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Every Dictator's Nightmare

Best known as a playwright of both satirical comedies and philosophical plays, Soyinka is one of
Africa’s most prolific and important writers. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in
1986. The essay that follows was originally published in the New York Times Magazine in April
1999.

The message, whether from Yoruban elders or the


Founding Fathers, the Bible or the Koran, is the same:
Humans have rights.
By WOLE SOYINKA

ith the blood-soaked banner of religious fanaticism


billowing across the skies as one prominent legacy of this
millennium, Martin Luther's famous theses against religious
absolutism struck me early as a strong candidate for the best
idea of the last thousand years. By progressive association,
so did the microprocessor and its implications -- the
liberalization of access to knowledge, and a quantum boost
for the transmission of ideas. There is, however, a nobler
idea that has spread by its own power in this millennium and Photograph by Tom Schierlitz
that has now begun to flourish: the idea that certain Concept by Stefan Sagmeister
fundamental rights are inherent to all humanity.

Humankind has always struggled to assert certain values in their own right, values that the
individual intuitively felt belonged to each person as part of natural existence. It is difficult to
imagine a period when such values were not pursued in spasmodic acts of dissent from norms
that appeared to govern society even in its most rudimentary form. Even after years of
conformity to hallowed precedents, a few dissidents always arise, and they obtain their primary
impulse in crucial instances from the individual's seizure of his or her subjective worth.

In the devolution of authority to one individual as the head of a collective, a system of checks on
arbitrary authority is prevalent. Take, for instance, monarchical rule among the Yoruba, the
people now concentrated in western Nigeria. At the apex is a quasi-deified personage, endowed
with supreme authority over his subjects. To preserve the mystic aura of such a ruler, he is never
seen to eat or drink. In earlier times, he was not permitted to speak directly to his people but had
to employ an intermediary voice, a spokesman. For the highest-ranked kings in the Yoruban
world, the ekeji orisa (companions to the deities), it was forbidden even to see their faces.
Despite the social and psychological distance between the leader and his subjects, the monarch
was pledged to rule within a strict contract of authority. Transgression of a taboo, say, or failure
to fulfill ceremonial duties on time, resulted in fines, rituals of appeasement or a period of
ostracism. The major crime, however, was abuse of power, excessive authoritarianism and a
trampling on the rights of the citizenry. For this category of crimes, there was only one response:
the king, on being found guilty, was given a covered calabash and invited to retreat to his inner
chambers. He understood the sentence: he must never again be seen among the living.

Sometimes, of course, an individual manages to convert collective authority into a personal


monopoly. In these instances, society is characterized by tensions, palpable or hidden, between
the suppressed rights of the people and the power rapacity of one individual. But where does
society ground its claims, its resistant will, in such circumstances? We know that rebellion may
be triggered by recollections of more equitable relationships, by material expropriation or by a
cultural transgression that affects the spiritual well-being of the community or individual. Such
rebellion finds its authority in the belief, in one citizen after another, that the ruler has violated a
fundamental condition of human existence.

The droit du seigneur, the "right" that confers on the lord the
Wole Soyinka, a playwright, pleasure of deflowering, on her marriage night, the bride of any of
won the Nobel Prize in his vassals -- on what does the ritually cuckolded groom finally
Literature in 1986.
ground his rebellion other than a subjective sense of self-worth?
What of the Yoruban monarch who, even today in certain parts of
my world, tries to exercise his "right" to gbese le -- that is, to place his royal slipper,
symbolically, on any woman who catches his fancy, and thus assign her to his harem? The manor
lord's entitlement to compulsory labor from his peasants, the ownership of another being as a
slave, the new age of enslavement of womanhood in countries like Afghanistan -- the challenges
to these and other so-called rights surely commence with the interrogation of self-worth,
expanding progressively toward an examination of the common worth of the human entity as a
unit of irreducible properties and rights.

It took centuries for societies to influence one another to the critical extent needed to incite the
philosophic mind to address the concept of the human race in general, and not simply as
members of a specific race or occupants of a geographical space. In its rudimentary beginnings,
each society remained limited by a process that codified its own now-recognizable collective
interests against all others, like the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. Such oaths of fealty by
petty chieftains imposed duties on the suzerain but also entrenched their own equally arbitrary
mechanisms of authority and coercion over the next level of society. This sometimes resulted in
the bizarre alliance of the monarch with his lowest vassals against his overreaching barons and
chieftains.

