Thursday, July 13, 2017 6:26 pm
Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, a proud son of Nigeria, African statesman and global citizen, is 83 years old today. He is not an elected public office holder, yet his stardom extends beyond the shores of Nigeria. He was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first African to be honored in that category.
Soyinka was born in Abeokuta on 13 July 1934. After studying at the Universities of Ibadan in Nigeria and Leeds in the UK, he worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. He went on to write plays that were produced in both countries, in theatres and on radio. He took an active role in Nigeria’s political history and its struggle for independence from Great Britain. In 1965, he was arrested for allegedly seizing the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service studio and broadcasting a demand for the cancellation of the Western Nigeria Regional Elections. In 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War, he was arrested by the federal government of General Yakubu Gowon and put in solitary confinement for two years.
On their own part, to mark this birthday, TheNEWS Executive Editor, KUNLE AJIBADE; Editor, ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI, IDOWU OGUNLEYE and EMMANUEL OSODI, had a conversation with Soyinka in one of his hideouts in Lagos. He spoke on his life, writings and interventions in the political space.
Congratulations on your birthday. You look physically fit and mentally agile. Are there any genetic reasons for these? Or you simply take your healthcare very seriously?
I don’t know why. But I must say I’m not a health fanatic— I don’t jog. When I see people jog, they look ridiculous. From time to time, I go into the bush just to get away from people really, not for the purpose of exercise. I have no idea. It’s just luck.
Would you say that your childhood spent in a very exciting, if not tempestuous, environment of political activism, in a home of a headmaster (your father) and a trader (your mother) who treated their fellow human beings well and lived an incredible life of service to their community, helped to mould you as an anti-establishment humanist who lives by egalitarian ethos?
That word anti-establishment is debatable. One doesn’t set out to be anti-establishment. It is true that there are certain degrees of individualist consciousness, individualist inclinations which abhor regimentation. In relation to what I was saying earlier, I have a very heightened individualist sensibility. In other words, I cannot treat faces as particles in a human congealment. No. Every human being is distinct, but the assertion of that distinctness cannot be at the expense of other individual entitlements. You assert your being to the fullest, but make sure that your space does not encroach on the spaces of other individuals. So, if I seem to be anti-establishment – it isn’t as a principle, it isn’t as a philosophy or attitude. In the process of that self-expression, I may come to consider ‘establishment’ as an enemy of progress – if it enacts policies that are against the self-expression of individuals – with the limitations outlined earlier. Any attempt to impose conformist thinking in society means exercising undue, illegitimate authority on members of society.
When some people wish to highlight conformist conduct in society, they refer to the civil service – ‘Don’t behave like a civil servant’ – meaning, don’t just go by the General Orders, for heaven’s sake, think originally and you might even improve, correct certain anomalies within the establishment. It isn’t as if I set out to be anti-establishment. It’s just that very often I find that establishment stultifies, that’s where the fight begins. You talk about my parents, they weren’t anti-establishment; they were anti-despotism. That is why my mother took part as one of the lieutenants of Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti when they rose against the excesses of the Alake of Abeokuta and his ally – the district officer. They resisted feudal despotism on behalf of the oppressed women. As a child, I participated as a messenger between the different women groups, carried messages, thoroughly enjoying myself when the women rose in revolt. Day after day, they kept up the siege. They were threatened, they were bullied, they were assaulted. They said, “No, this unjust tax must go.” If that is anti-establishment, then it’s okay.
Remember that there are many faces of establishment. Let me give you a visible example – the Road Safety Corps. It qualifies to be labelled establishment but it was ‘establishment outside establishment’. In fact the greatest disaster that ever befell the Road Safety Corps was when it was merged with the police establishment. I wanted – and created – an organisation that was partly, in fact, mostly civilian members. The Road Safety Corps consisted in the majority of Special Marshals – the volunteers. These included religious prelates, journalists, students and lecturers, doctors, businessmen and women, trade unionists, professionals of all kinds – all civilians. They created and operated within their own chapters. It was just a small fraction that made up the uniformed part. They were teachers. For me, this was a functional departure from the traffic police. The idea was to make citizens learn to police themselves rather than be at the behest of ‘wetin you carry?’ Then came the Obasanjo regime which merged the corps with the police! I had long quit by then, thank goodness. That merger ruined the road safety corps. By the time they were extracted, they had picked up all the bad habits of the police. But when the Road Safety Corps was the Road Safety Corps, the fear of the corps – for all road users – was the beginning of wisdom.
They were called Maja Maja out of fear.
