Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka launched a Nigerian political party Saturday, using the power of rhetoric to challenge apathetic voters in the oil-rich nation to overcome a government he called cynical and brutal.
Members of the Democratic Front for a People's Federation elected Soyinka as its leader during the party's inaugural meeting. The 76-year-old essayist, easily recognizable by a shock of white hair, later told reporters he wouldn't run as a candidate in the nation's 2011 presidential election.
Instead, Soyinka promised the party would use the power of persuasion and words to affect the outcome of an election many worry will be tainted by political thuggery, violence and ballot-box stuffing. But it remains unclear what effect a party that pledges to take in no money will have in a nation where stolen oil money fuels the whims of the political elite.
"It is an experiment ... that directly challenges those who grumble that there is no platform, no springboard from which they can propose the political arena fresh and innovative ideas," Soyinka told those gathered at a Lagos hotel ballroom Saturday. The party is "a question mark gouged into the landscape; the question that reads: Is it really impossible to have a voice unless you're swimming in millions?"
Nigeria, home to 150 million people, has conducted a string of criticized elections since becoming a democracy more than a decade ago. Its 2011 election, scheduled to be held in January, likely will be moved back over concerns about having enough time to register an estimated 70 million registered voters. The nation's National Assembly meets Monday to discuss postponing the election.
Since the hand over in 1999 from military rule to a civilian government, Nigerian politics have been dominated by the ruling People's Democratic Party. The party's operatives have the political connections and muscle necessary to control Nigeria's unruly and corrupt electoral system.
Soyinka's party describes itself as a "zero resource" party, a jab at Nigeria's culture of government graft and corruption. The writer said that would be the only way to shake a nation still propped up by "military scaffolding."
"The nation is comprehensively sucked dry by a minority that is so lubricated that they slip out of grasp when their hands are caught in the till," Soyinka said. "This party resolves to overturn the lugubrious arrangement by which the national cake is swallowed entire by those whose appointed task is to serve their employer, which is the sovereign electorate."
Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first African honored with the award. The essayist and playwright has a penchant for the dramatic, once single-handedly storming a Nigerian radio station with a pistol to try to prevent a corrupt politician from claiming an election victory. But he also served as a staunch critic of the excesses of the military dictators who pilfered Nigeria's oil money for years after the nation's gained its independence from Britain in 1960.
More recently, Soyinka led a protest in Nigeria's capital Abuja over the long-term hospitalization of late President Umaru Yar'Adua, whose absence ground government to a halt for months. As Soyinka grows older, it has yet to be seen who among the nation's teeming youth population will take up the mantle of Nigeria's writer- and agitator-in-chief.
That apathy could be seen Saturday, as the hotel banquet hall where the party met had numerous empty seats, a rarity in the political culture of rented crowd in Africa's most populous nation. As Soyinka spoke, loud hip hop bled through the walls from the hotel's pool, where the privileged and apparently oblivious youth played.