Friday, July 13, 2018 4:27 pm
Professor Wole Soyinka who is 84 today was 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, he was alleged to have asked the man in the studio to use his own (Soyinka’s) recording, asking the premier to get out.
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, including the radion station tape substitution story
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.
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