It was in Primary Four that I had my first contact with Professor WOLE SOYINKA, not in person but through the literature textbook for that year- THE TRIALS OF BROTHER JERO. I haven’t met him personally till date though I had stood a few meters from him when he visited the Lagos University Teaching Hospital in 2003 if memory serves me right. I cannot say if he’d come there for treatment, though it seemed he’d come for a visit. He wasn’t one to be lost in the crowd, as he towered above all those around him. I could only stare in admiration from my vantage point. If I were practicing Hinduism he’d probably be one of my gods, because I rever him so much that words such as role model, mentor, inspiration and the likes pale by a huge margin to what he means to me.
That initial encounter with Soyinka’s book did not awaken me yet to what he had done, was doing, and could do with words even though it was about the time he had gained international recognition in winning the NOBEL PRIZE for LITERATURE. The reason for this was because our teacher then, though was good in other areas couldn’t be said to have had the ability to interpret that work of art by Soyinka. We simply glossed over it like any other work of “comprehension” (or composition as I can’t remember what we used to call it back then), and if any part of that book was set in exams I doubt that that teacher would’ve set questions beyond the first chapter and if he did (which would’ve amounted to wickedness) we- students would probably have guessed the answer right.
When he was made the head of the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC about that time, give or take a few months, I didn’t relate him to the book I had bought months back at the beginning of the school year. Now, I didn’t hate books back then, I have never hated literature, but that particular one, a play was a tad difficult for me to understand. I wasn’t averse to plays because I’d read OLA ROTIMI’s “The Gods Are Not To Blame” and I understood it. Infact, I understood William Shakespeare’s MACBETH in my second year of secondary school without stress because I was already conversant with the ancient English used in writing the play from growing up reading to understand the King James Version, KJV of the Bible. I think I re-read the “Trials Of Brother Jero” in secondary school with some understanding though I still failed to grasp the background on which it was written. I got to that part much later when I had gotten to know about Professor Soyinka, known in some quarters as KONGI.
Like most people I know, my true introduction to Wole Soyinka, again not physically, came from reading his NOBEL PRIZE FOR LITERATURE-winning novel, “THE MAN DIED: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka”. It most likely must’ve been lent to me by Oluoye Majekodunmi, who had a library many people older than we were could only dream of having, though at the time he was a medical student. He also revered the subject a great deal, though I cannot now tell amongst us who revers the man more, considering that he hails from the same state as the professor, while I hold another, the late literary genius, Professor Chinua Achebe from the village next to mine in equal or more esteem (and that has nothing to do with ethnicity).
But since Oluoye noticed that I must’ve become enamoured of and by his kinsman he made all the books he’d written available to me including one (his recent work “YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN: A Memoir”) autographed by Soyinka. I wasn’t only impressed just by his works of literature but by his contribution to Nigeria in other ways beyond just merely speaking his mind on issues. I have always wondered how it is that he’d remained alive when he could’ve been conveniently neutralized by the many governments he’d opposed with all the instruments at his disposal.
When many were reveling in the joy of achieving nationhood without bloodshed Soyinka saw through the charade, not necessarily because it was a bad idea, but because he saw at close quarters the calibre of people about to takeover from the British colonialists, the fact that he expressed his fears that early didn’t stop the inevitable from happening. It was through Soyinka’s eyes that I realized that our so called founding fathers, whom political correctness would rather bestow heroic status on, were less deserving of such, if one were to scrutinise all of their activities, besides that of working towards Nigeria’s independence, which interestingly fewer than those acknowledged today for that feat actually fought for.
Did Wole Soyinka not warn the politicians of those days of the repercussion of their actions? The people in the arts of his day saw the telltale signs, and they expressed such in their books, plays, poems even songs but no one listened, and the reaction of those in power, when they heard such tales was to harass those they viewed as “agent provocateurs” in the literary and art world.
People like Soyinka wouldn’t have been as shocked as some Nigerians were, when news of the 1966 coup broke days after people were just smarting from celebrations to welcome the new year, because not only had he warned about the drift in the Nigerian polity, he worked to halt it, even employing unorthodox methods to actualize his aim, like when he seized a radio station less than a year before the coup at gunpoint, in a bid to prevent the truncation of the voice of the people which they had freely expressed in their votes.
