In his new book, The Man Lives: A Conversation with Wole Soyinka on Life, Literature, and Politics (177 pages. Bookcraft Publishers, Ibadan; August 2019), Okey Ndibe has deployed his formidable writing and analytic skills to produce a scintillating appreciation of the enigmatic Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka.
The book, which features Mr Ndibe’s meditative essay on the laureate as a major aesthete, ethical figure and human rights crusader, also contains the transcript of Ndibe’s lengthy, detailed, if far from exhaustive, interview with Mr Soyinka. Mr Ndibe’s introductory essay is finely tuned. It illuminates various aspects of Mr Soyinka’s expansive creative output and moral advocacy, with a focus on the laureate’s stature as a national, continental and global champion of human rights.
The interview section contains in-depth questions on Soyinka’s personal life, literary subjects and controversies, and his many imprints on Nigerian, African and world politics.
Indeed, the book is a mini-encyclopedia on Mr Soyinka’s turbulent and sometimes controversial but highly engaging academic, social and political life.
Mr Soyinka has under his belt some six decades of activism, including edgy acts of opposition to abusers of power. He was prosecuted for an audacious raid on a radio station in Ibadan, where he compelled broadcasters at gunpoint to remove a scheduled broadcast by the Western Region’s premier and to play his own message of resistance instead. The trial ended in acquittal, the judge allowing the daring writer to walk free on a technicality. Mr Soyinka was less lucky when he made bold moves to oppose the Nigerian civil war. His actions led to his detention by General Yakubu Gowon’s regime for more than twenty months. Mr Soyinka spent a large chunk of that detention in solitary confinement.
That harsh price did not seem to deter Mr Soyinka. He remained relentless in criticizing Nigeria’s political leaders for damaging the hopes for a better Nigeria through their unbridled corruption and massive looting of the treasury. He once described himself as a member of a “wasted generation” that had failed to realize the dreams of independence.
Despite his profile as a versatile writer and activist, Mr Soyinka is still viewed with suspicion by some Nigerians. In fact, especially among some younger Nigerians, opinion remains divided as to whether Wole Soyinka is one of the greatest Nigerians or merely a snobbish opportunist.
In this slim but richly informative book, Mr Ndibe, a novelist and one of Nigeria’s most prolific social commentators, is unmistakable in his assessment. He makes the case, convincingly in my view, that the Nobel laureate deserves admiration not just for the broad scope of his literary writing but also for being a consistent foe of injustice in Nigeria and other parts of the world.
Mr Ndibe does not offer up Soyinka as a candidate for sainthood, but he boldly proclaims the laureate as a man whose art and acts have inspired him. The title of Mr Ndibe’s book itself is informed by a statement in Soyinka’s prison memoir, The Man Died: “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.”
The appreciatory book is written with an intellectual force likely to persuade even the most sceptical of readers to momentarily accept that Mr Soyinka has contributed immensely in exposing societal ills and flaying Nigeria’s inept rulers. After reading this book, which painstakingly documents Mr Soyinka’s relentless struggle for justice in Nigeria and across the globe, even Mr Soyinka’s detractors have to accept that, on balance, the laureate’s deep-seated interest in fairness and justice, his sharp wit and boundless energy represent a substantial contributions towards a better Nigeria and more just world.
The book could not have come at a better time, given the suffocating level of insecurity and incessant killing of defenceless citizens in Nigeria. In his lengthy introduction, Mr Ndibe reflects on a trip with Mr Soyinka to Makurdi where Mr Soyinka condemned the slaughter of farmers and scores of Christians, including two priests, by herdsmen.
On Mr Soyinka’s outing in Makurdi, Mr Ndibe writes that the laureate “not only pronounced the killings acts of ethnic cleansing, he also accused President Muhammadu Buhari of abdicating his responsibility to act. And he contended that the time had come to invite the international community to intervene in the festering crisis.
He was clear what the international mandate ought to be: to reverse the forcible removal of farmers from their land and end the occupation by the invading herdsmen. For me, the trip to Makurdi was both sad – given the context of widespread, unchecked killings – and exhilarating. It showcased Mr Soyinka in his vocation and constituency as both an artist-intellectual and a voice of conscience – a tireless advocate for the restorative balm of justice.”
Mr Ndibe traces Mr Soyinka’s career as a crusader for justice to his undergraduate days at University College, Ibadan where, in 1952, he co-founded an anti-elitist fraternal organization known as Pyrates Confraternity or National Association of Seadogs. The group’s cardinal objectives, according to its website, were the “eradication of various forms of institutional decadence that pervaded the students’ environment at the time.”
To many, Mr Soyinka’s co-founding of the Pyrates remains the laureate’s gravest mistake. In one of his questions, Mr Ndibe asked if Mr Soyinka had any regrets regarding the infamy of similar groups on campuses. He invited the laureate to respond to the question of when an organization like the Pyrates Confraternity morphed into many different secret cults that now plague institutions of higher learning, making violence – including sexual predation – the entire point.
I found Mr Soyinka’s response to the question both evasive and defensive. He first argued that the Pyrates Confraternity did not lose their way and blamed copycat organizations of not having the same anti-elitist motivation and sense of responsibility to society. He further argued that many newer secret groups owed their existence to the patronage of the very purveyors of the negativities that the Pyrates Confraternity was founded to contest. According to him, “many of them became evil, just evil in themselves.” I suggest that, to fully address the issue, a heavy dose of introspection is needed from Mr Soyinka.
In his introductory essay, Mr Ndibe argues uncompromisingly about the grand position attained by Mr Soyinka in the arenas of world literature and justice advocacy. However, he is judicious enough to concede that Mr Soyinka’s irreverent ethos and his dramatic acts in pursuit of justice have often put him at odds with many. Mr Ndibe also underscores the fact that Mr Soyinka’s readiness to combat injustice has sometimes left the impression that he is a conflict-monger, not a peace agent.
The book makes clear that Mr Ndibe admires the laureate’s mission. He writes: “what matters to Soyinka most is to safeguard the human, wherever s/he is located, from undue depredation.” As a mode of conversation between two writers, Mr Ndibe’s book is far ahead of the curve in conception and execution. This slim book is a treasure that combines elements of memoir, history, and reportage. Mr Ndibe provides an inside look into the life of Mr Soyinka in a manner that masterfully captures the enigmatic laureate’s literary, social and political engagements.
In the interview section, he also invites Mr Soyinka to part the window into his soul, enabling the reader to take a peek into the laureate’s evolution as a writer and social being, his relationship with other literary, political and social personages (Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Victor Banjo, Donald Trump, Olusegun Obasanjo, Atiku Abubakar, social media trolls etc), and his evaluation of Nollywood and the enterprising crop of younger writers.
Mr Ndibe’s book is brilliantly laid out in seductive prose and powerfully evokes empathy for its subject. Reading the book, one feels the resilience, strength, and growing hopelessness – if not outright despair – that underlie the current state of Mr Soyinka’s native Nigeria.