No, we hated that name. Our own name for the Corps was Gbekude. – (Chain Down Death!) – taken from a Yoruba play. Some drivers began shouting ‘maja maja’ because the then governor of the pioneering Oyo State, Jemibewon, came up with the logo of a greyhound. You know he was a soldier. His idea was pouncing aggression whereas my impulse was Gbekude. We were teachers – but armed with the rod of correction. Our favourite operational mode was- Operation TITO – Teach-In-Teach-Out. Try and recall the obscene level of carnage on our roads at the time – we were at war against Killers with Impunity.
Who were the other earliest influences on your life?
They were mostly my adult relations – like my grand uncle, the Reverend I.O. Ransome-Kuti and his wife – Funmilayo. Then there were teachers whose idiosyncrasies I delighted in – like all of you, I’m sure, have done, giving them nicknames, yet intrigued by them. Take one scout master for instance, whose name eludes me now, I liked his precision, I liked his sense of order, his sense of discipline. But then, the sense of order and discipline often makes demands on one’s individualism, and it’s your personal arbitration between those two values that creates the individual character. People look at artistes and say, “Oh, they are individualistic, they are bohemians, they don’t comb their hair, they don’t change their shoes, they just live wildly etcetera.” No, individualism also operates against the template of an inner discipline. That’s why it’s pertinent to mention that scout master as an influence, but most especially my father, who was a great disciplinarian, debater etc. A most refined being.
What were those things in your background that showed that you would go the literary way?
Just reading. I was a voracious reader as a child. I was fascinated by printed material. I remember those early days, the very early newspapers like Akede Eko, then there was an Egba journal which I can’t remember now. Whether it was Yoruba or English, I read everything. And the books that were in my father’s library – I consumed them very early. Aside from that, I began to say, ‘this character shouldn’t have gone that way, why didn’t that character go this way? That’s why he ended up in disaster’. So, I think the habit began in my not merely reading the books but re-composing as I went along. I would say things like, ‘these expressions are not good enough. These are better ones.’ I think it’s that process. I was fascinated by the written word. I think that was where it all started.
Which books did you read as a child?
I remember Charles Dickens most distinctly. Then there was a Greek play which made a great impression on me – Medea by Euripides. I have never forgotten that because the language was so terse, so muscular. The passion of this woman who is betrayed, Medea, that is, and her terrible revenge which was horrendous. How could a woman feel so bitter to destroy her children in order to punish the man? It left a strong impression on my mind. These complexities of human relationships which I saw in the work and which, to some extent, I could project on the living — after all, these books were real. Yes, they were fiction but they were real in the sense that they were identifying the realities and possibilities of individual lives. And sometimes you felt archetypal indications in those works.
Your mother always admonished you as a child that your over-confidence would kill you one day! Can you recall some instances when your stubborn exuberance or pranks truly justified her worries?
When a child tries out something which people, even adults, should undertake with great caution, then they think that child is over-confident and is going to destroy himself. I think it stemmed from the fact that if I thought about something which was possible, then I should be ready to test it. That included even the sciences – the theoretical side of which I hated. I enjoyed trying out the practical side of science at home— I used to perform experiments. Things like that, you know, sometimes blew up in my face. Same with putative artistry. I would re-arrange my mother’s shop because I felt mine was the best way. I looked at customers, studied them and decided which arrangements would attract them more. She would give up and let me have my way. After I had gone back to school, she would undo everything.
What about the gun accident?
I used to go with my father when he hunted. It was a mere air gun but was good enough for squirrels, the wild pigeon and 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 learnt 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
You went to Government College, Ibadan, at a tender age of ten on scholarship. How did you cope with the older boys? Can you share with us some of your memorable experiences of that college?
Those school mates of mine, they were bullies. They were terrifying because they looked big. 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 of 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. It was a very good training because you defeat people like that largely with moral persistence. They knew they were misusing their power. Whenever they turned on me, being really small, the bullying got really intense because these big boys could not stand the idea that this rondo (small) boy was sitting while others were standing. They couldn’t stand it. They intensified the bullying, which made me even more aggressive. I must confess that sometimes I was responsible for bringing disaster on my head because I would provoke them: I would call them names they didn’t like. Anyway, it got too much, so I called Christopher Kolade and Mesida, and said: “Let’s form a tripartite alliance. Anytime any of us is bullied, the other two would come to his rescue of the others.” And that’s what we did. I summoned the most notorious to our presence and read him the riot act. We tried to move together as much as possible. The bullying reduced. The very notion that the three of us were ganging up against bullying infuriated that particular bully. He just couldn’t stand it. Even though the others backed off, this individual— I remember his name very well— he just became more and more aggressive. And he somehow sensed that it was my idea.
You volunteered in the library?
