Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, is 85 today. This is indeed a ripe age in a country where the average life expectancy hovers between 45 and 50 and may, given the worsening social progress index of the people, plummet. Soyinka means different things to many people. Just like the experiences of the blind men of Indostan who differently described what they touched in the body of an elephant as a wall, tree trunk, hand fan and others, Soyinka is a freedom fighter and advocate of good governance to a majority of Nigerians. To those who perpetrate bad governance, Soyinka is a bogeyman, an irritant who should be put out of circulation as done by General Yakubu Gowon, a former head of state during the Nigerian civil war. Gowon, however, explained why he took the step.
Now for this birthday milestone, the 11th Wole Soyinka Centre Media Lecture Series, organised by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), will hold today at Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos from 10am. Theme: “Rethinking credible elections, accountable democracy and good governance in Nigeria.”
Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili, Senior Economic Advisor, Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative (AEDPI) and Co-Founder of BringBackOurGirls Movement will be the keynote speaker, while Director, Voter Education and Publicity, Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi; Senior Programme Officer, MacArthur Foundation, Amina Salihu; Executive Director, Paradigm Initiative, Gbenga Sesan and Chair, Editorial Board Nigeria Info Radio Group, Rotimi Sankore will be the discussants.
Also, as part of the birthday, Anote Ajeluorou, Culture journalist, will unveil his maiden children’s storybook, Igho Goes to Farm, in Lagos and Abeokuta as part of the OpenDoorSeries/Wole Soyinka International Culture Exchange event. About 1,000 students across the country will be given a special reprint edition of the book. According to the author, “The OpenDoorSeries/WSICE is a huge platform to present an important small book like Igho Goes to Farm. The young ones are very impressionable and they need to be guided so they don’t stumble. The book speaks to their concerns and how to navigate some of the modern distractions that can derail them from getting the best from their educational quest, particularly smart phones and social media.
“The book also addresses Nigerian adults on the need to be patriotic. Why have Nigerians failed to develop the country’s tourism potential? Why do Nigerians always go abroad for holidays? Why don’t we patronise local goods and products? Why spend scarce resources on foreign products and goods? These are some of the concerns Igho Goes to Farm tries to address in a subtle way as the youngster lead character is shipped off to the village to spend his long holiday because he fails to perform well in school work while his siblings go to Disneyland in America.”
While the current programmes were packaged to teach the young ones the Soyinka essence, the older generation will not forget in hurry how the Nobel Laureate, in trying to ensure that justice prevails in the land, suffered indignities, almost to the death. During the war, Gowon put him in solitary confinement for two years. There are different reasons given for that. To many critics, Soyinka secretly and unofficially met with the military governor of Eastern Region, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in Enugu in August 1967, “to try to avert civil war.”
However, in 2004, Gowon seized the occasion of the banquet organised by the Ogun State government at the auditorium of the Government House, Valley View, Abeokuta, to mark the end of activities for Soyinka’s 70th birthday celebrations to explain and defend his regime. Gowon told the guests “When I was Head of State, he (Soyinka) did not want anything in uniform and reports reaching me were that he was doing everything to effect a change of the system.”
“I was told by some people that I should make sure that he (Soyinka) did not circulate much. Gowon waxed humorous: “At that time, he was very, very young; he had no grey hairs, perhaps what happened to him (his imprisonment) might have caused this his numerous grey hair. Both of us were very young and idealistic at that time and I happened to be the man in charge of Nigeria at that time.”
“The tiny young man was trying everything he could to disrupt the normal process. We sat down and decided he must not circulate anymore because we thought he was then becoming very dangerous to the system, so we proffered what could be done to him. So he was my guest for two years and four months.”