Wole Soyinka (primarily a playwright) with Chinua Achebe (novelist), Christopher Okigbo (poet) and John Pepper Clark (poet and playwright), became the conscience of the nation at that time. Infact, Chinua Achebe had written a prophetic book which was released at about the time the coup took place, amongst the works the others had done premonitive of the quagmire Nigeria then found itself in and the greater shit that was about to follow.
The nationhood of Nigeria wasn’t only threatened but was temporarily lost with the countercoup, in which Nigerians of southeastern extraction where massacred for what was thought to be the role they played in the first coup, in which politicians and high ranking military officers from other regions of Nigeria were killed, with the takeover of power by the military headed by a General from the South-East. This led to the mass exodus of Igbos and other tribes with roots in the South-East.
When the war broke out, after Easterners felt betrayed by their fellow Nigerians, and been led by the charismatic military governor of the eastern region Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu to secede, to which the central government led by General Yakubu Gowon declared a “POLICE ACTION” which failed to bring the Easterners back into the fold, Soyinka elected to go into besieged region in a last ditch effort for peace. Interestingly, at a time many Igbos considered the Yoruba (the ethnic stock from which Soyinka hails) as sellouts, he was properly received by the locals all the way up to meeting with Ojukwu in the now seceded Biafran enclave. Unfortunately on his return to Nigeria he was promptly arrested by the Gowon-led government, the documentation of the events of his incarceration in the early years of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war for about two years mostly in solitary confinement, of which became the subject of his Nobel Prize for LITERATURE-winning book, “THE MAN DIED: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka.”
But Wole Soyinka’s activism didn’t start when he attained adulthood, he records it in his AKÉ that it had been with him since childhood, especially against authority when they were obviously in the wrong. It is on record that he founded Nigeria’s first confraternity as a student in 1952 along with some friends at the University College, Ibadan. The Pyrates as they were popularly called later metamorphosed into “THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF SEADOGS”, NAS of which many prominent Nigerians were and are still part of. Unfortunately, whatever lofty ideas Soyinka and his friends had in forming the confraternity has now been eroded by the proliferation of other confraternities or cult groups whose modus operandi are tilted more towards the violent, initially within the university system, before moving to secondary schools and now even to illiterate artisans and school dropouts, with resultant cutting down of young people in their prime in street battles and gang warfare. This is despite the fact that the NAS and a few other groups indulge in some social corporate responsibility activity to create the impression that confraternities were not set up for violent purposes.
You’d think Soyinka would relent after he was released for allegedly hobnobbing with what the Nigerian government considered rebels in breakaway Eastern Nigeria or Biafra, but he didn’t. His crusade infact grew wings as is wont with activists unfancied by the government of the day, even when his kinsman General Olusegun Obasanjo ruled a united Nigeria. He riled against the corruption of the politicians of the second republic which Obasanjo handed over power to, warning of similar consequences as befell Nigeria’s first democratic experiment befalling that government, and it did.
Though Soyinka warned the civilians in power then about how their excesses could thwart the progress made democratically, I am sure he must’ve been saddened by the military takeover that followed soon after, especially when the Buhari/Idiagbon regime ruled with an iron fist. Interestingly, he served in the military government that tookover from the sadistic one that truncated civilian rule under an albeit aloof Shagari, as head of the newly formed Federal Road Safety Corps, FRSC. I guess like many other intellectuals that worked with General Babangida at the time, they must’ve felt he was one reasonable gentleman soldier, which was why I think he (along with what was left of Nigeria’s literary trio/triad/tripod minus Christopher Okigbo who had died during the civil war) felt they could save the soldier-writer General Mamman Vatsa, from the impending execution by firing squad, for allegedly planning a coup. Vatsa was executed!
