On Friday, 27 June 1980, at Oduduwa Hall, University of Ife, a memorial rally was held with speeches and poems for Walter Rodney, the Guyanese author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and other path-breaking, radical writings, who was assassinated in Georgetown, Guyana, on 13 June 1980. Organised by Positive Review and Socialist Forum, the hall was packed. The speakers included Biodun Jeyifo, Wole Olaoye, Kole Omotoso, Ike Okafor-Newsum, Femi Falana, the Marxist historian Segun Osoba, Femi Osofisan, John Ohiorhenuan, and Wole Soyinka. Grief-stricken speaker after speaker mourned the loss of Rodney and expressed solidarity with all those who should carry on the struggle and who should keep the flame of hope kindled in their hearts. In a voice laden with pain, Wole Soyinka said that Walter Rodney, 38, who preferred actuality to cant, was not a phrase-monger and ideological mouther. Soyinka argued more fully and clearly: “No one remotely acquainted with his work, his thinking or his person would be surprised that he carried the same kind of approach into active politics. His activities in Guyana since his return were inspired by courageous assessment of the actualities of Guyana. Walter Rodney was no armchair-revolutionary, he was no captive intellectual playing to the gallery of local or international radicalism. He was clearly one of the most solidly ideologically situated intellectuals ever to look colonialism and its contemporary heir—black exploitation—in the eye, and where necessary, spit in it.’’
The principles and virtues of Walter Rodney, which Soyinka embraced and celebrated, he has also been displaying in the course of his rich and full life. Since his late twenties, he has been calling every tyrant by his real name, and to proper accounting, in his wonderfully written plays, poetry and essays. Using his position as one of the world’s brightest literary lights and masterful polemicists, he has been formidably engaging and profoundly insightful in his analyses of Africa and the world; in the ways he apprehends human experiences and extracts new and deeper meanings out of them. Although he rejects being likened to genuine ancient and contemporary prophets and visionaries, he shares a lot with them indeed: he is frequently prescient. Soyinka’s compassion and kindness are extraordinary. The intensity of adulation which he attracts is well-earned partly because of his broad artistic imagination characterised by depth of vision and felicity of style for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, and partly because he has consistently remained a champion of causes that are immensely humanising and far greater than himself. He is ruthlessly frank, most often drawing blood with his witty, acerbic and vigorous prose. Perhaps more crucially, his example simply puts a lot of fuel in the tanks of others. We repeat: Soyinka, who likes his wine to be suitably chilled, is permanently hot as a wonder writer. John Ruskin it was who once said that “Books are divided into two classes—the books of the hour and the books of all time.” Soyinka’s books are not books of the hour. They are books of all time. Many of his deep ideas will echo through the ages. In this conversation with KUNLE AJIBADE, Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS/ PM NEWS, he speaks candidly and humanely.
Q: Over the years, you have exposed yourself to many dangers in defence of your principles, both in Nigeria and elsewhere. Yet, at 85, you still remain courageous and outspoken largely on behalf of the powerless, the vulnerable; the ninety-nine per cent constantly trampled upon by the powerful one per cent. Why is this preoccupation, this rather difficult service, this uncompromising concern for justice, so important to you?
Soyinka: That’s a very large question. At the same time very simple. It’s like asking why air is important to humanity. I find it indistinguishable from the nutrients that human beings require to live. If I step out of my house and there is some horrendous violation being done to another human being, I feel myself reduced, and for the rest of the day, maybe the rest of the week, I’m not really whole. It preys on my mind. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that I don’t often resent it. In other words, there are other things that I would rather be doing than going out on a limb to bat. Especially if you live in a society like this where you feel, sometimes, that you are completely alienated from the rest of society, where society itself doesn’t seem to share, in the main, same principles, where very often, in fact, you find the very people you’re trying to defend turning on you because they prefer to take the side of power. They feel more comfortable under tyrannical forces because they perhaps feel that, if they just endure such tyrannical forces, they might go away in the end.
Q: What things would you rather be doing?
Soyinka: Oh, my work! I’m a writer, I’m a creative person. I would rather be writing plays and poems. And, of course, there’s the leisure aspect: I’d rather be in the bush just by myself communing with nature.
Q: But not every creative writer, not every Professor of Comparative Literature and Drama is a political thinker and activist. Can you tell us how you became a politically engaged person and how you developed your sensibilities for seeking justice for humanity?
Soyinka: I think it’s a combination of factors and I answer this question different ways, depending on what’s been happening to me recently and what I recollect. I was able to see the beginnings of genuine and meaningful nationalism, the struggle for independence. And even in this very city where we are talking now, Abeokuta, I witnessed and participated as a courier-– remember I was very tiny then-– during the women’s struggle against the feudal tyranny of the monarchy of this very town led by Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, my aunt. But then, there are other people who grew up in the same circumstances who didn’t go this way. Sometimes I just answer the question by saying maybe it’s something I ate or drank as a child when nobody was looking that was responsible!
Q: You don’t think that your parents in Ake and your grandfather in Isara had something to do with it?
Soyinka: I should add that I was a great eavesdropper as a child on my father’s circle of debaters. I used to listen to them and I think I understood and absorbed a lot more about the world than many children of my age. I grew up very early recognising wrong from right. Also, upbringing had to do with it. You know in traditional households, you had poor relations living with you or your family, waifs and strays picked up by your parents, their sense of concern for those people I absorbed all of that. And one of the things which I learnt very early from my parents was that they did not distinguish between their own children and the so-called poor relations, dependants who were sent to them as housemaids, house-boys. If you made the mistake of trying to treat them as if they were different from the rest of the family, you got the beating of your life. So we didn’t make that mistake twice. And then you looked into it, saw that there was a lot of sense in it, that it was logical, that this was justice. They were human beings just like you, especially having played with them, why treat them as inferior beings? That’s what I mean by a whole, total combination of circumstances. Ultimately, when the moment of choice came, one detected a pattern which sided with one’s perception of justice.
