There is nothing wrong in people saying ‘we want our own autonomous unit’ – Soyinka
Professor Wole Soyinka

By Osa Amadi

It is rare for nature to fashion in mortals, a combination of literary genius and combat bravery.

We saw that in Christopher Okigbo – an outstanding postcolonial English-language African poet who died fighting for the independence of Biafra – and in Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka.

In this review of TheNEWS interview with Prof. Wole Soyinka on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2014, OSA AMADI, the Arts Editor of Vanguard, highlights the combat bravery aspect of Soyinka’s life as captured in the interview:

Of guns, snakes and college fraternity

Only people who know so much about Soyinka could have elicited such an interview from him.

For instance, when they asked him if he could recall some instances when his stubborn exuberance or pranks truly justified her mother’s admonitions and worries that his over-confidence would kill him one day, Soyinka could only recall how he used to re-arrange his mother’s shop because he felt his own arrangement was better, and how his mother always undid everything after he had gone back to school.

But that is not the type of example the interviewers wanted. Because they have in-depth knowledge of Soyinka, including his childhood days, they threw this productive follow-up question at him: What about the gun accident? This question elicited from Soyinka, a powerful short story filled with imageries:

“I used to go with my father when he hunted. His gun was good enough for squirrels, the wild pigeon, and the occasional rabbit.  I was just curious. One day I sat in the house frontage waiting for him to come out of his bedroom so I could accompany him.

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I just felt there was something about that part of his gun which he used to pull. I tried the same motion and it just exploded. But he knew it was his fault so he never chided me.

He knew he should never have left that gun loaded and he knew me enough to know that I had learned that lesson and I didn’t need to be reminded of it. Of course, there was a sort of mutual standoff; I wasn’t rebuked but he knew I wasn’t going to do it again.”

From the question of how he coped with older boys at Government College, Ibadan, we learn that Soyinka’s fearlessness began as early as age ten, possibly earlier. “They were bullies.

They were terrified because they looked big,” he says of the older boys, and then went comical: “Some of them, I’m sure, had children already. Some had mustaches and so they shaved every morning.

The ‘over-confidence’ that my mother used to complain about saved me and put me in trouble also. Because they were big, they felt they should trample all over me. I had no hesitation in taking them on.”

From that narrative too, we learn that Dr. Christopher Kolade and Mesida (Professor Ajibola Ebenezer Meshida?), with whom he formed ‘a tripartite alliance’, were Soyinka’s school, and probably age mates, at Government College, Ibadan.

Further questions on Soyinka’s activities at the Government College threw up something like an oxymoron – a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in the exploration of his bravery – a classmate had said Soyinka used to kill the snakes which were many in the school. The killing of snakes is normally considered an act of bravery. But the Nobel Laureate says, “I was even scared of snakes”:

I hated snakes. I still do. If you like, I was even scared of snakes – those creepy creatures. Many of us have a superstitious dread of snakes. Since I was afraid of them and considered them dangerous. to humanity, it seemed logical not to leave any such intruder alive – wherever possible. Made me feel safer.

Instead of running away from the snakes, he says “I preferred to attack them. I grew up with an attitude that you must overcome your fear – but this I only realized in retrospect.”

Seemingly rebellious, Soyinka was said to be a “Captain Blood in the Pyrates Confraternity”. However, for many of us, this will be the first time to hear from the horses’ mouth, the truth about ‘the rebellious Wole Soyinka being a founder of a ‘campus cult’: “The Pyrates Confraternity,” Soyinka says, “was never a cult. There is a difference between a cult and a fraternity.”

There is absolutely no correlation between a cult – secret or not – and a college fraternity. The Pyrates Confraternity was a typical high-spirited college club with a self-deflating disposition allied to social commitment.

Tafawa Balewa – if you go all the way back to pre-independence – the authorities invited the Pyrates Confraternity to help in welcoming him. With their colourful dress and theatrics, they were the main feature when the Prime Minister visited UI.

That is what all university alumni of that period recall about the PC – or seadogs as they also address themselves. Fun driven, yet committed to social service, irreverent, an eccentric slice of the college creative spectrum.

Then, angered by what the Prof describes as some Nigerians’ penchant for “unconscionable resort to calumny when their ox is gored”, the warrior, the lion himself, pounces on the son of Nigeria’s worst despot, the late Sani Abacha who had dared to malign him as a founder of ‘an evil cult’:

It is the failure of the informed media to underscore the distinction that nerves the real public enemies and their scions, such as that pathetic character – Sanni Abacha’s whelp – to feel entitled to abuse the freedom of speech and association for which his betters have fought, and insult the public with a reminder of the thoroughly corrupt origin of his existence.