Yes. The library was my favourite place. Also, the library was sanctuary. When I was cornered, or didn’t feel in a battle mood, there were two places into which I escaped – the library and the chapel. Their respect for the latter used to amuse me, so sanctimonious! They would back off and start circling the chapel when I sat in there, indifferent. I used to enjoy their frustration. I would just step inside the chapel and the fool would wilt. I remember one of them who decided to invade the library sanctuary. He didn’t want to beat me up inside the library; so he tried to drag me out. As we struggled, I remember that I was catapulted through the glass door and I had a huge gash. I bled profusely. And he became frightened. It was very amusing to see this bully cowering because he thought he had killed me. Of course, I enjoyed that sense of power over him during that incident.
One of your class mates told me two days ago that there were plenty of snakes at the Government College that time and that you were one of the students killing the snakes. You were not afraid that those snakes could kill you?
I hated snakes. I still do. If you like, I was even scared of snakes – those creepy creatures. Many of us have a superstitiouus 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 them?
Instead of running away? Yes, I preferred to attack them. I grew up with an attitude that you must overcome your fear – but this I only realized in retrospect.
At school, when you confronted the bullies, were the authorities behind you?
Sometimes of course the case would end up with the authority. I can’t really remember but there were a few times I was involved in cases that went to the authorities. However, I considered it a personal battle, one that had to be resolved among us because one couldn’t always depend on the authorities. In any case, the authorities didn’t particularly like me because I insisted on going my own way. In many instances I would be where I was not supposed to be, so I also got into hot water with those who should be on my side. Sometimes, even I felt that I tended towards avoidably provoking authority!
What kind of writing did you do? Poetry? Short stories?
I’m sure I’ll be embarrassed now by the poems I wrote but, yes, I did write poetry. I believe I even won a prize. I think it was a bronze medal at some writing competition which was organised by the British Council. From the moment I fell in love with language and discovered the power of imagination, I started writing short stories, essays.
Is it true that you spent two years at the University College, Ibadan, making trouble for the authorities as a campus journalist and as Captain Blood in the Pyrates Confraternity?
My campus journalism was mostly to counter some nasty student journals, misogynist rags like The Bug, so the authorities had no interest in it The Eagle – the main medium for my kind of journalism. No, let me deal at some length with your interest in the Pyrates Confraternity over which some heinous misrepresentations, even libellous inventions continue till today. Here goes.
The saddest, and most frustrating thing about a special breed of Nigerians is their unconscionable resort to calumny when their ox is gored. Then – watch them wallow in slander, distortion, vilification and allied toxic weapons in their narration of, or recourse to, historical references. The Pyrates Confraternity was never a cult. There is a difference between a cult and a fraternity. And you journalists, I blame you for failing to educate the public about that distinction. 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. Nigeria however has a remarkable talent for enabling perversions of any routine culture. Criminal, cultic gangs do exist on campuses. acting out their putrid and deadly fantasies. They also call themselves fraternities.
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. When people talk glibly about cults and fraternities, I feel nothing but pity for society because such fast and loose attributions merely deprive their children of some truly light-hearted yet disciplined and socially committed activities in college life.
Since I am still around, let me use myself as an example of the garbled notions that result from hand-me-down, corrupted hearsays of history. Take my own “pyratical” name of those early student days – Captain Blood – a name that was taken, of course, from historical figures – note, by the way, the adoption of the ancient inscription of the word, just to underline a difference. 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 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’. Suffice it to reveal that, having pored through tomes of compiled security reports on the PC, including those by infiltrators from the SSS, Military Intelligence etc., organisations such as the EFCC, shortly after its inception, signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Confrat. That anti-corruption body was merely following the example of the NDLEA which had no hesitation in running joint programmes with the Confraternity. Neither had the slightest cause to complain about the collaboration – very much the contrary. The Sanni Abacha approach was a different matter. Several seadogs were detained and tortured, on suspicion of being underground members of NALICON. A number were of course, but the victims were all innocent, without exception. Their only crime was – they belonged to a movement founded by Abacha’s implacable enemy, WS.
More than enough said. The Confrat has floored both state governments – including the military – in their misguided attempts to proscribe the PC as a secret cult. Those who have swallowed garbage, yet refuse to spit it out, even after the emetic of facts, are free to continue to chew the cud of ignorance. Seadogs can fight their own battles. The Pyrates Confraternity has long quit campuses – at least three decades ago – leaving those citadels of learning to authenticated diabolical cults of gang-bangers, armed robbers, paid assassins and kidnappers, acid throwers, political thugs, protection dons and extortionists. They deserve one another!
There are some religious organisations that have this kind of arcane modes of worship and other activities as you mentioned. What were the areas of convergence and divergence from the religious organisations?