Q: You were also very close to your grandfather. Because he was very protective of you, he arranged for you to be traditionally inoculated. Was there anything in particular that you learnt from him?
Soyinka: Definitely, my grandfather was very observant and he was also a great traditionalist. He observed a tug of war, in me, at least, in the teachings of my immediate parents in Abeokuta. The Christian turn-the-other-cheek ethos, and my sense of something not quite right about it. And I think it was a psychological boost which he effected through what he said to me with those incisions: You’re going to be involved in many fights in your life and I want you to know that you must never run away from fights. If it’s a bigger boy, fight him. If he beats you up, don’t worry when you see him again, tackle him. If he beats you, don’t worry. The third time, either you will beat him, or he will be ashamed of himself.
Words to that effect–I mean, it was not precise, but it was in those terms– it was like a huge load was lifted off my shoulders. I couldn’t understand the ‘Christian’ ethos: a decent, well-brought-up child was not supposed to fight. Maybe from birth, my temperament was totally opposed to that kind of teaching. And my grandfather affirmed the logic of my temperament. He was a very determined old man. I remember he was on the smallish side, but quite compact and feisty and I think he wanted to boost that aspect–- it was purely psychological. But, as you know, in Yoruba tradition, the incision was also a rite of passage; you had to endure the pain, you were not supposed to wince. I liked that test, and I was happy I passed it. That infliction of pain, and endurance of it, was ninety-nine per cent of whatever it was that was inoculated into me.
Q: Inflicting pain for a higher purpose, right?
Q: Reading your memoirs, Ibadan and You Must Set Forth at Dawn, one can see that you clearly made up your mind very early in your life to choose the difficult but noble and necessary path of fighting for good causes. Have you had moments of doubt, days of pessimism about these hard choices? What has kept you going? In other words, what keeps you from becoming disillusioned when hope is sometimes blatantly betrayed?
Soyinka: Humanity. I have never been without the occasional doubt. The question: Is it worth it? Doubt assails me from time to time. Is it of value? How do you evaluate principles? Sometimes, my family has had to make sacrifices, very serious sacrifices, on account of the path I have chosen. I ask myself sometimes: Is it really fair to them? Is that justice to them? Not so much the consequences of what I call occupational risk. I always accept that. I have no problem with occupational risk. But consequences in terms of other people, those close to me, who partake of the consequences, totally innocent, they didn’t choose my path for me, those are the consequences I am talking about. And, additionally, when I look at the community I live in, and I ask myself: Is this the kind of community on behalf of which I’m agitating? At such moments, I tell you, I feel like relocating from this encampment of slaves. But, of course, within 24 hours, I’d abandon such thoughts.
Q: Is that because of your sense of duty or patriotism?
Soyinka: Patriotism! That word, I don’t like it.
Q: You’re not patriotic?
Soyinka: For me, a nation is an artificial construct, but humanity is very real. It’s unavoidable to have a state. You have to organise resources, you have to organise services. You have to provide security and other essentials. You come into an association with other people and gradually a nation evolves. Sometimes, of course, a nation is imposed through conquest. But for me state is the artificial one, it is the artificial element in this whole human composition. I use the word patriotism from time to time, especially if somebody who is outside your nation is trying to co-opt you into denouncing your own nation, which happens, as you know, very often. And I say, wait a minute, who do you think I am? At that time, I’m patriotic. But, believe me, it’s an expression for that moment only. Humanity is my constituency. If I see a Nigerian, for instance, traducing a non-Nigerian, I don’t care whether that Nigerian is from my own village, I will take the side of the other person.
Q: You will take the side of the victim?
Soyinka: Yes, of the victim, of the disadvantaged, of the exploited. I have an instinctive solidarity with the exploited.
Q: That reminds me of the interesting story in You Must Set Forth at Dawn about you trying to save a woman from her violent lover on the street of New York City. That story for me perfectly exemplifies the precarious nature of fighting for the disadvantaged. What lesson have you learnt from it?
Soyinka: Oh, that scene, that stupid scene for which afterwards I really kicked myself! I sat in front of a mirror and dressed myself down–- don’t meddle in things like that again. Here is the story: I and Joe Okpaku, who was my publisher at the time, were driving along a Manhattan street and a taxi shot past us. In front of a block of flats, the taxi screeched to a stop and a woman jumped out. Immediately, she was followed by the man who said, “Get back in” and she said, “No! No! No! I won’t get back in.” The next thing, he took her by the shoulders and I actually began feeling the battering of that woman’s head against the wall. He was smashing her head against the wall repeatedly, and the woman kept screaming and screaming, and Okpaku, who was driving, stopped the car. Before the car even came to a full stop, I was virtually out of the car…
Q: They were white?
Soyinka: A white couple, yes. That’s why I was kicking myself later on! Still, I jumped out of the car and raced to this man and took him by the collar and wrestled him to the ground. I then began to think: suppose he has a knife? Or a gun? The worst part, however, what brought me down to my senses was when I felt a thumping on my shoulders. The woman was beating me. “Leave him, I love him!” I said, Ye paripa, mo gbe! You love him? Sorry o! So I picked the man up, dusting him apologetically but using that opportunity to frisk him, so to speak, before turning my back on him. I said, She loves you, please take her home and beat her properly. As I said that, echoes of The Trials of Brother Jero and so on actually rose to mind. And I recovered my sense of humour, balance and everything. In the meantime, Joe had brought the car up to come to my rescue, if necessary. I kept saying, Bye, bye. Love her to death. Beat her to death. I’m sorry, forgive my ignorance! I jumped in the car and said, Joe, o ya, o ya, o ya, let’s get out of this lunatic land! Oh yes–I nearly forgot– standing by throughout was one of those stolid commissionaires, you know, the uniformed megaadi, right by this scene, and he was just looking at this man smashing the head of the woman against the wall. This was in the early 60s. America was still very racist, overtly racist, and I could have been killed that day. I’ll never do it again.