He wrote, “Somebody who started an evil cult, he should go and repair that before he talks about my father.” This son of a killer, torturer, murderer and a cultist incidentally – if you don’t believe that last, go and ask the man who took over shortly after Abacha died – the neophyte solicitor had the impudence to join in the choric lie.

I recommend that he ask Obasanjo also, ask him what was unearthed around Aso Rock. Talk to Obasanjo’s private chaplain.

One can almost see vividly, the red, white and black bundles of juju belonging to the Sani Abacha family being ‘unearthed’ and evacuated from Nigeria’s seat of power, Aso Rock, for the next President, Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, to move in after the sudden death of Abacha. So, the real cultists, after all, are the Abachas, not Soyinka.

He also clarifies his tag of ‘Captain Blood’ in the Pyrates Confraternity:

Now, in those early days, you might have encountered a slogan – “Blood for Blood”. What did it really mean? How did it arise? Let us delve into ancient history a little.

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A campaign in blood donation was introduced into this country late 1953. Blood banks were a rarity. As always the Pyrates Confraternity undertook to be among the first donors, breaking a superstitious jinx for the uninformed. And the slogan was “Blood for Captain Blood … let’s go and donate blood.”

The pyrates led the way. And that sense of public service has endured till today. I shall not bother to enumerate. One of the pyratical codes is – ‘Just act. Don’t advertise’.

Because The Pyrates Confraternity loved to hold their activities in the forests, people tended to see them as a cult group. But why should nature settings like forests be associated with evil? Soyinka says people should stop being frightened about Nature environments:

 

Now again, the tendency of seadogs to gather, party and ‘inter-talk’ all night long in bush clearings – many people then contort this into satanism in forest shrines. People get scared so easily of anything to do with Nature.

I live in the bush; my house is built inside the bush. I personally have a deep affinity to nature. When Boys Scout march into the forest to camp as part of their personality build-up, nobody says Boy Scouting is a cult.

I think we should stop being frightened about Nature environments. One favorite space in the University of Ibadan – where the PC was born – was the bush across the road from the University gates.  If you were walking past, you would see dancing – or ‘sallying’.

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There are traditionalist religionists who similarly prefer to worship right in the heart of Nature, Religions are not cults, but there are cults within religions. Yes, these cults are all over the place, they are there and they will claim that they derive their inspiration from the bible or the Koran….

You can always extract what you want from religious scriptures, you manipulate, extrapolate, distort and pervert extracts, then make your reading the rigid principle of righteousness. You claim authority over the originating source. This is a problem of humanity in general, not just of Nigeria.  Education is vital.

His writing, academia, religion

For the fertile mind of a budding poet and playwright like Soyinka, these raw, bleeding events must have meant a harvest of resource materials for his literary career. “I fell in love with language and discovered the power of imagination, I started writing short stories, essays,” he says.

One of the things in the academia which many creative minds detest is having to be forced to corroborate everything they have to say with what another author had said. Soyinka also has this phobia.

In another classical personification of oxymoron, he declares himself as a doctoral dropout and at the same time an intellectual of which truth we can all attest to:

 

Yes, I’m a doctoral dropout. And I am far more an intellectual than an academic. I suspect that my temperament is secretly anti-academic. In academia, the thesis is more to be read in the length of footnotes than in the actual substance of discourse.

I preferred to be creatively productive, I’m not denigrating academia – very much the contrary. But as I began my research, encountering past theses, I felt less and less inclined to devote four, five years to producing a tome of foot notes to dubious original thinking. All that ‘ibid’! I was getting deep into creativity. During my undergraduate days, I was already writing plays, I had participated in the activities of the university Drama society.

I used to sneak out to watch play rehearsals and so on. I wanted to be productive, I could take academia in stride as I went along – at least, so I thought. I preferred to produce my own work and let others write long footnotes to my own works. I still carry on my intellectual life, I still teach in universities as you know. I recently resigned from my last attachment.

In fact, academia is fascinating, playing mind against mind, probing ideas, testing and recomposing ideas is one part of the needful activities of the brain. But my pull was towards the observance and probing of human nature and the phenomena around it.

For those who may be wondering Soyinka’s religion, he appears to have no religion, but has some attachment to Yoruba gods like Orisa. Certainly, he doesn’t believe in Christ:

I was already questioning Christianity; I have been doing that since I was in secondary school. With Dobree (one of his teachers at University of Leeds where he studied), I began to find great significance in the artworks that were produced by the followers of Orisa in one form or another.

I found correlation between them and also the carvings which you found on pews and church iconography….  Dobree was somebody who influenced me in that direction because his predecessors called them devil worship and here was this oyinbo professor struck by them. Once, he actually sent for me to express his shock when he encountered an African student who said he was ashamed of his uncivilized past.

