- Post 28 August 2007
- Last Updated on 23 April 2008
- By Ahaoma Kanu
“DEAR Mr. Soyinka, in your versatile writing, you have been able to synthesize much of the very rich heritage from your country, ancient myths and old traditions, with literary legacies and traditions of European culture. There is a third component; a most important one in what you have thus achieved - your own genuine and impressive creativity as an artist, a master of language and your commitment ,as a dramatist and writer of poetry and prose, to problems of deep significance for man, modern and ancient.”
Those were the opening words of Prof. Lars Gyllenster, chairman of the literature committee of the Nobel Prize awarding body in
It is more than two decades since this honourable feat was achieved and one would have envisaged that with Soyinka opening the door to African literature hitherto closed by the Western world,
The objective of this discourse is not about why a country that brands itself the 'giant of Africa' has not succeeded in clinching another Nobel, neither is it to find out the secret behind South Africa's harvest of Nobels over the years, but to look at the man Oluwole Akinwade Soyinka, the man Kongi; the author and transcriber of Ogun ancient mythologies into theatrical classicals, the poet abundantly versed with words deep in originality of his antecedents and connects his readers with their ancestors.
If Wole Soyinka were to be British or American, historical monuments would have been erected in his honour; great buildings will be named after him in the capitals and cities, institutions of learning would be founded for his studies and many streets and boulevards would bear his name. But that is not to be in his homeland, where stadiums and halls are named after dictators who had gruesomely violated the human rights of the citizens, a cause which the man fought against with his pen, words and strength. Maybe it is a fulfillment of the biblical saying “a prophet is not recognized in his country,” or better still, if one is permitted to quote Lakunle, one of the author’s characters in the play, The Lion and the Jewel, “ a prophet has honour except in his home.”
It was not surprising that in October 1990, an American university, knowing the worth of the man, offered to buy all his personal papers, a move that was stopped by the Federal Government headed by the former dictator, Gen.Ibrahim Babangida.
The university's decision to buy the papers was part of their plans to introduce Soyinka studies into the literature department of the institution and to establish a Wole Soyinka centre. Soyinka preferred the papers to remain at home saying that while the question of money was secondary, his greatest concern was whether the papers will be properly taken care of and preserved.
“There had been several proposals to buy the papers from foundations like the Schombourg Library in
By this stance, he remained patriotic even at a time he could have looked the other way.
Childhood and early education
Soyinka's childhood is captured in his first autobiographical novel, Ake?: the Years of Childhood (1981). Born on
Soyinka attended St. Peter's Primary School and later
His coming into politics and activism may not be unconnected with his association with his mother and his aunt, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (Fela's mother), who were respected political activists within the local community and who led the famous Egba women's riots that ultimately dethroned the then Alake of Egbaland in 1945. Soyinka was barely 11 years old then and acted as a go-between for his mother and aunt, running errands and ferrying information between the duo.
On completion of his studies at
By 1960, he received the Rockefeller Foundation Research Fellowship from his alma mater and returned to
Wole Soyinka is not only a literary authority and international figure, but also a global ambassador and defender of human rights. He roared fearlessly at the colonial oppressors, dictators and tyrants alike and continuously called for the release of patriots and freedom fighters like Nelson Mandela, Beko Ransome Kuti, Frank Kokori, Chris Anyanwu, Ben Charles Obi and Olusegun Obasanjo. He is not one to allow malice blindfold good judgment or allow injustice prevail, as witnessed in the case of the phantom conviction of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in 1997.
“I think of all those in prison, I think of Obasanjo, whom you all know is not a favourite person of mine, but as far as I am concerned, has become a martyr of this struggle and must be treated on the same step with others”
Such is his sincerity, openness and passion for fighting injustice. Soyinka chooses a time and place to make his many speeches and calls for justice, in situations in which many will never dare to remember such incidents. Such an occasion, paramount in his crusades against apartheid was staged on the day he was, to be conferred with the Nobel Prize for Literature in
Dressed in his native Aso-Oke danshiki, he, in his acceptance speech, 'The past must address the present', called for the release of Nelson Mandela. He hit the nail on the head not minding the royalties and majesties present at the occasion, by calling for the total annihilation of apartheid in
“We are saying very simply but urgently, severe the cord by any name, be it total sanctions, boycott, disinvestment or whatever. Severe this umbilical cord and leave this monster of a birth to atrophy to die or to rebuild itself on long denied humane foundation. Let it collapse of its own social disequilibrium, its economic lopsidedness, its attrition on its most productive labour. Let it wither like an aborted foetus of human family, it persists in smothering the minds which constitute its authentic being”.
