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Soyinka at 80: The Man Lived

By Soyombo Opeyemi

Language, the source of Wole Soyinka’s fame, is  the reason also for his alienation by the average reader. The Nobel laureate is a man of complex locution.

Besides his political forays, the collective density and immensity of his literature is perhaps the major thing that trademarks him. The fact is, there can be no indolent or perfunctory reading of Wole Soyinka; his literary rampart is impregnable. You peruse him; then the fortress can give way.

However, the language employed by the playwright in his prison memoir is in a class of its own. Set in the Civil War Nigeria, The Man Died is a riveting account of the atrocities perpetrated by the military regime against the civil populace, in which the author was also a major victim – of solitary confinement without trial for 15 gruelling months.

The abuses fill you with horrors: the flogging syndrome, detention and imprisonment without trial, killing, torture as pastime; sadism and crushing of the civic will; the climate of appeasement against the rule of law, etc. His critics believe that language and power cannot be placed on the same pedestal. The former must defer to the latter. Language, in all its ramifications, must kowtow to power, however malevolent is the latter. But the human rights activist disagrees, “When power is placed in the service of a vicious reaction, a language must be called into being which does its best to appropriate such obscenity of power and fling its excesses back in its face.”

The Man Died interrogates the silence of the intelligentsia in the face of horrendous human rights abuses, accusing it of criminal complicity through conduct and warning that: “The boundaries of the geography of victims of (power) eventually extends to embrace even those who think they are protected by silence. The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. In any people that submit willingly to the ‘daily humiliation of fear’, the man dies.”

While in Ikoyi Prisons, as a prisoner of conscience, the author saw and heard the accounts of the victims of the Gestapo: The Black Hole in Dodan Barracks; the torture and flogging syndrome by soldiers. The picture of sadists who dined and wined and lulled themselves to sleep with the sounds of the tortured was grim and stupefying. Here is a narration of the writer-activist about one of the casualties of the flogging syndrome:

“I went and looked at a back of purulent sores. There was no skin. None at all. It was a mass of sores which no longer had definition as each weal had merged into another… My mind returned to the back I had seen, the still suppurating furrows, dark raised permanent swellings, the potholes where the tip of the whip must have dug more than once. A few scabs that seemed an inch thick. And his neck, even to the base of the head, covered in weals.”

“They were flogged in the open, you said.”
“And they screamed?… But Gowon lives in those barracks. He must have heard the screams.”
Agu said, “Frankly, I don’t think he knew. He lived far away from the guardroom.”
“Those screams must have penetrated concrete.”

Often, the offences ranged from being from a particular tribe, to a section of the country, to being in their company, a mild protest at injustice, to what was considered a slight. It was an era of lawlessness… Journalists are usually the first victims of any dictatorship – Segun Sowemimo eventually died as a result of having been “brutally beaten, he and other colleagues, by soldiers on the orders of a Military Governor.”

Soyinka himself was framed, said to have confessed to “an arrangement with Mr Ojukwu to assist in the purchase of jet aircraft to be used by the rebel Air Force”, and was later said to have admitted “he had since changed his mind.” He was also said to have agreed with Victor Banjo “to help in the overthrow of the Government of Western Nigeria”.

Soyinka further agreed to the consequent overthrow of the Federal Military Government. But the radical was not put on trial. Although there did exist a Third Force, Soyinka had confessed nothing to anyone. “I was framed and nearly liquidated because of my activities inside prison. From Kirikiri I wrote and smuggled out a letter setting out the latest proof of the genocidal policies of the government of Gowon. It was betrayed to the guilty men…” Soyinka believes that “a commitment to absolute ideals cannot plead the excuse of immobilization to turn his back on the fight for an equitable society.”

One of the government goons among the academic staff in Ibadan got to know about the letter “made a photostat, and dutifully passed it on to his military bosses.” That was the turning-point in the incarceration of the human rights campaigner and the horrendous sufferings that were to be his lot.