War with government

His confrontations with authorities started quite early, and before he returned to Nigeria. Here, Soyinka describes one of his earliest encounters with the then Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa:

The confrontation outside began quite early. I took on the then Prime Minister, even before full Independence. In his case, what happened was that my aunt, the same Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was invited to the Soviet Union and her passport was seized.

Reason provided was – to quote Tafawa Balewa at the time – “I think that communism is an evil thing” … I had been informed that it was Tafawa Balewa who was visiting France at the time, and that he was staying at Claridges Hotel – along Champs Elysee, I recall.

I was in Paris at the time. I phoned him and requested audience. When I got there and saw him, … we started our conversation and I asked him, ‘What do you know of communism that you call it evil?’ I can’t describe the atmosphere, how it changed abruptly…. His aide got up and said, “Who are you? What right do you have to come and ask the premier about communism?” We were all coming home, I replied. We wanted to know what we were going to meet on the ground. Anyway, the meeting ended abruptly.

In 1960, Soyinka’s play titled “A Dance of the Forests” which he wrote and submitted for performance to mark Nigeria’s 1960 independence was rejected because it was perceived to be critical of the state and its officials. A question on that affords us of Soyinka’s explanation of the message in A Dance of the Forests:

 

It warned: don’t think that everything is over because it is independence. Let’s look into our own past and see whether we do not have a history of corruption, a history of self-inflicted wounds.

Were we not part and parcel of those who nourished the slave trade?  Because if African slave traders and raiders had not joined in the slave trade, it would never have begun or attained the dimensions it did. As a contemporary side note, this was all the reason I accepted about two years ago, to go to Akwa Ibom to launch a book on one of the ancestors of Governor Akpabio.

That book was the biography of that leader, a chief, who sturdily refused to sell his own people, to indulge in the trade in humanity which was very lucrative at that time. He would not touch that commerce. It is necessary to let us understand that we always have choices. We can betray our own kind, or we can act in solidarity with them.

There were African individuals who were so high-minded, who were so ethical in their interaction with other humanity that they said, ‘I will not indulge in this demeaning trade.’ The play A Dance of the Forests was meant to say ‘Look, there were some of our own people who participated, not only in the enslavement of, but in the hunt, capture and sale of their fellow beings into the unknown.  That streak of humanity did not end with independence.

So, let’s take precaution. There wasn’t anything negative about that… People must learn to confront their history. They must be truthful about their own history, however negative, however unsavoury. If you don’t accept the past, be honest about it, you will never transcend it and you will repeat it. This is the lesson which we are failing to learn.

The life times of Prof. Wole Soyinka, especially in a piece that attempts to chronicle his acts of bravery, will not complete without the familiar story of how he broke into the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation studio in Ibadan during the Western Region’s political crisis in 1965. Soyinka tersely dismisses the question on that with this:

I had matured into a period of a people on the rise, on the move – people of dignity who refused that their voices should be stolen, arrogantly and contemptuously.

There have been quite a few moments of my existence among people like that… I was one of them, my voice was being stolen. I could not sit down and accept that somebody should steal my voice. I felt at one with the majority of the people.

Wole Soyinka’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War for which he was sent to prison is even a bigger event in his life without which his life history will be incomplete. Hear him:

We were more or less a family of artistes at Independence. There was a creative family and that family was being scattered. I was in Stockholm in 1967 for the Scandinavian-African Writers conference.

And one of the saddest moments for me was that so many faces were missing from Nigeria – expected but not there: Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara – the Biafrans were missing even in safe Stockholm.

The drums of war were no longer muted. It was the last chance for us to meet and talk about what was now inevitable but could still, just maybe, be averted at the last moment. I returned to Nigeria very sad and I was feeling as if I lost a limb – several limbs in fact. It was like – was this going to be it? We would become enemies confronting each other across the line of fire? There were people who were ready to take up arms – like Christopher Okigbo.

At the time I had already run into Christopher Okigbo – it took place in Brussels – I even recall the name of the hotel – Hotel Koenisburg – purely by accident, and I knew he had come to purchase arms for Biafra. I challenged him and he admitted it. All these fortuitous encounters impressed on me a sense of urgency.

Later I had a meeting earlier in London – I mention that in my IBADAN – where we talked about the possibility of going to Biafra on a last-minute mission of intervention. Again, as I disclosed in my memoirs, Aminu Abdullahi who is now dead, actually volunteered to go – this was at the meeting in London. We hooked up around a place called the Transcription Centre. We didn’t even know which way some of us would go. Would JP consider himself an easterner or westerner? It was the breakup of a robust circle of creativity. We decided that Aminu should not go because he looked so clearly a northerner.

We said, “Look, you won’t even get past the first road block.” Because at that time, there was such bitterness, murderous paranoia, and it was understandable… on account of the pogrom which had taken place earlier…. I went to the conference, my colleagues were not present and when I returned to Nigeria, the first skirmishes had taken place – on the northern border, and I realised that soon, it would be impossible to travel to Briafra.