Gowon said these in the presence of guests which included Governor of Edo State, Lucky Igbinedion; Presidential Adviser, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, Minister of State for Agriculture, Chief Olawale Dada; Ambassador Segun Olusola and Director-General of the Voice of Nigeria (VON) Alhaji Taiwo Alimi. Others were Chief Bola Kuforiji-Olubi, Dr. Onaolapo Soleye, Chief Bode George, Alhaji Jubril Martins-Kuye, Chief Ayo Opadokun and Oba Funso Adeolu, Alaye of Ode-Remo. Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Prince Bola Ajibola; Chief Judge of Ogun State, Charles Oluremi Jacobs; the Primate of the Church of Aladura, Ayo Ositelu; Maj.-Gen. Abdulkareem Adisa (rtd), representing Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (rtd), traditional rulers and other top government officials were also there.
Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday, July 12, through a statement by Femi Adesina, his spokesperson, congratulated Soyinka on his “many years of laudable achievements, recognitions, awards, and consistency, all which have cumulated in pride to Nigerians, Africans and the black race.” Buhari saluted Soyinka for his “intellectual momentum, interventions on state issues and polity through articles and comments, penchant for justice, and persistence in holding leaders to account,”, said.
In detention at Ikoyi Prisons, Soyinka managed to write The Man Died which attacks members of the intelligentsia: “The boundaries of the geography of victims of (power) eventually extends to embrace even those who think they are protected by silence…The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. In any people that submit willingly to the ‘daily humiliation of fear’, the man dies.”
On the torture of imates, he writes: “I went and looked at a back of purulent sores. There was no skin. None at all. It was a mass of sores which no longer had definition as each weal had merged into another… My mind returned to the back I had seen, the still suppurating furrows, dark raised permanent swellings, the potholes where the tip of the whip must have dug more than once. A few scabs that seemed an inch thick. And his neck, even to the base of the head, covered in weals.”
“They were flogged in the open, you said.”
“And they screamed?… But Gowon lives in those barracks. He must have heard the screams.”
Agu said, “Frankly, I don’t think he knew. He lived far away from the guardroom.”
“Those screams must have penetrated concrete.”
Tomes have been written on Soyinka in books and media by his admirers, which are packaged on Wikipedia.
“Soyinka was born into a Yoruba family in Abeokuta on 13 July 1954. He attended Government College in Ibadan, subsequently University College and University of Leeds in England. He worked with the Royal Court Theatre in London. His father, Samuel Ayodele Soyinka (whom he called S.A. or “Essay”), was an Anglican minister and the headmaster of St. Peters School in Abeokuta. Soyinka’s mother, Grace Eniola Soyinka (whom he dubbed the “Wild Christian”), owned a shop in the nearby market. She was a political activist within the women’s movement in the local community. She was also Anglican. As much of the community followed indigenous Yorùbá religious tradition, Soyinka grew up in a religious atmosphere of syncretism, with influences from both cultures. He was raised in a religious family, attending church services and singing in the choir from an early age; however Soyinka himself became an atheist later in life. His father’s position enabled him to get electricity and radio at home. He writes extensively about his childhood in one of his memoirs, Aké: The Years of Childhood.
His mother was one of the most prominent members of the influential Ransome-Kuti family: she was the daughter of Rev. Canon J. J. Ransome-Kuti, and sister to Olusegun Azariah Ransome-Kuti, Oludotun Ransome-Kuti and sister in-law to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Among Soyinka’s cousins were the musician Fela Kuti, the human rights activist Beko Ransome-Kuti, politician Olikoye Ransome-Kuti and activist Yemisi Ransome-Kuti.
In 1940, after attending St. Peter’s Primary School in Abeokuta, Soyinka went to Abeokuta Grammar School, where he won several prizes for literary composition. In 1946 he was accepted by Government College in Ibadan, at that time one of Nigeria’s elite secondary schools.
After finishing his course at Government College in 1952, he began studies at University College Ibadan (1952–54), affiliated with the University of London. He studied English literature, Greek, and Western history. Among his lecturers was Molly Mahood, a British literary scholar. In the year 1953–54, his second and last at University College, Soyinka began work on “Keffi’s Birthday Treat”, a short radio play for Nigerian Broadcasting Service that was broadcast in July 1954.
Later in 1954, Soyinka relocated to England, where he continued his studies in English literature, under the supervision of his mentor Wilson Knight at the University of Leeds (1954–57). He met numerous young, gifted British writers. Before defending his B.A., Soyinka began publishing and worked as an editor for the satirical magazine The Eagle. He wrote a column on academic life, often criticising his university peers.