His words make him the man he is. His choice of words and language is systematic and technical, sending shivers of excitement and awe to his audience whenever he addresses an issue. He drops sentences that explain the situation, qualifies the issue in question and leaves one with something new to take home usually fresh words on marbles. When Dele Giwa was killed via a parcel bomb in 1986, Soyinka described the incident as “having left ashes in our mouths” and when Senator Arthur Nzeribe wanted to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Obasanjo, Soyinka described him as “a harmless prostitute of power”.
Soyinka makes much use of the pen and words more than he does the courts, and never acts without cause. For any issue he comments on, there must be injustice somewhere; a person's right may have been infringed upon or the government may not have been listening to the anguish of the people. Gani Fawehini described him as a formidable opposition to Abacha because “he thinks fast, talks fast, writes fast and reads fast; everything about him is fast” He went on to say that “Soyinka does not believe in violence, he believes in the use of strong language to express the feelings of his people”.
His white hair and beards, along with his spectacles make him appear more of a Greek god than a literary icon. The hair, which he says he maintains by ignoring it, has turned out to become his trademark worldwide, such that the recently established Wole Soyinka Prize for Investigative Journalism has the hair and beard on a faceless head as its logo.
Wole Soyinka describes himself as an opposition diplomat and has never belonged to any political party since he took up the fight against human right violations, corrupt government and injustice. He refused to join politics in 1990 saying that there was no politics for him throughout the decade, when asked by journalists if he would participate in politics.
“Gentlemen, let me tell you that I, Wole Soyinka, is presently on sabbatical leave from politics and therefore have no intention whatsoever to participate actively in the voodoo democracy being bequeathed to us by the military rulers”. His participation in the electoral process may be a pointer that he may have become convinced with politics in the country.
Being the son of a politically-conscious mother, Soyinka realized early in life how demonstrations and oppositions could right a wrong and has made use of that medium on many occasions.
In 1964, while still a lecturer at the
That would not be his only physical confrontation with those in authority. In 1952, while still a student at the University College Ibadan, he, along with some of his contemporaries, founded the Pyrates Confraternity, with the objective of fighting the excesses of the colonialists.
Dudley Thompson, former Jamaican ambassador to
Despite his confrontational approach to burning issues, Soyinka believes more in dialogue. He exhibited this during the initial crisis that erupted after the infamous January 15th coup of 1966 by continuously calling for the end to the crisis through dialogue. When he felt that the government of Nigeria, under Col. Yakubu Gowon, was not listening but opting for the use of force as the final solution, Soyinka embarked on a journey into the heartland of Biafra in an attempt to make Col. Ojukwu, the Biafra, leader, change his mind and declare a ceasefire. He persuaded both parties to go for dialogue so that an agreement which would allow
When that failed, he tried to secure without success, a UN embargo on arms to both
Soyinka did not have any fears afterwards. When he was released, he said “whatever I believed in before I was locked up, I came out a fanatic in those things”. His opposition to governments took another dimension as he implored the art of music in fighting the corrupt government of Shehu Shagari. His song “I love my country, I no go lie” became an instant hit, rocking airwaves and creating headaches for government officials.
It was not as if Soyinka was opposing every government or saw nothing good in any of them. He credited Gowon for establishing the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and for opening up the country with link roads and once called Babangida a listening President. But he would not hesitate to point out any act of corruption or injustice perpetrated by any government especially military regimes. In July 1993, on his way to Ethiopia to give a lecture, a security officer collected his passport claiming it had to be cleared before he could travel, a claim which infuriated him to an outburst of anger,” What clearance?” he snapped at the officer.
“The only clearance we want is for Babangida to get out of that place. We want the military out of our life”.