It wasn’t long after this that Babangida began showing Nigerians his true colour, and when he wouldn’t pursue his plans to handover power to a democratically elected government, he had Soyinka to deal with. Though Soyinka wasn’t partisan in the sense of being a card carrying member of a political party during the botched TRANSITION TO CIVIL RULE programme under the Babangida regime, his refusal to settle for anything less democratic saw him taking up the case of the supposed winner of the June 12, 1993 elections Chief M. K. O. Abiola like he’d been personally bruised by this assault by the military authorities on Nigerians. He joined the majority of Nigerians in not recognizing the GOVERNMENT OF NATIONAL UNITY headed by a Yoruba (Chief Ernest Shonekan) like him, probably a calculation of the military in an attempt to pacify seething Yorubas who felt robbed by the fact that their kinsman was denied a mandate he won off the hands of Nigerians from all works of life, regardless of tribe and religious inclinations. Nigerians, till then, and I dare say, after then have never spoken so clearly and with one voice, yet that only opportunity was scuttled by Babangida’s inordinate ambitions.
The palace coup that toppled Ernest Shonekan months later, didn’t come to many people as a surprise, infact some thought that the intention was to declare Abiola winner, especially as the supposed winner of the June 12, 1993 ejections was within days of Abacha taking over power, seen in company of the late dictator (as captured on TV) seeming to congratulate the General for “a job well done?”, only to find that Abacha had his own plans which even if it included restoration of civilian rule, involved him transmuting from a military head of state to a civilian president. Abiola smelt a rat, went underground and declared himself president, probably hoping that his supporters nationwide and internationally will do the needful. They did not do the needful, Abiola was promptly arrested and spent the rest of the years in which Abacha ruled over Nigeria like it was his personal estate, in detention.
Again, many Nigerians rose to condemn this of which no less than a personality like Wole Soyinka not only voiced his disagreement with the state of things, but took part in demonstrations and protests in which lives were lost when overzealous and trigger-happy policemen and soldiers shot live rounds into the crowd of protesters.
Soon enough General Abacha was overcome by that which often plagues dictators, especially when their claim to power was illegitimate, and anyone thought to breathe antagonism to his ways was considered an enemy, no longer to be simply gagged like was norm under military regimes especially as relating to civilians (not including Dele Giwa who was bombed off to the great beyond), but neutralized. Wole Soyinka had to flee via what is today referred to as the “NADECO ROUTE” used by many who were on Abacha’s “MOST WANTED (DEAD) LIST”. Those who refused to go, were roped up into one unfortunate situation or the other like Obasanjo and his erstwhile 2-I-C, Yar’Adua who were arrested for plotting a coup and sentenced to death, but had that later commuted to a Life Sentence after pressure from concerned international powers (Shehu Musa Yar’Adua later died in jail, while Obasanjo managed to survive to rise from grass to grace).
Others like the Kaduna based journalist, Bagauda Kaltho will be implicated with attempting to set up a bomb which claimed his life (this was before bomb blasts became the norm and not the exception in Nigeria) after months of been declared missing. Pa Abraham Adesanya miraculously escaped an assassination in which the car he was been driven in was riddled with bullets, Kudirat Abiola refusing to keep quiet and continuing to campaign for the release of her husband and presumed winner of the June12, 1993 presidential elections was not so lucky as she was successfully mowed down on the streets of Lagos. The publisher of The Guardian newspapers, (the now late) Chief Alex Ibru escaped by the whiskers while the indefatigable (and also late), human rights activist, lawyer and SENIOR ADVOCATE OF THE MASSES (SAN), Chief Gani Fawehinmi was simply hauled into one of Nigeria’s gulags for the umpteenth time.
But Wole Soyinka’s presence abroad, with his personality and reach ensured that the Nigerian situation remained front burner amongst the comity of nations, and pressure was continuously kept on Abacha to democratize Nigeria. Wole Soyinka once claimed that in those days, he learnt to travel light (a habit he continues to this day, I learnt) for fear of having his luggage tampered with by government goons who might intend for him to be caught abroad for being in possession of contraband substances or materials.
