAS because it is these personal attributes that have guided his life and relationships. It is the same discipline that has seen him succeed against great odds, and which he has infused into the operations of the NAS. Loving him or hating him is a natural response to his personae, but this depends predominantly on which end of the stick one is holding, or to which ideological divide one belongs or better still, how connected one is to humanity."

To the uninitiated, names such as Capone Blood could conjure images of violence, savagery, and even a pointer to the ferocity with which most confraternities go about their activities. So, would Soyinka allow such a name to stick over the years?

"Is it not preposterous that one would be concerned with or focus one's attention on the name, be it Pyratical or given name of an individual, who has committed his entire life to advocating for the restoration of the dignity of the community of man, for good governance, for equity and justice? A man whose life has been almost completely lived in public glare, which by consistent use of his talents has become a living legend, an icon,"Owodiong-Idemeko questioned.

He continued, "In a nation where known embezzlers of public funds and election riggers are conferred with national awards and streets are named after them, where some religious leaders swindle their followers and fiddle with their spouses, this can only lay credence to widespread hypocrisy and, or selective amnesia. Beyond these, we echo the question by William Shakespeare, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

"As a citizen of the world," the Nobel laureate traverses the globe gracing events, delivering speeches and engaging in sundry activities. This makes his itinerary relatively crowded. One would have expected that his romance with the PC would have considerably simmered.

That appears not to be the case. In fact, since conditions that warranted the formation of the group in the country have moved from bad to worse, the Supreme Leader still interacts with his men, especially at the operations level.

"The deep intellectual foundation of the NAS, its spread and evolutionary dynamism makes its appeal eternal. When viewed against the backdrop of the fact that the situations and circumstances that necessitated the formation of the organisation decades ago have deteriorated further, one would understand the necessity, with which Prof. Soyinka still interacts with NAS and he's still actively involved in its activities, albeit not on an operations level.

It will be irresponsible to discountenance the fact that Prof. Soyinka, who turns 80, and given that the struggle to uphold human dignity has been his life's work, needs a very well deserved rest. Even if he wanted to, it would be irresponsible for us, the protagonists of this generation not to rise to the occasion, take up the gauntlet, while we tap from his very deep well of experience.

"Above all, he is well informed about what happens in the confraternity and when he finds the time, he does not hesitate to be physically present at events whether in Nigeria or abroad. In June 2012, he was in attendance at the NAS Overseas Converge held in London and followed up with attendance at the National Converge in August 2012 in Lagos. In July 2013, he was physically present in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, at the annual Professor Wole Soyinka Lecture Series, an event sponsored by the confraternity since 1994. We hope to see him at similar events being planned to mark his 80th birthday next week.

Over the years, Soyinka has built for himself a fearless disposition and a reputation for saying it the way it is. That explains why he criticises both military and civilian regimes in equal measure. One of his most popular quotes: "The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism," lends credence to this.

However, in the opinion of many, his criticisms of past and present governments are, more often than not, caustic. So, in what light does the PC view harsh comments from Capone Blood?

"Prof. Wole Soyinka is a man, a private citizen first and foremost, then a Seadog. He deserves to have his say on any topical national or international issue as he deems fit. This position is, however, taken without attempting to hold brief for Prof Soyinka because we think he is eminently qualified and competent to hold brief for himself.

"The adjective used by individuals or groups to qualify any statement Prof. Soyinka makes is a product of their assessment, judgment and, or understanding of the subject matter and how it sits with them. Criticism on the other hand creates room for review, analysis and improvement. Every Seadog is groomed not only to welcome criticism, but to also dish it out with forthrightness and candour. It ensures the anti-stagnation principle of NAS. We all must recognise that constructive criticism always helps us to stretch our imagination and find better ways of doing things, make better decisions, and become more accountable. Soyinka has always ensured his criticisms are measured and well thought out. His views are personal to him and if NAS has views about any situation or circumstance affecting our national life, which is usually the case, NAS has official structures and mechanisms to articulate and propagate such views. This we have always done through our website and social media platforms; like we have done in the over 23 press releases we have published in the course of this year, position paper to the National Conference, etc.