After graduating with an upper second-class degree, Soyinka remained in Leeds and began working on an MA. He intended to write new works combining European theatrical traditions with those of his Yorùbá cultural heritage. His first major play, The Swamp Dwellers (1958), was followed a year later by The Lion and the Jewel, a comedy that attracted interest from several members of London’s Royal Court Theatre. Encouraged, Soyinka moved to London, where he worked as a play reader for the Royal Court Theatre. During the same period, both of his plays were performed in Ibadan. They dealt with the uneasy relationship between progress and tradition in Nigeria.
In 1957, his play The Invention was the first of his works to be produced at the Royal Court Theatre. At that time his only published works were poems such as “The Immigrant” and “My Next Door Neighbour”, which were published in the Nigerian magazine Black Orpheus. This was founded in 1957 by the German scholar Ulli Beier, who had been teaching at the University of Ibadan since 1950.
Soyinka received a Rockefeller Research Fellowship from University College in Ibadan, his alma mater, for research on African theatre, and he returned to Nigeria. After its fifth issue (November 1959), Soyinka replaced Jahnheinz Jahn to become coeditor for the literary periodical Black Orpheus (its name derived from a 1948 essay by Jean-Paul Sartre, “Orphée Noir”, published as a preface to Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, edited by Léopold Senghor). He produced his new satire, The Trials of Brother Jero. His work A Dance of The Forest (1960), a biting criticism of Nigeria’s political elites, won a contest that year as the official play for Nigerian Independence Day. On 1 October 1960, it premiered in Lagos as Nigeria celebrated its sovereignty. The play satirizes the fledgling nation by showing that the present is no more a golden age than was the past. Also in 1960, Soyinka established the “Nineteen-Sixty Masks”, an amateur acting ensemble to which he devoted considerable time over the next few years.
Soyinka wrote the first full-length play produced on Nigerian television. Entitled My Father’s Burden and directed by Segun Olusola, the play was featured on the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) on 6 August 1960. Soyinka published works satirising the “Emergency” in the Western Region of Nigeria, as his Yorùbá homeland was increasingly occupied and controlled by the federal government. The political tensions arising from recent post-colonial independence eventually led to a military coup and civil war (1967–70).
With the Rockefeller grant, Soyinka bought a Land Rover, and he began travelling throughout the country as a researcher with the Department of English Language of the University College in Ibadan. In an essay of the time, he criticised Leopold Senghor’s Négritude movement as a nostalgic and indiscriminate glorification of the black African past that ignores the potential benefits of modernisation. He is often quoted as having said, “A tiger doesn’t proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” But in fact, Soyinka wrote in a 1960 essay for the Horn: “the duiker will not paint ‘duiker’ on his beautiful back to proclaim his duikeritude; you’ll know him by his elegant leap.” In Death and the King Horsemen he states: “The elephant trails no tethering-rope; that king is not yet crowned who will peg an elephant.”
In December 1962, Soyinka’s essay “Towards a True Theater” was published. He began teaching with the Department of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University in If?. He discussed current affairs with “négrophiles,” and on several occasions openly condemned government censorship. At the end of 1963, his first feature-length movie, Culture in Transition, was released. In April 1964 The Interpreters, “a complex but also vividly documentary novel”, was published in London.
That December, together with scientists and men of theatre, Soyinka founded the Drama Association of Nigeria. In 1964 he also resigned his university post, as a protest against imposed pro-government behaviour by the authorities. A few months later, in 1965, he was arrested for the first time, charged with holding up a radio station at gunpoint (as described in his 2006 memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn) and replacing the tape of a recorded speech by the premier of Western Nigeria with a different tape containing accusations of election malpractice. Soyinka was released after a few months of confinement, as a result of protests by the international community of writers. This same year he wrote two more dramatic pieces: Before the Blackout and the comedy Kongi’s Harvest. He also wrote The Detainee, a radio play for the BBC in London. His play The Road premiered in London at the Commonwealth Arts Festival, opening on 14 September 1965 at the Theatre Royal. At the end of the year, he was promoted to headmaster and senior lecturer in the Department of English Language at University of Lagos.