Q: But you went ahead and still did other things similar to that incident later in your life
Soyinka: Some things I had time to reflect on before I acted. In this particular instance, there was no time to reflect at all. But you’re speaking of other deliberate, conscious choices which you can claim are paralleled by that incident.
Q: I was also talking about all those days that you could have just given up, but you never did. Why didn’t you give up? Or why haven’t you given up?
Soyinka: This is where a sense of innate responsibility comes in. One doesn’t claim to be a visionary or a prophet or anything of the sort, but one has a response to signs. Some of us are more sensitive to signals than others. You recall the case of Sani Abacha, for instance. You probably have it on your list of questions. When you used to come to my office here in Abeokuta, sitting down, just like this, looking at me and saying, Why are you still here? Why haven’t they come to arrest you? Let’s use that as an example. I became aware of the evil propensities of Sani Abacha quite early, even before he became Head of State. We knew his history from the civil war. I had studied him and many others in the military circle of coup makers, and I knew this was an insecure being who was power-crazy, who hungered for domination. He needed to compensate for a deep, deep inferiority complex by bullying and humiliating his betters. Many people didn’t understand this. The night before Ernest Sonekan was removed from office, Ibrahim Alfa came to inform me. I was in Lagos, in Yemi Ogunbiyi’s home, so he dashed over to inform me of the dreadful news that Abacha had called on him, having decided to make his move, and that the very thought gave him the jitters because, according to him, “Abacha has the brain of a lizard.” I agreed that the nation had cause to be scared.
The irony was– if you recall– some of our foremost human rights crusaders, even M.K.O. Abiola himself and many politicians in the Social Democratic Party, SDP, actually urged him to take over power from Sonekan– the fidi e man– the so-called interim Head of State, installed by Ibrahim Babangida. Sonekan had been rejected outright, of course, by the people. Those crusaders were convinced that Abacha would hand over power to the rightful winner of that landmark election, Abiola. I knew that was absolutely impossible. And because I felt I was right, I couldn’t leave– at least, not immediately– because leaving would leave the illusionists in charge. If I feel that there is danger to people I know, respect and value, I cannot abandon them because of my perception of their error. I have to keep writing and talking and meeting with them whether they agree or disagree with me. I feel compelled to keep opening their eyes. I cannot, in all conscience, stay quiet if I feel that others are misreading the situation even if the actual danger has not been manifested. As I keep saying, one doesn’t credit oneself with being more astute an observer or analyst than anyone else. No. What matters is one’s reading of a situation with the tools that one has, including that unquantifiable thing we call intuition.
Q: You used to place so much hope in Nigerian youth perhaps because you started your own political engagement as a young man, specifically in your early twenties. As a matter of fact, you celebrate youths enthusiastically in your creative writings. But, lately, you have been expressing disappointment in many of them. Why?
Soyinka: The first thing is that I have never given a blanket endorsement of youth. I used to exchange friendly disagreements with Tai Solarin from time to time over this. I remember I took him on once when he said, I can die for the young generation, and I said, Don’t say that. Don’t be so sweeping in your statement, some of this young generation are treacherous and many of them are only just waiting for their own slice of the national cake. They admit it, they co-opt others. They even ridicule the progressive ones among them. They say, you’re idealistic, what are you going to gain with your idealism? But I believe that we have an obligation to the progessive ones to ensure that they do not begin whatever good work they want to do for society on a lower level than we did. In other words, we shouldn’t allow a situation to degenerate to such an extent that they have to start all over again. That’s in general terms. Many of them remind me of my own youth, those moments of my youth, of my inquisitiveness, of my adventures generally, both intellectually and physically. They rejuvenate me. That’s a fact.
But something has been happening to our youth. It’s probably the technological strides in communication and dissemination of information. Far too many of them, empty-headed, really think that they know. They are what I sometimes refer to as the generation of be–the- first- to- comment. It’s like they are sitting down there, they don’t understand the issue somebody has just posited, either as a blog or whatever you people call it, I don’t know– I don’t live in that virtual realm. And they become coarsened. It’s like they revel in ignorance. They lack what I call intelligent curiosity: What is behind this? How many dimensions does this have? Even that basic question: What is the truth? They’re dismissive of knotty issues, opt for the over simplified, the sensational and the destructive. They strike me as capable of betraying a serious, genuine cause and endangering themselves–-which is okay–-but to endanger the overall movement is unacceptable. They want everything quick and easy, and they want knowledge as pre-digested mush. Anything that requires even figuratively chewing over an idea, a moment, an occurrence, they resent it, they ridicule those who take the trouble to set a standard-– it’s too much labour for them to aspire to a higher level. I become sickened, in the main, by this so-called new generation.
However, you can see that, at the same time, I recognise the potential and I recognise the achievement of some of them. Some of them are enviable geniuses-–they prove it productively. Quite a number come to me as curious people and you can see from their faces, their demeanour and their interests that they do not accept society as it is and they wonder what has gone wrong, and they genuinely want to probe. In fact, some of them now come to my office in Lagos, all fired up with some trans-normative ideas and I say something like– Be careful, don’t take dangerous risks. And they reply defiantly: We want to take risks! You have those as well, so I don’t generalise. And when you get tired of the betrayal of society by many members of your own generation, you have to look for new material. Where do you look? Among the dead? Among the ancestors? No. It has to be with the coming generation. Many of them still have purity of vision. They have not allowed their minds to be occluded by the deceptions of the older generation. They see beyond even their own parents, who sold out and who joined the rapacious and exploitative sections of society. That is why I encourage them to come out and fight.