"If, and when Prof. Soyinka has any views that he feels strongly, there are several channels of discussion open to share and cross-fertilize and shape ideas with the NAS and such ideas are adopted as organisational positions after they have been streamlined."

The four compass points upon which Seadogs "navigate" within the society are: "Against Convention, Against Tribalism, For Humanistic Ideals and For Comradeship and Chivalry." And the Nigerian society is evidently bereft of these ideals.

One is then tempted to believe that the loss of these ideals in the Nigerian society suggests the failure of the dreams of the founding fathers of the NAS. Idemeko-Owodiong begs to differ. And in doing so, he questioned, "Does the fall of a star signify the end of the cosmos? Does sin signify the failure of religion? Life is a continuum; societies are always evolving, continually raising phoenixes from the ashes of despondency. Ideals are what they represent, a compass and they offer beacons of hope for humanity to strive to attain. We are pleased that the pyratical ideals have been appropriately considered as benchmarks for measuring human development. The loss of or disregard for these ideals by the Nigerian society does not in any way suggest the failure of the dreams of the founding fathers of our great Confraternity; rather it strengthens and quickens our resolve to prod on in our quest to propagate the pyratical essence, to do more for man, for the community, for the nation. This disposition is borne out of our knowledge that the greatness of a nation is the sum total of the greatness of the individual citizens.

Since the advent of the NAS as Nigeria's first campus fraternity, the Nigerian society has witnessed the emergence of several other campus fraternities with diverse nomenclatures as well as modus operandi. This proliferation has given birth to regular supply of horrific spectacles, on and off campus.

With the immense bloodshed and sharp rise in sundry anti-social behaviours, including brigandage and savagery, hordes of concerned parties, in most cases, tar the NAS with the same brush as other fraternities. So, how difficult has it been for the seadogs to sail in this murky?

"It would be difficult, if not impossible to view counter-culture, gangsterism, murder, arson and sundry crimes that have become regular occurrence in our ivory towers outside of the prism of the generalised incomptence, ineptitude and moral decadence, which has characterised our nationhood. The breakdown of law and order in our higher institutions mirrors the situation within the larger community and the failure of law enforcement," the NAS capoon said.

He continued, "First and foremost, activities like assault, murder, arson, rape, robbery - with or without arms, etc, which are common occurences on most university campuses in Nigeria at some point have been criminalised by our penal code. But due to dereliction of law enforcement duties or just downright laziness, which has characterised our justice delivery system, such acts are either mis-defined, mis-classified or generalised as "cult" activities and the absence of disincentive, in terms of imprisonment or even a death sentence for offenders have brought about proliferation of such criminal activities. One wonders whether violence would be called cultism if it occurred in say, an army barrack, a religious gathering or market place.

"The aims and objectives of formation of the Pyrates Confraternity, its actions, activities and programmes, since inception have been documented and the efforts it has made, against great odds, to tackle the cultism cankerworm is also well documented."

He gave instances. "For example, in 1999, on the occasion of the 23rd NAS converge in Abeokuta, we devoted that entire event to discussing the question of cults and violence in institutions. In attendance were the registrar of the Lagos State University; a distinguished academic and professor of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta and the Dean of Student Affairs at Lagos State University. On that occasion, it was commonly agreed that some of the more prominent causes of violence in Nigerian tertiary institutions were deeply rooted in the prevailing environmental conditions; sociological factors and the adverse societal influences on youth's psyche, examples of which were the deterioration of life on campus; infrastructural decay; insincere and unfair admission procedures; examination leakages; intimidation of lecturers by students; the disproportionate staff to student ratio and the appointment of mediocre and untrained students liaison officers.

"In between the intervening period, all those features now appear to have become identified catalysts for the violence in our institutions. Now, the most adverse influence on the deterioration of the student culture is, sadly, the influence of the political era on student life. As Prof. Soyinka once quite eloquently put it, 'in the degeneration of campus culture, the public is reaping the rewards of its own degenerate existence; the corruption of values, the open violence and the dishonesty.'

