The last time the esteemed Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, made the news was in April when he almost came to blows with the Obidients, whom he accused of fascism. That didn’t sit well with them, and they fired heavy salvos in Prof’s direction. It would take a visit to Soyinka from their principal, the Labour Party’s Peter Obi, to diffuse the tension. But that hasn’t stopped them from giving Soyinka the bombastic side-eye.

Almost three months later, Soyinka is in another fight. This time, not on social media, but in faraway Kwara and its emirate capital, Ilorin.

So what’s the gist?

Punch reported that a Muslim group, Majlisu Shabab li Ulamahu Society, based in Ilorin, went to the home of an Osun priestess, Yeye Ajesikemi Olokun Omolara Olatunji. They warned her not to host a festival known as Isese in the state. It was reported that she released posters announcing a three-day event in celebration of Yoruba deities.

Ilorin is an emirate. It’s ruler is Alhaji Ibrahim Sulu Gambari. In reaction to the group’s activities, a spokesperson for the Emir said the Emir supported their actions. Although the spokesperson stated that Gambari did not send them, he added that the Emir made it public that no idolatry activities should be held in the Ilorin Emirate.

His words: “The Emir has made it public that he’s not in support. He’s warned them to stay away from Kwara or Ilorin Emirate. So, any group that shares the same view and opinion with His Royal Highness can also come out and then do such, which the group you just mentioned now has done.”

Essentially, the Emir thinks Yeye’s actions constitute idolatry. According to Gambari, that has never happened in Ilorin and would be heavily resisted should it be attempted.

Somehow, the news got to Soyinka, which made him angry enough to write a strongly-worded op-ed directed at Gambari.

How did Soyinka respond?

[Prof Wole Soyinka / The Cable]

Soyinka described Gambari’s actions as a “grievous insult to our race.” He said he teaches courses in another Emirate, Abu Dhabi, in the UAE. Soyinka said it allows festivals from different religions to occur without hindrance. He wondered why the opposite was the case back in Nigeria. He criticised Gambari’s stance for impeding the right to embrace our humanity, reflected in how we celebrate different worldviews. Soyinka called on the Emir to rein in the “agents of division” before closing with the following:

“There is a thin line between Power and Piety. Call Yeye Ajasikemi OIokun Omolara to your side. Make peace with her and make restitution in whichever way you can for this grievous insult to our race. We know the history of Ilorin and the trajectory of your dynasty — but these are not the issues. The issue is peaceful cohabitation, respect for other worldviews, their celebrations, their values and humanity. The issue is the acceptance of the multiple facets of human enlightenment.

The greatest avatars that the world has known were not without human frailties, flaws, and errors of understanding. You are NOT Omniscient. And you are not Omnipotent.”

How has Emir Gambari reacted?

[Emir Sulu Gambari / PM News]

The Emir hasn’t taken things lightly. In a statement signed by his spokesman on July 7, he said Soyinka was being “economical with the facts”. The statement said Soyinka’s claim that Gambari disallowed festivals was “nauseating” and “uncharitable” to the Ilorin people.

“To set records straight, Professor Wole Soyinka tends to be economical with facts, forgetting that nobody wants war. He decided to settle with a factor capable of causing societal chaos if not quickly averted.

[The Emir’s action] is to prevent crisis and not wait until it erupts. The cost of managing crises cannot be equated to the wisdom or courage required to prevent them. Such proactiveness is necessary to sustain peaceful co-existence in society. It’s, therefore, surprising to hear that the position of Professor Soyinka is identical to someone who does not consider what might transpire if the programme was hosted.

It may result in issues which could also lead to reprisal attacks by sympathisers or promoters of such belief (Isese festival) in other parts of the country.”

The ball is back in Soyinka’s court. While he makes a case for freedom of expression and religion, the Emir’s claim that the people of Ilorin would uniformly resist any such traditional proceedings cannot be ignored either. We’ll see how this plays out in the coming days.

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