His fight against the regime of the late dictator, Gen.Sani Abacha, is perhaps the fiercest of all his many battles and the one in which he had to come out with all the arsenals he could muster which included flying across countries giving lectures, delivering seminars in which he constantly called for the return of democracy in Nigeria. As a man of words, Soyinka knew the value of radio to democratic movement and opposition and so set up Radio Democratic International Nigeria (RDIN) which later metamorphosed to Radio Kudirat, after the wife of the winner of the June 12th election of 1993, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, was assassinated.
Soyinka's activism started right from childhood and was carried over to college and ultimately, the university. The Pyrates Confraternity, of which he is a founding member, is still in existence. Though many believe the different cult groups in higher institutions originated from the Pyrates, Soyinka refuted the assertion and still maintains that he owes nobody any apology.
His method of activism starts with verbal expressions, press statements, speeches and writings. He first of all employs all the relative avenues that may effect a change in government policy, human right abuses and so on. But once all these are exhausted, he moves to more confrontational approaches, not minding whose ox is gored in his cause for justice.
Speaking on Radio Kudirat shortly after MKO Abiola's death, he asserted that the Federal Government, the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the European Union and the
“Those who favoured the agenda, who pursued and provided its legitimization by operating under the conditions laid down by the military for its attainment, must be held equally guilty of Chief Abiola's death, what we must now rank as the political crime of the twentieth century”.
As an international personality, he did not limit his activism to the domestic front alone but got involved in international conflicts as well.
In February 1991, in the heat of the Gulf war, he flayed the Allied forces on initiating sudden ground war against
“The Allies failed to give the initiative of the
He said, “President Bush (Snr) did say he was prepared to go the extra mile in search of peace. It is evident he has taken this walk in the wrong direction”
His Religious beliefs.
Soyinka's revelation at the Human Rights Violation and Investigation Commission, otherwise known as Oputa Panel, that he does not believe in God caused ripples in so many quarters. His mother followed the Catholic faith but among his father's people, there were so many followers of the indigenous Yoruba religious tradition. He was influenced in both religions but has more affinity for the traditional religion. One of his reasons for not accepting Christianity was its destructive influence on other religious beliefs. He believed that the Christian faith is inimical to the creative roots of the African culture and sensibilities.
“This is a historic fact. We know how the early missionaries used to go out and literally create bonfires of our works of art, how they banned traditional music instrument in the churches in their religion”.
Zia Jefrrey wrote in the New York Times of
“Everything kept going wrong” he said. “My assistant director got into a car crash on his way to the theatre; a stage hand fell from the stage rigging and nearly broke his spine; one of the leading actresses broke her leg; and for one actor -there was a small fire in his house”. So Soyinka called everybody together and asked them to find him a goat. He settled for a chicken later and sacrificed it under the stage with everybody standing around.
“And from that moment on, I don't know why”, he recalled, 'everything just started going right'.
The second time, he said, was when he was on his way to collect the Nobel Prize in
“I then phoned my sister and told her that before they leave, they must sacrifice a ram and they did” he said.
This is a 'no go' area for Soyinka. He maintains a monk silence on his relationship and never talks about his women.
One sure characteristic of the man and his relationship is his ability to live a scandal-free life for which everyone has come to respect him. Journalists do not even question him about the topic as they all know his position.
In 1990, he sued Prime Publications Ltd, publishers of a soft sell magazine, Prime People, for libel. The publication in its April 27- May7 edition, Vol 4No 48, came out with the stories entitled “I am Wole Soyinka's only legal wife” and “The woman in Soyinka's life”, which Soyinka claimed was “falsely and maliciously published”. The stories were based on an interview Soyinka's first wife, Chief (Mrs.) Laide Soyinka, allegedly granted the magazine.
Soyinka made the court understand that his marriage with the lady was dissolved in a High court in
Prof. Soyinka claimed that by the publication of the story, his national and international reputation “as a Nobel laureate and social critic was damaged” He therefore asked for N4m as “aggravated damages” and N6m as “exemplary damages”.
The suit may have sent the signals to other media houses to be cautious in reporting the private life of a public man.
If a man is to be judged by the volume of work he has done, then very few people alive can equal Soyinka's literary accomplishments. He was once compared with William Shakespeare in literary ingenuity, and was described by Berneth Lindfors, a literary critic, as an artist of the first rank.
“His imagination, vision and craft distinguish him as a creative artist of the very first rank and as a writer of world stature. Some would say he is the only original literary genius that