Q: What is worrisome to me is that the aggressive, greedy and uncouth young Nigerians grow up so fast and then before our very eyes, they reproduce themselves and continue to bring down the country. They espouse the culture of looting. No sense of higher purpose. They lack a good sense of history. Don’t you think that they multiply because brigandage is a profitable business in Nigeria?
Soyinka: It is part of what we are saying. They are co-opted, and sometimes they are self- co-opted: nobody has even preached to them or anything. They just see and choose the side they want to be on in many instances. That’s why you find the young generation being compromised with all the corruption constantly exposed. Staggering sums which make you wonder what young people plan to do with such sums. They go into banking, and the first thing they do is rob their clients, killing the goose that laid the golden egg. It’s amazing. Negative examples upon negative examples. Look at the priesthood itself, whether you are talking about Muslim clerics or Christian clerics, who are supposed to set moral examples. Many of these young clerics are charlatans. You’ll be surprised how many young people believe in rituals. They say, Prof., these things are real. But when I tell them that I don’t believe in juju and I don’t indulge in it, some will ask me what do I use? When I assure them I don’t use anything, that they should go talk to my children, talk to my wife, ask them if they’ve ever seen me using anything, they don’t believe me. I’m a traditionalist in the sense that I believe that our people’s antecedent religion is the equivalent of any religion in the world. That the religion of my people, the Orisa, must be treated on the same level as foreign religions, that their symbols, metaphors, those images which fuel my creativity, must be preserved, even internalised. Among their representations, I feel completely at home. That aspect, unfortunately, misleads people. They think that I am a fetishist, even a cultist. Other people hang the images of Saint Bernardino or Jesus Christ. How dare anybody come and tell me that my religion is a superstition when they bow and cross themselves before they go on the football field or even climb into the boxing arena to get beaten up?
Q: There is a picture of you and Banjo Solaru, performing at the BBC as young undergraduates in England. You are actually smiling as you play the guitar. There is another picture in which Fela Anikulapo Kuti is on the drums as you recite your poems. Tell me about your memorable performances at the University of Leeds. Do you still play the guitar? Or what musical instruments do you play now?
Soyinka: I sometimes call myself a frustrated musician. I could have gone in that direction. Or a frustrated architect; I’m also an amateur architect. I built this house. I designed it and joined the professional architect in its actual construction. There are many things which I wanted to do. Somehow, I gravitated more towards storytelling and narratives, and so on. I wanted at one stage to go into classical and/or flamenco music for which I had developed a passion. What cured me was very simple. I was in Leeds as a student where I played a bit and sang a bit– even in some night clubs. Then Julian Bream, the classical guitarist, came to perform in our concert hall, the assembly hall, in Leeds. And I watched him and I listened to him extract unbelievable liquid sounds from the guitar. So I went back to my hostel, took my guitar, put it in its case, locked it, shoved it under the bed and said, better face other things, you’ll never get there. Now, I remain just largely a consumer. I also compose music for my plays– that compensates a little bit for my musical frustrations. To use the mushy expression, I think I have embedded in me what they call a musical soul.
Q: It shows in your lyrical lines, sentences and passages
Soyinka: Thank you very much.
Q: You obviously derived a lot of pleasure in those performances at Leeds, didn’t you?
Soyinka: Absolutely, I did.
Q: Did they help your intense literary output?
Soyinka: Of course. No question at all. Sometimes one thinks musically, even when you are writing poetry and sometimes dialogue. There’s a kind of rhythm and tonality which gets into it. Everything is interwoven in the creative world; in the world of carvers, sculptors and painters, and writers. There are writers who never work unless there’s music in the background—music that influences and assists, translates the visual into the oral or the written.
Q: What kind of music do you listen to?
Soyinka: Folk and Choral Music from any source-–Russian, Irish, Senegalese, Yoruba, South African, Spanish flamenco, Itsekiri, Urhobo, Ibibio etc., etc., etc. European classical music, including Opera, but minus Chamber music. I lean more towards the heavy symphonies. Jazz – from Traditional Blues – Billie Holliday and Company– to modern Jazz.
Q: After your studies at the University of Leeds, and then your practical experience at the Royal Court Theatre in London, you came back to Nigeria, immersed yourself in creative writings and tempestuous political engagement. Can you look back and describe that phase of your life, the works that you did with others and the institutions you managed to build?
Soyinka: I came back determined to build a theatre company and, at the same time, I was doing my research into traditional dramatic forms. All I can say about that period is that it was a very profuse and varied series of activities. Theatre, of course, and writing, directing and a little bit of management of a troupe. I remember we used to rehearse in motion between Ibadan and Lagos because the company was made up of personnel from Lagos and Ibadan. Of course the roads were different then. We’d continue rehearsals within the motor vehicles. Because of my research, I covered virtually every part of Nigeria and West Africa. I had this Land Rover for my research work. I would simply get in it, drive and stop at villages and do a bit of research. I don’t think I ever seriously felt I was going to write a thesis, but it was a rigorous study of traditional forms, reintegrating my sensibilities in the sheer tumultuous phenomena of Nigeria and West Africa in general. It was like a voyage of rediscovery. And then Nigerian politics began to boil over and I found myself drawn into it, not too surprisingly, because I had already been disillusioned by the appearance of those politicians in the UK. What I saw was a group of people, in the main, who felt only that independence meant no more than stepping in the shoes of the departing colonial powers. They were already behaving like the colonial overlords, so I knew we were in trouble.
Q: At what point would you say Nigeria got it wrong? What were the roads of progress not taken?