Soyinka’s political speeches at that time criticised the cult of personality and government corruption in African dictatorships. In April 1966, his play Kongi’s Harvest was produced in revival at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. The Road was awarded the Grand Prix. In June 1965, he produced his play The Lion and The Jewel for Hampstead Theatre Club in London.
After becoming chief of the Cathedral of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Soyinka became more politically active. Following the military coup of January 1966, he secretly and unofficially met with the military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the Southeastern town of Enugu (August 1967), to try to avert civil war. As a result, he had to go into hiding.
He was imprisoned for 22 months as civil war ensued between the federal government and the Biafrans. Though refused materials such as books, pens, and paper, he still wrote a significant body of poems and notes criticising the Nigerian government.
Despite his imprisonment, in September 1967, his play, The Lion and The Jewel, was produced in Accra. In November The Trials of Brother Jero and The Strong Breed were produced in the Greenwich Mews Theatre in New York. He also published a collection of his poetry, Idanre and Other Poems. It was inspired by Soyinka’s visit to the sanctuary of the Yorùbá deity Ogun, whom he regards as his “companion” deity, kindred spirit, and protector.
In 1968, the Negro Ensemble Company in New York produced Kongi’s Harvest. While still imprisoned, Soyinka translated from Yoruba a fantastical novel by his compatriot D. O. Fagunwa, entitled The Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter’s Saga.
In October 1969, when the civil war came to an end, amnesty was proclaimed, and Soyinka and other political prisoners were freed. For the first few months after his release, Soyinka stayed at a friend’s farm in southern France, where he sought solitude. He wrote The Bacchae of Euripides (1969), a reworking of the Pentheus myth. He soon published in London a book of poetry, Poems from Prison.
In 1970, he produced the play Kongi’s Harvest, while simultaneously adapting it as a film of the same title. In June 1970, he finished another play, called Madman and Specialists. Together with the group of 15 actors of Ibadan University Theatre Art Company, he went on a trip to the United States, to the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut, where his latest play premiered. It gave them all experience with theatrical production in another English-speaking country.
In 1971, his poetry collection A Shuttle in the Crypt was published. Madmen and Specialists was produced in Ibadan that year. Soyinka travelled to Paris to take the lead role as Patrice Lumumba, the murdered first Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, in the production of his Murderous Angels.
In April 1971, concerned about the political situation in Nigeria, Soyinka resigned from his duties at the University in Ibadan, and began years of voluntary exile. In July in Paris, excerpts from his well-known play The Dance of The Forests were performed.
In 1972, he was awarded an Honoris Causa doctorate by the University of Leeds. Soon thereafter, his novel Season of Anomy (1972) and his Collected Plays (1972) were both published by Oxford University Press. His powerful autobiographical work The Man Died, a collection of notes from prison, was also published that year. In 1973 the National Theatre, London, commissioned and premiered the play The Bacchae of Euripides. In 1973 his plays Camwood on the Leaves and Jero’s Metamorphosis were first published.
In 1974, his Collected Plays, Volume II was issued by Oxford University Press. In 1975 Soyinka was promoted to the position of editor for Transition, a magazine based in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, where he moved for some time. He used his columns in Transition to criticise the “negrophiles” (for instance, his article “Neo-Tarzanism: The Poetics of Pseudo-Transition”) and military regimes. He protested against the military junta of Idi Amin in Uganda. After the political turnover in Nigeria and the subversion of Gowon’s military regime in 1975, Soyinka returned to his homeland and resumed his position at the Cathedral of Comparative Literature at the University of Ife.
In 1976, he published his poetry collection Ogun Abibiman, as well as a collection of essays entitled Myth, Literature and the African World. In these, Soyinka explores the genesis of mysticism in African theatre and, using examples from both European and African literature, compares and contrasts the cultures. He delivered a series of guest lectures at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Legon. In October, the French version of The Dance of The Forests was performed in Dakar, while in Ife, his play Death and The King’s Horseman premièred.
