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Gowon apologises to Soyinka over detention, 37 years after

Posted by From Charles Coffie-Gyamfi (Abeokuta), Babatunde Bodunrin and on 2004/07/19 | Views: 978 |

Gowon apologises to Soyinka over detention, 37 years after

THIRTY-SEVEN years after sending Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka to prison, former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, at the weekend tendered a public apology, explaining that the action of the then military regime which he headed was not taken out of hatred for the literary giant.

THIRTY-SEVEN years after sending Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka to prison, former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, at the weekend tendered a public apology, explaining that the action of the then military regime which he headed was not taken out of hatred for the literary giant.

Gowon, who spoke at the banquet organised by the Ogun State government to mark the end of activities for Soyinka's 70th birthday celebrations, said he had tremendous respect for the Noble laureate but that he was convinced by some people then that Soyinka was a great threat to his regime.

The retired general then advised Soyinka not to get tired of correcting any "wrongs" in his fatherland - the very thing that earned the then 33-year-old activist the jail term.

Gowon told the guests at the ceremony held at the auditorium of the Government House, Valley View; that "when I was Head of State, he (Soyinka) did not want anything in uniform and reports reaching me were that he was doing everything to effect a change of the system."

The guests included Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion; Presidential Adviser, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, Minister of State for Agriculture, Chief Olawale Dada; Ambassador Segun Olusola and Director-General of the Voice of Nigeria (VON) Alhaji Taiwo Alimi. Others were Chief Bola Kuforiji-Olubi, Dr. Onaolapo Soleye, Chief Bode George, Alhaji Jubril Martins-Kuye, Chief Ayo Opadokun and Oba Funso Adeolu, Alaye of Ode-Remo.

The others were former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Prince Bola Ajibola; Chief Judge of Ogun State, Charles Oluremi Jacobs; the Primate of the Church of Aladura, Ayo Ositelu; Maj.-Gen. Abdulkareem Adisa (rtd), representing Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (rtd), traditional rulers and other top government officials.

Gowon, who spiced his unwritten speech with humour, which often attracted laughter, said: "I was told by some people that I should make sure that he (Soyinka) did not circulate much."

He jokingly added: "At that time, he was very, very young; he had no grey hairs, perhaps what happened to him (his imprisonment) might have caused this his numerous grey hair," adding: "Both of us were very young and idealistic at that time and I happened to be the man in charge of Nigeria at that time."

Referring to Soyinka, Gowon stated: "The tiny young man was trying everything he could to disrupt the normal process. We (Gowon and his cabinet) sat down and decided he must not circulate anymore because we thought he was then becoming very dangerous to the system, so we proffered what could be done to him."

According to Gowon, it was the view of the regime that an urgent decision must be taken and "so he was my guest for two years and four months."

Gowon added that based on his directive, at no time was Soyinka's life threatened while in prison "because, certainly, my government's policy at that time would not tolerate the threat to anybody's life," he said, adding even a good friend while in incarceration and he even thought of writing a book "The man died", adding humorously "I don't know if I was the one who died."

"There was rumour at a certain time that he was dead but when I saw him later, we greeted very well," he said.

Gowon acknowledged that Soyinka was a good writer but insisted that his write-ups often make people in power uncomfortable.

According to him, his regime decided to set Soyinka free when it became apparent that there was nothing they could do to change him and his ideas.

He continued: "I think it was during this period that his father died and we thought he might be responsible for the burial arrangements of his father. So, we released him."

After the speech which was intermittently disrupted by laughter or applause, Gowon turned to Soyinka and said: "I am very sorry that you had to go in for a short rest."

He then prayed that God would prolong the Nobel Laureate's life to enable him continue his good works, saying: "Never should you get tired of correcting any wrongs for your fatherland."

All those who spoke at the well-attended ceremony poured encomiums on Soyinka. They included Governor Gbenga Daniel of Ogun State, Opadokun and Justice Ajibola.

Daniel said the gathering was to appreciate "the worth of our own who has proven himself to be most deserving of such honour."

Describing the celebrant as an extraordinary Ambassador of Nigeria and the entire black race, Daniel said: "Soyinka is a source of pride and inspiration as well as a harbinger of optimism for his generation and for generations unborn.

"He remains the general who leads his army to the battle ground, who has never joined the league of the fair-weather fighters who prefer to fire salvos while relaxing in their castles abroad."

Opadokun described Soyinka as one who had always been identified with the development of Nigeria, adding that besides, he had always fought to bring about justice since 1960.

Ajibola described the celebrant as a bundle of complexities but deep inside him he is full of compassion and urged Soyinka to keep on fighting for a better society.

Soyinka was full of appreciation to the Ogun State government and all those who graced the occasion for the honour done him.

He recalled his ordeal during the late Gen. Sani Abacha's regime, recalling that he was forced to be an Okada (motorcycle) passenger for about 10 hours to be able to flee Nigeria to save his life. He described the experience as most disturbing and traumatic.

The Nobel laureate also presented the middle-age motorcyclist, Rasheed who carried him out of the country through rough footpaths to the Republic of Benin.

Meanwhile, Lagos State Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu has observed that the values symbolised by Soyinka are the very ones that can help realise the country's potentials and actualise her dreams of joining the club of developed nations worldwide.

In a tribute read at a special banquet to mark Soyinka's 70th birthday at Eko L'e Meridien Hotel, Lagos, Tinubu declared: "Today, Wole Soyinka has become part of the reality of our existence. He signifies those values that can lead us to the nation of our dream. The values of social conscience that compel the individual to challenge injustice and repel indignity. The values of rationality and healthy doubt that allows us never to believe that there is no alternative and constantly impels us to progressive and popular change, that preach that no social progress can take place without popular participation."

Describing Soyinka's conscientiousness as the defining essence of his being, Tinubu stressed that "unless we appreciate that commitment to one's conscience is the most holistic definition and description of his 70 years, we will miss the ball and kick the leg, figuratively speaking."

While acknowledging the literary giant's stature as a civilised man of universal significance, Tinubu noted that Soyinka is the quintessential "Omoluabi", the product of a truly Yoruba environment in Ake, which "enabled Soyinka to draw the line, which neither man nor any of his creations must fall below. That is the line of morality defined by the dignity of man."

He prayed "we shall be here in the next 10, 20 and even 30 years to re-enact this communion with the spirit of the man who truly deserves the accolade, conscience of the nation."

Soyinka while responding thanked all those who had made the occasion a success, and expressed appreciation to Tinubu and his wife, Oluremi, for their touching gestures of love.

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