“It all comes to light in the end … Why does it have to happen again and again?”

For decades he was the scourge of successive
Nigerian despots. Now aged 72, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka tells Maya Jaggi how
‘repetitions of history’ – most recently the atrocities in
Darfur – continue to haunt
his life and work








The voice of conscience



For decades he was the scourge of successive
Nigerian despots. Now aged 72, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka tells Maya Jaggi how
‘repetitions of history’ – most recently the atrocities in
Darfur – continue to haunt
his life and work


Monday May 28, 2007

The Guardian


When the Nobel laureate Wole
Soyinka visited the Hay Cartagena festival in Colombia
earlier this year, in a walled Spanish colonial town on the Caribbean
coast, children
in the streets instantly thought they recognised the black man with leonine
grey hair. But they couldn’t decide whether he was Kofi Annan or Don King.
might not have identified the great Nigerian writer, but they were certainly on
to something: Soyinka
is surely both pugilist and peacemaker.


Soyinka, who is 72 and won the
Nobel literature prize in 1986 – the first African so honoured – has for
several decades been an abrasive conscience for his country of Nigeria,
and for a continent. Obsessed with the "oppressive boot and the
irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it"
, he
has charted the lethal gulf between legitimate authority and the "power
that any goon can seize". A scourge of successive Nigerian despots and
kleptocrats, he was
jailed without trial for 28 months in 1967, most of it spent alone in a
tomb-like cell, for trying to head off civil war with breakaway Biafra.

The ordeal gave rise to
his classic prison memoir written on toilet paper, The Man Died (1972), and
drove him to self-imposed exile. Thirty years on, he was sentenced to death in
absentia for treason under the even more brutal military rule of General Sani
Abacha, whose crimes included the hanging of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.


We meet in a London
pub on his way to give a lecture at the Guardian Hay festival at the weekend;
and his subject is international culpability over what’s happening in Darfur.
Soyinka presided as
chief judge at a mock trial last November when
Sudan‘s President Omar
al-Bashir was found guilty in absentia of crimes against humanity in
Darfur. For
the playwright, poet and novelist, who is also an actor-director, the symbolic
court was "play-acting, but of a very serious kind". During the
tribunal set up by Genocide Watch, Soyinka heard searing testimony, he says, from "witnesses
flown out from southern Sudan, people whose families had been killed, or who
had been raped or seen relatives raped or maimed – some broke down. They
testified to the war crimes of the Janjaweed [the government’s proxy militia],
saying they raided villages and killed Nuba at any time."


Tracing the abuses to a vestigial
legacy of the Arab slave trade that pre-dated transatlantic slavery, and
likening the Darfur cause to anti-apartheid, when "non-Africans felt
aggrieved by the assault heaped on humanity", Soyinka says: "This can’t go on.
Over 2 million refugees, and still raids by Janjaweed, backed by the Sudanese
government military, with the war spilling into neighbouring countries."
Instead of public indictments and sanctions with teeth, "people make token
resolutions. It’s yet another failure. I don’t understand how this can be
happening in the 21st century."


He says that all "hidden
atrocities" are revealed eventually, even if many years later. "It all comes to
light in the end.
So why don’t these would-be Stalins and Hitlers take a
leaf from history instead of burdening us with exposing their crimes? Why does
it have to happen again and again?"


The repetitions of history,
whether as tragedy or farce, have haunted Soyinka’s life and work. I first met
him in 1994, when he warned despairingly of impending civil war in Nigeria,
after the 1993 elections were annulled, the victorious Moshood Abiola jailed,
and power seized by Abacha, the "butcher of Abuja".
In his third volume of memoirs, Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (1994), Soyinka reminded fellow
citizens of an earlier "electoral robbery" in 1965, when he was
arrested for holding up a radio station at gunpoint and broadcasting a pirate
protest – but acquitted on a technicality.
Within months of our
meeting, Soyinka’s passport was seized by Abacha’s regime, and he made a
perilous escape on a 12-hour motorbike ride across the Benin


Punctuated by Nigeria’s
political upheavals, our talks have resumed in varied locations, from his
literary compatriot Chinua Achebe’s 70th birthday celebrations by New
York’s Hudson river, to a cous-cous
joint in Paris, where he ironically
toasted an end to exile after Abacha’s unexpected death in 1998. Abiola died
mysteriously in prison a month later. While the actor’s resonant voice now
seems fainter, his convictions remain just as firm.


After Nigeria’s
interim leader returned his passport "on a gold platter", Soyinka
found his welcome "overwhelming. There was amazement at what it meant to
others, although, within me, I’d never left Nigeria."
Unlike his first exile, which entailed "an act of internal
severance", he threw himself into opposition to Abacha’s rule, in which
his sons Olaokun and Ilemakin were also active. In You Must Set Forth at Dawn, a volume of
memoirs published this month, Soyinka puts his lifelong belief that
"justice is the first condition of humanity" down to an
"over-acute, remedial sense of right and wrong".


