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Nigerian futures: interview with Wole Soyinka

About the author
Ron Singer, who was a teacher for forty-four years, including at Friends Seminary, in New York (1976-2008), writes about political, economic, social and cultural issues in Africa, especially Nigeria.

In April 2006, the great Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka published his long-awaited memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Its appearance coincided with a critical moment in the effort to create a new, truly democratic Nigerian constitution, a process in which Soyinka has been a leader and spokesperson. I took this double opportunity to speak by telephone to Wole Soyinka about his impressions of recent developments in his homeland.

Ron Singer: I just finished the book. E ku she! (Yoruba: "well done!"). I don't know when you found time to write it.

Wole Soyinka: It was hell!

Ron Singer: Perhaps we can begin with political matters. What's your reaction to the vote in parliament against President Olusegun Obasanjo's attempt to amend the constitution in order to prolong his tenure into a third term?

Wole Soyinka: Simple. One, relief. Two, anger. A matter of shame that such a blatant attempt should have been made to subvert the constitution.

Ron Singer: Despite being what you call "a civilian dictator", do you think Obasanjo has accomplished things?

Wole Soyinka: Yes, nobody will deny that. He's done some marvellous fiscal reforms, together with his former minister of finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who certainly is a very positive, focused lady. The haste with which some of these reforms were put together has created a lot of pain, a lot of unemployment. But Nigerians may come to see a positive difference.

Ron Singer: Do you think any of the political institutions may, in the long run, put the country on a more secure democratic footing? I'm thinking of the Independent National Electoral Commission and, no matter how it's been misused, the corruption commission. Are those good institutions, in themselves?

Wole Soyinka: Yes, indeed. I think it would be very difficult, there'd be a hue and cry, resistance, if any attempt were made to scrap agencies like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

Ron Singer: Why do you think Obasanjo has tried to prolong his rule into a third term?

Wole Soyinka: At the beginning of his rule, he was hostage to the very forces that put him there. He had ministers and heads of agencies who were virtually forced on him, and who carried on as if they were independent of government. Later, he began to try to break away from that, to some extent. But at the same time he never totally lost his sense of appeasement of the more conservative elements of the north, as demonstrated by his very lackadaisical action in the face of the attempt to turn some of the states of Nigeria into theocracies.

Ron Singer: Is it still true that the issue of Nigerian democracy remains a north-south issue?

Wole Soyinka: No, absolutely not. The nation has split along … it's like a quilt-work of allegiances, alliances. In any case, when we're speaking about the north, we're really speaking about a very manipulative but well-entrenched clique who do not even carry their own people with them, and whose machinery of control is being progressively dismantled. You can add this to Obasanjo's achievements.

Ron Singer: How does this machinery of political control relate to the issue of corruption? In the face of the effect of the tremendous influx of oil money, where can Nigeria's moral regeneration possibly come from?

Wole Soyinka: Well, my conviction is that moral regeneration will come from the people taking up arms, speaking figuratively – by acting in a way that makes it quite clear that business cannot continue as usual. When they turn on their leaders for having betrayed them, neglecting them, and there can be direct action, that's really when moral regeneration can begin.

Wole Soyinka is a celebrated writer, dramatist, educator, and poet who was born in Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria in 1934.

He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1986, and has since received many other honours.

He has chronicled his lifelong political activism on both the Nigerian and global stages primarily in three books: The Man Died (1972); Ake, The Years of Childhood (1981); and You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006).

Yoruba and Nigeria

Ron Singer: Let's talk about You Must Set Forth at Dawn. A general question: can you evaluate how effective your own longtime activism has been? What has been most useful?

Wole Soyinka: I think, shall I say … the tutelage, which I did not set out to give, but which has evidently yielded quite an army of believers. And of course, the small things: removal of oppressive regimes, the mobilisation tactics. In the end, I assess myself basically as a teacher.

Ron Singer: You speak in the book of the volatile tradition of Yoruba politics. Most of the leaders of the independence movement were Yoruba. Is the success and failure of the democratic movement in some way related to the nature of Yoruba culture?

Wole Soyinka: It's not so much volatile. It's more an ingrained habit of self-criticism, of controls, balances, accountability, which goes all the way back to even the so-called monarchical tradition. In Yoruba society, the kings were never absolute monarchs. We use the system of ruling houses. There is no succession, a prince does not succeed the father: he has to wait until the turn comes back again to the ruling house to which he belongs. Yorubas have fought fierce wars of protest against the attempt of a king to designate his son as the next king.

Ron Singer: That sounds almost like the rotating, collegial presidency that Chief Enahoro has talked about.

Wole Soyinka: Yes, you've put your finger on that.

Ron Singer: What about your own activism and its Yoruba roots?

Wole Soyinka: Well, yes, in the sense of observing how struggles can be structured, the sense of organisation. All that certainly came into play when I began to be an activist. But I also look at other people in my own and other families who were subjected to the same formative experiences and who went different ways.

Ron Singer: It seems to me from the book that Yoruba is more of a primary identity for you than Nigeria. Is that true?

Wole Soyinka: Oh, very definitely, because I'm a very cultural person, and there isn't, in my view, such a thing as a Nigerian culture. There is obviously Hausa culture, Fulani culture, Ewe culture, Igbo culture. These are palpable realities that inform so many things, even the economic system, the political system. They form part of the overall culture, in a very tangible, daily, effective way. The sense of ceremony, the sense of ritual, and so on – these are the realities over which we erect a political superstructure for the rather shallow business of governance.

Ron Singer: Is there a connection with your being a "cultural person" and the idea that you'd have to have less centralised power in Nigeria? Because, then, each culture could keep its identity more.

Wole Soyinka: Culture can translate sometimes into political activism. Take the Ogoni, for instance. It translates into a fierceness that will yet be their salvation, and yet it is the root of their tragic experience at the hands of the centralised government.

Ron Singer: A theme that reviewers of the book have noted is the idea of politics as theatre. Have you survived the forty-six years of Nigeria's modern political history by having a persona, almost like an actor in a play?

Wole Soyinka: What you said may translate into my habit of often standing aside and looking at myself. Why am I here? What am I doing here? Do I absolutely have to do it? Having a sense, I suspect, of proportion, and a sense of humour. In tight corners – sometimes not in tight corners, but ahead of events – I seem to have a very strong sense of intuition. A strong antidote, and not only to danger. Sometimes I'm not fully aware of it myself.

Ron Singer: At this point in your life, do you think about "the verdict of history" as well as the future of the country?

Wole Soyinka: No, I think in contemporary terms. How is the nation fulfilling the just, the fair expectations of the rest of the continent and of the world? I think the answer to that is obvious. We're way, way, way below …

Ron Singer: You say in the book that Nigeria's white-and-green flag, adopted by means of a contest at the dawn of independence, "misrepresented the sum of a nation's imagination". What would the colours be now?

Wole Soyinka: If I wanted to create a new Nigerian flag, I would just utilise the method of action painters. Just fling some paint.

Ron Singer: So it would look like a Jackson Pollock! Well, then … Eshe pupo (Yoruba: "thank you very much").

Wole Soyinka: O. Ah, well, you're welcome.


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