The life and times of Prof. Wole Soyinka, especially in a piece that attempts to chronicle his acts of bravery, will be incomplete 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 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 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 engaged in social treachery. For me, that is pernicious, intolerably arrogant and fascistic.”
From this interview, we learn that Wole Soyinka once enlisted in 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 backwards 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.”