Analysis & Opinion: When Silence Spoke

By Sunny Awhefeada


An intriguing relationship sustains the deployment of words in different contexts be it serious or banal. What students of structuralism call binary opposition is one depiction of the multiplicity of the tendencies to which words can be subjected. The storehouse of words throws up choices, options or variations from which the user selects to suit his whim in giving words to his thoughts. Silence and speech share the opposite and intriguing tendency which the oeuvre of language epitomizes. Both are opposites and complementary in more ways than one. One is not the other and they mean different things. Growing up, one of the clichés that was thrown at us was, “speech is silver, silence is golden”.


This adage emblematizes the very essence of the duality of language. Words exist on opposing lanes and it is from the interface between these opposition that utterances evolve along lines that are in contrasts, but capable of adjusting to suit a new exigency. Meaning evolves from the stringing of words. Such meanings could be literal or metaphorical. Some of such meanings can initially appear nonsensical, but when viewed again would throw up coherence in thought and application. This range encompasses expressions which literature teachers and students call oxymoron, paradox, antithesis and others which reflect meanings borne out of contrast. So, when one hears “silence spoke volume”, “loud silence” or “silence means consent” one shouldn’t be perplexed. The meaning hinges on the possibilities of the word and its inexhaustible interplay.

Silence is the product of different circumstances. It can be compelled by experience or plain choice by anybody who chooses not to speak. Depending on the context, silence could be taken for consent, rejection, protest, indifference or more. Silence can rule when one is overwhelmed. This has been my experience these last three weeks. Nigeria simply overwhelmed me and silence ruled me. Friends and readers reached out to me asking why I have not written for two Fridays. I bemoaned my ordeal which has to do with the many “trouble(s) with Nigeria”. I was unable to think and write as some of these things happened. It was after listening to my jeremiad that a caller responded “Sunny, I understand you, silence spoke for you”.

I was startled into reality thinking about how silence could speak for one. Yes, silence speaks and it truly spoke for me. My silence for two weeks spoke against the killings across Nigeria. My silence spoke against the crack and rupture threatening Nigeria. My silence spoke against alarming inflation and the howling hunger in our homes. My silence remonstrated against injustice, inequity and the gloom hovering over Nigeria.

So many things snapped that fateful Sunday in September when words went out that super-patriot, extraordinary scholar and thought leader, Dr. Obadiah Mailafia had died. Yes, death is inevitable and it will come someday. But the circumstances that led to the unexpected death of Mailafia were unacceptably inhuman. The circumstances point to the death of that which is humane in us all. It only confirmed, as Mailafia had feared in his lifetime, that Nigeria has lost her soul and therefore her humanity.


The way the doctors handled his case was condemnable and the whole incident reads like a plot woven around a conspiracy to finally silence Mailafia. Whether this is true or not, Mailafia has become part of that threnodic adaptation by Tekena Tamuno “all things bright and beautiful/Nigeria kills them all”. Mailafia spent the latter part of his life fighting for the soul of Nigeria. And he was such an intrepid intellectual fighter! He deployed his sparkling brilliance, talent and time to help remake Nigeria, but the forces he tried to assail were too too powerful.


His newspaper writings, interviews and lectures were compelling and they constitute some of the most well thought out interventions in contemporary Nigeria. Mailafia could have taken off to live in Europe and allow Nigeria to continue its slide into statelessness, but he chose to remain with us to work out a new destiny for our beloved, but beleaguered country. Mailafia’s thought about Nigeria were genuine, profound and infectious. His was the nation’s voice of conscience in the last five years or so.
The unbridled killings which began in the Northern part of Nigeria are spreading to other sections at an alarming rate. The South-Eastern states of Anambra and Imo have also become Aceldama, slaughtering fields. It was in Anambra State just a week ago that the ubiquitous, but unknown gunmen killed Dr. Chike Akunyili. So many people had been killed in these two states and Dr. Akunyili’s murder could have been just another item in the statistics of those killed by the unknown gunmen of Nigeria.


The name Akunyili rings a bell in Nigeria. It evokes patriotic feelings and recalls the visage of an Amazon who gave her all to the service of Nigeria. That Amazon went by the name Professor Dora Akunyili. She attained national limelight as the Director General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). Akunyili took on the arduous and risky task of sanitizing the NAFDAC’s mandate sector. Despite the dangers posed by the peddlers of death, she achieved remarkable and unparalleled results. She nearly lost her life in the process. Akunyili’s achievement at NAFDAC made her one of Nigeria’s most outstanding public servants of all time. She later became Federal Minister of Information. She died of cancer a few years ago.

Dr. Chike Akunyili attended an event where his wife, Dora, was posthumously honoured and got brutally murdered on his way back! What a country! Chike was also a remarkable man in his own right. He fought in the Nigerian Civil War and later made a name for himself in medical practice. Together with Dora, he brought up remarkably talented children who have become superstars in different fields of human endeavours across the world. That was the man Nigeria killed. Many more are being killed daily who do not make the headlines. Nigeria’s killing fields are multiplying and the perpetrators are having a field day.

Those entrusted with the task of rescuing Nigeria appear overwhelmed and are looking the other way. The Nigerian house is on fire. A good number of the citizens have given up. Many are fleeing before what they consider to be doomsday will happen. The Federal Government is fighting over Value Added Tax just as it is borrowing to steal, corruption continue to loom, the economy has gone kaput, hunger is in every home, the North is stoking the embers of crisis as if our present ordeal is not enough, the unknown gunmen are taking lives, there are no more roads, electricity is becoming a thing of yore, schools and hospitals have collapsed, but governments at all levels are pretending and looking the other way. This is overwhelming and it certainly can compel silence to speak.

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