I was restless. I knew I couldn’t function until I had crossed the lines in search of them. I said, ‘When I get there, I will find Christopher (Okigbo) somewhere’ and then get to Ojukwu. That was the reason why I went, a chance at that last moment that something could be done.

Some people continue to narrate that I went across to persuade Ojukwu to renounce the secession. No, I didn’t go to persuade Ojukwu to renounce anything – it was far more complicated. Some of us still felt that it was still possible to avoid an all-out shooting war. Let me state this clearly that I totally disagree with the philosophy of unity at any cost, a simplistic rendition of that pietistic mantra: United we stand, divided we fall. What infantile nonsense! It has no basis in logic or rationality whatever. Sometimes, not only is it that “small is beautiful” but also “small is perfectible”.

People have the right anytime to say, “We want to leave this union, whatever it is”, any kind of union, politically or whatever type of union. Peoples have the right at any time to say, “Let’s have a referendum in this area.”. That is, for me, part and parcel of democracy. Look at what’s happening in even England today – Scotland wants independence.

Long, long ago, Cameroon and Nigeria, the people detached themselves from Nigeria here and went to Cameroon. Ethiopia-Eritrea remains instructive, so does the even more recent example of the Sudan. Whenever things get to a certain unmanageable stage, people look at separationist options. There is nothing – I want to stress this – absolutely nothing morally wrong or pernicious in a people saying – we want our own autonomous unit.

It’s a childish notion, something which has been implanted in our brain, to chant or be conditioned by the gospel of: “What white man has put together, let no black man put asunder.”

What kind of nonsense is that? True, I do prefer that we stay together, if only because I don’t like to keep spending time obtaining visas when I want to go see a former next-door neighbour and collaborators.

Also, I am partial to existence within a plurality of cultures. It offers a richness of resources, a dynamic of infinite sensibilities. But to say that you must go to war over “unity”? No! Go the civilised way – plebiscite. Instead we wasted an estimated two million lives through bullets, sickness and starvation – to preserve a European myth? It’s a lack of maturity.

In the interview, Soyinka has a piece of advice for the Abachas. He also appealed to the then President Jonathan Goodluck to delete the name of Abacha from the list of recipients of national honours for the planned centenary celebration:my advice to young Abacha is “Don’t take on your betters, you are a neophyte. Don’t try to intervene in what you don’t understand.

Go and learn from my attitude towards your sister whom I met without any rancour and learn to deal with history in the same way. Above all, don’t promote calumny”.… We must speak candidly. It is also a symptom of where we are, that the son of a thief, an international thief, so attested, documented, whose crimes are being unveiled every day, should feel entitled to defend the name of his father at the expense of truth.

 

And that is where I wish to end this theme – I repeat my call on President Jonathan to have the moral courage to rescind – I know he won’t do it, but we shall keep saying it at every opportunity – he must find a way to rescind that Centenary Honours List because that it is a disgrace and a shame on this nation. It makes me embarrassed to call myself a Nigerian; that a sitting president should compile the names of a hundred supposedly worthy people and include that of a loathsome dictator among them.

It should have been sufficient, if he wanted to honour the military, he should just have picked one representative of the breed – maybe somebody like Murtala Muhammed. So that the military don’t complain that they were passed over.

But to put Sani Abacha on that list side by side with Chinua Achebe, Emeka Anyaoku, Mike Adenuga etc. etc., is an abomination. That Honours event was an abomination. Jonathan’s act was a symbolic negation, a desecration of everything a number of us have stood for in all our lives.

Let that list be discarded and consigned to oblivion to make way for a truly sustainable one. And no amount of trickle-down or newly inventive calumny will stop that call, as long as I choose to carry a document of Nigerian citizenship.

For those who criticise Soyinka’s writing as being too Eurocentric, too modernist, and of Soyinka himself suffering from Hopkins Disease, Kongi has these for them:

I write as the Muse dictates, not the critic. I distinguish between censorship and criticism. Censorship is telling a writer you must use this sole ideological prism to view and transmit reality or your art is engagement in social treachery. For me, that is pernicious, intolerably arrogant and fascistic.

From this interview, we learn that Wole Soyinka once enlisted into the army with the aim of going to fight for the freedom of South Africans and Nelson Mandela. However, he deserted on learning he was going to be drafted to defend the Suez Canal:

I have been obsessed with South Africa since I was politically conscious. I told you, that was why I entered the military as a student joining the officer corps for a short while. I fled when they were going to pack me to the Suez instead of where I wanted to go – which was South Africa.

I packed up my kit, saying “No, I wanted to train for South Africa, not for the Suez. You go and capture a canal on someone’s land, then declare war when he resists, and then you call me up to serve. Remember the Anglo-French invasion? I was called up and I said “No, that was not it”. That was why I left the officer corps.