Soyinka: I think where we got it wrong was, first of all, the coup itself, which brought in the military. I think the military was largely responsible. That was when we lost it so to speak, and it’s important to admit that we are all to blame. When the military took the centralist road, many of us applauded, never mind that people like to deny it today. But for us at the time, we read it as the ending of ethnic divisions. For instance, before the military took over, regionalisation had created certain dimensions of narrow factionalism, but it was simplistic to think you could obviate all those unfortunate aspects of regionalisation by a sweeping centralism. That was disastrous thinking. But we’d become sold on this mission of eradication of “tribalism”, which we didn’t interpret properly. Everybody was guilty of it—politicians, intellectuals, bureaucrats, technocrats, students, etc., etc. Everybody wanted to become an amalgam called Nigerian, a non-existent being, the “detribalised being” and that centralist agenda looked as if it was the magic road. It deepened suspicions, retarded development; it created a top-heavy bureaucracy, distancing beneficiaries of policies from those who made the policies. Let us not omit the following however: the departing British laid the foundation for future fissures by a deliberate strategy of distorting the power relations between North and South, even to the extent of falsifying the census figures. These are today’s commonplace facts. Among other revelations, you may visit the memoirs of a then serving British colonial officer, Harold Smith. I did meet that author, by the way, quite a few times. His revelations have also been corroborated in recent times by highly placed British officials.
Q: How can we correct that now?
Soyinka: These are among the reasons why many of us have been saying: Let’s admit that costly mistakes have been made, let’s correct them now by restructuring. Some use the word reconfiguring. Others settle simply for socio-political rearrangements. It all boils down to reformulating the protocols of association; the relationships of the parts to the other parts. Of the parts to the centre, reducing the powers of the centre. Decentralising, pushing the envelope of state or regional autonomy as far as it can go without actually bursting it. Time to really sit down and tackle this reformative agenda and then proceed in that now inevitable decentralisation direction; creating even healthy rivalry which can only take place with larger degrees of autonomy. Stop this untidy business of going to the centre with a beggar’s bowl in hand and then struggling for the sudden windfalls which come from outside to this centre-– forgiveness of debts and things like that. Rather, get the federating units to negotiate their economic priorities both internally and outside.
We must be bold enough. We shouldn’t shy away from what I call a frank national Indaba in which representatives of various interests across professions, across religions, across states and ethnic groups come together. I don’t care whether it lasts three months in which we abuse, insult one another, enter into recriminations, give examples of how this happened, why should this still happen? An exhaustive Indaba in which we get out of our systems all these issues we’ve been papering over, sweeping under the carpet, failing to recognise that the destructive power of an accumulation of these little bits of frictions, sometimes unforgiven and unforgiveable acts of hostility, between the units that are still there, simmering. You bring them out and ask, how do we go about closure? And from there we proceed to re-examine the protocols that supposedly bind us together. In other words, fashion a new constitution. It’s both therapy and common sense to leave the ghosts of the past behind. An Indaba whereby we admit what we did, that is, what the Federation of Nigeria did to a seceding unit like Biafra. Biafra too will have to admit what she did to some of the minorities in her midst who still have not forgiven Biafra. In which we even, if we like, talk about the various coups–-how this happened, why it happened. Some may believe that this will create greater friction and division. I don’t think so. I think years have passed and numerous other routes have been taken which have not brought us anywhere near closure. Perhaps an element of risk is involved, I might admit it, but I think keeping silent is worse.
Something similar was the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa–led The Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission of Nigeria, but it didn’t go far enough and there was far too much legalistic dance-around where lawyers literally took over. The Commission was enabled to fail. It was dramatic in some instances, but one of the problems there was that it became a lawyering parade in which everybody wanted to show how clever or cunning they were. A people’s Indaba, that’s what I am talking about. At that Indaba, we will also pillory those who allowed religious bigotry, and its attendant violence, to take root. If they want to deny it, some of us who are living witnesses, those of us who warned them at the time, will demand of them of why they chose not to stop it at the critical time. Once you allow one constituent state to declare itself a theocratic state, you have opened a Pandora’s box, the contents of which will consume and destroy the nation. They knew it all, so they poo-pooed wise counsel. We said, don’t let it happen, don’t let theocracy have even a toe hold in the nation. Tell the theocracy-mongers they must be content with the existence of the existent systems of laws, like native laws and customs, which allow for civil settlements under the existing codes of cultural arbitration-– nobody ever quarrelled with that. But when you have a situation where a crime somewhere is exemplary conduct next door, where, when you move from one state to the other, you come under the arbitrary jurisdiction of that other state where something which will not earn you the chopping of your hand, now brings about that particular forfeit, then you do not have a state– you have several states in one. We know those who were responsible for what we endure today.
How many years ago was it that Goodluck Jonathan was being urged to make a move against Boko Haram? We heard Muhammadu Buhari countering with the declaration that any move against Boko Haram was a move against the North, until he himself came under fire and nearly lost his life. We are talking about fundamental human rights, the right to congregate in pursuit of your form of worship, to believe or not believe, individual rights, collective rights of worship, etc., etc. But there are those for whom religion is merely an avenue for domination. I am talking, once again, about power and freedom. History actually spins on that axis of power and freedom. Most clerics are merely beneficiaries of being on the side of power and domination over their flock and their extension into society. They are not more pious than any member of their followers, and that is one realisation they refuse to confront. That’s why it is so difficult to exterminate Boko Haram completely: they have tasted power, they relish power, and they are still enjoying power. They enjoy being able to thump their noses at secular authority. They kidnap our children and turn them into slaves – it is their gesture of contempt for you and me.
Q: Talking about the enslavement of children by Boko Haram, there’s this poem you wrote for Leah Sharibu, one of the innocent girls that the Boko Haram bigots and hooligans are still holding. You were very close to tears in public the night you read that poem. What really happened?