No, no, no. Pyrates Confraternity has nothing to do with religions. You bring whatever religion you have embraced into it. Nobody attempts to convert you, nobody tells you to turn away. 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’. 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. Remember Okija? Remember Owegbe? Some will even quote the bible. Don’t forget the cultic christianity at the basis of Alice Makwena’s Lord’s Army, that christian predecessor of the Koran spouting Boko Haram. We are talking about the phenomenon of cults, obsessed, anti-human cults supposedly derived from holy texts, waving the texts as justification for their murderous rampages. 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.
When you graduated from the University of Leeds with a two-one, you initially decided to pursue a Ph.D in Literature but then you abandoned it for a practical experience in drama and Performance Arts at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Why that switch?
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.
You had some formidable teachers like Arnold Kettle, Wilson Knight. Do you want to talk about them?
I gravitated towards three teachers in the main. There were Bonamy Dobree, Wilson Knight and Arnold Kettle. With the last, I was sceptical but found him fascinating because he was a Marxist. It was the same way as I approached religion. I began questioning religion very early. You see, any dogma for me, right from childhood, was something to be thoroughly examined. I began critiquing Marxism under Arnold Kettle. But I gravitated towards Bonamy Dobree because he was a medievalist, a specialist of the kind of a historic creative atmosphere of the medieval era. He frequented medieval churches to study the iconic aspects of the church and so on and the significations of the carvings in each of the churches I’m talking about.
You can find a correlation with our own approach to the deities. He was fond of calling himself a pagan. He found that there is a continuity in the relationship of humanity to the phenomenon of Nature and the concept of deity, godhead and the development of religion. And those paganistic aspects which exist in Christianity until today, they were central to his study. I was already questioning Christianity, I have been doing that since I was in secondary school. With Dobree, 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. It’s no wonder Orisa found correlation with Roman Catholicsm and they ended up in a syncretic fusion in Brazil, Cuba etc.
Not only that, the stained glass windows of saints depicting events from the passage of Christ, all pointed to my early understanding to the meeting point of religions. 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. And he told me this story, he said he asked this student why he considered his past uncivilized. The student replied that it was because we used to worship ‘idols’. And Bonamy asked him – what is civilised? He said Christianity. Bonamy had the shock of his life. This was the kind of mental template we shared which drew me to him.
Regarding G. Wilson Knight, he was a great mythologist, a self-taught academic who had great insight, very original insight into what was being taught was great literature, a lot of insight and a unique intellectual approach. Even where the poets were not what I call mytho-poets, Wilson Knight quarried their works for embedded mythology! And the extra-special gift I had from him was when he quoted one of my essays in an introduction to one of his books. He revealed that he had been puzzling certain aspects of, shall we say – Shakespearean world-view or whatever – I’ve forgotten now – and that an essay of mine clarified it for him to such an extent that he felt he had to acknowledge it in his introduction. Ah, I said, that is my Ph.D.
What about Arnold Kettle?
Unlike what happens in our colleges today, students were close to their professors, their teachers. They met outside the classes a lot, they joined the same clubs, they would meet in pubs and fall into discussions. Much learning took place outside the classroom. I wasn’t specializing in the novel but in dramatic literature with all its trimmings – history, criticism, philosophy etc. I wasn’t his formal student so to speak. I only took the mandatory courses under him. But I began to intrude into the Arnold Kettle corner in the student pub, I was fascinated by his ideological approach to literature, especially as, during that period, there was a very big tussle between very different schools of Marxism— it wasn’t just an intellectual tussle, it was a life and death development – with the ‘deviationists’, ‘revisionists’, vanishing into gulags, never again to re-appear. Or simply lined up for ‘confressions’ and self-criticism for execution in the infamous Stalinist trials.
Marxism was a life and death issue at the time. In other words, this social philosophy was at war with the world of capitalism and the social values of the bourgeoisie, even at war with itself! Deadly war. It reached beyond academic exercise where unfortunately it has remained for many African Marxist followers, except of course you consider dictators like Kerekou who additionally dressed like Mao – which he thought marked him indeed as a Marxist thinker. Or Mariam Mengistu of Ethiopia, for whom the word “Purge” was understood only in the count of bodies he could pile up in the streets of Addis Ababa. All this would come later of course. Right then, Josef Stalin’s show trials were on in full gallop and so there was ideology in academia, and then again ideology made manifest in real life – more accurately in death realities. As you can imagine, It was a soul searching period for me, hence my constant presence in the Arnold Kettle Marxist circles.