In 1977, Opera Wonyosi, his adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, was staged in Ibadan. In 1979 he both directed and acted in Jon Blair and Norman Fenton’s drama The Biko Inquest, a work based on the life of Steve Biko, a South African student and human rights activist who was beaten to death by apartheid police forces. In 1981 Soyinka published his autobiographical work Aké: The Years of Childhood, which won a 1983 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Soyinka founded another theatrical group called the Guerrilla Unit. Its goal was to work with local communities in analysing their problems and to express some of their grievances in dramatic sketches. In 1983 his play Requiem for a Futurologist had its first performance at the University of Ife. In July, one of his musical projects, the Unlimited Liability Company, issued a long-playing record entitled I Love My Country, on which several prominent Nigerian musicians played songs composed by Soyinka. In 1984, he directed the film Blues for a Prodigal; his new play A Play of Giants was produced the same year.
During the years 1975–84, Soyinka was more politically active. At the University of Ife, his administrative duties included the security of public roads. He criticized the corruption in the government of the democratically elected President Shehu Shagari. When he was replaced by the army general Muhammadu Buhari, Soyinka was often at odds with the military. In 1984, a Nigerian court banned his 1972 book The Man Died: Prison Notes. In 1985, his play Requiem for a Futurologist was published in London by André Deutsch.
Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, becoming the first African laureate. He was described as one “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence”. Reed Way Dasenbrock writes that the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Soyinka is “likely to prove quite controversial and thoroughly deserved”. He also notes that “it is the first Nobel Prize awarded to an African writer or to any writer from the ‘new literatures’ in English that have emerged in the former colonies of the British Empire.” His Nobel acceptance speech, “This Past Must Address Its Present”, was devoted to South African freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela. Soyinka’s speech was an outspoken criticism of apartheid and the politics of racial segregation imposed on the majority by the Nationalist South African government. In 1986, he received the Agip Prize for Literature.
In 1988, his collection of poems Mandela’s Earth, and Other Poems was published, while in Nigeria another collection of essays entitled Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture appeared. In the same year, Soyinka accepted the position of Professor of African Studies and Theatre at Cornell University. In 1990, a third novel, inspired by his father’s intellectual circle, Isara: A Voyage Around Essay, appeared. In July 1991 the BBC African Service transmitted his radio play A Scourge of Hyacinths, and the next year (1992) in Siena (Italy), his play From Zia with Love had its premiere. Both works are very bitter political parodies, based on events that took place in Nigeria in the 1980s. In 1993 Soyinka was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. The next year another part of his autobiography appeared: Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (A Memoir: 1946–1965). The following year his play The Beatification of Area Boy was published. In October 1994, he was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Promotion of African culture, human rights, freedom of expression, media and communication.
In November 1994, Soyinka fled from Nigeria through the border with Benin and then to the United States. In 1996 his book The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis was first published. In 1997 he was charged with treason by the government of General Sani Abacha. The International Parliament of Writers (IPW) was established in 1993 to provide support for writers victimized by persecution. Soyinka became the organization’s second president from 1997 to 2000. In 1999 a new volume of poems by Soyinka, entitled Outsiders, was released. That same year, a BBC-commissioned play called “Document of Identity” aired on BBC Radio 3, telling the lightly-fictionalized story of the problems his daughter’s family encountered during a stopover in Britain when they fled Nigeria for the US in 1997; her baby was born prematurely in London and became a stateless person.
His play King Baabu premièred in Lagos in 2001, a political satire on the theme of African dictatorship. In 2002 a collection of his poems, Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known, was published by Methuen. In April 2006, his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn was published by Random House. In 2006 he cancelled his keynote speech for the annual S.E.A. Write Awards Ceremony in Bangkok to protest the Thai military’s successful coup against the government.
Soyinka opposes allowing Fulani herdsmen the ability to graze their cattle on open land in southern, Christian-dominated Nigeria and believes these herdsmen should be declared terrorists to enable the restriction of their movements.”