Soyinka: Close to tears? I’m afraid real thing fell that evening! I remain shocked that my anguish took that form. It has to do with empathy, excess empathy– deep and personal. You look at a young, vulnerable girl in the hands of these emblems of implacable and unlimited cruelty, and you think of your own daughter. And as it happened, I know, I can speak about this now, I couldn’t at the time. Inevitably, my mind went to my own daughter, a truly brilliant woman who died of an illness. My mind kept thinking, kept superimposing her on the predicament of this brave girl, Leah Sharibu. When I was reading it, somehow all that emotion rushed back and I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. It was a terrible night. I’ve learnt to recognise a particular section which always triggers off that emotion. So, anytime I have to read the poem, I now avoid that section.
Q: Cases of kidnapping are so rampant in Nigeria now, in a way that the country has never experienced before. There are ethnic, class and religious dimensions to these kidnappings. What can the country do to solve its insecurity problem?
Soyinka: Whether we like it or not, there’s something called a national psychology that, obviously, not everybody shares, or partakes of. But, collectively, when you assess it, when you’re looking at collective social conduct, you find that one of the aspects of that social conduct is the national tendency towards mimicry, imitation– that person is doing it, I must do it — most of the time of a negative model. You will remember that I was pulled into the struggle of MEND – Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta– largely because of my association with Ken Saro-Wiwa who ended up on the gallows in the most horrible circumstances. I’ve always believed in the struggle of the Ogoni and indeed of the Niger Delta. Some of them would come to me to discuss their problems and seek advice. However, when they embarked on kidnapping, I told them bluntly that I was in total disagreement with such tactics, that they should never embark on that trend. I was one hundred per cent certain that it would be taken over by the criminal elements among them to start with. And in any case, kidnapping and imprisoning other human beings as an option in any struggle for one’s own liberation, is fundamentally flawed. But, in addition, it had the danger of creating a mimic industry in a nation like ours and, sure enough, that has happened. In fact, as a result of that my position which was made public, when some Americans were kidnapped for the first time in those early stages of what has now gone out of control, FBI operatives were sent to Nigeria to look into options for rescuing them, they actually asked to see me. The American embassy arranged a meeting. At that time, Asari-Dokubo’s wife was taking refuge with me in Lagos. In fact, that was one of the reasons I agreed to meet them. I introduced them to Mrs Asari-Dokubo and, through her, tried to contact her husband who was then in detention. Eventually, he and other detainees were released. How they were released, I have no idea, but anyway I was able to facilitate the process simply because of the position I had taken.
From that beginning has now sprung, as I warned, this now transnational industry in Nigeria. To stop it now requires the entire co-ordination of efforts across religion, business, rural governments, and the sensitisation of the entire nation towards the exercise of their powers of observation. For example, look at where hostages were kept in Lagos by the billionaire kidnapper, Chukwudumeme Onwuamadike alias Evans, for over a year, in the midst of a busy urban residential area. It requires the mobilisation of the entire populace on a level we have never known. It includes the involvement even of children-– they have, after all, become first line victims. We should inculcate a sense of observation– virtually turning the country into the kind of security zone that operates at airports. Life goes on with seeming normality but in actual fact under permanent watch. Only this time, it is like an effective neighbourhood watch. But it is in our own interest. Otherwise, this thing will proliferate into unmanageable proportions. Then also– I almost forgot– a decentralisation of the police. We need a centralised police presence, yes, as we do the military, but we also require a police force whose structures and operating members are part and parcel of the community. People talk to them more naturally because they live inside, and are known to the community. They themselves, of course, get to know the nooks and corners of their community and naturally develop a more acute sense of observation as they earn the confidence of citizen-informants in such a way that people understand, routinely, that it is service to themselves, service to their families, their children, relations or colleagues that they become observers and informants.
Q: Does President Muhammadu Buhari have what it takes to govern a complex country like Nigeria?
Soyinka: No. Definitely no. Buhari cannot govern this country properly. That became clear during his first term in office. For a start, I don’t think he understands this nation. He’s incapable of grasping the complexities of a nation like Nigeria and because of that, he is trapped, among other governance derelictions, in the divisive snare of nepotism. It’s real. It is blatant. He goes so far as to pluck people from retirement for jobs or sensitive positions simply because they are the only people he knows and trusts. The pattern has remained consistent. In the last elections, I urged voters to abandon APC and PDP, since the latter was just as severely lamed, and try and install a fresh mind.
Q: In your writings and your political struggles, you have railed relentlessly against tyrants, the political strongmen, on the continent of Africa. Why do you hate tyrants so much?
Soyinka: Well, because tyrants dehumanise my kind, which I think is 99.99999 per cent of the world population. At least I like to think so. They take over other people’s lives. For me, this is a crime against humanity. I don’t even like the expression benevolent dictator. The moment you assume to yourself the right to control the life and death of another individual, you have crossed the line and opposition should be mounted against you. Strategies for that opposition, of course, differ from dictator to dictator. Some dictators you can sometimes reason with, restrain to some extent. But others? It is destroy, or be destroyed. And, unfortunately, the latter proliferate– they are in the majority.
Q: Why is that?