And so, I want to make it very clear, it was a very crucial, testing and formative period for me, not too different from my private investigation of the nature of religion. I never became a Marxist but I was able to engage those who thought that they had the secret of life, the beginning and end of discourse in Marxism – that was what happened with those students. Many thought that all they had to do was to invoke a phrase or two of Marxist jargon and that gave them the right to trample over the thought processes of others. In fact some of them equated intellectualism with Marxism; if you were not a Marxist, you had no intellectual capability whatsoever. That was the mentality at the time and that was what I wanted to beat out of them – with varying degrees of success.
As a student in Leeds, you were able to size up all the political leaders who were in the UK for constitutional conferences. You were obviously not satisfied with them. Can we say that you came back to Nigeria fully prepared to confront them and their politics? Or shall we say that the confrontation had actually started before your homecoming?
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 have never forgotten the phrasing when they seized Funmilayo Kuti’s passport. On that day, I made a fool of myself. 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, he didn’t quite look like the Prime Minister – but then, I hadn’t seen too many of Balewa’s photograph, so I thought that he’d merely put on weight.
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. We had been talking normally about this and that, what I felt the leaders should do, our future as homecoming students etc. etc That question – I think I narrated it in my IBADAN, The Penkelemes Years – ended most 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. That is one instance I remember in near-total recall. Then when I was in England we more or less watched the first generation leaders and took them on in myriad directions. For some reason, it is Hope Harriman’s face I recall most vividly during those sessions. We thought our destiny was to go and free southern Africa; some of us prepared ourselves towards that showdown. We were convinced that South Africa was our life mission.
Apartheid was the sole, or the major, identifiable enemy at the time, and we felt that our generation was useless if we didn’t go down south as part of an international African brigade to liberate that regional rebuke of our black existence. And we began to see our leaders, how they simply scattered money – ostentatious, exhibitionist, extravagant and disdainful of the rest of humanity. Liberation was not on the agenda of most. We suddenly recognised in some of the new leaders the departing colonialists. In other words, those whose whole sense of liberation and nationalism was to step into the shoes of the departing colonial powers. Our orientation changed – Listen, before we go South to liberate southern Africa, hadn’t we better go home first, check these people out? We may head south only to find that our supply lines have been cut, shall we say, because these people are too busy enjoying themselves.
Do they believe in what we believe? Do they know the meaning of liberation struggle? Do they understand Nkrumah? Do they think it is just enough to obtain independence? Do they understand the main mission of the transformation of society? I remember some of us, even If we were not Marxists we had a Marxist approach to liberation. It was not just a question of overthrowing the external parasites, but of transforming the society along progressive lines. So, we decided we should all return home as soon as studies were over, and take care of home first before sauntering out. That was how my clashes with establishment began, why they began virtually the moment I landed at home.
A Dance of the Forests which you submitted for performance to mark Nigeria’s 1960 independence was rejected because part of the play is critical of a celebration without reflection. Yet, you performed the play all the same to popular acclaim. Where did you get the money to produce it? And what does that say of the necessity for artistic intransigence in a state of anomie?
That’s very simple. The prize money . Some money came with the prize and that’s what I used. I’m not aware that any other funds came from anywhere else – I threw in the whole lot and ended up flat broke. But remember we weren’t paying actors – at most it was some pittance here and there. These were committed artistes – they volunteered their skills. I remember now – it wasn’t just the prize money – the prize also carried a certain amount towards production. For me, insistence on producing that play against official rejection was also my rejection of the reasons for its rejection. It became almost more important than having written the play. It was meant for independence, it had to be produced at independence, even if I was going to produce it in my backyard or my staff quarters. It had to be presented and appropriately it had to be presented preferably in Lagos, the seat of that rejection.
I was also outraged, I won’t mention his name, but it was another writer at the time, a civil servant on the Independence committee, who alerted them to the ‘message’ in the play, told them it was a negative message. I insist of course that it was not a negative message, it was a cautionary message. 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.
That is the history of the play. It is the same as this ongoing attempt at censorship of the adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun – this actually saves me the trouble of writing what I was going to write on that issue. 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. I had a long telephone discussion with an official on the censorship board and I passed him that message. I said – understand this, I am basically against censorship. Next, you must learn to leave individuals alone to present their own interpretation of history. Others are free to contest that vision with their own.
I am reminding them that Chinua Achebe used to say, ‘tell your own story’ and so the censors’ board had better revise whatever position. In any case, I have met the producers and advised them what to do if the Censorship Board remains intransigent. We must all prepare to partake in what may prove to be a test case for the freedom of creativity.
You were charged with armed robbery for breaking into the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation studio in Ibadan during the heady days of the Western Region’s political crisis in 1965. Fully armed, you asked the man in the studio to use your own recording, asking the premier to get out. Can you share with us what happened?