On the granting of pardon to Mohammed Abacha by Goodluck Jonathan on the N446 billion issue, Soyinka says it’s obscene:

It is obscene. Whether we are talking about Alamieyeseigha or we are going backward to take in Obasanjo’s pardon to Salisu Buhari, when a precedent was set. And it’s sad that Jonathan has continued in that line of cavalier pardon and especially in Mohammed Abacha who has been proven to be a torturer in addition to an incontinent receiver of national loot. Please, all of you bear in mind, it’s not as if these crimes are not in the public domain.

 

nd occasional rabbit.  I was just curious. One day I sat in the house frontage waiting for him to come out of his bedroom so I could accompany him.

I just felt there was something about that part of his gun which he used to pull. I tried the same motion and it just exploded. But he knew it was his fault so he never chided me.

He knew he should never have left that gun loaded and he knew me enough to know that I had learned that lesson and I didn’t need to be reminded of it. Of course, there was a sort of mutual standoff; I wasn’t rebuked but he knew I wasn’t going to do it again.”

From the question of how he coped with older boys at Government College, Ibadan, we learn that Soyinka’s fearlessness began as early as age ten, possibly earlier. “They were bullies.

They were terrified because they looked big,” he says of the older boys, and then went comical: “Some of them, I’m sure, had children already. Some had moustaches and so they shaved every morning.

The ‘over-confidence’ that my mother used to complain about saved me and put me in trouble also. Because they were big, they felt they should trample all over me. I had no hesitation in taking them on.”

From that narrative too, we learn that Dr. Christopher Kolade and Mesida (Professor Ajibola Ebenezer Meshida?), with whom he formed ‘a tripartite alliance’, were Soyinka’s school, and probably age mates, at Government College, Ibadan.

Further questions on Soyinka’s activities at the Government College threw up something like an oxymoron – a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in the exploration of his bravery – a classmate had said Soyinka used to kill the snakes which were many in the school. The killing of snakes is normally considered an act of bravery. But the Nobel Laureate says, “I was even scared of snakes”:

I hated snakes. I still do. If you like, I was even scared of snakes – those creepy creatures. Many of us have a superstitious dread of snakes. Since I was afraid of them and considered them dangerous. to humanity, it seemed logical not to leave any such intruder alive – wherever possible. Made me feel safer.

Instead of running away from the snakes, he says “I preferred to attack them. I grew up with an attitude that you must overcome your fear – but this I only realized in retrospect.”

Seemingly rebellious, Soyinka was said to be a “Captain Blood in the Pyrates Confraternity”. However, for many of us, this will be the first time to hear from the horses’ mouth, the truth about ‘the rebellious Wole Soyinka being a founder of a ‘campus cult’: “The Pyrates Confraternity,” Soyinka says, “was never a cult. There is a difference between a cult and a fraternity.”

There is absolutely no correlation between a cult – secret or not – and a college fraternity. The Pyrates Confraternity was a typical high-spirited college club with a self-deflating disposition allied to social commitment.

Tafawa Balewa – if you go all the way back to pre-independence – the authorities invited the Pyrates Confraternity to help in welcoming him. With their colourful dress and theatrics, they were the main feature when the Prime Minister visited UI.

That is what all university alumni of that period recall about the PC – or seadogs as they also address themselves. Fun driven, yet committed to social service, irreverent, an eccentric slice of the college creative spectrum.

Then, angered by what the Prof describes as some Nigerians’ penchant for “unconscionable resort to calumny when their ox is gored”, the warrior, the lion himself, pounces on the son of Nigeria’s worst despot, the late Sani Abacha who had dared to malign him as a founder of ‘an evil cult’:

It is the failure of the informed media to underscore the distinction that nerves the real public enemies and their scions, such as that pathetic character – Sanni Abacha’s whelp – to feel entitled to abuse the freedom of speech and association for which his betters have fought, and insult the public with a reminder of the thoroughly corrupt origin of his existence.

He wrote, “Somebody who started an evil cult, he should go and repair that before he talks about my father.” This son of a killer, torturer, murderer, and a cultist incidentally – if you don’t believe that last, go and ask the man who took over shortly after Abacha died – the neophyte solicitor had the impudence to join in the choric lie.

I recommend that he ask Obasanjo also, ask him what was unearthed around Aso Rock. Talk to Obasanjo’s private chaplain.

One can almost see vividly, the red, white and black bundles of juju belonging to the Sani Abacha family being ‘unearthed’ and evacuated from Nigeria’s seat of power, Aso Rock, for the next President, Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, to move in after the sudden death of Abacha. So, the real cultists, after all, are the Abachas, not Soyinka.

