Nigerians have been sharply divided across camps in the recent spat between Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka and Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media, Mallam Garba Sheu. Prof. Soyinka had earlier condemned the presidential directive to Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States to totally restrict movement of people and business activities in order to curtail the spread of the novel virus. Soyinka in a statement had said the presidential directive is illegal and unconstitutional. He said “The worst development I can conceive is to have a situation where rational measures for the containment of the Corona pandemic are rejected on account of their questionable genesis. He further noted that “this is a time for Unity of Purpose, not nitpicking dissensions. So, before this becomes a habit, a question: does President Buhari have the powers to close down state borders? We want clear answers. We are not in a war emergency.”
In his reaction, the SSA to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, has said “Yesterday, the esteemed Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka made comments on the legal status and description of 14-day lockdown announced by President Muhammadu Buhari. Professor Soyinka is not a medical professor. His qualifications are in English Literature, and his prizes are for writing books and plays for theatre. He is of course entitled to his opinions- but that is exactly all they are: semantics not science. They cannot- and should not- therefore be judged as professional expertise in this matter in any shape or form.”
In reacting to the spat between the Nobel Laureate and the SSA on Media to the President, Nigerians have been divided on whose side to stay. While many believed that Mallam Garba overstepped his boundaries, others were of the opinion that Soyinka should not have queried the government decision. In responses monitored on Facebook, Nigerians were neither here nor there. In a Facebook post by Dr. Abdulkadir Oba Laaro, a lecturer at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Ilorin, an attempt was made to mediate between Garba Shehu and Prof. Wole Soyinka. The don wrote :
Garba Shehu overreached himself. That release of Prof Wole Soyinka is over. Some language should be below presidential engagement. Though, Prof Wole Soyinka too needs some discretion in his intervention on national issues
Responding to Laaro’s assertion, one of the early commenters, Kunle Akogun, in support of Garba, wrote: “Some people should stop playing God even in matters about which they know nothing. Indeed, Coro is science not fiction! And fiction writers should stop politicising and trivialising the government’s effort to stem its spread! I’m with Garba Shehu on this.”
In a counter response on this and in an apparent support of Soyinka, another Nigerian, Naeem Balogun, opined “I believe Garba Sheu is not that knowledgeable to know and understand that those who write fiction really have to study the real knowledge before adding their actual expertise. He ought to have understood that, this is not journalism that “framing” is required to take people in another direction. Even though the fiction writers are not left out in that aspect. Knowledge, fiction and reality work hand in hand. My assertion.”
A counter narrative also emerged from another participant in the discourse. The commenter, Olatunde Oketumbi who argued “ Let’s call a spade a spade. Soyinka goofed in his criticism of the government lockdown order when he, in his supposedly superior wisdom, did not suggest a more practical alternative action that the government could take to combat the Coronavirus pandemic in our collective interests. I’m therefore totally in support of Garba Shehu’s rejoinder to Wole Soyinka. After all, Shehu’s freedom of speech is no less guaranteed by the same constitution that guarantees Soyinka’s.”
In her own response, Chinedum Ikogwe faulted Garba for his comment. She said “Hahahahaha.he only displayed the arrogance that the APC Central Government is known for since 2015. So, please leave Mallam Shehu Garba alone. Joseph Kay, in a seemingly angry tone posited that Wole Soyinka got what he deserved. In his own post, he said “Wole Soyinka got what he deserves. He should know better with his exposure. Other countries are taking stringent measures. The French Parliament passed a law to enable the Prime Minister rule by decree for two months. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the security agents to shoot down anyone that defies the stay at home order. More and more countries are locking down cos that is working at the moment…”
Karounwi Adini agrees with the post but did not accept the fact that Soyinka should exercise discretion. He probed “ I agree with the post, except the side of Kongi having discretion on his statements. Which discretion exactly with this Government?
As the argument goes back and forth, with people taking sides, it is instructive to note that the president in his special broadcast to Nigerians earlier in the week has said “In Nigeria’s fight against COVID-19, there is no such thing as an overreaction or an under reaction. It is all about the right reaction by the right agencies and trained experts.” This should have been the bedrock of Garba Shehu’s response to the erudite professor’s concerns.