Of writers and dictators, by Isa Sanusi

Daily Nigerian
Isa Sanusi

Majority of writers share one thing in common; commitment to justice, fairness, rule of law, good governance and freedom – in every sense of the word. Some writers pursue these precious indicators of human dignity through their writing, while others coupled their writing with activism. But some writers, though in support of freedom and fighting for it, stay away from politics in every form, devoting all of their time to their art. Writers in this category believe they are just writers who, through their work, reflect reality and allow the people to decide which side to be on. Many writers with this inclination make the point that real life is messy, slippery and capable of consuming the little that is left of their sanity in a chaotic world.

But is it morally right for a writer to just look on, and be a mere observer while a character on a throne unleashes hardship on the rest of the society? What can posterity make of a writer who just imbues himself in his art while an undistinguished figure at the helm of affairs of a nation, state or region wrecks present and future of often millions of people whose destiny was hijacked through ballot box or other dubious means? If the writer cannot tell the truth to power; who else can? Can a writer make a distinction between his ideas and reality by being oblivious of the happenings around him?

Victor Hugo, one of the greatest French writers had to go on exile at the end of 1851, and again and again. Despite amnesty for all political exiles by Napoleon III refused to return to France. His decision was based on the fact that accepting amnesty can limit his ability to criticize the ruler of the day. Hugo was pierce in his criticism of the leadership style of Napoleon III. Fyodor Dostoevsky the renowned Russian writer of “Crime and Punishment” fame was sentenced to death by firing squad. His sin was ‘circulating essays critical of government.’ Last minute commutation saved his life. Famous African writer Ngugi wa Thing’o lived in exile for over 22 years before he returned back to Kenya in 2004 – only to be attacked; his wife almost raped. He still lives in the United States. The then Kenyan dictator wanted to eliminate the writer – for his works that give the power-drunk sleepless night.

Many outspoken writers who refused to be silent in the face heavy-handed abuse of power ended up killed. Many languished for years in prisons, often with hard labour. Others were subjected to all kinds of intimidation, smear campaigns and all other sorts of harassment that only a mind at the peak of obsession with power can craft.

Those in power and got carried away by it have a different idea of who they are. In control of resources, critical institutions are always surrounded by sidekicks and retinue of sycophants men and women of power see criticism or any hint of it as a threat to their power – they take it personal and can do anything to prove that their word is final and that the only voice that deserves to be heard is their own. While power supposedly comes from people, it largely ends up in the hands of men and women who believe they are the beginning and the end. Their words should be like scripture no matter how stupid they may appear. Their orders like divine injunction – no matter how petty they appear. Dictators evolve. Many dictators begin as ‘saviours’ with good intentions only to be overwhelmed by baseless obsession with themselves.

When is it golden to be silent? When is it right to be a mere onlooker while a whole society is being taken for a ride by the ego of one individual or a gang of greed-driven individuals?

Some writers believe they don’t have to be activists to tell the truth. They believe even their writing is a form of telling the truth to power.