He also clarifies his tag of ‘Captain Blood’ in the Pyrates Confraternity:

Now, in those early days, you might have encountered a slogan – “Blood for Blood”. What did it really mean? How did it arise? Let us delve into ancient history a little.

A campaign in blood donation was introduced into this country in late 1953. Blood banks were a rarity. As always the Pyrates Confraternity undertook to be among the first donors, breaking a superstitious jinx for the uninformed. And the slogan was “Blood for Captain Blood … let’s go and donate blood.”

The pyrates led the way. And that sense of public service has endured till today. I shall not bother to enumerate. One of the pyratical codes is – ‘Just act. Don’t advertise’.

Because The Pyrates Confraternity loved to hold their activities in the forests, people tended to see them as a cult group. But why should nature settings like forests be associated with evil? Soyinka says people should stop being frightened about Nature environments:

Now again, the tendency of seadogs to gather, party, and ‘inter-talk’ all night long in bush clearings – many people then contort this into satanism in forest shrines. People get scared so easily of anything to do with Nature.

I live in the bush; my house is built inside the bush. I personally have a deep affinity to nature. When Boys Scout march into the forest to camp as part of their personality build-up, nobody says Boy Scouting is a cult.

I think we should stop being frightened of Nature’s environments. One favorite space in the University of Ibadan – where the PC was born – was the bush across the road from the university gates.  If you were walking past, you would see dancing – or ‘sallying’.

There are traditionalist religionists who similarly prefer to worship right in the heart of Nature, Religions are not cults, but there are cults within religions. Yes, these cults are all over the place, they are there and they will claim that they derive their inspiration from the bible or the Koran….

You can always extract what you want from religious scriptures, you manipulate, extrapolate, distort, and pervert extracts, then make your reading the rigid principle of righteousness. You claim authority over the originating source. This is a problem of humanity in general, not just of Nigeria.  Education is vital.

His writing, academia, religion

For the fertile mind of a budding poet and playwright like Soyinka, these raw, bleeding events must have meant a harvest of resource materials for his literary career. “I fell in love with language and discovered the power of imagination, I started writing short stories, essays,” he says.

One of the things in the academia which many creative minds detest is having to be forced to corroborate everything they have to say with what another author had said. Soyinka also has this phobia.

In another classical personification of an oxymoron, he declares himself as a doctoral dropout and at the same time an intellectual of which truth we can all attest to:

Yes, I’m a doctoral dropout. And I am far more an intellectual than an academic. I suspect that my temperament is secretly anti-academic. In academia, the thesis is more to be read in the length of footnotes than in the actual substance of discourse.

I preferred to be creatively productive, I’m not denigrating academia – very much the contrary. But as I began my research, encountering past theses, I felt less and less inclined to devote four, five years to producing a tome of footnotes to dubious original thinking. All that ‘ibid’! I was getting deep into creativity. During my undergraduate days, I was already writing plays, I had participated in the activities of the university Drama society.

I used to sneak out to watch play rehearsals and so on. I wanted to be productive, I could take academia in stride as I went along – at least, so I thought. I preferred to produce my own work and let others write long footnotes to my own works. I still carry on my intellectual life, I still teach in universities as you know. I recently resigned from my last attachment.

In fact, academia is fascinating, playing mind against mind, probing ideas, testing, and recomposing ideas is one part of the needful activities of the brain. But my pull was towards the observance and probing of human nature and the phenomena around it.

For those who may be wondering Soyinka’s religion, he appears to have no religion but has some attachment to Yoruba gods like Orisa. Certainly, he doesn’t believe in Christ:

I was already questioning Christianity; I have been doing that since I was in secondary school. With Dobree (one of his teachers at the University of Leeds where he studied), I began to find great significance in the artworks that were produced by the followers of Orisa in one form or another.

I found a correlation between them and also the carvings which you found on pews and church iconography….  Dobree was somebody who influenced me in that direction because his predecessors called them devil worship and here was this oyinbo professor struck by them. Once, he actually sent for me to express his shock when he encountered an African student who said he was ashamed of his uncivilized past.

War with government

His confrontations with authorities started quite early, and before he returned to Nigeria. Here, Soyinka describes one of his earliest encounters with the then Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa:

The confrontation outside began quite early. I took on the then Prime Minister, even before full Independence. In his case, what happened was that my aunt, the same Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was invited to the Soviet Union and her passport was seized.

The reason provided was – to quote Tafawa Balewa at the time – “I think that communism is an evil thing” … I had been informed that it was Tafawa Balewa who was visiting France at the time and that he was staying at Claridges Hotel – along Champs Elysee, I recall.

I was in Paris at the time. I phoned him and requested an audience. When I got there and saw him, … we started our conversation and I asked him, ‘What do you know of communism that you call it evil?’ I can’t describe the atmosphere, how it changed abruptly…. His aide got up and said, “Who are you? What right do you have to come and ask the premier about communism?” We were all coming home, I replied. We wanted to know what we were going to meet on the ground. Anyway, the meeting ended abruptly.