It wasn’t until Abacha gave the go-ahead for the hanging of foremost author, playwright and environmentalist/activist KEN SARO WIWA and eight Ogoni leaders for complicity in the murders of four Ogoni leaders considered by the hawks (of which Ken Saro Wiwa was thought to be one) as moderates, despite pleas from concerned citizens and governments worldwide, that the world began to think seriously about doing something to halt Nigeria’s drift into the abyss. Nigeria got banned by the Commonwealth Nations, Mandela as president of South Africa wouldn’t allow the Nigerian contestant to Miss Universe participate, and Abacha retaliated by refusing to allow Nigeria (the defending champion) participate in the 1996 edition of the Nation’s Cup football tournament which South Africa hosted and won. Prominent members of the moderate Ogoni faction felt Soyinka believed Ken Saro Wiwa was innocent because he couldn’t fathom the gentle playwright been capable of the atrocities linked to him, but that will be a matter for another day.
Just when everyone thought nothing could stop Abacha, he died. He died under mysterious circumstances and his successor promised that power will be restored to civilians in the shortest possible time. There was talk that Abiola will soon be released and political exiles like Soyinka were planning to return home, but Abiola died, under mysterious circumstances as well, a month after Abacha had died in 1998, before he was due to be released by the military government led by General Abdulsalami Abubakar.
Wole Soyinka did return. Political prisoners like Olusegun Obasanjo, erstwhile military ruler, were released. Obasanjo was coopted by the People’s Democratic Party, and he won the presidency in 1999 on their platform. After doggedly fighting military dictatorships for years, Soyinka now faced the civilian dictatorship, decrying the level of corruption and impunity of the politicians and the ruling class, and despite his age joined countless demonstrations in defence of democratic norms and demanding accountability from those in power.
When Obasanjo forced Nigerians to swallow the bitter pill of an ailing Umar Musa Yar’Adua down the throats of Nigerians in what many saw as revenge for thwarting his third-term agenda bid, the latter did not disappoint but died within his first term, creating a constitutional crisis which shouldn’t have been in the first place save that the PDP’s rotational presidency policy was about to be turned on its head. Soyinka’s voice was again heard on the rooftops asking that Goodluck Ebele Jonathan be sworn-in as president, which made it all the more sad that this same person will be vilified by the wife of the beneficiary of such act of bravery at a time very few people could speak the truth to the cabal that was holding Nigeria hostage at the time. Soyinka simply had to tag her with the pseudonym “SHEPOPO”, and his teeming fans did the rest for him, much like they did when his late arch-enemy received an award at Nigeria’s Centenary which drew the ire of many Nigerians, and as usual Soyinka vented but was disrespectfully responded to by the seeds of Abacha.
I have been privileged to listen to Soyinka’s part of the BBC’s REITH LECTURE SERIES, titled “THE CLIMATE OF FEAR” and couldn’t help but wonder why no Nigerian or other government for that matter bothered to take his recommendations to heart in tackling the greatest threat to our collective existence for now, “Global Terrorism”, the aetiology of which he appeared to have been warning us a long time before the present explosion in Nigeria as Boko Haram, in Mali as the Ansarul, in Algeria as Al-Qaeda In The Mahgreb, AQIM, and worst of all, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL; amongst others.
I was listening to those lectures, copied off Oluoye’s laptop, including that of the foremost Kenyan historian Professor ALI MAZRUI (who died a few days ago) with whom Soyinka had this quarrel over something I cannot now remember some years back. Another, sore point I can remember now is the fact that Soyinka couldn’t attend Chinua Achebe’s funeral ceremony in the latter’s home town of Ogidi in Anambra State because some Igbos felt Soyinka was responsible for the accident that made that famous writer paraplegic, as usual Soyinka responded in kind by writing a piece that not only set the records straight, but also put such rumour mongers in such light, that they’d prefer the shade of darkness to travel by day.
Wole Soyinka’s life has been one totally devoted to speaking out on behalf of the voiceless, and he knows the very few words to use to drive the point effectively home. I think I’ve even heard a song by Wole Soyinka, but no one I know seems to recollect such hence I won’t dwell on that. Since I discovered him, I’ve grown from simple admiration to just short of adulation, and even to the next step, which would have sufficed had I been Hindu. This icon and legend aptly put the essence of his life down in these very few words from his Nobel Prize Winning Book- “The Man Dies In Him Who Keeps Quiet In The Face Of Injustice.”
Picture Credit: Wole Soyinka’s Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/DiasporaEvents