I thought the charge sheet was very unkind. It was no robbery.
Where is the tape now?
I don’t know. How do I know?
But you removed the tape. Didn’t you?
Look, the person you are talking about substituted his own tape. He said, ‘Take this one instead, there is also material in it, play it so there is no gap in transmission.’ Tell me, how does that amount to armed robbery? The man came, exchanged his tape, is that something for which to charge someone for armed robbery? I think that was most inconsiderate. Didn’t those prosecutors belong to this country where we say ‘exchange is no robbery’?
But you went there fully armed
Who was fully armed? I went where?
How did you get into the studio?
Look, I was acquitted and you are talking as if I was the culprit. I was acquitted. I stood trial and I was acquitted. Why do you keep saying you, you, you? What’s your problem?
In fact I found Justice Kayode Eso’s The Mystery Gunman very interesting in the sense that part of that memoir says the Premier actually came to him at a point…
Was it the Deputy Premier?
Yes. The Premier’s own voice was on the phone but physically it was Remi Fani-Kayode, the Deputy Premier, who went to him. Told him – ‘You must get this young man out of the way. He must go to jail.’
It was a very interesting period. When you recollect public mood and attitude and your self-involvement within your individual capacity, that was one period this was a demonstration of human solidarity you don’t easily forget. Remember, the telephone system was the antiquated switch board model. Public mood was anti-government virtually everywhere – even within the police because they saw the physical atrocities that were being committed on top of the fundamental atrocity that was the deprivation of a people’s will, the robbery of their choice. And so they were sympathetic. I would be sitting in my quarters for instance, the phone would ring and the voice of a total stranger would come over, saying ‘This might be of interest to you’ – and switch you into a conversation.. I can tell you I distinctly heard the Premier himself haranguing Justice Kayode Eso – as that judge himself narrated in his book – that I must be convicted. I think that was after the Deputy Premier had visited Kayode Eso, then reported to his boss the failure of his mission.
You had great lawyers on your side. Great lawyers many of whom turned out to be great judges.
Onalaja, Somolu, Olatawura, among others. We sort of became an informal circle – a cult, if you like – with a special greeting: Gunmon, Gunmon! – mimicking the Studio Continuity announcer’s evidence in court. He said he clamped his hand over his mouth in fright when the gunman entered and made his demands with the gun pointed at him. Well, ‘gunmon’ or no ‘gunmon’, the people were on the move and I felt 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.
So, it was for those people you intervened?
Yes, of course. 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.
Why did you decide to visit Biafra when the Igbo were already set to go to war? And how did the civil war affect the Mbari group of artists and writers?
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?
Yes, on account of the pogrom which had taken place earlier. Forgive me if I miss out details but you can read all this in greater detail and sequence in my memoirs, You Must Set Forth At Dawn. 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 perfectable”. 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 anytime 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.
You spent your detention in Kirikiri and Kaduna Prisons. How did you manage to remain intensely creative in prison? Did it ever occur to you that you could be killed in prison?
Of course, I lived with that, especially because I was lied against while in prison. It’s the most horrible, debilitating aspect of prison life – to be in no position to respond to those lies, all kinds of dangerous lies attributed to me as my confession flaunted around. It made you feel – objectively – that the public mind was being prepared for your eventual elimination.
Oh! That period was very bad, very demoralising, I must confess to you. Not for long though. I finally said to myself, “Okay, you are in prison now, your circuit of volition has been contracted and you must create a new micro-existence within that microcosmic world of prison.” You can read about that lie in The Man Died. It’s true that I thought about the possibility of my being killed in order to give that lie a permanent life, to be killed in a manner in which those outside would say ‘serves him right’ not knowing that to cover up the secret is why you were killed.
Yes, after a while, I said – that’s their business, those who want to believe, there is nothing you can do about it. It’s very similar to what happens today on that much abused medium, internet, over which the coarsest lies are splattered and you just wonder what kind of creatures these are who take advantage of what we fought for— the freedom of expression -to dish out the most baseless and revolting calumny on individuals. But what can you do about it? These people are faceless cowards, hiding behind anonymity. They were born cowards, their progenitors are cowards, their children will probably be cowards. At the beginning you feel violated, you long to be able to locate just one of them, slowly squeeze life out of that person and make him drown in his own vomit. Then of course you recall that such are the rewards of democracy – freedom of expression.