Soyinka: Because once they get to power, it is in their interest to hang on to that power – by any means– or be dislodged. You have one dictator and many others in waiting. It is mostly because other dictators are stupid-– and I use that word deliberately– because if they were not stupid, they should be able to learn from the fate of others before them, from history. But they believe they are clever. They believe that their predecessor who self-destroyed made a mistake that they could not possibly repeat. Whereas if they were moderately intelligent, they would realise that their predecessor was incapable of foreseeing that little chink through the agency of which their destruction will come. Since they consider themselves clever, even omniscient, however, each one comes in and behaves exactly, and even worse, than his predecessor, guided by the same textbook of tyranny, convinced that the mere exercise of absolute, brutal power obviates the fatal chink. They are incapable of discerning that hair-line aperture through which Nemesis will strike. Analyse the self-inaugurating address of Sani Abacha to the nation he had come to enslave, and you’ll find yourself in full agreement. Then, the tyrannised. Let us not undervalue the role of the governed themselves, who, unabashedly, openly or through feeble to aggressive rationalisations, prop up the tyrannical will. When people like me preach caution, vigilance, that same population, among which a slave mentality constantly operates, whines: Ah, leave him alone, if you annoy him, he will terrorise us even more! Unfortunately, quite a large section of the civilian throng does harbour that slave mentality. They strut and mouth, but, when the chips are down, watch them fawn over Maximum Dictator and kiss the hems of the gowns of his First Lady, First Son, First Daughter, First parents, even the paws of the First lapdog and First kitten!!
Q: How can young politicians and activists possibly snatch power from the very wealthy, the moneyed people, who are entrenched in the political system right now?
Soyinka: Let me cite you what the former president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, told me about how he did it. I find the Lula example so dramatic. You know, he used to be a Union leader. He said he printed leaflets and would stand at street corners to hand out those leaflets, then say, My name is Lula, I am running for office. This is my manifesto. On the street corners-– probably changing street corners everyday-– with these hundreds of leaflets of his, passing them out. He said that’s how he did it, and I believe him. Your own corners may be different. But you have to find effective and simple ways of convincing people of your manifesto. It won’t be easy. But you should persist.
I was in the United States during the last presidential election in that country. It’s perhaps one of the reasons why, on the negative side, I was able to see where America was trending with Donald Trump’s campaign. Because I was also in the States when Obama was considered a joke at the beginning, I saw how it worked. I saw at first hand how his campaign was beamed largely at the young, and the young got the message. They took the message to their parents, to their uncles and aunties. And I have testimonies of those who, at the beginning, would just dismiss those American youth with a Look, take your pocket-money and go buy yourself a bubble gum and leave us alone. But, eventually, those kids won their parents over. Their parents admitted how they became convinced that it was time for this outsider, an outsider with a clearly articulated vision, to take over the reins. And before he knew it, he himself had become a multiplier effect. I saw students who would sleep in campaign offices, on camp beds, desks and benches with one bottle of Coke and a hamburger, to resume work the following morning. They were committed. And inspired. Obama inspired them and they felt that, historically, the moment was right. I was on the ground. I saw it happen, and I was able to say confidently, Watch, America is about to have a first black president. It is happening. I lectured today in Alabama, lectured tomorrow in Washington DC, lectured the day after in Kansas State, and I added up what I saw. I finished up my address or lecture, took a walk, saw a rudimentary, makeshift campaign offices and I saw these scruffy students in their T-shirts working, solidly committed. I saw this all over the country. As I said, it just happened to be accumulated set of engagements. Similarly, I saw the backlash to that happening under Donald Trump and his campaign tactics, his appeal rhetoric to his racist supporters. And I said to people, This man is bent on coming in to dismantle every progressive construct that Obama left behind. His ideology was to dismantle everything that a black man ever achieved. Just to negate it, and rubbish it and that’s what he’s been doing, predictably. But only because I had witnessed that positive Obama triumph in process, I recognised a reverse application in Trump’s progression.
Q: Was that part of why you tore your American green card as soon as Donald Trump was declared the president of the United States of America? What would say were the reasons for Trump’s triumph?
Soyinka: Donald Trump successfully twanged the ever lurking racial chord in American white psyche. Check out this small detail: the thrill killings-– no other word fits-– of black Americans by white police that rose to record heights during the Trump triumphal progression. A coincidence, you think? The reverse of what I observed during Obama campaign was happening. And so I said to people, If this man wins, I am going to tear up my green card! Let me tell you something: I was not alone. All across the American continent, there were so many others who were truly filled, on account of Trump, with shame and embarrassment. Others dismissed my alarm, Relax, he can never win. He is merely the comic relief to the serious contenders. But my feeling was very strong about the likely result. When it eventually happened, for many Americans themselves, it was like a funeral – don’t forget that Trump did not win the popular vote. American electoral system is itself a debatable democratic mode. Now, I did not instantly tear up the card like some addled minds stupidly demanded. In fact, I had one or two obligations lined up. One was a dialogue with Chris Abani at The New York Public Library on the very day after the announcement. You should have been at that event– it was like entering a morgue. Everybody, even the compere and the moderator–-one of them felt compelled to say, Folks, let’s just try and lift ourselves up above this disaster. It was exactly as I said–like a funeral. Check with Abani. For me, the die was cast, internally. I was already detached. On Thanksgiving Day, I cut up the card. Couldn’t think of a more significant day – after the election. I renamed that day ‘Deliverance Day’!
I won’t bother to rehash what followed. It still induces nausea. Mind you, this is not to deny that I did extract that element of perverse pleasure from watching the Yahoo-Yahoo louts still screaming: Keep your word! Long after the deed was done. It’s a form of therapy, watching both rabble and censorious pundits make fools of themselves especially with such passionate intensity. You asked yourself, Just what is their stake in this? To the best of one’s knowledge, Nigeria is not the fifty-first US state, no matter how many illegal immigrants Donald Trump eventually flushes out as he continues to “keep his word.” If I may just linger a little more over this, I hope that at least a handful still recall that Donald Trump proceeded exactly as I confidently predicted. He declared that even the green card had lost its accustomed validity. Holders now to be subjected to further verification.