In 1960, Soyinka’s play titled “A Dance of the Forests” which he wrote and submitted for performance to mark Nigeria’s 1960 independence was rejected because it was perceived to be critical of the state and its officials. A question on that affords us of Soyinka’s explanation of the message in A Dance of the Forests:

It warned: don’t think that everything is over because it is independence. Let’s look into our own past and see whether we do not have a history of corruption, a history of self-inflicted wounds.

Were we not part and parcel of those who nourished the slave trade?  Because if African slave traders and raiders had not joined in the slave trade, it would never have begun or attained the dimensions it did. As a contemporary side note, this was all the reason I accepted about two years ago, to go to Akwa Ibom to launch a book on one of the ancestors of Governor Akpabio.

That book was the biography of that leader, a chief, who sturdily refused to sell his own people, to indulge in the trade in humanity which was very lucrative at that time. He would not touch that commerce. It is necessary to let us understand that we always have choices. We can betray our own kind, or we can act in solidarity with them.

There were African individuals who were so high-minded, who were so ethical in their interaction with other humans that they said, ‘I will not indulge in this demeaning trade.’ The play A Dance of the Forests was meant to say ‘Look, there were some of our own people who participated, not only in the enslavement of, but in the hunt, capture, and sale of their fellow beings into the unknown.  That streak of humanity did not end with independence.

So, let’s take precautions. There wasn’t anything negative about that… People must learn to confront their history. They must be truthful about their own history, however negative, however unsavoury. If you don’t accept the past, be honest about it, you will never transcend it and you will repeat it. This is the lesson that we are failing to learn.

The lifetimes of Prof. Wole Soyinka, especially in a piece that attempts to chronicle his acts of bravery, will not complete without the familiar story of how he broke into the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation studio in Ibadan during the Western Region’s political crisis in 1965. Soyinka tersely dismisses the question on that with this:

I had matured into a period of a people on the rise, on the move – people of dignity who refused that their voices should be stolen, arrogantly and contemptuously.

There have been quite a few moments of my existence among people like that… I was one of them, my voice was being stolen. I could not sit down and accept that somebody should steal my voice. I felt at one with the majority of the people.

Wole Soyinka’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War for which he was sent to prison is even a bigger event in his life without which his life history will be incomplete. Hear him:

We were more or less a family of artistes at Independence. There was a creative family and that family was being scattered. I was in Stockholm in 1967 for the Scandinavian-African Writers conference.

And one of the saddest moments for me was that so many faces were missing from Nigeria – expected but not there: Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara – the Biafrans were missing even in safe Stockholm.

The drums of war were no longer muted. It was the last chance for us to meet and talk about what was now inevitable but could still, just maybe, be averted at the last moment. I returned to Nigeria very sad and I was feeling as if I lost a limb – several limbs in fact. It was like – was this going to be it? We would become enemies confronting each other across the line of fire? There were people who were ready to take up arms – like Christopher Okigbo.

At the time I had already run into Christopher Okigbo – it took place in Brussels – I even recall the name of the hotel – Hotel Koenisburg – purely by accident, and I knew he had come to purchase arms for Biafra. I challenged him and he admitted it. All these fortuitous encounters impressed on me a sense of urgency.

Later I had a meeting earlier in London – I mention that in my IBADAN – where we talked about the possibility of going to Biafra on a last-minute mission of intervention. Again, as I disclosed in my memoirs, Aminu Abdullahi who is now dead, actually volunteered to go – this way at the meeting in London. We hooked up around a place called the Transcription Centre. We didn’t even know which way some of us would go. Would JP consider himself an easterner or westerner? It was the breakup of a robust circle of creativity. We decided that Aminu should not go because he looked so clearly a northerner.

We said, “Look, you won’t even get past the first roadblock.” Because at that time, there was such bitterness, murderous paranoia, and it was understandable… on account of the pogrom which had taken place earlier…. I went to the conference, my colleagues were not present and when I returned to Nigeria, the first skirmishes had taken place – on the northern border, and I realised that soon, it would be impossible to travel to Biafra.

I was restless. I knew I couldn’t function until I had crossed the lines in search of them. I said, ‘When I get there, I will find Christopher (Okigbo) somewhere’ and then get to Ojukwu. That was the reason why I went, a chance at that last moment that something could be done.

Some people continue to narrate that I went across to persuade Ojukwu to renounce the secession. No, I didn’t go to persuade Ojukwu to renounce anything – it was far more complicated. Some of us still felt that it was still possible to avoid an all-out shooting war. Let me state this clearly that I totally disagree with the philosophy of unity at any cost, a simplistic rendition of that pietistic mantra: United we stand, divided we fall. What infantile nonsense! It has no basis in logic or rationality whatever. Sometimes, not only is it that “small is beautiful” but also “small is perfectible”.

