The Death of Voices

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal” – MLK
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” – MLK
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” – MLK

A couple of days ago, I was traveling from Abuja to Lokoja in a public transport. Somehow, some of the passengers got a conversation started. In no time, the conversation turned into a rich political exchange.

At first, it wasn’t so racy. Heads were cool and getting on quite well. Things however got livelier as we dabbled into politics, having a good laugh with the many comic stories floating through the news in recent times. The story of the money swallowing “spiritual” snake was particularly funny.

Trust Nigerians to make a skit with a news like that. Our attention was quickly arrested by someone’s reference to an advertisement making some decent buzz over the net. The advertiser was creating some awareness for his new product line: a new set of pythons that just arrived. The prices, though undisclosed, he said was quite cheap compared with the returns the snakes will bring. Each python could swallow minimum of 20 million naira from the bank. The Agric ones could even swallow hard currency.
It was easy to agree that Nigeria indeed has many talented comedians!

We couldn’t resist the temptation to touch on the performance of Mr President. As usual, opinions began to diverge. Some gave Mr President credit for the discovery of the money swallowing snake. Others fumed at the notion that he was doing well. Just another typical political gist among concerned Nigerians.

Up next was the state to which we were headed. The politics of Kogi state is shaded in black and white. Even the blind would not confuse the colors. Well, of course the exceptionally blind would.

Thankfully, everyone in the car could see it for what it was: a show of impunity mixed in shame. Everything we could say had a point of convergence. No one could sensibly argue against the excesses, insensitivity and plain arrogance of the Governor. In fact, no one was willing for a try as that could amount to an indirect admittance of insanity.

It is easy to see how this concordance emerged. In Kogi state, everyone has a story to tell. Most people know someone who has passed on within the past two years. Most people have seen families starving or have starved themselves. Everyone can relate to the cracking hardship of being a kogite in the past two years. Unless of course you are a privileged member of the low table of corruption and impunity or one of the dogs that feeds from the crumb that falls from the table.

It was such a sorry tale that drew rueful lamentations from all of us. It is ironic how shared experiences of hardship can foster quick bonding among strangers. We realized that we’ve got some empathy to give to each other. Right there in the car, we became like a family until our ways would part.

However, our conversation was about reaching a crescendo for me. All along, our conversation had been natural and free, void of undue stodginess. There was no compulsion for pretense. But that was about to change. As we drew closer to Kogi state, the man who had been the most vocal all along suddenly let out a warning: there would be no talk against Mr Governor on the soil of Kogi state.

Initially, it came across to me as a joke. This was coming from a man fairly built and in his mid-50s. He was a man of fair countenance, sitting assuredly by the door to the right side of the driver on the back row. He is well read, fairly exposed and gifted with sound reasoning. For a moment, his comment made no sense to me. It was just a passing comment alluding our previous conversation, I thought. As I replayed that comment again in my mind, I noticed a certain seriousness in his tone that cautioned my presumptuousness.

Of course, I have heard before that criticizing Mr Governor in Lokoja – the capital of Kogi state, regardless of the merits or otherwise of the criticism is a serious crime. But I have been dismissive of that notion, believing that things couldn’t get so bad that people wouldn’t be able to talk freely within a democracy. Damn! I was so wrong!

Right there in the car, I was quickly re-educated. One after the other, they listed instances of physical abuse, manhandling, kidnapping and murder that came as a consequence for taking a stance against Mr Governor. Apparently, Mr Governor has an army in mufti whose only job is to gather intelligence on people who opine against him.

The man who had given the warning earlier, added some more fuel. For him, he had seen enough to take any foolish risk. Even the seemingly powerful had taken the popular route of remaining silent. How much less a “common man”. He argued that the risk wasn’t worth it. As a matter of fact, he would never say anything against the Governor unless he was outside of the state or within his own house. His message was clear.

By this time, we had already passed Abaji, the last town before you come into Kogi state. As if there had been some prior concensus to this effect, the tone of the commentators started getting flat and reserved. To my surprise, by the time we got to Lokoja, there was a notable quietness. Only two people were still conversing – mildly. Neither said anything about Mr Governor anymore. It was a bit bizzare. As though a cold water came from nowhere and killed off our otherwise vibrant conversation.

As weird as this may seem, this has become the prevalent narrative in kogi state. People are so afraid that they can’t even talk about their own sufferings. If you must criticise Mr Governor, you do so at your own risk. This has taken out the gut of otherwise brave men. Men now act cowardly like brittle little boys, and celebrates the virtues of silence and passivity.

Curiously, this is only a fraction of a larger societal issue: an unwillingness to bear the temporary bruises that comes with truth telling, forgetting that the truth will heal and reward generously in the end. Added to this is this seemingly new culture of individualism that makes us forget that our fate is incontrovertibly intertwined with the collective. We chase individual solutions, only to realize afterwards that the problems keeps coming back albeit in different shades. It’s a known cycle, and it’s vicious.

Beside this is also an innate urge that makes us obsessive in trying not to offend. Most people show this in one of two ways. First, by striving to be politically correct all the time. Most times, people lose their real essence and voice in the process of trying to take a pose that is popular and inoffensive. On the other hand, some people maintain absolute abstinence which result in perpetual silence.

Certainly, there comes a time when silence is no longer golden. At some levels, silence is permissive, and most often interpreted as a green light by those who perpetrate detestable misdemeanors. This does no good and can only plunge the society further in darkness.

This tendency for abstinence is also noticeable among the creatives and intellectuals, a particularly depressing trend to note. Because of the nature of their craft, our conscience becomes dull when they are mute. In some cases, the doctrine of silence only emits an aura of despondency, suspended on a cloud of pessimism – a rather precarious admittance of defeat.

Art goes beyond the amusement and fascination it brings. It is a weapon of war, a tool of the soul. Ask Da Vinci and his brethren. That is why in moments of crisis, artists do have a responsibility, a solemn duty upon which the sanctity of the society rest. Artists of all kinds – writers, singers, painters (seeing that they descend from the same source), do share this responsibility. The possessors of the talents of creativity and imagination are obliged to use their talents to shape the narratives and destiny of the society positively.

That is why artists do have a voice through their craft. Songs, paints, writings, do indeed get into the soul and move hearts. No artist should feel powerless. Unfortunately, when an artist is not conscious of the power of his vocation, the magic in his craft will be lost and replaced with a splash of normalcy – a very close relative of pessimism and mediocrity.

Artistry is a calling, and it requires the artist to be mindful of the power in art, and to master it for good use. Been mute and frigid kills the power of art. Even a tiny modicum of that power will spark a fire and light the sky.

Pure art is genius, and it will step beyond amusement to inspire and challenge and move a people. That is why a people cannot afford to maintain silence in the face of oppression. Freedom must be voiced before it can be attained.

For a moment, imagine a reincarnation of Fela Anikulapo Kuti or Bob Marley, and what their craft will do in today’s world.
Think about Chinua Achebe. Imagine another “Things Fall Apart” that will challenge existing paradigms.

What could we benefit today from the intellectual sagacity of the likes of Obafemi Awolowo and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, and the ferocity with which they stood to our colonial masters to demand freedom.

On the flip side, imagine that these talents stood still at those crucial moments when their voices were most needed. Imagine!

The hostility of the forces of evil is undeniable. But so is the power of our voice. We must never be too scared to use that voice.

Awake oh pen,
Awake oh brush,
Awake sweet instruments of music,
Ride in power,
Gather your voice,
As fierce as the shattering of the thunder,
Sharpen your sword,
Find your target,
March at full strength,
Until all foe be submerged!


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