By Olaokun Soyinka

Dear Mr. Cole,
I am writing to thank you for standing up for my father, and for
respect. You ignited a social media storm that appears to have had
even more impact on aviation matters than Iran’s recent downing of the
U.S.A drone. Professor Soyinka’s inadvertent trespass into someone
else’s ‘seatspace’ has triggered numerous unguided missiles which are
flying all over social media.
My dad travels a lot and at his age we, his offspring, have been
advising him to cut down. I hope if I get to his ripe old age I will
still be as independent as he is, though he does have the occasional
mishap – I’m sure this is not the first time he’s occupied the wrong
seat. It’s not a big deal and most frequent flyers have done it. I’ve
not asked him yet, but if it was deliberate then, as my wife points
out, he was probably trying to keep away from the aisle to avoid the
inevitable ‘go-slow’ as people stopped to shake his hand. Most likely
it was mere preoccupation with other matters.
The young man whose seat it was may have had a specific reason to
insist on having his seat. He was within his rights, and WS would be
last person to make an issue of it. My irritation, however, is
reserved for the social media warriors.
Do our online youths these days see it as a badge of honour to avoid
the courtesies that we traditionally extended to our elders? Why do
they insist on jumping to the most uncharitable conclusion? (‘It was
deliberate. WS commandeered the seat’). Why did people insist on
misinterpreting the events? Can’t an elderly man make a mistake?
Some vehemently defended the right of the young man to claim his seat.
They hailed him for bravely standing up to oppression and divined how
a young WS himself might have reacted in a similar situation. (He is
an activist but a gentleman, so it is most likely he would have
graciously given way to an elder who mistakenly sat in his seat). Some
criticised WS for attempting to callously deprive a youth of the
fruits of his hard-earned money. One wag even suggested he might as
well have insisted on having the pilot’s seat.
Others castigated your good self for mentioning the t-shirt and
tattoo. They poured venom on the passengers who dared to suggest that
Prof. should have been allowed to stay where he was. Thus, online, the
non-drama transformed into a tragicomic metaphor for the problem of
Nigeria. Soyinka representing, to some lazy thinkers, the oppressive
ruling class that has laid waste to the country, now trying to deprive
the young of their dues even in the confines of an airplane cabin. The
deprived seat-owner meanwhile representing our virile but dispossessed
young Nigerians, angry and determined to grab and hold on to whatever
they can. Not prepared to give an inch, or deference, to any venerable
agent of the wasted generation. The cabin controversy had gone from
local to international.
I believe the learning point of this controversy lies in understanding
the difference between right and entitlement. The seat owner had a
right – that is enforceable. But the elder though he or she is
entitled to some deference and respect, can only hope for it. In this
case it was not given and WS, unhesitatingly moved seat.
To the online outraged, I would point out that those who like to see
an elder given his due deference are entirely within their rights to
judge the young man. And if they decide to add some profiling (the
t-shirt, tattoo, face cap), please just ‘chop it’! He passed up a
small opportunity to bestow an act of kindness, and commentators
happily pointed out his emblems of youthful disregard for convention.
Afterall, he had just disregarded a convention that many hold dear.
I have not commented on the fact that beyond being an elderly man, WS
has served his country in a way that many would do well to emulate. I
will leave that for others to go into. Our garrulous online youths,
however, should not take freedom of expression for granted.
Extending courtesies based upon age such as offering your seat in a
crowded bus or lifting a heavy bag is not just a matter of convention
or kindness but common sense. We will all become that person: a bit
more frail every passing year, a little unsteady, occasionally absent
minded, frustratingly blurred of vision. We will inevitably need to
rely on considerate fellow passengers or observant bystanders. We hope
they will anticipate and help. The future seems far away for youths,
but soon enough it will be today’s young ones who are the elders. They
may one day have to struggle to their feet to make way for youths bent
on claiming their rights.
In his day, the dictator Abacha tightly controlled the then novelty
called the Internet. People spent decades in jail, being tortured for
merely hinting at criticism of the military ruler. Our freedom to hold
our leaders accountable is a precious right bought by the heroism of
many; some died, some are still living. So, as you fight your battles
of today, please do so with a sense of history.
On that historical note I will finish with an anecdote about Wole
Soyinka and another airline seat. He returned from exile to Nigeria in
1998 for the very first time after Abacha’s demise. Although he had
departed in secret four years earlier on the back of a motorcycle
along a forest path, he returned home more publicly by plane. His
first-class seat was given to him, free, by KLM. I know this because I
arranged it. After explaining the situation to a senior manager, the
airline did not hesitate to offer to fly him back on that momentous
occasion. I accompanied him on the flight and proudly watched as
grateful and admiring compatriots made their way up the aisle to get a
glimpse of him or to thank him for his steadfast years-long role in
opposing the military junta at great personal cost. Not all the cabin
crew were aware of the intricacies of Nigerian politics and the
historic nature of the occasion. The commotion soon got the message
through and then even I got the VIP treatment (i.e. endless
Champagne). I’m sure if WS had insisted on sitting in the pilot’s seat
they would have obliged. Wole Soyinka was given respect freely – he
had not demanded it, he earned it.
On landing, the joyous, singing throng that met him at the airport
arrivals hall was a sight that I will never forget. Now he was seated
shoulder high.
I recount this not as a boast. Rather, as a reminder to our young
online activists that respect for our senior citizens is also about
history – you just don’t know the story behind the seats your elders
have occupied, even before you were born.
So, once again, thank you for reminding us about respect, Mr. Tonye Cole.
With kind regards
Olaokun Soyinka.