The worst part however – let me spare a few more words on this and speak personally – the worst part is the remorseless continuity. Lies are told for a purpose, and until that purpose is achieved, the putrid purveyors dare not stop. When they see that you remain affected, they then pick on your children. Look at the scandal which they published about one of my daughters. First, it was supposed to be a torrid affair with Obasanjo. A few years later, she was supposed to be embroiled with Governor Amaechi. The pattern is so discernible that it should be laughable. It is not however. Innocent lives are blighted in the process if the victims happen to be weak willed. The moment I tongue lash somebody in government, or even a designated sacred cow in society, that moment another round of calumny is inaugurated. It is so crudely predictable!
Well now, is there a message here for the media? There is nothing you can do about those things called blog, facebook, tweeter etc. etc. but I believe that there can be a reduction of sewage space for the accommodation of the smut vendors on internet. In the print media, when there are letters to the editor, you are very careful, you don’t want to be sued for libel; so you are careful what you publish. But your online newspapers, I ask myself, “Don’t you think you have the same sense of responsibility for the carry-over?” Let me cite one of the most recent – and notorious – instances of an egregious abuse of your accomodativeness. It is a message also for the younger generation – a present for the younger generation. Lead your own lives. Separate your own future from the chequered lives of your parents. Don’t inherit enmities with which they burdened their own existence, otherwise, you will never live a life of your own. And it’s something I believe in very passionately. That was why I wrote about the episode of my encounter with one of Abacha’s daughters in Wimbledon. I felt no animosity whatsoever. In fact I was distressed that I hadn’t offered to buy her a drink, so I told my son, Olaokun who was with me at the time, she might think I hate her or I wasn’t warm enough, let’s go and look for her and buy her a drink. I don’t hold that biblical nonsense that the sins of the father will be visited on the sons. It is blasphemous and should be expunged from biblical studies. Why 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 everyday, 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.
In the Trials of Brother Jero and Jero’s Metamorphosis, you anticipated the charlatans in our Pentecostal churches today. What do you say of these Brother Jero’s children in our churches today?
It is a serious phenomenon I discovered in recent years. Before, they were comical, they were charlatans and fairly harmless. But such practitioners are a dying breed. Today, some of them are laundering machines, they are being used to launder heavy money. Some of them are politically dangerous and I think the proposed taxation on religious institutions will expose the extraneous sources of their income because taxation goes beyond merely paying money. They will have to disclose their sources, their books will be opened. I think it’s about time that this is done. It is important that the resources of churches, if they are reaching a height of mega-millions, be subject to examination. Laundered money can provide a cover for resources that are passed on to fund very dangerous elements. Churches as well as mosques – I’m talking about religious bodies generally. I am speaking of the reality that confronts the nation at this moment.
You had rigorous debates in the late 70s and early 80s with the Biodun Jeyifos: leftist scholars and academics and those critics you described as pseudo-traditionalists and neo-Tarzanists: the Chinweizus. The leftists essentially argued that your literary production lacked rigorous class contents and that you were too pessimistic while the Chinweizus argued that you were too Eurocentric, too modernist, that you suffered from Hopkins Disease, in your complexity as a writer. We would like you to revisit those debates and tell us what you think of them now?
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.
Why did you dedicate your Nobel Lecture to Nelson Mandela?
Why should that surprise you? 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. Fortunately, we the interior native – you know, the colonialists were very funny. Those in Lagos were British subjects, we from Abeokuta etc, the interior, were ‘protected subjects’ and we were not fully bound by the laws of the British. I was not a British citizen. I was like a second class citizen, not a real British citizen. Nice to be a second class citizen sometimes. I was able to go back to my studies after the intervention of the Students’ Adviser for foreign students.
I have always been obsessed with South Africa. And Mandela represents for me the bearer of African dignity. That’s why I used that expression that “the soul of Africa has departed” when he died. It was something which I didn’t really have to think about, that was how I felt on Nelson Mandela’s death. I did some reading at Marymount University after his death. It’s been a personal obsession with me. It was the most natural thing for me to have dedicated that lecture to Nelson Mandela. I remember our first meeting after his release as one of the most moving encounters of my exisence.
Do you still go hunting? You still do that these days of Boko Haram?
Well, I will tell you something about my hunting career and Boko Haram. I have told the authorities including the police. First of all, I enjoy hunting on my own, which is my favourite – to disappear in the bush by myself. And then I also go with traditional hunters; I do that from time to time. We go all the way to Upper Ogun area – the Shaki region. Often we encountered some Fulani herdsmen traversing the forest.
I remember once when I shot down a guinea fowl, it fell far. When I got to the spot, I found one of their dogs had picked it up and was running to his master. I shouted, ‘Stop Thief! And you, get that dog back here with my guinea fowl.’ That was the spirit and he shouted back, ‘It was the dog which took it, not I, what’s wrong?’ Very friendly. In fact, sometimes when you got lost in the bush, sometimes you listened for small radio sounds. If there were some herdsmen around, you followed until you found your way to them, and then the way to civilisation. It was a very good relationship.
