Who are the "Men Over the Wall"?

Suzan G. Davidson '93 (English 32, 1990)

Just prior to Wole Soyinka's imprisonment, two soldiers of the third battalion forced their entry into an Ibo photographer's apartment in Ibadan. Officials later found Emmanuel Ogbona's murdered body several miles from his studio. Ogbona had been among those artists fighting the Gowon government's leadership. The two soldiers, Ambrose Okpe and Gani Biban, were charged with his murder. However, when it came time for their trial there were numerous "mysterious delays...and barely disguised obstructions and maneuverings which would have done credit to any Klan-impregnated court south of Alabama." Eventually the courts turned the case over to the army at the insistence of higher powers; letting the military deal with its own men.

As a token measure of discipline, General Gowon had the two men imprisoned for a short period of time. Soyinka describes with a razor sharp irony the six weeks following their sentencing:

And now hear the sequel. For nearly six weeks I have lived in close company with two products of what Hannah Arendt (Eichmann in Jerusalem) described by that strange expression - the banality of evil. I found myself (Fate, do you call it?) lodged here-of all the cell-blocks in Nigerian Prisons-immediate neighbour to those accused soldiers, compelled to listen, observe, and have confirmed beyond all questioning my insistent arguments about what happens to human beings and to a nation when any group within that nation is tacitly declared to be outside the law's protection and is far game for any man with the slightest grudge of fanatical inclination that turns to homicide. This is not the place to be more explicit, especially about the proud, boastful confession of guilt that comes from one of these two men. Suffice it to say that three days ago, these two-well, we must continue to call them suspects-were triumphantly released from their token confinement. (The Man Died, p.20-21)

Soyinka translates the frustration and ire shown in this letter to poetry in "To The Madmen Over the Wall." Justice no longer serves the innocent; the only voices which waft through the air to perhaps console Soyinka in his own discriminatory confinement are those of the two murderers.

He bears no pity for their incarceration
The human heart may hold
only so much despair.

("To The Madmen Over The Wall," lines 23-24)

Poems List