Let me seize this occasion to fill up a small portion of the yawning gap in the presumptions of our opinionated motley. It is not enough to cut up your card. You still have to visit to sign a form in the presence of an officer at the American Consulate. So, I set up an appointment, visited, and signed the form. I next requested a regular visitor’s visa. I was prepared for a refusal-– or a ‘bureaucratic delay.’ I would simply explain the situation to my expectant hosts and stay put. The opposite was the case. The Consulate was extremely gracious. All the time the local hate machine was churning out obscenities, those who had the sole right to take political offence, those who actually belong, not barely tolerated aliens, treated this Nigerian like a visiting dignitary. For them, a political statement does not amount to a hanging crime. Others burn American flags publicly within and outside the US. Only political illiterates persuade themselves that World War III had thereby been declared by an individual ‘whose head is swollen with self-importance’ etc., etc. There are many lessons in that-– lost on most, of course. Some slaves are simply born that way. They fawn on their masters, only to get kicked in the teeth for their pains.
Q: If I may use this to take us back to an earlier question, and also bring us back to a positive note. Could the social media help in wresting political power from the moneyed class who are so firmly entrenched?
Soyinka: The answer is yes– if positively, purposefully deployed. Focussed. But not as long as it is in the hands of the Yahoo-Yahoo herd. It has to be a conscious, empowering build-up process. First, of course, it must be rescued from the trolls. There are serious, thoughtful and influential users, but they seem to be fighting a losing battle. I think of the late Pius Adesanmi, for instance, as one of the prime proactive exemplars-– lost, alas, to that Ethiopian plane crash. What a loss! And there are the on-line versions of some of the print media where some remarkable, thought-provoking socio-political discourse takes place. But what follows? The pages are then thrown open to barbarians – Be- the- first- to comment! Just what degree of serious reflection is possible in that mode? It is time that serious users stop slumming, stop casting pearls before swine. Exercise the same editorial responsibility and discrimination as you accord your printed version. This is not elitism– there is nothing elitist in separating space polluters from intelligent communicators. What obtains now is throwing open the field to idle minds which, predictably, overwhelm, and eventually inhibit the serious contributors. Seriously, great minds on the subject under discussion are subsumed under garbage. Democratisation of medium of expression does not equate intellectual slumming. Do you wonder why some legislators were driven to the extreme lunatic end? Imagine attempting to prescribe the death penalty for any “hate publication” which results, however indirectly, in deaths or public unrest? That, of course, is sheer madness. But who hasn’t felt deep down inside, that some of those scum merchants deserve measures to terminate their careers of infamy?
Q: That brings us, unavoidably, to a recent episode, in that same social media, the plane seat affair. You did make a brief statement, I recall. Something to the effect that some of the commentators needed some mental help, right? Do you want to comment now on what happened in the plane?
Soyinka: You know, I well and truly believe that some psychological affliction, as yet undiagnosed-–the verbal equivalent of Saint Vitus dance-–has hit the Nigerian internet populace. That mysterious affliction whose symptoms are clinically summarised as ‘involuntary convulsions’ in this case, turned epidemic, just as it once afflicted medieval Europe. It is this disease that has been let loose on the Nigerian internet populace, or a section of it. The word ‘gone viral’ has moved beyond a mere figure of speech. A disorientating virus has been unleashed. How on earth can a non-event, of such mind-boggling triteness remain in active, self-regenerating media domain for nearly two weeks! And in such noxious, speculative and distortive forms? Truth, even at its most banal, is lost in over-subscription. I do not operate in that medium, but of course could not totally avoid all of the postings. I began to doubt whether it was the same incident that only peripherally involved me, albeit as a triggering factor. Two weeks – and still counting! Over what, exactly?
Q: Yes, over what? Within a few days, even hours, it became difficult to tell what exactly happened even if it mattered. And then, the meaningless intrusions of all kinds of opinions over what were clearly mere suppositions. So, what really happened?
Soyinka: What happened? Very simple. I took the wrong seat-– not for the first time in my travel career, and unlikely to be the last. The assigned tenant pointed out the mistake. I checked my boarding pass stub, found he was in the right, so I began gathering up my items. There was, of course, a delay, because he couldn’t crash into other boarding passengers. He was obliged to wait. It was while waiting, I think, that nearby passengers asked him why he didn’t simply take the next seat. I was frankly disinterested–-I was reading. As soon as the coast was clear, I moved, and waved him to his seat. And that, as far as this traveller was concerned, was the end of the matter. As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking of writing a short satiric sketch about it. These pontificating trolls need to see themselves as others see them-– as objects of ridicule.
Q: Let’s end on a more deserving subject. In private conversations, you sometimes give the impression that death doesn’t scare you. Why are you not afraid of death and what are your reflections on death generally?
Soyinka: That’s right. Death doesn’t scare me. But then, that doesn’t mean that I like the prospect of it. It was the former president of France, Francois Mitterrand, who quipped, as his illness approached terminus: No, I don’t mind the idea of death, it’s just the thought of not being around that I dislike. I find that witty. It captures my own self-mocking attitude towards the notion of death. In fact, I wrote a short poem, Exit, on it. I entered into a dialogue with death quite early, perhaps even before secondary school-– I’m no longer sure. Don’t forget, I have undergone quite a few close shaves-– in fact, I sometimes joke that I’m on my second round of the proverbial cat’s nine lives. That is not entirely an exaggeration. There is an element of objective curiosity, something close to a craved intellectual resolution that is obviously denied one. I have always fiddled conceptually with notions of being and non-being-– maybe you’ll recall one of my public lectures from 1991, The Credo of Being and Nothingness. No one ever succeeds in offering a satisfactory disquisition on that intriguing dialectic, since any such authoritative voice is beyond communication. Which is why millions take comfort in After-life. I reject that illusory consolation. Do you see how frustrating the whole conundrum is?
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was first published by The News magazine. PREMIUM TIMES has the author’s permission to republish.)
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