"A look at the long list of humanitarian, charitable and advocacy activities and programmes we are involved in across the world, one would immediately understand not just how we have evolved, but the level of planning, focus, expertise and resources required to function optimally across those interfaces. Given the value we have continually created over the years, it is only reasonable to input outright mischief or irresponsibility to any attempt to tar the NAS with the brush of ignominy."

In the last 52 years, Capoon Blood has been the moving force behind the Pyrates Confraternity. And within this period, the group has continued to grow in leaps and bounds with presence in most parts of the federation including Abuja. The NAS presence is also felt internationally in the United Kingdom, Holland, Japan, South Africa, Canada and five branches in the United States. All these international locations boasts functional logistical infrastructure.

With Soyinka's role and involvement in the formation of the country's premier campus confraternity well documented, the poet abhors degeneration of fraternal culture in young persons and the heights, which imitators of PC have taken their macabre dance to. That explains why he wastes no time in tongue-lashing them once an opportunity presents itself.

One of those occasions where he spoke about those unwholesome groups, he remarked, "... their ethos - if one can call it that - is of such a nature that to describe them as fraternities is as appropriate as calling a serial rapist a sex therapist. They established competitive reigns of terror on campuses, engaging in activities that occasionally spill into the towns. They extort, they rape, employ acid to disfigure women who have spurned them, and serve as enforcers and thugs to politicians".

This unfortunate scenario has, consequently caused him to initiate, a sustained campaign to educate and tutor the uninitiated, mischievous and ill-informed, on the true and different views about the NAS, ranging from its origin, principles, beliefs and practices - and the differences from those groups and organisations with which it has been yoked with. The latest of these events took place on 12 July 2005.

That notwithstanding, not many members of the society are well versed with the ideals of the NAS, even though it has evolved from a campus fraternity to an international humanitarian and charitable advocacy organisation. The national capoon did not find it difficult to state necessitated the formation of the confraternity in the first place and also shed some light on what it represents.

"The confraternity was formed during the 1952/1953 academic session of the University College, Ibadan, as a campus fraternity with very clearly set objectives aimed at intervening/addressing specifically identified social anomalies of the day, which were becoming prevalent within the University College Ibadan and was crippling the school community. These anomalies, which were a reflection of the ills that were prevalent in the outer society included the worst forms of corruption and discriminatory social practices, namely elitism and tribalism, also mirrored the false values embraced by the wider society in Nigeria.

"It is surprising that after over 60 years later; the situation we find ourselves in Nigeria hasn't improved, but has gotten significantly worse and complicated. Essentially, the NAS has had to evolve, expand and strengthen its operational base and mechanisms to be able to continually live true to its founding obligations, aims and objectives of combating social ills.

"The evolution of NAS," he continued, "has seen it grow from a campus fraternity to a full-functional humanitarian and charitable organisation that deploys both advocacy and direct interventionist approaches to impact communities, where it has presence. Today, NAS has branches in South Africa, Europe, Asia, America and Canada in addition to over 40 Chapters in Nigeria. In addition to its other activities, it remains dedicated to social advocacy, humanitarian and charitable endeavours within and outside Nigeria or whatever society in which the members find themselves.

"The deliberate strategy to douse the tribal affiliations of members of the NAS, reflects our commitment to run a diverse organisation, which membership is open across borders to peoples of every tribe, race, creed or religious orientation. This is in line with our primary aim, to uphold human dignity and promote a just, humane and progressive society, where no one is a victim of colour, race, sex, tribe or beliefs. The success we have registered in this aspect is what has inspired us to amply articulate and document this experience in the various national integration papers we have presented to the National Assembly for consideration, adoption and implementation," Owodiong-Idemeko submitted.

In view of Soyinka's desire to see a well-governed and perfectly run Nigeria, why would NAS, with its massive network of cerebral men (with immense resources), not encourage their Supreme Leader to take a serious shot at the country's Presidency or another political office, where he can serve as a classic example of a political office holder that would fulfill his obligations and responsibilities of governance?

The NAS capoon had this to say, "One would begin to wonder the propriety of having a Nigerian President who is 80 years old."

However, for their Supreme Leader as he turns 80, the Seadogs are saying, "Happy Birthday Cap'n Blud! 80 Years & counting!! May you sayle forever!!!

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