Over the past few years, I began to notice that the character of the herdsmen had changed; they were different people, very hostile and surly, really aggressive. I would say to my companions, “These are not our regular herdsmen, something is going wrong.” It is one of the reasons I asked for a private meeting with [Gen. Owoye] Azazi and he confirmed that something was indeed amiss. He revealed that he was in fact coming from the United States where he had gone to negotiate patrol helicopters. I said, “Good, as long as you know.” But after one or two other encounters, anytime we went deep, we didn’t just go with shotguns and small calibre rifles. Just in case. We also changed our own modus operandi in the bush because something was happening; this was very dangerous. But I can’t let some fanatics come and deprive me of one of the few pleasures I have in life.
Were you ever confronted by wild animals like lions?
No, never. But I’ll tell you what I consider the most dangerous animal in that bush – the wild boar. Those things can be dangerous. I have seen them seize a dog with their tusks and fling the dog afar. These are more dangerous than efon or the equivalent of the wild buffalo as long as the latter is not wounded. Then it becomes a different story. Hunters all go out to kill it; if not it becomes a real menace in the bush.
It is a national shame that the secondary school girls abducted in Chibok are not yet found. Don’t you think that it is now a tragedy that we are yet to rescue them?
It is a failing, a tragedy, a burden on national and international conscience. It should continue to haunt decent humanity until the stigma is removed. But the front-line responsibility is ours in this nation, on the government and its security services. We cannot rest, or be seen to rest, until the girls are recovered.
What is your reaction to the pardon granted Mohammed Abacha by Jonathan on the N446 billion issue?
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. Immediately after the restoration of civilian rule, we had a conference at the journalists’ headquarters in Iyanganku, Ibadan, in which people came and narrated their experiences, those who were tortured and dehumanised. Muhammad Abacha was repeatedly fingered by his victims.
Even worse emerged under the Oputa Panel. We know what everybody did during that time. Those who enjoyed the privileges and the loot of governance must make restoration of a kind by undergoing trial whenever they are found out, and no matter how late. But to grant pardon to such people is a crime against society.
When elders get as old as you are, the tendency is to move closer to God either because they are afraid of death or they just want to make heaven. Reading portions of your memoir, You Must Set Forth At Dawn where you describe feelingly deaths of your friends and a place already designated for your burial, I thought I should ask you for your reflections on death. What does death mean to you and why are you not afraid of it?
Well, let’s put it this way: it is a very rare kind of humanity which doesn’t look at death as an unpleasant event. But my attitude towards it is that I won’t be around to experience it. I take it practically. I have designated where I will like to be buried.
What do you say to people who think that they need to do certain things to make heaven?
I don’t want to discourage them in their beliefs. You see, I’m not a religious or anti-religion fanatic one way or the other. If it makes people comfortable and, shall we say, encourage them to lead an ethical life since they believe in heaven, by all means, we shouldn’t discourage them. But followers of any kind of religion who believe that they should destroy those who do not believe in their path towards heaven, or what they call paradise, are insecure and tormented souls. Let every individual hang on to his or her beliefs. But this should not be at the expense of accelerating the passage of others to their concept of paradise or hell – especially with violence – simply because they do not follow your own path. This is what really gets my hackles up about religion. Religion should remain a private matter. Spirituality is a very private matter.
Is one religion better than the other?
I believe that all religions are equal. In Christianity, Islam, Orisa worship, Hinduism etc. etc. the ultimate destination is spiritual. Religion should be internalised and become personal. Because Orisa religion is filled with metaphors of human experience. As a writer, a mytho-poet, I also find religions similarly endowed with metaphors, most satisfying. Another reason that I am partial to Orisa worship than other religions is that Orisa religion allows you to find your own path to the Supreme Being through each deity. Within the same family, you could have the father following Sango, the mother following a different path.
The child is born and the babalawo divines that – this is the child of Orisa Oko. Within that same household, you have others who follow different paths to godhead; different paths to their inner spiritual intuitions, different paths to that encapsulation of what they feel exists beyond the physical persona. Along the way, something might happen to that individual in real life and he goes to the babalawo and he says, “Ah! Maybe there was a mistake, try this other path.” That’s it. There is no quarrel. The wife doesn’t say “I won’t cook for you because you are following Orunmila or you are not following Esu”. It is ultimate inner harmony. That is what existence should primarily be about.
This interview was conducted and published three years ago when Professor Soyinka turned 80. http://thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2014/07/wole-soyinka-my-life/