People have the right anytime to say, “We want to leave this union, whatever it is”, any kind of union, politically or whatever type of union. Peoples have the right at any time to say, “Let’s have a referendum in this area.”. That is, for me, part and parcel of democracy. Look at what’s happening in even England today – Scotland wants independence.

Long, long ago, Cameroon and Nigeria, the people detached themselves from Nigeria here and went to Cameroon. Ethiopia-Eritrea remains instructive, so does the even more recent example of Sudan. Whenever things get to a certain unmanageable stage, people look at separationist options. There is nothing – I want to stress this – absolutely nothing morally wrong or pernicious in a people saying – we want our own autonomous unit.

It’s a childish notion, something which has been implanted in our brain, to chant or be conditioned by the gospel of: “What white man has put together, let no black man put asunder.”

What kind of nonsense is that? True, I do prefer that we stay together, if only because I don’t like to keep spending time obtaining visas when I want to go see a former next-door neighbour and collaborators.

Also, I am partial to existence within a plurality of cultures. It offers a richness of resources, a dynamic of infinite sensibilities. But to say that you must go to war over “unity”? No! Go the civilised way – plebiscite. Instead, we wasted an estimated two million lives through bullets, sickness, and starvation – to preserve a European myth? It’s a lack of maturity.

In the interview, Soyinka has a piece of advice for the Abacha’s. He also appealed to the then President Jonathan Goodluck to delete the name of Abacha from the list of recipients of national honours for the planned centenary celebration: my advice to young Abacha is “Don’t take on your betters, you are a neophyte. Don’t try to intervene in what you don’t understand.

Go and learn from my attitude towards your sister whom I met without any rancour and learn to deal with history in the same way. Above all, don’t promote calumny”.… We must speak candidly. It is also a symptom of where we are, that the son of a thief, an international thief, so attested, documented, whose crimes are being unveiled every day, should feel entitled to defend the name of his father at the expense of truth.

And that is where I wish to end this theme – I repeat my call on President Jonathan to have the moral courage to rescind – I know he won’t do it, but we shall keep saying it at every opportunity – he must find a way to rescind that Centenary Honours List because that it is a disgrace and a shame on this nation. It makes me embarrassed to call myself a Nigerian; that a sitting president should compile the names of a hundred supposedly worthy people and include that of a loathsome dictator among them.

It should have been sufficient, if he wanted to honour the military, he should just have picked one representative of the breed – may be somebody like Murtala Muhammed. So that the military doesn’t complain that they were passed over.

But to put Sani Abacha on that list side by side with Chinua Achebe, Emeka Anyaoku, Mike Adenuga, etc. etc., is an abomination. That Honours event was an abomination. Jonathan’s act was a symbolic negation, a desecration of everything a number of us have stood for in all our lives.

Let that list be discarded and consigned to oblivion to make way for a truly sustainable one. And no amount of trickle-down or newly inventive calumny will stop that call, as long as I choose to carry a document of Nigerian citizenship.

For those who criticise Soyinka’s writing as being too Eurocentric, too modernist, and of Soyinka himself suffering from Hopkins Disease, Kongi has these for them:

I write as the Muse dictates, not the critic. I distinguish between censorship and criticism. Censorship is telling a writer you must use this sole ideological prism to view and transmit reality or your art is engagement in social treachery. For me, that is pernicious, intolerably arrogant, and fascistic.

From this interview, we learn that Wole Soyinka once enlisted into the army with the aim of going to fight for the freedom of South Africans and Nelson Mandela. However, he deserted on learning he was going to be drafted to defend the Suez Canal:

I have been obsessed with South Africa since I was politically conscious. I told you, that was why I entered the military as a student joining the officer corps for a short while. I fled when they were going to pack me to the Suez instead of where I wanted to go – which was South Africa.

I packed up my kit, saying “No, I wanted to train for South Africa, not for the Suez. You go and capture a canal on someone’s land, then declare war when he resists, and then you call me up to serve. Remember the Anglo-French invasion? I was called up and I said: “No, that was not it”. That was why I left the officer corps.

On the granting of pardon to Mohammed Abacha by Goodluck Jonathan on the N446 billion issue, Soyinka says it’s obscene:

It is obscene. Whether we are talking about Alamieyeseigha or we are going backward to take in Obasanjo’s pardon to Salisu Buhari, when a precedent was set. And it’s sad that Jonathan has continued in that line of cavalier pardon and especially in Mohammed Abacha who has been proven to be a torturer in addition to an incontinent receiver of national loot. Please, all of you bear in mind, it’s not as if these crimes are not in the public domain.

Vanguard

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