But The Man Lived despite the plot to annihilate him. The machination: “They argued that the public would believe their prepared story which was: while being flown to Jos, I pulled out a gun, tried to take over the plane and was shot in the attempt. A violent man meets a violent end; the dramatist over-dramatizes himself once too often.”

I agree the story would have been believed. Soyinka’s past in holding up the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service at gun-point in 1965 would have stood against him in the court of public opinion. He was alerted, hence his attempt to stymie the scheme through an orchestrated riot at Ikoyi Prison on the D-Day. Smarting from the failed evil plot to eliminate the gadfly, he was transferred to the Maximum Security Prison and manacled 24 hours a day. Public humiliation was to follow. Another forgery announced that Soyinka had been caught ‘skulking along the wall’ in an attempt to escape from prison!

In spite of his embittered articles in the press condemning the carnage perpetrated or condoned by the Federal Military Government, Soyinka was never under any illusion about the futility of secession, in a context. The loss of his excitable friend, Christopher Okigbo, in defence of boundary, was sobering enough. “It is better to believe in people than nations… And any exercise of self-decimation sorely in defence of the inviolability of the temporal demarcations called nations is a mindless travesty of idealism. Peoples are not temporal because they can be defined by infinite ideas. Boundaries cannot.” The revolutionary never saw hope in Enugu nor Lagos.

So also were Alale and Banjo. It is better to defend humanity, ideals than boundaries. The trio were united on this score: Esta tierra/ Este aire/ Este cielo/ Son los nuestros/ Defenderemos – those lines by Castro – This earth is ours/ And the air/ And the sky/ We will defend them. “In defence of that earth, that air and sky which formed our vision beyond lines drawn by masters from a colonial past or redrawn by the instinctive rage of the violated we set out, each to a different destiny.” A melancholic peroration indeed by the poet: Banjo, Alale to the firing squad, Soyinka to prison…

The book features also the exuberance and excesses of Gowon. On that former, I have always argued, could be located the immediate reason that led to the Civil War. I refer to the youthfulness of some of the gladiators. Gowon, 32; Ojukwu, 33; Danjuma, 28; Katsina, 33; etc. Where is age? Where is experience?   Some of them were not even married as at the time they held the most important posts in the nation. The fratricidal war, I humbly submit, is, also, a price the nation paid for youthful exuberance.

The encounters of WS with Col. Fajuyi, his philosophy, the complicity of the judiciary in the crisis of the West, especially their last tete-a-tete three days before he met his untimely death… are all absorbing.
To suggest that Soyinka suffered in prison is to detract from what he went through in solitary confinement. No word can describe the tedium of solitary confinement, especially as a prisoner of conscience.

He tried to make the most of it within the limits of human endurance.   Even death would have been a triumph at a point, as he became a living skeleton. His will was stretched but not broken. It is to his eternal credit that he never accepted a life under an insupportable system as a substitute for his freedom. Unknown to many, every dictator, military or civilian, since then, factors in Soyinka in all they do or fail to do.

In summary, the book reveals the tribulations that are sometimes the lot of those ‘who are allied and committed to the unfettered principle of life’, for which Soyinka is a living example. His public spiritedness is exceptional. He deserves all the accolades, the encomiums we shower on him on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

The Man Died in the contemporary Nigeria, what lessons? First, we say ‘never again’ to military rule. The army must never be used for political ends by the President. The misuse of the police and armed forces in 1964/65 elections played a major role in the incursion of the military into governance and the attendant wanton losses the nation suffered consequently.

The rule of law must become an article of faith, any infraction attracting condign sanctions from a truly independent and apolitical judiciary. No one should ever keep quiet in the face of injustice or tyranny. Neither race, tribe, colour nor religion should henceforth define our lives but the content of our character. Those in power must be committed to the welfare of the citizens.
Congratulations to my intellectual avatar, Wole Soyinka, on this grand, momentous occasion of his 80th birthday.

*Soyombo, a journalist,, sent this piece via


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