Accra, 8 July 2014
Thank you for the invitation to join you today, which was as gratifying as it was unexpected. I have been associated with many things, but never to my knowledge with literary critics.
But I have very good reasons for wanting to pay tribute to Wole Soyinka.
What first comes to my mind is his moral clarity, in particular his firm solidarity with the people of Rwanda. At the height of the genocide in 1994, he wrote:
“All notions of sovereignty with respect to Rwanda should be completely forgotten and we should just go in and stop the killing.”
Truer words were never spoken. The only debate within the international community, was about how quickly the peacekeepers could be removed from Rwanda.
One force alone ignored the order to withdraw: the 456 Ghanaian soldiers under the command of Major-General Henry Kwami Anyidoho. They remained with us, technically illegally, through the darkest moments of our history, and helped save many thousands of lives.
President Mahama, allow me to take this opportunity to convey to you and to the people of Ghana the sincere appreciation of all Rwandans for the Ghanaian battalion’s bravery and devotion to duty.
In the years after 1994, Professor Soyinka has visited Rwanda several times, and acquired a deep understanding of what we went through, and how we rebuilt our country.
The second tribute I would like to pay to Professor Soyinka is to recognise him as a tireless fighter. He has ruffled many feathers, and sometimes paid a steep price for his outspokenness. But he did not surrender or fall silent.
In particular, I would like to single out his lifelong advocacy for unity, both within nations and across Africa as a whole, and his rejection of the politics of division in all its forms.
For this ideal, in part, he spent nearly two years imprisoned in solitary confinement.
This conviction is especially significant for us as Rwandans, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Professor Soyinka is so well-positioned to appreciate not only the root causes of Rwanda’s collapse, but more importantly the choices we have made in rebuilding our nation on a new foundation.
Wole Soyinka’s life spans practically the entire course of Africa’s liberation struggle, from the absurd indignities of the colonial era, to the tragic failures of the early years of independence.
And so talking about him inevitably leads to a conversation about Africa’s journey, which he has so passionately chronicled.
At independence, Africa held so much promise. But over and over again, the aspirations of our people were thwarted by a failure to manage the diversity within our countries.
In the extreme, this resulted in the extermination of sections of the population, as happened in my country, Rwanda.
We abandoned the search for answers to national challenges from within ourselves, and gifted that responsibility to others. We spent time copying outside practices, and even quarrelling over them.
The major loss in all this was African dignity, and belief in our collective capacity to shape our destiny.
But the possibility of rebirth was always near. And today, while conflicts rage in some parts of the continent, there are signs of a hopeful and more widespread renewal.
But Africans want more than mere survival. We want more than to be “not poor”. We want to compete globally and be more prosperous.
We cannot move forward without some “tools”.
First, Africa needs, at all levels, a confident leadership based on clarity, innovation, and accountability, one that is really preoccupied with the well-being of our people.
Second, it is important to have stable governance institutions and systems, which serve our citizens effectively.
Third is the recognition that, individually, we may not reach all our goals, but collectively we can and must.
In this respect, greater integration of our countries is a necessity.
In East Africa, for instance, a process is underway to rapidly implement joint infrastructure projects, which the participating countries would find difficult to undertake on their own. We have also removed barriers to travel and trade within the region, increasingly connecting our people.
In Rwanda, we have gone a step further and decided that citizens of any African country can obtain a visa on arrival, with no need for burdensome procedures in advance.
Finally, Africans need to reinforce the belief in our abilities, values, and traditions in order to shape the future we want.
Rwandans have refused to accept a situation of helplessness. We are refocusing the mindset and taking the lead in building the nation we deserve, having understood, painfully, that we could not delegate this responsibility to anyone else.
This has led us to search everywhere for solutions to the complex task of nation-building.
Rwanda’s experience taught us that we needed a completely different political arrangement from what had existed before, one that could accommodate everyone. We therefore adopted a system where everyone is represented.
We also looked into our history and culture for practices that we could adapt to manage Rwanda’s unique political and social circumstances and create these modern institutions.
This brings me to the final tribute I wish to pay to Professor Soyinka.
Securing the gains we have made, and continuing to make more progress, depends, in large part, on our youth. They need a firm sense that responsibility for what happens in Africa rests with them.
They need, in short, fully liberated minds. Only people who value and honour the knowledge that comes from their own culture and experience are able to make meaningful use of input from outside.
Throughout his life, Wole Soyinka’s enduring contribution has been to call attention to the difficult work of liberating the mind. He has been an unapologetic exponent of the universality of African values.
He will remain a beacon for African young people, and his works should be requisite reading in schools around the continent.
Crucible of the Ages: Essays in Honour of Wole Soyinka at 80, edited by the dynamic duo of Ivor Agyeman-Duah and Ogochukwu Promise, is a fitting tribute and birthday present to a man who has refused to just sit quietly. We need Wole Soyinka’s message, today more than ever.
It is now my pleasure to launch Crucible of the Ages.