Like race and citizenship, religion was not far behind in the exclusionist philosophy of rights,
formulating codes to protect the rights of the faithful but denying the same to others -- the Cross
against the Crescent, Buddhist versus Hindu, the believer against the infidel. Or simply religion
versus secularism. Ground into powder beneath the hooves of the contending behemoths of
religion, ideology and race, each social unit ponders, at least periodically, how he or she differs
from cattle or sheep, from the horses that pull the carriages of majesty, even when such choices
are the mere expressions of the collective will. If order alone, ornamentation, social organization,
technology, bonding and even productive structures were all that defined the human species, then
what significant properties marked out Homo sapiens as distinct from the rest of the living
species?
Polarizations within various micro-worlds -- us versus the inferior them -- have long been armed
with industrious rationalizations. Christian and Islamic theologians throughout history have
quarried their scriptures for passages that stress the incontestable primacy of an unseen and
unknowable Supreme Deity who has conferred authority on them. And to what end? Largely to
divide the world into us and the rest. The great philosophical minds of Europe, like Hume, Hegel
and Kant, bent their prodigious talents to separating the species into those with rights and those
with none, founded on the convenient theory that some people were human and others less so.
The Encyclopedists of France, products of the so-called Age of Reason, remain the most prolific
codifiers of the human (and other) species on an ambitiously comprehensive scale, and their
scholarly industry conferred a scientific benediction on a purely commercial project that saw
millions of souls dragged across the ocean to serve as beasts of burden. Religion and commerce
-- far older professions than the one that is sometimes granted that distinction, but of an often-
identical temperament -- were reinforced by the authority of new scientific theories to divide
humanity into higher and lower manifestations of the species. The dichotomy of the world was
complete.

It took the near triumph of fascism to bring the world to its senses. The horror of the Holocaust
finally took the rulers of the world back to the original question: what is the true value of
humanity? It is to be doubted if the victorious three meeting in Yalta actually went into any
profound philosophical niceties in the discussions that resulted in the United Nations, that partial
attempt to reverse the dichotomizing course of humanity. That course, taken to its ultimate
conclusion, had just resulted in an attempted purification of the species, the systematic
elimination of millions in gas chambers and a war that mired the potential of Europe in the blood
of its youth. After all, the concept of the master race was not new, but it was never before so
obsessively articulated and systematically pursued. It was time to rethink the entire fate of
humanity. The conversations at Yalta, conversations that led to the birth of the United Nations,
were a partial answer to that question.

The first stage was to render the new thinking in concrete terms, to enshrine in a charter of rights
the product of the bruising lessons of the immediate past: the United Nations and the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. The informing recognition is that long-suppressed extract of the
intuition that humanity had guarded through evolution, one that had been proposed,
compromised, amended, vitiated, subverted but never abandoned: that, for all human beings,
there do exist certain fundamental rights.

The idea already exists in the Bible, in the Koran, in the Bhagavad-Gita, in the Upanishads, but
always in curtailed form, relativist, patriarchal, always subject to the invisible divine realms
whose interpreters are mortals with distinct, secular agendas, usually allied to the very arbitrary
controls that are a contradiction to such ideas. Quiet, restrained, ignored by but also blissfully
indifferent to the so-called world religions, Ifa, the corpus of Yoruban spiritual precepts and
secular philosophy, its origins lost in antiquity but preserved and applied till today, annunciates
identical ideas through Orunmila, the god of divination:

Dandan enia l'ayan ko mu ire lo s'aye ... Ipo rere naa ni aye-amotan ohungbogbo, ayo
nnigbagbogbo, igbesi laisi ominu tabi iberu ota.
Certainly, it is the human being that was elected to bring values to the world ... and his place of
good is the knowledge of all things, joy at all times, freedom from anxiety and freedom from fear
of the enemy. [Irosu Wori]

Humanity has been straining to seize the fullness of this doctrine, the right to knowledge, the
freedom from anxiety, the right to security of existence as inherent to the species. It is only the
process of promulgating its pertinence to all mankind that has been long and costly. The kernel of
the idea, therefore, is both timeless and new. Its resurrection -- the concrete seizure of the idea
within this millennium, answering the exigencies of politics, religion and power and securing it
within the bedrock of universality -- was a destiny that would first be embraced by France.

There, alas, the events that gave new life to this idea did not encourage its adoption on a
universal scale, indeed not even durably within France itself. The restoration of slavery by
Napoleon was surely the most blatant contradiction of the idea, but this did not much trouble the
Emperor.

Still, the idea had taken hold, the idea of the rights of man as a universal principle. It certainly
motored the passion of the genuine idealists in the abolition of the slave trade, who must always
be distinguished from those to whom abolition was simply a shrewd commercial calculation. The
idea of the American Declaration of Independence -- an idea that still lacks full realization -- that
"all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
Rights" is an adumbration of that original idea from which the French Revolution obtained its
inspiration, one that has continued to convulse the unjust order of the world wherever it has been
grasped: the fundamental rights of man.

It is an idea whose suppression is the main occupation of dictatorships -- be these military or


civilian, of the right or the left, secular or theocratic. It is, however, their nightmare, their single
province of terror, one that they cannot exorcise, not even through the most unconscionable
pogroms, scorched-earth campaigns and crimes against humanity. It is an idea that has
transformed the lives of billions and remains poised to liberate billions more, since it is an idea
that will not settle for tokenism or for relativism -- it implicitly links the liberation of one to the
liberation of all. Its gospel of universalism is anchored in the most affective impulse that cynics
attribute to the choices made by humanity, self-love, but one that now translates humanity as
one's own self.

SOURCE: http://partners.nytimes.com/library/magazine/millennium/m1/soyinka.html