He has a home in California,
and affiliations at Harvard and Nevada
universities. There is now a Wole Soyinka chair of drama at Leeds
university, where he studied in the 1950s. Yet Soyinka has restored the house in his
birthplace of
Abeokuta, outside Lagos, built with the Nobel
"windfall" only to be colonised by bats in his absence. It is the
place, he says, "where I recover myself; it’s me in every way".
sometimes melancholy new memoir pays tribute to the dead, from Soyinka’s
parents to his cousin, Afrobeat star Fela Kuti, and he says he intends to be
buried in a cactus patch in the grounds of his house. He still yearns for the
freedom to pursue savoured pastimes, from collecting African art and book
browsing, to solitary hunting in the forests ("I ‘take my gun for a walk’
for whatever can be eaten, not for trophies").


"Each time I think I’ve created time for myself,"
Soyinka says, "along comes a throwback to disrupt my private space."


Tomorrow’s inauguration of Nigeria‘s new president, Umaru
Yar’Adua, is, for Soyinka, such a throwback.
Along with
international observers, he deems last month’s presidential elections "no
elections at all", so baldly were they rigged. "In some states there
were no votes," he says. "We have videos of police commissioners
carting off ballot boxes, and police looking on as thugs carted them off."

Though the outgoing president, Olusegun Obasanjo, ended military rule in 1999,
Soyinka sees his rule as "civilian dictatorship". He has now
"made himself life chairman of the ruling party to dictate policies",
he says.


In his memoir he blames Obasanjo – also from Abeokuta – for betraying him in
the run-up to the civil war, landing him in jail.
Yet far from
holding a grudge, Soyinka now wonders if he bent too far backwards not to
criticise Obasanjo, "for fear that it might be thought I was still angry. I’m friends with
[Yakubu] Gowon [the former military ruler who jailed him]. I suspect there’s a
missionary streak in me as the inheritor of my parents."

His schoolteacher father, "Essay", and the mother he called
"Wild Christian" are depicted in his early memoirs, Ake (1981) and
Isara (1989).


He initially saw Obasanjo
as a "practical stopgap – a soldier who had been "civilianised"
by prison and given a death sentence against which the nation rose on his
behalf." Yet once in power, "he built a one-party dictatorship by force majeure".
In his second term, after disputed elections in 2003, "he installed a reign
of thugs; political assassinations reached a peak never witnessed before. There
were crimes and killings. When they realised they had a monster on their hands,
he tried to manipulate the constitution to give himself a third term. The money
to bribe legislators amounted to billions of naira." Yet for Soyinka, it
was a defining moment when "the legislature refused to buckle. It provided
a modicum of hope."


Any dictator, secular or theocratic,
"merely implants the seeds of eventual rebellion," he believes.
Soyinka belongs to Nigeria United For Democracy, a "temporary
As recently as 2004 he was teargassed and
arrested on a protest march against arbitrary police powers, though he was
released within hours. "The police insist they have the authority to
decide who walks the streets," he says. "How can they decide whether
I can protest against government policy or not? It’s unacceptable. If they say
I need a police permit, I’ll tear it up."


In his
2004 Reith lectures, published as Climate of Fear, Soyinka quoted a Yoruba
saying, "Sooner death than indignity", and he sees dignity as simply
"another face of freedom".
Probing the
"psychopathology of the zealot" ("I am right, you are
dead"), he says the "lunatic fringe", in both state power and
resistance to it, must be watched. In his view, Bush, like Obasanjo, believes in a direct
hotline to God. "He says, ‘We don’t care about recognition from the world
if God approves.’ It’s an extreme fundamentalism of the most dangerous kind –
and it has led to
As for Tony Blair: "It was Blair who spearheaded Nato’s involvement in
Kosovo on behalf of Muslims battered by the Serb government. Blair acted as a
man of principle – to give credit where it’s due. Unfortunately, he got carried
away by the moral authority he had acquired, failing to recognise George Bush
as a fundamentalist of a different kind."


Soyinka sees Zimbabwe’s
President Robert Mugabe as "the latest King Baabu of the African
continent" – an allusion to his 2002 play, a satire about a fictional but
recognisable tyrannical general called Basha Bash. On Darfur,
he hopes that not only will Arab and African countries alike pull their weight,
but China will
reverse its support for Sudan’s
government as the Beijing Olympics approach.


"One’s own self-worth is tied to the
worth of the community to which one belongs, which is intimately connected to
humanity in general," he says. "What happens in
Darfur becomes an assault on
my own community, and on me as an individual. That’s what the human family is
all about".




* – * – * – * – * – * – * – * – * – * – * – *
– * – * – * – * – * – * – * – *







Norwich, G(ran) B(aabu);







P.D.POLIGLOTA. "…I have spoke with the
TONGUE of ANGELS…". – I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (U2).







… pay per VIEW.



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